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Week of 10 March 2008

Latest Update: Friday, 14 March 2008 09:07 -0500

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Monday, 10 March 2008
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08:33 - Barbara and I made a Costco run yesterday afternoon to stock up on Coke and other staples. As I pushed my cart down one of the canned food aisles, following Barbara and her cart, I happened to look up. Just above eye level, above the cases of canned mushrooms, was the bottom of a gigantic pallet of--I am not making this up--Windows Vista. There must have been hundreds of boxes of Vista on that pallet.

I called Barbara back to look at it. The pallet was covered with a sheet of almost-transparent wrapping plastic. Someone--presumably a Costco employee, because the pallet was too high to be reachable from the aisle--had used a black marking pen to scrawl on the plastic in huge letters, "DNI". Barbara asked what that meant. Without missing a beat, I told her, "Do Not Install".

Speaking of Vista, which has enough problems already, there was a snarky article about it in the New York Times business section yesterday. The author used first-name-only quotes from three people who had horror stories about installing Vista, including one from a poor guy who'd bought a high-end notebook that was advertised as Vista Capable. It was only after the fact that he discovered that the graphics chipset in his new notebook wasn't capable of running Vista Aero, and never would be. He ended up with, as he put it, a $2,100 email machine.

Following the horror stories, the author revealed the full names of the three people, all of whom were high executives at Microsoft. I felt so badly for the guy with the $2,100 email system that I sent him an email to recommend that he install Linux on it.


Tuesday, 11 March 2008
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08:50 - I've ordered in a bunch of books to do research for the home forensics lab book. Most of them are technical titles, intended to be read by working forensics scientists. But some are general-interest titles, intended to be read by the general public. I read one of the latter last night, Murder Under The Microscope: The Story Of Scotland Yard's Forensic Science Laboratory.

I was already aware that Britain lagged other western countries in establishing government forensics labs. France and Germany established the first government forensics labs, closely followed by the United States. Britain lagged these early adopters by a decade or two, and even as late as WWII many of the powers-that-be in Britain were arguing against maintaining government forensics labs, instead preferring to hire independent forensics specialists as needed on a case-by-case basis.

But I was surprised to learn that as late as 1990, when this book was published, the general state of forensics in Britain was shockingly poor, a situation that is presumably still true today. British forensics labs are very poorly funded and equipped, and grossly understaffed, both in terms of numbers and in terms of educational qualifications of the professional staff. The major regional forensics labs in Britain, for example, are less well-equipped, funded, and staffed than the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation forensics lab. Despite all that, they do some good work.

Any time I read a book like this, I'm looking for ideas for my own book. If I can find just one idea, it's worth the price of the book and the time to read it. And I did come across just such an idea, one that I'd never thought about before. This book reports the case of a man who abducted and murdered a little girl. After a massive investigation, including interviewing literally thousands of people and searching more than a thousand homes in the area, the British police knew who'd done it. They interviewed the man, whose hobby was taking pornographic pictures of young girls, and the man confessed to the crime.

But a confession is no guarantee of a conviction, so the police set out to obtain forensic evidence that would link the suspect to the crime. They had confiscated the man's 35mm SLR and some other photographic equipment. Soon after, the police got a call from a man who'd bought a home and was doing some renovation work on it. When he pulled up the old rug, he found a bunch of 35mm negatives that contained child porn, including negatives of the little girl who'd been murdered. The suspect had formerly rented that house, and had had to move when the owner decided to sell it.

At that point, the police obviously had very good reason to believe that the negatives found in the home had been made by their suspect, but they had to prove it. Scotland Yard forensics scientists examined the negatives, with the intention of linking them to the suspect's camera. They did so by examining the edges of the negatives under a microscope and establishing that the microscopic roughness along the edges of the negatives exactly matched the microscopic roughness of the edges in the camera film chamber that mask the image area.

Frankly, this sounds a bit dubious to me. I'd have thought that the roughness of the edges that mask the image area would be swamped by the grain of the film itself. On a grain-by-grain basis, film development is an all-or-nothing process. That is, if any part of a grain has been exposed to sufficient light, development reduces that entire grain to silver. With black-and-white film, which is what the killer used, that means there'd be significant roughness along the edge of the mask even if the mask had been perfectly smooth.

Color film is even more problematic. Standard color negative and slide films (all but Kodachrome) have built-in color couplers, which are chemicals that react with the byproducts of development to form color dyes. As an exposed silver halide grain develops, it releases waste products that react with the embedded color couplers to form a tiny cloud of dye. Speaking literally, a processed color negative or slide has zero grain, because all of the silver halide and metallic silver are removed during subsequent processing, leaving only the tiny clouds of dye. I would expect these tiny dye clouds to make it impossible to see any roughness in the camera film-edge mask.

Furthermore, the emulsion in a 35mm SLR is not in tight contact with the edges of the film chamber, which further reduces the likelihood that a good image of the physical edge of the film chamber could be obtained from a film sample shot in that camera. (The spring-loaded platen behind the film presses it against raised polished contact surfaces on either side of the film chamber, rather than against the edges of the film chamber itself.) Fortunately for Scotland Yard, the murderer used a cheap camera, a Zenith model, so presumably the roughness at the film plane was more pronounced than it would have been with a Japanese model.

So, one of the things on my to-do list is to examine negatives and slides from our collection to see if in fact they can be linked to the specific camera that produced them. I hope I'm wrong, and that the link is clear. If so, it'll turn into a lab session in the home forensics book.


Wednesday, 12 March 2008
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09:44 - O'Reilly had posted several new galley proofs of chapters from the home chem lab book over the last several days, but hadn't notified me that they were ready for review. I found out yesterday afternoon and whipped through them yesterday afternoon, last night, and this morning. They're posted now on the subscribers' page. There are some minor errors and omissions, which I've pointed out to my editors, but they're in reasonably final form.

Between reviewing galley proofs and trying to get a couple of chapters knocked out for the forensics book, I'm busier than the proverbial one-armed juggler.


Thursday, 13 March 2008
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08:38 - I'm still working on the two initial chapters of the forensics book. I'm also thinking about small details. Here's an email I sent yesterday.

From: Robert Bruce Thompson
  To: Brian Jepson, Mary Chervenak, Barbara Thompson, Paul Jones
Date: Wed Mar 12 09:31:17 2008
  Re: What color is forensics?

This is a serious question. What color is forensics?

The first sample layouts of the home chem lab book used green as the spot color (for titles, headers, etc.), which just seemed "wrong" to me. Mary, Barbara, Paul, and I all agreed that chemistry is blue, which is what they're using now for that book.

Obviously, biology is green and earth science is brown, but what color is forensics? Barbara first suggested red, which I thought would be too intense to use for spot color, so she suggested maroon, which seems like a good choice to me. What do you guys think?

Paul replied, "I would think it pretty clear that forensics is gray", and Mary, "Hmmm.  I'm thinking a rich, deep orange." So perhaps we should compromise on an orangish maroon with some gray in it.

We're gradually getting the place cleaned out. Right now, the library is stacked full of stuff that Goodwill is coming to pick up today. I'm going to add a bit to the pile by pulling some of the stuff out of my office closet, including more monitors, some home audio equipment that we no longer use, a Windows-only scanner or two, and so on.

I also need to get some space cleared off on my secondary desk, which sits to the left of my main desk. I'm planning to convert that desk into a microscope station, which will make it a lot more convenient to shoot and transfer images without having to run up and down the stairs to my lab.

Poor Barbara. When I was writing computer books, there were PC parts scattered throughout the house. Now that I'm writing science books, my lab is starting to expand. Kind of like the Blob.

And speaking of my lab, I have to get it cleaned up tomorrow. Mary is coming over Saturday to shoot the first video in the homechemlab.com series. This one is titled "Pissing Off the DEA" and is about isolating elemental iodine from potassium iodide.

When Mary stopped by Tuesday afternoon, I asked her if she wanted to wear a mask to maintain her anonymity. We decided that she'd wear a paper bag over her head with eyeholes cut out (and, of course, goggles over the eyeholes). When we shoot the introductory segment, she'll announce herself as the anonymous host for this episode. Of course, at the bottom of the screen I'll put a text graphic that says something like "Dr. Mary Chervenak, SSN: 276-00-4348".


Friday, 14 March 2008
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09:07 - I'm still editing galley proofs on the home chem lab book and working on chapters for the home forensics lab book.

The music labels' latest scheme is actually a desperate attempt to reintroduce an old idea that failed. They now want to charge a tax to support them in the style to which they've become accustomed. And they want ISPs to collect that tax for them. By their own figures, they admit that only 20% of broadband users use P2P services to download unauthorized copies of music tracks, and yet they want 100% of broadband users to pay $5/month directly to them. Yeah, like that's gonna fly.

I actually have no problem with paying a monthly fee for all-you-can-eat music downloads, as long as it's on an opt-in basis. Of course, that'd be useless to the music labels, because at most a minuscule fraction of broadband subscribers would opt-in to such a plan. And those who did would continue paying only until they'd accumulated all the music they wanted, which is to say probably only one month each. They'd then drop their subscription, perhaps rejoining for a month periodically to grab new stuff.

I have all the music I want. Barbara has purchased hundreds of CDs, and I just don't need any more music. I don't download music or other unauthorized copyrighted material from the Internet, and I'm sure not going to pay $5/month to the record labels for the right to do something that I wouldn't do even if it were free. The idea that the music labels should have some sort of right to pillage our wallets is deeply offensive to me and to everyone else I know.

If they're allowed to do this, what's next? Maybe $10/month to the movie studios? How about another $5/month to book publishers? And the TV networks will want at least as much as the movie studios. There's no end to it. All of them want to be pigs at a government-guaranteed trough, and that's simply unacceptable. We have more than enough pigs at that trough already. I wish these people would just go away and leave us all alone.


Saturday, 15 March 2008
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Sunday, 16 March 2008
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Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.