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Week of 28 March 2011


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Monday, 28 March 2011
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09:05 - It's snowing as I write this. Big, fat flakes. All of the trees and roofs have turned white. Fortunately, ground temperatures are several degrees above freezing, so there's unlikely to be any accumulation. We have narrowly missed a major snow event over the last couple of days, however. We've had significant rain and lows approaching freezing. If it'd all come together, we might have had quite a bit of snow on the ground. Or freezing rain, which is worse.



Barbara and I watched the pilot episode of the British post-apocalyptic drama Survivors on Netflix streaming last night. As she said, it was pretty harrowing, and not something we'd watch as a marathon. Our usual practice is to watch things in sequence, several episodes per evening until we finish the series. Barbara commented that watching several episodes of Survivors in one evening would depress anyone.

For me, the only thing that jarred was the behavior of the surviving women. A plague has killed nearly everyone, civilization has disappeared literally overnight, and the women are still acting like there's a cop on every corner. In reality, of course, in that situation any sane woman would arm herself, try to stay out of sight, and treat any man she encountered as a likely rapist. Despite the PC propaganda, most men are decent human beings, but when civilization and the rule of law disappear, even otherwise-decent men can do horrible things.

We'll continue to watch the series, but perhaps only one episode every few days. It's difficult for me, because I react viscerally to scenes of a woman being physically assaulted by a man, even when I know it's fictional and the actors are merely following the script.



Other than laundry and my other routine tasks, I spent most of the weekend in the lab. Among many other things, I worked out the phenolphthalein thing by brute force. I started out to make 500 mL of 0.5% phenolphthalein in 20% IPA. I just kept adding phenolphthalein and concentrated IPA until the damned stuff would stay in solution. I ended up with 1.5 liters of 0.5% phenolphthalein in 50% IPA. So now I have 100 kits worth of phenolphthalein. In future, I'll simply dissolve the appropriate amount of phenolphthalein in 70% IPA and then dilute with water to 50% IPA.

Sometimes I lose track of the fact that MSDSs and hazardous materials documents don't reflect the real world. I was trying to keep the percentage of IPA low to reduce the hazard rating of the solution, when 70%, 91%, and 99% IPA are available in drugstores and supermarkets, and no one worries about them.

I'm making progress on the biology lab book. It's still a complete mess, of course, but that's always true at this point in one of my books. In the next couple of months, it'll start to take shape.


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Tuesday, 29 March 2011
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10:07 - There was some discussion on Pournelle's backchannel mailing list yesterday in which his daughter, Jenny, took part. Her book had hit the torrent sites and her sales volume was dropping. I ended up having a private dialog with Jenny, and pointed her to Joe Konrath's blog. I also advised her to reduce the price of her book from $6+ to $2.99. She did that, and I was probably the first one to buy it at $2.99.

The book was languishing at about 14,300 Amazon rank when she reduced the price. As of a moment ago, it's up to #6,645 and climbing. It's also made #91 on the SF > Space Opera top 100 list, which is huge. Getting on a top 100 list gets a book noticed by browsers. The book currently has 13 reviews, averaging 3 stars. Part of the problem is that Jenny publishes as "J. R. Pournelle". A lot of people probably assumed this was a new book by her dad and were unhappy when they found out it wasn't. Also, the book isn't written in a linear style, and it's difficult to jump around on the Kindle. Jenny tells me that second issue has been addressed:

“One thing to note on your Kindle copy – Jump >forward< of the entry point gives you, in order to see the navigable TOC, chronology, and cast of characters. Then jump to the Appendix, and just skim over so you know what's there. Bookmark all those locations. Readers have complained that it is hard to follow the story line on a Kindle, because they cannot easily flip back and forth to those sections. It's a pretty dense novel, with multiple, intersecting story lines – I didn't originally conceive or write it "for" Kindle, so it isn't a "straight through" airplane read. Some readers found that frustrating, until they figured out how to improve navigation. Then they really liked it."

So, if you want to help Jenny out and get what's probably a very good SF Space Opera book, go visit the page for Outies on Amazon and grab a copy.


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Wednesday, 30 March 2011
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14:09 - Is it this Friday the federal government is supposed to run out of money? What a joke. It ran out of money years ago, and has been spending money it doesn't have ever since. Nor, despite the depth of the hole they've dug us into, have they stopped digging. As if things weren't bad enough, Obama has now committed us to spending billions more on the Libyan mess. Why should any of us care what happens in Libya? Why should we risk any American lives or spend any American money on what will no doubt be a futile attempt to control the outcome?

I've concluded that insanity is a job requirement for politicians. No one sane could be elected. We're running trillion-dollar deficits, and even those vaunted tax-cutters, the Tea Party, are arguing about whether $60 billion in cuts is enough or they should hold out for $100 billion. To state the obvious, when you're spending trillions more than you have, you need to be talking about cutting trillions, not billions.

