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Week of 21 January 2008

Latest Update: Sunday, 27 January 2008 10:36 -0500

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Monday, 21 January 2008
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10:54 - We just got back from the vet, where Duncan had his annual checkup. Except for his rear end, which weak, Duncan is in good shape.

Unfortunately, Barbara re-injured her left leg while she was walking Duncan around in the vet's yard to get a urine sample. She had lots of errands planned for today, and is very frustrated. Her leg was doing so well, and now she's back to where she was a week or two ago. Her left leg is one she didn't have surgery on, but in adapting to her injured right leg, she apparently put extra stress on the left leg and ended up with a pulled muscle or something similar in her calf. She's sitting on the sofa right now, fuming, and with an ice pack applied to the left calf. I hope this is a very temporary setback.

Here's another Darwin Award candidate. What was this woman thinking? She arrives home to find a burglar in her bedroom. Any sane person would get out immediately and call the police. Instead, she confronts the burglar, who flees. She chases the burglar for several blocks, pulls him off a fence he's trying to climb to get away from her, and puts her knee on his chest to restrain him. He gets away anyway, of course.

But what if he'd decided to fight? He'd have hurt her very badly, or killed her, and I don't care how black her belt in Karate is. What if he'd had a knife or a gun? What if he'd simply used his much greater strength to break her in half? The simple fact is that, pound for pound, an average man is two to three times stronger than a woman, even a woman who works out and lifts weights. And, of course, men typically outweigh women by 50% to 100% or more.

I sure wouldn't confront a burglar if I had any choice in the matter, and I'm a lot better equipped to do it than she is.


Tuesday, 22 January 2008
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08:20 - Barbara's leg is a bit better, although it was hurting enough yesterday that she took some oxycodone. She's off to work this morning, wearing the knee brace they gave her after her knee surgery, but now on the other leg. I suspect it's a muscle strain or pull, and if she doesn't aggravate it it should be back to normal within a few days.

I placed an on-line order last Wednesday morning, and FedEx showed up with the package yesterday. Nothing unusual in that, you might think, except that I wasn't sure the order would be delivered at all. I ordered 250 mL of reagent-grade dichloracetic acid from Fisher Scientific. In their catalogs, Fisher says they don't sell to individuals, but only to educational institutions, businesses, and professionals. I guess I qualify under one or more of those categories.


Wednesday, 23 January 2008
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08:20 - Something strange is going on with my main system. It may be hardware or software. Yesterday, when I returned from walking the dogs, my monitor was blank. Moving the mouse didn't unblank it. Eventually, I just restarted the system and wrote off the problem to a random glitch.

Then, this morning when I came into my office, the monitor was blank. Moving the mouse unblanked it, but it displayed a login prompt. Hmmm. I logged in and worked for a few minutes when suddenly the monitor cleared and displayed a no-signal message, and the system rebooted. Hmmm. I went into BIOS setup and found the CPU temperature was over 60C and the ICH and MCH temperatures were around 70C. That's hot, but not hot enough that the system should have shut down.

Still, I pulled the side panel and pointed my little desk fan into the case. Within a couple of minutes, all of the temperatures were down into the 50s. I'll see if that stabilizes the system. If not, it may be the recent large update I installed, which replaced a lot of system files including X. But one way or another I need to take some time to figure out why the system is running so hot. There's no obvious reason for it.

It seems that others, including the music industry itself, are finally catching on to what I've been saying for at least ten years. The music industry is dead, gone beyond any hope of salvage. The glory days are gone for good, killed by the Internet eliminating the artificial scarcity upon which the industry depended. The era of "superstar" musicians and groups is giving way to a new era in which many more musicians and groups will find a wider audience, while the platinum-plated superstars of the past find themselves earning middle-class incomes.

Even The Economist is now sounding the death knell of the music companies. FTA:

"IN 2006 EMI, the world's fourth-biggest recorded-music company, invited some teenagers into its headquarters in London to talk to its top managers about their listening habits. At the end of the session the EMI bosses thanked them for their comments and told them to help themselves to a big pile of CDs sitting on a table. But none of the teens took any of the CDs, even though they were free. “That was the moment we realised the game was completely up,” says a person who was there."

The music industry is now well into its death spiral. CD sales have been declining year-on-year for years, and are now falling month-on-month. Fewer CDs being sold means retailers allocate less shelf space to CDs, which in turn means still fewer CDs will be sold, and the shelf space will be further reduced in a spiral that ends only when CDs are allocated no shelf space at all. Electronic sales of single tracks can't make up for lost revenues from declining CD sales, and anyway electronic sales appear to have peaked and begun to decline in real terms. Most people simply aren't willing to pay much if anything for music any more, and that's never going to change.

