Tag Archives: Computing

Teaching technology in the future – Raspberry Pi

Before you dismiss this as TL;DR – it’s a subject dear to my heart, and I believe that there’s some cool content as well as some storytelling – do give it a chance!

A sad state of affairs

I believe that we have lived through the best period to teach and learn about computers and technology, and that over the past few years we have been creating a void, a vacuum, in which progress may be diminished.

Google’s Eric Schmidt recently called out the British education system as holding back or dismissing our technology heritage. According to a ZDNet article on his speech in Edinburgh:

Schmidt said the UK’s approach to technology in education — not making IT compulsory as a subject at the GSCE-level and not providing enough support for science students at colleges — meant the country was “throwing away” its computing heritage.

See also the BBC and Guardian coverage of the story.

I can’t say I think he’s wrong, and I can’t say I’m surprised. Anyone who has heard me ranting about the state of things in a side conversation at any recent event in the past couple of years, will have heard me tell a similar story. When I was a lad – and I know that some of those who read this will be older, just let me reminisce without interrupting, OK? 🙂 – I grew up on an early Commodore PET with green screen, followed by BBC Micros, Acorn Electrons, etc. I’ve had a couple of occasions to look back on that era recently, with a visit to The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, seeing the team from TNMoC visit the Brighton Mini Maker Faire, and through talking to folks at TransferSummit (of which more, in a moment). In my day, you plugged in the power, the machine made a satisfying BEEP! and you were presented with a black screen with the word BASIC and a > prompt. That’s just how things worked. To do anything else, you had to tell the computer to do it – and you learned a lot as you did so!

Without wanting to sound like some kind of old fogey – kids today never had it so good! They have grown up in an era where all they have ever known is a world where every computer is connected to the Internet, a giant brain which appears to be all-knowing (and I know that this is how a 3 or 4 year old thinks: my own younger family members have said “we’ll just look it up on the Internet, it knows everything”, without understanding that humans have known everything, and the computers just tell us what we’ve told them, at a basic level). They have fast, interactive machines which are dramatically more usable – and instead of bulky noisy systems which were just about user-serviceable, ideally when you had an antistatic wrist strap to hand… they have magic, thin, sheets of glass that can be controlled at the slightest touch.

That’s fantastic. It puts children today in a position where they can be more creative than ever before – I could barely edit low-quality digital scanned photos by the time I left school, let alone edit full HD video with a variety of awesome effects. So one thing we can teach them is how to use creative tools like… oh I don’t know… Office suites (capitalisation deliberate, sarcasm heavy).

The thing is – we don’t need to teach schoolchildren how to use a productivity tool like that. By the time they have sat watching us for 5 minutes aged 6, they intuitively “just get it”. Worse is the fact that we’ve nearly removed the ability to look under the covers at what makes the machines work – certainly in a hardware sense you’d need a very advanced knowledge of microelectronics to do anything with the innards of most smartphones, and software is often becoming more and more locked up to the whims of the hardware manufacturers (naming no Apples). Plus of course, everything is online. So what does this mean for the curiosity to take things apart either in hardware or software, see how they work, and build something new?

(the irony is not lost on me that as a History graduate, I’m an unusual spokesperson for this debate)

Makers and getting back to basics

KitTen, Uno, Nanode One of the reasons I’m excited by the trend towards making things – what I’ll term the Maker movement, in a nod to the Brighton Mini Maker Faire and the magazine that has inspired the events – is that it reflects both our natural human curiosity and interest in building things, and making them work. I also think that is part of the reason behind our interest in prototypable electronics like Arduino – we have gone through a period of making things smaller, more compressed and proprietary, and the pendulum is swinging back towards open hardware, simple construction, and ease of learning. This is a huge, great and important step, in my opinion.

Enter – a Raspberry Pi

So how can we take advantage of that trend towards discovery and learning, and combine it with small cheap electronics, to really make a difference? Well, you may have heard of the Raspberry Pi Foundation – it has had a fair amount of coverage in the UK anyway, with the promise of a new low-cost computing platform which could theoretically replicate the success of the BBC-sponsored, Acorn-built, BBC Microcomputers from the 1980s (and backed by one of the most successful computer games authors of that era). Those BBC Micro systems were rolled out across schools all over the UK, and pretty much anyone in the 30-40 age bracket will have learned to write some kind of BBC BASIC or LOGO code at some point in their education, and have looked at fractals and played a variety of classic 8-bit games. My first home computer was an Acorn Electron, an affordable beige “keyboard box” that could be plugged straight into a home TV in 1984, with games and programs loaded off a (then) common cassette player.

