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Mince Pi

I started using computers at the age of ten. Two people were responsible for that - my Dad and my best mate at school. In preparation for a life in the eighties, Dad had been going on training courses that told him how computers worked. He serviced photocopiers and the darn things were being filled with more and more computer components. He’d come back from his evening classes and tell me about weird stuff like binary and boolean logic. At the age of eight, I didn’t really get it, but it sounded so wonderfully technical and foreign - the seed had been planted.

As I approached ten, some of my peers were getting into computing. I remember pouring over Sinclair Programs magazine, whilst my friends explained what they’d been up to on their 16K Spectrums. That was it. I harassed my parents and for my tenth birthday I was rewarded with a ZX-81. At that age, our brains are like sponges. Within a couple of days, I'd figured out how to program in BASIC and started putting all sorts of random crap together, which I duly saved to tape. I regularly bought Sinclair Programs magazine and trawled it for any listings I could use. Games were on the pricey side in those days, a tape was over a fiver and quite out of the realms of a ten-year old's pocket money. That gave me plenty of incentive to program my own entertainment.

It wasn't too long before I was filling up my 1K of memory, so looked at getting a 16K RAM pack. Unfortunately, the RAM pack died, a victim of the infamous “wobble” - so I moved to a Commodore Vic-20.

The power supply repeatedly died on my Vic-20. In between a bit of dabbling on a 48K Spectrum, I moved to my Atari 520 STFM - a computer I still have today. Aside from Dungeon Master and many other games, I continued to hack around in GFA Basic and STOS.

Then I moved on to an Acorn A5000, an amazing machine that also let me run a DOS/Windows environment, as well as RiscOS stuff. At college, I programmed software to run a dating agency in Modula-2. For my degree dissertation, I developed a fully-working helpdesk system in RiscOS BASIC.

The A5000 was the last machine that I did any serious “hobby” programming on. As the hardware and software got better, I developed less and less. As gaming got better and development environments turned into such monstrously huge applications, my desire to hack around declined. WIth my 1K ZX-81, I could switch it on and start writing code in under ten seconds. Unfortunately, there’s no computer that allows you to hack around so much any more, is there?

Perhaps there is.

edge

This is my Raspberry Pi, a computer costing a quarter of the price that my ZX-81 did thirty years ago. It’s small, just a tiny bit larger than a bank-card. The device was originally targeted for schools, so that kids could get their hands dirty and write code, instead of being fed sterile guidance on how to use Microsoft applications. However, it’s already gained something of a cult following. The creators probably didn’t realise how many they’d sell (nearly a million, if I understand correctly). My “B-Board” has two USB ports, an SD card slot, HDI port, component output and an expansion interface. Power usage is minimal - you can run it off your mobile-phone charger via the micro-USB input. An “A-Board” is coming soon, which will be stripped down even further (and cheaper!).

So far, I’ve turned mine into a smart TV box via XBMC, a regular desktop machine and even a RiscOS computer resembling my A5000 of yesteryear. It’s been fun to discover the machine’s capabilities - and if you feel like programming, Python’s included in the default operating system.

However, the best thing about the Pi is that it’s brought back a sense of discovery to computing. Others have made their Pis into wireless access points, a home-made laptop and even been used for controlling brewing. People are using Lego for their cases and one university has managed to turn an array of 64 Pis into a supercomputer. The expansion connector at the top left of the picture has allowed people to hook-up all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff.

As for me? Well, despite mine already running as a media box and desktop device, I’m looking in to whether I can create a partially solar-powered web-server. Whilst British weather isn’t going to allow for it to run for a full twenty-four hours on solar power without some sort of monster solar-panel, some sort of partial battery-charging system should be possible.

My installation of Raspian is pretty much set up how I want it, so I’ll put some notes on how I did it in the next few weeks. It’s all set up wirelessly. I’m using a WiFi adaptor for the internet connection, along with an Apple bluetooth keyboard and mouse that I had spare, so the only physical connections are for the power and video/audio. Regardless of whatever it ends up doing, it’s brought some fun back to my hobby. I’ve enjoyed hacking around with it over the Christmas holidays - and it’s always good when you create something new. The added bonus with this is that it’s so cheap, you don’t feel like you’ll destroyed the computer equivalent of the crown jewels if all goes wrong.

One of the interesting aspects of the whole Pi-scene is that people are sharing their creations on their blogs, a bit like sharing a recipe. Once I’ve got my Solar Web-Pi up and running, I’ll share my recipe with you.

And if you’ve got an interesting project that you’d like to share, drop me a line - you can find me on Twitter.
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