# List Of Programming Project Ideas.

The best way to learn to program is to work on projects, so here’s some ideas for projects for beginners, intermediate, and advanced programmers. Remember: it doesn’t matter whether or not you finish these projects. What matters is what you learn along the way. If you have any ideas for things to add to this list you can email me at noahmartinwilliams@gmail.com with the subject “programming project ideas”.

Assembly:

• A program that exits with return status 0
• A program that prints “hello, world”

C:

• A Linux kernel driver for a USB button.
• A C standard library that has memory allocation using the buddy algorithm.
• An arduino program that blinks an LED.
• An arduino program which turns on a motor which closes or opens a window based on the temperature.

Golang:

• A library that parses xml concurrently.
• A Simple web server that serves up one html page.
• A web server that serves up all files in the current directory.
• A concurrent pipeline that reads in MNIST samples and uses image magicke to turn them into files, and maybe apply some optional filters.
• A concurrent system that runs dijkstra’s algorithm.
• A web server that uses youtube-dl to download youtube videos automatically, save them, and play them back to whoever owns the server.
• A program that uses concurrency, and image magicke to automagically fix the gamma settings for a huge number of image files in parallel.
• A reddit scraper.

Prolog:

• A script that helps you pick out parts for a PC.
• A simple package manager using an sqlite library.
• A script that lets you access firefox web history and use readln to issue queries about it.
• A script that acts as a pharmacist.

• A program that takes an integer and tells you if the integer is prime using a parallelized brute force method.
• A password cracker that uses the Control.Parallel.Strategies library.
• A program that takes in an adjacency list as a CSV file and spits out an adjacency matrix.
• A program that runs K-means image segmentation on it’s input using the accelerate library for GPU acceleration.
• A neural network library that uses dependent types, and the accelerate library.
• A program that can lazily generate all possible tweets.

Bash:

• An rsync wrapper that backs up your files using snapshot backups.
• A program that finds duplicate files in a directory and makes them the same file using hard links so as to save space.
• A script that grabs a random line from a given file.
• A script that renames every file to include the date and time it was modified in the file name.

Lex and Yacc:

• An XML parser.
• A C compiler.
• A programming language that has all the features you wish other programming languages had.
• A parser for the wavefront obj file format.

Erlang:

• A simple web forum using the yaws program.
• A gopher server.
• A bank website.
• A server that can serve up videos.
• A Debian package server.
• A mastodon web server.

Python:

• A script that uses AI to draw googly eyes on images.

Octave/Matlab:

• A script that uses rotation, scaling, and translation matrices to trilaterate the position of a thing given it’s distances to four given points in 3D space.
• A neural network script.

Pytorch:

• A script that can read a text file and summarize it using transformers.

Projects where you’ll have to decide on your own what language to use:

• A program that reads in a wavefront obj file and displays it in a window, and the user can rotate the model around to see it from different angles.
• A twitter client that uses ncurses.
• A quick script or program that can generate the sound of what hydrogen should theoretically sound like when excited.
• A remote controlled differential drive robot (note: this will require some knowledge of electrical engineering).
• A program that argues with the user (bonus points if it uses AI).
• Add a new feature to an existing project on github.com

# How To Install Linux

In the last post I listed a series of websites for the different various Linux distros. If you’ve never used Linux before and want to use it then I’d recommend Linux Mint because it’s made for beginners. Unfortunately installing Linux is both easy and hard.

It’s easy if you have some technical skills and it’s almost effortless if you’ve installed Linux before, but it’s not possible to list out what buttons to press, because each computer model has a slightly different way of installing Linux.

There’s simply no way to write a single article detailing how to deal with every possible thing that might come up purely because there are too many different models of computers out there. The steps tend to be nearly identical for each one, but it will take some technical skills to do this.

Also it’s possible to screw things up in such a way that you can’t boot up your computer, but Linux Mint tries to make it harder to do that.

You may want to do this on an old laptop that doesn’t contain any files that you care about.

In order to install Linux you’ll need to download an ISO file from the website for whichever one you choose.

The next step is to download and install this free software program: https://rufus.ie/en_US/

Then plug in a USB stick into your computer. All the files will be wiped from this USB stick, so make sure it doesn’t contain anything important.

If you want to use Linux alongside Windows then you should also defragment your hard drive, and if you’re low on disk space then you may want to back up and/or delete any large unwanted files from your computer.

Next use Rufus to burn the ISO image to the USB stick.

