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UK freelance journalist, author
and writer Sean McManus

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Raspberry Pi For Dummies features in Edible Book Awards

04 April 2014


This is so surprising and wonderful that I had to share it! Entrants in the Edible Book Awards run by Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology (CPIT) are challenged to create edible interpretations of books. I'm honoured to say that CPIT librarian Tina Verschoor found inspiration in Raspberry Pi For Dummies and created the following masterpiece:

I love a good pun (as anyone who's read University of Death knows), so I had a good laugh at this. My books have been translated into Arabic, Chinese, French and German, but this is the first time one has been translated into cake.

Thank you to Liz Upton, Morgan Tait of the New Zealand Herald, Anna Turner of CPIT and Tina Verschoor of CPIT for alerting me to this photo and helping me to get permission to post it here.

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The Scratch 10-block Programming Challenge

21 March 2014


Back in the 80s and 90s, I used to write programs for Amstrad computer magazines. One of the best features was the 10-liners pages in Amstrad Computer User, which challenged programmers to come up with something interesting, fun or useful in no more than 10 lines of code. In many ways, it was a precursor to the coding competitions that still run today, with a limit on the final file size. You can see one of my contributions here:

magazine cutting showing my program Digital from Amstrad Computer User in February 1991

One of my 10-liners from ACU magazine. If this is your kind of thing, see my Amstrad CPC pages here.

I got around to thinking about what could be done in up to 10 blocks of Scratch. If you haven't heard of it, Scratch is a highly visual educational programming language. I've been using it a lot at my Code Club, and I wrote the book Scratch Programming in Easy Steps.

It's been an interesting challenge: You could pack quite a lot of instructions into one line of Amstrad BASIC (as you can see from the program above), but 10 blocks of Scratch means just ten instructions or functions. The upside is that the core purpose of the demo really shines through. I've used some of my 10-block programs with my Code Club, and they've enjoyed their simplicity, and the ease with which they can experiment with them. Quite simple ideas, like adding a password to a program, or making one sprite control another have really captured their imaginations.

Here are the 10-block demos I've created so far. Click each one to find tips on how they work, and demos that show them in action:

How broadcasts work: click for explanation

How to add a password to your game: click for explanation

How to make a sprite explode: click for explanation

How to draw any regular shape: click for explanation

How to draw a circle: click for explanation

Feel free to share those images and links on your social networks.

I have a few more ideas, so I've set up a page for 10-block Scratch demos which I'll update as I publish new examples. Do you have any ideas for simple examples you'd like to see? Leave a comment below.

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Three things you should know before embedding Getty Images

07 March 2014


Getty Images, one of the world's leading photo libraries, is abandoning watermarking and encouraging bloggers to embed its images in their posts. It's a huge turnaround for a stock library that makes money from licensing its images for use online and in print. In effect, it's a surrender to social media, with the library acknowledging that people were using its images anyway. This strategy will help Getty to build the business from those who are willing to pay for commercial usage, by making the images more traceable to their owners.

The images are fantastic, and take you to people, places and times you couldn't otherwise access. Here's Prince, up close and in concert in the US in September 1984.

Here's Einstein with physicists Paul Ehrenfest (in whose home they're meeting), Paul Langevin, Kamerlingh Onnes, and Pierre Weiss.

Here's the 7th century pyramid and Temple of the Inscriptions in Palenque, Mexico.

And there's plenty more to explore, although not all images are available for embedding.

Before you start using Getty Images on your blog, though, there are three things you need to know:

  1. Getty's terms say photos may not be used "for any commercial purpose (for example, in advertising, promotions or merchandising)". This is a potentially grey area, given that lots of blogs carry advertising and almost every company uses social media to keep in touch with its customers. 
  2. You are only allowed to use the photos by using a special embed code. This is the same technique used to embed Youtube videos today. You don't actually put a copy of the photo or video into your blog, you just put in a code that brings it in from Youtube or Getty when someone looks at your post. That means, however, that Getty controls the embedded photos on your blog, not you. They can remove them at any time, serve alternative content, or even serve ads. Some content management systems might not allow you to embed content in this way. Using embed codes slows down your web page because it adds in another request to a different server. For those who want to optimise the user experience, they're not ideal.
  3. The entire image area is a link back to Getty at the moment. It would be more usual for the credit line to be a link. Having such huge links creates the possibility that people (especially those using touch-based devices) will end up visiting them by mistake, which can be a frustrating user experience.
The collection of images is fantastic, though, and the way the photos are presented looks great. This is an interesting strategy, and it will add some wonderful imagery to the web. As long as you have a strategy to manage the risk of images disappearing, this provides a great free source of high quality editorial photos.

