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Week of 3 November 2008


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Monday, 3 November 2008
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08:20 - Even self-described "lefties" like Greg Laden are getting nervous. In fairness, though, so are a lot of conservatives. I stood talking to one of our neighbors yesterday. He's a McCain supporter, and he's afraid Obama is going to win it. They're pretty representative of the people I've talked to. Obama supporters are afraid McCain is going to win, and vice versa.

As always, I can take a detached viewpoint, because I want both of them to lose. My take on the presidential election is that Obama is dead meat. I think the so-called battleground states will go for McCain, as will most or all of the states the pollsters currently describe as leaning Obama. And I expect several of the states the pollsters currently describe as solid for Obama will go for McCain.

Why? Simply this. I think a lot of people are lying to pollsters, either about who they'll vote for or even whether they'll vote at all. Saying you'll vote for Obama is one thing; actually showing up at the polls and pushing the button or pulling the lever or punching the chad is something else entirely. What people actually do in the privacy of the voting booth may be very different from what they tell an interviewer they plan to do. Obama cannot win this election without the solid support of the traditional Democrat core constituency, white working-class voters. And I have a low enough opinion of people to believe that most of those voters will not vote for Obama if only because of his skin color. They may not vote for McCain, but if they do not vote for McCain they won't vote for any candidate. Many of them simply won't show up to vote.



Things have been breaking around here. I mentioned our water meter leaking. The city came out and replaced it. The battery in my truck died, probably from simple lack of use. I borrowed a neighbor's trickle charger yesterday and left the battery charging. I hope that'll get it charged sufficiently for me to get the truck out to our mechanic. It needs to be inspected and have the oil changed anyway.

And yesterday while I was doing laundry our clothes dryer failed. The symptoms are exactly the same as last time, and Sears charged us $200 to fix it that time. Never again will I buy a Sears product. Neither will I pay them to fix this one, although it's only something like seven years old. We'll go out to Lowes this weekend and buy a Whirlpool model.



11:38 - I'm back from getting my truck inspected and picking up a bag of 35mm film cans at CVS.

On my way to get the truck inspected, I was heading up a slight hill toward a traffic light. I took my foot off the gas, but the revs didn't drop nor the truck slow. I blipped the gas pedal and the revs dropped normally. When I got to the garage, I asked Tim, our mechanic, to check out the throttle cable and linkage in addition to checking the battery, inspecting the truck, and changing the oil.

As it turns out, there's a rubber sheath that covered the last few inches of the throttle cable. That sheath had dried out and crumbled. It's fortunate I noticed, because Tim said the pieces of the sheath could have jammed the throttle wide open. He just removed the remnants of the sheath and sprayed the cable with WD-40. That should be fine, given how little I drive this truck. Tim hadn't recorded the mileage when he inspected the truck a year ago, but he did have the mileage from two years ago. In two years, I'd driven the truck less than 1,000 miles.

The battery was dated January of 2006, so it's less than three years old. Tim put a serious battery checker on it, and the checker said the battery needed to be replaced. Tim said to take that with a grain of salt. The voltage reading was 12.77 V, which Tim said was an indication that the battery is fine. He'd entered the CCA rating stamped on the battery, which IIRC was 625, and his checker rated the actual capacity of the battery at something like 450 CCA.

Tim said that was plenty to start the truck, particularly since it's normally parked in a heated garage, and also commented that CCA ratings are a bit squishy. The standard says the CCA rating is to be for 0 F, but apparently many battery makers rate it at 32 F. The estimated CCA value that Tim's checker provides is for 0 F, and he said it's quite possible that my "625 CCA" battery was originally rated by the manufacturer at 32 F and would have tested at 450 CCA at 0 F even when new. Still, he suggested I return it to the place I got it and ask them if it was still under free replacement warranty. But he agreed that the fact that the truck goes sometimes literally months between starts meant that the battery was probably okay.

So now my truck works again and I have no excuse not to go out to vote tomorrow. Other than the complete lack of choice on the ballot.



15:12 - This is just one of those days when I'm not going to get any work done. The power company showed up to replace a transformer a while ago, so I had to shut everything down. Then I decided to take a look at the dryer, figuring the problem was probably something simple like a fuse or thermal sensor. Here's what I found when I opened the back panel.


Not good. There was a short that blew the wire nut off one of the connections, one wire of which welded to another wire nut. I suppose it's possible that no further damage was done, but I'm not willing to invest my time and cost of parts to find out. As a general rule, a catastrophic electrical problem like this means the whole device is questionable. In particular, I wonder if some of the 120V components ended up with 240V across them. So I'm just going to buy a new dryer.


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Tuesday, 4 November 2008
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08:21 - Election Day, but only for Republicans according to an email I received. Apparently, the turnout is expected to be so overwhelming that to eliminate hours-long waits elections boards nationwide have decided to extend the election over two days. Democrats vote tomorrow.