Next reboot your computer with the USB stick still in. If you’re on a laptop then make sure that your computer is fully charged and plugged in. If the power goes out during the installation process then it might break Windows and/or Linux.

Now comes the hardest part. It used to be as simple as simple as rebooting with the USB stick in your computer for every computer, but computer companies changed the default settings to boot to Windows instead.

If your computer doesn’t automatically boot to Linux then reboot again, and press F12 and then select the USB stick to boot from. Some computers may require you to press F2 and go into some settings to tell it to boot from USB, others might have you press some other button.

Most computers will flash the logo of the company that made the computer at boot up and have a message saying which button to press to go into settings or which one to press to bring up a menu of options for things to boot from. You want it to boot from the USB drive, and not the internal hard drive.

Once you’re in these settings you can’t use the mouse. You’ll need to move around with only the keyboard. You might want to disable quick boot, and secure boot, and you might want to change the boot priority so that USB devices are booted to first.

Once you’ve booted up to Linux most distros (including Linux Mint) will have an interactive prompt that will guide you through how to install it.

If you want to keep Windows alongside Linux then that’s called “dual booting”, and you’ll need to tell Linux to do that at some point in the installation process. Many distros will by default erase Windows and install over it, so you’ll need to keep an eye open for when it asks you how to install it.

Once you’ve done that you should check out this free pdf book: http://linuxclass.heinz.cmu.edu/doc/tlcl.pdf which will teach you how to use it better.

# What is Linux?

In the previous post I talked about vendor lock-in. Computers are taking over more and more of our daily lives, and this trend of computers controlling more of the world is not likely to come to a stop any time soon.

Soon enough cybernetics might start to become a reality. We may someday soon be able to upgrade ourselves as we can upgrade our machines.
In such a world vendor lock-in would possibly mean slavery towards a corporation. We can’t allow ourselves to be chained to the likes of Microsoft.
We can’t allow our society to remain locked in to the security disaster that Windows so fundamentally is.

At some point you have to ask yourself:
Do you want to be free?

Do you want to take back control? If so then Linux is for you.
Linux is an alternative to Windows and Mac. It’s the official unofficial third option that nobody talks about.
Linux is different from Mac and Windows not just because it’s a different product, but because it’s built in a different way.

Linux wasn’t written by a single corporation. Linux was written by many different organizations and individuals from all around the world.
Anyone can contribute code to the Linux kernel to add new features or fix bugs in it, and countless people already have.

If you don’t trust corporations then Linux is for you.

Linux is designed to be customizable. While other inferior operating systems let you change the background, Linux lets you decide whether or not there even is a background, or if there’s just a command line.
With Linux you can change nearly anything about the system. You can change the desktop to have any kind of theme. You can tell it whether or not to update automatically, whether or not
it should have one clipboard or many, whether or not all your files should be encrypted, and even whether or not it can run Windows programs.

If you want customizability then Linux is for you.

Linux respects your privacy. The kernel can’t contain code that spies on you because anyone who would add such code is legally required to make the instructions to it publicly available, and everyone
would be able to see the code that spies on you and anyone could make a fork of the project that doesn’t spy on you.

If you want privacy then Linux is for you.

Unlike Windows, Linux is designed with security in mind. Whenever a security hole is discovered it is quickly patched up, and an update is released that makes the system more secure for everyone.

Microsoft Windows has security holes in it that everyone has known about for decades which Microsoft has done nothing to fix. With Linux people from all around the world are able to inspect the code and find any security holes, and then file a bug report which quickly gets handled, or even fix it themselves and send the security patch
to the Linux foundation.

If you want security then Linux is for you.

Linux isn’t just one product. There are many variations of Linux that you can choose from. You can go with Linux Mint if you want something that’s simple, Gentoo Linux if you want something that’s really advanced,
Debian Linux if you want something that’s stable, Arch Linux if you want something that’s on the cutting edge, Red Hat Linux if you want something for corporate needs, or any number of other options.
Each of them is a variation on the same thing, and each of them is compatible with each other while still offering variety.

If you want choices then Linux is for you.

Linux has been optimized over decades by talented people from all around the world so that it can run on anything and everything in a way that’s fast, and efficient.
Linux is capable of running on everything from the tiny computer chip in your microwave oven all the way up to the super computers that google uses for their search engine.
From digital wrist watches to servers to super computers, from micro chips to self driving cars, from laptops to airplane autopilots, Linux runs them all behind the scenes and keeps the digital
world safe and secure.

