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If it moves, take it apart

MEET my dad. Aye, that's him over there looking like Robert Mitchum impersonating Edward Woodward. Don't mistake his lack of small talk for a lack of a sense of humour, though he is most likely to laugh out loud when John Wayne shoots someone unexpectedly.

He is now in his 70s, long retired from his job as a design engineer with Austin then Terex (makers of extremely large earthmoving trucks and scrapers, all painted a repellent green). He has always had a sideline writing articles for caravan magazines, illustrating them with his own photographs, and 10 years ago the family clubbed together to buy him a computer with word-processing software.

Ten-year-old computer technology is like 100-year-old automotive technology. So some of us tried, over the past couple of years, to get him to upgrade. He would enjoy having internet access and e-mail, we argued unsuccessfully. Dad wasn't keen. His creaking Amstrad could do everything he needed. Why bother with e-mail when you could write letters or telephone? But the subtext was that a new computer would be very complicated.

At first I thought that he was confusing versatility with complexity of use, but I think it went deeper. My father has worked on cars and motorbikes since the 1930s. It would not be an exaggeration to say that until the arrival of ABS and electronic engine management systems, he probably understood the function of every component.

Give him an unfamiliar mechanism like (for example) a 13-year-old boy's malfunctioning cassette recorder and he could get his head round that, if the fault was mechanical. This comprehension was never going to happen with a PC and perhaps, subconsciously, it bothered a man who was used to understanding not only what something could do but also how it did it.

I have come across this situation before with some of my best physics students. When we lift the bonnet on the universe, the usual tack is to explain how everything works and how it all fits together. Now and again, however, pupils are presented with a black box. "This is what it does, but you'll have to wait until S6 to find out how." The good kids are fashed by this. It doesn't suit their learning style.

Whether or not he was comfortable with it initially, my dad has coped admirably with his new machine. Just listen to Lesley Riddoch's show and you might hear his e-mailed opinion on some current topic. Maybe she'll have a debate about lifelong learning some day. He'd be worth hearing on that.

Gregor's mum is pretty smart too.

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