New free ebook: Coding Compendium

03 June 2024

Book cover: Coding CompendiumI've published a new ebook that compiles more than 100 pages of tutorials I've written for Raspberry Pi, Scratch, Python, and the micro:bit. It's called Coding Compendium and it's free to download when you subscribe to my newsletter.

The ebook compiles the articles I've written over the last ten years for publications including The MagPi, Hello World, Raspberry Pi Geek, micro:mag, and my website. A single PDF compilation seems like a more useful resource than having them languishing in the archives, including for me when I need to refer back to a previous coding project to remember how I did something.

In compiling the ebook, I took the opportunity to update my article on using the Python turtle (a great way to move from Scratch to Python), and added a new article about getting Scratch 2 projects working with Scratch 3. Some of the older articles were created with Scratch 2 and there are many great resources available for Scratch 2 (including some of my books which haven't been updated). There are just a few small differences between the two versions of Scratch, so projects from Scratch 2 will work fine on Scratch 3, but some of the blocks are in a different place in the user interface.

I hope that the ebook also promotes the magazines where the articles were first published. While the magazines' licences allow anyone to share their contents, I try to share them in a way that respects the magazine's investment in the work. I don't share PDFs of articles until the magazine issue has long gone off sale, so that there's no risk of my site competing with the magazine. You can support The MagPi by subscribing or by donating when downloading the magazine's PDF edition, and can subscribe to Hello World for free (in print if you're an educator, and in PDF for everyone).

This is the first time I've gated content, by requiring people to sign up to my newsletter to download it. Social media has collapsed over the last year or so, as a way to reach people with new articles and books. I hope that this ebook will help me to build a list of people who are interested in the kinds of things I make and write about, so I can keep them informed with occasional emails.

See more information, including the table of contents.

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New EP: Songs About Coding

02 May 2024

Songs About CodingI've just published a new EP called Songs About Coding, created with artificial intelligence.

In the last few years, we've seen the rise of generative AI, including ChatGPT that generates text and tools like Dall-E and Stable Diffusion that create images. I combined them for my Bedtime Stories project. Now an app called Udio enables you to create complete songs based on a text prompt, including the lyrics, melody and musical performance.

It's more audacious than I dared dream when I was writing my novel Earworm, originally published in 2007. In the book, a record label comes up with a way to create computer-generated music, tailored for each fan. The book predated the rise in generative artificial intelligence, so the story uses a combination of technologies including lifting blog posts for lyrics, using melodies created with a decades-old type-in program, and naming bands after spammers, who were prolific then and often had highly amusing names.

Crucially, in my story, there still needed to be a human element. Is that the case now, with the rise of AI?

I tasked Udio with creating a series of songs in various styles about coding. In particular, I prompted it to create an 80s pop song about programming the Amstrad CPC computer, an acoustic song about debugging, and 1950s style songs about the Raspberry Pi.

The results are impressive. I did do some editing to fix the song structure, but I've featured some of them without any changes (apart from mastering).

Technologies like this are empowering for people who want to make music and don't have the skills to do so. You can give Udio your own lyrics, so if you're a lyricist without a collaborator, you can still create finished songs. As a musician, you can create music or loops that you incorporate into your own creations.

However, it seems likely that this will take work away from some professional musicians. Those working in library music and commercial commissions seem most vulnerable. Illustrators who are members of the Society of Authors are already reporting that they're losing work to AI.

Listen to the EP here! It's a fascinating demonstration of what AI can do today and it raises many questions. I woke up this morning with one of the songs in my head, so they're quite catchy, at least after a few listens.

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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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