This month’s HackSpace Magazine includes a four-page spread detailing two projects from the talented Daniel Bailey: the Manchester Baby inspired C88 and C3232 homebrew microcomputers.
When one normally talks about ‘building’ a computer, the ‘building’ process is akin to Lego: blocks specifically designed to be compatible are clicked together in a reasonably idiot-proof manner, then an off-the-shelf operating system is installed. Daniel’s C88 and C3232 systems, by contrast, are built from the ground up: systems built around using an 8×8 or 32×32 LED display as memory and running a unique processor, built from scratch on an FPGA, with its own instruction set architecture.
The smaller C88 came first, and the larger and more complex C3232 – designed with a mode which allows it to run software originally written for the early Manchester Small Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM), or Manchester Baby, without modification – served as a magnum opus for the project. Daniel wasn’t done there, though: a final effort produced the Mini C88, a C88-compatible kit powered by the a low-cost Arduino instead of a more expensive FPGA but boasting near-complete compatibility with the original.
While Daniel has yet to release the kit, a simulator provides a hint of what it’s like to use the C88 or Mini C88: programs are entered into the system one bit at a time using physical toggle-switches, then executed for display on the LED matrix. Examples include simple animations, pseudorandom number generation, and mathematical calculations, while the real C88 can also be connected to external hardware via a general-purpose input-output (GPIO) port missing from the Mini C88.
I’ve long been a fan of Daniel’s creations, and am lucky enough to own a Mini C88 of my very own – but even for those who haven’t caught the systems being demonstrated at various Maker Faires and related events, I’d recommend reading the piece to see just how clever the project really is.
You can see the feature in full by downloading the Creative Commons licensed magazine from the official website, or pick up a copy in print from your nearest newsagent or supermarket.
First, the vintage gaming feature. Building on a brief from editor Ben Hardwidge, I wanted to do something a little more in-depth than the usual how-to guide. The result is a seven-page feature which begins with a look at the wealth of accessories available to turn a Raspberry Pi or other single-board computing into a powerful emulation station, a two-page expert guide to the legalities of emulation in the UK, step-by-step instructions on downloading, installing, and configuring the RetroPie on a Raspberry Pi, and a look at entirely legitimate sources for read-only memory (ROM) game images.
While I’m fully equipped to handle the how-to and look-at-the-shiny-things sections of the guide myself, the legal aspect required an expert eye kindly provided by Eaton Smith LLP partner Chris Taylor. Legal counsel to a variety of game development and publishing companies, Chris kindly walked through the legalities of developing, downloading, and using emulation software and hardware under UK law – and even threw in a cheeky topical reference to Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One ahead of the release of its film adaptation. I’m also grateful to The Internet Archive’s software curator Jason Scott for taking the time to discuss the Archive’s vast trove of software and in-browser emulation functionality.
Meltdown and Spectre, meanwhile, are a lot less fun. The names given to a quartet of security vulnerabilities hard-baked in to the vast majority of processors built since the 1990s, Meltdown and Spectre are unarguably the worst things to happen to the computer industry since the death of the Commodore Amiga. My three-page look discusses the vulnerabilities, how they can be exploited to gain access to supposedly-protected information, and what companies are doing to fix the problems – and, spoiler, the conclusion there is “not nearly enough.” Since the piece was written, though, there’s one thing to note: installation of the KB4056892 patch for Windows 10 includes faulty microcode protection from Intel which can cause systems to reboot spontaneously, which is resolved through the installation of KB4078130 at the cost of disabling protections against one of the two Spectre vulnerabilities.
Finally, Hobby Tech itself opens with a look at the clever but fragile Opendime from cryptocurrency start-up Coinkite. Designed to turn Bitcoin into a digital bearer bond, an Opendime creates a private key which is stored in a secure enclave accessible only by irrevocably modifying the device by popping off a small surface-mount resistor. So long as the resistor is intact, the theory goes, nobody has access to the private key – meaning you can accept the device as payment without risk. Sadly, since my fairly glowing review was written two things have changed: the Opendime I’ve been carrying around on my keyring has unsealed itself without any visible damage to the resistor or the heatshrink which protects it, an issue Coinkite’s founder and support team have singularly failed to address, and the high transaction fees on the Bitcoin network have dropped from around £20 to around 20p meaning one of the major benefits of using a £15 USB device for in-person transactions has been lost.
