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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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
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.