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Week of 23 March 2009


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Monday, 23 March 2009
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09:00 - There's been a recent spate of articles about bloggers picking up the slack, and they're not just talking about mainstream general news reporting. Here's one, for example, about the decline in science journalism and the growth in science blogging.

I can't imagine how blogging could truly replace traditional newsgathering. In the first place, blogging doesn't pay, except perhaps for the top 0.01% of bloggers. In the second place, nearly all bloggers, me included, don't actually go out and dig up news, or not much anyway. We mostly comment on news articles written by real, working journalists and published by the mainstream media. When those traditional sources--newspapers, television news, news magazines, and MSM news websites--disappear, so does the source of nearly all of the news discussed on blogs.

And make no mistake, those traditional sources are disappearing, and will continue to do so. I read a very optimistic article the other day that predicted that eight of the major newspapers would stop publishing in the next 18 months. Eight? It's more likely that all of the major newspapers will cease publishing in the next 18 months. And local television news, which is largely funded by car company and car dealer ads, won't be far behind. In five years, I doubt a single daily newspaper will still be publishing, and local TV news will be mostly gone as well.

So what's left? I expect to see a resurrection of weekly papers in major markets. Right now, weeklies are one of the few bright spots in newspaper publishing. They serve local markets, and they serve them well. They don't attempt to cover national or international news. They don't carry syndicated columnists. Many don't even subscribe to AP or other wire services. It's all local news, all the time. That's exactly what their readers want, and advertisers are willing to pay for that kind of focused readership. And, in a time of plummeting ad budgets, a market that can't support a daily can still easily support one or more weeklies.

Take our local paper as an example. Right now, the Winston-Salem Journal is still technically a daily. It publishes seven days a week, although the Monday and Tuesday editions are only two sections. I can see three possible outcomes for the Journal.

1. They may try to merge or co-publish with the Greensboro News & Record and the High Point Enterprise, which I think would be a mistake. It might put off the collapse for a year or so, but ultimately a combined daily would have no better a prognosis than the three current dailies taken individually.

2. They may attempt to shrink themselves while remaining a daily in name. They could cut back to two sections on additional days, and eventually begin publishing printed papers only a few days a week, with other days web-only. That isn't going to work, either.

3. Recognizing reality, they could reorganize themselves from a daily to a weekly, or to several weeklies divided by market area. In fact, they could begin the transition by starting up the weekly as a separate publication and ramping it up as they ramp down the daily. By the time the daily finally collapsed, they'd have a small but profitable weekly to take its place. That might work, and work well.



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Tuesday, 24 March 2009
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08:55 - I've been doing a lot of thinking about what the future may hold, and I conclude that things are going to get worse, a lot worse, before they get better. The federal government has been, is, and will continue to be the problem, not the solution.

There's been much talk about the government saving jobs and creating jobs, but the simple truth is that no government anywhere anywhen has ever created or saved a single job. Every job the government "saves" means 1+ job lost elsewhere that would otherwise not have been lost. Every job the government "creates" means the same. If the government "saves" or "creates" one million jobs, you can be sure that considerably more than one million jobs were lost from or not created by private enterprise.

If the government really wants to save and create jobs, the only way it can do so is by reducing taxes and making itself smaller and less intrusive. The likelihood of that happening is nil. And so the more the government intrudes into the economy, the more we're actually looking at more lost jobs. There's actually a very simple solution to the employment problem. Simply exempt all manufacturers, retailers, and wholesalers with fewer than 100 employees from all federal and state compliance laws and regulations. Such employers should be below the government radar. If that were true, we'd have an incredibly robust private sector and essentially zero unemployment.

But that's not going to happen. So I'm spending some time thinking about where the bright spots in an increasingly dim economic landscape are likely to be, and how best to exploit them.


