Friday, February 26, 2010

The Most Unusual Mail Order Catalog

Quick! What's that thing to the left? Yes, I know it's a Hammacher Schlemmer catalog cover, smarty-pants. I mean what's that thing pictured on the cover?

Don't feel bad if you didn't know that it's a Superplexus. Actually, it's "The Superplexus". Hammacher Schlemmer catalogs often feature items on their cover whose identity and purpose could challenge Einstein.

In case you didn't know, Hammacher Schlemmer (H.S.) is a New York based retailer established in 1848. Aside from their New York store, they also sell via mail order and, of course, the internet. So how did one of their catalogs come to land in my mailbox?

Simple. I mail ordered something from somebody else's catalog. I couldn't tell you what I ordered or from whom, but a lot of these vendors love to share their mailing lists. "Hey Alfred! I've got another chump who has too much money on his hands and loves to spend it on stuff that he's only seen pictures of!" Next thing I know, Alfred Hammacher and William Schlemmer's catalog adorns my mailbox, sporting some inscrutable object on its cover. It was probably the inscrutable object on the cover of the first H.S. catalog that I received which coaxed me into opening it (the catalog) in the first place, rather than just throwing it out. "I've just gotta find out what that thing is!" I probably muttered to myself.

Then it happened. Somewhere among the pages of that fateful catalog I saw that Hammacher Schlemmer's inventory included Hasbro's interactive R2-D2; the very same interactive R2-D2 that I described in such detail in last week's post. I had already heard about Hasbro's R2-D2 earlier and, as I explained in my previous post, had already developed a serious case of the "I Wants" for one. Part of what kept me from rushing right out and buying one was the fact that there were none to be found in any of the stores in my immediate locale. I checked everywhere; Toys 'R Us, Sears, Zellers, even various obscure hobby and novelty shops. Nada. But there it was, in full color, among the rest of the H.S. merchandise, right next to the words "In Stock".

I think I began excitedly whistling "I've found it! It's here!" (that was an obscure Star Wars reference for you non-geeks out there) until my wife came over to find out what the commotion was all about. After settling me down with the help of several tranquilizer darts, she managed to convince me to hold off ordering one long enough so that she was able to get me one as a Father's Day gift, because every father should own a toy R2-D2.

There's only one better way of getting on a catalog store's mailing list than by ordering from some other catalog store, and that's by ordering from them directly. Hammacher Schlemmer has been faithfully sending me catalogs on a quarterly basis ever since they received my wife's order for R2-D2.

For those unfamiliar with Hammacher Schlemmer, they are distinguished, in my mind, as being a merchant of unusual and/or hard to find items. If you're looking for a gift for that hard-to-buy-for person who seems to have everything, consult with Hammacher Schlemmer. It also helps to have a whole lot of disposable cash.

Take the Superplexus, for example. You're probably wondering what, exactly, a Superplexus is, even though you've seen a picture of one at the start of this post. I was getting to that. Ever see those wooden labyrinth games where you roll a marble through a maze by twisting the board around using two knobs? The Superplexus is something like that, except that it's three-dimensional, it's enclosed in a glass sphere, it stands just over four feet high and three feet wide, it weighs 65 lbs. and it retails for $30,000. Yes, that's right, I said thirty thousand ... with four zeroes. It's the ideal Christmas gift for Bill Gates' son, who probably already has all the video games he can possibly play; just a tip for anyone who happens to work for Microsoft and is looking for a good brown-nose opportunity.

Hammacher Schlemmer's catalog and web sites are full of this kind of stuff! If the Superplexus seems a bit "frugal", how about a genuine seven foot tall Robbie the Robot (the one that looks like a walking jukebox, remember?) for fifty thousand dollars (actually $49,999.95). Or, if you're a bit more budget-minded and the Lost In Space robot is more to your liking, H.S. will gladly sell you a life-sized one of those for only twenty-four and a half thousand dollars.

It's not just all toys, either. Are you environmentally conscious and in the market for an electric car? H.S. has three to choose from; a 4,000-watt roadster for $13,000, a one-person electric car for $36,000 or an electric two-seater that goes from zero to sixty in four seconds, with a top speed of 120 mph; a steal at $108,000. And, for the kiddies, how about a kid-sized electric SUV for just under $500? May as well start building that spoiled sense of entitlement during their formative years, right?

Not everything in H.S.'s inventory is priced for the Rockefeller set, but even their less expensive items tend to be unique. How about digital copies of every National Geographic magazine ever published on a DVD-ROM boxed set, for $69.95? Or a wallet that can withstand being put through a full dishwasher cycle for $49.95? Let me tell you, if I had a nickel for every wallet I've wrecked by dropping it into the dishwasher... well, let's just say I'd need H.S.'s Balance Keeping Coin Bank to keep them all in.

