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Week of 17 November 2008


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Monday, 17 November 2008
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08:17 - My main Linux system still isn't hitting on all cylinders. Kompozer, the program I use to do this page, is flaky. For example, Kompozer, the program I use to do this page, blows up and disappears, if I do any of several common things. Just clicking on the file menu and moving the cursor to Recent Pages makes the app crash instantly. As does moving the cursor over a word it thinks is misspelled and right-clicking to add it to the dictionary. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that Ubuntu 8.10 has the KDE 4 libraries installed instead of the KDE 3 libraries. Some of the KDE programs I had installed on Kubuntu 7.10 won't run at all, such as Kaudiocreator.

I really wish the KDE folks had kept 4 to themselves until it was actually ready to release. Instead, they released it early, and it's messed up a lot of stuff. The problems with Kompozer were bad enough that I actually went off in search of another HTML editor. I installed something called Screem, which is the Gnome version of an HTML editor. I played with that for about two minutes, until I discovered that it's not a WYSIWYG editor and so is unusable for my purposes. The KDE folks have a lot to answer for. Still, my system is pretty much working now, and that's all that matters.



My editor wants me to start sending him chapters in order so that he can send them to the layout and design folks. I wrote the preface last weekend and was about to start work on the Introduction, when I realized that I don't need an Introduction chapter in this book. I needed one in the chem lab book to talk about which experiments should be done by different groups--DIY science enthusiasts, science-major students, non-science-major students, AP chemistry students, etc.--but that's not needed for this book. In the chem book, I put the section on maintaining a lab notebook in the intro chapter, but it's easy enough to move that to the chapter on mastering lab skills. So, for this book, we'll lead off with the chapter on lab safety, which actually makes sense anyway.

Following that will be the chapter on equipping the lab. I've already written that one, at least provisionally. The problem is that before I finish that chapter I have to have all of the lab chapters complete. I still have two lab chapters left to go, so what I'll end up doing is using the outlines of those to figure out what equipment will be needed for them. I'll make up a master spreadsheet that includes all required equipment and chemicals, lab session by lab session, and then use that to make sure that the equipment chapter and the following chapter on chemicals cover everything needed.

I'm at the point I always reach in a book, when I have so many balls in the air that I'm afraid I'll let some drop. Fortunately, my editor is very good at catching dropped balls.


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Tuesday, 18 November 2008
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09:20 - Ron Morse tells me I was wrong about the problem with Kompozer being KDE 4. According to Ron, it "Looks like an issue between Gecko 1.7 and GTK 2.1.  I looked at the bug reports and the lead dev indicates he's working on moving Kompozer to Gecko 1.8 which should fix things, but he has no ETA." Oh, well. I can still edit and publish pages as long as I'm careful to avoid the things that cause Kompozer to blow up and disappear.

I worked yesterday on building a consolidated spreadsheet of the materials needed for all of the lab sessions in the forensics book. I'll be continuing that today and until it's complete. I can't finish the chapters on equipping the lab and chemicals until I know exactly what's needed and how much of each. Once I finish the consolidated list, there'll be some rewrite on lab sessions. For example, if in one lab session I've specified, say, a 500 mL Erlenmeyer flask, but that's the only lab session that requires that flask, I'll go back and see if I can rewrite the lab session to substitute some other size of flask (or a test tube, or something) that's used in several other lab sessions. That way, I can minimize the amount of equipment and the costs for readers. I still haven't written two of the lab chapters, so this'll all be provisional.



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Wednesday, 19 November 2008
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08:12 - It's looking like the Big Three US automakers aren't going to get the second $25 billion bailout they want, and that's all to the good. They claim that without this gift from the taxpayers they'll end up in liquidation, which is almost certainly true. And I do have some sympathy for them. Their problems are not, as most news reports claim, self-inflicted, nor are they the result of incompetent management. Those problems are almost entirely the fault of the government.

US automakers have not had a level playing field for decades, and the chickens have finally come home to roost. The cost of complying with government regulations is part of the problem, but not the biggest part. The real problem is the cost of union labor. In effect, the government forces the auto companies to pay outrageously high labor costs, costs which other auto companies do not bear. Unskilled and semi-skilled production line workers in unionized Big Three auto plants make more money than do highly-skilled workers in most industries. Labor costs are the biggest part of the pie in building a vehicle. So how can the Big Three automakers compete with other automakers who don't bear these high union labor costs?

The obvious answer is that they can't, and that's why the Big Three automakers are nearing bankruptcy. And that's why Democrat legislators, led by the Michigan delegation, are trying to convince everyone that it's a good idea for the American taxpayers to bail out the Big Three. Fortunately, it looks like that's not going to happen. The Big Three automakers will collapse, sooner rather than later. That's very bad news for the Rust Belt in general, and for Michigan and Detroit in particular. But it's good news for the South in general and right-to-work states like North Carolina in particular. Automobile manufacturing and other heavy industrial production will migrate southward, leaving the unionized North in ruins, but leading to a renaissance in manufacturing here in the Southland.

