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Week of 2 August 2010

Latest Update: Friday, 6 August 2010 09:46 -0400

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Monday, 2 August 2010
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08:33 - I've mentioned before that my formerly first-rate memory led me to develop habits that are no longer sustainable now that my memory is no longer what it was. Several years ago, the first time I noticed that I'd actually forgotten something that I'd intended to remember, I bought an Olympus WS-100 digital voice recorder. It's a tiny little thing, and runs forever on one AAA alkaline cell. It has a neck strap, and I've now started carrying it routinely to record voice reminders.

For example, when I was working in the lab the other day, I recorded six short reminders: order a kilo of sodium sulfite, order a kilo of sodium citrate, order 250 g of calcium nitrate, order a couple of 1 liter volumetric flasks, order a box of 9 cm qualitative medium-speed filter paper, and order a bunch of small spatulas. When I get back to my office, I listen to the voice notes and enter the appropriate reminders in my calendar/to-do list, pending orders spreadsheet, and so on. Without those voice notes, I might have remembered two or three of those items, or even four. Chances are I wouldn't have remembered all six.

I've withdrawn my application for YouTube partnership. The only reason I applied in the first place was that non-partners are limited to video runtimes of 10:59, while partners have no limit on time. Now that YouTube has extended the allowable length for non-partner videos to 15 minutes (presumably, actually 15:59), the time limit is no longer a big issue. There are times when I'd like a bit more than 10 minutes, but 15 minutes should be more than enough. The downside to a YouTube partnership is that they can run ads on those videos, which I didn't want but was willing to tolerate in exchange for the longer video times.

In addition to their much higher prices, one of the really annoying things about Time Warner Cable VoIP service is that they nickel and dime you to death. Phone Power, Vonage, and the other third-party VoIP providers typically bundle most features as standard. It costs them essentially nothing to provide such features as an unlisted number, caller ID, voicemail, and so on, so they include it in the base price. Not TWC. They charge two or three bucks a month for an unlisted number, several bucks a month for voicemail, and so on. What a bunch of weasels.

About the time we changed over to Phone Power back in January 2008, our answering machine died. We never bothered to replace it, because Phone Power provides voicemail, and emails you an audio file of any new voicemail messages. TWC charges something like $5 a month for simple voicemail, without (as far as I know) the email notification. There was no way I was going to pay that, so we decided to pick up a new answering machine.

Simple answering machines have become relatively hard to find. Wal*Mart had only a couple models in its on-line catalog, and only one of those was listed as being available at our local store. So I checked the Costco website and found that they carried no answering machines, but they did carry several cordless phone systems with built-in answering machines. One of those was a Panasonic DECT 6.0 Plus system with four handsets, regularly $100 but on sale for $80. So Barbara and I made a Costco run yesterday and picked one up. The base station sits in my office, connected to the UPS, so even if we have a power failure we'll still have phone service.

TWC isn't installing VoIP service until August 18th. Phone Power requires a 30-day notice to cancel, so we still have semi-functioning Phone Power service. Given that, I didn't bother to buy a cell phone for me.

11:14 - I'm glad I checked. I signed up last week for Time Warner Cable phone service on their web site, and scheduled installation for 18 August. I never got a confirmation email, so this morning I called TWC to make sure I was in fact scheduled for installation on 18 August. I spoke with a very nice woman who could find no record of our request for phone service installation. At least I'm now comfortable that TWC will indeed show up to install the service, and as it turns out it'll be on 11 August rather than 18 August.

As we were going through the details, our Phone Power VoIP service dropped dead, for the third time so far today. I quickly rebooted the terminal adapter, she called me back, and I told her she now knew why we were changing providers. As she was summarizing everything, she mentioned there'd be a $20 installation charge. I said that when I signed up on the web site it had waived that charge, so she waived it for me. So now our TWC bill goes up by $19.95/month, or $22.90 with taxes and fees. Of course, that's their special promo price, good for only 12 months. So, about 10 months from now I'll call them up and tell them I plan to cancel service and move to a different provider. I'll bet they'll give us that price indefinitely to keep us from dropping their service.

I found the following grad school humor in a comment on Derek Lowe's chemistry blog yesterday, and I'm still smiling. The PI is the Principal Investigator, the professor who leads a group of (typically) one to six or eight grad students in an investigation. The grad students do most of the work, and the PI gets his name first on the paper and thereby most of the credit. The grad students' reward is to get their names on the paper as well. The PI sometimes actually reads the paper to find out what his grad students have been doing. (Just kidding, Paul.)

Q: You find yourself in a room with Hitler, Stalin and your PI. You have a gun, but only two bullets. What do you do?

A. Shoot your PI twice.

Finally, Pat Condell has a new video posted that's worth your time to watch. In Freedom is my religion, Condell takes on the left-wing, politically-correct atheists who attack him and defend Islam. Condell has some pretty good left-wing credentials himself, but over the past few years he's seen the damage that political correctness has done and continues to do, and his politics have become increasingly libertarian.


Tuesday, 3 August 2010
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08:09 - An article in yesterday's WSJ, Microsoft Quashed Effort to Boost Online Privacy, shows just how little Microsoft cares about its users' privacy. Microsoft programmers, who are decent human beings, intended to release a new version of Internet Explorer that included reasonable features to protect users' privacy. Microsoft executives, including their "chief privacy strategist", stomped all over that.

