Week of 9 April 2007
Update: Sunday, 15 April 2007 09:11 -0400
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?
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
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.
- 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
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 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.
- 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
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.
- The state and federal tax returns are finished and in the mail. I'm back to working on constellation chapters.
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.
1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 by Robert Bruce