BBC Microbit: first impressions

I was lucky to find out about & get a ticket to the CAS London event at King’s College today, where a group of teachers got hands-on with the BBC Microbit, the micro-controller that – we are told – will be given free by the BBC to every Year 7 pupil in the country.

BBC Microbit training

It was a very practical, hands-on event. We all got to play with the Microbit, write code, upload it, shake it, prod it. This was a mixed-blessing in some ways, as I think we all wanted to take one home. We couldn’t – we had to hand them all back at the end of the session. I know there are production problems, but if every teacher there had been given one to take home, they would have had 100 unpaid evangelists raving from the rooftops about this device.

BBC Microbit training

So, a few observations…

As things stand, the official web site and lessons are very tied into Microsoft’s Touch Develop language. Code Kingdoms Javascript and Python are coming, which is pretty much essential to me, as I have already committed to Python being our text-based language in my school. I’m very reluctant to teach a different language, although the Microsoft block-based language might be a good starter. There’s no Scratch-based editor, though there was mention of a possible hack using the Python API – I’d be very interested in that!

BBC Microbit training

The Microsoft Touch Develop language is designed to be used on tablets and touch-screens, and the lessons are full of prompts telling you what code to put in next; this holds your hand, but possibly too much. One teacher raised a very good point that she had completed all the lessons, but was really just following instructions – you don’t even need to type the code in the text-based environment, you can just click on buttons. So you can do all the activities without necessarily understanding what the code is doing or what individual instructions do.

Microsoft Touch Develop language

I found the workflow from lessons, to code to compiling a bit confusing. Your code has to go via a remote server to be compiled; this then allows you to download a .HEX file that you drag and drop onto the Microbit (connected to the computer by USB) in a desktop Finder window. Simple enough, but…

transferring compiled code to the Microbit

Two snags: one, I got lost towards the end of lessons several times and had to go back to the start, especially when I tried to do the extension tasks – something about the tutorial workflow isn’t quite as intuitive as it could be. A couple of times the prompts vanished as well, or seemed to tell me I needed instructions I just couldn’t find. I had to abandon the ‘Offset Image’ project because of this. Nice having a goal of getting ‘exprStmt’ in my code – but what is it? Where do I find it? I can’t type it in.

On-screen prompt for coding

So I click there and get…

But what IS code?

Secondly, you need an internet connection AND the remote server to be up. I think the Microbit badly needs a standalone compiler that means you can program the beastie when the wifi is flaky or the remote Microbit compiler is offline. I raised this question, and apparently Microsoft are considering this. I suspect others may independently make compilers once (if?) the project is open sourced.

There are also big questions about the delay and roll-out, raised by @digitalmaverick. Why do schools have to register to get Microbits? The information about addresses of all secondary schools must exist somewhere (hello DfE), maybe even Year 7 roll numbers, so why not just send them out addressed to ‘Headteacher’ or ‘Head of ICT’ regardless? We were told by the nice man from Microsoft in Seattle that they emailed all the heads and loads of emails bounced back – well I’m not sure that’s good enough.

There was also the alarming news that the BBC deadline for registering your school is only a few days away – the end of September! How many schools don’t even KNOW about the Microbit, let alone have registered? I registered my school, but haven’t received a confirmation email, so will we actually get any Microbits at all this year? Who knows.

I’m very surprised and disappointed no-one from the BBC was there today (as far as I can tell). If Microsoft can fly someone from Seattle, I think the BBC can send someone on a bus or tube from W1A. Were they dodging awkward questions? Very poor show, BBC.

We were told the Microbits won’t ship until January at the earliest, which does really cut into the teaching year if you’re planning (or have planned) to use the Microbit in Year 7. I think given the delay, they should have decided to send them out to teachers in January 2016 and roll it out to Year 7s in the 2016-17 academic year, so we could have planned a scheme of work around it. I think it’s too late now for serious academic use in 2015-16.

Ownership is a tricky issue too. We were reminded that these Microbits belong to the children, not the schools. So we hand them out to the Year 7s. Then we ask them to bring them in for the next lesson. How many children will remember / find / lose them? It’s a nonsense. If you’re going to teach with them, they must remain in school. I’d want to hang on to them and hand them out at the end of term, or at the end of the unit, for them to take home.

Apparently the Bluetooth module isn’t working yet – this is quite important as it will allow the Microbit to be programmed from a phone or tablet (though my students aren’t allowed phones in class), but the real killer application for this is one that was tantalisingly touched on: the possibility that individual Microbits could communicate with each other wirelessly. This could be just amazing. Imagine a whole class passing a ball graphic or message to each other round a room. Or something actually interesting that only a child could invent. I do hope that something comes of this.

