It’s Time For A Break

Since before the beginning of the lockdown, I’ve been striving to keep a two-posts-per-week schedule to the blog, talking about my work philosophy, my electronics projects, and even trying a third post a week for a while with sARTSurday. Keeping the schedule was not easy, but I tried and only messed it twice: once when I mis-scheduled a post, and once when Microsoft “stole” my thunder.

About six months later, I’m running out of steam to keep the schedule. It might be because I spent the last few weeks worrying about whether we would have a flat to stay in as a new lockdown started. Or it might be that I’m now engaging gears with my new dayjob and it’s using all of my mental capacity.

I even tried whiteboarding — both with a physical whiteboard and on Twitch with Microsoft Whiteboard. Part of the reason why I did that is that with the lack of an office, I was looking for better venue to engage with my colleagues to discuss ideas and come up with plans. I can’t say it worked.

I have been mulling about options. I even briefly considered figuring out how much it would cost me to hire an editor to make the blog post more… polished. But the truth is that it wouldn’t make much sense — while I have been known for the blog in the past, blogs are the past. I never became a speaker when conferences were at their highest point, and I’ll never be a streamer now that they have been replaced by virtual events. I described myself recently as a C-list blogger – and I meant that. It seems nowadays to be B-list you need to have statically generated blog with no comments, and to be A-list you need to have not your own blog but just a Medium account. I don’t fit, nor I care to fit, into that world.

I guess I’m like a sportsman who’s too old to keep playing, but not well known enough to become a coach or a celebrity. And you know what? That’s okay. I’ll keep focusing on my dayjob as a “software mechanic” for as long as I can at least keep up to date to the new bubble’s stack. And maybe I can still get an idea or two out in the future, even when I won’t be able to do anything good with it myself.

This is not a goodbye, it’s just a “see you later” — I’ve been blogging for over 15 years and I’m not going to fully stopping now. If you have any questions or comments or suggestions on any of my old blog posts, feel free to leave a comment there, as I will be monitoring those, although possibly not as closely as before.

“Working From Home”

Despite having commented on my continuing lockdown, I have tried extremely hard not to comment too much on the whole WFH debate, at least on the blog. You might have seen me ranting about it a few times over on Twitter though.

First of all, I have to admit I was lucky — when the whole lockdown started, I didn’t have to scramble to find the space to work from home: I already set up a home office, I had a standing desk already, multiple monitors, proper home connection without relying on WiFi, and all the kind of ergonomic setup that many of my teammates had to scramble hard for. I had set this up when I got to London, because I remember how bad it was for me to have a work/life balance separation in Dublin, when I had a desk just sitting next to the sofa, and I would end up working till late instead of just sitting on the sofa to watch TV or play games.

And of course, I’m also counting myself lucky that neither me nor my wife fell ill, form Covid-19 or anything else, that our families – while struggling a bit – had been safe throughout this whole event. And also, since we’re not interested in having kids, that significantly reduced the amount of worry, and of work, needed to switch to the lockdown scenario. I can only imagine how much harder for families it still is and don’t envy them.

But at the same time, I do miss the office, and am hoping not to stay working from home forever. I spent many years working from home, alone and isolated, while I had my own company, back in Italy. And while I can do a significant amount of work individually, I do believe that teamwork brings better results. Thankfully, “telepresence” options such as Portal, Zoom, and Google Meet help significantly to coordinate the work, but they are not quite the same thing. I feel more relaxed working sitting at a desk next to my colleagues than I feel working at my desk with a camera pointed at me while I’m working — it makes me feel self-conscious.

I’m also painfully aware that even with the luck of being able to keep working from home, there’s a lot of things that are left to be desired. For instance, while lots of people are bringing up the fact that you don’t have to pay for commute anymore as a great positive, few go back to point out that you end up paying more for utilities such as electricity, water, and heating. We could see a good 20% increase in electricity usage since I started working from home, and while we’re (again) lucky that this is not a significant difference, I can see how the heating in the winter, for people leaving in cottages, would wipe out any commuting savings for the year.

And while I can definitely find an easier way to get my focus time from home, even taking turns preparing meals with my wife, the amount of time we spend for fixing up two extra meals a day (breakfast and lunch) is noticeable. The whole “free food” perk is not just about not paying for food: it’s about the time it takes to make the food, and the time it takes away from your workday.

There’s a lot more of course, on both side of the equation — and there’s the whole point that we’re in the middle of a pandemic that is literally reshaping the way we live. I’m just looking forward to go back to an office, and to have a commute — not because I want to spend an hour on a crowded Tube train, but because I want a little bit of time to mark the end of a workday, stop worrying about the issues of the day, and turn off my work phone, so I can join my wife at the end of the day in full without splitting my mind with work.

It’s tiring, and it’s getting to me, and I’m sure it’s getting to many. Be looking out to your friends and your colleagues. Cut them a break if they are snappier than usual, particularly if they have complicated home situations – kids, babies, sick family (even extended), risks, moving houses, … – as it’s likely they are not trying to tick you off, and it’s more than likely that you’ll need the same before this is all over.

Ode to the five litres tank

You may remember that last year I wrote about a “plastics free” store, selling spices, oil, and even laundry detergent. I have no idea how they are faring with the current pandemic, but let’s just say that unless they turned into a conventional store, there’s no way that I would be interested in going and buy spices, nuts and pasta from huge containers that are handled by dozens of customers per day — and particularly by kids sticking their grubby fingers into the nuts’ boxes to steal a macadamia.

Even if the concept would have been workable before, I doubt that after this whole experience it’s going to thrive — while I care about the planet, I care about not dying more, and I assume the same is going to be true for the vast majority of the public (but not everyone, I’m sure). So what are the alternative options to buying without plastic containers? I can only think of the idea of buying in bulk.

Back at the start of the lockdown, one of the things that was getting harder to find in the local supermarkets was soap — and if you have read the blog post linked above, you know that I’ve been using refills. In particular at home we have a very nice glass, 1L liquid soap dispenser bottle that came with some decent lavender liquid soap we bought in TkMaxx over a year ago, and we’ve been filling it with different brands’ soap, that are usually available around the £4/L mark. We had a couple of litres stashed away, but eventually they started running low.

