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Week of 22 November 2010


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Monday, 22 November 2010
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09:09 - Another $150 billion down a rathole. The second Euro domino has fallen, with Ireland joining Greece in bankruptcy. Iceland, Portugal, Spain, and Italy can't be far behind, with France and Belgium in the on-deck circle. Germany has little choice but to participate in this futile bailout, but Britain and Sweden, who have their own currencies, have foolishly agreed to do so as well. With the weakest members of the Euro dragging down the stronger--stronger only in relative terms--it can't be long before the Euro itself crashes. 

At least Ireland has had the sense, so far, not to kill the goose. There have been loud demands for Ireland to substantially increase its corporate tax rates, which would merely have accelerated and deepened the inevitable collapse. Intel, Microsoft, Google, and other tech giants with substantial presences in Ireland basically fired shots across the bow of the Irish government, telling it in so many words that if Ireland increased corporate tax rates they would simply fold their tents and go elsewhere, thereby turning a disaster into a catastrophe.



13:27 - Barbara just emailed me to tell me that Netflix is increasing its subscription rates. We're on the 3-at-a-time plan, which goes from $17/month plus tax to $20/month plus tax. It's still a great deal.

One thing does concern me. Reed Hastings says in the press release that Netflix is now a streaming media company. In the current quarter, Netflix customers will watch more streaming video than DVD video, and Netflix will spend more to acquire streaming content than they will to acquire new DVDs. I don't think this is sustainable. I read an article a month ago that had some stunning numbers in it. According to that article, Netflix traffic now accounts for more than 20% of all bandwidth in use during prime time hours. By year-end, Netflix projects it will double its membership from a year earlier, and I expect that growth rate to continue or accelerate until it reaches saturation. At that point, we're likely to have Netflix eating 50% or more of prime time bandwidth.

Infrastructure is certainly a big issue, but even more so is how Time-Warner, Comcast, and other members of the cable business will respond. Make no mistake, much of this growth in Netflix streaming is a direct result of cable-cutting. Cable subscriber growth has actually shrunk for two successive quarters now, when it the past it had always grown. People are opting out of cable TV, substituting videos they watch on the Internet. Cable TV companies control cable Internet access, which is why they've been fighting tooth and nail against Net Neutrality. They don't want to be dumb pipes. They want people to continue paying outrageous monthly fees for cable TV service. Netflix threatens that. Expect the cable monopolies to fight back with everything they have. Expect them to do everything they can get away with doing to make Netflix streaming unwatchable.



Oh, and I've decided on a final project for the biology book. Remember that movie from 25 years ago, Weird Science? I just emailed Alison Hannigan, Emma Thompson, and Emily VanCamp to request DNA samples. Barbara will not be amused.



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Tuesday, 23 November 2010
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08:32 - Netflix seems to have judged well on its price increases. From reading the forum comments on Ars Technica and elsewhere, it seems most people will make no changes to their accounts, simply accepting the price increase without complaint.

Interestingly, although this price increase is to support the huge increase in streaming license fees Netflix is paying, they've tied it to physical DVD rentals. The 1- and 2-at-a-time plans went up by a buck a month each. The 3- through 8-at-a-time plans increased by the number of discs. That is, the 3-at-a-time plan goes up $3 a month, the 4-at-a-time by $4 a month, and so on. Streaming is unlimited for all of those plans, so effectively people who pay for a lot of discs (and presumably watch correspondingly less streaming video) are paying a disproportionate amount of the increased revenues that Netflix will use to buy more streaming rights.

I was surprised by Netflix's comment that their customers are now watching more streamed video than DVD video and that Netflix is now paying more for streaming rights than for physical DVDs. I was even more surprised when I saw the actual numbers. In the most recent quarter, Netflix paid $115 million for streaming rights, a ten-fold increase over a year ago, while they paid only $30 million for new DVDs, a significant decrease from a year ago. In other words, Netflix is now paying something around $2.50/month per subscriber for streaming rights, versus only about $0.60 or $0.70/month per subscriber for new DVDs.

