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Week of 8 March 2010


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Monday, 8 March 2010
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10:33 - Ars Techica opened a can of worms last Friday when without notice they started blocking visitors who were using Adblock Plus. In this followup article, they asked visitors to whitelist their site. The comment thread is approaching 1,500 entries now, and it's running about half-and-half between those who have either whitelisted the site or paid the $50/year subscription and those who refuse to do either.

I side with the latter group. I won't subscribe because Ars Technica simply isn't worth $50/year to me, or anything near that. I check the headlines every day or two and occasionally read an article. Ars is apparently paid per viewer rather than per click. Even if I were viewing their ads, I doubt they'd be making more than a buck a year from my visits and ad views, and probably nowhere near that much. So that's my upper limit for what I'm willing to pay them for ad-free browsing. If Ars allowed readers to decide how much to pay for an annual subscription to an ad-free version of their site, I'd happily send them a buck via PayPal. But they don't, so I won't.

As to viewing their ads, Ars claims they vet all of their ads and says those ads are innocuous. Nothing could be further from the truth. Vet them they may, but they run Flash-based ads, which are anything but innocuous. People who allow Flash-based ads to run on their computers are fools. In particular, any knowledgeable Linux or OS X user runs FlashBlock or a similar plug-in, because Flash itself plays havoc with their systems, spiking CPU utilization to 100%, sucking up gobs of memory, running notebook fans constantly, and causing frequent crashes. Like many people, the only reason I have Flash installed is so that I can view YouTube and similar sites, and I make the decision to allow Flash on a case-by-case basis. There's simply no way I'd allow Flash to run full-time, and the fact that Ars wants its readers to do so merely to increase their ad views is still more evidence that they care nothing about their readers.

But it goes further than that. Ars uses third-party ad servers, which are known sources of malware infections. Ars can vet ads all they want, but that's meaningless if they're delivering ads from third-party ad servers. And simply turning off Adblock Plus doesn't get it done for Ars. You also have to turn off NoScript or whatever script-blocker you're using, because Ars runs lots of scripts from third-party servers to support their ad revenue generation scheme. Yeah, right, like any sane person is going to allow arbitrary scripts from unknown and untrusted sites to run. Once again, the fact that Ars wants you to run these arbitrary scripts is more evidence that they care about you only insofar as you're a source of ad revenue for them. Furthermore, even if Ars could somehow guarantee that every one of those ads and scripts would be malware-free, they'd still be anything but innocuous. They'd still be tracking your web browsing activity across sites, which is a gross privacy violation.

My advice to Ars is this: stop whining about people taking reasonable steps to protect themselves and fix your business model instead. Advertising as a business model is hopelessly broken, and not just on the web. That's why newspapers are dying and why Fox and ABC are trying to suck huge amounts of money from cable companies who want to run their free OTA programming. Ads aren't generating sufficient revenue--for newspapers, TV networks, or web sites--and they'll never do so again. If you continue to depend on ad revenue, you're toast. Don't blame rational visitors for avoiding your annoying and dangerous ads. Fix the problem.



Here's an interesting article about the problems that secular homeschoolers have finding non-religious science curriculum materials. The article greatly overstates the percentage of religious versus secular homeschoolers, leaving the impression that about 5 out of 6 homeschool families are fundamentalist Christians.

In fact, it's closer to 50:50, because many homeschool families that self-identify as Christian are in fact doing secular homeschooling. Those families are not young-earth creationists, who  deny evolution and believe the Earth is 6,000 years old. They recognize the reality of evolution, the fact that humans and apes shared a common ancestor millions of years ago, and that the Earth is billions of years old rather than thousands. They may attend church every week, but they're not homeschooling for religious reasons. They're homeschooling because they want the kind of rigorous education for their children that is no longer available in public schools, because they dislike NCLB and teaching-to-the-test, because they're concerned about school violence or drugs, and so on.

And it's those families, whether religious or truly secular, who are being so poorly served by currently available homeschool curricula. The article mentions Calvert School, which is all well and good, but the Calvert curriculum goes only through 8th grade. That leaves a gigantic gap--all of high school--that secular homeschooling families struggle to fill.


