Friday, 22 June 2018

Thomson 8-bit computers, a history

In March 1986, my dad was in the market for a Thomson TO7/70. I have the circled classified ads in “Téo” issue 1 to prove that :)

TO7/70 with its chiclet keyboard and optical pen, courtesy of

The “Plan Informatique pour Tous” was in full swing, and Thomson were supplying schools with micro-computers. My dad, as a primary school teacher, needed to know how to operate those computers, and eventually teach them to kids.

The first thing he showed us when he got the computer, on the living room TV, was a game called “Panic” or “Panique” where you controlled a missile, protecting a town from flying saucers that flew across the screen from either side, faster and faster as the game went on. I still haven't been able to locate this game again.

A couple of years later, the TO7/70 was replaced by a TO9, with a floppy disk, and my dad used that computer to write an educational software about top-down additions, as part of a training program run by the teachers schools (“Écoles Normales” renamed to “IUFM“ in 1990).

After months of nagging, and some spring cleaning, he found the listings of his educational software, which I've liberated, with his permission. I'm currently still working out how to generate floppy disks that are usable directly in emulators. But here's an early screenshot.

Later on, my dad got an IBM PC compatible, an Olivetti PC/1, on which I'd play a clone of Asteroids for hours, but that's another story. The TO9 got passed down to me, and after spending a full summer doing planning for my hot-dog and chips van business (I was 10 or 11, and I had weird hobbies already), and entering every game from the “102 Programmes pour...” series of books, the TO9 got put to the side at Christmas, replaced by a Sega Master System, using that same handy SCART connector on the Thomson monitor.

But how does this concern you. Well, I've worked with RetroManCave on a Minitel episode not too long ago, and he agreed to do a history of the Thomson micro-computers. I did a fair bit of the research and fact-checking, as well as some needed repairs to the (prototype!) hardware I managed to find for the occasion. The result is this first look at the history of Thomson.

Finally, if you fancy diving into the Thomson computers, there will be an episode coming shortly about the MO5E hardware, and some games worth running on it, on the same YouTube channel.

I'm currently working on bringing the “TeoTO8D emulator to Flathub, for Linux users. When that's ready, grab some games from the DCMOTO archival site, and have some fun!

I'll also be posting some nitty gritty details about Thomson repairs on my Micro Repairs Twitter feed for the more technically enclined among you.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Fingerprint reader support, the second coming

Fingerprint readers are more and more common on Windows laptops, and hardware makers would really like to not have to make a separate SKU without the fingerprint reader just for Linux, if that fingerprint reader is unsupported there.

The original makers of those fingerprint readers just need to send patches to the libfprint Bugzilla, I hear you say, and the problem's solved!

But it turns out it's pretty difficult to write those new drivers, and those patches, without an insight on how the internals of libfprint work, and what all those internal, undocumented APIs mean.

Most of the drivers already present in libfprint are the results of reverse engineering, which means that none of them is a best-of-breed example of a driver, with all the unknown values and magic numbers.

Let's try to fix all this!

Step 1: fail faster

When you're writing a driver, the last thing you want is to have to wait for your compilation to fail. We ported libfprint to meson and shaved off a significant amount of time from a successful compilation. We also reduced the number of places where new drivers need to be declared to be added to the compilation.

Step 2: make it clearer

While doxygen is nice because it requires very little scaffolding to generate API documentation, the output is also not up to the level we expect. We ported the documentation to gtk-doc, which has a more readable page layout, easy support for cross-references, and gives us more control over how introductory paragraphs are laid out. See the before and after for yourselves.

Step 3: fail elsewhere

You created your patch locally, tested it out, and it's ready to go! But you don't know about git-bz, and you ended up attaching a patch file which you uploaded. Except you uploaded the wrong patch. Or the patch with the right name but from the wrong directory. Or you know git-bz but used the wrong commit id and uploaded another unrelated patch. This is all a bit too much.

We migrated our bugs and repository for both libfprint and fprintd to's GitLab. Merge Requests are automatically built, discussions are easier to follow!

Step 4: show it to me

Now that we have spiffy documentation, unified bug, patches and sources under one roof, we need to modernise our website. We used GitLab's CI/CD integration to generate our website from sources, including creating API documentation and listing supported devices from git master, to reduce the need to search the sources for that information.

Step 5: simplify

This process has started, but isn't finished yet. We're slowly splitting up the internal API between "internal internal" (what the library uses to work internally) and "internal for drivers" which we eventually hope to document to make writing drivers easier. This is partially done, but will need a lot more work in the coming months.

TL;DR: We migrated libfprint to meson, gtk-doc, GitLab, added a CI, and are writing docs for driver authors, everything's on the website!

Friday, 15 December 2017

More Bluetooth (and gaming) features

In the midst of post-release bug fixing, we've also added a fair number of new features to our stack. As usual, new features span a number of different components, so integrators will have to be careful picking up all the components when, well, integrating.

