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Sunday, November 24, 2013

My advice: skip the Intel museum

There are some parts of the valley where I don't go too often. Maybe they're far away, or they don't seem interesting, or whatever, but time just goes by without me experiencing them. Then, out of the blue, I'll have family visiting from far away and they'll want to check out something specific. I can't exactly turn them down, so off we go to do something new.

This is the standard "you live here but you never go see X until someone visits" story. For me, it was the Intel "museum". It was a pretty sad little setup with a gift shop tacked on. I caught two pictures worthy of snark.

UNREGISTERED VERSION

I have to apologize for the picture quality here. This one popped up so quickly I barely had time to snap this photo before it disappeared. It's this dumb little "digital photo postcard" thing they have when you first enter. You're supposed to sit down, somehow bend yourself into the camera's field of view, and then have it shoot a picture.

Then you get to hold your hand out at arm's length and tap-tap-tap on the screen to enter your e-mail address. Imagine a typical flatscreen display, but tilt it back maybe 15 degrees, and then try to "type" on it. You get "gorilla arm" really quickly doing this. Then, while you're doing that, this message appears.

You'll just have to trust me that it says "UNREGISTERED VERSION" in the top grey bar, and down below it said something about entering a registration key, or that the registration had expired, or something else equally clowny.

A bit later, there's a display which is supposed to teach you about binary, I guess, but it winds up being an interesting lesson about ASCII and the limitations thereof. Couldn't they come up with something better than this?

Spell your name in binary code

There are 8 seven segment displays, each with a button beneath to toggle them between 0 and 1. Then there's an [Enter] button, and a [Clear] button. Above it (not shown in my picture), there's a screen which displays the characters you've entered.

At first, this seems like a simple use of a shift register. You set up some bits, hit the button, and it shifts them in. When you're ready to start over, frob the clear line and it starts over. Easy, right?

Well, but there's a problem. I guess I started thinking about it after noticing that it had an 8th bit present, and that was silly because ASCII doesn't go that high. That got me thinking about character sets.

Notice that it only shows the patterns for A-Z. Just how many people out there have names which can't be expressed with just those? While I'm not personally in that camp, I've met a fair number of people in my life who are, particularly out here in the multicultural land that is the Bay Area.

Imagine a bunch of kids coming through here, and then one of them steps up and tries to make her name pop up, but it's no good. The system can't render whatever interesting character she had in mind. Sure, trying to enter UTF-8 this way would be silly, but why make some kid sad just because her name has some other character in it?

They could just amend it to not talk about names. They could have the kids try to type in "INTEL" or "PENTIUM" or "F00F BUG" for that matter.

I think it's time to trot out the falsehoods programmers believe about names again.

After looking at this list again, I'm kicking myself for not trying a name like "Nishit" at the Intel museum. It could have been interesting.

If you're looking for a bunch of computer history stuff in museum format, drive the extra 10 miles to Mountain View and go to the Computer History Museum. As long as you don't make any wrong turns, you'll have a much better time.