IPad 3? I’d rather have a Raspberry Pi.

These days it’s truly fashionable to be retro and ultra cool to be a geek, but I never thought 80s style computer programming would make a comeback. Ask people of a certain age in certain professions (architects, engineers and of course dotcom entrepreneurs) and they will most likely have started out writing code on their home PC or hooking their Lego Technic monster truck up to a Spectrum or similar.

These people have gone on to create and shape our world but computer DIY enthusiasm and curiosity as to what makes technology tick has vanished from the mainstream. Blame the Internet, video games, the meteoric rise of Apple and Microsoft, social media or our own plain laziness but somewhere along the line, fiddling about with computer innards became the playground of the elite few and computer coding became a foreign language. Computers are now pretty expensive and the inner workings encased and bolted in shiny metal; if you’ve spent close to £1,000 on a bit of kit, you are less likely to want to take it apart.

I remember tinkering with a BBC Micro computer at school and being taught the basics of computer programming to create a simple game, but too young to grasp the relevance of it all. I didn’t choose I.T at GCSE because it was so dull and miles behind; being taught how to use Word and Excel by a woman who frequently put the blackboard rubber in her mouth was beyond toleration for my teenage self, especially as I could teach myself on our battered PC at home in ten minutes.

Last year I worked on the production of a short film celebrating the BBC Micro computer and met the original team from Acorn, who built the 1981 working prototype using bits of wire and a soldering iron. Commissioned by the BBC as part of the BBC Computer Literacy Project, the hope was to sell 12,000 units into schools. The BBC Micro ended up selling 1.5 million. Home programming seemed the way forward but then Acorn sold out to IBM, Apple changed the game and now our whole lives revolve around their gadgets.

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BBC Micro. Remember this?

Technology has a grip on our everyday lives and has run away from most people’s understanding. We allow companies with a vested interest to bamboozle us with science, when in fact anyone can learn computer programming with a little patience. Technology was invented by us for us; let’s not forget the Internet itself was created by bods who intended it to be a free, open space for all to update and improve, exchange information and connect. Some of the most popular software we use is open source (WordPress being the classic example) and it’s time to wrestle back some control. Governments and private companies exploit our ignorance to sell our personal data to marketeers and allow authoritarian regimes to suppress freedom of expression.

Last week saw the release of the Raspberry Pi, a credit card sized uncased computer which may be set to take us back to 80s mindset, in a good way. Like the BBC Micro, it was intended for schools, to bring computer programming back to the UK curriculum, provide our young people with vital skills and spark a new, badly needed, technological industry.

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Raspberry Pi Model B.

It plugs into your TV/monitor and keyboard and you can plug-in a mouse as Model B has 2 USB ports. It can play hi-def video (so it’s down with the kids) and runs Linux open source software. It has 256mb RAM and an ethernet port but you will need an SD card to boot it up. There is a good instructional video on how it actually works here.

It has been developed by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, a charitable organisation registered in the UK and can only be bought through Premier Farnell/Element 14 and RS Components. And the price? $35. Yes, $35 (around £21.60). There are apps costing more than that. Demand has way outstripped supply and the first batch has sold out, a sign that the desire to understand technology better is alive and kicking, but more are on the way so get your name on the waiting list through these companies. There are reports that a school in the Middle East has expressed interest in purchasing a Raspberry Pi for every schoolgirl to learn computer programming, which is good news in so many ways.

So, how do you actually learn programming on this? The Raspberry Pi supports a range of software so you will have to load it up with programming languages such as PYTHON and take it from there. There are loads of tutorials and forums which are going to grow and grow as more people get to grips with the Pi (none have actually been sent out yet) so be prepared to become part of a community and share what you have learned. It is early days and an ambitious project so a little patience is needed.

I don’t pretend to know everything about how the Raspberry Pi will work, but I can see that going back is the way forward. I am looking forward to learning a new language and wrestling back some control and understanding of the technology that holds us to ransom every day. Get your name on the waiting list now. At $35, how can you afford not to?

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The one to watch resigns.

In December, I wrote about my fascination with the Maldives and its President, declaring him ‘one to watch’ in 2012. The first democratically elected Maldives President in over 30 years, Nasheed was the darling of environmentalists and our own Prime Minister, who declared Nasheed “my new best friend” in a Guardian interview.

