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Kids education day at PyconUK 2014

September 24th, 2014

PyCon UK is the UK conference for the Python programming language, held annually at Coventry. PyconUK is attended by many professional developers, but has recently added an education day to the line up. Last year was the first day that kids were specifically invited through the PyCon UK Raspberry Jam. For 2014 this evolved into the PyCon UK Education Track a two day event running concurrently with the main conference. The first day (Friday) was for teachers and the second day (Saturday) was for children. The kids day cost only £5 per child (accompanying parents free) which was excellent value for money considering it included lunch and a goodie bag.

I attended with my two children, Amelia (9 years old) and Oliver (6 years old). My daughter had also attended the previous year, but this was my son’s first time.

PyconUK education day - kids learning programming

Minecraft Pi


The day started at 9.30. After a welcome to the event Martin O’Hanlon (one of the authors of Adventures in Minecraft) gave a presentation on programming for the Raspberry Pi Minecraft API. His presentation had an instant impact on the children who were clearly impressed by the ability to build a city of houses or having a house that follows behind and of course the canon to blow up his windmill.

The children were then provided with a worksheet on programming the Minecraft API. This started with a simple message on the screen and build up to an automatic bridge that would appear wherever Steve walked. Whilst Oliver has been working through the Code Club Scratch programming (he’s my guinea pig for preparing for the code club I’m running at the moment) this is the first time he’s seen Python. He didn’t like the typing involved, although that’s understandable considering he’s quite young, but enjoyed the testing part. Amelia did most of the actual typing and together they to work through the exercise finishing just in time for the next session.

Second session options

For the next session we had a choice of different activities. Initially I was thinking of taking Oliver along to the lego robot session (he’s a big lego fan), whilst Amelia went to the Stop Motion session run by the Raspberry Pi education team. Due to technical problems the lego robot session was not running as planned (although I believe some of the kids still managed to get some lego robot stuff working), so both my children went up to the Stop Motion camera. Amelia had gone ahead already and had made friends with another girl, so they partnered up. I could therefore work one-to-one with Oliver.

There were also sessions on PyGame (for the older children) and programming Quad-copters.

Push Button Stop Motion with a Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi education team ran the second session that we had. This included Carrie Ann Philbin (author of Adventures in Raspberry Pi), Ben Nutall (author of much of the Raspberry Pi website documentation) and Alex Bradbury (one of the authors of Learning Python with Raspberry Pi) talked us through the steps involved in creating a push button stop motion camera. This involved wiring up a button to the GPIO and adding some Python code using the picamera module.

Full details are available on the following Raspberry Pi resource: Push button stop motion guide on the Raspberry Pi website

Raspberry Pi at PyconUK

The trickiest part of the setup was how to mount the camera so that it didn’t move around. We used a PyCon UK rubber duck to create our own “Duck Cam”.

Oliver didn’t want to do any typing, but other than entering the code this was very much a hands-on and do activity which he responded to really well. We were able to get up and running quite quickly and in no time had our first animation using some lego figures. We then had a play with some jelly beans which danced around the table before mysteriously disappearing (I’m not sure where, but they were very yummy).

We finished with a funny face video.

During this Amelia was being helped along with a volunteer. I think he may have been one of the teachers from the previous education day that had come to help out. It took them longer with the girls doing the typing, but they managed to create their own video by the end of the session.

Lunch with robots

It was then time for lunch with a demonstration of some robots. These robots were well out of the budget for most homes and schools, which is a really shame as they were very cool!

Hopefully in future they will come down to a more reasonable price, but until then this was a rare chance to see them in action.

Robot at PyconUK

Open session – back to the Raspberry Pi

The afternoon was an opportunity to carry on with one of the previous activities or to have a go at something else. My children teamed up together to work on another stop motion video.

This started with them trying to find as many Simpson / Lego movie figures from the Raspberry Pi’s Lego box and then making up a short story. The story involves a Lego spaceman and Lisa Simpson building a wall, that is promptly destroyed by a girl robot, who is chased away by Chief Wiggum on a motorbike. Wyldstyle then comes in and with a bit of Master Builder know-how rearranges the Lego, which turns into a real life Raspberry Pi, which the Simpson cast all come to look at. Awesome!

You can see the video below:

As well as the programming aspect to this, it’s a great example of how computers, especially the Raspberry Pi, can be used for other creative projects. A great way to combine art and computing.

