Embedded Linux Conference Europe and our Second Yocto Project Developer Day

Posted by Scott on Oct 25th, 2012

In early November I’ll be in Barcelona for the European Embedded Linux Conference. Once again, I’ll also be involved with running another Yocto Project Developer Day on Nov. 8, the day after ELC-E officially ends.

The intro level hands-on lab class I’ll be teaching has been reworked considerably based on feedback I received from the first event we did in February, to allow for more independent learning/exercises. And as before, we’ll have some hands-on labs for experienced Yocto Project developers as well in addition to a panel discussion.

I’m really excited to help people get started using our build system, and to meet our OpenEmbedded contributors from across the pond. Don’t be a stranger!

My Evolution as a Bicyclist

Posted by Scott on Sep 23rd, 2012

I thought it would be fun to write about how bicycling has evolved in my life over the past five years, when I got back into riding as an adult.

My original goals when I bought my first road bike were to find an activity that I could enjoy doing outdoors that could be an alternative to spending time at a gym. I didn’t want to have to drive places to do this activity, and there were few options for decent mountain biking nearby, so I decided to get a road bike.

Of course, I figured what I needed was your typical racing-oriented road bike, so I ended up with an entry-level Specialied Allez:

Specialized Allez

This was a great bike, and it really epitomized that feeling of just ‘gliding’ along that is so special about road riding.

As I am somtimes wont to do with new interests that I deeply enjoy and become passionate about, I soon became a bit obsessive about learning about my new sport and spent a lot of time in online forums. Through these forums I found many examples of people who were bike commuters, and rode to work and to run errands on a daily basis. For someone who couldn’t get enough of bicycling, this seemed like the logical next step for me – after all, why wouldn’t I want to substitute ridng my bike instead of driving my car? Anything that could add more time on my bike was good in my book!

So I started riding to work, finding decent back-road routes to get to my employment, and no longer needed to hit the gym during lunchtime. I became a bike commuter, and quickly found that my bike was not especially well-suited for carrying loads. I wanted something more comfortable to ride, not just for commuting but also for the increasingly longer rides I was doing during the summer.

There are some things that can make a bike much more suitable for commuting and longer-distance rides; a taller head tube, more “relaxed” frame geometry, clearance for wider tires, and rack and fender mounts. Soon I had my eye on a new bike, and replaced the Allez with a Salsa Casseroll:

Salsa Casseroll

This was a significant step up in comfort and practicality while still being a road bike well-suited for riding centuries. I could set it up as above with a light set of wheels for my faster rides, and I could also put fenders on it for the mild but wet winters I started to encounter after moving to Portland. A rack gave me the versatility to mount pannier bags on the bike, and I had something I could run errands with:

Salsa Casseroll in errand running mode

For most people, a bike like this is a perfect all-around, general purpose bike. But the longer I lived in Portland, the more I found myself using the bike as a serious commuter and errand-running machine. Trips to the grocery store and carrying increasingly heavy loads were taking their toll on my wheels, which needed to be replaced. Also, if you ride much in the rain, rim brakes will quickly wear down the surface of your rims and require frequent wheel rebuilds.

Four years after getting the Casseroll, I decided it would be worthwhile to have a second bike – one set up for wet winter riding and that could carry large loads without pushing the bike’s limits. Having a more upright riding position would be fundamental to this bike – no drop bars this time. And disc brakes work exceptionally well in wet conditions and no longer wear down your rims when braking. So meet the newest member of my family, a customized Surly Disc Trucker:

Surly Disc Trucker

Riding this bike is just plain fun. The upright riding position feels like I’m sitting high, as one would in an SUV vs. a sedan. The tires on this bike are even wider than the Casseroll, and the sprung Brooks saddle also offers a bit more give on rough roads. The bike is definitely heavier and feels a bit slower than the Casseroll, but more than makes up for it with the fun factor.

So there you have it – a case study in the evolution of myself as a bicylist. I could now care less if I ever rode a racing oriented road bike again. It was a great introduction to the joys of riding on the road, but comfort, versatility, and practicality are the main attributes I seek to fulfill in my riding nowadays.

I guess you could say this is how I roll. :)

Screencast Video for New Yocto Developers

Posted by Scott on Feb 20th, 2012

After teaching a very successful Yocto Project hands-on lab at the Intel Developer Forum last September, I learned that there was a lot of demand for training resources along these lines. Rather than having me fly out to various Intel sites to teach these courses, I decided it would be better to develop some hands-on labs in video format, so we’d have some “scalable” training materials to meet the demand.

The first screencast video was publicly released last week at the Embedded Linux Conference in Redwood City, CA. It’s a half-hour long and combines some introductory theory with hands-on exercises you can follow along with.

Getting Started with the Yocto Project – New Developer Screencast Tutorial from Yocto Project on Vimeo.

Note: You’ll probably want to view the video in full-screen mode when viewing the more detailed slides and during the live demos. You can also directly download the video in Windows Media format (300 MB) or Ogg Theora format (500 MB).

