Raspberry Pi

Fresh Coffee at Mailchimp

Ben: Here’s a guest post from Steven Sloan, a developer at MailChimp.

Grounds for innovation

Here at MailChimp, we’re always trying to listen hard and change fast. Turns out, this requires a good bit of coffee. Each department has its own take on how to keep the stuff flowing, mostly with the standard Bunn-O-Matic commercial machines. A few folks regularly avail themselves of our espresso setup. The developers fill two airpots—one with regular, the other double strength.

And then there’s the marketing team and our precious Chemex.

We make a pour-over pot once every hour or so, all day long, 5 days a week, 50-something weeks a year. Last December, when we were gathering data for our annual report, we got curious about how many Fresh Pots that might amount to. We tried to count it up, but begrudgingly had to accept the fact we didn’t have a good measure beyond pounds consumed. We even tried to keep track with a bean counter, but that didn’t last long.

For a while, the exact nature of our coffee consumption seemed like it would remain just another mystery of the universe. But then one day, talking to Mark while waiting on yet another Fresh Pot, I said, “Hey, I bet we could track the temperature with a Raspberry Pi and post to the group chat when there’s a fresh one.”

I wasn’t too serious, but Mark’s response was one often heard around MailChimp when ridiculous projects are proposed: “Sounds great, just let me know what you need to get it done.”

A few days later, I had a materials list drawn up from Adafruit’s thermometer tutorial, and we were off to the races.

A fresh Pi

With a Raspberry Pi in hand, the first thing I did was add a script to the boot process that sent an email using Mandrill with its IP so I could find it on our network without trouble.

Then, I had to tackle the problem of detecting pot states with only a single datapoint: current temperature. I hoped that comparing the running averages of different time spans would be enough to determine the pot’s status. (The average Chemex temperature over the course of a few minutes, for instance, would tell us something different than the average temperate over the course of an hour.)

Since this was a greenfield project, I wanted to work with an unfamiliar language. I felt like the more functional nature of Clojure would be a great fit for passing along a single piece of state. This turned out to be a great decision, and I’ll explain why in a minute.

Graph it home

I hacked together a quick program that would spit out the current temperature, minute’s running average, hour’s running average, and the running average’s rate of change to a log file so I could analyze them.

... {"current":32.062, "minute":24.8747, "hour":23.5391, "running-rate":0.039508} {"current":32.437, "minute":25.0008, "hour":23.5635, "running-rate":0.0423943} {"current":32.875, "minute":25.1322, "hour":23.5897, "running-rate":0.045361} {"current":33.625, "minute":25.2738, "hour":23.6177, "running-rate":0.048569} {"current":33.625, "minute":25.413, "hour":23.6476, "running-rate":0.05159} {"current":33.625, "minute":25.55, "hour":23.6793, "running-rate":0.054437} ...

Log files in hand, I temporarily turned back to Ruby using the wonderful Gruff charting library to visualize things and make patterns easier to spot.

A few batches of hot water gave me a decent idea what things should look like, so I moved our coffee equipment to my desk to get some live data. This let me check in with the actual running state of the program and compare it with the status of the pot (and led to some coworker laughs and a wonderful smell at my workspace all day).

A brewing or fresh pot is easy to recognize, but figuring out when the pot is empty turned out to be a little tricky. It takes a while for the Chemex to completely cool off, which means it could be empty and still warm, which I’m sure would lead to more than a few disappointing trips to the kitchen. Luckily, the rate a pot cools tells us if it is empty or not—for instance, a half-full pot stays warm longer than an empty one simply because of the coffee still in it. Always nice to have physics on your side.

Watchers for the win

Armed with the collection of datapoints (running averages, rate of change, etc.) for each of the pot’s states, I moved on to figuring out how to notify our department’s group chat room when a pot was brewing, ready, empty, or stale. This is where some of the built-in features of Clojure came in handy.

I already had a program that logged the current state of itself every second. By switching the actual state to an agent, I could apply watchers to it. These watchers get called whenever the agent changes, which is perfect for analyzing changes in state.

Another agent added was the pot itself. The watcher for the temperature would look for the above mentioned boundaries, and update the pot’s state, leaving another watcher to track the pot and notify our chat room. When it came time to pick an alias to deliver the notifications, Dave Grohl was the natural choice.

Here’s a simple example of the pot watcher looking for a brewing pot:

(def pot-status (agent {:status "empty"})) (defn pot-watcher [watcher status old_status new_status] (if (= (:status new_status) "brewing") (notify/is_brewing))) (add-watch pot-status :pot-watcher pot-watcher)

The great thing is the watcher only gets called when the status changes, not on each tick of the temperature. Using agents felt great to me in this case as they provided a clean way to watch state (without callbacks or a ton of boilerplate) and maintain separation of concern between different parts of the program.

Freshness into the future

I’m still working out a few kinks, tuning in the bounds, and keeping a log of pots. It’s been a fun experience and I learned a ton. Something tells me this won’t be the last time we work with Raspberry Pi on a project. What’s next, Fresh Pots in space? Luckily, we’ve got plenty of coffee to propel us.

Ben: Thanks to Steven and MailChimp for permission to use the post – we’re very pleased to see the Pi used as the tool of choice of coffee-hungry developers around the world! Coffee is important to us here at Pi Towers…

Blast from the past – remember this coffee pot? Click to read more

MailChimp is what I use to power Pi Weekly – my weekly Raspberry Pi news & projects email newsletter – check it out at piweekly.net!

New Raspbian and NOOBS releases

If you head over to the downloads page, you’ll find new versions of our Raspbian image and NOOBS installer. Alongside the usual firmware and kernel improvements, major changes to the Raspbian image include:

  • Java updated to JDK 8
  • Mathematica updated to version 10
  • Sonic Pi updated to version 2
  • Minecraft Pi pre-installed

Following its release last week, of our port of Epiphany has replaced Midori as the default browser, bringing with it hardware-accelerated video support and better standards compliance.

Epiphany is now the default browser

Our Raspbian image now includes driver support for the BCM43143 802.11n WiFi chip. Last week Broadcom released a rather neat USB hub and WiFi adapter combo based on this chip, which should now work out of the box. More info is available here.

BCM43143 802.11n USB hub and WiFi adapter

Finally, to free up SD card space, the offline NOOBS package now only contains the Raspbian archive. To install Arch, Pidora, OpenELEC, RaspBMC or RISC OS you will require a network connection.

Let’s get Physical! New physical computing animation

With the success of the first two productions from Saladhouse, our animator friends in Manchester (What is a Raspberry Pi? and Setting up your Raspberry Pi), we proceeded to make plans for a third in the series. The topic we chose to cover this time is one which demonstrates the additional power of the Pi in learning – an introduction to the realm of physical computing.

Look through the amazing projects in our blog, the MagPi or Pi Weekly and you’ll see many of them use the portability of the small form factor and low powered nature of the Pi along with the extensibility the GPIO pins give you – not to mention the wealth of community produced add-on boards available making it all much easier.

Those pins sticking out there. General Purpose Input/Output. Did we mention there are 40 on the B+?

Here at Pi Towers we all love physical projects – from robotics and home automation to flatulence alarms and scaring the elderly – and we believe they’re a great way to introduce young people to coding, computational thinking, product development and understanding systems.

The video refers to some resources for projects you can make yourself. We featured the hamster disco on our blog in July, and you may have heard talk of some of the others on twitter – which are all brand new, constructed and tested by our education team. They are:

See more in our resources section.

Huge thanks to Sam and Scott from Saladhouse for their hard work on this – and also to our voice actors Arthur (son of Pi co-founder Pete Lomas) and Maia! And yes, that’s Eben narrating.

A little gift I brought Dave back from Memphis…

Gert’s VGA Adapter

The Raspberry Pi has an HDMI port to connect a display. If your monitor only has VGA, you have to use an adapter. Because this requires a digital-to-analogue conversion, those adapters can be quite pricey, and they can draw lots of power. So our friend Gert van Loo (who developed the Alpha board that became the Raspberry Pi, and the man behind the Gertboard and Gertduino) has created a VGA adapter that uses the Pi’s GPIO.

This wasn’t possible on the Model A or B, but now the B+ exposes 40 GPIO pins, there’s more to play with. As well as just allowing you to connect a VGA monitor natively, it also means you can use it as a secondary monitor alongside HDMI. And unlike composite video, the DPI interface can be run independent of the HDMI. The software for dual screens is still under development, but we expect that to arrive in the next couple of weeks. Running two screens at maximum resolution will consume SDRAM bandwidth, and is yet to be tested. (And there’s a catch: as the board uses most of your GPIO pins, you lose access to them.)

The VGA output supports the same resolution as your HDMI one: from 640 x 480 up to 1920 x 1024 at 60fps. At the highest resolution the pixel quality is almost as good as HDMI. The adapter uses a simple resistor ladder network as a digital-to-analogue converter, so the colour quality depends on how well-balanced your resistors are. There is slight colour banding, and with 6 bits per channel you have a maximum of 262144 colours.

Dom has been working on the software side and the new DPI (read: VGA) driver software has been added to the latest release.

“Where can I buy one?”, I hear you ask. Currently, nowhere. But Gert has made the VGA adapter open hardware, so you can make it yourself, or find yourself an enthusiastic partner and have it made. All the data is in the public domain on GitHub. Besides the manual and schematics, you will also find the database for the PCB and the Gerber files. The PCB design supports both through-hole and SMD parts. The design consists of:

  • 1 PCB
  • 2 connectors
  • 20 resistors

The cost is not prohibitive, but having a single PCB made is rather expensive, so you might want to collect a group of interested people and order a batch; if you’re interested in doing that, head over to the forums and see if you can organise a group buy.

