The Computer History Museum

Today’s Geek Destination of Choice:

The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA

What it is:

It’s a large museum dedicated solely to the rise of what is arguably our most important technological advance since the wheel. Exhibits follow the flow of history and have machines from every era and major turning point in the road of computing. The extensive history goes back over 2,000 years of human invention.

The Computer History Museum

The main gallery of The Computer History Museum features a timeline of computing that goes back thousands of years.

Why This Sets my Geek Heart Aflutter:

We all have our interests. Sometimes the best things are those that tickle those interests in very specific, niche ways. As one of my friends said, as he was visiting the museum, “You know me. It’s smack in the middle of the Venn Diagram between computers and history. How could I turn it down?”  If you, like him, are fascinated by giant flowcharts showing the evolution of computer languages as though they were verbal languages through the centuries, you might find this place as irresistible as he did.

Did I mention they have a working version of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine?

Babbage was this guy who decided to make mechanical computing machines back in the 1830s. There were two types of machines that he invented: the Difference Engines and the Analyical Engines. He drew out these extensive blueprints for these machines, but actually never succeeded in building a complete one. In 2002, modern engineers put together a working copy of it from his blueprints.

Incidentally, his friend Ada Lovelace wrote extensive notes discussing Babbage’s machines, including a working algorithm for his Analytical Engine. This algorithm is widely recognized as the first computer program, thereby earning Ada Lovelace the title of “First Computer Programmer,” and winning the hearts of her fellow geek girls everywhere.

Charles Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2

A demonstration of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2.

So The Computer History Museum has an actual, working Babbage Difference Engine that they do demonstrations of. It is a Difference Engine No. 2, which calculates with numbers up to 32 digits and tabulates 7th order polynomials, using a conglomeration of gears, levers and cranks totalling 8,000 parts. This thing is so ridiculously steampunk that I can’t even throw in enough uses of the words “newfangled” and “egads” and “preposterous inventiveness” to describe it.

Unfortunately, I hear it’s not on display every day, so if you are into Victorian computers made out of gears (because really, who isn’t), it might be worth a phone call to make sure you picked the right day.

Aside from the obvious attraction of the Difference Engine, the main draw, for me, would be their extensive and impressive collection of actual artifacts from every age of computing. The Internet is great at imparting information, but physical objects are still beyond the realm of what we can experience sitting at home. For example, we all know that storage has decreased in size since the days of the dinosaurs, but to be able to visually see it in person would, I think, be worth the price of admission.


Have you been there?

No. Some of my friends went on their vacation last year. I would like to see it.


How much will it cost me?

Admission prices range from free (for Members and Children) to $40 (for the Total Geek Experience package, which includes a T-shirt and other do-dads)

As always, if you don’t live in or near the Bay Area, travel and lodging have to be factored in.


Website and more information:

There is so much information at that link that I don’t even think I need to list any Wikipedia articles.

Categories: Computers, San Francisco Area | Leave a comment

Hotel Thursdays: Hotel Tomo

Hotel Tomo - Players Suite

Hotel Tomo Players Suite

Today’s Geek Destination of Choice:

Hotel Tomo in San Francisco, California


What it is:

Hotel Tomo is an anime-themed boutique hotel located in the middle of San Francisco’s Japantown. The rooms are decorated with a cheery modern minimalism, giant murals, and stocked with copies of anime magazines.


Why This Sets my Geek Heart Aflutter:

An anime-themed hotel in the heart of Japantown? In San Francisco?

Ok, there will likely be plenty of other entries in the future about specific San Francisco attractions. The city itself is amazing on so many levels, geek interests aside. And with geek interests, there’s just so much…. science! Knowledge! Ocean! Chocolate! Oh, San Francisco, we have NOT seen the last of you yet. No, we haven’t. The Geek Tourist is not anywhere remotely done with you.

But, just for a moment, all that aside. This is, after all, an entry focused on a hotel, not the city.

Mums Restaurant and Bar at Hotel Tomo

The decor extends through the attached Mums Restaurant and Bar.

To begin with, I love the concept of boutique hotels. For some, when they travel, a hotel is just a place to get some zzzzs. For me, if I am going to spend a chunk of cash to choose a home base during a trip, I think it’s great to have it be a place that I can’t get anywhere else. Drinking a latte from Starbucks is great; you know what you’re getting. Drinking a coffee from some random corner bookshop/coffee house/ pogo stick emporium is really the sort of unique experience that got us into coffee to begin with. That and the caffeine. Caffeine definitely helps.

