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Week of 30 March 2009


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Monday, 30 March 2009
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09:09 - Busy weekend. It started Saturday morning when I heard a cry of anguish from Barbara downstairs. Our big industrial freezer had lost power. Unfortunately, it was full. A week or so ago, we'd gotten a bulk delivery of meats from Southern Foods, about $900 worth. Along with the Southern Foods stuff that was still in there and a bunch of Costco stuff, there was easily $1500 worth of food in the freezer. I immediately called our insurance agent, who said we were covered with a $100 deductible, but only up to $500 total.

As we were downstairs emptying the freezer into garbage bags, a woman from State Farm corporate called, verified the details, and told us a check for $500 would be on the way today. So, as it turns out, it wasn't a complete loss, but still very annoying. The freezer itself is fine. I'll be keeping an eye on the circuit breaker. Ironically, I'd just talked to Barbara a couple of weeks ago about buying a freezer alarm. Just before she put in the Southern Foods order we were thinking about moving the freezer from my lab out into the unfinished part of the basement. I wanted a freezer alarm because the freezer would be in an area we don't visit frequently. We decided not to move the freezer because it's large enough that we'd have to have taken it outdoors and around to come in through the overhead garage doors. So I ended up not buying the freezer alarm. I wish I had. Ordinarily, I'm down working in my lab at least for a short time several days a week. For the last couple of weeks, I've been writing rather than doing lab work. That unfortunate mistiming made me miss the freezer problem, because I'd almost certainly have noticed that it wasn't running at all while I was down there. Oh, well.

Saturday afternoon, I took a quick look at Kim's desktop system to see the results of a scan I'd started running Friday night with MalwareBytes. I had to do that on the run, because we were having dinner with Paul and Mary and scanning Mary's personal notebook system, which turned out to be completely free of any garbage. When I stopped by Kim's again Saturday, I found a report from MalwareBytes saying that her system had 733 infected objects. Conficker.c wasn't present, but there was an incredible amount of crap on there. The system was running so slowly that just trying to work on it was aggravating. When I opened Control Panel -> Add or Remove Software, for example, it took literally 15 or 20 minutes just to populate the list of installed programs. Uninstalling each program took literally half an hour or more. I had to sit there the entire time so that I could click OK when a dialog box came up. I finally bagged out of that and let MalwareBytes bulk-delete a lot of installed programs. As of now, the system is running at a reasonable speed and is free of garbage, but I still need to do quite a bit of work.

As I was doing all of this, I did have a chance to talk with Kim and Jasmine, together and separately. Jas is having a very tough year at school, academically and socially. Academically, she's taking all honors classes and working her butt off. She doesn't get to bed until 1:00 a.m. most school nights, and spends most of her weekends studying and working on projects. Socially, Jas has a tough row to hoe because she knows her own mind and utterly refuses to give in to peer pressure. Although her high school is one of the "good" schools, she's surrounded by kids who are drinking, doing drugs, and having sex. Just last week, classes were disrupted by screaming from a girl who'd gone into labor. Kim told me she'd again brought up the idea of home schooling with Jas. Jas isn't crazy about the idea, but I think she's at least considering it.

The one thing saving Jas's sanity is that she has a boyfriend, and a good one. Kim has interviewed him at length, and approves of him. Her only objection is that he allows his pants to droop, and Kim says she can deal with that. I actually felt sorry for the boy. Being interviewed by a steely-eyed Kim must be like facing a combination of the Star Chamber and the Holy Inquisition. For my part, I told Kim to let him know from me that if he hurts Jas I would pound him into the ground headfirst until only the soles of his feet were showing.


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Tuesday, 31 March 2009
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08:50 - Science took a major hit below the waterline in Texas last Friday, when the state education board modified the science standards to open the door to creationist nonsense. The only good news was that they eliminated the slimy "strengths and weaknesses" verbiage, which sounds eminently reasonable but is anything but. The problem is that they replaced "strengths and weaknesses" with similar verbiage throughout the standards. The new verbiage also sounds eminently reasonable, until you stop to think about it.

Make no mistake, these new standards directly target evolution, the bane of religious nutters. The two problems with the changes to the Texas science standards are, first, that evolution is a 150-year-old theory that has no weaknesses and, second, that there are literally zero competing scientific theories. Simply put, evolution is the foundation of modern biology. Evolution has been verified experimentally millions of times by hordes of scientists over the last 150 years. Evolution is predictive. In fact, evolution is as certain as any other scientific theory you care to name, including, for example, gravitational theory or atomic theory. Oddly, Texas doesn't seem to want its students to question gravitational theory or atomic theory, but only those scientific theories, such as evolution, that are in direct conflict with Biblical fairy tales.