See vga666 at github.com/fenlogic/vga666 (it’s 6 bits per colour channel, hence 666…)

Gert’s looking to get the PCBs produced, and hopefully the manufacturer will be able to put them on sale (we’ll update with a link) – but they’re so easy to make we anticipate they’ll be generally available before long anyway. Gert says he expects in due time that a far-east manufacturer will see fit to sell them for two dollars.

Want to see a prototype? Of course you do.

Click to embiggen, and marvel at Gert’s work soldering together some of those teeny resistors.

CNET: The Making of Raspberry Pi

At the end of August, Luke Westaway from CNET’s Adventures in Tech came to visit us with a film crew. Here’s the resulting video. We are impressed that somehow the CNET team managed to avoid moiré fringing effects with Gordon’s shirt.

HATs in the wild. And a unicorn.

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll recall that a month or so ago, we announced a new way of making add-on hardware for the Raspberry Pi: namely, the Raspberry Pi HAT (Hardware Attached on Top). You can read James, our Director of Hardware, explaining what they’re all about in the original blog post: in short, the HAT is a solder-less way of attaching hardware which can be auto-detected by the Pi, so GPIOs and headers are automagically configured by the Pi, without you having to do anything.

The pink confection on top of Gordon is a hat, not a HAT.

(A tangentially related question: how do you pronounce EEPROM? Fights are breaking out at Pi Towers: a small majority of us rhyme the first syllable with “meep”, while the rest of us rhyme with “meh”. This is like the scone/scone thing all over again. Angry opinions in the comments, please.)

HATs are starting to appear in the wild. Adafruit are sending PCBs out for prototyping. HiFiBerry have HATs you can buy now: the Digi+, which enables you to connect an external digital-to-analogue converter; and the DAC+, a high-res all-in-one DAC. AB Electronics are carrying several HATs:  an analogue-to-digital converter (ADC); a GPIO port expander; a real-time clock (RTC) and an RS232 serial interface. And the whimsical bearded pixies at Pimoroni have come up with my favourite so far (it’s my favourite because SPARKLES): the Unicorn HAT. I saw it in the flesh on Saturday at the Cambridge Raspberry Jam. It’s a thing of beauty. Here’s Paul, introducing the Unicorn HAT.

Are you making a HAT? Let us know in the comments: I’ll add links to this post if I’ve missed yours out here.

Sonic Pi v2.0 competition for schools is launched!

This week, Dr Sam Aaron released the much anticipated final version of Sonic Pi v2.0. It will be replacing Sonic Pi v1 on Raspbian very soon, and you will be able to get it via our Downloads page (we will let you know when). In the meantime, you can follow the instructions at the bottom of this post to download and install it. The latest version of Sonic Pi brings music creation and performance to the forefront with live coding capabilities, parameter modification, samples and much more!

To celebrate, we have launched the first ever Sonic Pi Competition to find some of the best space-themed music, coded with Sonic Pi v2.0 by school children in the UK. The Sonic Pi Competition is designed to encourage school students aged between 6 and 16 years old to use their creativity and coding knowledge to create a unique and original two-minute piece of music on a Raspberry Pi device.

Entries need to include an audio file of what the music sounds like, the code used to create it, a short written description, and a cover art file.

All entries will be put into a hat to win a Raspberry Pi and SD card at random. Semi-finalists will win a Sonic Pi half-day workshop with Sam Aaron and Juneau Projects for their school, and a custom Sonic Pi Pibow case. Overall winners in each category will win a Sonic Pi classroom kit containing 25 x Raspberry Pis and peripherals for their school and a Minirig speaker, as well as a Sonic Pi Competition trophy designed by artists Juneau Projects.

The final will take place at the Cambridge Junction on 4th November 2014 as part of the Sonic Pi Live & Coding Summit, with the 12 semi-finalists (four in each category) introducing and playing their music on a Raspberry Pi to the audience in front of an expert panel of judges.

You can find everything you need know, including some lesson plans to get your students started, in this new Sonic Pi Competition Resource. You’ll find the entry form here.

The deadline for entries is 13th October 2014, so get creative with your code, and become the next big thing in music!

Sonic Pi v2.0 can be downloaded right now by typing the following from the command line or LXTerminal window:

sudo apt-get update sudo apt-get install sonic-pi

Bus stop Pac Man

Last week saw Trondheim in Norway host a Maker Faire. Rather than go with the usual stale old poster advertisement, the folks at Norwegian CreationsHK-reklame and Trondheim Makers hacked a piece of civic infrastructure with a Pi, a modded MaKey MaKey and some aluminium strips, ending up with a bus stop you can play Pac Man on.

You can read all about the build – which involved hacking the power supply to the bus stop so it provided 230V of AC for the monitor – over at Norwegian Creations.

We love Maker Faires, and we love the way that this sort of bus stop hacking project has become – well, if not exactly mainstream, something culturally recognisable. If you want to meet the team at a Maker Faire this month, Rachel Clive and James will be with the folks from Pimoroni, demonstrating what happens when art, education and science come together in the form of a tiny computer at the gargantuan World Maker Faire in New York on Sept 20-21.

(It’s the first World Maker Faire Eben and I have ever missed, but we have a great excuse; it clashes with the vacation we’ve been planning all year for our tenth wedding anniversary.) Say hi to the giant motorised cupcakes for us!

Talking Fisher Price smartphone

Back in the mid-seventies, when I was even smaller and more adorable than I am today, my parents bought me a Fisher Price Chatter Telephone. I’m sure many of you had one too. Mine was called Bert. I loved him, chewed him, made imaginary phone calls on him, and pretended he was a pet dog. (With a rotary dial and a handset, natch.)

This year, I was surprised on visiting Lorna, our Trademark Compliance Elf, and her two small children, to discover that the Chatter Telephone is still manufactured, even though no child born in the 21st century recognises things with rotary dials and giant handsets as phones. (Phones are the little black slab things that we use to Skype with distant aunties, and they definitely don’t have wheels.)

Grant Gibson got his hands on a modern Chatter Telephone for his son, who didn’t seem particularly moved by it (probably because little black slab, Skype, etc.) So he decided to hack it into something a bit more interactive, and came up with this. A Chatter Smartphone.

The rotary dial provides the inputs, sound is output through the modern Chatter Telephone’s speakers (the vintage ones didn’t have speakers, but the modern ones play clips from Toy Story), and he’s added a servo motor to control the googly eyes. This particular Chatter Smartphone has been set up to deliver weather information, cinema listings, and more; as well as offering information on demand, it can issue alerts, so Grant’s family knows when he’s left the office and is on his way home, or if the ISS is passing overhead. If you make your own, Grant has provided code so you can adapt yours to your own needs.

You’ll find comprehensive build instructions, along with all the electronics help and code you’ll need, at Grant’s blog. Thanks Grant – we love it!

 

Final Call for September Picademy Applicants

Are you a teacher? Have you got back-to-school blues after yesterday’s return to the staffroom? Are your classroom displays distinctly lacking in interaction or automation? Are you bored of taking the register the old fashioned way? Well we think that we have the perfect remedy for you!

Have you packed your Raspberry Pi yet?

We’re offering another two days of FREE training from the Education Team in our HQ home town of Cambridge, UK. You don’t need any experience with Raspberry Pi. We will teach you, inspire you, feed you, and give you free resources. All you need to do is get here! We are confident that you will have such a good time that you’ll shake those back-to school-blues and be excited about getting hands on with technology in your classroom, like Raspberry Certified Educators Dan Aldred and Sue Gray, who created a dancing and singing glove over the two days of training:

We can help you create lots of classroom projects from scratch, like a ‘Make-an-entrance’ Doorbell for your classroom or an RIFD tag register for your desk!

Apply now for September Picademy (29th & 30th September 2014). The deadline for applications for this event is on Friday 5th September, so you’ve only got a few more days. We will email all successful candidates on Monday 8th September.

Applications for October Picademy (27th & 28th October 2014) will remain open until Friday 3rd October.

We accept applications from practicing teachers from all over the world who teach any subject area. We’ve had art teachers, history teachers, science teachers and Primary non-subject specialists as well as ICT and Computing teachers visit Picademy; the course is appropriate for any teacher, no matter what their subject.

Here is what some of our Raspberry Pi Certified Educators have to say about their experience at a Picademy:

Picademy was a hard two days of CPD but was definitely the best I have been on. It is difficult to mention the best thing about it because there were so many! Unlike most CPD I have been on we were not just talked at – we were hands on developing and creating nearly all the time. We had so many opportunities to networking and share ideas – I have not used Twitter so much and am seeing more value in it now. The time simply flew by especially when we were working on our projects during which we were writing code, debugging, bouncing ideas around, sharing, creating, swearing, laughing, tweeting, eating sweets, learning, googling, performing bear surgery and collaborating. Although the two days finished last week for Picademy#3 it hasn’t stopped – ideas are still flowing and the tweets and emails are pinging about the internet. – Matthew Parry – CAS Master Teacher

It was an epic journey. For some present, they had never plugged in a Pi before Monday, by the end they were exploring different programming concepts not for necessity but for curiosity and intrigue. For others, we now had a colossal array of activity ideas and cross-curricular links not to mention a brilliant network of fellow interested educators. What more can you ask for from 2 free days of CPD? – Sway Grantham - Primary Teacher, UK.

