High-tech gadgets

dressed up to look old

Roy Furchgott

December 24, 2010

Clockwise from top left, the U.S.B typewriter, the Yeti THX-certified microphone, the BookBook MacBook Pro case, the Crosley portable U.S.B. turntable, the ThinkGeek Bluetooth handset and the Surround-sound X-Tube.Clockwise from top left, the U.S.B typewriter, the Yeti THX-certified microphone, the BookBook MacBook Pro case, the Crosley portable U.S.B. turntable, the ThinkGeek Bluetooth handset and the Surround-sound X-Tube.

This has been a great year for the next new electronic thing. The iPad, new iPhone, the Nexus S, HTC Evo and other Android phones, the Kindle 3 and Microsoft’s Kinect caught the eye of consumers.

But some people prefer their next new thing to look like an old thing. So what’s the appeal of the latest electronics wrapped in a retro design, like full-size jukeboxes that are really $US4000 iPod docks and manual typewriters reconfigured to work as USB keyboards? Has anyone ever said, “It’s a nice Ferrari, but it would be cooler if it looked like a covered wagon?”

There are theories: The throwback designs make challenging technology seem familiar. For the technically proficient, an old phone handset that connects to a cell phone seems comically ironic. Retro designs can also give a sense of permanence to disposable devices. Some of it is art.

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An example of the phenomena is a manual typewriter refashioned as a computer keyboard. Jack Zylkin of Philadelphia made one as a novel way for people to sign in when visiting Hive76, a Philadelphia communal studio for electronics tinkerers. “I thought it would be kind of a lark,” he said. “I didn’t realise there was such demand for them.” Now he is turning out several typewriters a week, with a two- to three-week lead time for new orders.

Zylkin says he starts with a typewriter that has been refurbished by a retired Remington salesman, then wires it with a sensor board that recognizes when a key is pressed. It leads to a USB plug that makes the typewriter work like any computer keyboard. Even if the type bar doesn’t hit the platen, a computer will recognize the input, but if you bang the keys hard enough you can make an old-school hard copy on paper while a computer also records your keystrokes.

The typewriters sell for $US600 to $US900 at the website Etsy, although it is $US400 if you supply your own typewriter. If you are handy with a soldering iron, you can buy Zylkin’s do-it-yourself conversion kit for $US70.

A variation of this theme of fashioning the old into new relies on the smart design of the old Western Electric Bell telephones. Consider the handset. Unlike today’s telephone earpieces and cabled headphone and mic arrangements, the large handset put the speaker over the ear and the microphone next to the mouth so bystanders weren’t forced to listen to bellowed phone conversations.

The gadget purveyors ThinkGeek have taken that old handset and added Bluetooth so you can have some privacy while connected wirelessly to a mobile phone. The $US25 handset can transmit and receive at a distance of about 30 feet from your phone.

Crosley Radio has been making the old new again since the early 1980s when a group of investors bought a discarded radio brand and started cranking out replica radios. The company has replica Wurlitzer-style jukeboxes that play music from CDs or iPods. “What really rolls out the door is the turntables, that has been a runaway train,” said James P. LeMastus, president of Crosley.

The company has had a hit with the Crosley AV Room Portable USB turntable, made exclusively for the youth-oriented clothing chain Urban Outfitters.

The $US160 portable player has built-in speakers and an amp, and a USB connection so it can be used with a computer to turn songs on vinyl records into MP3s. The company makes about 25 styles of turntables, some with iPod docks and CD and cassette tape players and recorders. They can be found at stores including Restoration Hardware, Pottery Barn and online.

The Yeti from Blue Microphones may look like something from the golden age of radio, but it is the first THX-certified microphone, meaning it is capable of high-fidelity reproduction. While it looks as if it belongs on the desk of Walter Winchell, it has three built-in miniature mics that can capture sound three ways: from just in front of the mic, in stereo or from an entire room.

The Yeti works on PCs and Macs and requires no software drivers to work, although there is a free recording program for it in the iTunes store. Good enough to record your band’s demo, the $150 mic is also popular with podcasters and VoiP users who want to sound as smooth as Orson Wells.

The X-Tube looks like a vacuum tube from inside an old radio that would have broadcast Wells. It’s really a small processor that plugs into a computer through a USB connection to produce surround sound for headphones. The warm glow? A blue LED light.