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Tuesday, 9 March 2010
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07:57 - We've been watching series 3 of The Tudors, which is generally well written and has high production values. However, it has the same annoyances of the first two series in terms of arbitrary departures from actual history. Anyone who remembers the history of that period will periodically be struck by "Wait, it didn't happen that way!" moments. The pity is that, as far as I can remember, none of those arbitrary changes were in any way necessary to improve the series. It seems that the writers changed things just because they could.

The lack of aging of the main character is also intrusive. In the first series, we met Henry as a slender, athletic young man of about 27, played by an actor of about 30. So far, so good. But here we are in series 3, at a time when the real Henry was quickly approaching 50 and had grown corpulent, and he's still being played by the same young actor, now about 32. The disconnect is striking. If I'd been producing the series, I would have used two or perhaps three different actors to portray Henry as he aged.

Still, for all of these minor criticisms, it's a series worth watching if you have any interest in the events of that time.



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Wednesday, 10 March 2010
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09:03 - A year or two ago, on the advice of my dental hygienist, I bought a Water Pik. I used it a few times and then it ended up being stored in the cabinet under the bathroom sink. When I was in last week, she again advised using it, so I dutifully got it out of storage, recharged it, used it a few times, and decided again to discontinue using it. It's just a pain in the butt.

But as Barbara and I were washing the dinner dishes last night, I was struck by a Cunning Plan. Yep, you guessed it. I adjusted the water temperature to a comfortably warm level, stuck the sink sprayer in my mouth, and sprayed away. The jets of water from the sink sprayer are at least as energetic as those from the Water Pik, and there are many instead of just one, making it more likely I'll get complete coverage. Surprisingly, it's actually less messy to use the sink sprayer than the Water Pik. And the sprayer is easily cleaned by dipping it in the soapy dishwater and then rinsing it under the tap.



Last night, we watched the first disc of Cold Feet, a British version of Friends. Never having seen Friends, I was expecting something like Coupling meets thirtysomething, and that's pretty much what it is. It stars James Nesbitt (from Jekyll) and Helen Baxendale (from An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and the American Friends), along with an excellent supporting cast.

The writing is first-rate, aided by the fact that the series creator and lead writer isn't on an ego trip. Apparently, much of the plotting and dialog was modified on-the-fly to incorporate suggestions from the cast and director (and, for all I know, the cameraman and lead gaffer) to make things as realistic as possible. And it shows. For example, when one of the couples gets into an argument, there's the same uncomfortable feeling one experiences when witnessing a real-life argument among married friends. Much like thirtysomething as I remember it.

There are five seasons totaling 35 episodes. Netflix has only the first three seasons currently, but all are available on region one DVDs. They're all in our queue.


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Thursday, 11 March 2010
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08:00 - Things aren't always what they seem on first glance. When I read the first couple of paragraphs in this article about Kansas City shutting down 29 of 61 public schools, my first reaction was that they were taking a meat ax to their school system.

Reading on, however, it became obvious that this was just another example of typical so-called government "cuts". Too little, too late. Although they're closing 47.5% of their public schools, they're cutting only 700 of 3,000 school jobs, or 23.3%, rather than eliminating a proportional 1,426 jobs. Still, this might seem a pretty large cut. Until, that is, you read on to learn that the student population in KC schools is now only half what it was only ten years ago and a quarter what it was at its peak in the late 60's. So, in fact what the KC schools are doing is closing half of their physical buildings, which will yield only minor savings, while keeping their expensive headcount at ridiculously high levels. Particularly since they were probably grossly overstaffed even 10 years ago, and probably 40 years ago as well. In all likelihood, all the school system really needs now is a third of their current staff rather than the more than three-quarters that they plan to retain.

What would I do? Close at least half of the school buildings and put them up for auction. Fire all of the staff. Rehire a third of them, and do so selectively, offering jobs to only the best of the former employees. Offer them a fraction of their former salaries and benefits to start, with the understanding that raises will be predicated solely on performance and, further, that the maximum salary and benefits they can ever be paid are capped at the average for private-sector jobs in the community. And that's being generous, considering that most teachers work considerably fewer hours per year than many private-sector employees.


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Friday, 12 March 2010
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08:21 - It looks like Barbara and I will be doing a new edition of Building the Perfect PC. We haven't signed a contract yet, but things are moving along.