The folks at Raspberry Pi believe that having a cheap computer which can be presented as an education device could be a success. At the TransferSummit last week, I met Eben and Liz Upton from the project, and had a chance to play with the system first hand. I also made a quick film of this amazing little computer playing full HD video – and the excitement is obvious in the fact that it has received nearly 50k hits on YouTube in just 4 days, probably helped by an appearance on the Raspberry Pi blog and also in a feature on Geek.com!

One of the things that Eben spoke about was the idea that it would almost be more interesting for these things to boot to a Python prompt instead of a full Linux desktop (which it is well-capable of doing), in order to ignite kids’ imaginations and force them into doing something more creative than simply doing what they would do with any other computer. I kinda like that suggestion!

Risks, and what else can we do?

I’m excited. As I said several times to Liz and others at the event this week – it’s a British organisation with vision, with an amazing idea, a product that works, and the desire to really reconnect children – particularly those in the developing world – with technology and how to drive it.

I can see a  number of risks, but the last thing I want is to be a naysayer here – I really, really want these folks to succeed. However, just looking at the excitement amongst hobbyists like me, and reading some of the comments posted on my video already, I realise that there’s a danger that the supplies of these things will quickly be snapped up by those wanting to make funky small home systems for themselves, rather than the altruistic wanting to help youngsters to learn (heck, I want one! so I understand that!). Or, kids may see these as just another form-factor of computer of the kind they are used to, plug it in, go online, and do nothing different to what they are already capable of. Another issue is that a bare board (the initial version won’t have a box, although that would be easy enough to fab) and a lack of instructions or clear fixed “syllabus”, if you like, may discourage teachers now used to teaching desktop computing and productivity tools, from embracing the potential to help students to create. It’s also entirely possible that these things will simply be cloned elsewhere. For all of these reasons, I’m determined to do what I can to promote the Raspberry Pi concept as an educational tool, and to support the team behind it. It’s important. It deserves to be a massive success.

So, what else can we do?

One thing is to go and sign the brilliant Emma Mulqueeny (aka @hubmum)’s e-petition on the UK gov website. She’s campaigning for an earlier entry for programming into the classroom, at primary level, particularly to encourage more girls to take an interest in technology. I think this is a brilliant step. Nik Butler has posted about the importance of teaching this stuff, too, and I encourage you to read his post – I particularly support the way in which he refutes the list of reasons why this sort of teaching is allegedly a “bad” idea. He’s also talked about the Raspberry Pi on the Social Media White Noise podcast #70.

Another thing is to visit and support The National Museum of Computing, preferably with some kids you know – help them to see where we have come from and where we are going.

It’s obvious to me that we need to change the way we think about teaching IT, computing, and technology. Earlier teaching of programming is important. I also think that a basic understanding of how a computer system fits together would help, as well as a high-level understanding of the way in which the Internet works. Importantly though – and this rolls into a whole other passion of mine which I won’t rant about today – increasingly as we come together online, I think it is increasingly important to teach tolerance, understanding of other cultures, and good online community behaviour. How we collectively go about doing that, I’m not entirely sure – but it feels important.

Thanks for indulging me on this particularly long post – it really is a subject I care deeply about. And all that stuff about technology – from an historian and Arts student 😛

Video imperfection

I left a previous blog post about my adventures with presentations and video on OS X hanging slightly, by not explaining whether I was successful in crunching a Quicktime video out of my Keynote presentation.

The story so far: I wanted to create a video slideshow + audio track from a Keynote presentation. I had an MP3 of the audio (thanks to Roo), and was trying to glue that together with a Quicktime stream of the slides and transitions. I’d found Keynote’s Quicktime export unsatisfactory, iMovie 6 editing facilities inadequate, and import of static images of the slides into iMovie produced low quality material.

In the end, I was successful. I exported images from Keynote; purchased Still Life to create an iMovie project; downsampled the MP3 track to a lower quality but still acceptable 8kbps using Audacity [NB this step was crucial to creating a final file that was of a reasonable size]; imported the MP3 track into iMovie and then copied each slide frame enough times to cover the time I was speaking over it. Finally, I bought QT Pro and VisualHub to give me more control over the Quicktime file output. The key things in reducing the video size turned out to be downsampling the audio and not worrying too much about compression since the slides were basically static images.

