- Over the weekend, I sent out the following email to my
list of HomeChemLab.com subscribers:
I've just signed a
contract with O'Reilly/MAKE to write Illustrated Guide to Home
Biology Experiments, and I need your help.
of you subscribed to HomeChemLab.com. Your subscription included an
answer guide for the questions in the book and a set of many
supplemental experiments. What I need to know is this: did you
subscribe mostly to get the answers to the questions in the book,
mostly to get the supplemental experiments, or both equally?
asking because the page count on the new book is limited to 350 pages,
and the more questions I include in the text, the less room there is
for actual lab procedures. My impression is that few readers care very
much about the questions, so I'm considering dropping questions from
the new book and devoting all of that space to additional lab
So, whether or not you're interested in the home
biology book, please give me your opinion. Should I drop the questions
and use that space for lab procedures, or keep the questions. Please
also let me know if you're primarily a science hobbyist or a home
Thanks for your help.
I've gotten a bunch of responses so far, and they continue to arrive.
The split is roughly 60:40 hobbyist:homeschooler. A trend immediately
became evident, with the first dozen or more responses all favoring
dropping the questions and devoting more space to lab procedures. Since
then, I've gotten some that favor keeping the questions, but the ratio
is still about 10:1 in favor of devoting all available space to lab
procedures and related material.
I've also gotten quite a few
suggestions about the content of the biology book. Interestingly,
several people have made the same suggestion, which I'll paraphrase as,
"Don't waste any space on dissections". I'll paraphrase the second most
popular suggestion as "Do more DNA stuff."
also gotten comments from home schoolers, some quite detailed,
about the religious versus secular issue. For chemistry that wasn't
really an issue, but for biology it can be. Many of the comments have
been from (presumably) secular home schoolers, along the lines of
"there are already plenty of religious home school biology lab books
out there, but nothing secular aimed at home schoolers." A couple have
been from religious home schoolers deploring the lack of rigor in
current religious home school biology lab books and saying that an
affordable, rigorous, secular biology lab book targeted at home
schoolers would be great, as long as it doesn't go out of its way to
offend their religious beliefs.
So, I've listened to what people have to say, and here's what I've
to the space allocation issue, I've always believed that questions are
good because they make students think about the issues and figure them
out for themselves. Nearly as good, though, is simply highlighting
things I want them to notice and think about. In other words, "Note
that ..." is just about as effective as "Why is ..." and occupies a lot
I'd already decided not to spend any space on
dissections. When I took my first biology lab class 40 years ago, we
spent a lot of time on dissections, which I always thought were of
limited value. I think we did so many dissections because
and frogs in formaldehyde were cheap while in the 60's even
student-grade microscopes were very expensive. Affordable microscopes
are now widely available, so that's no longer an issue. So we'll start
small, with a look at biologically-important molecules, and work our
way up, looking at organelles, cells, tissues, and organs. In other
words, the focus of this book will be on biochemistry, microbiology,
and histology at the expense of gross anatomy.
We'll also do a
fair amount of work with DNA. At the basic level, that's easy enough.
We can extract DNA literally with items found in every kitchen. We can
also do DNA separations via gel electrophoresis with a minimum of
equipment and materials. More advanced work with DNA becomes
problematic because the required equipment and materials become
increasingly specialized (and expensive). Still, there are usable
workarounds for items like ultracentrifuges, -80C freezers, and PCR
thermal cyclers. We won't have the resources of a public school lab,
let alone a university lab, but we can still do a lot.
As to the
religious versus secular issue, I am a scientist not a preacher. That
means this book will be firmly science-based. One of the responses
pointed out that "You need to make clear that evolution is the unifying
principle of biology". Well, yes. The great geneticist and evolutionary
biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, himself a religious man, famously said
"Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." It's
simply not possible to understand biology without having at least a
basic understanding of evolution, any more than it's possible to
understand chemistry without having at least a basic understanding of
atomic theory. Still, this book is a biology lab manual aimed at
first-year and AP high school biology students and DIY bio enthusiasts,
so evolution in its overarching sense will not come into play. I do
plan one lab session that focuses on natural selection, a key mechanism
of evolution, by culturing bacteria to produce antibiotic-resistant
forms, but that is not a controversial topic. In short, the book will
be rigorously scientific in approach and without compromise. If it
somehow offends someone's religious beliefs, well better that than
compromising the science.
