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Alioth's Journal: The Listening Post

Journal by Alioth

Last weekend, I went to London for a long weekend. Primarily, to see a friend of mine who was over from the USA for a few days, but also to catch up with other friends in the area.

London's one of those places that I love visiting, but I'm not sure I'd entirely want to live there - a commute from anywhere reasonably priced to most of the sort of places I would likely to work would probably be the best part of an hour each way (but on the flip side I wouldn't need a car any more). But it does have its good points - for instance, with so many people living there it's not hard to find a band of geeky friends with whom to socialize. The Isle of Man just doesn't have enough technology passionate people, so most of my geeky activities end up being solo efforts.

On Monday, we went for a quick trip around the Science Museum, and it has the coolest display I think I've seen in a long time - the Listening Post exhibit (actually, a geek-art installation) - http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/visitmuseum/galleries/listening_post.aspx . The website picture doesn't do it justice at all. It's constructed out of dozens of 4x40 alphanumeric VFDs (vacuum flourescent displays - one of those "lets fire electrons around" display technologies that seems to have been hanging on forever, and probably won't get pushed out until OLEDs have truly become a long-term usable item). The displays are supported on narrow transparent columns, so in the dark room that they are in, you don't actually see the supports - the displays appear to be floating (and you can't see the bezels of the displays, so it looks like what they are displaying is just hanging there). It's big enough so that it can fill most of your field of vision.

Watching the display was at times moving, at times mesmerising, and slightly trippy. It is accompanied by sound, too - various sound effects timed with changes on the VFDs, as well as a computer generated voice for the dynamically generated stuff. We sat there for some time in silence, watching it. It really was truly awesome. (In fact, it has reminded me that I ought to figure out what sort of thing I should make with the big box of IN-12 nixie tubes I bought about 18 months ago for this kind of thing).

Unfortunately, though, the Science Museum's rack of Strowger telephone exchange equipment is no longer alive. It used to have 8 phones connected to it, so that you could watch the switches step, and that was always a favorite exhibit of mine. But now it sits silent. It was so much more informative when they had it working.

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The Listening Post

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