High tea, and we’re outa here

On Wednesday we had our last formal group gathering, High Tea at Brown’s. While some people found the fare a bit on the light side all of us left there with a better appreciation for the British custom of tea. While we tried to keep the emotional hu-ha related to the end of the program to the bare minimum, the students had engineered the acquisition of a very nice London Underground tea towel on which they all wrote short missives before giving it to me.

I think it’s fair to say that for all of us this has been an amazing adventure, especially so for me. I can’t thank the students enough for all the wonderful experiences we shared while traveling around London and England.

Here’s our after picture, notice how much more relaxed we all look now compared to early January when we first arrived. What’s not showing are all the new tattoos and piercings…

High Tea at Brown's, our last gathering.

High Tea at Brown's, our last gathering.


The Bard’s Birthday

On Saturday evening we had our last dinner at the flat (bangers, mash and garden peas) and then walked down to the Globe Theatre for the season’s opening night performance of Hamlet, which this year fell on the day the Bard’s birthday is traditionally celebrated (23 April). One half of our tickets were for “groundlings” and the other half were in a first level stall.

Once we sorted who was going where for the first act we took our places, during the intermission we refilled our pints and traded places so all of us had a chance to stand in the yard and see Shakespeare close-up. The staging and performance both were very good, and while we could have done without the light drizzle during the first act all in all we had a great time. [CharlieP]

The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood

On April 12, 2011 at around six in the evening five people by the names of Andrew, Charlie, Albert, Ivan, and Johanna arrived at the Royal Society building in London to secure a spot in the queue for James Gleick’s presentation on his latest book. So at this point, if  you think I have provided too much information, well then you get my point and James Gleick’s. His newest book, one of many award winning works he has authored, focuses on how information has “flooded” our lives, making it difficult if not impossible to sort out the wheat from the chaff. His lecture was ultimately informative and well delivered, outlining just enough of his book to titillate any potential reader. For our purposes, his lecture fit in well with Charlie’s class and comforted me personally by disclosing to a larger population, thoughts that have pervaded contemporary continental philosophy for the last few decades.

As we begin to read about how communication technologies have impacted society and the future of science, Gleick’s thoughts were potent reminders of how there is no “either, or”, “good or evil” determination to the major shifts we have witnessed in technological progress. On one hand, never has so much been at the hands of so many all at once. At the same time, how much can we handle? In an age where tweets are being archived by the Library of Congress, where there is no limit to the amount of websites that can be made, search results to be accessed, bits to be downloaded, what of any of it has any meaning? How are we to react to it? We must remember, Gleick points out, that when the printing press was in its infancy, great thinkers and scientist shared the same fears as we do, how much information is a good thing?

When knowledge is electronic, when it can be rendered in the palm of our hand in the form of a transistor, or computer chip, one must question the very notion of information as we understand it today. Either way, we had a lot of fun, and at least I am inclined to look into the book.

Afterwards, Johanna, Andrew, Ivan and I went out to the Blue Lagoon Thai restaurant… I found a rock in my spring roll. [BillG]

The gang at the Royal Society

The gang at the Royal Society

Complete signal failure

On Friday evening we all learned a new British phrase, “complete signal failure”. The American translation is that the train you thought you were taking to Edinburgh isn’t really going there when you thought it was. In fact, everyone who thought they were going from London to Edinburgh by rail last Friday night went on one train rather than the four which were originally scheduled. After a 7 hour odyssey, complete with a proselytizing teenager, we arrived in Edinburgh and found our way to the hostel.

On Saturday morning many of us walked around town, explored the Royal Mile, and took-in the amazing views and architecture. Some of us slept in to counter the effects of the journey… During the afternoon we walked down to Our Dynamic Earth, a very well done geosciences museum near Arthur’s Seat. Once there we organized ourselves and took part in a bespoke program on presenting science given by their outreach coordinator Christine Angus. When that we done we did a full tour of the museum including their dome show about becoming an astronaut and space exploration. Most people voted this the best science museum we visited during the program.

Another evening and morning of exploration rounded-out our trip to Edinburgh. At noon on Sunday we met at the Waverley Street Station for a much less eventful train trip back to King’s Cross Station in London. [CharlieP]

There goes the neighborhood

The neighborhood around our flat is changing, for the past month or so we’ve been watching the Mall, St James Park, Buckingham Palace and Green Park transform from wonderful open public spaces to places with lots of fencing, barricades, scaffolding with press boxes and the like. Why you ask? Well, there’s a wedding on 29 April and the procession goes right through Trafalgar Square, down the Mall, and to Buckingham Palace.

The silver lining, as it were, can be found in this bit from The Economist sent to us by Owen Traylor:

The self-explanatory [UK] lobby group Republic……..has been granted permission to close Earlham Street, a cobbled road in Covent Garden, to host a “Not the Royal Wedding” party, “celebrating democracy and people-power rather than inherited privilege”.

Here are some pictures of the preparations and one of us making sure we’ll have good seats for the “Not the Royal Wedding” party. [CharlieP]

Cleaning-up our act

Last Friday evening we packed our bags, met at Paddington Station, and stuffed ourselves into a remarkably crowded train headed for Bath. Here is Krystnell’s account of our trip.

It’s easy to pretend that your life has a soundtrack of its own when walking along the streets of Bath. Musicians of every kind lined the narrow and picturesque streets, a nice change from the bustling commuters in central London. However, it might not be completely fair to compare Bath to London. Of course they both boast theatres, museums and beautiful parks but Bath has the advantage of being a small and relaxing city, possessing historical Roman baths and laying in close proximity to the site of Stonehenge. Despite only spending a weekend there, we managed to experience it all.

