Hobbies for Geeks

Anyone who can’t use a slide rule is a cultural illiterate,
and should not be allowed to vote.
–Robert A. Heinlein

Like most of you, I have several hobbies to keep myself amused and busy, during the times when I am not working to pay the bills. Some of my hobbies are pretty standard (if anything can really be called standard any more.) As I have mentioned in a few columns, I love to bike ride. This is a sport and hobby combined. If I am not riding, I am perusing the latest bicycle catalogs that stuff my mailbox, or doing some “wrenching”, or lurking about the website of my favorite shop, which is a fine website indeed. For interested parties, its Harris Cyclery. And yes, they’ll ship parts, tools, complete bicycles, and pretty much anything you want to almost anywhere in the civilized world. It’s arguable, but I think they have what is possibly the finest bike shop in the world.

So, let’s see, by visiting the Harris Cyclery site, I am indulging my love of bicycles, with my keen interest in computers. Not a bad deal at all. ( Nice work Sheldon! ) Now, that brings me to computers. I’ll admit to being a “geek”. There was a time when being a geek was a mark of shame, but in this technology driven age, we rule, don’t we? I’d say we do. Jocks may rule in high school, but ultimately, it’s geeks who end up owning the teams. (Hey Jocks, do you hear it? That strange rustling sound? That’s the sound of an adult geek, who became rich doing math and computer stuff, handling your sports contract in his geeky hands. I’d suggest you take notice.)

If you’re like me, you have probably invested a reasonable amount of cash and time in your hobbies. Hey, that’s perfectly fine, you worked for the money, and you should be able to spend it as you see fit, within all legal and moral bounds. (Personally, I think a G4 Ti PowerBook is a much wiser investment than something really stupid, like say, a diamond engagement ring, but that’s just what I think. “Two months salary” for a small sample of compressed carbon? Sorry Debeers, I don’t buy into that scheme.) Besides computers and bicycle stuff, I’ve always been something of an electronics hobbyist. As a teenager, I loved to read over the latest issue of “Popular Electronics”, or cobble together the latest offering from “Heathkit”, a long defunct company which made some fine electronic kits. (I was never sure what happened to Heathkit, but I guess it’s just another example of how time always wins.)

I have to admit, I don’t spend as much time with this hobby as I used to. I reside in a small apartment, so a huge workshop is out, I’m afraid. Too many other things going on. There were some other, lesser-known companies that produced some fine electronic kits, Remco and Graymark among them. Graymark had a dandy crystal radio kit, with big brass fittings, wooden base plate and front panel, enormous knobs, and a cool copper-wire coil you had to wind yourself. It also came with a very nice set of antique looking, high-impedance headphones. This was guaranteed to excite any ten-year-old techie. Graymark also had a nice “all band radio”, with the same type of goodies, circa 1971. Remco made a less expensive crystal radio kit, which came with a plastic case. This was the one I had, and it was a blast, wiring up the coil form and circuit in the plastic case, plugging in the headphone, (Which only went over one of your ears!) and tuning in local stations, with no battery or any other power source. At night, you could tune in distant stations, if you set up your wire antenna properly. Today, Graymark is still around, and they make some decent kits, but they are nowhere near the kits of old. I’m not sure what fate befell Remco. (Anyone know?)

Radio Shack used to be a gold mine for the electronics hobbyist, back in the days when they had tube testers just inside the door of each store. (Uh, vacuum tubes kids. They used to put them in electronic gadgets, about the time when dinosaurs were walking around, and a computer wouldn’t fit inside a typical American house.) Radio Shack also employed older guys, and college students who were majoring in electrical engineering, who knew what you were asking for when you wanted a particular electronic part, be it a tube, diode, or an oddball capacitor. If you wanted to buy an inexpensive volt-ohm meter, they were delighted to help you.

