Category: Gadgets

Galaxies in your iPhone

By Daniel Holz | July 30, 2009 1:16 pm

GravLens screenshotWe’ve gotten a little bent out of shape over gravitational lensing recently (see here and here). But the fun doesn’t stop: gravitational lensing has now officially come into the 21st Century with the release of Eli Rykoff‘s GravLens. (Not to be confused with GRAVLENS, Chuck Keeton‘s immensely useful and powerful gravitational lensing modeling software). You can now lens a star, a galaxy, or an image of whatever or whomever you want (e.g., your favorite blogger), right in the comfort and safety of your own palm. GravLens is freely available at the iPhone application store. Go download it, and make yourself a beautiful Einstein Ring. This is your chance to support the fledgling “Physics applications for the iPhone” industry!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Entertainment, Gadgets, Science


By Sean Carroll | June 24, 2009 8:29 pm

So I broke down and bought a Kindle. As usual, I tend to be open to trying new technologies, but don’t like being at the bleeding edge (where people get hurt). There’s no doubt that electronic reading devices have a long way to go, but there’s also little doubt that they’re the wave of the future, or at least a sizable part of it. And the technology seems to have reached a point where Kindle editions of books are a non-trivial part of the market. My own decision to get one was definitely influenced by the number of queries I received about whether my own book would have a Kindle edition. (Answer: yes.)

And now it’s arrived! So the question is: what’s the first book I should buy? An obvious choice would be Infinite Jest, as the Infinite Summer project is underway and (as I have learned) toting a thousand-page book around on a cross-country flight is less than perfectly convenient. But, of course, I already own that book. And, as Matthew Yglesias points out, you don’t want to buy Kindle versions of impressive books that you can prominently display to buff up your credentials as a person of culture. And the worst would be to display a giant, impressive book on your shelves, but one that was clearly unread and in pristine condition, even though you really did read it, only you read it on your Kindle. Worst of all possible worlds.

The idea, then, is to find a good book that I haven’t yet read, but not one that is too good — not good enough that I’d rather have the dead-tree edition. Any suggestions?


The Original Social Network?

By John Conway | June 17, 2009 4:30 pm

Okay, it’s time to come clean – I am a ham. That is, I am an FCC-licensed amateur radio operator, call sign KI6GDQ. I got into it a few years ago because my wife’s parents and sister and brother in law are hams, and we all go camping in northern California every summer. Obviously a little hand held ham transceiver is not a bad way to communicate when there’s no cell phone coverage, though the range is limited to a few miles in the mountains up there.

And, living here in California, which a friend of mine notes is a beautiful land with a decidedly savage side, it’s not bad to have a means of communication that doesn’t depend on the grid, be it the electric grid or the Internet/phone grid. My in-laws live in Pacifica, south of San Francisco, which is hemmed in on all sides: the ocean to the west, mountains to the north and south, and the San Andreas fault to the east. A big earthquake could easily isolate them from the rest of the peninsula. So my father in law (N6FG) helps run a 2-meter repeater on a nearby mountaintop; he and and my mother-in-law (K6IIP) participate in local emergency response groups.

A friend of mine joked that amateur radio is the original social networking tool. (Well, unless you count the postal service.) Early in the last century, when radio was young, the advent of high-power vacuum tubes made it possible for amateurs to build transmitters that allowed them to talk to other hams all over the country, and around the world, ionospheric conditions permitting. At night, when the lower layers generated by solar radiation dissipate, a vast electromagnetic mirror called the F layer forms several hundred miles up. Signals from the surface can bounce off this mirror essentially all the way around the planet. Hard-core DXers still go to great lengths with antennas and legal-limit (1500 watt) transmitters to make contacts with Morse code. (And then there are the truly crazy ones who go on expeditions to remote islands off Antarctica solely for the purpose of making nearly 100,000 ham radio contacts all over the world.)

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Gadgets, Miscellany, Technology

Devouring time

By Daniel Holz | June 7, 2009 7:46 pm

My previous post on watches seems to have been misconstrued as an attack on all things mechanical. So, to establish my street cred as a geek, it looks like I’m forced to post about my favorite mechanical timekeeper: the chronophage.

It’s the coolest clock ever. It runs fast. It runs slow. It runs forward. It runs backward. It stops. It is precisely the right time once every five minutes. The clock is a striking illustration that time is fleeting and unreliable. The escapement features a hideous bug, literally eating the seconds as they pass. The passage of time is terrifying, after all.


