09 April 2013
Want to protect your Raspberry Pi from paperclips and desk clutter, or just give it a stylish coat to shelter it from our so-called British Summer Time? We've got just the thing for you! You can download a free Raspberry Pi For Dummies case to protect your Raspberry Pi (PDF).
To use it, you just print out the PDF, cut it out and then glue it together. There are instructions in the PDF. The main gotcha is that you need to make sure your software doesn't do anything to resize the print-out (beware of 'scale to fit' and similar settings). You can check by measuring the scale that's printed on the template with a ruler - if the scale has printed at the right size, you'll be fine.
This template was based on the original Punnet case designed by Ian McPhee who kindly allowed us to make this variant. It was designed by the For Dummies design team, who have done a great job! The For Dummies series has taught so many people so many cool things over the years, so I consider it a very appropriate brand to go with my Raspberry Pi!
Regarding the book itself, I'm delighted to say that it's out in ebook and in print and it looks marvellous! After all the hard work Mike and I have put into creating it, we're excited that the book is now getting out there and starting to inspire people to get the best from their new fruity friend. Find out more about Raspberry Pi For Dummies, and Like us on Facebook here. I'll add more details on the book soon, but you can get a sneak peak inside by looking at the photos I've uploaded to Amazon.
08 March 2013
Last year, I worked on the design and production of an anthology of short stories and poems by writers based in the London Borough of Hillingdon. The book is called Three Points West, and featured the best work from writing groups based in Uxbridge, Yeading and Ruislip. In a project led by the writing group coordinators, writers were invited to send in their best unpublished work (with a word/line limit imposed), and an independent judge from the library service selected the best work for inclusion in the book.
I created the template and laid out the book using Microsoft Word. It's one of the great secrets of self-publishing that Microsoft Word is actually perfectly capable of creating professional-looking layouts, as long as you respect the conventions of publishing, especially with respect to spacing, and relative font sizes. The cover was designed using Adobe Photoshop, if I remember correctly.
The book was printed using Lulu (as a single big batch, rather than printing in response to orders) and was sold through libraries and the local Waterstones. It wasn't the first time I'd produced a book using Lulu. I printed and sold my novel University of Death there, although I found it particularly difficult wrestling with the interface this time around to get the cover to upload correctly. My feeling is that Lulu hasn't evolved greatly in the last five years, but it remains a fantastic service so I very much hope that they can improve the reliability of the interface. You can read my top tips for publishing on Lulu here.
I've now put Three Points West online as a free ebook to not only give you something great to read, but also to help give the writers some more exposure, and enable them to share the book easily with their friends and family. You can find out more and download Three Points West here.
Thank you to everyone who worked on the book, especially Charlotte Baldwin, who led the project; Darren Deeks, who drummed up entries for the book; Alison Beer, who compiled the final content selection; cover photographer Art By LAW, and all the writers who shared their work and talent.
04 February 2013
On Friday, I went along to the Excel Centre in London's Docklands for the BETT conference, which is about learning technology. I haven't been to BETT before, but this year I was keen to go to find out how teachers are using the Raspberry Pi in classrooms, and what the recommendations are for incorporating them in lessons. One of the audiences I had in mind when writing Raspberry Pi for Dummies was teachers, many of whom will need to learn Linux and physical computing for the first time, perhaps learning it alongside their students.
I've documented the key lessons from BETT for teachers who want to use the Raspberry Pi, with notes from the sessions and some photos I took there. Read my story about the Raspberry Pi at BETT 2013 here.
24 January 2013
Before Christmas I was talking to a friend about writing. She was struggling with structuring her story and avoiding over-writing. The perfect tool for that, it seemed to me, was Excel. You can keep a plan of the whole book, keep track of word counts, and easily notice if one chapter constitutes 10% of your intended book length, instead of the 5% it's planned for. I use Excel as a planning aid for every major project I do, but after this conversation I realised some writers might not have considered using it.
It occurred to me that there are probably a few tools like this that I use to increase my productivity and effectiveness, so I've written a short article with my 7 essential tools for writers. I use most of them daily, and all of them often. I hope that they give you some ideas to make your writing time more effective!
Do you have any tips for tools I missed, or any other tools you've found valuable while writing? Leave a comment below!
11 January 2013
Shea Silverman has ported MAME to the Raspberry Pi, which means you can play classic arcade games on your Pi.
MAME is short for Multi Arcade Machine Emulator. Emulators are programs that that enable software designed for one machine (in this case an arcade cabinet) to run on another (your Raspberry Pi). As another example, you can use an Amstrad CPC emulator to play the games I wrote in the 1980s on your Windows PC. Emulators are popular because they're convenient (it's easier to use an emulator on your current PC than to set up a dedicated machine). Some people believe early video games are as historically significant as early black and white films, and emulators can also help to preserve software for future generations.