So looking around we found a 5L tank of hand wash, targeted as commercial users, but easy to get a hold of in the pandemic. It’s a bit more expensive than what we found before, but we liked it better, particularly given the fact that it has not ruined my hands, despite us washing our hands a lot more than before. And that had me thinking that most most likely the 5L tank can be reused, rather than recycled, much more easily. For instance, you can use it to collect waste oil when deep frying, and then bring it to the correct recycling point for that. Or in any case you can throw it with the recycling.

But it’s not just the plastic involved that makes a difference. Just think of how often you would need to get these delivered in half a litre increment. The 5L tank is due to last us just about five months, so you get around two deliveries a year, instead of about two a months (or once a month if you can just order the refills in pairs). And because we liked the quality of the soap, we ended up ordering the shampoo from the same brand, and fill a plastic bottle instead; at least for my hair it works well, and I’m picky — and it costs nearly half per liter than my usual ones.

There’s more than shampoo and soap that can be bought in 5L tanks. Body wash, fabric softener, vegetable oil, … and liter-for-liter they clearly need less plastics, if that’s the main measure we use for pollution, and they require fewer trips to shops and fewer deliveries. They are a bit awkward to use sometimes (thus why we have a 1L bottle we pour the vegetable we use for cooking), but the main disadvantage is that they take space, and while we’re lucky to have enough space for them in our flat, I don’t think I’d have been able to make the space for them in Dublin (didn’t help that the closet had a ton of stuff left over from the landlord and the previous tenants, including umbrellas, 5cm square framed mirrors, and stuff like that).

And I’m taking the 5L tanks as an example, but they are a metonymy for a number of other bought-in-bulk items, many of which are hard to find here in London. Even toilet paper, another staple of lockdown hoarding: Dublin and London got me used to order it in 16- or 9-roll bags, while in Italy I was used to buying 48/64 rolls at a time. It’s non-perishable, and if you do have the space to just get it and stuff it somewhere until you need it, why increasing the number of times you need to order it?

Funny story here: when I moved to London, and found out that my local Sainsbury’s didn’t have anything over 4 rolls bags, I decided that it would be easier to order 60 rolls from Amazon and have it delivered. The cost was meaningfully lower, and at the time I was not setting up for groceries’ delivery, and rather going to the stores myself to pick up just the stuff I needed for the days — bringing toilet paper on the bus is bulky and uncomfortable. Unfortunately i forgot to check where I asked Amazon to deliver it, and I ended up receiving nearly a cubic meter of toilet paper to my office, and had to find a way to bring it home, considering it took me an hour to go from King’s Cross to home, between Piccadilly and bus. Thankfully, two trips with my Filson duffle bag at a late hour were enough to bring it home. I love that duffle bag.

What I’m suggesting is that city living needs to start adapting to the idea that people need storage space. When looking at apartments, you can’t but wonder what’s the chicken and what’s the egg, between the lack of cupboard storage and the just-in-time supply used by most grocery stores in the big cities. Maybe in five years we will all live in apartments that have enough cupboard storage that you only need to buy non-perishables once a month, and the local stores will be providing fresh food and only urgent needs.

There’s also another clear problem with getting people to use bulk-volume non-perishables: beside Amazon, very few sellers carry those as options, at least in the UK. Yes, there’s Costco here just like in the USA, but that’s not common, and you do need to make sure you account for the £15/yr options. In Italy if you have a VAT ID you often end up shopping at Metro, because that’s an option that opens up to you…

Again, this is the type of thing that needs to be adapted for, after this whole pandemic happened. Reducing the frequency of deliveries by buying in bulk should be favourable for both grocery stores and consumers, given how the panic buying broke most delivery systems. So maybe next year Morrisons will have more 5L tanks of stuff available for delivery, not just the vegetable oil.

Revisiting Open Source Washing Machines (in Theory)

A number of years ago I wrote a post about the idea of Free Software washing machines, using it as an allegory to point out how silly it might be to attack people for using products with closed-source firmware, when no alternative is readily available. At the time, the idea of wanting an open source washing machine was fairly ludicrous, despite me pointing out that it would have some interesting side effect with programmability.

Well, in 2020 I would actually suggest that I really wish we had more Open Source washing machines, and actually wish we had, in general, more hackable home appliances (or “white goods” as they are called over here), particularly nowadays that it seems like connected appliances are both trendy and the butt of many jokes.

It’s not just because having access to the firmware of everything is an interesting exercise, but because most appliances are lasting for years — which means they are “left behind” by technology moving on, including user interfaces.

Let’s take for instance washing machines — despite being older than the one in my apartment, my mother’s LG washing machine has a significantly more modern user interface. The Zanussi one we have here in London has one big knob to select the program – which is mostly vestigial from the time it would be spring-loaded and moving to select the various phases – and then a ton of buttons to select things like drying mode (it’s a washer/dryer combo), drying time, and the delay start (awesome feature). You can tell that the buttons were addition to an interface, and that the knob is designed to be as similar to the previous interface as possible. And turns out the buttons are not handy: both drying time and delay have only one button each — which means you can only increase those values: if you miss your target, you need to go back to zero and up again.

On the other hand, my mother’s LG also has a knob — but the knob is just a free-spinning rotary encoder connected to a digital controller. While her model is not a dryer, I’m reasonably sure that the machine has a delay start feature, which is configured by pressing one button and then rotating the wheel. A more flexible interface, with a display a bit more flexible than the two multi-segments that our current machine has, would do wonder to usability, and that’s without going into any of the possible features of a “connected appliance”. Observe-only, that is — I would still love seeing a notification on our phones when the washing machine completed, so that we don’t forget that we have clean clothes that need to be hanged to dry. Yes we actually forget sometimes, particularly before the pandemic if we left them to delay-run from the morning.

Replacing a washing machine just because the user interface is bad is a horrible thing to do for the planet. And in particular when living in rented accommodation, you own the white goods, and even when they are defective, you don’t get to choose them — you end up most of the time with whichever is the cheapest one in the shop, power efficiency be damned, since rarely the landlords are paying for electricity. So having hackable, modular washing machines would be just awesome: I could ask our landlord “Hey can I get a smartmodule installed for the washing machine? I’ll pay the £50 it costs!” (seriously, if it costs more than that, it would be a rip-off — most of the controls you need for this can be hardly more complicated than a Feather M4!)

