Saturday, November 30, 2013

Vive le HP-97

I just finished building a bookcase with a shelf for my antique calculators, so I got the calculators out of storage, cleaned them, and fired them up.

I don't know which one's my favorite, but this HP-97 is in my top three. According to the serial number, it was built by HP-Singapore in March 1978. This thing was $750 new. I guess people used to steal them, because it has a heavy-duty fitting for chaining it to your desk. I got this one for free from the surplus warehouse of The Aerospace Corporation back when I worked there.

The rechargeable battery pack is long demised and too expensive to rebuild, but the calc works just fine on a 4.8V travel adapter from an old LG phone. You shouldn't run most HP calculators without a functioning battery pack, because the batteries help regulate the current, but the HP-97 does this internally. Plus, the LG adapter is just barely able to run the calc (the "low battery" light glows) so it's safe.

This model went out of production in 1984, but I saw old-timers using them to do solid rocket ballistics calculations in the early 2000s. They used a company-written program stored on magnetic cards that could be read by the calc when passed through the slot to the left of the display.

So what did you get for your $750? First of all, you got a very durable, professional-grade piece of equipment. The keys have a solid, high-quality feel and they all work fine on this nearly 36-year-old calc. The card reader doesn't work any more due to a rubber roller that tended to dry out and fall apart after many years. I recently fixed an identical roller on an HP-67 but haven't done it on my -97.

The best part is the thermal printer. 36 years old and it still works! Heck, the paper is probably 20 years old! This calculator was manufactured right around the time I started using computers, and in that time I've probably gone through 8 printers, but this one keeps on chugging. Mind you I only play with it about once a year.

I just printed this

This is a programmable calculator. To program it, you essentially store the sequence of keystrokes that you would use to solve a problem manually. It has looping, branching and I/O instructions like any language. If you don't store the program on a magnetic card, you have to re-enter it every time you want to use it. Turning the calculator off erases its memory. Programs and data were stored in separate parts of memory - you could save 224 8-bit programming steps and 26 numbers. That amounts to about one-quarter of a kilobyte.

It's interesting to contrast the HP-97, released in 1976, with personal computers of the time. In 1976, nothing we would recognize as a PC was available for the home market, but the very next year brought the Apple II, the Commodore PET and the TRS-80. Each of those would have cost you more than $750. But within a couple of years, for that price you could get an Atari 400 with 8K of memory, plus a nice dot-matrix printer. The Atari would drive a TV display with full-screen color graphics, compared to the HP-97's single line of red LED digits. But the HP-97 remained in production until 1984, the year of the Mac! You can see that HP was following a whole different paradigm than the PC industry. HP was making industrial equipment for Serious People, not home entertainment gadgets.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Pharmacy Phun

I think Obamacare is a disastrously bad solution, but at least it recognizes that there's a real problem: the existing healthcare system was apparently designed by a group of insane comedians on a four-day crack binge.  Let me regale you with an anecdote.

I went to a new doctor here in Schenectady for a regular check-up. He asks me if I'm currently taking any medications, and I say yes, I'm taking a certain medicine that features Larry the Cable Guy in its advertising. [I don't want to say the real name, because Google will send me ads.]

Says he, "Do you want me to write you a script for that?"

Says I, "No, I buy it over-the-counter at Sam's Club. It only costs me about $10 a month."

Says he, "Nah, let me write you a script; insurance will pay for it."

Me: "I think there'll be a co-pay, so I don't want a script."

Doc: "I'll write you one. I'll send it straight to the pharmacy, no trouble at all."

I'm tired of arguing with him, so I decide to let him write the script but plan on just not picking it up. He must be a new doc and really excited about his prescription-writing powers.

Two weeks later, the pharmacy leaves me a voicemail stating that my prescription has been waiting and that if I don't pick it up, it'll be discarded. I wait a few days but then the rule-following instinct in me starts to kick in. I decide to pick up the script. After all, I pass the pharmacy every day between work and home.

I arrive at the pharmacy and go to the pick-up counter. They can't find the prescription. I say, "Maybe it's been discarded. I might have waited too long to pick it up."

The pharmacy tech says, "Yeah, it's been returned to the shelf. [Can't they just go and get it off the shelf? Maybe it was put on a really high shelf and they misplaced their ladder.] Plus, there was a problem with your insurance."

I say, "OK, I'll call the insurance company and straighten it out," intending to just walk out of there and forget about it.

Four days pass. Another voicemail from the pharmacy: my prescription is ready for pickup, and also they need me to bring my insurance card in so they can re-confirm my coverage. I figure they must have called the doc and the insurance company and straightened everything out.

So today I stop by the pharmacy again, go to the pick-up window and give my name. Pharmacy tech can't find the prescription. I recount the history of the prescription to her and she looks something up on her computer. "Yeah, the prescription was rejected by your insurance company because [wait for it... wait for it...] it's available over-the-counter. They won't pay for anything available over the counter. It's $187 if you want to pay out of pocket."

This raises a whole host of questions of which I will only list one: why did they keep asking me to come to the pharmacy? Did they figure I might buy some candy bars and fashion magazines?

Perhaps this explains why a transparently nutty system like Obamacare could ever gain support: the bar set by the existing system is so very, very low.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Everywhere a sign

Since I moved to New York I've noticed some differences in the road signage. First off, there isn't enough of it. Even fairly major intersections tend not to have overhead direction signs, and on-ramps to the interstates are poorly signed. In other states, entrance ramps are marked by the standard big green signs like this one:

 Here, sometimes all you get is a shield, or what is called a "reassurance sign":

Also, they usually use ALL CAPS, which are harder to read than Mixed Case.

But there is one road sign here in New York I really like: the airport sign. Here's one that I took a picture of this morning (please disregard finger):

What's so great about this sign? Look at the silhouette of the airplane. Do you see that bump near the nose? You might think that's supposed to be the upper deck on a 747, but it's much too short. No, that is clearly a bubble canopy. And the wing seems to be riding high. No airliner has a high wing and a bubble canopy. No sir, that is definitely a B-47 bomber! They took off the engines and the drop tanks, but that long wing and stubby rudder are unmistakable. I venture to say that the guy who drew up the sign based it on this very photograph:


I've always liked the old B-47. It was one of the Air Force's first jet-propelled heavy bombers, and the first to feature those graceful, highly swept wings. It's not a stretch to say that the experience Boeing got building the B-47 led directly to the modern airliner. And now it's leading you directly to a modern airport, at least in New York.