Another peculiarity about Hammacher Schlemmer's catalog (and web site) is that practically every item's description begins with the definite article, "The". It's not just "Gyroscopic Golf Trainer", it's "The Gyroscopic Golf Trainer". It's not just "A Bucket Seat Bicycle", it's "The Bucket Seat Bicycle". This probably makes sense, since the use of the definite article implies uniqueness, as in "there is only one", and I daresay much of H.S.'s inventory is definitely unique. I mean, how many different Upside Down Tomato Gardens can there possibly be out there?

For their less unusual or unique offerings, H.S. tends to add words such as "best", "most" or "genuine" to their product descriptions, implying top of class or best of breed, such as "The Best Electric Knife Sharpener" or "The Slimmest Bluetooth Speakerphone". While I can't vouch for such claims, as doing so would mean comparing every possible brand and make of a given product in order to determine if H.S.'s is truly the best one, I will say that I've been very satisfied with "The VHS To DVD Converter", which I purchased from H.S. two Christmases ago (yes, I was actually able to afford two items from the H.S. catalog back when I used to have a job).

The VHS to DVD recorder that I received from H.S. turned out to be a Sony model RDR-VXD655. This unit is by no means exclusive to Hammacher Schlemmer and I can't say whether there are better VHS to DVD recorders available elsewhere, but it's interesting to note that nowhere in H.S.'s catalog or on their web site do they mention that the machine is a Sony, let alone its model number. Considering that Sony is a fairly well-respected electronics manufacturer, most retailers would trumpet the brand name as a feature. Not Hammacher Schlemmer. They seem content to let their reputation speak for itself. "If we're selling it, you can rest assured that it's a top quality item." I find that unusual, and refreshing.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Artoo Detoo It Is You! It Is You!

I was thinking of calling this post "Toy Story 3" as it's about a particularly cool toy, and two earlier posts about another of my favorite toys were imaginatively entitled Toy Story and Toy Story 2. Of course, the other two titles doubled as references to the two animated Disney movies whose respective names they stole (I mean "borrowed") but there never was a Toy Story 3, which would make that title inconsistent. On the other hand, I suppose I could have gone with that title and, should Disney ever actually release a Toy Story 3, I could have sued them for copyright or trademark infringement or some such thing and been set for life. Keep your banner ads. That's how to make money blogging!

But, no. One of the prime directives of this blog is to keep things fresh and innovative (which is why I'm writing about a toy for the third time now) so I decided to break with precedent and come up with a new, fresh, clever title for this post. For those of you who are not quite so nerdy as myself, I should explain that the title of today's post is, in fact, a reference to the very first Star Wars movie (appropriately known as "Episode IV"). It's the line spoken by See Threepio when he and Artoo Detoo are reunited in the bowels of the Jawa sandcrawler, after having been separated in the Tatooine desert.

Artoo Detoo (or R2-D2 for the more technically inclined) is one of my top three favorite robots of all time, right up there with Forbidden Planet's Robbie and the generically named "Robot" from Lost In Space. For one thing, I prefer robots that are designed not to look like mechanical people. Of my three favorite robots, Robbie is most guilty of this faux-pas. He's a biped with arms, kind of looks like an astronaut in some kind of weird space suit, but at least he doesn't have anything resembling a human face. In fact, above the arms, he looks a bit like an old Wurlitzer jukebox. I've always been a sucker for colorful blinking lights.

The Robinson family's Robot is a little better. He still has sort of a bipedal form, but at least he doesn't have articulated legs and instead rolls around on what I presume are treads. That to me seems far more likely. His "head" looks even less human than Robbie's, and also features those seductive blinking lights, and you have to laugh at the comical way in which he waves his accordion arms around, crying "Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!"

Then there's R2-D2, who looks nothing at all like we humanoids. If anything, he looks like some sort of electronic trash can or fire hydrant, and he doesn't even talk - well, okay, he does, but not in any manner that movie-goers can decipher. He beeps, he whistles, he hoots and sometimes emits what sounds suspiciously like electronic farts and, surprisingly, he manages to do so with expression. You may not understand exactly what he's saying, but you can definitely tell whether he's pleased, excited, annoyed or scared dischargeless.

Imagine my joy when I learned, one day, that the Hasbro toy company had created a toy R2-D2. "Big deal" you say, "there are lots of toy Artoos out there". Very true, but this is the toy Artoo. Hasbro officially calls it the "Star Wars R2-D2 Interactive Astromech Droid" and the key word here is "Interactive". This thing is almost a miniature clone of the beloved droid from the movies. He understands and obeys voice commands. He answers back. He can see and navigate around obstacles. He plays games. He guards your room. Heck, he can even bring you a cold one!