Musicians will still make a living, of course, just as they did before the music industry was born. They'll make their livings by touring, by selling branded gear, and by selling CDs and electronic tracks directly to the fans who want to support them financially. Good musicians will probably make no more than middle-class incomes, and in fact Internet distribution means that it's likely that more musicians will be able to make at least a modest living than have ever been able to do so in the past. But the days of the top 0.01% of musicians earning millions are rapidly drawing to a close, as are the days when the music "industry" was able to insinuate itself between the musicians and their fans, taking the lion's share of the income.


Thursday, 24 January 2008
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00:00 -


Friday, 25 January 2008
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09:23 - I got so busy yesterday that I forgot to post.

My lab looked like the aftermath of a catastrophe. While I was shooting images for the book, I had one small working area cleared off to use to shoot the images. The rest of the horizontal surfaces (including the stool) were covered in stuff. I'd just gotten a delivery of 50+ additional chemicals and some additional lab equipment, all of which added to the clutter. The sink and the counter on both sides of it were filled with dirty glassware.

So I spent a few hours cleaning up. Now, my lab looks merely like a disaster area, but at least most of the glassware is clean and stowed, as are most of the chemicals and equipment. The main problem now is that I need to free up and create more shelf space.

Right now, I'm using two 48" (1.2 meter) double-shelve cabinets. One of them is devoted to glassware and equipment storage. The other is used for chemical storage, In that one, I used two 48" 1X6 boards to double the shelf space, giving me 16 feet of shelving in that cabinet, and allowing me to pack chemical bottles much more tightly while still leaving them reasonably accessible.

That's still not sufficient, though, for two reasons. First, I still need more linear feet of shelf space to accomodate all the chemical bottles. Second, some of the bottles, mostly 500 g and larger containers, are too tall to fit the current shelves. Actually, there's a third reason. Chemicals are labeled with storage code colors, as follows:

Green or gray - general storage (not particularly hazardous or reactive)
Yellow - oxidizer/reactive
Red - flammable
Blue - toxic
White - corrosive

All of which should be stored separately and isolated from each other. In fact, it's a lot more complicated than that. For example, a strong acid and a strong base may both be coded white, but that doesn't mean it's safe to store them in the same cabinet. Similarly, many organic acids react with strong mineral acids, so I should store them separately rather than together in an "acid" cabinet. Then there's nitric acid, which reacts with almost anything and should be stored completely separately. All told, I really should have about a dozen separate and isolated chemical storage areas, but that just isn't going to happen for reasons of space if nothing else.

Not that there's any real danger, given the small quantities of chemicals I'm storing. For example, in theory it's a really rotten idea to store 30% hydrogen peroxide (a strong oxidizer) near benzene or toluene (flammable). But I have only 100 mL of each, so the risk is very small.

I still have two 2-foot cabinets unused, which I'll convert to chemical storage, as well as considerable under-counter cabinet space, which I'll also free up. In addition, the end wall of the lab is a convenient place to put up a half dozen 4-foot storage shelves, which will help a lot.

One of the reasons I'm trying to get the lab cleaned up and organized is that I plan to shoot some videos to promote the book. Being me, I spent some time yesterday working on scripts for the first two or three videos. I'll shoot the raw footage with my camcorder and send it to O'Reilly. Their folks will edit and polish the raw video, add titles, and package it up. The narration will be mostly voiceover, which I'll record on my digital voice recorder after the videos are finished. The result should be, if not professional quality, at least a step up from the typical amateur videos you find on YouTube.

I hope to have several videos in the can before the book hits the bookstores in April. We'll release a couple of them concurrent with the book, and then a new video periodically to keep interest in the book high. That's the plan, at any rate.


Saturday, 26 January 2008
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09:05 - Here's an interesting article on promoting books by releasing them for free download:

Alchemist Author Pirates His Own Books

I see that the book is currently in the 100's on Amazon.com, which is incredible for a novel that's several years old.

Recent HD DVD sales grind to a virtual halt

Which tends to confirm what I said when the news of Warner's abandonment of HD-DVD first hit. HD-DVD has lost, but that's not the same thing as saying that Blu-Ray has won. FTA:

"According to raw retail data collected by NPD, consumers bought just 1,758 HD DVD players the week of January 12, down from 14,558 players the week before. In contrast, consumers bought 21,770 Blu-ray Disc machines, up from 15,257 the previous week."

So, HD-DVD player sales dropped by 12,800 units week-on-week, while Blu-Ray player sales gained only 6,513 units, or about half of the unit sales lost by HD-DVD. Or, another way of looking at it, the total sales of all high-def players fell week-on-week from 29,815 units to 23,528 units, a decline of 6,287 units or 21%.

But the argument of both camps has been that people were staying away in droves from HD-DVD and Blu-Ray because no one wanted to buy a player that'd be orphaned. If that were true, one would expect the total units sales of high-def players to have increased or at least remained the same instead of dropped by 21%. It'll be interesting to see how the numbers come out for the next few weeks, but I think my original prediction--that both formats will utterly fail to catch on--will prove true.

