Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.

It seems Scott Adams insights sometimes reach beyond his disturbingly accurate satire. I have written before about my iterative approach to designing the things I make. such as my attempts at furniture and more recently enclosures for various projects.

Raspberry Pi B case design with the faliures
In the workshop today I had a selection of freshly laser cut.completed cases for several single board computers out on the desk. I was asked by a new member of the space how I was able to produce these with no failures?

I was slightly taken aback at the question and had to explain that the designs I was happily running off on the laser cutter are all the result of mistakes, lots of them. The person I was talking to was surprised when I revealed that I was not simply generating fully formed working designs first time.

We chatted for a while and it became apparent that they had been holding themselves back from actually making something because they were afraid the result would be wrong. I went to my box and retrieved the failures from my most recent case design for a Raspberry Pi model B to put alongside the successful end product to try and encourage them.

I explained that my process was fairly iterative, sure I attempted to get it right first time by reusing existing working solutions as a basis but that when the cost of iterating is relatively small it is sometimes worthwhile to just accept the failures.

For example in this latest enclosure:

  • my first attempt (in the semi opaque plastic) resulted in a correct top and bottom but the height was a couple of mm short and the audio connector cutout was too small
  • second attempt was in clear acrylic and omitting the top and bottom. I stuffed the laser cutter setup and the resulting cutouts would not actually fit together properly.
  • third attempt went together ok but my connector cutouts were 0.5mm high so the board did not sit properly, this case would have been usable but I like to publish refined designs so I fixed all the small issues.
  • Fourth version is pretty much correct and I have tried all three different Raspberry Pi model B boards (mine and the spaces) and they all fit so I am confident I have a design I can now use anytime I want a case for this SBC.
My collection of failed cases
Generally I do not need this many iterations and get it right second time, however experience caused me to use offcuts and scrap material for the initial versions expecting to have issues. The point is that I was willing to make the iterations and not see them as failures.

The person I was talking to could not get past the possibility of having a pile of scrap material, it was wasteful in their view and my expectation to fail was unfathomable. They left with somewhat of a bad view of me and my approach.

I pondered this turn of events for a time and they did have a point in that I have a collection of thirty or so failures from all my various designs most of which is unusable. I then realised I have produced over fifty copies of those designs not just for myself but for other people and published them for anyone else to replicate, so on balance I think I am doing ok on wastage.

The stronger argument  for me personally is that I have made something. I love making things, be that software, electronics or physical designs. It may not always be the best solution but I usually end up with something that works.

That makespace member may not like my approach but in the final reckoning, I have made something, their idea is still just an idea. So Scott I may not be an artist but I am at least creative and that is halfway there.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Ampere was the Newton of Electricity.

I think Maxwell was probably right, certainly the unit of current Ampere gives his name to has been a concern of mine recently.

Regular readers may have possibly noticed my unhealthy obsession with single board computers. I have recently rehomed all the systems into my rack which threw up a small issue of powering them all. I had been using an ad-hoc selection of USB wall warts and adapters but this ended up needing nine mains sockets and short of purchasing a very expensive PDU for the rack would have needed a lot of space.

Additionally having nine separate convertors from mains AC to low voltage DC was consuming over 60Watts for 20W of load! The majority of these supplies were simply delivering 5V either via micro USB or DC barrel jack.

Initially I considered using a ten port powered USB hub but this seemed expensive as I was not going to use the data connections, it also had a limit of 5W per port and some of my systems could potentially use more power than that so I decided to build my own supply.

PSU module from ebay
A quick look on ebay revealed that a 150W (30A at 5V) switching supply could be had from a UK vendor for £9.99 which seemed about right. An enclosure, fused and switched IEC inlet, ammeter/voltmeter with shunt and suitable cables were acquired for another £15

Top view of the supply all wired up
A little careful drilling and cutting of the enclosure made openings for the inlets, cables and display. These were then wired together with crimped and insulated spade and ring connectors. I wanted this build to be safe and reliable so care was taken to get the neatest layout I could manage with good separation between the low and high voltage cabling.

