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isn't quite ashamed enough to present

jr conlin's ink stained banana

:: Raspberry Pi, PCA9685, and YOU!

i made a creepy eyeball pumpkin over the weekend. There are lots of how-tos for these sorts of things, so i’m not going to do that. Instead i’m going to offer some lessons-learned.

First, off, i’m a software guy. This is the first time i ever played around with servo motors.

So, let’s start off at the top, shall we?

Aside from the raspberry pi, you’ll need

  • A fake pumpkin big enough to get your hands into (yes, both hands)
  • A box cutter with a fresh blade, because otherwise it’s not going to cut right.
  • A PCA9685 servo controller board. Get the one from Adafruit. Yes, you’ll have to do soldering to add the pins. If you get one that’s already soldered, you’ll still need the Adafruit libraries and documentation, because they’re better than the ones that come with the pre-built boards.
  • 4 strand of Female to Female jumper wires. Really, you should have a bunch of these lying around if you’re going to do stuff with a Pi other than run Pi-Hole or HomeAssistant on it.
  • A hot glue gun and a surprising number of glue sticks
  • 2 bags of 10 full globe plastic eyeballs. Yes, the half eyeballs look better, but they stop looking better once they turn any angle. Yes, it’s more eyeballs than you need. You’re going to screw up a few.
  • About 10 inches of PVC pipe. You will need to bring a sample eyeball with you to make sure it fits inside the pipe.
  • A three AAA battery holder plus connector wire (optional, but since there’s, like, one electronics shop left in the San Jose area that even comes close to having it, it’s a good a reason as any to go to Excess Solutions, which has become the last one standing from Weirdstuff and HSC)
  • Nylon zip ties. (unless you’re planning on hot-gluing the motors to the pipe because you never want to use those motors for anything else ever again.)
  • A roll of 20 gauge bailing wire you bought back in the 80’s and forgot you had until now, but thank you past you for not pitching that.
  • A 1.25″ SpeedBor drill bit you got to add a drain to a sink years ago and also forgot you had but thankfully didn’t pitch or sell.
  • A dremel with one of those drum sander bits.
  • a breathing mask because it turns out that dremel’d off foam gets friggin’ EVERYWHERE.
  • Two cans of compressed air.
  • A shop vac with a reasonably clean filter.
  • A chop saw, rotary sander, laser level and drill press. Ok, like me, you probably don’t have that, and unlike some of the other crap on this list, you’re not going to get those either. So, instead build a bunch of crappy rigs to try and keep a hacksaw straight while wondering if you ever had a proper PVC pipe cutter (you don’t). You’ll also need whatever sandpaper you can find to take all the plastic burrs off the bad saw job you did.

Now for the lessons learned:

  • This is going to take all day. Plan accordingly.
  • Wiring up the PCA board involves you understanding the semi-arcane labeling systems that exist for electronics. Basically, for the Raspberry Pi:
    PCA Pi GPIO post Notes
    GND 6 Ground (also pins 6,9,14,20,25,30,34, or 39
    OE Output Enable (NOT USED)
    SCL 5 (Serial Clock Line)
    SDA 3 (Serial Data Line. No idea why “A” either other than easier to read as tiny print.)
    VCC 1 IC Power (3v also pin 17)
    V+ 2 Servo Power (5v also pin 4)
  • Wire up the boards and add the motors (remember, for the motors, darkest wire is “Ground”) with power off.
  • Once things are wired up, boot up the Pi.
  • Make sure the Pi has the I2C kernel mod loaded (use sudo rpi-config to turn it on).
  • You also want to apt install i2c-tools as well so you can verify that the PCA board is recognized:
    # i2cdetect -y 1
         0  1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  a  b  c  d  e  f
    00:          -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
    10: -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
    20: -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
    30: -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
    40: 40 -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
    50: -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
    60: -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
    70: 70 -- -- -- -- -- -- --

    No values at 0x40 & 0x70? It’s not there.