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New edition of Web Design in Easy Steps - out now!

28 February 2014


Web Design in Easy Steps, my bestselling book that introduces you to the key concepts of website design, has just been published in a new and updated edition. The book was first published in 2011 and for this edition, I've updated it with more current examples and added an introduction to the CSS3 techniques for rounded corners, text shadows and box shadows.

A photo of some copies of Web Design in Easy Steps


The book explains the core concepts in web design (including layout, navigation, and accessibility) and teaches you the HTML, CSS and Javascript techniques used to build a simple website. It includes an introduction to Flash and Dreamweaver, a guide to adding a shopping cart, advice on website promotion and SEO, and tips on testing and uploading your website. It's ideal for those who are looking to build their first website, but is also valuable for people who are commissioning a website, so they can understand what makes a website successful.

The previous edition of the book was a #1 bestseller on Amazon in the web design category. I've heard from several colleges that are using that edition with their students, and from several people who have launched their first web site after reading it.

Find out more about Web Design in Easy Steps, and download a free sampler from the previous edition, here. The sampler from the fifth edition still provides a good flavour of the layout and style of the new edition. If you're looking to buy the book (thank you!), you can find links to shops stocking Web Design in Easy Steps here.

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New review of the Novation Mininova synth

13 February 2014


One of my goals for 2014 is to record some of the music I've been writing for years. To that end, I recently bought a Novation Mininova synth, after trying a few different synths out in-store. My review of the Novation Mininova covers why I chose the synth, and tells you more about the kinds of sounds you can make with it and how they're controlled. If you're interested in making music, take a look!

Also, I plan to share some of my music online this year, so if you use Soundcloud, please follow me on Soundcloud! Thank you. You can also hear my music here.

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Starting a Code Club

30 January 2014


One of my new projects this year is starting a Code Club with a local junior school. The deputy head and I were introduced to each other through the Code Club website, which brings together schools interested in running computer clubs with tech-savvy volunteers who would like to help run one. Code Club also provides materials the club can use, including two terms of Scratch tutorials, and projects that teach web design and Python programming.

Out of a year group of 90 children, 60 of them wanted to be members, and got a signed letter from their parents to say they could take part. Unfortunately, we only have room for 24 members. The guideline is 12 children per adult, and my experience has been that it would be difficult to go above this number because there wouldn't be time to get around the group and help everyone when they needed it. The school chose a mixed ability group of girls and boys (equally split), in part according to whether they already benefited from other extra-curricular activities.

Before the Code Club begins, volunteers undergo a police check (a DBS check, which used to be called a CRB check). I arranged my DBS check through Stemnet, which runs an ambassador programme for people in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) to help promote these in schools. Stemnet ran an introductory session for new volunteers, and I found this really useful. There was good advice on working with children and young people, and how to work effectively with schools too.

In the first Code Club meeting, the volunteer talks the club (it's not a class!) through the basics of making their first Scratch program, and sharing it on the Scratch website. I really underestimated how excited they would be about this, but they loved the idea that their family and friends would be able to play the games they made. Then the project sheets (I try not to call them work sheets) are handed out, and the children make their first game. From what I've read of other clubs, a project usually takes a session or more, but our club seems to be haring through them more quickly than that. The children have done some Scratch before in their ICT classes, so they have a head start. I'm preparing a few projects ahead, to make sure I'm ready when they're ready.

