Tag Archives: BBC Micro

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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