What’s all this?

Question MarkWell, it’s a portfolio of Gareth Halfacree’s work, silly. He’s the former systems administrator to the left, currently earning a living as a full-time technology journalist and technical author. You may know him from his best-selling book the Raspberry Pi User Guide, which has sold over 100,000 copies and has been translated into numerous languages, or his contributions to national magazines, radio programmes and books including Imagine Publishing’s Genius Guide and Tips, Tricks, Apps & Hacks series and his eponymous “Gareth Halfacree’s Hobby Tech” feature, a five-page spread in Dennis Publishing’s Custom PC Magazine each month. Read more

Linux User & Developer, Issue 138

Linux User & Developer Issue 138Aside from my regular four-page news spread, this month’s Linux User & Developer includes two reviews: the Intel Galileo board, the company’s Quark-based answer to the Raspberry Pi; and the Pogoplug Safeplug, a Linux-based privacy-enhancing TOR gateway.

First, the Galileo. I was lucky enough to get my hands on one of the first retail units to hit the UK, and was eager to see what Intel had come up with. Based on its low-power Quark processor, which is a die-shrunk version of the classic Pentium instruction set architecture, the Galileo boasts full x86 compatibility and plenty of on-board connectivity. Where it differs from its rivals – and anything Intel has ever produced before – is that it’s also Arduino certified, and fully compatible with shields developed for that microcontroller’s esoteric pin layout.

It promises much: on-board Ethernet, out-of-the-box support for existing Arduino sketches, the ability to run a Linux environment, and even a mini-PCI Express slot on the rear for adding in wireless connectivity or other additional hardware. Can it live up to expectations? Well, you’ll have to read the review to find out.

The Pogoplug Safeplug, despite what the contents page splash might suggest, is not a storage device; rather, it’s a modified version of the company’s existing embedded storage gateway product to find a new market in the post-Snowden world. Connected to your internal network, the Safeplug acts as a gateway to the TOR network; all traffic is encrypted and anonymised with little client configuration required. As an added bonus, there’s even an advertising removal feature.

My verdict on both devices, plus stories covering Ubuntu 14.04, the Intel Next Unit of Computing, the Penn Manor School’s move to Linux, a £15 Firefox OS smartphone, Cisco’s IoT security challenge, the Nokia X and more can be yours in newsagents now. Alternatively, you can get the magazine digitally via Zinio.

Raspberry Pi for Kids

Raspberry Pi for KidsThose of you who follow my every move may remember a few projects I created for Dennis Publishing’s Computeractive publication, centring around the Raspberry Pi and Arduino single-board systems – in particular the three-part series walking newcomers through creating software and hardware accessories for the Pi, which proved extremely popular with readers. So popular, in fact, that Dennis has extracted the tutorial on building a switch-based game controller and republished it in the MagBook Raspberry Pi for Kids.

If you missed it the first time around, the tutorial was designed as the follow-up to an earlier guide on writing a simple snake game in Python. Using microswitches, resistors, a segment of stripboard and a soldering iron, readers are shown how to add a dedicated game controller – connected through the Pi’s general-purpose input-output (GPIO) header – to the system and modify the game’s source code accordingly. Reader feedback was good, and the relatively simple circuit makes it a logical choice for the MagBook’s target audience – although younger kids should, naturally, be supervised when using a soldering iron.

The MagBook also makes heavy use of my photography, both in my tutorial and throughout the rest of the publication where various images of my Pis can be found gracing its pages. Sadly, in an editorial oversight, my name appears to have been missed off the list of contributors – but I’m sure that will be quickly corrected in a future edition.

The Raspberry Pi for Kids MagBook is available in newsagents and supermarkets now, or via Amazon.

Custom PC, Issue 128

Custom PC Issue 128In this specially-numbered issue of Custom PC – the issue in which a signed eight-bit integer would overflow, in case it wasn’t obvious – my regular five-page Hobby Tech column covers turning a Raspberry Pi into a TOR proxy, using the Keyrah v2 on an old Amiga A1200 chassis, a review of the Intel Galileo, and a look at the daftest Pi accessory yet. If that weren’t enough, there’s also a two-page interview with the UEFI Forum’s Mark Doran to enjoy.