To use Shea Silverman's PiMAME, you need to download the SD card image and flash it to the SD card as you did for the Linux operating system originally. For example, you can use Image Writer for Windows to copy the image file to an SD card using your Windows PC. You need to take special care with this process, because anything on the SD card is wiped, and if you specify the wrong drive, that might be erased by mistake.
PiMAME comes with Gridlee (pictured), which was never released when it was made, but has since been made freely available for non-commercial use by its creators. Other games have also been made freely and legally available by their creators and can be downloaded here.
You add any additional games in the /home/pi/roms/ directory on the SD card. The PiMAME SD card image includes the desktop environment so the easiest way to copy or move files is using the File Manager. When you switch the Raspberry Pi on, the SD card boots into PiMAME, but you can press Escape to go back to the shell prompt and use 'startx' to go into the desktop environment. Alternatively, you can download the ROMs using the Raspberry Pi itself and save them in that directory. You don't need to unzip them: zip files work fine.
The default keys are 5 to insert a coin, 1 to start, cursor keys to move, and the buttons are (in order) Left Control, Left Alt, Spacebar and Left Shift. In practice, that usually means Left Control is fire.
Not all games I've tried work. Some won't load and some have problems with the sound, including Gridlee. It's a little bit hit and miss then, but when it works, it's fabulous. Shea Silverman has done a great job on bringing classic games to the Raspberry Pi.
My book Raspberry Pi For Dummies is available for preorder now.
04 January 2013
I've set up a page on Facebook for iPad for the Older and Wiser, which I'll use to post little bits of iPad news as I come across them.
It won't result in a lot of content appearing on your Facebook stream, but it gives me a more effective way to get news and updates to you than posting them on the blog here or putting them on Twitter.
03 January 2013
I was amazed and delighted to see that iPad for the Older and Wiser entered Amazon UK's top 100 books across all genres over the Christmas period. A friend told me she saw it at #9, but the highest I saw it at was #67. It was in the top 100 for five days in total, and it's currently ranked at #167.
The rankings change hourly so there's a lot of volatility in the chart, but it's amazing that for a short while the book was ranked higher than almost all celebrity memoirs and novels.
I've received some great feedback on the book too from readers, and I particularly appreciated the reviews that said they liked the tone of the book. When writing it, I wanted to make sure I respected the reader's experience using other devices and in life in general, and I'm pleased that the feedback suggests I got this right.
The team at John Wiley has done a fantastic job of creating a high-quality book and successfully marketing and selling it. When in Kuala Lumpur recently, I was excited to see some copies of it in a book store, so far from home:
Thank you to everyone who's been buying it, for themselves or as a gift, and I hope you're finding it useful as you get to grips with your new iPad. Happy new year!
21 December 2012
05 October 2012
The Raspberry Pi currently ships without a case around it, so it’s just a circuit board. You can use it just like that, but a lot of people prefer to get a case for it to protect it. The most stylish one I’ve seen so far is the Pibow, which costs a bit more than other cases but looks very cool. But lots of people prefer to make their own cases. After all, the computer is supposed to inspire all kinds of DIY hacking, so the case seems a good place to start.
I started out by putting my Raspberry Pi in a wooden chocolate box I had, although I didn’t quite get around to sawing holes in it so the lid would shut and the cables would just come through holes in the sides. And then I succumbed to the inevitable, and had some fun with Lego.
You can see a picture of my case here below. It’s a fairly simple box, with holes (and a window) used for the cables to get in and out. I used transparent bricks around the back so I could see if the lights were on, and created a roof garden with a programmer working at a desk, just for kicks. The programmer is a minifigure (which is what they call Lego men nowadays) that Lego has issued. He looks like Bill Gates, has a mug with a C:\ prompt on it, and carries a little laptop. The roof garden has become a handy place to keep SD cards and I have a small 4-socket USB hub that sits nicely there too (when I remove the tree).
If you want to build your own Lego case, the dimensions of mine are 10 studs wide by 16 studs long, and four bricks high. The sides are two studs thick on two sides (one long side and one short side) and one stud thick on the other two sides.
I just used the bricks I had available, a mishmash of Lego and Lego-compatible pieces I had, but you can buy a kit with all the pieces you need and a design pattern created by 12-year old Biz. Best bit about that is that she's on commission, and it's paid in Lego. It's a really slick design, including a Raspberry Pi logo on the top. How are you protecting your Raspberry Pi?