The device processes DTS Surround Sensation software to alter the volume of certain frequencies and add delays to some sounds, all psychoacoustic tricks to fool the brain into perceiving sound as coming not just from left and right, but from the front and back as well. The device, which comes with over-the-ear headphones, isn’t easy to find in the United States, but can be ordered from Japan for about $US95.

Sometimes, retro designers cloak the electronics in something other than older electronics. Makers of laptop covers usually brag about the high-tech materials they use: high-impact plastics, advanced neoprenes or carbon fiber. Twelve South brags that its MacBook Pro and iPad cases use old-fashioned bookbinding technology. The covers are leather-bound and distressed to look like a collectible volume. The cases have a hard cover on top and bottom, with a zipper around the center to keep your computer secure.

The BookBook covers are priced at $US80 to $US100, depending on the size of your computer. The company says the covers disguise the device inside and could deter thieves — unless they know that many collectible books are worth far more than the next new thing.

The New York Times

Sourced & published by Henry Sapiecha

Mathematics and computers ‘solve’ Rubik’s Cube

PALO ALTO, Calif. (UPI) — U.S. mathematicians say they’ve solved the riddle of the minimum number of moves it takes to solve the Rubik’s Cube puzzle, a figure they call “God’s number.”

A team from Palo Alto, Calif., says every possible scrambled arrangement of the puzzle can be solved in no more than 20 moves, NewScientist.com reported Wednesday.

They combined computing power with mathematical insights to check all 43 quintillion possible jumbled positions the cube can take, says Tomas Rokicki, a programmer who has spent 15 years looking for the least number of moves guaranteed to solve any configuration of the Rubik’s cube.

“The primary breakthrough was figuring out a way to solve so many positions, all at once, at such a fast rate,” Rokicki says.

Previous computer methods solved around 4,000 possible cubes a second by attempting a set of starting moves, then determining if the resulting position was closer to the solution. If not, the computer would throw out those moves and start again.

Rokicki’s key insight was to realize these dead-end moves are actually solutions to a different starting position, which led him to a computer algorithm that could try out 1 billion cubes per second.

The team has dubbed the 20-moves solution “God’s number,” the assumption being that even the Almighty couldn’t solve the puzzle faster, NewScientist said.

Copyright 2010 by United Press International

Sourced & published by Henry sapiecha

The man who will use his skill and constructive imagination to see how much he can give for a dollar instead of how little he can give for a dollar is bound to succeed


Sourced and published by Henry Sapiecha



A mineral for hungry people? Apatite is a phosphate mineral with the composition Ca5[PO4]3(OH,F,Cl). It has been used extensively as a phosphorus fertilizer and is still mined for that purpose today. The mineral called “asparagus stone” is a appropriately a type of green apatite. Ironically, apatite is the mineral that makes up the teeth in all vertebrate animals as well as their bones.

The gem material makes a great faceted stone.


Thanks to ‘Sparkly’ Sally Ewen for suggesting this molecule and to Sean and to Kay Dekker for some info about it.

Apatite - click for 3D structure

Sourced and published by Henry Sapiecha 18th October 2009


Angelic Acid


Angelic acid isn’t very angelic at all – it’s a defence substance for certain beetles. It gets its name from the Swedish plant Garden Angelica (Archangelica officinalis) from whose roots it was first obtained in the 1840s. Its proper name is (Z)-2-methyl-2-butenoic acid. The other isomer (E) goes by the equally silly name of tiglic acid (from the plant Croton tiglium, the source of croton oil) and is also a beetle defence substance.

Thanks to Andrew Walden for suggesting these molecules and to Florian Raab and Bo Ohlson for providing some of the information about them.

Angelic acid - click for 3D structure
Tiglic acid - click for 3D structure

Sourced and published by Henry Sapiecha 18th October 2009



More than 5,000 years ago, the Chinese discovered how
to make silk from silkworm cocoons. For about 3,000 years,
the Chinese kept this discoverya secret.
Because poor people could not afford real silk,
they tried to make other cloth look silky.
Women would beat on cotton with sticks to
soften the fibres.
Then they rubbed it against a big stone to make it shiny.
The shiny cotton was called "chintz."
Because chintz was a cheaper copy of silk, calling something
"chintzy" means it is cheap and not of good quality.