I've found it useful to run through the projects myself before going into the club. The introductory walk-through only works on the website if you add in a 'when green flag clicked block' to your project, so we did that, and I found it useful to have a rough idea of what the scripts do in the game projects when I'm asked questions in a session. My experience writing Scratch Programming in Easy Steps has been useful because I can quickly spot some common problems (such as variables that are for all sprites when they should be for one, and vice versa). Newcomers to Scratch might benefit by preparing several sessions ahead or learning enough to make their own game, so they can spot common pitfalls more easily, but the most common problems I've seen come from not copying the scripts correctly, or not putting them in the right place. A quick check of the project sheet can quickly clear them up.

The enthusiasm in the group is wonderful. It's particularly nice to see them experimenting, and changing the sprites and backgrounds, and in time I hope they'll start to experiment with the code more too. Some of them rush through it, perhaps trying to finish it first, looking mainly at the scripts in the project sheet, while others work more slowly, reading all the instructions, and often helping each other out. As I go round the room, I talk to them about how the scripts work, too, and explain things like what a variable is to help them understand why it's not working as they expect sometimes.

There's been fantastic support from the school. The deputy head and the administrative officer have put a lot of time into it, experimenting with Scratch outside the sessions, as well as running the group. They tell me they're enjoying it, and are asking me interesting questions about how Scratch works. The head teacher is very supportive of the group too, and other teachers might be popping in from time to time to learn more about it. It's been suggested that the school might embed some of the Scratch projects the group has made on the school website.

I was fortunate to benefit from extra-curricular computer clubs when I was at school. At junior school, we had a Link 480Z computer, and at break times we learned Logo on it and played educational games like Hike, which involved using angles to steer a character on a map between mountains. At secondary school, computer science wasn't officially offered (as opposed to IT), but the IT teacher opened up the computer lab at lunchtimes and taught a group of us GCSE computer science. Both these extra-curricular activities taught me a lot, and helped build the foundations for my career writing about technology. Clubs like this aren't a substitute for ICT teaching on the curriculum, which will become increasingly important from September, but they can be fantastic for nurturing talent, channelling enthusiasm, and providing a place for experimentation.

The school I'm volunteering at was looking for a volunteer for a year before I registered on the Code Club website, and I've been contacted by several other schools since too, who are all looking for volunteers near me. I imagine there is similar demand across the country. If you've got a couple of hours a week, why not see if you can volunteer in a school near you? You can find out more on the Code Club website here.

If you've got any questions about running a Code Club, or would like to share your experiences, feel free to leave a comment below.

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Just published: New edition of iPad for the Older and Wiser

08 January 2014


Book cover: Microsoft Office for the older and wiserThe fourth edition of iPad for the Older and Wiser has just been published, updated by Mark Hattersley.

This new edition covers the latest generation of the iPad, the iPad Air and iPad Mini, and also updates the book for iOS7, the latest version of the iPad software.

iOS7 has a more modern look to it than previous versions of the software. I wonder whether the old stationery graphics (the fake paper in Notes, and the fake leather and paper in Calendar) were one of the things that made the iPad approachable for so many people, including those in the older and wiser audience, many of whom skipped getting a desktop computer and went straight to the iPad. There are a few things that niggle me about the new software, such as the removal of the '.com' key on the keyboard which I was using a lot (you can tap and hold the full stop key, but that's slower), and the limit of having 9 icons in a folder shown at once. Over time you get used to these changes, though. The new design is an attempt to fight competition from Android and other devices, so it will be interesting to see if the more modern look helps the iPad to sustain its market share.

You can find out more about iPad for the Older and Wiser here, and find links to order it here.

Thank you to Mark Hattersley and the team at Wiley for their work on this edition, to Rosemary Hattersley for her work on the previous edition, and to everyone who has supported the book so far by buying it or reviewing it. The iPad is a fantastic piece of technology, and I'm delighted that the book has been helping so many people to get the most out of it.

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Download my Raspberry Pi Minecraft Maze Maker

19 December 2013


My author copies of the book Raspberry Pi Projects arrived yesterday, and it looks great! The book is written by Andrew Robinson and Mike Cook, and includes contributions by Jonathan Evans and me. With 16 practical hardware and software projects, it shows readers how to start building Pi-controlled gadgets, games and devices that integrate with Facebook and Twitter.