Web browser released!

Back in December 2013, we discussed our plans to develop an improved web browser for Raspberry Pi. The browser is based on Epiphany (aka GNOME Web), as a replacement for the rather venerable version of Midori in Raspbian Wheezy.

Eight months and a lot of hard work later, we’re finally ready. As you can see from the video below, Epiphany on Pi is now a plausible alternative to a desktop browser for all but the most JavaScript-heavy sites.

Epiphany brings a host of neat features to Raspberry Pi, including:

  • Much-improved HTML5 support
  • A JavaScript JIT
  • Hardware-accelerated video decoding
  • ARMv6-optimized blitting functions
  • Better interactivity during page loading
  • Faster scrolling

Future releases of Raspbian and NOOBS will include Epiphany as the default browser, but the necessary packages are already in our repository. To install, type:

sudo apt-get update sudo apt-get dist-upgrade sudo apt-get install epiphany-browser

Epiphany for Raspberry Pi was produced by our friends at Collabora. ARM assembly language optimisations were provided (as always) by Ben Avison.

Learn to solder with Carrie Anne

Carrie Anne Philbin, our Education Pioneer and author of the most excellent Adventures in Raspberry Pi, had a dark secret up until last week. She was a Raspberry Pi enthusiast who didn’t know how to solder.

Here’s a new video from her award-winning Geek Gurl Diaries YouTube channel, in which she addresses the issue.

Carrie says:

Everyone tells me that soldering is easy. For a long time I’ve seen it as a barrier to be able to do a lot of electronics or maker style crafts. I usually try and buy components that are pre-soldered or ask someone else to solder them for me. Since joining Raspberry Pi, this has been a bit of a joke for the engineers. They think I’m a bit silly. I’m certain I’m not alone in this.

Recently Wednesdays at Pi Towers have become ‘Gert Wednesdays’ when Gert comes into the office to visit us and teach some of us new skills. Gert Van Loo is an engineer, and one of the first volunteers working on Raspberry Pi. He has also created lots of add on boards for Raspberry Pi like the well titled ‘Gertboard’. He has also created the ‘Gertduino’. You can see where Gert Wednesdays come from cant you. Gert promised me he’d teach me how to solder and he didn’t disappoint. In one morning of simple tuition I was taught how to solder. THANKS GERT!

I decided that after I solder ALL THE THINGS in my office drawer that I’ve been dying to use with my Raspberry Pi, I would put my new found knowledge to good use by creating a tutorial video for GGD. It’s a short video but I hope it will help give other people the confidence to start or at least to attend a Maker Faire event where they can learn.

You can read much more from Carrie Anne on the Geek Gurl Diaries blog.

Ben’s Mega USA Tour

Last month we put out a blog post advertising that I would be doing a tour of America, with a rough initial route, and we welcomed requests for visits.

Over the next couple of weeks I was overwhelmed with visit requests – I plotted all the locations on a map and created a route aiming to reach as many as possible. This meant covering some distance in the South East before heading back up to follow the route west towards Utah. I prepared a set of slides based on my EuroPython talk, and evolved the deck each day according to the reception, as well as making alterations for the type of audience.

With launching the Education Fund, being in Berlin for a week for EuroPython followed by YRS week and a weekend in Plymouth, I’d barely had time to plan the logistics of the trip – much to the annoyance of our office manager Emma, who had to book me a one-way hire car with very specific pick-up and drop-off locations (trickier than you’d think), and an internal flight back from Salt Lake City. I packed a suitcase of t-shirts for me to wear (wardrobe by Pimoroni) and another suitcase full of 40 brand new Raspberry Pis (B+, naturally) to give away. As I departed for the airport, Emma and Dave stuck a huge Raspberry Pi sticker on my suitcase.

When checking in my suitcase the woman on the desk asked what the Raspberry was, and her colleague explained it to her! In the airport I signed in to the free wifi with one of my aliases, Edward Snowden. I started to think Phil McKracken or Mr. Spock might have been a better choice once I spotted a few security guards seemingly crowding around in my proximity…

Mon 4 – NYC, New York

I managed to board the flight without a federal investigation (although I may now be on the list, if I wasn’t already), and got chatting to the 60 year old Texan lady I was seated with, who hadn’t heard about Raspberry Pi until she managed to land a seat next to me for 8 hours. I had her convinced before we left the ground. I don’t know how he does it, but Richard Branson makes 8 hours on a tin can in the sky feel like heaven. Virgin Atlantic is great!

Upon landing at JFK I was subjected to two hours’ queuing (it was nice of them to welcome us with traditional British pastimes), followed by a half-hour wait to get through customs. I felt I ought to declare that I was bringing forty computers in to the country (also stating they were to be given away), and was asked to explain what they were, show one to the officer who took hold of one of the copies of Carrie Anne‘s book, Adventures in Raspberry Pi, to validate my explanation. Fortunately I was not required to participate in a pop quiz on Python indentation, GPIO, Turtle graphics and Minecraft, as he took my word for it and let me through. I was then given the chance to queue yet again – this time about 45 minutes for a taxi to Manhattan. I arrived at Sam‘s house much later than I’d anticipated much she was there to greet me by hanging her head out the window and shouting “MORNING BEN”. An in-joke from a time we both lived in Manchester.

We ate and met my friend-from-the-internet Aidan, we went to a bar until what was 5am on my body clock. A sensible approach, I thought, was to just stay up and then get up at a normal time the next day. I awoke and saw the time was 6.00 – my jetlagged and exhausted mind decided it was more likely to be 6pm than 6am, but it was wrong. I arose and confirmed a meeting time and place for my first visit – just a few blocks away from Sam’s apartment in Manhattan.

Tue 5 – NYC, New York

I met Cameron and Jason who had set up a summer class teaching a computing course for locals aged 18-and-under for 2 weeks, delivered purely on Raspberry Pis! I chatted with them before the students arrived, and they told me about how they set up the non-profit organisation STEMLadder, and that they were letting the students take the Pis home at the end of the course. Today’s class was on using Python with Minecraft – using some material they found online, including a resource I helped put together with Carrie Anne for our resources section.

I gave an introduction about the Raspberry Pi Foundation and showed some example projects and then the kids did the Python exercises while working on their own “side projects” (building cool stuff while the course leaders weren’t looking)!

Thanks to Cameron and Jason for taking the opportunity to provide a free course for young people. A perfect example use for Raspberry Pi!

Wed 6 – Washington, DC

On Wednesday morning I collected my hire car (a mighty Nissan Altima) and set off for Washington, DC! I’ve only been driving for less than a year so getting in a big American car and the prospect of using the streets of Manhattan to warm up seemed rather daunting to me! I had a GPS device which alleviated some of my concern – and I headed South (yes, on the wrong right side of the road).

I’d arranged to meet Jackie at 18F – a digital services agency project in the US government General Services Administration. This came about when I met Matt from Twilio at EuroPython, who’d done a similar tour (over 5 months). After a 6 hour drive including horrendous traffic around Washington (during which I spotted a sign saying “NSA – next right – exployees only“, making me chuckle), I arrived and entered 18F’s HQ (at 1800 F Street) where I had to go through security as it was an official government building. I was warned by Jackie by email that the people I’d be meeting would be wearing suits but I need not worry and wear what I pleased – so I proudly wore shorts and a green Raspberry Pi t-shirt. I met with some of the team and discussed some of their work. 18F was set up to replicate some of the recent initiatives of the UK government, such as open data, open source projects and use of GitHub for transparency. They also work on projects dealing with emergency situations, such as use of smartphones to direct people to sources of aid during a disaster, and using Raspberry Pis to provide an emergency communication system.

We then left 18F for the DC Python / Django District user group, where I gave a talk on interesting Python projects on Raspberry Pi. The talk was well received and I took some great questions from the audience. I stayed the night in Washington and decided to use the morning to walk round the monuments before leaving for North Carolina. I walked by the White House, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial and took some awkward selfies:

Thu 7 – Raleigh, North Carolina

I left DC and it took me 6 hours to get to North Carolina. I arrived at the University (NCSU) in Raleigh just in time for the event – Code in the Classroom - hosted at the Hunt library and organised by Elliot from Trinket. I set my laptop up while Eliot introduced the event and began my talk. There was a good crowd of about 60 people – from around age 7 to 70!

The talk went down well, and I received many questions about teaching styles, classroom management and the future of the hardware. One older chap, who has been running a summer coding club on the Pi shouted out: “Where were you two weeks ago when I needed you!?” when I answered one of his questions, which generated laughter from the audience. I also had a teacher approach me after the talk asking if she could take a selfie with me to show her students she’d met someone from Raspberry Pi – I happily obliged and showed her some of my awkward selfies from Washington, DC. She asked if we could take an awkward one too – needless to say, I happily obliged!

Elliot had arranged a room next door to the lecture theatre with some Pis set up for kids to play on. I gave out some Pis to the kids and it was well over an hour before the last of them were dragged home by their parents. I chatted with Elliot and the others about them setting up a regular event in Raleigh – as there was obviously huge demand for Pi amongst kids and adults in the area and beyond (I’d heard someone had driven up from Florida to attend the talk!) – and so I look forward to hearing about the Raleigh Raspberry Jam soon! A few of us went out to get pizza, and we were accompanied by one of the smartest kids I’ve ever met – and among interesting and inspiring conversation, he kept asking me seemingly innocent questions like “what do you call that thing at the back of your car?” to which I’d reply with the British word he wanted me to speak! (It’s a boot.)

