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Week of -4 January 2011


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Monday, -4 January 2011
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09:39 - Happy New Year! I'm starting the New Year a bit early because I refuse to have one of my weekly pages straddle two calendar years.

Barbara, AKA The White Tornado, is still cleaning. Yesterday she nearly vacuumed up Malcolm before he could get out of the way.

The morning paper had another of those disgusting full-page ads from Time-Warner Cable. This time, it's the local ABC affiliate that's demanding more money from TWC and thereby, of course, TWC customers. It's long past time for the cable companies to start playing hardball with the local network affiliates. The cable companies need to stop paying the local affiliates any money at all to carry their signals. If the local affiliates don't like that, fine. The cable company simply won't carry their signals. See how the local affiliates like that.

We're talking, after all, about free over-the-air signals that cable customers can get simply by putting up rabbit ears or an antenna. There's no justification for the cable companies, and thereby their customers, having to pay to have these signals on the cable. In fact, there's no justification for local affiliates, period. They're using a lot of bandwidth that could better be used otherwise. The broadcast networks would actually be better off financially if they dumped their local affiliates and simply fed their signals for free directly to the cable systems and satellite systems. That way, the broadcast networks get to keep all of the national advertising revenue instead of having to share it with the local affiliates, and the local cable systems can insert local ads just as the affiliates do now. The customers get to watch the network programs. Everyone is happy except the local affiliates, and who cares about them?

The local affiliates would claim that would mean the end of local TV news and weather, which it wouldn't. TWC here runs their own news channel, News 14 Carolina, which actually does a better job of local reporting and weather than the local affiliates do. Local affiliates are dinosaurs from a time when there were no cable systems and everyone watched OTA TV because there was no alternative. There are now lots of alternatives, and it's time to let local affiliates die a natural death.

Truth be told, it's time to let the idea of TV programming as a separate service die a natural death. TV programming is just bits, and should be delivered via TCP/IP, just like any other bits. Cable systems shouldn't be in the business of delivering anything but bits, as quickly, reliably, and inexpensively as possible. Let us, the customers, decide which bits we want, and when.



11:03 - Like many couples, Barbara and I have different environmental preferences. I'm comfortable, winter or summer, with a temperature of about 72F to 74F (~ 23C). Barbara prefers something around 64F to 66F (~ 18.5C). Our friends Mary and Paul are the same, except Mary is happier in my temperature range and Paul in Barbara's.

Like most married couples, we compromise by keeping it on the cool side all winter and the warm side all summer, which has the advantage of keep heating and cooling costs down. Paul and Barbara are comfortable all winter, while Mary and I wear sweaters and still shiver. Mary and I are comfortable all summer, while Paul and Barbara strip down as much as possible and still swelter.

I can't say I didn't know it when Barbara and I got married. The first time she took me to the house she was renting at the time, it was a cold winter day. As we entered the house, I unzipped my parka and took it off. About 10 seconds later, I put it back on. Barbara kept her house at (I am not making this up) 50F (10C). She did later admit that she found that a bit cool for comfort, but the house had electric heat and she couldn't afford to keep it at a reasonable temperature. Still, she happily lived with her house that temperature. After I moved in with her, I soon got very good at leaping from the bed into the bathroom and turning on the shower full hot before the icicles started forming on me.

Here we are, nearly 30 years later, and nothing much has changed. Here's Barbara yesterday shoveling our front walk. The temperature was about 28F (-2C), with the wind chill down around 14F (-10C). She did admit later that there was a little Jap in the air.


But all of this is easily explained. I just finished sequencing Barbara's DNA and was unsurprised to find some striking similarities between her DNA and that of a penguin that I'd sequenced earlier.


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Tuesday, -3 January 2011
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10:32 - A reader who wishes to remain anonymous sent me a link to a video about a real genetic breakthrough: Gay Scientists Isolate Christian Gene




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Wednesday, -2 January 2011
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09:53 - Barbara is still doing her White Tornado thing. I'm putting the final touches on the first two chapters of the biology lab book. I intend to submit those to my editor by Friday, thereby beating my first milestone deadline by two months. The chapters are the last narrative chapter, "Equipping a Biology Lab" and the first lab session chapter, "Using a Microscope". I also have the second lab session chapter, "Chemistry of Life" in progress. That one is a quick exposure to acids, bases, and buffers, biologically-important molecules (carbohydrates, proteins, lipids, and so on), and separation techniques including thin-layer chromatography (with home-made TLC plates, yet) and gel electrophoresis (I'll probably use a commercial apparatus for doing the labs and shooting images, but we'll also build a $10 gel electrophoresis setup, about $9 of which is in 9V batteries). I may actually break that lab session chapter into two or even three chapters. There's a lot to cover.

I'm still debating with myself about whether to include one lab session on dissections. Dissections are traditional in high-school biology, of course, but historically that was true because microscopes and other lab equipment were expensive and preserved frogs and scalpels were cheap. I'm not convinced that doing dissections is worth the time and effort. I'd rather focus on the small stuff (molecules, organelles, microorganisms) first and work my up to larger structures like tissues and organs. Then there's the gross-out issue. A lot of people simply object to cutting up larger organisms. Requiring that in biology class may have been responsible for turning more people off to biology than any other single factor. There's plenty of time later for gross anatomy.

Perhaps I'll compromise and do a lab session on dissecting politicians. There would be a lot of advantages to doing that. They're readily-available locally, and the IUCN categorizes them as "Least Concern". In other words, no one cares if you kill and dissect one. Also, unlike dissecting frogs or rats or even lawyers, which raises ethical issues for many people, no one could possibly object to dissecting a live politician. In fact, most people would stand in line to pass you the scalpel.



