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Week of 12 March 2007

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Monday, 12 March 2007
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09:43 -This has been the weekend from hell. We had the contractors in Friday and Saturday to start ripping out the bathrooms in our master bedroom and the guest suite downstairs. Our bedroom was trashed, so we slept Friday and Saturday nights out in the den. I wasn't feeling well Friday or Saturday, and the 2.5 hour shopping trip on Saturday for bathroom fixtures didn't help matters any.

Sunday started off badly. We'd been using the hall bathroom because it was the only functioning bathroom in the house. I was taking a shower yesterday and fell in the tub. (No shower mat; my fault.) Barbara was painting right outside the bathroom door and came rushing in, terrified. Although I fell completely out of the tub and onto the ceramic tile bathroom floor, I wasn't hurt at all. Not so much as a bruise.

As I told Barbara, it's interesting how muscle memory kicks in. When I first started taking classes in Shotokan, I spent the first however many weeks pretty much getting thrown around by more advanced students and learning how to fall without being injured. That training kicked in automatically when I fell in the shower, even though I hadn't thought about it for more than 35 years.

I'd been trying to work on a chapter that my editor needs to give to production so that they can create marketing materials for the new book. With all the hammering and other stuff going on, I didn't get as far as I wanted on that. Then I had a radio interview at 6:00 last night. Just one more thing to do.

And Barbara noticed a growth inside Duncan's mouth. She called the vet this morning and got a 9:00 appointment. I hauled Duncan over to the vet's office, with him shivering all the way because he knows exactly where he's going. The vet looked at the growth and said it could be nothing or it could be very bad news. So I left Duncan at the vet's office. They're going to anesthetize him and cut out the tumor. We won't know if it's benign or malignant until the lab results come back.

This really has been the weekend from hell.

I also had my first experience with a Vista PC on Saturday. One of our neighbors bought a new PC a week or so ago, and their daughter Myesha, who's a friend of Jasmine's, flagged me down as Barbara and I were walking the dogs Friday night to ask if I could help them get it connected to the Internet. I told her I'd be happy to help.

I assumed it was just a configuration problem, but when I sat down in front of the new PC on Saturday, I found out the problem was that their DSL modem had no signal. I went around and around with BellSouth support for a while, and they finally concluded they'd need to send someone out to locate the problem. My only previous experience with BellSouth DSL was with the DSL setup that our neighbors Gerald and Stephanie have. They had it installed when they moved in a couple of years ago, and it's never worked properly since. For some months, it hardly worked at all, and even now it frequently dies in the evening.

I told Myesha that, if I were they, I'd consider dropping BellSouth DSL and signing up for Time-Warner Cable's cable modem service. Her mom wasn't there at the time, but she called while I was still there and I told her the same thing. She said she'd heard the same thing from Kim and others about problems with BellSouth DSL and said she'd cancel the DSL service and call TWC to get a cable modem installed.

What really flabbergasted me about the whole experience, though, was the amount of crapware installed on that PC. Back in the day, there might be a couple of extra icons on the desktop that offered free trials of AOL or whatever, but those were easy enough to delete. Nowadays, there are literally dozens of crapware programs installed on a new PC, and they don't just sit there waiting for you to click their icons. They fire up as soon as you boot the PC and start popping up windows right, left, and center.

I was horrified by the amount of crapware installed. As far as I'm concerned, it makes a PC unusable straight out of the box. Michael Dell has admitted that Dell is paid about $60 by all these crapware vendors to put their garbage on new Dell PCs, and believe me when I tell you that they're getting their money's worth.

Which presents me with a problem. I hate to simply walk away, but what can I do? I don't know for sure that I could get all that stuff uninstalled properly, and even if I could it might take me literally an entire day to do so. I could run PC Decrapifier, but what if it kills their system? I'd be honor-bound to get their system working again, no matter how long it took me to do so.

So for me this has no upside. Either I leave them with a totally crapified system, or I attempt to decrapify it, with all the risks that involves. I think what I'll do is explain the problem to them, give them a link the PC Decrapifier site, and warm them of the possibility of borking their system if they use it. I don't know what else to do.

Of course, even if they run PC Decrapifier, they don't end up with a clean install. They end up with a decrapified system with who knows what instabilities still there. I'd thought about blowing away the contents of the hard drive and re-installing, but I don't know if they even have a Vista CD. There's probably a restore partition on the hard drive, and my guess is that if I restore the hard drive I'll also be restoring all the crap.

I really, really hate Microsoft and Dell. Subjecting people to this mess is simply unconscionable. How do these people sleep at night?