Mary Chervenak stopped by yesterday. I pitched my
cunning plan about the ultracentrifuge,
and told Mary I needed her help. There's no moss growing on Mary. When
I finished describing it, the first thing she was, "You're afraid it'll
disintegrate, so you want me to turn it on for the first time..."
was the first time we'd seen Mary since she ran the Baltimore Marathon.
Barbara asked Mary how she'd done, and Mary said she hadn't been very
happy with her performance. She started talking about her minutes/mile
rate, how fast some of the other runners had been compared to her, and
where she finished overall. Mary made it sound like her effort had been
mediocre. Barbara finally asked, "But where did you finish in your age
group?", to which Mary replied, "Oh, I won."
Mary, of course, is
a woman. She's stellar at pretty much everything she does, but for a
woman that's not good enough. A woman has to downplay her own
achievements. It's almost a secondary sex characteristic. Barbara does
the same thing, as does just about every girl and woman I've ever
known. I just want to shake them and shout, "You're great! Take some
credit for what you've accomplished."
I remember the story about
the pickup softball game between the enlisted men and the officers. The
enlisted men won, 10-0. The next morning, a poster appeared on the
bulletin board, congratulating the officers on their great season,
during which they lost only one game and finished in second
and commiserating with the enlisted men for their poor season, during
which they won only one game and finished next to last. That's the way
guys look at things. I wish women would do the same.
waiting to hear how Kim is doing. Her mom called last night to let us
know that Kim's back problem was causing her agonizing pain and she
wasn't able to get up. Mary had already called her nephew, who is a
physical therapist. She called us back later to say that her nephew had
looked at Kim and said not to move her, so they called 911 for an
Kim is retired on total disability from the US Postal
Service. She badly injured her back moving heavy carts of mail, and has
been in constant pain ever since. When I first met Kim about 10 years
ago, she told me that there was surgery that might fix the problem, but
the surgery itself was extremely dangerous and could leave her
paralyzed. She told me then that she'd decided to wait until Jasmine
had grown up and was off on her own before she risked having the
surgery. With Jasmine heading off to college next autumn, I wonder if
Kim will decide it's time to risk having the surgery.
While Barbara and I were out walking Malcolm Saturday, I started to
laugh. She asked me what was so funny, and I pointed out that our
devoutly-religious neighbors had placed a naked anatomically-correct
inflatable snowman in their front yard.
know I said I wasn't going to do any dissections, but I planned to do
one this morning here. Last night, I read an article on Foxnews
entitled "Report: Chromium-6 in Drinking Water". I was going to dissect
that article to illustrate that what passes for science journalism
nowadays is nothing more than advocacy dressed up as science. Alas,
Foxnews apparently disappeared the article. A couple references to it
remain on Google, but the article itself is nowhere to be found. I
guess that's a good thing.
The article referred to a press
release from the Environmental Working Group, who appear to be a bunch
of green nutters. It claimed that chromium-6 had been found in the
water supplies of 31 of the 35 cities that EWG "scientists" had tested.
It also referred to a proposed California state standard of 0.06 ppb
(that's 60 parts per trillion)
with the implication that this was a reasonable standard.
EWG also lied by omitting the "whole truth" part. It said that the EPA
does not enforce any standard for chromium(VI). That's true insofar as
it goes, but what it doesn't say is that the EPA enforces a standard
for "total chromium", which is to say the combined level of
chromium(VI) ions, chromium(III) ions, and elemental chromium.
Obviously, any water supply system that meets EPA standards for total
chromium must also meet that standard for chromium(VI). No, the EPA
doesn't break out chromium(VI) separately. It doesn't need to. So EWG
lies by telling "the truth" and "nothing but the truth", but leaving
out that inconvenient middle part about "the whole truth".
Oh, yeah, about that proposed California standard of 0.06 ppb
chromium(VI). The EPA publishes two values for many pollutants, including
The first, and often higher, number is called the MCL (maximum
contaminant level). This is an enforceable number. In other words, the
EPA can take action against any water system authority if the water it
supplies contains a contaminant at or above that level. The second,
usually lower, number is the MCLG (maximum contaminant level goal),
which is a target or goal for the maximum level. This is an "ideal"
level, which takes into account the limits of technology and other
factors. In the case of total chromium, the EPA MCL and MCLG are the
same, 100 ppb.