I think the US government needs to hold a going-out-of-business sale. Everything must go! National parks, army bases, nearly the whole state of Nevada. All federal property should go on the auction block. Cut back all discretionary spending to 10% or less of current levels. And, yes, I mean all, including military spending. Then they can start looking at the so-called "entitlements", many of which no one is actually entitled to. Social security and Medicare, yes. We have all been paying for those. They'll have to be cut way back, of course, but only because the federal government is broke. But let's take a really close look at all of those other "entitlements", such as welfare, Medicaid, and so on. What makes anyone "entitled" to these, other than government fiat?

But all of that merely addresses the problem of our income being much less than our outgo. It doesn't address the trillions we've borrowed. I see no alternative there. The US government is going to have to default on its obligations. We can do so outright, or indirectly by inflating the currency dramatically. For various practical reasons, I prefer the former. The US government should simply announce that it will not honor obligations to other than US citizens and businesses. That'll piss off China, of course, but it's only fair. They've been sending us shoddy junk for years, so it's only right that the paper they've taken from us also turns out to be worthless.

I think we're in for a wild ride over the next few years. Kind of like watching a train wreck from inside the train. But then I know people who think I'm an optimist.


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Thursday, 31 March 2011
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08:42 - I got the paperwork back yesterday from the North Carolina Secretary of State. The Home Scientist, LLC is now officially incorporated. Now I need to file for a sales-tax exemption number, open a bank account, and so on.

Interesting article in the paper this morning. With the exception of Canada, the United States economy is outperforming the world, and we're doing it with productivity gains that dwarf those of other countries. Essentially, we're producing more goods with many fewer employees. No surprise there. US businesses had a lot of deadwood before the financial crisis hit. They've cut some of that deadwood, but by no means all. Essentially no government employees, who are by definition economically unproductive no matter how hard they work, have been cut. Nor have many of the nominally private employees that no business would employ in the first place were it not for government mandates, including many, even most, of those in personnel departments.

If the government really wants to reduce unemployment, there's an easy answer. They need to eliminate the minimum wage. Minimum wage laws make it illegal to pay employees what they're actually worth, if what they're actually worth is less than the minimum wage. We have millions of unemployed whose skills aren't worth minimum wage. No business is going to pay people more than they're worth to the business, so these people remain jobless and collecting government benefits. Eliminate the minimum wage laws and the subsidies the government pays people for remaining unemployed, and I guarantee the unemployment numbers would drop by millions almost overnight.

Of course, labor unions would scream bloody murder. Not because they care even slightly about people making minimum wage, but because that minimum wage provides them with an umbrella and allows them to demand wages much, much higher than they'd otherwise be able to earn in a free market. They're not smart enough to understand that they're pricing themselves out of the market, and have been doing so for years. That's why union membership is at an all-time low and why companies are fleeing to right-to-work states like North Carolina.

The key to getting or keeping a job is to be smart and skilled. There's nothing anyone can do about the former, but the latter is within our control. Speaking of which, I've been trying gently to talk some sense into Jasmine. She heads off to college next autumn, and she seems determined to major in business. I've told her that that's a quick route to unemployment and suggested that she instead major in biology or another hard science, even if she doesn't intend to become a scientist. Majoring in business gives her no skills worth having, while the science and math and logic skills she'd learn as a science major will be useful regardless of what she eventually decides to do. Her goal is to own her own business, which is a wonderful goal. But majoring in business is not the way to advance that plan.



10:09 - Here's some good news from Derek Lowe's blog. If you're not familiar with the story, basically KV Pharmaceuticals worked the system. An old drug, hydroxyprogesterone caproate, has been used for years off-label to treat pregnant women at risk for premature birth. The drug was sold by compounding pharmacies (those that make up drugs themselves rather than just reselling commercial pharmaceuticals) for about $10 per dose. A course of treatment was typically 20 doses, or $200.

Then KV got into the act under the FDA orphan drug rules. The FDA had little choice but to grant KV an exclusive on the drug. KV promptly set its price at $1,500 per dose, or $30,000 for the course of treatment. Insurance companies would have paid, because their average costs for premature births are higher than that, although not all that much. Still KV's actions outraged a lot of people, and rightly so. KV did no research and didn't have to spend much to meet the requirements for exclusive rights to sell this drug, and since something like 200,000 women a year are potential patients their expected revenue was huge.

But now the FDA has given KV the finger. The FDA has no control over drug pricing, but they do control which enforcement actions they decide to pursue. And they've just announced that they don't intend to go after compounding pharmacies that sell the drug. Take that, KV. We should expect the per dose price to drop again into the $10 range. Poor KV. They were expecting to have profits of about $1,495 on a $1,500 dose. Now they'll have to settle for $5 on a $10 dose.

Frankly, I don't think this is sufficient. I think the people at KV should be hanged, drawn, and quartered, as should anyone who attempts to gain a government monopoly to make obscene profits.


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Friday, 1 April 2011
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08:25 - Although I was aware of it, I somehow forgot to mention that yesterday was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Robert Bunsen, who is best known for one of his least accomplishments, the Bunsen burner. Google remembered, featuring Bunsen on its main page yesterday. So did Nick Scipio (NSFW), although the burner in the image is actually a Teclu burner rather than a Bunsen burner. (Incidentally, by NSFW, I meant the image is NSFW; Sarah is wearing safety glasses, as she should be, although she's a bit light on protective clothing.) Here are more images of Sarah de Herdt doing science-y stuff. It's good to be a scientist.