Result: a 45 min presentation which is about 70Mb in size, including speaker audio and audience questions. I’m happy with that.

A week or so after all of these shenanigans, Apple released iWork 08. I’d only bought iWork 06 four weeks previously, and was told that there was no upgrade pricing. The first time Apple has significantly upset me in my 6 month relationship with them.

Anyway, Keynote 08 contains a new Voice-over Recording mode. I gave it a quick try in the Apple Store on Regent Street before I bought iWork 08, and it seemed OK. Unfortunately, my fellow IBMer and Apple zealot Ian Smith has taken a closer look at it, and reports that it gets out of sync. Not good news. I had been hoping to revise my presentation and re-record it so that I could put it up on Slideshare. I might still try to do that just to see whether I suffer from the same problems that Ian discovered.

There has been a lot of controversy over iMovie 08 – it doesn’t open projects created in iMovie 6 by default, and I’m not sure that I’d even be happy trying to do what I did before with the new version, having heard about its deficiencies.

Ian has taken a look at the issues around HD video and the Mac, too… it sounds like there’s still no nirvana here, even though iMovie 08 now supports AVCHD and HDD-based video cameras, there are still a bunch of limitations.

I’m not into video work into a big way, but Ian is. Check out his analysis of the current state of play. He’s worth listening to.

Virtual Worlds and online shopping

We’ve had Sears and Circuit City as examples of what can be done with real world retail in virtual worlds for a while now. Essentially these stores attempt to replicate some of the real-life shopping environment, but with hyperlinks off to product pages on their website when a customer wants to know specifics about individual products. They have some other nice touches, too – check them out on IBM 10.

Yesterday, Jazzydee Raymaker showed me around the IWOOT sim in Second Life. This is the SL presence of I Want One Of Those, which is an online store for gadgets and goodies. I passed the recommendation on to epredator, who posted about it on eightbar.


The IWOOT store takes the virtual world <-> real world retail connection one step further. You pick up a cart, and can then walk around looking at the billboards. Click on an item, and a package appears in the cart, labelled with an image of the item you just added to it. This is synced up with the I Want One Of Those website, so it’s actually adding items to your shopping cart there too.


Oh, and if you go away from the virtual store and come back tomorrow, the cart is persistent and remembers what you’d already added, so when it rezzes a second time, the same items will still be there.

What’s the benefit? Surely all we did there was to go another step towards replicating a real world experience. Why bother?

Well, it’s a step up from a 2D web page for online shopping, and here’s why:

  • It’s a social experience, more like really walking into a store. Jazzy was on the other side of the planet, but I was able to hop on the side of the virtual cart and look around the store at the same time.
  • I was able to comment on the items in the trolley. You can’t do that on a website, as you don’t know who is already looking at the page, or what they have in their cart. You can do that in the real world. Apparently this is how supermarket singles nights are supposed to work, but obviously I wouldn’t know about that…
  • IWOOT doesn’t currently have one, but they could mix in a live adviser. Although some websites have a “chat to a customer service representative online now” option, most do not.
  • It would also be possible to mix in some of the special touches that Circuit City or Sears do have, like the couch that gets repositioned according to the size of the TV.

Is it better than a real world store? Well, maybe not. Could I have been in a real store with someone and also on the other side of the planet from them? Definitely not. But here, all the usual arguments for online shopping apply – you can stay at home, have stuff delivered, but also get the social aspect of being with friends and visual feedback. There are a range of other ways to get value from a virtual world – Jasmin Tragas describes some of them in a great recent post.

I found IWOOT to be an interesting new way of looking at online retail. It’s a well-executed store. Check it out.

(sorry about the screencaps. I forgot I had SL set to capture with the UI included… by the way, lighting effects by RenderGlow…)

Augh. Video editing torture…

Earlier this week I gave a talk at an internal IBM conference.

I broke with tradition by using Apple Keynote to produce the slides, rather than Powerpoint. I love Keynote. The application is a joy to use; the rendering is beautiful; the slide transitions are lovely. It does seem to encourage me to think about not using bulleted slides, which can only be a good thing. Oh, and the presenter view is amazing – you can drag and drop different elements and create your own customised display, something that PPT does not offer.

So, presentation done. Roo was kind enough to use his voice recorder to record the session… OK, so it was in WMA format, but iTunes quickly converted that to MP3 for me. Slides, plus audio. Looking good.

