The H Half Hour: Open source and evil genius
An interview with Simon Monk, writer of Evil Genius books
A typical evil genius will attempt to conquer the world and keep his or her plans secret. As any reader of The H knows, that's no way to build a culture of innovation within the evil genius community. The H was pleased, therefore, to talk to Simon Monk who has been using open source technology, like the Arduino, as the basis for a series of Evil Genius books for aspirant evil geniuses and other people who want to get building open source based gadgetry.
The H: Why do you target evil geniuses? Isn't this a niche audience?
Simon Monk: The Evil Genius is a much neglected section of our society. While it is true that they have a reputation for meanness, surveys have shown that their per-capita spending on books is well above average.
SM: Definitely the Evil Genius. Before Arduino's open source loveliness came along, an Evil Genius would spend many frustrating days with proprietary chip manufacturers' development kits. Since the Evil Genius is generally an enthusiast of Open Source operating systems, running proprietary IDEs on Windows would generally put the Evil Genius in a very bad mood.
The H: How did you get started creating the projects in the books?
SM: Sometimes I get inspired by component bargains on eBay – 3W RGB Lumiled LEDs – what could I do with those?
I also get ideas from YouTube. You often see a video of the finished product with little or no explanation of how to build it and a load of frustrated comments. Making the projects is a lot more fun than documenting them so people often don't do that part. So, I'll look at a video and think about how I would go about making it. Or it may trigger an idea.
The H: How do you go about creating a project? Do you start on paper or just start tinkering?
SM: I will usually draw the schematic and breadboard or stripboard layout, make the project and test it, making any corrections.
The H: Do you have any projects that you created which are still installed doing a job of work around the home, office or lair?
SM: Yes. Access to the Garage is still controlled by an RFID door lock from the Arduino + Android book. As is my heating control. I do often cannibalise old projects to make new ones though, so not much survives long term.
SM: I think probably the magnetic levitation project from Dangerously Mad Projects for the Evil Genius. It's one of those projects that sounds easy – you just control the power to an electromagnet with your Arduino to keep the permanent magnet floating below it. But actually you need to implement a proportional-derivative control algorithm to make things stable.
The H: How do you licence your project designs? A common licence or a special evil genius licence?
SM: All the source code is up on code.google.com and none of it has a commercial licence.
I do not apply any licences to the hardware designs, as they are published in books, I guess they are all public domain. I certainly don't try and protect any of the designs with patents or anything. It would be most flattering to see some of them be the basis of commercial products.
SM: A £70 Android tablet makes a fantastic touch-screen front-end for many Arduino Projects. This is the approach I use in the Home Automation system that I describe in Arduino + Android Projects for the Evil Genius. The Android tablet even runs a lightweight web server to allow network control. The availability of open source libraries and widely available code examples to use makes the development pretty straightforward and I contribute back all the project source code for the books.
Android comes with two protocols – Open Accessory and ADB that make it easy to create hardware accessories for your Android phone. Not just for Arduino, but also the IOIO board, about which I also have a book out: Creating Android Accessories with IOIO.
The H: Do you wish there was a small cheap Android-running ARM board?
SM: Android on a Raspberry Pi anyone?
The H: Is an Evil Genius/Raspberry Pi book in your plans? Do you think its problematic for aspirant Evil Genii that the Pi won't have the GPIO pins in place and they'll need soldering on?
SM: It is in my plans, and, in fact in progress, if slightly hampered by an actual device to use.
It would have been better with the pins in place – or even better sockets (Arduino style). However, the same is true of the IOIO boards and leaving them unsoldered does at least give the user the option to attach connectors of their choice. Very few Arduino users get away without using a soldering iron, so I think its okay.
The H: Or are you looking forward to the now behind schedule Arduino Due, the ARM-based board, whatever spec it may be?
SM: Not particularly. A processor that can do 16,000,000 things per second is plenty fast enough. Too much performance and memory just make you sloppy. If I needed the next step up I would be buying a Raspberry Pi.
The H: What are the top three essential software tools for an evil genius?
- Arduino IDE
The H: What's the top three essential hardware tools for an evil genius?
- Soldering Iron
- Doomsday weapon
The H: The essential evil genius question. If you were building a secret base, monorail or golf carts?
SM: Monorail. Minions are notoriously clumsy and given golf carts, will invariably crash them. They are also somewhat slow when being chased by a homicidal secret agent.
Readers can find a list of Simon Monk's publications at www.simonmonk.org