My point is, boutique hotels are exactly like that. So not only is Hotel Tomo located in one of the most amazing cities in the US, it’s a small boutique hotel with a delightful anime theme, bright colors, plush toys and magazines and murals furnishing each of the bedrooms. Oh, and they also have a Player’s Suite room with an 8×5 foot HDTV screen, a Wii and a PS3 right there in your hotel room.

And it’s in the middle of San Francisco’s Japantown. I’ll be honest, I didn’t know that San Francisco had a Japantown until I read about this hotel. According to the area’s website, it’s one of only three remaining Japantowns in the United States. I have no idea what it’s like, but I would love to find out. I know not everything Japan is geek-related, but no one could deny the enormous influence that Japan has had on geek culture: from animation to graphic novels to video games and beyond. And don’t deny it, US geek culture has such a massive crush on Japan, like they are both in junior high together, pulling each others’ hair and tripping each other in class. “Oh, Japan?” the US says. “Yeah, Japan is so weird. I so don’t totally have a massive crush on her giant robots, even if they do light up.” And Japan just keeps sending us awesomeness and building giant steampunk clocks and dares us to pay attention. And everyone watching just kind of rolls their eyes and tries to focus on the class instead of the two kids in the back slap-fighting and passing love notes.

My point is, whether Japantown is full of stores selling Hello Kitty sushi or an example of great historical and cultural significance, I think I’d like to check it out someday, and if I do, staying at a hotel playing Miyazaki movies and decorated with anime-style murals seems appropriate.

Guest room at Hotel Tomo

Murals throughout the hotel are by artist Heisuke Kitazawa.


Have you been there?

No. Not yet. San Francisco is nice, though, and I’ll be visiting there again someday…


How much will it cost me?

Room rates at Hotel Tomo start at about $92 a night, which for a San Francisco boutique hotel, is not that bad, in my opinion. Apparently this is a “budget hotel,” so if you are expecting full-service poshness instead of quirky charm, understand what you’re paying for. Check out TripAdvisor and weigh it against your own expectations.


Website and more information:


Categories: Anime, Hotels, San Francisco Area | Leave a comment

Space Center Houston

Some kids check out the space suits at Space Center Houston

Some kids check out the space suits at Space Center Houston.

Today’s Geek Destination of Choice:

The Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX.


What it is:

The Lyndon B Johnson Space Center, located outside of Houston, Texas, is where the mission control center was for a number of groundbreaking space exploration missions, including the Moon landings. The attached Space Center Museum houses activities, collections of space suits, moon rocks, artifacts, a  returned Command Module, a Skylab training module, films and mini-lectures, a full Saturn V rocket, and has tours of some of the Space Center facilities, such as the Mission Control Center and the Astronaut Training facilities.


We totally put people on the Moon.

We totally put people on the Moon.

Why This Sets my Geek Heart Aflutter:

Oh my gosh, you guys, we totally went to space. I mean, “us”, as a country, as a species, not me personally, unless you consider that Earth is also in space, which is not what I am talking about here.

Space, you guys! Outer space! Like in the movies!

Everybody knows this, so I am not really expecting you to get up out of your seats and cheer. Every child grows up knowing what a real astronaut looks like and has probably seen Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff and maybe even the 12-hour documentary From The Earth To The Moon. But I think my appreciation for it was different when I was a kid, because as a kid I accepted the world that was presented to me with a lot more unflappability. Faces carved in a mountain? Sure, humans did that. Molecules are made out of atoms? Sure, if you say so. Tectonic plate movement causes earthquakes? Good to know. Humans went into space in tiny capsules attached to enormous rockets? Of course.

As a child, knowledge was a series of facts that my brain could piece together like a puzzle, slowly nearing a more complete picture. The moon landing fit right in there with everything else.

Now, as an adult, I’m much more aware of how knowledge isn’t just a series of facts, it’s sometimes the brutal journey we undertake as humans to collect information, make guesses based on that, build a machine that uses that information, stake our lives on that machine, and then do it again and again until we’re literally not even walking on Planet Earth any more. The moon landing wasn’t just something that happened, like some Roman war or a tsunami, it was a monumental human achievement of engineering, conducted with less computing power than I have in my laptop, and by people who have the type of degrees that many of my friends do.

It’s about engineers making science fiction real.

Seriously, have you ever really thought about that? Or just accepted that smart people do cool things and move on to the next news item?

The Space Center Museum is the official visitor’s center for the Lyndon B Johnson Space Center, which is the part with all the official government buildings with no windows surrounded by stray deer. There are two separate tours that you can take, included with admission price, that visit portions of these buildings. These are great, because you get to see where the real stuff happens. We got to see Mission Control, and while it might appear at first glance to be a boxy room, empty of people, you can look up at the wall and see all the badges from all the missions where people physically left the planet with the help of this room. You can practically hear “Houston, we have a problem…” crackling in your ears.

