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Week of 5 November 2007

Latest Update: Sunday, 11 November 2007 09:06 -0500

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Monday, 5 November 2007
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08:33 - We attended a public observation at Pilot Mountain State Park on Saturday evening. That was probably the last public observation we'll attend. Barbara simply can't put up with the hordes of ill-behaved children, who often arrive by the busload, and I don't blame her. Not all of the kids are misbehaved, of course, but many of them are. Having expensive equipment set up in the dark with children literally running around makes many of the scope owners nervous. Some of the kids just walk up to a scope and start messing with it without so much as asking permission. And astronomy club members quickly learn to keep any of their stuff that's not actually in use locked up so that it won't be stolen.

In the past, Barbara and I have attended these public observations because the site is a good one and we can generally observe for a couple hours after the crowds have departed. It didn't work out that way Saturday night. The crowds stuck around later than usual, and by the time they'd mostly gone the wind had become quite strong and there were clouds moving in. Oh, well.

We did get a chance to look at Comet 17/P Holmes, which is an extraordinary naked-eye comet. Most comets gradually brighten as their orbits take them in closer to the sun, and then gradually dim on their way back out. Comet 17/P Holmes was an exception. At perihelion (closest approach to Sol) in May, it was still quite dim, and it became dimmer as it made its turn to head back out away from the sun.

Then, late last month, something extraordinary happened. Holmes was at magnitude 17, much too dim to be visible in amateur scopes, when it suddenly brightened more than a million-fold, going from magnitude 17 to magnitude 2.5 and naked-eye visibility almost literally overnight. Apparently, Holmes blew up, going from being a small (in celestial terms) dirty snowball to a gigantic cloud of ice crystals, water vapor, and dust.

At 42X in our 10" reflector, 17/P Holmes looked like a gigantic white cotton ball, with very noticeable central brightening. At 125X, it almost filled the 0.56� field of view. (The full moon is about 0.5�.) We were set up next to Paul Jones, and Paul and I started talking about what might have caused Holmes to disintegrate. We'd been talking earlier about planetary defenses and the likelihood that the United States already has orbiting beam weapons deployed. Paul commented that this may have been a test. I'm sure he was kidding, but stranger things have happened.

After 24 years of marriage, I don't often surprise Barbara, but I surprised her yesterday. One of our spare bedrooms has for years been my computer work room. It's stuffed with tables, boxes, and various PC components. I told Barbara yesterday that I don't need that room any more. I'll salvage some of the stuff that's stored in there, of course, but most of it can go.

I told Barbara she was welcome to do with it as she pleased. I figured she'd turn it into a guest room, but she says the guest suite downstairs is adequate for that purpose. Instead, I think she'll turn it into a work room for herself. I'll probably keep just one corner of it for storing small items like spare hard drives, optical drives, memory, motherboards, and so on.


Tuesday, 6 November 2007
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08:48 - UPS showed up yesterday with our author copies of Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders. It's exactly what I'd hoped for. O'Reilly's layout and design folks have done their usual superb job. Barbara spent a few minutes last night looking through a copy and then announced that it was the best book we'd ever done.

When we took the dogs on their final walk of the evening last night, I stopped at Kim's house with a copy for Jasmine. Jasmine answered the doorbell and came out to chat for a few minutes. I hadn't seen her for a couple of weeks, and I was surprised by how much she'd changed in that short time. She was noticeably more poised and self-confident. More adult-like. She even seemed taller.

On the walk home, I mentioned to Barbara that Jasmine seemed different, and she said she'd noticed the change as well. Barbara said that, at age 14 and a half and just starting high school, Jasmine was in a period of fast, major changes. We're watching her become a woman, almost like a flower blooming overnight.

I was going to write about two other things this morning, but Brian Bilbrey has already said everything I was going to say.

First, our friend Bo Leuf's fight with cancer continues. As a full-time freelance writer, Bo lacks the support system enjoyed by those who are employed by businesses. If he doesn't work, he doesn't get paid, and right now he can't work. Bo needs money and has appealed to his friends and readers for help. Brian and I have already kicked in, and we're both encouraging our readers to give Bo a hand. If you can help out, please click on the link above and send Bo some money.

Brian has also endorsed Ron Paul's candidacy for President, as have I. In 1980, as a member of the Libertarian National Committee, I suggested that the way to elect Libertarians was to infiltrate and take over the Republican party. Paul, who ran earlier for President on the Libertarian ticket, is putting that suggestion into practice. The establishment, including the mainstream media and the Republican party itself, will fight tooth and nail to stop that from happening. Ultimately, though, there's not much they can do against the kind of grassroots campaign that Paul is waging.

Expect some dirty tricks, though. I'm going to change my registration to Republican for just that reason. In the past, the Republican party has allowed unaffiliated voters in North Carolina to vote in Republican primaries. I expect that to change shortly before the presidential primary, because the Republican party must know that many Paul supporters are currently registered as unaffiliated.

If you want to help Ron Paul get elected, now is the time to start doing something about it. If you're currently registered Libertarian, unaffiliated, or independent, change your registration to Republican. (The Libertarian Party won't mind; they're encouraging it.) Send some money to the Paul campaign. Put a Paul bumper sticker on your car or a Paul sign in your front yard. Talk to your friends and neighbors about Paul. Help keep the ball rolling.


Wednesday, 7 November 2007
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08:19 - I've finished the first draft of the manuscript for the home chem lab book except for the introduction, which I'm working on now. After much discussion, it appears that we finally have a title.

Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments
All Lab, No Lecture

My editors like it, Barbara likes it, and I like it, so I guess that's what we'll go with. That title also works if you substitute Earth Science, Biology, or Physics, which was another consideration.

I'm going to be working flat out for the next two weeks to get as much done as possible on this book so that I can take a few days off for Thanksgiving. I have comments from editors and tech reviewers to incorporate, minor rewrite on several of the chapters, some serious re-write on the chapter on chemicals, and a bunch of images to shoot.


Thursday, 8 November 2007
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08:29 - I was working on the introduction yesterday, mapping the 22 laboratory sessions recommended for the College Board AP Chemistry exam to laboratory sessions in the book, I discovered that I hadn't covered two of the recommended AP labs. So I made a note to myself to add two lab sessions. Chapter 13 (Chemical Equilibrium and Le Chatelier's Principle) gets another lab session titled Determine a Solubility Product Constant. And Chapter 14 (Gas Chemistry) gets another lab session titled Determine Molar Mass from Vapor Density. That's another couple days' work, counting writing, doing, and photographing the sessions, and it's also more page count, but it's worth it for completeness.

I'll finish up the introduction today, which completes the first draft. This weekend and next week, I'll be doing rewrite, incorporating comments from my editors and tech reviewers, shooting images, and doing everything else I can to get the book into reasonably final form. Even after the push next week there'll be lots of work left to do, but I want to get as far as possible before we take a few days off to enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday.

I've been working seven days a week for quite a while now, and by the time evening arrives I'm pretty burned out. Lately, Barbara and I have been watching a Veronica Marsathon. We're halfway through series three, which is the final season. The series is so Buffy-like that it's almost like having Buffy back.


Friday, 9 November 2007
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08:50 - The first draft of the home chem lab book is now officially complete. Of course, completion of the first draft is just the end of the beginning. Now I have to go back and incorporate comments from my editors and technical reviewers, do some other rewrite, shoot images, and so on. I also have to finish writing those two additional lab sessions, the first of which is nearly complete. Still, the end is in sight.

It looks like I'll be starting work on the home physics lab book next. That one should be a lot of fun to write.


Saturday, 10 November 2007
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09:59 - I accidentally deleted Barbara's home directory while I was backing up this morning. I backup manually, using copy/paste from the GUI. Unfortunately, "delete" is the item immediately below "copy" in the context-sensitive menu, and this morning I missed "copy" and hit "delete". Unfortunately, I was also holding down "Shift" at the time, so the deleted items were really deleted rather than being moved to trash.

Fortunately, all Barbara lost was some email she'd retrieved last night. I restored from yesterday morning's backup, and she was back up and running in about two minutes flat. Still, it'll take me a while to live this one down.

There's an interesting discussion going on between me, my editors, and my tech reviewers about warnings in the home chem book. Currently, the first step in every procedure in the book tells the reader to put on his goggles, gloves, and protective clothing. The editors both think that repeating warnings too often risks having them ignored, which is a good point, and one that I've thought a lot about and discussed with Paul and Mary, my technical reviewers.

We're all agreed that safety is paramount, but we're still talking about how to handle warnings to make them most effective. The one thing I want to make absolutely clear to readers is that splash goggles are NEVER optional, no matter how apparently safe a procedure is. As Paul commented, bones mend and skin grows back, but if you lose an eye it's gone forever. And Mary agrees. At Dow Chemical Company, where she works, the policy is that goggles must be worn at all times in any lab, even if you're just taking a shortcut through the lab to somewhere else. The first violation gets you a warning and a one-day suspension. The second violation gets you fired.

So, the last thing I want readers doing is deciding whether it's safe to do a particular lab without goggles. That question should never run through their minds. Too many chemists have been blinded in lab accidents. Some of them consciously decided to do without goggles, and were tragically wrong in their estimation of the danger. Others simply forgot to put on goggles because they weren't in the habit of doing so automatically. Either way, they're blind.


Sunday, 11 November 2007
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09:06 - The EFF site is unavailable again, so I had to remove the EFF banner at the top of this page before I was able to edit it. I wonder if that site is coming under attack. For years, there were never any problems. Lately, the site seems to be down about as often as it's up. I dislike removing the link, but in practical terms I don't have any choice since my HTML editor won't load the page unless the link resolves.

Barbara sent me this link yesterday. It's an ad for some folks who are selling a DVD of off-duty Border Collies.

The one thing this clip doesn't really provide is an idea of how fast Border Collies are. In a straight race, a BC will probably be beaten by a greyhound, but not by much. In any test of speed where agility is also a factor, the BC wins hands-down.

At age 8, Malcolm is an older BC, but he's still fast. Just yesterday, Malcolm proved that, to the terror of a squirrel. I opened the front door to take the guys out. As always, Malcolm started barking as soon as I opened the door, but this time his barking was more energetic than usual. There was a squirrel out by the tree in the front yard. Malcolm saw it, and it saw Malcolm.

I opened the storm door, and Malcolm accelerated from zero to full speed in about a tenth of a second. The squirrel had about a 50-foot head start, but that wasn't enough. To the sound of thundering paws--it sounded like horses galloping in an old western movie--Malcolm closed the gap as the squirrel ran desperately for the tree. At the last instant, the squirrel realized it wasn't going to make it, and made a sharp turn, At full speed, Malcolm turned inside the squirrel's turn, and nailed the squirrel.

The squirrel went rolling across the grass, head over heels, but wasn't injured. It picked itself up and ran for a tree in the neighbors' yard. Malcolm let it get away. He'd done his job.


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