Week of 31 August 2009
Update: Sunday, 6 September 2009 11:25 -0400
Costco run and dinner with Mary and Paul yesterday. I brought Mary's
personal notebook system home with me. It's the Toshiba Satellite she
bought just before she left for her around-the-world run two years ago,
and it now refuses to boot into Vista, complaining of drive corruption.
I booted an Ubuntu 9.04 live CD on it last night, and was able to see
the drive contents.
Today, I'll connect an external USB hard
drive formatted FAT32 and copy everything off to it and then up to my
drive array before I attempt to use the Vista repair tools. As far as I
know, we don't have a Vista install disc, so I'll have to depend on the
hidden partition to restore Vista. If that doesn't work, Mary said she
won't be at all disappointed if she gets her notebook back with
Ubuntu 9.04 installed on it. I've already verified that the video,
sound, and wireless networking are supported by Ubuntu 9.04.
continuing to prepare for the MAKE: Science Room launch. Although none
of us are happy about the delay, it does allow us to get more stuff
ready before the launch. And, as I've often said, the launch isn't a
deadline, but merely a milestone in an ongoing process.
The hard drive in Mary's notebook is acting flaky, with repeated read
errors. The drive needs to be replaced, but I've never worked on a
notebook system and know nothing about notebook hard drives. I looked
on NewEgg and see a 250 GB Seagate Momentus
drive listed for $60 with free shipping. I know that 7200 RPM drives
produce more heat and shorten battery life, but I think Mary would
prefer a 7200 RPM drive to a 4200 or 5400 RPM unit for the snappier
response. Are there any issues I need to be aware of before I have her
order this drive? I assume the 2.5" form factor is standard and that
any notebook hard drive will fit physically into her notebook, but I
don't know that for sure. Is a two-year-old Toshiba Satellite T2080
likely to have any problems with this SATA drive? Any advice
Tuesday, 1 September 2009
- We watched Lost in Austen
last night. Barbara knows I dislike Bronte/Austen stuff, and was
worried that I'd overdose. I told her not to worry. As long as there
were plenty of "I like her dress" moments, I'd be fine. (Actually, I'd
prefer that the actresses were topless, but good dresses are
I actually dislike pretty much all "literary"
fiction, but I have a special dislike for the Bronte/Austen stuff. No
car chases, no shooting, nothing at all interesting except good
dresses. I blame it on my eighth grade English teacher, who subjected
us to a constant diet of literary fiction. In essence, she had us read
stuff that she liked. That was fine for the girls in the class, but I
(along with all of the other boys) was almost comatose for the entire
eighth-grade English course. I mean, Great Expectations?
Give me a break. I didn't care about the supposed symbolism of Miss
Faversham and her stupid cake. I wanted to mash Miss Faversham's face
in her stupid cake. If they wanted to teach 19th century British
literature, they should have divided the class by sex and let the boys
read stuff like Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle. To this day, I
don't read "literary" fiction.
consensus about replacing the notebook hard drive is that there is no
consensus. I've been advised to on no account install a 7,200 RPM
drive; on no account to install anything except a 7,200 RPM drive; to
buy nothing but Seagate; to buy anything but Seagate; and so on. I
conclude that no matter what I decide to recommend to Mary, someone
will have had good experience going that route and someone else will
have had terrible experience. Hmmm.
Mary called last night while we were watching Lost in Austen.
She wanted to know if we had a notebook she could borrow to lend to her
friend Rudi, who was one of her teammates on the Blue Planet Run. He's
doing the Blue Planet Ride, and is currently riding a bicycle across
the country. Mary and Paul met Rudi and put him up for the night.
Apparently, his own notebook died and he needs a loaner so that he can
keep blogging as he rides. We don't own a notebook, but I told Mary I
might be able to get hers into somewhat usable condition by installing
Linux on it.
So that's what I did while we watched the rest of
the program. The hard drive is definitely flaky, but it may last long
enough to let Rudi continue blogging until he can get a replacement of
his own. When I rebooted the notebook after installing Ubuntu 9.04, a
whole lot of text scrolled past listing disk read/write errors, and I
ended up at a black screen. At that point, I thought the system was
DOA, but I tried rebooting it and it came up normally. Everything just
works, including wireless networking. Paul is stopping by this morning
to pick it up. Let's hope it lasts until Rudi's replacement notebook arrives.
Wednesday, 2 September 2009
- A local man is to be freed today
after spending 14 years in prison for crimes he did not commit. He was
convicted in 1995 of raping two teenage girls, but reanalysis of
the DNA evidence has now established that he was not the person
responsible. He was convicted based on eyewitness testimony, which is
notoriously unreliable. Unfortunately for him, DNA analysis at the time
was relatively primitive, and the results did not rule him out.
Fortunately, DNA analysis has improved sufficiently that new DNA
tests were able to establish conclusively that he was not the rapist. I
suppose he must be both delighted to be exonerated, finally, and
frustrated that it took so long.
All of which gets me thinking about DNA projects for the Science Room.
It may have been Heinlein who observed that most people can't think,
and most people who can think don't think. I was reminded of that a
moment ago while I read the most recent article on PZ Myers' blog.