On the audio side, I was able to use Audacity to balance the levels where the audience questions were a bit faint, and to cut out a few extraneous umms which trimmed the length of the talk a bit. It is a shame Audacity isn’t slightly more OS X-like, but I guess things like the lack of drag-and-drop support are largely the fault of the wxWidgets toolkit that Audacity is built on.

I really wanted to export the slideshow from Keynote as a Quicktime presentation, preserving the nice transitions. As it happens, that is possible, but you can only set a defined transition time which is the same for each slide. That meant that it would be hard to match the audio to the slide transitions, since obviously the length of time for each one, varied. I tried this anyway, loading both the video and audio into iMovieHD, and then had a go at cutting the movie up and matching it with the audio cues.

There’s a problem here. You apparently can’t stretch the duration of each video segment. So, I then thought about making still frames to go in between each slide transition. Another problem – the quality of the still frames created by iMovie was awful. OK… so then I tried exporting from Keynote as static images, and importing those into iMovie. Same problem – even after I’d got past the Ken Burns effect thing which was zooming each image as I added it as a movie frame, the still images themselves were an order of magnitude uglier than the main video.

At this point I was getting seriously frustrated with Apple’s flagship, easy-to-use, included-with-the-OS, just-buy-a-Mac-video-editing-is-a-breeze, iLife suite.

It turns out that iMovieHD uses some poor quality encoder to import and export still images. I don’t know whether this is to encourage users onto the £199 Final Cut Express, but it sucks. I tried exporting a slideshow from iPhoto, but that has limitations on the duration of each frame, too. Oh, and the transitions available in iMovie are not the same as those in iPhoto, which in turn are not the same as those in Keynote. Argh.

Next I downloaded Still Life, and had a play. This is a relatively cheap ($25/£15) application which is intended to build simple slideshows with more advanced panning, whilst retaining decent quality in the stills.

In the end, I exported my slides as images from Keynote, imported them into Still Life, set a duration for each slide of 5 sec, and then exported from Still Life as an iMovie project. Result: I had an iMovie project which had a series of 5 second frames. I imported my MP3 commentary track, and then repeatedly copied the frames so that each slide lasted for the relevant length of time whilst I was speaking on the audio track. Tedious, and I lost the pretty transitions, but it has worked.

My final challenge has been exporting the movie. iMovie provides some defaults, like full quality (estimated to produce a 9Gb file in my case – a lot for a 45 min slideshow with a bit of audio), DVD or Web. The Web version is pretty small and crunches my slides into a 320×240 frame, but it does come in at an acceptable size of 40Mb. The larger size I exported, at 640×480 frame size, ended up at 600Mb. Cote recommended VisualHub, which I’m also going to take a look at. I mean, it’s not even as if this is complex video – it’s a series of still frames with some audio underneath. I would have liked a bit more complexity, in all honesty, but it seems that was too hard to achieve with built-in tools.

I guess there was an alternative to all of this… I could have cut up my audio file into sections for each slide, attached them in Keynote, and exported in a format of my choice (Flash or QT, I suppose). It assumes that Keynote is smart enough to show each slide for the duration of the attached audio file. Maybe I’ll try that next time. Or maybe some Mac, presentation, and video editing guru will just slap me down and tell me what I did wrong. This whole thing felt a lot harder than I expected it to be.

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Getting set for Hack Day

I’ve mentioned that a few of us from IBM are going to be at Hack Day already.

Well, it is this weekend, and I think I’m mostly set. All I need to do is get up far earlier than I would on the average Saturday.

Lots to play around with… I’ve installed the Bonjour-enabled Twitterific client so that I can identify other Twitterers, and I’ve joined the Plazes group. I’m thinking there is likely to be some Java, SWT, Applescript, Eclipse, Sametime, Bluetooth, Mac OS, Second Life, Twitter / Jaiku / Plazes / Facebook / Flickr action on my part – as well as a lot of photographs when I get there. If you’re coming, I’ll be part of the developerWorks group: come and say hello.

The best part so far has been poking around the official backnetwork site and finding the number of people I’ve met before through e.g. Minibar and other events, people who know people I know (Dale has pointed me at a friend of his, for instance, and Roo knows Babbage), people who have commented on my blog in the past, or bloggers whose work I read regularly. It should be a great event for extending some of those contacts. I’ll need to have my Moo cards with me 🙂

We have competition from Interesting 2007, of course. I hope I can follow the coverage of that event, too. Continuous Partial Attention, here I come.