YouTube autocaptioning is still in beta, but they launched it site-wide a few days ago. Most videos now have a CC button that allows you to view automatically-generated captions. It doesn't work very well, but like the dancing bear it's still pretty amazing. I downloaded the automatic captions from my latest video, retyped them all manually, and uploaded the corrected captions.

In all fairness, my videos are about science and contain a lot of jargon. It's unfair to expect automatic caption generation for such videos to be even marginally good, let alone perfect. Fixing captions manually takes quite a while, and I'm not sure I want to spend that much time on it. I have had multiple requests for captioning, mostly from people whose first language is not English. Obviously, they're also useful for people with hearing problems. So, although I'd like to do it for all of my videos, and may do it for future videos, I can't really justify spending the time to go back and caption all of my earlier videos.

Here's a side-by-side comparison between what Youtube thinks I said, on the left, and what I actually said, on the right. Obviously, the autocaptions are so bad that they're essentially useless. My particular favorite is the commentary about Brandon Hilton, who appears to be quite religious.

0:00:00.750,0:00:04.940
I'm Robert response in and this is the home scientist video series

0:00:04.940,0:00:09.540
in this segment will isolate elemental running
from a water treatment and nickel sold by

0:00:09.540,0:00:11.959
swimming pool and hot tub suppliers

0:00:11.959,0:00:16.559
the chemicals called for a mean bass which
is actually crusading bromide

0:00:16.559,0:00:21.179
it's available and one were to come almost
for for five bucks a pound

0:00:21.179,0:00:26.809
like the other hilton's brandon is very corrosive
and produces irritating choking hymns

0:00:26.809,0:00:31.009
although it's liquid at room temperature its
world war one point behind the profession

0:00:31.009,0:00:34.410
that when we produce his pocket and twist
in the papers

0:00:34.410,0:00:38.059
if you use a procedure that's wrong in this
movie is obsolete from me

0:00:38.059,0:00:41.320
you don't have to watch your honor if she
lost both

0:00:41.320,0:00:46.100
all use the same reaction to isolate brown
mean that I used in an earlier video obviously

0:00:46.100,0:00:47.090
I'm going

0:00:47.090,0:00:51.410
the city find a solution that can change your
mind on its and reacting the solution with

0:00:51.410,0:00:56.390
a strong marks about your often does is provide
arms of nicole brown

0:00:56.390,0:00:58.680
worries it's supposed to

0:00:58.680,0:01:03.820
okay let's get started the more massive said
he and brown modest wanted to point eight

0:01:03.820,0:01:05.660
nine four grams jamal

0:01:05.660,0:01:10.860
i'd wait out five point one five grams of
sodium bromide which is about zero point zero

0:01:10.860,0:01:12.120
five miles

0:01:12.120,0:01:16.870
so to my mind is seventy seven point six six
percent browning by mass

0:01:16.870,0:01:21.370
so are expected you live from maine is four
points here in France

0:01:21.370,0:01:25.810
so do you bring to mind is extremely soluble
in water so I actually need only about six

0:01:25.810,0:01:28.900
or seven milliliters to dissolve blood sample

0:01:28.900,0:01:35.900
on Monday and would then because as we've
seen excess water isn't a problem

0:01:41.550,0:01:46.670
the city in Vermont is all the next step is
to and a strong alliances

0:01:46.670,0:01:51.299
I'm using hundred court yesterday you can
also use or cure cancer there were any other

0:01:51.299,0:01:54.430
strong allies

0:01:54.430,0:01:58.820
the next step is to authorize the Vermont
on students over me

0:01:58.820,0:02:03.460
you can use almost any star marks allows you
to do that including Korean wonderfully or

0:02:03.460,0:02:05.150
vast improvement in it

0:02:05.150,0:02:09.640
I'm using ordinary folks were three percent
hydrogen peroxide because it's a very strong

0:02:09.640,0:02:12.959
talks about you that we have stood for what
we ought to do more

0:02:12.959,0:02:18.379
I mean at least zero four zero five ml of
hydrogen peroxide thoughts about solving bromide

0:02:18.379,0:02:20.439
on staten island in a brilliant

0:02:20.439,0:02:25.939
most or cross on solution is about zero point
eight more for about zero point zero zero

0:02:25.939,0:02:28.139
zero eight most per milliliter

0:02:28.139,0:02:30.640
so I mean about sixty two and a half milliliters

0:02:30.640,0:02:37.640
I'm actually use in about seventy five the
leaders to make sure the prosecution access