The acceptable levels the EPA specifies for
contaminants are generally at least one and often two orders of
magnitude lower than the levels at which any harm has been shown to
occur. In other words, there's at least a 10X and possibly a 100X
safety factor built into that 100 ppb limit. But even that's not good
enough for the scientific illiterates who proposed the 0.06 ppb limit
in California. They appear to believe that the EPA limit is 1,667 times
And that 0.06 ppb number is interesting in itself. I
don't know, but I strongly suspect, that 0.06 ppb is simply the limit
of detectability with practical test equipment. I checked the
Winston-Salem water quality document, which is published annually. It
doesn't list chromium levels, but it does say that the contaminants it
does list are those that are present at "detectable" levels.
didn't have time to check the 35 cities listed in the EWG report, but
I'd bet money that none of the 35 exceed the EPA limits, which are
themselves conservative. Of course, like all advocacy groups, the EWG
isn't about to let the truth get in the way of their story.
- Thanks to D.R. Williams, who turned up this link
to the original Foxnews report.
It's been modified since I read it yesterday. The version I saw did not
include the rebuttals featured in this version. This version does
include one interesting number, the Cr(VI) level for DC and Bethesda,
Maryland, which the EWG reported as having "contaminated"
supplies. The Cr(VI) level there was 0.19 ppb, less than 1/500th the
EPA limit. Of course, the article spins that tiny concentration as:
study shows Bethesda and D.C. had .19 parts per billion of the
chemical. That is three times the amount considered acceptable in
Is it really? Considered acceptable by whom?
I don't think it's the state authorities. I understood the 0.06 ppb
standard had only been proposed
in California. Perhaps it is now a legal standard. I wouldn't put
anything past those nutter legislators in California.
of elements, we watched an unintentionally funny segment on Grey's
Anatomy the other night. Mark Sloan is an attending physician. Lexie
Grey is an intern. They make a big deal about her so-called
"photographic memory." In this episode they gave an example, which told
me that the writers are absolutely clueless about memory.
Dr. Mark Sloan: So... a photographic memory, huh?
... Periodic Table. Go.
Lexie Grey: Hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium, boron, carbon,
nitrogen, oxygen, fluorine, neon, sodium, magnesium, aluminum, silicon,
phosphorus, sulfur. I can keep going.
I almost choked on my drink. That's not a photographic memory.
Remembering the names and
positions of the elements in the periodic table, particularly the parts
above the transition elements, is ordinary good memory.
Ordinary good memory is impressive; photographic memory is scary. Let
me alter Lexie's response to what it might have been if she really had
a photographic memory.
Dr. Lexie Grey: Hydrogen, atomic mass 1.008, shell configuration 1S1,
melting point 13.8 K, boiling point 20.3 K, covalent radius 37 pm, Van
der Waals radius 120 pm, Pauling electronegativity 2.20, ionization
energy 1.32 MJ/mol, electron affinity 72.78 kJ/mol ...
(Yes, I had to look those values up, other than 1.008 and 1S1.)
also had Lexie save a patient by remembering that she'd read an old and
obscure paper that offered a fix for a very rare fatal condition. If
her memory had been truly photographic, she could have retrieved a
mental image of that paper and started reading it verbatim to the other
doctors clustered around her. Instead, she just gave the cite.
often thought that we need to do much more research on memory.
Computers can "remember" an entire library of books verbatim, along
with all of the images in them at whatever resolution they existed in
the book. Why shouldn't all humans have that same ability? No one is
working on this, as far as I know.
- Pat Condell really knows how to celebrate Christmas. I think I'll use some of his tips this year.
I particularly like the islamic balloon idea. Wish I'd thought of that.
- Here is a stunning advance in DNA sequencing that raises the possibility that it will soon be possible to sequence an entire human genome in minutes at very low cost.
Robert Heinlein's Life-Line
may be closer than we think. Of course, we should all remember what
happened to Professor Pinero. Ultimately, technology like this may
eventually obsolete health insurance as we know it. It's still a long,
long way off, but as we gain a more detailed database of human
genomes and correlate that with genetic diseases, the day may arrive
when it's impossible to buy health insurance without submitting a
DNA sample and accepting exclusions for genetic conditions to which
you're subject. Why would any insurance company write a policy to cover
a loss that they know is likely or certain to occur? That's like
trying to buy fire insurance on your house when it's already burning
down. In other words, we'll no longer have insurance in any real
sense; at best we'll have pre-payment.
