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Week of 31 March 2008


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Monday, 31 March 2008
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08:14 - Knowing my distaste for travel, particularly air travel, it will no doubt come as a shock to a lot of my friends that I'll be attending Maker Faire in San Mateo, California over the weekend of May 3/4. O'Reilly has been inviting me to high-profile events like Maker Faire and Foo Camp for years now, and each time I've declined politely. I suppose I knew all along that I'd have to give in at some point, and this seemed a reasonable event to attend.

I'll be meeting people and signing copies of Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders and Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments, and doing nicely visual chemistry demonstrations. Of course, one of my main concerns is that I'll be mobbed by hordes of attractive young women throwing me the keys to their hotel rooms, but my editor, Brian Jepson, assures me that he'll protect me.

Speaking of the home chemistry book, it's still scheduled to hit the warehouses in about two weeks, on 15 April. That seems incredible to me, given that I'm still reviewing galley proofs. It takes time to print and bind books, particularly four-color books like this one. I understood that in the past there was a choice. O'Reilly could have them printed in the US and pay a very high premium, or have them printed on the Pacific Rim and wait for the slow boat to deliver them. Apparently, O'Reilly has found a US printer that's fast and competitive on price, thereby eliminating most of the lag time between when they finish the camera-ready art and when the books are actually available. So it looks as though the book really will be available on or about 15 April, and certainly in time for Maker Faire.



I'm hard at work on the forensics book, along with all the stuff remaining to be done for the home chem lab book.

Part of the fun of doing the forensics book is figuring out cheap substitutes for expensive solutions. I'm thinking about one of those right now. There are two common methods used to measure objects with a microscope:

The first method is called a stage micrometer, which is essentially just a tiny ruler with extremely fine graduations, typically 0.01 mm. The stage micrometer, as you might expect from its name, is fixed to the microscope stage. By placing the specimen in close juxtaposition with the stage micrometer, you can directly read off the size of whatever you're measuring. Magnification and field of view don't matter, because the stage micrometer is always magnified exactly as much as the specimen. Unfortunately, microscopes in the price range my readers are likely to buy do not have stage micrometers.

The second method is called an ocular or eyepiece micrometer or reticle, which superimposes a ruler or grid pattern on the field of view. A typical eyepiece reticle may be graduated in dimensionless units from 0 to 100. Eyepiece reticle graduations are entirely arbitrary, because the scale of the reticle versus the specimen differs at different magnifications. The nice thing about reticle eyepieces is that they're inexpensive options, and may even be a standard feature with some inexpensive microscopes.

The obvious problem is that the reticle eyepiece needs to be calibrated for each objective lens. To do that, you need a specimen to calibrate the eyepiece reticle against. For me, that wasn't a problem. I have a Ronchi grating (used to test telescope mirrors) that has 135 lines per mm, or one line every 0.00741 mm. So, for example, if at a particular magnification ten lines of my reticle eyepiece span 13.5 of the Ronchi lines (0.1 mm), I know that the reticle eyepiece units at that magnification are each 0.01 mm.

But what can I suggest that my readers use to calibrate their own reticle eyepieces? My first thought was a good ruler with 1 mm graduations, and I suppose that's usable if nothing better is available. The problem with using a standard ruler is that it's pretty crude under magnification, and usable only at the lowest magnification. Still, I suppose readers could estimate the mid-point of each mm line and count the number of reticle lines required to span it. If they did that at, say, 40X, they could then estimate the reticle lines/mm at 100X and 400X by simple multiplication. The error bars would be pretty large, but it's better than nothing.

Then, as I sat trying to think of something that provided extremely fine graduations of known size, I thought about the halftone screens used to reproduce images in books and magazines. IIRC, the finest screens used in printing high-quality magazines on glossy paper, like National Geo, use something like 2,540 dots/inch (100 dots/mm). That would be perfect, although it raises the obvious problem of finding out what screen size was used to print the image.

Then I realized that I might have a self-contained answer. I'll email my editor and ask him what screen size is used to print the color images in the book itself, and, if it's higher resolution, the cover. Presumably, that's under O'Reilly's control, so once I have a value I can simply include it in the book and tell readers to use the cover image or one of the book images to calibrate their reticle eyepieces. Or, better yet, we could include a specific image intended for the purpose, one that uses only high-contrast black dots on white paper.

Here's an image of a tiny part of the front cover of Building the Perfect PC. It's printed in CMYK (Cyan-Magenta-Yellow-blacK). Although they are evenly spaced and of the same size (because this is a light gray area of the image), the colored dots are kind of large and amorphous for measuring. But note the even spacing and size of the tiny black dots.


11:45 - If anyone has any better ideas, I'd love to hear them.



