12.13.2013

Technically, It's All About Appearances


Lots and lots of images today (38!).  Sometimes they just seem to bunch up for some reason.


Here's an example of some excellent Berlin street art I spotted (a little over 4 feet tall for scale) on a wall just around the corner from the Deutsches Technikmuseum.  It's so simple and pure - not one wasted brush stroke -  I love it!

When I'd made my visit to the Designpanoptikum the previous day, Vlad had highly recommended that I go take a look at the Deutsches Technikmuseum and since it was already on my list anyway, I moved it to the top of the queue.



Vlad had challenged us (during his introduction to the surreal museum) to work on being present to the form of objects without needing to know what their function was.  His suggestion was very much on my mind as I entered the Technikmuseum, especially knowing that only a small percentage of the explanatory labels included English translations. When I bought my ticket, I was essentially signing on to interpreting what I encountered from inside a vacuum of mystery.  What a great opportunity to practice the exercise I'd learned just the day before!

The Technikmuseum's impressively diverse collection of technological marvels spills over into a whole series of large buildings, sort of like a Smithsonian, Jr.  I decided to start in the old building, first dipping my toe into the textile area (which wasn't exactly doing it for me), but my attention was promptly restored when I turned the corner and found telephones dating from the 1800s.  What an impressive collection!  And from phones the content steadily improved, moving next to telegraphs (they had a German military model of an Enigma machine!), power generation and then on to radio, television and finally ending with computers. In every single area there was at least one item on display that had become such an icon during the course of history that it was hard to believe you were seeing the original.  Having said that, I still have to say it was the computer area that I was most excited to see.

To the left is a memory card (well, board) from a Zuse computer from the 1950s-60s.  I've included a bit of my hand in the picture to help you judge the scale of the thing.  If I remember correctly, this board held less than 1K of data.  Think about the size of this thing next time you use your 32 gig thumb drive.

On the right is another early form of data storage called drum memory.  The cylindrical drum would spin, using a data transmission technology not dissimilar to today's hard disk drive systems.  This memory device was also used in the Z22 and Z23 computers and held a whopping 38 kilobytes of data.  

But by far the most exciting thing at the whole museum for me was the model (at left) of Konrad Zuse's Z1 computer, which is widely held to be the very first modern programmable computer.

Working in his parents' Berlin apartment in 1936, German engineer Konrad Zuse spent two years assembling a mechanical computing machine which used a program punched into reels of discarded 35mm movie film stock to control computational operations.  The Z1 was Zuse's first attempt, and because it is entirely mechanical it was highly unreliable and difficult to operate.  Zuse rapidly moved on, presiding over many further breakthroughs in technology and improved iterations of his Z model computers.  His personal history is pretty damn fascinating, over and above what he contributed to mankind with his cute little switches and knobs and plungers and gates and buttons.  Here are a few pictures of the Z1 model (unattractively, through the display glass):


The above looks like a miniature set from a Godzilla movie, doesn't it?  Think of poor Konrad milling and milling and milling all those thousands of parts.  That's just about as wacky as something I'd do.


Okay, check it out - the Z1 was the absolute first computing machine that used binary floating point numbers.  I.e., very cool.  I think the console on my spaceship may need one of these boards.


The original Z1 was destroyed in air raids during the Bombardment of Berlin in December 1943, but in 1986 Konrad Zuse himself decided to rebuild the Z1 and spent the next three years manufacturing thousands of parts by hand to that end - the results of which are on display at the Technikmuseum.  There are also several of Zuse's later commercial offerings on display as well.  I had so much fun geeking out, I can't even begin to tell you.

I next toured the new building which houses boats and flying machines and all sorts of interesting ephemera associated with those topics.  I particularly enjoyed the small section dedicated to long distance optics (e.g., for lighthouses), and was dazzled by several of the exotic Fresnel lenses that were on display.



A good portion of the upper two floors were dedicated to flying machines from the 20s, 30s, and 40s and as a result, a great many of the items displayed  exhibited heavy damage (sometimes downright destruction), obviously garnered during WWI and WWII combat.  There was one particularly effective piece that succeeded wildly on the axis of form over function I was using to plot points.  Still, I couldn't resist using my barbaric German to try and translate the label - it ended up being a locomotive canopy that had taken a direct hit from an aerial bomb in 1918 in the Saarbrucken area.


