Why, yes. This is, indeed, OWL running on the PocketCHIP.

Here’s the story.

I spent 12 days recently, travelling in the south of Brazil and Uruguay border. And I decided, as an experiment, to see if I could live without my laptop. I wasn’t meant to be working, but I always like to keep some kind of SDI / MTC style software on me to make notes and generally think about my insanely long queue of tasks and all my other half-baked ideas. I feel lost without having access to these. And would usually take a laptop, just to keep them near to me.

This time, though, I decided to see how well I could cope with a “device swarm” of very small (and cheapish) tech.

Here’s what I took :

  • The PocketCHIP
  • My Android phone
  • A small, portable USB mouse
  • The rubber-tipped stylus.
  • A 5V mini USB charger that plugs into the wall.
  • An A5 sized paper notebook and pen.

On my trip, I also acquired a small bluetooth keyboard / mousepad that’s actually just a capacitative touch surface with letters marked on it. This impressed me a lot when I bought it at a Duty Free shopping outlet just on the Uruguay side of the Yaguarón River in Rio Branco for under $8. It charges via USB and feels pleasantly heavy and solid, while still pretty small.

Here are some things I found out.

I should note, first, that I’m also pretty much against keeping things on public clouds and other people’s servers. I increasingly want my data to be private, on systems that I control, and mainly synced between my own machines rather than using, say, my hosting provider.

Although I’m far from a satisfactory solution to that, it turned out that the discipline was useful in the sense that I wasn’t as persistently connected to the internet as I’d hoped. And so if I had depended on the cloud I would have been without access to my data more often than I had it.

I also, of course, want to use my own software. I currently have three distinct trajectories of development in this area.

  • Mind Traffic Control, racket-version.
  • The new engine behind ThoughtStorms wiki which is written in Python and uses the light-weight Bottle web-framework. I use this for both ThoughtStorms and a second personal wiki-notebook which is descended from my old SdiDesk notebook.
  • OWL

All these projects are still alive. And my notes and todos (and some more significant chunks of writing) are somewhat haphazardly scattered between them. So I wanted to see how well I could take them on the road with me with such minimal hardware.

Before leaving I updated the Debian on the PocketCHIP and installed the relevant libraries / environments. I already had MTC-racket running on it. And Emacs. Python was there too, but I needed to pip install a couple of standard libraries. Then I could install both Project ThoughtStorms and the Python-served version of OWL. (Spoiler alert : 2017  is going to be a year of consolidation between all these projects, particularly I’m aiming to unify the Python-OWL and Project ThoughtStorms servers into a single code-base.)

I didn’t try installing the Android version of OWL on my mobile, because of … er … reasons … which currently prevent me having a working dev / deployment environment for Android on my laptop. I hoped, though, that I’d be able to access the OWL server on the PocketCHIP from the phone.

Results

The PocketCHIP is a wonderful machine. (And, seriously, a Debian box for $9 just insanely amazing.) It seemed to cope just fine with simultaneously running three Python servers (2 copies of the Project ThoughtStorms wiki, and the OWL server) + MTC. (I just ran unix “screen” on the terminal and ran each in a separate screen.)

Obviously these were not being heavily accessed. (I was the only user). But I’m still impressed.

The weakness of the CHIP is its WiFi. It is very weak. My original thought was to run the servers on the CHIP and then access them from either my phone, or other computers in the places I was staying. But even where WiFi was available, the CHIP typically failed to establish a usable connection with the router.

The only time I could get anything else talking to the CHIP was by turning the phone into a hotspot and then placing that within 10 to 20 centimetres of the PocketCHIP.

This way I was able to access both wikis and OWL from the phone. I didn’t get to remotely ssh-ing into the CHIP to see MTC in a terminal from the phone, but this would have been a particular fiddle and it’s not clear that it would have been worth it. In fact, nothing worked particularly well. OWL’s web-interface is pretty much impossible to work with on a small phone screen. It’s OK on a 7″ tablet, but the phone is way smaller and too difficult to manipulate. And the HTML UI doesn’t zoom in any effective way.

