Sean's Tech and Writing Blog
06 March 2015
Thanks to TechnologyWillSaveUs, my Code Club had a set of DIY Gamer Kits to assemble and solder, which we recently did in a half-day session in the school hall. The guide says it'll take about an hour and a half to assemble, but it took me a bit longer than that, and for the children it was the first time they'd done any soldering. We found that half a day was the right amount of time to set aside for it, including introducing the children to soldering and ensuring we worked at a steady but safe pace.
The DIY Gamer Kit is an Arduino-based handheld games console that has an 8x8 pixel matrix display, four control buttons, a light sensor and infrared communications. It uses a standard 9V battery for power. When you get it, it comes in kit form, as a white circuit board and components that need to be soldered to it. The Arduino clips to the underside of the board, and there are plastic coverings that screw to the front and back.
One of our main concerns was to make sure that the children were safe using the soldering irons. The teacher told me that they routinely warn children that the glue guns are hot and they shouldn't get any glue on them, and some children immediately test that by putting a dollop on their hand, which then blisters. Given how much hotter the soldering irons are, we couldn't run any similar risks, so the teacher began by giving the group a serious talk about safety. They were excited and we wanted to tap into that enthusiasm, but also needed to ensure that everyone proceeded carefully and safely at all times. During the session, nobody was hurt, and everyone had a good time.
The other thing we did was to separate the soldering tables and to restrict the number of people there at any one time. We had a table for each kit where the components were kept, and when something was ready for soldering, the children went over to the soldering station on the other side of the hall. That ensured there wasn't any bustling around the soldering station.
Before we got into the kits properly, we did a practice solder session using some bits of old wire. We gave everyone a chance to try soldering the wires together, so they could see how it was going to work, get a feel for the solder and the soldering iron, and gain confidence before they were using the kits. We divided the group in two for this, and while one half was soldering, the other half was using a card game to learn what the different bits of the kit did.
When assembling the kit, we used the manual but found we had to make a few changes to the process. Some of the components were pre-soldered on our board (which was a huge time saver, without detracting from the experience). I found that I had to do section 7 of the manual (integrated circuits) before fitting the LED display (section 5), otherwise the display gets in the way. We put together an A5 booklet based on the manual, but changed the order of some of the sections and excluded some others to fit the kits we had. When it came to fitting the integrated circuits, I didn't know which way they should go in, but my friend Marcus (who also gave me a soldering refresher class when I was preparing the session) told me you match the semicircle shapes on the chips with the semicircle shapes on the sockets.
The session went extremely well. "This is like the best science lesson ever!" one of the children said, and there was much excitement when they switched the kits on and found they could play Snake. Out of our kits, only a couple didn't work. On one of them, the children had soldered two resistors in the wrong places and we haven't been able to get them off yet. Unfortunately, these were by far the best soldered joints of the whole session! For the other kit, we haven't worked out why it's not working, but we'll take a look and check it. Given the complexity of the kit and the inexperience of the children, we were very happy with the outcome, and everyone got to play a game and experience building the kit.
For the next step, we'll be programming them, but the school is also now exploring more opportunities to do electronics projects following the success of this session, and the enthusiasm of the children for it.
The DIY Gamer Kit has recently been nominated as a design of the year at the Design Museum, and it is a great device. I took it along to the Raspberry Pi Birthday Party to demonstrate, and it was a popular exhibit. If you're looking for a fun soldering project and a first Arduino project, it's well worth taking a look at it.
Thank you to everyone who made this possible, including TechnologyWillSaveUs, Code Club, Marcus, and the teachers and facilities manager who helped run the session.
I'm sure the children will remember the day they got to build a games console for a long time.
04 March 2015
Last weekend the Raspberry Pi community came together in Cambridge to celebrate the quirky computer's third birthday. It's achieved an incredible amount in its short lifetime, helping to transform education and finding its way into schools, homes and offices all over the world. Perhaps its greatest achievement, though, is the community it's built, and the birthday party gave a real taste of that. People flew in from Germany and France, and travelled from all over the country to join the fun.
On entering the building, we were greeted by a giant throne with an arch of balloons over it. From tiles provided, you could assemble a placard and sit on the throne to be announced as "the messy inventor of wonderland" (Pete Lomas's choice of words) or something similar. This was one of the many Raspberry Pi projects on show during the weekend. There were lots of robots, and the CamJam obstacle course was available for testing their mettle. There was an Astro Blaster arcade cabinet that had been lovingly restored as a desktop unit powered by a Pi, and a handheld Spectrum emulator. You could have your photo taken in bullet time using a ring of Raspberry Pis with cameras, and find out how naughty or nice you were with an end-of-the-pier style attraction that scanned your hand. The Easter bunny was present too, pooping out Mini Eggs when you pressed a button. My co-author Mike Cook brought along several of his projects, including a game where you have to vigorously shake a real bottle to empty the sauce on screen, and a random jazz generator. I was delighted to have a chance to meet him, given that we'd worked on three books together without previously crossing paths in the real world.