Such detailed knowledge
of individual genomes would also change life insurance as we know it.
It's unlikely that anything in our genomes would affect the
likelihood of accidental death, of course, but you can bet that
actuaries would use this information to calculate risks down to the
individual level rather than in broad groups as they do now. Government
will try to prohibit insurance companies from using DNA to calculate
risks and premiums, no doubt. That's happening already, on both the
insurance company side and the regulatory side. But it's going to
become a much larger issue over the coming years.
Of course, two
sides can play that game. A 35-year-old man whose DNA profile is clean
may well decide to do without life insurance other than an
accidental-death policy, and his wife may buy only a health-insurance
policy that covers pregnancy and delivery costs. In short, the whole
concept of insurance is about spreading risks. If the risks become
known, there's no longer any point to insurance. It becomes a zero-sum
game. Worse than that, actually, because the insurance company will
have to charge a percentage above their expected loss experience to
cover their own costs.
Again, this is all blue-sky for now, but the clouds are definitely gathering on the horizon.
I'm still cranking away on the biology book. My first milestone is two
complete chapters, with a due date of 28 February. I'm going to try to
have those submitted by 31 December, and I still have a lot of work to
do on them. Accordingly, posts here are likely to be sporadic and short
until next year.
Ruh-roh. Barbara is off work until 3 January, and she's starting her
annual Deep Clean today. My office and my workroom are on the schedule
for today, which means I'm going to have to decide which old shit
to throw out. Goodbye, old friends.
first pass on my office and the workroom is now complete. We got a lot
of stuff out of my office and separated into various piles downstairs
for garbage, Goodwill, and so on. Barbara vacuumed the floor,
walls, ceiling, and blinds, muttering in disgust the whole time
about how there were probably bugs in here. I told her that any
bug foolish enough to wander into my office would be found lying on its
back with all of its feet in the air. We also moved a folding table
into my office, which I'll leave set up with lights, background paper,
and so on for doing product illustration shots for the book and kits.
next step I have to do myself. I need to clean off and organize my main
desk and microscope desk. My main desk is a 3-0 solid-core 1-7/8" door,
with an end table sitting next to it with the Brother monochrome laser
printer. I've had a Brother color laser printer sitting on the floor of
my office in an unopened box for several months, waiting for when I had
time to deal with it. That'll go in the left corner of the main desk,
which is currently home to a router, a couple switches, a wireless
access point, and dozens of cables.
I've been trying to set
aside enough time to migrate off my old main system to the hex-core
system we built as the extreme system for the book. I think I'll
basically do a cut-over, keeping old and new operating side-by-side
until I'm sure I have the new system the way I want it. Then I'll shut
down the old system but leave it untouched for a month or two, until
I'm absolutely sure the new system is doing everything I want it to.
Then I can salvage components from the old system. Other than my new
main system, it's still the fastest system in the house, and by a
long way. I'll use that motherboard and processor as the basis of
Barbara's new system.
Once I get all that stuff done, it's time
to go after my bookshelves. They cover one wall of my office, and hold
about 80 linear feet (24 meters) of mostly reference books. Right now,
they're organized for purely random access. That worked fine back when
my memory was still trustworthy. I'd just stick a book anywhere there
was space. If I needed that book months or years later, I'd remember
exactly where it was. That no longer works as well as it once did.
Barbara, being a librarian, has suggested a novel alternative. She
proposes to organize the books by Dewey Decimal or LOCCCN. Probably the
former, since I grew up with it and know almost instinctively where
something should be, at least in the 500 range.
I missed Santa again. I was lying in wait with the Atchison.
As soon as I heard the reindeer hoofies on the roof, I cut loose and
immediately ran outside to see if I'd nailed them. No joy. Now I have a
bunch of holes in the roof that need to be patched.
another working day for me, but Barbara is off to her sister's house to
spend the day. Malcolm was outraged that she was leaving him with just
me for company.
We had our first glitch last night with Netflix
streaming. We were in the middle of watching something when the screen
went black and the Roku buffering screen popped up. After 10 or 15
seconds, the program resumed just where it had cut off. Once in (I'm
guessing) 75 hours of watching is acceptable. We probably get a DVD
glitch that often.
One of the programs we watched was Nova's Dogs Decoded.
