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Week of 5 October 2009


Latest Update: Saturday, 10 October 2009 11:48 -0400

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Monday, 5 October 2009
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10:36 - I'm almost fully recovered from the labyrinthitis/vertigo now, although my balance is still a little shaky at times. I was able to do laundry this weekend, including carrying laundry baskets up and down the basement stairs. I'm still using my mother's four-footed cane, and will continue to do so until I'm completely recovered.

The Make: Science Room is starting to come together, both the Make blog and the Maker Shed.

We're posting about ten new articles a week on the blog, which we'll continue doing until we run out of prepared articles. That will be a while, because we have a total of something like 125 articles--mostly about chemistry, forensics, and lab procedures--in various stages of preparation. Once those are all published, I'll start on articles about biology, earth science, physics, and the other sciences. Those will be published at a rate of maybe one to three articles per week, because I'll not only have to write those articles from scratch, but I'll actually have to do the labs, shoot images, and so on.

The Maker Shed Science Room is running a Grand Opening Sale for the month of October. The regular prices are competitive with other home science vendors, but we decided to have what amounts to a Crazy Eddie sale to get things kicked off.  So, for the rest of this month, most of the lab equipment and chemicals are deeply discounted. For example, our regular price on 250 mL beakers is $2.70, but they're now priced at $1.69 each. If you do want to grab any lab equipment or chemicals, now's a good time to get some real bargains.

The catch is that the sale prices are limited to stock on hand and items that are received and added to inventory during October. Inventory quantity on many of these items is relatively limited, but we are reordering when we go out of stock. If an item status is listed as "on order", that means it's not in stock, so you can't add it to your basket. In that case, you can instead click the link to have Maker Shed notify you by email when the item arrives. We're out of stock right now on maybe 15% of our lab equipment items, most of which should be in stock in the next week or so, and about 50% of our chemicals, most of which should be back in stock by the last week of October.


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Tuesday, 6 October 2009
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09:06 - I'm usually extremely conscious of lab safety, but yesterday something happened that proves even experienced and conscientious scientists can screw up big time. On Thursday, 17 September, I suffered a severe vertigo attack. The day before that, I'd been shooting videos in the kitchen about preparing agar culturing medium and using it to fill Petri dishes and slant tubes. After the video shoot, I'd washed up glassware and put it to one side of the kitchen table, planning to do more setups and shoot more video the next day.

Yesterday, I noticed that among that jumble of glassware and equipment on the kitchen table were four poured and unstoppered slant tubes, just sitting there like little cobras. I'd intended to stopper them with cotton balls and later autoclave them in the pressure cooker, but that Wednesday afternoon I had a preliminary dizzy spell that I wrote off to too much caffeine. I completely forgot about those culture tubes, and left them sitting there for more than two weeks, growing who knows what.

When I noticed them yesterday, I immediately flamed the mouths of the tubes, stood them in a beaker, and filled them with Lysol solution. That beaker is now sitting in my lab. Any bacteria present in the tubes are certainly dead, but spores aren't killed by Lysol (or any other liquid disinfectant). I'll sterilize them later by heating them to dryness in a 400 F oven for half an hour or so, which'll kill anything.

Barbara was not amused when I told her what had happened, and I don't blame her.



Ars Technica reports that new FTC regulations concerning product endorsement by bloggers take effect on 1 December. It's not clear to me if these new regulations are retroactive. Basically, if a blogger reviews a product and is compensated in any way by the manufacturer of that product (including being allowed to keep the review item), that blogger must disclose that compensation or face a fine of up to $11,000 per incident.

Although I'm no longer reviewing computer hardware, I have done so in the past. I have always been up-front about how that works. I have never under any circumstances accepted any direct or indirect compensation from any manufacturer, with one exception: although in a few cases a manufacturer has asked that a review product be returned, the normal policy is that manufacturers do not expect review hardware to be returned. Over the years, I've received and kept hundreds of review samples: motherboards from Intel, Asus, EPoX, and many others; video adapters from ATi, nVIDIA, and others; cases and power supplies from Antec, PC Power & Cooling, and others; hard drives from Seagate, Western Digital, and others; optical drives from Plextor, NEC, and others; memory from Crucial, Kingston, and others; digital cameras from Olympus, Concord, and others; and so on. I've also gotten free software from Microsoft and many others.

As I've said many times in the past, those free products had zero effect on my recommendations. Although free computer hardware might seem like a good bribe to most people, trying to bribe a computer hardware reviewer with free computer hardware is like trying to bribe a movie critic with free movie tickets or a book reviewer with free books. Oh, I suppose it might work with a small-time operator. The guy who runs Joe Blow's Blog probably doesn't get a lot of free review samples, so he might be swayed by a free motherboard from Intel or a free video adapter from nVIDIA.