Reinventing the wheel department. For the last couple of years, I've been thinking how nice it would be to have a Cafe Scientifique in our area. This concept is a revivification of the salons common in the 18th and 19th century, where a group of people would get together periodically to listen to science lectures presented by an expert on the topic in question and then sit around afterward discussing science with like-minded people.

Cafe Scientifique groups usually meet once a month at a restaurant, bar, or similar venue, often for dinner followed by coffee or wine and the meeting. The movement started a decade ago in Britain and has since spread worldwide. Yesterday, I decided to spend a few minutes looking into starting up a local group. As it turns out, someone beat me to it. There's already a local group, which held its first meeting in September. It meets the second Tuesday of each month in Reynolda Gardens, which is about five minutes from our house.

Tuesday November 11
7:00 p.m.

Science Cafe: Long-term Changes in Biodiversity in Our Backyard-Arboreal Species Richness in Piedmont North Carolina from 1764 to the Present

The 100,000 acre Wachovia tract, which encompasses much of modern Forsyth County, N.C., was surveyed by Reuter (1760-1764), with subsequent surveys by Kramasch (1789-1791) and von Schweinitz (1821). Reuter's survey, despite its limitations, is valuable because it is the first record by a trained expert of the plant and animal species present during the European settlement of the piedmont frontier, predating reports from well-known pioneering botanists such as Andre Michaux, William Bartram, and Asa Gray. A comparison of Reuter's list with a modern survey reveals that all the tree species he recorded are currently present in Forsyth County. Despite massive anthropogenic community disruption, there has been no loss of tree species diversity (measured as presence/absence) following European settlement. Due to the presence of introduced species, tree species richness is greater now than in 1764.

Robert Browne, Ph.D., WFU Professor of Biology




10:10 - I'm back from voting. It took about 40 minutes door-to-door. That's a five-minute drive over, 25 minutes standing in line, five minutes to fill in the ballot, and a five-minute drive home. That's more than twice as long as it should have taken, had the elections people devoted even a few minutes' thought to the matter.

We use paper ballots, the kind where you have to fill in an oval with ink. The bottlenecks were the number of voting booths, which one of the election officials said was the same number as had been used for the primary election, and the cheesy 19-cent pens they provided. About four minutes of the five I spent filling in my ballot could have been saved if they'd only provided felt-tip pens. I felt like a first-grader, trying to get the ovals filled in with a cheap pen while staying within the lines.

If they'd provided more voting booths--or even just clipboards, felt-tip pens, and some folding chairs (as I suggested)--there would have been literally no wait at all other than a minute or two to give my name and address to the poll worker and get my ballot.

For the first time ever, I voted against a Libertarian. Bob Barr is running as the LP candidate for president, but he's no libertarian at all. He's a big-government conservative who claims to have seen the light. Like many libertarians, I don't buy it. So I held my nose and voted for McCain and Palin. For every other partisan race, I voted Libertarian where that was an option and otherwise Republican. I despise Republicans, but I despise them slightly less than I despise Democrats.

We'll watch the election returns tonight. It should be interesting. I still expect McCain to win convincingly, assuming the vote count is honest. That's a big assumption, of course. The only people better at rigging elections than the Republicans are the Democrats.


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Wednesday, 5 November 2008
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07:58 - Rats! The American electorate has elected a pair of rats to the two highest federal offices. Not that there was much chance of anything better, with the collection of rats and weasels on the ballot. I suppose we can be thankful that the Democrat rats didn't gain a supermajority in the Senate. The Republican weasels will still be able to filibuster.

Barbara announced last night that if Obama won she wanted to move to Canada, but I don't think that's necessary. This too shall pass, although America is in for a rough four years under Obama, our first Marxist president. Those who thought it couldn't get any worse than it was under George II are in for a surprise.

I tried hard to come up with something nice to say about Obama. The only thing I could think of was that Obama's election may mean a reduction in the attacks on science by the know-nothing coalition of Republicans and fundamentalist religious groups. I suppose that counts for something, but it's a pretty thin gruel to live on for the next four years.


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Thursday, 6 November 2008
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08:17 - Lest anyone think I believe Obama and his crowd are pro-science, I should point out that my comment yesterday had only to do with the anti-evolution position of the conservative/religious coalition. Obama and the rest of the liberals have at least as much to answer for, not least for their support of pseudoscientific crap like anthropogenic global warming. If you're pro-science, the Democrats aren't your friends, any more than the Republicans have been.