11:36 - Hmmm. I've already gotten quite a bit of feedback about dissections. Here are a couple of representative examples:

From: Chris Christensen (Aspen Research)
  To: Robert Bruce Thompson
Date: Wed Dec 29 11:15:41 2010
  Re: dissecting politicians

Not worth doing Robert: They're full of shit. You could just as well poke around in a cowflop!


From: Bradley A. Lindsey
  To: Robert Bruce Thompson
Date: Wed Dec 29 11:21:42 2010
  Re: Dissection in new book

Having just read today's journal entry, I personally would not go to the expense and mess to do dissection.

As to the politician dissection, remember, you will need something more heavy-duty (a butcher knife?) than a normal scalpel to get through that tough skin.  Once inside, you will be wasting time looking for a heart or a brain.  Also, reproductive organs will probably be aged beyond expectation due to years of over use while in office!

Probably more if I thought about it.


And from Bill Grigg over on the forums:

Regarding your dissection issue, all of the schools around me haven't used a real creature for dissection in years. Instead they use dissection charts, and I happen to know someone who produces those, as well as a slew of other science related posters. In fact, I worked for the printing co. that printed these posters and charts. The print quality is superb, and Gordon Peachy is very easy to deal with. Gordon is an ex-biology prof who retired early and found a new career. He sells these posters and charts to the US, UK, Australia and elsewhere.

Check out Biocam.com and see if they would help you out. Sorry, but he doesn't offer lawyers or politicians as a chart. He prefers you deal with the local infestations directly, and advises that rusty and dull spoons are a preferred tool.

I'll probably take Bill's advice and ask Dr. Peachy to send me some samples. Assuming they're of the quality I expect, I'll simply recommend them in the book to readers who want to do gross anatomy (in every sense of the word) without the squishy part of the experience.


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Thursday, -1 January 2011
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09:39 - What a well-reasoned argument for bringing his religion back into Xmas: The Next Person Who Says Happy Holidays Shall Be Punched In The Throat

Why is it that these nutters are always historically illiterate? He bitches about Kwanza being a modern invention, but apparently doesn't realize that his so-called traditional Xmas is nearly as recent, an invention of Charles Dickens. Before Dickens, Xmas was just another name for Saturnalia, and had been celebrated in the same way for about 2,000 years: no religion to speak of, just a bunch of drunken parties and orgies and exchanging of gifts.

That, and trying to shoot down Santa Claus and grab all of the loot.




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Friday, 0 January 2011
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11:10 - Our condolences to Brian and Marcia Bilbrey, who just lost Molly. She was a rescue dog and had been abused, but even with all that she never lost her sweet nature. Thanks to Brian and Marcia, Molly ended up having a good life. We don't know how old Molly was, although judging from the white on her snout she made it to a good old age. And most of that time she spent with Brian and Marcia, loving every moment.


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Saturday, 1 January 2011
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12:07 - Happy New Year!

Here are my New Year's Resolutions for 2011:

 1. Continue smoking
 2. Avoid exercise
 3. Avoid losing weight
 4. Eat more fatty foods
 5. Ridicule irrationality and Political Correctness at every opportunity
 6. Encourage kids to develop an interest in science
 7. Speak my mind on political and social issues
 8. Write a couple books and put together three or four science kits for sale to homeschoolers
 9. Read a couple hundred books
10. Have fun.

Unlike some people, I never seem to have any trouble keeping my New Year's Resolutions. I nailed every one of my 2010 Resolutions. A year from now, I'll tell you how I did on these 2011 Resolutions.


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Sunday, 2 January 2011
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10:17 - I stopped by to see Jasmine yesterday. As I told Barbara, I wanted to talk to someone who'd taken a high school biology class more recently than 40 years ago. Jas is a senior now, but she took honors biology as a sophomore. It was as bad as I feared. Jas said she'd been interested in learning about biology going in, but the class soon killed her interest. Lots of rote memorization, no labs to speak of, and nothing to hold the kids' interest. Boring lectures is not the way to teach biology, or anything else.

If I were teaching biology, which with this new book in a sense I am, I'd want my classroom to be the lab. Those kids would be sitting at their lab benches the whole time. They'd be doing hands-on stuff every day, with any necessary lecture stuff interleaved with lab work. If I'm standing up at the front of the class talking to them about the differences in cell structures between prokaryotes and eukaryotes, you can bet there'll be prepared slides of prokaryotic cells and eukaryotic cells at their lab stations, and they're going to be looking at them through their microscopes before, during, and after the lecture portion of the class. That's the way kids learn, and you can bet that at least some of my students would decide to pursue careers in biology or another science based on that class.

It takes a profound lack of teaching ability to turn something as inherently fascinating as biology into something that kids find boring. The really sad fact is that our public schools are full of such "teachers". Unfortunately, it sounds like Jasmine's teacher was one of those. I asked Jas if there was anything she'd particularly liked or found really interesting about her honors biology class, and the conversation went something like this:

Jas: "We studied something about patterns."

Me: "You mean something to do with population genetics? Mutations, natural selection, gene flow, and genetic drift?"

Jas: "No, it was something to do with letters."

Me: "?"

Jas: "You know. A, T, G, and something else."

Me: "A, C, G, and T?"

Jas: "Yeah! That's it."

So, this so-called teacher left Jasmine, a bright kid, vaguely remembering that the important thing about DNA was that it had to do with letter patterns. Jesus. Of course, from the school's point of view, the important thing wasn't that Jasmine actually learned anything. All they care about is how the kids do on the NCLB tests, and of course Jasmine does very well on those tests. She got an A in honors biology and walked away from that class knowing next to nothing about biology.


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