Raspberry PI

I treated myself to a Raspberry PI as a kind of late Christmas present. I am intrigued by the idea of something so small and inexpensive aimed at giving kids (and interested adults) the ability to get to grips with basic computing at a very low cost. I bought the Maplin Raspberry PI starter kit which cost £74.99 and included the Raspberry PI itself, keyboard, wireless wifi USB eifi dongle, mouse, USB hub, SD card containing the Linux Debian wheezy distribution and two power supplies,

I purloined a tv screen from the spare room and set about putting it together. To my surprise it was fairly straightforward. My biggest problem, I’m ashamed to admit, was remembering to change the tv input to HDMI so I spent 15 minutes puzzling as to why the little lights on the Raspberry PI board were on yet nothing was displaying on the TV. šŸ™‚

I posted on Facebook to say that I had bought an RPi and a number of friends commented to say that they too had done so. One mentioned an iPad app iSSH which allowed you user in an iPad as a remote shell, like a terminal window where you can enter commands. I installed this and after reading the help, soon successfully got it running. It was much easier driving the RPi from the iPad than sitting crouched on the floor. I felt very pleased with myself.

A high priority is to to protect the RPi with a case as it is very vulnerable perched on the cardboard packaging with wires etc coming out of it and the cats roaming around it looking interested. I had ordered a very nice case from Maplins which arrived promptly and although relatively expensive at £12.95, was really well made and worthwhile.

My first impressions are that this is a neat little tool that is surprisingly powerful considering it is running from an OS installed on a 4Gb SD card. I found it fairly easy to use, but I found myself dredging back into my ancient memories of unix when following the instructions on the Maplin getting started leaflet And the beginners guide.

The Raspberry Pi beginners guide is very good and introduces you to the command line, bandying around text strings like bash, shell, Linux flavours etc. I wonder how kids whose ICT lessons consist of learning how to use word and excel will take to this. I suspect that even the most technically astute might struggle with such concepts.

Everything is configurable, but you really need to get down into what feels like the nuts and bolts to effect changes. For example, I wanted to make the font size bigger on the TV. Looking in the very well written RPi beginner’s guide I first tried to edit the config file called console-setup to change the “terminus” values as instructed in the book. However, I got the message that the file did not have write permission to edit. In the GUI I then right-clicked the file to change the permissions on it and got a message that I did not have sufficient privileges to do this. 

At this point I needed to call upon knowledge that a beginner would not be likely to have about file permissions and file ownership. I opened a terminal window, used “cd” to get to the directory containing the config file, I used “pwd” to check the permissions  and then “chmod” to change the permissions on the file.  These are all cryptic commands, and I had forgotten the precise order you need to specify permissions after the chmod command. The online help is accessed via “man” command which is suggested by the book, but it is both is very difficult to read and understand. I took several trial and error attempts to get the permissions fixed so that I could edit the config file. That was successful and that worked on next boot up shell, but didn’t work on shells created from the GUI. I then needed to use lxterm configuration to change font size from within the GUI environment. I right clicked the desktop to fix the size of the desktop icons, but within each app window I then had to change the fint size there too.

This is an awful lot of different files and preferences to change in order to do what feels like a simple thing; to make the fonts on the TV screen easy to read. It is the sort of think anybody using the RPi for the first time will want to do. Kids will search google for answers, but may give up fairly quickly if the answers aren’t rapidly available.

There are social networks focused on using your Raspberry PI which may support novices, eg the google+ RPi community and forums in which people discuss all aspects but which can be fairly difficult to navigate to find the information you want. Whether or not children will use these resources remains to be seen. 

Don’t get me wrong. I think the RPI is a brilliant and accessible piece of kit. I think that kids whose parents have a grounding in computers, and kids whose school ICT teachers are inspiring and prepared to encourage interests that extend beyond the current ICT curriculum will really get a lot out of playing with it. However those children whose parents lack the skills necessary to support their kids through the initial learning curve may well get put off in the early stages.