I've heard from many people who are afraid of where Obama will push this country. I'm not terribly concerned. Obama isn't stupid, and he must know what happened in 1992, when conditions were similar. We had a newly-elected left-wing president and an overwhelmingly Democrat congress. They pushed a liberal agenda hard, and the backlash in 1994 was ferocious. For two years, the liberals had it all their way, but then the voters pushed back. That led to the Republicans taking control of congress. Clinton managed to be reelected in 1996, but that was the last good news for the Democrats until this year.

A lot of people also think that Sarah Palin is gone for good. I don't think so. I expect she'll be appointed Senator in Alaska, and I expect she'll be the Republican standard bearer in 2012. Whatever you think about her politics, the woman has star quality.


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Friday, 7 November 2008
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09:03 - With Christmas approaching, I've gotten several emails from people asking about science-related gift ideas for kids. My opinion, shared by many scientists in all fields, is that the single best gift to nurture a kid's interest in science is a decent microscope. So I went looking for inexpensive microscopes that might be suitable.

Here's the MicroXplore Duo-Scope S400 LED Microscope, which Orion Telescope and Binocular sells for $60.


I haven't actually seen this microscope, but Orion is known for providing value for money. Despite the low price, this scope appears to be well out of the "toy microscope" class. A kid can do some serious learning with this scope. Orion lists it as suitable for ages 8 and up, but I'd think it suitable as a first scope for any kid from first grade through middle school.

If you can afford to spend a bit more, Orion also offers the $90 Ultimate 40x-400x Microscope, which has similar features but better optics and mechanicals. I'd judge this scope suitable for anything from first grade through middle school, and in a pinch for high-school level studies.


Either of these scopes, ideally combined with an inexpensive book on beginning microscopy, would be an ideal gift for just about any kid who has an interest in science.



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Saturday, 8 November 2008
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09:05 - The house resounded to a penguinish quack of triumph this morning, as I diagnosed and repaired the problem with the dryer.


Actually, I only did a short-term fix to verify that the blown power cable was the only problem. I cleaned up the burnt wires a bit, twisted the two ends of the open connection together, and put a wire nut on them. I then ran the dryer for a couple of minutes to check it out. The interior light came on, the drum spun, and the heating element heated. Now that I know everything works, I'll tear it down and do it right, replacing all of the wire nuts and taping the splices.


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Sunday, 9 November 2008
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09:43 - I did the permanent fix to the dryer this morning while the white load was washing. There wasn't any slack on the wires coming from the dryer side, so I loosened the grommet and slid another couple centimeters of the power cord inside to give me a bit of slack. Two of the three wires were fine. I stripped the old tape and wire nuts from them, replaced the wire nuts, and retaped them. I trimmed some excess from the two wires that made up the burnt splice, applied a new wire nut, and taped the hell out of that splice. It should be fine now.

Since I had the exhaust duct disconnected it made sense to clean out the lint. Surprisingly, there wasn't much in there, either in the duct itself or on the dryer side. I stuck the nozzle of the shop vac in and sucked out as much as I could. Now the only thing remaining is to put a wet load in the dryer and see how it works.

Barbara is painting kitchen cabinet doors and shelves today. The guy is showing up Tuesday to install the tile backsplash, so we're nearly finished with the job. Barbara has been wanting to get rid of our microwave cabinet for a long time. We thought about buying a new cabinet, but I talked her into putting the microwave under the cabinets near the cooktop and just putting up shelves where the microwave cabinet had stood.

We looked at a lot of different shelves, but eventually decided just to install satin nickel or pewter brackets and put boards on them. The so-called shelves they sell at Home Depot and Lowes are all particle board, which is heavy and not very durable. I asked Barbara if she wanted to install real furniture-grade oak shelves, but she didn't want to mess with staining and finishing them. So we decided just to get some decent 1X10 pine boards and paint them to match the pale blue she used elsewhere in the kitchen.

Our current microwave oven is too tall to fit under the cabinets, so I'm off to Costco sometime today to get one that will fit.



11:57 - The dryer works fine.

UPS delivered a box of Fisher Scientific catalogs Friday, but I just got around to looking at them. As usual, the chemical pricing puzzles me. In more than a few cases, the prices make no sense at all. For example, it's pretty common for a particular chemical to be offered in both lower-purity lab grade and high-purity reagent grade or ACS reagent grade. What's very odd is that sometimes a particular amount of the chemical in reagent grade costs less than the same amount in lab grade.

And then there are my favorite no-brainers. In some cases, you can buy 100 g of a chemical for, say, $19.30, or 500 g of the same chemical in the same grade for $19.35. Does anyone really buy the 100 g package? But the really strange thing is when the same chemical is offered in two sizes, and the larger size actually costs less than the smaller size. I noticed this two or three times. They'd be selling 100 g of the chemical for, say $16.45 and 500 g of the same chemical in the same purity grade for, say, $14.85. Who can pass up an opportunity to pay more for less of the same thing?


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