Like most long-term subscribers, I don't object to the price increase, even though Barbara and I don't stream. All Netflix has done is bump our monthly subscription back up to the $20/month we used to pay them before they cut it to $17 a few years ago. It was easily worth $20/month then, and it's easily worth $20/month now, even though we don't use streaming. And I suspect we'll probably start using streaming sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile, I don't doubt that Netflix's announcement caused consternation among the cable TV companies, which are starting to panic about cord cutters. An article in this morning's paper mentioned that Time-Warner Cable is testing a pilot program in New York City. Most TWC subscribers in NYC currently pay about $75/month for cable TV service, but TWC is losing too many subscribers at that rate. So they've rolled out a bargain cable package for $35/month, which includes ESPN News but lacks ESPN, FoxNews, and several other popular channels. That TWC was able to negotiate this with ESPN and other content provides is evidence that those content providers are also at panic stations.

Until now, unbundling has been the line in the sand that content providers have defended absolutely. If a cable company wanted to carry a popular channel like ESPN, they also had to carry the less popular channels from that same provider, and they had to pay for all of them for all of their cable subscribers. That the content providers are giving ground on that proves they're being hurt badly by cord cutters and willing to consider previously unthinkable actions like partial unbundling.

The next logical step for Netflix, although it probably won't start happening for some years yet, is to enter into cooperative agreements with the content producers, bypassing the networks and cable systems entirely. There is historical precedent. Just as no one expected HBO and Showtime to transition from their early days of simply running content produced by others to commissioning new series of their own, I've heard no one speculate that Netflix may do the same. But I think they will.

Five years from now, I expect Netflix to be producing new series of the quality of The Sopranos, The Tudors, Deadwood, Dexter, Weeds, Californication, and the many other HBO and Showtime series that we've come to enjoy. Of course, HBO and Showtime and PBS will be gone by then, so it's good that Netflix will be there to pick up the slack.



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Wednesday, 24 November 2010
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09:12 - Paul and Mary stopped by last night to drop a couple of things off. I mentioned the biology book. Mary, who is a world-renowned hater of squirrels, suggested using squirrels for dissection specimens. She even offered to club them to death for me.

Alas, page-count limits mean dissections probably won't make it into the book at all. I'm a firm believer in starting with fundamentals, which for biology means the chemistry of life followed by cell types and structures and gradually working up to more complex structures. It's all well and good, for example, to examine the structure of a leaf, but it's a lot more meaningful if the student has some grounding in what it all means. That means we need to cover cell structures, photosynthesis, and so on before we start looking at the leaf itself. In other words, this book will be strongly focused on microbiology.



Anti-Christian song is featured on Christmas CD. It's a Christmas carol, really, but the kind I like. The lyrics are excellent, and the performer, Australian diva Kate Miller-Heidke, has a lovely voice.


Boy, these christians. First they steal the atheist Saturnalia, file off the serial numbers, and claim it as their own. Then they have the nerve to complain when an atheist gets one track on one Christmas carol CD.



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Thursday, 25 November 2010
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10:20 - Barbara is off on a day-trip with her parents, but I won't see her again until Sunday evening. She'll return tonight, but she's staying with her parents, because they're leaving at oh-dark-thirty tomorrow morning on a bus tour to Louisville.

Barbara dropped Malcolm at the vet yesterday morning and picked him up on her way home from work. Our vet, Sue Stephens, was concerned because an earlier test had shown elevated liver enzymes. So yesterday they did an ultrasound and found that there is a mass inside Malcolm's liver. It may be cancerous, but there's a good chance it's just a fatty mass. Sue said a needle biopsy wouldn't tell them anything, so finding out what the mass is would involve exploratory surgery. Malcolm is 11 years old, and we decided not to put him through that. If we did and found that the mass was cancerous, the next step would be surgical removal of the mass followed by chemotherapy and possibly radiation therapy. All of that would destroy the quality of Malcolm's life, so we've decided just to do nothing and hope for the best. If it does turn out badly, we'll just keep him on pain medication until he's no longer enjoying life.

We're actually optimistic. As Sue said, Malcolm isn't acting even slightly like a sick dog. The odds are reasonably good that he'll live out his normal lifespan without any problems from this mass in his liver.

As usual, I have to figure out what to eat and what to do while Barbara is gone. I'm thinking I'll have the traditional Thanksgiving dinner tonight. Hot Pockets. The last time Barbara was gone for a short period I rewatched Series 1 of Buffy, which has one of my favorite lines from the series: "Okay, now you're abusing sarcasm." Perhaps I'll rewatch Series 2 this time.

I've taken a break from working on documentation for the microchemistry kit and started working on the home biology book. Right now, I'm working on the chapter on equipping a home biology lab. Specifically, right now I'm writing about biostains. There are literally hundreds of those in common use and thousands in occasional use, although one can get by with a half dozen or so. A dozen are enough to do about 99% of what most people are likely to do. Even I, with my tendency to accumulate neat stuff, have only 31 different stains at my microscopy station.

