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Your Mileage May Vary

In the last six weeks or so, I’ve given three talks about open source / free software in automotive.  [That means “cars.”]

It’s sort of a new thread for me to play out on the conference circuit, at least as a speaker, but it is actually an area that I have found personally interesting for ages, and in which I’ve been a secret hobbyist for a while—at a very amateur, “enthusiast” level.  But after having followed the topic and having read up on it, last fall (i.e., November 2013) I decided to dive in and start experimenting with a Linux-based automotive computer build in my car.

That’s one of the talks I spoke about earlier: I gave a “build talk” about the project at the Automotive Linux Summit in Tokyo in early July.  The goal was to relate my real-world experience (surprises, pitfalls, etc.) to the developers and strategists at ALS in the hope that it would be beneficial to them. I gave another talk at ALS about automotive security, but it consisted of “research” rounding up other people’s research and published studies about software security problems in car computers.  I highly recommend the “just talk about other people’s hard work” methodology as a talk-development approach; it’s far less time-consuming than doing all the tests and paper writing oneself, and you also don’t have to apply for grants.

The third talk was at GUADEC, the annual GNOME project conference. It started out, in theory, as another “my build and what you can learn from it” talk idea, but it quickly became clear to me that I needed to do more: provide some context for the audience that didn’t already pay attention to the automotive corner, and offer some reasons why they should look into it and maybe even get involved.  The GUADEC team ended up asking me to make that talk a keynote, which was definitely a surprise, but obviously lots of fun, too.

I tried to include some words on where I thought GNOME developers could get involved in automotive projects (especially since many of those projects already use GNOME libraries, even if they aren’t interacting too much with GNOME-proper upstream), and some ideas on how GNOME could be more “garage friendly.”  More on that later. Nobody threw any vegetables, and a lot of people asked questions afterward, so I think it went well on the whole.

Interestingly enough, while working on the GNOME talk I kept running into the realization that a lot of full-time Linux folks weren’t really up to speed on the scope and makeup of the automotive Linux space.  It’s understandable—most of the work now is pre-production and it may be a while before products hit the showroom floor. But that also makes it the best possible time for free-software people to get involved. The better you make it right now, the better it’ll be when it arrives at the dealer.

The other big take away, for me, was that evidently I’m a shamefully bad example of a tech hobbyist because I haven’t done a running “build log” on some personal blog site or on Instructables, detailing the ups and downs of shoehorning a homemade IVI system into a recent Mustang.  So I’m vowing to do better on that front.  But I can tell you this much: a lot of what goes into posts like that won’t make a lot of sense unless I dole out some background info, like I did at GUADEC.  I apologize if you happen to catch this blog via Graphics Planet and you don’t care about the topic at all — but there is some interest UI/UX work a little later on in the process, I promise.

ALS and the landscape

Anyway, here are the broad strokes if you’re just hearing about automotive Linux for the first time.  The Linux Foundation has done this “ALS” conference for three(ish?) years now.  ALS attendees tend to be drawn from three major projects: GENIVI, which is a multi-company consortium founded by folks in the automotive industry, Automotive Grade Linux (AGL), which is a working group coordinated by the Linux Foundation, and Tizen IVI, which is a distribution project run mainly by Intel and Samsung people.  And there are, of course, plenty of other participants.

These projects overlap a lot in their areas of concern, naturally, but there are also big differences in what they want to accomplish, which makes a difference if you’re picking and choosing as an outsider.

GENIVI is focused on defining a platform-level Linux system that the participating companies can use as a specification to build their automotive products against. GENIVI defines components needed for in-vehicle infotainment (IVI; that’s the head-unit computer that the driver and passenger fight over while they’re barreling down the road) systems, so that car makers and suppliers don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time or argue endlessly about design specs. I.e., everybody uses GENIVI, so It Works.  Naturally, the alliance has to write components that don’t already exist, so they do that: they have open source code at

But GENIVI is not defining the entire system; they are stopping right below the application API layer.  Apparently that’s something that different members want to head in their own direction on, and potentially compete on. So GENIVI’s Linux builds tend to be more like “starting points for a company making a product in house.”  They even use Yocto.

Tizen IVI, on the other hand, is designed to be a fully functional Linux distribution. It’s supposed to be something an OEM can grab and mold a product out of.