We all tend to think that others are pretty much like us, and it's
useful to be reminded from time to time that there are millions of
people out there, most of them fundamentalist religious nutters, who
consider their own inability or unwillingness to think to be a virtue
rather than a tragic flaw. It's pointless even to attempt debate
with such people, who show up unarmed for a battle of the wits and are
too stupid or too ignorant to understand even the questions let alone
the answers. Needless to say, they never realize that they're beaten
even before they show up.
We continue to engage these
creationist nutters, not because we have any hope that their minds can
be salvaged, but because we want to do what we can to stop them from
damaging the minds of young people by filling them with their
irrational garbage and producing new generations of creationist
nutters. The accommodationists would have us treat these nutters with
respect and deference, which clearly hasn't worked and can't work. I'm
a member of the camp that believes the most effective way to neuter
these morons is to ridicule them ceaselessly, pointing out that their
emperor has no clothes. That will have no effect on them, of course,
but I think it's the most effective way to make sure that bystanders
and fence-sitters steer clear of their lunacy.
Also, I think we
need to start insisting that the fundamentalists put their money where
their mouths are. For example, I just read an article about Pat
Robertson undergoing 10 hours of heart surgery. Why? If he really
believes what he claims to believe, isn't having heart surgery going
against the will of his god? Shouldn't Robertson be anxious to die as
soon as possible so that he can meet his maker? Why should
fundamentalists have access to medical care, antibiotics, insulin,
vaccines, and all the other things that artificially extend their life
spans? In fact, why should fundamentalists benefit from anything
produced by science? They're against science. They're trying to destroy
science. So why allow them to benefit from science? Why don't they
withdraw from society, like the Amish do, and leave the rest of us
The answer, of course, is that fundamentalists are
hypocrites first, last, and always. They don't really believe what they
claim to believe. Note the recent study that found a strong correlation
between depth of religious belief and extreme measures taken to prolong
life. The more religious people are, the more likely they are to insist
on strong, often extreme, measures being taken to prolong their lives.
That tells me that they know they're wrong. There's no afterlife, they
know that, and they're terrified because they are weak and cowardly.
Which pretty much sums up creationists: weak, cowardly, ignorant, and
Thursday, 3 September 2009
That guy I mentioned yesterday who was wrongfully convicted of rape and
spent 14 years in prison was luckier than I realized. According to an
article in the paper this morning, the Winston-Salem Police Department
retained the evidence even though they were not required to do so.
Until a few years ago, the standard was that evidence was retained
until the trial was over and all possible appeals had been completed.
Under that standard, the WSPD was entitled to discard the evidence
years ago, but it chose to hold onto it as well as evidence from other
cases, at no small financial cost to Winston-Salem taxpayers.
cheers for the WSPD, which knowingly undertook a potentially very
unpopular action in the sole interest of justice. Or so I suppose;
I cannot think of any other reason why the WSPD would knowingly and
intentionally spend thousands of dollars to retain "obsolete" evidence,
if not to support future reexamination. It's a truism that cops want to
put away the right guy, whether or not they can prove he did it,
because cops don't like bad guys; DAs want to convict someone, anyone,
and they don't much care if he actually did it or not, as long as they
can "prove" he did. One wonders how many wrongfully convicted people
from other North Carolina cities will never see justice because the
evidence in their cases was discarded before it could be subjected to
improved DNA analysis.
NCSE has released an interesting report
that examines public school science standards, state by state. You'll
probably be surprised two ways. Some of the states that one might
expect to be "good" aren't, and vice versa. Connecticut, for example,
gets a D, and South Carolina an A (!). North Carolina gets a solid B,
which is down from an A in the previous review a decade or so ago.
in mind that these grades are based only on the published science
standards, and don't necessarily reflect reality in the classrooms. For
example, although South Carolina gets a nominal A, I'd be very
surprised if many (perhaps most) actual South Carolina high school
biology classes don't have a strong creationist slant. The converse is
probably also true, of course. I'm sure that in those benighted states
of Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Alabama, and West Virginia there
are large numbers of high school science teachers who really do
teach science instead of thinly-disguised religion. And brave people
they are, too, for placing their students' interests ahead of their own
security and comfort.
Barbara took PTO today to give herself a 4-day weekend. I'll probably
take a bit of down time as well. I also need to take some time to get
my lab cleaned up. When I'm writing up lab sessions and shooting
videos, I tend to do something and then just stack stuff in the lab,
intending to straighten things up later. Every once in a while, I need
to declare it "later" or things would never get cleaned up.
than I expected, I've started writing up and shooting video of some
biology labs for the MAKE: Science Room. I'm starting with
microbiology, so I need to get set up to culture bacteria. That means I
need an autoclave, but those aren't cheap so instead I'll buy an
inexpensive pressure cooker from Wal*Mart or Home Depot.
remember when I started doing microbiology as a teenager. My mother had
a pressure cooker, and for once I asked permission instead of just
snatching what I needed. She was a bit concerned when I told her what
I'd be doing with it, but I assured her that I'd be culturing only
harmless bacteria and that the pressure cooker could still be used for
its intended purpose.