Raspberry PI and cool Maplin protective case (un assembled)Assembling the case

Attaching the caseThe finished protected RPi

By Gill

Update 2nd Jan 2013

Just found out via twitter that there is is now a neat Educational Manual available via Crelative Commons as a PDF. First look suggests it may well help beginners get going. 

Posted in by Gill, Raspberry PI, Research Tools, technology | 5 Comments


I got a Kindle touch for my birthday in July. I’d resisted these devices up until then because having become accustomed to the touch screen interface of the iPad, and unsure of how I would take to reading books on a screen, I didn’t want to risk getting one and not using it.

Once the touch-screen version came along, it seemed worth a try.

It has very much transformed the way I read. Firstly, it is so small and compact and very much lighter than an iPad, I can carry it everywhere with me in my handbag. The screen, as has been well documented elsewhere, is very easy on the eyes. The main thing for me has been the way it has changed how I read books.

It is like having a small library with you at all times. Whereas I used to read one book at a time, I now have 4 or 5 on the go. I read one or the other depending on my mood. I have the Alan Sugar biography which is easy to dip into, the weighty first book of the Cave Bear trilogy, the popular sci if Earth Girl, a book on minimalist living (I’m just about to move house and need to clutter clear) and an Alvin Hall book on managing your money (again, moving house so fairly apt, not that I’ll have any to manage once I’ve paid all the extortionate fees and duty).

I discovered the Earth Girl book on the Kindle best seller lists and got hooked by reading the sample chapter. A very good marketing technique. In a book shop, you don’t usually have time to read a full chapter before deciding to buy a book, but with the kindle you download the chapter and can read it at your leisure. I’m reading more, and getting even more enjoyment out of this new more varied way of reading that I have developed.

My only disappointment thus far is that the OU library do not yet make kindle books and magazines available to borrow. I imagine there are various rights issues to resolve; I have asked them about it. I’d love to be able to include the new books on educational technology in my treasure trove or reading material in my handbag, to dip into whenever I have a spare moment.

By Gill

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The “Car Crash” that is the end of a 3-year EU Funded Project

The end of my current 3-year EU-funded project, xDelia, was 31st May. Fortunately we obtained two month’s follow-on fundingĀ taking my contract until the end of July. As we approached the end of the project, my line manager, Eileen, who is far more experienced in large European projects than I, warned me about the “car crash” effect that would happen as we approached the end.

She was right!

Multiple small delays had a cumulative affect which ultimately has had an impact on time available for writing the end-of-project deliverables. Having multiple partners based in different institutions across Europe meant that collaboration was key. In fact, I think that we became really good at fast and efficient interdisciplinary collaboration by the end of the project. Nevertheless, it still leaves a huge workload at the end. I wonder if this ever changes.

by Gill

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More Wasted Efforts

Like Rebecca in herĀ Time Wasters post, I too applied for a British Academy Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship. The bid went in in November 2011, and I had set up collaborations with 4 other academic institutions. Like Rebecca, my bid was unsuccessful. In their response, The British Academy highlighted the high level of competition:

One of the principal reasons for the slight delay in releasing the results of the outline stage of the competition has been the large numbers of applications submitted for the competition. This round has proved even more competitive than ever before. A record field of 923 applications were submitted for assessment at the outline stage. Approximately 14% of the total number of applicants, (around 130), have been invited to submit second stage applications, and there are only likely to be around 45 awards at most available at the end of the competition. This means that less than half of those invited to submit second-stage applications are likely to be successful; and the final success rate in the competition is likely to be under 5%.

So, a lot of wasted effort all round.