Oh yeah and even if I just had access to the firmware of this washer/dryer I might be able to fix the bug where the “program finished” beeper does not wait for the door’s lock magnet to disengage before starting. The amount of times I need to set a timer to remind myself to go and take the towels out in five minutes is annoying as heck.

But it’s not just washing machines that would be awesome to be hackable and programmable. We have a smallish microwave and convection oven combo. I got it in Dublin, and I chose this model because it was recommended by an acquaintance for its insistent beeping when the timer completes. If you have ever experience hyperfocus at any degree, you probably understand why such a feature is useful.

But in addition to the useful feature, the oven comes with a bunch of pretty much useless ones. There’s a number of “pre-programmed” options for defrosting, or making pop-corns and other things like that, that we would never use. Not just because we don’t eat them, but also because they are rarely recommended — if you ever watch cooking channels such as How To Cook That, you find that professionals usually suggest specific way to use the microwave — including Ann Reardon’s “signature” «put it in the microwave for 30 seconds, stir, put it back for 30 seconds, stir, …».

And again in term of user interfaces, the way you configure the convection temperature is by clicking the “Convection” button to go from full power (200W) down — and if you got it wrong, oops! And then if you turn the knob (this time a free-spinning one, at least), you’re setting the timer, without pre-heating. If you want to pre-heat you need to cancel it all, and resume the thing, and… you see my point.

This is a very simple appliance, and it works perfectly fine. But if I could just open it and replace the control panel with something nicer, I would love to. I think that I would like to have something I can connect to a computer (or maybe connect an USB thumbdrive to), and configure my own saved parameters, selecting for instance “fish fingers” and “melted butter”, which are the more likely uses of the oven for us at home.

But again, this would require a significant change in the design of appliances, which I don’t think is going to happen any year now. It would be lovely, and I think that there might be a chance for Open Source and Open Hardware amateurs to at least show the possibility for it — but it’s the kind of project that I can only with for, with no hope to get to work on myself, not just for the lack of time but for the lack of space — if you wanted to try hacking on a washing machine, you definitely need a more spacious and populated workshop. My limit is still acrylic lamps.

Why I Care About Licensing

Both on the blog and on Twitter, I have ranted at length at projects missing licensing information altogether, or not providing licensing information on specific files, or providing conflicting licensing information. As you can imagine, this is a topic that I’m very attached to, which is why I have been following REUSE guidelines to make sure that all my (currently active) projects follow the specification.

Unfortunately this care is not shared with many developers, even those who consider themselves part of the Free Software movement, and this causes friction, poisons the well in both directions, and overall is detrimental to the community and the movement. Even more so than when people care deeply and disagree on the “correct” licensing terms.

While I am most definitely not a lawyer, and I speak most definitely only for myself and not my employer, let me try to give you a run down of what’s going on here.

First of all, we need to start with a simplification, and handwavey accept that without an explicit license allowing it, the distribution, modification, and integration of source code is not allowed, or at least that’s the way we perceive it in the wider world. And Free Software licenses, more or less permissive, spell out the terms with which distribution and usage are allowed.

It Is But An Example

As far as I can tell, there’s no provision anywhere that source code used in documentation is exempt from these limitations, except insofar as the license on the documentation itself would apply if not otherwise overridden. And that’s how I started engaging with Adafruit: the documentation for most of their CircuitPython libraries provide a lot of useful examples — and as it turns out they were already released with an open-source license (MIT), but that was not obvious when looking at the docs sites themselves. So I convinced them to add SPDX headers to all their source code, including the examples — and now you can read the example and see immediately which license it’s released under. Isn’t that cool?

Unfortunately, sometimes developers are stubborn and find adding two lines to their documentation examples a distraction, and argue against it, making it annoying for others to use their example source code without either infringing the copyright or going the long way to find the right answers.

Websites, PDFs, Books, they are all equal

But this goes to the double for code that is explicitly written only as example material! Let me take a bit of a detour — my wife went through the awesome Python Crash Course a few months ago. While it suffers from a few of the issues I already complained about when it comes to splitting names, the book is fairly well written and has hands-on exercise that provide enough of a stretch to “my first Python project”. In the later parts of the book, one of the long-building exercise is writing a clone of Space Invaders with PyGame, which turned out to be interesting not just for her writing it, but for myself reviewing it as well, as game programming is definitely not a skill I ever spent time acquiring.

Now, remember I said there’s space to stretch? While the book guides you through building the very basic framework for “Alien Invasion” with full code to go with it, it leaves a lot of holes to be filled. Not just the assets (that it pretty much suggests you Google for and find somewhere online, without any discussion on what you can and cannot use — shout out to the Noun Project which I use for my own projects nowadays), but also some of the more advanced gameplay, and a lot of the refactoring — the way you write the game following the book is definitely more aimed at teaching than at maintaining. So when my wife finished with the book, I started showing her examples of how to refactor the code and introduce new features. So while the basic skeleton is the same as the original from the book, the version she ended up with was nearly fully rewritten. And it’s all in a Git repository!

But she has nothing to show for it. The source code in the book does not provide any licensing information. When I reached out to Eric Matthes (the book’s author) on Twitter asking him if he’d consider applying an opensource license to the code, so that she could publish it on her GitHub account to show off to some of her friends – and with an explicit mention that I’d have liked to use it as a base to test out BeeWare projects and see to contribute to some – he said he’d think about it, but that he wouldn’t feel right to release it under a permissive license that would allow someone to take it and sell it on AppStore and similar. So her options are to ignore licensing and publish the code anyway (after all, nobody cares, and I’m sure I can find plenty of people who did exactly that), or to comply with the (lack of) license and keep it for herself, and only show her friends a video of it working. She went for the latter, as we already had a long discussion of copyright when J Salmeron brought up the topic (and dang, we missed the opportunity to shake his hand as we were standing right behind him at the Beast in Black concert in Amsterdam last year!)

Provide It And They Will Build

There is one case that, personally, drained my will to contribute to an ecosystem even more than the example above. After all, Python Crash Course is a great book, and the only really good reason to publish the code is for “bragging rights” — which is not to say it’s not something, but it’s not the end of the world either.