Anyway I had fun this morning. My favourite project was the dice using the accelerometer. Shake the Microbit, roll the dice:

Shake the Microbit, roll the dice

Big thanks to CAS London for organising this event. Good to get my hands on the device and meet some fellow teachers, especially some who teach in schools like mine who I wouldn’t have met otherwise. A great morning tinkering & chatting.

And then I had to hand it back. Sadface.

BBC Microbit training

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What I Did in the Summer Holidays

Remember Get Lost? Probably not. It was a great Alan Plater 1981 series on ITV (predating The Beiderbecke Affair) about a couple of school teachers who investigate people vanishing. One of the characters was an English teacher and she always made her students write a ‘What I Did in the Summer Holidays’ essay, but the twist was she always had to write one too.

Anyway here’s mine. I had grand plans to make lots of podcasts in Cornwall and didn’t, but I still found a few things to do.


Intercept by Gordon CoreraBest read of the summer was certainly Gordon Corera’s Intercept. This presses all my buttons: computers, espionage, cryptography, Tommy Flowers, Porthcurno, all weaved together in a detailed, compelling account of how governments intercepted the communications of ordinary people on a mass scale from WW1 to the present day.

I also started read the Harry Potter books: shamefully I’ve never read them. Just perfect, really. J K Rowling deserves every penny of her income. I also really enjoyed Boak and Bailey’s Brew Britannia. Microbreweries are nothing new, they have their roots in the 1970s ‘Small is Beautiful’ movement, and this book amusingly charts the history of the big breweries, various campaigns for ‘real ale’ and the recent shift towards kegged or bottled trendy ‘craft beer’.

I also retrieved Laura Barton’s Twenty-one Locks from my mum’s house when we cleared it out. As many similes as locks on the Leeds-Liverpool canal. Enjoyed it in a miserable way, though I’d have written a different ending. Can’t really say what without spoiling it…

I’m now tucking into a copy of John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Again, shamefully, I’ve never read any Le Carré. 5 chapters in and I love it.


elementaryOSI didn’t do anything quite as cool as making a web-interfaced RaspberryPi radio this summer, but I did discover ElementaryOS – this is a very slick, Mac-like version of Linux. I’ve only used it on a virtual machine so far, but I love the idea of putting it on a cheap MacBook-like Chromebook (like the Dell) to make a dirt cheap MacBook-killer.

Increasingly I’m using a lot of open-source software, so why go to the expense of buying an Apple laptop? My big find this summer was Inkscape, which does pretty much everything I use Adobe Illustrator for: designing artwork, logos and working with vector graphics.

winonaI started learning Apple’s Swift programming language. If you think it makes developing iOS or OS X apps easier, think again. The language itself seems lovely, but the business of building functioning apps in Xcode is still (to me) mind-bogglingly complex. Every tutorial assumes a previous layer of knowledge: you should be familiar with iOS development to build an OS X app, you should know C, you should know ObjectiveC. I think someone could clean up if they can either write a guide to making simple OS X or iOS apps in Xcode assuming only basic programming knowledge, OR make a new IDE that is way simpler, like REALBasic used to be.


Bauhaus2015 sampler

I love making fonts, especially bitmapped ones. I made a couple using the ridiculously simple and fun BitFontMaker2. had I the time, I’d have made some vector ones using Glyphr.

sir clive the bold



This summer on holiday I only used my old camera, a Nikon D40 digital SLR. It’s on its last legs – often the autofocus jams – but I was really happy with the results when it did work. Windbreaks: not just for windy days.

swim between the red & yellow flags

Perhaps it’s true: it’s a bad workman who blames his tools.

colourful windbreak alternative


Tomorrow Never Knows coverI was going to write a new story. I started one, but got bogged down in chapter 3. Add it to my pile of unfinished books.

It’s a story with a deceptive setting and I hope the last line makes you want to read more. I have worked out in my mind roughly how things work in this world and why, but I need to do some serious work on the plot arc to work out what gets revealed when, and where exactly the end point should be. It also needs at least one more character to bounce off Kim, and make her challenge her surroundings.

Perhaps I’ll be good in September and get up early every morning and write a few hundred words. Perhaps.


I got very annoyed about sea pollution in West Cornwall.

Gwithian and Godrevy have some amazing beaches for swimming, body-boarding, surfing and rock pooling. And yet on rainy days, South West Water pump raw sewage into the sea via the Red River that runs out on the beach near Godrevy. Lucky it never rains in Cornwall. Oh, hang on. We’d have a rainy day followed by a fine day when the sea was closed because of the sewage in the sea. This is madness, not least because of the effect it will have on the tourism industry. You can’t control the weather, but you can stop pumping unfiltered waste into the sea. One day we were swimming with the sanitary towels. Nice. A friend of ours who’s been going to Gwithian for years got sick and is going elsewhere next year.