06 September 2012
After finishing his PhD at the University of Cambridge, Eben was working as director of studies, responsible for talking to schools to get more computer science undergraduates in. When he went to Cambridge in 1996, there was a 6:1 ratio of applicants to places and you could rely on those admitted having a deep understanding of how computers worked. Ten years later, the application ratio had dropped to 2:1 or 3:1, and although they could still find 80 to 90 students each year, the trend was worrying. Those entering the course also had much less impressive technical skills, Eben said. Whereas there used to be one or two people who had done some assembly language programming, now it was mostly about HTML. That creates huge challenges with teaching, because if you have to explain basic stuff at the start, the course either gets squeezed or extended to cover the in-depth stuff graduates should learn.
Eben learned to program like I did, playing on 8-bit computers and writing simple programs for them. When 8-bit computers evolved into games consoles, we lost a lot of that ability to tinker, because their business model is that they’re designed to be unprogrammable, Eben said. PCs can be programmed, but you have to want to get the tools and documentation to do that. “It’s a 10 minute barrier, but lots never cross it,” said Eben.
So he drew up a blueprint of four things that would come to define the Raspberry Pi:
- It had to be interesting for things other than programming.
- It had to be robust, so it could be pushed into a school bag hundreds of times without getting damaged.
- It had to be cheap, like a school text book. The target price was $25.
- It had to come with all the tools needed to program on it.
The Raspberry Pi Foundation was incorporated as a private company limited by guarantee and registered with the charities commission.
In the 1980s, the BBC Micro was a computer that met all the Pi Foundation's objectives, and gave many people their first taste of programming and electronics. Originally, the foundation wanted the Pi to be the new BBC computer and they had discussions with the Beeb but it became clear that this would be impossible because the BBC can’t be seen to compete with commercial ventures today. A final attempt to get the BBC’s endorsement was to reach out to BBC journalist Rory Cellan-Jones, who Raspberry Pi Foundation trustee David Braben knew. Cellan-Jones put a video on his blog, and two days later it had go 600,000 views.
“It was great for two days,” said Eben. “I spent two days pressing F5. Look how popular I am! Then I realised I had promised 600,000 people I could build a $25 computer. I had no idea whether I could keep that promise.”
He did know the costs added up, but he didn’t know how to go about mass production. Eben was working at Broadcom by now, and they built the first ones as a favour. The six trustees funded the working capital to make the first large batch of 10,000 in China, starting by doing 2,000 at a cost of $50,000. The level of interest was phenomenal, though: tens of thousands of people downloaded the alpha SD card image from the website even though they had no idea when they might get a device to run it.
It became clear that in batches of 10,000 it would take years to satisfy demand, so they instead moved to a model of licensing the design to RS Components and Element 14, who now provide the working capital and manage production and customer service. One person asked whether these companies make a worthwhile margin given how cheap the Pi is. “Charity is not scalable,” said Eben. “Sooner or later, you run out of other people’s money. Everyone in the value chain makes enough money without having to say this is part of their CSR (corporate social responsibility programme). Some make less than they would in an ideal world.”
That’s given them the ability to scale rapidly, and he expects them to have reached close to one million sales by the end of 2012. “We accidentally made a computer company,” said Eben. It has a fixed cost base of £500 per month for the web hosting and no employees, although clearly lots of people (including Eben’s wife Liz) are investing a lot of time in the venture.
He said it will be a couple of years before he knows whether the Pi is solving the problem it was created to address, and the top priority will be to optimise Scratch so that it runs faster.
17 August 2012
I mentioned previously that I had been quiet on the blog this summer because I had been working on two books and a show. Well, the show was the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games, where I was a volunteer performer in the industrial revolution sequence. It was such a fantastic experience, a real 'once in a lifetime' opportunity.
During the rehearsals, I didn't keep a diary, but I did jot down a few notes, and I knew I was taking part in something special so I tried to really drink it all in, as much as I could. At our first rehearsal, we heard the music for our segment. We weren't played it again for several weeks, but I heard it in my head every few days until then because I'd focused so hard on remembering it the first time.
We weren't allowed to take photos during the rehearsals, so I don't have any photographs of most of the experience. As a keen photographer, it's quite unusual for me to have so few photographs for such a significant event in my life, but we all started snapping away backstage when the dress rehearsals began and we were in costume.
I've now written an article about my experience taking part in the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony, from the first audition to the final flaming ring, and including some of my photographs. I wrote it mainly for myself, so I would have something I could read in years to come to remind me of the the whole experience, but I hope that others (both in the show, and those just curious about how it came together) will enjoy it too.
16 August 2012
I was visiting the Guardian website the other day and was surprised to see my own book staring back at me from the sidebar, at the #1 spot in the bestsellers list for the Guardian Bookshop.
The titles listed change depending on the page, but 'iPad for the Older and Wiser' is listed as their top weekly bestseller on a couple of pages about cars and technology.
It's always exciting to see the book in a shop or on an unexpected website, because it shows the book is getting out there and finding readers.