In that sense, it competes with GENIVI, I guess, but Tizen also has this interesting “cross-device-profile” concern.  The larger Tizen project wants to make a Linux stack for consumer electronics products of all types (phone, smartwatch, TV, smartfridge, smartcoffepodmachine, etc) that can offer the same app-level API to third-party app developers. That is, you write yer Angry Flapbird game once, and it runs on all the devices.  So Tizen IVI is very much concerned with that app layer that GENIVI isn’t.  Tizen IVI may differ a lot under the hood from Tizen Mobile, but it’s the same on top. The app-level API is based on HTML5 and a lot of W3C standards.

Last but certainly not least is AGL. AGL is technically a “workgroup,” which means that it’s a bunch of companies that want to get together for some common purpose; they can work on whatever they decide to.  At the moment, their most visible effort is the AGL Reference Linux distro, which is a fully installable Linux distribution that you can put in a car. It’s probably not quite the same as you will see in production vehicles, but it’s the closest thing to fully realized IVI of the existing projects.  It’s based on Tizen IVI with a lot of additions.  The additions include a suite of actual IVI apps (music player, navigation, vehicle status, phone hands-free tethering, etc).

Developing more such applications is another one of AGL’s focus areas; right now they’re putting feelers out for people to write apps; it’s actually a good opportunity if you want to do development.  The other thing to remember, though, is that AGL may have broader interests than just IVI: they could decide to delve right into engine-control stuff as well, which is an entirely different space. Fuel injection, timing, traction control, etc.—all that stuff is computerized, and I hear interest from the hallway track in using Linux to virtualize, containerize, and improve these systems. It’ll be interesting to see.

The garage

All that background aside, I did actually talk about my personal “shadetree mechanic” project at both ALS and GUADEC.  What I have is something on a very PC-like microITX motherboard, stuffed into the trunk space of a 2005 Mustang GT.  How well does it work?  Well, that depends on what your criteria are.  I’ll give this one teaser thought, as I contemplate writing up a Proper Build Log like the wise & benevolent Makers Of Olde tell us we have to do:

If you make careful hardware choices, you can put together a functional Linux-based IVI system in your own car.  If, that is, you have a reasonably modern car, sufficient time (or, alternatively, money) to put into the build from both the hardware and software sides, and if you’re willing to get your hands dirty. Literally dirty. And figuratively.

BUT. The first thing you’ll learn is that there is no such thing as a generic car or a generic car computer.  The PC may be pretty standardized, but it also makes a lot of assumptions—like having a flat surface, with decent airflow, and a normal AC-DC power supply, and room to put stuff where you want it.  None of those things hold true in a car, and every single choice you make, starting from where you think you’ll put the actual computer part physically in your vehicle, radically alters all of your decisions further down the line.

So it’s one individual builder’s story, and everyone else’s will differ greatly.  But I also think the experience is useful for other FOSS developers to hear about, since whether you know it or not, automotive computer products are making their way to the mass market. And we don’t want Linux to be late to the party, having not thought about what it will look like when there’s a full-on computer in the car parked outside the house.  How do we expect that computer to relate to our other computers? To connect to the network at our house? To interact with the portable devices we own and might bring with us?  To the documents we ferry around?

It’d be good to have answers to those questions when the tidal wave of car PCs hits. Estimates are it’s less than a year and a half from now before the first official GENIVI systems hit showrooms.  Proprietary software will take several iterations to get all this stuff right, and it will compete within itself, pretty fiercely.  But I hope we won’t let them have the open road all to themselves.

Swoop there it is

I’ve been doing some work lately on a “real” italic for News Cycle.  The original typeface (News Gothic) really only had a slanted-roman italic; I’m trying to produce something nicer that still work well with the upright.

The latest thing I’ve been playing with on this front is the out-strokes on vertical stems of the lower-case letters.  News Cycle is plain enough that capital “I” and lowercase “l’ look pretty similar, so I tried adding a bit of swoop at the bottom of the italic “l”.  Obviously this departs a bit from the construction of the regular, so I’m not sure it will stay.  But the curve is borrowed from the “t” and “f” — hopefully I can make it look harmonious and judge the results on merit, not on the lousy implementation.

