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Week of 28 May 2007

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Monday, 28 May 2007
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09:11 - Today is devoted to remembering the brave men and women of our armed forces who have given their lives to defend the rest of us. Freedom has a price, and these folks paid the ultimate price on behalf of all of us. May we never forget their sacrifice.

When it comes to backing up data, I'm a belt-and-suspenders guy. (Barbara, who says I'm a packrat, is no doubt not surprised. At least I think she means I'm a packrat; perhaps she really means I'm a pack rat.)

In addition to making ad hoc backups to external hard drives and flash memory sticks, I have a rigorous daily backup routine. My archive (deep archive) and holding (recently archived) data directories are backed up each time they're changed, and the old copies go off site, along with an incremental disc to update them to current. One of those sets resides at Kim's house, three houses down the street. Since a really bad fire could take out an entire block of houses, I also keep a set with Paul and Mary, who live a couple of miles away.

But I devote most of my efforts to the /home/thompson/data/working directory, which contains all of our current working data as well as copies of Barbara's and my home directories from our primary desktop systems. Every morning, I copy all of the files from Barbara's /home directory to /home/thompson/data/working/backup-barbara and all of the files from my home directory to /home/thompson/data/working/backup-robert.

Other than Barbara's actual home directory, all of that data is on sda, the primary hard drive of my main system, and so provides no protection against a hard drive crash. But my main system has two additional hard drives, sdb and sdc. I copy the /home/thompson/data/working directory to a daily named directory on each drive. For example, this morning, I copied /home/thompson/data/working to backup directories on sdb and sdc named /usrback/20070528 - Monday.

Seven days a week, I then burn /home/thompson/data/working to a DVD+R disc labeled with the date and day and put them in the disc wallet that goes everywhere with me. The six weekday discs rotate every week. Each weekday, I remove the prior week's disc for that day from the wallet and put it on a disc spindle that sits on my desk. The disc wallet has room for six months' worth of Sunday discs, so each Sunday I remove the oldest Sunday disc from the wallet and add it to the spindle. That spindle does with me when we travel out of town.

The obvious problem is that the backup directories on sdb and sdc just continue to grow, so they need to be pruned occasionally. I did that Saturday, deleting about 4.6 million files and 600 GB. Both of those drives contained a daily backup for nearly every day back through the first of the year. On sdb, I deleted all of the daily backups except the Monday sets; on sdc, I deleted all the daily backups except the Thursday sets. That leaves me with full Monday and Thursday sets on the hard drives and full Sunday sets on DVD+R discs. And I now have about 1.5 TB of free disk space on my main system, which will gradually decrease as I add daily backups until the next time I prune them.

Barbara and I spent a couple of hours Saturday walking around the exhibits at the North Carolinians for Home Education convention. Despite the inclusive-sounding name, NCHE turns out to be a fundamentalist Christian organization, and the exhibits reflected that. My favorite was the huge oxymoronic banner "Creation Science".

When I paid my $25 and joined NCHE, I was under the impression that its name reflected its purpose. I saw nothing on the home page or any of the other pages I looked at that identified NCHE as an explicitly Christian organization. Here's what I agreed to when I joined:

Yes, I want to be a member of North Carolinians for Home Education for the current year. I am a resident of North Carolina and I will uphold the ideals of NCHE and comply with the existing home school law.

Alas, these folks aren't really supporters of home education per se, but only of Christian home education. So I won't be renewing my membership next year. Twain's comment about joining any organization that would have him as a member comes to mind.

NCHE is changing to become less inclusive. For example, here is a description of one of the proposed changes to its bylaws:

"Current language in Article VI.A. requires Board nominees to agree with the ideals and principles of NCHE and does not describe Board members as Christians. New language in Article II.A. describes the NCHE Board to being made up of Christians."

Assuming that change was passed, now only Christians are eligible. Now, if they called this organization North Carolinians for Christian Home Education, I wouldn't have any problem with it. But it seems to me that by focusing on only the Christian subset of home educators NCHE excludes the many secular home educators to the detriment of the organization and its membership.


Tuesday, 29 May 2007
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11:40 - I'm working right now on templating and organizing the laboratory chapters and sorting what goes where, not to mention what to leave in and what to leave out. My goal was to have a completed lab chapter by this Friday, but I may not make that. Still, things are progressing well. I'm satisfied with where I am now and where things are headed.

