Tag Archives: christmas

Unsociable Christmas Tree (Part 2)

Back in 2020 I talked about my Raspberry Pi powered Christmas Tree. Today’s blog delves into what I’ve done this year.

Previously, I decided that setting up a web server on which family members could change the light patterns on the tree was too boring. At the time, I was thinking of extending the sample Python code – much as I did with the OpenCV frontend – with a simple Python-based web server.

There are a few problems with this approach. Firstly, while I’ve never set up a Python web server, I don’t necessarily feel that it would be a challenge. More of a challenge would be my web development skills, which are, for the most part, stuck in about 1997. If you want formatting using tables rather CSS, I’m your man.

I found a way to solve both problems, while also using a Raspberry Pi Zero W for something outside its intended purpose.

I decided to use the Vaadin Java framework for the user interface. With Vaadin you don’t need to worry about HTML and formatting, you say, for example, I want a block with a group of radio buttons and a text box, and it generates your HTML, JavaScript and backend code. You can kind of think of it as SwiftUI for the web.

I wrapped it all in Spring Boot, because using an enterprise-grade UI library on a slow, single-core, 32-bit ARM CPU with 512Mb of memory isn’t ridiculous enough.

Jumping ahead for a second – spoiler alert – the application takes about two minutes to start on the Pi Zero W. It performs reasonably well once it’s started, but I think it’s fair to say that few corporations are going to be using Pi Zeros as part of their infrastructure.

It sounds bad, but the other way of looking at it is that it runs! A computer that costs £15 is able to run 47Mb of modern Java 17 code1. It’s not practical, but it is pretty amazing.

Before figuring out the user interface, the first thing I needed to work on was how to get Java to talk to the LED Christmas Tree. The sample Python code uses some library code that reads and writes to the Pi’s GPIO pins. Can you even do that in Java?

It didn’t take a lot of searching around to find Pi4j, a Java library to do exactly that.

It took a lot of experimentation to get it working. The defaults didn’t work – no errors, it just didn’t light up the LEDs. The Pi Zero isn’t an ideal Java development platform, so I did the coding on my MacBook, which also isn’t an ideal Java development environment. I was lazy, in a bad way, and didn’t properly build a test environment, instead building a JAR file on my laptop, manually copying over to the Pi and running it. I also found that Visual Studio Code isn’t as good as IntelliJ for writing Java programs.

Through a process of experimentation, I realised that I needed to use the pigpio backend provider2. The downside of using pipgio is that it requires super-user access. The alternative LinuxFS plugin does not need to be run as root, but it does not currently support access to the GPIO pins3.

Having proved that it was possible to flash the Christmas Tree’s lights in Java, I set out to port the Python library that came with it. The basics were pretty straight-forward. The sample code, however, uses sleep statements between the various lighting patterns, something that I didn’t want to do. I overestimated how complicated this would be and ended up simplifying my code. This is rare; I normally start super-simple and iterate.

Finally, I connected the two parts together, et voila, a working, Java-based program driving the Christmas Tree lights with a web interface for configuration.

Computer JVM Startup time
Pi Zero W openjdk version “17.0.8” 111
MacBook openjdk version “21.0.1” 4.2
Pi 4 openjdk version “17.0.9” 15
Pi 5 openjdk version “17.0.9 5.6

Interestingly, the Pi Zero and the Pi 4 both start the JVM in “client” mode, while the MacBook and the Pi 5 use “server” mode4. The Pi Zero also runs in 32-bit mode. I suspect, but didn’t verify, that the difference between the 4 and 5 is at least partly down to the newer instruction set in the 5, which supports native “atomic” operations5.

Software is never completed, only abandoned. And in that spirit, there are a number of things that it would be nice to improve.

The most important aspect is that it’s currently running as root (well, my user with sudo). One perk is this is that it can trivially run on port 80. The risks of running as root on my home network are pretty low, but it’s still not a good idea. I’ll need to update the Pi library so it can access the GPIO pins as a non-privileged user. I’ll then need to figure out a clean way to have the server accessible on port 80 (a web proxy?).

Since we’re not aiming for practical, another option would be to go for the micro services approach. One service to manage the LEDs and another for the UI.

Who knows if I’ll get time for all that. Next year, maybe.