There was a programme of workshops. On the Saturday, I helped to run a Scratch hackathon, where about 20 children and young people coded games and wrote programs that controlled LEDs from the CamJam EduKit. We had a show and tell session afterwards, where many of them shared their creations in the main lecture theatre. It was great to see what they could achieve in two hours, without ever having done any electronics on the Pi before. If you couldn't make it to the session (or even if you could and want to explore more), you can find my guide to getting started with ScratchGPIO and the CamJam kit here.
Phil Atkin gave a great presentation of his synthesiser software, showing how he'd recreated the sound of an expensive Moog synth using the Pi and some highly optimised code. Now that the Raspberry Pi 2 has come out, he says there will be lots of original Pis that people don't need any more. His hope is that they can find their way into schools together with his synth software. Since music is one of my hobbies too, I'm very much looking forward to the general release of the software.
Kieron Spinner ran a workshop on Node.js, with a demonstration showing how it can be used to enable an LED connected to the Pi to be remotely controlled over the web. As a prototype for the Internet of Things, this was a great demonstration, and he's keen to collaborate with others who are similarly excited by the technology's potential.
On Saturday evening, there was a party with balloons and cake and raspberry beer and games and music and oh, so much more! It really was a great celebration, and was generously supported by the sponsors who donated prizes. In pass the parcel, everybody won. My prize was a motor controller board from Ryanteck, which I look forward to trying out! Everyone left with a party bag too, which included a free ebook from O'Reilly, stickers, cables, Magpi magazines, pens and more. I enjoyed the music performance, in which Sam Aaron live-coded with Sonic Pi, accompanied by a guitarist.
The highlight for me was having an opportunity to chat to people, which I feel like I did almost continuously for two days! I got to meet many people I know virtually for the first time, see some people I know again, and meet some new people. Sunday was a particularly good day for this because I had a show and tell stand where I was showing my Minecraft Maze Maker, Scratch burglar alarm, some Scratch games and a selection of Raspberry Pi books. It was lovely to meet some existing readers and to be able to introduce the books and even the Raspberry Pi to some others. While the event was driven by Pi die-hards, it was wonderful to see people there who were buying their first Pi and exploring what they could do with it. Thank you to everyone who visited the stand, especially with so much other stuff going on.
I took the opportunity to do some shopping too, and bought some add-ons from Pimoroni. It was nice to see some businesses that had been established around the Raspberry Pi, showing how it has helped to drive enterpreneurialism, especially among young people, a couple of whom have gone from university to running a Pi-based business.
There are so many people to thank, especially Mike Horne and Tim Richardson who organised the programme, Lisa Mather who orchestrated the superb prizes and goodie bags, the many marshals, the Raspberry Pi Foundation and all its members who made everyone welcome and the sponsors who generously supported the event.
I had a fantastic time, but with so much going on, I know that I missed a lot of what was on offer. If anyone's looking for a project for their Pi, I have a suggestion. You'll need a comprehensive understanding of the Pi, electronics, and the space-time continuum. I know I'm asking a lot, but if any of you can build a time machine in time for the next party, it would be mighty useful. In fact, given it's a time machine, why not build it in time for the last one? How about it, eh?
26 February 2015
I'm looking forward to this weekend's birthday party for the Raspberry Pi in its home town of Cambridge. The programme of events looks incredible, with talks, workshops, marketplace stalls, discussion areas, a Robot Wars style obstacle course, and show and tell tables, plus a party in the evening. It's going to be amazing.
On the Saturday, I'll be helping to run a Scratch hackathon where we'll be inviting attendees to see what they can build in a couple of hours in the afternoon. We'll have some CamJam EduKits available, and we'll have ScratchGPIO, so attendees will be able to make physical gadgets with LEDs, buttons and buzzers controlled from Scratch, as well as more traditional on-screen experiences. Tickets for this session are now fully booked, but if you don't have one, please do come along to the session in lecture theatre 1 at 3.30pm to see what they built! We're expecting some children to take part and I'm sure they would love to show you what they made. If you'd like to get an idea of how you can use Scratch to light up LEDs and make a burglar alarm, see my new article here.
On the Sunday, I have a show and tell stand. I'll demo my Minecraft maze maker, and have all my coding demos from my books available. I'll also have my Scratch burglar alarm set up, so if you want to see how you can use Scratch for physical computing, please drop by. I'll be happy to chat and see if I can help if you have any queries.