Passing time

By Daniel Holz | June 5, 2009 2:10 pm

Flip through a random magazine, and you are likely to be confronted by one of the great mysteries of modern times: an ad for a mechanical watch. Breitling watch adFor the past 30 years it has been possible to acquire a watch with a quartz movement for a minimal investment. These watches are small and light, and do an extraordinary job of keeping time (i.e, drifting by roughly one minute a year). Nonetheless, there is a flourishing market for watches with mechanical movements. These watches are generally large and heavy, are significantly more expensive, and most importantly, are far inferior as time pieces: easily a factor of ten worse than their quartz counterparts. How could there still exist a market for these obviously inferior watches? The answer lies somewhere in the unfathomable realm of fashion and marketing.

Last week’s New Yorker has an article [pay per view] by Patricia Marx about Baselworld 2009, the annual watch fair. Although I find the article annoyingly cutesy, it has some interesting tidbits. I guess there’s little reason to buy these watches besides the ineffable associations with the brand. So watchmakers go to extraordinary lengths to craft and define their brands:

Among the countless blowouts at Baselword, Breitling’s is considered to be the most lavish. A few years back, guests were taken in buses to a quarry that had been transformed into a mythical Persian landscape, appointed with sandpits and palm trees. Camels and white stallions roamed the premises, as did chickens. Guests were given flowing robes and head scarves to wear, and sat on cushions, where they were entertained by belly dancers while being served a Middle Eastern banquet and forbidden hooch. Hookahs were passed around. “Just when you thought it was over,” Roberta Naas, a watch-industry writer, told me, “one of the walls disappeared, revealing Siberian tigers and tiger tamers in cages.” After the animal act, the cages vanished in a puff of smoke, and, lo, another wall lifted and the pseudo oasis turned into a pseudo disco. Another year, at what the Breitling people call their “terrorist party,” the buses were pulled over at an abandoned warehouse by men in full military garb with machine guns, who subjected the passengers to interrogations. Afterward, there was dinner and dancing.

This was all in the middle of Switzerland. For a Swiss watch company. To what end exactly? You obviously can’t sell your watches on the basis of their time-keeping ability, so you craft a completely arbitrary image. And, amazingly, it actually works. Fortunes are being made selling bulky, antiquated, unreliable time pieces. The last paragraph of the article pays homage to the fact that time belongs to physicists:

It turns out that memories may be a thing of the future, if as some physicists believe, time runs backward (backward wristwatch,, $28.95). More bad news: time may be running out of time. Other physicists speculate that our universe could mutate from space-time to just plain space. Time itself would cease to exist. Even your platinum Sotirio Bulgari with a perpetual calendar will be no good then ($212,000).

I have no idea what she’s talking about. Maybe our local expert on the arrow of time will chime in?

Modern humans have a fascination with time: how quickly it passes, what happened yesterday, what will happen tomorrow. I like to believe that physics has a role to play in this. On the one hand, Einstein was so kind as to show that time is a fairly complicated, observer-dependent quantity. And thus the only time that is really meaningful is, in some sense, the time we measure on our own watches. So we had better keep track! On the other hand, we have now firmly established that the Universe has not been around forever. It is only 14 billion years old. There is a huge psychological difference between living in an eternal Universe and one that has a finite history. It’s now incumbent upon us to keep track of the Universe’s age. Unfortunately, we’re still a little unclear as to the Universe’s life expectancy. Current indications are that the dark energy will continue to accelerate the Universe’s expansion, and therefore the Universe will last forever (instead of ending in a Big Crunch). However, given how little we understand about dark energy, this is at best an educated guess—nobody would be all that surprised if it turned out to be a much more complicated scenario. And so, in this framework of a Universe with a finite age, and an uncertain future, it makes sense to keep careful track of the passage of time. It is now 3:10:12 PM Mountain Standard Time on Friday, June 5. I need to get back to work.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Gadgets, Miscellany

One billion

By Daniel Holz | April 30, 2009 7:33 pm

A few days ago Apple Computer issued a press release which got some media coverage. I don’t usually pay much attention to such things, but two items caught my eye:

– One billion downloads in nine months. This is a really, really big number. For perspective, this is equivalent to every man, woman, and child in the US downloading three iPhone applications. Or one out of every seven people in the entire world downloading an application. It’s one download every time your heart beats for your whole life. It’s one application download for every hundred stars in the galaxy. Or one application every fourteen years, for the entire history of the Universe. This is a lot of downloads. In a market space that didn’t even exist a year ago. All of this has happened in only nine months (an average of more than 40 downloads a second, day and night, nonstop). Here’s a “visual” of one billion, from the wikipedia page:

