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Week of 22 March 2010

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Monday, 22 March 2010
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10:24 - Things are in full swing on the new edition of Building the Perfect PC. We already have some components on the way to us, including Intel Core i3, Core i5, and Core i7 processors, various Intel motherboards, and various Antec cases. This week, I'll be requesting samples from Seagate, Western Digital, ASUS, AMD/ATi, Kingston, Crucial, and so on.

We'll be building half a dozen project systems, as usual, with probably one or two AMD systems and the remainder Intel. AMD has been going through a rough patch for some time now, and that's likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Intel owns the very low end with the Atom processors. Intel also owns the mid-range and up--call it $120 or more for a processor--with the Core i3, Core i5, and Core i7 processors. AMD simply can't compete in that range. However, AMD does own the entry-level segment, where processors cost $50 to $100. In that range, AMD gives you more cores and more threads than Intel can touch. And, of course, AMD owns the 3D graphics market, with ATi graphics boards blowing  away nVIDIA products all the way across the range from low-end to extreme high-end.

As things stand right now, we're planning on doing the following configurations:

Appliance System - a Mini-ITX system with an Intel Atom dual-core motherboard/processor and possibly a small SSD in a tiny case. Very low power consumption, almost no noise. Kind of like a Mac Mini, but running Windows or Linux. Ideal as a second or third system, dorm system, front end for a split Media Center/Home Theater system, etc. This one will probably end up being my new den system.

Budget System - a microATX system, with processor and motherboard not yet determined, but probably a $65 AMD processor on an ASRock motherboard. Performance should be noticeably higher than the mainstream system we did two years ago.

Mainstream System - a traditional mini/mid-tower system built around the Intel Core i5-661 processor on an Intel DH55TC board.

Media Center/Home Theater System - built around the Intel Core i3-530 processor on probably an ASUS board in an Antec Fusion HTPC case. We'll probably include support for Blu-Ray playback.

Gaming System - a kick-ass full-tower system built around the Core i7-980X processor on an Intel DX58SO board, with CrossFireX/SLI support.

Home Server System - we're still talking about this one. It may end up as an Intel Atom-based system with lots of disk storage or as a larger system with the resources to serve as an HTPC back-end, including enough disk space for most people to rip their DVD collections to the hard drives and Wi-Fi support to make it easy to connect satellite systems (like a bedroom HTPC front-end).

So, that's what we'll be working on for the next few months.


Tuesday, 23 March 2010
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08:36 - I haven't commented on the health insurance debacle because my regular readers probably already have a pretty good idea of where I stand on this. Come November, Democrats are going to pay a heavy price for forcing this abomination down our throats. It's a parting on the left instead of a parting on the right, and the beards have all grown shorter overnight.

The problem is, the only real alternative to voting for these radical left-wingers is voting for the Republican theocrats. Talk about dumb and dumber. Pournelle thinks the Republican party needs to be reorganized into a conservative wing and a libertarian wing. I wish him much luck with that, but I don't think it's going to happen and if it did happen it'd likely be too little, too late. More likely, I'm afraid, is an eventual outright revolt by the states and the people against the federal government. That won't be pretty. Think tanks in the street. Maybe not this year or next, and maybe not for a decade or more. But, given the extreme divisiveness of current politics, I think that's where we're inevitably heading. Ah, well. If it comes to that, I know which side of the barricades I'll be on.

12:16 - Here's the new Washington, DC license plate. Politicians are sometimes honest, but only unintentionally.


Wednesday, 24 March 2010
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14:57 - I just spent some time talking with Kim, whom I hadn't seen for a couple of months other than to wave to as she passed in her car. She's been busy with Jasmine doing the whole college admission routine, visiting faires, filling out forms, talking to guidance counselors, and so on. Since Jasmine started high school, she's wanted to go to UNC Chapel Hill, but Kim says it looks like she won't be able to get in. Jasmine's GPA is about 3.8 or 3.9, but Kim said UNC-CH standards require a 4.9 GPA, which is to say a solid A/A+ average for someone who's taken all honors courses. Kim says UNC-CH also requires at least three and preferably four AP courses, again with A averages.

