The present, the past and the future…

By | June 22, 2015
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I often say there’s a bit of a mix in my newsletters – well, this time there’s a mix of time – we start with the present, then back to the early days of computers, then we zip ahead to the future. The time machine? HG Wells had nothing on me…

What’s the difference between a chromebook, chrome and chromium OS?
You know, it’s odd. In order to create something like Google Chrome, you have to be pretty clever. For all the faults of Windows, Internet Explorer, Chrome and so on, you can’t program them if you’re a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic.

On the other hand, the people who come up with these things do make some odd decisions. They all seem to like to pick really confusing names. From Microsoft following Windows 8 with Windows 10 (maybe I should have got Edward to help – he can remember the number 9) to the difference between Outlook Express and Outlook, which confused lots of people until Microsoft got rid of Outlook Express.

But it’s not just Microsoft. You might have heard about “chromebooks” or even seen them on sale in PC shops or big supermarkets. They look like quite sleek laptops – and they’re usually reasonably priced, so if you’re in the market for a new laptop, you might consider one.

But they’re very different from normal PCs or laptops. They aren’t just laptops that use Chrome as a web browser, like lots of people do on their PC.

They’re laptops that don’t have Windows on at all. Not only that, but the operating system (that’s the program that runs the laptop, like Windows) that they do have is designed to work totally differently. Instead of being able to run programs, store files, photos or whatever and so on on the laptop itself, pretty much all it can do is run the web browser.

Great for browsing the web. And you can access email via a web page, like lots of people do anyway. If you want to do much more, you have to do it through a particular web page. For example you can’t install MS Word and run it – you have to use a web based word processing program. You can’t install a game from a CD or download it – you can only play ones that work online.

And so on.

I’m not saying it’s a bad idea for everyone, but it does mean that if you aren’t connected to the internet at any point, the chromebook is little more than a cumbersome paperweight. And even if your internet connection gets slow, it’ll be frustrating to use.

As I say, it’s not that I’m saying they’re terrible. It’s just they’re very different. And definitely not for everyone.

If you have a noisy desktop PC, this might help
I’d love to have seen Bletchley Park computers working. The ones Alan Turing worked on, to help crack the Enigma code in the Second World War. They made such a difference to history – both in the war but also in the development of computing.

I think they’d have been pretty noisy, though. They didn’t have microchips or even transistors. Not even valves, like you used to get in radios. Instead they used relays – physical switches that click as they move from one state to another. I’d have loved to see it because it would be a big reminder of how everything a computer does, even now, is based on a whole lot of electrical pulses that are either on or off.

But it would be noisy. One way PCs have progressed is they’ve got quieter. in the case of a tablet or a mobile phone, pretty much silent.

Some desktops are still pretty noisy, though. Or at least the fan inside them is (sometimes the hard drive too – that’s the grinding sound you might sometimes hear when it’s busy doing something).

And it can be pretty annoying. I’d put up with the noise of The Bletchley Park machine, but when I’m browsing the web, I’d like the computer to be quiet.

There are a few tricks, though, that not everyone knows about, that can keep a PC that bit quieter.

The first is that most of the noise is usually the cooling fan, which runs faster if the PC is hotter. So making sure that there’s plenty of space around the box, in particular that the air vents aren’t blocked (or clogged with dust) helps. Not having it next to a radiator is a good idea, too!

The other thing you can do is make sure the box itself isn’t on a hard desk. I wouldn’t put it on a carpet as the dust from the carpet will get in the airvents, but a couple of old magazines makes a good “mat” to put it on – and really can make it noticeably quieter.

And don’t forget you don’t have to have the box at desk height. There’s nothing to stop you putting it under the desk, even if it’s the type that looks like the monitor should sit on top of it. That won’t actually make it quieter, but it means it’s further away from your ears!

The future of computers… and the future of the people who make them work…
I remember when I was little and first started learning about computers. We had one at school, but you never got much time on it (there was one BBC Micro in the whole primary school). And there weren’t any books about how it worked (at least, not that we were allowed to use)… and the teachers didn’t know how it worked. So that wasn’t much help!

But Mum and Dad bought a little home computer (a VIC-20). It was really basic by any modern standards, but I enjoyed messing around, getting it to do simple things like change the colour of the screen or display “Tim is great” across the screen, then fancier things like writing simple games.

And lots of the people who went on to create modern computer systems started in a similar way – by messing around, writing simple programs to get the computer to do things for fun. Comparatively few learnt their stuff through school, though they might have gone on to do computing at University.

