• Coming Soon: Primitive Computing

    I am excited to announce a new project I’m going to be starting to be starting this weekend!

    Have you ever wondered what it would be like to build you’re computer’s entire software stack from scratch? If so, I encourage you to check out the new series I’m going to be starting called Primitive Computing.

    Primitive Computing is going to be a live-coding project where we start with just an assembler and try to boostrap an entire computer operating system. We’ll start by getting the machine to boot, then have some fun with small boot sector programs. The goal from there will be to bootstrap a self-hosted operating environment. This will necessarily require keeping things small. Since assembly language is tedious, we’ll design and implement a slightly higher level language pretty early on. Using this, we’ll build richer operating system constructs and some simple applications such as a text editor.

    The stream will go live at 8:00 PM PST on Sunday, January 17th. The stream will be available here, or you can watch the embedded video below.

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  • Streaming My 3D Printer to Google Home

    Yikes! It’s my first post in over a year!

    During the holidays I was fortunate to be able to take some time off work and was able to tackle a few projects I’ve had on the back burner for a while. One of those is being able to stream my 3D printer camera to Google Home Hub (I guess it’s technically a Google Nest Hub now). For a long time I’ve had an Octoprint instance with a camera so I can keep track of long prints without sitting right by the printer. That works well, but it’s not always the most convenient. We have a Nest Hub in the home which is great for at-a-glance information, and I thought this would be a great way to keep track of my prints.

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  • ​​Automatic Website Deployment With Docker and Google Cloud Build

    Lately, I have been experimenting with serving static web sites via Docker images with NGINX. For the simple sites I am playing with, this configuration is probably overkill, but it’s not too hard to set up and it does have some advantages:

    • This approach makes it easy to capture all of your configuration information in source control, so it’s easy to spin up a new, identical instance of your site.
    • Container hosting is widely available and cheap or even free, meaning you can easily switch providers should the need arise.
    • If your site grows beyond a simple static web page, you have more room to grow because you already control your own servers.
    • Hosting providers have automated tooling that make building and deploying updates to your site as easy as pushing to a git repository.

    I have set up that last bullet point using Google Cloud Build and then hosting my site on a free f1-micro VM. So let’s see how to do it.

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  • When Slow Algorithms Are Faster

    Below are timing results for two searches. One is a linear search, and one is a binary search, but I’ve hidden which search is which.

    Search Execution Time
    ??? 14 ns
    ??? 21 ns

    So which one is which? If you’ve read the title of this post, you might think this is a trick question. Let’s pretend I’m being straight with you though. In our algorithms class, we learned that linear search is O(n), while binary search is O(log n). Since log n is lower than n, obviously the lower number in the table is from the binary search. Right?

    Wrong! In this case, the linear search is actually faster.

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  • Trying Out Octolapse

    About a year ago I bought a Prusa i3 MK2S 3D printer. It’s been a lot of fun, and surprisingly useful for quickly creating custom household gadgets. I primarily drive the printer using OctoPrint, and a few days ago I upgraded to version 1.3.8. One of the new improvements is that it supports the Octolapse plugin for making very nice timelapse videos. I was pretty happy with how my first attempt came out, so I thought I’d share here.

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  • Fun with Side Channels

    In my undergraduate programming languages class, our professor used an auto grader and let us use it to test our programs before we turned them in. We could upload our assignment to the auto grader, where it would run our program through a number of tests and tell us our many out of the total passed. Importantly, the auto grader did not tell us what the test cases were.

    Our professor offered extra credit to any of us who could extract the test cases from the auto grader. The course had been running for years, and each time a student successfully did this they closed that particular hole. By the time I took the class, the auto grader was pretty robust. No one in my class got the extra credit.

    At the time, most of us thought of approaches like directly hacking the grading server, or trying to make our programs write the test cases out so some other place on the server. The auto grader ran on a shared server, and we could access some files stored on that server. It turns out, these approaches are pretty easy to protect against. Presumably you already have an interest in keeping your server secured, so let’s assume directly hacking it is out. Preventing your program from writing rogue files all over the system is easy enough too. Just make sure your programming environment doesn’t have any access to the outside world.

    It turns out there’s a more subtle approach: side channels. Side channels, generally, are a way of using something you control to send a message with information your aren’t supposed to be able to reveal. One common side channel is time. Let’s say you were trying to guess someone’s 4 digit PIN and you had a system that let you try as many times as you wanted. Furthermore, let’s assume that it the password checker were really slow. It would check your PIN digit by digit and each digit takes one second to check. Let’s say you try 4567 and after two seconds the system says your PIN was incorrect. You now know the first two digits are 4 and 5. So next try 4577. This time it still takes two seconds. So try 4587. This time it takes three seconds! This means we’ve figured out the first three digits. With at most 9 more tries, you’ll have figured out the password.

    There’s a reason login systems aren’t designed like that.

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  • How to Convert Recursion to Iteration

    Recursion often yields concise, elegant solutions. Unfortunately, most widely used languages limit how large your program stack can grow. So what do you do if you have a recursive algorithm but need to be able to run it without growing your stack? In this post, we’ll see a generic way to take any recursive algorithm and convert it into an iterative one.

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  • Writing a Statement of Purpose

    Someone recently asked me for some advice in writing a Statement of Purpose for a Ph.D. application. I thought I’d follow Matt Might’s advice and reply to public. Here’s some of the advice I gave.

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  • Making a Magical Whereabouts Clock

    For Christmas of 2015, I made my then girlfriend (now wife!) a Magical Whereabouts Clock. I figured it’s about time to share it with the world as well. This turned out to be an incredibly fun and challenging project.

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  • Migrating to Octopress 3.0

    Over the past several days, I’ve been working to migrate my blog from whatever version of Octopress I was on to Octopress 3.0. The process ended up being more involved and taking longer than I expected, but I think now I have a more powerful and maintainable blogging setup.

    I think my favorite new feature so far is drafts. Before I would attempted to do these using published: false in the YAML header, but this was a bit clunky. The other big improvement is that now Octopress works seamlessly with the rest of Jekyll, since it’s just a plugin. In theory, this means I can pull from the expertise of a bigger pool of users.

    There were a couple of challenges in the migration process:

    • Preserving git history from my old posts while getting rid of the unnecessary stuff.
    • Recreating the archive page in a way that was more or less the same as before
    • Creating category pages in the same locations as before, but not cluttering up the navigation bar.
    • Enabling pagination again.

    For this post, I’m going to focus on how I imported my old posts without losing commit history. The other issues were mostly a matter of finding the right plugins and tweaking the theme in just the right way.

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