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Week of 1 October 2007

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Monday, 1 October 2007
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08:31 - The home chem lab book is really coming together now. I have a lot left to do, but I should have a completed manuscript by the end of this month. If you're a subscriber, you can look at some reasonably complete first-draft chapters on the subscriber page. You can also look at most of the chapters of the new astronomy book. If you want to see those, grab them immediately. I'll be removing them in the next day or two. My editor tells me that the astronomy book should go to the printer at the end of this month, so it should be in the bookstores not long thereafter.

Yesterday, I spent some time cleaning up, archiving old mail, sweeping stuff from working directories into archive directories, burning backup DVDs, and so on. I also worked on a summary spreadsheet for required equipment, supplies, and chemicals, lab-by-lab. I started with chapter 6, which is the first lab chapter. I listed each item on the list of items required for lab 6.1 in the left column of the spreadsheet, including the maximum number required, and then under a "lab" column, entered "6.1" for each of those items. Then I did the same for lab session 6.2, 6.3, 6.4, and so on.

When I finish writing all the lab sessions and add the items needed to this spreadsheet, I'll have a consolidated list of required equipment, supplies, and chemicals--with quantities--which I'll use to modify the chapters on equipment and chemicals. I'll also use it to modify some of the lab sessions themselves. For example, it's often not critical exactly which item is used in a lab session. A 150 mL beaker might serve as well as a 250 mL beaker, or a 125 mL Erlenmeyer flask, for that matter. As I've written the labs, I've used whatever seemed reasonable at the time, but inevitably I've ended up using different items in different lab sessions even though the same item might have served for both lab sessions. So, in the interest of minimizing required items, I'll go back through the list, trim it down as much as possible, and rewrite the required items list for particular lab sessions where necessary.


Tuesday, 2 October 2007
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08:28 - I'm still cranking away on the home chem lab book, right now on the gas chemistry chapter. When Paul Jones stopped by the house yesterday to drop off some stuff, I mentioned that I was using a bath of dry ice in alcohol to reach low temperatures. Paul suggested a neat prank. Put a chunk of dry ice in a disposable latex glove, knot the top, and leave it somewhere inconspicuous. As the dry ice sublimates, it inflates the glove, eventually causing a loud pop. The dogs will never forgive me.

Paul also mentioned an unfortunate student who pulled the same trick, but using a glass vial instead of a latex glove. The student put the vial in a metal trash container and made sure that it was covered with enough trash to prevent flying glass from hurting anyone, but he still got in trouble for the prank. I was surprised that the glass fragmented, and Paul was surprised that I was surprised. I figured that the increased gas pressure would cause the vial's stopper or lid to give way before the glass fragmented. But in case anyone doesn't know it already, using a glass container is a really, really bad idea.

Barbara and I started watching a borrowed copy of Kenneth Clark's Civilisation Sunday night. Neither of us had seen it when it first ran on PBS back in 1969, but based on the uniformly excellent reviews we decided to give it a try. We made it through three of the four episodes on Disc 1 Sunday night, and watched the fourth episode last night. We finally decided that enough was enough. Not only is this not a great series, it isn't even a good one.

The story of civilization is the story of science, technology, engineering, and industry. Clark utterly fails to understand that. This series is actually a history of art with a strong emphasis on religion, and not a very good history at that. Art is one by-product of civilization, not its cause. And religion is not an enabler of civilization, but an impediment to its development.

In essence, civilization develops when sufficient wealth accrues in excess of subsistence needs to allow smart folks to devote time to pursuits other than getting enough to eat. And the enablers of that are science, technology, engineering, and industry.

09:46 - One other thing Paul mentioned yesterday puzzled me. I told him I'd been using dry ice in an ethanol bath and reached -59 C. Paul commented that I could get it colder if I used isopropanol. I got to thinking about that, and sent him the following message:

From: Robert Bruce Thompson
  To: Paul Jones
Date: Mon Oct  1 15:26:20 2007
  Re: Ethanol versus isopropanol

Okay, what you said has been driving me nuts all day. Why would dry ice in isopropanol reach a lower temperature than dry ice in ethanol? Dry ice sublimes at atmospheric pressure at -78.5 C, right? That's higher than the freezing point of either ethanol or isopropanol, so why would it matter which one I used?

It seems to me that the dry ice would absorb heat from either alcohol until the mixture reached equilibrium at -78.5 C. (Of course, my experimental results showed a minimum temperature of -59 C, which may well be error in my electronic thermometer.)

