Week of 30 March 2009
Update: Sunday, 5 April 2009 10:42 -0500
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.
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
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
- 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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".
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.
- 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
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