The iFixit Pro Tech Toolkit, by contrast, is a significantly happier story. I’ve long been a fan of iFixit’s teardowns and the software they developed for presenting the information, so a toolkit with the iFixit seal of approval was high on my want list. Having now received one, I can confirm it’s no disappointment: from the high-quality tools, all bundled with the express intention of making it as easy as possible to dismantle modern electronics, to the smart multi-function storage case, the entire bundle is pleasingly robust.
Finally, Commodore: The Amiga Years. The follow-up to author Brian Bagnall’s Commodore: A Company on the Edge, The Amiga Years was officially cancelled years ago before being resurrected through a crowdfunding campaign. Since the closure of the campaign, however, the project was beset by delays and a last-minute editing decision that sees the final third of the story, taking Commodore to its sad demise, spun out into yet another book – a move backers criticising the decision have positioned as a blatant attempt at extracting more money. As with A Company on the Edge, though, the story told in The Amiga Years is one well worth the entry price – if suffering a little from Bagnall’s wandering editorial process, whereby topics raised as though you should already know them in Chapter 2 won’t be formally introduced until Chapter 5.
All this, and slightly less stuff by people who aren’t me, can be found at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.
Another month, another cover feature for the official Raspberry Pi magazine The MagPi. This time around, I take a look at Microsoft’s generous offer of a free copy of Windows 10 IoT Core for all Raspberry Pi 2 owners, and what it could mean for the Raspberry Pi community – and if that wasn’t enough, I take some time to review the 4tronixAgobo robot kit as well.
The cover feature is a two-part affair: the first section, which looks at exactly what Windows 10 IoT Core actually is – which is vastly different from the impression given by the mainstream press that Microsoft was giving away a full desktop-class operating system – as well as how it can be used is my work; a following section looking at a selection of projects which are already powered by the Raspberry Pi 2 and Windows 10 was written by editor Russell Barnes.
As well as helping to clarify exactly what Windows 10 IoT Core is and can do, my section of the feature includes a guide to getting started with the software – which is not as easy to obtain as, for example, Raspbian, requiring registration with Microsoft and to search on a surprisingly user-unfriendly section of the company’s website before agreeing to a pair of end-user licence agreements – and an analysis of B15, the HoloLens- and Raspberry Pi-powered robot Microsoft showed off at its Build event earlier this year.
The review, meanwhile, involved building an Agobo robot kit supplied by the lovely 4tronix. Simpler than the Pi2Go-Lite I reviewed for Custom PC Issue 135, the Agobo is designed exclusively for the Raspberry Pi Model A+ and as a result is compact and lightweight. It’s also great fun, and a kit I’d heartily recommend to anyone wanting a simple and straightforward Pi-powered robot kit.
All this, plus plenty of projects, reviews and features written by people other than myself, is available to download for free as a DRM-free and Creative Commons-licensed PDF from the official website.
This month marks a return to Dennis Publishing’s excellent PC Pro with a piece commissioned by editor Tim Danton: The Rise of the Makers.
Designed as both an introduction for anyone unfamiliar with the maker movement and a guide for those who want to get more involved, the piece starts with a history of Sheffield-based gadget maker Pimoroni. Paul Beech and Jon Williamson kindly gave up their time to chat to me about the founding of their company and how the maker movement helped them get started, and it hopefully makes for a fascinating insight into how big an impact the movement can make to individual lives.
Pimoroni’s origin story is followed by a guide to hackspaces, with many thanks to Nottinghack co-founder Dominic Morrow who provided both a history of the hackspace he helped to set up along with a list of tips for anyone wanting to follow in his footsteps. John Cole and Taryn Sullivan, of US hobbyist robotics specialist Dexter Industries, also provided invaluable insight of the culture over the pond, while Winchester House School’s Chris Leach described his TinkerShed project to found a hackspace on school grounds.
The following pages look at the hardware you can use at your average hackspace, and how it helped people like Paul and Jon bootstrap their company in a way that wouldn’t have been possible just a few years ago, and a description of some of the big-name projects that have been born of the maker movement: Arduino, the BrickPi, and Pimoroni’s Pibow, as well as events including the Maker Faire franchise. My good friend Bob Stone also features, having worked with York Hackspace on the fascinating Spacehack project.
The piece finishes on a guide to getting involved, including these words of wisdom from Pimoroni’s Paul:
Start doing something. If you haven’t got a hackspace, set it up. Hackspaces are not about laser cutters and 3D printers. They’re a nice fringe benefit, they’re a useful tool. Hackspaces are about people and space. Start finding like-minded people, start talking to them, and that’s a community. You don’t create a community, you just start doing stuff and it grows.
PC Pro Issue 248 is available on shelves of all major supermarkets, most decent newsagents, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.
