the pimoroni scroll:bit – some observations

scroll:bit plugged into micro:bit

I’ve had the Pimoroni scroll:bit for a little while now, and I’ve managed to work with it and get it to perform a number of straight-forward activities. I’m writing some observations and comments based on my successes using the device.

The scroll:bit is purpose built for use with the BBS micro:bit, which in turn is easily used with the Raspberry Pi by communicating with the micro:bit over USB. I’ve been using it with my Raspberry Pi as a simple CPU temperature readout, as you can read in my earlier post. Working on that temperature readout utility taught me how to communicate with the micro:bit and to use the micro:bit to communicate with the scroll:bit. It’s very straightforward and easy to understand (at least for me), and it’s very nice to use Python on both the Pi as well as on the micro:bit itself.

For more detailed control of the micro:bit and the scroll:bit, I use the Mu editor. It’s available in the Raspian repo via ‘sudo apt install mu-editor’. Once installed it’s very straightforward to start and use with the micro:bit and any devices attached to the micro:bit. For example:

The Mu editor is displaying a very simple program that lights up every one of the scroll:bit’s LEDs. The Mu editor is more than just a Python editor. It is capable of fully controlling the micro:bit, allowing the programmer to directly program the Micro Python application directly to the device. For even deeper delving, the Mu editor has a REPL capability where you can work directly with the Micro Python interpreter just like you can with regular Python REPL. That comes in real handy when you’re trying to debug a single statement, or just want to try out a one-line coding trick to see how it really runs. If you’re not familiar with the Mu editor then you should install it and give it a try. It will reward you quite well with its easy to learn, powerful capabilities.

from scrollbit import set_pixel, show

brightness = 32

for row in range(7):
    for col in range(17):
        set_pixel(col, row, brightness)

show()

The example application was written to turn on all the LEDs on the scroll:bit while running on the micro:bit, which is what the lead image shows. There’s hardly anything to the application. I used variables in the call to set_pixel() instead of raw values so that it’s obvious what each one of those variables do. LED brightness can vary from 0 to 255; I chose a low value of 32 to keep from blowing out the taking camera with extreme contrast between the LEDs and the rest of the area. When those LEDs are set to brightness level 255 they are very, very bright.

USB is an acronym for Universal Serial Bus. With the Raspberry Pi and these even smaller boards, that bus is a powerful way to weave all the tiny computers together into interesting combinations. The Raspberry Pi touts its GPIO pins and I2C/SPI connectivity, but USB is no less powerful. I look forward to doing more with the micro:bit as well as another device I have in my tool box, Adafruit’s Circuit Playground Express. All these devices are run with ARM M0 processors. They don’t run nearly as fast as the Raspberry Pi’s CPU, but then they don’t have to.

When I look at all I have to work with between these various devices, I think back on what I had to do 40 or so years ago starting out in embedded design. I would have given my right arm for any of this and its ease of use. Instead, the company I worked for had to spend tens of thousands of dollars for very special test equipment and a lab for me to test my designs in the performance of my job. It’s all quite amazing how much you can do today, for so very little expense, and ease of use.

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technological responsibility and sufficiency – apple

I have been involved with Apple technology going back to the early 1980s and the Apple 2 (I refuse to use the various lame methods used over the years to represent the ‘2’). It was at the time a wide-open hardware system with its internal slots that allowed you to extend the capabilities of the base system. And it was expensive, not just in 1980 dollars but even in today’s dollars, even if inflation isn’t factored in. Apple has been, and always will be, a boutique, bespoke, whatever, expense-is-no-object technology manufacturer.

So why buy it? Because no matter if an Apple device wasn’t cutting edge or too expensive, it is the overall software and hardware integration that made using Apple technology so delightful.

Computers

Let’s start with Apple computers. As long as I was using the Apple 2 and the original toaster Mac, and then the Macs shipped after Steve Jobs came back, I was just fine. But that period when the Steve wasn’t at Apple was a dark and ugly period. That was the period of the Classic Mac OS, particularly starting with System 7/Mac OS 7 from the early 1990s. It was fragile, crashy, and prone to arbitrary slowdowns across the board. Today’s Mac OS X, now known as macOS, is anything but.

