Back to the future

I worry that, after my last post, readers may suspect that as a middle-aged, middle-class white man I will attempt to live entirely in the past from this day forward.  If I were in a position of power, you might worry that I would try and make the rest of you join me there.  Let me reassure you that this is not the case (if nothing else I worry about the insanitary, ill-health and danger culture which typifies much of the past) and I will later illustrate with a couple of hundred examples (OK, I may spare you quite that many).  Equally, I try and avoid the common trope of assuming that the people of the past were stupid because they lacked the iPhone or self-parking cars – a position which might be more supportable if those making it had any idea how either device actually works.

This feeling that I might be mis-representing myself was probably deepened by lunch at Peter’s Yard a couple of days ago.  This establishment does not give you a numbered spoon or table to allow your food to find you (usually, I will admit, with the involvement of some human agency) but instead a Perspex plaque with a picture and associated Swedish word (plus its English translation).  On Tuesday, this word was “nostalgia” (or so it was translated) and I did wonder if the callow youth serving me was trying to make some sort of point.

My time in Edinburgh coincided with a portion of the Edinburgh Science Festival – so another tick in my I-Spy book of Edinburgh Festivals (I think I now have 4 out of more than a dozen).  As a result, I’ve seen robots and 3D printers in action – the latter seem very much at the early 1980s printer stage of development, slow and prone to jamming – the future of construction toys (inspired by peeling an orange) and used my smart phone as a microscope (the reverse is a much harder ask).  The National Museum Of Scotland – where I saw the aforementioned wonders – also had an exhibition marking 400 years of the logarithm.  Were I of a more larcenous nature than is in fact the case, I could happily have walked off with most of the exhibits.  I particularly want a set of Napier’s Bones and a Curta Type 1 Pocket Calculator.  People wax lyrical (using a singing version of Mr Sheen?) about the beauty of the iPhone, but the Curta is truly beautiful (albeit lacking some of the Apple product’s more esoteric features) and was made in Liechtenstein (rather than China).  Whilst out of production, they can still be acquired – but are a tad expensive and I suppose I don’t really need one.  I just noticed that I seem to have returned to the past in some sort of temporal mean reversion.  This denial is not going quite as well as I’d hoped!

I also went to a number of speaking events at the science festival (though, for me, more accurately describable as listening events).  I saw brief introductions to engineering and climate change – which were both good – and to bacteria which was incredible and potentially life changing.  Let’s just say that I have started washing my hands a LOT more often and am very keen to stay clear of any gram negative microbes – given that no pharmaceutical company is working on antibiotics to cure me should I allow myself to become so infected.  Perhaps the most inspiring event – and most fascinating – was entitled Making Data Work.  This straddled the space between the making movement, big data, creativity and intellectual property.  An example of just one question posed: Will the 3D printer be a lathe or a sewing machine?  This talk really showed what an interesting and challenging future there could be – and I find myself wondering how to become involved in it.

I will now admit that there is an ulterior motive to this whole post.  All the speaking events at the EdSciFest which I attended took place at Summerhall – an arts, making and science space which used to house the veterinary college.  As a result, it is referred to by all the locals I met as “the Dick Vet” – after its founder, William Dick and not as a result of any specialism taught there (as I’d briefly imagined – the ghost of Sid James is rarely far from my side).  Even better there is a bar on-site (from the days when it still housed students) called The Royal Dick.  Sadly, my packed schedule did not allow me to enjoy a pre-talk stiffener there, but I know where I’ll be drinking next time!  For any doubters, here is a picture of this august institution, its front bulging proudly towards the camera!



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