Category: Gadgets

The Best Calculator Ever

By Julianne Dalcanton | April 2, 2008 1:22 am

I’ve written before about my husband’s affection, or rather, obsession with Apple. Like all good converts, he feels compelled to proselytize, particularly about my perceived need for an iPhone. “But honey, you can check your email!” “Hey look! Google Maps knows where you are!”. I remain unconvinced.

However, the other day, he nearly got me:

“Did you know it can emulate the HP-15C?”

Be. Still. My. Heart.

The HP-15C is simply the finest piece of handheld computing technology ever. (Take that Steve Jobs). I got my first 15C back in high school, and it was the only calculator I used for the next couple of decades. I could operate it in the dark. I lost it in an airplane seat back pocket and have never gotten over it.

hp15c_front.jpg hp15c_back.jpg

I suppose in the intervening years we’ve gotten used to irrational devotion to electronic gadgets, but the 15C had to have been one of the first targets, at least in geeky circles. If you mention the 15C to a nerds of a certain age, our eyes grow misty at the utter perfection of it. It was a calculator that simply got everything right.

The genius of the 15C is multifold. First is the form factor. It’s essentially the same as an iPhone, held in landscape mode, with a nice weight that fits well in the hand. The buttons are large and well separated, and there are no more or no fewer than you could want. (In comparison, modern HP calculators are crammed with a thicket of unusable little buttons. Ick.) Second is the glory of reverse polish notation. The 15C operates with a memory stack, which when operating with RPN allows you to perform complex calculations with no need for parentheses. Third is the 15C’s unnatural durability. A former dog of mine literally mangled a friend’s 15C, and it continued to work in spite of the large teeth marks denting the keys. Fourth (and most critical for getting me through years of physics labs and observing runs) was that it’s programmable. That’s no big deal these days, but huge in the early 80’s. Spreadsheets were hardly widespread, and when one timed balls going down ramps or any other such repeated trial, doing repetitive calculations was a breeze on the 15C.

Now, am I alone if my love for the 15C? No, indeed. On Ebay, a 15C in good shape can go for hundreds of dollars. (And if you buy one, it’ll still work. I’m guessing one will not say the same about the iPod in 30 years.). There’s an on-line petition begging HP to bring the 15C back.

And, there are people out there writing emulators for it to run on the iPhone. If you ever see me with an iPhone, this will be why.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Computing, Gadgets

Making the Most of What You've Got

By Julianne Dalcanton | October 17, 2007 2:14 pm

I love stories like these:

Suffering from its exorbitant price point and a dearth of titles, Sony’s PlayStation 3 isn’t exactly the most popular gaming platform on the block. But while the console flounders in the commercial space, the PS3 may be finding a new calling in the realm of science and research.

Right now, a cluster of eight interlinked PS3s is busy solving a celestial mystery involving gravitational waves and what happens when a super-massive black hole, about a million times the mass of our own sun, swallows up a star.

As the architect of this research, Dr. Gaurav Khanna is employing his so-called “gravity grid” of PS3s to help measure these theoretical gravity waves — ripples in space-time that travel at the speed of light — that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity predicted would emerge when such an event takes place.

It turns out that the PS3 is ideal for doing precisely the kind of heavy computational lifting Khanna requires for his project, and the fact that it’s a relatively open platform makes programming scientific applications feasible.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Computing, Gadgets

Top Gear

By Sean Carroll | August 31, 2007 8:41 pm

I would like to embed a video!

No particular reason, really.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Entertainment, Gadgets, Personal

LHC Detector Performs First Test of Fundamental Forces

By JoAnne Hewett | March 2, 2007 2:12 pm

CMS, one of the large general purpose detectors being built for the Large Hadron Collider, is performing detailed tests of one of the fundamental forces in the universe: gravity. The detector has been built in a large hanger-type building above ground. However, the accelerator is 100 meters underground, and if CMS wants to record collisions, it has to go underground too. So CMS is being carefully, oh so carefully, lowered in sections to its collider hall by a giant gantry crane. If you think of the detector as a giant cylindrical can, the sections being lowered are transverse slices of the can and look like large thick disks. Luckily, the ability to separate the detector into these disks, and then reassemble them, was built into the detector’s design.