  • Drilling holes on the directly opposite side of a ball is not easy. You can build a jig to hold things. i wound up taping a bit of PVC pipe to an old phone book, finding the center, and using a bit of wire as a post to hold it in place. i still screwed up, and that’s why you buy two bags of eyeballs.
  • You will try to be all sorts of clever in how you want to rig up the eyes. Don’t be. Simplicity works better than imagined artistry. (Plus fishing line will NOT cooperate with you trying to emulate eye muscles no matter what elder gods you may invoke.)
  • Make sure every single time you’re about to do something irreversible, that you’re working on the correct side. You can hide some sins, but not all of them.
  • Make the eyeball mounts first. These will take most of the day and be really annoying. Remember to cut more than you think you’ll need because you’re going to screw some of them up.
  • Depending on how bug-eyed you want your eyeballs, you can drill the swivel point deeper or shallower into the lengths of PVC. Mine are around 7.5mm in. Remember what i said about irreversible? Mark which side of the tube is the front. Future you will thank you.
  • Drill all the holes before you start gluing things in place. Each hole will need 45 – 70mm clearance (depending on where the motor is attached). Use a sample eyeball mount to figure out placements. If you’re feeling super clever, you can push a length of wire from the inside out to not where to drill the hole.
  • Did i mention that pumpkin foam gets everywhere? Oh, just wait.
  • Since the shell will be thick (anywhere from 10 to 40mm), you’ll need to dremel out a bunch of it. This will terrify you because it’s a whirring destruction machine and you know your hand is going to slip and destroy everything. Fortunately, this will distract you from the ungodly amount of dust being generated.
  • It’ll be only afterwards as you survey the foamy carnage that you’ll think about setting up the shopvac to suck up the dust being generated.
  • Oh, yeah, and the face mask would have been good too.
  • Place the eyes into the holes and secure them in place with hot glue. Bonus, you want to hold the eye in place with one hand while applying the glue otherwise the damn thing will slip off, or the glue will leak and stick to everything. Check each before everything sets.
  • ProGuy who did it once tip: compressed air will help set the glue quicker that just ambient temperature will.
  • Once all the eyes are in place, try to secure the internal cabling. Don’t try to use blue tape to hold things in place in there because holy hell there’s still ground up foam? You can use bits of blue tape to hold strands of wire together.
  • Plug the eyes back in, pray to whatever gods you have, and power up to check what’s working and what’s not.
  • Tweak the range of movement, because it’s not going to be from 0 to 180. i use 20-160. You’ll know when you no longer have eyeballs that sound like angry bees when they’re resting.

There, that’s it! Wasn’t that easy and fun?

Of course it wasn’t.

Still, if you want to add a light, i found an old LED bike light works pretty well and might even be a bit overpowering.

:: In Praise of Robber Barons

John D. Rockefeller became the nations first billionare (back when the cost of living was around $.25 a day and the average wage was around $430 a year) He was the richest American ever, and widely considered to have been the richest person on the planet. His company, Standard Oil, was considered the most ruthless and cruel monopoly and is the textbook example of Monopoly used still today.

Andrew Carnegie pretty much was American steel at a time when everything was made from steel. Steam engines, the rails they ran on, the beams used to construct modern buildings, cars, ships, you name it, all steel, and pretty much from his foundries. He killed over 2,000 people because his get away flooded a town, and he is responsible for the Homestead Strike which is one of the bloodiest anti-union attacks. Fair wages and decent working conditions? Bah, peasants.

William Randolph Hearst build a publishing empire from salacious articles and, frankly, out right lies. Heck, to boost sales of a flagging paper, he even convinced the country to go to war. (You, know, just in case you think that conservative nut jobs riling up the masses is a new thing.)

Why do i note these folk? Well, recently i’ve been thinking about our current crop of robber barons. It started when i was listening to a podcast talking about the Vision Fund which gives questionable startups like WeWork ungodly gobs of cash.

