Taking a Byte of the Raspberry Pi

I became excited about the Raspberry Pi as soon as I heard about it. I had no idea if a blind person could even put one together, but I ordered one anyway. I received it, ordered some other parts, and to my delight I got it working. I feel like a kid playing with my Apple.

The Pi comes as a circuit board with the components soldered on it. As of now you don’t even get a case. The board has 2 USB ports, ethernet, audio and video out, a Micro USB for power, and a SD slot for a SD card to hold the root filesystem. It has 256 MB of RAM and runs at 700 MHZ. Think of it as a computer with the spirit of the eighties, the power of the nineties, and the vision of the twenty-first century. Delicately holding the board in my hands I thought of the movie Pi: “This suitcase isn’t filled with money, or gold, or jewels… just silicon.”

I do not consider myself a hardware person. How many programmers does it take to change a lightbulb? None, that’s a hardware problem! Siri told the same joke at WWDC. Great minds think alike.

I felt a little freaked out at the idea of buying other components and hooking them up to a circuit board. The official store only had European power supplies, and I live in the States. I put out the call on Twitter for the best power supply, and a guy named Andy wrote back. We settled on the Amazon Basics Wall Charger. It has a 2.1 Amp output, more than adequate. I added a Micro USB cable. It arrived right around the same time as the Pi.

I now had all the pieces. I had the Pi, the wall charger, the cable, and an SD card. They have a number of images for downloaded. They recommend Debian, but since I have a rebellious nature I chose Arch Linux. It doesn’t have a GUI installed, perfect for my needs. Plus I already run it on my desktop so know it well. Its minimalist philosophy lends itself well to this project. I followed the instructions for Mac OS and soon had it ready. The moment of truth had come.

I gently inserted the chip into the horizontal slot. I gently plugged in the Micro USB connecter. I gently plugged in the ethernet. I attached the USB end of the cable to the charger, said a quick prayer to Goddess, and plugged it in. I had a horrible feeling the whole thing would go up in smoke with a loud bang and funny smell, but no explosion came.

After my heart calmed down I decided to take the next step. I had already loaded up my router’s DHCP table, and saw the aIP address register. I used SSH and sure enough I connected as root! I had done it! I played around, updated and installed some packages, and compiled a small test program. THis felt so cool!

The building project had not ended, however. The next weekend a friend brought over some legos, and we made a sweet little lego case for it. It measures 13×9 and has little holes for the ports. Legos have their own nature, and it felt very much in the spirit of the project to play with them. I had to think about layering them, reinforcing, the proper dimensions of the ports, and other very real design considerations. In an artistic touch I added a pyramid on the top. The board actually sits atop the legos very snugly. It worked very well.

I felt pleasantly surprised at how smoothly the whole process went. It also gave me a sense of accomplishment and reminded me of the feeling I had growing up. I started with an Apple II/e and an Echo II speech synthesizer. Apple became the first personal computer accessible to the blind. I have fond memories of it, and still have it in a box.

The Apple had AppleSoft BASIC integrated into the machine. In other words, it had a programming language built into it, and it intertwined with the operating system. When I first got it I only knew how to RUN a program or get a CATALOG of files on the disc. One day I had the bright idea to type LIST. I figured it would list something, and I figured correctly. It listed the source code to the program I had just run, the legendary Eliza. In a flash I realized that computers just followed instructions like this, and understood what programming a computer really meant. I knew then I wanted to do this all my life.

Now almost thirty years later the Raspberry Pi wants to revolutionize things for children in a similar way. They recommend kids learn Python. I’ve never played with Python because whitespace infuriates me, and the concept of it having significance makes me feel somewhat nutty. I imagine having an argument with the interpreter much like the guy in the argument sketch. “Is this the right room for an argument?” “I told you once.”

But that doesn’t really matter. Everyone has unique tastes, and different languages suit different people. Whatever language kids choose, I hope this project will help. It has already helped me get more comfortable with hardware. If you want to learn more about computers in a very hands-on way, then take a byte of the Raspberry Pi! And by the way, to my blind readers, they spell it P-i, like the Greek letter or the awesome movie referenced above.