Getting setup with the Intel Edison

Edison in handIntel Edison is an adorable little system on a chip packed with all the wireless and processing capabilities to build wearables and smart things. It features a dual-core Intel Atom processor @ 500 MHz, integrated Bluetooth 4 and wifi, USB controllers, 1GB of RAM and 4GB of eMMC flash memory, all in a tiny package. It also features a 32-bit onboard Intel Quark @ 100MHz that can be used as a micro-controller. Unlike the Raspberry Pi, it has no video output capabilities however. It runs Linux, specifically, Yocto Linux that is especially targetted for embedded systems.

If you’re interested in getting to know the Edison, I suggest purchasing a kit such as the Xadow wearable kit for the Intel Edison, which comes with a bunch of sensors and modules that you can use to build some useful applications. It comes with:

  • mini expansion board (a much smaller alternative to the Arduino expansion board),
  • barometer
  • 0.96″ OLED
  • vibration motor
  • NFC sensor with 3 programmable tags
  • a touch sensor
  • 3-axis accelerometer
  • buzzer
  • SD card module
  • breakout board
  • Li-Po battery
  • LED strip
  • FFC and power cables

All in all, a fairly comprehensive set of modules for a hobbyist connected device or wearables project. The kit does NOT include the Edison itself, which needs to be purchased separately. The folks at SparkFun has created a stackable set of “blocks” that can be used to build small form factor devices in a quite ingenious manner.

Fun fact: the Edison is powered by 3.3 to 4.5v and supports 40 GPIO pins that use 1.8v logic.

Step 1: To get started, take out the Xadow expansion board from the kit. It features a 70-pin hirose connector on the back where the Edison can be attached.

Expansion board and edison

Step 2: Place the Edison on top and press until you hear a click. You should then have a fairly firmly attached Edison to the Xadow expansion board.

Edison attached to expansion board

Step 3: Take the Xadow programmer module and a FFC (Flat Flexible Connector) cable from kit, flip open the connector locks on both the programmer module and expansion board. Place the FFC connector as shown below and close the connector lock to keep it in place. It should now look a little like what you see below. Flip the switch that’s highlighted in the red circle to the right, towards the “Device” label indicated by the arrow.

Programmer module and expansion board

Step 4: Connect two micro-USB cables to the connectors on the programmer module and the other end to the computer. This should power up the Edison.

Step 5: Head over to Intel to download and install the IoT Developer Kit for your operating system. As part of the installation process, it will flash your Edison with Yocto. I’ll be covering the flashing process and Yocto in a little bit more detail in a later post, but for now, let Intel do the magic for you.

Step 6: Your Edison should be mostly setup now. There’s one last thing you may want to do, which is configure it to connect to your home wifi. You should see the boards all lit up by now:

Edison all set

At this point, the only way to connect it to is via a serial connection made possible through the USB port by FTDI drivers installed with the IoT developer kit. In fact, on the mac, you should see a device such as /dev/cu.usbserial-* which will be used to initiate this serial connection.

To get a shell on the Edison, just run:

screen /dev/cu.usbserial-DA00ZEOX 115200 -L

Which will initiate a serial connection to the Edison at a baud rate of 115200. Press RETURN a couple times and you should see something like this:

Poky (Yocto Project Reference Distro) 1.6 edison ttyMFD2

edison login: 

Enter ‘root’ for the login and you’ll be dropped into a root shell on the Edison. By default it does not have a password. You may also notice that the first character that you type is lost in some occasions. This is due to the Edison being on low power mode at the time that causes the first character to be lost, before it spins up the device.

One thing to note is that exiting a ‘screen’ session is not as straightforward as a telnet or ssh session. You will need to type CTRL-a followed by CTRL-\ to get a prompt to exit the session.

Finally, to configure wifi on the Edison, run configure_edision –wifi command:

Configure Edison: WiFi Connection

Scanning: 1 seconds left

0 :     Rescan for networks
1 :     Manually input a hidden SSID
2 :     ZTE
3 :     ninsei

Enter 0 to rescan for networks.
Enter 1 to input a hidden network SSID.
Enter a number between 2 to 3 to choose one of the listed network SSIDs: 3
Is ninsei correct? [Y or N]: y
What is the network password?: ********
Initiating connection to ninsei...
Done. Network access should be available shortly, please check 'wpa_cli status'.
Connected. Please go to in your browser to check if this is correct.
root@edison:~# ping
PING ( 56 data bytes
64 bytes from seq=0 ttl=58 time=32.917 ms
--- ping statistics ---
1 packets transmitted, 1 packets received, 0% packet loss
round-trip min/avg/max = 32.917/32.917/32.917 ms

This allows you to ssh into your Edison over wifi using:

ssh root@

And you’re all set. Yocto comes preloaded with Node and gcc, so now you have in your hands a network enabled system on a chip for building that next great smart device.