Completed supply with all twelve outputs wired up
The result is a neat supply with twelve outputs which i can easily extend to eighteen if needed. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that even with twelve SBC connected generating 20W load the power drawn by the supply was 25W or about 80% efficiency instead of the 33% previously achieved.

The inbuilt meter allows me to easily see the load on the supply which so far has not risen above 5A even at peak draw, despite the cubitruck and BananaPi having spinning rust hard drives attached, so there is plenty of room for my SBC addiction to grow (I already pledged for a Pine64).

Supply installed in the rack with some of the SBC connected
Overall I am pleased with how this turned out and while there are no detailed design files for this project it should be easy to follow if you want to repeat it. One note of caution though, this project has mains wiring and while I am confident in my own capabilities dealing with potentially lethal voltages I cannot be responsible for anyone else so caveat emptor!

Sunday, 27 December 2015

The only pleasure I get from moving house is stumbling across books I had forgotton I owned

I have to agree with John Burnside on that statement, after having recently moved house again rediscovering our book collection has been a salve for an otherwise exhausting undertaking. I returned to Cambridge four years ago, initially on my own and then subsequently the family moved down to be with me.

We rented a house but, with two growing teenagers, the accommodation was becoming a little crowded. Melodie and I decided the relocation was permanent and started looking for our own property, eventually finding something to our liking in Cottenham village.

Melodie took the opportunity to have the house cleaned and decorated while empty because of overlapping time with our rental property. This meant we had to be a little careful while moving in as there was still wet paint in places.

Some of our books
Moving weekend was made bearable by Steve, Jonathan and Jo lending a hand especially on the trips to Yorkshire to retrieve, amongst other things, the aforementioned book collection. We were also fortunate to have Andy and Jane doing many other important jobs around the place while the rest of us were messing about in vans.

The desk in the study
The seemingly obligatory trip to IKEA to acquire furniture was made much more fun by trying to park a luton van which was only possible because Steve and Jonathan helped me. Though it turns out IKEA ship mattresses rolled up so tight they can be moved in an estate car so taking the van was unnecessary.

Alex under his loft bed
Having moved in it seems like every weekend is filled with a never ending "todo" list of jobs. From clearing gutters to building a desk in the study. Eight weeks on and the list seems to be slowly shrinking meaning I can even do some lower priority things like the server rack which was actually a fun project.


Joshua in his completed roomThe holidays this year afforded me some time to finish the boys bedrooms. They both got loft beds with a substantial area underneath. This allows them both to have double beds along with a desk and plenty of storage. Completing the rooms required the construction of some flat pack furniture which rather than simply do myself I supervised the boys doing it themselves.

Alexander building flat pack furniture
Teaching them by letting them get on with it was a surprisingly effective and both of them got the hang of the construction method pretty quickly. There was only a couple of errors from which they learned immediately and did not repeat (draw bottoms having a finished side and front becomes back when you are constructing upside down)

Joshua assembling flat pack furniture
The house is starting to feel like home and soon all the problems will fade from memory while the good will remain. Certainly our first holiday season has been comfortable here and I look forward to many more re-reading our books.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

I said it was wired like a Christmas tree

I have recently acquired a 27U high 19 inch rack in which I hope to consolidate all the computing systems in my home that do not interact well with humans.

My main issue is that modern systems are just plain noisy, often with multiple small fans whining away. I have worked to reduce this noise by using quieter components as replacements but in the end it is simply better to be able to put these systems in a box out of the way.

The rack was generously given to me by Andy Simpkins and aside from being a little dirty having been stored for some time was in excellent condition. While the proverbs "never look a gift horse in the mouth" and "beggars cannot be choosers" are very firmly at the front of my mind there were a few minor obstacles to overcome to make it fit in its new role with a very small budget.

The new home for the rack was to be a space under the stairs where, after careful measurement, I determined it would just fit. After an hour or two attempting to manoeuvre a very heavy chunk of steel into place I determined it was simply not possible while it was assembled. So I ended up disassembling and rebuilding the whole rack in a confined space.