It was my girls (in high school and then college)  who benefited from the cleanup and redesign of the Macs after Steve came back. I got one of my daughters a 2005 iMac when she went off to college, and later, for graduation, I got her a 17″ Macbook Pro, right before Apple dropped the design. I personally didn’t own a Mac until I purchased a 15″ Macbook Pro in 2015. I maxed out memory and storage and picked up three years of Apple Care, and paid a hefty chunk for the privilege. But it was worth the investment for me at the time, as I used it for work and personal use, and it traveled literally around he world with me. Like the ads say It Just Worked. This was during the period that Microsoft was pushing out Windows 10. It’s no accident that purchase of the mid-2015 MBP corresponded with Windows 10 RTM. I still have the Windows 10 Samsung notebook, but the only time I power it up now is to pick up all the updates. I then turn it off and put it back on the shelf.

My wife decided around 2014 she wanted a Macbook, so we got her one of the plastic ones. I really love my wife, but she’s hell on computers, and before long her Mac had suffered drops and dings and spills galore. It looked like a war correspondent’s computer. I updated her with a Macbook Air in November 2016. During this period she was suffering a muscular loss of control, so that one day in 2017 she dropped and spilled a cup of coffee across the Air’s keyboard. I managed to get it dried out, and if I plug it in it will boot, but the screen is crap. When I asked how much it would cost to get it fixed, I was quoted $750, or $250 less than buying a new out outright. It now sits in the closet, where every once in a while I’ll see it and think I need to trade it in on something. Since then I’ve been buying my wife Chrome books, specifically the Acers that Costco had on sale two Christmases ago for $200/machine. I got two, one as a spare. She’s beat the hell out of those as well, but the funny thing is they’re still working. One day I’m sure they’ll finally die, but until then they continue to do yeoman duty. The fact they’re surviving and continue to function in my wife’s tender embrace impresses the hell out of me.

I still have my mid-2015 MBP and will continue to do so until such time as either all the wheels fall off, or Apple publishes a version of macOS that won’t support it. But the latest MBPs are overly expensive and have had every useful port stripped out of the case. On top of that the cost for a decently equipped MBP continues to rise, making what I spent four years ago look like a bargain. At the current price trajectory I’ll never buy another new MBP again. But that’s not an issue because the MBP I have is more than sufficient for my many needs.

iPads

I’ve been an iPad user since 2014, when it finally dawned on me that any Android tablet was, and would always be, a hot mess to deal with. I’d picked up a couple of Google Pixel 7″ tablets starting in 2012, and they were pretty good with Android 4.4. But as Google pushed out later releases, the Pixels slowly ground to a halt, so that any action was painfully slow. I still have a 2013 Pixel 7″ with Android 6, and it’s brutally slow to deal with.

In 2014 I picked up an Apple iPad Air 2. It was a revelation. I bought it with a keyboard cover, and took it with me where-ever I went, even at work, to take notes. The only issue was getting those notes off the iPad and to any other device to make them useful. The place I worked was in a lab with a strong STIGed environment, and if you know what that means, well, then you understand my issues. The workaround was to mail them to my work email, but that required I find a WiFi hotspot, which I could around lunch or at home. But still, it was an awkward pain to deal with, and after a time, I stopped taking notes with the iPad.

I used it on travel to Japan a number of time because I’d put several photo apps and I’d picked up a SDXC to Lightening adapter, so pulling out the card and then picking off the photos was fairly fast. I then ran it through Pixelmator and then posted to Flickr via the app. I appreciated the power in a very lightweight package. One other feature it had at the time came through Google itself. I had Google’s Hangouts installed, and I could call, via WiFi, for free, my wife from Tokyo Japan to Orlando Fl. Considering how much AT&T wanted to charge for roaming fees in Japan, it was a marvelous feature. On that alone the iPad paid for itself. I’d call my wife in the morning before I went in to work, which was evening the day before back in the US, and then when I got back to the hotel in the evening, which was the next morning in the US. Remember that Japan is 14 hours ahead. Half way around the world it helped me to help my wife, and for that I’m forever grateful.

I now own an iPad Pro 9.7″ and a second generation iPad Pro 12.9″. With the next update to iPadOS 13, the iPads will truly come into their own. And I don’t feel so bad about having spent the money on them because I’d picked up both when they were heavily discounted. The 12.9″ alone was discounted 45% when I finally got it, and it came with both LTE and 512GB of storage.