PS3 clones joypads support

Do you have a PlayStation 3 joypad that feels just a little bit "off"? You can't find the Sony logo anywhere on it? The figures on the face buttons look like barbed wire? And if it were a YouTube video, it would say "No copyright intended"?

Bingo. When plugged in via USB, those devices advertise themselves as SHANWAN or Gasia, and implement the bare minimum to work when plugged into a PlayStation 3 console. But as a Linux computer would behave slightly differently, we need to fix a couple of things.

The first fix was simple, but necessary to be able to do any work: disable the rumble motor that starts as soon as you plug the pad through USB.

Once that's done, we could work around the fact that the device isn't Bluetooth compliant, and hard-code the HID service it's supposed to offer.

Bluetooth LE Battery reporting

Bluetooth Low Energy is the new-fangled (7-year old) protocol for low throughput devices, from a single coin-cell powered sensor, to input devices. What's great is that there's finally a standardised way for devices to export their battery statuses. I've added support for this in BlueZ, which UPower then picks up for desktop integration goodness.

There are a number of Bluetooth LE joypads available for pickup, including a few that should be firmware upgradeable. Look for "Bluetooth 4" as well as "Bluetooth LE" when doing your holiday shopping.

gnome-bluetooth work

Finally, this is the boring part. Benjamin and I reworked code that's internal to gnome-bluetooth, as used in the Settings panel as well as the Shell, to make it use modern facilities like GDBusObjectManager. The overall effect of this is, less code, less brittle and more reactive when Bluetooth adapters come and go, such as when using airplane mode.

Apart from the kernel patch mentioned above (you'll know if you need it :), those features have been integrated in UPower 0.99.7 and in the upcoming BlueZ 5.48. And they will of course be available in Fedora, both in rawhide and as updates to Fedora 27 as soon as the releases have been done and built.


Wednesday, 6 December 2017

UTC and Anywhere on Earth support

A quick post to tell you that we finally added UTC support to Clocks' and the Shell's World Clocks section. And if you're into it, there's also Anywhere on Earth support.

You will need to have git master versions of libgweather (our cities and timezones database), and gnome-clocks. This feature will land in GNOME 3.28.

Many thanks to Giovanni for coming up with an API he was happy with after I attempted a couple of iterations on one. Enjoy!

Update: As expected, a bug crept in. Thanks to Colin Guthrie for spotting the error in the "Anywhere on Earth" timezone. See this section for the fun we have to deal with.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Bluetooth on Fedora: joypads and (more) security

It's been a while since I posted about Fedora specific Bluetooth enhancements, and even longer that I posted about PlayStation controllers support.

Let's start with the nice feature.

Dual-Shock 3 and 4 support

We've had support for Dual-Shock 3 (aka Sixaxis, aka PlayStation 3 controllers) for a long while, but I've added a long-standing patchset to the Fedora packages that changes the way devices are setup.

The old way was: plug in your joypad via USB, disconnect it, and press the "P" button on the pad. At this point, and since GNOME 3.12, you would have needed the Bluetooth Settings panel opened for a question to pop up about whether the joypad can connect.

This is broken in a number of ways. If you were trying to just charge the joypad, then it would forget its original "console" and you would need to plug it in again. If you didn't have the Bluetooth panel opened when trying to use it wirelessly, then it just wouldn't have worked.

Set up is now simpler. Open the Bluetooth panel, plug in your device, and answer the question. You just want to charge it? Dismiss the query, or simply don't open the Bluetooth panel, it'll work dandily and won't overwrite the joypad's settings.

And finally, we also made sure that it works with PlayStation 4 controllers.

Note that the PlayStation 4 controller has a button combination that allows it to be visible and pairable, except that if the device trying to connect with it doesn't behave in a particular way (probably the same way the 25€ RRP USB adapter does), it just wouldn't work. And it didn't work for me on a number of different devices.

Cable pairing for the win!

And the boring stuff

Hey, do you know what happened last week? There was a security problem in a package that I glance at sideways sometimes! Yes. Again.

A good way to minimise the problems caused by problems like this one is to lock the program down. In much the same way that you'd want to restrict thumbnailers, or even end-user applications, we can forbid certain functionality from being available when launched via systemd.

We've finally done this in recent fprintd and iio-sensor-proxy upstream releases, as well as for bluez in Fedora Rawhide. If testing goes well, we will integrate this in Fedora 27.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

New Evince format support: Adobe Illustrator and CBR files

A quick update, as we've touched upon Evince recently.

I mentioned that we switched from using external tools for decompression to using libarchive. That's not the whole truth, as we switched to using libarchive for CBZ, CB7 and the infamous CBT, but used a copy/paste version of unarr to support RAR files, as libarchive support lacks some needed features.