"Mr. Cullen, Microsoft's chief privacy strategist, says the input of outsiders helped Microsoft strike a balance between privacy and advertising interests."

Some balance. As the article makes clear, the privacy advocates within Microsoft walked away with nothing. Those who favored raping users got it all. What few privacy options remained in the released version were turned off by default. Incredibly, those options, as weak as they are, are not just turned off by default, but must be turned on each time the user starts the browser. Microsoft intentionally made it almost impossible for IE users to avoid being raped by advertisers.

I've been waiting for someone to start up a grass-roots initiative to fight back against the advertisers. Here's what I do when I set up a Linux system for friends and family:

1. Install Firefox.

2. Install Adblock Plus and subscribe to Easy List.

3. Install Flashblock.

4. In Firefox, clear the "Accept cookies from sites" check box, and delete any existing cookies. Teach the person how to enter exceptions for cookies they want to allow, and teach them the difference between permanent cookies and session cookies. Warn them not to allow Google to set cookies.

5. In the user's home directory, delete any files and directories present in the .macromedia directory and mark that directory read-only.

At this point, their system is by no means perfect in terms of maintaining privacy, but it's about 99% of the way there. Aunt Minnie can use the system without tripping over problems caused by the privacy settings. For users who are more technically competent, I'll also disable javascript and tell them how to selectively re-enable it when necessary. If I think the user would be comfortable with it, I'll install NoScript and explain how it works and how to configure it.

We should probably all be doing this every time we visit a friend or family member. It takes only a few minutes to do, and people are invariably grateful. If those of us who understand this stuff did this routinely, we'd eventually put a big dent in this problem. Not to mention an even bigger dent in IE market share.


Wednesday, 4 August 2010
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10:05 - Josh Rosenau asks, "Who Is a Scientist?" His article rebuts another article that claims the following requirements for a scientist:

- Does scientific research for a living,
- Publishes research in peer-reviewed journals,
- Is funded by granting agencies to do it,
- Does not just write about it, or study it, or do some of it as a grad student, or only teach it.

How bizarre is that? Credentialism at its worst. Not one of those "requirements" is necessary to be a scientist, let alone all of them. (I'm sure our friend Dr. Mary Chervenak and thousands of other scientists employed by corporations would be shocked to find that they don't qualify as scientists because they're funded by their companies rather than by a grant agency. And I'm sure that thousands of amateur scientists who do real science in every sense would be surprised to find that they don't qualify as scientists because no one is paying them to do science.)

Rosenau rebuts that article quite convincingly, and concludes that a scientist is "someone who seeks to expand the collective limits of knowledge about the natural world by developing generalized claims and testing them against empirical evidence." I think even that definition is too tight.

To my way of thinking, a scientist is anyone who uses the scientific method to investigate natural phenomena, and considers only evidence-based arguments and reasoning in coming to a conclusion. A 14-year-old kid working in her basement lab may not be doing original research (although amateurs are doing quite a bit of original work in DIY bio and other fields every day), but she is pursuing science just the same, and deserves to be called a scientist.


Thursday, 5 August 2010
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08:00 - We had a bit of excitement last night. We'd just returned from walking Malcolm after dinner. I'd just stepped in the front door with Malcolm when Barbara, who was right behind us, let out a blood-curdling scream. She managed to gasp, "Snake!" and pointed to a King Cobra coiled up on the porch a few feet from the front door.

I got Barbara into the house, grabbed a gripper, and headed back out to capture the snake. It was about 3.5 feet (1 meter) long and about as thick as my index finger. After examining it closely, I'm pretty sure it was a common black snake, but I wasn't (and amn't) entirely certain.

I didn't want to hurt it, so I wasn't squeezing the gripper very hard. It kept slipping out, falling to the ground, and trying to make a run for it. I knew I had to capture and relocate it, or Barbara would never go outside again. I shouted to Barbara to throw me one of the empty square plastic jars that Costco supplies nuts in. After some struggling with the uncooperative snake, I managed to get it into the jar and get the lid screwed on.

I momentarily considered keeping it and shooting a YouTube video of it, but I knew I had to get it away from the house or Barbara would never sleep again. I didn't want to leave her. She was still very upset. So I walked down a couple houses to our neighbors Steve and Mimi. When Mimi answered the door, I asked her if she was afraid of snakes. She said she wasn't crazy about actually touching them, but otherwise had no problem with them. Mimi called their son, Shane, to come see it, and kindly agreed to take it to a wooded area and release it.

I finished edits on the book manuscript yesterday and it's now off to production.


Friday, 6 August 2010
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09:46 - Barbara had no comment on my post yesterday except to question my use of "amn't". I have never much liked the "I aren't" form. One says, "I am" rather than "I are", and I've always considered the "I aren't" construct a barbarity. Ordinarily, I simply construct my sentences to avoid the need for either contraction. "Am I not?" sounds stilted, at least to my ear. There is a perfectly good contraction, "a'in't", but that appears to include the personal pronoun. (Actually, it's probably just an alternate pronunciation of "amn't".) "Amn't" is syntactically correct, and deserves to be in common usage. There's simply no good reason that "am not" should not be contracted.

I probably have at least a couple of weeks before O'Reilly's production folks start sending me PDF proofs. I'll spend that time in the lab and writing up lab sessions for the microchemistry kits.


Saturday, 7 August 2010
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Sunday, 8 August 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.