I'll bring along some books too (including the new edition of Raspberry Pi For Dummies, Scratch Programming in Easy Steps, Web Design in Easy Steps, Raspberry Pi Projects, and Coding for Kids). I'll have copies of Raspberry Pi in Easy Steps and Python in Easy Steps on hand too.
I've got some Code Club leaflets, and I'll be happy to talk to you about my experience as a Code Club volunteer helping to teach programming in a school. If you're interested in helping to inspire the next generation, or want to find out how you can set up a Code Club in your school or local venue, drop by for a chat.
Mike Cook, my co-author on Raspberry Pi For Dummies, also has a Show and Tell stand, so look out for him too!
It's going to be a busy weekend and there is so much to see and do, but if you've got a moment to say 'hi', it would be great to meet you!
12 February 2015
When I launched my first home page way back in the late nineties, one of the features was a game called Wild Mood Swings. In it, you choose your mood from a pulldown menu, and it takes you to a site appropriate for that mood. Sometimes, the destination will reinforce and reflect the mood, and other times it will attempt to reverse it. I later spun the site off into its own website, and it was featured in the Daily Mirror, Web User, Radio 2 and others.
As part of a move to simplify my online presence, I've now brought Wild Mood Swings back into my main website here (any existing links will redirect smoothly). I've also tested and refreshed the moods, so there are some new moods to try, as well as a few that date back to the original launch. If you've got suggestions for any missing moods or any great sites that should be included, let me know here or leave a comment below.
Next time you've got a few minutes, why not try mood surfing?
08 February 2015
There was much excitement this week as the Raspberry Pi Foundation released the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B, boasting 1GB of memory and a four-core processor. The box for the Pi 2s sold by Element14 proudly declares that the new Pi is six times faster than the previous Model B, although I've heard that for some highly optimised applications performance could exceed that. I got a Pibow case to go with mine, in a different colour from my previous ones, so I can tell the new Pi apart from my previous Pis.
Today, I had time to plug mine in and try it out. The first thing to note is that you won't be able to use your existing Raspbian/NOOBS MicroSD card. Even if you update it (and upgrade it), it won't work when you plug it into the new Raspberry Pi. You need to start over, reinstalling Noobs on the card, otherwise the Pi will freeze on the rainbow screen at the start. If you can't get your new Raspberry Pi 2 to boot properly, make sure you've installed the latest software on your card. Note that reinstalling the operating system wipes the card, though, so make sure you have a backup of your data (or better still, start over with a new card). The new Pi is compatible with the same files and applications as your older Pis, but you will need to copy files to your new SD card and re-install your applications. The Raspberry Pi 2 is the same as a Model B+ in terms of hardware, so it is compatible with any add-ons or GPIO software written for that (and also features the extra GPIO pins and USB sockets).
It was immediately obvious that it was faster. When I was writing Raspberry Pi For Dummies, I tried a number of applications on the Raspberry Pi, including LibreOffice (a word processing, spreadsheet and presentations suite) and GIMP (a photo editing package). They're both covered in the book, but I cautioned that they might run a bit slower than you're comfortable with. Well, not any more! You can edit images without lag, and use LibreOffice without pushing the processor to the point where things slow down. The Pi is starting to become viable now not just as a second computer, but also as a primary Linux desktop for basic home and school use.
Since we published Raspberry Pi For Dummies, 2nd edition, a new version of the desktop software has been released too, giving the Pi a much classier look, whichever model of the Pi you are using. There are a few changes from what's in Chapter 4 of the book, as a result, although I don't think there's anything that's likely to cause real confusion.
Here are the changes I've spotted from what's written in the book:
- There's just one browser now. It's Epiphany, the one covered in depth in the book.
- The programs menu and taskbar have moved from the bottom of the screen to the top. The menu button now says 'Menu' on it. To find out how much you're maxing out the processor, you now look to the top-right. If you have a Pi 2, you're going to be pleasantly surprised!
- There are no icons on the desktop any more, unless you put them there. You access everything through the menu.
- The WiFi Config tool can be found in the Preferences section of the menu.
- To change your desktop appearance, you now choose Theme and Appearance Settings, under preferences in the menu.
- There is no Other category in the menu now. It was always a bit of a 'dustbin' of things that should have better homes or be hidden from the user. But if you install software that expects to go there, you might have difficulty finding it in the menu. XInvaders 3D, one of the ten recommended software packages in Chapter 19, installs into Other and so doesn't appear to be in the menu any more. To run it, use the Run option from the menu, and type in 'xinv3d'.
