Olympus DS-660 Digital Voice Recorder

If you put your ear up close to the speaker grille on the Olympus DS-660 Digital Voice Recorder, you can hear the faint, distant screams of agonized microcassette manufacturers. For years, portable audio recording meant fumbling with these infernal tapes, which often broke, tangled, got demagnetized, or melted on your dashboard, and had terrible sound quality besides. Thankfully, digital recorders like the DS-660 will rid us of microcassettes for good.

The lozenge-shaped DS-660’s 32MB of memory holds about five hours of quality audio in standard recording mode or up to 11 hours in extended recording mode. It’s extremely easy to use, even covertly: To start a recording, just push the Record button on the right side of the unit.

The DS-660 sports features common to many digital recorders: To make it easy to return to a particularly interesting spot, you can set index marks while you’re recording. Five different folders make organizing easy for anal-retentive types. A voice-actuated mode starts the recording only when there’s sound to record, and a “dictation” mode muffles background noise.

Back at your desk, you drop the DS-660 into its USB cradle and download the files into the included Dictation Module software, which can play the recorder’s DSS file format, hand off the recordings to voice recognition software, or export files to the more-common WAV format.

For portability, versatility, and ease of use, it’s hard to beat the DS-660. So long, microcassettes–and good riddance. –Dylan Tweney

Olympus DS-660 Digital Voice Recorder
Weight: 2.6 ounces
Size: 4.2 x 1.8 x 0.9 inches
Specs: 32MB of RAM; DSS recording; USB 1.1 cradle; microphone jack; earphone jack; requires two AAA batteries or AC adapter (not included)

Best Feature: One-button audio recording couldn’t be simpler
Worst Feature: Pleather carrying case muffles the microphone

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Olympus DS-660 Digital Voice Recorder

Iomega REV 35GB/90GB External Drive

The first thing you need to know about the Iomega REV 35GB/90GB drive is that its name is a lie. The REV is an external hard drive with removable 35GB hard-disk cartridges, plain and simple. The “90GB” part of its name refers to the amount of data you could, in theory, store on each cartridge using data compression – but that’s assuming an extreme rate of compression that you’ll probably never see in your lifetime, particularly if you have many MP3 or JPEG files.

Once you get past the lie, you’ll find that Iomega’s REV drive is a serviceable solution for large-scale removable, portable storage. Unless you’ve got a massive amount of data, you can probably back up your entire notebook hard drive on a single cartridge. The backup utility that comes with the drive is easy to use: Just drag data folders into the utility’s window, set your backup options and schedule, and forget about it.

The REV drive is fast, writing data at an impressive 17.3MB per second and reading at 14.5MB per second. Using maximum compression, it will back up your data at about a third of that speed. The drive makes an alarming click-click-chung noise from time to time, but otherwise it’s quiet.

At just 1 pound (including a 2.8-ounce data cartridge), the REV is quite portable – though you’ll also need to include the 4.6-ounce travel charger. The included USB cable is just 3 feet long (the manual warns against using a longer one), which is a minor annoyance. And at $55 for each 35GB cartridge, the REV isn’t especially cheap. Still, the small size of the drive’s cartridges may be enough to make you overlook these inconveniences. -Dylan Tweney

Best Feature: Tiny cartridges hold an impressive 35GB
Worst Feature: You’ll pay a premium for that portability

Iomega REV 35GB/90GB External Drive
$332; $55 for each additional cartridge
Weight: 1 pound
Size: 6 x 4.3 x 1.2 inches
Specs: 35GB capacity per cartridge; USB 2.0; backup software included

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Iomega REV 35GB/90GB External Drive

Spire Nova

Most messenger bags fall into one of two camps: gigantic shapeless sacks on the one hand and precious, overorganized, zipper-encrusted man-purses on the other. Spire’s Nova bag is neither: It provides plenty of carrying capacity and organizing space in a shoulder bag that looks professional. As a bonus, it’s easy to carry and use.

Inside, the Nova has plenty of room for files (legal or letter-size), books, and magazines. A divider (with a drawstring on top) holds a removable internal sleeve (12 x 10 x 1 inches) for toting a notebook. This sleeve handily fits around ultralights such as the IBM ThinkPad X31 or 12-inch Apple PowerBook. It’s got its own handle, slash pocket, and a pair of rings into which you can clip a second shoulder strap (not included).

If you’ve got a midsize notebook, you can skip the sleeve and drop your computer right into the Nova itself; the pocket that accommodates the padded sleeve will hold naked notebooks up to about 12.5 inches wide and 10.5 inches deep. But if you do, set your bag down with care: The Nova has decent protective padding on the back but none on the bottom.

The Nova sports a variety of organizer pockets inside and outside. And if it’s raining, you can close off the inside pocket with its drawstring. Overall, the Nova is functional, well-designed, and equally appropriate in both chemistry class and the office. -Dylan Tweney

Best Feature: Well-organized interior pockets
Worst Feature: Awkward vertical zipper on flap pocket

Spire Nova
Weight: 1.9 pounds
Size: 15 x 10 x 5 inches
Specs: Ballistic nylon exterior; shoulder strap with removable, nonslip shoulder pad; waist belt; removable padded notebook sleeve

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Spire Nova

Science vs. witchcraft.

This BusinessWeek interview with Linus Torvalds contains a very interesting point: Torvalds compares the open-source way of developing software to the scientific method. Programmers put ideas forward; they’re critiqued publicly; and, if they stand up to scrutiny and to repeated testing, these ideas are incorporated into the overall body of work; other people then build on that framework.

