My first Raspberry Pi

I bought a Raspberry Pi this week after ruminating about it for literally years. I finally decided there are a few projects I’d like to attempt that will require the Pi (some of them can be accomplished with an Arduino, but I am more comfortable with a complete single-board computer rather than a controller).

First I bought Eben Upton’s book and read halfway through it and decided it didn’t look too bad, and of course it sure doesn’t cost very much (more on that later). Then I pulled the trigger on a CanaKit starter kit with Pi, case and power supply.

Raspberry Pi 3 B+ installed and running

For years I have wanted my own Unix/Linux system to play with. I have long been fascinated by Unix, and sometimes regret not having got more involved with it back in the 1980s when I first joined the technology industry. But between 1985 and 1994 my employers operated in the DOS/Windows/IPX markets exclusively. I did have a few opportunities to dabble in Unix over the years.

Keep in mind that until Linux came along in the mid 1990s there was really no way economically to use Unix except through a shell account on a shared server (like my old netcom.com account). Unix ran on expensive multiuser minicomputers and workstations, and you were unlikely set up one of these in your spare room.

In early 1985 I briefly worked for Touchstone, a company that produced Unix software, and we had a couple systems in the office for development and testing: a Fortune Systems 32:16 and I believe a machine from Altos Computer Systems, both running Xenix. My access to these machines was fairly restricted. The company also had some kind of relationship with AT&T, which at that time owned Unix, and one day a complete AT&T 3B2 workstation with Unix System V appeared on a desk in the middle of the office. The 3B2 was a very expensive platform as I recall, and I believe this was some kind of freebie for potential development partners. However, no one from the development side of the company had anything to do with the machine as long as I was there, it just sat on an otherwise empty desk in the middle of the marketing department. When I had spare moments, I would sit at it and fool around with Unix System V (this was the first of these mysterious unassigned office machines that I encountered in my career; the second was big Mac workstation sitting in the middle of the Cisco UK office in 1994 that had Mosaic installed, which was the first time I ever saw the World Wide Web).

Once I left Touchstone, however, I remained firmly in the world of DOS, Windows, Netware and IPX/SPX until I joined Cisco a decade later. I first started fooling around with TCP/IP stacks for Ethernet adapters around 1989, but it was still on MS-DOS PCs.

By the early 1990s I was working for Newport Systems, and while we had nothing to do with Unix at that company, one of my colleagues loaned me a copy of The Cuckoo’s Egg by Clifford Stoll, in which he goes into some detail of his work with Unix, which again ignited my interest in the operating system.

A few years later, at Cisco, I was tasked with working on the development of a number of network-related software projects, and found myself researching many RFC-based network utilities and protocols, all of which were heavily connected to Unix and used many Unix standards and techniques, such as plain text configuration files (which were very attractive to anyone who had to suffer with the Windows registry). The Cisco campus on Tasman Drive was festooned with Sun workstations, many of which seemed to orphaned or abandoned like that AT&T 3B2 at Touchstone, and again when I had time I’d find myself noodling around with Solaris, Sun’s version of Unix.

But all this noodling doesn’t really get you anywhere.

In the late 1990s Red Hat popularized Linux distributions that could be installed quickly and easily on basic PCs, and I recall buying a surplus PC from my employer and even installing Red Hat on it on my kitchen table, but I don’t remember doing anything with it after that; I think I moved to San Francisco soon after and never had a chance to play with my Red Hat machine. Then for a while I used a shell account, I think with best.com, for e-mail and Usenet, but that was all.

During the 2000s I would occasionally find myself with an obsolete laptop and I often intended to install Debian or Ubuntu on one, but I just never did it. By then I was no longer involved in technology except as a hobby, and not much of a hobby at that.

With the Raspberry Pi I intend to tackle a number of objectives. First, there are a handful of small motion control and other projects I’d like to attempt for which the Raspberry PI and its component ecosystem would be a good fit. Next, I want to be come more proficient with Python. I’ve spent the last few years trying to learn Python in an admittedly desultory way; I buy a book and work through some of the exercises before I put the book away fro a few months or years. With the Pi I’ll be obliged to employ Python for any of the projects, and for me that’s the best way to learn any new skill: by actually using it to make something I need or want.

