Livings computers indeed

Just back from a long trip to Seattle. I had a great time seeing family, friends, old and new. Of course, there are always a few nerd-stops along the way.

I had the pleasure of visiting the Living Computers: Museum + Labs on the south side of Seattle. Just take the Sound Transit Link light rail system to the SODO station, walk a few blocks west along South Lander Street to First Avenue, and walk a few blocks north from there.

Seattle area public transportation is excellent. Be sure to pick up an ORCA transit card. Senior citizens can ride pretty much anywhere for $1!

Living Computers is both a hand-on museum and educational lab space. It’s another Paul Allen venture like the Museum of Pop Culture (once known as “EMP,” now “MoPOP”). The goal is hands-on experience with current and vintage computing technology, not static displays.

The first floor exhibit space is relatively new — about one year old. (The museum itself is about five years old.) The space is open and very nicely appointed. The first floor has many interesting interactive exhibits including self-driving car, telepresence robot, programmable robots, neural nets, Cubelets, and more. (Cubelets are super high tech processing blocks that plug together.) The staff is very friendly and knowledgeable.

The first floor also has teaching labs which are nicely equipped. The museum sponsors one day courses and events to help people get started and to work on projects of their own. (Watch out for events, too.) The staff hold open office hours on Thursday afternoons between 3PM and 5PM. I dropped in during office hours and had a fun chat with the teaching staff. The museum has established and is building a close relationship with local school systems and educators.

On to the second floor! Half-way up the stairs, is a mini Internet of Things (IoT) lab where you can quickly assemble a demo IoT system. I put together an Alexa-controlled buzzer. The hardware consisted of an Amazon Echo Dot, a handful of littleBits modules, and a Samsung tablet running the littleBits app. Once assembled, Alexa starts a ping-pong of network messages that eventually turn on the buzzer. Cute.

The second floor began life as Paul Allen’s computer collection. Paul Allen is a preservationist who wants people to experience vintage computing, not just look at old stuff. The second floor is filled with vintage personal computers, mini computers and mainframes. (Please see the museum site for a detailed list.) The PDP-10s, -20s, -8s, 029 card punch, etc. are old familiar tech from my youth. There were a few pieces that I had not touched before such as a PLATO terminal. The micros and minis are in a large exhibit space while the mainframes are running in an air conditioned cold room. You can get an on-line account to the mainframes, BTW.

It was a kick to see SYSTAT, again. Ah, many cold nights spent in the machine room at C-MU as a computer operator. Now there’s an obsolete job title for you! I got in a few rounds of Missile Command on the Atari 400, inspiring me to drag out my old 400 at home.

I would have pictures of the museum and labs, except it was raining cats and dogs when I visited and I didn’t want to drag my iPad into the weather. My day pack is not exactly waterproof. (Ironically, I have since trashed by 1st gen iPod by throwing it into the washing machine with the laundry.)

After taking it easy for a day, I dropped into the 2017 ACM SIGCSE computer science education conference at the Seattle Convention Center. The highlight of my day was Erik Brunvand’s presentation about his course Making Noise: Sound Art and Digital Media.

Erik is an old friend of ours from grad school days at the University of Utah, where he is now a professor of computer science. Erik’s course is like a trip through my own psyche and his lab is indistinguishable from our dining room which serves as my electronics shop. He has quite successfully melded electronic music, computing and electronics into a one semester, project-oriented course. Students slam into art/music and technology from all directions. Students get a taste of everything including circuit bending. Hats off to Erik!