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Week of 29 November 2010

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Monday, 29 November 2010
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11:14 - Poor Malcolm, or, as we're now calling him, Mr. Squirty. I always take him out with me when I get the paper at 6:30 or 7:00. He has a quick pee and runs back in the house. I usually take him on a short walk around 9:00 or 9:30, after the morning traffic has died down. Yesterday, he started bugging me about half an hour after first-time-out. I took him out in the front yard. He spent about 30 seconds sniffing around frantically and then squatted and squirted. Complete with sound effects.

So I gave him 2 mg of loperamide. Half an hour later, he started bugging me again. Out again, squirt again. I didn't want to give him another loperamide so soon after the first, but after another half hour or so he needed to go out again. And so we went out every half hour all day long. I did give finally him another loperamide around lunchtime, and the afternoon passed without much squirting.

Barbara got home about 8:00 p.m., and Malcolm seemed to have recovered. Then, around 10:00 I went back to bed. Malcolm was lying on the floor, and few minutes later he started growling periodically. It wasn't a warning growl. I took it to mean that he wasn't feeling very well. Around 11:30 p.m., I'd just gotten to sleep, when I heard Malcolm scramble up and head down the hall at a dead run. I arrived at the front door about 10 seconds after he did and let him out. He spent about five minutes out in the front yard, alternating sniffing around and squatting. We went back to bed. Shortly afterwards, he headed down the hall, I let him out, and he repeated the sniff and squat routine. At that point, I decided it'd be better to just make up a bed in the foyer, to make sure I wouldn't sleep through one of Malcolm's warnings. So, for the next few hours he'd periodically come trotting down the hall and I'd get up and let him out.

I eventually got cold sleeping on the floor, so I moved to the sofa in the den. I almost missed one warning there. By the time I was getting up to let Malcolm out, Barbara had arrived from the bedroom and let him out. That was the only time she had to get up, fortunately. I ended up letting Malcolm out several more times over the remainder of the night.

Of course, it was dark outside, so I don't actually know he was squirting each time. So far this morning, he seems to be fine. He's whimpering at the moment, but that's usual for a Monday morning after Barbara's left for work. He'll come pester me if he needs to go out. Oops. He just came and pestered, and indeed needed to go. I just gave him another loperamide.

I'm still working on stuff for the biology book. I actually have four chapters in progress at the moment, the first on equipping a home biology lab, the second a lab chapter on using a microscope, the third a lab chapter on the chemistry of life, and the fourth a lab chapter on culturing microorganisms. In my other science books, I've broken down the lab chapters into multi-page lab sessions, typically anything from two to five or six per chapter. For this book, I think I'm going to use smaller chunks. Instead of having full lab sessions, I'll do a running narrative with "procedures" embedded in the narrative, with a procedure possibly being as little as a paragraph or two. For example, in the chapter on using a microscope, we'll start by making a wet mount (the traditional letter "e") and have as the first procedure to explore that specimen at different magnifications, including exploring the use of the diaphragm. In the next procedure, we'll go through using the mechanical stage. Then we'll do a procedure on measuring sizes, eventually ending up with a procedure about using the oil-immersion objective. The only exception I think I'll make to this is for the defined AP Biology lab sessions, which I'll do as traditional lab sessions.


Tuesday, 30 November 2010
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08:51 - Here, I suspect, is a real game-changer for our troops on the ground. Although the XM-25 is described as a rifle and looks like one, it's in fact a 12-pound mortar with excruciating accuracy and very high first-shot kill probability.

For hundreds of years, soldiers have depended on concealment and cover to avoid being shot by their enemies. Over the last couple of decades, infrared sensors, night-vision gear, and other technologies have chipped away at the value of concealment. The XM-25 deals a serious blow to the value of cover. Traditionally, soldiers use walls, rocks, or simply terrain features to shield them from direct enemy fire. The solution to that has always been indirect-fire weapons such as howitzers and mortars, which lob explosive ordnance on high trajectories.

