The Pleasure of Mechanical Things

Is it age, a greater appreciation of mechanical engineering than computer engineering, or simply a choice for simplicity?  I’m talking about my relatively recent return to manual film cameras.

I started collecting some old cameras a few years ago and now I have a couple score of them.  They date from the late 1930′s to the 1990′s but I prefer those from the pre-electronic age.   They are all fully functional and most of them, especially the medium format ones, produce results that are comparable to the better digital cameras out there.

For example, here is a current favorite, the Rapid Omega 100:

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A face only a mother could love.  But a lovely piece of mechanical and optical engineering.  This was the penultimate conclusion of an evolution from a military camera and it still has the tank-like feel.  Heavy camera, but after using it a while you realize that it doesn’t look pretty, but it works very well — all controls fall to hand, snaps to focus, and the bolt-like winding action does make it possible for rapid picture sequences.  And the results?

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Beautiful 6cm by 7cm photographs.  And how is this done?  Take a light meter reading or use the Sunny 16 rule (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunny_16_rule), set speed, set aperture, focus, and shoot.  No scrolling through menus on the LCD screen, no fighting with auto focus demons, no beeping, no batteries, and no computer trying to second guess you.  And yes, film is still available (http://filmphotographyproject.com/store) and labs still out there developing it (http://thedarkroom.com/).

Want something a bit more pocketable?  How about an old Zeiss Ikon Nettar from about 1949?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Everything still works and the optics are great even now, 60+ years later.  That is engineering that is to be admired and remembered.

Here is a picture from the Nettar of another fine example of engineering, the drawbridge in Mystic, Connecticut:

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Again, set aperture, speed, guess the distance (no rangefinder on this one) and shoot.  Nothing more or less.

So am I being hypocritical by using a scanner, computer, and the Internet to talk about old manual cameras?  Maybe.  But I don’t deny that many digital cameras are great, but rather I just don’t really like shooting with them.  They don’t give me the satisfaction like the mechanical process of these old cameras.  And, to my mind, they over complicate the photography process.

These cameras of old still satisfy both the desire to handle fine instruments, and the desire for fine photographs.  Perhaps I am just being too nostalgic for (perceived) simpler times, but as long as there is film out there and cameras like these to shoot with, I will enjoy using them.

Published in: on November 23, 2013 at 1:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

Mechanical Engineering

Well, I have succumbed again to the lure of great mechanical engineering design.  And the likely groundless hope that I will be getting into some sort of shape.

I bought a new bicycle.  And this time I didn’t shop around for the best deal, but rather ignored the hefty price tag and plowed ahead.  Of course it isn’t the latest carbon-fiber miracle of weight savings with titanium fittings.  Nor is it a rough and tumble quarterhorse-like mountain bike with hydraulic suspension.  Neither is it a sedate single speed beach cruiser that harkens back to childhood days.

It is, though, rather special.  And below is an animation to show you why.

It’s called a Brompton and it is still made in England to a design that is about 40 years old now, with few major changes.  They got it just about right back then and have made just detail improvements since then.  And though I look a bit like a trained bear at the circus riding the thing, it actually is a pretty good bicycle.  The folding wonderment is just a bonus.

And now I have great fantasies about travels with the Brompton.  Taking trains to the hinterlands, unfolding the bike at remote stations and pedaling off to great adventures.  Perhaps I am too old and fat for that now, but I absolutely love it when great design and quality engineering and production can stir up those thoughts.  Thanks, Brompton, for all your efforts.

Published in: on March 24, 2013 at 8:51 pm  Comments (1)  

Keyboard redux

A while back I posted a review of some computer keyboards and talked about my search for the perfect one.  At that time I selected the Unicomp keyboard which is a reproduction of the venerable IBM Model M clicky keyboard (which you can still find on Ebay at good prices).  Well, recently I’ve been having hand problems so I thought a change was in order, especially at work.  I spent quite a while on various sites including http://geekhack.org/ where all things keyboard/mice are discussed to minute detail.  I learned a lot about the various switches used, activation pressures, otaku keyboards (no keys labeled), and best keyboards for gaming and typing.

I figured out that the Unicomp keyboard I had at work was really just a typical rubber dome switch board that resembled the clicky Unicomp that I was using at home.  I had bought it out of consideration of my fellow workers who might not like to hear the loud keyboard.  I switched that out for a MaCally icekey keyboard ($20 at Amazon, good buy) that has scissor switches (like some laptops).  That is a temporary fix for work, but wasn’t good enough for home.  Besides, I was in this to buy something good and the sudden obsession wasn’t appeased yet.  The good news is that there are a lot of good keyboards out there with very good switches.  The bad news is that there are few places to try them out before you buy.

So I ended up purchasing the TypeMatrix keyboard which is completely different setup with the keys in orderly rows.  You know, I thought I would plunge right into the deep end.

This is a small keyboard with pretty good key action (scissor switches), but I could not get past the backspace being in the middle.  The idea is to rely more on your strong pointer fingers rather than your weak pinkies, but for me the backspace is just too engrained in me to switch.  This keyboard went back.

After much searching, including looking at all kinds of ergonomic alternatives, I figured out two things.  1. Because so much time is spent with a keyboard it pays to get a good one.  and 2.  If you want a good one, you will pay.  As in probably too much cash unless you go the old IBM route which I would’ve done if I didn’t already have the Unicomp.