A particularly large chunk of the detector — its heaviest piece — was lowered this week. CMS stands for Compact Muon Solenoid and it’s the solenoid itself (preassembled with the central portion of the detector) that made the journey underground Wednesday. The solenoid is a large magnet, generating a 4 Telsa magnetic field (100,000 times stronger than the Earth’s magnetic field) with a total stored energy of 2.66 GigaJoules (equivalent to half a tonne of TNT), and is responsible for our ability to observe tracks and measure the energy of charged particles. It’s an essential and expensive component of the detector.

This test of gravity was a challenging engineering feat. The solenoid weighs 1950 metric tons — as much as 5 jumbo jets — and is 16 meters tall, 17 meters wide, and 13 meters long. It had a 20 centimeter clearance with the walls of the shaft leading underground. The gantry crane supported the detector by 4 massive cables, each with 55 strands, and operated by a hydraulic jacking system with sophisticated monitoring and control systems. The process took about 10 hours, which is a long time to hold one’s breath!

Luckily, we have a fairly thorough understanding of Newtonian gravity (unlike quantum gravity) and this lowering experiment was able to confirm our calculations. In other words, the solenoid now safely rests 100 meters underground! All in all, 15 slices of the detector must be lowered, with the solenoid being piece number 8. The last slice will make its descent this Summer, just in time to complete the assembly and record the first collisions this Fall.


You Mean I Can Really Be James Bond?

By Mark Trodden | January 21, 2006 10:34 am

Like any sensible man, I would happily give up physics in a heartbeat if I could be James Bond. Sure, the hot foreign spies, the perfect martinis and the miraculous tailoring are all part of the draw. But, of course, it’s all about the gadgets really.

Now I’ve always assumed that the gadgets in Bond movies aren’t real – I just thought that well thought out special effects and some fake blades/bullets/electronics made them look like they were doing the jobs they were supposed to do. So I was amazed to read an article in The Guardian reporting that the Aston Martin used in Goldfinger and Thunderball just sold for over $2 million, partly because most of its gadgets are in working order!

Driven by Sean Connery, the car boasts built-in Browning machine guns, tyre slashers, an oil slick ejector and a retractable rear bullet-proof screen.

Really? These are actually features of the car? (I had a model of this particular car as a kid and so am very familiar with the features). Apparently so: the guy who demonstrated it fired blanks from the machine guns and said

“If there had been real bullets in the guns I would have taken out the whole front row of these people who have more money that most countries do.”

(and don’t pretend you weren’t tempted).

Well, now I’ve got to figure out how to get me one of these Bond cars (Clifford, I’ll ask around to see if they’ve got a Bond bike that folds up into a watch for you). And it’s got to be a good one – not one of those stupid 70s car/boats that Roger Moore drove – it’s a Connery or a Brosnan for me.

Lest you be thinking that all the original features can’t have been real, I’ll leave you with this

Other gadgets include three revolving number plates including the registrations 007JB and JB007.

But a passenger ejector seat with removable roof panel has been replaced with a standard seat.

Mum, Dad, Sara – if you read this and you’re stuck for what to buy me next Christmas …

One thing’s for sure; if I do decide on this career change, having been a scientist will give me remarkable options when choosing my Q.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Gadgets, Humor, Media

Bike Serendipity

By cjohnson | January 19, 2006 1:31 am

bike spottingSeeing all the folders (see earlier post) rekindled my hope that all is not lost for the bike in Taiwan. You look a bit closer and they are there…just hiding. And occasionally you see a lot of fun innovations that are uncommon (at least in the USA). Three of my favourites can be seen in the following pictures.

The first (above left) shows a sort of woven/wicker child seat that has been added on. That’s fun. Notice also the back wheel fender has been replaced by a flat thing that looks like a back seat. bike spottingThat’s because it is a back seat. This is a very common modification, and you see people riding along with a sitting passenger using this a lot.

The next (right) shows the passenger system of the stand-up variety. You can buy the little foot stands for your bike, screw them onto the rear axle, and carry your friends around. Very common. (We used to do this sort of thing as kids, but I’ve not seen it in such a long time, and did not know there was now standard equipment you can buy for any bike!)