Most people don't realize how important stains are to biologists. The first problem microscopists faced was the fact that most of the things they wanted to look at were opaque. They solved that by cutting very thin sections with microtomes. But that left another serious problem. Most of those thin sections were essentially transparent, with almost no contrast between different parts of the cell structure. Back in about 1853, someone had the cunning idea of using carmine, a dye obtained from female cochineal beetles, to stain sections. Sure enough, carmine was differentially absorbed by different parts of the cell structure, increasing contrast immensely.

What's really interesting to me is that, despite the fact that scientists have tried literally tens of thousands of different dyes in the intervening 150 years, the most widely used stains today are the first two stains that came into common use after carmine. They're hematoxylin--which for some reason many people (including some biologists) pronounce he-muh-TOX-uh-linn rather than the correct he-MAT-oh-ZYE-linn--a dye derived from logwood, and eosin, one of the first synthetic dyes. They were first used in about 1865 in the so-called H&E staining protocol, and are still used that way today. In fact, H&E is probably the most commonly used staining protocol even today, with the possible exception of Gram staining.



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Friday, 26 November 2010
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11:50 - With Barbara gone for only one day, Malcolm and I are bored already. At least I have work to. Malcolm is spending most of his time napping, occasionally rousing himself to howl, just in case Barbara needs help finding her way back to the pack.

I'm still working on the chapter about equipping a home biology lab. As usual at this stage in the process, it's a complete mess. I'll be writing about one thing and think of something unrelated. Usually, I just go over to the appropriate section, creating it if necessary, and drop a short note into the text to remind myself later about what I wanted to write about. Sometimes I end up dropping what I had been working on and spending an hour or a day working on the new item.

In other words, my early writing in a chapter resembles the way a Golden Retriever lives: chase ball, notice squirrel and forget about ball, chase squirrel, notice mail truck, forget about squirrel and bark at mail truck, notice ball, forget about mail truck and chase ball. Lather, rinse, and repeat.

Actually, given my chaotic writing process, I'm always surprised when I read the finished first draft and realize that it actually hangs together well.


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Saturday, 27 November 2010
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00:00 -



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Sunday, 28 November 2010
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10:23 - Last night I watched the three episodes of Nova: Becoming Human. It started a bit slowly, but they fleshed things out well in the second and third episodes.

The segments about Neanderthal were particularly interesting to me, with their speculation about how and why Cro Magnon apparently wiped out Neanderthal, a species or subspecies that was stronger and hardier than H. sapiens sapiens and probably just as smart. (Our brains differed somewhat in structure, but their's were actually larger.) The program proposed several possible explanations, including the fact that Neanderthal wasn't built to throw spears, that we were faster runners than Neanderthal, that we had better technology, that we bred faster, that we were omnivores rather than carnivores, and that we were better suited to deal with the rapid climate change occurring in Europe at the time Neanderthal disappeared.

One competitive advantage no one mentioned but that I suspect was the really key factor in our victory was (with apologies to Hilaire Belloc):

Whatever happens, we have got
the domestic dog, and they have not.

Think about it. H. sapiens sapiens and H. sapiens neanderthalensis coexisted for thousands of generations and lived side-by-side in Europe for tens of thousands of years. Suddenly, this long-term stability was shattered and Neanderthal disappeared over a relatively short period. What significant development occurred during the period when Neanderthal disappeared? There is abundant evidence that during this period H. sapiens sapiens domesticated the dog. If H. sapiens neanderthalensis did the same, we don't know it.

The domesticated dog was undoubtedly one of the key factors that allowed civilization to occur. But even before the dawn of civilization, the domesticated dog was a key competitive advantage to our hunter/gatherer ancestors and their successors. Dogs guarded our dwellings and, once we invented animal husbandry, our flocks. We hunted together, achieving greater success than either of us could have had without the other. We fought together, side by side, long before the mastiffs accompanied the Roman legions. Without dogs, we'd still be living in mud huts and scratching out a bare living.

So, DNA studies tell us that wolves and dogs diverged about 100,000 years ago, although the earliest evidence of domesticated dogs is from around 25,000 years ago. That, perhaps not coincidentally, is the approximate age of the most recent Neanderthals. As the domesticated dog rose, the Neanderthals fell. This argument, of course, may be post hoc ergo propter hoc, but it is an interesting speculation nonetheless.


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