The point really got driven home when i saw this tweet showing how taxes for the top 400 have dropped over the years.

So, what are the ultra wealthy folks like Bezos, Jobs, Zuckerberg and the rest doing with their cash? They’re “reinvesting it” using investment funds like the Vision Fund above. They’re burning it in rocket fuel.

Know that they’re not doing with that huge pile of cash? Building universities, or public squares, or even over-opulent tourist attractions lording over large swaths of green space. Basically, the old robber barons at least had some level of civic mindedness (or at least sense of legacy) to realize that at least trying to buy some positive legacy might be a good idea.

At least that’s one thing i can look forward to. The new crop will be forgotten quickly.

They’re the kings that Ozymandias was trying to impress.

The ones you have no memory of.

Because, you know, fuck them.

:: Goals Keeping

Can i take a moment to say that i have learned to hate Goals?

i don’t mean things like “Personal Goals” (like to learn to play the piano, meet some famous individual, travel to location, etc.) or the sort of things they keep track of in football matches, i’m talking about the Goals you’re expected to set and achieve every quarter/year by your employer.

What Are They?

A Goal is how you justify being paid. They’re a set of tasks that you’ve declared you’ll accomplish in X period for the benefit of the organization. They’re the short description of your work that your boss will read and regurgitate up the chain to whoever decides you get a paycheck.

If you’re clever, your goals will align with your company / division / team.
If you’re creative, they’ll extend the reach of company / division / team and make your direct chain look better.
In reality, they’re an experiment to determine who is good at predicting the future or has insider information that can be attributed to higher placed individuals.

Why They Suck

Goals are great if you’re doing factory work. They fall into the class of “i will do X more efficiently to increase profitability”. This could be reduce costs. This could be to increase productivity. This could be to acquire more revenue or assets for the org. If you’re working for an org that does something like that, it’s super easy to come up with one or more goals. Again, if you’re clever, you’ll even help yourself out by quietly introducing an inefficiency that you can then claim to improve in some future period.

This is because your manager is not paying attention to you specifically. Often, the system is self reporting. You set your goals and later report accomplishment or failure. This is super obvious if there’s a “self-assessment” operation. You’re going to report that “i’m Awesome! Except for the fact that i only did 10x more this quarter than i predicted.” That last bit shows that you’ve got room to grow and will be the point that your manager will discuss with you during your review.

There is absolutely no reason to be honest, even though you’re regularly told you must be. Let’s say you were honest and put down “i got everything done, on time and on schedule, but the project was cancelled.” You would be at a disadvantage since there’s no win and you’ve effectively wasted your time. You had no control over the project being cancelled, but that was also a failure for not predicting it would. Management has a reason not to give you a raise. Congratulations.

Mind you, your boss is most likely innocent in this. They have to repeat this operation with however many reports they have, which gets multiplied up the chain. If you’ve ever been a TA grading papers, you know how much fun it is. At some level there’s a fixed budget that is used to determine who gets a raise, promoted, or dismissed. If the pool is about 5% per employee, and Sue gets a raise and bonus of 7%, then Bob may get only 3% this year. Better luck next year, Bob.

Where things start getting ugly is when you aren’t doing a metric based set of tasks.

Take, say, what i do. My job is to work on key back-end services, modernize and support them. My job is to deal with the acquired technical debt accrued with each new product release. And because New Thing is Awesome happens a fair bit, there’s a good amount of debt as folks wander off between New Thing is Shipped and Audience is Relying on New Thing. Never mind what it’s like at We’ve Been Charging Customers For Two Years for Thing, and Now There’s A Critical Bug.

Because, yeah, those things happen.

