A Take on the TouchPad: Worth Keeping, if You Can Find It

When HP announced its most recent quarterly financial results, the company had some shocking news: it would no longer offer its recently released tablet, the Touchpad. HP followed up this unexpected announcement with a closeout sale, with prices at many retailers initially slashed to a mere $99 — one fifth of the price of the popular iPad 2 or Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. Those promotions spurred such demand for the device that it can now be very hard to find.

Of course, many buyers were no doubt opportunists looking to resell at a higher price. If you happen to come across one, though, it may be worth buying and keeping.

The Touchpad’s dimensions are very close to those of the original iPad. Unlike the wide screens on many Android tablets, the dimensions of Touchpad’s 9.7-inch screen are more like those of a photo. In fact, the Touchpad’s controls and jacks — including volume, power, and the microUSB charging and transfer port — are arranged so similarly to those of the iPad that some cases designed for the original iPad may fit the HP device very well.

(The Touchpad is significantly thicker than the iPad 2 and lacks the iPad 2’s rear-facing camera. That said, it does have a front-facing camera for video chat, as well as tightly integrated support for the popular Skype service.)

But a big part of the story is webOS, the Touchpad’s operating system, which made its debut with the Palm Pre and became part of HP when the company purchased Palm about a year ago. The larger screen really allows webOS to perform well — particularly its innovative system of managing different on-screen cards that can be grouped to keep parts of related tasks together. For example, if you’re a singer using a Touchpad rehearse music, you can have several sheets open at once, alongside a media player screen the plays music tracks, so you can hear how a song should sound as you read the music.

Another Touchpad benefit is Just Type, which lets you search a wide range of Web sites and information on the tablet just by tapping an area of the screen and starting to type. The Touchpad also boasts great sound, courtesy of its stereo speakers and Beats Audio interface for headphones. That should come in handy when watching TV shows and movies, a key way consumers use tablets according to the Broadband Video survey by NPD Connected Intelligence.

Unfortunately, while the Touchpad has solid Web and email apps, only a few hundred third-party applications take advantage of the product today, and the system can get bogged down and present messages about having too many cards open. Like Palm before it, HP has had limited success in wooing developers attracted to the high volumes of the iPad and the promise of sleek Android-based competitors.

Making matters worse, HP compounded its problems before the Touchpad’s release by changing a key method for developing webOS applications. Now many apps created for older devices simply won’t run on the Touchpad, and it may take some time for even wiling developers to come up to speed with the new system. HP says it will continue to encourage developers to create webOS programs, but it will be an even steeper uphill climb than it has in the past, since there is now so much doubt hanging over the webOS operating system.


Traffic Jam: What Causes Gridlock

Everyday life enters a different phase after Labor Day, the unofficial start of autumn in the United States. As students and employees return from vacation, and vehicles fully flood roadways once again, drivers face an increased risk of what may be the worst hassle a commuter can encounter: traffic gridlock.


Gridlock occurs when vehicles cannot pass through an intersection — even if they have a green light and the right of way. Vehicles that were unable to make it completely through the traffic signal before the light turned red now block the “box” — the area of the intersection where both roads overlap — causing delays and unnerving blares from car horns.


Greg Mitchell, a manufacturer’s representative from the Bronx who has driven in New York City for 20 years, has experienced gridlock many times when driving between sales calls in Manhattan.


“It’s frustrating when you’re at an intersection and you see vehicles in the intersection that shouldn’t be,” Mitchell said. “On the other hand, I don’t want to be the guy sitting in the middle of an intersection when the light changes to red and the cross-traffic is sitting there, aimed at my driver’s side door, honking their horns. That’s not a fun feeling either.”

Striving to figure out how to prevent this urban nuisance, traffic-physics researcher Boris Kerner of the Daimler Automotive Group in Germany has developed an explanation for how gridlock occurs. A preprint of his new model can be viewed at the website arXiv. Surprisingly, his new model suggests gridlock can occur even when traffic flow is relatively light. The culprit? Someone in the line of traffic near a light signal slows down, triggering a chain of events that can reduce the speed of all traffic behind it, build up successively longer lines of vehicles with every green-yellow-red cycle, and eventually lead to gridlock.

Continuing a physics approach that originates from the early 1960s, Kerner and his colleagues developed a mathematical description that treats vehicles in traffic like objects in natural systems, such as a network of electrical signals traveling in the brain, or complex molecules in a thick liquid bouncing against each other as they are being sucked up through a straw. In all these cases, the objects can together make abrupt “phase transitions” from one state to another — from a smooth liquid to a molasses-like one, from normal electrical activity to epilepsy, and from free-moving vehicle traffic to a jam. Unlike ice resting in a freezer, these systems are all dynamic, and far from equilibrium. Introduce a disturbance above a critical level, and like a roll of the dice, this can sometimes — randomly — cause the system to change its phase abruptly and dramatically.

In traditional models, traffic has been treated as having only two distinct phases — either the cars are moving freely, or they are congested. However, in the mid-1990s, Kerner introduced a three-phase model. There is a “free flow” phase, plus two different phases of congestion — an all-out “jam,” and a state of “synchronized flow” in which vehicles are locked into a reduced speed, such as when vehicles in three lanes slow down together after merging into two lanes.


Saturn at Night

I don’t know about you, but amid all the news of terror threats,unemployment, the western power outage and the like, I could stand a little mental health break. If you’d like one too, it helps put our problems in perspective. Here goes.

It’s a wonderful image of the planet Saturn, shot in 2006 by the Cassinispacecraft as it passed through Saturn’s shadow in orbit around the planet. If you want to get into real detail, you can find a very large version (more in a minute on why you’ll want to) by clicking HERE.

(It’s gone viral on the web today. NASA made it its “Astronomy Picture of the Day” on Sept. 4, and it accidentally wound up on other sites as if it were new.)

What’s worth noting about this image? A few things:

–First, Saturn’s not all dark at night.  It’s lit by sunlight reflected from its rings.  The Earth, in a comparable picture, would be black, perhaps with lights from some of the larger cities.  If you could stand on Saturn (it may not be possible; nobody knows what’s beneath those murky layers of ammonia and methane gas), the nights would be something to behold.

–Second, look how bright the rings are in this view, even when completely back-lit.  Sunlight is bouncing among the pieces of ice that make up the rings.

Finally (and this is why you may want to go to the large version), do you see the tiny dotto the left of Saturn, just above the edge of its brightest rings?  That’s us.