The problem is that it’s pretty hard to do that with a modern PC. They’re so much more complicated that you have to already know a certain amount in order to get started. So it’s harder to learn the basics by “messing around” with it.

It’s a real problem – and it’s why some of the Cambridge computer scientists brought out the Raspberry Pi not long ago – to create a computer you could learn by messing around with.

But even there, it’s probably not for really young kids. But nowadays when you hear people say it helps in life to know a language, they’re as likely to mean a programming language like Perl or Javascript as French or German.

That’s why I’ve been quite impressed with some apps that a few different people have developed that let you learn the basic of programming by playing a sort of game. There are a few that do something similar, but one of the most popular is Lightbot – the idea is you give instructions to a robot in order to get it to go to a particular blue square on the screen and light it up. It looks more fun than it sounds (the link leads to a little video demonstrating it).

And they do versions down to for 4 year olds – I’ll have to give Alastair a go on it (and no doubt, if he has a go, Edward will be champing at the bit too).

It’s not that I’m suggesting it as a game for everyone (though having had a quick look, I suspect I’d find it quite addictive, so the boys might have to take turns…) but I thought I’d mention it as a few times someone’s asked me to recommend games on an ipad or tablet for their kids or grandkids. This is one that they might really enjoy… and could be the start of them creating whatever kind of computer system is around in 50 years time… and who knows what THAT will be like!

6 thoughts on “The present, the past and the future…

  1. Jim Holt

    Hi Tim
    Thought I would reply to this and share some of my experiences with computers – even though today I know about as much as to how they work as I did 30 years ago?
    Bletchley Park, It is now open to the public, A pal of mine went last year and said it was a truly inspiring experience and he recommended anyone to go and have a look – its on my bucket list.
    I remember when I started work at Stretford Town Hall. The council decided to have a computer. So a special building was erected at the rear of the Town Hall, fully air conditioned with an air lock door system to keep out dust, bugs and the external atmosphere. The computer was huge, filling almost the entire building. That was in the mid-60’s. Now I’m sitting at my kitchen table, writing this on a laptop that is many many many 000’s times more powerful than that early computer. I had my first computer, a Spectrum – do you remember those, you had to do simple programming to get the things working or buy cassette tapes to run games on? Then in the mid-80’s I bought an Amstrad in order to run my business finances on, purchase ledger and sales ledger – it worked fine, it took me weeks to input all the information onto the Sage softwear that I had purchased, only to loose it all by pressing the wrong key and deleting all that hard work. It took me all my powers of commonsense not to throw the darn thing out of the window. It took me weeks again to go through the same process. However it was all worth while in the end as it took me only minutes at the end of the day to send out my invoices instead of the 3-4 hours doing it manually.
    So whilst they are sometimes a pain, they are definitely a helpful tool – so long as you keep them as a handy tool and not become addicted to them eh?

    Reply
    1. Tim Post author

      Hello
      I’d heard about the Bletchley Park exhibition but what I didn’t know (but have just found out) is that they actually have a working reproduction of Turing’s Bombe machine – so I’ll actually be able to see it working.
      A trip down to Milton Keynes to see it is definitely in order!
      Funnily enough, we use the modern version of Sage for our payroll and income tax/national insurance. It’s probably a bit better than it sued to be (and it has a very handy backup feature that has saved us once or twice) but it still can be pretty frustrating to use!
      Tim

      Reply
  2. Hesperus

    Tim

    My first computer was a ZX Spectrum and I learnt more from it than all those I’ve had since. It was great fun trying to make it do things and I loved it. Sadly nowadays the things I loved back then are far more sophisticated and far less fun. In fact, I rarely play with the computer now, just work.
    My council got a computer too and it had its own room. Part of fire drill was to take a massive tape from the store by the fire escape and carry it to safety! I doubt if that would be popular now. My Spectrum actually had as much computing power as the councils when it turned up just seven years later. Such is the speed of progress!

    Reply
    1. Tim Post author

      Yes – I sometimes marvel at the fact that my pocket phone is far more powerful than the first computer I used – it’s not even a top of the range phone but it would have amazde people back then even if it had been as big as a table – but I can fit it into my pocket.
      Like you, though, I still think that in some ways I learnt more from the very basic old computers that you could tinker with a bit more.
      Tim

      Reply
  3. pamela Greenwood

    I have sent you 2 emails but have had no reply.
    Are you receiving this one? Pamela

    Reply
    1. Tim Post author

      Hello
      This message came through all right on the newsletter. Do you know what email address you sent the two earlier emails to?
      Tim

      Reply

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