I remember back around 1998 and people telling me that they would never last, that Motorola 68k would be The Thing. See guys, I told you you were wrong...
Because Smalltalk has been getting it right for quite a while longer than the Johny-come-lately bunch could manage if added together.
Personal computers used to be one of those tools but have become consumer items in the bad meaning - merely items for consuming pre-made stuff that is aimed almost exclusively at enriching corporations.
When did you last see a PC with standard A/D converter pins? The Pi is one of the examples of kinda-pc that brings back some of that latent possibility and adds pocket-money affordability that we never even dreamed of in the 80s. It's cheap enough to risk in model rockets or boats, or to use several in a single project. Add-ons proliferate as people find ways to add motors, sensors, displays, inputs and, quite possibly, chocolate. Non-trivial businesses have grown up around the Pi. Pi's get used for media centres, personal cloud servers, backup controllers, home automation servers, universal translators, pizza-ordering buttons, 3d scanners, get sent to the edge of space and worshipped in Kathmandu.
Hardware like that, along with software aimed at all sorts of different levels of interest and capability, offers a way to make, hack, play, learn and grow that wasn’t really practical for, what, the last 20 years - and brings a colossal increase in compute power. I see it as part of the spectrum of plasticine, lego, mechano and shop-work; something that allows and inspires kids of all ages.
The specifically educational aspect of the Pi project that I am working on is improving the [[http://scratch.mit.edu|MIT Scratch]] system so it runs well on the Pi. Scratch is a visual-block driven scripting language that allows building of surprisingly sophisticated programs without having to understand anything much of complex syntaxes or learning how to compile and link. It has a huge user-base and is used in schools around the world. Having it available as a standard part of the Pi software suite means that children in parts of the world poor in both money and power can use the same system as kids in the richest parts.
Initially it suffered from very poor performance on the Pi but so far we have gained 2-3 doublings of speed depending on the exact mix of work and I think another 2-4 doublings should be possible. Scratch was implemented in the Squeak Smalltalk system which is a direct descendant of the original Xerox PARC Smalltalk-80 as described in the famous August 1981 edition of Byte (viewable online at [[https://archive.org/stream/byte-magazine-1981-08/1981_08_BYTE_06-08_Smalltalk#page/n0/mode/2up]] ) although the current version available on the MIT website is implemented in Flash. I think we all know why that isn't such a good idea.
Since Scratch-in-Squeak is open source and written in a language with decent debugging and development support it has been possible for a surprisingly large number of forks to appear. Users have added interfaces to a variety of sensor and motor controllers, including the Lego NXT. One fork ([[http://enchanting.robotclub.ab.ca/tiki-index.php|'Enchanting']]) adds a large range of robotic support. [[http://s4a.cat|'S4A']] adds Arduino programming support. Scratch-in-Squeak has made the step up from 'merely' an interesting PC application with educational uses to a *tool* used by others to solve previously unforeseen needs.
- Technical Intelligence Analyst
- Engineering Manager
- Research Fellow
- Imperial College London and Royal College of ArtEngineering, 1980
- Royal College of ArtDesign
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