The smallest and cheapest computer, the Raspberry Pi just might stimulate more creative young minds

The Raspberry Pi is the smallest and cheapest fully functional computer availabe to everyone. The purpose of the creator of the Pi is to give children an educational gadget that can be made to be anything that the user wants. Photo: The Raspberry Pi, smaller than a dollar bill

MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, Md., August 5, 2012 — Some geeks in England decided to do something different and created the Raspberry Pi (you will find at this site the specifications for the Pi and other information). It is a small, about the footprint of a deck of cards, and it cost $25 to $35.

It has been available in England since last year and in the U.S. since the beginning of 2012. After waiting for what seemed eternity, I finally received one that I ordered about six weeks ago. This is a big improvement from a couple of months ago and even longer that many others had to wait earlier this year.

The purpose of the creator of the Pi is to give children an educational gadget that can be made to be anything that the user wants. Most people, including young people, are satisfied with learning how to use computers, e.g. software like word processors, email clients, spread sheets, data base managers, etc., but they are not challenged to develop their own applications. The Pi is intended to fill this vacuum, but it is much more than that.

It amazes me to hear some of my friends and others marvel at how their children “know so much about computers.” They are proud to tell everyone that is listening that when they got their smart phone, a son or daughter had it working in a few minutes. They also marvel at how the young ones can navigate the social sites and maneuver through the Internet at will.

Raspberry Pi compared to a plate of berries, including raspberries

This is all great. However, this knowledge will do very little to get Johnny or Taylor a job in technology. What we as Americans have left behind is the curiosity of how things operate and how we can make them suit our needs. Educational tools like the Raspberry Pi try to bring back that curiosity. Curiosity that was so prevalent when my generation came face to face with the first personal computer that we decided that we were going to make it do what we wanted or needed.

The Raspberry Pi comes in a 4 ¾“x 3”x7/8” box. The unit itself measures 4”x2”x5/8” at its highest point. The unit that I purchased in the B model ($35) that comes with 2 USB ports, 1 Ethernet port (to connect to the Internet), 1 analog video port, 1 analog audio port and one HDMI port. There are also slots for inserting an SD card that contains the operating system and one slot to insert a micro USB connector for electrical power like the ones used for Droid smart phones. It has a connector for a touch screen monitor that most of us will not use. There is also a mystery connector that I have been told is for future expansion. The cheaper units don’t have HDMI or Ethernet connectors. Apparently you have to use a USB adapter to connect to the Internet.

To set up the Pi, I had to download an operating system from the web site. There is a lot of good information on this page and you can learn the choices you have. The site recommends several operating systems, but the simplest is one called Debian squeeze, which is a type of Linux operating system. You also need another program to burn the operating system to an SD card. You can use a 2-gig card, but you would run out of space really fast. Eight or 16 gigs should be sufficient.

After inserting the SD card into the Pi, I used the HDMI port to connect to an LCD television and a regular category 5 Ethernet cable to connect to my home network; I am not sure whether one can connect to a wireless network using a USB adapter; the instructions I have seen are ambiguous. I also used a USB wireless mouse/keyboard combination, but you can use a separate USB mouse and USB keyboard since the unit has two USB ports. You can also use a USB hub that has a separate power source.

Raspberry Pi

Once I inserted the micro USB power source, the unit booted right up. Included in this first boot up is a configuration screen. Make sure you complete it, especially the part that relates to the locale and time zones. Eventually you get to a prompt that urges you to type Startx and press Enter to start the graphic interface. The graphic interface is very much like any other (Windows and Mac). This version of Linux is very much like Windows and after a few minutes you will find your way around. For example you click the icon in the lower left corner to find your options.

For the adventurous, this version of Debian comes with several programming applications, a simple text editor, several web browsers. Use the NetSurf web browser as it is more like what you are used to.

Mario Salazar, the 21st Century Pacifist, is a bleeding heart liberal, agnostic, exercise fanatic, Redskin fan, technophile, combat infantry veteran, jewelry maker, amateur computer programmer, Environmental engineer, Colombian-born, free thinker, and, not surprisingly, pacifist. You can find his articles - ranging from politics to cooking a mean brisket - in 21st Century Pacifist at The Washington Times Communities. Follow Mario on Twitter @chibcharus #TWTC and Facebook at Mario Salazar.

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Mario Salazar

Mario Salazar is a combat infantry Vietnam Vet, world traveler, renaissance reconnaissance man, pacifist, metal smith, glass artisan, computer programmer and he has a Master of Science in Civil/Environmental Engineering.  Now retired from the Environmental Protection Agency and living in Montgomery County, Mario will share with you his life, his thoughts, his musing on living in yet another century of change.  He will also try to convey his joy of being old.

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