Sound Decision

July 13, 2013

tony-headphonesA while ago I borrowed a friend’s Beats Audio headphones to listen to the vinyl transfer of Sign o’ The Times another friend of mine made for me. The CD of the album is horribly mastered for some reason, and I had a dream about finding a vinyl copy at a flea market. Trusting my dream, I drove down the road to the local flea market (fortunately it was Sunday morning so it was open) and within five minutes found the record for $10 (a bargain, but I negotiated it down to $6 for the fun of it).

Anyway, while listening to that and all the other music I’ve been into lately I became spoiled by the quality of the sound coming out of those Beats. The clarity of the sound was way beyond what I experience from my trusty white Apple earbuds. With the seed planted I knew I had to start my research into that state of over-the-ear headphones. I didn’t want to buy a pair of Beats because they are far too trendy for me and way more than I wanted to pay ($250 for the model I sampled). After spending a few hours reading reviews (both professional and Amazon user) I decided on the Sony MDR-V6, which list for $100. Amazon had them a bit cheaper but I wanted an even better bargain so I added them to my wish list and waited. A few weeks later they came down briefly to $60 and I ordered straight away.

I couldn’t be happier with them. They sound a bit different than the Beats. Not better or worse, just different. The Beats boost the bass (naturally, considering their hip-hop origins), and I prefer a more neutral sound for my broad musical tastes. The sound field is a bit more “airy” on the Sony phones, almost as if it was on a wider stage or something, and the Sony matches the sound clarity that allows each note to be heard distinctly. The Beats are a bit louder, but that’s not a problem since I don’t turn the sound up all the way on the V6s anyway.

So why are Sony headphones such a bargain? After all, they’re not exactly known for undercutting the competition. Well, it turns out that Sony has been making these headphones for decades. They are used widely in professional audio and video circles (where the neutral sound is appreciated) and haven’t changed much in all this time. I remember over-the-ear headphones being popular during my childhood, but they went out of favor with the advent of Sony’s Walkman (ironically) and then the iPod craze.

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Early Electroedutainment

April 19, 2013

Quiz-Wiz-1

The Smarts! That’s the “incredible” prize you get for playing Quiz Wiz, according to the memorable television commercial. This toy was probably a Christmas present for us in 1979 or 1980, and I remember we played it quite a bit back then. Fast forward 33 years later and it still works fine.

Basically it’s a computerized (a big time buzzword in 1979) multiple choice trivia game. You type in the number of the question you want to answer, then the answer letter (A, B, C or D) and hit the answer button.

Sample Questions from Book #1

Sample Questions from Book #1

I rediscovered this toy recently while searching for a board game to play with my nieces at my parents’ house. I only found the original questions book (#1) and the “Book of Lists” (#8) book. The system is designed to use cartridges that presumably hold the “answer key” for each book, but the #8 book seems to work fine with the #1 cartridge. I’ll need to find more books in order to determine whether the “cartridge” actually stored anything or whether it was simply a marketing gimmick (cartridge systems were considered more advanced – think Atari VCS vs. Atari Pong).

Since I suspect the cartridge may not be storage, I tried to see if there was a pattern to the answers. I answered the first 100 questions and couldn’t find one. Memory was incredibly expensive in 1979 and storing 1001 answers on a 4-bit system requires 1.5K of ROM, which was an awful lot in those days. Far more likely is some sort of algorithm that determines the answer based on the number inputted. It would have to be fairly simple like multiplying the question number by some constant and then using the last two bits to determine the answer.

I did an experiment in Excel where I multiplied the question number by 8 and divided that product by 5 and then converted it to binary (base 2 number system – all 1s and 0s). Using only the last two digits of the product and converting to letters (00=A, 01=B, 10=C, 11=D) I get this for the first 50 answers:

BCABDABDACDACDBCDBCA BCABDABDACDACDBCDBCA BCABDABDAC

It’s a pattern that repeats after the first 20 answers. Altering the constants changes the length of the pattern, so I’m sure with enough experimenting I could create a pattern over 100 letters in length, as they probably did. As an additional experiment, I typed in a number greater than 1001 (3256) to see if there was an answer for that number. There was, and that answer did not correspond to the answer for either 325 or 256. Therefore I’m almost certain that the “answer key” is algorithm-based. The cartridge could serve as a “key” that could alter the pattern somewhat though. I’ll post an update if I find another book/cartridge.