The moment I learned about this toy, I got a serious case of the "I Wants". Trouble is, I was approximately 42 years old at the time and, as neat as Hasbro's toy is, it's still a toy - as in "designed for kids". Of course, there are adult collectors of toys, but I'm not really a collector. I just have a weakness for certain things that push my inner "cool" button. This is one of those. As toys go, it's also kind of expensive. It retailed for $US 120 when I first learned of it, and the price has climbed since then - mostly, I suspect, because Hasbro no longer makes them. As usual, practicality beat my inner geek into submission and I contented myself with simply drooling over magazine and internet ads.

Fortunately, I also happen to be married to a woman who knows me all too well (and stays married to me anyway) and it was this same woman who decided to get me Hasbro's interactive R2-D2 for Father's Day that year (and, no, the irony is not lost on me).

My interactive Artoo stands about 18 inches tall; a pretty good size for a toy. The electronic "eye" on his dome lights up and blinks red and blue. His dome projector also lights up. The dome rotates almost all the way around. He beeps, chirps, hoots, whistles (and farts) just like his movie counterpart, and he rolls along on the floor with the ability to turn left or right and even back up. All this takes power, and no miserly amount at that. Artoo uses two sets of batteries; four D cells for motor control and movement, and four AA batteries to control the lights and the logic boards. At least the batteries do last a good long time before needing replacement. With all the batteries installed, he's a fairly hefty little dude, weighing in at about five pounds.

Artoo comes equipped with navigational sensors that allow him to see where he's going, and an infrared sensor for distinguishing people and pets (i.e. warm bodies) from inanimate objects. He has a microphone (the better to hear you with, my dear) and pressure or resistance sensors that allow him to detect if something is impeding his movement.

Artoo's voice recognition software is truly impressive. He recognizes speech right out of the box without any need of training, regardless of whether the speaker is a five-year-old girl, a forty-two-year-old man, or a five-year-old girl in a forty-two-year-old man's body ... but perhaps I've said too much. He recognizes over fifty spoken commands, names and phrases. You can tell him to move or to stay put. When he's moving, you can tell him to go in specific directions or just have him "patrol" the room. You can tell him to talk or to be quiet. Tell him to play the message (the one that he's carrying in his rusty innards) and he'll light up his projector and play Princess Leia's message to Obi-Wan Kenobi (sound only - no holographics). You can ask him if he remembers various Star Wars characters and he will indicate that he does, indeed, remember them as well as what he thinks of them, by his reactions. Ask him about See Threepio and he'll chirp happily. Ask him about Darth Vader and he'll scream and shudder.

Speaking of emotional responses, Artoo's software emulates his sometimes stubborn and rebellious personality as seen in the movies. He can get temperamental and sometimes intentionally ignores you. You can tell when he's sulking because his sensor eye goes from blue to red. Once I let him roll off a small ledge, only about 3 inches high but enough that he fell over onto his side, and he let out a plaintiff electronic whine. If he gets too uncooperative, you can tell him to behave himself.

Watching Artoo explore a room is truly fascinating. He won't run into walls or large obstacles, stopping as he nears them and then turning and heading off in a new direction. He can't see low objects like the edges of carpets and he sometimes misses narrow objects like chair legs. If he does miss something and bumps into it, he senses the obstruction and backs away, again heading off in some other direction.

His inability to see ground-level objects also makes him susceptible to rolling down stairways or off table edges, a practice which shortens his useful life considerably and definitely voids his warranty, so he comes with a button that prevents him from rolling when you want him to stay put. This is not a mechanical inhibitor. It's a software inhibitor. Artoo's programming tells him not to move under any circumstances when his movement inhibitor button is set to "engaged", not unlike the restraining bolt used in the movies, and this is one command he always obeys. In fact, if you tell him to go somewhere or to patrol the room with the movement inhibitor engaged, he'll simply shake his head at you, as if to say "I can't, stupid!"

Artoo's sensors, motors and software also give him the ability to perform certain semi-useful functions. For example, he can act as a room sentry, standing soundless and motionless, looking for all the world as though he were powered off. The moment he detects any sound or movement, however, he comes alive, shines his projector light on the intruder and sounds a shrill alarm.

He can also play games such as "Light Tag" or "Spin the Droid". When playing Light Tag, Artoo will count to ten, giving all the people in the room time to go and stand somewhere. He will then patrol the room, specifically looking for warm bodies with his I/R sensor. When he finds someone, he stops and shines his projector light on them as if to say, "Hah! Gotcha!" He can also sing and dance, chirping out well-known Star Wars music, such as the Cantina Band theme, and shuffling back and forth to the beat.

I'm amazed at the technology that's gone into Hasbro's "plaything". I've read several anecdotes about the many problems that George Lucas and crew had with the R2-D2 prop whilst filming the original Star Wars trilogy. The thing was constantly falling over, banging into walls and just plain malfunctioning. Lucas probably would have given his eye teeth for a prop that was capable of just a fraction of the things that Hasbro's toy can do.