First, Hobby Tech. In this month’s tutorial, I show the reader how to turn a Raspberry Pi Model B – or Model A with optional USB network adapter – into a proxy that provides access to TOR, The Onion Router Project, a privacy-enhancing network that encrypts your internet traffic and shuffles it around before popping it out of a random exit node. Although it’s possible to run TOR software directly on a PC, having a hardware proxy can help get otherwise unsupported devices – like the Apple iPad – onto the TOR network.

The piece on the Keyrah v2 came about when I was looking for ways to use the chassis and keyboard I had replaced on my Amiga 1200. Although badly yellowed, the keyboard was fully working and throwing it away seemed a shame; thankfully, the Keyrah makes that necessary by interfacing with the Amiga keyboard and turning it into a USB keyboard for modern machines, while also providing two connectors for traditional joysticks. Coupled with yet another Raspberry Pi, it was possible to turn the empty A1200 chassis into a fully-functional computer – and surprisingly quickly, too.

Intel’s Galileo is the company’s first Arduino-certified device, and a showcase for its Quark processor. Based on the original Pentium architecture – complete with the F00F Bug erratum – the Quark is Intel’s attempt to take on ARM in the embedded space, and if the Galileo is any indicator it still has a way to go. Slower at general-purpose computing than a Pi and at IO than a true Arduino, the Galileo is hard to love – but the presence of a mini-PCIe socket on the back suggests it could find a home in more complex projects.

Finally for Hobby Tech, there’s a look at cooling a Raspberry Pi with the smallest active heatsink I’ve ever seen. Barely covering the tip of my finger, the heatsink was an impulse purchase from eBay and cost nearly as much as the Pi on which it is attached; it’s certainly eye-catching, however, and my core temperature readings may be of interest to anyone using a Pi in high ambient temperatures or in cases with otherwise stagnant airflow.

My last contribution to this issue is the interview with Mark Doran. While the extract published in Linux User & Developer concentrated mainly on Secure Boot and its increasing adoption after initial fear in open source projects, this extract looks more at UEFI itself and how it came to be. For historical interest, there’s also what I believe to be the first comprehensive time-line of the BIOS, beginning in 1975 with Gary Kildall coining the term to describe part of his CP/M operating system.

All this, plus the usual selection of stuff written by people who aren’t me, is available at newsagents, corner shops and supermarkets now, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 137

Linux User & Developer Issue 137In Imagine Publishing’s Linux User & Developer this month, you’ll find an interview with Mark Doron of the UEFI Forum nestled alongside my usual four-page spread of news.

For those unfamiliar with his work, the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) is the modern replacement for the aged and creaking Basic Input-Output System (BIOS) which can trace its roots all the way back to the original IBM PC. As Doran tells it:

When I first started working on this back in the late 90s, I had the interesting experience of going to IBM and talking to them about the need to change how firmware is constructed for Intel Architecture machines, based on limitations we were running into with conventional BIOS technology. A couple of the guys in the audience, no big surprise perhaps, were part of the original team from Boca Raton that was building the PC AT and the conventional BIOS with it. They said ‘you know, the mission we were handed originally was to build code that would support a product that was meant to be 250,000 machines to end-of-life; we had no idea when we sat down to do that that this code would still be kicking around 20, 25 years later.’

That impressive reign is coming to an end with the introduction of the far more flexible and easy-to-understand UEFI. Its adoption in open source projects has been slow, however: concerns over Microsoft’s role in signing binaries for the Secure Boot portion of the system, including fears that the technology could be used to lock third-party operating systems like Linux out of the market altogether, left a sour taste in the mouths of many.

