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Week of 10 January 2011


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Monday, 10 January 2011
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09:19 - We have another blizzard in the forecast, with one to three inches (2.5 to 7.5 cm) of snow expected today and this evening, followed by freezing rain overnight. (I know those of you in the North will laugh at this, but here in the Southland this qualifies as a blizzard.) Atlanta is already a mess, with numerous accidents during the morning commute, and the mess is heading our way just in time for the afternoon commute. Barbara plans to hit the gym after work, but may come straight home if the roads start getting messy.

We did a Costco run and had dinner with Paul Jones and Mary Chervenak yesterday. They were in Hawaii for Christmas, and Paul had an unexpected detour to Oklahoma on his way home. His dad was hospitalized, but seems to be well on his way to recovery.

I'm still working on the chemistry-of-life lab sessions. I hope to finish that group in the next couple of weeks and move on to microorganisms. When I say "finish" I mean finish designing and writing up the lab sessions. I still have to actually do the sessions, shoot images, and do any necessary re-write on them before they're really finished. But the initial work is the time-consuming part. Actually doing the labs and shooting images is the quick, fun part.


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Tuesday, 11 January 2011
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08:56 - I know this will come as a shock to most of my readers, but I've decided to buy a Kindle. My only two real objections to the Kindle were the DRM and the outrageous price of ebooks. Both of those problems are resolved or in the process of being resolved.

The first problem, DRM, is trivial. To remove DRM from a purchased book, all one need do is punch 411 on the Kindle to get its serial number and run a Python script that strips the DRM, leaving an unprotected ebook file. As to the second problem, I've always said that DRM-free ebooks should cost as much as a used paperback, and it appears that is starting to happen.

Authors, from first-tier New York Times bestsellers to complete newbies are coming to realize that they don't need publishers. Instead, they can publish themselves through Amazon and other e-publishers, set the selling price at $2.99 or thereabouts, and earn as much or more in royalties than they'd earn from their traditional publishers on a $25 hardback (or a $9.99 e-book from the publisher). Stunning, but true.

This is happening because Amazon has seeded the market with e-book readers. With millions of them now out there, e-books are positioned to replace printed books almost entirely in the near future. We've now reached critical mass, and authors are in the catbird seat. We can now go directly to our readers. Traditional publishers are no longer the gatekeepers, and are no longer in a position to claim literally 90% of sales revenue. The only reason they've been able to do that is that they controlled distribution. That's no longer true. Of course, Amazon thinks it now controls distribution, but it doesn't, really. The authors do, and will continue to do so.

Smart publishers, like O'Reilly and Baen, will survive and even flourish. They're the ones who actually look upon their relationships with authors as partnerships. But the publishers who exploit authors, which is to say most of them, are finished. Put this prediction in your calendar and check back in five years. By January 2016, the Big Six fiction publishers will be toast, bankrupt or nearly so. The word "book" will have undergone the same transition that "mail" did earlier. The e-qualifier is often dropped for mail, and in fact the snail-qualifier is now needed to refer unambiguously to traditional mail. In five years, the word "book" will mean e-book, unless the printed-qualifier is attached.

In the past, I've said that huge changes are coming. That's no longer true. They're here.



12:47 - Pat Condell on American Islamophobia.




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Wednesday, 12 January 2011
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09:20 - I was just stubbing out a lab session about natural selection (exposing a culture of non-pathogenic bacteria to antibiotic discs and reculturing the few survivors in the mostly-clear areas around the disc) when the Braun beeped to tell me my pot of English Breakfast Tea was ready.

Barbara's breakfast dishes were in the sink, so I loaded them into the dishwasher. As I was doing that, I noticed a bunch of handwashable stuff on the sideboard: Barbara's plastic tea pitchers and other plasticware, a pizza pan, a couple of pots and pans from dinner last night, and so on. Ordinarily we rinse stuff like that thoroughly with hot water, so thoroughly it's hard to tell it's not clean, and then pile it on the sideboard. Every couple of days, we do dishes manually.

So, thinking about natural selection as I loaded the dishwasher made me think about a journal entry I made a dozen years ago.

Saturday, September 5, 1998

I have, I think, discovered a secondary sex characteristic never before reported in the literature. It has to do with a person's attitude to what should be put in the dishwasher (or the washing machine, come to that). My attitude, which I think I share with most men, is Darwinian. If it can't survive the dishwasher, better we find out now, before it has a chance to pass on its genes. Women always have pity for the weak, and so sort things that should be washed by hand. As I was loading the dishwasher, the dialog went something like this:

Barbara: "Are you insane? You can't put 18th century crystal in the dishwasher!"

