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Week of 9 November 2009


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Monday, 9 November 2009
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10:09 - Boy, do I hate Windows. I haven't used it myself for more than five years, but it still comes back to bite me sometimes. Yesterday, Barbara was visiting her sister and called me to say that they were having problems with Thunderbird on their notebook system. When they tried to open it, they got an error box telling them it was already running and they should close it or shut down the computer. Nothing showed up in Task Manager, and restarting the system didn't work.

I was trying to walk Barbara through things on the phone, but I no longer remember Windows well enough to do that. She brought the notebook home, and to make a long story short, Windows had trashed the Thunderbird profile. I searched for ways to recover the data, but it was gone. There was nothing for it but to delete the corrupted profile and reconfigure Thunderbird from scratch.

I talked to Frances later to see if her memory of why they were running Windows Vista on this system was the same as mine. It was. They bought the notebook right before Al took off on a month-long trip. The notebook obviously had Windows Vista running on it, so in the interests of getting them something reasonably stable and workable before Al left, I just installed Skype, OpenOffice.org, and a few other apps on the Windows system. Now that things aren't so pressing, I'll blow away Vista and install Ubuntu for them.



I made an interesting discovery the other day. Usually, Barbara cleans the bathrooms as part of cleaning house. But Saturday she was fully occupied getting up about a million leaves in the yard that I did the house cleaning while I was doing laundry. While I was cleaning toilets, the Lysol toilet duck thing ran out of blue juice. I'd assumed that it would be based on sodium bisulfate, but when I checked the label I found that the only active ingredient was "Hydrogen Chloride...... 9.50%", or hydrochloric acid, with the other 90.5% being inactive ingredients, presumably blue dye and goopifier (to use the technical term).

Let's see. The last time I bought a gallon of 31.45% muriatic (hydrochloric) acid at Home Depot, it cost about $6.00, IIRC. That gallon could be diluted to about 3.3 gallons of 9.5% acid, at a cost of about $1.80 per gallon, or about $0.45 per quart. I wonder how much that quart of Lysol toilet duck stuff costs. More than $0.45, or I miss my guess. I suppose I could spend a few cents on blue dye and a bit more on some goopifier, but I don't see the point. A 9.5% HCl solution slaughters nasties on contact. Off the top of my head, I'd guess one second of contact with 9.5% HCl probably results in at least a 5-log reduction, if not 6-log. A few drops of dishwashing liquid would ensure that the acid solution wets the porcelain thoroughly.

So I mentioned this to Barbara, who told me thanks, but no thanks. She prefers the real blue goop.


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Tuesday, 10 November 2009
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12:15 - Yet another medical breakthrough at Winston-Salem's Wake Forest University. Rabbits' sexual facility restored: Results hold promise for men's ED.

A group of Wake Forest University researchers has grown fully functional penile erectile tissue in rabbits, using a procedure that one day may be used to treat erectile dysfunction in men.

I think they should be thinking bigger, literally. There's money in ED treatment, sure. Viagra proved that. But there's even more money in penis enlargement, if my inbox is any indication. These researchers should be thinking not just about ED treatment, but actual enhancement. You want 8"? Fine, that'll be X thousands of dollars. You want 10"? Fine, that'll be 4X thousands of dollars. You want something to fill up a Blackadder-size codpiece and make experienced hookers flee screaming in terror? Tough luck. You can't afford it, and Obama's healthcare plan isn't going to pay for it.



16:26 - It happened 34 years ago today. The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. I was living in Rochester, New York at the time, within spitting distance of Lake Ontario, doing graduate work at Rochester Institute of Technology. It made the national news, but it was the subject of conversation for a week or more in communities around the Great Lakes. To this day, when I think about a ship sinking, I don't think first of the Titanic, but of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

When the Fitzgerald is mentioned, people who've never seen the Great Lakes or an ore carrier probably think about small boats on recreational lakes and choppy waves. The Edmund Fitzgerald was the length of two-and-a-half football fields, and storms on the Great Lakes match anything the North Atlantic can come up with in terms of ferocity. This was not a helpless small boat sunk in a minor storm. This was a huge ore carrier sunk in what amounted to a hurricane.

I think the reason it hit everyone so hard was how close they came to making port safely. As Lightfoot sang, she'd have made Whitefish Bay if she'd put 15 more miles behind her. To this day, Lightfoot's ballad is the most haunting piece of music I've ever listened to.




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Wednesday, 11 November 2009
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08:36 - We've had nearly four inches (10 cm) of rain since the Ida remnants started moving in yesterday morning, with another three to six inches (7.5 to 15 cm) expected today and tonight. With the three inches we got a week or so ago, things are pretty soggy around here. At least the combination of heavy rain and high winds is bringing down most of the remaining leaves.



When I talk with college professors, one of the recurring themes is the growing sense of entitlement that their students have. When I was in college 35 years ago, a student who got bad grades had only himself to blame, no matter how hard he'd worked. Nowadays, there seems to be an almost universal belief that a student who works hard should be given an A based on that effort, even if he hasn't come close to mastering the material. Worse still, there seems to be a growing belief that simply showing up for classes entitles students to above-average grades. Worst of all, many students (and their parents) now seem to believe that simply paying the tuition entitles the kid to an A. Higher education has become entirely commercialized; the student pays money to the university, and expects high grades in return.

On a related note, this article by AC Graying is worth reading. He talks about what a university education is supposed to be, educating our best and brightest students to think and work independently, versus what it has become, training mostly mediocre students to regurgitate facts and figures. Of course, this shift in emphasis was predictable once colleges and universities began admitting large numbers of unqualified students.