When a commercial vendor is providing you with an extensible ecosystem for you to build upon, but doesn’t play by the same rules, it’s just… disappointing. In this case the issue is with Saleae, the manufacturer of the Logic Pro 16 analyzer I use for a bunch of different things. You may have noticed me providing screenshots off it when talking about fake candles and infrared. As a vendor, Saleae has very good user support: when I complained on Twitter that I wasted two hours chasing ghosts because I didn’t realise I forgot to connect the USB cable to the analyzer, and the software didn’t make it clear enough it was showing me demo garbage, they engaged, asked me what I would have done differently, and delivered the fix in less than a month. That was awesome support.

So where does it go wrong? Well, in June they updated their software to support Python-based extensions for analysis of specific protocols. I was actually interested in adding support for IR decoding to make my life easier in my TV controlling project, and so when they posted that one of their employees built a duty cycle measure tool and posted it on GitHub I was thrilled!

Except… the repository is there, the source code is there, but there is no license. The extension is pretty much a tutorial by itself on how to build what I needed, but it’s coming with no license attached, and as such I can’t use its code as a base for my own extension. And while I could possibly learn from it, it’s also a poison pill… there’s no license, if I copy it too literally, am I infringing copyright? Maybe, who knows? The author says I should «feel free to look, copy and use [his] Logic 2 extensions in any way [I] would like», but that’s not exactly a very comforting statement when you’re contributing while part of a company.

Final Thoughts

Just be yourself (this is pre-recorded). If you do care about Free Software, please take licensing seriously. If you don’t care about Free Software, because you don’t believe in the ideals behind, or you’re just not part of the ecosystem, then I can’t really blame you for disrespecting licenses, but then again if you rely on proprietary software license, you probably should respect all of them. It’s the same problem with software piracy.

I do believe that the folks at REUSE are doing a great service for all of us by making it possible to spell out licenses clearly and openly, and making it easy for others to modify and copy the code that we want to be out there in the world. It doesn’t take so much time to use the tool to add a few lines to a text file, or an additional text file for binary files. Please take the chance to sort this out!

Converting Unpaper to Meson

You may remember that I took over Unpaper a number of years ago, as the original author was not interested in maintaining it in the long term. And one of the first things I did was replacing the hand-rolled build system with Autotools, as that made packaging it significantly simpler. Followed by replacing the image decoding with libav first, and more recently FFmpeg.

For various reasons, I have not spent much time on Unpaper over the years I spent in my last bubble. When I joined my current employer I decided that I cared more to get Unpaper back into a project people can contribute to, and less about maintaining the copyright of my contributions, which makes it easier for me to work on it without having to carve out some special time for it.

One of the main requests over on the GitHub project, over these years, has been Windows support. And I did say that Windows 10 is becoming increasingly interesting for Free Software development. So when I was asked to rant on a bit about build systems, which I did over on Twitch, I decided to take a stab at figuring out if Meson (which supports Windows natively), would be a good fit. And I did that using Visual Studio Code and Debian/WSL!

If you haven’t seen the video yet, spoiler alert: I tried, got it working within ten minutes, and it worked like a charm. I’m not kidding you, it pretty much worked at the first attempt (well, the first session, not the first execution), and it made total sense the way it works. You can tell that the folks involved in building Meson (including Gentoo’s own Nirbheek!) knew what they were embarking to do and how to have it fit together. Even small bits like keeping large files support always enabled made me a very happy user.

I have now a branch on GitHub for the Meson build, although it’s incomplete. It doesn’t install any of the docs, and it doesn’t install the man page. Also it doesn’t build nor run the tests. For all of those I created a project to track what needs to be done: move on from the current implementation, it’s 2020!

The test system in the current Autotools version of Unpaper is leveraging the implementation of make check from Automake, together with a C program that compares the expected outputs with what is generated by the newly-built unpaper binary. It also needs to consider a threshold of difference between the two, because precision is not guaranteed, in either direction. This is incredibly fragile and indeed is currently failing for… not sure which reason. Getting a “diff” of the generated versus expected in C is fairly hard and deserves its own project. Instead, relying on Python for instrumenting and running the tests would make it much easier to maintain, as you wouldn’t need to maintain at least three integration points to keep this together.

Something similar is a problem for documentation: right now the documentation is split between some Markdown files, and a single DocBook (XML) file that is converted to a man page with xsltproc. Once the bullet of Python is bit, there’s no reason not to just use ReStructuredText and Sphinx, which already provides integration to generate man pages — and honestly nowadays I feel like the XML version is definitely not a good source because it can’t be read by itself.

What I have not done yet is making sure that the Meson build system allows a Windows build of Unpaper. The reason is relatively simple: while I have started using Visual Studio Code, and clang is available for Windows in the form of a binary, and so is FFmpeg, fitting it all together will probably take me more time, as I’m not used to this development environment. If someone is interested in making sure this works out of the box, I’m definitely happy to review pull requests.

So yeah, I guess the Autotools Mythbuster can provide a seal(ion) of approval to Meson. Great work, folks! Happy to see we have a modern build system available that compromises in the right places instead of being too dogmatic!

The Rolodex Paradigm

Silhouette of a rolodex.

Created by Marie-Pierre Bauduin from Noun Project.

In my previous bubble, I used to use as my “official” avatar a clipart picture of a Rolodex. Which confused a lot of people, because cultures differ and most importantly generation differ, and turned out that a lot of my colleagues and teammates never had seen or heard of a Rolodex. To quote one of the managers of my peer team when my avatar was gigantic on the conference room’s monitor «You cannot say that you don’t know what a Rolodex is, anymore!»

So, what is a Rolodex? Fundamentally, it’s a fancy address book. Think of it as a physical HyperCard. As Wikipedia points out, though, the name is sometimes used «as a metonym for the sum total of an individual’s accumulated business contacts», which is how I’m usually using it — the avatar is intentionally tongue-in-cheek. Do note that this is most definitely not the same as a Pokédex.

And what I call the Rolodex Paradigm is mainly the idea that the best way to write software is not to know everything about everything, but to know who knows something about what you need. This is easier said than done of course, but let me try to illustrate why I mean all of this.

One of the things I always known about myself is that I’m mainly a generalist. I like knowing a little bit about a lot of things, rather than a lot about a few things. Which is why on this blog you’ll find superficial posts about fintech, electronics, the environment, and cloud computing. You’ll rarely find in-depth articles about anything more recently because to get into that level of details I would need to get myself “in the zone” and that is hardly achievable while maintaining work and family life.