Finally, because it’s a Linux machine, I really hope I can finally become familiar with this environment. That’s just gravy, because I was considering the Raspberry Pi for project-related work before I learned it ran Linux natively.

I’m really very impressed with this little computer. Once you use the mouse, keyboard and monitor to set up the Pi and connect it to your WiFi network, you don’t need them anymore; you can connect to the Pi with SSH or VNC. I’ve trained my Pi to connect to both my home and office WiFi networks, so now I can access it at work or at home simply by slipping it into my shirt pocket and taking it with me (I’ll get dedicated power supplies for each location so I don’t have to carry one around).

Headless Pi

Naturally, I’ll want additional units for the various projects I have in mind, but at about $55 a pop for the Pi, case and microSDHC card, it’s cheap and easy to get as many as you need.

After the storm

Well, a week after the storm, on St Patrick’s Day, we went snowshoeing for a few hours from the Mt Rose Campground to Tahoe Meadows and back, a bit less than three miles all told.

Ingrid breaking trail.

The original idea was a winter summit attempt on Mt Rose herself, but we got discouraged at the beginning by no clear boot track from the parking lot and anyway we still weren’t that familiar with the snowshoes. So instead we walked across the highway and went for a stroll through the Mt Rose Campground and then down to Tahoe Meadows, where we enjoyed a mid-morning snack.

It’s been warm the last few days, so the snow was a bit crusty on top, which made the snowshoeing a little less pleasant and a lot louder! But despite the crusty surface, it was still soft and deep just below and the snowshoes were necessary pretty much as soon as we got off the clear pavement.

I definitely intend to get up Mt Rose this winter, or at least before the snow is gone. It might be easier to navigate up the Relay Ridge Road. Another idea we have is to make it an overnight, since we move much more slowly over deep snow, and that’s the only kind of snow we have up here.

Me on snowshoes

Bella was injured a year ago walking in deep snow, and so we left her behind for this hike. She would not have enjoyed it after the first few minutes. We felt very bad leaving her behind, and that was one reason we cut the hike short and headed back before noon.

Moar pics here.

One of the highlights of the day occurred as we were driving home down Mt Rose Highway. Between Edmonton Drive and Bargary Way we saw no fewer than 20 mule deer bounding along in people’s backyards a few feet from the highway. It was remarkable, I’d never seen so many deer at once. We pulled off the highway to watch them for a few minutes after they stopped running and simply milled around in the sage.

Kid Red in the Far East

Back in the early 2000s I maintained a vanity website called Urban Redneck. One of the sections on that site detailed the career of my grandfather in the US Navy’s Asiatic Fleet in the 1920s, based on a collection of old photographs I had and some on-line research. That old website of static pages disappeared from the Internet some ten or more years ago, though of course I still have the HTML files stored locally.

Recently I was contacted by a cousin in Australia. I didn’t know I had any cousins in Australia, but I do indeed and one of them has been collecting genealogical information on our family for 25 years. He wanted to know if I had any detailed information about my father’s family. I don’t, really. The best I could really offer him was my old account from 2001 of my grandfather’s activities in China and the Philippines in the 1920s. So I uploaded the files to this server and sent him a link. You can read about my grandfather here:

Kid Red in the Far East.

The images are small because that’s how we rolled on-line back in the double-aughts. When I get a chance, I’d like to re-scan the photos and re-post the story of Kid Red in the WordPress database. Until them, you can enjoy my little blast from the past (that is, the 1920s Asiatic Fleet and the early 2000s internet).

Amazing moonset

Sorry I didn’t get a photo. Maybe next time.

Today dawned cloudless, with snow thickly covering the surrounding mountains and hills. It was a full moon last night, and as I commuted into work (driving mostly into the west) I watched it slide behind the Sierra Nevada.