You can visit the Guardian's page for the book here. You can find out more about 'iPad for the Older and Wiser' by visiting my microsite for it.
Thank you to my friend Mark for bringing this to my attention!
10 August 2012
Over the last week, I’ve spent a fair bit of time playing with the Raspberry Pi, the cheap computer that has been created to inspire the next generation of computer scientists. There was a huge buzz when the Raspberry Pi was first released, and I see a lot of hard-core geeks using it to create hardware projects. But I’m not sure how many people are using it to just learn a bit of coding, or whether a lot of those early purchases are sitting in their boxes.
The good news is that it’s not hard to set up. Mine pretty much plugged and played. I tried it on a TV and there was an overscan issue (text spilling off the screen) which can be fixed with some tinkering in the config files, but it worked perfectly with a monitor (and had a much clearer resolution). I was amazed that I could just plug it into my router and it would connect to the internet automagically. I expected that to be a real pain in the neck.
The bad news is that it can display odd behaviour sometimes. I had the internet connection working in the command line (tested by pinging Google) but couldn’t get it to work in the desktop environment’s browser. That turned out to be a problem with the keyboard I’m using (a bog standard USB keyboard I bought to use with the Pi). My USB hub and/or keyboard are causing power conflicts that affect the Ethernet connection, and others have reported similar results. It’s easy enough to fix (by replacing them), but the lesson is to disconnect and/or try alternative hardware before tinkering with settings (which luckily, I did).
Speed is a bit of a challenge: it’s not very responsive at the moment, although that could also be related to a hardware conflict, I’ve heard. It’s not uncommon to double click an icon and not get any response from it for a few seconds: long enough to click it again and find you’re opening the same program twice. The web browser coped fine with streamlined sites like Wikipedia but struggled to render more complex web pages, including my site (so please accept my apologies if you’re reading this from a Raspberry Pi now!).
I’ve dabbled in the programming tools provided, and tried downloading and running various Linux packages, including GIMP which was a bit slow when processing a full resolution digital photo (but noticeably better when the image was resized), and the Calligra office/productivity suite which works well. There wasn’t a music player in the Linux distro I used, but LX Music works well, and VLC and Rhythmbox installed okay (but I haven’t tested them yet). LBreakout2 is a fun little breakout game you can try too.
Have you got a Raspberry Pi, and if so, what have you done with it so far?
13 July 2012
One of the difficult things about creating the second edition of iPad for the Older and Wiser was covering all the important new features without exceeding the budgeted page count, even though the second edition is 50 pages longer. To help achieve that, there were some sections that appeared in the first edition which I removed. Some of them are no longer current or relevant, but there were three sections which were cut for space reasons from the second edition, but which you might still find useful. I’ve put these online so you can still read them.
05 July 2012
Recently somebody got in touch with me to ask my advice on whether she should write for free for a healthcare magazine, and I was reminded of this when I saw a blog this week asking for people to blog for free. The blog was asking for a volunteer to take on a regular shift (early mornings, weekends or evenings), and sounded very much like a part time job, only without the pay cheque.
When people are starting out, they usually do have to write for free to build up a portfolio of work. But both these examples made me feel uneasy. In the case of a magazine, everyone else gets paid, including the editor, designer, subscription sales team, and distributors, so it’s a bit much that the writers don’t. They’re relying on the fact that a credit in the magazine is good for career development, which it probably is. In a case like this, it’s worth writing for free if that’s consistent with your personal career goals, perhaps to compile a published portfolio so you can approach paid markets, or to build your reputation as an expert. If you're serious about being a professional writer, though, you need to find markets that respect your work and pay accordingly, so unpaid projects should be seen as stepping stones towards that.
In the case of the blog, a successful outlet might boost your reputation and give you some published credits that are widely respected. I didn’t feel that this particular blog carried much weight, though, so I’d recommend investing the time in setting up your own blog instead. If you’re going to make a regular commitment to research and writing, you might as well own the end result of that, and have credit for creating a new online destination, and not just becoming someone else’s unpaid intern.
This probably sounds a bit mercenary, and arguably a lot of the best writing was done for free. Most first novels and many important non-fiction books were written on spec, and there are plenty of bloggers out there who expect no payment in return for excellent work. Money shouldn't be the only concern in what you write, but if you're a professional writer (or aim to be), it has to be a significant one.
Ultimately, it’s a question of who’s asking you to work for free. If you want to work on something unpaid because you want to explore a new idea, medium or genre, go for it. Every writer needs to invest time in creativity and personal development, and in exploring new projects, some of which might not come to anything.
If someone else is asking you to write what they want to be written, you should have a clear idea of what you’re getting in return, and usually, you should expect it to lead to money sooner or later.