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Week of 9 April 2007

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Monday, 9 April 2007
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08:02 - Barbara spent the weekend painting. I spent half a day Saturday working on the remaining constellation chapters, embedding images.

We had dinner Saturday evening with our friends Mary and Paul. Mary is getting ready for her around-the-world run, which starts in June. She seems to be fully recovered from some physical problems she had, and is raring to go. Despite her enthusiasm, I wasn't surprised when Mary said she's a bit nervous about the whole thing.

Mary runs 26-mile marathons, but those are occasional events for her. This upcoming event is in a different class. Mary will run "only" 10 miles per day, but she'll be doing that on a four-days-on and one-day-off schedule for 90 straight days. As Mary said, on that kind of grueling schedule, even a minor problem can quickly turn into a major problem. Minor aches and pains suddenly loom large, and something as simple as a small blister or cramps can be very serious indeed.

Still, if anyone can do it, Mary can. If my life were at stake and I had to choose a champion to run for me, I'd choose Mary. She's as tough, mentally and physically, as anyone I know. This is a woman who ran a 50-kilometer race on a broken leg from start to finish, literally, before she finally decided that she'd better get her leg checked.

If you hear loud growling noises, that's me. I'm still working on taxes. Every year at this time, I think again that we should move to Ireland. Although I understand they're considering eliminating the tax exemption for authors, Ireland more than any other first-world country seems to understand the general benefits of low taxes.

I got a query from a reader Saturday. The subject line was "Your Friday post" and the message body looked like this:


I had to go back and re-read my Friday entry to find out what he meant. I suspect it was this comment:

" We started Duncan this morning on the chemotherapy drug Melfalan. I have trouble remembering that name (I have to look at the bottle every time), so I think of it as 2-amino-3-[4-[bis(2-chloroethyl)amino]phenyl]-propanoic acid."

Most people probably thought I was trying to be funny, but I was completely serious. I mentioned it to Paul and Mary at dinner Saturday night. Both of them are organic chemists, and both of them immediately understood my point. The name "Melfalan" is entirely arbitrary. There's no context, so it's hard for me to remember the name. The chemical name, on the other hand, unambiguously describes the compound, and so is easy to remember.

To decipher the name, you start at both ends and work inward. Everyone is familiar with acetic acid (vinegar). The IUPAC ("official") name for acetic acid is ethanoic acid, because it derives from ethane, a 2-carbon compound. Ethanoic acid has one methyl group (a carbon with three hydrogen atoms bonded to it) and a second carbon atom that has one oxygen atom double-bonded to it and a hydroxy (OH) group. CH3COOH.

Add one carbon to ethane, for a total of three, and you get propane. The three-carbon analog to ethanoic acid is propanoic acid. The "2-amino" at the beginning of the drug name tells us that the second carbon atom in the propanoic acid molecule (the one next to the COOH group) has had one of its hydrogen atoms replaced by an amino (NH2) group. The next part of the name "-3-" followed by a long string inside the outside square brackets describes a complex arrangement of atoms that is attached to the third carbon atom in the propanoic acid.

Here's what the molecule looks like:

And I just realized that it's not Melfalan. It's Melphalan. See what I mean?


Tuesday, 10 April 2007
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08:26 - I spent most of yesterday playing with digital video. I needed to learn something about it at some point, so yesterday was as good as any other time.

The PR folks at Dow asked Mary to send them some camcorder video of Mary training for the big run. Before we met for dinner Saturday, Paul asked if they could borrow my camcorder to shoot some footage. I brought it along and gave it to him, and he went with Mary Sunday morning to shoot some footage. Paul dropped the camera and tape off here yesterday morning on his way to work.

I spent the next hour or two looking for a FireWire cable. As usual, I'd bought several to make sure I'd always have one when I needed it, and as usual I'd put them away where I couldn't possibly have any trouble finding them when I needed them. Also as usual, I couldn't find them when I needed them. I finally found them in a box in Barbara's office. (There's now one connected permanently to my main system and a little roll-up model stored in the camera case.)

I plugged the camcorder into my main Kubuntu box and installed Kino, which told me it couldn't detect a camcorder. It also told me that I needed to install some IEEE1394 drivers, which I did. When I fired Kino back up and started the tape playing, Kino automatically detected the video stream and captured it. I spent a few hours playing with the camcorder and manipulating the downloaded files, once I was sure I had them safely copied elsewhere.