The "alternatives" so beloved of the Texas education board are not theories within the scientific meaning of the word. They are not falsifiable, they are not useful (in a scientific sense), and they are not predictive. In fact, none of them rise to the level of a hypothesis, let alone a theory. They are, simply, arguments from authority, the "authority" being the Christian bible. "Goddidit" is not a scientific theory, and has no place in a science classroom. Except, of course, in Texas.

Of course, Texas is unusual in that every single one of its middle school and high school students must already have Ph.D.'s in biology, biochemistry, and organic chemistry. Of course they don't. But they must, because the new Texas science standards require them to analyze critically scientific theories for which such analyses require that level of education and knowledge.

If it were just Texas, we could, regretfully, simply write off Texas students. Real colleges and universities could simply tell Texas applicants, "sorry, but we require our applicants to have a real high school education". Unfortunately, Texas is the largest buyer of school textbooks, which means that textbook publishers will have to alter their books to meet Texas "standards", which essentially require those books to be critical of evolution and other scientific theories that the religious nutters object to. And those alterations will also be present in the textbooks purchased by school districts in other states, spreading the Texas insanity into other states as well.

In this war between the forces of darkness and the forces of light, the good guys just took a major hit.


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Wednesday, 1 April 2009
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07:56 - The first day of a new month, and a sea change for me. When I started keeping this journal more than a decade ago, the subhead read "Robert Bruce Thompson, a writer of computer books". Several years ago, as the market for computer books continued to dwindle, I shifted my efforts from computer books to science books.

Now, it appears, in common with other forms of old media, books in general are in decline. There are exceptions, certainly, but in general an ever-increasing number of new titles are chasing an ever-decreasing number of buyers. One doesn't have to be a genius to see the writing on the wall.

So, as of today, I'm no longer writing books. Today marks the start of a new long-term project I'm working on with O'Reilly/MAKE. I can't say much about it yet, but in the near future expect to see me popping up a lot more often on the MAKE web site. And a lot less often here. I have about a year's worth of work mapped out, and all of it needs to be done in the next three months. I'll be busier than the proverbial no-armed paper hanger for the next three months, at least, so don't expect to see much here.


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Thursday, 2 April 2009
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08:27 - Barbara goes to the doctor today to have her custom-made knee brace fitted. It costs two or three thousand dollars, but we'll end up paying only $500 or so with the insurance paying the rest. At that, it's a real bargain, because the alternative was knee-replacement surgery. This brace may allow Barbara to put off having that surgery for a decade or more.



I've been following this North Korean missile thing, and I can't figure out why world leaders treat North Korea's bellicose threats with anything but contempt. All parties, including the UN and China, have told North Korea not to launch this missile. Right now, the missile is sitting on the launchpad, full of extremely volatile liquid fuel. If I were Obama, I'd hit the launcher with a cruise missile. It wouldn't take much of a warhead to destroy the North Korean missile and thereby the launch site as well.

Afterwards, Hillary can just say, "Cruise missile? What cruise missile?" Even China, heretofore North Korea's only supporter, is unlikely to object. They don't want these nutters to have IRBMs any more than the rest of us do. I suppose the concern is that a human wave of North Korean forces would roll over the border into South Korea. I think that's extremely unlikely, particularly in the absence of Chinese support. North Korea has no logistics, tiny POL stocks, and no way to sustain an invasion. And if they attempt a blitz invasion anyway, well that's why we have tactical nukes stationed there.


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Friday, 3 April 2009
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08:32 - Barbara seems happy with her new knee brace. She's supposed to wear it 2-hours-on and half-an-hour-off all day long for the next several days, working her way up to wearing it all the time during the day. She has to get used to depending on the brace rather than favoring the bad knee. I suspect she'll adapt herself to it within a few days.



I just refilled Barbara's Boost Mobile pay-as-you-go cell phone yesterday. She got it January 7th, and the prepaid time expires after three months unless you add money to the account, in which case any accrued time rolls over. There was an initial $10 airtime credit with the phone, which is 100 minutes worth. In three months, she'd used less than an hour of airtime. So I added $10 (plus $0.68 in taxes and fees) to roll over her existing airtime and give her another 100 minutes of airtime, for a total of 143 minutes of air time that expires 1 July.

Actually, according to the Boost Mobile service rep, there's no minimum add required to roll over current time for another 90 days. I could have added just $5, or even $1 and it would have rolled the time. So, potentially, Barbara could have a cell phone for the grand total of $4/year, assuming she used no more than 40 minutes of airtime a year. More realistically, given Barbara's typical airtime use of about 15 or 20 minutes/month, her cell phone would cost only about $18 to $24/year. Call it $2/month. And, of course, she can add airtime anytime she wants to, using the phone itself and her credit card.