Here’s a video of the talk:

I thanked Elliot and departed for Greensboro, where I’d arranged to stay with my friend Rob from my university canoe club, and his wife Kendra.

Fri 8 – Charlotte, North Carolina

In the morning I left for UNC Charlotte where I spoke to embeddable systems engineering students at EPIC (Energy Production Infrastructure Centre). There was a good crowd of about 60 students and a few members of staff. When I entered the room they were playing Matt Timmons-Brown’s YouTube videos – what a warm-up act!

Following the talk I chatted with students about their projects, answered some questions, deferred some technical questions to Gordon and Alex, and was taken out to a brilliant craft beer bar for a beer and burger with some of the staff.

In the evening Rob, Kendra and I went out to eat – we had a beer in a book shop and ate bacon (out of a jam jar) dipped in chocolate. True story. We also took some group awkward selfies:

Sat 9 – Pigeon River, Tennessee

The Saturday I’d assigned to be a day off – I hoped to go kayaking with Rob but he had to work and Kendra was busy so Rob put me in touch with some paddling friends who welcomed me to join them on a trip to the Pigeon River in Tennessee! An early start of 6am left me snoozing in the back of the car, which Matt took the chance to snap a picture of and post it to Facebook (I only found out when Rob mentioned it later that evening). We had a nice couple of runs of the river by kayak, accompanied by a rafting party. And another awkward selfie.

Sun 10 – Lawrenceville, Georgia

On Sunday morning I left Rob and Kendra’s for Georgia. One of the requests I’d had was from a man called Jerry who just wanted to meet me if I was passing by. I said it’d be great if he could set up a public meeting to be more inclusive – and he got back in touch with a meetup link for an event at Geekspace Gwinnett – a community centre and hackspace in Lawrenceville. I pulled up, shook hands with Jerry and was shown to the front of the room to connect up my laptop. There was a larger crowd than I’d imagined, seeing as Jerry had set the event up just a few days prior to this – but there were about 40 people there, who were all very interested in Raspberry Pi and after my talk we had a great discussion of everyone’s personal projects.

Liz, who runs marketing for the space, gave me a tour, and Joe, the guy setting up the AV for my presentation spotted the Adventure Time stickers on my laptop and told me he worked for Turner in Atlanta who broadcast Cartoon Network, and offered to give me a tour of the network when he went on his night shift that evening. I went to Jerry’s house where he and his wife cooked for me and he showed me Pi Plates, the extension board he’s been working on.

I then left to meet Liz and her husband, Steve, who has been working on a huge robotics project – a whole wearable suit (like armour) that’s powered by a Pi and will make sounds and be scary! I look forward to the finished product. They also have an arcade machine Steve built years ago (pre-Pi) which houses a PC and which, he claims, had basically every arcade game ever on it.

Did you know there was a Michael Jackson game for the Sega Mega Drive, where you have to perform dance moves to save the children? Neither did I

We set off for Atlanta at about 11.30pm and I witnessed its beautiful skyline, which is well lit up at night. We arrived at Turner and met Joe, who gave us the tour – I’ve never seen so many screens in my life. They show all the broadcast material for TV and web on screens and have people sit and watch them to ensure the integrity of the material and ensure the advertising rules are adhered to. We also saw the Cartoon Network floor of the office side of the building where staff there work on the merchandise for shows like Adventure Time!

Joe also showed us the Turner Makers room – a mini hackspace for the Turner staff to work on side projects – he told me of one which used a Raspberry Pi to control steps that would light up and play a musical note as you walked across them. They’re currently working on a large games arcade BMO with a normal PC size screen as a display – I look forward to seeing it in action when it’s finished.

It’s great to see the space has since set up their own monthly Raspberry Pi group!

Mon 11 – Chattanooga, Tennessee

I then left Georgia to return to Tennessee, where I’d arranged to visit Red Bank Middle School in Chattanooga. I arrived at the school, signed in to get my visitor’s badge and met Kimberly Elbakidze - better known to her students as Dr. E – who greeted me with a large Subway sandwich. I ate in the canteen and while chatting with some of the staff I noticed the uniformed security guard patrolling the room had a gun on his belt. Apparently this is normal in American schools.

It was the first day back at the school, so the children were being oriented in their new classes. I gave two short talks, introducing the Raspberry Pi and what you can do with it – to sixth and eighth graders, and opened for some questions:

“Do you like Dr. Who?”
“Is that your real accent?”
“Are you really from England?”
“Can I get a picture with you?”
“Can I keep Babbage?”

I wrapped up, left them a copy of Carrie Anne’s book and some Pis, and went on my way. I’d intended to get online and confirm the details of my next school visit (I’d arranged the date with the teacher, but we hadn’t settled on the time or what we were doing), but access to the internet from the school was restricted to staff so I couldn’t get on. I had to set off for Alabama, and only had the school name and the town. I put the town name in to my car’s GPS and set off.

Tue 12 – Talladega, Alabama

I arrived in Talladega town centre unsure how close I was to the school. I parked up and wandered down the main street in magnificent sunshine and intense heat looking for a McDonald’s or Starbucks, hoping to get on some WiFi to check where it was. With no luck, I headed back to the car and decided to just find a hotel and hope that I was at least nearby. I asked someone sitting outside a shop if they knew of the school – RL Young Elementary School – and they said it was just 15 minutes or so away, so I asked for a nearby hotel and she pointed me in the right direction. As I neared the car, the intense heat turned in to a terrific storm – the 5 minute drive to the hotel was in the worst rain I’ve ever seen.

I checked in to the hotel and got on with my emails – I sent one to the teacher who’d requested me at the school to say I’d arrived in Talladega, that I was staying in the Holiday Inn, and asked what time I should come in. My hotel phone rang 5 minutes later – it was the husband of the teacher. Trey said the principal hadn’t been told about the visit yet, and the details needed to be confirmed with her before we set a time – but they would sort it out as soon as possible and let me know. He offered to take me out for a meal that night so I arranged to meet him within an hour. Just as I was leaving I got an email from someone called Andrew who said he’d just spotted I was in Talladega, and asked if I could meet him if I had time – I said if he could get to the restaurant, I’d be there for the next couple of hours.

As I arrived I met them both, and introduced them to each other. Driving through that afternoon I’d noticed the town has about 50 churches. Trey said he recognised Andrew’s surname, and Andrew said his father was the priest of one of the churches, and Trey said he knew him. Andrew was also training to become a priest like his Dad, and Trey said he’d skipped Bible school that night to come and meet me. We had a nice meal and a chat and Trey said he’d let me know in the morning what the plans for the school visit were. Andrew offered to take me out for breakfast and show me around the town. I said I’d contact him in the morning once I’d heard the timings from Trey.

Once I woke up the next morning my email told me I needed to be at the school for about 1pm, so I had time to go to breakfast with Andrew, and he showed me around the place. I also visited his home and his church and met his family. He showed me some Raspberry Pi projects he’s been working on too.

He also offered to help out at the school – RL Young Elementary, so we got my kit and he drove us over. We signed in at reception where we entered our names in to a computer which printed vistor labels (seriously – a whole PC for that – and another just showing pictures of dogs!

The Raspberry Pi was definitely needed in this place). I was to follow a woman from the Red Cross, who gave a talk to the children about the importance of changing their socks every day. I thought an introduction to programming with Minecraft might blow their smelly socks right off!

The principal attempted to introduce me but had no idea who I was or why I was there, so just let me get on with it. I spoke to the young children and introduced the Raspberry Pi, focusing on a Minecraft demo at the end where I let them have a go themselves. The principal thanked me, said it was interesting and wished me a safe trip back to Australia! I left them some Pis and a copy of Adventures in Raspberry Pi.

Wed 13 – Somerville, Tennessee

I’d arranged my next visit with a very enthusiastic teacher called Terri Reeves from the Fayette Academy (a high school) in Somerville, Tennessee. In her original request she’d said she wasn’t really on my route, but would be willing to travel to meet me for some training – but I explained I’d changed my route to try to hit as many requests as I could, so I’d be happy to visit the school. She offered to let me stay at her house, and told me her husband would cook up some Southern Barbecue for me on arrival. It was quite a long drive and I arrived just after sunset – the whole family was sitting around the table ready to eat and I was welcomed to join them. I enjoyed the Southern Barbecue and was treated to some Razzleberry Pie for dessert. I played a few rounds of severely energetic ping pong with each of Terri’s incredibly athletic sons and daughters before getting to bed.

I spent most of the day at the school, where I gave my Raspberry Pi talk and demo to each of Terri’s classes. Again, it was the first week back for the school so it was just orientation for students settling in to their classes and new routines. The information went down well across the board and Terri said lots of students wanted to do Raspberry Pi in the after-school classes too.

This is what the Raspberry Pi website looks like in the school, as Vimeo is blocked

I joined some students for lunch, who quizzed me on my English vocabulary and understanding of American ways – they thought it was hilarious when I pointed out they said “Y’all” too much. I suggested they replace it with “dawg”. I do hope this lives on.

 

I also took a look at a project Terri had been trying to make in her free period – she’d been following some (really bad) instructions for setting up a webcam stream from a Pi. I diagnosed the problem fairly quickly – the apt-get install motion command she’d typed had failed as the site containing the .deb (hexxeh.net) was blocked on the school network (for no good reason!) – I asked if we could get it unblocked and the network administrator came over and unblocked it. She originally only wanted to unlock it for the Pi’s IP address but I explained it would mean no-one could install things or update their Pis without access to that website, so she unlocked it from the system. I tried again and there were no further problems so we proceeded to the next steps.