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Wednesday, 25 March 2009
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08:36 - You may think, as I did, that the horrible plane crash in Montana that wiped out three young families was just a terrible accident, but you'd be wrong. Apparently, it was an act of vengeance from a loving god, who was showing Bud Feldcamp the error of his ways. Mr. Feldcamp owns a chain of family planing clinics that provide abortions as one of their services. So, to punish Mr. Feldcamp, this loving god slaughtered nine members of his family, including two of his daughters, their husbands, and five young children. Or so this evil young woman would have us believe.



If you run Windows, make sure to scan your systems before the end of the month. The conficker.c worm activates on 1 April, and at this point no one other than its creators knows what actions it will take. It could be anything from wiping your hard drives to encrypting them and holding them for ransom to turning your system into a spambot or DDoS host.

One of our neighbors told me that their computer was behaving strangely and running very slowly. I stopped by last night to run a preliminary scan with Spybot Search & Destroy and AVG. I loaded SS&D from a flash drive. The installation appeared to complete normally, until it got to the point where it attempted to hit the SS&D servers for updates. At that point, Windows popped up a warning message that it was unable to connect to the server. Not surprising, since the server address it was attempting to contact was the loopback address, 127.0.0.1. Obviously, something nasty has altered the HOSTS file or otherwise redirected the request to the loopback address.

So I installed AVG from the flash drive. Again, the installation appeared to proceed normally until it attempted to check for updates, at which point I got the same error message about being unable to connect to the server. Obviously, something is redirecting requests for any AV site to the local loopback address. I told Steve and Heather that I'm not a Windows guy, and it's been five years since I used Windows at all. I told Steve that the safest and quickest solution might well be to wipe the hard drive and reinstall from scratch. I asked if he had a Windows restore CD. He says he does, but he's already attempted to wipe and reinstall without success.

I told him I could run DBAN on his system, which'll strip the hard drive down to bare metal. I think he favors that method, so I told him to make sure he had any data he cared about copied to optical discs and/or flash drives. I was able to get AVG running, albeit with an older database, and left it scanning.

In the meantime, Barbara was across the street talking to Kim, whose systems I also need to look at. Kim is concerned because Jasmine has few friends, by her own choice. Apparently, Jasmine's peer group at school is a bunch of losers whom Jasmine has no interest in associating with outside school hours. Jas is the only virgin in this group of 15 year olds, and the only one who hasn't tried drugs (and, presumably, alcohol as well, although Barbara didn't mention that that subject had come up). Fortunately, it seems that Jas is bulletproof when it comes to peer pressure. She's a smart kid, but that's still a lot of pressure.


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Thursday, 26 March 2009
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08:43 - I now have one fewer USB flash drive than I had yesterday. Fortunately, it was an elderly 512 MB Kingston unit. I'd downloaded some virus/malware scanning software and copied it to this drive, intending to install it on some neighbors' systems to scan for conficker.c before 1 April. I had it in the small front pocket of my jeans. I was in the bathroom. I flushed the toilet. The flash drive popped out of my pocket straight into the toilet and disappeared almost instantly. Oh, well.

Which reminds me of an Internet friend of mine who's a mystery author and also a working cop. She nearly lost her handcuffs the same way.



The Phantom of Heilbronn has been identified. For 15 years, European authorities have been looking for this woman, who was believed to have been implicated in at least six murders and dozens of other crimes. Here's a mugshot of the suspect.

Yep. The master criminal turns out to be a cotton swab or, more precisely, swabs. Apparently, the cotton swabs used by all of these police forces to gather DNA evidence were purchased from one supplier. They were presumably contaminated at the factory with the DNA of this woman, who is probably an employee of the manufacturer.

Apparently, over a period of 15 years the forensics departments of these various police forces consistently failed to perform that fundamental validation step, running a control sample. If you're going to use a cotton swab to gather DNA evidence, you'd better make damned sure that an unused swab contains no human DNA. These labs failed to do that.