Reading the wiki pages was slightly better. I was surprised, though, how badly the phone handled the fairly simple, static html. I accept that there’s very little fancy “responsiveness” in the TS wiki at the moment. I hadn’t realized how little Chrome would help. On my laptop, ctrl + and ctrl – work beautifully to scale text up and down, reflowing and refitting the text. I have no hard settings for font-size or spacing. The page ought to be easy to automatically resize to convenience.

But pinch zooming a TS page on Android Chrome is diabolical. Not only does it not scale and reflow the text in a useful way. It also seems to remember (or guess) arbitrary different zoom levels for different pages, so you jump from a readable page to another page with illegibly tiny letters to another with enormous text, most of which is off screen. And zooming the menu seems to be independent of zooming the main page text. The whole thing is horrible.

Firefox on the phone is a bit better. You can go into “accessibility” and turn up the text size to full. And then the defaults are reasonably readable and consistent on all pages.

Editing is trickier. And this is somewhat my fault, I have set a fixed number of columns in the text-box in TS wiki which is too large for a phone with either browser.

Overall, I’m disappointed with the phone experience. TS wiki is just about readable on Firefox. But it’s useless for doing any kind of work. And horrible on Chrome. OWL looks OK on both browsers, but is too fiddly to actually edit.

I need to radically rework the UI for both these projects.

So I went back to see if I could actually look at these web-served applications on the PocketCHIP itself.

It turns out that OWL works surprisingly well with the surf browser which comes pre-installed … as long as you use a mouse!

The touch screen even with a rubber-tipped stylus isn’t viable for navigating and editing an outline. But attach an external mouse to the USB and it’s surprisingly usable. The PocketCHIP keyboard isn’t great for a lot of writing, but for short items in an outline it’s viable.

TS Wiki is also fine to read. But for some reason the text-area is coming out black, with black text. (I’m pretty sure I’m not setting this explicitly, so I assume it’s a bug in surf.) You, therefore, can’t edit the wiki with it. But reading is an acceptable experience. Once again, a mouse helps, but you can just about get away with the stylus.

The bluetooth keyboard I bought paired fine with the phone. But with the PocketCHIP there were some issues with the mapping between some symbols. I couldn’t find any combination of keys to make a backslash for instance. And sometimes the shift wouldn’t work. Also the bluetooth connection kept dropping. I found myself continually swapping between the PocketCHIP’s own keyboard for typing short commands with a lot of non-alphabetic symbols, and the bluetooth keyboard to type paragraphs of text. It was just enough to get some work done, and the bluetooth keyboard was just better enough to make it worthwhile, but it wasn’t really a viable solution.

Aside

This trip I also got interested in Logic Programming and tried out the Python Minikanren library, logpy, on the PocketCHIP. Unsurprisingly, it worked as expected. But, again, that is kind of startling when you think of it.

Conclusion

Well, this stuff works. If the PocketCHIP just had better wifi / bluetooth connections, then it would be a serious possibility to do some work on. It might be that a software update fixes the power-saving that may be weakening the wifi.

But it’s not something that even I can use yet.

Some of that is in my hands, of course, one task is to tweak the TS Wiki UI to ensure that the text-area is readable in surf. That would at least mean that PocketCHIP could be used (if uncomfortably) for working on my notebooks.

It’s not all working yet … but it’s getting closer.

Posted in Me.

You all probably knew where this was going, right?

Mind Traffic Control (Racket version) running on PocketCHIP
Mind Traffic Control (Racket version) running on PocketCHIP.

Of course, it’s been my priority to run the new MTC on the PocketCHIP. And it runs fine, without any special conversion; just needed to figure out how to install a library it depended on without going through drracket.

Now I’m off for my celebratory bike ride. 🙂

 

 

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Posted in Me.

Got my PocketCHIP yesterday.

And here it is running Emacs, with a Racket REPL via Geiser.

pcemacs

I have to say, this has been the dream for a long time … a cheap, portable device that runs Linux, has Emacs, git, rsync etc. And I can actually write and run Lisp on it.

It has a keyboard / screen that can be used in emergencies, but can also be accessed via USB-serial and PuTTY from any old Windows PC. (Useful when you want to go somewhere which may have a PC but don’t want to take a laptop with you.)