I wasn't able to understand the intended significance of the engine fragment shown below, but I'm pretty sure that it is also the very essence of what you want to work with when trying to decouple form from function.  I myself am very strongly drawn to objects that have recorded some sort of acute kinetic event insofar as their shapes have been permanently altered (imagine, say, a busted up rearview mirror). When I look at the propellers on the engine below, I find myself obssessed with trying to imagine the forces that  are able to delicately curl a huge metal propeller into a graceful petal shape.  The only thing I feel certain of is that whatever force shaped those blades had to inovlve a super hot super powerful wave of energy - a lot of heat but not enough to vaporize the metal.  It ended up being the most deeply moving memorial to war I'd seen my entire visit to Berlin.


Immediately thereafter I reached that satisfying point in an experience when you know without even debating yourself that you're done.  Looking at all those tattered remains of flying machines had sort of neatly wrapped up Act III of my visit and I was heading for the exit.  What a great museum though.


After leaving the Tecknikmuseum, I made a quick stop by one of the Germany's best known landmarks, the Brandenburg Gate where I'd be able to take care of buying another transportation pass. The square was thronged with hoards of tourists milling about, so much so that I met a pair of fellows from Houston and San Antonio when the word "Texas" caught my ear from across the square.  The quintessential Brandenburg moment for me, however, was when I noticed a stretch limo had pulled up and the occupant was presumably gazing out the window at this famous symbol of political upheaval and elitism.  They might as well have been riding in a carriage with 8 perfectly matched horses, decked out in a tall powdered wig.

I jumped back on the S-Bahn and headed over to a part of the city that's renowned for its modern art and free wheeling lifestyle - the Mitte.  There, tucked away in a coutyard deep inside an old building is an art installation that I'd been wanting to visit called Monsterkabinett.

A collective of artists has created a gallery of large metal clad robots that you can tour in small groups, led by an enthusiastic guide barking out a strange framing story over the din and clatter of the moving machines.  I didn't even try to take pictures between the weird sort of copyright vibe of the place and the distinct lack of lighting that made images pretty much impossible.

It was charming and I enjoyed seeing something out of the ordinary, but this is the exact sort of venue that going to Burning Man all those years has rendered predominantly unimpressive.  Instead, I found myself waxing nostalgic about Vlad and the Designpanoptikum again.  There is such a difference between the two places, and it's got very little to do with content!  Enough said.

One excellent side effect of visiting the Monsterkabinett was that the courtyard around the gallery had some of the best street art I'd seen the whole time, and it was everywhere. Just a quick sampling:










I hopped back onto the Ring Bahn to head back toward the apartment, flopping wearily onto a seat and hunkering down for the longish ride ahead.  My full attention was instantly revived, however, when my eyes detected an immense sea of pulsing colored lights streaming past the windows on the opposite side of the carriage as it coasted to a stop. It was an enormous Ferris wheel throbbing with color, holding court over a variety of the usual corny carnival attractions.  I jumped off the train without a second thought and was soon walking around the fair, grinning and pushing the shutter button as fast as I could.  Carnivals are such a good spot to play with light painting photography.













I encountered an attraction I'd never seen before and thought was really fun - a photo booth meant to look like a giant snow globe. I watched as Santa herded group after group of willing victims into the clear PVC bubble and then helped perfect their placement so as to capture an always awkward souvenir family photo.  I think you could probably wring an entire coffee table book out of one evening's portraits it was so awfully weirdly wonderful.


There was also the requisite chamber of horrors ride.  Scary in any language!


When the tongue on my camera battery started to hang out, I hopped back on the train one last time and completed my journey back to Freiderichshain, my home base.  The grungy portal at the north end of the Ostkreuz station looked like the gateway to Toyland in Pinocchio when I arrived.  What a day of wonders!




1 comment:

Adam Rice said...

So great. That photo of the memory card reminds me of the computer I cut my teeth, a phone-booth sized "minicomputer" (as they were called at the time) that also used core memory. It had a sheet of it that was standard rackmount size—about 19" square. 128 KB. Wow.

And that drum memory. Definitely before my time. From what I've read, programmers would calculate how long it would take for an instruction to execute, and how long it would take for the next instruction to rotate under the drum's read head, and try to make sure that they didn't lose a rotation due to sloppy coding practices.