Silkworm Information

Phylum, Arthropoda; Class, Insecta; Order, Lepidoptera
Identifying Features Appearance (Morphology)

  • Larvae are worm-like with a short anal horn.
  • Three distinct body parts: head, thorax, abdomen
  • Adult has four wings covered with scales

Adult Males and Females
Adult moths have creamy white wings with brownish patterns across the front wings. The body is very hairy and the wingspan is about 50 mm. Adult females are larger and less active than males. Male moths actively crawl around looking for females. They will copulate for several hours.

Immatures (different stages)
Lepidoptera are holometabolous, therefore they have three distinct morphological stages; larva, pupa and adult. After hatching from the egg, larvae go through four molts as they grow. During each molt, the old skin is cast off and a new, larger one is produced. The silk worm larval life is divided into five instars, separated by four molts. Three pair of short, jointed legs with a single claw at the tip are located on the three body segments immediately behind the head. Five pair of fleshy protuberances (prolegs) ending in a series of hooks called crockets are located posteriorly and ventrally on the abdomen and aid the larva’s clinging a climbing abilities on plants.

Natural History

Silkworms natural food plant is the mulberry tree (Morus sp.).

An artificial diet has been developed to facilitate cultivation of silkworms.

If you do not have a mulberry tree available,

you must purchase the artificial diet.

Today, the silkworm moth lives only in captivity.

Silkworms have been domesticated so that they

an no longer survive independently in nature, particularly

since they have lost the ability to fly. All wild populations are extinct,

although presumably old relatives exist in Asia.

Interesting Behaviors
Silkworms have been used by researchers to study pheromones or sexual attractant substances. The pheromones are released by female moths and the males detect the chemicals with olfactory hairs on their antennae. This allows the male to find the female for mating. The male antennae are made of many small hairs to increase the chances of picking up small amounts of the pheromones over long distances.

Collecting Live Insects


Where to find
Silkworm eggs and artificial diet can be purchased from Carolina Biological Supply Company and Ward’s Biology. Check with other teachers and your district to see if there is a resource person in your community with eggs.

Silk Industry

The coveted secret of silkworm cultivation began 5000 years ago in China. Sericulture (the production of raw silk by raising silkworms) spread to Korea and later to Japan and southern Asia. During the eleventh century European traders stole several eggs and seeds of the mulberry tree and began rearing silkworms in Europe. Sericulture was introduced into the Southern United States in colonial times, but the climate was not compatible with cultivation.

Today, silk is cultivated in Japan, China, Spain, France, and Italy, although artificial fibers have replaced the use of silk in much of the textile industry. The silk industry has a commercial value of $200-$500 million annually. One cocoon is made of a single thread about 914 meters long. About 3000 cocoons are needed to make a pound of silk.

To gather silk from cocoons, boil intact cocoons for five minutes in water turning them gently. Remove from the water and using a dissecting needle or similar tool, begin to pick up strands. When you find a single strand that comes off easily, wind the silk onto a pencil. Several of these strands are combined to make a thread.

Sourced and published by Henry Sapiecha 18th October 2009

Fukiic Acid

Fuki is the Japanese word for the butterbur flower, and Fukiic acid is the hydrolysis product from this plant, Petasites japonicus. Interestingly, further oxidation of this produces the wonderfully named Fukinolic acid. (I wonder if fukanolic is anything like alcoholic…) Anyway, since the conjugate base of fukinolic acid is fukinolate, it’s probably about time we stopped!

Thanks to Anton Sherwood for info on fukiic acid, and to Andrew Reinders for suggesting fukinolate.

Fukiic acid - click for 3D structure

Sourced and published by Henry Sapiecha 13th Oct 2009


Type and amount of drink Sugar approx teaspoons/pack



Regular can of soft drink (375 ml) 9-13
375 ml can – Cola 9-11
375 ml can – Diet cola 0
375ml can – Carbonated mineral water 0
250 ml pack – Pure fruit juice 4-9
300 ml bottle – Fruit juice and mineral water 5-8
250 ml pack – Fruit juice drink 5-9
300ml carton – Normal, full fat milk 4
300 ml carton – Chocolate flavoured milk 6-8



Sourced and published by Henry Sapiecha Feb 2009