Visualizing one billion

– The billionth download happened to be the application Bump, something I posted about last month (and, because of April Fool’s, was considered suspect). Small world. Maybe Andy will get to shake Steve Jobs’ hand? That would be almost as exciting as my brother hanging out with Lindsay Lohan.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Entertainment, Gadgets

The New Hotness

By John Conway | January 6, 2009 2:25 pm


I want one, I want one! A new, totally tricked-out 17″ MacBook Pro with solid state drive:

2.93GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
8GB 1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM – 2X4GB
256GB Solid State Drive
SuperDrive 8x (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW)
MacBook Pro 17-inch Hi-Resolution Antiglare Widescreen Display
Backlit Keyboard (English) / User’s Guide
Apple Mini DisplayPort to DVI Adapter
iWork ’09 preinstalled
Aperture preinstalled
AppleCare Protection Plan for MacBook Pro (w/or w/o Display) – Auto-enroll

All for just $5,875.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Computing, Gadgets

A Box Full of Awesome

By Julianne Dalcanton | December 31, 2008 1:55 am

Many older scientists and engineers grew up tinkering. Car engines were pulled, belts on washing machines were replaced, loose wires on toasters were soldered. Such experiences build a basic competence with the physical world, and develop an innate understanding that the devices around us are not powered by magic. For better or worse, however, gadgets have become both more electronic and more disposable, leaving few useful opportunities for fixing things. Moreover, many of us grew up in non-tinkering households, and even if we’d been raised during the glory days of Large Mechanical Devices Made of Steel, we wouldn’t have wound up tinkering ourselves. And finally, much of that tinkering was pretty clearly marked as a Guy Thing.

But, there is a possible cure. I give to you Snap Circuits.

This has to be one of the funnest, most accessible geeky kid’s toys ever. It completely takes away the overhead of electronics assembly, allowing even very little kids to assemble circuits well before you’d trust them with a soldering iron. All the pieces are color-coded in bright primary colors with the standard circuit notation imprinted on top. The projects are largely fun — things like driving a little motor that turns a fan blade, which, if you mount it upside down, eventually generates enough lift that it shoots off and sails up the ceiling. There’s no chance of exploding capacitors or burnt fingers (which I’m sure for some of you makes it completely un-fun, but we’re talking 5 year olds here). Instead, what kids get is fast understanding of how circuits work, at a level that they can understand and really enjoy.

On top of just being extremely cool, for some reason Snap Circuits seems to have way more cross-gender appeal than the old Heathkits. It somehow cracked the code of not seeming like a gender-coded toy. There are no pictures of kids on the package (male, white, or otherwise), and it’s brightly colored without being frilly. There is also no assumption of past apprenticeship, where one was supposed to have learned soldering and breadboard wiring from some older family member. As such, I know as many girls as boys who are enamored with Snap Circuits (and although I probably don’t hang with the most representative sample of kids ever, the Snap Circuits flickr pool seems to bear my impression out).

So, if you have a kid in your life and don’t mind being stigmatized as the adult who gives nerd presents, consider Snap Circuits.

MORE ABOUT: snap circuits

An Update on Hubble

By Julianne Dalcanton | October 10, 2008 3:49 pm

So, when we last left our poor afflicted orbiting telescope, it had lost side A of its CU/SDF (Control Unit/Science Data Formatter), which is responsible for translating the data taken by an instrument into bits that can be readily transferred down to the ground. Luckily, one of the things that NASA does really, really well is redundancy, so there is a side B that is ready and waiting to be turned on. Before doing so, however, the Hubble folks need to make sure that they understand what happened to side A, and that they know how to safely turn on side B without fragging anything else. The latest news is that Goddard completed an independent review last week, and they think they understand what happened, and how to safely turn on side B. The staff at Goddard has been practicing with a spare SIC&DH (Science Instrument Control and Data Handling System, which contains the CU/SDF) on the recplica HST that’s been in cold storage for the past 18 years or so (see what I mean about redundancy?). A final Transitional Readiness Review was held, and they’re recommended starting the switch to side B. If this is approved, the switch should take place in the middle of next week.

The cool thing is that Hubble has been keeping itself scientifically busy doing astrometry (high accuracy positional measurements) with the Fine Guidance Sensor. Past papers that have come out using FGS data are some of the coolest and most underpublicized Hubble results, so I’m jazzed to see that they’re cleaning up while everyone else is idle!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Gadgets, Science, Technology

Beer Magnet

By Julianne Dalcanton | May 14, 2008 11:40 pm

A moment of small genius spotted at a friend’s house:


It’s a magnet from a disemboweled hard drive, mounted right underneath a bottle opener. Snags the bottle cap like a charm.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Food and Drink, Gadgets

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

See More

Collapse bottom bar