Yesterday, President Nasheed resigned after protests over his rule and an army presence at his house forced him to step down. Reports of a ‘spectacular fall from grace’, a ‘political crisis’ and a ‘coup’, have been reported and the vice president, Mohammed Waheed Hassan, quickly sworn in as leader.

It seems that while being praised worldwide, domestically Nasheed was not popular.  Rising prices fuelled discontent among the people, but the final straw seems to be the controversial decision to arrest the chief judge of the Criminal Court, who released from prison an opposition activist who had been arrested without a warrant and therefore detained illegally.  So far so normal in the new found power to the people sweeping the world.

However, there are some details that don’t add up to a grassroots demand for change. Nasheed faced constant opposition from supporters of the previous long time ruler Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and from religious conservatives who have long accused Nasheed of being anti-Islamic and trying to introduce Christianity into the country. Even if arresting the judge was a mistake, the opposition party is said to have fuelled the protests, encouraging the police and army to defect.

Nasheed has deep activists roots and has faced persecution in his own country, forcing him to flee several times (finding refuge in Britain) before being elected President in 2008. One of the criticisms levelled against him is that he is trying to moderate this Muslim country. As if in verification of this, 100 bottles of alcohol were found among Presidential belongings removed on his resignation. Possession of alcohol (outside of a tourist compound) is a crime in the Maldives and carries a punishment of 3 years in jail a fine, or banishment. As the opposition becomes more and more vicious, a ‘find’ like this (100 bottles of alcohol??) does raise questions.

Nasheed resigned with a statement saying he refused to use force to restore order on the street. Police and some of the army had joined in the protests at this time and it was feared the protests would turn violent. Nasheed has since made a statement saying he was forced to resign at gunpoint but would not say who was pointing the gun.

Elections are scheduled for 2013 and at the moment it is expected Hassan will take charge until then. However, in light of the last 24 hours, the Maldives is still the one to watch. Unfortunately for very different reasons.

REALTIME: Protests against Nasheed’s removal from power are already taking place in the capital Male; according to Twitter users teargas has been fired and Nasheed himself is amongst the protesters.

 

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Censored.

 

If you can’t access your favourite website today, don’t blame BT (again), blame SOPA and PIPA. The Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect Intellectual Property Act are currently under consideration by the US Congress and they are controversial to say the very least.  In protest, a number of high profile websites are staging a 24 hour ‘blackout’, including WordPress, hence the striking home page of this blog’s host today, imagining a world where content providers are in charge of censorship and ultimately, freedom of speech. You can read a more detailed explanation of the bills here and read arguments from both sides here. Get informed, get involved and defend your right to freedom of speech.

 

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The Independent gets a black eye*

The Leveson Inquiry is well into the first stage of investigating the culture, practice and ethics of the media.  The past few months have witnessed a fever pitch of celebrities, custard pies and denials of dubious practices carried out by dubious tabloid journalists and owners.

How disappointing, then, to see Chris Blackhurst, editor of The Independent, being led down a dark alley and given a bloody nose during today’s hearing.  In his statement to the Leveson Inquiry, Blackhurst proclaimed, “The Independent- of all the national newspapers- prides itself on taking a high ethical stance”.  Ms Patry Hoskins questioned what he meant by the phrase “of all national newspapers”, a clear side-swipe at News International.  Blackhurst gave the credible answer that the founders of The Independent in 1986 wanted to set themselves apart from “proprietorial influence… and union-restrictive practices that were dominating industry” at the time.  So far so good.  The Independent has reason to be smug, right?

Hoskins then questioned Blackhurst on the issue of checking sources.  He had stated that the source checking issue doesn’t arise very often at The Independent as most of the stories published are “relatively straightforward news reporting, comment and analysis, rather than investigative or in-depth feature pieces which might rely on a wider array of sources.” Proper news, you see.  It was clear Blackhurst was trying desperately to remove The Independent as far away as possible from the events and practices involving phone hacking last summer. When Hoskins asked about the practice of paying for tips for the diary page, Blackhurst was at pains to stress The Independent only takes tips from journalists they have a relationship with. Moving swiftly on then, to suspended journalist Johann Hari, the subject of The Independent’s own scandal last summer.

Johann Hari was the rising star of journalism, a staff columnist straight out of Cambridge and winner of multiple writer’s awards. I met Hari briefly at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2003 where I found him to be arrogant and quite rude.  I was eventually won round as his arrogance was put to good use in his excellent writings on the 2010 UK elections and commentaries on the budget cuts, student protests and corporate tax avoidance. I even started following him on Twitter.