I told Kim that I don't know for sure, but my guess is that those requirements are not the minimum for admission but rather a level at which admission is, if not guaranteed, at least almost certain. Otherwise, I suspect, UNC-CH would be rejecting almost every applicant.

Jas has taken some hits to her self confidence. She did very well in Honors Algebra I two years ago, but struggled a bit with Honors Geometry last year, where she ended up getting a B. (Jas hates Bs.) So, this year she took standard Algebra II, and everyone, including her teacher and herself, realized very quickly that she should have been in the Honors course. Jas's curriculum for next year is already set. In the past, the school had given the kids until nearly the end of the school year to finalize course decisions for the following year. This year, they got one week only to decide, and Kim is worried that Jas should have signed up for a more difficult course load.

I suggested to Kim that she might want to think about home schooling Jas next year. She said she'd be willing to do it if Jas was willing. Jas's objection in the past had more to do with social issues than educational issues, but the social issues are no longer a problem. Jas has been participating in a cotillion group since she started 11th grade, and may do so again next year. Kim says that group has done wonders for Jasmine, and that she's watched Jas bloom.

Social issues aside, I told Kim that if Jas wanted to home school for her senior year I'd be happy to help with the science and math stuff. In fact, I suggested that Jas might want to do, say, AP Chemistry and AP Calculus at home this summer and/or on weekends next year, if she ends up attending public school. Kim is all in favor of that. As far as taking the AP exams, I told Kim that, as far as I knew, anyone is eligible to take them whether or not that person has attended a public-school AP course, but she's going to check into that.

We'll see what happens. Jas is already under a lot of pressure, and she may elect not to put still more pressure on herself.


Thursday, 25 March 2010
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14:12 - For those of you who want to set up a *real* home lab, here's your opportunity. Pfizer is closing down a pharma research facility and everything must go. This isn't old junk. It's state-of-the-art stuff, most of which is probably in great shape. I've talked to people who've gotten stuff from lab closures before. In some cases, the facility literally threw open its doors and let anyone who wanted to walk in off the street and carry stuff off. It saved them the cost of having it hauled away. I don't know what kind of prices the auction will bring, but it wouldn't surprise me to see $100,000 instruments sell for $100, literally.

Now if only I could convince Barbara that I really need a GC/MS and can figure out somewhere to put it...


Friday, 26 March 2010
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12:02 - FedEx showed up yesterday with the first of what will eventually be a flood of PC hardware. I'm now the proud owner of three Intel processors--a Core i3-530, Core i5-661, and Core i7-980X--along with DH55TC and DX58SO motherboards. I'm spending some time this week and next renewing my contacts with PC hardware vendors. Many of those contacts have moved on, of course, some in interesting ways. For example, yesterday I was getting ready to call Kingston about some memory samples. I found that my primary contact in the Kingston marketing department has moved on, and is now doing the same job for Western Digital. Just as well, because I wanted to talk to Western Digital about getting some samples, and I'm sure she'll be able to tell me who to talk to at Kingston.

At the same time, I'm working on my own project, which is putting together chemistry kits for home schoolers, along with supporting documentation and videos. Science is the hardest and most expensive subject for home schoolers to do well because of the material requirements, and chemistry is the hardest and most expensive of the sciences. As far as I can find, there's only one company addressing that need, and their products are pathetic. They have two chemistry kits, the first of which they represent as covering chemistry lab "instruction at a college-preparatory level", and the second of which they represent as covering AP chemistry lab work. In fact the first kit is pretty trivial, and I suspect the second isn't much better.

I was actually considering suggesting that Maker Shed carry these products, so I had the company send me a manual for the basic chemistry kit. Just flipping through the manual for a few minutes made it clear that this kit is, words fail me, whatever the opposite of rigorous is. I decided I could do much better for the same price, so I decided to put together a kit for basic first-year high-school chemistry, eventually to be followed by a second kit for honors first-year high-school chemistry and a third kit for AP chemistry. Eventually, I'll probably do kits for biology, physics, and the other middle-school/high-school sciences, but chemistry is the first priority.