I’ve been excited by small computers before. I do stuff with Arduinos. I have a couple of Raspberry Pis sitting around. And last year got very enthused by the possibilities of the ESP8266 running nodemcu.

But in reality, the RaspPi and ESP have both proven more awkward to work / play with than the CHIP.

The RaspPi’s problem is its dependency on HDMI. And lack of ability to log in by serial over USB. I don’t usually have an HDMI screen to hand. And not in the same room as a network router I can connect an ethernet cable to. And without one, plus special keyboard / mouse etc. And wired internet connection, it’s hard to do much with the RaspPi. I normally only use it in the local hackspace.

The ESP8266’s issue is dependency on a 3.3v power-supply. Which is awkward. Even with an FTDI cable to connect it to the computer’s USB port, you need EXTRA power of the right voltage to talk to it. I have to use a spare Arduino, just to get that 3.3v power.

It kind of pains me to say it, as I really want to champion the British innovated Pi over the American innovated CHIP, but the CHIP guys have done a magnificent job of making their board easy to use straight out of the box. The PocketCHIP is a master-stroke. I unboxed it, plugged it into a USB charger, switched it on, and was exploring and playing with the CHIP within a couple of minutes. It combines all the extra gubbins you need to do stuff with the CHIP in one, obviously cheap, but pretty usable, package. Even the keyboard is OK for small bursts of typing.

I got a PocketCHIP and two extra CHIPs. Even without the Pocket, being able to communicate with a bare CHIP via a terminal over USB makes it far more accessible than the RaspPi. Once I’d figured out a terminal program (I found cu works well) I was able to log in, set up the wifi, update and upgrade the Debian and install the software I want to play with, without any hardware beyond the USB cable.

I really hope someone comes up with a Pocket equivalent for the Raspberry Pi Zero soon. It makes a massive difference to adoptability. And I don’t really understand why the Raspberry Pi can’t be accessed over serial. It’s got USB sockets. Why can’t we do serial over them?

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Posted in Me.

I’m starting to immerse myself more in the Racket world these days. And recently, I’ve had more troubles with my server and WordPress blogs. So I’m looking into Greg Hendershott‘s Frog (Frozen Blog) to see if this would be useful.

I’m thinking of porting some of my lower-traffic, not very visually sophisticated, blogs to it. So … first step, a quick and dirty wordpress-to-frog script.

It’s a hack and there are caveats. But it more or less worked. After a bit of tidying, expect to see some of my online blogging move to Frog.

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Long live Mind Traffic Control!

No New Year’s Resolutions or even questions this year. But as an honorary Brazilian, my new year doesn’t really start until after carnival, so now would be the time for it.

However here’s a quick update. The answer to the old MTC question is now resolved for me.

It’s time to put the bullet into the Mind Traffic Control that was. The case against it is overwhelming. MTC was written to learn the exciting new world of Google App Engine and the style of web programming of the mid to late 2000s … Python, something almost Django-like (ie. Rails-like). Backed by a relational database-like thing.

It’s a world I later fell out of love with. Python and Django are … fine. But they aren’t what continues to excite me in 2016.

I toyed with Meteor. But how to host on GAE? And, anyway, in 2016 I have the sickness … I just AM a Lisp programmer. Not necessarily a very good one or particularly experienced one. But I’ve succumbed. This is what I’ve been looking for all my life. It’s what I want to do, going forward.

So a rewrite in Clojure / ClojureScript. That presumably can be hosted on GAE. And I can have a wonderful new reactive UI with Om.

Yes … I’ve been playing around with it … but …

But then again. The old GAE database isn’t a good match for the circular queue of MTC. And worse, I’m not keen on storing my personal data on someone else’s cloud. Yes, it would have to be a single-page app. Yes, it ought to talk to remoteStorage and offer Dropbox etc. too.

These are all wonderful things and yes I am playing with them and want to use them. But … MTC? MTC is a todo-list app. There are a million and one such apps. They’re the “hello world” of browser-based GUI frameworks.

I’d love people to experience what’s good about MTC. But is it likely? How would I cut through the noise of those millions of alternatives? (Some of which are very slick.) Could I really get any kind of audience for a todo-list app in 2016? Does it make sense to put my energy in this direction?