Topics covered include:

  • An overview of the Poky build system
  • How the Poky sources are organized (types of metadata and where to find them)
  • How to build your first Linux image and run it under emulation
  • An introduction to recipes and an explanation of the most common types of metadata, using actual recipe examples
  • An introduction to layers
  • Where to obtain Yocto BSPs from
  • How simple it is to download and enable a Yocto BSP
  • Where to find further project resources (documentation, mailing lists, git repository, bugzilla)

By the end of this screencast, a new user will understand fundamental concepts about the build system, and be able to start their exploration of the Yocto Project with a solid foundation of knowledge.

Quite honestly, creating this screencast was pretty agonizing, as the video editing tools Linux offers are either horribly complicated or extremely unstable. Perhaps at some point I’ll write up everything I learned about screencasting and give a talk for PLUG. :)

This won’t be the last screencast, but I can’t promise a timetable for the next one just yet.

Embedded Linux Conference and Yocto Developer Day

Posted by Scott on Feb 12th, 2012

I’ll be in Redwood City, CA next week for the Linux Foundation’s Embedded Linux Conference. Additionally, I’ll be helping to run the Yocto Developer Day on Tuesday, Feb. 14th.

We’ve got a full day of presentations and hands-on labs geared toward embedded Linux development with Yocto, both for new users as well as more experienced folks. I’ll be teaching the intro hands-on lab with Jessica Zhang, as well as presenting Techniques for Troubleshooting Common Build Errors in the intermedite developer track.

Most of all, I’m really looking forward to meeting members of the OpenEmbedded and Yocto community in person. So please say hello if you’ll be at either of these events!

Building a Quiet PC

Posted by Scott on Jan 13th, 2012

I recently decided it would be worthwhile to see if I could quiet my computer. It seemed like a good return on investment, given that I spend most of my waking moments sitting next to it.

I’ve always built my desktop systems from components, and generally pick quiet CPU coolers. My curiosity was peaked when reading about PC cases which are specifically designed to quiet sound. They tend to include sound-dampening material on all sides, as well as use specially-designed hard drive trays which isolate vibration from hard drives using rubber grommets. They also use larger intake and exhaust fans, which spin more slowly and quietly.

The best review site I’ve found for quiet components is silentpcreview.com. Having settled on the Fractal Design Define R3 case, I ordered it and figured it would just be a matter of moving the guts of my current system into the new case.

After spending a few hours performing the transplant surgery, I powered the system up and was shocked to find that it sounded even louder than before. It didn’t take me long to determine that it was my video card that was making the most noise. Somehow the quietness of the new case lowered the noise level of every other component, so the video card’s cooling fan was now the primary source of noise.

I haven’t played video games in years, and my current graphics card was likely overkill for running a handful of Compiz effects on my desktop. A bit more research led me to discover that there are a number of passively-cooled graphics cards on the market. Ironically, the one I chose is even more powerful than the fan-cooled one it replaced!

Today I installed the new video card, and the difference is too good to be true. My workstation is for all practical purposes silent – I have to strain to hear the fans. In my excitement I thought I’d share the relevant components I used:

Case: Fractal Design Define R3 w/ the two stock fans
Power Supply: Corsair VX550W
CPU Cooler: Zalman CNPS9900ALED
Graphics Card: Zotac ZT-40606-20L nVidia GeForce GT430

Computer Transplant
(This photo shows the build with my old, actively cooled video card in it)

Oh, and did I mention my CPU runs 5 degrees C cooler than it was in my previous case? You don’t need to cook your system to run it quietly with the right components.

A Gentle Introduction to the Autotools in Portland

Posted by Scott on Nov 29th, 2011

If you’re in the Portland area and are curious to learn a few things about the Autotools, please feel free to attend the December meeting of the Portland Linux User Group at PSU. I’ll be giving a novice-friendly introduction to the Autotools.

Autoconf. Automake. Libtool. This trio of build configuration utilities (known as the Autotools) are used in a large majority of compiled software applications for Linux, but they remain a mystery to many of us.

In this gentle introduction to the Autotools, Scott Garman will help lift the veil of uncertainty most people have about them. You’ll also learn about the GNU Coding Standards and the Filesystem Hierarchy Standard, two specifications which explain a lot of the “why” behind the Autotools (yes, there is a method to this madness!).

Finally, Scott will offer some practical tips for understanding and fixing errors you may see when building an Autotools-based package. It’s sure to be a fun romp for the whole family.

When: 7-9pm Thursday, December 1, 2011
Where: Portland State University Engineering Building, room FAB 86-01 (this is in the basement). The building is on SW 4th Ave across from SW College Street.

Review of the Sony Reader Wifi (PRS-T1)

Posted by Scott on Oct 19th, 2011

As mentioned in my previous post, I now have a Sony PRS-T1 ereader – my first e-ink device. Rather than run down the specs of it and cover the same things everyone else mentions in their reviews, here are some links you can follow to other reviews which I found useful:

Engadget Review: Sony Reader Wifi

MobileTechReview’s video review

Gadget Review: Sony Reader Wifi Review

I’ve been reading ebooks on a Samsung Galaxy Tab 7″ Android tablet for a while now, and never realized until now how much nicer an experience it can be to read using an e-ink device.

