This morning I woke up at 8:00 local time and it did feel like the morning and not 16:00 like I was almost expecting it to. The hotel actually has a Starbucks coffee in the foyer and the queues for this and the catered breakfast went on for miles making me glad that I didn't have breakfast pre-paid. A different (and considerably cheaper) branch of Starbucks actually provided breakfast on the way to the CalTrain depot. It felt a little odd because although it looks very similar to a branch in the UK they do everything just a little bit differently here, including providing a filter coffee option which I actually prefer.
We caught the CalTrain in a bit of a hurry out to Mountain View. It is an example of true American scale, the carriages were all double-deckers and the whole thing was pulled by an enourmous engine. The trip covered many miles but was quite cheap compared to UK prices (a little over $6 for an hour and a half trip).
From Mountain View Transit centre we walked out to the Computer History Museum the other side of the inter-state, stopping off to take a nose around the office block that Ettus Research is based in as it's some of their equipment I'm using in my PhD at the moment. Needless to say, being a Sunday the place was locked up and quiet.
After a brief confusion over language and the meaning of "check your bag", tickets were purchased and my rucksack was stored safely in the cloak-room at the museum. The computer history museum is an impressive and large, modern-looking building which contains a good selection of historical computers from a copy of the Charles Babage difference engine on display in the Science Museum in London and a selection of slide-rules to the Cray 1 supercomputer and Sinclair ZX Spectrum. It was an intersting look at an alternative history, although a video of the Colossus machine and samples of Sinclair and Acorn computers were present a lot of the displays, understandably, centered on the American developments and machines with a lot of Apple home computers and Eniac and UniVac displays.
A highlight of the display was the detailed demonstration of the Babage Difference Engine, a privately-owened and commissioned clone of the Science Museum one, which I have seen several times in the past. It was sadly out of order due to a broken bronze leaver arm which had simply worn out over three years of regular demonstrations at the museum. They are hoping to have it working again in a couple of weeks, but the attached printer was demonstrated and because the lever had broken mid-caclulation the way the machine actually worked had been frozen in time for us to see. The provision for variable formatting and for the partitioning of results into different numbers was remarkable, a true type-setting machine as well as a calculator. It could produce variable numbers of columns in several fonts with blank lines for readability, all stamped into clay tablets which could be used as moulds to cast lead printing blocks from which to print.
As well as a fascinating trip today, travelling a little wider in California I think I've observed some things that show how in some ways this state feels more European than a stereo-typed America might appear. There seems to be relatively little real obesity around here, certainly nothing more than I'd expect in the UK and maybe even a little less. There are also a surprisingly large number of what I consider "normal sized" cars. European and Japanese saloons and even some compact cars (including a Smart car) seem to dominate, there are a few of the classic giant American four-wheel-drives and station wagons around but by far the most popular car seems to be the Toyota Prius which is everywhere. I don't have experience in other parts of America to comment if this is a Californian thing or if the rising fuel prices are having this kind of affect on everyone but from what people have told me the giant gas-guzzlers are still quite popular else-where in the US.
After a day and half experience I think I'd prefer to be staying further south, in Mountain View or Palo Alto, rather than in San Francisco itself but as this trip is really to attend the conference here I couldn't pick my destination. It might be that like anywhere some areas simply end up with a very high proportion of middle-income families and professionals and little of the extremely rich/extremely poor that you see in the city here. So far I'm quite happy in America but not too keen on the big city, much like the UK then ;)