So, let me be the first to point out the catastrophic implications of this failure. As of now, every DNA sample run by those labs over the last 15 years is worthless forensically. Anyone who has been convicted over the last 15 years based on DNA evidence from these labs now has solid grounds to appeal that conviction. After all, if these labs did not detect that swabs had been contaminated by DNA from this woman, who's to say that a swab wasn't also contaminated before the fact by DNA from someone who was subsequently convicted of a crime? As unlikely as that might be, the possibility exists, and that raises reasonable doubt.


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Friday, 27 March 2009
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08:06 - Ray Thompson over on the forums asks,

"Is this standard practice in the labs or do the labs assume that the swabs are pristine? Or do labs at some point have to rely on manufacturer certification?"

To which I replied:

If I had to guess, I'd say that few if any forensics labs routinely run controls against swabs. I certainly wouldn't have thought to do so. If the cotton swab is labeled "sterile" I would have assumed, as these people apparently did, that that meant it was entirely uncontaminated. In retrospect, the problem is that it's a lot easier to kill microorganisms than it is to destroy DNA, so "sterile" apparently means only that the swabs are free of microorganisms.

And here's Paul Jones' take on the problem:

From: Paul Jones
  To: Robert Bruce Thompson
Date: Thu Mar 26 08:56:48 2009
  Re: Forensics catastrophe

Ah, not running a control. This is an offshoot of our focus on teaching "facts" and "knowledge" rather than process. Science teachers have the bad habit of assuming everyone knows how to set up an experiment and how to use data. Sadly, that isn't the case. We spend way too much time talking about stuff we know rather than how we learned it.

It won't be the last time mistakes were made for lack of a control experiment. It's human. You do an experiment, see a result and get excited and forget your job is to be skeptical. In my lab, that costs us time. In a forensics crime lab....sheesh.



I'm cranking away on the final (May) issue of the homechemlab.com subscriber supplement. The April issue is complete, with the following lab sessions:

Laboratory 21.7: Synthesize Dimethylglyoxime
Laboratory 22.5: Detect Alkaloids with Precipitation Reagents
Laboratory 22.6: Identify Alkaloids with Color Test Reagents

Here's the lineup for the May issue, which I've just started work on:

Laboratory 12.5: Determine Reaction Rate and Order
Laboratory 14.6: Investigate Graham's Law
Laboratory 16.7: Use Potentiometric Titration to Determine the Endpoint of a Reaction

The process by which I come up with ideas for these supplemental lab sessions is sometimes tortuous. Here's how lab session 12.5 originated. When I was working on lab session 22.6, I considered using a color test reagent that included selenous acid. I could have readers order selenous acid from a chemical supplier, but I didn't have any selenium compounds in my chemical cabinets to use for a test run. I did have a bottle of Kodak Rapid Selenium toner on the darkroom supplies shelf, so I decided to see if I could use that as a source of selenium. That bottle didn't list the contents in detail, so I checked one of the old photography books on my reference shelves to find out what selenium toner contained. As it turned out, it wasn't practical to use selenium toner for the lab session, so I decided just to skip using that reagent.

But as I was flipping through the photography book, I noticed several formulae for fixers. That took me back to 1965, when I was 12. I was working in my new darkroom, mixing up my first batch of fixer from individual chemicals. I'd dissolved some sodium thiosulfate (“hypo”) in a pint of water and added some glacial acetic acid. My mother yelled down the stairs that it was time for lunch before I could weigh out the sodium sulfite and add it to the solution.

When I returned an hour or so later, I found that my nice clear solution of fixer had turned a milky white color. I didn't appreciate it at the time, but I'd just gotten a demonstration of Le Chatelier's Principle and the acid-catalyzed disproportionation of thiosulfate ions to sulfite ions and elemental sulfur.

