Err… where did the last 3 months go to?

Wow, 12 weeks has just flew by without an update on here, that is just shocking behaviour! On the other hand, work has been busier than any other period I can remember, and I have been here a LONG time. I am not sure if that means it really has been crazy busy, or if my memory is failing, and it was far more busy before but I just cant remember it :)

I attended an online Metasploit/PenTest training course run by Georgia Weidman (, which was very helpful for my aging brain and skillset :) My laptop started playing up in the middle of the training (it crashed, twice!), but thankfully Georgia supplied all the attendees with a video of the training session which I really need to go back and look at again real soon. I built my own Linux based VirtualBox server at home to host various target/victim systems, and I would like to get some use out of that some time soon.

In addition to the IPv6 work we are all having to feed into our schedules and work flows, there was the slight issue of having to migrate our multi-site firewall policies from a old out-of-support version to the latest one that supports IPv6 as a core feature, rather than appearing to be a last minute add-on to keep the customers happy. After 8 weeks of banging my head against the issue of getting it to upgrade and migrate, plus 2 weeks with our support team and the vendor, we finally found a process that worked (at least in the tests we ran). Last Saturday was the day scheduled for the real upgrade, and it was a bit of an anti-climax. No issues, no tears, no upsets, it just worked… Yay!

So, next is hardware refresh on the multi-site firewall firewalls. They are not aging 486 units or anything, but if we are upgrading (and the budget is there), its worth spending the money on new hardware. As usual, the first test subject is always the office where I work, in case it all goes horribly wrong (i.e. I can run into the server room and fix it locally if I get locked out over the network). I dont expect that part to be a problem, as I have already helped with an install of the latest version on new hardware to create a High Availability cluster. I just have to ensure that the pre-config is done correctly.

And looming large on the horizon is DEFCON 21, which will take 3 weeks out of my schedule. I managed to get 6 days holiday signed off while I am out in the US, so with weekends included, I get 10 days to spend on the road for what will be my longest roadtrip before I arrive in our office in San Diego for a couple of days. Trip details to follow soon on here, once I have nailed down my schedule (as much as I can, given the unpredicability of a road trip!). I am feeling much better this year compared to last, so may actually get to talk to strangers, get involved, interact with people. Hell, I even have a mohawk for this year’s DEFCON (my idea) which will be colored blue and green soon (my 3 year old son’s idea). I couldnt have even contemplated doing such a thing last year. The introvert in my head would have just died, whereas this year, the introvert certainly has a much quieter voice when it comes to decision making. The thought of mixing with several thousand people doesnt scare the hell out of me like it did in previous years, lets hope that thought pattern remains while I am actually there. I have a long list of people I would like to catch up with, but with DEFCON being as large and chaotic as it is, I think anyone I do get to see will be mostly by accident. And then there is the DEFCON shoot to look forward to as well. This year I will be bringing some “special” targets to place downrange for everyone to use and abuse during the shoot. I think they will be appreciated by most (if not all) attendees :)

After DEFCON, I also get to attend 44CON in London, and also DerbyCon in Louisville, Kentucky (the latter is funded by using some of my long service award fund!). Its a CON summer for me :) As they are both smaller CONs, I should have a better chance of meeting those people on my list at these CONs than at DEFCON. I also hope get to learn some new things that should scare the life out of me and other people. I hope my kidneys wont hate me for the abuse they will have to put up with over the course of 3 CONs in 2 months.

October will be a slightly less hectic month, no conferences to attend, maybe a weekend at Kelling Heath star party, then back to nornal work and normal schedules for firewall upgrades, plus maybe get some time to learn some more InfoSec stuff, and possibly fiddle with the large collection of electronic gear I have accumulated over the months that is sat on my shelves, collecting dust.