Seen in this light, open source isn’t as novel as it might have once seemed. Of course, this view also makes it much more radical, because it’s not so much a system as an attitude–a mindset of skepticism, curious inquiry, and empiricism–and that can be much more thoroughgoing.

“I compare it to science vs. witchcraft. In science, the whole system builds on people looking at other people’s results and building on top of them. In witchcraft, somebody had a small secret and guarded it — but never allowed others to really understand it and build on it.

“Traditional software is like witchcraft. In history, witchcraft just died out. “

Science vs. witchcraft.

Here come the meteors!

I just had a short article about the upcoming Perseid meteor shower published in the San Francisco Chronicle. This was a fun piece to do–I got to talk with NASA scientists, enthusiastic amateur astronomers, and even dropped in on a stargazing party in the Los Altos hills, where I got to scope out some nebulae and double stars. The meteor shower promises to be a good one, too–peaking Wednesday night/Thursday morning of the coming week (between 2 a.m. and dawn on the morning of August 12).

Here come the meteors!

Perseid meteor shower to light up the skies

This week, skip the movies and catch some shooting stars instead.

The annual Perseid meteor shower will be especially spectacular this year, and at its peak on Wednesday night and Thursday morning, you may be able to see as many as one or two shooting stars every minute.

That’s a lot of wishes.

Every summer, the earth plows through a stream of space debris thrown off from Comet Swift-Tuttle. Most of the plume’s particles are no bigger than grains of sand, but they’re moving at 100,000 mph. When one of them hits the Earth’s atmosphere, it burns up, producing a brilliant streak of light that can be visible for hundreds of miles around — if only for a second or two.

The Perseid meteor shower is one of the two or three best opportunities for watching shooting stars, according to NASA astronomer Tony Phillips, because of the large number of meteors. Also, says Phillips, “the Perseids are nice because they happen in August, so you don’t freeze to death watching them. ” The other big meteor showers, the Geminids and the Quadrantids, happen in December and January.

This year, two factors should make for unusually good meteor-watching. First, the moon will be new, which will help keep the sky dark — making it easier to see the meteors.

Second, the Earth is passing through the middle of a new cloud of space dust for the first time.

The sun blew this dust off the surface of Comet Swift-Tuttle on the comet’s approach in 1862, during the Civil War. At first, the dust hung around the comet in a small, compact cloud. When the comet returned to our neighborhood of the solar system in 1992, the dust particles in the cloud tagged along behind in an increasingly wider orbit, stretching the cloud into a long trail. This year, the earth will be passing very close to the center of that trail for the first time, which should produce an extra burst of shooting stars.

Unfortunately for Bay Area viewers, it will be night in Eastern Europe and Asia when we hit the center of the new cloud. But Californians should see a good show in the early morning Thursday and Aug. 13, says Peter Jenniskens, a meteor scientist at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View.

There will be a steadily increasing number of meteors from now until Thursday, so you might even see a few meteors if you look tonight. But they will fall off rapidly after Thursday night.

For the best meteor-watching, experts suggest you try to get away from bright lights and fog that can obscure your ability to see the dim meteors. If you watch from downtown San Francisco on Wednesday night, you might see one or two meteors per hour, assuming the sky is clear. But from the countryside, far from any city lights, you could see as many as one or two meteors every minute.

“If you go away from the city lights, the Perseids are a wonderful thing to watch,” says Jenniskens.

Don’t want to go by yourself? Consider joining a “star party,” a nighttime get-together of amateur astronomers. This year, several local astronomy groups are sponsoring family-friendly star parties for watching the Perseids.

Best of all, you don’t need much to watch a meteor shower. “The best thing to bring is a reclining chair, a blanket, some hot chocolate, and that’s pretty much it,” says San Bruno resident Lance Boehme, an amateur astronomer and regular star party attendee.

As a bonus, the night sky has another treat for stargazers on Thursday morning. If you’re up for the meteor shower, look east near dawn. You’ll see a close encounter between the planet Venus and the crescent moon.

“So even if you didn’t see a single Perseid, you’d still get to see something very pretty,” Phillips says.

Where to watch

You can watch the Perseid meteor shower from any dark spot outside, as long as the sky is clear. Meteors will occur all night, but you’ll see the greatest number just before dawn on Thursday. Set your alarm for 4 a.m., go outside with a sleeping bag or warm blanket, and lie with your feet pointing northeast. Remember that it may take 20 minutes before your eyes adjust to the dark enough to see many meteors.

If you want to watch with other people — including dedicated amateur astronomers who can teach you about the night sky — consider attending a “star party.” Here’s a schedule of stargazing events where you can catch the Perseids:

You can join park rangers from 8:30 to 11:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at Calero Park in San Jose. Bring a blanket or chair. Free, but reservations are required. Call (408) 268-3883.

The Fremont Peak Observatory in San Juan Bautista is open from 8 p.m. to midnight Wednesday and Thursday. For details, call (831) 623-2465 or see www.fpoa.net.

Foothill College Observatory in Los Altos Hills will be open to the public from 9 to 11 p.m. Aug. 13. For details, call (650) 949-7334 or see www.foothill.fhda.edu/ast/fhobs.htm.

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Perseid meteor shower to light up the skies

Put the hours in.

Good advice on how to be creative:

“If I was just starting out writing, say, a novel or a screenplay, or maybe starting up a new software company, I wouldn’t try to quit my job for a year and make this big, dramatic heroic-quest thing about it.

I would do something far simpler: I would find that extra hour or two in the day that belongs to nobody else but me, and I would make them productive. Put the hours in, do it for long enough and magical, life-transforming things happen eventually. “

Put the hours in.