So what do I do when I need information I don’t have? I ask. And to do that, I try to keep in mind who knows something about the stuff that interest me. It’s the main reason why I used to use IRC heavily (I’m still around but not active at all), the main reason why I got to identi.ca, the main reason why I follow blogs and write this very blog, and the main reason why I’m on social networks including Twitter and Facebook – although I’ve switched from using my personal profile to maintaining a blog’s page – and have been fairly open with providing my email address to people, because to be able to ask, you need to make yourself available to answer.

This translates similarly in the workplace: when working at bigger companies that come with their own bubble, it’s very hard to know everything of everything, so by comparison it can be easier to build up a network of contacts who work on different areas within the company, and in particular, not just in engineering. And in a big company it even has a different set of problems to overcome, compared to the outside, open source world.

When asking for help to someone in the open source world, you need to remember that nobody is working for you (unless you’re explicitly paying them, in which case it’s less about asking for help and more about hiring help), and that while it’s possible that you’re charismatic enough (or well known enough) to pull off convincing someone to dedicate significant amount of time to solve your problems, people are busy and they might have other priorities.

In a company setting, there’s still a bit of friction of asking someone to dedicate a significant amount of time to solve your problem rather than theirs. But, if the problem is still a problem for the company, it’s much more likely that you can find someone to at least consider putting your problem in their prioritised list, as long as they can show something for the work done. The recognition is important not just as a way to justify the time (which itself is enough of a reason), but also because in most big companies, your promotion depends on demonstrating impact in one way or another.

Even were more formal approaches to recognitions (such as Google’s Peer Bonus system) are not present, consider sending a message to the manager of whoever helped you. Highlight how they helped not just you personally, but the company — for instance, they may have dedicated one day to implement a feature in their system that saved you a week or two of work, either by implementing the same feature (without the expertise in the system) or working around it; or they might have agreed to get to join a sketched one hour meeting to provide insights into the historical business needs for a service, that will stop you from making a bad decision in a project. It will go a long way.

Of course another problem is to find the people who know about the stuff you need — particularly if they are outside of your organization, and outside of your role. I’m afraid to say that it got a lot harder nowadays, given that we’re now all working remote from different houses and with very little to no social overlapping. So this really relies significantly on two points: company culture, and manager support.

From the company point of view, letting employees built up their network is convenient. Which is why so many big companies provide spaces for, and foster, interaction between employees that have nothing to do with work itself. While game rooms and social interactions are often sold as “perks” to sell roles, they are pretty much relaxed “water cooler” moments, that build those all-too-precious networks that don’t fit into an org structure. And that’s why inclusive social events are important.

So yeah, striking conversations with virtual stranger employees, talking about common interests (photography? Lego? arts?) can lead into knowing what they are working on, and once they are no longer strangers, you would feel more inclined to ask for help later. The same goes for meeting colleagues at courses — I remember going to a negotiation training based around Stuart Diamond’s Getting More, and meeting one of the office’s administrative business partners, who’s also Italian and liking chocolate. When a few months later I was helping to organize VDD ’14, I asked her help to navigate the amount of paperwork required to get outsiders into the office over a weekend.

Meeting people is clearly not enough, though. Keeping in touch is also important, particularly in companies where teams and role are fairly flexible, and people may be working on very different projects after months or year. What I used to do for this was making sure to spend time with colleagues I knew from something other than my main project when traveling. I used to travel from Dublin to London a few times a year for events — and I ended up sitting close to teams I didn’t work with directly, which lead me to meeting a number of colleagues I wouldn’t have otherwise interacted with at all. And later on, when I moved to London, I actually worked with some of them in my same team!

And that’s where the manager support is critical. You won’t be very successful at growing a network if your manager, for example, does not let you clear your calendar of routine meetings for the one week you’re spending in a different office. And similarly, without a manager that supports you dedicating some more time for non-business-critical training (such as the negotiation training I’ve mentioned), you’ll end up with fewer opportunities to meet random colleagues.

I think this was probably the starkest difference between my previous employer’s offices in Dublin and London: my feeling was that the latter had far fewer opportunities to meet people outside of your primary role and cultivate those connections. But it might also be caused by the fact that many more people live far enough from the office that commuting takes longer.

How is this all going to be working in a future where so many of us are remote? I don’t honestly know. For me, the lack of time sitting at the coffee area talking about things with colleagues that I didn’t share a team with, is one of the main reason why I hope that one day, lockdown will be over. And for the rest, I’m trying to get used to talk over the Internet more.

Birch Books With ATmega48

I last wrote about the Trinket M0 version of Birch Books, which is using CircuitPython and uses a much simplified code structure, while relying on one of two possible I/O expanders. But I felt a bit of a cheat to implement this one with a Trinket M0, which is a very powerful MCU to use for something that should be as simple as to keep a few lights on in a LEGO set.

So, as suggested by a colleague, I looked into the ATmega48, which is a close relative to the ATmega328 that Arduino is based on. Actually, these two versions are pin- and source-compatible so while I have now implemented it with the 48, the 328 (which is more commonly available) should work the same way.

The ATmega48 option is an interesting compromise between the 8052 and the Trinket M0. It’s an 8-bit microcontroller, and it requires to write low-level C to program, but at the same time it doesn’t require any passive components (as long as you don’t need more than 8MHz, and you didn’t make the mistake I made about having an active-high RST button). It turned out that the suggestion was a very good one, and the ATmega48 does indeed seem to fit this project very nicely.

Programming the ATmega48 can be done via 6-pin connectors that need to provide power, SPI bus, and the RST line. This can be achieved with Adafruit’s FT232H board: you connect the SPI lines just as described on the breakout, and use D3 for the RST line, then you just tell avrdude to use the UM232H variant. No other configuration is needed. I actually plan on crimping my own harness for this later, so I don’t need to use a breadboard all the time.

The other main difference between the ATmega48 and the 8052 is that the former has nearly half the pins, but it still has enough I/Os (14 outputs, 2 inputs) for Birch Books that there is no need to add an expander. There’s a few more I/O lines as well, but they are “overcommited” and by default configured to have different meanings. For instance the external clock pins can be re-configured to be additional I/O lines, and even the RST line can be disabled by fuses to gain one more I/O.