Or maybe I will just be a lazy git, and watch episodes of Archer while geting very drunk…. it could go either way right now :)

Star Party

Not technically on-topic for this blog, but I returned on Sunday afternoon from the spring star party, organised by Stargazers Lounge. Man, that was cold… and wet… and cold+wet… a cold+wet+snowing… and some ice too! How cold? Enough to pop a Coke Zero can because the contents froze solid


And how wet? Well, in the middle of the night (several nights in fact!) the wind unhooked at least one tent peg holding the door flaps down, and water leaked in as it ran off the top and side of the tent. Some leaked out again in the morning, but I gave up and just lived with it. Having a wifi AP and 3g upstream on a 16ft mast saved my sanity, giving me semi-decent internet access, and was especially grateful to those who put up with my moaning on twitter while I was away. Anyway, The RCD units will save me from the AC getting into the water and/or me… right?


The best night of the trip was Wednesay night, where I did manage to get some star trail imaging done, but didnt get any of my more expensive or delicate kit out for deep sky imaging. (Click on the image for a larger version)


The appalingly bad weather really spoiled the star party for me this year. Having to fight with a rain soaked tent in a mudbath was just a bad end to a so-so star party. Next time, if the weather looks even remotely bad, I`ll stay home, drink all the booze and hack all the things… :)


Lasers with frickin Sharks on their heads.. err… no.. wait…

I spent a few hours at MakeSpace this afternoon, learning how to use the 60W laser cutter. Seems pretty simple, but for more complex objects, the order in which they need to be cut will be something to watch out for. Anyway, something else for me to use in future projects, especially with creating custom enclosures for the Camera mount project.

Here is my first object, a laser focus tool, which allows me to adjust the laser head to 41mm above the surface that it will be cutting or engraving. I accidently left the protective covering on the Perspex, and instead of cutting straight through it for the engraving section where the “S” is, it half melted the protective covering into the Perspex, which has left it with an unusual texture. Was surprised just how easy it was to create this from scratch and send it to the laser cutter.


New Year, New Start… More new kit :)

A new year means a new start. Or, in my case, a start of any kind. I have collected most of the electronic parts I require for a handful of future projects, and dabbled briefly with the individual parts and the code required to make them do things, but I havent started on anything that ressembles a full project yet.

That will change very shortly. The house move (and associated Ikea furniture building) is pretty much complete. I have lots of parts, lots of required tools (inclduing a solder fume extractor for my office that has no windows), and a workspace that is taking shape nicely. And now with the normal weekly routine returning after the break, I can plan evenings and weekends as required.

The next delivery of stuff from Phenoptix arrived:


Top Left: ATX breakout board bench power supply – Dangerous Prototypes
Top Right: Pi Cobbler Breakout Kit for Raspberry Pi – Adafruit
Lower Right: Ultimate GPS Breakout – 66 channel w/10 Hz updates – Adafruit
Lower Left and middle: 2 x Raspberry Pi boards

I also purchased two Pibow Pi cases for the units above. I have some side projects for the Pi unit, as they are very easy to use for someone with any Linux background. One of them may make an appearance at the SGL star party in March, replacing a Mini-ITX machine that I normally have to drag to these events.

But enough of that… time to get to work on the main Arduino project. Its going to be a pan/tilt (Alt/Az) tracking head for timelapse movies, daytime and night time, driven using two large stepper motors hooked up to Big Easy Driver boards. I will be using either my Starlight Xpress M25C Cooled CCD with some Nikon Lenses (for long expsoure night time sequences), or my modded Canon 650D for daytime sequences (it should be arriving tomorrow!). The mount itself will be able to work out where it is and what the time is (GPS), should be able to self level the camera platform and align it to magentic north (accelerometer and compass), and use that as a known starting location. I also want it to be able to log the temperature and humidity during the runs as well.

For tracking, I want the software on the Arduino to be able to accept plotting points and turn that into “splined” data for smooth tracking. I also plan to add some support for tracking astronomy RA/DEC locations (converting to Alt/Az for mount tracking), and hopefully some satellite tracking with TLE entry data.