That’s changing, with the Linux Foundation itself now a member of the UEFI Forum group. Much of my discussion with Doran, and in particular in this interview extract, centred around the improving adoption of UEFI and Secure Boot support in open-source projects – a shift he highlights as the result of a lot of bridge-building and better explanation of his group’s goals.

In addition to the interview, my regular four-page spread of news this month covers comments made in favour of open standards and open-source software by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, Nvidia’s contribution of open-source patch sets to the Nouveau project, the launch of the DARPA Open Catalogue, the impending launch of the revised Fuze Powered by Raspberry Pi design – complete with a small price reduction, and more.

Linux User & Developer Issue 137 is available at all good newsagents and a few not-so-good ones now, digitally via Zinio and similar services, or direct from Imagine Publishing via the official site.

Custom PC, Issue 127

Custom PC Issue 127Regular readers of Dennis Publishing’s Custom PC Magazine may notice that there’s been a dramatic redesign by editor Ben Hardwidge this month. The size of the magazine has been increased, returning to its original A4 footprint, and the overall look has been brought bang up to date. It’s something of a rebirth for the publication, and one that comes with good news for fans of my eponymous Hobby Tech column: thanks to extremely positive reader feedback, from this issue forth the column will be five pages long instead of four – making it the longest column in the magazine by far.

This month, as the cover splash demonstrates, I cover work I’ve done restoring an original rubber-key ZX Spectrum using a replica faceplate developed by Rich Mellor of RWAP Software. A long-time Sinclair supporter, Rich also took the time to answer my questions in a brief interview segment; if you’ve ever wondered what would possess someone to spend time and money developing a range of products and accessories for a system that hasn’t been in production for approaching three decades, I’d say it’s well worth a read.

I also walk the reader through using a Raspberry Pi as a secondary display. While I’ve done something similar before, back in Custom PC Issue 123, this time it’s a little different: I’m using a Pi to revitalise a SoundMaster High Resolution Monochrome Monitor I recently acquired, using its single composite video input to add a wonderfully anachronistic amber display to my desktop. The same technique, which relies on the ability to forward X data over SSH, can be used to add any composite or HDMI compatible display to any networked system.

Finally, I offer my thoughts on the PiFace Control & Display accessory for the Raspberry Pi, kindly provided by CPC. Built for embedded designs, the PiFace C&D adds a 16×2 LCD, a bunch of buttons, a three-way joystick and an infra-red receiver to the Pi’s GPIO port. The result is a system which can be controlled away from a keyboard and mouse, and it comes with plenty of Python-powered example code to get the user started. I’ve already had an idea or two for projects…

All this, plus a bunch of stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be yours if you venture to your local newsagent or supermarket. Alternatively, stay indoors where it’s warm and pick up copy digitally via services like Zinio.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 136

Linux User & Developer Issue 136This month’s Linux User & Developer is a little light on my content, with a planned interview with Mark Doran of the UEFI Forum being bumped to the next issue. It does, however, still include my regular four-page news spread.

The news section this month includes a look at the Intel Edison, the second product from the company to feature its embedded Quark processor. Based on an SD card form factor, the Edison is designed as the drop-in replacement for the Galileo. At the time, I hadn’t had the pleasure of playing with a Quark – which packs up to four Pentium architecture processing cores, offering full x86 compatibility – although I’ve since acquired a Galileo, and let’s just say Intel has a bit of work ahead of it if it wants to supplant ARM and dedicated microcontrollers in the market.

Additional topics covered include the merging of CentOS into Red Hat, with no changes expected as a result of the move; Firefox OS being drafted into future Panasonic Smart TVs following a muted reception of the open-source HTML-powered operating system on smartphones; a look at the US government’s programme to use open source software and open hardware for future generations of unmanned aerial vehicles; Google’s foundation of the Open Automotive Alliance, a transparent attempt to find new markets for Android; a new Steam OS release with support Intel and AMD graphics, in place of the original Nvidia-exclusive launch; Belkin’s release of a new open-source router, an update for the popular but long-outdated Linksys WRT54G; and a defacement attack on the openSUSE forums, blamed on the proprietary vBulletin software.

