Alastair and “Baby” – and something you should read if you use email

By | May 9, 2016
This content is 8 years old. Please, read this page keeping its age in mind. Thank you.

A week ago, we went to Manchester. Partly we went so we could visit the Legoland Discovery Centre – which was brilliant fun. But then we also went to the Museum of Science and Industry.

That was brilliant, too. Well worth a visit, though the boys didn’t have the stamina to see all of it. They did really enjoy the amount we got around, though.

But one of the first things we saw there was what really interested me. It’s called “Baby” and it’s the first computer that could store its own programs to run.

Here it is:

Picture of
That might not sound that significant, but without it, every time you wanted your computer or tablet or phone to do something different from what it was already doing, you’d have to load a new program into it somehow – from punched cards, tape, a disk or whatever. If you’re reading emails and you want to write one instead, you’d need to load a new program. If you’re browsing the web (though it’s hard to see how you could make a web browser without storing the program, to be honest) and wanted to play a video you’d come across, you’d have to load a new program… and so on.

But that’s not really what I wanted to tell you about.

It’s impressive that although most people assume the computer industry was developed in America (and nowadays it’s largely dominated by “Silicon Valley”), this huge step in computing was created by a group at Manchester University, using various cobbled together bits and pieces to do things they weren’t really designed for – but I’m resisting to go on about how clever it was to use a CRT screen (like an old TV) as an early form of memory storage… oops, sorry I failed there.

And it’s really impressive that the mobile phone I used to take the pictures above is far far more powerful than “Baby”… even though it’s by no means a new or particularly powerful phone (in fact I’ve just now replaced it with a newer one).

But that’s not really what I wanted to talk about either.

No, what really struck me as I looked at it is how wrong so many of the people making forecasts about how computers would change have been over the years.

Of course, things have changed massively – not just in the 70 or so years since “Baby” but in the last 5 or 10 years. But not exactly in the way expected.

And it worth remembering, when you read forecasts for the future from people like me, that it’s really hard to predict the future. Everyone tends to get it wrong.

And along with that, they tend to assume you need the latest of everything – and I want to reassure you that you don’t. Obviously newer computers and tablets and phones can work better for some things – I wouldn’t try browsing the web on “Baby”. But if something works properly for you and there aren’t any security issues with it, then you don’t need to change.

On the other hand if there’s a newer version and it’ll do something extra you’d find helpful, or would be faster to use or more reliable, then it might be worth considering. And if there’s a security issue with an old version of something, then it’s definitely worth thinking seriously about (Using Windows XP on the internet falls into this category).

Something to remember when you hear about how you “really need to upgrade” your PC, tablet, phone or a particular program.

Oh, and without predicting the future, who knows, maybe here’s one of the people who’ll be designing the equivalent in 20 years time. Alastair certainly seemed interested in how it worked…

Alastair with

Something you should read if you use email
Sadly, I keep hearing about new scams all the time. But I read one in the paper the other day that is particular painful.

A couple had transferred the money to their solicitors to pay for their new house – only to find the bank details they had in an email weren’t for the solicitors at all. They were for a scammer – who walked off with all their money.

It turned out their wifi at home had been hacked and the hacker changed the bank details. And since the solicitors had sent the correct details, they weren’t interested in helping out.

The newspaper’s conclusion seemed to be you mustn’t email your solicitors, which isn’t quite the right conclusion. In fact, there are two things I’d draw from it:

First, remember that email isn’t a particularly secure way to transfer information. Never send anything you really wouldn’t want to be seen by email (eg credit card details)… and in a situation like this, it’s fine to email your solicitors but when it comes to bank details you’re better off getting them from the solicitors’ website (if it’s there) or giving them a call.

And secondly, it sounds like the reason the hacker was able to get in was because the couple’s wifi didn’t have a secure password on it.

I’ve written quite a lot this week so I don’t want to go into lots of detail here, but if you use wifi at home, make sure you have a password. And by all means use unprotected wifi connections when you’re browsing the web at a cafe or wherever, but don’t use them for anything that needs to stay safe.

(If you’re not sure whether your wifi has a password, on most devices it’ll have a little padlock symbol on it when you connect to the wifi. )

If you have a password set up, it’s MUCH harder for hackers to get into your PC this way.  So I’d strongly recommend having a password set up.

Anyway, next time I’m going to explain something that might have confused you if you use Windows 10… and I’ve got some information on what I’m working on at the moment (and who with).

6 thoughts on “Alastair and “Baby” – and something you should read if you use email

  1. Phil Butler

    With regard to home wifi, I strongly recommend accessing your router and resetting the password to something that is easy for you to remember but impossible for a hacker to guess. The second thing I do is to set the router up so that it does not broadcast its name, making it even harder for a remote hacker to break in. Perhaps you would be able to explain this in simple terms for fans of your email advice service. I am not sure that I could so haven’t tried.

    1. Tim Post author

      Good advice – I’ve talked in a few places about changing the password and given advice on how to make them hard to guess but haven’t really covered setting it to not broadcast the name – I might see if I can fit that into a newsletter or into one of the books…

  2. Dennis Daines

    Your Email about computers brought back memories of my working life in 1957 at that time I was doing research and developement on spectrographic instruments The computer attached to the instrument was the size of a wardrobe.The best job it ever performed was when a mouse climbed inside and trod on the live wires,probably the most expensive mouse trap ever.Please excuse spelling mistakes.How do you get to a spellcheck from any place other than Emails.
    Thanks from Den

    1. Tim Post author

      I wonder if that’s where the phrase “there’s a bug in it” came from – if there was actually a bug of some kind shorting out two wires so it didn’t work properly…
      On the spellcheck, it depends on what web browser you’re using but most have one they can have turned on. If yours isn’t, you could check in the settings of the browser – usually in the menu that’s got three little lines above each other. Somewhere in there (depending on which browser it is) there should be an option to turn on the spellcheck.

  3. Terry Anderton

    Thank you as always for your tips. Am not electronic sassy at all so didn’t really understand your email response Phil Butler.

    Anyway, wanted to say your little boy has a lovely little face Tim.

    Keep sharing.
    Terry Anderton

    1. Tim Post author

      Thanks! I always say that Alastair tends to take after Julie so I’d agree on the lovely face! (The younger one, Edward, tends to take after me more, but that’s more in how much trouble he causes…)


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