July 12, 2007

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Lasers in everyday life
Zap! Pew! and other onomatopoeia
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

Ah, lasers.

How dim would our lives be without them? They read our music and movie collections on CD and DVD. They etch personalized messages on tchatchkes. They zap tumors, wrinkles and imperfect corneas. They artfully accompany Pink Floyd shows. They even measure the exact distance between Earth and the Moon, which if you’re an astronomy geek or werewolf, is really important.

Even with all these ways lasers affect our daily lives, the most direct experience most of us have with them is in the form of a laser pointer. What was once a harbinger of a technology-laden future is now available for a few bucks at any drugstore with the other impulse items.

As with most any product, there’s a world of difference between the cheapo models and the more expensive types. It all depends on what you want to do with yours.

• Freak out the cat: For this purpose, a $4.99 laser pointer will do nicely. Available at the aforementioned drug stores as well as some pet stores, cheap laser pointers really do find their best use amusing our feline friends. For some reason, a tiny point of light on the floor, wall or ceiling makes most cats go positively haywire, and you can spend many happy hours directing the light in circles and getting kitty dizzy chasing it.

• Direct the meeting: The original purpose for laser pointers was to, well, point at things. Charts and graphs, mostly, because fingers certainly can’t do the job, right?

Cheap laser pointers will certainly get this done, but in order to not look a fool in front of your boss or the oft-cited hottie in accounting, you’ll want one a bit more reliable. Starting at about 10 bucks, well-made models that take standard AAA or AA batteries instead of those weird button cells are available. Some of them are even built into pens.

Perhaps most useful for presentations are laser pointers added to wireless remote controls for your computer. Since just about everyone uses Powerpoint or a similar program these days, some companies make handheld jobbies that let you stand at the front of the room and advance your slides without going back to your computer.

• Point out the stars: Again, most any laser pointer will do, but many stargazers swear by green lasers. Oh, did you think they were all red? Nope, green lasers have a smaller wavelength than red lasers and are generally brighter. They also tend to reflect off more particles in the air, so the beam itself is more visible. Since any pen-size laser isn’t likely to actually reach Saturn (and would take hours to do so anyway, even at the speed of light), it’s nice to see at least the beginning of the beam, huh?

• Jiggle around a dot on a movie screen: For this task, you’ll need a laser pointer that emits a loud tone as well as a laser, so other patrons can find you and give you the stern noogie you deserve. Seriously, why?.