I was invited to write a chapter about programming Minecraft on the Raspberry Pi. Once I'd got to grips with the API, I knew I wanted to do something that was computationally interesting, rather than just positioning some blocks to make a house. The idea I hit upon was to make a maze out of blocks that you could walk through, so I wrote a Python program to do that. I've written many games over the years that include mazes, but they were all hand-designed, so it was interesting to write a program that creates something fresh to explore each time you run it, and that can change the size and style of the maze each time too.

Minecraft was an interesting platform for a maze maker program. Often programs like this require a lot of data to be stored representing the walls, but in Minecraft the world itself stored the blocks and spaces that made up a wall or a path. That simplified the program greatly, because I could just test whether a block was there rather than looking up walls in an abstract data structure.

Below is a video of the program in action. You can fly above the maze and look down on it (as I have here) to watch it being made.

The maze doesn't have entrances or exits, and doesn't have goals (although I left a gold block in there to find - it's there so you can see the path the maze maker algorithm takes while the maze is built). I'm sure Minecraft fans can add goals and challenges to this structure!

Find out more about Raspberry Pi Projects and download the Minecraft Maze Maker program.

At the time of writing, the book is heavily discounted at Amazon, and represents fantastic value given its size (470 pages) and scope. I've had a look through it, and I'm very much looking forward to reading the rest properly.

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Just published: New Edition of The Customer Service Pocketbook

07 November 2013


Book cover: The Customer Service PocketbookA new edition of The Customer Service Pocketbook has just come out, bringing the pocket-sized guide up to date with today's business culture and customer service technologies.

I first updated the book in 2002 from the 1991 edition written by the late Tony Newby. It was interesting how much business culture had changed in that time, not so much in terms of technologies (which are continuously changing), but in terms of social norms. In particular, people at all levels have far more autonomy and responsibility at work now than they used to, as organisations have become flatter, and employees have been trusted more and more to use their common sense to offer great customer service.

The book has sold consistently well and is often used by large corporates for their internal training programmes. The new edition builds on the previous edition, and reflects further cultural and technological changes. The widespread use of social media, for example, means that customer service often takes place in public and organisations need to be able to use technologies like Twitter and Facebook to listen to and respond to customers. For this new edition, I also felt there was potential to provide more detailed guidance on how great customer service can be delivered in person and on the phone too. The earlier editions included some questionnaires and quizzes and in response to reader feedback, these have been scaled back significantly.

If you'd like to take a look inside, I've uploaded a free sample chapter PDF of The Customer Service Pocketbook, including the table of contents and a complete chapter.

If you're interested in writing a review of the book for your blog or Amazon, please contact me. I have a limited number of copies available for this purpose.

The new edition is out now. You can find links to order it here (including a form you can use to order any of my books in an offline book shop).

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Raspberry Pi, Scratch and Minecraft at the Gadget Show

03 November 2013


On Saturday, I went to Earls Court in London for the Gadget Show Live at Christmas. I took along my Raspberry Pi and was a guest on the For Dummies booth, where I demonstrated the Pi running Minecraft, Scratch and Python.

Lots of visitors dropped by for a chat, many of them dragged to the stand by their children who made a beeline for Minecraft. I was demonstrating a Python program I'd made to build mazes in Minecraft. (You can find out more about my Minecraft Maze Maker, which will feature in the upcoming book Raspberry Pi Projects, here.) The children enjoyed playing the maze, while the adults were interested to see what the Minecraft craze was all about, and how it can provide an introduction to programming.

Demonstrating Minecraft on the booth

I also demonstrated Scratch, and it was wonderful to see young people who were so enthusiastic about it. Many of them had encountered it through schools and had made games using it, although their parents hadn't seen it. Many of the parents remembered having programmable (or even self-assembly) computers when they were young. I met people who grew up on the ZX Spectrum, ZX81, Vic 20, Amstrad CPC and BBC computers, and who were looking for tools that would give their children the same opportunities to begin programming. I felt that many of them were inspired by Scratch and the Raspberry Pi and many said they'd look into setting up one or the other at home for the family.

