My Christmas Gizmos

This year, thanks to my adoring wife and my wonderful sister-in-law, I received two gadgets that I’d been wanting for a while.
First, in a tip of the hat to a previous blog entry, I finally managed to get my hands on a calculator that supported Reverse Polish Notation (RPN). My sister-in-law, S., got me an HP 33s calculator. While it doesn’t have the cool horizontal profile of the older HP calculators of my youth (but HP doesn’t make any that do look like that anymore), it has all the same features, and the two-line display actually makes the RPN functionality a little easier to use (as you can see the previous element in the calculation stack that way).
A couple people who I’ve told about this wondered why I wanted a calculator given that I’ve got computers-aplenty at my beck and call. The reality is that “appliances” have their place. Just as I’m not trying to build my own DVR and am willing to trust my cable set-top box or TiVo to “just work”, there’s something nice about having a little device next to your computer that you can use to do the “quick math” functions you need to do throughout the day. I can’t count the number of times in a given day where I fire up a terminal window and type something completely lame into bc, or worse, when for some reason I’m feeling particularly brutal, to do something like:

$ perl -e 'print ((12345/6)*7-8)'

To have that functionality off to the side? Very convenient.
Then, my lovely wife got me a Harmony 880 universal remote. This thing is frickin’ sweet, that’s all I have to say.
It’s programmed entirely via a computer application (Mac-compatible!), accessing an online database of damned near every TV, cable box, stereo, etc., etc., ever made. There’s a community of people editing and modifying and improving this data, so the codes are nearly always right. The biggest “hiccup” I had with mine has to do with the fact that my HDTV unit doesn’t support discrete-input selection. This means that if I want to go from “VIDEO1” to “COMPONENT2”, it’s not just a single infrared code, like it is for most TVs, but instead is a sequence of “[NextInput]” codes, to cycle through all the VIDEOx inputs, past COMPONENT1, and finally on to COMPONENT2.
But I can’t fault the remote for a failing in the TV. To be fair, we have the same problem with my older remote — the one D has never liked (for those who care, it’s an MX-500… it’s not a bad unit, but not nearly as friendly or as cool as the Harmony).
D now has a whole bank of buttons that pushing them will automatically switch to the right input on the TV, change the channel on the set-top box, etc. It’s easier for her to use, and it’s cooler to look at. That and I’ll save a fortune in AAA batteries, since the Harmony is rechargeable.
(PS – Kudos to Amazon.com… Christmas night I figured out that I wasn’t having some incompatibility problem with the [Pause] code for my cable box, but it was in fact that the Pause button on the remote itself was dysfunctional out of the box. Amazon Fedexed a replacement on Tuesday, and it arrived on Wednesday, a mere two-day delay that they’re eating all the shipping on… contrast that to a problem my boss’ boss had with one where $NAMELESS_VENDOR disavowed all knowledge and he had to deal with it directly with Logitech as a warranty issue, over about a week or so.)
So overall, a really good Christmas for gadgets in the Balling household.