So, when it comes time for me to put together a list of goals, things get ugly fast. i have to predict the future, then when chaos happens. i race at the end of the evaluation period to try and do the thing i said was important however many months ago. If i were really playing the game right, i’d let the chaos collapse around me while i focused only on the few tasks i said i would.

i mean, sure, three core items of technology collapsed and the market disappeared, but look at the kerning and word placement on this document. ✔️

Sometimes figuring out goals is easy. In the first half of the year, i put together a new client library for one of the services i oversee and greatly improved operation and utility, and i was able to show a tick mark next to a goal, meaning i’m getting paid this half of the year.

i also did a bunch of other stuff, like work with 3rd party vendors, maintain support libraries, build relationships with customers, etc. that kept me pretty busy, but no check mark for that. Most of the time, i do support. i’m one of the “medics”/”clerics” of the org.

i have a beefy goal for this half of the year, but we might remove it. i’ve been busy pushing a critical bit of infrastructure closer to done (not a personal goal). We’ve also got an intern next year and it’ll be a good project for them. So, that leaves me without a goal.

Aside from the critical bit of infrastructure (which is more a shared goal), keeping things running so we can consider offering a pay service (also shared) and getting my boss up-to-speed (shared), and whatever other fires crop up.

This leads to “retroactive goal setting” where i get fairly late into the half and thanks to copious weekly activity report keeping, specify what major accomplishments i hit as ‘goals’. Usually with my direct managers approval because my goals are late and they need to checkbox that they’re in.

Because, again, this is more about giving someone a reason to continue to pay you for 6 months.

So, what should we use?

i’m willing to say “right tool for the job”.

For tasks, there’s no reason not to use a task list. As an org, you probably already have these. They’re what you use to get to your corporate goals.

For determining value, there’s, i dunno, let’s use employee contributions. Folks should keep a list of things they’ve done and (with the help of their manager and peers) write up a summary that can be presented at the end of the evaluation period, because that’s the end goal anyway. Maybe it’s “increased the number of X by Y%”. Yay you!

As an org, it’s a lot easier to plot how well your group is doing to achieve a given set of goals. There’s your group metric, but at the individual basis, probably not a great idea to introduce something that’s going to be gamed like nobody’s business.

Unless your job is to pull the lever and press the button to make the widget, there’s going to be a lot of complexity and unforeseeable events. Don’t make things hostile toward those.

i generally rally against the idea of work accounting. Not being held accountable (as in “you failed to deliver a task we needed by when we needed it that you said you could do), i mean accounting (as in you committed over 200,000 lines of code this quarter and resolved 47 issues). It’s why i am not a super fan of scrum’s Burn List.

But yeah, the current state of Goal keeping is just the fever dream of accountants.

:: Linux Walkabout with a Chromebook

For the past few years, i’ve been using a chromebook as my “walk-about”. i used to have a full laptop with semi-ridiculous specs that weight close to 9 or 10 pounds because, that made the most amount of sense, but we live in the modern era and there’s no reason to do that.

So, why a Chromebook?

99% of the work i do is remote. i log into one or more servers, write code using VIM or something similar, do the compile remotely, and bring up remotely served web pages to see the results. Generally, i don’t need a beefy box to compile up firefox every hour or so. i can get away with a fairly whimpy machine that just needs to runs ssh and a browser. Plus, if i destroy or lose the machine, i’m sad, but not $3,000 sad.

Chromebooks kind of fit that niche nicely. Yeah, i could also use an apple product, but those tend to be way overpriced, and personally, i don’t have a whole lot of positive feelings toward apple. (If you do, great. i don’t. i’m fine showing you where on the doll the bad computer manufacturer touched me.)

As an added bonus, Chromebooks are linux machines at heart. This means that it’s not TOO hard to get things rolling in a pretty usable way.

Picking Hardware

A chromebook is a chromebook, right? These things are all the same, right?