As always, a calendar for the month’s biggest events is also included for reference.

Linux User & Developer Issue 136 is available at all good newsagents and supermarkets now, or digitally via services including Zinio. More information is also available on the official website.

Linux Tips, Tricks, Apps & Hacks, Volume 2

Linux Tips, Tricks, Apps & Hacks Volume 2Imagine Publishing’s popular range of Bookazine titles – they’re not quite a book, nor quite a magazine, but they are a competitor to Dennis Publishing’s MagBook range – is one entry larger this month with the launch of the latest volume of Linux Tips, Tricks, Apps & Hacks.

As with its predecessor, the content of the Bookazine is culled from the pages of Linux User & Developer magazine. Due to my prolific contributions to said magazine, it’s therefore no surprise to find my work republished within the pages of Linux Tips, Tricks, Apps & Hacks Volume 2.

The highlight of the volume is an investigation into the best Linux distribution for a given user’s needs. It’s a reprint of last year’s Ultimate Linux Distros 2013 feature I wrote for Linux User & Developer Issue 130. The feature takes a look at various categories of user – home user, gamer, hacker, coder, office user – and makes a recommendation of the best distribution to suite that given use case.

The volume is, naturally, filled with additional material including tutorials and software reviews, and makes for a fascinating précis of the year for those who do not subscribe to the magazine itself.

Linux Tips, Tricks, Apps & Hacks Volume 2 is available at newsagents and supermarkets around the country now, or for direct order from Imagine’s webshop.

Disharmony at Bletchley Park

There’s something rotten in the state of Bletchley, but exactly what is up for debate. A BBC News film crew brought – frankly, much-needed – light on internal disputes between the Bletchley Park Trust, which operates the bulk of the Park, and the CodesandCiphers Trust, which operates the National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) housed in Block H. Video footage of a long-time Bletchley Park Trust volunteer being apparently sacked secured the report a place on the national news, and has been responsible for more column inches than either party has ‘enjoyed’ in quite some time.

But what is actually going on?

Read more

Custom PC, Issue 126

Custom PC Issue 126My monthly Custom PC column, Gareth Halfacree’s Hobby Tech, continues with a look at the toys and projects that have been entertaining me over the past four weeks including the acquisition of a core memory module, the Raspberry Pi GertDuino add-on board, and a guide – teased on the cover splash – to mining the Bitcoin cryptocurrency on said Pi.

First, the GertDuino. I won’t repeat myself with a summary of the device’s features – which are readily available in my review summary for Linux User & Developer Issue 135 – except to say that, as is usual for reviews in Hobby Tech, the review is written from a very personal perspective. As a result, the reader can enjoy a summarised version of my first few days with the device – including the heartache I had getting the blessed thing to work with the Arduino integrated development environment (IDE).

For the usual vintage computing portion of the column, I took a look at a new – to me – acquisition: a core memory module, pulled from a Soviet-era industrial computer of some description. The predecessor to modern transistor-based memory, magnetic core – literally a mesh of magnetic toroids which can be flipped to hold either a 0 or a 1 – has had an inestimable impact on modern computing, to the point where even today the process of saving memory contents to permanent storage for review is known as a ‘core dump.’

Also, the thing looks amazing under a microscope.

Finally, this month’s semi-regular tutorial section looks at using a USB-connected application specific integrated circuit (ASIC) to rapidly mine the Bitcoin cryptocurrency on a low-power Raspberry Pi. Prompted by my good friend Martyn Ranyard – the joint owner of a considerably more powerful mining rig than the one I created – the tutorial walks the reader through the exact steps I took to add Bitcoin mining facilities to my multipurpose Pi-based home server.

All this, plus a bunch of interesting stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a trip to your local supermarket, newsagent or a digital purchase on distribution services like Zinio. If you’d rather not risk missing an issue, Dennis Publishing is currently offering subscriptions at 50 per cent off the normal rate until the 31st of January.