I've been saying for years that if the Big Three had any sense, they'd have done everything possible to relocate to the South. They didn't, but plenty of other manufacturers did. So, a few years from now, when GM and Ford and Chrysler have finally collapsed, expect to see Southland car makers ramping up production. You may not be able to buy a Ford or Chevy any more, but there'll be plenty of Toyotas and Nissans and Volkswagens and Mercedes, all of them made here in the Southland.


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Thursday, 20 November 2008
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07:54 - Barbara has two lenses for her Pentax DSLRs, the 18-55mm kit lens and a 50-200mm zoom. Both are decent lenses, but neither is ideal for macro work. From our film days, we have a Pentax 50mm f/4 macro lens, and I decided to see how it worked with the DSLRs. This is an old SMC Pentax-M lens, totally mechanical, from before the days when lenses had electrical contacts.

So I mounted it on Barbara's Pentax K100D Super DSLR and took it outside to shoot a few images. Surprisingly, it kind of works. The shots were sharp and well exposed, using shutter speeds from 1/180 second to 1/2000 second. The problem is, the aperture ring does nothing. The aperture is always wide open at f/4, which kind of limits the usefulness of a macro lens. It really is a superb lens, but then I've always thought Pentax lenses were generally superior to similar models from Nikon or Canon, and probably a match for the best that Leitz or Zeiss produces. Or at least they were 30 years ago. I assume that's still true today. Current Pentax astronomy eyepieces are certainly world-class, easily a match for the best eyepieces from Germany.

I may put this Pentax SMC-M lens up on eBay and put whatever it sells for towards a current Pentax macro lens.


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Friday, 21 November 2008
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08:04 - I come across a lot of funny stuff as I surf the web. Here are a few:

o As Billy Joel said, I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. The sinners are much more fun...

o Remember when it was the cavalry? Now it's the Indians riding to the rescue.

o A lot of people have been offended by recent actions of the LDS church, both its support for California's Proposition 8 that banned same-sex marriages and the church's resumption of baptizing dead Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Turnabout is fair play, I suppose. Now there's someone converting dead Mormons to homosexuality. Joseph Smith was the first to be so honored.



09:52 -
At 9:15, I took the dogs out for their morning walk, not realizing that there'd be school buses all over the place. Duncan still goes berserk (in his elderly, crippled way) when he spots a school bus, and Malcolm then attacks Duncan. Makes for a pleasant walk.

Obviously, the schools opened two hours late this morning. Why? We had a slight possibility of snow flurries in the forecast. As it turns out, we got about 0.01" (~ 0.25 mm) of snow, if that, which is exactly what was predicted. In the case of a predicted blizzard (0.5" or more), they close the schools completely.



I finished the consolidated spreadsheet yesterday. It contains sections for all of the equipment, chemicals, specimens, etc. required to complete the labs in the home forensics book, excluding the labs in chapters 14 (Detecting Forgeries and Fakes) and 15 (Forensic Biology), which I haven't written yet. I do have them stubbed out, so I'll probably look at the materials lists for each of those labs and incorporate them in the spreadsheet, from which I'll do the tables and text for chapters 2 and 3 (Equipping Your Forensics Lab and Chemicals, Consumables, and Specimens for Your Forensic Lab).

Most of the lab sessions in both chapters are pretty straightforward in terms of specifying required materials, but I'm still thinking about the DNA labs in the forensic biology chapter. The first one is "Extracting DNA" (or, possibly, "Extracting and Replicating DNA"). In that difference lies the question of whether to introduce PCR (polymerase chain reaction) replication. There are kits available that contain the necessary materials for DNA replication, but they're relatively expensive and require stuff like an incubator (or water baths). I'm debating whether I can do PCR replication on the cheap. Replication is needed only to produce sufficient DNA for gel electrophoresis separations, so if I want to use human DNA I'll need to do PCR replication. Otherwise, I can simply use a bulk source of DNA, such as a carrot, and forego the human DNA aspect.

I also have to decide some stuff for the Separating DNA by Gel Electrophoresis lab. In particular, I'm debating about markers and staining. DNA fragments are invisible in the gel, so markers are used to signal visually when electrophoresis is complete. Otherwise, you have to just connect the current for an arbitrary period and hope that you've given it long enough to show separation but not so long that all the fragments are crammed together at one end of the gel. I think I may control that by specifying the makeup of the gel and buffers very closely and using a power supply made up of five 9V transistor batteries. That way, I can simply tell readers how long to keep the current on. Second, DNA gels are visualized by staining, and the question is which stain to use. I'm leaning toward methylene blue, which has the advantage of being cheap (you can buy it in pet supply stores) and safe. The alternative, ethidium bromide, is a carcinogen. The problems with methylene blue are that it is very slow and provides inferior staining. Still, on balance, I think I'll probably use it.


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Saturday, 22 November 2008
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07:42 - Winter temperatures have arrived. When we got up this morning about 6:50, the outdoor temperature was about 18 F (-8 C).