The end of the day

At the end there was an opportunity for some of the children to show off their work.
The event was well turned out and many of them wanted to show off their work. Unfortunately there was not enough time for everyone, but there were some great demonstrations.
This included several Minecraft demonstrations (such as a “Tardis” style building that was bigger inside than outside), some PyGame mazes and some of the videos from the earlier stop motion session. Oliver’s funny face video was one of those shown which raised a few laughs!

As well as all the fun of day the children all took home a bag of goodies to help encourage them to learn programming at home. This included a Raspberry Pi (the latest model B+ no less) and a copy of the book Getting started with Raspberry Pi, a debugging duck and some Pycon swag. This means that the children can go home and carry on the programming they started and hopefully encourage them to pursue it further. We returned one of the books as there were not quite enough for all the kids and my kids were happy to share, but they did get their own Raspberry Pi to encourage them to create their own projects.

A great day that all the kids enjoyed.

Thanks to all those that put in so much effort to make the day go so well.

HDMI Pi – 9 inch screen for the Raspberry Pi

September 22nd, 2014

The HDMI Pi screen for the Raspberry Pi has now been made and is shipping to the kickstart supporters.

It’s been a long wait, although much of that is due to changes and improvements in the design and we’ve been kept informed about the progress. So was it worth it ? …

Yes!

HDMI Pi 9 inch screen for the Raspberry Pi

The final specs are that it’s a 9inch screen (1280 x 800 LCD screen) with 2 x HDMI inputs (one of which is used for the Raspberry Pi), an internal supply connector (allowing you to power the Pi and monitor from a single power supply). There is also an audio out jack (taken from the HDMI audio stream).

I’ve just received mine. I’ve assembled it and got it working, but not had time to try it out fully yet, so this is an early review. I chose a black frame, it’s not the most exciting colour they offer, but is plain to allow it to be used for different purposes.

The screen comes in kit form and takes about 30 minutes to put together, but the process is fairly straight forwarded following a YouTube video. Most of the assembly is removing the protective covering on each piece of perspex and putting them together in the correct order (anyone with a Pimoroni case is familiar with that), with a couple of cables to connect (no more difficult than connecting a Pi camera). the whole assembly feels quite sturdy, there is a little flex on the side when pressing, but only a very small amount. It does include a perspex screen so care will need to be taken to avoid scratching – so no throwing it in a bag with anything metal.

The first version comes with a plate to fit the Raspberry Pi Model-B, although a version for the B+ will be available in future.

Even with the Raspberry Pi installed it is possible to get the ports and connectors on the Raspberry Pi, including the GPIO. You may need to make some slight modification with a hacksaw if you need to connect to an analogue TV although it’s unlikely you would want to use that compared to the HDMI screen. It can be a bit tricky to get to all the ports, although you can always unscrew the back panel and then screw it back in place.

I used the two USB ports for a Wifi USB dongle and a combined keyboard and trackpad, which meant I could use the Raspberry Pi without any cables other than the power supply and it didn’t need a USB hub.

HDMI Pi 9 inch screen for the Raspberry Pi with keyboard and trackpoint

I booted the Raspberry Pi with a new NOOBS install. It worked well, but didn’t quite fill the screen. The LXDE monitor configuration tool does not recognise the screen to change the resolution, but there are details in the instructions of how to change config.txt to fix this (not done in the above photos).
The screen is quite small so at the full resolution then the text is tiny. If you have good eyesight then you should be OK, but others may want to reduce the resolution to see the text larger (you can change the font size in many applications, but unfortunately there’s no easy way to increase the text size across the desktop and all applications).

There one small thing if looking to mount the screen. The Raspberry Pi protrudes slightly from the back of the screen (particularly the USB connector), so although there are mounting holes on the back for mounting it on a wall then it may be difficult to get it flush without another perspex layer or a cutout.

Summary

This is a well designed screen that allows the Raspberry Pi to be installed to make it a nice tidy module with only one power lead. This is much better than the cabling spaghetti I had before. It is much better than I first thought from the initial Kickstarter and is good value for money. I’d highly recommend one, although you may want to wait for the next version …

Future version

The latest announcement is that there will be a 10 inch version in future with the possibility of it being touch screen. If you need a screen fairly soon (they will still take a while to ship) then I do recommend the current version, but the possibility of touch means it may be worth waiting for the 10 inch version.