Paul stopped over about 4:00 yesterday afternoon and we spent the next couple of hours watching files, choosing which ones to send to Dow, transcoding the files to MPEGs so that Paul and Mary could watch them on their TV, and so on. Then we burned DVDs to send to Dow with both the raw DV files and transcoded MPEGs and for Paul and Mary with all of the original DV files and their MPEG counterparts.

At 720x480 resolution, the picture quality is surprisingly good, better than DVD quality. The built-in microphone provides mediocre sound quality at best. During quiet times the motor noise is noticeable, and the recorded volume changes a great deal depending on how far the person speaking is from the camera. The camera has a jack for an external microphone--that's one thing I made sure of before I bought the camera--and I suspect even a cheap external microphone would improve the sound quality dramatically.

O'Reilly wants me to record some video segments to post on GooTube to promote the chem lab book, so I'll be doing some more experimenting. Paul took the camera with him when he left yesterday, so I suspect I'll have some more raw footage to play with soon.


Wednesday, 11 April 2007
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08:42 - IHT posted an interesting article about the emergence of English as the global language. It echoes what I've been saying for years, which is that a fluent command of English is essential for anyone who wants to compete in the global economy. In effect, anyone who chooses not to learn English might just as well be deaf, dumb, and blind when it comes to making his way in the modern world.

And the English-only phenomenon is growing fast. When I was studying chemistry more than 30 years ago, chemistry students had to learn German, because German was the language of chemistry. Many of the important papers, journals, and other source materials were printed in German, and not available in translation. In only 30 years, things have changed completely. A couple of months ago, I was looking at a list of on-line scholarly chemistry journals. Although they originated from scores of countries, nearly all of them were available in English, and usually only in English. Of the hundreds of journals listed, only a handful were available only in languages other than English.

Chemists in Eastern Europe write and read journal articles in English, as do chemists in South America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. I'm sure the same is true for physicists, biologists, mathematicians, and engineers. The intellectual discourse of the world now takes place almost exclusively in English, as does commerce between nations, even those for whom English is not a native language. When a Russian airline pilot talks to a Japanese air traffic controller, they speak English. When a Brazilian diplomat speaks with an EU bureaucrat, they speak English. When an Israeli software developer speaks to a Mexican IT executive, they speak English. The war is over. English won.

For parents across the world, the moral is clear. If you want your kids to get ahead in the world, make sure they speak, read, and write fluent English.


Thursday, 12 April 2007
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08:18 - Well, now that the three young men who were unjustly accused of rape and other horrible crimes have finally had their names cleared, it should be payback time. Alas, it seems that's not to be.

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper has announced that no charges will be filed against Crystal Gail Mangum, the young woman who falsely accused these three young men. Mike Nifong, the DA who maliciously persecuted the young men, apparently faces only the possibility of disbarment, which seems small punishment.

These three young men faced life in prison for the crimes of which they were unjustly accused, so it seems only fair that their accusers should face the same penalty. In fact, it seems to me that it would be a reasonable rule of thumb that someone who unjustly accuses another person of a serious crime should face the identical penalty if that accusation is proven knowingly and maliciously false.

I'm not suggesting that the accuser in every failed rape prosecution should face jail. By definition, there's often reasonable doubt in a rape trial, particularly when the parties knew each other previously, and a jury can go either way. But when an accuser makes a blatantly false accusation and it can be established, as it has been here, that she made that accusation knowing it to be false, she should pay the maximum penalty to which the falsely accused defendant would have been subject, up to and including death.

As to Nifong, it appears to me that he cynically persecuted these three young men to gain favor among the black community, whose votes he needed to win an election. To win an election, he was willing to sacrifice the lives of these three young men. What's the appropriate penalty for such an action? Disbarment seems to me to be just a first, minor step. Based on the evidence that's been made public, Nifong should have been disbarred months ago. But that's clearly not sufficient. If I were the judge, I'd sentence Nifong to life in prison, and make sure he ended up as the cellmate of Bubba the Biker.

I finished the Sagittarius constellation chapter yesterday and posted it to the subscribers' page. I'm going to try to knock out another constellation chapter or two today. Friday, I go back to work on the income tax returns.


Friday, 13 April 2007
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08:39 - Friday the 13th falls on a Friday this month.

I managed to knock out three constellation chapters yesterday, Taurus, Triangulum, and Vulpecula, all of which are relatively short chapters. I skipped past Ursa Major and Virgo to get to Vulpecula, because UMa and Vir are very large chapters and I preferred to start and finish Vulpecula rather than just getting started on Ursa Major. So now I have only those two constellation chapters remaining. I'll get to them next week.

