Rasberry Pi, a practical guide to the revolutionary small computer, Owners’ Workshop Manual

B1815

The manual begins with a foreword by Eban and Liz Upton, the parents of the Raspberry Pi. That nicely places the device in a perspective and is followed by an Introduction that provides a very brief history of the last forty years of computers and networking and gives an introduction to the manual. For anyone who has bought a Haynes manual on any of the many subjects their manuals cover, this manual will be no surprise. It is laid out very logically with crisp text and lavish illustration. Although some knowledge of the subject is required, the contents are understandable without extensive knowledge and even a complete novice could gain from reading the manual.

The manual provides a very readable introduction to assembling Raspberry and turning it into a working system that can receive programmes to make it produce something useful. The manual then works through the options for programming and the various connections and peripherals that can be connected up. In the process it becomes a computing cookbook and readers will find many choices and some exciting thoughts and concepts.

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NAME: Rasberry Pi, a practical guide to the revolutionary small computer, Owners’ Workshop Manual
CLASSIFICATION: Book Reviews
FILE: R1815
DATE: 030313
AUTHOR: Gray Girling
PUBLISHER: Haynes
BINDING: hard back
PAGES: 169
PRICE: £17.99
GENRE: Non Fiction
SUBJECT:
ISBN: 978-0-85733-295-0
IMAGE: B1815.jpg
BUYNOW: http://tinyurl.com/c6b6ykf
LINKS:
DESCRIPTION: Following the announcement by Google to purchase 15,000 Raspberry Pi computers for schools across the UK, the publisher has produced a Workshop Manual in association with the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

The history of the computer industry is strewn with claims that a new revolution is created by a particular product. Very often, these claims prove to be hyperbole with very little justification. Sometimes the claims appear well-founded, only to be degraded as the industry takes a different turn. Charles Babbage can claim to have developed the first modern mechanical computing engine in the 19th Century and a recent reproduction has demonstrated that his design worked very well. His motivation in designing the engine may have been an attempt to allow him to break casinos, but he drew funding from the British Admiralty and provided the basis on which mechanical computers would be developed and used in two World Wars to aim gun and torpedo attacks. However, his is unlikely to have been the first mechanical computer and there is growing evidence that the Ancient Greeks and Romans had portable mechanical computers, used for marine navigation. Therefore, nothing is ever really ‘new’ or ‘revolutionary’ outside its narrow historical context.

The German development of the electro-mechanical encryption machine, Enigma, was to prompt the British to develop some amazing programmable electro-mechanical computers in an attempt to break German codes during WWII. These machines led on to the construction of the first digital programmable electronic computers by the British during WWII. At the end of war, Churchill ordered the destruction of these computers to prevent the incoming Atlee Labour Government from giving them to the Soviet Union as they were to give the Soviets jet engines and other advanced British military technology. This led to the US exploiting the potential for a computer industry by building mainframe computers in the 1950s, using information given by Britain to the US during WWII.

Mainframe computers were to cause a revolution. They replaced visible financial records with invisible digital records, automated tasks and replaced humans in an increasing number of activities, and were then linked in networks to each other and to Remote Job Entry terminals. At that point the computer was still a hideously expensive machine that required special accommodation and a team of trained specialists who were rare and privileged individuals. As each manufacturer employed proprietary techniques for commercial reasons, people trained on one machine could not move smoothly to a machine from a different manufacturer and that was of course a deliberate approach to tie customers to particular manufacturers. There were also no standard applications. The first decision was on which hardware to purchase and then to find people to write custom programs, keeping the cost of computers high, and increasing the time required to install and bring a new computer into operation.

The next revolution was the development of the microprocessor that made the construction of intelligent workstations possible. It also allowed the computer to break out of the small community that had been running computers and to make computing affordable to many more companies. The Personal Computer has dominated computing for longer than the mainframe. The Microsoft PC Operating System and the UNIX Workstation Operating Systems were as revolutionary as the microprocessor and turned the industry from one that built hundreds of machines a year into one that built millions. That enormous increase in manufacturing volume inevitably allowed for rapid price reduction as ‘shrink-wrapped’ software was produced for the new workstations to allow someone with limited computer knowledge to buy a machine and applications packaged ready to use from the box. However, that explosion of the computer market place might never have happened had it not been for the small Commodore computer, the BBC Micro computer and the early games consoles that fired the imagination of millions and provided basic experience of the computer, helping employers to find and train workers who would increasingly depend on small computers and computer networks. The micro computer technology also introduced a further revolution as the mainframe, host terminal architecture, was replaced in many applications by the client server architecture and the attendant networking technology. The client and the server employed very similar and, increasingly, identical technology.