If you want speed and efficiency then Linux is for you.

And now, with help from Valve Software, Linux is gaining the ability to run an increasingly large number of video games. Someday soon Linux may be the definitive choice for video games.
The truth is that Linux is for everyone.

If you want to be free, then Linux is for you.

# Hatsune Miku Is A Scam (kind of).

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old then you don’t really understand it.”

-Albert Einstein

What’s the worst term in your typical end user license agreement? Is it that you can’t sue the company that sold you the program? That they can remotely shut it down at any time for any reason? Is it that you sold your soul to them? No. The worst term in any EULA is the one that seems the most innocent. That you can’t reverse engineer the program.

Hatsune Miku is a scam. Here’s how the scam works.

A computer program is just a series of instructions that a computer follows.
It’s basically just commands that tell the computer what to do.

A file is just a bunch of ones and zeros that is meant to
represent information.

Let’s take a look at some real world examples of this in action:
Imagine that you own a small business. As a business owner you have a lot of documents you need to keep. It doesn’t matter what kind of business you are, you need to keep records of things.

So let’s imagine that you chose to use Microsoft Word to write those documents. Microsoft word is a computer program. It’s just a set of instructions that the machine follows. When you save your document that program follows instructions that tells it how to turn the text you’ve entered into the ones and zeros that go into a file.

When you open that file with word later on there’s another section of the instructions in Word that tells it how to translate the ones and zeros from the file into the document you see on your screen. Those instructions that make up the program are proprietary. You aren’t allowed to know what those instructions are.

That’s just how it’s licensed. As a result nobody knows how to translate word files into documents except Microsoft. So if you’ve got hundreds or thousands of documents in Word then you can’t go through and open each of them up and copy and paste the text into another word editor. That’s just not practical.

You need a word editor from another competitor that can be compatible with Microsoft word documents, but Microsoft tried to make that impossible by keeping the code for processing word documents a secret.

This is the main strategy of Microsoft. It’s called vendor lock-in. Vendor lock-in is when the vendor, in this example Microsoft, sells you a product that you become artificially reliant on, which means you’re
locked in to them. This is very common in the software world. Nearly every proprietary program you’ve ever used does this. It’s gotten so bad that many people reading this article might be thinking:

“So what if you can’t open word documents in anything but Microsoft Word? It’s a word document. It’s only reasonable that you can’t open it with anything else.” But that’s not how things have to be.
The point of vendor lock-in is to make it so that the vendor is not held very accountable to their customers.

That’s what vocaloid does. It’s designed so that you can’t open up vocaloid project files with anything other than vocaloid.

There is another way. There’s free software.

When people speak of free software, they’re referring to freedom, not price.

Free software is software that is licensed in such a way that you are legally allowed, and even encouraged to look at the instructions that make up that free computer program. Companies that write and distribute free software are held more accountable to their customers because if their customers find a bug in the product,
or want a new feature added they can send in a bug report and/or feature request, or they can hire a programmer to fix that bug and/or add that feature.

To prevent the customer from switching over to the modified
product the people who wrote the software have to care about their users.

How you make money off of free software when anyone can legally modify it, and give it away for free is really another story for another time, but there are ways for programmers to get payed while still being held more accountable to their users.

They often don’t get payed as much, but that’s partly because it’s hard to compete with vendor lock-in. Free software projects tend to be underfunded, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If there was a demand for vocaloid to be free software then it might become even more popular than it currently is.

It breaks my heart when I see people saying things like “Oh, Vocaloid is so great”
“Oh, it changed my life.”
“Oh, I’m crying every time I watch a vocaloid concert.”
“Oh, I wish Miku were real and Noah wasn’t.”

It’s okay to love an idea but not condone a dishonest business practice, because this is a corporation. They don’t care about anything other than profits. This whole community looks like a bunch of Apple fanboys if Apple fanboys were an actual cult. It’s a product that is created and controlled by a single corporation, but when a thing becomes free software it becomes something more than that. It becomes a thing that is owned and controlled by multiple corporations and a community. It becomes something that can be permanently embedded into the digital world.

The future is free.

# What is functional programming?

What is functional programming? In a nutshell, functional programming is programming where we minimize the percentage of functions in our code that have side effects. What is a side effect? A side effect is either accessing random numbers, or accessing a global variable, or doing any kind of I/O.

