Pick Up The Ball And Run With It

Once in a while we get to glimpse how people build on each other’s work in unexpected and interesting ways. So it is with the GateBoy project, a gate-level emulator built from die shots of the original Game Boy processor. The thing is, [Austin Appleby] didn’t have to start by decapping and taking photos of the chip. He didn’t even have to make his own schematics by reverse engineering those structures. Someone else had already done that and made it available for others to use. A couple of years back, [Furrtek] started manually tracing out the DMG chip and posted schematics to the DMG-CPU-Inside repo, kindly licensing it as CC-BY-SA 4.0 to let people know how they can use the info.

But playing Game Boy games isn’t actually the end game of [Austin’s] meticulous gate-level recreation. He’s using it to build “a set of programming tools that can bridge between the C/C++ universe used by software and the Verilog/VHDL universe used by hardware.” A new tool has been born, not for gaming, but for converting a meta language that assigns four-letter codes to gate structures (somewhat reminiscent of DNA sequences) and will eventually convert them to your choice of C++ or a Hardware Description Language for use with FPGAs.

The open source community is playing four-dimensional football. Each project moves the ball downfield, but some of them add an additional goal in an alternate hardware universe — advancing the aims of both (like finding and fixing some errors in [Furrtek’s] original schematics).

Of course the real challenge is getting the word out that these projects exist and can be useful for something you’re working on. For instance, [Neumi’s] depth sounding rowboat allows an individual to make detailed depth maps of lakes, rivers, and the like. It was in the comments that the OpenSeaMap project was brought up — a site working to create crowd sourced waterway charts. It’s the perfect place for [Neumi] to get inspiration, and help move that ball toward a set of goals.

How do we get the word out so more of these connections happen? We’ll do our part here at Hackaday. But it’s the well-document and thoughtfully-licensed projects that set the up playing field in the first place.

Pulling the Google logo off of a smartphone

Pining For A De-Googled Smartphone

Last summer in the first swings of the global pandemic, sitting at home finally able to tackle some of my electronics projects now that I wasn’t wasting three hours a day commuting to a cubicle farm, I found myself ordering a new smartphone. Not the latest Samsung or Apple offering with their boring, predictable UIs, though. This was the Linux-only PinePhone, which lacks the standard Android interface plastered over an otherwise deeply hidden Linux kernel.

As a bit of a digital privacy nut, the lack of Google software on this phone seemed intriguing as well, and although there were plenty of warnings that this was a phone still in its development stages it seemed like I might be able to overcome any obstacles and actually use the device for daily use. What followed, though, was a challenging year of poking, prodding, and tinkering before it got to the point where it can finally replace an average Android smartphone and its Google-based spyware with something that suits my privacy-centered requirements, even if I do admittedly have to sacrifice some functionality.

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ReactOS Is Going Places, With More Stable AMD64, SMP, And Multi-Monitor Support

In the crowd of GNU/Linux and BSD users that throng our community, it’s easy to forget that those two families are not the only games in the open-source operating system town. One we’ve casually kept an eye on for years is ReactOS, the long-running open-source Windows-compatible operating system that is doing its best to reach a stable Windows XP-like experience. Their most recent update has a few significant advances mentioned in it that hold the promise of it moving from curiosity to contender, so is definitely worth a second look.

ReactOS has had 64-bit builds for a long time now, but it appears they’ve made some strides in both making them a lot more stable, and moving away from the MSVC compiler to GCC. Sadly this doesn’t seem to mean that this now does the job of a 64-bit Windows API, but it should at least take advantage internally of the 64-bit processors. In addition they have updated their support for the Intel APIC that is paving the way for ongoing work on multiprocessor support where their previous APIC driver couldn’t escape the single processor constraint of an original Intel 8259.

Aside from these its new-found support for multiple monitors should delight more productive users, and its improved support for ISA plug-and-play cards will be of interest to retro enthusiasts.

We took a close look at the current ReactOS release when it came out last year, and concluded that its niche lay in becoming a supported and secure replacement for the many legacy Windows XP machines that are still hanging on years after that OS faded away. We look forward to these and other enhancements in their next release, which can’t be far away.

Custom RISC-V Processor Built In VHDL

While ARM continues to make inroads into the personal computing market against traditional chip makers like Intel and AMD, it’s not a perfect architecture and does have some disadvantages. While it’s a great step on the road to software and hardware freedom, it’s not completely free as it requires a license to build. There is one completely open-source and free architecture though, known as RISC-V, and its design and philosophy allow anyone to build and experiment with it, like this build which implements a RISC-V processor in VHDL.

Since the processor is built in VHDL, a language which allows the design and simulation of integrated circuits, it is possible to download the code for the processor and then program it into virtually any FPGA. The processor itself, called NEORV32, is designed as a system-on-chip complete with GPIO capabilities and of course the full RISC-V processor implementation. The project’s creator, [Stephan], also struggled when first learning about RISC-V so he went to great lengths to make sure that this project is fully documented, easy to set up, and that it would work out-of-the-box.

Of course, since it’s completely open-source and requires no pesky licensing agreements like an ARM platform might, it is capable of being easily modified or augmented in any way that one might need. All of the code and documentation is available on the project’s GitHub page. This is the real benefit of fully open-source hardware (or software) which we can all get behind, even if there are still limited options available for RISC-V personal computers for the time being.