I wish I still had that pressure cooker.
It had been my grandmother's, and she'd used it for home canning. It
was quite large, and I think it was made of cast-iron. It had a
built-in thermometer and pressure gauge. The pressure (and therefore
temperature) was set by placing one of two or three
different weights that came with the pressure cooker in the hole
in the lid. The weights were mushroom shaped with cylindrical
stems, each labeled with the PSI it produced. You set the stove
burner just high enough to keep the weight "bumping" slightly,
with wisps of steam escaping around the base of the weight. I wonder if
current pressure cookers still work the same way.
Saturday, 5 September
Barbara and I ran a bunch of errands yesterday, including finding me a
pressure cooker for microbiology experiments. Home Depot has a bunch of
pressure cookers on their web site, but when we stopped at the Home
Depot we learned that they're only sold on the web site. So we headed
for Wal*Mart, where we found only one in stock, a huge model intended
for home canning. That was $70, so I passed on it. I was surprised to
see shelves and shelves full of home canning supplies. Wal*Mart doesn't
devote shelf space to stuff that doesn't move, so home canning must
still be popular.
We stopped by the sporting goods section,
where I intended to buy a few thousand rounds of .22 rimfire
ammunition. The last time I was there, I bought two or three 550-round
boxes of .22 long rifle for $10 each. I knew that ammunition in general
was hard to come by because everyone started stocking up after Obama
was elected, but I didn't expect .22 to be difficult to find. Wal*Mart
had only a few boxes of 100 of, as the clerk described it, low-power
.22 rimfire rounds, at $6/box. No thanks.
We ended up hitting
the checkout lane with only one plastic kitchen container that Barbara
wanted to store cereal in. The total was $6.34, and Barbara handed the
cashier a $5 bill, a $1 bill, and 34 cents in coins. I asked the
cashier if men ever paid with coins, and she said they did. (That may
be because of Wal*Mart's demographic.) Barbara asked if I thought that
was a secondary sex characteristic, and I told her I did. Other than
very elderly men, who grew up when coins were real money, I don't think
I know any man who carries and uses coins, and I don't think I know any
woman who doesn't. A guy would have paid for that purchase with a $10
or $20 bill, stuck the bills the cashier handed back to him in his
wallet, and put the coins in his pocket. When he got home that evening,
he'd dump the coins into a bowl on the dresser where it would
accumulate with other coins, possibly for months or even years.
Eventually, his wife or girlfriend would take all the coins to a bank
and get bills in return.
We then went to Target, which also had
only one pressure cooker on the shelves, a 7-liter IMUSA model for $33.
I actually wanted one of the smaller Presto units, which sells for
about $20, but I decided I'd better grab what was available. Oddly, the
box had a UL-approved logo on the front. Some of the more expensive
pressure cookers are electric, but the image on the box showed no cord
or switch so I opened the box to find out if it had a power cord. It
didn't, so I'm still wondering why it was UL approved. Oh, well.
now I have a medium size pressure cooker, large enough to sterilize
about a hundred Petri dishes or slant tubes at a time. I'll probably be
doing about a tenth that number at any one time, so my few poor dishes
and tubes will look pretty lonely in that cavernous interior. I told
Barbara that she could use the same pressure cooker to cook regular
food, and she looked at me strangely. In the first place, she said,
she'd never used a pressure cooker and had no interest in using one. In
the second place, did I think she was insane enough to put food in
something I'd been using with bacterial cultures? I told her the whole
idea of the pressure cooker was that it killed anything, and besides
the most dangerous bacteria I'd be culturing was only the Andromeda
- Dogs and babies prone to same classic mistake.
This report on a study of the interaction between babies and adults
versus domestic dogs and adult humans is quite interesting. The study
strongly suggests that dogs have evolved in the last few thousand
years, resulting in a strengthening of the symbiotic relationship
between them and people. No suggestion that people may have evolved
with similar results.
I have an image in my mind of how humans
first hooked up with canines. Here's what I think happened. It all
started maybe 20,000 or 30,000 years ago, when an injured, pregnant,
starving wolf overcame her fear--what did she have to lose?--and slunk
into a group of people around a campfire, hoping for a handout. The men
wanted to kill her immediately, of course. She was, after all, a wolf.
But the women, seeing she was pregnant, took pity on her, protected her
from the men, and fed her. The women nursed her back to health, and she
gave birth to a litter of wolf puppies. Even the men had to admit that
the puppies were cute. The puppies instinctively expected a pack
relationship, and took on that group of humans as their pack.
humans soon realized that there were real advantages to having the
wolves as members of their group. The wolves kept watch at night, and
their hunting instincts and speed made hunting much more efficient and
effective. The wolves, being extremely smart, also soon realized that
there were real advantages to having the humans in their group. Human
weapons allowed them to take large game reliably, so eating became much
less hit-or-miss. And on cold nights, that fire was nice. The humans
soon noticed that some of the wolves were better than others at certain
things, and began selectively breeding for specific strengths.
Eventually, they developed breeds that were particularly good at
hunting, guarding, herding, protection, and so on, from which our
modern breeds were developed. And things have never been the same since.
1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 by