Robert: "Why not? It needs washed."

Barbara: "It's too delicate. You have to hand wash it."

Robert: "Whadya mean, delicate? It's glass, for god's sake. A little hot water and soap shouldn't hurt it. Besides which, I'm more likely to drop it than the dishwasher is to damage it."

Barbara: "It's not dishwasher-safe."

Robert: "Sure it is. It says so right here on the stem - 'Dyshe-washere saefe.'"

Barbara: "Don't be ridiculous. There were no dishwashers in 1780."

Robert: "Hah. Shows how much you know. Leonardo Da Vinci invented one in 1483. Ben Franklin's improved model sold in the millions. Well, in the dozens, anyway."

Barbara: "You're impossible. If you don't want to wash it, just say so."

Well, perhaps this exchange is slightly exaggerated, but that was the essence of it. So, because the discoverer of a phenomenon gets to name it, I hereby dub this Dishwasher Darwinism. A quick search of AltaVista and Northern Light for +"dishwasher darwinism" didn't yield any hits, so perhaps I'll trademark the term.

I ended up hand-washing the crystal, of course.

There was plenty of room left in the dishwasher, so in went everything: plasticware, pots and pans and skillets, the pizza pan, everything. The only concession I made was not to press the "High-Temperature Wash" button. I debated about pressing "Heated Dry", but decided screw it. If they can't stand the heat, get out of the dishwasher.


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Thursday, 13 January 2011
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08:28 - I was surprised to read that Atlanta has only 10 pieces of dedicated snow-removal equipment to serve the entire metro area. Residents are understandably upset. Barbara says that her law firm, which simply doesn't close for bad weather, closed the Atlanta office Monday and expects it to remain closed all week. Thousands of other businesses are in the same situation. Only essential roads have been cleared, and most residential streets are impassable.

The article compared Atlanta unfavorably to Cleveland, which has about 70 pieces of snow removal equipment. Of course, Cleveland averages 80 inches of snow a year, and Atlanta only two inches. As the Atlanta authorities pointed out, if they bought the amount of equipment they needed to handle a huge snow like this, it would sit idle for years on end.

Still, there is something Atlanta could and should have done. When I was growing up in New Castle, a small town in northwestern Pennsylvania, we had frequent big snows. When that happened, not just the snow plows would be out clearing snow. Just about every government truck--city, county, and state, from garbage trucks to pickup trucks--had hydraulics for a snow plow pre-installed. Even many school buses had hydraulics for a plow. When it snowed, all of those trucks--dozens of them in our small town--would have the blades installed and be out plowing, not to mention all of the highway department and private construction company graders. Most neighborhoods had at least one guy with hydraulics installed on his pickup, and he'd be out plowing the neighbors' driveways, usually without charge.

Even a big snow didn't have a chance against that kind of effort. In 12 years of public school in New Castle, I remember only once or twice that school was canceled for snow. Even after a big overnight snow, by the time I left for school all of the main roads would be plowed, many of the residential streets would be plowed, and the salt trucks would be out. And they didn't let a shortage of salt trucks slow them down, either. A few of the trucks had flings, but every dump truck was out spreading salt. Those that didn't have flings tail-gated it, using metal grates that released the salt slowly as the truck drove down the road, gradually raising its bed. Piles of salt were staged at various locations around the city and county. I remember being surprised the first time I visited our highway department and saw how small a pile 1,000 tons of salt made. I asked the guy why the salt didn't dissolve in rainstorms. He said the piles were uncovered then because they were in use, but ordinarily they were covered with plastic tarps that protected them against rain.

So, on balance, I side with the Atlanta residents. Atlanta should have done a lot more. For a pretty small investment in hydraulics and plow blades and a few piles of salt, they could have been prepared to field several hundred plows and salt trucks instead of only 10. That investment pales in comparison to having the entire city shut down for a week, not to mention the property losses from accidents. At least no one has been killed, so far.


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Friday, 14 January 2011
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09:36 - The pest control guy just finished inspecting for termites and found none. I asked him what they were using nowadays if they needed to treat. He said mostly Dursban, but mentioned that the EPA had just banned another of the ones they'd been using. As he said, "Every time we find something that actually works, they ban it." Like every other pest control guy I've talked to, he has a gallon or two of chlordane or heptachlor sitting on the shelf, just in case. Those have the inestimable advantage of actually killing termites while being harmless to humans. As another pest control guy told me years ago, "The stuff we use now just hurts their feelings."



