Reading the various tweets and blogs that emanated from Research ED 14 this past week have probably had a very different meaning to most everybody else than they have to me. Not because I have no interest in the content of the event, I do, most decidedly. I regret not attending. But to be honest, even if I had, i wouldn’t have been paying that much attention to the speakers.
Whilst you all went to Approach Road to an event at Raines Foundation School, I can only remember the place as Parmiters, the school I spent seven happy years at in the seventies. Parmiters moved out of London (to Garston, near Watford) a couple of years after I left. My year group was the last one to go all the way through the school in Bethnal Green. Because of the change of management I have not been back to the building since my act of rebellion at the 1979 prize giving.
The photos I’ve seen show the place has been kept in good order. Apart from the building of some monstrosity on our wonderful sixth-form huts. Oh, and allowing Nick Gibb in the building at all – that was just plain out of order.
Anyway, the place has been in my mind a lot, and given that much of what I do revolves around technology, my thoughts tended to focus on the cupboard at the back of room 41, only I’m guessing that its not room 41 anymore. Old building, top floor, end of the corridor, on the right. This was the room where I had most of my maths lessons, and where, between 1975 and 1977 we were fortunate enough to take one of the first O-Levels in Computer Studies, under the brilliant tutelage of Mr Renos Petrie. In the cupboard we kept all the tech stuff.
Mr P was one of our maths teachers and was quite brilliant at it. It is fair to say that this brilliance didn’t transfer so well to computing. Obviously I now know why he was only one page ahead of us – at some point over the summer he will have received a telegram (it’s the ’70s remember) from the Head telling him he was taking a new Computer Studies group. Well, we’ve all been there, haven’t we? Actually, the whole “one page ahead” bit? Probably that only lasted for about a term. After that we were way ahead. But Mr P didn’t seem to mind and he managed to somehow use the knowledge in the room to get us all through the qualification.
The first year we had to write our programs on marked cards and send them away to the University of London. A whole week usually went by before printout from the run came back. The second year we had a a teletype terminal connected by an acoustic coupler to the uni. We stored our programs on punched paper tape. We measured our progress by how big our roll was. And finally we start to get near the point of this post.
A couple of years later i finally got my own computer, an Acorn Atom. My model had half a kilobyte of RAM and a fixed point ROM. A while later I was in a position to upgrade the ROM and increase the RAM to the 2K necessary to run floating point arithmetic. It is from this point that I measure technological progress.
Most people measure this progress by reference to processor speed. This helps to give a measure of what the computer may be capable of doing. I do it in a slightly different way. I think it might be the inner accountant reaching out. What I do is ask “What would my current computer cost if I applied Acorn Atom prices to it?” To do this I have concentrated on the memory capacity. I have always seen this as a good proxy for what a computer is capable of.
So the other day I was slightly taken aback to see the latest SD card on the market (I know, my life is wild). 512 gigabytes. On an SD card. That’s enough space for 120,000 photos. Then I did the sums. If I had to pay the dame price per kilobyte for that SD card as i did for my Atom RAM then it would set me back, yes, you’ve guessed it, £11,811,160,064.
Why is this important? Or even interesting?
Not only have the capabilities of the devices we have access to increased out of all proportion to any expectation I could have had back when it took a week to run a program (or more often, find out it had not run), the cost of them has fallen in a way that is quite difficult to take in. The Atom managed around half a million instructions per second (half a mip). My current laptop can do 60,000 mips. That’s speed improved by a factor of 120,000. To put that into context, something would have taken my Atom a day to calculate will be done by the laptop I am typing this on in less than three-quarters of a second. All this before we even consider adding in the communications capabilities and the internet.
These changes mean that we can now put huge computing power into peoples hands at a very low relative cost. Back in 1977, a couple of years after the arrival of the first pocket calculator, when we were wrestling with marked cards, punched paper tapes and acoustic couplers we could not have imagined students having access to devices with these capabilities. Yet now that we could do, we seem to be further away than ever before of wanting to do so.
This post is, i’m afraid, just a self-indulgent starter. My intention over the next few posts is to consider why this is, to look at whether we can ever expect to get more, educationally, out of technology than we have to date and to consider the possibility that we may already have reached the point where we are already getting the best we are going to.
I’m not completely sure where this might take me….