For many people there, it was the first time they'd seen a Raspberry Pi. Most people had heard of it, but many of them didn't really understand what it was, or why it was special. People seemed to think it cost about £80, which is I think because that's the bundle price at a major retailer at the moment, and they were astonished to learn the real price of the unit alone. If we had had some Raspberry Pi computers for sale, they would have sold like hot Pi. I enjoyed chatting to people and telling them more about what the Raspberry Pi can do.

Meeting The For Dummies Man

Some people dropped by to chat about what they could do with their Raspberry Pi having already bought one. I had a couple of friends who bought a Raspberry Pi and didn't really know what to do with it once they'd got it, and I had them in mind as I wrote Raspberry Pi For Dummies, so I knew this was a common situation. I talked them through some of the great things other people are doing with their Raspberry Pis, and I hope that they decided to take out the Pi for a play when they got home.

On Friday, my co-author Mike Cook was at the show and demonstrated the Blast Off hardware project in the book too, showing how the Raspberry Pi can be used together with your own electronic circuits.

We made the official Gadget Show Live Christmas Gift Guide, which was lovely to see. The guide included a shot of Raspberry Pi For Dummies and said: "Give someone the gift of knowledge this year with one of the excellent titles in the For Dummies range, offering clear and concise solutions to all sorts of tech problems."

It was the first time I've presented the Raspberry Pi or Raspberry Pi For Dummies at a show like that, and it was a great experience. My voice is hoarse today from having to speak over the loud speakers opposite all day, and my legs ached at the end of the day, but it was wonderful to chat to other Raspberry Pi, Minecraft and Scratch enthusiasts, and to introduce others to these technologies for the first time. Thank you to everyone who stopped by for a chat, and special thanks to those who supported the book by buying a copy. Thanks also to Wiley for the opportunity, and to Polly, Lorna and Craig in particular. Thanks also to my wife Karen who spent all day helping out on the booth too.

You can find out more about Raspberry Pi For Dummies here. If you follow that link, you can also download a free sampler from the book, and the cut-out-and-glue-together paper case I had one of my Raspberry Pis in. I've collected together links to online retailers stocking my books here.

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Download a free chapter of Scratch Programming in Easy Steps

01 November 2013


Book cover: Scratch Programming in easy steps Scratch Programming in Easy Steps was published a couple of weeks ago, and I now have a free chapter for you! It's the first chapter from the book, which introduces Scratch and gets you started with the programming language, including making your first simple program.

I was delighted that Mitchel Resnick, from the team at MIT that made Scratch, agreed to let me reproduce an article he wrote for Edsurge as a foreword to the book. It is inspiring to read his take on how Scratch is helping young people to not only learn to program, but also to build their thinking and communication skills. I've included the foreword in the free sample too.

To give you a taste of what else is in the book, the free PDF sampler also includes the table of contents, the index, and the introduction I wrote for the book, but later removed to make room for one more short project.

You can view and download the sampler below. Thank you for sharing it and helping to spread the word!

There's more information on the book (including playable projects) here, and you can find links to buy the book from various shops here.

Scratch Programming in Easy Steps PDF Sampler


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Scratch Programming in Easy Steps is out now!

11 October 2013


Yesterday was Super Thursday when book publishers release their titles for Christmas. This year, I had a book come out on that very day. My author copies of Scratch Programming in Easy Steps arrived yesterday, and I understand that Amazon pre-orders have also now been despatched.

I'm delighted with how the book came out. It's printed in full colour on slightly glossy paper, so I tried to use images that would pop off the page, and the book does look great in print.

When I was commissioned to write it, I had a lot of latitude to decide how long it would be. I extended the number of pages from my original plan, so that I could include more example projects (including a chapter of seven short projects) and go into more depth on some topics. I'm particularly pleased with the section on making music with Scratch, which shows how you can convert sheet music into music in Scratch (with thanks to Tim Benson, a friend and former music teacher who checked this spread for me). Together with the inclusion of an abstract art project in the seven shorties, I hope this will encourage readers to be creative with Scratch, making not just games but also music, art and other interactive programs.

