Category Archives: Technology

Chrome as default browser in KDE Plasma: Getting it to stick

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Go ahead and chose “chromium” as the default browser in the “settings” application, and hit apply. That setting will likely stick, but Chrome will not be the default browser anyway. A bug in KDE Plasma prevents this, but you can drill down deeper into the configuration information and make it work: Continue reading Chrome as default browser in KDE Plasma: Getting it to stick


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A Guide To Using Command Line Tools

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There are a lot of books out there to help you learn command line tools, and of course, they mostly cover the same things because there is a fixed number of things you need to learn to get started down this interesting and powerful path.

Small, Sharp, Software Tools: Harness the Combinatoric Power of Command-Line Tools and Utilities by Brian P. Hogan is the latest iteration (not quite in press yet but any second now) of one such book.

I really like Hogan’s book. Here’s what you need to know about it.

First, and this will only matter to some but is important, the book does cover using CLI tools across platforms (Linux, Mac, Windows) in the sense that it helps get you set up to use the bash command line system on all three.

Second, this book is does a much better than average job as a tutorial, rather than just as a reference manual, than most other books I’ve seen. You can work from start to finish, with zero knowledge at the start, follow the examples (using the provided files that you are guided to download using command line tools!) and become proficient very comfortably and reasonably quickly. The topic are organized in such a way that you can probably skip chapters that interest you less (but don’t skip the first few).

Third, the book does give interesting esoteric details here and there, but the author seems not compelled to obsessively fill your brain with entirely useless knowledge such as how many arguments the POSIX standard hypothetically allows on a command line (is it 512 or 640? No one seems to remember) as some other books do.

I found Small, Sharp, Software Tools a very comfortable, straight forward, well organized, accurate read from Pragmatic.


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Writing Secure Shell Scripts

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If you write shell scrips, you should check out Dave Taylor’s latest article in Linux Journal.

He gives key examples of what can go wrong if you don’t pay attention to certain things.

For example, if you have a dot in (especially at the start of) your PATH variable, you risk running a Trojan horse that snuck sneakily into your /tmp directory. If you want the dot, put it last.

Anyway, a simple straight forward article with a few pieces of good advice: Writing Secure Shell Scripts


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Math Adventures with Python

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Complex numbers, working with oscillations (trigonometry), using Turtles to draw, some basic algebra, my favorite, Cellular Automata, and more, are covered in Math Adventures with Python: An Illustrated Guide to Exploring Math with Code by Peter Farrell. Farrell is a math and computer science teacher who is interested in math education and using technology in learning. Continue reading Math Adventures with Python


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Serious Python Programming

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Julien Danjou’s Serious Python: Black-Belt Advice on Deployment, Scalability, Testing, and More is serious.

This book takes Python programming well beyond casual programming, and beyond the use of Python as a glorified scripting language to access statistical or graphics tools, etc. This is level one or even level two material. If you are writing software to distribute to others, handling time zones, want to optimize code, or experiment with different programming paradigms (i.e. functional programming, generating code, etc.) then you will find Serious Python informative and interesting. Multi-threading, optimization, scaling, methods and decorators, and integration with relational databases are also covered. (A decorator is a function that “decorates,” or changes or expands, a function without motifying i.) The material is carefully and richly explored, and the writing is clear and concise. Continue reading Serious Python Programming


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Minecraft Blockopedia

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Minecraft is probably the most creative video game out there, not in the sense that its creators are creative, but rather, that it is all about creating things, and this is done by constructing novelty out of a relatively simple set of primitives. But to do so, the player needs to know about the building blocks of Minedraft, such as Lava, Fencing, Redstone, Levers, various chest and chest related things, and so on.

The Blockopedia in use.
Yes, you (or your child) can learn as you go playing the game, watch a few YouTube videos, etc. But if we want to fully enjoy and integrate the Minecraft experience, and help that child (or you?) get in some more reading time, there must be books. For example, the Minecraft: Blockopedia by Alex Wiltshire. Continue reading Minecraft Blockopedia


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Instead of Evernote, Try Raindrop

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I’m not going to try to talk you out of Evernote. If you use the venerable application productively, good for you. I used it for a long time and it was fine. But, recent changes in the application caused me to look elsewhere for the satisfaction I was seeking. And I found it. I found Raindrop.io. Continue reading Instead of Evernote, Try Raindrop


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Making Raspberry Pi Robots

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At the core of this post is a review of a new book, Learn Robotics with Raspberry Pi: Build and Code Your Own Moving, Sensing, Thinking Robots. I recommend it as a great above-basic level introduction to building a standard robot, learning a bit about the Linux operating system, learning to program in Python, and learning some basic electronics. However, I want to frame this review in a bit more context which I think will chase some readers away from this book while at the same time making others drool. But don’t drool on the electronics. Continue reading Making Raspberry Pi Robots


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Clean Energy: Good News Bad News

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First some good news:

Corporate clean energy buying surged to new record in 2018

Corporations purchased 13.4 gigawatts of clean power through long-term contracts, more than doubling 2017’s total, helped by demand from new industries and previously untrodden markets

Scenery conflict (I’ll just add, that solar panels replacing some nice vistas is better than post-apocalyptic landscapes replacing some nice vistas): Rhode Island town grapples with how to promote solar and protect rural views

Similarly, Massive Wisconsin solar proposal splits farmers and clean energy fans

And … Oregon adopts strict rules for solar panel farms on high-value farm soil

And for those who want to pay more but perhaps have something cool: RGS Energy Revives Dow’s Solar Roof, Claiming Better Efficiency and Lower Costs


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Practical Binary Analysis: Book Review

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A computer program is like a memo. Often, a vague memo.

