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UK freelance journalist, author
and writer Sean McManus

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Assembling the Google AIY Kit for Raspberry Pi

23 August 2017


The May issue of the MagPi, the official Raspberry Pi magazine, included the Google AIY kit, which enables you to add artificial intelligence to your Raspberry Pi. Specifically, it provides a voice recognition system, based on Google Home and similar to Amazon Echo. You press the button, ask a question out loud, and the box uses the cloud to analyse your question and find an answer for you. The answer is spoken in a friendly female voice.

It's been a busy few months, but I have now, finally, got around to assembling it. There were a few areas where the instructions were a bit confusing, probably because Google has redesigned its cloud API website since the instructions were written. At first it wouldn't work because it said I had to change some basic settings. It turned out that you have to enable all the activity controls, including ticking the box for using your browser and app history. I can see how using your personal data can make the service better, but the service is stopped from working without it. That sounds to me like Google is using services like this as leverage to get personal data.

So now, I have my assistant, sat on my desk. the button is usually on the top, but I've turned the box on its side and put a friendly face on it using stickers. Here's a video:

The voice recognition is pretty good, although the service is quite US focused, at least initially. When I was asking about places in my area, it was mishearing them as places in the US at first. When I asked about the weather in a local town, I was given the weather in another local town. Often the answer includes complete information so you can tell what the device heard, but sometimes it doesn't. I was hoping to be able to use it as a voice activated calculator, and so far in my tests it's performed perfectly. But it doesn't repeat the question, so there's a risk the question hasn't been correctly heard and I can't validate that. (You can fit a screen and then see what it understood, but that defeats the object).

It performs well for general knowledge questions, the time and weather forecasts. It knows a few funny jokes (it hasn't repeated yet, but I don't want to use it all up so I'm not asking it to tell me a joke too often). You can't set a reminder, get it to tell you the latest news, or shut it down using a voice control yet. Although the great thing is that it's hackable, so you could add all kinds of features or use the API for controlling different devices.

I am probably the last person in the country to assemble one of the original AIY kits (like I said, it's been a busy few months), but the Raspberry Pi Foundation advises anyone still interested in getting hold of one to subscribe to the MagPi newsletter. It says: "We can’t say for sure that the AIY Projects Voice Kit will be available for purchase, but we are pretty confident that a longer term solution can be found."

It would be great to see this become a commercial product, so that more people can enjoy building it, hacking it, and chatting to it.

The updated third edition of Raspberry Pi For Dummies is published September 2017.

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Ten more articles for my 20th anniversary

26 July 2017


This year is the 20th anniversary of www.sean.co.uk, making it older than Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia and even Google. Thank you to everyone who's visited over the last two decades!

To celebrate, here are another 10 pieces of my favourite content across the site. See the first 10 (and a screenshot of my first website design) here.

To keep up to date with significant new content, subscribe to my newsletter.

  1. Under Pressure - An article about hostile environments training for journalists. One thing I learned is that I'm not really cut out for it.

    Creating a shelter: hostile environments training photo

    Putting up a tent with a basher sheet from my hostile environments training.

  2. Interview with Jakob Nielsen about accessibility - Accessibility is all about making websites usable by people who have vision, mobility or other impairments. I wrote one of the first articles in a mainstream magazine on this topic, and I've tried to make sure my site is as accessible as possible over the years.

  3. Make an awesome 3D anaglyph website using CSS text-shadow - This article explains how you can use a CSS stylesheet to create 3D text that pops out of the page when viewed with red/cyan glasses. I haven't seen anyone else doing this. At one stage my site had a style sheet switch you could use to make the whole site go 3D. My later book Cool Scratch Projects in Easy Steps shows how to use 3D glasses in Scratch games.

  4. Black (Colin Vearncombe) interview - This interview from 1993 with Colin Vearncombe, of Wonderful Life fame, remains a favourite of mine. I greatly enjoyed meeting Colin, and we kept in touch over the years. I saw him for many memorable concerts and built his first website. Colin sadly passed away in 2016, leaving us way too soon, but with a wonderful legacy of recordings.

  5. Among those dark satanic mills - My account of being a volunteer performer in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics. It feels a long time ago now, but this article brings back many happy memories of the summer that London welcomed the world, and I got to play a small part in the spectacular surprises.

    working men and women walking towards the Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremony rehearsal

    The working men and women walk to the stadium from Eton Manor

  6. If Goya had learned Javascript - Viewing two paintings by Goya in a gallery in Madrid, showing the same lady clothed and unclothed, I was struck by the possibility of using a Javsacript to switch between them. There's a charming reference to dial-up connections in this article, which was popular when I published it, around 2003.