I'm even doing a little rewriting as I go along. For example, one of the laboratory sessions in the kinetics chapter covers catalysis. I'll cover standard inorganic catalysts, of course, such as manganese dioxide from a standard dry cell, but I also wanted to cover organic catalysts, namely catalase, which is present in blood. (Catalase is an incredibly efficient catalyst; each catalase molecule can catalyze the conversion of millions of molecules of hydrogen peroxide to water and oxygen per second, which is why hydrogen peroxide foams when you pour it on an open wound.)

The step-by-step for that lab began:

1. Stab your lab partner and drain his blood.

but on reflection I changed that to suggest obtaining a sample of blood from raw meat.


Wednesday, 30 May 2007
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08:39 - Our house was built in 1968. We bought it in 1987. When we moved in, the one thing we thought we'd need to replace soon was the Whirlpool dishwasher. It was obviously quite elderly when we first saw it in 1987. I suspect it was installed when the house was built, or not long thereafter.

Fast-forward 20 years, and we still have the same dishwasher. It still works fine. We've run probably 2,500 to 3,000 loads through it, on top of whatever mileage it already had when we moved in, and we've never had to service it. But the dish racks are starting to rust despite Barbara's efforts to recoat the rusted parts periodically with a little bottle of epoxy coating material she got at the hardware store. It's about time to replace it.

I think I'll email customer service at Whirlpool in case they want it for their museum. And you can bet we'll buy another Whirlpool, probably one in stainless steel to match our new Whirlpool refrigerator.

12:17 - It's official. As of today, iTMS is selling DRM-free music tracks from EMI.

There's one thing I don't understand, though. According to public statements made by all of the music labels, DRM adds value for consumers. And yet, the DRM-free tracks are currently priced at $1.29 each, versus $0.99 each for the DRM'd tracks. This makes no sense. If DRM adds value as the music labels say it does, shouldn't the DRM-free tracks be less expensive than the ones with DRM?

That got me to thinking about what a music track should cost. The $0.99/track price is obviously much, much too high, at least a full order of magnitude. And, since DRM adds all this value for consumers, shouldn't a DRM-free track be cheaper still? Say another order of magnitude less, or about $0.09. That puts the actual value of a DRM-free music track at about $0.01, which seems about right to me. At any rate, that's what I'd be willing to pay.

The good news for the music labels is that I'd be willing to pay that more than once. Oh, being a pack rat, I'd probably save the tracks I'd downloaded, as would many people, but at $0.01 per track, most people would think nothing of re-downloading the track as necessary and paying for it again. At that price, music becomes disposable, which is as it should be. People who want to refresh the collections in their portable music players could simply pay a buck and download 100 new tracks. And that would give the music industry the Holy Grail they're looking for, an ongoing revenue stream without the hassles of DRM.

All that's missing is a viable micro-payments system. That's something we've needed for years, and it seems we're no closer than we were five or ten years ago. A ubiquitous micro-payments system would revolutionize the Web. On-line advertising would be the first casualty, replaced by direct payments from site visitors. I certainly wouldn't object to paying a tenth of a cent per page to read articles on CNN, and that's more than they get now from their ads. Much more, in fact, than they get from me and other savvy Web users, who use ad blockers to eliminate the ads entirely.

Smaller scale sites like this one could easily monetize their operations, albeit probably at a higher rate per page. Still, I doubt that most of my readers would object to paying, say, one cent per page view. Sites with premium content could charge $0.10, $1.00, or more per page for that content. Firefox could integrate support for micro-payments, making them completely transparent during routine browsing. Users could set a threshold limit--"show me without prompting any page that costs $0.001 or less", "download any audio or video file that costs $0.01 or less, "whitelist this site, but prompt me on any file that costs more than $0.10"--and so on.

Within a year of the arrival of a secure, ubiquitous micro-payments system, the Web would be a very different place. We'd probably be reading articles (at a tenth cent each) about compulsive downloaders who set no price limit and have gone bankrupt by clicking every link they come across. But we'd also be reading articles about entirely new businesses and entirely new services that no one could have foreseen. I hope it happens, but I'm afraid we'll all be waiting a long time to see it.


Thursday, 31 May 2007
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09:00 - Our friend Mary Chervenak starts her around-the-world run tomorrow. Mary will be blogging about her experiences, and I intend to follow her blog every day along the way. She has her digital camera with her. I set up Irfanview on her notebook to allow her to produce web-resolution thumbnails, so I'm hoping that she'll post a lot of images.