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Time Wasters

Almost a year ago, I was unsuccessful in a funding bid to the British Academy. I tried again with a different scheme this year and, again, was unsuccessful. Once again, there is no feedback. The notification email specifically says
“Please note that feedback is not a feature of the Small Research Grants scheme, and the Academy is, regretfully, unable to enter into correspondence regarding the decisions of the awarding Committee.”
Out of 996 applicants, around 70% were unsuccessful. That means around 825 researchers put time into a bid and received nothing in return. They called on support from other academics, from administrators, from the IT department, maybe from the legal department – and all that time and effort was wasted.
How much time and effort was wasted?
Well, say each bid took four days to write, submit and review. Say the average person working on it was earning Ā£40,000 a year and was paid to work 225 days a year (five day week, excluding holidays). So altogether the writing and reviewing process took about 4000 days, or 17.8 working years. I make that Ā£712,000.
The maximum grant available was Ā£10,000, so the academy gave out maybe Ā£1.4 million to the successful applicants.
The British Academy is a major research funder. I’d be interested to know how they review their grant allocation and bidding process. Why are they demanding so much effort to be made by researchers and institutions, and why are they providing such a poor return to the majority? Why do they not make this a learning process by providing feedback? Are the universities calling them to account?

Posted in Bidding for funding, by Rebecca, Reflections | 1 Comment

Bidding Frenzy

Life is getting tough in the world of academia, with fewer funding calls and more competition for those that are available. The Institute of Education Technology (IET) is putting in a huge number of bids in January, about 12 I think. Those involved have been working day, night and weekends to get the bids written, approved by contracts and finance and submitted to the relevant bidding system by the deadline. It is worth while uploading the bid the day before because in the hours running up to the deadline, the system can get overloaded and it has been known to miss a call despite having a fully completed and approved bid together simply because the system got overloaded and wouldn’t accept the submission.

As a contract researcher, the success of these bids for funding is of critical importance. I am now within less than 6 months from the end of my three-year contract and have helped out with some of the funding bids. There is a system whereby a contract researcher can be a “Named Researcher” in a bid. This means that if the bid gets funded, you get offered the post without having to go through the process of advertising and interview. So I have potentially got another three-year contract. However, I won’t know whether the bids I am named on will be successful until after the end of my current contract.

If I knew for sure that there would be only, say, a 3 month gap between the end of my current contract and the start of the next, I would make arrangements for that period. But nobody knows whether a given bid will be successful. Ā So what should I do? Look for work in the meantime seems a sensible move. But if I find something and move on, and the bid I am really interested in gets funded, then it will be really disappointing not to be work on it.

It is a dilemma. Do I risk having an indefinite period of unemployment by holding off looking for other jobs until I know for certain about the bids I am interested in? A risky strategy.

By Gill

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Social Technologies, Cyber-Bullying and Age

Facebook first became popular with young people of university age. They use it to co-ordinate their social lives, alongside mobile phones, to share photos and generally add an extra dimension to the fun side of being at uni. There are more ways in which it can be used, but I think that remains the basis.

Working in education technology, I started to use Facebook to see what potential it might have in the educational sphere. At the start, I didn’t find Facebook particularly enthralling. I’m not a young uni student and I don’t need it to co-ordinate my social life. However as more of my social circles began to use it and I found it to be quite a good way to keep in touch with a range of Ā distributed social networks. These include family who live at a distance, old school friends, friends I used to live near but no longer see as regularly, OU work colleagues and a close-knit social circle based around the shared weekly activity of Morris Dancing. Indeed, the Morris side has moved its website onto Facebook so when you click the website address, you get routed to a Facebook page which makes it much easier to maintain a dynamic web presence.

The vast majority of my Facebook contacts were over 30 when they started using it.

For the most part, all runs fairly smoothly. People post amusing links or anecdotes on their walls to which others respond in a lively and comic vein. Videos and photos get posted which help people keep in touch and all in all it provides a pleasant diversion.

However sometimes the status updates and comments are not so amusing – there are oblique and unpleasant references to other members of the social circle. Allusions to intrigues and references to personal issues that would really be better kept out of the public domain. I have also seen parents who effectively stalk their offspring on facebook, commenting on their posts and photos in a way that must make the kids cringe and sometimes drives them to “unfriend” their own parents.