For my fellow techno-geeks that want to know more about the firmware that powers this little guy and just what it can do, you can find out much more at this link:

If you'd like to see one disassembled in order to find out what makes it tick, try this link:;leftCol

As for the rest of you, if you'd just like to see the little guy in action, try the video below. If you're impressed and want to see more, YouTube has many more like it.

So you see, coming back full-circle to the title of this post, I think it more than appropriate. From the moment you switch on Hasbro's Interactive R2-D2 and watch it come to life, you almost forget that it's a toy and might just find yourself exclaiming "Artoo Detoo, it is you! It is you!"

Friday, February 12, 2010

Playing With Numbers

The problem with big numbers is that, once they get big enough, they lose their meaning. People need a frame of reference, something with which to compare, in order to have any understanding of scale. One common trick is to express numbers which measure size, volume or distance in terms of time. People seem better able to relate to the passage of time than they are to size. That's how the concept of the light year arose. Tell someone that the nearest star (excluding the sun, of course), Proxima Centauri, is 39,900,000,000,000 kilometers away, and you generally get a blank stare, even if you express that number as "39.9 trillion". The human mind can't comprehend that big a distance. Say that Proxima Centauri is 4.22 light years away, and it becomes clearer. Ah! So even light, which we know travels very, very fast, would still take a little over 4 years to get from here to there. Now we have a frame of reference.

Someone sent me an interesting spreadsheet this week. You enter your birthday, and it tells you exactly how long you've been alive, in years, months, days, weeks, minutes and even seconds. According to this spreadsheet, at the moment that I typed my birthday and pressed Enter, I had been alive for exactly 1,492,450,707 seconds. That's just under one and a half billion seconds. That got me thinking; if someone had been handing me one dollar bills at the rate of one per second from the moment I was born up until the present, I'd have about one and a half billion dollars to my name. Can I think of anybody who has that kind of money? Of course I can.

Everybody loves to pick on Bill Gates, so why should I be an exception? At the time of this writing, he's worth about 40 billion dollars. A person would have to live to the age of 1,269 years and earn a dollar per second during that entire time to come up with that kind of money. Question: Does any one person need or deserve that kind of money? I don't mean to trivialize Mr. Gates' contributions to society and I acknowledge his philanthropic endeavours. It just seems absurd to me that any one person should be rewarded that richly, regardless of what they've done. Nobody needs that kind of money. It's gross over-compensation. Of course, Mr. Gates is not the sole member of the world's Billionaire's Club.

As I write this, Canada's national debt stands at about 512 billion dollars. If the country paid down its debt at the rate of a dollar per second, it would take a little over 16,235 years to eliminate it. Does that much money exist in the world? If not, how did Canada manage to borrow it?

Of course, Canada's national debt pales in comparison to the United States' debt of about 12.3 trillion dollars at time of this writing. You see what I mean? You get to the point where it just seems surreal, doesn't it?

Friday, February 5, 2010

A Woman Scorned

One of the best ways to make a blogger's day, especially one whose blog is based on entertainment or amusement, is to hand him a real life story that's funnier than anything he (or she) could possibly have made up. Yesterday, The Waterloo Region Record handed me just such a story.

Seems one Dr. Vincent Leering, a local chiropractor, had been treating his girlfriend. Unfortunately, the relationship eventually soured, as relationships sometimes will, and the two broke up, upon which Dr. Leering referred her outstanding bills to a collection agency. I can't help but suspect that this was probably done more out of anger and spite than out of financial need.

Bad mistake.

Women are almost always smarter then men. That goes double for men who are in any way emotionally agitated and not quite reasoning at full capacity. I can almost hear Leering's ex muttering "So that's how you want to play, is it?" after getting the first call from the collection agency. She filed a complaint with the Ontario College of Chiropractors, telling them that her chiropractor had been sleeping with her. They, in turn, charged him with sexual abuse and revoked his license to practice for at least five years. Game. Set. Match. The poor guy probably understands now exactly how the Coyote felt after setting up that Burmese tiger trap kit, only to catch a Burmese tiger and then fall into the trap with it.

I have to feel a twinge of pity for Leering. The article makes it clear that he was already involved with the woman before she became his patient. To my mind, that's a very different situation compared to a doctor who makes advances on a patient with whom he'd had no prior relationship. Unfortunately, the optics are still bad, especially when you're cursed with a name like Vincent Leering. It couldn't have been worse unless his name had been Sacha Purvort or Dar T. Oldman. In any case, Leering's ex-girlfriend seemingly realized that the Ontario College of Chiropractors has a zero-tolerance policy about these things, and apparently used that knowledge to her full advantage.

This is one lady that Leering should definitely not have screwed with ... literally.