So why is there a word for this? Well because functional functions are purely deterministic. You can call them up with a set of arguments, get a return value, wait a while, and then call them up with the same set of arguments and be guaranteed to get the same return value. This, as it turns out, is a powerful assumption to be able to make about a function.

If it accesses random numbers then it’s not deterministic. If it takes input then it might return a different result when something giving it that input changes. If it’s doing output then that output operation might fail. If it accesses a global variable then the global variable might have changed since the last time the function was called.

To put it plainly a functional function does not rely on it’s environment. It’s just a subroutine that only takes in arguments, does a calculation, and returns an answer. A functional function just does a computation.

So some of the advantages of it are that functional functions are easier to use. They tend to line up with how we tend to naturally write software. More on that later. There’s less internal state to think about. You don’t need to get a whole environment set up just to call the function. You can just pass the environment to it as an argument.

It’s more consistent so bugs are more reproducible. There’s no need to worry about race conditions. This means it’s easier to debug, and therefore more stable and more secure. It’s inherently thread safe. It’s faster because it makes no system calls. It has less error checking to deal with. It’s more portable because it doesn’t rely as heavily on system specific system calls. It’s also easier to copy and paste the code into a shared library if the project gets too big.

To put it plainly, maximizing the amount of your code that’s functional has nothing but advantages to it. How often in life do we come across something that has nothing but advantages?

If we’re writing a hypothetical project, like for example an image library then don’t write your code like this:

Img getImage(string filename);

Where you write a function that takes a file name as an argument, reads that file, and then returns an image object. This means that the file can only come from the disk, and can’t be directly taken from a network connection.

Img getImage(byte[] fileContents);
Img getImage(channel byte[] fileContents);

where it takes in either the entire contents of the file as an argument or some kind of channel that spews out the contents of the file one block of data at a time.

Don’t write your blur method like this:

class Img {
void blur()
{
// blur this instance of the image.
}
}

where you write the method to blur that instance of the image object. Odds are that your user will want to keep the original.

class Img {
Img blur()
{
// code
return copyOfImageButBlurred;
}
}

where we return a copy of the image that’s exactly the same except blurred. That’s not as efficient with memory, but we don’t have to be efficient with memory now.

If you’re writing an autopilot then don’t write your code like this:

int main()
{
// get sensor data
// react to input
// get more sensor data
// react to input some more
}

where we do random stuff in whatever order we feel like.

int main()
{
state := initializeState();
while(1) {
input := getSensorInput();
state, commands := processInputFunctionally(state, input);
runCommands(commands);
}
}

where we initialize the state, and then in a loop we gather sensor data, put that, and the state information into a big function with no side effects, and it will return the new state, and commands for what to do and then we execute those commands. This way the code is more modular. The main code for the autopilot can be cleanly removed and hooked into a simulator for testing.

But there’s more to it than that. Functional programming can be taken up a notch with functional programming languages. There are programming languages specifically designed to be functional.

Let’s look at the first one: Lisp. Lisp is a functional scripting language. In lisp variables are immutable. What does that mean? Remember earlier when I told you to write the blur function so it returns a blurred copy of the image? There’s a reason for that. As it turns out, statistically, most variables are set once and then never written to again. Those variables that are written to again tend to be written to in a loop.

As it turns out you can replace loops with recursion and then do away with having to modify the variable more than once and still be Turing complete.
This way people who read your code can assume that any variable will only be set once. This makes it easier to reason about what the code is doing.

If we’re going to create a language where functions will be called up frequently then we need a new syntax that makes calling functions easier.
And here’s what that looks like.

(sqrt (add (square a) (square b)))

As you can see there’s no need for commas. All arguments are separated by spaces, and the function name goes inside the parentheses.

While that’s certainly nice Lisp lacks an important feature: declarative programming. If we’re going to be writing lots of recursive functions then we need to make that easy to do. Most recursive functions will have some kind of if statement that checks the arguments so it knows when to stop. So why not add some special syntax to do exactly that?

factorial :: Int -> Int
factorial 0 = 1
factorial x = x * (factorial (x - 1))

This is what haskell code looks like. What we do is we declare multiple versions of the function, each of which has its own patterns to the arguments that it’s expecting. Then when we call the function it will try out one pattern after another until it finds one that fits and then it will run the associated version of the function. If you want to write a function that takes the factorial of something you can do that in just three lines of code in haskell.

This is known as declarative programming. In declarative programming we give the computer a set of declarations, and the pose it a query and it uses those declarations to figure out the answer to that query.