And then again … if I’m going to boot up my browser and run a local server, then I have OWL.

OWL is great for more extensive, smart-disorganized note-taking. It’s just that it doesn’t have some of the charms of MTC. It’s not dynamic … tasks sit around and clog up the pages. You have to navigate around to find them. Sure, it’s pretty easy to navigate around – wikiness makes complexes of documents into small-worlds – but it’s still lacking that immediacy of the river / feed of tasks.

So last year I was fairly convinced that MTC was just going to become OWL hosting. But that isn’t what happened. There is still something to MTC, to the todo-queue concept. And it has resisted being subsumed within the OWL paradigm. My early enthusiasm for OWL was wrong about this. And my initial intuitions vindicated.

So what next? These last months I’ve been drawn back to the command-line. And also to Racket. Which compiles to fast executables. (Clojure is great, but the JVM does take a long time to start.)

And I’ve been admiring (again) todo.txt. Which in many ways is the right approach.

And so … I present : the new Mind Traffic Control. Which is, I admit, nothing but a short Racket program. That reads a file called “todo.txt” from somewhere on your machine. And does MTCish things with it.

Philosophy :

– it’s (right now) a convenient command-line tool.

– it’s compatible with your existing todo.txt file. It doesn’t do everything that todo.sh does. But it has its own tricks.

– in particular, it keeps the queue-ness. You only see the latest item. And most of its commands are about flinging tasks you don’t care about now into the future where you don’t have to think about them (yet).

– obviously it loses a lot of what made the GAE-hosted, web-based MTC interesting. There’s no delegation to other users etc. But I’m not sure many people used that.

– very simple. very minimal.

I have to say … I am EXCITED by this … more excited than I’ve been by any potential refresh I could have made to the old MTC paradigm (even rewriting more or less the same thing in Meteor or ClojureScript / OM). This is fresh and different.

The Future : MTC has a new mission.

Firstly it’s going to be MY todo-queue tool. Previously, the web version was always thought about in terms of “what might people want?”. In practice, almost nobody else wanted it. Now MTC’s mission is “what do I need from a tool?” What maximizes my convenience? I like the command-line. I’m comfortable there. That’s where this is going to be.

Secondly, I’m not that into task-management software. I want software to help me DO stuff. And the focus of MTC going forward is going to be to add features to help me do. For example, I have an item with a link I wanted to read. I now read the link and want to post it to a link-blog. Can that feature be added to MTC? Why not? I come up with an idea for a new project and start putting todo items about it into MTC? Can MTC create the project directories for me? Can todo items be exploded into actual scripts? Within this environment? Once again, a direction worth exploring. (In a sense, MTC with extra tools could be seen as exploring the coming UI paradigm of bots in rivers.)

Syncthing is now my synchronization solution. I don’t think I’m going to worry about clouds and hosting, because I want to use horizontal P2P syncing as the way of making sure the queue is on all my devices.

The original MTC site will be updated shortly. You can, already, export your data from it in todo.txt format. That is now the recommended solution for MTC users. The new version of the site will probably continue to let you do that, without adding anything new to your queue. But it will give guidance on how to install and use the new software.

From hereon-in it’s all Lisp. I’m getting more fluent in Racket. I do have a nagging feeling that maybe I ought to convert to Clojure-like dialect. Which would allow me to use the same code in the browser, on a node server or even compiled using Pixie-Lang. I’m still thinking about this and will make a couple of small experiments in the near future and I’ll pay attention … will other people pick up the Racket code? Will I find myself with a new compelling reason to have MTC back in the browser? Is it worth moving to Rackjure to smooth a potential future port? Right now the code is still trivially small enough that I could port relatively quickly. But I’m watching.

Posted in Me.

Interesting to go back to Stevey’s Blog Rant from 2006.

Quite perceptive … the ascendent Lisps today, at least the ones that have caught my attention, are Clojure and Racket. Neither of which really existed at the time he was writing (although Racket’s ancestor, Dr. Scheme did). Both of which do, indeed, have offered a layer of practicality and accessibility that perhaps other Lisps of the time lacked.

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