Tuesday, 13 March 2007
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08:38 - Duncan survived surgery, but the prognosis is not good. Dr. Taylor called yesterday afternoon to say that the tumor was large, and he was able to excise only a fraction of it. For the first 24 hours, the danger is that Duncan will hemorrhage, in which case there's little to be done. Long-term, the problem is that the tumor is almost certain to be malignant, and apparently aggressively malignant.

Before the surgery, Dr. Taylor told me that if the tumor were malignant, it would be possible to treat Duncan surgically, by removing most of his jaw, or with chemotherapy and/or radiation. Unfortunately, when he did chest x-rays during surgery, he was there were numerous nodes present, so it's likely that the tumor has metastasized. Dr. Taylor said that, depending on what specific type of cancer is shown by the biopsy results, Duncan may have a few weeks or months left without treatment.

Surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation treatment may extend that by a few weeks or months, but Barbara and I decided we won't put Duncan through that. We won't make him suffer constant pain merely to keep him with us a short while longer.

But we won't simply give up, either. As soon as Dr. Taylor told me the prognosis, I thought about that article in New Scientist a couple months ago. The dichloroacetate ion may be a magic bullet against cancer. It's relatively non-toxic and has few side effects. It has been used for treating other diseases in humans for many years, so there's some history on it. I've spent some time reading various papers, and it looks to me as though it's unlikely to do Duncan any harm, and may help a great deal.

So, assuming that the biopsy results show malignancy, which they almost certainly will, I've decided to treat Duncan myself with sodium dichloroacetate. I tracked down some reports of toxicity testing of dichloroacetate in canines, and decided that, for Duncan's 30 kg mass, a dosage of 300 to 350 mg per day is appropriate. I'll supplement that with thiamine, which is known to reduce or eliminate side effects. I know Barbara is nervous about the idea, but she'll just have to trust me. It may not help, but it's unlikely to hurt. And it may help a great deal.

Unfortunately, I can't just buy sodium dichloroacetate. It's available commercially, but not from anyone who will sell it to me. But I can and will make the stuff myself.


Wednesday, 14 March 2007
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08:42 - Thanks for all the condolence messages and offers of help. Although we still haven't heard the results of Duncan's biopsy, and may not for another day or two, Duncan is feeling much better. Until yesterday morning, he was unable to stand up because his back end wouldn't support him. Yesterday, he was able to stand and even walk around some. Barbara and I took him on a walk half a block down the street because he insisted. This morning, he's acting more like his old self. His back end is apparently working normally again. He even wanted to play ball this morning. We're keeping him as quiet as possible for the next few days to give the incision a chance to heal.

I have some dichloroacetic acid in hand, and today or tomorrow I'll mix up 100 mL of a stock solution of sodium dichloroacetate with a concentration of 150 mg/mL of active dichloroacetate ion. For Duncan's 30 kg mass, that translates to 5 mg/kg/mL. If the biopsy results come back malignant, I'll immediately start Duncan on 2.0 to 2.5 mL per day orally, which translates to a daily dose of 10 to 12.5 mg/kg. I'll also ask Barbara to pick up some 100 mg thiamine capsules at Walgreens. That's a reasonable dosage for a 30 kg dog, and the thiamine will counteract many of the side effects of the DCA.

I don't know that the DCA will do any good, but there's reason to think that it might. As one of my friends said yesterday, he's keeping his fingers crossed for Duncan. If the DCA helps Duncan, he plans to lay in a kilogram or so of DCA for himself, just in case.

Speaking of which, I said yesterday that I didn't know of anyone who would sell sodium DCA to me. It turns out I was wrong, as reader John Biel pointed out. There's a web site that sells DCA. They're very careful to say that the DCA they sell is for veterinary use only, but of course many of their customers must be desperate people who will take the DCA themselves.

Their prices are pretty high. They sell 20 grams of sodium DCA for $20 or 50 grams for $45. That's about 15 to 20 times the cost of the materials needed to produce the stuff, which can be done simply by neutralizing pure dichloroacetic acid with sodium bicarbonate (baking soda).

They also claim that the sodium DCA they manufacture is "pharmaceutical grade", which I doubt. I don't doubt that it's very pure, but "very pure" doesn't translate automatically to "pharmaceutical grade". You can, for example, buy extremely pure chemicals that are intended for spectroscopy or trace metal analyses. These chemicals are often much purer than those used in pharmaceuticals, but they are not "pharmaceutical grade" because they haven't been tested and certified as such.

I suppose I shouldn't be too hard on them. Many people no doubt will be delighted to find that DCA is available to them, and consider $45 for 50 grams to be extremely cheap. As indeed it is if it works. Let's hope that it does.