Let’s talk about the clock! The ATmega48 is sent out from factory with the fuses configured for a 1MHz clock, but can be configured up to 8MHz. Alternatively it can use an external clock and run up to… I forgot, and the point being I don’t need any of that. I did order 100 pieces of 12MHz crystals just to have them at hand, when I made an order from LCSC, but for this project, the 1MHz clock speed is plenty. So I left it configured the way it came from factory, and that works perfectly fine.

The code ended up being very similar to the 8052 version of course: it initializes the ports, sets up a timer input, and in the loop checks for the test button and otherwise keep updating the port state depending on the calculated virtual hour. While the ATmega48 would have allowed for more fine-grained controls on the timing, and thus allowed me to use the original planned scheduled, I decided to actually keep the same 1/16th of a second “tick” timer, and the same formulas to calculate the schedule.

Another thing allowed by the ATmega48, or rather the fact by the AVR-GCC, would be making the code more modular. As I ranted before, SDCC is not the most aggressive compiler, when it comes to optimizing around functions, and that’s why instead of having more structured code I ended up with a lot of spaghetti. To make it easier to compare and maintain the code together, I decided not to refactor the spaghetti in the AVR version, but I think that’s okay. The simplification around the timer handling is already a huge step forward anyway.

On the logic side, I decided to implement a one second power-on self-test though that turns on all of the lights. This was meant not just to easily test the code while I had it on my desk, but also just as a general “healthiness check” for the LEDs. I backported it to the CircuitPython code while I was at it, as well. And I removed the “knuckle pattern strobing” (which turned on every other LED alternatively), because it doesn’t work quite right or well on the real LEGO set (where two rooms use three LED lines tied together), simplifying the test logic.

The other thing that I found out by using the ATmega48 is that I do have some difference in the current limiting between the Trinket M0 and the other two controllers. When I installed the Trinket M0-based controller, the lights in the bookstore were much brighter, and even if that looked nice, it had me worried, because I knew that the LEDs I’ve been using tend to brown out quickly if they are powered at maximum current. I managed to pretty much kill one LED by keeping it running for just two days without a current-limiting resistor. And indeed, a month later, some of the LEDs are now nearly completely dark, and will need to be replaced.

Since the actuator board is the same, powered from 5V, and with 47 Ohm resistor networks for the LEDs in each case, I’m not entirely sure why this is happening. I might need to add some inline current metering to to see how that fits together. But that’s for another time.

Amazon, AliExpress, Can You Even Tell The Difference?

You may think that the title is intentionally inflammatory, but I think it’s getting to be a valid question, at least in the UK, and I’ll try to explain it with a bit of humour.

AliExpress is a Chinese-operated online marketplace, which basically acts as a giant online mall with… hundreds, I’d say… of “small stores”, factory outlets, and so on. To me, it reminds me going to Xingguang Photographic Equipment City in Shanghai — which is a number of connected buildings crammed full of small-and-medium shops that sell… well about everything you can think of that has to do with photography and a whole lot that has nothing to do with it. The stuff you can find varied so widely, but in between “gray market” lenses and likely fake equipment, you can find very good deals on Chinese equipment — and I don’t mean just stuff that is “made in China”, but designed and fully manufactured by Chinese companies. I bought a carbon fiber tripod for my camera there, and it’s probably one of my favourite pieces of equipment… and I paid half of its listed price in Europe, since I didn’t go through customs and distributors to get it.

For those who have not been to Shanghai, AliExpress might be known better for Foone’s threads (warning: parts not safe for work and not recommended to minors). Or the random YouTuber reference to them. They are not particularly well looked at, particularly in the United States, because the shipping between China and the US seem to consistently take months. In the UK, this is significantly different: while there’s been stuff that has not arrived within the expected 60 days, even during the huge Covid-19 lockdown, most of the orders I placed arrived within a month. I know that Ireland approximates closer to the US than to the UK, and in general I have been not-quite-relying on AliExpress as a way to get stuff on the cheap if I have no urgency for it to show up. This had been much easier when I didn’t start planning for not living in the same apartment within a few months.

There’s also another important thing to note when talking about AliExpress: unlike most of the store brands we’re used to in Europe and in the United States, they act more like a “stores-only” eBay, in that they don’t actually involve themselves in the quality of the products they sell. This makes the “buyers beware” saying being even more important than usual to keep in mind. On the other hand, if you know what you’re buying and the limitations of possibly non-existent quality assurance, it’s a nice way to gather a bunch of, say, electronics components, acrylic lamps, and it seems for some, even glucometers.

Now, I remember Amazon when it was known for being a place to find the good stuff — recommendations based on what you bought (or evaluated) before, a good review system you could count on, and inventory limited to the stuff that is actually useful. But that doesn’t appear to be the case anymore. The quality of products you get from Amazon varies widely, particularly because they are making it increasingly difficult to opt-out of Marketplace, which is pretty much the same concept as AliExpress, except for the fact that Amazon usually takes over the logistics again. And I’ll get to the reviews in a moment.

  • A screenshot for Amazon UK searching for "hot air solder station"

You can see above a partial results for me searching “hot air solder station” on Amazon. This is not a random search per se, but rather tha main trigger for me being ready to complain about Amazon (most other searches follow the same pattern, by the way). A few months ago I decided to order a hot air solder station for home, to make it easy to solder some of the boards I have been working on. I ended up getting a Yihua-branded station for £90, which sounded like it had decent reviews from YouTube electronics folks… except that when I tried using it to desolder the DisplayPort connector I damaged from my old U2711, the plastic around the hot gun melted, releasing toxic fumes in my office… which made me discover the Dyson fan has a purple level of air quality, which approximates to “run away”.

I sent the station back to Amazon pointing out how the CE mark on the box looked very suspicious in light of what happened, and they did refund me no-questions-asked, but… I couldn’t leave a review about it. Despite me sending it back after two weeks, the item I bought was already removed from the store by that point. I didn’t get any notification about it being removed for safety concerns, so I assume that it was the seller deciding to run with the money instead. I replaced the station with a £25 one from AliExpress, which… turned out to perform significantly better, given that it did not burn down after nearly a month using it.