I understand why people who are heavy airtime users sign up for monthly plans, but a $50/month plan would buy 500 minutes/month with Boost Mobile's pay-as-you-go plan. I can't imagine that many people actually spend more than eight hours a month talking on their cell phones, but perhaps I'm out of touch. I'd never spend that much time on the phone, and it has nothing to do with airtime charges. Heck, I don't spend eight hours a month talking on our regular phone. In fact, I checked our VoIP detailed call log, and I spent less than three hours total on the phone for the month of March. Anyway, it seems to me that a lot of people could spend a lot less on cell phone service by dropping their monthly plans and going to prepaid.

Which brings up another interesting thing. Boost Mobile's store has been out of stock on accessories for Barbara's phone model ever since we bought the phone. She wanted a case and car charger, and I was thinking about buying her a spare battery while that phone model is still current and spare batteries are still readily available. Finding accessories was harder than I thought it would be. They were available on-line, but no one locally seemed to have them in stock, including the Nextel/Boost store at the shopping center. We were able to find a car charger for her, but that was it.

Then I realized why we were having a problem finding accessories. The phones themselves are disposable. We paid $30 for the phone, so it doesn't make a lot of sense to spend money on a case to protect it or for a spare battery, which'd probably cost a significant percentage of the original cost of the phone. I told Barbara to forget about the case and spare battery. If she drops the phone or the battery dies, we'll just buy a new $30 phone and transfer her airtime over to it. Duh.


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Saturday, 4 April 2009
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09:15 - I see in the morning paper that Time-Warner is rolling out bandwidth caps in the Triad starting this autumn. They justify it by talking about infrastructure costs, which is a red herring. Their primary infrastructure, the fiber loop and cable drops to homes, is already in place and long-ago paid for. Upgrading active network components is cheap. What this is really all about is discouraging people from dropping cable TV service and getting their video via the Internet. Bandwidth caps make it impractical for people who watch much TV to use the Internet to get it. The details haven't been revealed, but if TWC does what they've done in other markets, there'll be caps of 5, 10, 20, and 40 GB/month.

There are about 2,629,800 seconds in a month. At Roadrunner's highest class of residential service, 10 megabit/s, the theoretical bandwidth available to a subscriber is therefore [2,629,800 seconds/month * 10 megabits/second] = 26,298,000 megabits/month. I'm sure they're using 10^6 megabits rather than 2^20 megabits, so call it [26,298,000 megabits/month * 1,000,000 bits/megabit] = 26,298,000,000,000 bits/month. Or [26,298,000,000,000 bits/month / 8 bits/byte] = 3,287,250,000,000 bytes/month. Dividing by their 1,000,000,000 bytes/GB gives a potential maximum throughput of [3,287,250,000,000 bytes/month / 1,000,000,000 bytes/GB] = 3287.25 GB/month.

So, if they place a 40 GB/month bandwidth cap on their fastest and most expensive service grade, what they're in fact telling us is that they'll allow us to use [40 GB / 3287.25 GB] = 0.012 = 1.2% of the theoretical bandwidth we're paying for. Or, another way of looking at it is that their "10 megabit/s" service actually offers a maximum average throughput of 0.12 megabit/s.

I wouldn't have a problem with reasonable bandwidth caps. Say 3,200 GB/month on that 10 megabit/s service class, rather than the theoretical 3,287.25 GB/month limit. Heck, I'd probably even be willing to settle for a 1,600 GB/month cap. But 40 GB/month is simply outrageous.



10:47 - I hate "environmentally-friendly" products. That phrase is code for "it doesn't work very well, if at all", just as "low-fat" is code for "tastes like shit".

I'm doing laundry now. On our last Costco run, Barbara and I picked up a large bottle of liquid laundry detergent. To my horror, when I started using it I noticed the "environmentally-friendly" tag on the front. Surprisingly, it wasn't very prominently displayed. I almost decided not to use it, but we had no other laundry detergent, so I held my nose and dumped a cup into the washer, using about twice as much as recommended. It made suds, but only barely. The clothes come out of the washer okay, I suppose, but it's difficult to tell if it's actually cleaning them very well. Somehow I doubt it.

I want stuff that works, no matter how environmentally-hostile it is. In fact, I'm thinking of dosing this environmentally-friendly laundry liquid crap with a scoop or two of phosphates and maybe a big squirt of Dawn dishwashing detergent to improve it.


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Sunday, 5 April 2009
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10:42 - Well, the North Korean missile launch was pretty much a complete failure. At least they got it off the pad this time, which is better than expected. Apparently, separation was achieved between the first and second stages. Alas for the North Koreans, the second stage appears to have failed, putting it, the third stage, and the payload into the drink. Or at least that's what the US military claims. The Koreans claim their satellite achieved orbit and is now playing tunes from the North Korea top 40. Believe who you want to believe. I know who I believe.


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