What I’m less certain of is whether the same approach improves other characters with right-side stems: “a” “d” “n” “m” “u” and “i”….  So I started with “a” and “d” to see where that went; “a” needs to look really good, and I don’t want it to blend into the “g”….

Here are some samples — the first has no swoop tail, the second has a swoop copied (in reduced form) from “l”, and the third has the same swoop chopped off.  Small:















Even after inserting these images, I think I don’t like any of the options.  The “long” swoop tail is obviously *too* long, but it needs to be reduced, not just cut-off as it is on the third samples.

What do you think?

Linux and the Automotive Security Lab

Attached are the slides from my talk at the Fall 2013 Automotive Linux Summit. My session was entitled “Linux and the Automotive Security Lab,” and it was a survey of all of the security research that I’m aware of that dealt with actual cars—as opposed to theory.

Not that there’s anything wrong with theory in my book, mind you, but there are only so many times you can read “CAN bus lacks sender authentication and payload encryption” before your eyes glaze over.  It does, and that means that there are a lot of places where it needs major changes.  So many, in fact, that I referred to it in my talk as “Theseus’s ship.”  According to Plutarch, the museum of state relics in Athens included a ship used by Theseus in some daring adventure or other, and the Athenians took such good care of it that they replaced a part whenever it wore out … so much so that by Plutarch’s time, the Athenians had replaced every part, which led some of them even then to ask whether the museum still had Theseus’s ship at all.  The point is, if you need to replace all of CAN bus’s constituent parts to make it usable, you’d might as well just use something else to begin with.

But that’s kind of beside the point, since that’s a hypothetical.  In reality, as the research linked to here shows, there are a giant heaping metric Athenian boat-load of attacks that can be waged against existing cars right now.  Looking at some of them should give developers pause.  Because yes, CAN bus can be used to mount all manner of attacks—but there are a lot inroads into the vehicle that have nothing to do with vehicular network protocols at all.  Some are freshmen-level security programming mistakes, others are systemic flaws inherent to multi-sourced component supply chains, and some are just weird.

I probably ought to publish my speaker notes, too, but one thing at a time.  I hope the slides will be a good reference and starting point for anyone interested in reading more about IVI and automotive computing security.  And if you see any papers or presentations that I’ve missed, please, drop me a line; I’ll happily add them to the list.

ALS2013: Linux and the Automotive Security Lab

What Breaking Bad would look like if it was on broadcast television

[editor’s note: proceed with caution; this page contains ideas that may prove upsetting to decent-thinking persons. but they’re not my ideas; they’re the ideas of network executives, and I simply amassed them based on years of observation and reflection. so I’m fine with printing em.]

Breaking Bad.

We all love Breaking Bad.  But let’s face it: the fact that the series was snatched up by AMC is a two-sided coin. What I mean is: Yes, it means fewer commercials—but it also means a lower budget and a lot fewer viewers than it would have if it were produced by one of Hollywood’s top-tier broadcast networks, like ABC, NBC, CBS, or even Fox.

It’s too late now, but it’s still interesting to think about how the minds at the top of these time-tested entertainment empires would have moved the same source material.  Let’s take a look at this alternate universe that we’ll never get the chance to experience, side by side with what we’ve actually seen.


Walter White

Age: 50. Occupation: High school teacher / kingpin.


The actor playing Walt needs to be 50 years old; that’s part of the storyline.  But he does need to be “TV 50″—we want audiences to actually tune in to watch the show, after all.  Which is to say: the camera needs to like him.  Paul Bettany is tailor made for this part: he’s thin, like a science nerd would be, but he can still believably deliver in the action sequences.  And people gravitate towards him, which is critical to establishing a hit show.  Plus, years of experience shows that there’s nothing US audiences love more than a British actor portraying an American protagonist.

Jesse Pinkman

Age: 25. Occupation: drug cook / chump.


Jesse is the secondary protagonist, a former student of Walt’s.  Since he’s a young guy, it’s your chance to add some star power that will attract a younger audience.  He needs to believably get caught up in the criminal underworld and hold his own against a wide variety of thugs and ne’er-do-wells, while still being someone the producers can send out on the talk show circuit.  Actor:  Scott Speedman.  OR WHOEVER.