The rack is 800mm wide IMRAK 1400 rather than the more common 600mm width which means it employs "cable reducing channels" to allow the mounting of standard width rack units. Most racks these days come with four posts in the corners to allow for longer kit to be supported front and back. This particular rack was not fitted with the rear posts and a brief call to the supplier indicated that any spares from them would be eyewateringly expensive (almost twice the cost of purchasing a new rack from a different supplier) so I had to get creative.

Shelves that did not require the rear rails were relatively straightforward and I bought two 500mm deep cantilever type from Orion (I have no affiliation with them beyond being a satisfied customer).

I took a trip to the local hardware store and purchased some angle brackets and 16mm steel square tube. From this I made support rails which means the racked kit has support to its rear rather than relying solely on being supported by its rack ears.

The next problem was the huge hole in the bottom of the rack where I was hoping to put the UPS and power switching. This hole is intended for use with raised flooring where cables enter from below, when not required it is filled in with a "bottom gland plate". Once again the correct spares for the unit were not within my budget.

Around a year ago I built several systems for open source projects from parts generously donated by Mythic Beasts (yes I did recycle servers used to build a fort). I still had some leftover casework from one of those servers so ten minutes with an angle grinder and a drill and I made myself a suitable plate.

The final problem I faced is that it is pretty dark under the stairs and while putting kit in the rack I could not see what I was doing. After some brief Googling I decided that all real rack lighting solutions were pretty expensive and not terribly effective.

At this point I was interrupted by my youngest son trying to assemble the Christmas tree and the traditional "none of the lights work" so we went off to the local supermarket to buy some bulbs. Instead we bought a 240 LED string for £10 (15usd) in the vague hope that next year they will not be broken.

I immediately had a light bulb moment and thought how a large number of efficient LED bulbs at a low price would be ideal for lighting a rack. So my rack is indeed both wired like and as a Christmas tree!

Now I just have to finish putting all the systems in there and I will be able to call the project a success.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

HTTP to screen

I recently presented a talk at the Debian miniconf in Cambridge. This was a new talk explaining what goes on in a web browser to get a web page on screen.

The presentation was filmed and my slides are also available. I think it went over pretty well despite the venues lighting adding a strobe ambiance to part of proceedings.

I thought the conference was a great success overall and enjoyed participating. I should like to thank Cosworth for allowing me time to attend and for providing some sponsorship.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

I am not a number I am a free man

Once more the NetSurf developers tried to escape from a mysterious village by writing web browser code.

Michael Drake, Daniel Silverstone, Dave Higton and Vincent Sanders at NetSurf Developer workshop
The sixth developer workshop was an opportunity for us to gather together in person to contribute to NetSurf.

We were hosted by Codethink in their Manchester offices which provided a comfortable and pleasant space to work in.

Four developers managed to attend in person from around the UK: Michael Drake, Daniel Silverstone, Dave Higton and Vincent Sanders.

The main focus of the weekends activities was to work on improving our JavaScript implementation. At the previous workshop we had laid the groundwork for a shift to the Duktape JavaScript engine and since then put several hundred hours of time into completing this transition.

During this weekend Daniel built upon this previous work and managed to get DOM events working. This was a major missing piece of implementation which will mean NetSurf will be capable of interpreting JavaScript based web content in a more complete fashion. This work revealed several issues with our DOM library which were also resolved.

We were also able to merge several improvements provided by the Duktape upstream maintainer Sami Vaarala which addressed performance problems with regular expressions which were causing reports of "hangs" on slow processors.

The responsiveness of Sami and the Ducktape project has been a pleasant surprise making our switch to the library look like an increasingly worthwhile effort.

Overall some good solid progress was made on JavaScript support. Around half of the DOM interfaces in the specifications have now been implemented leaving around fifteen hundred methods and properties remaining. There is an aim to have this under the thousand mark before the new year which should result in a generally useful implementation of the basic interfaces.

