Book review: Getting started with Raspberry Pi (so what exactly is it for?!)

This content is 11 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

A few weeks ago, we were visiting friends who have a teenage son. He’d received a Raspberry Pi for Christmas but was struggling to understand what to do with it.  You see, he’d loaded Raspbian, fired up Scratch, etc. – but still had a pretty big question: what could he do on the Raspberry Pi that he couldn’t already do on his Windows laptop?

That made me stop and think. You see, for as much as I think the Raspberry Pi is a fantastic device for low-cost computing – and a great entry point for those who have a TV but not a PC;  many UK families already have at least one PC – indeed I used to think I was in the minority with my assortment of computing devices but even non-geek friends have multiple laptops (kids need them for school work, parents for their professional work), smartphones/tablets, and games consoles.

So what can the Raspberry Pi do that a PC can’t?  For starters, the GPIO pins mean it’s (potentially) easier to interface with other hardware. Secondly, the lower price point means that, if you blow one up, it’s less of a problem than a PC.  Also, as someone whose computing education started out with logic gates and boolean algebra, it allows one to get a lot closer to core computing principles – you can directly interact with a Pi in a way that’s not possible (or at least not as simple) with modern PCs.

That didn’t help my friends’ son much – although I did help to configure their router to allow him to run a Minecraft server, which scored me a few Brownie points…

Even so, I decided to buy a book to investigate further – partly with my friends’ issue in mind but also out of interest for myself. The book I selected was Getting Started with Raspberry Pi (Make: Projects/O’Reilly) by Matt Richardson and Shawn Wallace and it really is a pretty good introduction.  In a handful of easy-to-read chapters it skims the surface of getting up and running, understanding some Linux essentials, Python, Scratch, interfacing with other boards like Arduino, basic I/O, and working with webcams and Internet resources. Plenty of food for thought, to develop ideas for new projects (I still want to explore options to control a train set with some sort of Pi/Arduino setup when I find the time…). It doesn’t go deep, but nor should it – as one Amazon review says “You will need to be comfortable with computers in general, but if you’re, say, happy installing software on your standard Windows machine, you’ll be fine”.

I’ll be handing my copy over to my friends’ son – to see what a 15 year old makes of it… in the meantime, if you’re struggling to see the purpose of a Raspberry Pi (except as a small, inexpensive general purpose computer), this book might help to generate some ideas.

Useful links: November 2012

This content is 12 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

A list of items I’ve come across recently that I found potentially useful, interesting, or just plain funny:

Thought for the day: coping with information overload

This content is 15 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

As I return from a well-earned family holiday, after what has been a pretty crappy few months, it seems like a pretty good time to remind myself of the key points from a magazine cutting that is permanently above my desk at home. Entitled “Your Route to the Top: Coping with Overload”, this appeared in the December 2005 edition of Management Today magazine and looks like good advice with which to reacquaint myself (indeed, an updated version of this list appeared in the May 2009 issue of the magazine):

Focus. Successful people are rarely frantic, and frantic people are rarely successful. Take a close look at your schedule and clear out the clutter.

Make you time your own. Is your diary driving you? Take control and be as careful with commitments as you are considerate of other people’s time.

Let go. Trying to achieve everything is admirable, but impossible. Realise that an active imagination will generate more proposals than there is time to get done.

Have a single point of reference. A master to-do list will triumpth over an abundance of sticky notes, text reminders and diary scribbles.

Prioritise. What’s critical in the next hours, days or weeks? Choose your priorities and fix a later time for less urgent things.

Ditch your dependants. Are there people in your team who rely on your time? Support them in solving their problems alone. They will feel more confident; you’ll find more time to breathe.

Lighten the load. Are there ideas where others can help? Match interests to tasks – could someone else write the first draft or attend a new client meeting?

Break down big tasks. Split a job into its components and tackle each part as needed, rather than struggle to do it all now.

Bring clarity through sharing. Engaging others at the start can reassure you that you’re on the right track. It also ensures their support and cuts the risk of having to invest time later.

Use others to estimate your time. Research has shown that other people give more accurate estimates of how long something takes than the person doing the task.

Get on with it. Once you have worked out where your focus is, stop organising and start doing.”

Also on my reading list whilst I was away were a couple of MindGym books that my wife bought for me some time ago and David Allen’s Getting Things Done: How to Achieve Stress-free Productivity. Paradoxically, getting around to reading books like Getting Things Done, is something I’ve been consistently failing to get done for the last couple of years! Let’s see if any of this reading helps me to be more effective when I return to work next week!