More information

For full details visit:

Adding thumbnail images to MP3 tags for Citroen C4 Picasso USB MP3 player

September 16th, 2014

I have recently got a new car with a full graphical entertainment system. It’s a new Citroen C4 Grand Picasso with a built in Touch Drive system which includes a USB MP3 player. The system includes a 7″ touch screen which can display MP3 thumbnails.

Citroen C4 Picasso USB MP3 files with thumbnail images

My CD collection is already digitized and includes JPEG cover images for many of the CDs. I copied the files to a USB drive and inserted it into the car. The files played fine (or at least the first 18GB or so of files as there appears to be a limit to the number of albums that can be loaded), but only a small number of thumbnail images were shown.

After some investigation I found that it only shows thumbnails for mp3 files where the image is embedded within the MP3 Tags. The next challenge was to find a way to easily update the MP3 tags across thousands of MP3 files without having to manually edit each one. I found two programs, which are both open source and are available for Linux (as well as other operating systems such as Windows). I tested this on Ubuntu Linux 14.04 and can be found in the Ubuntu software store.

MusicBrainz Picard

The first is MusicBrainz Picard, which was able to lookup the audio files automatically and in many cases add the images directly. It wasn’t successful with all my audio files, but was able to get a lot of the files updated which vastly reduced the number that I had to manually add.

MusicBrainz Picard - add images to MP3 tags on Linux and Windows

EasyTag

EasyTag is more of a manual tool, but allowed me to go through the files that were not recognized by MusicBrainz Picard (which was still a significant number) and manually add a thumbnail image into the MP3 files.

EasyTag - adding thumbnail images to MP3 tags

Thumbnails images working on MP3 files

After adding the thumbnails then the cover images are now shown on my car MP3 player. It also has the advantage that lots of other software also recognises the images. This includes XBMC and other media PC solutions. So whereas before I had to create different thumbnails for different players, or I had to edit them manually in the software most players can read the MP3 tags.

SPAM pretending to come from watkissonline.co.uk

September 10th, 2014

I have received reports that a spammer is sending emails requesting payment for an invoice from watkissonline.

I can assure you that these are SPAM emails that are not from watkissonline, but appear to be originating from a server in Africa.

If you receive an invoice email please delete it.

I have added SPF authentication to my ISP email settings. If your email servers perform SPF authentication check then they should now delete these emails automatically. If you are still receiving these emails please ask your email provider to enable SPF authentication check for incoming emails.

None of these emails have originated from me and I will not send any unsolicitated emails from watkissonline.co.uk.

Bletchley Park and The National Museum of Computing

September 4th, 2014

During the second world war Bletchley Park was home to the Government Code and Cypher School and played a critical role deciphering encrypted messages. I first visited a several years ago before it was opened to the public, it seamed a shame then that such an important part of British history wasn’t more accessible.

Manor house at Bletchley Park

Since then some of the site has been turned into a museum with work under-way to preserve more of the historical buildings.

The site is a bit unusual in that different buildings are used by other companies and organisations. The main museum is managed by the Bletchley Park trust which includes the mansion house and access to some of the huts that were used in the code breaking. Another museum on the site is The National Museum of Computing, which houses the rebuilt of Colossus, the world’s first electronic computer which was used to help decipher the code used between Hitler and his generals. The National Museum of Computing also has many other exhibits which are not directly related to the work at Bletchley Park.

Access and parking on the site is free, but then the two museums have their own entrance fee. The Bletchley Park museum is more expensive, but is valid for 12 months. The ticket for The National Museum of computing is much cheaper, but does not cover as much and is only valid for the one day. Both are worth visiting and we covered both on the same day, although I plan to return again using my annual ticket.

Bletchley Park Museum

The museum at Bletchley Park is suitable for all ages, with some trails and activities for children. The museum covers a variety of different topics based around codes and ciphers and life at Bletchley Park during the war. It’s good to see such an important site being preserved for future generations to see and learn about what was done there.

I enjoyed Hut 11 which housed the Bombes. It had some lifesize models and some interactive exhibits. It was a little noisy for my children which is part of the effect showing what it used to be like.

Hut 11 at Bletchley Park - Bombes

There is a new visitor centre in Block C which did not open until after we had visited and more of the blocks are being developed.

When we visited it was a nice sunny day and we ate a picnic on the lawn by the lake which was nice. There is also a restaurant in one of the old huts.