In June 2011, Hari was accused of plagiarism. In his published articles, Hari had been attributing quotes to interviewees which were lifted from other interviews or books and not taken at the time of the interview. Amazingly, none of the interviewees had complained and it took an eagle-eyed reader to spot a plagiarised quote. On the 27th June, Hari posted an explanation and clearly doesn’t think he has done anything wrong,

“When I’ve interviewed a writer, it’s quite common that they will express an idea or sentiment to me that they have expressed before in their writing – and, almost always, they’ve said it more clearly in writing than in speech…So occasionally, at the point in the interview where the subject has expressed an idea, I’ve quoted the idea as they expressed it in writing, rather than how they expressed it in speech. It’s a way of making sure the reader understands the point that (say) Gideon Levy wants to make as clearly as possible, while retaining the directness of the interview”.

Surely the skill of (say) a journalist is asking the right questions during an interview to get the clearest answers, making sure readers “understand the point”? It shows such disregard for his profession it’s amazing Hari bothered to actually interview anyone at all.

It then transpired that, using a pseudonym, Hari edited the Wikipedia pages of journalists he disliked or had issues with.  Cristina Odone, editor of  the New Statesmen, was branded anti-Semitic and homophobic on her Wikipedia page.  Nick Cohen was declared an alcoholic and all reviews of his work deleted from his Wikipedia page apart from a damning review by Hari.

On September 15th, Hari accepted wrongdoing and published an apology, using almost the exact wording of the June explanation, but with a much humbler ending. In his apology, Hari says on his return to work, “I will footnote all my articles online and post the audio online of any on-the-record conversations so that everyone can hear them and verify they were said directly to me.” He is also giving back the George Orwell writing award and has “taken unpaid leave of absence” to study journalism ethics at Columbia and NYU. Poor thing.

At the Leveson Inquiry, Blackhurst referred to an internal disciplinary report which alluded to Hari’s medical history being taken into account as some explanation for his actions regarding Wikipedia and concluded the offences were not serious enough to lose his job. Blackhurst confirmed Hari will return to the paper in “five to six weeks”, but purely as a columnist, not an interviewer.

Perhaps worse than losing his job, Hari has called his entire body of work into doubt and his reputation will probably never recover. Furthermore, he is now half a journalist after being barred from interviewing people, like the kid in class who’s not allowed to handle the scissors.  Most annoying is that he wasted an opportunity to be one of the best journalists we have and to inspire thousands of talented young writers. Maybe he still will, but for different reasons.

*The author would like to acknowledge this is borrowed phrase, originally used by Arthur Sulzberger Jr, chairman of the New York Times Company, in describing the effect on the paper after the discovery that journalist Jayson Blair had fabricated and plagiarised hundreds of stories in 2003. There, not so hard is it?

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Appy New Year!

Wishing everyone a very happy, productive and peaceful 2012.  My gift to you…

2011 by numbers:

1 new country, South Sudan, added to the world.

199 bloggers arrested, 31% increase on 2010 (Reporters Without Borders).

248 days from the first protests in Libya to the death of Colonel Gadaffi (15th February-20th October).

3,100 people arrested in connection with the Summer riots in England (BBC)

3,500 protesters killed in Syria (UN figures Nov 2011).

2 million people gather in Tahrir Square, Cairo, to demand the resignation of President Mubarak.

6.5 million people download Angry Birds on Christmas day.

Goodnight.

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The Maldives on the map and finding a fan in Cameron.

Back in June, I was lucky enough to witness some of the goings on at the 17th meeting of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, including an emergency session on the situation in Libya.  While unanimously condemned by the delegates, there was an absence of true revulsion at the situation until the Maldives took the floor. The delegate of this tiny group of islands (population 350,000) released such a passionate and hard-hitting condemnation of Libya it really took me by surprise and made the room squirm. Taking to Twitter (with something along the lines of ‘Go Maldives!” ) led to an RT by @ILoveMaldives, whose little blurb reads “1% Land & 99% Water- In the Maldives We Teach YOu The Art Of DOing Nothing- Please NO News And No Shoes here! :)” [sic]

From this, the Maldives sounded feisty, fun and I wanted to know more.   My interest was piqued in a bizarre interview with David Cameron in The Guardian recently when, and bear with me here,  street artist Eine hypothetically asked which 5 world leaders Dave would invite on hypothetical stag do, obviously organised by Berlusconi. Part of Dave’s answer was, “My new best friend is the President of the Maldives. He’s great.” What’s going on? Is this a bit like Gordon Brown attempting to boost his popularity by claiming a love for the Arctic Monkeys? Are the Maldives the new Arctic Monkeys?