I then drove about an hour West to Downtown Memphis where I spent the early evening between Elvis Presley Boulevard and Beale Street (no sign of a Clive museum, just a row of Harley Davidsons) where I bought a new hat, which soon became the talk of the office.

 

My new hat

When I returned to Terri’s house she asked me to help her with webcam project again – I checked she’d done all the steps and tried opening the stream from VLC Player on my laptop. I’ve never heard anyone shriek with joy so loud when she saw the webcam picture of us on that screen! Terri was overjoyed I’d managed to help her get that far.

Thu 14 – Louisville, Kentucky

I left the next morning for Louisville (pronounced Lou-er-vul), and en route I realised I’d started to lose my voice. I arrived in the afternoon for an event at FirstBuild, a community hackspace run by General Electric. The event opened with an introduction and a few words from me, and then people just came to ask me questions and show me their projects while others were shown around the space and introduced to the equipment.

Check out this great write-up of the FirstBuild event: Louisville, a stop on US tour for credit-card sized computers.

We then proceeded to the LVL1 hackerspace where I was given a tour before people arrived for my talk. By this point my voice had got quite bad, and unfortunately there was no microphone available and the room was a large echoey space. However I asked people to save questions to the end and did my best to project my voice. I answered a number of great questions and got to see some interesting projects afterwards.

 

Fri 15 – St. Louis, Missouri

Next – St. Louis (pronounced Saint Lewis), Missouri – the home of Chuck Berry. I had a full day planned by teacher and tinkerer Drew McAllister from St. John Vianney High School. He’d arranged for me to meet people at the Grand Center Arts Academy at noon, then go to his school to speak to a class and the after school tech club followed by a talk at a hackspace in the evening.

I was stuck in traffic, and didn’t make it to the GCAA meetup in time to meet with them, so we headed straight to the school where I gave a talk to some very smartly dressed high school students, which was broadcast to the web via Google Hangouts. Several people told me afterwards how bad my voice sounded on the Hangout. Here it is:

I had a few minutes’ rest before moving next door to the server room, where they host the after school tech club – Drew kindly filled in the introduction of the Pi to begin (to save my voice) and asked students if they knew what each of the parts of the Pi were for. I continued from there and showed examples of cool projects I thought they’d like. I gave Drew some Pis for the club and donated some Adafruit vouchers gifted by James Mitchell – as I thought they’d use them well.

Drew showed me around St. Louis and took me out for a meal (I consumed lots of hot tea for my throat) before we went to the Arch Reactor hackerspace. I gave my talk and answered a lot of questions before being given a tour of the space.

Throat sweet selfie

Sat 16 – Colombia, Missouri

In the morning I left in the direction of Denver, which was a journey long enough to have to break up over two days. With no visit requests in Kansas City, but one in Colombia, which was on my way but not very far away, I stopped there to meet with a group called MOREnet, who provide internet connection and technical support to schools and universities. Rather than have me give a talk, they just organised a sit-down chat and asked me questions about education, teacher training and interesting ways of learning with Raspberry Pi. Some of the chat was video recorded which you can watch at more.net (please excuse my voice).

I even got to try Google Cardboard – a simple virtual reality headset made with cardboard and an Android phone. A very nice piece of kit! I stayed a couple of hours and made my way West. I’d asked around for a good place to stay that night on my way to Denver. Some people had suggested Hays in Kansas so I set that as my destination. It had taken me 2 hours to get to Columbia and would be another 6+ hours to Hays, so it was always going to be a long day, but at least I was in no rush to arrive anywhere for a talk or event.

Kansas City Selfie

I stopped briefly in Kansas City (actually in the state of Missouri, not Kansas) to find almost nobody out and almost everything closed. I think it’s more of a nightlife town. I finally arrived in Hays at 8.30pm after the boring drive through Kansas and checked in to a hotel just in time for a quick dip in the swimming pool.

Sun 17 – Denver, Colorado

I left Hays for Denver, which meant I had a good 5+ hour drive ahead – all along that same freeway – the I-70, to arrive at denhac, the Denver Hackspace for 4pm. I’d also arranged late the night before to visit another Denver hackspace afterwards, so I said I’d be there at 7pm. On my way in to Denver I noticed a great change in weather – and saw lots of dark grey and black clouds ahead – and as I got closer I entered some rough winds and even witnessed a dust storm, where dust from the soil and crops of the fields was swept in to the air. It was surreal to drive through!

I worked out later that the distance I’d travelled that day was roughly equivalent to driving from Southampton to Inverness! The longest I’ve driven before is Southport to Cambridge!

I arrived just on time and was greeted by Sean, who had invited me. He introduced me to the members, all sitting around their laptop screens, and was given a tour of the space. He was telling me how the price of the space had been rising recently due to the new demand for warehouse space such as theirs for growing cannabis, now that it is legal in Colorado. I took some pictures of cool stuff around the space, including a Pibow-encased Pi powering a 3D printer. I even got to try on Sean’s Google Glass (I think Cardboard is much better).

To Grace Hopper, you will always be grasshopper

One of the neatest Pi cases I’ve ever seen

I met a young girl, about 12 years old, who told me she recently went in to an electronics shop saying she wanted to buy a Raspberry Pi for a new project, and the member of staff she spoke to had never heard of a Raspberry Pi and assumed she wanted to cook one. Anyway, I gave her one of mine – she was delighted and immediately announced it in the networked Minecraft game she was hosting. I gave my talk in their classroom (great to see a classroom in a hackspace) before heading to my next stop – TinkerMill.

TinkerMill is a large hackspace, coworking space and startup accelerator in Denver. On arrival a group of people were sitting ready for my talk, so I got set up and was introduced by Dan, who runs the space and works out of it. The hackspace version of my talk includes more technical detail and updates on our engineering efforts. This went down well with the group and after answering a few questions we broke out in to chat when we discussed the Pi’s possibilities and what great things have come out of the educational mission.

I found a Mini Me

I also met a woman called Megg who was standing at the back of the room, I got chatting to her and she asked me a few questions. She hadn’t attended the event but just came to use the laser cutter for the evening, and caught the end of the talk. She kept asking me questions about the Pi, and in answering them I basically gave the talk again. She said the reason she’d not come to the talk was that she was looking to use the Arduino in some future projects because she assumed it would be easier than using a Pi, based on the fact she’d heard you could do more with a Pi, so it must be more complex. I explained the difference to her hoping this would shed light on how the Pi might be useful to her after all, and that she would be able to choose a suitable and appropriate tool or language on the Pi, which is not an option with Arduino. She also discussed ideas for creative projects and wearables which were really interesting and I told her all about Rachel’s project Zoe Star and put her in touch with Rachel, Charlotte and Amy. Dan took Meg and me out to dinner and we had a great time.

Mon 18 – Boulder, Colorado

Dan offered to put me up and show me around Denver the following day – I’d originally planned to get straight off to Utah the next day but it made sense to have an extra day in Denver – I’m glad I did as I really enjoyed the town and got to have a great chilled out day before driving again. We drove up one of the nearby mountains to a height of almost 10,000 feet.

Mountain selfie

I wandered around Boulder, a wonderful town full of cafes, restaurants and interesting shops. I ended up buying most of my awful souvenirs there – including a three-tiered monkey statue for Liz:

We ate at a restaurant called Fork so it seemed appropriate to get a picture for my Git/GitHub advocacy!

FORK!

Colorado seemed to be the most recognisable state in all the places I visited, by which I mean it was culturally closest to Britain. My accent didn’t seem too far from theirs, either. A really nice place with great food and culture, with mountains and rivers right on hand. I could live in a place like that!

Tue 19 – Provo, Utah

I left Dan’s in the morning and headed West along the I-70 again. After a couple of bathroom breaks I got on some McDonald’s WiFi and checked my email and twitter – I’d had a tweet asking if I would be up for speaking in Provo that night. I thought “why not?” and said yes – expecting to arrive by 7pm, I suggested they make it 8pm just in case. I was actually heading to Provo already, in hope of meeting up with some family friends, Ken and Gary, who I stayed with last time I visited Utah. I hadn’t managed to get hold of them yet, but I kept ringing every now and then to see if they were around. When I finally got hold of them, they asked if they could come to see my presentation – so I told them where it was and said I’d see them there.

As I entered Utah the scenery got more and more beautiful – I pulled up a few times to get pictures. The moment I passed the ‘Welcome to Utah’ sign I realised what a huge feat I’d accomplished, and as I started to see signs to Salt Lake City – my end point – I was overjoyed. I hadn’t covered much distance across the country in my first week, as I’d gone South, along a bit, North and East a bit before finally setting off from St. Louis in the direction of the West Coast, so finally starting to see the blue dot on my map look a lot closer to California meant a lot.

I arrived in Provo about 7.30, located the venue, the Provo Web Academy, and by the time I found the right place and parked up it was 8pm. I was greeted by the event organiser, Derek, and my friends Ken and Gary! I hadn’t seen them for 13 years so it was a pleasure to meet again. I set up my presentation and gave my talk, had some great questions and inspired the group of about 20 (not bad, to say it had been organised just a few hours earlier) to make cool things with Pi and teach others to do the same. I went out to eat with Ken and Gary and caught up with them.