Quiz-Wiz-3

The final step in my investigation was to take apart the Quiz Wiz to see what was inside. As you can see at left, there wasn’t much there. The other side of the board is where the keys connect and since it’s glued on I decided not to break the unit just to get a look. There is one small chip visible on our side that could be a simple processor (most likely purpose-designed to do the above calculation).

Coleco went bankrupt in 1989 but Quiz Wiz lived on, it seems. Tiger came out with its own Quiz Wiz in the mid-90s that used the same buttons and booklet format. And judging by this cringe-worthy commercial it was not lacking in street cred.

The password is what?

November 4, 2012

 

I’m not great at making sure my online passwords are secure. I don’t change them often enough (if ever) and some of them are a bit on the weak side (no mixture of letters and numbers or too short or whatever). But compared to most people it seems I’m not too bad. ArsTechnica posted an article that listed the most common passwords, and it’s even more predictable and silly than the yearly list of popular baby names. Here’s the top 12 with my comments in parentheses:

12. trustno1 (people still remember the X-files, I guess)

11. iloveyou (awww, unless you think about people typing it to themselves)

10. baseball (it beat football and basketball easily)

9. 111111 (64 in binary?)

8. dragon (I love Game of Thrones too)

7. letmein (I’d never seen this one before but it makes sense)

6. monkey (because people like monkeys)

5. qwerty (the dvorak keyboard folks don’t use this one)

4. abc123 (do they think of the Jackson 5 song when they type it?)

3. 12345678 (they’re getting worse now)

2. 123456 (for people too lazy to type the 7 and 8)

And finally (and predictably):

1. password (yes, people really are this stupid)

Well, I’m off to change my passwords now. Oh, and I apologize in advance for the “artsy” photos with dramatic lighting and depth of field effects I’ll be posting in the future… I bought a fancy new DSLR and just can’t help myself.

Totally my type

September 9, 2012

As I’ve become older my interests have changed a bit. I’m not the least bit excited about the start of the NFL season today and couldn’t care less about the NASCAR Chase for the Cup. It goes beyond sports too; I’m also not prone to gadget lust anymore. I’m more than content with my original 1st generation iPad and only replaced by iPhone 3G because I dropped it and wasn’t able to repair/replace the screen (gave it a shot but did more damage to the phone while opening it up due to dust).

This week, however, I’m feeling drawn towards a new Amazon product… not the new Kindle Fire HD (though it does look nice), but their new e-ink reader, the Kindle Paperwhite. My old Kindle is broken (I put it i my bag without its case once and it must have taken a whack) and I would like to replace it since e-ink is so nice to read outdoors (it really does look like paper). But it’s not the advertised new features that are tempting me (a lighted screen for reading in bed and a higher resolution). No, it’s the new typefaces they’ve added, including my favorite serif face, Palatino. I’ve always disliked Times Roman, probably because of its omnipresence but also because it lacks elegance and solidity, two things which Palatino (in the image above) has in spades. It’s amazing to me how infrequently I see Palatino, despite the fact that it’s been a standard PostScript typeface for decades.

Squelch up!

March 15, 2012

Today I was talking with a friend who recently bought an oscilloscope, and the conversation reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to look up… the meaning of the squelch knob on CBs and other radios. Those of you who are too young to remember the CB (Citizen’s Band) radio craze should know that it was a phenomenon on the level of today’s text messaging. A lot of people had the CBs in their cars (usually hanging under the dash) and you gave yourself a “handle” (the equivalent of a screen name on the internet) to maintain anonymity. Today, truckers still use CBs to communicate important info (police locations  – “there’s a bear by the bridge near exit 9”).