Barbara is taking this coming week off work to get stuff done around the house. The work starts this morning, and I'll be working in my office. Beside my main desk is a second full-size desk where I pile stuff as I work. I call that the Augean Table. Actually, my office isn't that bad. Two or three hours' work will get it back in pretty good shape. Then I'll get to work on kitchen-related stuff. Barbara still has some cabinet doors to paint, but in a couple of days we'll be ready to start putting them back up.

Those of you who are Pournelle/Niven fans probably remember the character Harry the Mailman from Lucifer's Hammer. Harry collected junk mail for everyone on his route and then delivered it once a week on Trash Day. There was an article in the paper this morning about a local real-world Harry, who was just convicted in federal court and sentenced to probation. He'd gone a step further than Harry. For years, he simply discarded all of the junk mail addressed to people on his route. It took the postal authorities so long to discover what he was doing because not a single one of his customers complained. Ever.

The guy's a hero, in my opinion. He simply implemented a private solution to a problem that should have been addressed long ago. We need a do-not-mail registry similar to the do-not-call registry. All of us should have the opportunity to check off boxes: first-class only; first- and second-class only; or deliver all mail. The USPS would scream, because it makes lots of money annoying all of us by delivering junk mail. The USPS would no doubt claim that it'd go bankrupt without revenue from junk mailers. So what? Let them increase first-class rates to cover their costs. And, while we're at it, let's eliminate the USPS monopoly on first-class mail.



12:18 - We've had not one, but two Boy Scouts show up today to get money from Barbara for little cans of caramel corn. I don't know why, but the first kid wanted $20 and the second one $25. Do different packs charge different amounts?

I asked Barbara politely not to contribute to Boy Scouts any more. It's nothing but a radical religious organization with uniforms. As far as I'm concerned, the Boy Scouts of America is a hate group, little different from the KKK. Just like the KKK, the BSA denies membership to atheists, agnostics, and homosexuals. Fine, they're both private organizations. They can do whatever they want to, as far as I'm concerned. But I sure don't want to support either of them in any way.



16:55 - One of my subscribers just posted a message on the messageboard taking me to task for my, according to him, glib comments on the LDS church. Just so we're clear here, I find nothing amusing about the LDS church's actions. Here's my reply:

There was nothing glib about my remarks about the LDS church. I find it deeply offensive that the LDS church baptizes dead people, and in particular that it baptizes dead Jews who were murdered by the Nazis.

And I also find it deeply offensive that the LDS church pushed Proposition 8 in California. What possible reason, other than hatred of homosexuals, could the LDS church have had to devote all of that money and effort to such a hateful initiative? No one was insisting that LDS members marry someone of the same sex. No one was insisting that the LDS church perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples, nor even admit such couples as members. In fact, same-sex marriage has absolutely nothing to do with the LDS church. The actions of the LDS church were obviously motivated purely by hatred of homosexuals.

Well, I have good friends who are gay. They and I find the actions of the LDS church reprehensible. And I defend my friends.

I think it's only fitting that Smith has now been converted posthumously to homosexuality.




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Sunday, 23 November 2008
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11:54 - My main Linux system crashed hard this morning, just after I'd completed a backup. Actually, it wasn't Linux that crashed--Linux is pretty much bullet-proof--but X Windows. The system came up in text mode, offering me options to reconfigure graphics. I did that, and had several more video problems. Finally, I decided to disable Compiz Fusion, which Ubuntu 8.10 installs and enables by default. Visual Effects was set to Normal. I reset it to None and the system seems stable so far.

I got my office pretty well cleaned up yesterday, including the Augean Table. My bookshelves still need a lot of work. I have 75 or 80 linear feet of bookshelves along one wall, and they're mostly full of books. Unfortunately, the books are in no particular order, so when I need one I scan the shelves looked for spines that resemble the book I'm looking for. Of course, Barbara is a librarian, and perhaps this winter we'll organize and reshelve everything according to Dewey.

The front driver-side headlight of Barbara's Trooper just died. Our neighbor manages a tire store and is a qualified mechanic. He offered to replace it if we'd pick up the part. I went on-line and searched auto parts sites for a headlight for Barbara's Trooper, and they all came back with similar results. A driver-side headlight was about $185, give or take $15. That seemed a bit much, so I did more digging. It turns out that that price is for the whole assembly. The bulb can be replaced separately, and it sells for about $10.

So I drove out to Advance Auto Parts this morning and picked up a bulb. While I was at it, I stopped by Walgreen's and CVS, both of which are supposed to be saving 35mm film cans for me. Both had forgotten to save them for me, so I ended up with only half a dozen cans from each, with a promise from each that they'd start saving them again. Film cameras, other than disposable ones, are no longer a mainstream consumer technology, so if you want to accumulate some 35mm film cans, now is the time to start doing it.

I have maybe a hundred on hand now, but I'd like to have a couple of thousand. Putting together one good chemistry kit for a kid can easily require 75 to 100 containers, so the number required adds up fast.



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