That growling, teeth-gnashing sound you hear is me, working on tax returns today. Can it be any coincidence that Election Day is about as far as possible from Tax Day? I've always thought that if Tax Day is set for 15 April, Election Day should be set for 16 April. Also, there should be no withholding or estimated taxes. Everyone should have to write an actual check for the full amount on Tax Day, making it perfectly obvious to every taxpayer how badly we're being raped.

And I have another simple proposal. It makes so much sense that it'll never be instituted. Why not allow taxpayers to deduct directly from the bottom line any payments they make to any government entity or recognized non-profit agency? For example, rather than writing big checks to The United States Treasury and the North Carolina Department of Revenue, I should be able to fulfill my tax obligations by writing checks that total the same amount to, say, the Winston-Salem Police Department, Fire Department, and Sanitation Department, the United States Navy, the Centers for Disease Control, and eff.org.

Ideally, there should be finer granularity. For example, rather than just sending $1,000 to the U. S. Navy, I should be able to direct my payment to a particular program or department of the Navy. Or make a payment to the Navy in general but with restrictions, such as "not to support ballistic missile submarines" or "use this for anything that directly supports operations". There would be fudging, of course, with monies being transferred from popular and suddenly rich departments to those less fortunate, but steps could be taken to minimize such attempts to get around the will of the taxpayers.

There's no need for politicians to decide how to spend our money. We should be able to decide how our money is to be spent by the simple expedient of sending that money directly to the government agencies and non-profits that we want to support.

From the point of view of the government, there are three problems with this idea, of course. First, it takes away the power of the purse strings from politicians and bureaucrats, making it completely obvious that they're unnecessary. Second, it eliminates funding for programs that people won't voluntarily pay for. Third, it makes those agencies directly accountable to the people who are paying the bills. Of course, from the point of view of taxpayers, those three problems are the three big benefits.


Saturday, 14 April 2007
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09:00 - I finished the federal tax return yesterday, despite the best efforts of Microsoft and Adobe to prevent me from doing so.

I have my printer connected to my Windows 2000 box, because I used that box to run the Megastar software that I used to generate star charts for the astronomy book. The Windows 2000 box is hinky. For a long time, I could access its shared volume and printer with no problems. Then, a month or so ago, for no apparent reason it refused to let me access the shared drive unless I entered the Administrator password each time. Then, even though its shared printer had worked fine for months, yesterday it decided it wasn't going to share it any more. Note that nothing at all had changed. Windows 2000 did this all on its own.

I'm doing my tax returns on the PDFs supplied by the IRS. I'd already filled in all the forms and wanted to print them. After screwing around with the printing problem for a few minutes, I decided just to copy the finished PDFs to the Windows box and print them from there. Not so fast. Acrobat Reader wasn't installed. So I connected to the Adobe site, clicked on the link to download Acrobat Reader and told it to start the download. When that finished and I started the installation, instead of Acrobat Reader I got an installer dialog for Adobe Photo Essentials or something like that. I canceled out of that, and finally got the installer for Acrobat Reader. It blew up, telling me that the current version of Internet Explorer wasn't supported. Crap. Adobe is nothing but malware as far as I'm concerned.

I did a quick search for an Acrobat Reader replacement and found one called Foxit Reader. I downloaded and installed Foxit Reader and used it to print the return. As I soon found out, the free version of Foxit Reader is crippleware, but at least it served to print the form that I'd already completed. After three years of using Linux and OSS almost exclusively, the whole idea of crippleware has become foreign to me. I'm used to OSS, which has no such artificial limitations. Running into something like Foxit Reader, which intentionally limits the functionality of the software, really made me take notice of how different the world I live in has become. Which reminds me that I need to send some money to the author of K3b and other OSS software that I use regularly.

And I'm counting the days until I finish the astronomy book and can strip down this Windows 2000 box to bare metal and install Linux on it. By the end of next week, I'll have completed the constellation chapters. At that point, I shouldn't need Megastar any more. I'll probably pull the hard drive from the Windows 2000 box and put it on the shelf, just in case. But before the end of the month we'll be a Microsoft-free household again. In fact, we'll be a commercial-software-free household again.

12:44 -
The state and federal tax returns are finished and in the mail. I'm back to working on constellation chapters.


Sunday, 15 April 2007
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09:11 - I ended up taking the rest of the day off instead of working on the Ursa Major constellation chapter. I'll get started on that today. That, and doing laundry.


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