Well, no. Turns out that there are some remarkable differences in build quality, performance, and usability among each of these. HPs, for example, tend to be fairly durable, but they’re also bigger and slower. Asus tend to look fantastic, but i’ve had mixed luck with processing speed and heat generation. Lenovos are also good, but tend to lean more toward the “overkill” side of things making them pricier and bulkier than i prefer. Honestly, if you can go somewhere and do a “hands on check” for a system, it’s worth it. This is a tool, and like a good tool, you can’t always tell everything you need from a static beauty shot and some sales text.

i have a side thing that pays me about $100 a month. i put that extra cash into an account i use for gadgets, phones and stuff like that, so that kinda drives the price i feel comfortable with. Generally, i shoot for around $500. The latest is more in line with what i paid for my cellphone, so it hurt a bit more, but i figure i’ll get a few years out of it at the very least as well.

As for what brand, i’m not going to say “Use an Acer!” just because those are the boxes that i’ve had the best luck with, but i will provide the following criteria i use when picking a box:


  1. x86 base – this is more important later, but if you’re planning on running Linux, there are FAR more things compiled for x86 architecture than ARM. x86 can cost more, but honestly, it’s worth it unless you’re never offline or at the wrong end of a crap connection.
  2. USB C charging – Again, we live in a modern era. Chances are you’re phone is USB C (or can talk it), and getting a universal adapter means less crap in the carry on. i’ve gotten a 65w USB charger that i’ve used across several chromebooks and it travels great.

That’s really it. The rest are the optional, bonus bits:

  1. Multiple USB C ports – Because you might want to do more than just charge.
  2. Micro SD slot – Extra storage FTW!
  3. USB A port – It’s the universal standard for stuff like plug in keyboards and drives. Bonus if it’s USB3.
  4. Greater than 1440 vertical resolution – This is a bit esoteric, but i am a sucker for being able to put the max amount of text up on the screen, and to do that i need very high resolution. Resolution tends to vary, but the real base is the vertical, and even at 4:6 horizontal is going to beat vertical, so i use that to judge machines.
  5. 360° hinge – When i use an external keyboard, it can be nice to fold away the main one. It’s also nice when you’re watching movies on airplanes.
  6. Illuminated keyboard – Surprisingly useful at night.

The machine i currently use has all of these, and a pen too which i’ve used maybe once. Still, kinda nice.

The two flavors of Linux

i’ll note that Kenn White has a great article about using a low end chromebook without doing a lot extra to it. Sadly, his needs are not quite my own.

One of the needs i have is to run remote programs off of my X-Windows workstation. This is a bit more involved than just running VNC, but is far more useful. To do that, means i have to have locally running linux that can act as an X client. Previously, that meant rooting the box and installing Crouton, which runs linux in it’s own VM with it’s own display. Newer versions of ChromeOS support a “Linux Beta” which uses a container to run linux as an app. Both allow you to run remote X applications.


To put it bluntly, Crouton is a hack. It’s an utterly magnificent hack, but it does require you putting your chromebook in “dev” mode which disables pretty much all the security that chromebooks are famous for. Plus, everytime you reboot you get a super scary message and loud beeping warning you that you’re in Dev mode and to hit the space bar to wipe everything clean. You press ^D to continue. Keep that in mind if you’ve got small kids who like to play with your computers.

That said, installing and using crouton is pretty trivial (albeit, getting a window manager of choice running is as difficult as as it is on any other system), and there’s no denying that once you’ve switched to the Linux side, you’re running full on Linux. You get access to the chromebook drive side (kind of have to dig for it, but it’s there), and if you run an additional plugin like Xiwi, you don’t even have to switch modes to use all the Linux goodness. You even have full access to all the devices (including USB) with no trickery required.

All that said, since it’s a magnificent hack, it’s not exactly “official” and there are bits of it that can be slow. For what it’s worth, if you’re running on an ARM box, i’d actually recommend this approach, even though it requires more CPU. Partly for the reason that it’s a bit more stable.

* Full on Linux – with all the features and quirks
* Survives “sleep” cycles
* Full access to devices

* Full on Linux – with all the features and quirks
* CPU Intensive (no GPU/hardware acceleration)
* Full access to devices (like USB)
* Requires running Chromebook in “dev” mode with the constant threat of a system wipe.