Today, Radio Shack still sells a few electronic components and some kits. Their soldieries breadboard experimenters kit, designed to teach kids about modern electronics, is still well regarded, as is their “Science Fair” lineup of inexpensive projects. But all this good stuff has been pushed way back in the store, to the back shelves. The tube testers are long gone. There’s no demand for them, really. The knowledgeable guys are gone, and, like all shopping mall stores, turnover in personnel is high. The guy who is selling stuff at the shopping mall Radio Shack today, was probably working the food court two weeks ago. That’s just the way it is. The focus of Radio Shack is now all about remote controlled trucks, boats, various things which have lots of LED’s in them, things which make bizarre noises, cell phone service, and trying to convince you that “you can save money, by signing up for MSN”. (Ain’t gonna happen.)

Oh yeah, they sell Compaq computers. And no, they don’t seem to like us Mac folks. (“We don’t carry anything for Macs!”) But, Radio Shack does provide us members of the male gender with a place to go when we are dragged to the mall, and they still sell some stuff which I consider cool, such as scanners, and world band radios. (For some odd reason, Radio Shack stores in Canada have a much better selection of world band radios, including the latest models from Grundig, which I feel are among the finest. Their short wave antenna kit, consisting of a long coil of copper wire and the proper insulators, is a dandy if you have backyard space for it. I think they still sell this, and hopefully, it retails for fewer than ten bucks. Radio Shack still sells a cheap crystal radio kit, but it cannot even touch the great old “wood and brass” kits from Graymark. (Side note: I’ve recently come across an on-line dealer called “Arcs and Sparks” which sells real, honest-to-goodness crystal radio kits. The bad news: As I expected, they are quite expensive. But I just may take the plunge, given the longevity of this winter, which truly sucks. If I could just figure a way to string up a long wire antenna in my apartment…. )

So, when you’re in Radio Shack, have a little fun: When asked “What kind of computer do you have?”, tell them you’re a dedicated Unix user. (Hey, it’s not a lie, if you are using OS X, you are.) I guarantee they will leave you alone to browse. Scope out the good stuff in the back rows. There are some “finds” back there, but you have to look carefully, and that means without hindrance from an ex-food-court zombie. (Another good thing to know: Radio Shack sells replacement foam earpads for your iPod’s ear buds. The part number is 33-376. The price: $1.99 for a package of four. Kind of nice, since Apple itself does not seem to stock this item. However, I have been told that the Apple retail stores will give away extra’s if they have them to give.)

That brings me to short wave radio, truly one of the best geek hobbies. I must point out that I am not a “ham” radio operator. Heck, I’ve never even taken any of the tests required for getting a ham license, No, I’m strictly a “world band listener”. I regularly tune in to Radio Netherlands, the BBC, and Swiss Radio. (sometimes drifts in and out. It requires careful tuning.) One very cold-but-clear January night, I was just dialing along the 49-meter band, and heard something familiar. Odd, but familiar. What was it? It was the unmistakable sound of “ABBA”, singing “Dancing queen” in Swedish. ( I think.) Where was that coming from? I couldn’t pin it down, and it faded out. Nuts. For my money, Radio Netherlands is one of the best, putting a different “spin” on things. If you want to listen in, but don’t want to spring for a world band radio, use your Mac. Just grab the free version of Real Player, and head on over to Radio Netherlands website. Pretty cool eh?

Most of the better known world band broadcasters offer listening via the internet, but RNW’s always seems to work the best (If you have trouble with the OS X version of real player, give the “classic” version a try. For whatever reason, the OS X native version of real player seems incompatible with some things.) Check out their schedule, you’ll probably find something of interest. If you want to give them your snail-mail address, they’ll send you their free newsletter, “On Target”, twice per year. How cool is that? And if you are kind enough to send any world band broadcaster a reception report, you’ll receive a “QSL card” in return. If you do this, keep those QSL cards. (They resemble neat postcards, and confirm your reception report.) People have been known to collect them from all over the world. Boy, I don’t know, there is just something cool about it, when they announce at the end of their broadcast that “Now it’s time to say goodnight to our friends in North America, and good morning to our listeners in southeast Asia”.