I was talking to my daughter about these behaviours. She has grown up with facebook and in her opinion, “older people” just don’t know how to use social networking properly. She pointed out that when young people use facebook, they are also meeting up with their facebook contacts during the evening and day. This means that if they start posting inappropriate and tedious status updates on their wall, or on the walls of others, their friends will tell them in no uncertain terms. Along the lines of “Why on earth are you whinging about your boyfriend dumping you. Nobody is interested, get over it”. She suggested that young people get “trained” in the appropriate way to use the technology. She is strongly of the opinion that “older people” miss out on this essential learning stage.

This may be true. But from what she said, there are also young people who misuse Facebook as a vehicle for cyber-harassment. If they continue with the nasty posts, she simply blocks them and because she sees them on a daily basis, she tells them that she is blocking them because she doesn’t want to see their unpleasant comments. However it is possible that these young people simply carry on. Is inappropriate use of social networks the result of older people lacking a fundamental understanding of how to use them. Or will young cyber-bulliesĀ grow up to be old cyber-harassers? Do bullies of all ages simply deploy the new technologies that they encounter to extend their bullying activities into the online sphere, attempting to use the social media as another way to isolate and undermine their victims?

I wonder… Ā  by Gill

Cyber-Bullying picture

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Evolving Uses for the iPad

I’ve had the iPad for nearly two months now, and am finding a pattern of use. However I think this pattern of use will differ for different people according to their preferences and lifestyle.

iPad Geocaching


Geocaching (see photo). OK, it looks a little odd to be trekking through the woods holding what looks like a giant iPhone, but the GPS works really well and as my iPhone is an early 3G model, I found it useful to pull out the iPad periodically as the map orients itself according to the direction you are facing. Sim card not essential for this, as you can download Geocaching info and maps using wifi, but it did help.

In car navigation. When not driving, it was tremendously helpful to be able to pull out the iPad and look up where we needed to go. Indeed, en route for our holiday, we got to around lunchtime and I used it to look up a nice pub in the vicinity and navigate us there. It was a bit irritating, but understandable, that it would show all nearby pubs including those that were behind us, but it was still very useful. Sim card essential.


Holiday. 3G was very useful enabling us to look up places of interest, opening times etc. You could also do this with a laptop but you’d need wifi or tether it to a phone. An iPhone also provides this functionality, but I’ve been finding that for many things, the slightly larger iPad screen makes it the first choice over the iPhone.


Train journeys. Had to commute to London for 5 days last week and the iPad was brilliant. It was lighter to carry and easier to pull out in a crowded train to check email etc. The journeys passed in an instant. I was also able to upload PDFs and papers I wanted to read and read them easily in the train. I wouldn’t tend to use the iPad for reading because I like to give my eyes a rest from the screen periodically, but it was good to have this facility there for the train journeys.

iPad book reader My husband had a book reader which he used of flights. He now uses the iPad in preference so clearly it performs well as a book reader.

Recently my husband had to go to the US on a 10 hour flight. He found the iPad lasted the entire time, despite watching a film on it and also playing a driving game.

Films and TV

I tried out the BBC iPlayer to see if it worked, and got absorbed by the programme. Quality on the iPad seems pretty good and it is easy to lie down with it tucked beside you, or have it on your lap.


I don’t tend to use it for listening to music – I have an iPhone and a couple of iPod Nanos for that. Once function where small size is an advantage. However I do use it for learning tunes to play on the accordion from YouTube videos. The speaker is good enough and the screen size makes it better for learning dance tunes as you can see what the dancers are doing.

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3G Sim for iPad

I’ve got the 64Gig 3G iPad. There doesn’t seem much point in going for a lower specification model as I’m fairly sure that once I have it, I’ll want to use all the top-end features, such as GPS combined with 3G etc.

So, having played with the iPad for a day or so, I looked up all the sim card deals for the iPad last night. It’s fairly confusing and rapidly changing. The advantage of an iPad is that it can use any 3G network. This will hopefully encourage competition which will get the best deal for users.