0:02:55.609,0:02:58.729
for the first few seconds nothing appears
to happen

0:02:58.729,0:03:00.589
as the reaction proceedings

0:03:00.589,0:03:06.339
the solution is since a gradually beeper yellow
color as the bottom line on chirac's about

0:03:06.339,0:03:07.529
elemental them

0:03:07.529,0:03:14.529
so will allow this to sit the reaction to
continue to completion

0:03:14.589,0:03:18.729
okay it's been a couple hours and the results
on what I expected

0:03:18.729,0:03:22.679
the solution in the flask is now a fairly
intense yellow orange color which indicates

0:03:22.679,0:03:27.819
that there's some brownie President but not
nearly as much as expected frankly when I

0:03:27.819,0:03:31.329
added the hydrogen peroxide unexpectedly is
also more

0:03:31.329,0:03:35.909
to what occurred when I had of the hydrogen
peroxide the I've got a mixture of the earlier

0:03:35.909,0:03:36.880
video

0:03:36.880,0:03:41.890
there's with the %uh relatively instantaneous
transformation of the ground what our would

0:03:41.890,0:03:42.809
around me

0:03:42.809,0:03:46.180
well clearly that's marker we do have some
brown denied before

0:03:46.180,0:03:48.619
last week what's giving it the orange color

0:03:48.619,0:03:52.499
but nowhere near as much as expected

0:03:52.499,0:03:57.659
well as it turned out I didn't end up with
a concentrated on the more I was expecting

0:03:57.659,0:04:01.439
instead I ended up with about one hundred
world leaders of relatively donnelly printing

0:04:01.439,0:04:02.239
water

0:04:02.239,0:04:07.430
that work for what I needed it for the first
place testing some organics from saturation

0:04:07.430,0:04:10.629
but what happened here raises an important
point

0:04:10.629,0:04:14.749
as any practicing cameras will tell you things
don't always work out the way you expect them

0:04:14.749,0:04:19.339
to even if you've done the same reaction successfully
before

0:04:19.339,0:04:23.809
sometimes nothing at all happens sometimes
a lot more happens that what you were expecting

0:04:23.809,0:04:27.289
which is why we always wear gloves and calls
in a while

0:04:27.289,0:04:29.279
we subscribe rate and comment
0:00:00.750,0:00:04.940
I'm Robert Bruce Thompson and this is the Home Scientist video series.

0:00:04.940,0:00:09.540
In this segment we'll isolate elemental bromine
from a water-treatment chemical sold by

0:00:09.540,0:00:11.959
swimming pool and hot tub suppliers.

0:00:11.959,0:00:16.559
The chemical is called bromine base, which
is actually crude sodium bromide.

0:00:16.559,0:00:21.179
It's available in one- or two-pound bottles
for four or five bucks a pound.

0:00:21.179,0:00:26.809
Like the other halogens, bromine is very corrosive
and produces irritating and choking fumes.

0:00:26.809,0:00:31.009
Although it's liquid at room temperature its
low boiling point and high vapor pressure mean

0:00:31.009,0:00:34.410
it readily produces toxic and
corrosive vapors.

0:00:34.410,0:00:38.059
If you use the procedure described in this
video to isolate bromine

0:00:38.059,0:00:41.320
do it only outdoors or under an
exhaust hood.

0:00:41.320,0:00:46.100
I'll use the same reaction to isolate bromine
that I used in an earlier video to isolate

0:00:46.100,0:00:47.090
iodine.

0:00:47.090,0:00:51.410
Acidifying a solution that contains bromide
ions and reacting the solution with

0:00:51.410,0:00:56.390
a strong oxidizer oxidizes bromide ions
to elemental bromine.

0:00:56.390,0:00:58.680
Or at least it's supposed to.

0:00:58.680,0:01:03.820
Okay, let's get started. The molar mass of
sodium bromide is 102.894

0:01:03.820,0:01:05.660
grams per mole.

0:01:05.660,0:01:10.860
I've weighed out 5.15 grams of
sodium bromide, which is about 

0:01:10.860,0:01:12.120
0.05 moles.