We can use pattern matching and declarative programming for more than that. Prolog is a scripting language based on predicate logic. In predicate logic we take the set of everything in the entire universe and use functions that return true or false, known as predicates, to filter out anything that’s not an answer until we get the set of all answers, and we can do so declaritively.

Here’s what that looks like.

is_smart(noah).
is_smart(nate).
is_smart(bob).

We can issue a query to this code through an interactive prompt that will list everyone who is smart. We can also create predicates that use other predicates to filter out invalid answers.

is_smart(noah).
is_smart(nate).
is_smart(bob).
has_computer(noah).
has_computer(nate).
is_programmer(X):- is_smart(X), has_computer(X).

The way this works is through backtracking. Here is a page that explains how that works internally: http://www.amzi.com/articles/prolog_under_the_hood.htm

Prolog has another feature: atoms. An atom is like a string except that it’s, ideally, immutable. Atoms are used as messages that get sent to functions. A lot of large programming projects send information around as strings, so why not make that easier and more efficient? That’s what prolog does. Any identifier that’s not a predicate and that does not start with an uppercase letter is assumed to be an atom.

Atoms show up in other languages as well, like for example erlang.
Erlang is a programming language that was intended to be used for distributed computing systems. It’s functional, concurrent, declarative, and part of it’s declarative nature means it can use atoms to match patterns against incoming messages.

Here we see something like that:

process_http(...) ->
{get, ...} ->
// foo
{post, ...} ->
// bar
end.

This erlang function, when it reaches this chunk of code, will check it’s incoming channel for messages, and it will execute code foo if the message is a tuple that starts with the atom ‘get’, and it will execute code bar if it receives a tuple that begins with the atom ‘post’.

Erlang is specifically designed to be THE solution for distributed computing systems. It’s got almost everything you could want, except for buffering.
Erlang channels are unbuffered. It’s very easy to accidentally slurp up a huge file into memory that is too large to fit in memory on the computer that the erlang routine is running on. Unlike in golang where all channels are buffered so as to protect against running out of memory, erlang coroutines can run out of memory when loading a large file.

So how do we solve this problem? Earlier I suggested that we should write functions that load up images by taking the entire contents of the image file as an argument. What if the image is too big to fit into memory?

This is where lazy evaluation comes in. Lazy evaluation allows us to build infinitely large data structures. Lazy expressions are only executed when they’re needed. The way that works is that a function which is pure can be executed later instead of right now because it will return the same result either way.

Haskell is a lazy language. Every expression in Haskell is lazily executed. This enables us to write programs that will naturally process input as much as possible while still reading it. It’s not possible to tell when a chunk of code will be run in a lazy language, but we don’t have to care because it will give us the same result in the end anyways.

fib :: Int -> Int -> [Int]
fib a b = b : (fib (b + a) a)

The above code will return the entire Fibonacci sequence in a list. It returns a cell containing the first argument as the head, and the tail is a data structure which contains a function pointer to fib and the list of arguments.

But what if we have an error lazily loading the image? This is where monads come in. A monad is a thing that we can use to check for errors, and also use it for global variables. Here’s the idea: in C if we have a function that does IO then that IO might fail, so we need to be able to return an error indicator, but the function calling THAT function also does IO because something it called does IO.

Ultimately what we tend to do in real life is either handle the errors if we can, or, more often, just throw the error up one until it reaches the top so the user can deal with the problem. That’s exactly what a monad does. A function which uses a monad in Haskell either returns a successful value or throws something up with an error value.

getImage :: Monad m => ByteString -> m Img
getImage [] = fail "Error: empty file"
getImage fileContents = do
-- code
return img
main :: IO ()
main = do
c <- openFile "file.png"
i <- getImage c
foo
bar

You can also chain together monad functions so that if any step in the process fails then it will just stop right there. You can also use them to chain together functions that access global variables.

I hope that you’ll try out some of the ideas I’ve presented here. No idea should go unchallenged forever, and I think the idea of “truly object oriented” needs to be challenged now. Unlike the vaguely defined idea of truly object oriented, functional programming has a precise definition. With functional programming you can apply this idea to your existing code bit by bit and see some immediate improvements.

It can be slightly hard to get into the habit of doing things in a functional way, but it’s well worth it.

The future is functional.