Anyway, CBs had this Squelch knob and until today I’ve never known what it was for. It’s essentially an adjustable “mute” control. If you set the squelch to off it lets every “channel” play through the speaker, even if it’s a weak signal or just white noise. But turn up the squelch and it will only let stronger signals through to the speaker. This allows you to hear actually transmissions without all that headache-inducing static. But turn it up all too far and it will block everything but the strongest signals, which may not be desirable since you could miss a message from someone who has a weaker signal but is still discernible (and could save you from getting a speeding ticket).

Cars, indoors

February 4, 2012

Today I went to the Northeast International Auto Show in Providence. I’ve been meaning to go for years and finally got there.

For a very long time I’ve wanted to go to the Detroit Auto Show, where a lot of new models are unveiled with lots of hoopla, but in these days of internet leaks its impact is somewhat diminished so it’s a bit less appealing (which it has to be to justify a trip to Detroit in January). Incidentally, one of the other January trade shows I’ve long wanted to attend has also faded a bit – Macworld in San Francisco now suffers from a lack of an official Apple presence, leaving CES  (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas at the top of my trade show list (though the Geneva Auto Show in March sounds pretty good).

So back to today’s show… every major auto manufacturer was represented, and there were a few models that haven’t made it to showroom floors yet that were on display. The most important of these were both Ford products. The new Ford Fusion (out this fall) is an impressive looking car with a wide range of cutting edge power trains. The existing model, especially the hybrid,  has been selling very well despite it’s staid appearance. I expect sales to jump significantly with this stylist and more mechanically impressive model.

The other Ford that will surely make a big splash is the new Escape. It also replaces one of the least stylish models in the Ford fleet, and like the Fusion is nicely proportioned and detailed. Small SUVs (basically tall small cars these days) are a hot segment and this one should jump to the head of that pack in sales.

There was another small SUV that I was hoping to see… the new Mazda CX-5. From what I’ve seen so far I just may be tempted to replace my trusty Mazda3 with one in the coming year, especially if the diesel model that Europe is getting finds its way over here.

The technology addiction epidemic to which our nation has yet to acknowledge does have a few upsides… especially for the data gatherers of the world. Even Facebook is useful, since most people update their “relationship status” regularly (I’ve never done it, but I’m old so that’s no big surprise). Here is a graph showing which days of the year breakups are most common. It looks almost exactly as I expected it to – with the peaks in the (literal) darkest time of the year (holiday season) and at the end of the long dark grey and grueling winter. The best days for relationships are those glorious late summer months of walks on the beach and thunderstorms. Here’s the source if you want to read more about breakups.

I tried to find a similar graph that rated people’s “happiness” over the course of a year as well, but I didn’t find a good one (and I spent a whole five minutes looking). I did, however, find this site that showed that people in colder countries are happier than those in warmer countries, in contrast to the seasonal trends we see for the breakup graph. The site connects this with the fact that colder countries are richer than warmer countries. From other reading I’ve done, income appears to have an effect on happiness level until the point of basic needs being consistenetly met (food & shelter) and then tapers off again as we seek to get ever richer.

But if you love statistics and fancy graphs, as well as silliness, the ultimate site for you is OK Trends, which is associated with the free dating site OK Cupid. Lots of interesting stuff there, from dating and sex graphs to “The Mathematics of Attractiveness,” which postulates that it’s better to have looks that elicit extreme reactions (some people think you’re a 2 but on average you’re a 7 because some people think you’re hot) than to just have everyone think you are a “pretty good looking” 7. Sadly it seems to have ground to a halt as far as new entries go, but there’s still tons to see. Enjoy!

Polio Punts Politics

November 25, 2011

So on my way to celebrate Thanksgiving in Connecticut yesterday I listened to a few Stuff You Missed in History Class podcasts. The most interesting one was about polio (full name poliomyelitis). Most of us know the basics about polio… FDR had it, it paralyzed kids, Jonas Salk created a vaccine, now it’s gone. There’s more to it than that though, including a time when the Cold War got all warm and fuzzy.

Polio has been around for a very long time – there’s evidence of ancient Egyptians having it. But for some reason it wasn’t a huge problem until the end of the 19th century, when epidemics of the virus became a regular event (previously cases were sporadic). By the early 20th century there was a polio “season” in the summer when people were more likely to contract the disease (though only 1 in 10 people show any symptoms at all and less than 1 in 100 who contract it experience nervous system difficulty). By the middle of the century it had escalated to the point that in 1952 over 3,000 people died and over 20,000 experienced paralysis as a result of polio in the United States.

