despicable me—themed supercomputer

I gave a talk on Tuesday to an eager group of 155 attendees at the monthly SanDiego.js meetup on the topic of “Supercomputing in JavaScript”. I had an opportunity to show the new Raspberry Pi 3 supercomputer which I’d built and took it through its paces.

I think they mostly loved the audio events for assembling the minions and sending them to bed (shutting off the remote nodes). There was just enough time to also show the obligatory “Hello, Minions!” demo program to exercise the Message Passing Interface. I received a wide variety of questions and compliments from the group. And of course afterward, everyone who owned a Raspberry Pi came over to discuss their own projects, which was cool.

Here’s the PowerPoint presentation from that talk, in case you’re interested.

e-mc2 repository with step-by-step instructions

server-side tone synth with node

I thought I’d work on another Raspberry Pi 3 project and this time was looking to expand my repertoire for server-side audio.  I suppose I was imagining an application in which you’d carry the Pi along with you using a USB-based power bank and plugging in your headphones, controlling the interface via your cellphone’s browser, let’s say.


Logically then this would need to be a Node.js—based webserver which could synthesize a sine wave tone with a specified frequency on both left/right audio outputs on the server itself (rather than streaming it back to the client browser).  I chose the Raspian image for the microSD card because, as a Debian modification, it’s likely the closest to the standard Ubuntu flavor of Linux which I work with the most.

Open Source

Searching the npm space I found nothing useful, to be honest. It’s rare when the open source world fails to deliver but this was one of those times. I was going to need to innovate on this one. There are many repositories out there which use the browser’s window object but that just wasn’t available here on the server. I installed module after module only to find that one of its dependencies relied upon that same pesky window object. So each time, I had to perform another npm remove --save whatever from my project to return things back to “square one”.

This research took a little longer than I’d hoped for but it turns out that Raspian out-of-box includes the Open Sound System (OSS) aspi-utils collection and its speaker-test program can be used in a terminal to generate tones from both speakers. Okay, so now how do you run terminal programs from JavaScript?

Starting External Programs From Node

It turns out that Node has an internal module called child_process which allows you to spawn (run) something you might normally invoke from the command line. It took some reading but I was able to navigate the documentation and to start a speaker-test session with the necessary arguments. One task down, (one to go).

Stopping External Programs From Node

Fortunately, Node also has an internal module process with a kill command to stop a running process.


It takes a bit of state management: the webserver needs to remember if you’ve started a process, what its process ID is and whether or not you’ve now stopped it. A proper open source project would support systems other than Linux but this is the starting point and this wouldn’t work, say, with a Windows-based computer using the PowerShell module control, for example.

Since this wasn’t an exercise in UX design the interface couldn’t really be any simpler. It’s your basic Express-generated website with the Pug view engine and a simple pull-down list for selecting some preset frequencies. Submitting your tone choice POSTs back to the same index page; selecting the Stop button POSTs to a virtually-routed /stop routine which then redirects back to the original index page.

Source Code

Check it out if you’re curious. I’ll likely be using this same technique to create a more self-contained module for managing external programs.