Will you be getting a Raspberry Pi 2? How will you use it? Leave a comment below!
23 January 2015
I've just got back from Bett 2015, and thought I'd write a short blog post to share some of the things I saw there today. My first observation is that it was great to see the Raspberry Pi having such a strong presence there this year, thanks to the support of CPC. Last time I was at BETT was in 2013, when there was only space to have one demo station. This year, there were a couple of tables set up with Raspberry Pis for visitors to use, and a row of seats behind too. There was a large presentation screen at the front, and a packed programme that has seen a new talk delivered every half an hour or so for the last three days, with one more day to go.
I attended several of the sessions. Michael Horne from CamJam opened the day with a talk about the two EduKits that provide a tin of components to enable simple electronics experiments. He says there are already over 1,200 of the kits out there, and you're welcome to use the EduKit project sheets with your own components if you have them. The first kit includes a breadboard and LEDs you can use to build and program a traffic light, and the second kit has a range of sensors (including temperature and movement) and can be used to make a burglar alarm.
Later on in the day, there was a chance to use the kits to build a reaction timer in a session led by Matthew Parry, head of computing at Swanwick School and Sports College. He talked us through building the kit and programming it in Scratch, and it was great to have such a hands-on and practical workshop at the heart of the Pi booth.
Dave Honess gave a presentation of the weather station project, which is being sponsored by Oracle, and will see 1,000 Pi-compatible weather station kits given away to schools. The data from the weather stations will be uploaded to an Oracle cloud, and everyone will be able to access the full data sets for data processing (even those who don't have one of the kits). The kit is able to detect air pressure, air quality, humidity, wind speed and rainfall, and students will be able to build a MySQL/PHP website to display their data. If you're curious, the fastest recorded wind speed from somebody blowing on the anemometer is 32mph. Phew!
One of the most exciting talks concerned Astro Pi, which is sending two Raspberry Pis to the International Space Station with British ESA astronaut Tim Peake (pictured here in an underwater laboratory, photo courtesy of NASA). School students have a chance to design (and, in the case of secondary schools, code) the science experiments, powered by the Pi. This is an incredible opportunity for schools that take part, and it will be fantastic to see which projects are selected to go into orbit. The key things to bear in mind are that the astronauts only have four hours to give this project (plus four hours of contingency time), so any projects need to be quick to set up and use. Projects are likely to involve setup, continuous logging and comparison with data on earth logged at the same time. There was also a suggestion that a project that used both Pis to build in redundancy might work well, given the risk that radiation could corrupt memory and prompt one of the Pis to restart.
The last talk of the day I caught was about Wolfram Mathematica. There were two main takeaways from this: firstly, the language is designed to deliver results without too much preamble. The talk showed how data could be processed and graphed without needing the setup and syntactical scaffold common in languages like Python and Java. Secondly, the language incorporates a lot of knowledge already. There wasn't a live connection, so it wasn't possible to demonstrate this, but presenter Jon McLoone from Wolfram said the language can answer questions like "Where is the International Space Station now?" or "What was the weather like in Rome when David Cameron was born?" I look forward to digging into this further. He also demonstrated the drawing of a community graph, which I'm keen to try on my Facebook friends. If you're new to Mathematica, check out the free bonus Mathematica chapter from Raspberry Pi For Dummies.
It was great to meet the Raspberry Pi team and to see so many great projects there. I spent some time with Sonic Pi creator Sam Aaron looking at how to optimise my Sonic Pi tune, and enjoyed meeting others I know from Twitter. Bett is still running tomorrow (Saturday), so there's still time to go along and drop in on the Raspberry Pi team. If you went to Bett, what were your highlights?
22 January 2015
As part of the updated second edition of Raspberry Pi For Dummies, my co-author Mike Cook has written a great introduction to Mathematica, a maths-based application that's capable of creating some great mathematical art, among other things. Usually, Mathematica costs about $2,500, but there's a free version on your Raspberry Pi, so this highly exclusive software is now available for everyone to experiment with.
After we'd added chapters on Minecraft, Sonic Pi and RISC OS and updated the rest of the book (was that plug too shameless?), there wasn't room to include the Mathematica chapter in Raspberry Pi For Dummies. So we made it available for free too, as a downloadable PDF that you can read on screen or print out. It's gone through the same editorial process as the rest of the book.
Read it to discover how to use the Mathematica interface for calculations, how to plot functions, how to plot several functions on one graph, parametric plotting, and how you can make 3D graphics using Mathematica. You'll also discover how to make interactive mathematical art like this:
If you make something you like, please send me your screenshots. It would be great to see what you're making with Mathematica.