According to the Apple website, you can use a sim from Orange, O2, Vodaphone and Three. Each link takes you to the appropriate page on the provider website where their data plans are outlined. The main thing we wanted was a micro-sim that would allow you to purchase data for a week, or a month to cover a holiday, but which would not tie you in to a monthly contract.

We headed off for Cambridge to get some essential extras from the Apple store (a camera connector to download pics directly to the iPad and a VGA adaptor for slide presentations) and we asked there. They are clean out of sim cards, but said that O2 were the only non-recurring tariff available and that Vodaphone required you to sign a contract. We trotted across the precinct to O2 but, they had no micro-sims either. We were advised to purchase our micro-sims online and I think that is definitely the best option. What I want is a sim that I can load up with credit for when I’m planning to be away, say on holiday or at a conference.

I just went on the online chat to Vodaphone. Despite what the website implies, the 30day is a rolling contract and you have to give 30 days’ notice that you want to suspend it. He also pointed out that even on pay as you go, if you don’t top up within 90 days the card is locked.

Meanwhile, O2 seems to offer closer to what we are after.

Here’s a neat website with a guide to iPad data tariffs.

by Gill

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My new iPad

Its just arrived – one day before it’s out in the shops. Very exciting. I’ve twittered and facebooked it and got some interesting comments. As most of my friends are pretty geeky, there were several along the lines of “can I see it”. One or two “I’m stuck in London and mine is being delivered at home” and lots of witty. I got one from someone who had previously commented:
“Thousands queuing for iPad on it’s first day of release” – saddos! Apple should wise up and make an iHoover, iIron and iSaucepan then the wives of the geeks would never have to clean, iron or cook again šŸ˜‰

asking me:

Oh no…you weren’t one of the saddos who placed an immediate order for the latest Apple gadget were you?! Please tell me it’s just for work/research and not something you really wanted… I’m deeply concerned šŸ˜‰

Another friend came up with a more interesting question, saying

I am intrigued to know what you will do with it. I can’t think of a use except for movies. I’d really like to know how you get on with it. Enjoy your new gadget – it’s always fun getting them.
This got me thinking about what I expected I’d be doing with it and triggered this post. The iPad is currently syncing with my mac mini upstairs so I’m going to list the things I expect I’ll be able to do with it here, and then after a few weeks come back and compare with what I actually do with it.
What I expect to be doing with my iPad
  • Social networking – Using twitter and facebook apps. I have a 3G version, although no sim card yet, so I anticipate being able to use it as a lightweight device on holiday or when I’m away to get on the net and keep up to date.
  • Email- but only home email, not work.
  • Sharing – when I take photos on holiday, it is nice to be able to upload them for friends to see, or just for safekeeping to mobleme.
  • Web browsing – lots of that, including watching news videos etc. I think the screen is enough bigger than an iphone to make it very nice to use.
  • Playing apps – I enjoy the little iPhone apps. They’re good for passing the time when waiting to collect somebody off a train, or indeed, when on a train or a plane.
  • Music, video podcasts and movies – possibly. I don’t actually use my iPhone for music. I have a couple of iPod nanos that are dedicated music players and I use them almost exclusively. The iPhone is an emergency music player if I need one. I may watch video podcasts on the iPad as the screen is bigger. I’ve never watched a movie either on the laptop or the iPhone so I can’t imagine I’d watch one of the iPad unless, of course, I were away and bored.
  • Possibly taking notes at conferences or meetings. I’m not really sure about this one. I don’t know how easily I’ll manage the lack of response from the virtual keypad as I’m a touch-typist. Also, as it is my own iPad, I think if I’m working I’ll always have my mac with me.
I view it as primarily a personal device, like my iPhone, that I will use in the same way as I use my iPhone, to share my photos or other artefacts (website whatever) with my friends, and as a portal onto the web for when I’m away from my desk. The current data plans look flexible enough to suit me – you can pay for a day’s worth or a week or a month non-recurring, so I can plan when I’m going to need data access and purchase accordingly.

by Gill

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