16:40 - Dr. Taylor just called to give us the results of Duncan's biopsy. Incredibly, the tumor is a benign plasmacytoma. Given the location and gross physical appearance, it was apparently about a 1% likelihood that the tumor wouldn't be malignant, but Duncan lucked out.

Although it's not malignant, it's still growing, and they're concerned about what they call the mass effect. As the tumor continues to grow physically, it'll squeeze blood vessels and other structures in Duncan's mouth. Dr. Taylor recommends surgery, but Duncan turned 12 years old in January, which is old for a 70 pound dog, and Barbara doesn't want to put him through surgery again. Nor do I.

The other alternatives, chemotherapy and radiation therapy are possibilities. By most reports, radiation therapy works well, and that's what I'd prefer to do, since it should be the least invasive and insulting for Duncan. He is, after all, about 84 years old in people years. He doesn't need any more challenges to overcome.

Barbara is immensely relieved, as of course am I.

And I have some dichloroacetic acid that I'll squirrel away for later, just in case. Or perhaps I won't. I need to do some research about plasmacytomas. It may be that the DCA will be the least toxic and most effective chemotherapeutic agent we could give Duncan.


Thursday, 15 March 2007
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08:22 - Duncan seems to be recovering well. He's as alert as ever. This morning as we read the newspaper and played ball with Malcolm, Duncan wanted to play ball as well.

As Barbara said the other day, Duncan is very large for a Border Collie, and larger dogs don't live as long as smaller ones. Duncan turned 12 years old on New Year's Day. Even before this latest problem, we might have expected to have Duncan with us for only another year or two. So we'll take each day as it comes, and enjoy his company as long as he's still with us and still enjoying life.

And this from Rod Schaffter.

From: Rod Schaffter
  To: Jerry Pournelle, Bob Thompson
  Date: Today 07:22:53
Re: Last WWI Combat Veteran Laid to Rest
Dear Jerry,

This one slipped by-WWI has now passed from living memory...


"Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work -
        I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:

        What place is this?
        Where are we now?
        I am the grass.
        Let me work."

--Carl Sandburg

They won't be forgotten.

It still seems strange to me that so few are left from that time. I remember as a boy about 50 years ago going with my parents to a Veteran's Day parade, sitting on my dad's shoulders so that I could see the parade and all of the men marching in their uniforms.

The WWII veterans were young men then, like my dad in their 30's. There were many WWI veterans in the parade. They seemed very old to me then, although of course they weren't much older than I am now.

And I'll never forget visiting my grandfather in a VA hospital when I was maybe five years old. There was a very, very old man there, and my dad took me over to talk to him. He asked me if I knew who Abraham Lincoln was, and I said that he'd been a president a long time ago. The old man told me to shake hands with him. Afterward, he told me that when he was about my age he'd shaken hands with Abraham Lincoln.

I remember thinking later that, as a boy, he might also have shaken hands with an old man who, when he was young boy, had shaken hands with George Washington or Thomas Jefferson.


Friday, 16 March 2007
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08:45 - Our books generally get good reviews, but this review of the new edition of Building the Perfect PC from Unix Review is certainly the most unusual good review I've ever seen.

I'm cranking away on constellation chapters for the astronomy book. Yesterday, I finished up Cepheus, which was already in progress, started and finished Cetus, and got started on Coma Berenices. Coma is a large chapter, with something like 5% or 6% of the total objects covered in the book, so it'll probably take me two or three more days to finish it. That doesn't mean the book will take only a month to write. Most of the work in the constellation chapters--identifying objects and determining their exact positions, generating charts, and so on--was already done previously. I'm just adding narrative descriptions of the objects, inserting images, and so on to those previously templated chapters.

The images are a new thing. I'd left placeholders for them, but I wasn't sure where to get them. Copyright clearance is a big issue, particularly given the number of images we wanted to use. Scale is also an issue; ideally, we'd like the image of each object to be at the same scale and depth as all other objects, which isn't possible if we used random images from various sources. A couple of weeks ago, I asked my editors whether O'Reilly could negotiate copyright clearance with the folks who own the rights to the DSS images. I found out the other day that the copyright owners were willing to let us use the DSS images in our book.

The DSS images are ideal for our purposes. The DSS is a whole-sky survey, with all images taken at the same scale and magnitude depth. Unlike many astrophoto images (like the Astronomy Picture of the Day) that show detail and color that could never be seen by human eyes, the DSS images resemble what you might actually see in the eyepiece. Granted, it would have to be the eyepiece of a very large amateur telescope from a dark-sky site, but at least these are reasonable approximations of how objects look visually. Here, for example, is a thumbnail of the DSS image we're using of NGC 4501 (M 88) and NGC 4548 (M 91) in Coma. (M 88 is to the right, and the image is 1° wide.) To give you some idea of depth, that close triple just south of (below) M 88 is magnitude 10.5/11.6/15.0, and the close double embedded in the SE (lower left) halo of M 88 is magnitude 13.7/14.8.