But the big-time operators--and I include myself in that category because I was the author of the top-selling PC hardware books for O'Reilly--are immune. Like Tom or Anand, my problem was never not having enough computer hardware samples to keep me happy. My problem, as Barbara can attest, was having too many. At times, nearly every horizontal surface in the house has been covered in boxes of computer parts samples. I remember the day--I wish I'd shot a picture--when five or six delivery trucks all showed up and parked in front of our house at the same time--FedEx, UPS, DHL, Airborne, USPS, and one or two others--all of which were delivering boxes of free computer hardware. In short, if you need a hard drive, a free hard drive might be a pretty good bribe; if you already have 100 hard drives going spare, the 101st isn't likely to be much of a bribe.

Fortunately, I no longer review computer hardware, so unless the FTC rules are retroactive that shouldn't be an issue. I suppose I should formally disclose that in the course of my work for Make and Maker Shed, they send me free products that I don't have to return. When I need a product or products to use in writing up a lab session for the MAKE blog or shooting images or videos, I simply submit an order to Maker Shed using my top-secret coupon code that gives me a 100% discount and free shipping. Also, when I'm considering ordering a particular product for Maker Shed, I sometimes request a sample from the manufacturer or distributor. I don't get charged for that, either, and I (usually) don't have to send it back.

This is all so stupid. Is there anyone at all who actually believes that Tom or Anand pays for computer hardware samples, or that I pay for the stuff I need from Maker Shed?


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Wednesday, 7 October 2009
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Thursday, 8 October 2009
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08:27 - Barbara just left to pick up her parents and head down to the beach for a few days. It'll be wild women and parties for Malcolm and me while she's gone.

There were two big local stories in the paper this morning. Two cops were shot and critically injured by a man who'd shown up at a Bojangles to confront his ex-wife, who is a manager there. She'd warned the other employees about him, and one of them hit the panic button to dial 911. The cops showed up, and he started shooting. And Dell announced that its $110 million Winston-Salem manufacturing facility will close in January, only four years after opening, a victim of the shift from desktop to notebook computers and the failure of Dell's build-to-order strategy for desktop systems against lower-cost build-to-inventory competitors. That costs the Triad more than 900 high-paying manufacturing jobs, a heavy blow on top of the current 11% unemployment rate. Fortunately, Dell failed to meet required milestones and must return more than $300 million in state and local incentive payments.


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Friday, 9 October 2009
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12:28 - Malcolm and I are counting the days until Barbara returns from her trip to the beach. Last night for dinner I had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and peppermint lifesavers. As usual, Barbara left me all kinds of good nutritious stuff to eat, but (as usual) I'm pigging out on bad stuff. Malcolm had dog food with Beef-a-roni, which Barbara often gives him, so at least he's getting a balanced diet.



Another young woman I adore. Abbie Smith, AKA ERV for her studies of endogenous retroviruses, is currently working on her Ph.D. Her incisive mind and caustic tongue are the bane of Young Earth Creationists everywhere. As she points out, she's good at ambushing them at events because she looks like a sweet young thing who wouldn't say boo, but underneath that adorable exterior beats the heart of a pit bull. It may not be a coincidence that her dog, Arnie, is a pit bull.


Other than watching her destroy creationists, one reason I really enjoy reading her blog is that she makes accessible a complicated topic about which I know little.

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Saturday, 10 October 2009
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11:48 - Firefox has been driving me nuts. I finally figured out what's going on, but not what causes the problem. In a nutshell, Firefox sometimes temporarily forgets all saved passwords. If I go to the Saved Passwords dialog, it's blank. If I try to login to Google Docs or Paypal or whatever, Firefox doesn't fill in the blank fields on the login screen. When I first saw that blank dialog and realized that I could no longer login to numerous sites, I was horrified. Rather than recording the username and password somewhere, I trust Firefox to keep my saved login information for trivial things like my Youtube account.

Fortunately, I discovered that closing and restarting Firefox restores the saved passwords. Unfortunately, that's often not trivial, as I sometimes have 30 or 40 instances of Firefox running on multiple desktops. I can kill the Firefox process in Linux, which makes them all go away. But when I restart Firefox and tell it to restore the instances, it puts them all on the current desktop and I have to sort them out manually.

I'm running Firefox 3.0 because 3.5 hasn't been backported to Ubuntu 9.04. A quick Google search tells me that the problem still exists in 3.5 from the sound of some of the problem reports, but it appears that no one has discovered that this is a temporary problem that can be fixed simply by closing the browser. The real problem occurs if you don't realize what's going on and enter incorrect login credentials manually. If you do that, you overwrite the correct (and invisible) information with your incorrect guess.

Again, I don't know what causes this problem. It may be one of the plugins I have loaded, or it may be a bug in Firefox itself. It may be related to the large number of Firefox windows I often have open. But at least now I know the workaround: (a) don't enter login information manually and (b) exit and restart Firefox.



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Sunday, 11 October 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.