  7. How to write a novel - My key lessons from the lengthy creative writing process for my music business novel Earworm, originally published as University of Death. I greatly enjoyed the writing process and hope to write another novel one day. Earworm is out now on Kindle and in print, and makes for a great holiday read! :-)

  8. Proofreading test - For this test, I added errors into one of my own articles and published it online so that visitors could try correcting it. It's been a popular feature of the site over the years.

  9. My Travel Photos Gallery - I have been extremely fortunate to travel to places such as China, Singapore, Australia, Japan, New York, San Francisco and South Africa. A couple of years ago I undertook a large project to put hundreds of travel photos online, including a gallery dedicated to my home city of London. Each photo has its own sliding puzzle game. You can also still see my Rock and Pop gallery, with photos of Radiohead, Pixie Lott and Slash, among others.

    A pied butcherbird at Uluru.

  10. How to sell your music on iTunes and Amazon MP3 - I used to write a monthly column about the internet for musicians. This is an article I wrote a few years ago about how to get your music into the major stores. It's been popular with musicians, together with my list of places you can sell your music online.

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Celebrating the 20th anniversary of sean.co.uk

19 July 2017


This year represents the 20th anniversary of my website.

Below you can see a screenshot of the earliest version I have on file, which is dated 1998 but was probably designed in 1997. The box on the left contained a random quote, and the background changed randomly too, to make the site more dynamic for repeat visitors (should I be lucky enough to get any). The pull-down menu was abused to create a window that opened to display more information, a way to squeeze more space out of the limited screen size we had then. The title used individual images for each letter, which were reused across the site, to speed up download time. We didn't realise back then that each separate image request carries a penalty (or perhaps it didn't matter so much in the days of dial-up). The whole thing was laid out using tables. So, plenty of what we would now call bad ideas, but which represent the spirit of exploration and innovation that defined the web back then.

Screenshot of Sean's homepage from 1998

The earliest version of my website that I still have, from 1998.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of sean.co.uk, I'm sharing 20 of my favourite pieces of content on the site. In this blog post, you can find the first ten.

  1. Amstrad CPC book and games - My first published work was programs and tutorials for Amstrad magazines, and I spent one summer writing a book on advanced BASIC programming techniques. When I came to launch my website, this was one of the first things I put online. Last month, I saw that someone has written a new game using my Sprite Definer program which appeared on an Amstrad Action cover tape. It's great to know this software is still being used, over 20 years later.

    Screenshot from Sean's Amstrad disc

    One of the games from my Amstrad CPC disc, The Further Adventures of Fred.

  2. Virtual Sean - Chat to a Virtual me in this simple chatbot I coded in Javascript. It recognises a few words or phrases and has bespoke responses for them, and otherwise chooses a random response. It learns what you type, so it can start saying the same things back to you. It's on my list to update it when I get time. I used a similar idea much later in a Python demo in Raspberry Pi For Dummies.

  3. Play Hangman - With all the online entertainment we have today, it's hard to think of a time when this kind of game was pushing the boundaries of what was possible. I licensed it to a couple of other websites, including a leading dictionary publisher. I also created a Christmas version called Snowman, and a version customised for the Nintendo DS browser. There are some tricky words in the word list!

  4. Learning to run with the Couch 2 5K programme - This blog details my experience using the Couch 2 5K programme to go from couch potato to regular jogger, including completing a 10K at the Olympic Park. If you need some exercise but don't know where to start, I hope my experience will inspire you.

  5. My music - I write and record electronic music. I have an album almost ready, but for now I've just shared a few tracks online, together with articles about recording, and the Novation Mininova synth, which I use. For updates about new music, join my newsletter list.

  6. Stareway to Heaven - This article explaining stereograms was one of the first pieces to go onto the website. The images here look tiny on my screen now. Twenty years ago, they were a pretty decent size for a web page. This page also still uses The Rail: In the early days of the web, people would use this ring of links to surf the web, exploring web pages on similar topics, with a click taking you to the next step on the trip.

    A stereogram

    Can you see the hidden picture? Discover how stereograms work in my article.

  7. When marketers get lazy - I still find this blog amusing, although I could probably have made my disapproval of its inspiration clearer.

  8. 10 Block Demos in Scratch - Scratch is widely used to learn programming, especially by children and young people in schools and at home. I wanted to create some very simple demos that people could quickly try, so I made a series of 10 Block Demos. I've written several books about or featuring Scratch now, including Scratch Programming in Easy Steps, Cool Scratch Projects in Easy Steps and Coder Academy.

    How to draw a circle: 10-block Scratch demo

    One of my 10-block Scratch demo cards

  9. Designing Shaun the Sheep Football - Read how I made a football game starring Shaun the Sheep in Scratch. This was a fun project, which has been popular on the Scratch website. You can scroll past all the explanation to get straight to playing the game.

