Today I went to the Computer History Museum to see the (working! clanking!) Babbage Difference Engine. It was surprising beautiful, loud, and finicky to operate. But what really surprised me is that it is on temporary loan from Nathan Myhrvold (who paid for its manufacture) and will depart the Computer History Museum in May 2009 to live in Nathan Myhrvold’s living room for the forseeable future. If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re not going to get an invitation to Nathan “Just Another Microsoft Millionaire” Myrhvold’s house anytime soon, so hie yourself to the Computer History Museum before May 2009 if you want to see a real live Difference Engine in action. After that, you’ll still be able to see its sister machine in the Science Museum in London.
In a fitting sequel, we had lunch at uWink in downtown Mountain View, the new cyber-restaurant chain started by Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese. Every table has a load of touchscreens, which you use to order food, play games, watch movies, and otherwise avoid human contact – sort of a dream come true for socially inept computer programmers such as yours truly. I’ve always felt uncomfortable bugging the waiter for anything (what, do you think they are paid to do this or something?) so it was a great relief to be able to order more barbeque sauce without having to demand it from the waiter to their face.
I put the restaurant in the go-before-it’s-too-late category for two reasons, (1) it’s in the same place as a long string of failed restaurants (location, location, location), (2) it seems too impossibly nerdy to survive even for Silicon Valley. However, my visit changed my mind to some degree. The place was full of kids who were happily playing away on the computers and bugging each other while the parents zoned out playing trivia. Kind of like eating dinner in front of the TV but without all the fighting over what to watch. On the other hand, the food was mediocre at best and in the end you are still going to a restaurant in order to eat food.
As an amusing side note, the user interface had a few obvious backdoor/Easter egg kind of things, one of which led to a “We’re hiring” page. We were still disappointed we couldn’t get to a shell; I suppose that goes to show that we aren’t the kind of programmers they want to hire.