National Museum of Computing

The National Museum of Computing provides a history of computers from a rebuild of Colossus the first ever electronic computer up to the recent Raspberry Pi.

Colossus computer at The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park

There are some static exhibits, but a large part of the museum is setup for hands on interacting with the computers. This includes some old home computers (many will be familiar to those that had a computer around the 1980s) a room full of BBC micros and some modern programming examples such as Scratch.

Space Invaders on the Atari 2600 at The National Museum of Computing

It would have been easy to spend a lot of time in the National Museum of Computing, but we were able to go around the museum in a couple of hours.

Other attractions

Some of the other attractions around the site include the Leighton Buzzard Model Boat Club and a Toy Museum. Both of these were free of charge. My children particularly enjoyed the model boat club which included a boat play area.

Leighton Buzzard Model Boat Club at Bletchley Park

Turn a wet bank holiday into a fun science day

August 25th, 2014

We had a very wet public holiday today. Whilst there are some indoor days out we could have gone to we instead decided to have a science day at home. The two main things we did today were to make a cola can cable car and an erupting volcano.

Cola can cable car

The cable car comes in a kit form. It just requires an empty soft drink can (soda can) and a screwdriver to assemble it with. It involves a bit of assembly, but nothing too difficult.

Once built then a string is tied between to objects (chairs / bed etc.) and the cable car mounted on it. The cable car drives along the string changing direction at each end.

It doesn’t come with any batteries (2 x AAA required). I normally by good quality batteries as I find they last longer, but we had some cheap batteries which were bought for kids light toys. I tried with the cheap batteries, which appeared to work at first, but after less than a full cycle the batteries failed to turn the motor, so I then changed to more expensive alkaline batteries which worked well.

The second was a “Horrible Science” Violent Volcano. This kit consists of a plastic volcano container with a small bottle of vinegar and a bag of bicarbonate of soda. It also includes full instructions and a pair of toy goggles.

The instructions suggested using it outdoors due to the mess, but I instead cleared an area of the lounge and we did the experiment on a tray. Our first attempt was quite good. It used all the supplied vinegar, but there was plenty of bicarbonate for subsequent experiments. It provided quite a good flowing volcano.

We added our own vinegar for our second attempt which was similar to the first.

Finally we did one more experiment adding our own vinegar and food colouring. This time it didn’t work immediately, so we gave it a little shake and this time it followed it’s name of “Violent Volcano”. The volcano fired out so much that it hit the ceiling. It didn’t take much cleaning up, but it does explain why it suggested trying it outside.

Fun and educational science activities.

Camping at Morcambe – Morcambe Seaside Festival

August 14th, 2014

It’s been almost a year since we had our camping trip during the Morecambe Seaside Festival, but here’s a quick run through of what we did for anyone looking to do something similar this year.

We like to try and plan at least one family camping trip a year, we decided upon Morecambe as it’s close to the Lake District, but also to the seaside. As a seaside town Morecambe doesn’t have the big attraction since Frontierland closed down, but it still has a small funfair near the sea front and it’s close enough to drive to Blackpool or to the Lake District for the day. The area is being redeveloped and there are activities throughout the summer as a Seaside Festival. The highlight for us being an air display whilst we were there.

Venture caravan site Morecambe - Vango Woburn 400 tent

The Venture Caravan Park includes a children’s play area, a small pool and some evening entertainment which fitted in with what we were looking for. It does have one disadvantage which is that it’s directly next to the Morecambe FC football ground, which can be noisy on a match day. This didn’t have too much impact those, as whilst it was noisy whilst the game was on it finished at a reasonable time and the noise died down quickly afterwards. The site is walking distance from Morecambe sea front (a reasonably long walk) which meant that we didn’t need to worry about finding somewhere to park when we went to see the fireworks.

One tip I have is that if you need camping gas (Calor) then try and get it onsite rather than the local garage. Unfortunately it was too late for us to swap our gas for a refill in the evening so we went to the Texaco Regent Park Filling Station which was very expensive refill at £24.99 for the small 4.5kg cylinder (typical price elsewhere is around £16 or less). I thought that they’d made a mistake when they told me how much it was, but they confirmed that was how much they charged and I even wrote to them afterwards to see if they’d charged me for the wrong size refill, but they didn’t reply.


This was also the first time we used our new tent, a Woburn 400 and we took a detour on the way to get an awning extension for it. This is a big improvement over our old tent as it’s better made, more waterproof and the optional awning means we can pitch it as a small tent for shorter camping trip (or when I take the kids on my own) and a larger tent with awning when we go camping as a family. It’s also much easier to put up than our previous tent.