S2O32- → S + SO32-

The white turbidity in my fixer solution was colloidal elemental sulfur produced by the above reaction. Had I added the sodium sulfite to the solution before leaving for lunch, the sulfite ions from the sodium sulfite would have forced the equilibrium far to the left, preventing the formation of colloidal sulfur. (Not knowing about colloids, I filtered the solution to no effect; I ended up using it anyway, because as a 12-year-old kid I didn't have the money to replace the chemicals. Surprisingly, the turbid solution worked just fine to fix the prints I processed that day.)

That got me to thinking about the reaction mechanism for that disproportionation reaction, which got me to thinking about reaction order. I decided that this reaction would be a good AP lab session on reaction rate and order. I could determine reaction rate experimentally by using different concentrations of thiosulfate ion in a transparent reaction plate and measuring the time required for sufficient colloidal sulfur to form to obscure the printing on a piece of graph paper under the reaction plate. By making several such observations at different concentrations, I'd have the data required to derive the reaction order.

I'm writing up the lab session now, but I need to fiddle experimentally with volume and concentrations to come up with a standard volume and a range of concentrations that allows the reaction to reach the endpoint in a reasonable time but not so quickly that it's difficult to time accurately.



Here's an article about Freeman Dyson, one of the great scientists of our or any time.

I've never met him, but I've always wanted to. A woman I lived with back in the late 70's was the daughter of a couple who were both resident scholars at IAS. Debbie remembered as a five-year-old child back in 1953 or 1954 being bounced on Einstein's knee and having Dyson crawling around down on the floor playing with her. I've always envied her that.



11:55 - As my regular readers know, I'm a strong supporter of the police. They have a hard job. They're underpaid. They get little appreciation for putting their lives on the line every day. But here's an example of a police officer who shows himself to be so utterly lacking in judgment that he doesn't belong on the street. The whole incident was captured by the video camera in the police car [part 1] [part 2].

Let's look at some of the things that should have clued the cop into understanding that this wasn't a routine traffic infraction:

1. The suspect vehicle comes to a full stop and then proceeds through the red light. This is not normal behavior for someone running a red light.

2. The incident occurs close to a hospital.

3. When the officer turns on his lights and siren, the suspect vehicle doesn't flee, but simply continues driving toward the hospital.

4. The suspect vehicle is running its 4-way flashers.

5. The suspect vehicle turns into the hospital drive.

6. The suspect vehicle parks near the emergency room entrance, where obviously upset and distrait people exit the vehicle, heading for that entrance.

7. The suspect tells the officer that his mother in law is dying right now.

I know quite a few cops, and I believe every one of them would have realized what was going on no later than #5, and probably sooner. All this cop had to do was ask Mr. Moats what was going on and then walk with Mr. Moats into the hospital to verify that his mother-in-law was actually code blue at that moment. He could then have expressed his sympathy and walked away. Mr. Moats had more important things to think about, and this incident probably never would have become public. In fact, Mr. Moats might have thanked the officer for what would have been, in retrospect, providing an escort to the hospital. Instead, I suspect Mr. Moats will sue the city, and probably win a large settlement.

Nor is this the only example of this officer's lack of judgment. Taking the officer off the street would be not just a service to the public, but to the officer himself. Consider this. The officer has a confrontation with a man who is obviously very upset. The officer then allows this person to walk around to the other side of his vehicle, out of sight of the officer. When the suspect comes back into view, the officer is not even paying much attention to him. That's a good way for a cop to get shot.

Many of the comments about the article call the officer racist. It's true that the officer is white and the people in the SUV are black, but I don't think we have sufficient evidence to make such an accusation. I think we have an example of a young, inexperienced officer who might well have done the same thing had the suspects been white. It looks to me as though this officer is on a power trip, and that's exactly the kind of person any police force doesn't want on the street.

The police chief has already apologized, as well he should. He's also announced that the officer has been placed on paid leave pending an investigation. I hope they'll fire this officer, because he makes all of the good cops out there look bad by association.


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Saturday, 28 March 2009
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Sunday, 29 March 2009
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Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.