Acrobotic’s ESP8266 Tips & Tricks

NodeMCU devkit

There’s a growing series of good videos covering ESP8266 Tips & Tricks on ACROBOTIC’s YouTube channel. The ESP8266 has become quite a darling in the IoT world, and a seriously cool community is growing around it.

NodeMCU devkit picture by Vowstar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Take me to your master


I was in a large technology retailer store the other day when I noticed a young adult/late adolescent standing in front of the audio display at the entry to their high-end audio and video department. The system consisted of a pair of hybrid electrostatic loudspeakers from a company with a long history of making such things, a tube amp of notable lineage, and some other stuff. It was playing (not the listener’s choice) some really awfully mastered pop music. Truly, utterly, dreadfully done.

I observed the listener to see what he found interesting in the setup. I’m pretty sure he didn’t know I was watching him. This is all conjecture of course, but here is my impression of what was happening in this young lad’s mind:

Wow, this looks impressive. I’m wondering how a system like this might improve my experience of music and whether I should start coveting something like this. Hmmm … Hmmm … maybe if I move back a little … or up … It really does look impressive … Hmmm … Hmmm … I guess my ears aren’t good enough to notice a difference. I’ll go look at TVs.

The system was set up to let the dipole electrostatics work well: lots of space all around. In spite of this, like the young lad, I could barely stand to listen to it. With the chosen content, I’m guessing the system was showing about 10% of what it could do if you knew what to listen for.

There once was a time when high-end gear could make poorly done recording sound listenable. I am beginning to think that current kill, crush, and destroy mastering practices have succeeded in subverting this.

Arduino: reunited and it feels so good

I am cautiously optimistic about the recently announced resolution of conflict between Arduino LLC and Arduino Srl. Back when the issue flared up, I took sides based on the information I had available, but I then decided to refrain from public comment as additional information on the issue did not seem to be forthcoming.

While I am hoping this announcement means a lovebath for everyone, I am concerned about some of the wording used in the announcement, specifically that, “The newly created ‘Arduino Holding’ will become the single point of contact for the wholesale distribution of all current and future products, and will continue to bring tremendous innovations to the market.” Does this mean that Arduino will shift its focus toward for-profit and more closed designs? In other words, will the hardware arm of the project maintain the project’s fully open culture? There have been signs that things have been closing up on the software side as well since Arduino LLC seem to be be in no hurry to answer questions regarding whether the code for their new SaaS IDE will be open sourced or not.

So, cautiously optimistic I am.

Alternative Architectures for Hybrid Applications

Hybrid applications seem to be gaining traction now. In what follows, I’d like to present thoughts on an alternative to the emerging standard hybrid app architecture.

The conventional hybrid architecture

Conventional hybrid app architecture

In this model, which to the best of my knowledge is used by Electron, NW.js, and others, the user interface is rendered as HTML using whatever HTML, CSS, and front-end JS frameworks you desire. The use of Web technologies for the UI is an explicit goal of this architecture.

The UI is tightly bound in a one-to-one relationship with the app engine.1 The app engine is implemented with a Web back-end technology, typically Node.js. The app engine makes system calls through the engine’s baked-in features or through generic child_process.exec()-like calls. This means custom and platform-specific behaviors that the app may require will need to be implemented as external child_process.exec() callable units.

This architecture does a good job of leveraging Web technologies to create secure conventional desktop apps. In addition, frameworks like Electron and NW.js have matured to the point that developing hybrid apps that use many desktop app conventions is relatively easy.

An alternative hybrid architecture

In what follows, I present what I believe is a more flexible approach to developing hybrid apps—one that requires more carefully considered design but that yields greater flexibility.

Alternative hybrid app architecture

In this model, the tightly bound user↔app engine connection is replaced by a REST API. Thus the app engine becomes a REST server, possibly embellished with some needed superpowers for accessing host resources. When the app interface is API driven, any REST client technology can be used for the interface, including HTML/CSS/JS clients, native mobile clients, terminal clients, etc. In addition, the client need not be local, making remote-controlled apps almost trivial to implement. Adequate measures must be taken to assure secure and authorized communication with the REST server.

The other change in the above model is that the REST server is implemented in C++. When this is the case, interacting with the host system can be done directly using a wide range of C++ libraries written for this purpose. The choice of C++ here is somewhat arbitrary; it can be any language that supports ready-to-roll support for the system manipulations that your app requires.

The two changes outlined above are decoupled—meaning that either can be adopted in the absence of the other.

One downside to using C++ (or Java, or Python…) for the server part of this approach is that the server must be able to run on the host platform. This isn’t a significant issue with desktop deployment: only recompiling the REST server for each target platform will be required. But it does currently present a problem for mobile deployment as few mobile platforms provide native support for C++ and its oft used libraries. If you plan to target mobile apps, implementing a REST server in a more universally supported language will likely be required.

Follow updates on my wiki.

1. I’m using “app engine” generically here, not as a reference to Google’s App Engine.

Concerns about Qt’s increasing commercial focus

Road closed sign

It’s not just me. Phoronix is reporting on growing concerns in the Qt community about the project’s increasing commercial focus and apparent deprecation of its open source core.

I have said many times in these pages and elsewhere that I really like Qt: it’s the right tool for a lot of jobs. But increasingly I’ve been feeling that any contribution I make in educating users about Qt is benefiting a commercial enterprise and not a community tool. So much so that I am re-surveying other open source multi-platform libraries to use as an alternative to Qt.

If the community no longer has meaningful Qt ownership, a lot of users will no longer be interested.

Addressing some FUD on open vs. closed tech

Gate keepers

It’s a little early and so I may regret posting this, but I will do so anyway.

The Verge today is carrying a piece by Walt Mossberg that argues nothing is really open or really closed so, meh, don’t worry about it y’all ok? Because AppleGoogleMicroplex has your back.

His premise is that the debate between open and closed involves a false dichotomy because the terminology is fuzzy. I’m pretty sure Walt is smarter than that. I have a hard time interpreting this premise as anything but plain old FUD.

For quite some time now, operationally valid and accepted definitions of “open source software” and “free and open source software” have existed. There’s no fuzziness in the terminology—if you understand the terminology. People involved in open source software have different motivations and philosophies for doing what they do, and this have led to different licenses that confer different rights and responsibilities to the licensee. They essentially break down into two camps: restrictive open source, where you must share all of your code modifications and derivations, and permissive open source, where you don’t have to share anything (but you might be required to attribute the original source with a copyright notice or similar). Both permit use in commercial projects.

Supporters of restrictive open source often strive for platforms that are fully open. Many powerful voices in FOSS today advocate for a computing and technological ecology where the user (the owner) has full and complete access to everything the device can do. They advocate that everything the device can do be documented completely in published, independently buildable and vettable source code and that the user (owner) should she wish be able to change any aspect of what the device can do to fit her needs or desires.

In the realm of communication devices, many advocates (myself included) feel that open access to software needs to extend to the radio units, GPS units, etc. And some (myself included) feel that hardware designs should be open source as well.

Thus there is no fuzziness in what people who engage with software development and those involved open source software movements mean by “open”. There is some fuzziness in application because those who advocate for completely open platforms are constrained by the products that are actually available (which are often built by those who use “open” tools only as leverage in their closed operations).

The other source of fuzziness is the straw-man FUD injected into consumers’ minds by articles like Mossberg’s.

“Open” can have several levels of completeness. However, there is nothing open about a house you buy that gives you access to only one or two rooms and lets you decorate them using only pre-approved designs that come out of an approved catalog. Confusing that with anything resembling “open” is the a serious bastardization of the concept.