A brief account of my recent travels to England where I smash my computer, see the reconstruction of Charles Babbage's Difference Engine, discover a Dr. Who Police Box, and see an Agatha Christie play...
Well, this past week has been a funny old week and no mistake. As you may recall, on Friday 15 October I set off for England. The main reason for my trip was to speak at the Embedded Live conference in London on Thursday 21, but I set off a few days early so as to visit my dear old mom in Sheffield.
To celebrate my arrival in England, I managed to drop my backpack containing my computer. When it hit the ground there was a sickening “thud,” and when I finally gathered my courage to take a look I discovered that I’d totally smashed the poor little scamp’s LCD screen.
“Oh Dear,” I thought (or words to that effect).
Obviously this was something of a pain, but all was not lost because I was staying at the home of my little brother, Andrew, which meant that I could use his standalone display. Happily, the rest of my computer did work, although it was obvious that it wasn’t very happy (it no longer shuts down gracefully, for example, and the hard drive sounds a bit “graunchy” if you know what I mean).
Things weren’t helped by the fact that I was spending the days visiting with my mother. I was working on my computer (with Andrew’s display), while she waffled on about the things that mothers do, and I muttered appropriate sentiments when the occasion demanded [grin]). Of course, this meant that I had to wander back and forth across town lugging my brother’s display:
I’m not wearing my “happy face”
Just to add insult to injury (as it were), my mother has only an AOL dial-up connection, which meant that I had no Internet access while at her house, so my access to the net was limited to when I was at my brother’s early in the morning and late at night (you don’t realize how much you miss it until it’s not there).
When I finally set off to London on the Wednesday morning, it was with my brother’s display tightly wrapped in my clothes in my suitcase. I’d purchased a nice new monitor for him because I knew I was going to discard his old one at the end of my stay (in fact I gave it to the taxi driver who took me to the airport on the Friday). But I leap ahead of myself…
I checked in to my hotel in London around noon on Wednesday (I’d opted for the cheapest one I could find on the Internet – the room was so small that I had to back out into the corridor in order to turn around). After wandering round the corner to register at the conference, obtaining my badge, and checking out the exhibits, I met up with my old chum Joe Farr. We caught the tube to the London Science Museum to see the Charles Babbage exhibit and – in particular – the reconstruction of one of his Difference Engines. That was really, REALLY cool – I have pictures and video that I’ll post at a later time once I’ve mastered my new computer, but once again I leap ahead of myself…
On the Thursday I returned to the conference to give my presentation (explaining hardware to the software guys – I love a challenge [grin]). A little while before my talk was due to start, I was quaffing a cup of coffee and chatting with David Blaza from EE Times. Like me, David lives in America. Also like me he originates in England – in fact he was born in Doncaster, which is close to my hometown of Sheffield.
For some reason I no longer recall, we got to chatting about the British science fiction series Dr. Who. It turns out that we both saw the original episode in 1963 (I was six years old and he was five) and we both watched it from behind our respective sofas. If you also are a fan of Dr. Who, you will be aware that his “spaceship” that travels through time and space (known as the TARDIS) is shaped like an old-fashioned Police Box.
As an aside, these Police Boxes were all over the place when I was a kid. This was before cell phones and suchlike, and it was the time when policemen strolled around the streets rather than riding in cars. If something untoward was taking place and a policeman needed to call for backup, he would run to the nearest Police Box, open it with his special key, and use the phone inside to call the local police station (they also went inside when it was raining).
So why is the TARDIS shaped like a police box? Well, I’m glad you asked, because this was explained very early on in the original series. It seems that the TARDIS has a camouflage capability that allows it to adopt the shape/appearance of some innocuous feature of the landscape wherever it arrives. Thus, when it arrived in London in the first episode, it took the guise of a Police Box, because no one would give that a second glance.
But why has it remained a Police Box? Well, there are two reasons. The official explanation is that the TARDIS had a rough landing and its camouflage “circuit” jammed and the Doctor has never gotten around to fixing it. The unofficial reason is that this was originally a typical low-budget BBC production and it was cheaper to keep the same shape throughout. Of course, the Police Box has since become iconic, and no one would dream of changing it now.
But I digress… David mentioned that he’d heard that there was an old Police Box outside one entrance of the Earl’s Court Underground Station. I was amazed, because I thought they had all been dismantled long ago. Since the Embedded Live conference was being held at the Earl’s Court Conference Center we were just around the corner. We looked at each other … looked at our watches … then we raced over to find this little rascal and take each other’s pictures standing next to it (I know, it’s pathetic really, isn’t it?):
Yes, I would make a good Dr. Who (thank you for mentioning it)
But wait, there’s more… Agatha Christie (1890 – 1976) was a British crime writer of novels, short stories and plays, but she is best remembered for her 80 detective novels. In late 1926, Agatha disappeared for around 10 days. To this day, no one knows where she went.
A few years ago, a modern version of Dr. Who started with a big budget and fantastic special effects. I am a devotee – I love this stuff. In one 2008 episode titled The Unicorn and the Wasp
, the Doctor and his travelling companion Donna meet Agatha Christie at a 1920s dinner party on the eve of her publicized disappearance (now we know where she went – she was in the TARDIS – Ha!).
But that’s not what I wanted to tell you about… On the Thursday evening I went to see a play called The Mousetrap
with an old friend, Bob Zeidman, who is the author of the book Designing with FPGAs and CPLDs
and who was also speaking at Embedded Live. We saw this play at a beautiful old theater called St. Martins – very cozy – all dark polished wood swimming in ambience.
St. Martins Theater
The point is that The Mousetrap
is a murder mystery play by Agatha Christie. It first opened in the West End of London in 1952, and has been running continuously since then. It has the longest initial run of any play in history, with over 24,000 performances so far – we saw it in its 58th year! Unfortunately, I can’t tell you “who-dun-it” because at the end the audience is sworn to secrecy.
The next day (Friday) I flew back to Huntsville Alabama. On Saturday I was down at my local Best Buy store as soon as it opened purchasing a new computer (I’ll talk about this more in a future blog). I spent the rest of Saturday loading software and doing the other “stuff” you have to do with a new machine – I was forced to upgrade to the latest generation of operating system and application software, so now I’m fighting my way through the nuances of working with Windows 7 and the various applications in Microsoft Office 2010.
The reason I was in a rush is that I was to fly out to California the next day – Sunday – which was yesterday as I pen these words. This is all “hush hush” – it’s about a major new announcement in programmable logic space (where no one can hear you scream). In a few minutes I am to proceed down to the lobby of my hotel to be picked up by a limo and driven to a secret location where – I am told – I will discover something so incredibly amazing that I will squeal like a school girl!
I will report back as soon as I am able … until then, watch this space!