As of now, probably nine out of ten college and university students have no business being there. All of the money and effort spent "educating" them is essentially wasted. They're not learning anything worth knowing, but merely wasting four years of their lives and spending a lot of (usually borrowed) money to obtain what is ultimately a meaningless credential. The vast majority of these kids end up with a "degree" in something essentially worthless like literature or sociology or education or "womyn's studies".

It's long past time to stop pretending that these meaningless degrees are worth pursuing, let alone being funded at taxpayer expense. We're producing 100 or 1,000 times the number of sociology and literature and history graduates we actually need, but not enough physicians or engineers or scientists. The rule should be, if you can't hack math and science, you don't belong in college. The liberal arts departments should be eliminated wholesale or at least trimmed back to a tiny fraction of their current sizes. Courses in non-rigorous subjects should be at most optional electives for the students, all of whom should be majoring in rigorous disciplines.

Sure, we need a few students majoring in touchy-feely stuff, but just one large university liberal arts department could produce all the sociologists and historians our society really needs. And the North Carolina School of the Arts by itself could produce all the drama and theater majors the country really needs.

Of course, this would mean that all colleges and universities would have to reduce themselves to 10% of their former sizes or, more likely, that 90% of all colleges and universities would have to cease operations. You might argue that that's unlikely to happen, and you'd be right. At least under the current system. But it would happen overnight if the government subsidies went away. Eliminate government-subsidized student loans, grants, and scholarships, and you'd suddenly find that the number of sociology majors would plummet to 0.1% of current numbers. Any kid would still be free to pursue a sociology degree, but he and his parents would have to pay for it in full.

But continue (and expand) subsidies for students who are qualified to pursue degrees in real disciplines. In fact, make the subsidy 100% for STEM majors all the way through to a terminal degree, if they wish to pursue it and are qualified to do so. Of course, this would be elitist and horribly politically incorrect--favoring smart people, ewww--so it's not going to happen.


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Thursday, 12 November 2009
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13:29 - I love science. I mentioned Abbie Smith a month or so ago. Here's her article about how some new science saved two kids who were otherwise doomed.

If you wonder why I push science and science education so hard, this is just one example. We as a species need Abbie and a hundred thousand more like her devoting their lives to figuring things out. We need our brightest 0.1% to be encouraged to focus their powers on STEM. The other 99.9% can do useful and worthwhile work, certainly, but it's that 0.1% who will make nearly all of the important discoveries.

But encouraging and educating our best and brightest is only half the solution. We also have to make sure they're free to do what only they can do. Every time one of our geniuses decides to devote her life to making money on Wall Street, it's a small disaster for the species. Every time a bright new Ph.D. in a hard science finds himself working in another field because he can't find a job in his own specialty, it's a small disaster for the species.

They tell a story about John D. Rockefeller. Or maybe it was Henry Ford; my memory isn't what it once was. Rockefeller had called in an efficiency expert to streamline operations and cut waste. Rockefeller was a man who took pains. When he learned that his workers were using 40 drops of solder to seal a can of oil, he asked the manager if they'd ever tried using 38 drops. They tested that and found that cans sealed with 38 drops occasionally leaked, but those with 39 drops never did. Continuing to use 40 drops would have been wasteful, so Rockefeller standardized on 39 drops, saving himself hundreds of thousands of dollars.

At any rate, the efficiency expert soon noticed that one of the offices in the executive suite was occupied by a man who never seemed to do anything. Every time the efficiency expert passed this guy's office, the guy was sitting there with his feet up his desk, reading the newspaper while he earned a big salary. So the efficiency expert mentioned this to Rockefeller, and suggested that firing this guy might be a good way to start saving money. Rockefeller replied that he paid that guy to think, and if he thought best with his feet up on the desk, that was fine with him. Rockefeller went on to explain that just one of this guy's ideas had saved the company millions of dollars, and that he'd happily continue to pay him for the next 50 years on the off chance that he'd come up with another idea even half as good.

Our scientists--all of them--are that guy, and we as a society need to treat them the same way Rockefeller treated his idea man. Sure, many of them will labor in obscurity all of their careers, producing nothing and discovering nothing that's ultimately useful. So what? That's the price of doing business. Even negative results have value in the sense that someone had to try it to discover it didn't work. And obscure, apparently useless discoveries have a way of turning out to be extremely valuable once more is known. All scientific data are valuable. It's just that some are more valuable or more immediately useful than others. But all of it is worth knowing and worth paying for.

So, what would I do if I were Obama and our Congress? Easy. As much as I hate taxes, if I'm going to be taxed I at least want my taxes going to something productive and useful. To get started on fixing the problem, I'd boost grant funding for the hard sciences by an order of magnitude, right now. I'd also offer grants to cover 100% of university and graduate school costs, including a generous living stipend, for anyone with a tested IQ in the top 0.1% if that person majors in a hard science, engineering, math, or medicine. And I'd offer generous tax benefits--deductibility of salaries off the bottom rather than off the top; a tax credit rather than an expense deduction--for companies who hired these folks. In other words, it would cost these companies literally nothing to hire a scientist.

Sure, it'd be expensive, but ultimately less expensive than not doing it. And the cost of doing this pales compared to the trillions we've thrown down the drain pursuing war in the Middle East and bailing out banks and auto companies. Doing what's needed to allow science to flourish incurs high costs, but in turn provides gigantic returns.


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Friday, 13 November 2009
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11:44 - Friday the 13th falls on a Friday this month...

I'm going on temporary hiatus as of today, six weeks before Christmas Day. As is true of most retail operations, things will be insanely busy for Maker Shed for the next six weeks. My time is allocated fully between now and then, so at most I'll be doing very short and sporadic posts here.


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Saturday, 14 November 2009
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Sunday, 15 November 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.