How does this compare to VexRISC or PicoSOC? We don’t know yet, but we’re always psyched to have choices.

Hands-On Review: TCam-Mini WiFi Thermal Imager

A thermal camera is a tool I have been wanting to add to my workbench for quite a while, so when I learned about the tCam-Mini, a wireless thermal camera by Dan Julio, I placed an order. A thermal imager is a camera whose images represent temperatures, making it easy to see things like hot and cold spots, or read the temperature of any point within the camera’s view. The main (and most expensive) component of the tCam-Mini is the Lepton 3.5 sensor, which sits in a socket in the middle of the board. The sensor is sold separately, but the campaign made it available as an add-on.

Want to see how evenly a 3D printer’s heat bed is warming up, or check whether a hot plate is actually reflowing PCBs at the optimal temperature? How about just seeing how weird your pets would look if you had heat vision instead of normal eyes? A thermal imager like the tCam-mini is the tool for that, but it’s important to understand exactly how the tCam-mini works. While it may look like a webcam, it does not work like one.

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Open Source Is Choice

If you haven’t been following along with the licensing kerfuffle surrounding the open-source Audacity audio editing software, take a sec to read Tom Nardi’s piece and get up to speed. The short version is that a for-profit company has bought the trademark and the software, has announced plans to introduce telemetry where there was none, made ominous changes to the privacy policy that preclude people under the age of consent from using the software, and requested that all previous developers acquiesce to a change in the open-source license under which it is published. All the while, the company, Muse, says that it will keep the software open, and has walked back and forth on the telemetry issue.

What will happen to “Audacity”? Who knows. But also, who cares? At least one fork of the codebase has been made, with the telemetry removed and the old open licenses in place. The nicest thing about open source is that I don’t care one bit if my software is named Audacity or Tenacity, and this is software I use every week for production of our podcast. But because I haven’t paid any license fees, it costs me absolutely nothing to download the same software, minus some anti-features, under a different name. If the development community moves over to Tenacity, it’ll all be fine.

Tom thinks that the Audacity brand is too big to fail, and that Muse will have a hit on their hands. Especially if they start implementing new, must-have features, they could justify whatever plans they have in store, even if they’re only available as a “freemium” Audacity Pro, with telemetry, under a more restrictive license. When that does happen, I’ll have to make the choice between those features and the costs, but I won’t be left out in the cold as long as the Tenacity fork gets enough eyes on it. So that’s just more choice for the end-user, right? That’s cool.

Compare this with closed source software. There, when the owner makes an unpopular decision, you simply have to take it or make the leap to an entirely different software package. This can be costly if you’ve gotten good at using that software, and between licenses and learning, there’s a lot of disincentive to switching. Not so in this case. If I don’t want to be tracked while editing audio offline, I don’t have to be. Woot.

The elephant in the room is of course the development and debugging community, and it’s way too early to be making predictions there. However, the same rules apply for devs and users: switching between two virtually identical codebases is as easy as git remote add origin or apt get install tenacity. (Unpaid) developers are free to choose among forks because they like the terms and conditions, because one group of people is more pleasant to work with, or because they like the color of one logo more than the other. Users are just as free to choose.

Time will tell if Audacity ends up like the zombie OpenOffice, which is downloaded in spite of the much superior LibreOffice just because of the former’s name recognition. I know this split riles some people up, especially in the LibreOffice development community, and it does seem unfair that the better software somehow enjoys less reputation. But for those of us in the know, it’s just more choice. And that’s good, right?

Muse Group Continues Tone Deaf Handling Of Audacity

When we last checked in on the Audacity community, privacy-minded users of the free and open source audio editor were concerned over proposed plans to add telemetry reporting to the decades old open source audio editing software. More than 1,000 comments were left on the GitHub pull request that would have implemented this “phone home” capability, with many individuals arguing that the best course of action was to create a new fork of Audacity that removed any current or future tracking code that was implemented upstream.

For their part, the project’s new owners, Muse Group, argued that the ability for Audacity to report on the user’s software environment would allow them to track down some particularly tricky bugs. The tabulation of anonymous usage information, such as which audio filters are most commonly applied, would similarly be used to determine where development time and money would best be spent. New project leader Martin “Tantacrul” Keary personally stepped in to explain that the whole situation was simply a misunderstanding, and that Muse Group had no ill intent for the venerable program. They simply wanted to get a better idea of how the software was being used in the real-world, but after seeing how vocal the community was about the subject, the decision was made to hold off on any changes until a more broadly acceptable approach could be developed.

Our last post on the subject ended on a high note, as it seemed like the situation was on the mend. While there was still a segment of the Audacity userbase that was skeptical about remote analytics being added into a program that never needed it before, representatives from the Muse Group seemed to be listening to the feedback they were receiving. Keary assured users that plans to implement telemetry had been dropped, and that should they be reintroduced in the future, it would be done with the appropriate transparency.

Unfortunately, things have only gotten worse in the intervening months. Not only is telemetry back on the menu for a program that’s never needed an Internet connection since its initial release in 2000, but this time it has brought with it a troubling Privacy Policy that details who can access the collected data. Worse, Muse Group has made it clear they intend to move Audacity away from its current GPLv2 license, even if it means muscling out long-time contributors who won’t agree to the switch. The company argues this will give them more flexibility to list the software with a wider array of package repositories, a claim that’s been met with great skepticism by those well versed in open source licensing.

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