People who haven't lived with dogs would probably find much of what
they described unbelievable. Those of us who have lived with dogs just
shrugged. They kept saying things like "Scientists were surprised ...".
I kept rebutting that with "What they meant to say was "scientists
who'd never lived with dogs were surprised..."".
only recently really started to study dogs, and some of the studies
have shown remarkable ignorance. I remember, for example, reading the
abstract from one paper that claimed that dogs have only six distinct
vocalizations. Bullshit. As I've said, Malcolm has distinctly different
barks for the mail truck and the UPS or FedEx truck. (He obviously
considers the latter two to be the same thing for all practical
purposes.) Those barks are specific to those types of vehicles. Last
Sunday provided some evidence for that. I was working at my desk when
Malcolm started his mail-truck bark. It never occurred to me that he
was mistaken or that I'd misinterpreted the bark. I walked to the front
door. Sure enough, there was a mail truck just backing out of our
driveway--on a Sunday--and a package on the front porch.
USPS doesn't deliver mail on Sundays, ever. But last Sunday they did.
The fact that I was perfectly aware that it was Sunday and that it
couldn't possibly be a USPS truck was overridden by the fact that
Malcolm was saying it was a USPS truck, Sunday or not. And it never
occurred to me to doubt Malcolm.
One of the dog communications
skills they didn't touch on in the segment is what I've deemed "thought
waves." Malcolm uses those to control me. For example, if I'm sitting
on the sofa eating a snack, he sits staring at me, sending out thought
waves that demand I give him some. If I'm not consciously countering
those thought waves, I find myself giving Malcolm part of what I'm
eating. Often, I'm not even aware of doing so. Same thing happens when
I walk into the kitchen to get a Coke. Malcolm sends out thought waves,
and I find myself giving him a chew stick. Sometimes I ask him, "Didn't
I just give you one of these a few minutes ago?" He denies it via
thought wave and gets another one, even though I'm pretty sure he was
They also showed tests that establish that dogs read
human emotions from our faces the same way that other humans do, by
looking left to focus on the right side of our faces. And the whole
time they were talking about how dogs have evolved over the past tens
of thousands of years to interact better with humans. What they never
mentioned, but what I suspect is true, is that humans have also evolved
to interact better with dogs. We are true symbiotes. As one of the
scientists stated, if humans hadn't domesticated dogs, we'd probably
still be hunter-gatherers.
- Here's some cheerful news. In a pretty amazing turnaround from 1985 figures, the UK is now a majority-secular nation
(starting on page 70). More than half of those surveyed claim they have
no religion. Even among those who consider themselves to belong to
a particular religion, only about one in six attend services as often
as once a month, and about three out of four attend services twice a
year or less frequently.
And, of course, it's very likely that a
large percentage of those who do attend services, even regular
churchgoers, don't actually believe in gods. They treat church as a
social event. To be fair, it's very likely that at least a few of those
polled who reported themselves as having no religion do
believe in gods. Still, that is probably a very small percentage.
On balance, I think it's fair to consider these numbers evidence that
the UK is now not just secular, but overwhelmingly secular. True
Believers make up a very small percentage of the UK population. Some
may argue that the UK is technically still a religious nation because
it has an established church, but it's pretty obvious that UK citizens
don't take that seriously.
Winston-Salem had its first significant snowfall on Christmas day in
about 60 years. We ended up getting about 4" (10 cm) of heavy, wet
snow. Malcolm is enjoying running around, snowplowing with his snout
and licking the snow.
I did venture out this morning. We have
several friends who are out of town for the holiday, in places ranging
from Pittsburgh to St. Louis to Hawaii. I'm keeping an eye on their
houses, picking up the mail and newspapers, and so on. The main roads
have been plowed and salted, but the residential streets are still
pretty treacherous. Nothing that 4WD and sane driving can't deal with.
I did see a car that must belong to a Darwin Awards candidate. It was
lying in the ditch along a main drag, nearly on its side. In the words
of one of my favorite philosophers, "A man's got to know his
limitations." With lows over the next several days forecast to be in
the teens (~ -10 C) and highs to be around freezing or a bit more,
this snow is likely to stick around through the new year. I'm sure
there'll be many more accidents.
Barbara is doing her White
Tornado thing, currently in our bedroom and bath. By the end of the
week, she plans to have everything clean and sterile. My office looks a
lot neater and cleaner than it did before, but there's still much work
to be done. I haven't started on the transfer to the new PC yet.