Determining and specifying the coordinates for the images, downloading them, and inserting them in the manuscript is a lot of extra work, but I think it'll make the book much more useful. Thanks to O'Reilly for getting the copyright clearance for us, and a big thanks to the Space Telescope Science Institute for allowing us to use the images in our book.

Duncan seems to be back to his old self. We still have the tumor to deal with, but things are really looking up. Thanks to everyone who's emailed us with condolences and suggestions. We appreciate your concern.

15:24 - The current episode of Geekbrief.tv is devoted to the media center PC project. It's not the interview I did with Cali, but the book does get a plug. Cali is obviously having fun with the project. I'll look forward to watching subsequent segments on it. This is the first PC she's built, and it's pretty ambitious.


Saturday, 17 March 2007
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10:05 - I may have mentioned Mary Masterman of Oklahoma City, who as a 16-year-old high school junior won the Astronomical League's 2006 National Young Astronomer Award. Now, as a 17-year-old senior in high school, Mary has done it again. She just won the Intel Science Talent Search. She built a spectrograph at home for $300.

Every time I become depressed about the future of science in this country, along comes someone like Mary. Smart money is on this kid to win the Nobel Prize some day.

My editor at O'Reilly sent me a PDF of the contract for the home chem lab handbook yesterday. One of the attachments was a page for the table of contents, which was blank. That's a required part of the contract, so I had to whip up something this morning to put in place of that blank page. Here's what I came up with.

Home Chemistry Laboratory Handbook
Table of Contents (preliminary – subject to change)

 0. Preface
 1. Introduction
 2. Laboratory Safety
 3. Equipping a Home Chemistry Lab
 4. Chemicals for the Home Chemistry Lab
 5. Laboratory Measurements and Practices
 6. Laboratory 1: Elements, Mixtures, and Compounds
 7. Laboratory 2: Solubility and Solutions
 8. Laboratory 3: Colligative Properties of Solutions
 9. Laboratory 4: Acid-Base Chemistry
10. Laboratory 5: Stoichiometry
11. Laboratory 6: Chemical Reactions
12. Laboratory 7: Chemical Kinetics
13. Laboratory 8: Chemical Equilibrium and Le Chatelier's Principle
14. Laboratory 9: Gas Chemistry
15. Laboratory 10: Thermochemistry and Calorimetry
16. Laboratory 11: Reduction-Oxidation (Redox) Reactions
17. Laboratory 12: Chromatography
18. Laboratory 13: Colorimetry
19. Laboratory 14: Electrochemistry
20. Laboratory 15: Photochemistry
21. Laboratory 16: Chemistry of Water
22. Laboratory 17: Chemistry of Oxygen
23. Laboratory 18: Chemistry of Halogens
24. Laboratory 19: Chemistry of Some Nonmetals
25. Laboratory 20: Chemistry of Some Metals
26. Laboratory 21: Chemistry of Some Household Compounds
27. Laboratory 22: Chemistry of Colloids
28. Laboratory 23: Synthesis of Coordination Compounds
29. Laboratory 24: Inorganic Qualitative Analysis
30. Laboratory 25: Saponification and the Chemistry of Soaps
31. Laboratory 26: Plastics and Polymers
32. Laboratory 27: Dyes and Pigments
33. Laboratory 28: Sugars and Proteins
34. Laboratory 29: Organic Synthesis
35. Laboratory 30: Forensic Chemistry

The book is targeted at two distinct markets, hobbyists and home schoolers. To meet the needs of the latter group, I've divided the experiments into thirty laboratories, one for each week of a 30-week school year. Each laboratory comprises several experiments, some "required" and some optional. My goal is to have the basic experiments in each laboratory require one two- to three-hour lab session per week, with the optional experiments requiring an additional two to three hours. That way, those who want to cover the basics can do it in two or three hours a week over the course of a school year, while those who want to delve deeper into a particular topic (or all of them) will have what they need to do that.

I'll write the basic experiments for each laboratory first, to make sure I don't run out of time or page count before I've covered all of the topics. After that, I'll "fill in" the available writing time and page count with the optional experiments in each laboratory. I'll probably run out of writing time and page count well before I've run out of material. If so, that's okay. I'll do a second book called "Honors Chemistry Lab Handbook" or "AP Chemistry Lab Handbook". If O'Reilly is interested in publishing a follow-on volume or volumes, great. Otherwise, I'll produce them as e-books and sell them directly.


Sunday, 18 March 2007
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