Saturday, 16 June 2012

My Raspberry Pi and I - Part One

I received a new toy earlier this week! As the title of this blog kind of gives away, my new toy is a Raspberry Pi, something I ordered back at the end of March and which finally found its way through my letterbox on Tuesday. I've read quite a bit about the Raspberry Pi over the last few months, admittedly without really understanding what it was at first, but it was a segment that I saw on BBC News one night which convinced me that I needed one. My initial thought was that I could use it as a way of 'creating' my own little retro gaming device, maybe even something I could programme in an 80s-era stylee.

Before I continue, and for those who have never heard of the Raspberry Pi or who have, but don't really get it, here's a quick introduction. A Raspberry Pi is basically a "computer on a chip". It's a credit card-sized chip which contains everything you need - memory, a processor and relevant ports and slots - to plug into your TV and get computing. Well, almost everything. It's also very cheap. The main reason it exists is to encourage kids to get into computer programming, and ties in nicely with the government's plan for schools to replace Computer Studies, or Information Technology, or whatever it's called nowadays (I knew it as Information Systems at my school for a while) with Computer Science. Basically. instead of kids learning what they can do with a computer (e.g. conjure up a Word document, knock up a Excel Spreadsheet, browse the web and verbally abuse their mates on Facebook), they will instead learn how a computer works and how they can develop their own apps and programs on it. It's a bit like the difference between learning how to drive a car and learning how to fix one.

The people behind this Great British invention is the Raspberry Foundation, a charitable organisation which aims to get kids programming again, just like us kids of the 80s did with our BBC Micros and Speccies and suchlike. It's no coincidence that some of the names behind this scheme are names that were big in the 1980s, at least in the world of home computing. One of those names is David Braben, who co-wrote the classic computer game, Elite, and that 3D flying demo thing on the Acorn Archimedes. Lander, or Zarch, or both. I remember playing it at a Open Day for my high school back in 1990 and being mightily impressed. It's also no coincidence that the two current models of the Raspberry Pi are called Model A and Model B, referencing the BBC models of bygone days. Yep, the Raspberry Foundation want to get those days back, and get people programming again, or coding, or whatever you like to call it.

I suppose the desire to create the Raspberry Pi, and the government's aim to push Computer Science, has come about because nowadays, when you switch on a computer, you can do pretty much anything you want to do just by double-clicking an icon. Kids are probably more capable of using a computer than their teachers. Microsoft, Apple and so on have all designed their operating systems so well that you don't need to understand how your computer works to get it to do stuff. It just does. But, what if you do want to find out how they work? Or, you don't have that desire, but if you had the opportunity to find out, it might just interest you? The nice clickable icons don't make digging deeper into the actual workings of a computer easy, or make you really want to do any deep digging to find out. However, if you were a child of the 1980s, switching on a computer back then was a completely different experience. They weren't quite as friendly and inviting, but they made getting into programming and finding out how your computer works much much easier. Instead of the fancy graphics and colourful icons you get now, back then you were basically provided with a mostly blank screen and a flashing cursor, with your computer waiting patiently for you to tell it what to do next. You generally had two choices: either type out a program or type in whatever command you needed to enter to get it to start loading whatever was stored on the cassette in your tape player. Sometimes the "load" commands themselves were mini programs. I'm sure the command to load Commando or Football Manager on my Acorn Electron was a few lines long. I never did just try Chain"" to see what happened for fear of breaking something.

Having access to the computer's programming environment immediately on boot up was enough to encourage you to find out what you could do with it. I had an Acorn Electron, and its user manual began with a few pages on how to plug it in, switch it on, play tapes, etc. but then went on to talk about how to write your own programs. In a way, it was as if you were expected to use your machine for this purpose. It wasn't an option, just part of the learning curve of getting to know it. And program it I did. I copied listings from Electron User, The Micro User, and even Let's Compute! for its short lifespan - I've still got all issues of that magazine! - and I even got capable enough to write my own programs, despite them being mostly crap. I experimented a bit on my sister's Spectrum, but by the time she had that, I had a Sega Master System and was drawn into console gaming instead. On the Amiga, I couldn't figure out how to program it, basically because the ability to do so wasn't shoved right into my face, and I suppose since then, I've always assumed that to create programs, you have to have certain software and a degree in computing, due to the way that computers were getting more and more complex and able.  About a year or so ago, I decided to have a look at ways of programming on a Windows PC, but gave up after discovering that there are nowadays dozens of programming languages, and it all seemed quite complex and messy. What I needed was a simply little device, a bit like the Acorn Electrons of the 1980s, that made it easy and accessible to program. Enter the Raspberry Pi, rather conveniently. Small, basic and, importantly, cheap. A Model A board is $25, and a Model B board is $35, which translates roughly to £16 and £25 in the UK (despite being a British invention, they insist on pricing it in dollars - apparently something to do with exchange rates). At this price point, it should be fairly easy to get loads of these into schools all over the country.

So, the above is pretty much the reason and my interpretation of why a device like the Raspberry Pi exists. But, what exactly is it? Well, it's a bare-bones computer chip with all of its innards on display. It's small, about the size of a credit card. Speaking technically, which isn't really one of my strengths, the Pi has a chip on board which contains its 256 MB of RAM and an ARM processor. Oh yes, even its processor has its origins from the Acorn computers of old. Apparently. It also has ports and connectors for you to plug into it the things that you need to get it to work. This adds some additional cost to the device, but the stuff you need are likely to be things you can find scattered around. Firstly, on the Model B, which is the one I ended up with (I don't think the Model A is actually available to purchase yet), there are a couple of USB ports. These are handy for a USB keyboard and mouse. Alternatively. you can plug a USB hub thingy into one of the slots to add other USB stuff you may need. There are two ports for display - a HDMI port to display stuff in glorious High Definition, and a composite port to plug into most other TV sets. It's worth noting that there is no VGA port so it's not easy to get your Pi to work with slightly older computer monitors. There is a 3.5mm audio port too, which can be used for headphones, speakers and the like. If you want to get surfing, there is an Ethernet port for all of your online needs. And finally, there is a slot for an SD card. Well, I say finally. There are actually all kinds of other connections and things on the chip, but you don't need these for now to get your Pi working, and I'm not actually sure what they're for anyway, so I'll ignore them for now. Anyway, the SD card slot is important because it's where you need to slot an SD card containing an image of your operating system of choice. Oh yes, this all baffled me at the beginning, but I'm pleased to say I managed to get things working after hours of faffing. Oh, there's also a Micro USB port for power.

That's the device introduced. As it's late, I'll not go into my experiences of setting the Raspberry Pi up and getting it working - kind of. Instead, I'll leave that for another day.

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