I'm going to start small. My original goal was to start shipping kits in small numbers in time for the start of the first semester of the 2010 school year this autumn, but I suspect that goal isn't makable. If I can't do it right and still make that deadline I'll simply aim at the second semester or at autumn of 2011. I'll probably put together 50 to 100 kits to start, a fair number of which I'll send as samples to reviewers who write for home schooling magazines and web sites.

That kind of volume I can handle in the basement. (There's no danger involved doing it that way; I'll be packaging pretty innocuous stuff like 1 M hydrochloric acid, 1 M copper(II) sulfate solution, and 0.1 M potassium iodide solution.) If things take off and I find myself selling thousands of kits a year, I'll obviously have to make other arrangements. In the meantime, I've been getting all my ducks lined up. Much of that is administrative. Stuff like filling out forms to create an LLC, applying for tax numbers, and so on. And, of course, I have to write up the actual labs and supplemental materials, shoot images, script and shoot videos, and on and on. There's a lot of work involved, but I like to stay busy.

Unfortunately, chemistry instruction in our public schools appears to be getting worse every year. There are some exceptions, certainly, but many high schools now teach chemistry as a lecture course, with a few demonstrations if the kids are lucky. Having kids do actual hands-on lab work is becoming a thing of the past because of cost and liability concerns. Here's a video of one of the better high-school chemistry teachers I've seen on YouTube. Her name is Melanie Harlan. She's enthusiastic and obviously relates well to the kids, but (not to slam Melanie) I'd guess she majored in education rather than chemistry. I shudder at some of the flat-out wrong things she's telling these kids.

Incidentally, if you watch her videos you may notice that everything is reversed. When I pointed this out to her she didn't at first understand what I meant. When I pointed out that the lettering on her t-shirt and the periodic table in the background was a mirror image, she said she had no idea what caused that. The videos are shot with the web cam in her MacBook, which apparently renders video as a mirror image. Very strange.

At any rate, if most kids, whether home-schooled or public-schooled, are going to get any exposure to hands-on chemistry, it's going to have to be at home with a chemistry kit. From talking to quite a few home-schoolers, I suspect there's a pretty decent demand for such kits. I hear over and over again that home-school parents want to do real chemistry as part of their curricula, but it's simply too expensive to do it with the kits from Home Science Tools and other vendors, most of which cost several hundred dollars, let alone to set up a real home lab. The parents would be more than happy to give up some quantitative work that requires a balance, volumetric glassware, and so on, in exchange for a kit that sold in the $125 range. That vendor I mentioned earlier sells kits in that price range, but they're just not very good ones. I can do much, much better. As a sideline now, perhaps, but eventually as a full-time business.


Saturday, 27 March 2010
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15:24 - It's a usual Saturday, doing laundry and cleaning up the lab. The fourth load of laundry is washing and the third drying. Clean glassware now covers about 10 square feet (1 square meter) of counter space, and that's not counting what I already put back in the cabinets. It's times like these when I really wish I had an Ygor.

Barbara and I recently finished watching series 2 of Breaking Bad. It was as good as the first season, which is to say excellent. They don't really get into the details of making methamphetamine, but what they do touch on in passing is pretty realistic. Well, except things like having Jesse run out and buy a bunch of 2-liter boiling flasks with ground glass joints and reflux condensers. That's certainly stuff that would be very useful in a meth lab, but not something you're likely to find locally unless you break into a serious lab facility and steal the stuff. There's also an occasional real bogosity, such as Walt being trapped in the desert with a dead battery and jump-starting their RV with a battery he makes from pocket change and potassium hydroxide, but otherwise the science is pretty believable. The scripting and direction are very tight, and the acting is first rate.

Things are likely to be sparse around here for some time. I have a dental appointment next week, book deadlines looming, and of course 15 April is tax day. I'll try to post now and then, but there won't be much.


Sunday, 28 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.