Once the DOM interfaces have been addressed our focus will move onto the dynamic layout engine necessary to allow rendering of the changing content.

The 3.4 release is proposed to occur sometime early in the new year and depends on getting the JavaScript work to a suitable stable state.

Dave joined us for the first time, he was principally concerned with dealing with bugs and the bug tracker. It was agreeable to have a new face at the meeting and some enthusiasm for the RISC OS port which has been lacking an active maintainer for some time.

The turnout for this workshop was the same as the previous one and the issues raised then are still true. We still have a very small active core team who can commit only limited time which is making progress very slow and are lacking significant maintenance for several frontends.

Overall we managed to pack 16 hours of work into the weekend and addressed several significant problems.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

It takes courage to sit on a jury. How many of us want to decide the fate of another person's life or freedom?

I think Regina Brett has a point although having now experienced being a juror in a British crown court I have a much better understanding of both the process and effectiveness of the jury system.

The actual process of becoming a juror on a case is something I had not been aware of previously. You simply receive a letter telling you to be at the court on a specific date and that you are required to be available for at least ten days, possibly more. The only qualification to receive the letter is to be on the electoral roll and it is an invitation with few options to refuse without serious repercussions.

When you arrive at the court you are directed to the Jury lounge (practical hint: take a book) where you notice there are over forty people, which would seem odd until you realise there are three courtrooms and they each need a jury, even then there are an excess of people which is because of the selection process.

The process of jury selection is fairly simple, an usher for a court comes and calls fourteen names which forms the jury in waiting. The group is taken up to the court waiting room (this room gets terribly familiar over the forthcoming weeks) and then twelve names are called.

As each person is called they enter the jury box in order which persists for the entire trial (practical hint:remember your juror number). Before each person is sworn or affirmed there is the possibility they will be found unsuitable and will be replaced by one of the previously unselected jurors. Any unselected jurors are then sent back to the jury lounge and become available for forming another jury in waiting.

Anyone unselected at the end of the process has to remain available to return to the court to form a jury in waiting when a previous trial ends until they have exhausted their duty. There were a few of these unfortunate people who were kept in a state of limbo for several days and I am relieved this did not happen to me.

Being a juror, from a purely practical perspective, felt like working an office job for ten days. Duties consisting of attending a series of meetings with strange rules and the typically understated British approach to mentioning the result of breaking them.

I participated in two cases, both of which were (almost by definition) unpleasant happenings, these were a case of Grievous bodily harm and an offence under section 7 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

Both cases were challenging in their own ways the first because of the way the case was presented and the second because of its subject matter. One of the most important rules is "Do not discuss anything with anyone as it might be perjury" so going along with that I will not be discussing any details. Because I cannot be specific this post has become a little impersonal, you will have to forgive me as I found I had to remove a great deal of more content which was not appropriate.

An important thing to note is that the trials bore no resemblance to TV courtroom drama. The trials proceed in a professional manner with very little theatrics. The prosecution barrister commences outlining the case against the accused, calling witnesses and reading into evidence uncontested material. The defence then gets to present their case, again calling witnesses and placing documents into evidence.

One of the striking things about this process is that if the barristers do not call a witness or present evidence that would seem to be pertinent, the jury must not draw inference from that omission, which is especially bizarre when a central witness referred to by almost everyone involved with the case is not called.

Once the case is presented the jury is sequestered in a room and must come to a unanimous decision on each of the charges. This was, for me, the most challenging part of the whole process. Twelve people with unique views on the information presented have to attempt to discuss the evidence and not simply go with their first impressions based on their preconceptions.

The jury is allowed to ask for some evidence to be repeated and if deliberations take some time the jury may be instructed that a majority of 10 to 2 may be accepted. I imagine at some point the jury will run out of time to make a decision and something else will happen but I did not experience this.

Overall the experience was enlightening if not enjoyable, I understand the process a lot more and am happy to have discharged my duty and am equally glad the responsibility will not come around again for at least a few years.