[Postscript: I wrote this post and set it to publish whilst I was away… I never did get around to reading the Getting Things Done or MindGym books. Nor did I finish the one about understanding my strong-willed child, or even the Harry Potter that I’m mid-way through. I did manage to read a few photography magazines though and catch up on my backlog of Sunday Times motoring supplements! Never mind… maybe applying some of the actions above will help me to make the time to catch up on my reading!]

Microsoft PowerShell, VBScript and JScript Bible

This content is 15 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

At last night’s joint user group meeting for the Windows Server UK User Group and the Active Directory UK User Group, James O’Neill mentioned that the book he has co-authored (Microsoft PowerShell, VBScript and JScript Bible, published by John Wiley and sons) goes on sale today.

I haven’t had the chance to review it yet but knowing how immersed James is in PowerShell (and that he wrote the PowerShell sections), I would suggest this might be worth considering if you are looking for a good reference book.

Free Microsoft Virtualization eBook from Microsoft Press

This content is 15 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Every now and again, Microsoft Press makes free e-books available. I just missed out on the PDF version of the Windows Vista Resource Kit as part of the Microsoft Press 25th anniversary (the offer was only valid for a few days and it expired yesterday… that’s what happens when I don’t keep on top of my e-mail newsletters) but Mitch Tulloch’s book on Understanding Microsoft Virtualization Solutions is also available for free download (I don’t know how long for though… based on previous experience, that link won’t be valid for long).

This book covers Windows Server 2008 Hyper-V, System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008, Microsoft Application Virtualization 4.5 (App-V), Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization (MED-V), and Microsoft Virtual Desktop Infrastructure. If you’re looking to learn about any of these technologies, it would be a good place to start.

Free eBook from Microsoft Press

This content is 16 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Windows Server 2008 TCP/IP Protocols and ServicesMicrosoft Press is celebrating it’s 25th anniversary with a free eBook of the month offer. This Month’s offer is Windows Server 2008 TCP/IP Protocols and Services by Joseph Davies and, although I haven’t read it yet, I probably will (at least in part) as the TCP/IP stack has changed considerably in Windows Vista and Server 2008.

Find out more, or sign-up for future offers on the Microsoft Learning website.

Passed Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer exam 70-296

This content is 16 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Last week I wrote about having scraped through the first of two exams needed to update my MCSE from 2000 to 2003 and this morning I passed the second by an equally narrow margin.  Whilst I’m pleased to have passed the Planning, Implementing and Maintaining a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Environment for an MCSE Certified on Windows 2000 exam (exam 70-296), and am similarly glad that I found it challenging (i.e. worthwhile), I did sail a little close to the wind – and that wasn’t for lack of preparation either. So what happened?

I’ve worked with Windows NT since 1995, been an MCP since 1998 (and MCSE since 1999) worked with Active Directory since NT 5.0 beta 2 and generally have a fair amount of Microsoft Windows Server design and implementation experience in a variety of organisations.  Even though I’ve remained technical, it’s inevitable that as I progress in my career, I spend more time managing and less time doing – meaning that I do not have a huge amount of recent operational or administrative experience.  So, in order to upgrade my MCSE I needed to refresh my knowledge of the key concepts without re-learning everything from scratch.

With that in mind, and the impending withdrawal of the MCSE 2000-2003 upgrade exams, last summer, I bought a Microsoft Press Training Kit entitled Upgrading your Certification to Microsoft Windows Server 2003.  It’s a weighty tome and includes evaluation software, eBooks and a readiness review suite from MeasureUp.  It’s actually a really good purchase but, at 1100 pages and almost 2.5kg, I found it too large (physically) to keep lugging it around with me and, despite the title, it seems to be targetted at people who are setting out on the MCSE path for the first time.

Then, a few months back, I used an practice test from pass4sure to help prepare for MCTS exam 70-624.  I passed the exam, but the software was Java-based (and the installer failed to recognise that my system already had Java installed and tried to install it again), was full of bugs and, at $79.99 for just 53 questions, I felt that it was very poor value for money.  So, when uCertify asked me to review their PrepKits I was interested to compare them with my previous experiences.

uCertify kindly provided review copies of the PrepKits for exams 70-292 and 70-296 and, from the moment I installed them, I could see that the quality was way above my previous experience.  No buggy installer – these went straight onto my Vista system with no issues, and I was greeted with a professional interface.  Unlike the pass4sure practice tests, there were a few hundred questions (albeit with a fair amount of repetition – I calculated about 15% appeared in multiple practice tests) and tests were available as pre-defined practice tests, adaptive tests, custom tests (for example, just the questions that have previously be answered incorrectly), or an interactive quiz.  There was also a complete run-down of the exam objectives and other study aids including flash cards, study notes and articles.  Finally, the software allows the ability to view test history and to evaluate readiness using the built-in reporting tools.

uCertify PrepKit

I set to work on the practice tests, and found that there were two possible modes – test mode (with feedback at the end) and learn mode, whereby a fairly detailed explanation was available on request after answering each question.  For some of the questions, I did not (and still do not) agree with the answers provided but the tool also includes the ability to provide feedback to uCertify and on at least one question I could view the feedback that others had provided.  I also spotted quite a few grammatical and spelling errors – one was even in the interface itself so occurred on multiple questions.