  1. I’m sure it used to cost less than this. The Pi Zero 2 W is now available for about the same price, but has a quad-core, 64-bit CPU. ↩︎
  2. “Pig-pio” is how I always think of it. ↩︎
  3. As I write this, I see that there’s a new release of the Pi4j library which does support accessing the GPIO pins with LinuxFS. I’ll update the code when I get a chance. ↩︎
  4. Switching the Pi 5 to client mode didn’t make a huge difference. ↩︎
  5. At work, we benchmarked Apache Ignite on an ARM-based server, and found that it performed relatively poorly because it lacked the Large System Extensions. ↩︎

My delicious.com bookmarks for December 25th through January 9th

  • The Myth of Japan’s Failure – "Japan has succeeded in delivering an increasingly affluent lifestyle to its people despite the financial crash. In the fullness of time, it is likely that this era will be viewed as an outstanding success story."
  • Man Embraces Useless Machines, and Absurdity Ensues – Technology: making life simpler.
  • Merry – Sat here with my newborn son and wife, with all my family staying nearby, this post rang bells. It's sometimes important to realise what you have.

iPod vs Zune for the UK

iPod vs Zune

I just read Daniel Eran Dilger’s “Winter 2007 Buyer?s Guide: Microsoft Zune 8 vs iPod Nano” but I felt that it was missing something very important for readers outside the United States.

So to fill that void here is my attempt. I have not actually used any of the new Zunes or iPods but I don’t necessarily feel that this has any material impact on the final result1.

The iPod is a small, well made music player with many features albeit less than some of its competitors. It succeeds in doing what it does very well.

The Zune, on the other hand, is not available outside the US. A positive corollary of this is that it’s easy to carry, taking practically no space at all in bags and pockets, and it’s difficult to damage. Another plus is that the person sitting opposite you on the tube can’t use one at high volumes and annoy you with a tinny bass-line and their unashamed bad taste in music.

But, ultimately, the fact that it doesn’t exist has to count against the Zune and so my recommendation for the 2007 Christmas shopping season is Apple’s iPod.

  1. Full disclosure: my review is only slightly more biased towards Apple than RoughlyDrafted. []

Iceland

“Why?” It’s rapidly becoming the question that people ask when I announce my next travel destination, and my Christmas in Iceland trip was no exception.

To be fair I did have doubts. Having spent a winter in Norway a few years ago I was expecting short daylight hours, cold and snow. And it was Christmas so I was expecting a few things to close. But I was also expecting some wonderful, directional light, ideal for photography; I was expecting crisp, blue skies and pristine snow; I was expecting cozy bars and restaurants; and I was expecting to see the Northern Lights.

I had a great time, but not everything went to plan. The one thing that I thought I could rely on — the weather — turned out not to be such a sure thing. My first tentative steps around town were accompanied by the squelching sound of my quickly waterlogged trousers. Ironically, I spent the driest, crispest day in The Blue Lagoon, a geothermally heated outdoor pool.

What follows are a some photographic highlights and light commentary. Click on the thumbnails below for a larger version.

The main shopping street and a lake were just a short walk from the hotel. The lake had many pretty houses along the side, and the main street had pretty much the entire population of Reykjavik (if not Iceland) in a Christmas Parade.

My first venture out of the capital took in a volcano, the site of Geysir, which is where we get the word from, Gullfoss and Thingvellir1.

Gullfoss was famously saved from the hands of greedy developers and is a spectacular sight, even in heavy rain.

Thingvellir looks dark and moody and was the site of the original Icelandic parliament, the Althing, which was the first parliamentary democracy in the world.

Overlooking Reykjavik is a building called The Pearl which holds enough geothermally heated water for half the city, plus a museum and an exclusive restaurant. Unfortunately it was shut when we visited, but it still looks space age and the views down hill show how low-rise the city is2.

For my last full day I decided to head out of town on a bus to Akranes. I had no idea what was there. The guide book insisted that it was pretty but the details were scarce. To cut a long story short, I imagine that it’s a very pretty place in summer but at Christmas you really need to know where you’re going before you get soaked!

Instead, I was rescued by a local couple who gave a tour of the area and then insisted on feeding and watering me! It’s always nice to meet genuinely friendly locals. Somehow I expect to find them in far-flung places but not Europe.

And finally, no, I didn’t get to see the Northern Lights. You need a cold night and a clear sky, and I had neither the whole time I was there. Maybe third time lucky..?

If this has piqued your interest, there are plenty of other sources of information on the Internet. I found the following particularly helpful:

  1. Icelandic has a thirty-two letter alphabet, rather more than my keyboard supports and perhaps more than the typeface on your computer allows. The “th” in “Thingvellir” is more-or-less how it is supposed to sound but actually looks a bit like a ‘P.’ There is also a letter that looks like a ‘D’ with a line through it, which is pronounced “eth.” []
  2. The guide said that Reykjavik is the size of Barcelona but with a twentieth of the population. This is partly because they have the space but mainly because all the building need to be able to withstand strong earthquakes. []