It was quite a sight. By chance, the moon, which was huge this morning, slipped behind the ridge just as the latter caught the first rays of the sun streaming over the Virginia Range. I was a glorious sight and would have made a spectacular photograph from the top of my street.

So for future reference, here are some of the conditions necessary to witness (and record) this wonderful phenomenon again:

Sunrise today was at 6:47am, while the moonset was at 7:03am. Obviously, the moon sets behind a different part of the mountains throughout the year, and the snow and cloudless sky certainly helped in the effect. And the full moon. Tomorrow the sunrise and moonset should correspond similarly to this morning, but it’s supposed to be stormy. We probably won’t even see the moon.

Ghost guns

Back in 2015 I started working on a project for producing a kit for home builders to make their own AR-15 lower receivers. I called the idea Silver, and it was really going to be a sort of hobby thing for me, separate from my day job. Life got in the way and I never did anything with it, until this week when I sent out to have glass filled nylon SLAs (3D printed models) of the parts made. I’ll have more on that project in a few days after I receive and assemble the parts.

Since I started working on Silver, home-made firearms have been very much in the news, not because they are causing a lot of problems, but because a lot of politicians want something to talk about besides the difficult problems they were elected to solve, because solving difficult problems is hard. So they have a new word for home-made firearms: they call them “Ghost Guns.” Get it? No, I don’t either. But politicians like to put out a lot of press releases and hold press conferences about “Ghost Guns,” and the press, generally not being very thoughtful or intelligent, well, they just east this stuff up. Ghost Guns!

Americans, probably uniquely, are legally permitted to manufacture firearms at home, and there are a hell of a lot of Americans doing it. They mostly do it for fun, as a hobby, in the same way that home woodworkers will build furniture that they could easily purchase at a fine furniture store. That’s kind of an American thing, actually, always has been.

There are several different categories of home build. First you have the scratch builds, basically shade-tree engineers coming up with new and novel firearms designs and making them from materials you might find at the scrap yard. These aren’t as common as the other sorts of builds, because working out new firearms designs is hard (not as hard as solving complicated social problems, but still harder than a lot of other things you can do with your time). It takes a special creative and mechanical talent to successfully scratch build firearms (and, let’s face it, a degree of bravery, or maybe foolhardiness). Also, if your firearms design is too novel, it can run afoul of state laws prohibiting “zip guns.”

Next you have the kit builders. This is a much bigger hobby in the US, and is a direct result of the 1968 Gun Control Act and later clarifications by the ATF that prohibited the importation of “non-sporting” firearms into the US. Now, military designs of all types have always been of keen interest to American firearms enthusiasts, but the “non-sporting” clause basically cut off the supply of many foreign military surplus platforms. So instead a new industry emerged where importers would buy up lots of surplus rifles from various governments; “demil” them by literally chopping them up with a saw or acetylene torch; then import them into the US for sale to hobbyists as parts kits. After that it was up to the hobbyist to make a new receiver (usually out of steel) and put the parts back together.

Then there is the so-called “80%” market. This came about because of the modularity of the AR-15 pattern rifle (which I will get into below), and the opportunity for non-FFL manufacturers to produce “80% complete” AR-15 lower receivers that the hobbyists could finish making at home with a drill press and/or a router. The 80% business has spread to many other platforms, including some handgun designs.

Finally, there is the vast universe of the homemade AR-15 lower receiver itself. As I mentioned, the AR-15 pattern rifle is extremely modular, with all its components available from any of hundreds of manufacturers and suppliers, and all these parts can be fitted together more or less like LEGO to build rifles. All the parts except the receiver, including the bolt assemblies and barrels, can be purchased without paperwork by anyone, from anywhere, at least within the US (ITAR regulates and restricts the international commerce of gun parts). So anyone with a credit card can buy everything he needs to build an operational AR-15 rifle without leaving his couch, except the receiver, which has a serial number and which (when buying a new one) requires a background check and a Form 4473.

So lots of guys like to come up with new ways to make an AR-15 lower receiver, because once you have the receiver you can get the rest from Brownells or MidwayUSA.