0:01:12.120,0:01:16.870
Sodium bromide is 77.66
percent bromine by mass,

0:01:16.870,0:01:21.370
so our expected yield of bromine 
is 4.0 grams.

0:01:21.370,0:01:25.810
Sodium bromide is extremely soluble
in water so I actually need only about six

0:01:25.810,0:01:28.900
or seven milliliters to dissolve my sample.

0:01:28.900,0:01:35.900
I'm going to add more than that because, as 
we'll see, excess water isn't a problem.

0:01:41.550,0:01:46.670
With the sodium bromide dissolved, the next 
step is to add a strong mineral acid.

0:01:46.670,0:01:51.299
I'm using hydrochloric acid, but you can
also use sulfuric acid or any other

0:01:51.299,0:01:54.430
strong mineral acid.

0:01:54.430,0:01:58.820
The next step is to oxidize the bromide
ions to elemental bromine.

0:01:58.820,0:02:03.460
You can use almost any strong oxidizer
to do that including chlorine laundry bleach 

0:02:03.460,0:02:05.150
potassium permanganate.

0:02:05.150,0:02:09.640
I'm using ordinary drugstore three percent
hydrogen peroxide because it's a very strong

0:02:09.640,0:02:12.959
oxidizer that reacts to form
only oxygen and water.

0:02:12.959,0:02:18.379
I need at least 0.05 moles of
hydrogen peroxide to oxidize all of the bromide

0:02:18.379,0:02:20.439
ions to elemental bromine.

0:02:20.439,0:02:25.939
Drugstore peroxide solution is about 0.8
molar, or about 0.0008

0:02:25.939,0:02:28.139
moles per milliliter,

0:02:28.139,0:02:30.640
so I need about 62.5 milliliters.

0:02:30.640,0:02:37.640
I'm actually using about 75 milliliters
to make sure the peroxide is in excess.

0:02:55.609,0:02:58.729
For the first few seconds nothing appears
to happen.

0:02:58.729,0:03:00.589
As the reaction proceeds

0:03:00.589,0:03:06.339
the solution assumes a gradually deeper yellow
color as the bromide ions are oxidized

0:03:06.339,0:03:07.529
to elemental bromine.

0:03:07.529,0:03:14.529
So, we'll allow this to sit for the reaction to
continue to completion.

0:03:14.589,0:03:18.729
Okay, it's been a couple hours and the results
aren't what I expected.

0:03:18.729,0:03:22.679
The solution in the flask is now a fairly
intense yellow orange color which indicates

0:03:22.679,0:03:27.819
that there's some bromine present, but not
nearly as much as expected. Frankly, when I

0:03:27.819,0:03:31.329
added the hydrogen peroxide, I expected
results similar

0:03:31.329,0:03:35.909
to what occurred when I added the hydrogen
peroxide to the iodide mixture in the earlier

0:03:35.909,0:03:36.880
video.

0:03:36.880,0:03:41.890
That is, for the, uh, relatively instantaneous
transformation of the bromide ion to

0:03:41.890,0:03:42.809
liquid bromine.

0:03:42.809,0:03:46.180
Uh, clearly that's not occurred. We do have some
bromine in the flask 

0:03:46.180,0:03:48.619
which is what's giving it the orange color

0:03:48.619,0:03:52.499
but nowhere near as much as I expected.

0:03:52.499,0:03:57.659
Well, as it turned out I didn't end up with the
concentrated bromine water I was expecting.

0:03:57.659,0:04:01.439
Instead I ended up with about 100
milliliters of relatively dilute bromine

0:04:01.439,0:04:02.239
water.

0:04:02.239,0:04:07.430
That worked for what I needed it for in the first
place, testing some organics for unsaturation,

0:04:07.430,0:04:10.629
but what happened here raises an important
point.

0:04:10.629,0:04:14.749
As any practicing chemist will tell you, things
don't always work out the way you expect them

0:04:14.749,0:04:19.339
to, even if you've done the same reaction successfully
before.

0:04:19.339,0:04:23.809
Sometimes nothing at all happens. Sometimes
a lot more happens than what you were expecting,

0:04:23.809,0:04:27.289
which is why we always wear gloves and goggles
in the lab.

0:04:27.289,0:04:29.279
Please subscribe, rate, and comment.





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Saturday, 13 March 2010
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Sunday, 14 March 2010
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Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.