# The Best Intro To Linux I Could Come Up With

I often need to explain to people what Linux is, but I couldn’t find any articles or videos that I think explain what it is sufficiently well. In an earlier blog post I lazily linked to a youtube video that explains how to install Linux mint, but now I’m going to explain it in more depth.

What is Linux?

The short answer is that Linux is an operating system kernel. Most people are unfamiliar with what an operating system is, much less a kernel. So let me explain. An operating system is merely a program, or series of programs that manages the hardware and software on your computer for you. When you download and install a program that program gets registered with the operating system, and when it runs it makes requests to the operating system to do things.

A kernel is just the core program of an operating system. You can’t use just a kernel on it’s own. You need other programs to run with it. There are many operating systems that use Linux. These are called “Linux distributions” You are probably already familiar with Microsoft Windows (which is an operating system), and you may have even used Mac OS X. Unfortunately Apple and Microsoft have created some widespread misconceptions about how operating systems work so let’s clear them up.

Microsoft does not sell computers. They do sell some hardware, but they are a software company first and foremost. Their main product is Microsoft Windows. Most places where you can get computers from sell computers from different various companies (Dell, Toshiba, etc) which have Microsoft Windows already installed. This has led many to believe that Windows is a part of the computer, rather than a program running on it.

Another misconception is the idea of “Mac Vs PC”. Apple released and advertisement campaign where they compared “Macs to PCs” which created the notion that there are only two options. It didn’t help that Apple’s Mac OS X operating system only likes to run on Macintosh computers, and that Apple doesn’t like anything else running on their machines.

Linux is a series of alternative operating systems. There are hundreds of Linux operating systems (AKA distributions, or distros), but the main ones for a beginner are Ubuntu and Linux Mint. Linux distros have the stereotype of being hard to use, so Ubuntu was made by a company called Canonical to be a user-friendly Linux distro; however they were recently accused by many of having lost touch with what their users want (the same old story every time, am I right?).

Thankfully the license that Linux distros are under encourage people to look at the code behind them, modify the code, and then give away the modified version for free, or for a price. The end user license agreements for Windows and Mac OS X say that you can’t do that. Linux’s license encourages that.

How do I get Linux?

Debian was thrown in there because that’s the one I use. Installing an operating system is different from installing other kinds of programs. You’ll need to download an ISO image, and then burn it to a DVD (like people did in the good old days), or a USB drive (many old computers don’t support this but all the modern ones do).

You might also want to back up all your files, have a Windows install disc, and also have defragmented your drive. The next step will be to reboot, but before we do let’s talk about a little bit of theory here. Your computer uses what’s called a BIOS (Basic Input Output System). When the computer starts it runs the POST (Power On Self Test) where it checks the hardware to make sure it’s not missing anything. At this point it will display the logo of the company that made your computer onto the screen very briefly (unless it’s been configured not to).

In the old days the BIOS would check different things on the computer to see what operating systems it could find. It would start with the DVD, and if there was no DVD then it went on to the hard drive (where Windows was preinstalled). If there was a DVD in the tray really ancient computers would try to run what’s on the DVD as an OS, and if it was actually just a movie on the disc it would give weird errors. Later ones would be smart enough to check if there was an OS on the disk.

Unfortunately, because everyone and their brother was using Windows anyways computer stores would reconfigure the BIOS to start with the hard drive, and only check the DVD tray, or USB drive second. This means that many of the users who have little ability to solve technical problems on their own will have a hard time installing Linux.

When the logo for the company that made the computer is displayed it will tell you to press a button to reconfigure the BIOS (usually F2), most of them will also tell you which button to press to choose which device to boot from (usually F12). Some users need guides that tell them exactly what to do step by step right down to which button to press, unfortunately there’s no universal way to install an OS. You’ll need to have some ability to solve technical problems on your own (though you won’t need very much).

Now we can reboot the computer with the USB stick still in (or the DVD still in the tray). Once we’ve selected the device to boot from Linux will be running and there will be a nice installer that you can follow. You can install Linux so that it’s a replacement for Windows, or you can set up your computer to ask you whether to use Windows or Linux when it starts up (this is called “dual booting”.) The installation process is very simple for Ubuntu and Linux Mint. Debian’s is more advanced, but I have no problem with it.

Once it’s installing it will probably take a while to run, so let’s go over the advantages of Linux. Linux is far more secure than Windows is. You’ll still run into technical problems with Linux, but security won’t be one of them. There’s no need for antivirus software for Linux. Linux is also much faster, and can run on much older hardware.