The book takes a step-by-step approach that shows you how to make a series of games and other projects, but balances that with a full explanation of how Scratch works. I considered that essential because otherwise readers would only learn how to make the project in front of them, and my aim was to enable them to experiment and to create their own projects later. It would be wonderful if readers started inventing their own games and other projects using the knowledge from the book, in the same way that readers of Web Design in Easy Steps occasionally email me to tell me they've built their first website after reading the book. It was important to me that my Scratch book covered the full range of what Scratch can do, too. Important features like lists for storing data are often overlooked in tutorials because they're not easy to incorporate in an arcade game, but I wanted to show readers everything that Scratch can do, so they can draw upon it all in their own projects.

Thank you to everyone who pre-ordered the book or has Liked Scratch Programming in Easy Steps on Facebook. Visit the book's Facebook page to take a look inside the book in a new photo gallery I've uploaded there.

You can find out more about Scratch Programming in Easy Steps here. If you'd like to buy a copy, here are some links for places you can buy the book.

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Pycon UK 2013: A round-up of the Python conference

04 October 2013


A couple of weekends ago, I went to Coventry for Pycon 2013, a gathering of Python programmers and enthusiasts. It's the first time I've been to Pycon, now in its seventh year in Coventry. It took place at the Coventry University Technocentre, which would have been what they called the disco when I was at university.

When I arrived I was impressed to see the scale of the event. I think I expected it to be a gathering of about 50 people, but it looked like there were a couple of hundred people there. As is often the case at community events like this, there was a big crossover between the speakers and the audience, with a significant number of attendees leading sessions to share their experiences and expertise, or showcase some of the great applications they've built.

David Mertz from the Python Software Foundation gave an interesting opening keynote that looked at some of the subtleties of list concatenation, including which approaches are fastest and which are easiest to read. He shared a joke about Guido's time machine, where somebody proposes a new language feature, Python creator Guido van Rossum reads it, goes back in his time machine, and adds it to the original language. That's why when people request new features, the outcome is often that they were hidden in there somewhere all along.

There was then a networking session, which gave people an opportunity to meet others who are from the same region as them. I met with Danny Staple from Orion Robots, who makes easy-to-assemble kit robots. He was able to help with some of my technical questions about Python and kindly talked me through some of the solutions.

Events like this provide an opportunity to see what people are building with Python. Nicholas Tollervey gave an interesting high-level talk about distributed hash tables, a peer-to-peer way of storing data which fits well with Python's dictionary sequence. Geoffrey French demonstrated Ubiquitous Larch, a live web-based shareable programming environment for Python, which I can see being particularly valuable for training and documentation applications. He showed how several people can log in to the same session and collaborate on writing Python code which interacts with web data in real time.

Ian Ozsvald demonstrated how he's been using Python together with scikit-learn for analysing Twitter streams to disambiguate mentions of brands from generic words (separating tweets about Apple computers from tweets about fruit, for example). He took 1,100 tweets with the word 'apple' and marked whether they concerned Apple the company or not and used that to train the algorithm. Half were about Apple the company, and half weren't. He then ran some unclassified tweets through to see whether the program could find the company mentions among them, and compared the results by hand. When he benchmarked his results against a leading commercial solution, he found he was able to double the number of detected company mentions while eliminating false positives. Because I do a lot of work in social media marketing, it was particularly interesting to me to see how a home-brew solution using easily available tools can take on some of the major commercial platforms, although obviously Ian Ozsvald brings a lot of expertise to this, so his success might be hard for others to emulate.

Pyglet is a library for creating visually rich applications and Richard Donkin showed how it can be used together with OpenGL to create a Minecraft-like environment. This session also included demonstrations of two games made for PyWeek, the Python game programming challenge. Daniel Pope demonstrated his Asteroids-style game, and Juan Martinez showed his lunar adventure game which involved exploring different rooms to puzzle out what's happened. Both games were good showcases for Pyglet, especially since they were written within the contest's one-week deadline.

