Edubuntu for Burundi

The original idea behind inexpensive laptops for the third world was supplemented by the powers of capital depreciation. Specifically, why try and design a new $100 laptop for developing nations’ students when a first world $1500 laptop will be written down and donated to charities and volunteer groups within 2-3 years?

edubuntu desktop

edubuntu desktop

We recently had the opportunity to take advantage of a situation like this – a school in Burundi would benefit from 25 nice HP laptops, netbooks, and convertible tablets if we could find OS and education software for them. Laptops work well in this situation, since power is intermittent, and the load that can be taken from generators when they are available should be minimized. The mix of existing license keys for Windows XP through Vista and 7 were not going to be easy to work with, so I chose Ubuntu as the OS and an education package that included GCompris (140+ education mini games), Marble (Goolge Earth), Celestia (astronomy), and of course LibreOffice. Here are some of the things I learned and can pass on to save you a few minutes in a similar situation:

  • Try the Edubuntu Distribution at It has GCompris and the other software already in the image
  • HP Laptops play very well with Ubuntu 14, from Wifi to webcams and even stylus/tablet. Models included Elitebook, 8170p (17″ machines), and 5101 Netbooks. (Linlap is a great reference for linux/laptop compatibility based on community feedback.) Very little configuration was needed aside from some wake up changes to etc/NetworkManagaer/NetworkManage.conf file. Specifically, setting the Wifi controller to be explicitly managed. This only had to be done to a few of the 5101s
  • Ideally I wanted to install an offline version of Wikipedia and wikibooks. I found that Xowa could do the trick, and that English wikipedia without photos was about 5GB. Wikibooks was around 1GB. In order to have images and media, the Common package must be downloaded as well, best done from within Xowa’s download manager. This is still a bit of a work in progress, though, since I would like to install this from a stick, not n/w download
  • Edubuntu run off a stick runs well with no known issues, good for machines missing hard drives, since storage space can be allocated on the USB stick at the time of creation.
  • Install time is about thirty minutes per computer from a USB stick, Some care and feeding is needed during install, a fully automated install with all options preselected would be the next step for a project any larger than this one
  • The Unity interface is intuitive for teachers used to Windows or OSX, though the applications menu via the default search icon is somewhat non-intuitive (a bit like windows 8 where you can’t just see all apps immediately)

Lesson learned – the Linux community is thinking about computer literacy for developing countries, and it shows!

Txt-tris: Hour of Code turns into several hours of code

I love Tetris, but always wanted to have some extra shapes to work with, from a single quantum of block up to a mighty 3×3, Here is a JavaScript/HTML/CSS Txt-tris engine at jsfiddle where you can make your own shapes using the matrix notation. The difference here from other Tetris-y engines is that there is one matrix per shape, and the rotation behavior is specified by setting flags in the newShape function(). For example, square blocks have only one rotation direction, long bars have only 2, others have 4. If you want, set it so only long bars are generated, and achieve hollow glory.

Try it out, and JJ Abrams yourself a few non-cannon shapes!

365 Days of Earthquakes in Canada

365 Days of Earthquakes in Canada Interactive

365 Days of Earthquakes in Canada Interactive

Living in Ottawa, I’ve only felt one at magnitude 5, but it got me thinking that we aren’t entirely stable.

This was a little personal project in using some OSS tools: Data sets from Natural Resources Canada data portal which contains GeoJSON Data embedded in custom data; OpenLayers3 (which is a rewrite of OpenLayers and not backwards compatible) . Try it out here, and grab the source on my Github. Comments and feedback and pull requests welcome.

If you are moving to OpenLayers3, the documentation is autogenerated, but the constructors aren’t really described all that well. The changes were enough to warrant a demo site and a workshop site that cover a lot of cookbook tasks. Find out more about Quakes in Canada at the NRCan quake center. If you want to do something with the datasets at Open Data, you can submit them to their App catalogue here

Where is Rosetta Interactive


Rosetta and Philae are working hard at comet 67P and how they got there makes for some good interactive content.

ESA teamed up with the visualization lab at TECField for this one and chose webGL for the interface. TEC used the ThreeJS javascript library for visualization. Data was loadied into the interface using two csv coordinate files – one for the paths and another for the timestamped milestones on the journey. All 3D model data was stored as OBJ files and texture mapped with png images. Audio uses ogg.

Elegant simple clean interfaces work best when exploring new content that stands on its own. The dash and interface are a DOM overlay on the webgl allowing for simpler responsive layout changes for window size. The milestones really pull the interactive together and it would be interesting to have them denoted as points on the scrubber timeline or allow sequential navigation between them (i.e. [next milestone: encounter with asteroid Stein 3D] )

With exportable and maintainable csv files, data compression is not optimized but export from content creators is kept simple. The app is kept up to date on a daily basis and no web backend is really needed for DB entry. It will be interesting to see if how it is kept up to date while the imagery from Philae on the surface starts coming in. It is likely there is a custom CSV editor to ensure that no errors are made and that orbital data can be imported from other engineering tools.

Any mission can use an interface like this. The spacecraft and target models could be changed up and of the CSV data on paths and milestones.

Social Media:
The big social media aspects for ESA are webcast links, first images, and animated GIFs and simulations of approach and landing. Interactive content showing a timeline has to justify itself in comparison social media and outreach tools which are dense and event-based. They attract a different set of users who want to share in exploration actions not simply the results of the exploration. To bridge the two, embedding of Twtter feed tool, YouTube videos in the milestones section would make this a gateway interface to social media. In the other direction, a ‘goto’ function and embedding capability would make this a tool that could be quickly reference on social media channels (i.e. share this viewpoint and 3 days of orbit time)


Don’t call it hydraulics

Disney has an big interest in animatronics – just try visiting one of their parks and avoiding it.

These are mainly kept at a very safe distance because either the visitor or the animatronic ‘robot’ are fragile compared to one another. Disney is all about interaction and asked the question – how can the animatronics and the visitors be safe around eachother? Disney Research Pittsburgh approached an old solution in a novel way – by removing some of the most problematic areas of working-fluid actuators in order to make a ‘softer’, friendlier animatronic.

The solution looks at first glance to be hydraulic – pressure lines connect pistons, allowing the actuator drive and the actuation posit to be separated. The system can work with an incompressible or compressible fluid.

The key difference over hydraulics is actually the lower performance – the lower working fluid pressure (100psi) and a unique ‘rolling gasket’ type seal in the pistons. This gasket reduces the problem of ‘sticktion’ (initial extra friction at the start of an actuation movement) to almost nothing, and reduces friction during travel as well. This requires less overall pressurization in the system to achieve smooth motion, and by moving the actuator motors off the robot itself, total mass is reduced, creating a positive feedback where less mass requires less actuation power. There are some design challenges that seem open, though: Continue reading

Minimum component infrared Camera trigger timelapse on canon cameras using Arduino

Check out "How Vacuum Tubes Work" to appreciate the convenience you get in your Arduino board.

Check out “How Vacuum Tubes Work” to appreciate the convenience you get in your Arduino board.

EOS M is a great little camera, but only has the Canon IR trigger for interval and timelapse. Here is a link to an Arduino sketch that outputs IR trigger signals on pins 12, 11, and 10 at 5, 15, and 30 seconds respectively. Designed to run on an Uno board with minimum external components – just change the IR LED + pin to the appropriate pin above for the timing you want. Credits in the code header. Let me know if you have any improvements!

.ino file