We mainly used the site as a base to explore and spent a day at Windermere in the Lake District, a day at Blackpool and then some time in Morecambe including watching the air display and fireworks at the sea front.

On our first day we visited Windermere and took a boat trip on the lake.

Boat trip on Lake Windermere in the Lake District

The following day we visited Blackpool. The pleasure beach is very expensive and had very long queues. Also we weren’t staying long enough to justify the cost so we went on some rides on the pier instead.

Blackpool

Although Morecambe does have a sea front the tide goes a long way out leaving dangerous mud banks. We therefore drove to Thornton-Cleveleys to spend some time on the beach. Returning to Morecambe in time for the evening fireworks.

Fireworks at Morecambe Seafront - Seaside Festival

With our final day spent watching the air display.

Summary

Whilst the loss of Frontierland several years ago resulted in a decline in Morecambe as a seaside resort the Seaside Festival provides activities throughout the summer that is worth visiting. It’s also a good place to explore some of the other nearby places.

Conkers – indoor and outdoor attraction

August 13th, 2014

Conkers is an attraction in the National Forest. It has outdoor play areas and activities and an indoor activity centre with an environment themed learning zone and play area.

The outdoor area covers a large area, with a modern light railway to get between two areas of the site.

Light railway at Conkers

As well as play areas there are various nature walks, a maze and a barefoot trail.
There’s also an adventure course designed for teenagers and adults – which I enjoyed.

Conkers barefoot trail

The indoor zone was educational and had lots of opportunities for the children to play abd there were also some craft activities, where my children made a pipe cleaner insect.

If you are feeling more adventurous they offer various outdoor pursuits, but these have an additional charge and need to be booked in advance.

It’s hard to put Conkers into a category, but it’s a fun family day out that is educational, helps keep you fit and is great fun.

Unglue.it books – a new way of reading

August 13th, 2014


I’ve written before about my dislike of DRM, especially on ebooks (The problem with DRM on ebooks). Another thing that is great is when you can get a book for free, but with the option to reward the author by giving a donation. This is what I’ve done with a series of books called The Afterlife Series by Mur Lafferty. The current books have already been funded through crowdfunding, but the author is now looking for donations to help support the writing of the next book in the series.

You can download the books, read them and then if you think the author deserves a thank you send them a donation to thank them for their current book and encourage them to write more.

One of the great things about this is that you can read books that you wouldn’t normally pick up if you had to pay. In the case of this book it didn’t really sound like a book I’d be interested in, but as it didn’t cost me anything I thought I’d give it a go. I started reading and really enjoyed it, so read the whole series. I then sent the author a thank you donation through unglue.it.

If I had to pay for the book up front then I don’t think I would have ever considered reading it, but now I have I was happy to pay for it.

Read the book yourself and see what you think:
Heaven – The Afterlife Series I by Mur Lafferty

It will be great to see other books follow that model, but there risks to the author that they won’t get sufficient donations to make it work their while creating new books. There are however two other ways that books can be unglued, including “Buy to Unglue” where you buy the ebook (still DRM free) and when they raise enough money the book is available for free and “Pledge to Unglue” where if the book gets enough advance pledges then they make the book available to all for free. I’ve already pledged against some of the unglued books from when unglue.it first launched. It’s well worth taking a look at what campaigns are running or if there are any any existing unglued books that take your fancy.

New .UK domain name – daysoutdiary.uk

June 23rd, 2014

UK websites are now being found using the new .uk domain. This means that as well as the sites ending .co.uk and .org.uk etc. there will now be sites ending directly with .uk

Days Out Diary - fun days out in the UK

I have registered my first website which is daysoutdiary.uk. This is in addition to the original site address at daysoutdiary.co.uk. I think this is a great improvement in the name for my site. The Days Out Diary website is not run with corporate aims, it’s designed as a public information site. Then it’s not run as part of an organisation or charity as such so didn’t fit in with the .org.uk domain either.

So now it’s shorter and has a more appropriate name to match it’s purpose.

You can now register .UK domains through your own hosting / DNS provider – or find out more at: Dot UK launch website.

Please visit Days Out Diary website for days out in the UK or holidays in the UK and abroad.

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UK days out, children and holiday information is also available on the Days Out Diary web site
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