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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Tech Model Railroad Club and MIT Museum

Barbara and I spent an enjoyable couple of hours yesterday visiting the MIT Museum and the Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC). Go see both of them!

MIT’s small museum is currently showing five exhibitions:
  • a fascinating collection of holograms — always amazing to look at, and claiming to be the world’s largest such collection

  • an informative multimedia show about robotics and AI, complete with actual models, videos, and info about the real people behind the development of the robots (no, it’s not science fiction)

  • a well-done exhibition about Harold “Doc” Edgerton, the renowned inventor of the strobe, including a large blow-up of his famous milk drop photo — worth seeing if it isn’t old hat to you

  • a captivating and truly amusing set of kinetic sculptures by Arthur Ganson (are they art? are they engineering?)

  • a wonderful history of MIT called Mind and Hand, of interest not only to MIT folk but also to anyone whose life includes education or technology
Actually, there were six exhibitions. Somehow we missed Tech’ing it to the Next Level. Obviously I’ll have to go back to see it if it’s still there (I don’t know how we could have failed to notice it), since it’s all about educational innovation using technology.

Now, onto the model railroad layout. TMRC is well-known in certain circles as being the originator of the term hacker —not in the current sense to which the media have perverted the term (for which cracker is the approved term), but in the sense of “a person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, one who programs enthusiastically (even obsessively) or who enjoys programming rather than just theorizing about programming, one who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations.” It’s no coincidence that these meanings arose out of TMRC, whose exhibit suggests “MIT” as much as it suggests “model railroading.” In contrast to the majority of the highly detailed layouts that one is likely to see elsewhere, this one emphasizes the technology more than the illusion of reality. Exposed wiring is a virtue, not a defect. Seeing the scaffolding is fine. Roads don’t need drains, mailboxes, or fire hydrants. But there are many cool high-rise buildings, including one that lets the viewer can play Tetris on it (the controls turn the lights in the building’s rooms off and on appropriately, producing a Tetris game through the windows). There are excellent demonstrations of how to handle tracks and roads on multiple elevations. And don’t forget the ads for the breakfast food for which MIT has been famous for decades: Apple Gunkies, “rhomboidal pellets of true fruit goodness.”

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