From: Paul Jones
  To: Robert Bruce Thompson
Date: Tue Oct  2 09:04:36 2007
  Re: Re: Ethanol versus isopropanol

Good question that.  I was thrown off by your saying it was -59 C and didn't question that number.  I knew you'd get -78 with iPrOH, so suggested it.  Of course, you're right, you'll get -78 (or close to it - the table posted in my lab says -72, though I don't know why) using EtOH.  Pretty much no difference.  I'd guess either you didn't truly reach equilibrium or your thermometer isn't accurate at that cold of a temperature.

As for the vial, I think you might have misunderstood.  It was a screw top cap, so it couldn't readily pop off.  Certainly any sort of stoppered vial would pop the stopper before fracturing the glass.  Not a bad way of firing projectiles, if you don't mind uncertainty in when it will fire.

Liquid N2 in a 3 L plastic soda bottle is also fun.  And sort of intermediate in danger between a glove and a glass vial.  Not sure if your readers will have access to liquid N2.  We have a high school/junior high program in the summer in which a teacher does that demo outside (make sure this one is outdoors - indoor and you'll rupture some eardrums).  It usually sets off car alarms and I think campus security took umbrage last time she did it.

From: Robert Bruce Thompson
  To: Paul Jones
Date: Tue Oct  2 09:45:12 2007
  Re: Re: Ethanol versus isopropanol

I'm sure you're right. IIRC, my electronic thermometer is rated as being accurate to 0.1 C or 0.2 C from 0 C to 100 C and to 1 C from -40 C to 0 C and from 100 C to 150 C. Given that the bath was probably nearly 40 C colder than the rated minimum for the thermometer, it wouldn't surprise me if the thermometer reading was far off the mark.

When I stuck the probe in the dry ice bath, I suspect it reported something like, "Geez, I don't sense any voltage to speak of, so it must be really, really cold in here".


Wednesday, 3 October 2007
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08:38 - I'm still cranking away on the home chem lab book. I should finish up the chapter on Gas Chemistry today and get started on the Colloids chapter.

Dr. Paul Jones and Dr. Mary Chervenak have both agreed to be technical reviewers for the book, which will no doubt make it a better book than it otherwise would be. Both have an abiding interest in science education. Paul, obviously, as a professor of chemistry, has devoted his life to science education. Mary is a working chemist, but she devotes significant time and effort to speaking at schools and helping to introduce children to science. Other than the astronomy books, this book is my first effort to popularize and evangelize science to young people, and I appreciate their support.

Nothing is ever certain when it comes to future books, but I hope to do a series of home lab books for O'Reilly, including physics, biology, earth science, and perhaps even forensics. Only time will tell.


Thursday, 4 October 2007
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07:57 - The Gas Chemistry chapter is finished and posted. I should have the chapter on Colloids and Suspensions finished tomorrow, after which I go back and rewrite a couple of the early narrative chapters. This book is really starting to come together.

Last night, I downloaded and burned the Ubuntu 7.10 beta ISO and installed it on my den system. Obviously, they're still doing a lot of work on it. As soon as the install finished, a notification popped up that there were updates available. So I downloaded and installed 321 MB of updates, played with the system for a while, and went to bed. This morning, a notification popped up to tell me that there were 19 more updated files available. Despite all the updates (or perhaps because of them), the system seems completely stable. Everything I tried just worked. The final version is to be released later this month, and it looks like it'll be a good one.

Barbara and I closed on our house 20 years ago tomorrow, and moved in later that day. We hadn't moved our furniture that day, so we ended up sleeping on the floor in the den. In celebration of the 20th anniversary, we plan to sleep on the floor in the den tomorrow night.

Actually, it's more than the 20th anniversary of the closing. Our mortgage is also paid off this month. Jerry Pournelle frequently mentions Robert A. Heinlein's advice to writers. As professional gamblers, he said, we should make sure that our house and car are paid for. As of this month, that's true for us.

10:25 - The judge in Capitol v. Thomas made a bad call this morning. As of yesterday afternoon, the proposed jury instructions provided by the judge included #14, which would have told the jury that "making available" was insufficient to establish copyright infringement. The plaintiff (RIAA) objected to that instruction, and after discussion with the attorneys of the plaintiff and defendant, the judge modified that instruction to say that "making available" was sufficient to establish copyright infringement.

Basically, it comes down to the question of whether simply storing music files in a publicly-accessible directory with a P2P product like Kazaa is sufficient to establish copyright infringement, or whether the plaintiff has to prove that someone actually downloaded those files. By any reasonable definition, "making available" is insufficient to prove copyright infringement. Copyright infringement requires, obviously, that a copy be made. Simply establishing that a defendant was "making available" those files does not establish that any unauthorized copying occurred.

