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Week of 12 January 2009


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Monday, 12 January 2009
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08:07 - Paul Jones stopped over yesterday with his dad's PC. His dad lives in Oklahoma and had told Paul that the PC was starting to get noisy and probably needed its software updated. So he shipped the PC to Paul, who brought it over here. Paul told me that we'd built the PC almost five years ago. I thought it had been only a couple of years. I knew it couldn't be nearly five years, because we'd installed Linux on it, and I didn't convert to Linux myself until 4 July 2004. So I searched my site, and came up with this link. Paul was closer than I was. It hasn't been nearly five years, but it has been nearly four.

So. for about 45 months, Paul's dad had been happily using this machine, running Xandrox 3.0 OCE. It was still running the original software without updates, and still virus-free. Try that with a Windows machine. Paul lugged it over to our house yesterday afternoon, and we set it up on the dining room table. After we blew the dust out, we replaced the case fan and the power supply, which required pulling the CPU cooler. We blew that out, too. The only minor roadblock was that the motherboard had a 20-pin main ATX power connector and the new power supply a 24-pin connector. The 24-pin cable wouldn't fit the 20-pin jack because the extra four pins overhung the IDE connector on the motherboard. We found an adapter cable in my stock room and things went quickly after that.

We connected Paul's dad's system in the den in place of my regular den system. I pulled the Firefox bookmarks and Thunderbird mail data off the drive and then we set Ubuntu 8.10 to formatting the drive. An hour or so later, I had Ubuntu installed and updated, the restricted extras installed, and all his dad's data restored. I thought about replacing the hard drive, but after running some tests on it decided to leave it as is. Last night, I played with the system while Barbara and I watched the third and final disc of Battlestar Galactica series 2.5, which we'd borrowed from Paul and Mary.

I let the system burn in over night, and this morning everything appeared normal, so it's ready to go back to Paul's dad. I suspect he'll get another two or three years' use out of it. The processor is fast enough for checking email and browsing the web, which is what Paul's dad mostly uses the system for. In two or three years, we'll just build him a replacement system.



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Tuesday, 13 January 2009
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00:00 - No post.



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Wednesday, 14 January 2009
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08:47 - Things are a bit hectic around here. I finished the rewrite on chapter 14 (forged documents) late yesterday afternoon and posted it on the subscribers' page this morning. I'm working now on the final chapter, forensic biology, which I should finish late this week or early next.

I'm still debating whether or not to add a lab on PCR (polymerase chain reaction) replication of DNA. It would be a pretty cool lab session. I'd have readers swab their cheeks to obtain epithelial cells and then use PCR to replicate their own DNA. The problem is that the PCR process, done manually, is time-consuming drudgery. They'd have to set up water baths at specified temperatures and then sit there watching the clock and moving the specimen tube from bath to bath--60 seconds here and 90 seconds there--over and over for two or three hours. Also, the required enzymes, while available, are not inexpensive. But at the end of the lab session, they'd have a fairly large specimen of their own DNA, which is very cool.

The problem is what to do with it once they have it. I'm building a gel electrophoresis setup for about $10, which will illustrate the principles, but gives pretty crude separations. You might, for example, be able to tell the difference between apple DNA and carrot DNA, but the resolution won't be anything near what's needed to discriminate one human DNA specimen from another.

On balance, I think I'll leave that lab session out. Perhaps I'll do it and write it up for MAKE or something.


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Thursday, 15 January 2009
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08:34 - I just paid my state and federal estimated taxes, which always puts me in a bad mood. To add to that, I just realized that the new version of Kontact, the Linux PIM I use, no longer pops up reminders for scheduled to-do items and calendar items. That's why we forgot to add money to Barbara's cell phone account, and if I hadn't remembered on my own to pay the estimated taxes I'd have neglected to do that as well. I've played with it a bit, and nothing I do makes it pop up reminders as it should. This really sucks. MS Outlook used to do this to me all the time, which is one of the reasons I stopped using it. I may have to look for a different PIM.

I worked yesterday on the forensic biology chapter, specifically on the pollen analysis lab session. Interestingly, there's a word for the study of pollen. As you might expect, it's called pollenology, but it's spelled palynology.