Age: mid-Forties. Occupation: mom.


Walt’s wife Skyler is there to be a dramatic foil to Walt, so she too needs a commanding screen presence. But there do need to be changes.  In the original series, Sklyer is an accountant, but she spends the majority of her time taking care of the kids.  That’s pretty dull (and that’s dull on both counts), and doesn’t give her much of a story arc to work with. So she needs her own angle. Bryce Dallas Howard gets the part, but the character needs updating so that she’s a corporate “fixer,” negotiating high-priced mergers and acquisitions, frequently by jetting off to exotic locations.  Unless the series is on Fox, in which case she’ll be a police psychologist, instead (which really ups the tension when the fuzz starts hunting down Heisenberg).

Hank Schrader

Age: 45. Occupation: DEA agent.


Hollywood is committed to equality and to making shows that look like America looks.  And that means there needs to be a black character.  Secondary character.  Law enforcement is the perfect fit—it flips all of the stereotypes on their heads: Hank is the good guy, see?  Out to get the drug dealers.  On the other hand, the DEA is kind of an abstract agency that doesn’t really do much.  It would work if Hank is an undercover DEA agent, but for just regular detective stuff, the FBI would be far better territory from the audience’s perspective.  Second choice: the CIA, which opens up all kinds of counter-terrorism story possibilities.  After all, terrorists use drug trafficking to finance their sleeper cells.  How awesome does that sound, just in that one sentence? Actor: rising star Dayo Okeniyi.


Age: late thirties? Occupation: nurse or orderly or something.


Skyler’s sister, married to Hank. First off, since it’s impossible to get actual siblings, you can’t get too caught up in figuring out whether Skyler and Marie look similar enough to be relatives.  Establishing that they are sisters is a simple matter of dialogue: in the first two episodes, have them address each other “Hey, sister” and answer the phone “Hi sis!” a few times and reference “mom” to each other in conversation; people will pick up on it subconsciously, and you can drop it after the first month.

On the other hand, Marie’s boring job of medical technician or something is irrelevant and weird.  Good that she’s in the profession, yes, but it’s far more dramatic if she’s closer to the action. So she’s a neurosurgeon or maybe the head of oncology for the hospital.  She can even be the one that operates on Walt! In fact, that has to be what happens. And on Jesse and Hank, too; possibly several other characters, in emergencies. Actress: Anybody.

Walt Junior

Age: 15. Occupation: student driver.


Junior is Walt and Skyler’s son, who goes to the high school where Walt works. His main purpose in the story is to elicit sympathy and have medical bills.  In the AMC version of the show, he has CP, which is certainly great, and we want to support that community as much as possible, but sheesh: talk about a downer.  Junior definitely needs to have a chronic medical condition, cause that needs to drive Walt to his illegal activities, but it needs to be one people can relate to.  So, blind or deaf.  Everyone can understand those (and pretend to have those conditions, momentarily, so they can relate to Junior).  Blind is clearly the better choice: not only does he get to wear shades, but his blindness is symbolic, of how he’s blind to his father’s criminal secrets.  Get it?  The writing Emmys are going to stack up.

Although if the show is on Fox, Junior’s struggle will be not-quite-as medical, in that he really wants to be a dancer and the town is pressuring him to play quarterback instead. Actor: Who just had a CW series canceled?

Holly White

Age: 0. Occupation: dependent.


Holly is Walt and Skyler’s infant daughter in the AMC series. Which is okay, I guess, but it’s far more interesting for everyone if she’s a spunky middle-schooler instead. She can have all kinds of great subplots, like being embarrassed by her parents, sneaking out of the house, her friends pressuring her to try drugs (IRONY); you name it. The point is, you need a young female character in order to get young female viewers.  Her storylines can get bigger every year as the audience grows and she becomes a fan favorite. Actress: Jessy Schram.

Saul Goodman

Age: late Forties. Occupation: lawyer.


Saul is everybody’s attorney; you need an actor with gravitas to play that role: somebody who knows how to wear a suit; somebody who can be “slick” and charm a courtroom full of jurors. Somebody people want to emulate: the audience needs to be drawn to Saul’s success. He knows how to work the system.  Actor: That guy from Lost.