But for the guy on the ground, there's often not a howitzer or mortar (or ground-attack aircraft) immediately available when he desperately needs fire support. Even if there is, calling in a brigade or batallion fire mission takes time, which in combat is usually at a premium. We're deploying the XM-25 down to squad level, which in essence means each squad will have what amounts to mini-artillery under its direct control. If a squad encounters a dug-in bad guy firing at them from cover, its XM-25 can really ruin that bad guy's day.

What disgusted me when I read the articles about the XM-25 was the focus on the price tag, $35,000 each. Apparently, we're supposed to be outraged at the high cost. My reaction was exactly the opposite. $35,000 is very cheap insurance indeed if it helps prevent casualties.

Barbara and I have joined the TV streaming revolution. Sunday night, I gave her a Roku XD|S box as an early birthday present. It actually arrived last Wednesday afternoon. Barbara was leaving first thing Thursday morning on a trip with her parents, returning Sunday evening. So I spent some time while she was gone getting it up and running and tested.

Setup was supposed to take five minutes, but it actually took about 90 minutes, most of that spent talking to Roku's so-called technical support. The first problem was that, although Roku claims to support WPA2, the XD|S refused to connect to my D-Link DIR-615 WAP unless I enabled standard WPA on the WAP. That didn't make me happy, but I can live with it. The next problem occurred when I had the Roku up and connected to my network and attempted to enable Netflix on it. I kept getting a failure-to-authorize message box. Once there, the only options were to retry, which simply looped back to the same error message, or to quit. After going through the whole procedure several times and ending up at the same dead end, I finally called Roku tech support.

I spoke to a nice young woman with an American-sounding name, but that was the only thing American-sounding about her. Her English was a bit better than my non-existent Chinese, but that's about the best I could say about it. She was obviously working from a script. After half an hour of doing and redoing the same things I'd already done, I finally asked her to bump me up to the next level of support. She either didn't understand my request or pretended not to. Finally, still doing the same things over and over, I got a Netflix authorization code. I told her to hold on, tossed the phone aside, and quickly entered the authorization code. At that point everything was working. I'm afraid I was a bit short with her as she went through the last part of her script, asking me if there was anything else she could do to help me. I almost told her that she hadn't done anything at all so far, but I decided she'd probably already had a bad enough day, if not a bad enough life.

Over the next few days, I played around with the box, making sure that the quality would be good enough to satisfy Barbara. It is, in spades. When you highlight a video and click OK to play it, a progress bar appears for several seconds as the box caches the first part of the stream. It also displays a number of balls--presumably one through four although I've never seen anything other than four balls--to indicate video quality. If the stream is high-def, HD appears next to the balls.

On our 42" 1080p HDTV, HD streams look at least as good as cable HD. SD streams are also excellent, at least DVD quality. The audio sounds fine to me, except that very infrequently, maybe once in every three or four hours of video, there'll be a burst of static that lasts maybe a tenth of a second. But I consider the video/audio quality to be as good as cable or satellite. Nothing to complain about.

Which brings me to why I gave the box to Barbara on Sunday rather than waiting for her birthday this Thursday. When I set up the box, I went to the Netflix site and started searching for and adding titles to my streaming ("instant") queue. So far, so good. But the next day when I looked at my instant queue, I noticed that a bunch of the titles were now flagged as expiring on 1 December. I thought Barbara might like to see several of the expiring titles, so I handed her the Roku remote as soon as she got home Sunday.

I can't find any information about this time-limited aspect of Netflix's streaming titles. Are these titles that expire on 1 December gone from streaming for good? Or will they be back in a week or a month? Other than Netflix, no one seems to know. Not that it really matters much. Most of the streaming titles are also available on DVD, so we can watch them that way if we need to. But it would be nice if Netflix would give a bit more information about expiration dates, if any. Perhaps they do and I just haven't been using the Roku long enough to realize it. But from my experience it looks like Netflix gives only a one-week notice of expirations. It'd be nice if they listed the expiration date for a title as soon as they posted it. That way, we could manage our queues a lot more effectively.