Wed 20 – Logan, Utah

The next day I had my talk planned for 4pm in Logan (North of Salt Lake City) so I had all morning free to spend with Ken (retired) while Gary was at work. Back story: my Mum (a primary school teacher) spent a year at a school in Utah in 1983-84 on an exchange programme. Ken was a fellow teacher at the school, and like many others, including families of the kids she taught, she kept in touch with him. As I said, we visited in 2001 while on a family holiday, and stayed with them on their farm. So Ken and I went to the school – obviously many of the staff there knew Ken as he only recently retired, and he told them all about my Mum and that I was touring America and wanted to visit the school. None of the teachers there were around in 1984, but some of the older ones remembered hearing about the English teachers who came that year. I took photos of the school and my Mum’s old classroom and sent them to her. We visited another teacher from that time who knew all about me from my Mum’s Christmas letter (yikes!) and even went to see the trailer my Mum lived in for the year!

I then left Provo for Logan, where the talk was to take place at Utah State University. I’d prepared a talk for university students, really, but discovered there was a large proportion of children there from a makers group for getting kids in to tech hardware projects – but they seemed to follow along and get some inspiration from the project ideas. Down to my last two Pis, I did what I did at most events and called out for the youngest people in the room – these went to 5 and 7 year olds, and my demo Babbage (I mention Dave Akerman’s Space Babbage in all my talks) was given out to a family too.

My final talk was recorded, but they told me they were recording the other screen so I’m out of the frame in most of the video.

Happy to have completed the tour, sad for my journey to be coming to and end, but glad to be able to sit down and take a breather, I chilled out for a while before heading back to Provo for my final night in America. I thought at one point I wouldn’t make it back as I hit a storm on my way home, and could barely see the road in front of me due to the incredible rain. The entire 4-lane freeway slowing to 40mph with high beams glaring, catching a glimpse of the white lines now and then and correcting the wheel accordingly, I made it home safely to join Ken and Gary for dinner.

Ken, me, Gary

Thu 21 – Salt Lake City, Utah

I bid farewell and left for the airport, returned my hire car with 4272 miles on it – which was 10% of the car’s overall mileage!

I flew from Salt Lake City to New York and stupidly forgot to tell them that wasn’t my final destination so I had to retrieve my suitcases at JFK baggage claim and check them back in for my next flight – because, you know, I like stress. Luckily I had no problems despite the internal flight running late and me not having a boarding card for my second flight (I had no access to a printer or WiFi in the 24 hours before the flight!), my luggage and all was successfully transported back to London with me. I was driven back to Cambridge, then up to Sheffield where I bought a suit, had my hair cut and attended the wedding of two great friends – Congratulations, Lauren and Dave.

Lauren and Dave

What did I learn?

- Despite sales of Pis in America being the biggest in the world, the community is far less developed than it is in the UK and in other parts of Europe. There are hardly any Jams or user groups, but there is plenty of interest!
- American teachers want (and need) Picademy – or some equivalent training for using Pis in the classroom.
- There is a perception that Raspberry Pi is not big in America (due to lack of community), and assumption Pis are hard to buy in America. While this is still true in many hardware stores (though people should bug stores not selling Pi and accessories to start stocking stuff!), I refer people to Amazon, Adafruit and our main distributors Element14 and RS Components. You can also buy them off the shelf at Radioshack.
- If you build it, they will come. Announcing that I would turn up to a hackspace on a particular day brought people from all walks of life together to talk about Raspberry Pi, in much the same way a Raspberry Jam does in the UK. I could stand in front of these people and make them realise there is a community – they’re sitting in the middle of it. All they need is a reason to meet up – a Jam, a talks night, an event, a hack day, a tech club. It’s so easy to get something started, and you don’t need to start big – just get a venue and some space, tell people to turn up with Pis and take it from there.

Huge thanks to all the event organisers, the people who put me up for the night or took me out for a meal, and everyone involved in this trip. Sorry if I didn’t make it to you this time around – but I have a map and list of places we’re required – so we hope to cover more ground in future.

You can view the last iteration of my talk slides at slideshare.

Sonic Pi: Live & Coding Summer School

Carrie Anne – I have an ongoing long-term love affair with Sonic Pi ever since Dr Sam Aaron from the University of Cambridge introduced me to it in late 2012 to help me teach text-based programming to my students. Since then it has been used to teach music and artistic expression thanks to the Sonic Pi Live & Coding project, which I’ll talk more about in the coming months as it reaches its conclusion. A few weeks ago 60 children took part in a Sonic Pi Live & Coding summer school run by artists Juneau Projects at the Cambridge Junction. Here, in their own words, is their take on the experience:

Sonic Pi Live & Coding summer school

The Sonic Pi Live & Coding summer school finished just over three weeks ago, and yet our heads are still full of it! It was a brilliant week where 56 children aged between 10 and 14 years spent the week at the Cambridge Junction, working amazingly hard not only to get to grips with the language of live coding, but also learning how to finesse that language and perform with it using Sonic Pi on Raspberry Pi. It was a beautiful thing to be a part of. Over the course of five days the students went from having never used Sonic Pi before to putting on a concert for an invited audience, incorporating never-before-seen software functions (literally added on the spot by Sam Aaron – the brains behind Sonic Pi – to help realise the students’ ambitions) and incredible showmanship!

Juneau Projects artists Ben & Phil

The plan for the week was not only to introduce the students to the technical aspects of Sonic Pi (i.e. how do you make a sound, and then make it sound how you want it to sound etc) but to offer an overview of what live coding sounds like and looks like and what it might become in the students’ hands. To this end we were lucky enough to see performances by Thor Magnusson, Shelly Knotts and Sam Aaron himself (wearing an incredible cyberpunk/wizard get-up – it’s amazing what a party hat and a pair of novelty sunglasses can do). The students were able to quiz the performers, who were all very open about their practice, and to get a sense not only of how these performers do what they do on-stage but also of why they do what they do.

Sam gives a performance to the students

The summer school was delivered by a great team that we were proud to be part of: Ben Smith, Ross Wilson (both professional musicians) and Jane Stott (head of music at Freman College) had all been part of the initial schools project during the summer term (at Freman College and Coleridge Community College) and brought their experience from those projects to help the students at the summer school on their journey into live coding. Michelle Brace, Laura Norman and Mike Smith did an amazing job of keeping everything moving smoothly over the course of the week, and in addition Michelle did a brilliant job of keeping everybody on track with the Bronze Arts Award that the students were working towards as part of the week, as well as project managing the whole thing! Pam Burnard and Franzi Florack were working on the research component of the project, interviewing students, observing the process of the week and feeding back to us – their feedback was invaluable in terms of keeping the week moving forward in a meaningful way. We had visits from Carrie Anne Philbin and Eben Upton from Raspberry Pi who supported the project throughout. Finally Sam Aaron was resident Sonic Pi guru, handling all those questions that no-one else could answer and being a general all-round ball of live coding enthusiasm.

Buttons + Sonic Pi + Raspberry Pi = Fun

The week held many highlights: the first ever Sonic Pi live coding battle (featuring 56 combatants!); live ambient soundtracks produced by thirty students playing together, conducted by Ross Wilson; Sonic Pi X Factor; and great guest performances by Thor and Shelly. From our perspective though there was no topping the final event. The students worked in self-selected groups to produce a final project. For many this was a live coding performance but the projects also included bespoke controllers designed to aid the learning process of getting to grips with Sonic Pi; ambient soundtrack installations; and a robotic performer (called ‘Pitron’).

The performances themselves were really varied in terms of the sounds and techniques used, but were universally entertaining and demonstrated the amount of information and knowledge the students had absorbed during the week. One group used live instruments fed directly into Sonic Pi, using a new function that Sam coded during the summer school – a Sonic Pi exclusive! A personal highlight were the Sonic Pi-oneers, a seven piece live coding group who blew the crowd away with the breadth of their live coding skills. They’re already being tipped as the One Direction of the live coding world. Another great moment was Pitron’s appearance on stage: Pitron’s creator, Ben, delivered an incredible routine, using lots of live coding skills in combination with genius comedy timing.

Live coding of music with Sonic Pi, instruments and installations.

All in all the summer school was a phenomenal thing to be a part of. We have never quite experienced anything like it before – it truly felt like the start of something new!

China press and community tour

As you might have spotted, if you follow us on Twitter, Eben and I spent the last week and a bit touring China, meeting the Raspberry Pi community there and giving interviews to the press, with some sterling organisational help from our friends at RS Components. (A special and huge thank you to Eric Lee, without whom we’d have been absolutely stuffed. Mostly with delicious pork confections and noodles, but stuffed nonetheless.)

Here’s what we got up to.

First up, there were a lot of press conferences to give, with help from the excellent William, our simultaneous translator; after a week of doing this, we ended up with more than 100 pieces of media being written or recorded about Raspberry Pi across China. This one, in Shanghai, is pretty typical.

We noticed that the tech press in China is incredibly well-educated; a lot of these journalists trained as engineers and then moved into publishing. (And everywhere we went, at least 50% of the technical journalists were women – something I wish we’d emulate in the west.)

We went to a Raspberry Jam in Shanghai, held at RS Components’ offices. We met some great people (Kevin Deng and the gang from 52pi.cn, a Chinese website dedicated to the Raspberry Pi, actually followed us on to the next event in Shenzhen as well), who’d built some amazing projects.

The robot on our desk is LIDAR (laser radar)-equipped, from DFrobot. We’re listening to a talk about open source from David Li, one of China’s most famous open source pioneers. Eric Lee from RS is on the right.