Age: Thirties. Occupation: drug dealer.


Tuco is the first drug dealer Walt and Jesse tangle with. He needs to look like a drug dealer.  I.E., gangsta. All-black clothes, nickel-plated .45’s, the whole deal.  He does need to be Latino, so that it’s clear he comes from a cartel. Note that this does not affect the racial-balance quota; Tuco is not a main cast member, but as long as we have Hank we’re covered. Actor: Who’s played a drug lord before?

Gus Fring

Age: Fifties. Occupation: Big bad.


Gus is the biggest drug trafficker in the region before Walt gets into the game. But c’mon: he needs to look like a drug kingin, not look like a dork. There can be only one choice for this part: the man himself, Jimmy Smits. Gus has to fill out a suit, rock the mirrored shades, and look like he deserves to be behind the wheel of that Bugatti he drives.


Age: Sixty-ish. Occupation: P.I..


Mike is the private investigator who “works” for Saul and also for Gus. He’s tough-as-nails and not afraid to get his hands dirty. Thus, he should look like a P.I. looks: fit enough to win in a bar fight, but with stubble so you know he’s street-smart. P.I.s are magnetic characters by nature, so you need a magnetic actor. He has just as much story potential as everyone else; just imagine what could happen if he rescues Holly from danger at Walt’s insistence?  Again, the drama writes itself.  He will also need a signature vehicle, like a brand new red Ford Mustang convertible, to take to stakeouts and make rescues with. Actor: Whatever that guy’s name is.


Age: 40. Occupation: second-string drugmaker.


Gale is a genius scientist like Walt, hired on to kick the operation into high gear, and later turning into a competitor whose skill level threatens Walt and Jesse’s dominance. But you can’t just have a character that important be a bland blob or a lighter-weight nerd-clone of Walt himself.  To really create drama, he needs to be Walt’s total opposite: streetwise and dangerous.  Someone that drives the action; someone who makes things happen—someone who’s active, not passive.  Actor: Michael Trucco. Also, seriously: better name.  At the very least, “Dale.”  Preferably something more rugged, but also one syllable, like “Tagg” or “Kane.”


Age: 22. Occupation: bug zapper.


Todd is one of Mike’s connections with criminal ties. He starts out working with a shady front business, then gets involved in other operations, then helps tackle the drug trafficking, too.  He’s essentially competition to Jesse, much like Gale Kane is to Walt. So they have to match wits, match fighting skills, match each other at gunplay, etc, etc. “Team Jesse” vs “Team Todd”! Although Todd would be a lot more interesting if he had more dimensions, like he works as a criminal informant sometimes, too, and is searching for his brother’s killer on the side. He can also rescue Holly from imminent danger a few times, which opens up all kinds of new Mike/Todd storylines for the audience to soak up.

Skinny Pete

Age: 25. Occupation: addict.


Skinny Pete is one of several friends of Jesse’s from the drug underworld. As someone on the low side of the drug empire business, they walk the line between dramatic tension and comic relief.  But with a name like Skinny Pete, there can be only one choice for the actor: Jorge Garcia. It’s irony again! That’s the fuel that makes dark comedy burn.  Although you would also want to combine him with Badger and Combo; too many friends makes for convoluted plotting.


Age: 200. Occupation: invalid.


Hector is a former crime boss that tangles with Gus, Walt, and Hank.  Like all of the other drug dealers, he needs to be Hispanic, but he also needs to be old, which leaves Miguel Ferrer as the only choice. Good thing he’s a Tinseltown legend, and can be intimidating even though he’s elderly.

Agent Gomez

Age: 45. Occupation: DEA agent.


Gomez is Hank’s partner. Or coworker or whatever.  Do DEA agents have partners?  Presumably so, since they’re buddy cops.  In any case, the AMC version makes a pointless casting mishap with a generic person in the role.  Fortunately, that can be corrected by making Gomez a far more interesting strong, female character (the show needs that, and it’s the right thing to do).  The new Gomez should also be Hank’s boss, not his partner, to show that she’s empowered, and she needs to be a butt-kicking supercop on her own, to be a good role model.  Which means she gets to use her sniper skills and her hand-to-hand combat skills at least once per season, and means she does the rescuing, not Hank.  All while adopting a child.  Actress: Moon Bloodgood.