Wednesday, 1 December 2010
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11:28 - Here's a pretty stunning example of data visualization, plotting average income versus average lifespan for many countries over the last 200 years.

What goes unsaid is that average income is actually a proxy for the harder-to-quantify advances in science, technology, and medicine. But his conclusion is correct, I think. None of this is a zero-sum game.

As I suspected would happen, most of the items in my Netflix streaming queue that were listed as expiring today have been moved to the saved queue, with availability dates unspecified. Presumably, Netflix is talking to the BBC about licensing them for additional periods. Oddly, two of the items that had been listed as expiring on 12/1 (two Miss Marple videos) are still in the available streaming queue. Those changed status yesterday from expiring 12/1 to no expiration date listed. I hoped they were just the first, and that Netflix had come to an agreement with BBC.

With all the streaming stuff, I'd kind of forgotten about DVDs. Barbara and I are on the 3-at-a-time plan, which pretty much covers us for all our TV watching. Call it six discs a week, or nearly one a day. With streaming, we're not going to have time to watch as many DVDs, so I'm considering cutting back to the 2 or even 1-at-a-time plan for DVDs. I don't want to drop DVDs entirely, because there's a lot of stuff that's not available streaming. Or I suppose I could do what most people do: stay on my current plan and just not turn around discs as quickly. After pillaging Netflix for years to the extent of averaging probably 25 discs a month for $18, that'd give them a chance to make a few bucks on me.

I have so many balls in the air right now that I'm always looking for the quickest way to deal with problems. This morning, Barbara left for work and then came in the front door a minute later. She said the battery in her garage door controller needed to be replaced, so we did that and off she went. Then I walked downstairs to close the garage door, which she'd left open. I pressed the button on the wall, but nothing happened other than a buzzing sound coming from the opener motor. Hmmm.

Ordinarily, my inclination would be to head over to Home Depot, buy a replacement opener, and install it. But I just don't have time for that kind of thing. So I called Carolina Garage Door, which we've used before for maintenance and repairs. I told her I was pretty sure the opener motor had failed. She asked how old it was, and I told her I couldn't remember. She said that was evidence enough that it needed replaced. Even good units, she said, lasted 10 or 15 years tops. She recommended their most popular model, which she said most of their staff used in their homes. They're coming out this afternoon to replace the opener motor. Total cost, parts and labor, is $285. Fine. That's better than me wasting hours on buying and installing one myself.


Thursday, 2 December 2010
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08:03 - Happy Birthday to Barbara. She turns twenty-thirty-six today, or, as I prefer to think of it, 0x38.

Yesterday was one of those days. The guy showed up late yesterday afternoon to replace the failed garage door opener. The new one worked fine, and after he left I headed back upstairs and back to our bedroom to get something I'd left there. It was already growing dark outside, so I flipped on the ceiling light. I got what I needed and left the room, flipping off the light switch. The light stayed on. Hmmm. I don't think I've ever had a light switch fail, and certainly not in the shorted position. And a Leviton, yet.

Fortunately, we keep a small stock of spare switches, receptacles, and other small electrical components, so it took only a few minutes to replace the switch. Still, I found myself wondering what else was likely to fail. Nothing, so far.

Periodically, I read about public school teachers buying classroom supplies with their own money. I'm sure that happens routinely. Even in the wealthiest school districts, the school systems don't provide everything the teachers need or want. I'm sure it also happened routinely 40 or 50 years ago, when I was in public school. And I know it's not unusual for teachers to ask students to bring in things from home.

Yesterday, while I was working on the biology book, I thought it might be a good idea to see if I could find a high-school biology teacher who'd be willing to answer some questions I had about how things are actually done in high school biology labs today. So I found the web site for a high school near our home and located the individual pages for the science teachers. I was surprised to come across this on one of the pages.