So, that means some circuit building in my near future. Then I have to move onto building the physical platform that it will all sit on and move. Right now, I have some ideas, but nothing 100% as yet. I need to talk to some people at MakeSpace in Cambridge, and also do some digging around on the internet for ideas, but I am sure something will pop up that will tick all the boxes for my requirements.

i`ll update this blog as I go along, if anyone is actually in the remotist bit interested :)

A quick update before Christmas

Another piece of hardware arrived last week, an AdaFruit Triple-axis Accelerometer+Magnetometer (Compass) Board (thanks to Phenoptix) which will allow me to initially position my pan/tilt head level and have a known rotation from magnetic north (and the offset from that to true north I can calculate), so that it should hopefully be aligned well enough to track objects in the night sky accurately enough to keep them roughly centre in the field of view of the camera.


Yes, I am aware that the objects will rotate in the images (field rotation) with what is effectively an Alt/Az mount, but the plan was never to build an equatorial mount. I have a Skywatcher EQ6 for any astronomy imaging that requires long exposures and auto-guiding (image below taken at the Kelling Start Party). The Pan/Tilt (Alt/Az) system I am building is for something else I have in mind.


And, as a nice Christmas present from British Telecom, I had my Infinity broadband (FFTC) installed on Friday, running at a rock steady 40Mbit down / 10Mbit up. SpeedTest shows decent speeds too, even at peak times. That will do nicely! :)


Lastly, I believe I have a Raspberry Pi awaiting me under the Christmas tree, so I don’t have to keep “borrowing” my Dad’s Pi. I went out this morning and purchased some SD Cards to allow me to play with various distros, including OpenELEC (XMBC). I would like to look at running a Pi as a firewall for a specific use I have in mind, but more on that later.

So, let the holidays begin, I hope you all enjoy yourself and get all the gadgets and toys you were after :)

More Hardware Arrived

Had some more hardware arrive recently for my project. The image below is my delivery from Proto-Pic.

The top PCBs are Adafruit logic level shifters to allow me to intermix 5v and 3.3v kit without having anything go bang. Each one will provide 8 conversion lines in either direction (low to high, or vice versa), so more than enough for this project’s plans, at least for now

The lower are Big Easy Driver boards, to control and power the bipolar stepper motors required in my project.

And these are bipolar stepper motors with planetary gearboxes, received from Active Robots. I chose these units for the holding torque and the steop angle size requirements, but I wasnt expecting them to be quite this large. Not to worry, the bigger the better to crush the puny humans… oh, did I type that out loud?

Now I have almost finished moving in and setting up my office, and also have broadband at home again (phew!), its time to find time to build this thing, and get it to do something, even if that is to do nothing at first. Nothing is better than BANG FIZZ smoke…

Makespace Cambridge Open Evening

I went along to the MakeSpace Cambridge open evening on Tuesday night, and there were a LOT of people there, considering its still not up and running yet. The space isnt due to open to non-founders until February (estimated), and yet there were probably 40 or more people there by the end of the night, some showing their projects, others just looking around and asking questions.

I got to see my first hands-on coding with the Raspberry Pi, using Adafruit’s WebIDE. My word, that looks amazing, and its still classed as a beta release. Its opened my eyes a little to the Pi, and am very tempted to add one to my equipment list at next payday (I`ll call it an early Christmas present to myself… like I need an excuse to buy shiny things for myself!).

I also saw the 3D printer at work. Yes, its slow, but almost magic to watch it build up objects layer by layer.

Hopefully by the next MakeSpace open night (January 15th 2013), I`ll have something to show and tell, with probably a couple of stepper motor, blinke lights, maybe an LCD screen to display things on.

Arduino Due has arrived

The postman delivered my Arduino Due this morning, which will have to go into storage until after the house move now.

As the logic pins on this are 3.3v, and many external components and boards run on 5v, I`ll need to get a logic level converter or two to stop things blowing up. Thankfully, Adafruit do a bi-directional 8 way logic level converter in an easy to use package.

So, next items are one or two of the above, plus two large stepper motors plus two Big Easy Driver boards, and get it all assembled to actually move some real motors.