Now, let’s look at the picture I added above. The first four results are “Sponsored” — that means they are ads. Yes, you do get ads on Amazon when you search for something. Of the eight results, no two are reporting the same brand… but if you know what to look for you can see the Yihua logo on two of the sponsored entries and one of the “organic” ones, although none of them are reported as Yihua (except for the one that says MMOBIEL). How does this even fly? Well, it seems like the “brand” you see is the one that is putting together the “kit” of the soldering station with a bunch of vaguely related accessories.

But can we find more Yihua from these eight? Of course we can!

Preciva being a “white label” brand, akin to Silverline, is literally photoshopping away the Yihua brand in their main listing image, but keeps it in the “what’s in the kit” image later on, including for the “Brand carton” (whatever that is).

The end result is that sifting through Amazon listing is getting tedious — if you’re lucky, you get a British-based white label company sourcing their stuff somewhere in China and selling it back to you. If you’re not lucky, you get someone who has bought a pallet of AliExpress-level goods, possibly changed the box (in many cases not even that), and then sold it back to you at a mark-up. The “baseline luck” is finding someone who’s not even trying to hide that they are selling already-imported AliExpress goods, which makes Amazon pretty much just a rapid-delivery option of AliExpress-quality items.

And even for stuff that you may think you’re better off getting at Amazon, there’s some risk. Last year I bought a new camera (a Sony A7 first generation), and I ordered an USB-based charger with two batteries branded RAVpower — it’s a brand that is at least known for their mobile powerbanks, so I thought I would be safe. A couple of months later I definitely noted that one of the two batteries didn’t hold anywhere near the charge it should have, despite the charger saying it charged it in full. A couple of months ago I ordered two Palo-branded chargers for both my cameras, the A7 and the Canon 80D, because they had a decent price and supported both microUSB and USB-C — turns out that these will show you the actual charge detected on the battery, and indeed showed one of the two RAVpower-branded batteries as only holding 50% capacity constantly, which suggests one of the two cells inside is dead.

So what about the reviews? Well, there’s more than a few problems with reviews. As I noted earlier, the hot solder station SKU I ordered before was already removed from Amazon by the time I figured out how terrible it was, so I had no option to leave a review. And even if you were to leave a review, the appeal-based moderation will unlikely let negative, realistic review live. April King reported an example recently, and I had a similar experience with a review for a phone battery being removed because I said they faked the capacity. So unless you want to play the game finding the right set of banned words, you’re pretty much stuck — to continue with the Chinese connection, trying to leave a negative review on Amazon starts feeling like being part of Ma Boyong’s The City of Silence.

So can you just find the right stuff by looking solely at the positive reviews? Absolutely not!

It’s not just my opinion, by the way. The UK consumer association Which? reported this, FT Alphaville (free after registration) reported on it, and the FT proper (paywalled) reported on it last week as well! It’s not a secret that effectively every other marketplace order you place end up with you receiving a message from the seller asking you to contact them instead of leaving bad reviews, or suggesting you leave a good review for activating a 1-year warranty (which in EU and UK you have by law), or suggesting you can get a voucher if you leave a good review. Some are more blatant than others — another common “trick” I’ve seen them use is to send you an “invoice” (which contains none of the legally required information for being an invoice at all, nevermind the fact that you haven’t paid them, but paid Amazon).

But there is another issue. A few months after starting to order stuff from AliExpress we started receiving packages from Amazon that we didn’t order. At first it was a pair of “gaming headphones”, then it was some clothes hangers (that were dirty in their box so went straight into trash) and a flashlight, and this keeps happening to this date. It’s called brushing.

I have contacted Amazon, twice, about these packages, and provided them with the order number. But instead of speaking reasoning, the poor folks at the Amazon customer care find themselves acting as mechanical turks themselves, and said they’ll contact the person who ordered them, since they can’t discuss it with me. Despite the fact that they seem to have my PII and GDPR should require them to delete my information off their system.

The worst part is that sometimes the packages come together with the stuff I actually ordered, possibly because they don’t order it with Prime delivery, so Amazon bundles them to the next delivery in the area. I can tell which one is my actual order versus the one that is coming in from a scammer: the format on the address is different and it matches the one that I provided AliExpress.

Again, let me repeat that nobody at Amazon cares, despite this brushing scam being well documented for over a year at least. Even the delivery person who I showed the different addresses to told me «Well, I can bring it back, but just so you know, someone will just take it anyway, as they don’t want it back.» Which basically means Amazon doesn’t care about the fake reviews left by these scammy sellers.

So why am I even using Amazon at all? Well, it’s not an obvious answer. Sometimes it’s a matter of price: when Argos sells the same brand-name goods for a good 10% on top, plus shipping, it’s hard to justify avoiding Amazon for that. And with most supermarkets still not having recovered from the limitations of lockdown, a number of household products are also easier to order from Amazon than, say, Boots. And Amazon has usually better customer focus despite all of this — if somehow they send you only two items of a bundle of three, they don’t take two weeks to admit that they are out of stock, and you don’t have to suggest them to give you a partial refund at that point, which is what happened to me with Ryman.

Of course that is not fair — Amazon can afford the no-question-asked returns because they are a pile of cash, and they don’t need to be afraid of scammy customers. They can afford the low margins, because Marketplace appears to be making up for it by not making it their problem. Any newcomer to the scene will have issues fighting such a behemot, which is what makes it unfair. But I already complained about Europe as a market, and why I don’t expect an European alternative with fairer practices to ever become interesting.

Newcomers, Teachers, and Professionals

You may remember I had already a go at tutorials, after listening in on one that my wife had been going through. Well, she’s now learning about C after hearing me moan about higher and lower level languages, and she did that by starting with Harvard’s CS50 class, which is free to “attend” on edX. I am famously not a big fan of academia, but I didn’t think it would make my blood boil as much as it did.

I know that it’s easy to rant and moan about something that I’m not doing myself. After all you could say “Well, they are teaching at Harvard, you are just ranting on a c-list blog that is followed by less than a hundred people!” and you would be right. But at the same time, I have over a decade of experience in the industry, and my rants are explicitly contrasting what they say in the course to what “we” do, whether it is in opensource projects, or a bubble.