The other true revolutionary factor was the creation of the Internet. This US Department of Defence funded network was intended to link Universities, defence contractors and the US military and to provide a nuclear resistant network. As it was also decided to allow ordinary people to use the Internet in its early days, it became a Computer Citizens’ Band communications system that was to expand outside the US to cover virtually every country in the world. Inevitably it was soon exploited commercially and has probably been the greatest revolution since the construction of the very first mechanical computers. The Internet may not be the most effective technical network design but it is very low cost. Personal computer workstations may contain many, serious vulnerabilities, but they are cheap and readily available for home and work. The industry has also been revolutionizing life by developing computers to control virtually every electrical device.

There has also been a revolution that is not directly based on any technology but it more of an ideological revolution. Those of us old enough to have lived through the change may argue about which came first. The Internet helped to create or expand a community that was based on its interpretation of the freedom of information in relation to computers and communications. In many respects it was a form of communism. The argument was that the Internet had to be completely unregulated so that no form of censorship could exist. People anywhere in the world could communicate any thoughts in any form to anyone else. It was Information Without Boundaries. From that basic philosophy, has grown the Free Software Foundation and the GNU licensing system. It was argued logically that freedom of information required free computer software so that every citizen would have access to this new communications and information environment. The Raspberry Pi is a child of that philosophy but how it sits with the intentions of large multi-national corporations is open to debate. Companies like Google and Microsoft and ORACLE still feel the need to dominate and destroy all competition. In the process they feel the need for ownership and their arrogance leads to the types of abuse exposed when it was discovered that Google felt no constraints over its assumption that it could acquire sensitive private information without even telling the victims that it was doing so, that it happily hacked private systems and directly broke a host of regulations and laws. In that culture, large corporations have been adopting Free Software and attempting to turn it into proprietary products that they then control. This raises many questions about where products and initiatives like Raspberry Pi will be going to in the coming years.

Against that background, the claim that the Raspberry Pi is a revolutionary computer may at first sight seem a piece of gratuitous marketing propaganda for something that may not be revolutionary in any sense. It is easy to dismiss the Raspberry as part of Google’s intention to dominate the industry and destroy all competition, in much the same way that Microsoft intended to dominate the world with the PC. Certainly, Google is not providing thousands of Raspberry computers to UK schools as a philanthropic act, but follows a long computer tradition of using schools to build a dependent generation that will insist on a specific product or computing environment when they become adults. History shows that this is never a totally successful policy because the technology is eventually displaced by other technology from other developers.

The place in which history positions the Raspberry will depend not only on the Raspberry, but on what happens around it. Much depends on where networking goes. In the 1980s, a project jointly funded by a computer company and a telecommunications provider established the first nodal processing and storage service. The objective was to produce a high quality, highly secure environment where customers paid a rental and other service fees to the telecommunications provider who would include all necessary computer processing and storage on the network so that the customer purchased only the terminal equipment. Had that project turned into commercial reality, it would have been truly revolutionary and its availability would have created new generations of terminal devices, including wrist-worn devices. In the early 1980s, Open Standards and Open Source were concepts that were fighting to break into the computing and communications environment. It was still very much a proprietary world. As a result, this early nodal networking initiative saw translation as a key requirement. The principle was that a customer could use any type of system to communicate with another user equipped with a totally incompatible system, the network providing accurate translation so that each user might imagine that the other communicator was using exactly the same technology. Since then enormous strides have been made to introduce Open Standards, Open Source Software and a variety of Industry Standards and defacto standards where most components are now compatible with each other.

Although funding, events and other influences denied that system a revolutionary popularity, its principles have been developed and ‘cloud’ computing is its modern face. That could then result in new families of tablet devices that provide some local computer processing but are primarily terminal devices that make use of the ‘cloud’ to handle heavier processing applications and to provide volume storage of data at very low cost. The potential of this is that the computer workstation that has been a key device for thirty years could either disappear or become a premium product beyond the reach of most users. It is no longer fanciful to envisage a time, perhaps very soon, where the human brain is directly linked to a terminal device that links to a network that provides all processing and data storage outside the brain. The first military devices are already in service and enable a combat pilot to ‘think’ actions that are then carried out by onboard systems, using a helmet that contains sensors communicating directly with the brain.