  10. Using ScratchJr on the iPad - For younger children, or anyone looking to take their very first steps in programming, ScratchJr provides a simple visual introduction. My review includes a simple game you can build. ScratchJr is available for free download, on the iPad and also now on Android. I was one of the many people who supported ScratchJr with a small donation, so you can see my name in the credits.

Thank you to everyone who's visited the site and shared its content over the last two decades!

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Please subscribe to my new newsletter

21 April 2017


I'm hugely grateful for the support readers have shown my books over the years. I'd like to be able to keep in touch with you directly, to tell you about new books, free chapters and other resources, and opportunities to get review copies. If you're interested in Scratch, Python, coding for kids, edtech, and Raspberry Pi, I already have some cool things to tell you about over the next few months. I also have a couple of music projects on the way, which I'd like to be able to tell you about. It's too early to talk about them now, but if you're a visitor to this website I think you'll like them. :-)

Social media isn't working well for sharing this kind of news. On Twitter, the posts are so fleeting that you're relying on coincidence (are people reading Twitter when you're posting?), or on going viral (which is also coincidence for my kind of content). On Facebook, you can create fan pages, but Facebook doesn't show the content you post to everyone who's Liked the page unless you advertise (which isn't viable). So even the people who have expressed an interest in hearing from me on those social networks are probably missing some stuff they'd like to see. Facebook is great for launching new books (when people like the page, it notifies their friends), but it's not a great way to keep people informed about them. I will continue to use these networks, and very much appreciate your support on them, but it's becoming clear that they're flawed for both the sender and the recipient of messages. Email solves these problems, and takes the element of time and money away.

I've run newsletters in the past and found them quite a bit of work, which has made it hard to commit to regularly. This time around, I'm not going to run it like a publication with regular features and so on. It's going to be more like a friendly email. When I have something to tell you about, I'll write a short email about it and send it to you. It'll probably be a few times a year, and won't be more often than monthly. I respect your inbox and won't waste your time.

I hope you will consider subscribing to my newsletter. It only takes a minute or two. (If you have previously signed up with me, please do sign up again for this new list). Thank you.

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How to use Scratch 2.0 in Adobe Flash on the Raspberry Pi

04 January 2017


Scratch is a programming language widely used in schools and colleges to teach programming, and there are two versions in popular use. The older version, Scratch 1.4, is the one that is installed on the Raspberry Pi in the Raspbian operating system. It's been extended to enable you to code GPIO projects in Scratch, controlling sensors and LEDs, for example.

Scratch 2.0 is a newer version of Scratch, which is based on Flash. There is a version of Scratch 2.0 you can download, but most people probably use it on the website where there are community features such as sharing, commenting and liking projects built-in.

There are a few new features in Scratch 2.0, including the ability to create your own blocks (which helps with structured programming), and the ability to clone sprites (which can be used to great effect in games and graphic effects). There are a few differences to block names too, and the Variables section has been renamed to Data. The Control blocks have been split into Control and Events blocks too.

One thing that isn't widely known is that you can now run Scratch 2.0 on the Raspberry Pi, because the Chromium browser in the Pixel desktop supports Adobe Flash on the Raspberry Pi. I've tested this on the Raspberry Pi 2 and the Raspberry Pi 3, and found the editor and the project window both run a bit slower than on a PC, but you can nevertheless now get the extra Scratch 2.0 features on the Pi. There was a bug in Treetop Catnap too, where one of the enemies got stuck, which doesn't happen on the PC. I wonder if that's because the graphical rendering is slightly different and the sprite believes it's touching a colour that I haven't put there. I tried using Chromium on the Model B+, but it doesn't appear that Adobe Flash works there.

Because Scratch 2.0 runs a bit slower, and the GPIO is not supported in Scratch 2.0, I'd still recommend Scratch 1.4 on the Raspberry Pi. But if you have found some projects that only work in Scratch 2.0 or want to see what's different, give it a go! If you're familiar with Scratch 2.0 already, perhaps from school or college, having the option to use the same programming language at home will probably appeal.

For Scratch inspiration, check out my books Cool Scratch Projects in Easy Steps and Scratch Programming in Easy Steps.

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Coding with the BBC Microbit

08 December 2016


I've just spent a bit of time playing with the BBC Microbit, so I thought I'd share my experiences with you. The BBC Microbit is a pocket-sized programmable board, designed for use in education. Originally, it was given out to some children in UK secondary schools, but the BBC has now established an independent foundation to look after the Microbit's future, including helping to promote its use worldwide.