On key signing and trust

Key signing is a hallowed tradition in the open source world with a very specific protocol for validating and confirming an identity before accepting someone to the web of trust. It’s almost never done without meeting the person being admitted into the trust relationship and it goes like this:

  1. Individuals meet for a beer, or at a key signing party (for those who just went wtf, yes, these things are real, and they are crazy fun! see below for the type of shenanigans that take place at these reality-altering parties)
  2. They exchange strips of paper or business cards with their name, email address, key fingerprint and key ID
  3. They validate each other’s identity using Government issued photo IDs
  4. Once cleared, they pull down each other’s key from the key servers
  5. They validate that the fingerprint of the downloaded key matches what’s written on the piece of paper and the photo IDs exchanged at introduction
  6. If everything checks out, they sign each other’s key
  7. For additional security, the signed key is encrypted using the public key of the recipient and emailed to the address indicated in the key

Let’s look at this unnerving and highly nerdy exchange that has replaced the “Hi, I’m Tom” with “Hi, I’m Tom and here’s my fingerprint and Government issued photo Id”. Here’s the rationale for some of the steps in this workflow.

The key is a personal identification and privacy instrument that is backed by strong science to assure non-repudiation. I will not go into the science in this post, but here’s where you may want to get started if you’re curious. An aspect about this workflow is that nothing is trusted until verified and the protocol is there to make sure that no compromise takes place.

At the beginning of the process, the public key is expected to be on a public key server network (such as and the meeting in person is to make sure that the key you’re signing (which is on a public system) belongs to the correct individual and not to an individual (or three letter agency) who’s masquerading as someone else. The most secure way to ensure that is in person (because we’re a paranoid bunch), as that will eliminate any chance of a malicious man in the middle. When one produces the piece of paper with the key fingerprint (again backed by strong science) the signer is able to confirm by comparing the fingerprint on the public server with the fingerprint that’s presented in person along with the official photo id, that the public key really belongs to the individual before him/her. The connection has now been made and technology has once again prevailed in mathematically assured validation of another’s identity. The party is just getting started.

Once identity is validated this way, the signer signs the key and uploads the key back to the key server or emails a copy of it. This can be done after the party in a more subdued setting without crazy paper shuffling and photo id validation madness. The astute and more paranoid amongst us, would encrypt it using the public key of the key being signed and email it to the address specified in the key because that’s a good way to validate the email address is correct and belongs to the right user. For the gnupg commands that make this workflow possible, check out the Debian Key signing howto.

In communities such as Debian, this process is mandatory to assure the trust in a system that is largely de-centralized. The Web of Trust that this creates gives rise to a truly magnificent network, which is difficult to subvert so long as the protocol is followed to ensure no compromise.

While this is good for cryptographically assured validation of one’s identity in a global network and non-repudiation of one’s contributions and electronic communications, trust is ultimately a very subjective attribute and probably can never be assured through a hash, because trust can be broken by people even though strong science says otherwise.

On Perl and Poetry

I first learnt of Perl in the late 90’s. Sometime around ’98 or ’99. Fresh on the heels of BASIC, I was yearning to try out something new when I heard of Perl. I heard it’s what the Internet ran on and it had an almost mythical air to it that made me want to learn it. If you wanted to build dynamic web sites at that time, you had few options, and Perl, Apache and UNIX was the workhorse. I wanted to build dynamic web sites so what I had to do was pretty clear. There was a new fangled thing called Java, but no way was it ever going to catch up to the dominance that Perl had over the Internet. Or so people thought.

Perl was the undisputed king of Internet 1.0. The language, with it’s knack for text processing coupled with it’s highly expressive syntax was ideal for building dynamic web sites. I saw how entwined Perl was in the UNIX sub-culture and how naturally it fit in, and together with Apache/mod_perl how it was poised to reign over the Internet for years to come. I then drifted into the world of enterprise Java and progressed from the monstrosity that was J2EE to the present day JEE, which has since redeemed itself and paid for it’s early sins, and when I came back several years have passed and Perl has been relegated to the position that new kids considered old and dead. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

In the often misunderstood syntax of Perl by those new to the language, who claim it to be cryptic or arcane, there’s an elegance and a beauty that is not always present in other languages and I find that I enjoy hacking on a Perl script more than chipping away at the Java mega-structures. It’s expressiveness and how you can mold the code to fit your pattern of thought by the many variations and permutations the language syntax offers plays a large part in this sense of aesthetic. There’s something about the language that’s reminiscent of a Bach fugue and poetry. I certainly do not feel the same way about Python, although Ruby comes a little close.

I don’t think I will ever stop coding Perl, and Perl 6 has a number of interesting language elements that I hope someday I will get to see, possible running on a GNU/HURD. Now wouldn’t that be a sight to behold?