Even though the general quality of the PrepKit software is high, there are some very obvious bugs.  On my Windows Vista system I found that if I paused a test and then cancelled the pause, the clock did not start counting again – but that was actually useful because in learn mode there is not a lot of time by default (58 questions in 60 minutes) to take in the information.  I also had a problem whereby the software lost my exam history – a minor annoyance, but it did effectively prevent me from retesting using just the questions I had answered incorrectly.

So, the software generally is not bad – it has a few issues but no show-stoppers.  But what about its effectiveness?  Taking exam 70-292 as an example, I saw my scores increase but I do wonder if, due to the repetition of the questions, I was actually learning the answers to the PrepKit tests rather than applying the knowledge gained in order to answer the question correctly (the difference may be subtle – but it is significant).  This was particularly evident when I moved on to the PrepKit for exam 70-296, where there was some repetition of questions from the PrepKit for exam 70-292 (unsurprising as the exam objectives also overlap) and I consistently scored above 80% (with most tests above 90%).

My theory about learning the answers rather than learning the key concepts that are required to answer the questions correctly appears to be born out in my results from the real exams.  The Microsoft NDA prevents me from discussing their content but I do have to wonder if, when I can consistently score above 90% in a practice test – even with the final test – which is intended to be more difficult than the vendor exam – how come I barely scraped a pass score in the real thing?

So, to summarise – do I think the uCertify PrepKits are worth the money?  Probably. Will they prepare you to pass the exam? Possibly.  Microsoft/Prometric are currently offering free exam insurance (Second Shot) and, in any case, uCertify offer their own money-back guarantee but, based on my experience, the PrepKits form just one part of an overall preparation strategy – and my usual method of re-reading course materials and writing my own notes seems to work better for me.

You can try the uCertify PrepKits for yourself – and I’d be interested to hear how people get on.  Demonstration versions can be downloaded for free and access to the full PrepKit is unlocked with a license key costing around $59.99 with discounts for multiple purchases.  It’s worth noting that the uCertify PrepKits are not just for Microsoft certifications either – there are PrepKits available for a variety of vendors with further details available at

[Update 20 February 2008: You can get 10% off the uCertify PrepKit of your choice using the discount code MARWIL]

The Photoshop book for digital photographers

This content is 17 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

It’s been a busy year. My family blog hasn’t been updated in a very long time and we’ve been accumulating digital photos of the boys at an alarming rate. Last night my wife and I and I went through some of them to work out which ones to print (we still have paper-based albums because they are easier to look at) and we still have a lot left to sort out.

I don’t print the photos at home because the high street labs can do it more cost-effectively (sure, they screw up the colours more than I would like for some of my work but remember we’re only talking about the family album here). Even so, there are some edits that need to be made before I send the photos to the lab, and whilst the free tools with Windows or OS X will help me, I prefer the control that a tool like Adobe Photoshop gives me.

The Photoshop book for digital photographersThe trouble is, Photoshop is not always intuitive. I want to understand what I’m doing but half the time I don’t – and the local adult education Photoshop classes run in the daytime (when I’m at work). That’s where the Photoshop book for digital photographers comes in handy. I asked Santa to bring me this as a Christmas present a couple of years back and it’s been great. The main difference between this book and any other Photoshop book that I’ve seen is that instead of telling me what the various features are in Photoshop and how to use them, it takes me through an example (like instant red eye removal, colour-correcting images, or stitching panoramas together), with illustrations. I suppose now I need the traditional manual to teach me how Photoshop works (I’m considering buying the Adobe Photoshop CS3 classroom in a book), but this book gets me going – in effect it teaches me how to do things, not why a particular method works. I still have to ask my friend Alex for help on the more complex stuff (he does pre-press work for a living and really knows his way around Photoshop, Xpress, etc.) but at least with this book I can be self-sufficient for 95% of my digital photo edits. I should probably point out that the version of the book I’m using is based on Photoshop 7.0 but the techniques still seem to work for me with CS2.

If only real life was like Photoshop, I could use the book techniques to remove dark circles under my eyes, whiten teeth, remove love-handles, generally slim and trim myself. Sadly, life’s not like that – so another big push with Weightwatchers and some more exercise it’ll be then…