Here's something I'd never noticed before. Netflix has always sent me notification emails when discs ship, but now those emails include a notification when the disc ships from somewhere other than our local (Greensboro) distribution center.

From: Netflix Shipping
  To: Robert Bruce Thompson
Date: Wednesday 20:47:40
  Re: For Fri: Chemistry: Lesson 23: La Chatelier's Principle 1 from Duluth, GA

To make sure you get your Netflix emails, add discship@netflix.com to your address book.

NETFLIX - Movie Shipped

We have shipped: Chemistry: Lesson 23: La Chatelier's Principle 1


Your movie was not available at your local shipping center. We sent it from Duluth, GA and expect it to arrive on Friday, Jun 01, 2007.

We also apparently have more "local" distribution centers than we used to. In the last week, I've gotten one-day shipping on discs from Raleigh, which we've gotten discs from before, and Fayetteville, which is apparently a new distribution center.

As to the disc itself, on a whim I searched the Netflix database for "chemistry", not expecting to find much. I was surprised to find that they have three separate series on learning chemistry, so I decided to check them out to see if they might be appropriate for Jasmine.

I got disc one of the three-disc Standard Deviants chemistry series yesterday. The user ratings on it were not good, so I wasn't particularly surprised when it turned out to be terrible. Corny doesn't begin to describe it, and the science wasn't very good either. It attempts to teach by rote and does little to convey a real understanding of the subject. I rated it one star and removed discs two and three from my queue.

The second series has thirty discs, each with only a half hour of material. I randomly picked disc 23 to get an idea of the quality of the series. This series also has pretty poor user ratings, so we'll see if it's as bad as the first series. The third series is also by Standard Deviants, but is nine discs rather than three and was released in 2004, four years after the three-disc series. I expect it'll be bad also, but I'll try one disc.


Friday, 1 June 2007
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08:30 - Mary's around-the-world run starts in two hours, at 10:30 a.m. EDT. They're starting in New York City, in front of the UN building, where Mary is giving a speech. The first leg is New York to Boston in two days, via several towns in Connecticut and Rhode Island. From Boston, they depart on 3 June for Shannon, Ireland.

45 5F E1 04 22 CA 29 C4 93 3F 95 05 2B 79 2A AF
45 5F E1 04 22 CA 29 C4 93 3F 95 05 2B 79 2A B0
45 5F E1 04 22 CA 29 C4 93 3F 95 05 2B 79 2A B1
< redacted >
45 5F E1 04 22 CA 29 C4 93 3F 95 05 2B 79 2A B3
45 5F E1 04 22 CA 29 C4 93 3F 95 05 2B 79 2A B4
45 5F E1 04 22 CA 29 C4 93 3F 95 05 2B 79 2A B5

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Saturday, 2 June 2007
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09:45 - Barbara is off on a day trip with her parents. She'll be back sometime this evening. I told her it'd be wild women and parties while she was gone. She appeared unconcerned. I guess she knows that I don't know any wild women.

I scratch my head every time I look at one of the government lists of "restricted chemicals". I usually understand why each chemical is listed, although it's always clear that whoever made the list was completely clueless. For example, the list may include a drug or explosive precursor that is easily synthesized in quantity and with high yields from other chemicals that are not on the list. Or it may include chemicals, such as acetone or methyl-ethyl ketone, that are readily available without any controls whatsoever at the local drugstore or hardware store. So I was interested when I came across this article:

BEWARE STINK-BOMB TOTING TERRORISTS: Dept. of Homeland Security 'chemicals of interest' list informed by Poisoner's Handbook

which refers to this DHS List of "chemicals of interest". That list was obviously compiled by non-chemists. Some fairly benign stuff is listed as being of interest in "any quantity". For example, if I somehow acquire one ounce of phosphorous in any form, that's "of interest" to DHS. On the other hand, potassium cyanide and sodium cyanide are "of interest" only in quantities of one ton or greater.

So, if I order one ounce of red phosphorous for my home chemistry lab, DHS is interested in me. But if I acquire, say, 1999 pounds of potassium cyanide and another 1999 pounds of sodium cyanide, that's not of interest to DHS. I'll leave it to the reader to imagine the result of dumping a few barrels of sulfuric acid (not of interest to DHS) onto two tons of sodium and potassium cyanide. (Hint: no one gets out of Madison Square Garden alive.) Meanwhile, my house is surrounded by black DHS helicopters keeping me under surveillance in case I decide to do something nasty with my one ounce of red phosphorous.


Sunday, 3 June 2007
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Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.