The third (below) is my favourite, as it’s just so bizarre and wonderful. It’s a sort of adult bike incorporating a child’s seat complete with a set of handlebars…. and why not?!

bike spotting

Are these (latter) common in Europe? Anywhere else? I have never, ever, seen this before.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Gadgets, Personal, Travel

More Refined Divining Tool Launched

By cjohnson | September 7, 2005 5:49 pm

ipod nanomore ipod nanoThis is sweet. My attempts at predictions about the future of string theory (see e.g. here and here) are sure to be sharper, more well-defined, and….um, thinner and lighter than ever.

Just launched: the ipod nano.


P.S. It is hardly nanotechnology, but it’s still a great name and a good looking device, so I’ll turn off my physicist-side for a moment…..


Sound Synthesis Master Dies

By cjohnson | August 24, 2005 2:01 am

When I was growing up in the early to middle eighties, I spent a lot of time ignoring the popular music of the time, and pointedly listening to semi-obscure German electronic music. It took a lot to get me to admit to liking anything most of my school friends (or come to think of it, mostly anyone else in the country) was listening to. Yep, I must have been pretty annoying at times. (Amusingly, the other day I had an ironic mood swing and went to Amoeba Music and bought a Madness album and drove around the city with songs like “Our House” playing on the CD player….)

Back in those days, I also spent a lot of time in my room with a hot soldering iron, building circuits of various sorts. (If I had not breathed in so much soldering lead fumes and soldering flux, goodness knows what dizzying heights of intellectual achievement I could have reached. Raspy voice: “I could ‘a been a contender…”)

There is a connection between those two paragraphs. Electronic generation and modification of sound. I spent of lot of time making weird noises in my room with the aid of transistors, resistors, capacitors, inductors, and all those wonderful things you hardly see any more when you open up a modern electonic device.

Why am I telling you this? Well, Robert Moog, one of the masters, a pioneer of the field of electronic synthesizers -who without a doubt indirectly inspired what I was doing in my room, since everybody I listened to was playing his instruments or decendents of them- died on Sunday. Those hobbies of mine certainly helped me focus my interests and skills along the way to becoming a scientist, so I’d like to thank him for whatever role his work played in shaping my trajectory.

I heard the news on NPR and there is a collection of links and sounds from several NPR segments at a nice page they’ve built, which is here. I also saw some links at Swoon.

Thanks for the sounds, sir!


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Arts, Gadgets, Music

Folding Money

By cjohnson | August 10, 2005 12:19 am

bicycle folded up You might recall me mentioning that bike I commute with. The one I folded up in 10 seconds and popped into a suitcase and brought on the plane with me to Aspen, and that I think is so wonderful? The Brompton? Well, there was a nice article in the Observer about its inventor, Andrew Ritchie, this Sunday. It’s a very well known type of story: The obsessive and eccentric British inventor, unable to sell his wonderful design and idea. Gets his friends and family to fund his tinkerings with the prototype in the bedroom….We’ve all been there!

bicycle opened upExcept that, for a change, it paid off. Several people fall in love with the thing and buy it. It works wonderfully and makes sense. Reading what he says in the interview (coupled with the fact that the interview is in the newspaper’s business section) it seems that he’s looking to sell the company. So much for the “mom and pop” TLC treatment of every customer….

What’s the betting it won’t be a British company shortly? Sigh.



Robotic Arms for the Masses

By cjohnson | August 3, 2005 8:47 am

Whether or not you agree if there is much actual science being done with the space shuttle and space station these days, don’t you get to wondering if it is still the case that there are tremendous technological spin-offs that come of space activity? People always tell us stuff about non-stick frying pans and the like, coming from the 60s space program.

I hope so. You know, with all this activity involving the space shuttle’s robotic arm in the news robot arm (and do you remember the big deal that was made of it when it was first unveiled so long ago?), I’m particularly disappointed that robotic arms did not go mainstream. I was hoping that by now we’d all have robotic arms in the trunk (UK: boot) of our cars. Can you imagine how useful that would be at Home Depot, (UK: Homebase)? Or better, now when you’re on the freeway and one of those plastic bags goes under your car and sticks to the exhaust, you just have to live with the fact that it is going to melt and irretrievably stick there and give a burning stink for weeks or months. You can’t wait for an exit to come up so that you can get off the road and peel it off! Deploy the robotic arm, and send one of your passengers* out on it to go under the car and peel it off!


*LA drivers – “passenger”=”dude you’re giving a ride to his car at the other end of the parking lot”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Gadgets, Humor, Miscellany

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