Apollo 17 Command Module

The actual Command Module (the only part that returns to Earth with astronauts inside) from the Apollo 17 mission was on display at the Space Center.

The attached Space Center Museum has so much cool stuff in it that I don’t even know where to begin. There is a huge gallery with artefacts from the missions, reproductions of items they no longer had, all adding up to an incredible visual walkthrough of the stages of the manned space program. I am a little embarrassed to admit that I had gotten all the different phases mixed up: Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, etc. I learned the very basic fact that Apollo was the name of the missions (numbered in order) and Saturn V was the name of the rocket. That’s like mixing up the Millenium Falcon with the Kessel Run. (You can all make fun of my lack of knowledge now.) A neat thing is that each mission has a cool badge with a graphic image and the names of the participants designed for it, and that badge is used in a whole number of things related to the mission, like going on the wall of Mission Control Center or on the jackets of the astronauts, or on all the museum displays so you know which mission they were talking about. Of course you can get all the badges for yourself in the gift shop.

Another part that was unexpectedly awesome was the Skylab training module, where astronauts would practice being in space before getting sent to Skylab. Skylab was a mini space station that was put into orbit in the 70s that was basically made out of leftover Saturn V rockets that were never going to make it to the moon after budget cuts. NASA re-purposed one of the final-stage fuel sections in the rocket as extra living space, put it in orbit around the Earth, and sent astronauts to live in it for a while. I had no idea this phase of the space program ever existed (like I said, I learned a lot), so to round the corner and see this full-sized, completely set up SPACE HOUSE that I could walk through was really awesome. Because it’s designed for space, the sleeping quarters were on the ceiling, the kitchen was on the side, and astronauts could “run” around the perimeter if they got some momentum going. Science!

Interior of Skylab living space at Space Center Houston

Interior of Skylab living space at Space Center Houston. Photo by Dave Wilson Photography.

So, yeah, awesomeness all around.

And plus, space! It’s so exciting!


Have you been there?

Yes, just last month. I loved it. It had been a long time since I had really enjoyed sightseeing for the pure joy of learning stuff and experiencing new things. My fiance and I spent all day looking at the exhibits, reading about the space program, ogling their full-sized, never-used Saturn V rocket, touring the Skylab exhibit. I felt like a kid again, in large part because I didn’t really know that much about our space programs to begin with, so there was a lot to learn. In fact, that trip was really what inspired me to make this site, because I realized that learning and doing things is, for some people, much more valuable than looking at pretty vistas, and just as much a valid reason for seeking out vacation destinations as any other reason.


The Kids' Play Area

The space-themed play area for small children

How much will it cost me?

Tickets to the Space Center, as of typing this, are $22.95 for adults, $18.95 for children, and $21.95 for seniors. If you buy them online, there is a $5 discount for all categories.

Audio tours cost an extra $8 per person. Wearing the headphones made me feel like a middle-aged mom-shaped out-of-town tourist, but if, like me, you want the maximum amount of information for the only time in your life you are going to be there, go ahead and spend the extra eight bucks, especially if you don’t have kids in tow that will get bored waiting for you to listen to quotes from presidents and clips from broadcasts.

If you have the money and totally want to geek out, plan ahead and be one of only a few people per day who get to go on the four-or-five hour Level 9 tour, which has extra behind-the-scenes goodness. Tickets are around $90, but they include your regular admission to the Space Center Museum and include a FREE LUNCH. (The choice to put FREE LUNCH in all-caps is NASA’s, as is described on their website, not mine, so you know it must be really exciting.) Seriously, I wish we’d been able to do this tour when we went. The museum is fun and wonderful and exciting, but this is more of the real stuff right here. Since we didn’t actually go on the super-special Level 9 tour, I can’t vouch for its awesomeness personally, but it’s backstage at NASA. How could it be anything other than awesome?

There is also a gift shop, a food court, and the opportunity to buy ridiculously overpriced photos of yourself photoshopped into standing in front of various space things, which of course we wanted. Be prepared to either spend money or avoid the temptation to buy space toys for everybody for Christmas.

As is usually the case with these things, if you don’t live in or near Houston, hotels and travel will cost you as well.


Websites and more information:


Categories: Engineering, Kids, Space | Leave a comment

Punkin Chunkin’ 2012

Giant Trebuchet for Punkin Chunkin'

Using technology invented in medieval times as siege weaponry, this giant trebuchet relies on the potential energy of a massive weight converting to kinetic energy to throw the pumpkin.

Today’s Geek Destination of Choice:

World Championship Punkin’ Chunkin!