Newer versions of ChromeOS introduced the “Linux (beta)” feature. This runs linux in a sandboxed container. (In theory, you could run other similar containers, but you probably won’t.) The container has access to the main ChromeOS screen, and for all intents and purposes, apps run that way show up as apps in the task bar.

You don’t get a program manager by default for linux apps, but you can easily install something like Firefox Nightly for Linux and run that without a hitch. It depends on what chip you’re running but i’ve got 64-bit x86 linux so i can pretty much natively run anything that draws to the screen.

It’s not all sunshine and unicorns, though. The linux app will sometimes hard hang the box during a light ‘sleep’. In addition, Chromebooks don’t have a ‘hibernate’ so they gleefully kill the CPU (and the linux app) if left alone too long.

* Full linux with seamlessly integrated window display.
* Cut & Paste works like expected.
* Supported, and generally getting better.

* No hibernation here, only death.
* Hangs on sleep or straight up crashes when running out of memory.
* No window manager finesse or app manager control, your CLI is your friend.
* No full linux access to USB (devices go through ChromeOS, so your Yubikey won’t work quite right with linux apps.)
* Limited drive access to ChromeOS.

Final notes

Is this going to be perfect? Hell no. Some things are going to suck or be annoying. Then again, that’s a universal constant, so we continue on as a species. If your needs are like mine, it’ll be just peachy.

If you like, nothing stops you from running either Crostini or Crouton, getting annoyed, factory resetting and switching to the other install. It’s trivial to back up important stuff with either system.

Also, yeah, chromebooks have a known problem with bluetooth audio devices failing to stay connected. They’re reportedly working on a fix. For now, it’s an excuse to carry the audio cable for your headset in your carry bag.

Good luck, and i’d be interested in hearing what you think.

:: Waiting For Mr. Good Avenger

There’s a really popular movie opening this weekend. You’ve heard of it. It’s earned (no kidding) $1.2 Billion dollars in the opening weekend and everyone says it awesome.

Mind you, being a card carrying nerd, i should probably either have seen it, have tickets to see it, or be in some theater right now watching it. i’m not.

Truth is, i’m not really sure i enjoy going to movie theaters anymore. i mean, they’re comfy, and the screen is huge and all, but they don’t really hold the same appeal to me anymore.

There are probably a lot of reasons for this. If i go to a given movie, i usually do it alone because most of the folks i’d want to go see a nerdy superhero beat-em-up live hours if not hundreds of miles from me (Thanks Internets!), so i’d be the sad, old dude in the back of a theater. Plus, for a communal activity, you’re supposed to be quiet. i mean, i get that nobody wants to hear about your rectal exam while Thor and the Hulk share a tender bonding moment bashing in alien skulls, but anything other than applause at predesignated points is roundly frowned upon. Then, you pay to watch the movie, and get 45 minutes of the same commercials you see on TV, previews for other movies you probably already saw on YouTube, and told to shut up repeatedly. (It’s not like audience participation ever really worked for a movie, after all.)

i dunno, but it just isn’t fun anymore.

So this means that watching something “spoiler free” just doesn’t happen.

i’m pretty sure that within hours i’ll find out about Iron Man’s defeat at the hooves of Hellcow, the surprise Jubilee/Dazzler dance number, or Thanos being defeated by the rise of Dr Bong. It’s ok. i honestly don’t care about spoilers because knowing that the whale won doesn’t make Moby Dick any less of a work of literature, and i’m pretty sure everyone who binge watches movies on Christmas has at least a clue about Clarence’s wings. If your movie runs for 3 hours and can’t survive someone knowing that Thanos has a severe reaction to Rice Krispie treats, well, it’s probably a 3 hour movie folks can skip.

So, i’ll probably just have to contend myself for waiting the 4 months to a year until the studios decide to let some streaming service run it. Heck, maybe i’ll even pony up $20 to watch a couple of Marvel flicks off of Disney+, and then cancel when i’m done.

At least i can hit the pause button to refresh the popcorn bowl.

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