To beacon, or not to beacon

The more I look into Bluetooth LE and beacon technology, the more I’m convinced that we’ve stumbled upon something very interesting and, even, *ahem* disruptive. I’m a bit reluctant to use the word “disruptive” as it has lost some of its meaning due to gross overuse, but I believe it describes the technology well. The wireless technology has being around for over a decade, but is now coming to the foreground specially on the micro-location front, which is showing a lot of promise. On another note, building a beacon using a Raspberry Pi seemed like an interesting project until I discovered that Bluetooth 4 USB modules are virtually non-existent in Sri Lanka. 

The PayPal beacon is a wonderful example of this at work. It’s very exciting to think about the possibilities that this could unleash. PayPal’s hands-free payments is completely re-defining the payment experience in a very novel way. It gets even more interesting when companies start carving out their own territories around this, as evidenced by Apple’s patent filings. My disgust for patents and the associated territorial pissing which in my opinion hinders innovation, is best left for another post.


2013, a retrospective

It has been an interesting year in ways that I did not anticipate. Looking back, I’d like to recount a few things so that I don’t forget the experiences that have dramatically altered my worldview, hopefully for the better. I’d like to remember these fleeting moments, as they’re too precious to be lost. Here they are, in no particular order.

  • It feels good to walk for the first time without support after an extended period on a hospital bed. The first unsure steps, like a child, are both exhilarating and scary. The slow steps, the deep breaths, and victory. The blessings of human mobility.
  • The seconds before general anesthesia. Unsure about what’s going to happen. Succumbing to the uncertainty. General sense of well being, even though NOT. Numbness traveling up the leg, starting at the fingertips. Fluttering of eyelids, coldness, and out.
  • Waking up thinking “Made It”, on more than one occasion. Colorful and vivid morphine-induced dreams.
  • Drinking water. Never did it taste so good. Thinking “why I didn’t I enjoy this more?”
  • Feeling satisfied and carefree when the last drain tube is out. Going for another walk without the chains and shackles this time, beaming and happy.
  • Taking bad news with a “crap, in a bit of a pickle”. Wishing there weren’t so many people around me. Thankful there weren’t some people around me.
  • Taking good news with a “hmm, that’s great”. Thinking “what’s next”, and where to go for lunch.
  • Waiting expectantly for the visiting hours and seeing Wathsala walk in at the strike of the clock. All is well.
  • Sleeping to the sound of a waterfall. My neighbor’s snoring and sleep-talk required me to explore this option. It worked out well.
  • Sleeping in my own bed and thinking how low-tech it is. The light streaming through an open window and a gentle breeze. It’s 11am on a Tuesday and I’m in bed and not at work.
  • Being breathless after a trip across the room.
  • Doing breathing exercises using a contraption that made me want to keep bettering myself to impress the nurses. Wathsala knew what was going on and was in silent support of it. Or so I presume.
  • The real beauty of loving and caring human beings. Honestly, there’s no bigger service than nursing someone to health.
  • Observing the activities of the Vietnamese drug lord and his two mistresses in an adjoining bed. His hefian mannerisms and attire intrigued the hell out of me. Didn’t see him after he was wheeled out for surgery. I figured he requested for a different bed. Wonder why.
  • Reading “Ape Gama” by Martin Wickramasinghe after many many years and thinking, “that is just beautiful”.
  • Visits from old friends.
  • Wearing the sarong like a boss. Proudly brandishing the national attire on the many trips abroad and vowing to stick with it for good. More “why I didn’t do this before?”.
  • Walking into the hospital like I owned the place. Being recognized. Probably as the guy who visits Mount Elizabeth wearing a sarong. Proud to be that guy.
  • Visits to the temple. More, “why didn’t I do this before?”
  • Hearing about those who were praying for my recovery from other people. Some who I had not even met, until just today.
  • Feeling grateful for my A team of Poh-Koh-Tan for pulling me out of a mess.
  • Dr. Liang banging his head on the table when he found out I was flying out the next day. He wanted more time to work with the “interesting case”. I granted him his wish.
  • Hearing old voices on the phone unexpectedly.
  • Hearing the sound of the crows outside the General Hospital in the morning. Inspiration shows up in unexpected places.
  • Being sick of soup. To this day.
  • Stories of talking dogs and cats and elaborate back-stories for doing what they did.
  • Shaking my cousins hand in the recovery room as I drifted in and out of sleep.
  • Waiting for the first rays of sunlight after a sleepless night.
  • Experiencing pain, and knowing it will pass. And it did.
  • Phone calls from my friends, following my every step of the way and helping me on.

It’s been an interesting year and I hope 2014 would be an interesting one too, and if all goes according to plan, it will. Stay tuned.