And here's a good idea:

From: Christensen, Chris (Aspen Research)
  To: Robert Bruce Thompson
  Date: Mon Mar 31 11:30:48 2008
Re: Stage mic

Buy a cheap stage micrometer on a slide ($15):

Take an image of it using your camera,

Spatially calibrate in imagej http://rsb.info.nih.gov/ij/

Photograph your subject and measure your wheels off.  ImageJ is an astonishingly complete and competent image analysis application built with your tax dollars by the NIH.  It compares very favorably to commercial software that costs thousands of dollars.  Automated particle counting and measuring , etc..

Thanks! I'll probably keep the stuff about using a halftone screen for people who don't want to spend $15 to calibrate their reticle eyepiece, but this is a cleaner solution.



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Tuesday, 1 April 2008
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08:23 - According to this article, cell phones are deadlier than cigarettes. Of course, there's no credible evidence that moderate cigarette smoking is particularly hazardous, and considerable evidence that it's not. In fact, until political correctness took over, insurance companies classified people who smoked half a pack a day or less as non-smokers for rate-setting purposes, and you can be sure they had a solid actuarial basis for that decision.

The researcher points out that brain cancers take a long time to develop, and previous studies that found no link between cellphone use and brain cancer failed to find such a link because the cancers had not yet had time to develop. In the last decade, though, cell phone use has boomed, so if this guy's right we may be sitting on a time bomb.

I expect a flurry of denials and other studies refuting a link, if only because the cell phone companies have a vested interest in having people continue to use cell phones heavily, and will no doubt fund such studies and articles. Over the last ten years, I've placed or received an average of maybe five two-minute calls a year on a cell phone and Barbara hasn't used a cell phone much more than I have, so I'm not too concerned either way.


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Wednesday, 2 April 2008
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08:18 - Congratulations to Microsoft, which by hook and (mostly) by crook has succeeded in forcing OOXML down the world's throat as a so-called standard. Microsoft reached new lows in this campaign, buying votes, packing committees, blackening the reputation of opponents, and doing everything else possible to ensure that the former standards organization known as ISO would grant OOXML ISO standard status.

In the process of subverting the ISO standards process, Microsoft wrecked ISO as a standards organization, leaving ISO with no credibility and the world with no recognized standards organization. Thanks, Microsoft.

The irony is that it will probably do Microsoft no good. Microsoft has been desperate to have their proprietary OOXML formats recognized as open standards because many governments and large organizations are beginning to insist on open document format standards. But, at least partially because of Microsoft's foul behavior during this ISO process, many of those same governments and large organizations are beginning to require not just open document format standards, but multi-vendor and cross-platform open document standards. That leaves OOXML out in the cold again, where it belongs.

I'll do my part to protest Microsoft's behavior by personally banning Microsoft formats. I've been using ODF for years, but I've been making allowances for others who use Microsoft formats. For example, when I post manuscript chapters on the subscribers' page, I post the original ODT document, but I also post the document in DOC format. No more. It'll be ODT and PDF only. And when people send me DOC files to proof, they'll go back to them as ODT files, along with a link to the OOo download page. I will no longer do anything, even indirectly, to support Microsoft's obnoxious proprietary formats.



It's that time again. We're nearly ready to send Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture to the printers, and the expected pub date is 15 April.

As usual, O'Reilly will be making available some number of free review copies to my readers. If O'Reilly sends you a review copy, please post a review of the book on Amazon.com. (While you're there, it also doesn't hurt to rate the helpfulness of other reviews that have already been posted...) Also, of course, we'd greatly appreciate it if you'd post your review or a relevant link elsewhere, such as on your own blog, digg, del.icio.us, Yahoo Buzz, and so on.

If you'd like to receive a free review copy, email me your particulars, as follows:

Name
Full mailing address (street address required; no P.O. boxes)
Telephone number (FedEx and UPS require it)

Send the email to me at thompson at ttgnet dot com, with the subject line:

IGtHCE review copy request

I'm set up to filter these into a holding folder, and I'll later forward them in a batch to O'Reilly, so please don't include any comments that you expect me to see or reply to.

A disclaimer:

I don't know how many review copies O'Reilly will have available, where they'll be willing to ship them, or, obviously, how many people will request them, so there's no guarantee that you'll receive a copy. If the number of requests exceeds the number of copies available, subscribers to this site will be given preference. I'll collect requests for the next week or ten days and send them on to O'Reilly. If you do want a copy, it'd be a good idea to email me as soon as you can.


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Thursday, 3 April 2008
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08:52 - I've already received quite a few requests for review copies of Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments, but the more the merrier. So, if you'd like a review copy and you haven't yet requested one, please do so. And, please, remember to include your phone number, which O'Reilly needs for UPS.