Unfortunately many of the programs you use on Windows will not run on Linux without WINE. WINE allows Linux to run Windows programs, but it eliminates some of the security Linux has. Thankfully most programs for Windows have Linux alternatives which are very compatible with the Windows versions.

Something you might want for Linux is this: The Linux Command Line By William Shotts

With that you’ll be able to solve technical problems, and automate daily tasks in ways that will make you wonder how you ever managed without it.

# The story of wheely bot.

Some time ago I found a video series on how to program robots right here on programming robots, and I decided to try and make one named wheely bot. This is its story.

The first version was pretty simple. I ordered a simple body for it off of the Internet, as well as a motor controller circuit, and two wheel encoders. I used an Arduino uno that I already had laying around and programmed it to rotate itself and adjust its angle based off of what the angle of the wheels were. It knew what the angles of its wheels were based off of the wheel encoders, and it used a PID controller to adjust itself.

Unlike my previous attempts at robots this one didn’t just assume that the wheels had rotated by exactly what it told them to rotate by. Unfortunately there was a lot of wiring going to the Arduino and it began to become a little bit too much. To resolve this I tried buying some small breadboards to attach to the body, and put an Arduino Nano on them to help the Uno and reduce the wiring.

The idea was pretty simple: the Nano would gather sensor data, and use it to figure out what was going on, and the uno would control things and ask the Nano what was going on via I2C. This worked, but I still had a problem that had plagued the robot from the beginning: the wheel encoders weren’t very accurate. They were always up to ten degrees off from what the actual angle of the wheels were.

To fix this I tried getting four sonars, and decided to attach two to each side, and I came up with a math formula that would allow me to figure out what its angle to the wall was given the distances that the sonars were returning. This way it could find a wall and try to adjust itself.

I had even come up with a library for automagically calculating the accuracy of a given number that I got from a calculation.

It was around this time that tragedy struck. I had been using a two rechargeable double A batteries, and a 9v battery to power it because the motor driver need 12 volts to operate, however everything else needed 5 volts, so I had been using a 5v regulator. Unfortunately everything was drawing a lot of current, and that caused the regulator to break, and, weirdly enough, put out more than 5 volts. This fried basically everything.

After some panic over losing potentially everything, I bought two new arduinos, and they broke as well. So I tried buying a DC to DC converter which could offer more current, and not break as easily as well as get some 6v rechargeable batteries that could offer more current.

Since I was tight on money I decided to use a raspberry pi zero that I had laying around as the control brain, and use the new Arduino Uno that I had as the sensor brain/motor controller.

Since programming a raspberry pi zero is different than programming an Arduino I have not yet been able to get all of my original code (located here) to work yet, but I have however added a new feature: unlike the previous wheely bot, the new one has a USB Wi-Fi adapter that connects to my home network, and allows me to remotely login to it, and remote control it.

I’ve finally gotten the remote control program working, as well as the on board camera that I had added to the raspberry pi zero. Now I finally have a remote control toy with an onboard camera like I’ve always wanted as a kid.

You can find the new and improved Wheely bot source codes (“codes” because there’s more than one program) here   ,here, and here.

There’s also a youtube video: here

# How Electricity Works: Part 7 Why Some Electrical Sockets Have Three Holes

Earlier in this series I told you how voltage can be thought of like the height that electricity starts at, and that it’s “height” is relative; however height can also be measured as an absolute, and so can voltage.

You can measure the height of a hot air balloon from the center of the Earth if you really want to, but your ruler won’t do that for you unless you can get it to reach the center of the Earth.

Similarly your multimeter won’t measure the absolute voltage unless you attach it to something that actually does have zero voltage. What exactly can have zero voltage? Do insulators have zero voltage? Does a rubber balloon have zero voltage? Not if you rub it against your hair.

Voltage is what comes from charge. Whenever you have charge you have voltage, and whenever you have voltage you have charge. If high voltages can kill you by putting too much current through your heart, then that means that too much charge can kill you.

Electrons and protons are dangerous little things. A small amount of them (like the amount in a charged balloon) isn’t enough to hurt you, but if there’s too much then that can cause problems. The problems come from the fact that having too many charged things (like electrons or protons) in a small space without an opposite charge to cancel them out will cause the voltage at any point near them to be too high.

This is sort of like how having too much mass in one spot will cause their gravity to become stronger.  So how do you get those electrons/protons apart so that they’re not so concentrated and don’t have so much voltage? You let them enter a big conductor. Remember: like charges repel. If a bunch of electrons are all close to each other then they’re trying to get away from each other; however they can only move through conductors.