In 1955 Salk’s vaccine was announced and distributed, and was very successful in reducing the number of cases in the United States. His vaccine used an inactive (chemically killed) virus to produce antibodies and was very safe, but had to be administered by a shot. At the same time, Albert Sabin was perfecting an oral polio vaccine (OPV) that used a weakened form of the virus (instead of dead). Sabin’s vaccine had the advantages of being easier to administer, longer lasting, and able to prevent the host from passing on the virus. The problem for Sabin was that Salk’s vaccine had gained great publicity here in the U.S. so his was seen as superfluous.

Sabin’s found his large scale trials of OPV in the U.S.S.R. of all places. The vaccine was given to over 100 million people in the easter bloc from 1955 to 1960 and was proven to be highly effective. In 1960 a large scale vaccination was done in Cincinnati, which started the replacement of Salk’s injected vaccine with OPV in the United States. If you were born here before the year 2000 you received the OPV vaccination. After that, we switched back to the “dead” vaccine since there is a miniscule  chance of the weakened virus activating with OPV (which is now more likely than actually contracting polio here in the U.S.).

Today, polio lives in a just a few places in the world (southern Asia and Nigeria). Less than 1,000 cases a year are reported worldwide now. Efforts to completely eradicate polio are ongoing. Ironically, political propaganda is preventing this in Nigeria as some officials have claimed that the vaccine is part of an American plot to sterilize Muslim true believers.

Mooning

August 7, 2011

I was enjoying my coffee and breakfast this morning while watching the beginning of Knocked Up on television, when one of those annoying commercial breaks happened. So I immediately hit the guide button to look for something to watch until it came back on. I stopped on Modern Marvels, which I almost never watch. A segment had just started about the rise of color television and how it had a major impact on the 60s, especially on the Vietnam War,  since for the first time viewers could see red blood when watching war footage. But ironically the most iconic television moment of the 60s was in black and white – the moon landing.

I never thought about it before, but the technological challenge of shooting footage and beaming it back to Earth is a daunting one (that naturally gets overshadowed by the challenge of sending actual people onto the moon and then back again). It turns out that the cameras used had to be able to withstand a temperature range of -250°F to 250°F, run on only 7 watts, be useable when wearing a moonsuit, and transmit the signal 238,000 miles back home. Because of the power restrictions, the cameras only used 500Khz of bandwidth, which was 1/8 the bandwidth of a conventional TV signal. The frame rate was only 10fps and the resolution was only 300 lines, so it used its own custom format which had to be converted after being transmitted. Oh, and there was only about 600 million people watching (I don’t remember if I was watching – I was 17 days old), so technical difficulties would have been a disaster.

The signal was received in Houston, Madrid and Australia, with the latter getting the best picture due to the angles involved.  The tapes from that broadcast have been lost, sadly, so the footage we see on TV now is the inferior Houston version. Of course, the tin foil hat crowd must have a very different view of why this footage is no longer available.

Choo choo!

July 28, 2011

I was having dinner outside last night at Angelo’s with a friend when the crossing signals activated across route 122 to prepare for the arrival of a freight train. I smiled broadly, as I often do at home when I hear the train approach. I never tire of watching it go by my window and feeling the building shake a bit. There’s just something about trains that I really love. It could be the raw power of them (the train speeds by the mill and if you’re outdoors you can just feel the massive amount of energy involved) or it could be the lure of a more romantic era.
The first full-scale working steam engine railway went online in 1804 in England. It took us a while longer here in the states to jump onboard but by 1830 the Baltimore and Ohio railroad (The B&O from Monopoly) was in service. Steam ruled the rails here until the middle of the 20th century, when diesel rapidly replaced it.
I very much want to take a journey by train someday, whether across Europe or out west. I like the idea of enjoying the journey as much as the destination. In the meantime, I’d love to ride the Newport Dinner Train but I want it to be a truly special, romantic occasion.