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Friday, 16 January 2009
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08:15 - It's a mite chilly around here. When I got up, it was 11 F (-12 C). Right now, it's 13 F (-11 C) actual, with the wind chill at 0F (-18 C). The forecast low tonight is 9 F (-13 C). We haven't had temperatures this low since 2004.

I know, to much of the rest of the country these temperatures must sound balmy. I understand there have been wind chills of -40 or lower in much of the upper midwest. But they have home insulation and furnaces designed to cope with low temperatures. Around here, we don't. Most people's heating systems around here are designed to cope with freezing temperatures, or a bit lower. Our furnace ran pretty much continuously yesterday. We keep the thermostat set to 68 F, but I don't think it ever got above 66 or 67 F until last night, when I turned on the gas logs to help the furnace. Running on low, they were able to boost the den to about 70 or 71 F. Running on high, they put out about as much heat as the furnace itself.

I'm still working on the forensic biology chapter. I finished the lab session on pollen and got started on one about diatoms. I have a couple of DNA labs to write up and that'll be it, other than shooting images.



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Saturday, 17 January 2009
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00:00 - No post.



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Sunday, 18 January 2009
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09:33 - I came up with a usable workaround for the notification problem with Kontact. I simply reconfigured Kontact to start on the Summary screen instead of in email. That means one more click is needed when I start Kontact to check my email, but now I see a summary of the week's calendar and to-do items every time Kontact starts. It's not a perfect solution, but it's usable.

We shot several images for the book yesterday, and we'll shoot more today and tomorrow. Barbara is off this afternoon to the 80th birthday celebration for Gilbert Sloan, who's been her parents' next-door neighbor since Barbara was a little girl. I'll work on the final two labs sessions for the forensic biology chapter, which are on extracting vegetable DNA and then using gel electrophoresis to analyze it.

I've decided to keep things simple (and inexpensive) by running the electrophoresis against genomic DNA samples rather than DNA fragments. That means we won't get the DNA gels people are used to seeing on forensics shows, with lots and lots of individual lines. Instead, we'll get something that looks more like chromatograms, with relatively broad stains made by the genomic (whole molecule) DNA moving through the gel. In order to split the genomic DNA into the base-pair fragments that produce the sharp multiple lines, we'd have to use restriction enzymes, which are relatively expensive.

On another note, I''ll be trying a new microscope slide mounting fluid over the next couple of days. Yesterday, I noticed Barbara doing her nails. She had old and new bottles of "Clear" (they really mean "Colorless") Sally Hansen Hard-as-Nails nail polish, and the old bottle was still half full. Hmmm. I asked Barbara if I could have the old bottle. She gave it to me, commenting that the stuff starts getting too viscous once the bottle is half-empty anyway.

I used this stuff in an earlier lab session to make scale casts of hair. Its physical and optical properties seem ideal for use as a general microscope slide mounting fluid. It's transparent, doesn't yellow, shows no tendency to form bubbles, and dries quickly.



We're well into series three of Battlestar Galactica, although I stopped paying attention some time back. I'll give series one a "B". It certainly wasn't up to stuff like Buffy/Firefly, Veronica Mars, Poirot, Upstairs, Downstairs, and so on. but it was watchable. Series two and the first few episodes of series three get a "C". The plotting and writing took a nosedive from series one. Series three episodes after the first few get a "C-", and that's being generous. They're typical TV. Not utterly horrible, but not worth wasting time on.

They really lost me with an extended scene in one series three episode that had a guy beating his (female) former lover bloody in a boxing ring. Perhaps it's my early conditioning--"Never, ever hit a girl, Bobby"--but I cannot stand seeing a man hit a woman. I literally cringe. Back when I was practicing Shotokan, I even avoided sparring with women. I knew that at twice their mass, four or more times their strength, and with much longer arm and leg reach, I could hurt them badly even without intending to do so.

I knocked a woman unconscious once, and for a horrible few seconds I thought I'd done more than that. She was a karateka, an obnoxious radical feminist determined to demonstrate that a trained woman could compete on equal terms with men in unarmed combat, and I allowed her to taunt me into reacting. She lasted about three seconds. I've never struck a woman since then, and, barring extraordinary circumstances, I never will again. Seeing someone else do it, even fictionally, is not my idea of entertainment.



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Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.