If you hook up a giant conductor to your giant, charged, helium balloon of death that is, for example, the size of the Earth then that will neutralize the threat. This is why any electronic with a metal case that plugs into the wall has a third prong on it.

That third bit of metal connects the metal case straight into the ground because the ground conducts electricity. If part of the circuit that connects directly to one of the two metal prongs on the plug touches the metal case, then the charge from the outlet will go into the ground, and hopefully not hurt you when you touch the metal case.

# How Electricity Works: Part 5: The Resistance

In the last post I talked about power, now let’s talk about how to figure out how much power a circuit uses. Pretty much any circuit out there can be thought of as being sort of like one big resistor. It has a resistance. The resistance of a circuit can vary depending on really anything we want it to vary on, but the same rules still apply: if we put a voltage across it, then:
$\latex{E=I*R}$

Where E is the voltage, I is the current, and R is the resistance of the circuit. Remember: electrons are like rain drops falling from the sky. As they lose height (voltage) at a certain speed (current) they release energy over time. The amount of power they give off is equal to the height they start at (voltage) times the rate at which they lose it (current).

In other words:
$\latex{P=E*I}$

Since
$\latex{\frac{E}{R}=I}$
and $\latex{P=E*I}$
then $\latex{P=\frac{E*E}{R}=\frac{E^2}{R}}$

Isn’t math fun? If you’re as awesome as I am then you can just look at that formula and tell that the higher the resistance, the less power it will use (for a voltage source). If the resistance is too low then it will use a lot of power. In other words it will be pulling energy out at a fast rate. Where does that energy go? Well it depends on what kind of circuit this is, but if it’s just a plain old resistor then it’s being lost as heat, and if too much heat is coming out of it then it might explode.

All resistors have their own rating for how much power they can safely handle before they abuse it explode. But not to worry, we can protect it with another resistor.

Like this:

I’m the best at drawing stuff.  So R1 might be our big, bulky resistor, while R2 might be our small, wimpy one. To calculate how much power is going through each (since we’re so concerned about it) we just calculate the current going through each, and multiply it by the resistance across each one.

Since they’re in series that means that the current through both of them is the same, and that their resistances add up. So:

$\latex{I=\frac{V}{R1+R2}}$

And for the voltages: they’re the current multiplied by the voltage.

$\latex{V1=R1*\frac{V}{R1+R2}=V*\frac{R1}{R1+R2}}$

This is known as the voltage divider rule. Note that for any number of resistors in series each one will be “dropping” a voltage (i.e. it will have a voltage across it), and that the voltages across all the resistors add up to V. Also note that the biggest resistor gets the most voltage, and therefore the most power.

To get the power we just multiply that by the current we calculate earlier (which is a long formula to write out).

# How electricity works. Part 6: voltage and current sources.

One of the things that confused me about current was how batteries would specify a current on them even though the current is supposed to vary depending on the resistance based on ohm’s law.

So here’s how that actually works: there are two kinds of electrical power supplies: voltage sources, and current sources. Ideally voltage sources always offer the same voltage across them regardless of how little resistance you put across it, and ideally a current source will push the same current through a circuit regardless of how much resistance the circuit has.

If you place a really high resistance across a voltage source then the current going through the resistor will be low, an thus there will be very little power being used, and if you place a high resistance across a current source then the voltage across the resistor will be really high, while the current remains constant so it would be using quite a lot of power.

However in real life we don’t have ideal voltage and current sources. In real life voltage sources can be thought of as being like this:

As you can see a real voltage source is basically an ideal voltage source but with a resistor in series with it. This resistance is usually pretty low, but it means that if you short out the circuit then the voltage between the two terminals is zero. Also if you put too small of a resistance across it then the voltage goes down as the internal resistor of the voltage source is dropping almost all of the voltage.

If the current that your circuit is drawing is above the current that the power source specifies then that will blow up that resistor and/or the battery, or at the very least the voltage will drop.

In addition to voltage sources having a secret resistor, current sources have one too.

Usually the internal resistance of a current source is pretty high. What this means is that if you put a resistor across its terminals that has too high of a resistance, then you won’t get very much current because more of that current can go through the internal resistor.

Every power source has these flaws. Whether they’re batteries, electrical outlets, power adapters, solar panels, or whatever other crazy sources of electrical energy we come up with.