Finally, my wife has the newish 9.7″ iPad. Once again I got it last Christmas from a local Target when it’d been marked down some $40. This put it under $300, which seemed a decent price for what it was. We also got here a kid’s cover that’s a big blue bumper all around the device. Now when my wife drops her iPad it just bounces, no harm done. She’s happy, I’m happy, and the iPad is really happy.

iPhones

I switched to the iPhone in 2015 after spending two long miserable years with a Samsung Galaxy S4. Both my wife and I had one, and we’d gotten it when we switched from T-Moble to AT&T in 2013. We’d gotten it with one of AT&T’s two year contracts, and when I made the decision to switch to Apple the contract was up.

So I went into a local Apple store and got a pair of iPhone 6 phones on the Apple Update program. We used the Update Program through the 6S and the 7. I got my wife the pedestrian versions and I went for the Pluses. Then a funny thing kind of happened. My wife dropped her iPhone 6s and shattered the screen while we were in Denver one Christmas. I went to the Apple Store there and got her a replacement, and she made the interesting comment that the 7 was the last iPhone she intended to get for some time. I asked her why and she said it just cost too much to keep replacing every twelve months. My wife loves her iPhone and iOS and would never ever switch back to anything Android.

And she’s kept her promise. She still has her 7, it still works just fine for her, and she’s told me she’ll keep it until, as they say, the wheels all fall off or Apple won’t update iOS, whichever comes first. And when she’s forced to switch, we’ll get something refurbed for her.

As for myself, I went through one more upgrade cycle to the 8 Plus. And that’s where I’m staying until I’m forced to move on. The prices of the iPhone X and later are totally bonkers. Great hardware and great OS, but not $1,000 great. Not even $500 great.

Not only am I not happy with the pricing, but I’m not happy with the loss of the headphone jack. I just about puked when I heard Jonny Ive say how “brave” it was to drop the jack, and then later, how they needed to drop the jack because it made the iPhone case less sealed. I call BS on that because I know how jacks can be made sealed. It has forced many a customer (myself included) to purchase Bluetooth headphones/earbuds. I have a pair of the Air Pods, purchased when Costco had them on a barn burner sale, but I would have been perfectly happy with an older set of regular wired and jacked air pods. I’m well aware of how there is no way to replace the batter in those Air Pods when they finally go, but the Air Pods allow me to carry on a private telephone conversation and are a better way to talk hands free while driving. Bluetooth between my iPhone and my Prius is absolute crap.

Everything Else

I have an Apple Watch Series 3, which I picked up on deep discount to replace the original I bought several years back. Why get replace the original? Because Watch OS 5 and later won’t update on the original. The original was the stainless steel case, and I liked stainless steel because it can take a real pounding on my wrist. The Series 3 I picked up was the stainless steel body with LTE. Since I got it from a mail order location (B&H Camera) without having to go through AT&T, I don’t have the LTE enabled and on my wireless plan, and I don’t intend to. LTE burns up the battery something fierce on the Series 3. With LTE disabled I can easily go three days between charges. And I intend to keep the Series 3 until such time as I suppose I can’t update it’s OS any more. But there is a problem and that’s the battery. Sooner or later it’s going to reach a point where it won’t hold a charge, and getting the Apple Watch battery changed will probably be as costly as just buying another trailing edge version.

The Pattern

Notice the pattern here? I’m no longer buying the new Apple stuff when it first comes out, and haven’t for some years now. The first reason for holding off is cost. The second reason is that the current stuff still works, and works quite well. And the third reason is that everything is more than sufficient for what I need and do with the equipment. If the old stuff still does what I want it to do and the new stuff is eye-watering (to me) expensive, then why get the new stuff? Just like with my moccasins, I want to repair rather than replace because I’m more than happy with what I have, and repair is a lot less impactful on the environment than full out replacement. Unlike Google with Android, Apple really does do a good job in providing updates across all its computers that don’t kill performance (in spite of what a number of critics have claimed). I know what performance killing updates are like, and I can assure you that Apple doesn’t to do that.

There is an important lesson in this, which I have to point out. If you buy cheap and Android, you get devices that seldom, if ever, see an update, especially a major Android update, even basic security updates. If you buy expensive Apple, especially when it first comes out, then you get a guarantee that Apple will continuously update the operating systems of your devices. For the most part, that runs about five years with Apple. It’s just another example that you get what you pay for. Going forward, I’m going to have to thread the needle of good stewardship of personal tech usage. And Apple, I’m sorry to admit, makes that very hard to do.