Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The AlphaSmart 3000

AlphaSmart 3000

Have you ever wanted to be one of those hipsters with a mechanical typewriter in a coffee shop but didn't want to deal with all the hassles and noise of a real typewriter?  Here's the next best thing - the AlphaSmart 3000.

Originally sold to the education market, these are essentially keyboards with little 4x40 character LCD screens and enough memory to hold a few thousand characters of text.

I read about these devices a few years ago and finally got around to buying a few from eBay.  They're dirt cheap now, and you can get them individually or in lots of up to 50.  They seem to go for about 10 bucks each in working order.

I bought a lot of 3 from a reseller who evidently bought them from an elementary school, as they still have the school property stickers on them, and some leftover essays from the students that used them.  The essays are a nice little bonus, a "found item" from days gone by.  I got to read about whale migration and a trip to Hollywood Studios, among other things.

One of the main selling points of these things is just how limited they are.  If you want to write, you have everything you need to write - a blinking cursor and a waiting keyboard.  You don't have social media, Wikipedia, YouTube or anything else to distract you.  About the only other thing you can do with it is play with the built-in (surprisingly cool) calculator.

You get 8 files, easily accessed with 8 hardware buttons, and a next-to-useless spell check.  8 files is more than enough to give you the space you need for different projects without giving you enough space to start too many to handle.

The keyboard is decent, full size, and clacky.  It actually does give you some of that typewriter feel, unlike a modern laptop.  It takes a bit of effort to type, which must translate to greater meaning and impact, right?  

The screen is just fine.  I used to type up entire research papers in high school on a 1x20 screen.  4x40 gives you a sentence or two of context and lets you review the last few phrases typed for clarity, grammar and spelling.

Power requirements are incredibly minimal.  3 AA batteries can power the device for months.  Power on is instant.  There's no waking time or worry about battery life.

And perhaps the best part is how you get your work off the device and onto a computer.  No memory sticks or files to mess with!  You open a document of your choice on the computer, then plug the AlphaSmart in with a USB cable.  The device simply emulates a keyboard and sends keypresses to the computer.  Press "send" on the AlphaSmart, and it charmingly types your document into the computer, at about the rate a very fast typist could manage.  There's something pleasing in seeing your work appearing on the screen letter by letter, quickly but not instantaneously.  Makes you feel like you accomplished something!

The device also gives you a separate mental space to write in.  Like many others, I work in front of my computer all day.  I also use it (too much) for recreation.  Even if I feel like getting some words out, it can be difficult to open "just another document" on the computer and switch gears.  This is another place to be, plus I can take it anywhere.  Because they're 10 bucks, you could put one in every room and never be without a scratchpad.

So - 2 thumbs up from me, and see you at the coffeeshop!  And yes, this was all written on the AlphaSmart.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Railroads and wealth distribution

The girls and I are working on an N-scale model train layout in my office, using some of my old stuff from my high-school and college layouts, and some new bits. I'll have some posts about that soon. I likes the little trains, we have a G scale train at Christmas time too.

Just like any hobby, you can quickly spend a lot of money on locomotives, cars, track, buildings, etc..

Take this guy, who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars building a garden railroad with 4000 real (not scale!) feet of track:


I thought that was impressive. But if you really want to be an old guy playing with trains....

Warren Buffett bought Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF). All of it. The second largest railroad in the country, for $34 billion dollars. Now THAT'S a train set!! I would totally make them let me drive at least one train from LA to JAX if I were him.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

New Telescope

On the Carousel of Hobbies, the astronomy horsie has apparently come around again. I was big into it a few years ago, I built an 8" reflector that packed down into a suitcase, which I brought to Moab, Utah with us. Unfortunately it was much cooler in its transformer-like aspects than in actual optical performance. Then I owned a series of cheap commercial scopes. I enjoyed the 4" refractor the most.