Dream items for general class use (extra credit) Any 2 will be a free homework; any 3 will be a 100 on a quiz.   Most can be purchased at the dollar store.

#2 pencils
Tissue paper (Kleenex)
White board markers (primary colors preferred)
Liquid soap/ sanitizer

Parents: It is not a necessity to purchase these dream items but they are things that will help the class as a whole and your students will get some extra credit points. Free Homework for 2, free quiz for 3 or more.

Unless I'm misunderstanding this, at least some of our public school teachers are accepting gifts in return for academic credit. That can't be right, can it?


Friday, 3 December 2010
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10:14 - Things with the book are even more chaotic than they usually are this early in the process. I now have eight, count-'em eight, chapters in progress. One of those is the narrative chapter on equipping a home biology lab. Two others are appendices (I. Formulary and II. Sources), but the remaining five are lab chapters (1. Chemistry of Life I, 2. Using a Microscope, 3. Culturing Microorganisms, 4. Staining Protocols, and 5. Histology I). I'll probably end up with many more lab chapters stubbed out before long, because every time I come up with a good idea for a lab there's a good chance it belongs in a chapter I haven't started yet. All of this is a Very Good Thing. It means things are coming together fast. There's a ton of work to do, but at least I'm getting the book very organized very early.

Barbara and I started watching the Australian series McLeod's Daughters on Netflix streaming last night. Barbara was not surprised that I've already picked out a woman to watch, Lisa Chappell. (Yes, I know she's written out of the series early, but she'll do for now.) Barbara likes the series, and of course it meets my simple requirements: a pretty woman to watch. Actually,it has lots of pretty women. As a matter of fact, it's almost exclusively pretty women. An ideal series, in fact. What can I say? I'm an art lover.

For the first in years, I talked yesterday with an old friend who's a veterinarian. He's a couple years younger than I am, and we got into a these-kids-today discussion. He told me something that left me almost literally speechless. While he was in vet school 30 years ago, he did numerous surgeries. Everything from simple spay/neuter surgeries to delicate abdominal surgeries. That was how things were done then, but it's not how they're done now, or at least not in all vet schools. Apparently, many recent vet school graduates have almost no surgical experience. They may do one or two spay/neuter operations, but that's about it. All the other types of surgery, they simply read about. When a recent vet school graduate operates on your pet, it may very well be the first time he or she has ever done that procedure. In fact, it may be the first time he or she has done any surgical procedure other than the routine spay/neuter in vet school.

Surprisingly, the impetus for this apparently comes from the students themselves, many of whom consider surgeries done for the learning experience to be animal cruelty. This despite the fact that the animals used for learn-by-doing surgery in vet school are treated humanely, given sufficient pain-killers, and often recover completely. As he said, how would you rather a vet learn a surgical procedure? By operating on an animal that had never been a pet, or by operating on a little girl's pet dog? That's the choice. And the answer seems obvious to me.

It also seems obvious to me that the first question anyone should ask the vet when surgery is proposed is: "How many times have you done this type of surgery before?" To me, at least, it's very unsettling to learn that many vets are practicing surgery on clients' pets with no prior experience. It's kind of like finding out that the pilot of the airliner you're on had never actually flown an airplane before today.


Saturday, 4 December 2010
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13:25 - It's snowing pretty heavily. The deck is already solid white, with a layer an inch or so thick on the railings. The ground is covered. If this isn't the earliest significant snow on record for Winston-Salem, it must be close to the record.

Barbara's decorating the tree and house. I'm doing laundry and working on the equipment/supplies chapter. As usual, I'm trying to put myself in the position of someone who knows nothing about the subject to make sure I don't skip past things like explaining why one might use either gel media and broth media in culture tubes and what different purposes they're used for, or what the difference is between food-grade agar agar and culturing-grade agar, or why one can't use food-grade gelatin for culturing, or why it's a good idea to culture at room temperature rather than 37 C until one is proficient.


Sunday, 5 December 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.