Oh, and there’s a glitch in the colophon at the front of the magazine: my name has an arrow pointing to advice about a wine-related smartphone app, whereas my actual tip is the one above regarding using the excellent Fake Name Generator to avoid spam from captive-portal Wi-Fi hotspots.
While, as my feature for the magazine points out, the Raspberry Pi itself needs to age a few more decades before it will be of direct interest to computer conservationists, the story of its rise from nowhere to become the dominant force in hobbyist-targeted single-board computers is a fascinating one – and, interestingly, mirrors similar growth experienced by Chris Curry and Hermann Hauser’s Acorn Computers in the 1980s in more ways than one.
Taking in the history of the project from its origins as a microcontroller-based development system built on Veroboard through to the launch of the quad-core Raspberry Pi 2, my feature builds on my early experience with the project – having met co-founder Eben Upton during an event at Bletchley Park, where he showed off an early prototype – and interviews I have performed in the intervening years.
The latest issue of Resurrection is sent out to members automatically, or can be viewed online in any web browser.
The MagPi magazine, created by the Raspberry Pi community, has undergone a major relaunch. Now an official product of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, it enjoys a significantly larger budget under the leadership of editor Russell Barnes – with whom I have previously worked on Linux User & Developer – and the result is impressive: both quantity and quality of content has improved, but is still licensed under Creative Commons for free download and non-commercial reuse. When Russell asked me if I wanted to be involved with the relaunch, I naturally agreed and the cover story of this issue is the result.
Russell wanted a feature which highlighted the Raspberry Pi-related crowd-funding campaigns of the past and present, showing the community what they had achieved as a group. After some brainstorming, we decided on a mixed feature format which would combine coverage of the most fiscally successful crowd-funding campaigns, interview extracts with their creators, as well as advice from those who have been there and done that on how others can achieve similar success for their own crowd-funding campaigns.
Naturally, there had to be some balance to the piece, and that took the form of a section detailing a high-profile failure. I was able to talk to the company behind Ziphius – an aquatic drone powered by the Raspberry Pi, long overdue and with backers clamouring for refunds – and find out the problems it had encountered, including the exclusive admission of financial problems it had been withholding from its backers.
While the cover story is the largest of my contributions this month, I have also penned two reviews for this latest issue: a review of the Displayotron-3000 add-on board from Sheffield-based Pimoroni, and the Weaved port-forwarding software designed to make it easier to build internet-accessible services on a Raspberry Pi located behind a locked-down router or firewall.
If you’re interested and would like to read any of the above, you can download the entire magazine as a DRM-free PDF from the official website.
This month’s Linux User & Developer sees the return of my regular Top Ten Distros feature, but this time in a subtly modified format that should hopefully freshen it up while still providing the handy glimpse into the world of Linux that readers have come to expect.
As usual, I take a look at ten of the best Linux distributions – but this time around I categorise them. No longer is the feature simply a run-down of the most popular distributions, but instead a look at the best distributions in ten given fields ranging from general-purpose computing to penetration testing and reviving outmoded hardware.
My methodology, of course, remains the same. Each distribution was downloaded, installed and tested into a virtual environment – save for those targeting embedded platforms, a new category this year, which were run on native hardware. Customised screenshots are also included for easy at-a-glance comparisons.
Each category not only highlights the best of the best, but also a selection of runner-ups that may provide something missing from the most popular option. For those looking for a change, it’s a feature worth checking out for clues as to what other distributions may be worth trying for a given workload.
In addition to the eight-page cover feature, this issue also includes my regular four-page news spread covering the latest happenings in Linux, open source, open hardware and open governance.
If you fancy having a read, Linux User & Developer Issue 130 is available from all good newsagents and supermarkets now, or digitally via Zinio and other platforms, with more details available on the official website.
This month’s PC Pro magazine includes another one of my freelance features, this time looking at the open-source Arduino microcontroller platform. While the front-cover splash billing it as a “Raspberry Pi rival” is inaccurate – not my call – the feature itself is packed with detail on the Atmel-based marvel.
Starting with a look at the history of Arduino, the feature walks the reader through why it was created, what its intentions are, how it compares to something like the Raspberry Pi – essentially explaining the difference between a microcontroller and a microcomputer – and how it can be used to create physical computing projects with ease.
Because of PC Pro’s laudable desire to ensure that readers can walk away from an In Depth feature with something concrete, it also includes a tutorial on using the latest ATmega-based Arduino Leonardo to build a macro keypad that can type email signatures, passwords, locate the user in a multi-player role-playing game or even lock the desktop with the press of a single button. Well, a separate single button for each feature, obviously, otherwise things would get confusing.