I have long kept a modest supply of AR-15 lower receivers (or “lowers”) on hand so that in case I want to build a rifle project I don’t have to start by visiting a gun store and buying a lower receiver, with all the necessary paperwork; I just grab one out of this bin:

Image

These have all been purchased over the years from gun stores, with the background checks and Form 4473s, etc.

Over the last couple years my cache of lowers has been depleted by projects, including rifles I built for two of my employees. A local gun store had a sale where they were selling Anderson lowers for $39 each (regular price $60). I bought four $39 lower receivers, and brought my supply back up to 12 proper AR-15 lowers (plus two clear plastic lowers I might someday build into .22 rifles; a weird skeleton lower I’ll probably end up selling; and a pair of lowers that don’t accept magazines that I bought during the California AR-15 interregnum of 2000-2005 and which are now museum pieces).

Anyway, the AR-15 lower receiver design is essentially in the public domain, and the dimensions, including 3D CAD files, freely available online. So there are a lot of hobbyists making lowers from lots of different materials, just because. I have seen lowers produced at home using the following techniques:

Finally, there is my own Silver design, using aluminum extrusions.

As you can see from the photos and videos at the links above, most of these home-built AR-15s are really rather ugly. The steel and wooden ones especially are a lot of work to produce. People aren’t making these just because they need or want an AR-15 rifle; they are doing it for the fun and the challenge.

Despite the rantings of grandstanding politicians, these “Ghost Guns” are rarely being produced for nefarious purposes. There have indeed been occasions when prohibited felons made their own firearms and used them in crimes. But generally if you are a prohibited person and aren’t worried about following the law anyway, you will probably procure a firearm either by stealing one; buying a stolen gun on the back market; or buying a legitimate gun in a face-to-face unpapered transaction in any of the 40-45 out of 50 American states where this is legal and common (the dreaded “First Amendment Loophole”). You aren’t going to go through all the hassle of making a “Ghost Gun” out of aluminum or plastic; that is strictly for hobbyists and enthusiasts.

Early trade

The Carthaginians tell us that they trade with a race of men who live in a part of Libya beyond the Pillars of Herakles. On reaching this country, they unload their goods, arrange them tidily along the beach, and then, returning to their boats, raise a smoke. Seeing the smoke, the natives come down to the beach, place on the ground a certain quantity of gold in exchange for the goods, and go off again to a distance. The Carthaginians then come ashore and take a look at the gold; and if they think it presents a fair price for their wares, they collect it and go away; if, on the other hand, it seems too little, they go back aboard and wait, and the natives come and add to the gold until they are satisfied. There is perfect honesty on both sides; the Carthaginians never touch the gold until it equals in value what they have offered for sale, and the natives never touch the goods until the gold has been taken away.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus

I will never run out of project names

Every time I start a new project, either personal or for work, I first give it a project name. I started doing this about seven or eight years ago and it has contributed immensely to my personal and professional organization. It’s like using paper files. I mentioned this practice to my IP attorney, and he heartily approved, I think for reasons of operational security, but mostly its a mechanism to help me keep track of . . . projects. It’s also very useful when working with others, such as other employees at work or engineering contractors, because there’s no ambiguity when referring to a project name as there might be when using a mere project description.

Project names are assigned randomly. I use an Excel spreadsheet (natch) which includes a hidden column of unused project names. When I add text to the next cell in the description column, a new project name automatically appears. Since the unused project name column is hidden, the new project name is a surprise. Makes the whole thing a little more fun.

The challenge, of course, is coming up with that list of project names to begin with. The set of names I work from has to be a large one, because I literally write down every idea I have and give it a project name, even if there is little chance I will ever do anything with it. My project list is a convenient way for me to record — and organize — my thoughts and ideas.

When I was at Cisco, projects had themes: for example, development projects related to a particular router device might be snakes (“Rattler,” “Asp,” “Cobra,” etc), or perhaps national parks (“Yellowstone,” “Yosemite,” “Denali”). When I started using project names for my work, I took the Sierra Club Hundred Peaks list of mountains and rocks and randomized them (“Amethyst,” ” Chuckwalla,” “Galena,” “Bear,” “Butler,” etc).