What it is:

It’s a three-day competition and festival held every fall in Bridgeville, Delaware, where several categories of machinery compete to see which machine can throw a pumpkin the farthest.

This year’s event takes place November 2 – 4, 2012.


Why This Sets my Geek Heart Aflutter:

Holy crap.

From a technical perspective, this event excites me because it’s like if Angry Birds were played in real life by insane engineers with redneck pit crew minions tending their enormous and improbable machinery.

It’s like if Girl Genius and Nascar had a bastard child who developed an unhealthy vendetta against squash.

If I had kids, I would want them to watch this so they would know how awesome engineering can be. They will remember this event as they are applying Newton’s motion equations in their physics classes. Heck, why not teach them as soon as they can handle algebra? Heck, why not build our own so they can see it in action? Well, these contraptions cost half as much as my house, that’s why. No one said that engineering was easy, or cheap, and certainly not quiet.

If engineering were a spectator sport, it couldn’t really get any better than this. Picture over a hundred giant dangerous contraptions, some belching smoke, some based on medieval technology that has been improved with hundreds of years of tinkering and the introduction of modern materials, some with hundreds of pounds of weights swinging through the air, all of them with their guts exposed to see the myriad of insane, mostly violent inner workings supported by steel beams that sometimes get thrown into the air when something breaks down. All of this brute technology– the engines, the hard-hats, the last-minute tweaking, and Newton’s laws of motion applied vigorously and visibly — is to toss pumpkins into the air without smashing them with the machinery on the way out.

Basically, it seems like a ridiculous amount of smarts go into what appears on the surface as a brainless event. Combined with the festive feel of a fall festival and 50,000 spectators tailgating for something other than a football game, this definitely makes the list of geektastic things I would like to be part of at least once before I die.


Long-time reigning champion team, The Big 10 Inch

The Big 10 Inch, an entry into the Air Cannon category, was the reigning champion team several years in a row.

Have you been there?

No. I saw it on TV, which I will not pretend is the same thing. It was hosted by the MythBusters guys, Jamie and Adam. The TV hosts change every year, so someone else would probably be hosting if I ever went in person. I can’t vouch for what the in-person experience would be like, but I can tell you that it would be worth my time to find out for myself. If you go and it’s cold and lame, don’t blame me, blame Jamie and Adam. If you’ve been and it was awesome, leave a comment and tell the rest of us all about it.


How much will it cost me?

Tickets to the chunkin’ are $10 per person per day, and the entire event spans three days of engineering madness.

There are plenty of food vendors on the premises, and as the event spans all day, you might need to budget multiple meals.

Of course, an event costs a lot more than just the ticket price. If you don’t live near Bridgeville, Delaware, your travel and hotel costs will increase the overall cost of attending.


Websites and Additional information:

Categories: Engineering, Fall, Kids | Leave a comment

Welcome to the World of Tomorrow!

Good morning, comfortable and educated readers.

As I sit in my Victorian armchair with its faded upholstery, sipping my Chocolate Chai tea that I bought at the Renaissance Festival, I am moved to ponder all the delightful places to visit in this universe (many of which are on this very planet) that are so full of geek awesomeness that it might be worth getting out of my armchair to do so.

Some people, when planning their vacations, long for beautiful mountain hikes, but I live near mountains and could easily go explore instead of browsing the Internet. Others long for tropical beaches, but I have a lovely 55-gallon fishtank in my home and some of the fish are even alive. Still others long to see ancient cities and architectural relics of the past. Well, actually, that would be pretty cool, but that’s not what this site is about, so moving on to my point.

Science! Engineering! Relevance to media that I personally enjoy! These are the things that are worth talking about, and what I have founded this site to discuss.

This site that you have discovered is for the people, like me, who really love geeking out about everything, including vacation. The universe is full of amazing, awe-inspiring, and wonderful things, and the pursuit of knowledge and passion doesn’t stop for some of us just because no one is watching.

On this site, over time, you will read about the beautiful Arizona hills surrounding the only closed-system multiple-biomes space experiment that gives guided tours. You will eschew the views at National Parks in favor of the best places to view the effects of the geological torment under the Earth. You will learn where the best computer museums are, and why you suddenly want to visit them. You will learn that you can sleep in the hotel where Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru’s house was filmed, and why it gets such bad reviews on TripAdvisor.

These are important things to know.

So I invite you, readers, to take a journey to these far-off lands from your own plushy armchairs, sipping your own favorite beverages, and saving your own money so you can visit them in person and write in to tell the rest of us all about it.

As Terry Pratchett says, the world is your mollusc.

You Are Here

Any questions?

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment