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Week of 4 February 2008

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Monday, 4 February 2008
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09:34 - We watched the super bowl last night. Well, Barbara watched it. I mostly read my book and looked at web sites while the game was on. Mary and Paul went to a super bowl party.

I wasn't surprised that Paul would watch the game, but for some reason it surprised me that Barbara and Mary would want to. And, no, it isn't the fact that they're women. It finally struck me just before the half-time show.

If Paul has a sport, it's baseball, which he played growing up. That's a team sport. I grew up playing tennis, which is very much an individual sport. There are doubles and mixed doubles, of course, but few people take them seriously other than as a social event. When it comes to serious competition, it's singles all the way. So I suppose it's understandable that I never had any interest in playing, let alone watching, team sports.

Barbara is a golfer and Mary is a Marathon runner, both of which are consummately individual sports. So I suppose I was surprised that they'd want to watch an event that is really not even a team sport but a team exhibition, kind of like synchronized swimming. And, before anyone objects, I say that because in my mind a sport is something one engages in for the fun and the competition, not to draw a paycheck. As soon as it becomes a business, it's no longer a sport. Which I suppose explains my total lack of interest in watching televised tennis.

Something else occurred to me during the game. All of this fanatic interest in televised so-called sports is really just a vicarious replacement for something we lack in our modern culture, real competition and real fighting. There's an easy way to rid ourselves of this plague of televised so-called sports. Legalize dueling. Doing that would also dramatically reduce the number of flaming assholes walking around and greatly increase the general level of civility.

And, as I've suggested in the past, if we must have professional football, at least make it real. Arm the players with shields and short swords. Instead of sacking the opposing quarterback, a defensive lineman could behead him. Hey, these guys get paid a ton of money, so they should be willing to take some real risks. Even I might watch that kind of game.

11:55 - I thought some people might be interested in seeing what I'll be using as a backdrop for the headshots in the homechemlab.com videos. This is the end wall of my lab. It's perhaps a bit busy for a background, but I'll put the person talking several feet in front of the background to throw it a bit out of focus.

These bottles, incidentally, are only bench solutions and a few of the containers that were too large to fit in the main chemical cabinet, which has 16 feet (5 meters) of shelving for storing solid chemicals and stock liquids. (The bottles that aren't labeled in this image are empty, in case anyone wondered.)

The middle row with the small dropper bottles (called Barnes bottles) is mostly indicators and reagents that are used dropwise. That 12-pound bag of baking soda is actually a safety item rather than a stock chemical. Twelve pounds of baking soda is a serious answer to a solvent fire or an acid spill. There's a corresponding gallon jug of vinegar for base spills.

From: Paul Jones
  To: Robert Bruce Thompson
  CC: Mary Chervenak, Barbara Thompson
Date: Mon Feb 4 09:46:11 2008
  Re: Your videos

If we took your suggestion Tom Brady would have been sans head a couple minutes into the action. Not that the end result would have been any different last night. By the end the Giants may well have carved him up and distributed relics of the dear departed MVP. Even Brady may have preferred that. I'm sure he's feeling pretty piss poor this morning.

I do generally agree with your take on sports as substitute for what you call "real" competition. Football got going first in college as training for war. Leadership, taking and occupying territory, strategic maneuvering of a group, etc. It was no fluke, I think, that for the first 3/4 of football's history Army and Navy were national powers and their graduates very successful in the NFL. However, to the extent that I watch pro sports (and, you're right, I really only make a point of watching baseball), it is because it is one of the very few places left that who you are or what you know doesn't count for much. No one is owed favors, no one starts ahead of another based on past performances. That is even eroding some (see NBA) and, certainly, who you are and who you know can get you on the field in the first place. But, the actual game is still very much a meritocracy. As we found last night. That is not true in many, many parts of our lives today. -Paul


Tuesday, 5 February 2008
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08:28 - I did some playing around yesterday with my new quartz-halogen shop lights. As I expected, the light used directly is much too harsh, but I think I have a low-tech solution for that problem. I'm going to crinkle up some aluminum foil, glue it to sheets of cardboard, and use those reflectors to bounce the light. Even bounced, 1000W of quartz-halogen light should be sufficient.

I emailed my editor yesterday to ask if he thought the mike on the camera would suffice or if I needed to buy an add-on mike. He suggested I give it a try first and then, if the whining of the camera motor is intrusive, buy a shotgun mike. I'll give it a try, but if I need an add-on mike I think I'll buy a wireless lavalier mike instead of a shotgun mike. That way, it should still work properly if I'm talking with my back turned during a procedure or whatever. Also, I may shoot some of the segments by myself, which would make it hard to keep a shotgun mike aimed properly. I'm thinking about something like this.


Wednesday, 6 February 2008
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08:50 - I've just spent a few minutes on GoDaddy.com, renewing Barbara's and my domain names and adding several others. The new domains are:


I used Cali Lewis's GeekBrief GB3 promo code, which cut the annual price of the .com renewals and new registrations from $9.99 to $6.95.

Many people who have little experience with desktop Linux believe that it's somehow crude compared to Windows or OS X. Nothing could be further from the truth. Desktop Linux, whether you're running the KDE or Gnome or some other desktop environment, is quite polished and elegant.