There are many things to love about the Microbit. It has battery power by design, so it's highly portable and even perhaps wearable. The board itself is compact and light, so the only real restriction is the battery pack (2 x AAA batteries). It has easy connectors for electronics projects, and a built-in compass, accelerometer and Bluetooth LE networking. The 5x5 grid of LEDs on the front is a bit more limited than you might expect (on the Amstrad, ZX81/Spectrum and other 8-bit machines, you usually worked with 8x8). But the software features a character set, so you don't have to create your own letter images (as I did with my text scroller for the Unicorn HAT on the Raspberry Pi), which is a huge plus.

BBC Microbit photo

The BBC Microbit. The grid of LEDs is in the middle. The buttons are on the left and right. The bottom is used for connecting to other devices and circuits.

The software runs in the browser, and appears to use cookies to recognise you and recover your 'saved' scripts on your return. That kind of thing makes me nervous, but you can download your scripts (both the source code and the compiled code) to your computer and re-upload it later if necessary. To set up an account for saving your work, you need to be a teacher or Code Club volunteer with an authorisation code.

You have a choice of different editors you can use for creating code on the Microbit, including MicroPython, Microsoft PXT (in beta), Microsoft Block Editor, Code Kingdoms Javascript, and Microsoft Touch Develop. There are also apps for Android tablets and iPads that enable you to send your code wirelessly to the Microbit using Bluetooth. I started with Microsoft Touch Develop, and have also tried Code Kingdoms Javascript and Microsoft PXT. In all of them, I found it a bit harder to get around than it is in Scratch. Some of that might be because I've been using Scratch for many years now, but I thought the interface could perhaps be a bit more intuitive. It's irritating in the two Microsoft editors I've tried that the blocks only appear when you click the button for the block type, so you're guaranteed that every block will need at least two mouse actions to add. Some of the blocks are type-specific too, so there's a different show block for numbers and letters, which seems like unnecessary complexity. It might be a result of there being several layers of language and translation between the user interface and the Microbit code. I think the software will become more intuitive as I use it more, and it's clear that it provides easy access to the rich capabilities of the device. Having a bitmap pattern as a standard language element feels natural and easy to use, especially where the pattern is made up of filled in cells, as in PXT (rather than ticked boxes in the older Touch Develop). I tried playing with the compass but couldn't calibrate it successfully (which involves drawing a circle using the device). It might be that you need a much bigger room than I am in.

To get the code onto the Microbit, you compile it, save it to your computer, connect the Microbit using USB and then copy your file across to it, like an external drive. A couple of times this failed for me, and I think it's because the Microbit will reject files that have spaces in them. That's unfortunate, because if you save the same file twice to your computer with the same name, the second time it has the filename "originalfile (1).hex".

So, anyway, here's a Christmas project I made today using Microsoft Touch Develop, which you can recreate on your Microbit (or using the on-screen simulator) at www.microbit.org. It's called Secret Santa. You shake the device to open your virtual present, and see what you've won. There are ten gifts: five are for the naughty, and five are for the nice. I've had some fun coming up with the gift ideas. It takes a while for the gift to scroll across the screen, so I've made some of them start with the same words to heighten the sense of suspense. Shake the Microbit for another turn. You can press the two buttons for some Christmas messages too. Obviously, you can customise this code to display random messages on any topic when the device is shaken, and you can change how many messages there are too by altering the "pick random" block.

Touch Develop code - contact me if you need help accessing this

More Touch Develop code - contact me if you need help accessing this

For more Christmas fun, check out my Scratch advent calendar!

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Scratch Advent Calendar: A new Scratch project each day in advent

28 November 2016


This Christmas, I'll be publishing an advent calendar on this website with a new Scratch project behind each door. The projects are drawn from my books, magazine articles and personal projects and will I hope give you something fun or useful each day in the lead-up to Christmas. Don't worry if you miss a day: you can go back to previous days in the month, but there's a simple check to stop you sneaking a peek at future projects.

Visit the Scratch advent calendar here.

Scratch cat and friends invite you to check out the advent calendar!

If you're looking for inspiring gifts for the coders in your family this Christmas, please consider my books Cool Scratch Projects in Easy Steps, Scratch Programming in Easy Steps, and Raspberry Pi For Dummies. Thank you! You can follow those links for more information, including free samplers to give you an idea of what's covered in each book.

You can make your own advent calendar using my Javascript advent calendar script.

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Books by Sean McManus

Scratch Programming in Easy 

Steps

Scratch Programming in Easy Steps

Raspberry Pi For Dummies

Raspberry Pi For Dummies

Learn to program with the Scratch programming language, widely used in schools and colleges.

Set up your Pi, master Linux, learn Scratch and Python, and create your own electronics projects.

Super Skills: How to 

Code

Super Skills: How to Code

Web Design in Easy Steps

Web Design in Easy Steps

Learn how to code with this great new book, which guides you through 10 easy lessons to build up your coding skills.

Learn the layout, design and navigation techniques that make a great website. Then build your own using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

More books

©Sean McManus. www.sean.co.uk.