The visit to Stonehenge began at noon and we all sat expectantly as the tour guide, a native to the town, led us along the steep streets slowing down only to point out magnificent views and interesting landmarks. We saw Jane Austen’s flat, rode along one of the wealthiest streets in the United Kingdom and saw the location of several scenes from various Harry Potter movies. We arrived at Stonehenge to join the hundreds of other excited tourists on the path that lead around the site. While some of us preferred to simply enjoy seeing Stonehenge, the rest of us held our audio tour guides to our ears and learned about the significance of each rock and its precise placement. The stones, which are much larger than one might expect were well worth the hour long drive that it took to see them.

We then headed to the small town of Lacock. The first thing that we were told was that the town was mostly owned by the National Trust and that the residents all pay a monthly rent of £200. The town is largely preserved and unchanged since the 18th century. Although we only stayed for a short while, we were able appreciate the idyllic atmosphere of the area.

Heading back to Bath from Lacock was a thirty minute journey during which we got to see the spectacular views that we had passed for the second time. As we climbed off of the bus, I have no doubt that there is anyone who would disagree with me in saying that the Romans knew exactly what they were doing in choosing Bath to be the location of their spa resort. [KrystnellS, CharlieP]

Breaking the code

Bletchley Park is the birth place of the world’s first programmable, electronic, computing device. I probably don’t have to tell you how historically significant that is since if you’re reading this blog post, you’re surrounded by and utilizing countless “electronic computing devices”. Such devices are absolutely everywhere, and last weekend we went to Bletchley Park and saw a working reconstruction of the Colossus computer — the first of its kind.

Despite Colossus’s significance, Bletchley Park is famous for much more than just that. Before World War II, Bletchley Park and the surrounding estate was owned by politicians and financiers. In 1937 the last of the estate owners passed away and in the following year, MI6 (the British foreign intelligence service, analogous to the CIA) bought Bletchley Park. Throughout the war, thousands of people were stationed there, with one primary purpose: crack the enemy’s communication systems without their knowledge.

On a beautiful April Saturday we arrived in Bletchley having taken a short train ride from London’s King’s Cross Station. Soon we were taking a fascinating tour of the grounds and facilities, including a fairly well done narration of the WWII history of Bletchley Park. One of the most interesting things at Bletchley Park is the work they did breaking the Enigma Machine. While the science and math behind their attempts to break Enigma, one of the Nazi’s principle codes, are complex, the tour guide did a good job of making them accessible.

Alan Turing, one of the forefathers of computer science, was a primary figure at Bletchley Park during WWII. He was instrumental to both the breaking of Enigma and the development of the programmable electronic computer. In preparation for the trip Charlie lectured a bit on ciphers and cryptography, and the class watched Breaking the Code with Derek Jacobi.

The tour took us through the main highlights of the grounds, ending at the National Museum of Computing where the replica Colossus stands. After the guide let us go, we had a wonderful picnic lunch on the lawn followed by some free time to wander around the parts of the Park that the tour didn’t include. Now if only someone could explain to me why there’s a post-WW2 jet just outside the Computing Museum. [Fitz, CharlieP]

You know you’re on the London Programme when…

  1. You think it’s okay to spell it p-r-o-g-r-a-m-m-e.
  2. You start thinking 30 minutes is a pleasantly swift commute time.
  3. You walk down the street and the guy with a Mohawk out to there doesn’t surprise you.
  4. You know it’s okay to blow the rest of your food stipend on Saturday night because Charlie’ll be cooking a free dinner at his flat the next day.
  5. You can walk out of class and into the Victoria and Albert museum.
  6. When Charlie says, “the new assignment…” you chant, “IS ON THE WIKI.”
  7. You are heartbroken that the Javabean across from the Waitrose is closed, and you worry about whether the girl with the fringe has a new job yet.
  8. You know that Lord Byron’s daughter was the world’s first computer programmer… and she was a gambler.
  9. You love Karlye’s brownies (but you don’t know how to tell Charlie to ask for her recipe without insulting his own).
  10. You look for your favorite rough sleeper so you can give him/her that extra sandwich you bought.
  11. You find yourself saying things like, “I’m a bit knackered,” and “I’m popping over to Sandwich World.”
  12. You don’t chuckle anymore when you see signs that say “humped zebra.”
  13. You look at a dining room table and see an opportunity to play wiff-waff.


Cliffs, what cliffs?

On Saturday 26 March we braved an early morning, cold weather, and rain to explore Dover. We started out at the Dover Castle with a walking tour of the underground tunnels which were used as a hospital during WWII. Unfortunately, the lower tunnels that had served as secret command centers for each branch of the military were closed for renovation. The tour was short but well done. It followed the story of an RAF lieutenant who had been shot down over the English channel and then transported to Dover for surgery. This gave the tour a little more of an investment in what was happening and what conditions would have been like in the underground hospital. Personally, I found this to be a nice touch.

During the afternoon we were free to go off and see different things in Dover. This included touring more of the castle, seeing drama between the king and his family, and a great view out over the English Channel and the town of Dover from the top of the tower. Some people braved the rain to see the beach and the famous white cliffs of Dover. Before taking the train back to London, we took advantage of the local all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. [BenS, CharlieP]

A bite of the Apple? I don’t think so

While innocently walking through Covent Garden square earlier today, I came upon a small mob of at least 1000 people queued up in front of the Apple store. “Why,” you ask? Well, today is when the iPad2 becomes available in the UK. These people still had 2 hours to wait before showtime.

Around the corner Nintendo had chosen the same place and day to setup a special booth to hawk their new 3DS unit. Poor planning that, I’d say, as evidenced below.