For me, the highlights of Pycon were the hands-on sessions. Zeth led an alternative introduction to Python, which showed some of the sophistication of the Python dictionary. When I first came across the dictionary sequence when I was learning Python, I thought of it a bit too literally, and struggled to think beyond applications like phrase books. You can use it to store mixed types, though, and it gets particularly interesting when you store functions in a dictionary. One person I spoke to at Pycon told me that he had an application that took error codes generated by industrial machinery, and used a dictionary lookup to run the appropriate function in response. Being able to do this without any conditional statements is an elegant solution. Zeth's session also covered classes, which was good preparation for Jonathan Fine's in-depth session on classes and objects later that same day. For both these sessions, I ran Python Anywhere on the iPad, so I could have a console to try examples on.

On the Sunday, there was a Raspberry Jam, led by Alan O'Donohoe. This is the first time I've been to one of these Raspberry Pi events and it was great to see so many young people programming the Raspberry Pi, an equal number of girls and boys. There were a few people developing Scratch games, including some who worked in teams to create a game where you're chased by a bee. Minecraft was incredibly popular, with one team hand-building an elaborate house deep underground, and someone else using two lines of Python code to create a swimming pool in the Minecraft world. There was a demonstration that involved an indoor quad copter floating up and down in line with movements in the Minecraft world too, controlled by Python. I've been having some fun with Python and Minecraft on the Raspberry Pi myself lately, so I can see why it seems to captivate the imagination. It takes something quite abstract (Python code) and turns it into something you can actually walk around inside (a Minecraft world).

Pycon is run by volunteers and I have to say they put on a fantastic show. The event was well organised and the facilities were excellent. The sessions ran from an intermediate level to sophisticated niche applications, and were all led by volunteers too, who had clearly put a lot of work into preparing their talks. The event was possible thanks to the generosity of the sponsors, so thanks also to Bank of America (who sponsored the Raspberry Pi Jam), HP, Python Anywhere, Riverbank Computing, Fry-IT, Server Density, Bytemark, ScraperWiki, AbiliSoft, Cloudfind, 2nd Quadrant, O'Reilly, and the Python Software Foundation.

If you missed this one, put the next one in your diary. Pycon 2014 takes place on the weekend starting 19 September 2014 in the West Midlands, most likely in Coventry again. Early bird ticketing is likely to end in July. If you're interested in Python, I hope you can make it!

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Free gifts and videos

13 September 2013


I've created a new free book chapter downloads section on this website to make it easy to find the downloads of free book chapters and other goodies that are scattered throughout the site. As well as including chapters from Raspberry Pi For Dummies, Web Design in Easy Steps, and my novel University of Death, it includes a free chapter from Microsoft Office for the Older and Wiser that wasn't previously uploaded here. As well as book chapters, I've added in other free gifts such as the free Raspberry Pi case, my Amstrad CPC games and the Castle Fictoria website design project. I'll add to this page as I make new free gifts and free chapters available on this site. I'll be interested to see how popular this page is on the site, and whether it makes more people aware of the free chapters and encourages them to download them. Thank you to everyone who's been sharing the link since I posted it on Twitter yesterday.

I've also created a new page for my videos. It includes a short film I wrote and two promo videos for Raspberry Pi For Dummies and iPad for the Older and Wiser that I wrote and presented. Over time, I hope to add more videos here. Authors are increasingly asked to give talks, so I thought it might be useful for me to have a showcase on this site which was easy to find. I also wanted to find a home for the short film on the site, which apart from University of Death is the only fiction I've released on here so far.

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Play my Scratch demos in my new Scratch Arcade

12 September 2013


Screenshot of Space SwarmScratch Programming in Easy Steps is at the printers right now, rolling through the full colour press, ready for publication later this month.

In advance of its publication, I've set up an arcade to showcase some of my favourite game demos from the book. You can play the shoot-em-up Space Swarm, a modified (harder!) version of Super Dodgeball, Spiral Rider, Quiz Break, Hangman and several of the short programs in the final chapter. The bulk of the book is made up of examples that are explained in detail, but I added a chapter at the back that included seven short programs for readers to modify, as a starting point for other programs they could develop. The idea was to show what's possible with just a few well-chosen blocks of Scratch. The short demos include Keepy Uppy (a mash up of football and breakout), Photo Safari (a whack-a-mole style game) and Shop Cat (a variant of Dodgeball that involves crossing a road to get your shopping).

You can play all these demos in my Scratch 2.0 and Scratch 1.4 Examples Arcade.

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