This laser-etcher is one of the projects the 52pi gang had brought along; you can buy lasers for this sort of project off the shelf in China, where the integrity of your eyeball is your own responsibility. I’ve got a couple of coasters with our logo on them on my desk at the moment, made using this machine.

Jackie Li gave an amazing talk about the projects he’s made at home – cameras streaming to remote screens, a simplified media centre for his grandma, robots – and this excellent LED persistence of vision device for displaying reminders in the kitchen.

We flew out next to Shenzen, where hundreds of people turned up for a Raspberry Jam, and where we did more press conferences and more interviews. Before we left for China, I’d been worried that the community base would be smaller than we’re used to. It turned out to be almost too large for us to deal with in the time we’d had allotted in each location.

It got a bit hard to move in Shenzhen for all the people wanting a photo. We saw some great presentations (one of which, from Martin Liu, who describes himself as a living-room maker, demonstrated the work we sponsored to get the XBMCmenu working in new fonts – including Chinese. It’s at the back of the photo here, behind all the people with cameras.)

We met a lot of Shenzhen makers who are also entrepreneurs; on the left here is Zoe from Seeed Studio. Eben’s holding some sensors from their Grove project, which works with Raspberry Pi.

This young gentleman had a robot to show us, controlled with Scratch (on the desk to the right), and a poster for Eben about Pi-controlled brewing. He was terribly shy, and I really wanted to give him a hug, but suspected that might have made matters worse.

We managed to get about an hour at the enormous electronics market in Shenzhen with Eric, where we had some fun looking at components and working out if we could lower the bill of materials cost in the Pi itself. Unfortunately, it’s so big you need at least a week to work your way around the place; we plan to return.

Next stop, Taipei. We started off at Noise Kitchen, where we met a group from CaveDu, a local hacker group. The robot in the middle was being prepared for the next day’s Jam at Tatung university – the display shows how many likes CaveDu’s Facebook page has.

These guys hung around for HOURS to meet us, for which we’re very grateful; our plane was delayed six hours, and we didn’t get there until nearly 11pm. I met a home-made laptop with a removable wireless keyboard (a clever way to get around the hinge problem), and made a new best friend.

First thing the next morning, we headed out to Tatung university.

We were expecting a few tens of people, having failed to learn our lesson from Shenzhen. More than 250 people turned up.

Among the crowd was my new best friend from the night before. We do not have a language in common, but we bonded over high-fives and fist-bumps.

It was HOT; about 33C in the shade. And unfortunately, the air conditioning in the building got turned off an hour or so in, so we get damper and damper as these photos progress and the temperature climbs well above 40C.

We met a self-balancing robot in a hamster ball.

We bumped into an old friend. (The beer is there for thermal reasons.)

Eben got interviewed, sweaty, by Taiwanese TV.

And this is my other new best friend, Liang Chih Chiang, who gave a presentation (which he’s very kindly translated for me so you can all read it) about our community and social media – a subject that’s very close to my heart, for obvious reasons.

We saw some amazing projects, like this gaming machine…

…this Pi-powered 3d printer…

…and this, which I was never able to get close enough to to find out what it does. I think it might be a musical instrument. Or possibly a cocktail machine.

Any suggestions, anybody?

We had a wonderful, exhausting, wonderful time. Thanks so much to everybody who came to see us; and an especial thanks to Eric, Desiree, Soo Chun, Katherine and the rest of the RS gang, who looked after us so well. We hope we’ll be back in a year or so – and until then, here’s a picture of a bit of press that I can’t read, but that’s made me laugh more than anything else that’s been published about us this year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Layer Cam: the lensless tourist camera in a lunchbox

Have you ever noticed the way that everybody takes the same photo when doing the tourist thing? Just look at Google: there are a million pictures of people punting past King’s College Chapel in Cambridge out there, all taken at the same angle, from the same position – and they’re all online. So why do we (and I’m just as guilty of this as everybody else) spend precious time taking pictures of something that somebody’s almost certainly taken a better photo of already?

SaladeTomateOignon in Paris, another photogenic city, has noticed the same thing.

He says:

28 million people visit Paris every year, taking dozens of pictures each. Every building, every statue has been captured, under every sky and every light.

Because billions of pictures of the Eiffel tower have been taken, I am sure that you can find matching cloud patterns in dozen of them, even if taken years apart.

Pictures have been taken with simple pin-hole camera, smartphones or with the most complex and expensive large format silver film camera or DSLR, and lots of them are now online.

On the Internet, those photographies are sprinkled over the city, with some areas densely covered, and other more sparsely. Each website is like a stratum of pictures of every kind: postcards, paintings, photos, satellite images…

Layer cam is a project to tap into those layers, like a drill extracting a core sample of images.

Based on a Raspberry Pi, connected to the Internet through wifi and geolocalized by a GPS chip, Layer cam runs with Python code (mostly made from bits of code I found here (Martin O’Hanlon) and there (disasterjs) and taps into Panoramio API. The ‘Layer cam’ logo has been designed by Alice.

We love this project. It’s just the right amount of pointless, it’s in a Tupperware box, Paris is beautiful, and it made us smile. You can find out how to build your own at saladtomateoignon, with code and physical build instructions (which involve rubber bands and duct tape, like the very best of projects).

What does a good computing classroom look like?

Space matters

In September 2014 (as in a couple of weeks) the new Computing curriculum will come into play in schools in England. Basically this means that ICT as a subject will be replaced by Computing and that students from the age of five will have the opportunity to learn an exciting and powerful new subject.

There has been a lot of discussion on how to prepare for this in terms of teacher training. It’s vitally important and it’s why we run Picademy for example. But as the subject matures we also need to start thinking about what an effective computing classroom looks like and how to set it up so that students can get the most from the subject.

Teaching and learning spaces

My primary school was not like others. Pupils were free to roam about and do what they wanted. It was an interesting educational experiment. I now know what happens when pupils are responsible for their own education: they smear their faces with woad (well, Crayola indigo warmed up on the radiator) and then scuttle up trees. (Student voice, I’m looking at you.)

Next lesson I will independently investigate the physics of boomerang precession

There were no classrooms in this school of the future, just “bays”—quasi-rooms with no walls, opening onto a central area. It was a terrible environment for most subjects: it’s tricky to concentrate on improper fractions or ‘How come the moon doesn’t fly off into space?’ when the bay across the way is thrashing a class set of percussion instruments like a colony of chimps pummelling the corpse of dead hyena.

So I’ve never been a fan of “learning spaces”. Even typing the phrase makes me start rocking gently and keening. And yet learning spaces are exactly what the new English Computing programme of study needs. Walk into a standard ICT suite in any secondary school in the land and you will be stared down by banks of unblinking monitors lining the walls and the central reservations.

This is not a learning room, it’s a teaching room. It’s set out so that teachers can monitor the monitors (and monitor the monitor monitors if they are lucky enough to have them) and control what the students are doing with their hermetically sealed PCs. What they are typically doing, given the closed nature of hardware and software in most of these suites, is usually pretty anodyne. It should come as no surprise that the word “suite” comes from the old French meaning “a group of identically clad followers”.

Even Orwell wouldn’t have gone this far

This new-fangled ICT thing: it’s a slippery slope and no mistake

So what the typical student is doing in the typical ICT suite is … ICT. Which is great! Good teachers are running rich and exciting and useful ICT lessons under the old programme of study (PoS). Outstanding teachers have been including elements of computing into their lessons for years (contrary to the belief of those who had never actually read it, the old PoS was pretty flexible and adaptable). But all too often a school’s ICT policy is that the subject should be safe. Not inspiring or useful or thought provoking. Just safe.

Which would be lovely if this meant ‘safe’ for the kids, but more often than not it means ‘safe’ for the senior management. ICT isn’t to be trusted: kids obviously needed watching because they might do bad things. Like play games. Or watch games on YouTube. Or write games and pretend to be testing them. Students have even been known to flip screens upside down using hot-keys; or draw rude pictures in Paint and set them as the desktop of their neighbour’s machine; or stick a Post-it on the bottom of the teacher’s mouse; or Google “funny gifs of cats with glok’s and a bom lol!”

Hence this urge, especially amongst techno-wary management, to constantly monitor and repress and interfere. Technology that enlightens and frees and encourages experimentation is the same technology that is potentially seditious and disruptive and encourages hacking (hurrah!). So it’s sad but unsurprising that in the current climate schools lock down PCs and stop students from messing about. A more open environment doesn’t require lots of time and money (two big barriers to change in schools) but it does need thoughtful policies and a desire to change.

Would you like a handful of magic beans with that interactive whiteboard sir?

All together now: “Marie France est dans le jardin.” Beeeeeep.

Of course, if all you want to do is to create things on a screen, then a bank of proprietary PCs does the job (though installing some open source software like Inkscape, Audacity, LibreOffice, Firefox and GIMP wouldn’t hurt). But things have changed since the late 90s when IT quietly became ICT and a new curriculum came in: prescribed hardware and proscribed software just aren’t good enough now that Computing is back (in retrospect, they weren’t even fit for purpose then). A generic classroom stifles creativity and if Computing is one thing, it’s creative.

Looking back at my ten years in an ICT classroom it’s clear to me that most ICT suites are the 21st century equivalent of the shiny new language labs that popcorned into secondary schools in the late 70s: shiny and exciting but ultimately a bit rubbish. My old stock cupboard is full of unused smoke-and-mirrors ICT kit that was sold as the next big thing but turned out to be technology for technology’s sake. (We’re very fond of the old magic beans thing in education, but that’s another blog post entirely.) Technology by itself rarely improves learning. Good teachers in stimulating environments always do.