I think the first time I found myself boiling and went onto my soapbox was when the teacher said that the right “design” (they keep calling it design, although I would argue it’s style) for a single-source file program is to have includes, followed by the declaration of all the functions, followed by main(), followed by the definition of all the functions. Which is not something I’ve ever seen happening in my experience — because it doesn’t really make much sense: duplicating declarations/definitions in C is an unfortunate chore due to headers, but why forcing even more of that in the same source file?

Indeed, one of my “pre-canned comments” in reviews at my previous employer was a long-form of “Define your convenience functions before calling them. I don’t want to have to jump around to see what your doodle_do() function does.” Now it is true that in 2020 we have the technology (VSCode’s “show definition” curtain is one of the most magical tools I can think of), but if you’re anyone like me, you may even sometimes print out the source code to read it, and having it flow in natural order helps.

But that was just the beginning. Some time later as I dropped by to see how things were going I saw a strange string type throughout the code — turns out that they have a special header that they (later) define as “training wheels” that includes typedef char *string; — possibly understandable given that it takes some time to get to arrays, pointers, and from there to character arrays, but… could it have been called something else than string, given the all-too-similarly named std::string of C++?

Then I made the mistake of listening in on more of that lesson, and that just had me blow a fuse. The lesson takes a detour to try to explain ASCII — the fact that characters are just numbers that are looked up in a table, and that the table is typically 8-bit, with no mention of Unicode. Yes I understand Unicode is complicated and UTF-8 and other variable-length encodings will definitely give a headache to a newcomer who has not seen programming languages before. But it’s also 2020 and it might be a good idea to at least put out the idea that there’s such a thing as variable-length encoded text and that no, 8-bit characters are not enough to represent people’s names! The fact that my own name has a special character might have something to do with this, of course.

It went worse. The teacher decided to show some upper-case/lower-case trickery on strings to show how that works, and explained how you add or subtract 32 to go from one case to the other. Which is limited not only by character set, but most importantly by locale — oops, I guess the teacher never heard of the Turkish Four Is, or maybe there’s some lack of cultural diversity in the writing room for these courses. I went on a rant on Twitter over this, but let me reiterate this here as it’s important: there’s no reason why a newcomer to any programming language should know about adding/subtracting 32 to 7-bit ASCII characters to change their case, because it is not something you want to do outside of very tiny corner cases. It’s not safe in some languages. It’s not safe with characters outside the 7-bit safe Latin alphabet. It is rarely the correct thing to do. The standard library of any programming language has locale-aware functions to uppercase or lowercase a string, and that’s what you need to know!

Today (at the time of writing) she got to allocations, and I literally heard the teacher going for malloc(sizeof(int)*10). Even to start with a bad example and improve from that — why on Earth do they even bother teaching malloc() first, instead of calloc() is beyond my understanding. But what do I know, it’s not like I spent a whole lot of time fixing these mistakes in real software twelve years ago. I will avoid complaining too much about the teacher suggesting that the behaviour of malloc() was decided by the clang authors.

Since there might be newcomers reading this and being a bit lost of why I’m complaining about this — calloc() is a (mostly) safer alternative to allocate an array of elements, as it takes two parameters: the size of a single element and the number of elements that you want to allocate. Using this interface means it’s no longer possible to have an integer overflow when calculating the size, which reduces security risks. In addition, it zeroes out the memory, rather than leaving it uninitialized. While this means there is a performance cost, if you’re a newcomer to the language and just about learning it, you should err on the side of caution and use calloc() rather than malloc().

Next up there’s my facepalm on the explanation of memory layout — be prepared, because this is the same teacher who in a previous lesson said that the integer variable’s address might vary but for his explanation can be asserted to be 0x123, completely ignoring the whole concept of alignment. To explain “by value” function calls, they decide to digress again, this time explaining heap and stack, and they describe a linear memory layout, where the code of the program is followed by the globals and then the heap, with the stack at the bottom growing up. Which might have been true in the ’80s, but hasn’t been true in a long while.

Memory layout is not simple. If you want to explain a realistic memory layout you would have to cover the differences between physical and virtual memory, memory pages and pages tables, hugepages, page permissions, W^X, Copy-on-Write, ASLR, … So I get it that the teacher might want to simplify and skip over a number of these details and give a simplified view of how to understand the memory layout. But as a professional in the industry for so long I would appreciate if they’d be upfront with the “By the way, this is an oversimplification, reality is very different.” Oh, and by the way, stack grows down on x86/x86-64.

This brings me to another interesting… mess in my opinion. The course comes with some very solid tools: a sandbox environment already primed for the course, an instance of AWS Cloud9 IDE with the libraries already installed, a fairly recent version of clang… but then decides to stick to this dubious old style of C, with strcpy() and strcmp() and no reference to more modern, safer options — nevermind that glibc still refuses to implement C11 Annex K safe string functions.

But then they decide to not only briefly show the newcomers how to use Valgrind, of all things. They even show them how to use a custom post-processor for Valgrind’s report output, because it’s otherwise hard to read. For a course using clang, that can rely on tools such as ASAN and MSAN to report the same information in more concise way.

I find this contrast particularly gruesome — the teacher appears to think that memory leaks are an important defect to avoid in software, so much so that they decide to give a power tool such as Valgrind to a class of newcomers… but they don’t find Unicode and correctness in names representation (because of course they talk about names) to be as important. I find these priorities totally inappropriate in 2020.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand that writing a good programming course is hard, and that professors and teachers have a hard job in front of them when it comes to explain complex concepts to a number of people that are more eager to “make” something than to learn how it works. But I do wonder if sitting a dozen professionals through these lessons wouldn’t make for a better course overall.

«He who can, does; he who cannot teaches» is a phrase attributed to George Bernand Shaw — I don’t really agree with it as it is, because I met awesome professors and teachers. I already mentioned my Systems’ teacher, who I’m told retired just a couple of months ago. But in this case I can tell you that I wouldn’t want to have to review the code (or documentation) written by that particular teacher, as I’d have a hard time keeping to constructive comments after so many facepalms.

It’s a disservice to newcomers that this is what they are taught. And it’s the professionals like me that are causing this by (clearly) not pushing back enough on Academia to be more practical, or building better courseware for teachers to rely on. But again, I rant on a C-list blog, not teach at Harvard.