Some people say that DVD will be the last mass-market video format, and will be replaced by electronic distribution. That may be true, but I think there's another factor operating here. Just as most people are perfectly happy with MP3 files and other lossy audio formats, most people are perfectly happy with DVD quality video. Even on an HD TV, an upscaling DVD player, which can be had for well under $100, provides video quality that most people can't tell from true HD video. When you consider that DVDs typically sell for half or less the price of HD-DVDs or Blu-Ray discs, not to mention the fact that many people have large libraries of standard DVDs, it's no surprise that most people yawn at high-def discs.

Then there's one final factor that I pointed out years ago. A lot of people thought I was kidding, but I wasn't. I said then that high-def DVDs would fail in the market unless and until writable high-def discs were ubiquitous and cheap. If you could go out and buy a Blu-Ray writer for $40 and Blu-Ray blanks for $0.30 each, the format would have some hope of being adopted. But it has no chance of being widely adopted with burners selling for ten times that much and blanks selling for sixty times that much.

And this from Pournelle's backchannel mailing list:

From: Alex Pournelle
  To: Chaos Manor Advisors
Date: Fri Jan 25 18:31:35 2008
  Re: [Advisors] Windows Genuine Advantage validation website down: WGA staff
I'd say this qualifies as breaking news.

We have been attempting to install a Microsoft-provided Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) product key on a Windows XP Pro machine for the last week. We purchased the key directly from the Microsoft WGA department, and attempted to install it, without success so far.

Now, the machine in question started out as Windows XP Home, and was later updated to XP Pro. (That combination is troublesome to WGA, and we recommend NEVER trying it.) When we came on the scene (much later), it had never seen the Internet, so we of course immediately ran updates, which meant the machine ran afoul of the WGA validation.

After a week of attempting to get the WGA validation to pass, and repeated calls to Microsoft, we were told the "Server is down" and "being worked on". As you probably remember, they had similar problems last year, which prevented a lot of people from validating their Vista installations. At the time they swore a mighty oath It Would Never Happen Again. I'm extremely disappointed.

I have the Microsoft Product Support Services staffer's badge number, should anyone wish to follow up with Microsoft. I'm planning to check again on Monday and will advise.

Disappointed, but probably not surprised.

I don't understand why anyone who depends on his computer would use an operating system that has a built-in mechanism to disable it at the whim of the OS vendor. In particular, I don't understand why anyone would do so when that mechanism is demonstrably buggy and has experienced widespread severe malfunctions at least three times now, disabling legitimate copies of the software.

One of the reasons I run Linux is that such things can never happen with Linux. If I absolutely had to run software that wasn't available for Linux, I'd run it on OS X, although Apple is about as bad as Microsoft. If the software I absolutely needed to run wasn't available for Linux or OS X, I'd devote a Windows box to running it and only it. And I'd be looking hard for alternatives and pestering the software vendor to provide a Linux version or lose my business.


Sunday, 27 January 2008
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10:36 - Barbara has speakers connected to her computer--a $200 M-Audio 2.0 set of studio monitors--but she seldom uses them because she has a bookshelf audio system in her office. When I was installing something on her computer the other day, I noticed that the speaker volume was very low, barely audible. I didn't think much about that, because Barbara had always kept the speaker volume very low.

Then, this morning, Barbara came into my office to tell me she was trying to listen to a YouTube video and couldn't hear the audio. So I went back and started checking things. The speaker volume knob was turned all the way up. I couldn't find anything in the Sound System section that controlled volume.

This is one of these problems that Windows fans claim to be "showstoppers", gleefully proclaiming that Linux isn't usable by ordinary people. I had no idea what to do next, so I did a Google search for

ubuntu low speaker volume

The first hit gave me exactly what I needed. Some poor guy had the same problem I did, and the first or second reply to his post asked him if he'd checked alsamixer to see if the volume was set to low. So I tried to fire up alsamixer, only to find that it wasn't installed. I fired up Adept (the package manager), searched for alsamixer, and clicked on install. In about one minute, literally, from start to finish, I had Barbara's speakers working again.

The only things that puzzle me now are why alsamixer wasn't already installed and how the volume got set so low in the first place.

Barbara and I headed up to Rural Hall yesterday. I wanted to pick up some shelf brackets and 1X4's to put up some shelves on the end wall of my lab, and I prefer to buy such stuff from a family-owned lumber yard in Rural Hall instead of Lowes or Home Depot. As it turned out, the place was closed on Saturdays, so Barbara and I made a quick stop at the Rural Hall library to refresh our to-be-read stacks and then headed for Home Depot, where I picked up three 8-foot 1X4's and a dozen brackets.

Alas, the narrowest brackets they had were designed for use with 1X6 boards. The brackets are about half an inch wider than the boards, but that won't be a major problem. I may bend the front of the brackets up and screw them into the front of the shelves, or I may simply mount the shelves a half inch from the wall.

Either way, I'll end up with an additional 24 linear feet of shelf space, which I'll use for storing chemical bottles, as well as for a backdrop for headshots when I shoot some video segments to promote the home chem lab book.


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