Arduino stepper motor test circuit

While awaiting the house move, and not wanting to have new kit arrive, then shoved into boxes for the move and lost for several weeks, I have been looking at running tests on some stepper motor code with LEDs showing the status of the step pulses and the direction pin levels that would be sent to an external motor driver card (probably Big Easy Driver).

To run more than one stepper motor is very complex if you want to write your own code. Using the AccellStepper library takes care of that, so long as you can run the “;” each loop for each stepper instance to update the stepper motor library, which in turn, may update the steps to the motor drivers at that point.

The code itself is sound, it compiles and runs fine, but while the two yellow direction pin indicators are working fine (they are on or off), the red LEDs should be showing simulated stepper motor “step” signals being sent. This includes an acceleration phase where the steps per second increase (i.e the LED starts dark and glows more and more), followed by a period when the LED should show a constant stepper speed (i.e constant glow level), followed by a deceleration period (where the LED decreases its brightness to zero again). Although that is ROUGHLY what I see, its not quite as smooth as I was expecting. The rate at which the acceleration or deceleration changes can fluctuate, which is quite noticable when watching the red LEDs glowing away. They flicker, pause, stutter, and this would have the same effect on the stepper motors when attached. They wont have smooth acceleration or deceleration from various defined step rates. And thats not what I wanted to see…

The problem I appear to have is that the stepper motors I plan to use run at a maximum of ~2000 steps a second, and I will have two of them to run (moving on to three and possibly four at a later stage of this project), but the documentation for the AccelStepper library states that on a Arduino Uno at 16HMz, the best it can really do is somewhere around 1000 steps a second. Hmmm… so what options do I have here? I could spend a lot of time rolling my own multi-stepper controlling code, which isnt something I would relish as part of my first hardware and coding project, or I could do what any geek would do, and throw more horsepower at the problem :) Yes, I ordered an Arduino Due (32bit 84MHz), and yes I know I said earlier in this post that I didnt want to order any more kit until after the house move, but they are so hard to get hold of right now that when I saw one available in the UK via Phenoptix, I had to grab it (and it was an incredible price too!).

Hopefully this will allow me to run my steppers at full rate if required (not that they will run at full rate most of the time, but seems silly to have to lower the maximum step rate because the brains driving it is unable to keep up). Also, best to get this change done early in the project, so I do not have to worry later on about the 5V/3.3V difference between the Arduino Uno and the Due.

Of course, I do have a house move looming at the end of this week, so I am sure that I wont be playing much with this project until after I have moved and re-assembled all my “mancave” equipment into the new place. That may take a while, and then there is a horror of having no internet at home for a while, unless I can borrow some wifi signal from someone else in a nearby house.

Another chapter in my life ends… (maybe)…

Today I say goodbye to my Yamaha Thunderace YZF1000R motorcycle that has been sitting in my garage for many years, unused for far too long. (I checked when it left today, and the road fund license said October 2004!)

The injury to my wrist and thumb that I sustained in 1993 had got to a point where I could no longer be sure that in an emergency stop situation, the pain from my wrist/thumb would override my brain telling me to slam the brakes on. When you cannot be sure that you can brake in a hurry, then its time to sadly and reluctantly give up riding a bike on the road.

Giving up riding it is one thing, actually letting go of the bike is another, and so it has been sitting in my garage for more years than I care to remember.

To get her up and running again would cost vastly more than she is worth. I could have scrapped her, but as most bits are still in working order, I have donated her to Geoff Campbell, who is currently whizzing down the M4 in a van to collect the bike. I hope that the bike gets resurrected into something awesome, providing grins that only a 150bhp 1 litre engine can give.

Its taken me many years to realise that I wont ride again on the road, and now I have Samuel, I am not really sure I would want to risk it, but that doesnt mean I dont have some plans to maybe ride off-road at some point in the future, maybe teaching Samuel when he is older.

Only bikers (ex- and current) know how hard this step is for me, and yes, I do have a tear in my eye as I write this.