A new classroom for the new programme of study

For the new Computing programme of study let’s give the students the freedom to tinker and to hack and to experiment and to collaborate. And let’s give them the space and the tools to do this. PCs still have a place of course, but ideally there will be a central table(s) full of electronics, robots, sensors, computers, projects kits, stuff you’ve found in skips, printers, bits and bobs, cutters and a runcible spoon. (And, of course, Raspberry Pis!) Let anyone who wants to play come in at break, lunchtime and after school to mess around. Encourage other subjects to use computing as a creative tool, one they can use in their lessons, and to look at Computing and not say “Whatever” but “Hmmm, that’s interesting…” (Because if Computing is not used across the whole curriculum then we are missing both the point and a huge learning opportunity.)

For this we are going to have to change our ICT rooms from teaching rooms to learning spaces. It’s not a trivial thing and it won’t happen overnight. But if you are offered a new room in which to teach Computing this September, or you get the chance to re-purpose an existing ICT suite, please make it the first thing on your agenda. In fact, make a space like this:

Laika school workshop day

In time, ten years perhaps, computing in schools will be a normal tool for problem solving and creativity. Just a tool to do things in the same way that, on a much smaller scale, a calculator is used today in Maths (although the things you can do are very much cooler and more useful than telling your mate to type in ’5318008′ and hand it, upside down, to your teacher). In the meantime, let’s get the learning spaces right. The rest will drop into place.

How you can help

We’re currently writing materials on how to set up a computing classroom and we’d like your help. What would your ideal computing space look like and why? What would you like to see in there, how would it be set up and how could the Raspberry Pi Foundation help you with this? We’d love to hear your thoughts on this and the final materials will be published in our resources area. Comments below would be lovely, thanks!

Getting hooked on programming with YRS project ‘Hook’

Carrie Anne: A few weeks ago, Raspberry Pi hosted its first ever Young Rewired State centre and took part in the Festival of Code. We had a lot of fun. Our participants talked about their experience in this blog post. Whilst we were at the finals in Plymouth, our teams were competing against a group from BBC Birmingham mentored by our good friend Martin O’Hanlon, and their Raspberry Pi project blew us away. Here in their own words is a little more about it.

Not only functional, but stylish too!

While taking part in the YRS Festival of Code at BBC Birmingham our team wanted to come up with something fun. The idea we finally settled on after much talk of boats and canals (thanks Martin!) was the internet enabled coat hook – a coat hook which would tell you what to wear that day based on the weather forecast.

Fuelled by an endless supply of biscuits and coffee at BBC Birmingham and with the help of our mentors we set about creating our ‘hack’. At the weekend down in Plymouth we were lucky enough to make it into the final three for the ‘Best in Show’ category, losing out to another team. However since we were runners up in the category we were rewarded with some limited edition Blue Raspberry Pis!

Our idea was well received throughout the weekend in Plymouth, but what surprised us most was the reception that it received online. Seeing people we’ve never met before announce online that they’d buy our ‘internet enabled coat hook’ that we’d hastily constructed a few days prior was the craziest part of the weekend.

We’ve each written a short paragraph about our contribution to the ‘hack’ and what we learnt during the week.

 Jenny & Ed: Why did we use Lego to build the Hook? Because it’s a classic building material enabling the design of Hook to be easily changed during development, as well as being sturdy AND fun – no actually it was because Kevin (from YRS) promised cake to any teams that used Lego in their hack.

We built the Lego around the coat rack and then the LED chipboards to secure the whole thing together, originally using a breadboard to connect up the Raspberry Pi and the LEDs with crocodile clips, however we kept facing issues where the LEDs would not light up. We realised that this was because one of the clips wasn’t on properly or the pin in the breadboard was loose, so decided that it would be more secure and look better if we created an actual chipboard and soldered all the parts together: cue multiple expeditions down to the workshop and a lot of time bonding with the soldering iron (if you’ll pardon the pun). The building of the Lego structure took around half a day, not including the numerous heated discussions about which colour bricks to use, and then completing the circuitry meant we had a working prototype design only a couple of hours later.

Darci: I worked on the animation for our project (The Hook). To do this, the BBC gave us some prototype LED boards, which I programmed using a Scratch-like program. We were going to make weather-specific animations for wind, rain and sunshine, but as we only had four days to produce it, I ended up making one animation to show all of the weather animations together.

I started off figuring out how to control the LEDs using an Arduino, but then we all agreed that it would be better to use a Raspberry Pi rather than an Arduino because I find Python much easier to understand than Arduino, and we could also use the GPIO to hook up the LED devices to the Raspberry Pi. So, it seemed simpler to use the Raspberry Pi to control everything instead. I used Python and the RPi.GPIO library to write the code to allow the back end to control the LEDs.

Darci presents Hook

Cameron: I ended up working on the back end which was written in Python. It controls the obtaining and processing of the data from the Met Office and then runs lower level code written by Darci. The Met Office API was really nice and returns a Weather Type field in the JSON response which saved us having to come up with our own heuristic for what the weather will be like. The best take-away from this for me would have to be the program PuTTY which is a free SSH client for Windows that removed the need to connect anything except a Wi-Fi dongle to the Raspberry Pi. The JSON library for Python was very useful and easy to work with as well, something that’s well worth learning.

Jack: I worked on the front end of the website which allows the user to configure what item of clothing they wanted to place on each individual hook, which could potentially change depending on the time of year. In order to fetch relevant weather forecast data from the Python backend the user’s geolocation was fetched through the browser using JavaScript. Additional information such as the item of clothing on each hook was written to a text file, allowing it to be easily read by the Python script. We aimed to make the website responsive across multiple different screen sizes, so writing CSS media queries was a new skill I had to learn during the week. Luckily the good folks mentoring at BBC Birmingham were happy to show me the ropes.

YRS BBC Birmingham Team Hook

Carrie Anne: Although this project did not win in its category, it could still win the public vote! If you are as impressed as we are with this project then head on over to the voting page to cast your vote for Hook!

The first Raspberry Pi computer room in Togo

Dominique Laloux first got in touch with us in May 2013 when he was on the point of leaving to spend a year in the rural Kuma region of Togo in Western Africa, an area where, until 2012, 75% of teachers had never used a computer. He had previously joined a team of Togolese friends to set up the Kuma Computer Center in the mountain village of Kuma Tokpli for the students and teachers of five local secondary schools, and planned to introduce Raspberry Pis there.

The building that currently houses Kuma Computer Center’s first computer room in Kuma Tokpli

We next heard from Dominique earlier this month. We were delighted to learn that besides the Center’s first computer room, which has now been up and running for almost two years, the team has established a fully functional Raspberry Pi computer room, with 21 Pis and a couple of other PCs, in Kuma Adamé, a village about 20 minutes’ motorbike ride from Kuma Tokpli. This will be used daily by the 200 students of the local middle school, and was financed largely by former Adamé residents who have settled in Lomé, Togo’s capital. A team of students and teachers from The International School of Brussels, where Dominique works, helped fund the purchase of the Raspberry Pis and their accessories.

The new Raspberry Pi computer room in Kuma Adamé

The initial focus is on teaching the students basic computer literacy, and the team chose the Raspberry Pi based on its low initial cost, its anticipated low maintenance costs, its low power consumption and its use of Open Source software. Dominique believes – and we think he’s probably right – that this is the first Raspberry Pi computer room in Togo! He says,

The most important thing is that we now have a nearly complete “recipe” for the setup of a computer room anywhere in Togo, that would fit a middle school/high school for a total cost of about 6000€. The recipe includes the renovation of a school disaffected room (see what our room looked like 6 months ago in the picture), the installation of electricity and local area network at European standards, the design of furniture built by local workers, the training of teachers, the development of a curriculum to teach, the selection of a local support team, etc. Quite an experience, I must say.

Before work began on the new computer room

Key to the sustainability of the project is that it has been developed within the local community for the benefit of community members, having begun as an idea of teachers in Kuma. Various groups in the community are represented in the management of the project, contributing different kinds of support and expertise. Dominique again:

We are particularly proud of the setup in K. Adamé (we being Seth, Désiré, all other members of the Kuma Computer Center team, and myself). [...] Our project has been operational for nearly 2 years now and it relies mainly on villagers themselves. Seth, who is in charge of the infrastsructure in K. Tokpli, is a local farmer growing mainly coffee and cocoa. A team of villagers is responsible for opening the room every day for 2 hours at least, and “cleaning teams” make sure the rooms stay in perfect condition. Local teachers will now take over the regular “computer classes” I taught during the entire past school year — sometimes going up to 40 hours per week. The newly installed Raspberry Pi reinforces our infrastructure and will serve 200+ students in K. Adamé from the next school year…

Currently the team is constructing a small building in Kuma Tokpli, which will become the permanent base of the Kuma Computer Center (and the second largest building in the small village), superseding the facility currently made available by a local farmers’ association. They also continue to work on the curriculum, and hope to introduce the students to programming in addition to teaching ICT and using the Raspberry Pis and other computers to support learning across the curriculum.

If you’d like to support the Kuma Computer Center, with funds or otherwise, have a look at their website. And if you’ve got an idea as good as this one to teach young people about computing, you’ll want know about the Raspberry Pi Education Fund, recently opened for applications and aimed at supporting initiatives like this with match funding; learn more here!

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