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UK freelance journalist, author
and writer Sean McManus

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Discover my two new Scratch programming tutorials

23 October 2014

The Scratch CatThe 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!

You can still find my 10 Block Scratch Demos here, and lots more resources on my minisite for my book Scratch Programming in Easy Steps.

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Download my Scratch demo files in the Raspberry Pi Store

17 October 2014

I'm pleased to say that you can now download the examples from Scratch Programming in Easy Steps for free in the Pi Store on the Raspberry Pi. You can find them filed under Tutorials there. I've also included the PDF sampler from the book and some of my 10-block Scratch demo cards.

I hope that this will make it easier for readers to download and experiment with the example files, and will also introduce some new readers to the book.

The process of submitting to the store was fairly easy, although it took me a while to work out the installation process. To submit to the store, you upload a zip file containing your files, and you have to specify which file will open when somebody clicks the Pi Store's launch button. For projects like mine, this is tricky because it's really a collection of Scratch programs, not a single game to run. I had planned to use 'readme.txt' for the start file, but that didn't work because there's currently a bug in the store where it sets text files to be executable. While there are workarounds (such as writing a bash script that removes the executable status on your text file), the simplest solution is to open a PDF at launch instead. That also gave me an opportunity to design something that looks a bit friendlier when somebody opens it.

I'll be interested to see how many people these files reach through the store. The Pi Store could be a great way to get new software and ideas to other Raspberry Pi fans.

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Planting poppies at the Tower of London

09 October 2014

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red is an installation at the Tower of London to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War. It fills the moat of the Tower with 888,246 ceramic poppies, each of which represents a British military death in the war.

Last week, I was pleased to be able to spend the morning as one of the volunteers assembling and planting the poppies in the moat. The installation is a beautiful tribute to the lives lost during the war, and a powerful act of remembrance. It was touching to see mementoes left by members of the public in memory of relatives they had lost in the war, but probably never known. As I walked around the Tower after my shift, I spoke to a few members of the public who asked me questions about it, and I had a sense that many people were moved by the installation.

The last poppy will be planted on 11 November, and the installation will then be gradually disassembled. You can buy one of the poppies, with proceeds being divided among six service charities.

Here are some photos I took on the day. By showing the poppies up close, I hope it helps to give a sense of scale to the installation. It looks spectacular from the walkway around the tower, but getting up close really brings home just how many poppies there are, and how many people it represents.

A single poppy. Each one is hand-crafted by ceramic artists, working around the clock in three shifts. Assembling the poppies was quite hard. In our four hour shift, we were aiming to assemble and plant 50 each, but I think we probably managed closer to 30 in my group.

A cluster of poppies. You can see more clearly here how the poppies differ. I hadn't seen the installation before my volunteering shift. We approached it from the Tower Bridge side, where the sea of poppies isn't as wide. It was sobering to think that each poppy represents a soldier or other military employee.

And then, when you turn the corner: the sea of red, almost filling the moat, and really bringing home the horror of how many lives were lost.

To add texture to the landscape of poppies, some have taller stems than the majority.

The poppies appear to cascade down the side of the tower, and here come crashing over the bridge that provides visitor access to the tower.

A photo of me (left, obviously) with one of the Yeoman Guarders at the Tower of London.

It was a wonderful experience to contribute to this unique installation, which draws upon poppies designed by Paul Cummins, a setting by stage designer Tom Piper, and contributions from thousands of staff and volunteers. Thank you to the Tower of London and the team behind this project for giving me the opportunity to be part of it, and for looking after us all on the day.

You can see my photos from Dernancourt War Cemetery in the Somme, France here, and my photo from the Big IF art installation in Hyde Park here.

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Just published! The Interviewer's Pocketbook

25 September 2014

One of the biggest challenges that organisations face is finding and identifying the right talent, so I'm pleased to announce the publication of a book that helps to address that problem. The Interviewer's Pocketbook is a compact guide for hiring managers, showing how they can plan for and conduct successful recruitment interviews. A successful interview is one in which you can identify the right person for the job, and point to evidence that shows the candidate is best suited to the role. Too many interviews rely on gut instinct because there is little formal training for many interviewers, especially in small businesses, so this quick guide provides some tips to enable you to better differentiate candidates and hire with confidence.

A photo of the Interviewer's Pocketbook

The book was originally written by John Townsend in 1987 and updated by him in 1999. I updated this edition to reflect changes in equality legislation and business culture, and to focus exclusively on recruitment interviews. (The previous editions also covered other internal communications situations that required one to one meetings.)

For more information, including the table of contents, see my page for the Interviewer's Pocketbook here. I'll update it with a free sample in due course, and will let you know on the blog here when it' live.

The book is published by Management Pocketbooks and is part of their popular series that is often used in large companies for internal training. The book is also available through book stores and I've posted some links to where you can buy the book here.

I have a limited number of copies available for review in the UK, so please contact me if you're interested. If you know someone who might be interested in this book, please do share this blog post or the book page with them. Every share, tweet, comment and review is very much appreciated!

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Using the Raspberry Pi Minecraft API in the new version of Raspbian

23 September 2014

The Raspberry Pi Foundation updated the Raspbian software the week before last. The good news is that Minecraft is now preinstalled in Raspbian, so you can start playing it, and more importantly programming it in Python, straight away.

However, it installs into a new location, so you might need to update any programs you've written so they can find the Minecraft Raspberry Pi API. Here's the code you need to get Minecraft working again:

import sys
import minecraft
mc = minecraft.Minecraft.create()
mc.postToChat("Welcome to Minecraft!")

The important line is the second one - the API is now found at this location. The rest of this code posts a message to Minecraft to show it's working.

If you're a Minecraft fan, try out my Minecraft Maze Maker program!

the maze being built

The program makes a life-size maze you can wander around in, seen here from the air

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New photos from China, San Francisco, Blackpool and a hot air balloon

29 August 2014

If you follow me on Twitter, you might know that I'm still updating my travel photography gallery. The latest galleries are China, San Francisco, Blackpool (including Dr Who in the illuminations), and Hot Air Ballooning.

Here are a couple of samples. Click them to go through to the full galleries. You can browse the full gallery here.

Photo of the Shanghai Pudong skyline by day

Photo of the Shanghai Pudong skyline by day

Cathedral of Saint Mary, San Francisco

Cathedral of Saint Mary, San Francisco

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Download ScratchJr for free on the iPad

30 July 2014

The team behind the Scratch programming language has released ScratchJr for the iPad, following a successful Kickstarter campaign which I was pleased to support with a small donation. ScratchJr is aimed at younger children, aged 5 to 7 years old, and has a simplified interface and set of blocks for making scripts. It has some great looking graphics, and the blocks can be used to create some surprisingly sophisticated effects. The app can be used to make stories with different scenes (a new feature in ScratchJr), and simple games too.

Our nieces and nephews are already experienced iPad users, so I'm confident that the interface will present no challenge at all to young children. They quickly learn what the icons mean and happily explore what they do.

Here are three scripts you can use to make an arcade game in ScratchJr:

Screenshot of ScratchJr program - see explanation below

The Alien Shooter game

To understand how that program works, and get an overview of the new app, see my review of ScratchJr on the iPad, including how to make an arcade game. If you're a fan of ScratchJr's older cousin Scratch, check out the bonus resources from my book Scratch Programming in Easy Steps.

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