I'm in my usual state of confusion at this point in a book, with so many balls in the air that I'm afraid I'll let some drop. In addition to reviewing galley proofs, I have the web site to design, a talking points list to write for the PR company that's promoting the book, drafting a list of proposed chemistry demonstrations for Maker Faire, actually doing test runs of the demonstrations that O'Reilly wants to include, writing up notes for two presentations and a workshop I'll be doing there, following up on the equipment and chemical kits for the book, working on some pending stuff for the home forensics book, ordering some stuff for that book, and getting my new laser printer unboxed, set up, connected to the network, and configured to work with our systems. And those are just the major to-do items. I have scores of minor ones. Oh, yeah. Do the taxes.

I'm going to be very busy between now and when I get back from Maker Faire, so if you email me and don't get a reply immediately, please be patient. I'll try not to let any balls drop. Until I get back from Maker Faire a month from now, at which point I think I'll take a whole day off.



12:25 - The Brother HL-5250DN printer is up and running. It actually took a lot longer to get the printer unboxed and physically set up and to free an Ethernet cable from the rats' nest under my desk than it did to get the printer setup on our Linux boxes.

The HL-5250DN has parallel and USB connectors, but I connected it as a network printer. The first step to getting it working with our computers was to call up the configuration page for the D-Link WAP that serves as the DHCP server for my network and reassign the IP address of the printer from dynamic to static. Once that was done, I simply fired up the Kubuntu printer utility on my Kubuntu 7.10 main system, told it to scan the network, accepted the defaults for IP address and port, gave the printer a name, and printed a test page. Barbara runs Kubuntu 7.04, and its printer database didn't have the HL-5250DN. It did have the HL-5270DN, so I just lied and told her system there was an HL-5270DN on the other end of the wire.

All of the basic functions work perfectly on both our main systems, although I haven't tried some of the advanced features like duplexing. Now I can print my tax returns, which was the last to-do item on my list before I could start working on the taxes.

The Brother HL-5250DN is considerably louder than the HP LaserJet 5P when it's actually doing something, although it's very quiet in standby mode. As soon as a print job arrives at the printer, it clanks a bit and then spits out the page very quickly. This thing is rated at about 30 pages per minute, and if the one multi-page document I printed is any indication, it does something very close to that.

I turned off the HP LaserJet 5P and removed its driver from our systems. I'll let it sit for the time being, but eventually I'll probably give it Goodwill. All it needs is a new toner cartridge. I thought I had one (I know I bought one) but I can't find it anywhere. It may have been discarded in one of my rare clean-up sessions.

The one obvious thing that the HL-5250DN is missing relative to the HP LaserJet 5P is a straight-through paper path. I'm not sure about printing envelopes, either. It may be that I'll have to remove the regular paper from the tray and reset the tray for envelopes. If so, that'd be a pain in the begonia, but I very seldom print envelopes. Labels are a different story. I frequently run pages of laser labels to label chemical bottles and so on. If this printer won't do those, I'll hold on to the HP for now, even if I don't turn it on from one month to the next.



12:54 - Our friend Dr. Mary Chervenak just made the cover of Endurance Magazine.


There are more images of Mary in the magazine article and on Tamara Lackey's blog.


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Friday, 4 April 2008
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09:04 - The end is nigh on the home chemistry book. I just sent in final comments on chapters 15, 16, and 17, so only chapters 18 through 22 remain. I tried to reorganize my to-do list yesterday to move time-sensitive stuff to a lower priority, but as I looked at the items I realized that they're all time sensitive. There are the state and federal taxes, of course, which are due by 15 April, but everything else on my list has to do with either getting ready for the publication of the book, also on 15 April, or with the trip out to Maker Faire early next month. So everything is now #1 priority. Geez.



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Saturday, 5 April 2008
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09:15 - I finished my last review of the final chapter of the home chemistry book last night. (All of the PDF galleys are now posted on the Subscribers' page.) I'll get a look at the TOC and index sometime this weekend, but the book is off to the printers as of Monday morning. And I have ten days left to do the tax returns.

As I was finishing up last night, it again occurred to me just how much difference computers and the Internet have made to the book writing and production process. I've collaborated across time zones with a dozen or more people that have been actively involved in editing and producing the book. We exchanged comments and edited documents instantly without regard for distance or time of day. I annotated a document or sent email with comments, and those comments were incorporated into a new revision, which showed up in my mailbox hours (or even minutes) later. Geez, during her round-the-world run, I got email comments from Mary Chervenak, who at the time was in a yurt in Mongolia, literally on the other side of the world. If we'd used Skype, I'd have been able to hear the yaks mooing, or whatever it is they do.

I'm old enough to remember writing on a typewriter. We've come a long way.



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Sunday, 6 April 2008
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00:00 -



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Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.