But eventually I started running out of names, so I cast about for other lists, other sets. So I used names of all the counties in California; all the counties in Nevada; names of seas; counties in Ireland; names of constellations (which get a little hairy). Finally, I found a list of all the Nobel Prize for Literature laureates and added those. I have plenty of names for now.

But you can never have too many potential project names. I have a list of 164 UN member names (“Panama,” “Kazakhstan,” “Iran,” “Namibia,” “Peru”); 44 American states (“Wisconsin,” “Indiana,” “Alabama,” “Pennsylvania,” “Texas”); 567 auto marques of nine characters or less (“Transinco,” “Frontenac,” “Moskvitch,” “Lambretta,” “Voglietta”); 81 US National Parks (“Gates,” “Hagerman,” “Jewel,” “Hanford,” “Vermilion”); 511 Christian saints (all denominations) (“Anthony,” “Venantius,” “Ursmar,” “Wulfram,” “Severinus”); and 112 Old Testament angels and prophets (“Jeremiah,” “Daniel ,” “Kushiel ,” “Ariel,” “Puriel”). If the numbers don’t seem to match (44 American states?) it’s because I edit each list to eliminate two-word names, etc.

The trickiest part is eliminating duplicates from new name sets. I can do this using the Excel VLOOKUP() function. The lists themselves are randomized, by putting the RAND() function in a column adjacent to the names and sorting on that column (you will get a different sort order every time).

Hiking the Virginia Range in winter

Reno in the background

Saturday night we got about as much snow as I’ve seen fall overnight since I moved here. That night I told Ingrid I wanted to do a snow hike the next morning, no matter the weather (it was expected to continue snowing into the morning). There was a misunderstanding. She thought I meant drive up to the Mt Rose Summit at 8,900 feet on Mt Rose Highway to hike the Tahoe Rim Trail, and so she started packing snowshoes, etc. But that wasn’t what I meant. The Mt Rose Highway was almost certainly closed Sunday morning, and it would have taken over an hour to get to the parking lot. No, I intended simply to walk to the top of our street and hike into the Virginia Range behind our house. No need to get into the car at all.

The plan was to hike 2½ miles to the top of the ridge (1,500 feet elevation gain). Normally I do this as part of loop hike of five or seven miles, but there’s a very treacherous bit to that hike that I didn’t want to attempt in the winter, so I decided on an up-and-back hike instead.

The night before was pretty stormy, with lots of wind as well as snow. I always worry about the wild horses when it storms like that, because unlike rabbits and coyotes, they have nowhere to hide from the wind and cold. We encountered a group of mustangs soon after we started:

Snow horses

I noticed they all had snow on their backs, although it had stopped snowing at least an hour or two before. That means their shaggy fur coats actually provide pretty good insulation, so that made me feel a little better.

Eventually the sun came out, though it stayed cold, and we enjoyed a fantastic hike through virgin snow with amazing views of the city as well as Storey County to the east.

Steep climb through drifts
Reno in winter
Looking east from the top

It is such a blessing to have all this just a short walk from our house.

More pics here.

Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia has briefly appeared on my radar a handful of times in the last twenty years, though I admit I never before paid much attention to her. For some reason, I vaguely associated her with post-modernism and deconstructionism, which of course made me suspicious; while at the same time I have seen a few soundbites and blurbs by her that made me go, “Hmmm.” She was at UCI for a while when I lived in Costa Mesa.

The following video interview is from a few years ago, but it is the first time I’ve ever seen her talk, and the first time I have really gotten a feel for her opinions and attitudes. And I must say hers is certainly one of the most refreshing voices I have heard in many years. In fact, she is a passionate critic of deconstructionism and I wish I had given her more attention earlier.