I thought about that yestermorning when I was doing my regular daily backup. I'd compressed a copy of my home directory into Archive.tar.gz (the name used by default) and had just started to copy that backup archive to the /backup filesystem, which is on a different hard drive. KDE popped up this dialog:

Which gives me a lot more flexibility than I had with Windows. Instead of having only the choices Overwrite or Cancel, I also have the Rename option. I can simply type a new filename into the box and have the file copied to the destination under that new name. If I can't come up with a good name, I can click the Suggest New Name button, which will rename the file something like Archive1.tar.gz.

That's a simple example, certainly, but I run into stuff like this constantly. Things that Windows either makes difficult or won't do at all are trivially easy with desktop Linux. There aren't many examples of the reverse.

You don't need to know much about Linux to use it efficiently and effectively on your desktop. I'm a prime example of that. I know little more about Linux now than I did when I converted to using it full-time back in mid-2004. I suppose I should be a bit ashamed of that, but it's the simple truth. I almost never use a command prompt, because the GUI tools do everything I routinely need to do. Basically, I use desktop Linux as an appliance, the same way Aunt Minnie uses Windows or OS X. And it just works.

It's also trivially easy to add functionality. For example, I needed the tools to transfer video from my camcorder and edit that video. I fired up Adept (the Kubuntu package manager) and did a search. After a couple of mouse clicks and literally one minute later, I had Kino installed. Kino not only handles the camera (when you plug the camcorder into the FireWire port, Kino recognizes it immediately and allows you to control the camera from the PC to do stuff like play, fast-forward, and so on) but also provides the tools I need to edit the raw video.

And you're not necessarily limited to Linux apps. Monday I got email from the woman who does our astronomy club newsletter. She asked me if I'd do an article for the next issue. I told her I would, but then I realized that I didn't have a planetarium program installed on my system, which I'd need to generate charts. I could have used Kstars, the KDE planetarium program, but I prefer to use Megastar, which is a Windows app.

As usual, I'd backed up the distribution CD to a network hard drive, so I just changed to the Megastar directory and double-clicked install.exe. A dialog popped up to ask me if I wanted to open this application using the WINE installer. I told it yes, and about one minute later I had a working copy of Megastar installed and running on my Linux system.

I used Megastar to produce the charts for the article. Instead of printing the charts or writing them to disk, I just fired up the KDE screen capture program and grabbed screen images of them. I then used ShowFoto to crop out the toolbars and so on, and in no time I had the charts I needed. All under Linux, and all without any need to pop a console window.


Thursday, 7 February 2008
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08:18 - Several people have suggested that I not mess with the quartz-halogen lights and instead just use the normal room lighting. My lab is a galley layout, with counters down both sides and a 4-foot aisle between them. There are three fluorescent fixtures in the ceiling, each with two 4-foot 40W tubes. The lighting is flat and even, and I suppose it'll work for recording camcorder video.

One of the tubes burned out some time ago, so yesterday I decided to replace it. The installed tubes are Sylvania warm-white. When I went out to the basement to look for a new tube, I found that we had only Sylvania F40 tubes, which are described as suitable for shops and other environments where brightness is more important than color rendering. I installed one of those in the empty socket, and was stunned by the difference between the warm-white and cold-white models. The cold white tube appears pure white and about twice as bright as the warm-white tube, which has a distinct orange color.

All of the current tubes are of about the same vintage, which means I can expect others to fail soon. I'm thinking about just replacing all of them with the cold-white shop tubes. Presumably the manual color balance function of my camcorder can adjust to the light provided by the cold-white tubes, and six of those would provide much more light.

Which brings up the matter of disposal of old tubes. I called the Forsyth County Environmental Affairs Department. The guy I talked to said he didn't think Lowe's or Home Depot collected the old tubes for recycling, and I'd have to take them to the recycling center downtown. I'll do that, but a lot of people wouldn't. I suspect a lot of old fluorescent tubes end up being dumped in convenient dumpsters.

I did call Lowe's and Home Depot to check, and both told me that they don't accept old fluorescent tubes. I don't blame them. Tubes are fragile, so it's not difficult to imagine frequent breakage and the resulting costs and hassles of clean-ups.

It seems to me that if the government is concerned about proper disposal of hazardous wastes, they need to make it as easy as possible for people to dispose of such items properly. Driving across town just doesn't cut it.


Friday, 8 February 2008
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08:31 - I spent all day yesterday working on one of the chapters for the home forensics lab book. The more I get into this, the happier I am about how it's going to turn out. There really is a lot possible with only basic tools, even such stuff as DNA separation by electrophoresis, and most of it is both fun and educational. Perhaps I should dedicate the book to Inspector Cadfael.

Speaking of which, I see that a significant percentage of Brits are confused about historical versus fictional people. Many, for example, believe Winston Churchill to have been fictional. But in claiming Sherlock Holmes to be fictional, I thought the article crossed a line. Sherlock Holmes fictional? The next thing you know, they'll be claiming the same is true of King Arthur or Robin Hood.


Saturday, 9 February 2008
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Sunday, 10 February 2008
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Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.