The BFF in question, President Mohamed Nasheed, has been quietly creeping onto the world stage since election in 2008, taking office from a President who by all accounts ruled with an iron fist from 1978. President Nasheed’s activist roots at first makes you wonder what on earth he and Dave have in common…

Returning to the Maldives in 1989 after a British public school education and graduating with a degree in maritime law from Liverpool, Mohamed Nasheed (nicknamed Anni) was imprisoned and tortured by government forces for speaking out against the regime and accused of spreading Christianity. Nasheed was declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International in 1991 and eventually fled the Maldives in 2004 to be granted refugee status in Britain. Following another few years of return, arrest, imprisonment, becoming an MP, losing his seat, regaining his seat, Nasheed was eventually elected President in the first major democratic vote in the Maldives for decades.

Enemies continued to accuse him of spreading Christianity in a muslim country. A BBC article in 2008 claims Nasheed “enjoyed close links to foreign organisations such as Britain’s Conservative Party which undermined the country’s faith. He has strenuously denied the allegations.” The article is unclear whether the strenuous denial applies to spreading Christianity or to having links with the Conservative party. However, it seems the Conservatives had quite a lot to do with Nasheed’s presidential campaign including campaigning advice and even funding.

Cynicism aside, President Nasheed seems to be doing an alright job: the United Nation’s universal periodic review of the Maldives in 2010 uncovers the problems you would expect from a country under transition from dictatorship to democracy, including the population getting to grips with the concept and entitlement of human rights.

Environmental credentials are impressive; as the Maldives is seriously threatened by climate change due to rising sea levels, the aim is for the entire country to be carbon neutral within ten years. Nasheed was named Time Magazine Hero of the Environment in 2009 and one of the UN Champions of the Earth in 2010. Also in 2010,  Newsweek  placed Nasheed at Number 2 in their top ten of the world’s best leaders. And Number 1? David Cameron. I get the feeling this isn’t the last we’ve heard of this ‘special relationship’.

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Thank you VW much!

Is it wrong to indulge in a little self promotion? For a good cause? I’ll keep it short…

Greenpeace recently launched a campaign to highlight Volkswagen’s continued opposition to cuts in CO2 emissions. Called VW Darkside, the campaign parodies the VW adverts featuring a mini Darth Vadar trying and failing to use the force on various household objects. Gorgeous Dad helps him out by remotely turning the headlights on the family car in the driveway: cue astonishment and all round cuteness.

Greenpeace’s subvert trumps this by sheer numbers, a whole team of tiny Jedis sent to combat the Dark Side, complete with a VW badge on the Death Star. The evil VW threatening our planet cannot succeed! Greenpeace have highlighted the fact that even though VW may position themselves as the leader on more environmentally friendly vehicles, they in fact have a huge lobbying power who have been hard at work in the EU to prevent a vote for an increase in the overall cut to Co2 emissions- from 20% to 30% by 2020. Not only that, but only 6% of the cars sold in 2010 were the more efficient models, VW having effectively priced consumers out of this market.

With this in mind, Greenpeace launched a film competition to make a 1 minute ‘subvert’ of a VW advert. The films go to a public vote, the 12 films with the most votes make the shortlist, Greenpeace choose the winner who gets a £5k budget to make Greenpeace’s next campaign film. There are 80 entries and some of the films are really stunning.

I have, ahem, also entered and would love it if you take a look and vote by clicking here. My entry subverts the recent VW Cabriolet advert which plays on the use of Super 8 footage and memory, showing kids messing about in go carts and toy cars, using the song ‘Days’ by The Kinks. I’ve employed the same tactics (hope you don’t mind me using your song, Ray, it’s all for a good cause!) to show the environmental consequences of our inaction. I filmed the whole thing on an IPhone 3G, using the 8mm Vintage Camera app from Nexvio. It cost me around about nothing to make.

You can vote for more than one so do have a look at the others. Read Greenpeace’s report about VW here too.

Thank you, may the force be with you.

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