Food & drink

cheesy soda bread

Didn’t do much cooking, aside from a fantastic risotto, but I did bake some cheesy soda bread on a rainy day in Cornwall, and pimped some baked beans in a most delicious way:


I drank a few Cornish micro-brewed beers, but nothing that blew my mind. I can, however, confirm that lobster makes an acceptable alternative to roast chicken for Sunday lunch:

Sunday roast

This awesome letterpress cookie cutter was a great find late in the summer. Hours of fun for all the family.

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Using an old Wacom Graphire tablet in OS X 10.10 Yosemite

I love it when I make things work that shouldn’t and I also love saving money. This does both.

I have an old Wacom Graphire graphics tablet model ET-0405-U. It’s not supported by recent versions of OS X, but graphics tablets are expensive, I’d like to use it and I am short of cash.

It turns out you can get an old Wacom Graphire tablet working is MacOS X 10.10. Here’s how:

  • download driver 6.1.5-2 and install it – control-click and open if OS X complains it’s from an untrusted source.
  • The problem now is that the preference panel won’t open, so find System Preferences in your Applications folder. Highlight it and press cmd-I to get the Information box. Tick ‘Open in 32 bit mode’ (and low resolution if you have a retina display). Now you can open the Wacom Tablet preference panel in System Preferences. Set up your tablet. Then ctrl-I again on System Preferences and turn off 32 bit mode.
  • Happy drawing!

(This is the combined wisdom of two contributors, davidphenry and jprazak on this thread on the Apple forums).

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Bitmap fonts

Bauhaus2015 sampler

I used to love making fonts – even back in the 1980s I made bitmap fonts for the ZX Spectrum. This is a homage to the font I made for my mid-80s A-Level Computer Science project, which did on-screen graphics and titles for home videos. That font was called Bauhaus, this one is (I think) a bit taller and spindlier, so I’ve called it Bauhaus2015. I must dig out my notes from the loft and recreate the original one.

lower case letters

quick brown fox

special characters

Download Bauhaus2015 here.

Sir Clive font

Oh and here’s a font I just made based on the Sinclair logo! Use lower case only for best results. Named after Sinclair Research’s founder, ‘Uncle’ Clive Sinclair. Sir Clive to you. Download here and I’ve also made a bold version called Sir Clive the Bold:

sir clive the bold

Sir Clive the Bold font

These were all made with the rather fabulous (and free) BitFontMaker2 web site. It’s a really easy way to make your own bitmap TrueType fonts:


Ages ago I also made a Type1 font called Punchie, after looking at punch tape at the Porthcurno Museum of Submarine Telegraphy. I must try & make a TrueType version of it…

Punchie font demo

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Windbreak slideshow – click on arrows either side of image to view the set.

The British seem to love windbreaks.

I got a bit obsessed about them yesterday, on that rare thing: a windless, hot summer day on the beach in Cornwall, and yet we were surrounded by windbreaks.

Some people were sitting on the sea-side, some on the land-side, suggesting that windbreaks are as much about territory and privacy as keeping warm. Why would you block yourself off from a stunning view of St Ives Bay with Godrevy Lighthouse perched on its rocky island a short distance away? You could look at stripy nylon fabric in your own back yard.

windbreak 13

One family had joined 4 or 5 long windbreaks together to create a windbreak city. Inside, all mod cons. Books, beer, barbecue.

windbreak 16

Some favour the single short line, others pen themselves into a U shape. I’ve not seen anyone boxing themselves into a square, surrounded on all sides by windbreak, but it’s only a matter of time.

windbreak 12

Occasionally you will see novelty fabric: boulders, a floral pattern, Cath Kidston fabric. These are mere interlopers. Everyone knows a true windbreak must have brightly-coloured horizontal stripes.

windbreak 14

Me? I never take a windbreak, except occasionally on a sunset beach barbecue. But I do take a pop-up tent. Which I suppose is the same as fencing yourself in.

windbreak 15

An Englishman’s home is his patch of sand demarcated with a windbreak, with tents, with towels – or as I saw yesterday – a large circle carved in the sand. I presume it was enchanted. If a non-family member stepped inside, they would turn to sand.

windbreak 10

Update: happy to spot this colourful alternative to a windbreak – at least as far as providing shade is concerned – on Porthminster Beach:

colourful windbreak alternative

You can view my complete set of windbreak photos here.

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