Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Summer is long gone but just a reminder…

My post ‘August’ was about some of our days out last summer and this much delayed post is a continuation of that.

For the next day out, we went into London and took The Granddaughter to the Science Museum.
I had not been there since my two boys were children and there have been a number of changes, but it was still mostly as I recall. There are still a lot of interactive displays some of which, as one has come to expect, do not work, but a lot more were a bit more child proof and so did work OK.   One of the newest changes is the Weblab.  Here a number of interactive machines are physically present that you can use, but which can also be accessed through the Internet. 

You need a Weblab tag to get access to the system and it stores your results for future reference.  Once you get home you can show your Weblab tag to a web cam and sign on again, then you can carry on where you left off, or interact with other of the various machines in the Weblab.
You can get machines to draw faces, play music, watch various live sites through 180 degree web cams and so on, or participate in worldwide experiments with this facility.

This machine takes a picture of your face and draws it in sand

A sand picture  from a photo
 I was able to carry out a few of these interactive experiences, but in the end spent most of the time chatting with one of the staff.  This produced a certain kind of conversation that I have often experienced before.
For many people who have a fairly deep understanding in a technical or specialist field, conversations with other specialists starts off with the assumption that the other may not know as much as you.  This is not egotism but common sense.  For instance very few people understand brain surgery, so a brain surgeon talking to someone he does not know, is not going to launch into in depth clinical talk about brain cells unless he is an pretentious idiot, in which case he is unlikely to be a brain surgeon in the first place.
For those of us who have a reasonable depth of knowledge in a particular field, when conversing with someone that you do not know, the conversation starts off with ‘specialist to customer’ level of talk and slowly goes deeper and deeper as each party starts to recognise what the other really knows.  In my conversation as we chatted we each recognised a fellow geek and got deeper and deeper into pure geek until people nearby were seen to scurry away holding their ears.
We were both happy talking about computer systems and the Internet whilst the family were interacting with the Weblab.  During the course of the conversation, I was gratified to find that he had come to the same conclusion that I had come to a few years ago.   Students and computer specialists, even undergraduates, do not understand software as well as people did about twenty years ago.
This may seem at odds to what is happening in our rapidly developing world, because things are becoming smarter and smarter, but we both agreed that as technology improves and becomes easier to use, so ignorance about what is going on under the hood, so to speak, is also growing.
We had both experienced the drop in comprehension of the basics of computer programming in new recruits to the industry over the last few years and we agreed it was almost certainly because no one had home computers any more.  People now have PCs, Macs, or iPads.  You do not learn programming from these because they come ready loaded with easy to use software and so you simply learn which buttons to press.
When people had the old Sinclair Spectrums, Commodores, BBC computers and other brands of home computer available throughout the 1980s and 1990s, they had to learn how to program them before they could do anything with them.  They mostly ran a program called BASIC, a kind of programming language that was actually developed to train programmers.  Very little software was off the shelf and enthusiast magazines printed program listings which you had to type in by hand. Because of this many kids were motivated to write their own programs and many of them, including my own, laboriously taught themselves how to write games software and other programs.  As a result, school kids and young adults had learned the fundamental principles of programming long before they attended college.
Now most kids know how to play Angry Birds, socialise on line and fire off email, but writing any kind of  program, let alone a games program is the preserve of the very few.   We are obviously not alone in thinking this, because recently a new device has been released onto the market, the Raspberry Pi.  A small home computer which is intended to be programmed by the user and does not come with pre-loaded programmes, other than the utilities which allow it to be connected up and run.  It is aimed at schools and is hoped to help instil some of the kind of knowledge the previous generation had gained from their old home computers. 

After the Web lab, the family went into a demonstration and then moved on to more interactive displays.  I was not too interested in them, so I wandered into the flight section and gawped at all the ancient aircraft collected there.  I have always been interested in flying and I spent a lot of my formative years building flying models from balsa wood.  I have taken lessons on occasions so have actually flown myself in a small way, but never got around to acquiring a licence because to keep it up you have to clock up a minimum number of flight hours or it lapses.  In the years we were raising a family, I could barely afford to run a car let alone fly an aircraft, so I never got my licence.  
When I was at the peak of my model building days, I built some scale models of some of the very early designs to see how they flew.  Not all of them did fly I am sad to say, probably my fault, but vintage stuff took my interest for some time.  So anything connected with flight, particularly early flight grabs my interest and there they were, all of the ones I had made, large as life before my very eyes. 

Eventually after a long look at all the exhibits I was able to drag myself away and re-joined the family, who had all been interacting all this time and once back together we returned to the Underground to start our journey home. 
One of the features of the London Underground is that in order to get between stations and other places, you do an awful lot of walking and this tunnel connecting the Underground station and the museum is a fairly good example of this.

A couple of days later we went on a completely different trip, this time to the stately home of Tyntesfield in Somerset, just south of Bristol.

This is not an ancient building but it is quite imposing, with its own chapel standing alongside. Once owned by the Gibbs family, who made their fortune from guano, originally a Regency house stood on the site, but William Gibbs rebuilt it in the 1860s in the rather extravagant Gothic Revival style.  Bought by the National Trust in 2002, it is now open to the public. 
Tyntesfield House
The chapel
The grounds are quite extensive and the Trust provides a bus service to take people around the site.  Since one of our family cannot walk any distance, this service proved very useful. 

One of the busses on its rounds

We had one of the very few nice days of summer and were able to explore the grounds and visit the interior.   It has a lot of flower gardens which were literally buzzing with all kinds of bees busy making sure their hives had enough honey for the coming winter.

It was much hotter that day than the weather forecast had predicted and the little ice cream booth ran out of stock around three in the afternoon and we were lucky to get a much needed ice cream, finishing off the entire stock.  The lady selling ices, although apologetic to her disappointed customers, was quite pleased, she told me, because her family had said it would be a waste of time going at all that day and had recommended she took even less stock than she had.
After ices, we wended our way back to the car park and so returned back home.

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