Stamp and coin collecting have always been considered “Geek Hobbies”. (Remember those nerdy kids who were in the “Stamp and Coin club?) And yup, I dig coins. American Commemoratives, for the most part. I also like Ben Franklin fifty-cent pieces, and “Peace” silver dollars. I’ve always felt that the U.S. Mint should return to putting mythological figures on some coins. I rooted for the “Sacagawea” gold dollar coin, but the public just wouldn’t have any part of it, at least not for carrying and spending. If you “hoarded” a supply of those Sacagawea gold dollars, in the belief that they were going to become valuable collectibles, well, that’s too bad. The mint has “minted” millions of them, and they will, in all likelihood, never be worth more than a buck. Put them into circulation, where they were supposed to go in the first place.

An observation: I’ve been to a few Stamp and Coin shows over the years. Could anyone offer any guesses as to why 99% of the attendees are male? Don’t start yelling “Sexist”, it’s not a statement, it’s a question. I’m just curious as to why so few women dig coins that’s all.

A “Geek Game” I have played, and still occasionally play, badly, is Chess. I like it, but I’m pretty bad at it. Some day, I’ll even go and play the dude known as “The Chess Master” who can generally be found in Harvard Square. (Assuming this winter, which truly sucks, never ends.) I expect he’ll checkmate me in less than five moves, but I’ll be able to say I played him.
The Chess game which is included in Mac OS X, is a much better “time waster” than that dumbass solitaire game which comes on Windows. Just an opinion, of course. For a geeky thing to do, set it so it plays “Computer vs. Computer”. It goes quickly for several moves, then it gets interesting.

Photography? Well, that’s an on-again off-again hobby with me, and has been for the better part of twenty years. At the moment, it’s off-again. I’m torn up between my desire to stick with my tried and true Nikon FM2 (That’s manual focus, manual everything else kids) or give a digital camera a try. All the applications Apple includes with their products now make it awfully tempting. Still, there is something about films such as Kodachrome and certain Fujuchrome films that I just don’t think digital photography can match. Of course, I could be way wrong about that.

I’ll close by bringing up what I think is a great hobby, especially for true geeks, and that is Slide Rule collecting! To those of you who are too young to have ever learned to use one of these fine devices, you really should take time to sit down with one. Odds are likely that an “older relative” has one stashed away some where. To someone raised in a world of digital calculators, a slide rule, especially a model with a lot of scales, may look intimidating. The truth is, almost anyone of even nominal mechanical ability can learn to use a slide rule, usually in a matter of minutes. With some practice, you can learn to use one very quickly and with accuracy which should satisfy most daily applications. And they’re fun, believe me! With a slide rule you can “see’ how things work, something a digital calculator cannot show you. For solving proportion problems, a slide rule has digital calculators beat silly. At one time, buying a slide rule and learning to use it was a rite of passage for American high school students. There were a lot of good ones, from such names as Pickett, Ted Post, Sun-Hemmi, (A Japanese maker, which actually made many of the slide rules for Ted Post) and Keuffel & Esser. The pride of my own collection is a Sun-Hemmi model 260. A well-made slide rule lasts for a lifetime. Can the same be said for calculators? If you want to learn more about slide rules, or perhaps purchase one, check the “Slide Rule Universe’ of the Canadian firm, Sphere Research. I have done business with them to complete satisfaction.

Be forewarned though, slide rules have become red-hot collectibles and prices have soared. And to think, in the early Ô80s, drafting supply shops were selling their remaining stocks of slide rules at half the retail list prices. Imagine….

And that’s about it from where I stand. I know I didn’t cover them all. So, aside from computer stuff, what Geek Hobbies interest you? And did I mention this winter truly sucks?

Bruce Black

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