Now, some might argue, as did a witness for the plaintiff, that it was "obvious" that unauthorized copying occurred. Perhaps it was obvious to her, but it is not obvious to me, and it seems to me that the burden should be on the RIAA to prove that actual copying took place. If you think my position unreasonable, consider this: when a library lends an audio CD to a patron, does that constitute copyright infringement? If not, why not? There is no logical difference between the library "making available" that CD to the patron and what the RIAA has allegedly(*) established Ms. Thomas did. How about if you lend an audio CD to a friend? According to the RIAA's position, you are "making available" that CD and therefore infringing copyright.

* I say "allegedly" because the RIAA has actually established no such thing; all they have established is that the files in question were available on a shared volume at a particular IP address, and an IP address in no way maps definitively to a particular person, nor with NAT commonplace even necessarily to a particular computer.


Friday, 5 October 2007
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08:25 - The judge in Capitol v. Thomas blew it big time. Not only did he wrongly modify his original jury instruction #14 to say that finding Ms. Thomas guilty of distribution didn't require that she be found to have distributed, but he handcuffed the jury by limiting it to assigning damages of $750 to $150,000 per track. It seems to me that a range of $0.70 to $150,000 would have been more reasonable, given that the RIAA actually values a track at $0.70 if iTunes is any evidence.

Meanwhile, during an interview in USA Today, Bill Gates casually admits to doing more than Ms. Thomas was accused of. FTA:

Q: What's the coolest thing about the upgraded Zune?

A: Look at this thing! (Holds up a Zune 8) Three or four years ago there was nothing like this. This is cool as heck. I'm finding music I haven't seen in 20 years. Hey, the Lovin' Spoonful? They're in this thing. I find one of their songs. I send it to friends I had an apartment with, it was actually 30 years ago. I can send it out to them and say, "Remember when we listened to this?" It's amazing.

Obviously, Microsoft's DRM applies only to customers, not to Mr. Gates himself. I wonder why the RIAA hasn't gone after Mr. Gates. They could offer him one of their bargain deals. "Give us a measly $10 billion and we won't sue you."

No word yet on whether Capitol v. Thomas will be appealed. I hope it is. But for now there's no doubt that the RIAA hopes to use the Capitol v. Thomas decision as a club against victims who balk at coughing up the several thousand dollars that the RIAA attempts to extort from people they accuse of file sharing. That may work in the short run, but in the long run the RIAA is toast. As SCO has proven, suing your customers is not a viable business model.

Actually, I don't have a lot of sympathy for people who use P2P software to share copyrighted files. They're either stupid or inexcusably ignorant. Why risk something as public as P2P file sharing, when it's simple enough to establish your own darknet or join an existing one?

I actually had this conversation with Jasmine a year or two ago. Jas doesn't trade music, and never has. She buys what she wants on CD, and her music preferences are far from typical for a girl of 14. But I explained to her why it was dangerous to use P2P, and suggested that she also tell all her friends to avoid P2P. It's just as easy and much safer to rip CDs, compress them to MP3s, and trade them on optical discs or memory sticks. Despite Jasmine's atypical listening preferences, groups of friends tend to listen to the same kinds of music, and since 1,000 or more tracks will fit on a DVD or a large memory stick, it doesn't take long for everyone to have a copy of what anyone else in the darknet has.

As a matter of fact, since the RIAA intends to continue sending these extortion letters to P2P users, it would be a public service for those of us who understand computers to teach kids how to trade music safely. Explain to them, not just in general terms but specifically, how to rip CDs and compress them to MP3 files, how to burn them to optical discs, how to set up a secure darknet, and so on. We could periodically do neighborhood workshops.


Saturday, 6 October 2007
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11:05 - I finished the chapter on colloids and suspensions yesterday and posted it to the subscriber page. One of the lab sessions was about producing a gelled organosol with a gasoline continuous phase and a polystyrene dispersed phase, AKA Super napalm.

Here are a couple of the thumbnail images that I embedded in the chapter. The first one is an inverted 250 mL beaker, showing that napalm is semi-rigid and capable of resisting the force of gravity. Having made about 100 mL of Super napalm, I was faced with disposing of it safely. The second image shows it burning on the concrete pad outside the basement door. As you can see, the stuff not only sticks, but it doesn't spread much, if at all.

Although I'm not entirely delighted with the Lite-ON LH-201A1S drive for burning DVDs, it burns CDs absolutely superbly. The first image is a scan of a nearly full CD written to a Maxell-branded CD-R disc produced by Ritek. With zero C2 errors and only 441 C1 errors, this disc is about as good as anyone could hope to produce.

The second scan is better still. It's a CD I burned this morning of the images Barbara shot on her recent trip to Cape Cod. Although this Verbatim CD-R disc is only about half-full, still there are only 84(!) C1 errors. This is about as close to perfect a scan as I've ever seen. Now if I could just get scans this good when I burn DVDs.


Sunday, 7 October 2007
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Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.