Monday, 14 October 2013

Trees and geekery

This weekend was a bit awesome. I went to Bletchley Park, The National Museum of Computers, completed the Fairoaks Five Mile race for Woking Hospice (my first ever running race) and then finished it off by 'An Evening with Ray Mears'. It was an overload of things I love and very geeky. It made me think about the power of humans, and of nature and the relationship between them all, which is kind of what my work is all about.

Fair Oaks Medal

 Ray Mears talked about the ‘interconnectedness of humans and all things’ and how once things have changed we can’t remember what happened before them. I totally agree with his idea that our relationship with nature is a balance and the earth is not ours to do with as we please, it is a resource we need to look after, and hopefully, in future, technology will help us get there. I generally think Ray Mears is awesome. He likes trees and is interested in everything and is someone I would love to meet down the pub and be stuck on a desert island with. He has a lot of respect for the world too, which I can't help but respect. 

Bletchley Hall itself

Back view of buildings and windows of Bletchley Hall

 Sketches of trees around the park

 The opposite side to this was Bletchley Hall. The beginning of modern computing and digital languages. What I found fascinating is the vision of the people involved. They needed a faster method to decrypt messages from Germany in WWII, other than pen and paper and the Enigma and Lorenz machines. Thus came the Colossus and the Turing Bombe. Which work on the same principle of algorithms used to encode messages, with millions of combinations, which can be cracked by analysing the encrypted messages and looking for patterns. It’s not a very efficient way of doing it. So the Colossus was invented. A machine which reads messages and analyses them, a lot faster than we can but relative to today’s computers, probably about 1/5millionths as powerful as an Iphone (I asked). I don’t know how you invent something which you don’t know if it will work, or what it will look like or that there is nothing to base it on. To have that belief and conviction to work out how to invent it is insane. Today, relatively, developing computers and languages follows a logic, but if there is no language or precedent to base it on, you’re basically making something up, based on being clever and research and the hope that the principles you've been working on make sense. 

Explanation of the Enigma encyphering process and sculpture of Alan Turing

Needless to say, I was well impressed. (Also something I enjoyed, which added a lot to the experience, was the genuine interest and enthusiasm of all of the staff at Bletchley. It makes a difference to feel like you're not in the way of them, and especially as most of them are volunteers, their generosity is even more heartwarming.) 

 And then there was the Raspberry Pi. I heard about them about a year ago and found the concept a curious one. A tiny little computer, which is mobile and can be taken anywhere, which is about £25. You just have to plug things into it, like a screen, keyboard and SD card. But the wonder and possibilities are in that you can plug whatever you want into it, people have done all sorts, like drumkits, barometers, attaching a camera and tying it to a teddy and chucking it out of a plane etc. The point of the Raspberry Pi is that it requires very little battery power compared to standard computers, so it can be run in developing countries, where there is a lot less electricity. But also, because it’s so cheap, it is less worrying if you plug something in that breaks it. I don’t know where this might lead to, but that’s the fascination, and also the fascination of Bletchley Park. The raspberry pi is the next stage in the ethics of technology. We are very clever and developed them and they have developed so rapidly that the rest of the world hasn't caught up. But thinking about it and how it works off little power and saves on resources to run it is a step towards a better balance of man/nature/technology. 

Raspberry Pi connected to an Arduino Uno

 The thing these things have in common is curiosity and vision. People who are excited and patient and curious and respect the things around them. Who knows where it will take us, but the possibilities are endless, and there’s nothing to stop us, and that’s exciting. Hopefully we can fulfil Ray Mear’s vision of using technology to balance nature and humans.

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