So I ended up with this:

It’s the Happy Hacking Pro 2 keyboard (not the Lite).  It has expensive topre switches (dome plus spring) and it is tiny — uses a function key to access things like the f-keys and arrows so it is only 60 keys instead of the usual 87 or 104.  The key action is just great; light pressure but still great feedback.  I’m still getting used to the arrangement of the keys; the backspace is the immediate problem, but I think I will get used to it soon since it is just one key down from where I’m used to having it.  I though I would miss the dedicated arrow keys, but I’m finding the Fn key combination to be pretty easy.  I’m also loving the small form of this keyboard.  Nice to have some real estate back on my desk, and it is small enough to pack with my laptop if I want to do some serious typing on the road (though I have a thinkpad which has a pretty good keyboard).

The HHKB has dip switches to change from nominal, to PC, to Mac configurations so it should work on most systems.  The keyboard arrangement is particularly good for Linux (I have Ubuntu on my laptop) since the control button is prominent above the shift (used often in Emacs etc.).

So for the moment I am happy with this keyboard.  The real issue with it is the cost.  I got it here: http://elitekeyboards.com/ which seems to be the only place to get it since it is made for the Japanese market (instructions are in Japanese only).  Yeah, it is really expensive.  But I figured if it helps these old fingers of mine, it will be worth it.  Still cheaper than some pots and pans (inside joke).

I’ll let you know how it works as I get used to it.

Published in: on May 6, 2012 at 11:11 am  Comments (1)  

It’s Back!

I must have been asleep in the past six months or so because I just found out that it’s back, for sale right now, and it is pretty darn good.  Hewlett-Packard have done a wonderful thing and have put into production a replica (or reproduction) of the wonderful HP-15C calculator.  The calculator that many credit with getting them through engineering school and then through their careers.  It is, to my mind, the finest engineering calculator ever produced.

Though made in China now, rather than the US or a few other countries like the original HP-15C, the reproduction, called the Limited Edition by HP, seems very well made and almost identical to the original.  It comes in a nice presentation box along with a printed owners manual that seems to be a reprint of the original.

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Here is the new one next to an original in good condition.  The only main visual difference is that the new one’s screen has a greenish tint to it while the original is gray (that doesn’t really show in the pictures and it is not a big deal).

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In operating the calculator, you do notice a slightly different feel with the keys.  The LE has slightly flatter keytops and the texture is slightly rougher – that might be just because I am comparing it to an original 15C that has had some use in its 30 year life.  The f and g keys also feel a bit wobbly compared to the original but they don’t seem to be as bad on mine as some people found on the first batch that came out.  The key action is just as good, or maybe even a little better, than the original.  And that is saying a lot.  It is a wonderful calculating experience.

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As far as I can tell, the LE does everything the old one did, in the same way (except for the diagnostics check), and, because of a new processor, does it much, much faster.  I guess there was some price gouging in the Fall, but now they seem to have settled down some.  Amazon has it for $129.99, but you can order directly from HP (http://www.shopping.hp.com/webapp/shopping/product_detail.do?storeName=storefronts&landing=calculator&category=HP&a1=Type&v1=Scientific&product_code=NW250AA%23ABA&catLevel=2) for $99.99 with free shipping.  I got two and they arrived in just a couple of days.

Any of you who lost their 15C, or want to gently retire theirs, or who always wanted one but couldn’t afford it at the time (me), I highly recommend purchasing an LE.  I think it is still the best calculator an engineer can have at his side that can also fit in his shirt pocket.

By the way, this is a great site for all HP calculators:  http://www.hpmuseum.org/  The forums are active and filled with interesting calculator nerds – a lot of engineers, in other words.

Published in: on April 14, 2012 at 4:18 pm  Leave a Comment  

Motivated Reasoning

Motivated reasoning is one of the easiest traps for an engineer to fall into.  This pleasantly oxymoronic term can be considered as an extreme case of confirmation bias.

So what is it?  I see motivated reasoning as the practice of allowing emotion to creep into the engineering process — usually through the emotion-based evaluation of data or calculations leading to an emotion-based decision.  It is a matter of putting more credence into your feelings than in the data at hand.

Now this doesn’t mean you always have to be Spock rather than Kirk, but one needs to understand that all decisions are, to a certain extent, emotional, but that one can’t dismiss engineering facts just because they don’t fit your emotional needs.

A case came up recently that illustrated this tendency perfectly.  A report generated by the best of the field offices completely disregarded a previous report from another office.  Why?  Because if that older report was true, it would mean more work and expense.  By disregarding the old data, they could avoid a lot of work and cost.  Trouble was that there was nothing really wrong with the old data.  Certainly nothing that would support tossing out the whole report.  To rationalize their position, they harped on some small errors and inconsistencies.  Their position became an emotion-driven one based on external pressures to reduce cost and schedule impact.  The correct, data-driven position was overridden.

We corrected this situation but it illustrates how easy it is, even for first-rate engineers, to fall into this trap.  Experienced engineers can sometimes go with their gut (emotions) and succeed, but when data and calculations are available, go with the math every time.  Sort of like flying in the clouds: trust your instruments and not the seat of your pants.

Published in: on March 16, 2012 at 4:30 pm  Comments (1)  

Pathetic

 

Map of countries that still use the English measurement system.  Need I say any more?

Published in: on November 9, 2011 at 8:01 pm  Comments (2)  
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