UPS showed up yesterday with boxes of stuff that I'd ordered back in October for the microchemistry kits. The delay was my fault, really. I'd told them to combine shipments, and a couple of the items were back-ordered. I now have all the components I need to put together the first three dozen kits, although I haven't finished writing the documentation. And, of course, for liability reasons I won't actually distribute any of the kits until I've incorporated the business.

My mid-range goal is, on average, to be assembling and shipping about 20 to 30 kits per week, or roughly 1,000 to 1,500 kits per year, although sales will be extremely seasonal, with big peaks around the start of each school semester and a smaller peak before the summer break. I probably won't achieve that goal this year, but it should be reachable in 2012, given that something like 2.5 million students are currently being home schooled. And then there are the DIY science enthusiasts.

I'm also working on other kits. I'll have a biology kit available by the time the biology lab book I'm working on now for O'Reilly/MAKE hits the bookstores late this year, and I've already done some work to stub out kits for AP chemistry and a one-year high school forensics course. Eventually, I also plan to do kits/courses for physics and earth science. My overarching goal is to make all of these kits as rigorous as possible while remaining affordable.


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Saturday, 15 January 2011
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09:38 - As regular readers are aware, I'm a strong supporter of gay rights. But I'm an even stronger supporter of First Amendment rights, including most emphatically freedom of speech. The formerly-free country known as Canada stomped all over Canadian's free-speech rights last week when the government banned the iconic rock track Money For Nothing by Dire Straits. My Canadian readers may want to file the following lyrics for future reference, since they're now illegal in Canada.

The little faggot with the earring and the makeup
Yeah buddy that's his own hair
The little faggot got his own jet airplane
The little faggot, he's a millionaire

How could any rational person find those lyrics so offensive that a national government needed to protect its citizens from hearing them? I assume the lyrics refer to Elton John, and I'd be surprised if even he found them that offensive.


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Sunday, 16 January 2011
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11:29 - The washer started dripping last week, so Barbara and I headed out to Home Depot this morning to buy a pair of washer hoses. Actually, we may end up leaving those on the shelf as spares, because after I replaced the washers yesterday the drip seems to have stopped.

While we were at Home Depot, I took the opportunity to pick up some chemicals. A two-pound (900+ gram) bottle of Root Kill, which has the contents listed as 99.0% copper(II) sulfate, set me back $12.50. Elemental Scientific, which has some of the lowest prices available for chemicals, charges $12.50 for a one-pound bottle of "pure" copper(II) sulfate, which may or may not be as pure as the Root Kill stuff, but is certainly no purer. From experience (and gravimetric analysis) I know that the Root Kill really is 99% pure copper(II) sulfate and that the impurities are pretty much all copper(II) oxide. That can be filtered from solution, leaving essentially a reagent-grade solution.

I also picked up a two-gallon (7.6 L) package (two one-gallon bottles) of 31.45% muriatic acid, which is to say about 10.3 molar hydrochloric acid, for about $11. The last time I bought any of that, it was also remarkably pure for technical-grade acid, almost colorless and with very little dissolved solids. I use the stuff routinely for anything that doesn't really require reagent-grade HCl.



I've been corresponding with Joe Konrath about Kindle and e-books. Joe still calls himself a mid-list author, but, as I pointed out to him, he's now outselling most of the NYT bestselling authors, nearly all of it on Kindle. Joe is now selling about 1,000 ebooks per day. And he's by no means alone. There are scores of fiction authors whose Kindle sales are in the thousands of copies per month, including some that are selling 50,000 and even 100,000 copies a month. Many of these authors, including ones that are selling tens of thousands of ebooks per month, have never had a traditional publishing contract. Joe prices his e-books at $2.99 and makes a $2.04 royalty per copy sold (70% royalty from Amazon less a $0.06 fulfillment charge to pay for the download), which should give you some idea of the goldrush that's going on right now among authors who've self-published for Kindle.

I emailed several of my fiction-author friends to point them to Joe's blog. Some of them, like Carola Dunn, have been writing for decades and have large backlists that they could put up on Kindle with very little effort or expense. Others, like Beverly Connor, are mid-list authors who are as good or better than many big-name authors, but just haven't caught a break. I hope that some or all of them will jump on the e-book bandwagon.

If you own stock in any of the Big Six publishers, now would be a good time to sell it. I very much doubt that any of them will still be around, at least in their current forms, five years from now. 2010 was the year that e-books reached critical mass, and printed novels are now on the endangered species list.

Oh, yeah. I just ordered a Kindle.


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Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.