The Cousins



Okay; sometimes you just gotta admit that they nailed this one the first time through. Do I smell spin-off?

Crystal Meth

Plot device


Walt sells drugs.  That’s vital to the show.  But seriously: crystal meth is the wrong choice on a number of levels.  First, it’s only used by rednecks, and that’s not good TV.  Second, it’s not really clear how you make crystal meth, and rather than spend time explaining that, you gain a lot of story time by working with something that has more action built right into it.

So, coke.  People understand coke, it’s worth a lot more money, and it has far more potential for drawing in other circles of characters and cartels.  For instance, Gus can be Colombian, which is where the cocaine comes from (without that, it’s a bit murky how the drugs move across the border anyway). Walt can use his science skills to chemically treat the cocaine so that it’s undetectable, so he still has to be a genius, and you can move the drugs in nightclubs and fancy bars, which is a way better backdrop than street intersections.

Although if the show was on Fox, it could also be replaced by an exotic synthesized hallucinogen that creates wild visual effects.




Forget it.  The new setting is Los Angeles.  First of all, nobody can spell the name of the dang place.  Second, in case you haven’t noticed, nobody lives in Arizona; it’s a desert wasteland.  You wouldn’t believably have high-powered government offices, hospitals, lawyers with fancy cars, private eyes, kingpins, and scientists in the middle of nowhere.  That part of the country would have maybe a medical clinic and a part-time country lawyer.  Third, it’s a big empty spot that looks drab no matter which direction you turn—there’d be no cinematography. Television is a visual medium.

LA is a far better environment on every level: you have nightlife, you have ghettos, you have classic locations and rich, colorful streets and buildings to shoot in. You have gangs and FBI offices and expensive medical facilities for Walt and Marie.  You have sophisticated people. And, best of all, all of it looks great. No question here.




Last, but certainly not least, there’s the issue of Walt’s health.  On the original version of the show, Walt has lung cancer, which talk about a downer even compared to the other downers.  It doesn’t even make sense to start, since you get lung cancer by smoking (and we can’t have him do that). But worse yet, it’s slow and depressing, and it’s not interesting to see in diagnosis or in treatment.  And it doesn’t even tie in to the plotline of the show??  How confusing is that?

Far better is to have Walt’s dramatic medical condition be something that relates to who he is.  Like, instead of being a teacher his whole life, maybe he used to be in the army using his chemical skills some way in the field, like as an explosives expert.  And when he was in Iraq, he got that Gulf War Syndrome or got an accidental dose of poison gas from one of Saddam’s biological weapons stockpiles. But he doesn’t know it until later.  Or it’s classified operation, like maybe it was really people in his unit going rogue who had the chemical weapon, because they were stealing it, and he fought back and destroyed it, but he got sick in the process, and the commanding officer doesn’t kill him but says “I’m going to leave you to die slowly, just like they did to my wife” or something like that, so Walt has a grudge but he can’t prove anything. That makes the sickness relevant to the story. That makes it part of who he is.  That makes it drama.

Although if the show is on Fox, we can still go one better; rather than Walt destroying the stolen chemical weapon, the rogue CO injects him with a dose of it and forces him to keep quiet about the heist or he’ll detonate the capsule remotely, but then it starts to leak so Walt knows he only has so much time left so he heads down a dark path of drug dealing in order to make contacts that will lead him to the members of his old unit and he uses the money he raises to track them down so he can exact vengeance one by one.  And also Hank was a paratrooper in the same unit but he doesn’t believe Walt’s story and also Walt’s name is changed to “Walter Badd” and the show is called “Breaking Badd.”

It’s perfect.

[editor’s other note: I originally intended to end with a photocollage mock-up of the alternative cast and the revised show name, but when I started making it it just made me depressed because of how realistic it is that that’s how it’d actually go down. so use your imagination instead.]

Closing in on Italy

Been scramblin’ at finishing a bunch of partially-completed work; this is a preview of my attempt at making a “real” italic for News Cycle. Based on what I’ve seen in the sample books, ATF News Gothic (on which the original News Cycle was based) offered an oblique.

News Cycle Italic preview

Preview image of News Cycle italic


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