MySci Round-Up October 25: Goodbye to the Walkman

blog post photo
Sony has just announced that it is ending production of the cassette version of the Walkman, the portable music player that it first introduced in 1979.

Back then, of course, the happenin’ thingie of the music world was the audio cassette—which, for the benefit of you Millennials, we should explain was a recording medium that spooled magnetic analog tape inside a plastic case roughly the size of a deck of cards. (Philips, the Dutch manufacturer which introduced the cassette in the mid-1960s, chose not to patent it, which encouraged other manufacturers to copy the technology and helped it to predominate… but we digress.)

The Walkman originally was invented by a Sony engineer for use by then-Sony chairman Akio Morita, who liked to listen to operas during long plane fights. When Sony decided to market the device, Morita reportedly  tried to veto the name “Walkman,” which he hated, but junior execs regretfully informed him that they’d already gone ahead with the promotional campaign. Interestingly, the Walkman marketing effort presaged the social network theory of taste-makers elaborated a couple of decades later in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “The Tipping Point.” Sony distributed about 100 of the devices to influential people around the world, and that helped start a buzz that turned the device into a hot seller. The Walkman, which allowed a user to enjoy his or her music through headphones, also provided a cool counterpoint to another hot audio phenomenon of the 1980s, the boom box. The latter enabled users to serenade—or assault, depending upon your viewpoint—passers-by with their musical tastes at ear-drum bleeding decibel levels.

We oldsters have to admit that we miss the Walkman and the cassette format almost as much as you young’uns will someday miss the mp3 and ear buds. Cassettes were actually easier to store and handle than CDs, which have an irksome tendency to develop scratches. When a cassette became messed up, usually you could fix it just by inserting the tip of your pinkie into one of the spools and twisting it to and fro. You also could erase and re-record cassettes multiple times, though the audio quality invariably would suffer. But that wasn’t a big issue, if you were a fan of early 1980s punk rock.

And with that, here’s the science and technology news of the day.

Research shows that animals, like schoolchildren, need recess. 
And fortunately, unlike our kids, they can afford to play instead of having to stay in and study for all those standardized tests mandated by No Child Left Behind.

Pentagon plans for “near-human” robot soldiers, farmers, doctors. And unlike Blade Runner, they’re going to be allowed to roam around right here on Earth. Which might be a big mistake, if they get mad like Roy the replicant did.

Windows 8 will launch in 2012. 
We can hardly wait for all our device drivers to become obsolete overnight.

Past climate change may have influenced human evolution. 
A gene change related to water retention seems to have found its way into the genome of west Africans 10,000 to 20,000 years ago, about the same time that the Sahara started to become a desert.

Taste receptors discovered in lungs.
 And oddly, this could be a big help to people with asthma, though it’s too complicated to explain here. You’ll have to read the article, bub.