We hope to eventually remove the internal copy of unarr, but, as a stop-gap, that allowed us to start supporting CBR comics out of the box, and it's always a good thing when you have one less non-free package to grab from somewhere to access your media.

The second new format is really two formats, from either side of the 2-digit-year divide: PostScript-based Adobe Illustrator and PDF-based Adobe Illustrator. Evince now declares to support "the format" if both of the backends are built and supported. It only took 12 years, and somebody stumbling upon the feature request while doing bug triaging. The nooks and crannies of free software where the easy feature requests get lost :)

Both features will appear in GNOME 3.26, the out-of-the-box CBR support is however available now in an update for the just released Fedora 26.

Friday, 21 July 2017


@GodTributes took over my title, soz.

Dude, where's my maintainer?

Last year, probably as a distraction from doing anything else, or maybe because I was asked, I started reviewing bugs filed as a result of automated flaw discovery tools (from Coverity to UBSan via fuzzers) being run on gdk-pixbuf.

Apart from the security implications of a good number of those problems, there was also the annoyance of having a busted image file bring down your file manager, your desktop, or even an app that opened a file chooser either because it was broken, or because the image loader for that format didn't check for the sanity of memory allocations.

(I could have added links to Bugzilla entries for each one of the problems above, but that would just make it harder to read)

Two big things happened in gdk-pixbuf 2.36.1, which was used in GNOME 3.24:

  • the removal of GdkPixdata as a stand-alone image format loader. We really don't want to load GdkPixdata files from sources other than generated sources or embedded data structures, and removing that loader closed off those avenues. We still ended up fixing a fair number of naive assumptions in helper functions though.
  • the addition of a thumbnailer for gdk-pixbuf supported images. Images would not be special-cased any more in gnome-desktop's thumbnailing code, making the file manager, the file chooser and anything else navigating directories full of broken and huge images more reliable.
But that's just the start. gdk-pixbuf continues getting bug fixes, and we carry on checking for overflows, underflows and just flows, breaks and beats in general.

Programmatic Thumbellina portrait-maker

Picture, if you will, a website making you download garbage files from the Internet, the ROM dump of a NES cartridge that wasn't properly blown on and digital comic books that you definitely definitely paid for.

That's a nice summary of the security bugs foisted upon GNOME in past year or so, even if, thankfully, we were ahead of the curve in terms of fixing those issues (the GStreamer NSF decoder bug was removed in 2013, the comics backend in evince was rewritten over a period of 2 years and committed in March 2017).

Still, 2 pieces of code were running on pretty much every file downloaded, on purpose or not, from the Internet: Tracker's indexers and the file manager's thumbnailers.

Tracker started protecting itself not long after the NSF vulnerability, even if recent versions of GStreamer weren't vulnerable, as we mentioned.

That left the thumbnailers. Some of those are first party, like the gdk-pixbuf, and those offered by core applications (Evince, Videos), written by GNOME developers (yours truly for both epub/mobi and Nintendo DS).

They're all good quality code I'd vouch for (having written or maintained quite a few of them), but they can rely on third-party libraries (say GStreamer, poppler, or libarchive), have naive or insufficiently defensive code (gdk-pixbuf loaders,  GStreamer plugins) or, worst of all: THIRD-PARTY EXTENSIONS.

There are external plugins and extensions for image formats in gdk-pixbuf, for video and audio formats in GStreamer, and for thumbnailers pretty much anywhere. We can't control those, but the least we can do when they explode in a wet mess is make sure that the toilet door is closed.

Not even Nicholas Cage can handle this Alcatraz

For GNOME 3.26 (and today in git master), the thumbnailer stall will be doubly bolted by a Bubblewrap sandbox and a seccomp blacklist.

This closes a whole vector of attack for the GNOME Desktop, but doesn't mean we're completely out of the woods. We'll need to carry on maintaining and fixing security bugs in those libraries and tools we depend on, as GStreamer plugin bugs still affect Videos, gdk-pixbuf bugs still affect Photos and Eye Of Gnome, etc.

And there are limits to what those 2 changes can achieve. The sandboxing and syscall blacklisting avoids those thumbnailers writing anything but an image file in PNG format in a specific directory. There's no network, the filename of the original file is hidden and sanitised, but the thumbnailer could still create a crafted PNG file, and the sandbox doesn't work inside a sandbox! So no protection if the application running the thumbnailer is inside Flatpak.

In fine

GNOME 3.26 will have better security for thumbnailers, so you won't "need to delete GNOME Files".

But you'll probably want to be careful with desktops that forked our thumbnailing code, namely Cinnamon and MATE, which don't implement those security features.

The next step for the thumbnailers will be beefing up our protection against greedy thumbnailers (in terms of CPU and memory usage), and sharing the code better between thumbnailers.

Note for later, more images of cute animals.