Here are a few observations I haven’t seen mentioned in other reviews…

A lot of reviewers prominently note that the device uses a full refresh when turning pages. This is true. However, the Sony is capable of doing partial page refreshes, and does so when bringing up menu items or when using the browser. I’ve noticed some mild “ghosting” effects when partial page refreshes occur, and I’ve heard that this is a common problem on other ereaders which do partial page refreshes. The full page refresh when turning pages doesn’t bother me in the least, and I actually prefer it knowing that it prevents the ghosting problem from occurring.

One thing I have been disappointed about is the Google Books “integration”. I originally assumed that the Reader had the actual Google Books Android application. This is not the case. Instead, when you click on the Google Books “app”, it actually loads the Sony Reader application, but brings you to a section of their site where you can search for the free Google Books. You cannot retrieve or purchase ebooks directly from Google Books using the device. I can however download my purchased books from Google Books and then sync them to the Reader using a PC.

I do find it quite handy to have access to a web browser, even though scrolling on it is cumbersome with the e-ink refreshes. Here’s a tip – don’t use your finger to scroll the web page. The prev/next hard buttons will perform a page up/page down action on the web page, minimizing the refreshing latency.

The glossiness of the plastic bezel hasn’t really been an issue. It does attract fingerprints, but I also don’t really notice it that much. These issues could be resolved by getting a thin gel case if they really bother you. My guess is the type of people who get worked up about such things are also the type who can’t stand to break in the binding of an actual paperback book they’re reading. :)

Apart from the unwelcome surprise of the Google Books non-integration, I’m quite happy with this device. Also, there is news that the Reader has already been rooted, so in a short time I look forward to having the ability to install arbitrary android apps on the device. Google Books will certainly be one of them, as will ReadItLater.

Some Thoughts on eBook Readers

Posted by Scott on Oct 12th, 2011

I recently became the owner of an e-ink ebook reader, the Sony PRS-T1. Inevitably the first question someone asks me when they see me with it is, “why’d you choose the Sony instead of a Kindle or Nook?” So here I’ll share my thoughts on that, and follow-up with another post reviewing the Sony model itself. Forgive me, this is a bit of a rant…

So, why go with this Sony model? To some extent it was a process of elimination. Let me first explain why buying a Kindle is out of the question for me. While it’s true that Amazon’s store offers the largest selection of ebooks, and their ereader hardware is of good quality, what most people don’t realize is that Amazon has made some very strategic choices to try to entrench their own proprietary format at the expense of open standards.

When you buy a Kindle, you’re locked into using a Kindle (or Kindle app) forever if you want to read the ebooks you bought using it. This is because the Kindle supports Amazon’s proprietary ebook format, and nothing else.

There does exist an open file format for ebooks, called ePub. Books in the ePub format are generally much more portable, and can be bought from multiple sources, such as Google Books. These ebooks can be read on pretty much any ebook reader platform (including Android tablets and phones), with one exception. Amazon has to date deliberately left out support for the ePub format in their hardware ereaders.

Amazon’s motivations for doing this are pretty clear – they are the indisputable market leader in selling books and they want to support their own proprietary format, and have no interest in seeing an open ebook format succeed, even if it has been adopted by the rest of the industry. Heaven forbid you buy an ebook from Barnes and Noble to read on their device. Amazon’s omission of ePub support is a blatant middle finger to the concept that a common standard can exist to allow people to buy ebooks from their store of choice and read it on their device of choice.

My friend Jason once said to me something to the effect of: “Amazon settled on MP3 [an open standard without DRM] as their file format for their music store when it was their chance to ‘stick it’ to Apple [which was using a format that locked users into their iTunes player and iPod devices]. But now that they’re the market leader in books, they won’t dare to support an open ebook standard.” I thought this was pretty insightful.

Now whether you care about ePub succeeding as a common format or not, when you buy a Kindle you are placing your book purchases at the mercy of Amazon for the forseeable future. You’ll be dancing to Amazon’s tune for whatever business decisions they make down the road, or risk losing the ability to read your ebook collection. I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in submitting to this form of vendor lock-in. As such, I have no intention to buy ebooks in a proprietary format, whether it be Amazon’s or anyone else’s.

Unlike the Kindle, the Nook Simple Touch supports ePub ebooks (in addition to Barnes & Noble’s proprietary format, which is being phased out), so the Nook was at least an option for me. A neighbor of mine recently bought one, and I had considered getting it after trying it out. The only feature I found missing was the ability to play music on the device. I often read on public transit, and can be easily distracted if I don’t have something to block out external noise or conversations. So I decided to wait it out a bit longer.

When I recently saw that this Sony model was released, it appeared to offer the right features – everything that the Nook could do and a bit more (like being able to annotate ebooks, and of course an MP3 player). The reviews were quite positive, and even touted integration with Google Books and Overdrive Media Console (for checking out ebooks from the library). Of course the included applications try to steer you to buy ebooks from Sony’s proprietary store, but I could ignore that and stick with my ePub formatted books from other bookstores. The device was priced reasonably (which was not the case with Sony’s previous ereader models), so I decided to pick one up.

I’ll follow up with a short review of the PRS-T1 soon.

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