Here, you should watch the video, it’s definitely worth an hour for any thoughtful American:

She is clearly more comfortable lecturing to a class than engaging with an interviewer (sometimes the best ideas are offered by the worst presenters), but I have to admit that after a short time I found myself getting impatient with the interruptions by Nick Gillespie (who is otherwise an excellent interviewer), and I wanted to hear her just go on with her thoughts for a while. He also kept trying to steer the interview in bizarre directions; I think a subject like Paglia should simply be primed with a few general questions and allowed to go off in whatever direction she wants. Of course, you could end up with a very long video if you did that.

I was shocked that she was repeating so many ideas I have embraced myself, some of them concepts I’ve never heard expressed anywhere else. For example, she is the only other person I have ever heard suggest that the growth in student loans in the last 35 years has led directly to the inflation in college tuition, through greater market liquidity; that’s something I’ve been saying for years (I’m not saying I’m the only person who ever came up with that idea, simply that I have never seen it repeated anywhere else, not that I’m an omnivorous consumer of economic and academic commentary). And she is one of the very few public figures I have seen who seems to have the same problems with Hillary Clinton that I have (that she pretends to be some kind of a progressive while enthusiastically carrying water for the elites who have been plundering this country for the last 30 years), and who addresses the fact that Clinton gets her principles, if you can call them that, from focus groups.

She seems to be an example of what I might call a “thoughtful leftist,” or at least a “thoughtful feminist;” people from the last century who were trying to nudge society in a more liberal and tolerant direction. But leftism and feminism got co-opted by ideological sheep who want to tear down 2,500 years of Western culture. As she says, by the 1970s, none of the smart ones ever bothered with graduate school, which is the root of the intellectual crisis we are seeing today (though her explanation that 1960s idealism was destroyed by drugs is a little too pat for me). The promise of the radicalism of the 1960s was stunted by the rise of mediocre intellects who increasingly focused not on the world, but on personal identity, resulting in an intolerant solipsistic worldview that is tearing modern society apart and making millions of people very, very confused and unhappy.

Some of her petty irritations have big ramifications, like the (claimed) extinction of college survey courses. I loved my survey courses. I always assumed survey courses were necessary so that engineers and microbiologists could still acquire an education with their degrees and certificates. Why would survey courses disappear? Who was behind that? The students or the faculty?

Another thing I got out of the video was the pronunciation of “hegemony” and “academe.” I’d never before heard those words spoken aloud.

I found myself wondering whether Paglia ever met Gore Vidal. I think they would have had a lot to talk about; but on the other hand they probably would have hated each other. Vidal was a patrician to the bone who knew and admired Hillary Clinton; while Paglia revels in her being one generation from Italian peasant farmers (and she loathes Clinton). I strongly suspect she enjoys beer. I would love to share a few beers with her.

Practice video

Came into the office early this morning to make a quick installation video for our new Truckeee forend for the Benelli M4 shotgun, all in one take.

We’ve been meaning to make some high quality installation videos for years now, but we are always allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good. We are reluctant to do anything until we have the sound and the lighting right, and we also want to set up a little studio. So nothing ever gets done.

But we are sending this prototype assembly to a guy in the Navy this week and I needed to make an installation video to show him how to install it. No time to make everything perfect. But as you can see, this is on a personal YouTube account of mine and is not ordinarily visible if you don’t have the URL. It’s too crappy and amateurish for our official channel.

More than a year ago we purchased a video editing workstation, lavaliere mic, headphones, Sony Movie Studio 13, etc (we already had a camera), and all this stuff has been sitting in a corner of the warehouse gathering dust. In fact, when I fired up the software this morning to edit the video I had to register the software for the first time.

As with so many things, making videos in-house is a matter of just doing it. I think we can nail the lighting and sound without too much of a problem, so we need to just start shooting stuff. Editing is easy (ironically, over ten years ago I started making innovative (for the time) hiking and shooting videos, but for whatever reason I stopped doing it. Each video was substantially better than the previous one). I’d like to think this first effort has maybe broken the dam, at least a little. It’s no big deal to grab the camera and shoot footage, let’s see what we can do with this.

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