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Week of 29 June 2009


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Monday, 29 June 2009
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11:21 - We've been watching mostly forensics mystery series lately. Well, that and the 1997 version of Ivanhoe. We've made it through several Inspector Alleyn mysteries and Commander Dalgliesh mysteries, all three available seasons of Bones, and the 2004 version of the Canadian Murdoch Mysteries. Right now, we're working our way through the 2008 version of the Murdoch Mysteries series and series one of Crossing Jordan.

Of the modern series, the best are the 2004 Murdoch Mysteries, which did an excellent job in every respect, including getting the science right for the time, and Crossing Jordan, which occasionally ventures into fantasy-land, but generally keeps the science (and the roles of the various specialists) reasonably accurate. Jordan does a lot more field work than a real medical examiner, but at least there's some justification for it in the sense that in many jurisdictions a medical examiner does have very broad powers to investigate as he or she sees fit.  Crossing Jordan is also well-written, -produced, and -acted, with good music. The one bad decision on the part of the producers was the regular role-playing gimmick that takes place in every episode, where Jordan acts out the crime with her father, a retired policeman. That's an annoying waste of air time, and I understand they discontinued that gimmick after series two.

Bones is entertaining, but I'd class it more as a science fiction program than a forensics comedy/drama. The science and technology generally treads the line between far-fetched and completely bogus, and it gets worse as the series goes on. The roles of the various specialists are ridiculously broad. For example, Brennan doesn't restrict herself to her area of expertise, forensic anthropology. Instead, she's constantly out in the field, working as the partner of an FBI agent (yeah, right), and performing the roles of several specialists, including those of a medical examiner and forensic pathologist, trace evidence specialist, and so on. She also sometimes carries a gun, and is apparently a master of several martial arts. What saves the program are the high production values, good writing and acting, and the general likability of the cast.

The 2008 version of the Murdoch Mysteries is pretty bad. They obviously threw a lot of money at it, but the best you can say is that it has high production values. The writing and acting are indifferent at best, and the plots are so obvious you can see the end coming from a mile away. The science is ridiculously anachronistic. Here it is 1895, for example, and we have the lead character discussing television with Nicola Tesla and later actually transmitting and receiving voices over radio waves, full-duplex yet. This at a time when spark-gap transmitters were state-of-the-art and even CW telegraphy was years in the future.

If they have any technical advisers, they need to fire all of them and start over. One of my favorite clangers was the episode whose plot depended on whether the chief suspect would have known enough to modify a pistol cartridge into a squib load by removing some of the propellant, and how loud that reduced load would have been. The trouble is, the firearm they were talking about was a derringer, most likely the ubiquitous Remington derringer in .41 rimfire. I fired one of those once, probably 40 years ago. The recoil was surprisingly light.

Or at least I was surprised at the light recoil until I realized that I could actually watch the bullet flying down range. Not just glimpse it in flight, you understand. Actually watch it from the time it left the muzzle until it impacted the target. The muzzle velocity of this round is only something like 400 feet/second in the standard loading (less than half the muzzle velocity of a .45 ACP or a .44 Special). If you removed any propellant from that cartridge, the bullet might not even make it out of the barrel. The Remington derringer was designed as a hold-out gun. You used it only in desperate situations. Ideally, you pressed the muzzle directly against the person's head before you pulled the trigger. Even then, I suspect that sometimes a thick-skulled shootee ended up merely with a bad headache. The bullet from a .41 rimfire had so little penetrating ability that at cross-the-room distances it was often stopped by objects like a pocket watch, a deck of playing cards, or a leather belt. It would probably be more effective to throw an ashtray or a beer mug at your target, literally. And you'd probably be more likely to hit the target.

Every episode we've watched so far has similar clangers. Barbara likes the series, and points out that because she doesn't know much about the history of science and technology in the 19th century she doesn't notice the outrageous anachronisms.

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Tuesday, 30 June 2009
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08:55 - I've thought for years that the medical establishment's definition of "normal" weight was much too low. This study confirms it. FTA:

The study examined the relationship between body mass index and death among 11,326 adults in Canada over a 12-year period. (BMI uses height and weight to estimate body fat.) Researchers found that underweight people had the highest risk of dying, and the extremely obese had the second highest risk. Overweight people had a lower risk of dying than those of normal weight.

In other words, using morbidity and mortality as the yardstick, those currently defined as "normal" are actually underweight, and those currently defined as "overweight" are actually normal weight.



I'm currently evaluating wholesale laboratory equipment suppliers, which sometimes requires having them send me samples to look at. For example, in glassware, I'm familiar with many of the brand names. Pyrex and Kimax are the good stuff, but are very expensive. A Pyrex- or Kimax-branded beaker or flask, for example, sells for two or three times the price of a Bomex (Chinese) or Borosil (Indian) equivalent. Bomex and Borosil are widely available from many vendors, but there are also private-label brands, such as Premiere, which is a house brand of one of the big wholesale vendors.

I'm familiar with Bomex and Borosil, but I'd never seen any Premiere-branded glassware, so I asked the vendor to send me a sample. I examined it under normal light, and was impressed by its quality. I also examined it under polarized light, and found no obvious annealing flaws. I showed the sample to Paul Jones and Mary Chervenak the other day and asked for their professional opinions. They agreed that it appeared to be perfectly acceptable. Paul summed up the likely difference. If you subject 100 Pyrex or Kimax beakers to strong heat, he said, one of them might crack. If you subjected 100 of these Premiere beakers to the same strong heat, maybe two of them would crack.

