Off-The-Shelf Hacker: This Story was Composed on a $9 Linux Computer

13 Aug 2016 6:36am, by

We’ve all heard the phrase “Eating your own dog food.”

The idea behind the saying is that you actually use the products and services that you build. It’s great advice for hardware, software and business people.

It applies to old-dog tech columnists, like me, as well. I should live with the technology, gadgets and software that I write about.

A couple of weeks ago, we reviewed the CHIP computer. This time, we’ll go through the process of writing a TNS Off-The-Shelf Hacker story, on a CHIP computer.

I’ll talk about what I like and point out rough spots. Keep in mind that this is a $9 Linux-based computer. There certainly are limitations to its capabilities although you shouldn’t mistake the CHIP for a toy. You are reading the proof, right now, since all of this copy, the process of uploading it into the TNS’s content manager, and graphics editing were done on the CHIP. It only took a little bit longer than usual. As the technology matures, I’m definitely thinking about building a battery-powered notebook, using a nano-Linux board.

The point is that complete sub credit-card sized computer boards are a massive, positive trend in the Linux and physical computing world. And, it just keeps getting better.

Did I mention I was a dog in my last life?

Let’s chow down.

What’s In The Feed Bowl?

The rig for this week’s installment consists of the following:

  • CHIP computer board
  • Logitech K400r wireless keyboard/mousepad
  • 5-volt, 2 amp wall wart
  • 5-year old 19” LG LCD TV
  • Samsung Galaxy S5 Active superphone

There’s a little audio-video cable that’s used to connect the CHIP to the composite video input on the TV and is included in the CHIP box.

For this project, I simply let the CHIP hang off the back of the TV by the cable. Shortly after the machine boots, you can click on the WiFi icon to connect to your LAN. Remember, the CHIP has built-in WiFi and Bluetooth.

It’s always a good idea to start with the latest version of software, so I made sure everything was up to date, as soon as I cracked open the CHIP box. Recall these two commands:

It will take a few minutes to download and install all the applications. One thing I like about the CHIP is that there’s no micro-SD card. Linux lives in flash memory on the board. Sweet!

Abiword is bundled into the CHIP desktop and you could use that for writing a story if you wanted. I prefer to use LibreOffice, so it’s a straightforward task to add it with apt-get.

It only takes a few minutes to install the program and then it will show up in the main menu.

Like many sites, TNS uses WordPress as it’s content manager, so a web browser is needed for access. Iceweasel handled that duty, pretty well.

Lapping Up The Kibbles

Starting LibreOffice Writer only takes about 20 seconds. We only have 512 MB of RAM. Not too bad really.

A big reason I like to create stories in Writer is the undo function and the ability to continue writing even when I’m not connected to the internet. Writer lets me undo dozens of changes if needed. Online editors generally have much more limited undo capabilities.

I typically compose an entire article offline in Writer, then copy and paste the text into the content manager screen, using the browser. Word tweaks, final edits, links, inserting graphics and manually-added specialty HTML codes are all completed in WordPress, right before I submit a story for posting.

This very story was posted according to that formula, from my LAN connected CHIP.

Using Writer and the Iceweasel browser are a little clunky. Composite video mode runs at something like 480 x 320 resolution. Much of the screen is taken up by menus and status lines, so there are only a few dozen lines available for writing text, depending on the Zoom setting and font size. Patience and practice are the operative words if you were going to use the CHIP for production work.

Iceweasel is a little more quirky than Writer. Screen resolution on the browser makes it “interesting” to view modern websites. Take the Drudge Report, for example. It has a huge number of advertisements with links on their page, even though the main content is mostly just text and links. Many of the links are animated, which means lots of data flowing to and from my browser. Parts of the page are nearly continuously updated. One ill effect is that when you scroll down the page, it will sometimes refresh something and you’ll be bumped back up to the top.

The moral of the story is that your mileage with web pages on the CHIP may stretch your patience a bit. Nevertheless, it works and it is pretty stable.

WordPress wasn’t too bad on the Iceweasel browser, although the resolution certainly makes editing a story more of a chore than on my 14-inch 1280 x 800 resolution ASUS notebook screen.

Out Chasing Cars

The graphics used in my stories are captured with my Samsung Galaxy S5. I then ship the photos over to my ASUS notebook using email. I essentially send myself the pictures since I have mail clients on both the Android phone and my notebook.

I wasn’t going to run a mail client on the CHIP, so getting photos from my phone turned out to be a real adventure.

The easiest way to transfer files, in my opinion, on Linux machines, is to use the scp command in a terminal. Next, the best solution is to set up an FTP client.

Both schemes are complicated and tedious on an Android phone. Thumbing in the horrendously long file names, including all the ridiculous Android directories, just plain stinks. I banged my head on the table for a while, trying to get it to work over the network before taking a break and regrouping.

Then the 100-watt LED went on above my head and caught my fur on fire.

Use Bluetooth.

I clicked on the Bluetooth icon at the upper right corner of the desktop and quickly paired the CHIP with the Galaxy. It was then easy to send the 6.0 MB file of the keyboard, monitor and board from the phone to the CHIP, in about 60 seconds. Yes, Bluetooth is pretty slow. It turned out to be a convenient and simple way to move the file. I’m glad the Next Thing Company bundled WiFi and Bluetooth on the CHIP.

Once the file was safely moved over, I used GIMP to edit the photo.

Usually, all I have to do is resize the graphic to a reasonable 1024 x 576, or so and export it as a .png file. I always use a compression of 9, resulting in a much more manageable file of around 1.2 MB. This size gives good resolution and doesn’t take very long to upload to WordPress.

The Gimp and LibreOffice Writer running on the CHIP

GIMP and LibreOffice Writer running on the CHIP.

Burying The Bone

Now you have a very brief glimpse into what it takes to put an Off-The-Shelf-Hacker story up on The New Stack.

The CHIP is a great bargain at $9 per bag. You won’t get that at the pet store. Lots of functionality and as you can see can serve as a production machine. Although not the fastest pup in the pack, it certainly demands respect.

I’m anxious to see what a Fido, Spike or Tater board looks like.

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