Refractors are the ones that most people picture when they picture a telescope - glass at the front, eyepiece in the back, long tube in the middle. They have mostly been supplanted by reflectors, which use mirrors instead of glass, and can be built much larger. But there's some holdouts for the refractor, mostly because they can be sharper on planets and the moon.

I bought a small refractor (3 inches) from Craigslist and was hooked again, so I started looking for bigger ones, but they are either expensive or poor quality. I went over to SurplusShed.com and found that they had a 127mm mounted objective (the glass in the front) for about $150! Since 5 inch refractors from commercial sources start at $400, this was quite a deal, so I got the objective and a cheap focuser.

Since Mars is approaching us in January I wanted to be sure I had something to look at it with. The small refractor I have is too small to give much magnification, and I didn't want to go find the right diameter aluminium tube for the big lens, plus buying all the stuff to do it "right" would end up costing as much as buying the commercial one in the first place.

So.... here's what I have so far. A lens and a focuser on a plank, supported by plumbing fittings and a big ugly tripod. As simple as you can get. I am planning to enclose the tube with some lightweight paneling and add blackout paper to the inside, but this works! I'm really pleased with the performance of the lens, I was able to see the polar and equatorial belts on Jupiter just fine last night (before my butt froze off).

I took the focuser apart and re-greased it and shimmed it so it doesn't move around all over the place. Next step will be to check the collimation (alignment) of the lens and eyepiece, close in the tube, and paint it.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

vinyl love

I've been expanding my small collection of records with lots of trips to the 3 local thrift stores. It's good cheap fun. You have to get a certain amount of buying horrible records out of your system ("just because it's so cheesy!"). After buying a Judy Garland double LP set with 20 page career retrospective booklet, I now officially only buy decent stuff.

Records are a great format for combating ADD - I don't feel compelled to skip songs, and they're just more fun to listen to than CDs. In addition to the LPs, my wife has a bunch of 45s from her 80s childhood - hell yeah, You Belong To The City. We alsoo inherited a ton of song and story 45s from my brother in law, so I just had to go get the kids their own record player.

Here A prepares to drop the needle on a phat Sesame Street cut. I'm oddly proud that they have no idea what a Wii is, but A knows to handle records only on their edges and the difference between 45 and 33 rpm.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Back to the Projects: Wireless Speakers

Alright, that was a long break. Let's get back into it. I had a pair of Home Depot wireless speakers that worked pretty well, but had weak drivers. I used the FE126e drivers that have been through 2 other cabinets. This time around I just made a basic, 10 liter bass reflex cabinet, very traditional. To cut down on the high-frequency "shout" that these drivers have, I treated the cones with 3 light coats of Mod Podge, and added a baffle-step correction circuit to the speaker.

I attached the electronic guts of the old wireless speakers to the backs of the new cabinets. This way I can either use the wireless input, or plug them in as regular speakers.

They sound far better than any of the other cabinets I've tried them in, leading me to be a strong believer in baffle-step correction. Here are some YouTube videos:


Playing music

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

open mic night - w00t!

Finally got back to open mic night at the coffeehouse last night. This time my neighbor Benn and I played together - we only got to do 3 songs (out of the 5 we had ready), which is actually a good thing, because there were probably 12 groups wanting to play, so they were moving everyone along. It's really thriving. I think we did well, and there were some great people playing. Half the people from our street showed up, which was pretty great, next time we'll have to hire a bus.

Always amazing, after a string of middle-aged guys, to have 2 high school girls get up there and just kill. Your mind gets used to what "singing" sounds like, and then someone gets up there with an actual set of pipes and blows your hair back - it's cool.

We played Desire by Ryan Adams, Woman Across the River by the Allman Brothers, and Dance, Dance, Dance by Steve Miller.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Runnin' To The Lounge

Microsoft just introduced Songsmith, which is software that automatically generates an accompaniment to any melody.

David Lee Roth's vocal track from Runnin' With the Devil is available with no accompaniment.

The results are breathtaking.