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Like a Magic Little Wonderland

Or, reflecting on my time at the Trope Tank

Picture of the Trope Tank's main tech wall

The first time I walked in here, I died and went to Heaven


There are some situations in life, that once you've felt them, a switch flips ON inside your body, mind, and spirit. This peculiar phenomenon is often called "love at first sight": one can experience it upon seeing a person they feel an immediate attraction towards, or even to a place, such as when one steps off the plane and the air of your new home tingles the nostrils for the first time.

I am a bit embarrased to say, my overpowering and divine love-at-first-sight connection occured after entering a plain room with cinderblock walls painted white and linoleum floors that have seen better days. It wasn't with some beautiful woman, nor after getting off the boat at a remote tropical island. No, my Garden of Eden is a nondescript room at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology containing computers that, for the most part, are older than I am.

The Trope Tank is run by Professor Nick Montfort - it's a place of magic and intrigue that at once appeals to a minute demographic whilst also being welcoming to the many who are not at all familiar with the machines that lay within. The best description of the Tank comes from its website: a place intent on "developing new poetic practices and new understandings of digital media by focusing on the material, formal, and historical aspects of computation and language."

It would be a mistake, though, to view the lab simply as a purgatory for ancient machines before their caps finally pop and leak fatal acid upon the PCBs. Actually, a better view of the situation would instead be the lab as sanctuary. Nick, and the various members of the lab from visiting writers to Postdocs, service and take loving care of the machines. Because, as a laboratory, the Trope Tank isn't just some playground for nerds like me to mess around with an Apple IIe or Amiga 2600. Not at all. It's a living and breathing (by way of exhaust fans, heh) basilica for elder tech.

You won't find only computers, though. Nick himself is a voracious reader and resting on the haphazard shelves are books ranging from experimental computational poetry created by him and collaborators to huge tomes discussing the field of artificial intelligence. In addition to books, the Tank is home to volumes of old software, from games to utilities to operating systems. On one shelf you'll find a collections of Ultima games from I to VII, and just a couple feet from that, a complete commercial boxed copy of NeXTSTEP. If you find yourself lacking mental stimulation in the Trope Tank, then it must simply be due to your own dullness, because there is a vast trove of treasures to explore given even the slightest inclination.

When I first walked into the Trope Tank the day after my arrival, I was enamored. In love. The space itself spoke to me as if I'd eaten a few too many peyote cacti with Shulgin himself. Actually, scratch that: a bit too much peyote and MDMA whilst cacooned in a sensory deprivation tank. The place smacked me alive and I felt as if Alice, the Mad Hatter, and the March Hare were all there to welcome me to my own little slice of Wonderland. I immediately joked to Sofian, the Postdoctoral researcher from Quebec, that I wouldn't go back home to Ohio. I'd just set up an air mattress in the side room between the Asteroids arcade cabinent and NeXTcube and call it home until kingdom come.

Sadly, I did end up having to leave Wonderland to return to the real world and my life as a student at Ohio State. However, I made a promise to myself (not unlike those you give your kindergarten crushes) that I'd return one day to be reunited at last with my muse. So, despite the fact that my lover is a cinderblock room, I am not ashamed. By golly she's perfect for me!

If you happen to be in Cambridge for whatever reason, make it a point to stop by the Trope Tank. Unless it's late at night or somebody's out for lunch, the lab usually has its door open and somebody working inside would be delighted to give you an impromptu tour. Alice and I promise you won't regret it.


Me using a NeXTCube at the Trope Tank

Waking up Steve so we could have a conversation