New visualiser for Out of Mind

22 February 2024

I've released a new visualiser for Out of Mind, one of the most popular songs on my album of electronic music Artificial. The album explores what happens beyond artificial intelligence, when the machines acquire emotions. The visualiser provides a convenient way for people to play the song on YouTube. There are now videos or visualisers available for Out of Mind, Broken Shell, Input/Output, and the near-final ambient track Waiting for GOTO. See all the videos and play the album here.

I also released a companion EP of tracks that didn't belong on Artificial. That EP Is called Artificial Additives and includes an early poppier version of Out of Mind. I made a video for the track Do This that shows my film of the lifeboat coming in at St Ives.

Both the album and EP are available to buy and currently available to stream at all the usual places.

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Make your own Steamboat Willie game in Scratch

03 January 2024

You might have heard the news that Walt Disney's early version of Mickey Mouse is now in the public domain. The copyright on the 1928 film Steamboat Willie expired in the US, UK and many other countries on 1 January 2024. As a result, you can now use the early Mickey and Minnie Mouse versions from that film in your own creative works.

This a great opportunity for young people looking for inspiration for their Scratch games and other coding projects. It's not easy to get the film content into a useful format, though.

That's why I've created a Scratch project that features two of the Steamboat Willie characters as individual sprites. I'd love to see your remixes of that project! You can write code to move the characters around the screen and I've made some simple edits to add animation (Minnie blinks and Mickey taps his toe). The sprites are little bit fuzzy because the source material is old and it's hard to create a sharp outline from it. If there is enough interest, I'll look at doing some additional grabs of other poses and creating other sprites. The demonstration project uses my tune Cottoneye Cat from my free music collection for coders, Press Play.

If you're using a compatible browser, you can preview the Scratch project here:

Find out more about the sprites, including how I made them, here.

For ideas for making games and other projects in Scratch, see the updated 2nd Edition of Scratch Programming in Easy Steps, which is out now. Find all my Scratch sprites, tutorials and projects here.

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Can AI automatically negotiate contracts?

21 November 2023

My latest article for the BBC looks at how AI can help to negotiate contracts automatically. It's based on a demonstration I saw of a new technology called Luminance Autopilot, which uses artificial intelligence (AI). In the demo, I saw two computers running the software to negotiate a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). The tool is trained on an organisation's repository of previous contracts, so it can learn the terms that the organisation routinely agrees to, and can make edits to terms that are unacceptable. Technologies like this have the potential to free up lawyers to focus on negotiating the clauses or contracts that really need their attention.

This is the second piece I've written about AI recently, following my earlier article about using ChatGPT to create computer code.

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Play BAS Invaders - a new type-in for the Amstrad CPC

27 October 2023

I've written a new Amstrad CPC type-in for a one-off collectors' magazine called Amstrad Addict. The program is a simple version of Space Invaders called BAS Invaders, which was written 100% in Amstrad BASIC.

I remember trying to do a Space Invaders type game when I was just starting to learn Amstrad BASIC in 1985. It took so long to draw the characters on the screen that it was impossible to get anything resembling a game working.

For this type-in, I revisited the challenge and used colour swapping so that I don't need to redraw the aliens on the screen. They're all there, in every position, all the time, but most of them are drawn using an invisible ink. You can change the ink colour of something on the screen instantly, so fast animation becomes possible. It's a bit like a version of those early LCD and LED games where all the character positions are fixed on the display and light up in turn.

You can play the game in your browser, or download it to try in your emulator (where it runs a bit faster).

It was an interesting challenge to write something that makes sense as a type-in in 2023, when we can download any software we want easily. I hope that the listing and its explanation in the magazine make for an interesting read, whether or not you type the game in or run it.

Several of my other Amstrad games run in your browser too:

You can order Amstrad Addict here.

I also contribute to Amtix CPC magazine, a regular publication. If you're curious about what it's like, you can view a flipbook of issue #7 of Amtix CPC. (I don't have anything in that issue). Order back issues and subscribe here. Also available is the Amtix CPC Annual, a hardback A5 publication.

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How can companies securely recycle e-waste?

07 June 2023

Photo of a hard drive.Did you know that millions of storage devices are shredded each year to stop their data leaking? Yet, even fragments as small as 3mm still have data on them that could be recovered. It's actually safer to use secure deletion today, which also means the drives can be reused.

I explored this concept in my latest article for BBC News Online: Why millions of usable hard drives are being destroyed.

This year, many of the 375 million hard drives that were sold in 2018 are ending their warranty period. Large data centres are disposing of them, mostly to landfill. I spoke to the Circular Drive Initiative, storage company Seagate, and security company ESET about alternatives.

Devices that have left warranty are often still fully functioning, and can be reused by others. Smaller data centres would love to get their hands on the cast-offs from the hyperscalers, for example. My article looks at purging by deleting the encryption key, and offers advice on planning for the end of life of storage and other digital devices.

I hope the article helps to raise awareness of the new standards for secure deletion, and the work that the Circular Drive Initiative and its members are doing to improve storage sustainability.

This my second piece on tech sustainability for the BBC, following my previous article about website sustainability.

Thanks to Benjamin Lehman at Unsplash for the photo

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Three new articles on AI and hidden messages in Spectrum games

01 June 2023

Photo showing Bedtime Stories running on a Raspberry Pi, with an astronaut image shown on a HyperPixel screen.Here's a round-up of articles I've written recently. ChatGPT features in two of them, and one of them gets under the skin of classic 80s computer games.

  • For The MagPi magazine, I wrote a tutorial called Bedtime Stories (pictured on the right). This uses ChatGPT to create a story featuring your chosen heroes, and DeepAI's AI image generation API to create an image for each paragraph of the story. The stories are read aloud using text-to-speech (using the same library as Raspberry Radio), while the relevant image for each section is displayed. Bedtime Stories features in issue 130 of The MagPi, which is out now, and you can see the Bedtime Stories code and example images here.

  • For the BBC, I wrote an article about using ChatGPT to create computer code. From my own experiments, I've found ChatGPT to be surprisingly good at writing Python programs, as long as you know enough to guide it. I have come up against its limitations when developing fairly simple programs, but it has a good knowledge of lots of Python libraries, so it can get you results quicker than reading the documentation. For my BBC article, I interviewed developers about how ChatGPT has helped them to make games, what the security risks are, and how ChatGPT could be a programming companion.

  • For issue 15 of Crash magazine, for the ZX Spectrum community, I wrote an article about the hidden messages in game code. Programmers often left messages to hackers or their friends hidden in their game code, which were never displayed on the screen. Some of these messages reveal a little bit of what it was like writing games in the 80s, with complaints about the pay, tales of all-night coding sessions, and the drama of copyright infringement claims.

I've also recently redesigned the articles page on my website, so it showcases some of my favourite pieces more clearly. At the bottom of the page are the links to take you into the sections for articles on topics such as Raspberry Pi, Scratch and web design. For updates on new articles and projects, please subscribe to my newsletter!

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Shortlisted for Best Feature 2023

30 May 2023

Logo for Freelance Journalism AwardsI’m delighted to say that my article about sustainable web design for the BBC has been shortlisted for the inaugural Freelance Journalism Awards 2023, in the Best Feature category.

The article shows how simple changes in a website’s design can have a dramatic effect on its carbon emissions. One company cut its website carbon emissions by 96% by making some simple design changes, and the article includes practical tools for measuring website carbon emissions and tips for positive design changes to make. My accompanying blog post on sustainable web design includes additional tools and tips.

I hope that the article has inspired business owners to make some small tweaks to their website that will help to drive down carbon emissions.

There were 333 entries across the seven award categories. The organisers said: “As we shortlist the work we are looking out for originality, writing / production flair, impact, resonance and representation of unheard voices.”

If you're looking for more web design advice, the updated 7th edition of Web Design in Easy Steps is out now. You can read more of my favourite feature articles on my revamped articles page.

UPDATE: Congratulations to Amelia Tait who won this award for her Guardian article about super-organised homes. Thanks to Freelancing for Journalists for organising the awards, and to the judges and sponsors for making them possible.

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This book, now fully updated for Scratch 3, will take you from the basics of the Scratch language into the depths of its more advanced features. A great way to start programming.

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In this entertaining techno-thriller, Sean McManus takes a slice through the music industry: from the boardroom to the stage; from the studio to the record fair.

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