As usual, I am indebted to the wonderful chaps at Oomlout for providing the hardware for the feature, and to the creators of Arduino itself for making a development platform so simple even I can use the dang thing.
If you’re curious as to how the keypad works, source code for the project is available on my GitHub repository – but I’d still recommend picking up a copy of the magazine for wiring instructions and a jolly good lesson on the history of the Arduino project.
PC Pro Issue 224 is in newsagents, supermarkets and similar establishments now, or can be accessed digitally via Zinio or other platforms.
Continuing my features work for Dennis Publishing’s PC Pro magazine, the April 2013 issue sees the publication of The World’s Fastest Computers. A research-heavy look at supercomputers and the high-performance computing (HPC) industry in general, it’s a piece of which I’m particularly proud.
Before getting into the nitty-gritty of the piece, however, I’d like that thank a few people without whom the feature could never have happened: Professor Simon Cox, of the University of Southampton, was a particularly excellent source, speaking to me candidly and at length regarding the realities of running a supercomputing facility and his hopes for the future, and even posing for some photographs to liven up the piece; Nvidia’s Ian Buck, GPU computing general manager and creator of the Compute Unified Device Architecture (CUDA) language, brought years of highly-parallel thinking to the mix, as did Nvidia’s Tesla boss Sumit Gupta; Intel’s Stephan Gillich, director of high-performance computing for the EMEA region, provided a CPU- rather than GPU-led perspective; and finally the Science and Technology Facilities Council was kind enough to provide copyright clearance on several of its historical supercomputing images – including a great shot of a denuded Cray being dismantled at the end of its service, which sadly had to be cut from the piece for space reasons.
The piece is split into three clear sections: a brief history of supercomputing, from the days of the Control Data Corporation 6600 – Seymour Cray’s first HPC design, and the very first system to be described as a supercomputer – to the modern day, followed by a look at what HPC means for education and the industry. The final part, meanwhile, is a look at the future – which, you’ll be amazed to hear, looks very different depending on whether you’re talking to Intel or Nvidia.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the piece, for me, is the performance comparison: using data provided by Professor Simon Cox and a great deal of research, I was able to piece together a rough approximation of a performance timeline. Starting with the Ferranti Pegasus in 1956 and working through thirteen other machines – all of which have, at one time or another, been installed at the University of Southampton – I compiled operations-per-second statistics for each. This, more than anything else, demonstrates the runaway nature of high-performance computing: using a linear graph, all but the last two machines – both versions of the University’s current Iridis supercomputer – drew a flat line.
While there’s plenty of information that didn’t make it into the final piece – I compiled nearly 30,000 words of interview material in all – it’s by far one of the most comprehensive I’ve written, and one of which I think I can be justifiably proud.
If any of that tickles your fancy, PC Pro Issue 222 is available in newsagents, supermarkets and doctors’ waiting rooms throughout the country, or digitally via Zinio or Apple Newsstand.
It’s been a while since I’ve done a cover feature for Micro Mart – the last was back in Issue 1198, when I looked at the state of the printer ink refill market – and I had a little something that had been brewing in my noggin for a while, so I figured it was time for a pitch. The result: a cover feature dubbed The Secret Processor Revolution.
With an eye-catching title like that – editor Simon Brew’s suggestion, and much more likely to interest readers than my original title of The Fall and Rise of ARM – it should help shift a few copies, and those who do pick it up will find my take on the history, present and future of ARM.
For those who don’t know, Cambridge-based ARM was born from the ashes of Acorn Computers, and although it’s been a while since it was last seen on the desktop – you have to go back to the days of the RISC PC for that – the company holds a near-monopoly in the smartphone and tablet market. It’s also looking at taking on semiconductor giant Intel in the datacentre, and could well return to desks around the world – it’s already in Samsung’s latest Chromebook laptop, after all.
In this feature, I take a look at how ARM got its start, why its processors differ so much from the mainstream chips from AMD and Intel, and what the winds of change could bring for consumers. Wondering exactly what that might be? Better buy it, then, hadn’t you?
It was a fun piece to write, and a subject dear to my heart: I still own an Acorn Archimedes, and the RISC PC that followed, and have recently been playing around with a port of RISC OS designed for the Raspberry Pi – that £30 microcomputer based on an ARM processor from a company that once held the British microcomputing market in the palm of its hand.
Micro Mart is available in exchange for a shiny £2 coin – or equivalent in legal tender or acceptable credit – in most newsagents, or can be downloaded from Zinio and other retailers of digital magazines.
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