So at this point, I'm going to treat Bomex, Borosil, and Premiere as interchangeable. Their much lower cost means that we'll be able to sell a small beaker for around $2.50, versus maybe $6 or $7 for the same beaker in Pyrex or Kimax.

Then there are rubber stoppers. One can still buy US-made rubber stoppers, but the prices are very high. A one-pound assortment of US-made stoppers typically sells for $50 or more, versus maybe $10 or $15 for a one-pound assortment of Chinese stoppers. But what's in an assortment is anyone's guess, so I asked a couple of the wholesale vendors to send me samples of their one-pound assortments. Here's the actual stopper count from a sample I received yesterday.

7 - #0 solid
7 - #0 1-hole
6 - #2 solid
5 - #2 1-hole
6 - #2 2-hole
5 - #3 solid
6 - #3 1-hole
7 - #7 1-hole

No #00, #1, #4, #5, or #6 stoppers in any style. No #3 2-hole stoppers. No #7 solid or 2-hole stoppers. And more #7 1-hole stoppers--making up more than half the mass of the one-pound assortment--than anyone is likely to need. If I ordered that one-pound assortment, I'd be pretty upset when I opened the package. Let's hope the other vendor's assortment is more, well, assorted. Something like the assortment I'd have made, which also totals one pound.

6 - #000, solid
2 - #00, 1-hole
2 - #00, 2-hole
6 - #00, solid
2 - #0, 1-hole
2 - #0, 2-hole
4 - #0, solid
1 - #1, 1-hole
1 - #1, 2-hole
2 - #1, solid
1 - #2, 1-hole
1 - #2, 2-hole
2 - #2, solid
1 - #3, 1-hole
1 - #3, 2-hole
2 - #3, solid
1 - #4, 1-hole
1 - #4, 2-hole
2 - #4, solid
1 - #5, 1-hole
1 - #5, 2-hole
1 - #5, solid
1 - #6, 1-hole
1 - #6, 2-hole
1 - #6, solid


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Wednesday, 1 July 2009
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Thursday, 2 July 2009
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Friday, 3 July 2009
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09:41 - I've been remiss in posting here, and I'm starting to get lots of email from people who wonder if I've disappeared off the face of the earth. I'm still here, just very busy. I just finished cleaning my inbox, which, despite the fact that I'd been processing email as it arrived, still had 192 "real" emails in it from the last week. Real, as in the sense of items that I had to read and often that I had to do something about. My inbox has only one item in it right now, about my having to set up a conference call for next week and set up agenda items for the conference.

As to why I've been covered up, the good news is that we now have (or soon will have) more than 300 SKUs on order for the forthcoming Science Room section of Maker Shed (about 160 lab equipment SKUs and about 160 chemical SKUs), with more to come. I'm breaking up and repurposing the home chem lab book into individual web articles, basically one per lab session, and doing the same for the forensics book. Scripting/shooting a bunch of videos. My to-do list looks ridiculous. I have multiple major projects consolidated as single to-do line items, e.g. "write biology, earth science, and physics lab books". I've also got a lot of blue-sky stuff on my to-do list, including stuff like scripting/shooting a full first-year high school chemistry lecture series on video.

One of the very nice things about working with the MAKE crew is that team members are quick to take ownership of jobs that need to be done, but there's no sense of territoriality from any of the team. There's a picture of me next to the phrase "loose cannon" in the dictionary, so I worried about stepping on people's toes, but there are no worries about that. When I mentioned to Dan Woods (the head guy) during a conference call the other day with the other team members that I tended just to do stuff that needed to be done instead of waiting for things to go through channels, everyone cheered. They'd rather get things rolling and worry later about who's supposed to be in charge of what instead of getting all the i's dotted ahead of time. It's really refreshing.

And, as long as you have good people, distributing decision-making authority far down the pyramid is the way to get things done. I'll never forget when I was back in college spending an afternoon talking with a guy about my dad's age who'd been a junior officer in the Waffen SS during WWII. He'd fought with the 1st SS LSSAH division against the Russians on the Eastern Front, and commented that the only reason the Germans had stood as long as they did against the Red Army hordes was that the Germans were much more flexible. He said that he, as a freshly commissioned lieutenant, was authorized to make on-the-spot decisions that would have had to have been bumped up to a colonel or even a general in the Red Army. Then, after D-Day, when the 1st SS Panzer Division was moved to the Western Front, he came up against the US army, and was stunned to find that American NCOs and even privates were making decisions that he as a captain was not authorized to make.



Oh, yeah. For my later reference as much as anything else, here's the other vendor's 1-pound stopper assortment. Not as varied as I'd like, but still a lot better than the first one.

5 - #1, 1-hole
6 - #1, solid
5 - #2, solid
5 - #3, solid
5 - #4, 1-hole
4 - #5, solid
5 - #5.5, 1-hole
2 - #6, 2-hole
2 - #6, solid


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Saturday, 4 July 2009
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Sunday, 5 July 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.