11:42 - I just had a long chat with Kim about Jasmine. Kim said that Jasmine had decided she didn't want to go to High Point University. She still loves the place, but realizes that it's not worth the money. She's now considering UNC-Charlotte, where she'll get as good an undergraduate education as she would have at HPU, but at much lower cost.

We also talked about Jasmine's plans to major in business, which Kim realizes is just a slow, expensive way to join the ranks of the unemployed. My perception is that the one constant with Jas is that she really, really wants to run her own business, and that she thinks majoring in business is the way to get there. So, Kim asked me to come down to their house Sunday afternoon and have a long talk with Jas. It's none of my business, as I said to Kim. And I also told Kim that when I was 17 I had the same kind of sit-downs with well-meaning adults, and they didn't influence me much. I don't really expect to change Jas's mind, but I hope to give her some things to think about.

I'm going to suggest to Jas that she major in a hard science, math, or engineering, even if she has no intention of pursuing a career in any of those fields. A rigorous course of study will teach Jasmine to think critically and give her skills that are essential for whatever she ends up doing. Non-rigorous majors like business teach students nothing worth knowing, and most especially teach students nothing about how to start or run a business.

I'll suggest to Jas that she pick up some electives such as business accounting, business law, and so on. Not because one has to be an accountant or a lawyer to run a business--unless of course it's an accountancy or law practice--but because she needs an overview of such things. She can hire an accountant when she needs one. Or a lawyer.

Right now, Jas has the cart before the horse. She's decided she wants to run her own business. As I told Kim, that's not the way it works. One develops a passion for something first, and then decides to pursue it as a business. Businesses started by people who just want to own their own businesses have extremely high failure rates. Businesses run by people who love what they're doing are much more likely to succeed.

Jas has what it takes to succeed in business. She's a bright kid, extremely hard-working, and rigorously honest. All she needs to do is find something she has a passion for and she'll be well on her way.


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Saturday, 2 April 2011
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09:30 - More evidence, if any was needed, that Indiana is becoming a nest of religious nutters. Indiana has charged a 34-year-old woman with murder and "attempted feticide". She was pregnant and clinically depressed, and attempted suicide. Her friends got her to the hospital, where she was successfully treated. Unfortunately, it was necessary to do a Caesarian section, and her premature baby lived only four days. FTA:

The state is misconstruing the criminal laws in this case in such a way that any pregnant woman could be prosecuted for doing (or attempting) anything that may put her health at risk, regardless of the outcome of her pregnancy.

That's right: according to the ways the laws are being applied here, the state of Indiana believes that any pregnant woman who smokes or lives with a smoker, who works long hours on her feet, who is overweight, who doesn't exercise, or who fails to get regular prenatal care, is a felon. And the list of ways these laws could be construed to unconstitutionally prosecute pregnant women goes on and on.

It seems to me that we're badly in need of a religion test for holding any public office or government job, or indeed being allowed to vote. If you have any, you're not eligible. How else do we prevent these people from enforcing or attempting to enforce their religious nuttery on the rest of us? We'd all be a lot better off if only rational people were making the decisions.


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Sunday, 3 April 2011
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09:37 - You know something is for real when the MSM finally notices it. There was a big article in our morning newspaper about self-publishing. Interestingly, it didn't focus on Amanda Hocking and John Locke, both of whom are earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a month self-publishing. Instead, it featured two or three local authors whom I'd never heard of. Surprisingly, the article got it mostly right.

And, speaking of local authors, Blake Crouch, who grew up in Statesville, is making a big splash with his latest self-published book, Run. Blake finished the book months ago. He thinks it's the best thing he's ever written, and many others agree. So, since the middle of last year, he's been shopping it among the Big Six corporate publishers without a nibble. Konrath, with whom Crouch has co-authored a couple of self-pubbed books, has been hammering Crouch to self-publish since last autumn.

A month ago, Crouch finally decided he was losing money every day the book went unpublished, so he self-published it for Kindle and Nook. (He also self-published it as a print title, but self-pubbed print books sell a tiny fraction of self-pubbed ebooks.) Crouch said he'd be delighted if Run did as well as one of his and Konrath's co-authored books, which was selling 30 to 50 copies per day. As of yesterday, Run was averaging 400 copies a day, and earning Crouch over $800 per day. It's sitting at #497 overall for Kindle right now, and climbing. Not bad for a new book launch.

I haven't read it yet, but Konrath and others who have say it's truly excellent. I suspect you'll be able to get a deal on it before long. It's been priced at $2.99 since Crouch published it a month ago, but he's mentioned that he may drop the price to $0.99 in an attempt to get it into the Top 100 overall on Amazon. If that happens, I suspect Crouch will let it stay at $0.99 until it's solidly established in the Top 100 and then boost the price back up to $2.99.


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