You are the boss. You want a pile of files to be put away. You could do it yourself, but instead you instruct someone else to do it. There are a lot of them and they are all mixed up. So you write a memo to an employee that says “put the files away” and sis-bam-boom you’re all set.

Or are you? Continue reading Practical Binary Analysis: Book Review


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How to be a hacker

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Wikipedia tells us that a “computer hacker is any skilled computer expert that uses their technical knowledge to overcome a problem.” The all knowing one goes on to note that the term has been linked in popular parlance with the made up Wikipedia word “security hacker.” Such an individuals “uses bugs or exploits to break into computer systems.”

Continue reading How to be a hacker
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Winner of the Coolest STEM Toy Ever Award, 2018

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The winner, hands down, of the GLB Coolest STEM Toy Ever Award for 2018 is The LEGO BOOST Activity Book by Daniele Benedettelli, and published by No Starch Press. This is the book that makes last year’s coolest STEM toy ever, the LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox , come to life in a way that will truly advance a child’s learning and enjoyment of robotics.

In my household, we have certain carefully designed rules. The rules are invariant, but the implementation is collaborative and open. For example, Huxley must always be engaged in some sort of out-of-school and out-of-home learning activity. The most obvious way to do this is a class somewhere (which can, actually, be in school as an ECA). The decision of what that activity should be, however, is his. During part of the summer he typically chooses etiquette class or an art class. During the rest of the year, he takes a STEM class at our local Stem Builders Learning Center. Stem Builders does all sorts of things, like computer coding, cloud computing, robotics, etc. and Huxley mainly engages in engineering and robotics classes. Over the last two years I’ve observed what is taught in intro and mid level robotics, and how it is taught. I’ve also seen how two other programs that teach robotics, both in our school system, work. So I have a good idea of what a good robotics course looks like.

The robotic raw material used in most of these classes is LEGO based, similar to (but not the same as) the material provided with the recently invented and marketed LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox , which is basically a big fancy LEGO kit that is also a robot, and a few other things. The programming learning associated with these classes is absent, however, from that project. LEGO offers some additional computer programming information, but very limited, on its web site. Earlier in the year, I reviewed another No Starch Press book, The LEGO BOOST Idea Book: 95 Simple Robots and Hints for Making More! by Yoshihito Isogawa, which is a great book that allows you to take the LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox to the next level with a plethora of projects you can build using only parts that come in that kit. The objective of Isogawa’s book is to provide a diverse array of suggestions for robotic LEGO builds.

But again, the home version of STEM learning that combines the pragmatic goal of learning to build (and thus, in the future, fight, I assume) robots, and the other pragmatic goal of learning to program stuff, is not the goal of that book.

The LEGO BOOST Activity Book does fill this need. It is the book that should have come with the LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox. The toolbox does not have a programming manual, and there is nothing that comes with it, or that is available in parallel that I know of from LEGO, that hints at the power and potential of the programming interface.

The LEGO BOOST Activity Book starts out with instructions to build a basic robotic car called “Mario,” that looks enough like a Kart from Mario Kart to suggest a lawsuit. Mario is then used, again and again, in project after project, as the platform to explore dozens of robotic techniques, including diverse approaches to programming, the use of sensors, and various other moving parts.

That sequence, which takes up the majority of the book, looks a lot like a full semester class in robotics, spanning introductory to intermediate and early advanced techniques.

Following that there is a chapter on building BrickPecker, which is a robotic bird that sorts LEGO bricks by color. Unfortunately, it only sorts certain size and shape bricks and it will not rifle through your closet finding all the LEGO bricks and putting them in different containers.

Don’t believe the BrickPecker can be real? It has been captured of film:

After BrickPecker, there is a final chapter on CYBOT, a bipedal robot with the ability to talk, move its arms and fingers (all four of them on two hands), and fire a weapon. Once you’ve got the robot that can do those things, well, it is all over.

There is a massive section within the guts of the book that puts in one place the building techniques and principles needed to make things that do not fall apart easily, that move properly, and so on.

It is hard to believe there is so much stuff in this one book, but there is. One way that happens is the subtle but measurable increase in format for this volume compared to other coding and STEM books by this and other publishers.

This book came to me just in time to fill our holiday vacation. Huxley is going to return to his Stem Builder’s class in advanced mode in two weeks!

Even though the The LEGO BOOST Activity Book uses only bricks that are to be found in the LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox , there is a parts list Supp_LegoBoost_PartList in case you’d rather get the parts that way. However, this list does NOT contain the and seemingly unavailable as separate parts motor and brain elements in the LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox . This list will probably be of greatest use to identify and then order parts that went down the heating vent or up the vacuum cleaner tube, or if you want to get extra creative and expand on the ideas in The LEGO BOOST Activity Book.

Daniele Benedettelli is known worldwide for his original LEGO robots, including his Rubik’s Cube solvers and his humanoid robots. As a LEGO MINDSTORMS Community Partner (MCP), he helps to test and develop new MINDSTORMS products. He gives educational presentations and workshops on Information and Communications Technology around the world and teaches robotics at the high school level. Benedettelli holds a master’s degree in Robotics and Automation from the University of Siena in Italy.


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Scratch 3.0 is coming

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Scratch is a seminal object oriented programming language that has had a great deal of influence on other languages. It is an entry level system designed for kids and adults new to programming. If you have a kid doing any kind of robotics or STEM programming in elementary school, they are using a programming langauge that derives from Scratch.

It comes out of MIT, and is usually used on their server, using a web interface.

That web interface is closing at 7 AM on January 2nd. Later that afternoon, it will be back up, but with Scratch 3.0!

Here’s a video. Continue reading Scratch 3.0 is coming


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