One niche for the Raspberry could prove to be an affordable personal computer that can be programmed by the user and customized to do things that mass-produced terminal devices could not. However, the Raspberry is much more than this and could produce a large market where it has no equal.

The manual begins with a foreword by Eban and Liz Upton, the parents of the Raspberry Pi. That nicely places the device in a perspective and is followed by an Introduction that provides a very brief history of the last forty years of computers and networking and gives an introduction to the manual. For anyone who has bought a Haynes manual on any of the many subjects their manuals cover, this manual will be no surprise. It is laid out very logically with crisp text and lavish illustration. Although some knowledge of the subject is required, the contents are understandable without extensive knowledge and even a complete novice could gain from reading the manual.

The first thing that a reader will see as revolutionary is that the Raspberry is very different from the mass computer market. The trend in computing has been to sell complete packages. A personal workstation is most frequently sold with Operating System and a comprehensive selection of the most popular software applications so that a very small number of components are taken out of the box. These may require them to be plugged together, but the trend has been to use radio connection. The result is that mouse and keyboard may require batteries to be fitted but the only other essential act is to plug the computer and printer into the mains electric supply and switch on. Even the network connection may be a wireless connection to the hub provided by the broadband provider. Its all very simple and immediate. There is no need to understand programming or anything beyond working a keyboard or touch screen. Customization is then largely reduced to configuration from menus. Against this, the Raspberry Pi looks primitive and an historic artefact from the age of the BBC Micro which shares many aims with today’s Raspberry.

The Raspberry Pi would be very familiar to a computer user from decades ago in the way that it is activated after purchase. The connectors and many components may be very different, and the performance is light years ahead, but this is a computer for someone who is prepared to get their hands dirty and understand how it works as much as what it can do. It is a child of the free software movement, of UNIX and Linux and the development of GNU and the community that some may unreasonably deride as ‘geeks’. One reason that this Haynes Owners’Workshop Manual is needed is that the Raspberry rewards those who understand its potential and the work required, but punishes those who fail to move on from the typical store-bought packaged computer. Packaged products are very difficult to ‘break’. It is possible to press the wrong key and see a day’s work vanish, but packaged systems include many safeties. Errors are generally easy to recover from without much effort or knowledge. The Raspberry requires a higher level of skill, but a much higher level of attention in some key tasks. It uses an SD card that offers some dangers for the unwary. A ‘wheezy’ version of Debian Linux has to be downloaded and this looks like a different animal from the Ubuntu packaged distribution of Debian Linux that is becoming increasingly popular alongside, or in place of, Microsoft Windows, even though both are the Debian version of Linux.

The manual provides a very readable introduction to assembling Raspberry and turning it into a working system that can receive programmes to make it produce something useful. The manual then works through the options for programming and the various connections and peripherals that can be connected up. In the process it becomes a computing cookbook and readers will find many choices and some exciting thoughts and concepts.

Where the Raspberry Pi user goes will depend on his or her imagination. For those using the Pi at school under the guidance of an exceptionally rare inspirational teacher, it is not overstating the situation to say that this will be life changing. There are just so many things that can be done with this device that will never be considered with a pre-packaged personal computer workstation bought in Working-Straight-From-The-Box form. Some of the suggestions are just plain fun and that will inspire younger users to try to think outside the box. It may also inspire some older users. It could be another area that the Raspberry could develop and older users find time and money after the end of a working life to learn new things, keeping their minds functional.

What is rare about the Raspberry Pi is that it is a small 5v system that can be acquired very cheaply. The result is that the user could build a system around a Pi with relatively limited function, or combine many Pi devices in a cluster to produce significant computing power at very little cost. It is also small enough to be used in unmanned and autonomous devices, or, to use a different word, robots. Here the imagination can really take off.

As with any Haynes Owners’ Workshop Manual, this is an authoritative and easy to follow introduction into a potentially complex subject. The combination of clear text, logical format and many high quality images allows practical engineering to be carried out reliably and for the user to develop a detailed knowledge of the subject. Highly recommended.

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