Sean's Tech and Writing Blog
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.
19 December 2014
The first of my author copies have made their way through the Christmas post, so this is what elevenses looks like for me this morning: a camomile tea, a mince pie, and a flick through the new book. Cheers!
This second edition of Raspberry Pi For Dummies has been updated to take account of the changes in the Raspberry Pi hardware and software since the first edition was published in March 2013. We've been able to increase the pagecount on this second edition, which has made room for three new chapters.
The first covers Minecraft, and how you can use Python to build worlds in it. The example program builds a random Minecraft maze you can walk around inside, and was previously published in Raspberry Pi Projects. This book is for a different audience, so we thought it would be nice to include it here too. Watch a video of the Minecraft Maze Maker in action here.
There's also a new chapter on Sonic Pi, a programming language for writing electronic and sample-based music. I had a lot of fun writing this chapter, and I've posted an extended remix of my Sonic Pi demo music here. Given the book it's for, and the demonstration nature of the track, I thought the title 'Showroom Dummies' was apt. I've uploaded it to Soundcloud, so you can listen to the Sonic Pi demo here too. To mark the book's publication, I've also created an infographic showing you the note names and numbers used in Sonic Pi and Scratch. Print it out, stick it beside your Pi, and start composing!
The third new chapter is an appendix covering RISC OS. Given the rest of the book is all about Linux, we thought this topic best belonged in an appendix. It provides a short introduction to help you get your bearings on the RISC OS operating system, and will hopefully encourage you to try it out and discover an interesting alternative take on the graphical user interface.
To make some room, we did have to drop the web design project that was in the previous edition. The rationale was to make room for more Pi-specific technologies. If you're looking for a guide to web design, my book Web Design in Easy Steps might be what you're looking for, and you can use Leafpad on the Raspberry Pi for coding your HTML and CSS.
I'd like to thank everyone for their fantastic support of the book, and the first edition before it. Publishers only create a new edition of a book when the first edition is successful, so it is thanks to everyone who supported the first edition that we're able to create this updated edition and continue to help readers get the best from their Raspberry Pis. I was delighted to see the book was recommended in the official Raspberry Pi Christmas Shopping Guide, which said the book is "a superb guide to the device and what you can do with it. It’s good for beginners, but it’ll take you a long way – much further than you might guess from the title!". Thank you also to Code Club, who shared this great photo of community manager Michael reading the book:
Find out more about Raspberry Pi For Dummies here, and please visit my shop for links to places where you can buy Raspberry Pi For Dummies, Scratch Programming in Easy Steps, Raspberry Pi Projects, Web Design in Easy Steps, or any of my other books. If you'd like to support your local bookshop, there's a form you can print out and take into the shop with the ISBN details on it to smooth the order process.
Wishing you a Christmas filled with mince pies, Raspberry Pis, and whatever you wish for!
09 December 2014
Here's an animated Christmas card I made using Scratch. Feel free to modify it and send it to your friends!
You can learn more about Scratch here.
While we're on the subject of Christmas, you can play my Christmas version of Hangman, Snowman, here and play my Christmas Pairs game here. You can send a Christmas greeting on a free ecard from any of my photos here, too. And Virtual Sean has his Santa suit on!
21 November 2014
In the run-up to the publication of the second edition of Raspberry Pi For Dummies, I've created an infographic to help you with making music on your Raspberry Pi. It shows the note numbers you need to use in Scratch and Sonic Pi. Both are covered in Raspberry Pi For Dummies, with Sonic Pi being a new addition to the second edition, with a chapter of its own. You can find out more about Sonic Pi here (and hear the music I wrote using it), and read more about this Raspberry Pi note numbers infographic here. There's more information on what's new in the second edition of Raspberry Pi For Dummies here.
06 November 2014
Later this month, there is a second edition of Raspberry Pi For Dummies coming out. A lot has changed since the previous edition was published in March 2013, including the launch of the Model B+ earlier this year and the introduction of NOOBS, which makes it easier to install the operating system. For this second edition, Mike and I have checked and updated the whole book to account for the new hardware and the latest software. We've also refreshed the list of inspiring projects and useful software at the back of the book with some new suggestions.
The book has three new chapters:
- Making a Minecraft Maze with Python: This project shows you how to make a program in Python that will generate random mazes that you can walk around in Minecraft. It's a lot of fun exploring the mazes, and they don't have to be very big before they become quite challenging to solve. You can easily configure the size and position of the maze if you want to drop it into an existing world, but be careful because the program will wipe out anything in its way as it builds the maze. This chapter previously appeared in the book Raspberry Pi Projects, but since that book is for a different audience, and I got really great feedback from people who saw the program in action, we thought it would be good to include this chapter in Raspberry Pi For Dummies too. You can watch a video of this program building a maze here.
- Making music with Sonic Pi: Sonic Pi is a programming language you can use to write music. In this new chapter, you'll learn how to use it to write tunes you know, random music, and sample-based pieces. The chapter finishes with an industrial piece that combines samples for drums and several synth parts that are synchronised together. I'll post the music on this website soon, both as code and audio.
- RISC OS: This is an alternative operating system for the Raspberry Pi, and it now has an appendix of its own that provides a short introduction to get you started.
We've extended the page count (at the same RRP, so you get better value!), but something had to give, so the chapter on making a website using the Raspberry Pi has been removed. If you'd really like that chapter, the first edition of the book remains on sale with immediate shipping in many places, including Amazon.
The second edition of Raspberry Pi For Dummies is available now for pre-order at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com, with Amazon's pre-order guarantee ensuring you'll pay the lowest price Amazon lists it at between now and publication day. Visit my shop for links to other places you can buy Raspberry Pi For Dummies.
The second edition is only viable because the first edition was well received, so I'd like to thank everyone who read the first edition, bought it, reviewed it, and/or helped to spread the word. All your support is very much appreciated!
23 October 2014
The first half term of the new school year has now finished, and with it the first few weeks of a whole new set of Code Clubs. I've written two new articles to cover two of the key challenges that Scratch presents to new programmers:
- Finding and debugging the top 5 errors in Scratch programs: There are several errors that new Scratchers tend to make. If you're on the look-out for them, it'll make it easier to fix your programs, and to guide students in fixing their own.
- What's the difference between a variable made for one sprite and a variable made for all sprites in Scratch?: This issue is particularly important because it's so hard to untangle if a mistake is made. I've created a short demo that should help to make the difference clearer. Feel free to use it in your clubs and classrooms!