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Week of 30 June 2008

Latest Update: Saturday, 5 July 2008 08:55 -0500

Paying for this Place
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Monday, 30 June 2008
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10:37 - Short week this week. The dogs will be suffering from fireworks for the next week or so.

Over the weekend, I did some hard disk cleanup on my main system. I was surprised to see that I had only 691 GB of free disk space, exclusive of external USB drives. If that sounds like a lot, it's not. Every time I shoot a Mini-DV tape and copy the .dv files to my system, those (uncompressable) files occupy 12 to 15 GB of disk space. Actually, it's twice that, because I keep copies on the /home hard drive and the /backup hard drive. So, that 10-pack of Mini-DV tapes I just received Friday will ultimately occupy 250 to 300 GB of hard drive space.

Of course, I could probably trim that down quite a bit. We typically shoot an hour or so of raw video to get five or ten minutes' worth of finished video. I suppose I could delete the unused stuff. But I'm a keeper, and I really hesitate to throw stuff away. It seems more prudent just to keep adding hard drive space.

I'd much rather store backup copies of Mini-DV tapes on other Mini-DV tapes, which cost only two or three bucks each. Which brings up a good question. Why aren't inexpensive Mini-DV drives for PCs readily available? Although many current camcorders record to optical discs, that's an inferior technology, and Mini-DV isn't going away any time soon. There are certainly tens if not hundreds of millions of Mini-DV camcorders in use, and millions more sold every year. For that matter, why aren't inexpensive Mini-DV VCRs readily available, perhaps built into DVD players?

I think Sony makes or made a PC Mini-DV drive, but that drive cost something like $500, which is simply ridiculous. There are also Mini-DV decks available, but they're targeted at professionals and priced accordingly. The cheapest I found at B&H was the $850 JVC SR-DVM600 3-in-1 combo deck, which includes a Mini-DV drive, a 40GB hard drive, and a DVD-R/RW/RAM drive. What I want is a deck with two Mini-DV drives and a DVD writer, priced in the sub-$200 range. It'd be connected to our TV, where I could use it to watch Mini-DV tapes natively, to dupe a tape to another tape, or to write .dv files or converted .mpegs to a writable DVD.

As things stand, it's much cheaper just to buy a second camcorder and use FireWire to dupe tapes from one to the other.


Tuesday, 1 July 2008
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08:34 - The Netflix throttle-weasels are outdoing themselves. Yesterday, Netflix received two discs from me, which means I should have gotten two replacement discs from them today. Instead, the two replacement discs won't ship until today, one from Little Rock, Arkansas and the other from Salem, Oregon. Still, even with all the throttling they've been doing lately, I should manage at least 18 or 19 discs for the month, which isn't unreasonable.

I'm still working heads-down on the forensics book. Right now, I'm working on chapter 7, hair and fiber analysis, which is a long one. There are twelve lab sessions in this chapter, and some of them are rather long.

I'm working differently for this book. For the home chem lab book, I worked iteratively. Do the lab session, write it up, come back and re-do the lab session to shoot images, and finally re-write the lab session as necessary. For the forensics book, I'm simplifying that by writing up the lab sessions first, and then doing the labs and shooting images in one pass. Either way, it's a lot of work.


Wednesday, 2 July 2008
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08:20 - Yesterday was a bit stressful. After I finished backing up, I noticed that there were updates available for my main Kubuntu system, so I told the notifier to go ahead and get the updates and install them. While that was going on, I took the dogs for their first walk of the morning. When I got back, my screen was powered down, as expected. But when I moved the mouse, a login screen appeared.

I thought at the time that the system must have done an automatic reboot after the updates, although I've never seen Linux do that without asking permission. So I continued working, but a while later as I was typing away in a chapter the system spontaneously rebooted. Uh-oh.

I checked the logs but didn't find anything suspicious, so I shut down the system, blew out all the dust, reseated the memory modules and so on. Everything was fine for an hour or two, but then the system spontaneously rebooted again. Although the recent batch of updates could obviously be causing the problem, this "feels" more like a hardware problem, perhaps the power supply.

As I was mucking about with the reboot problem, the phone rang. It was Barbara on her cell phone, telling me that she was on the way to the emergency room, where her dad had just taken her mom. Her mom had been having severe back pain all night, but Barbara's dad doesn't drive at night and didn't want to call Barbara in the middle of the night, so he waited and took her mom to the emergency room this morning.

Barbara sat with her dad for several hours awaiting news. Finally, around 2:30 p.m., the doctors told them that they couldn't find any problem and were sending her mom home. Barbara's mom is 80 years old, so as Barbara said it may be that it's simply arthritis. At any rate, it's better that they couldn't find anything wrong than if they had found something badly wrong.

Barbara's sister took her mom to her private physician late yesterday afternoon. He concluded that the problem was probably muscle spasms, but he did do full blood work and send her for an MRI. At this point, we'll just keep an eye on things and hope for the best.

Oh, yeah. My main system. I finally decided to replace the power supply, which was a lot more hassle than it should have been. I got the system disconnected and onto the kitchen table, where I soon discovered that the only way to get the old power supply out and the new one in was either to remove the motherboard or to remove the CPU cooler. Obviously, I opted for the latter. Big mistake.

I pulled the old power supply, an Antec EarthWatts 500, and replaced it with the first unit that came to hand in the supply room, which happened to be another Antec EarthWatts 500. After I connected the motherboard power cables, I attempted to reinstall the Spire CPU cooler. No joy. I could not get the metal clips to clamp onto the little nubs protruding from the mounting bracket. I wasted an hour messing with that CPU cooler. Finally, I went to the stock room and pulled out a stock Intel CPU cooler, the kind with the four locking posts that you push down until they snap into place. It took about 30 seconds to get that CPU cooler installed and connected.

Then I made another mistake. The 120 mm case fan had some bearing noise, so I decided to replace it. I pulled out a 120mm Antec SmartCool, and proceeded to waste some more time trying to get it secured to the case. The problem is that it uses those screws that have a body the same diameter as the head, and I simply could not get enough torque on the screwdriver to drive the screws into the plastic body of the fan.

So I decided to forget about using the case fan. I reconnected all the power cables to the drives, carried the box back into my office, reconnected all the cables to it, and fired it up with the side panel off and a small table fan pointing at the CPU. It's been running for about 15 minutes now, and the CPU temperature is showing as 35 C, so obviously my ad hoc cooling solution is working fine.

I'm going to be very upset if this doesn't fix the spontaneous reboot problem.

If you want to see video of me stomping around the main stage at Maker Faire, click here. This is about the middle third of my presentation on the death of chemistry sets and the rebirth of home chemistry. My editor, Brian Jepson, was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to shoot this video. He couldn't get the whole presentation, because he was committed elsewhere at the time, probably to more than one task. I was surprised he managed to get as much as he did.

Other than preparing slides, I ended up doing this whole presentation off the cuff, speaking extemporaneously. I had prepared notes, but I couldn't use the lectern and see the main screen at the same time (as is obvious in the video when I walk over to look at my notes), so I just walked around the stage and talked. I was busy meeting people at the booth before the presentation, when I suddenly realized that I was supposed to up on the stage in about the next two minutes. So I rushed over to the stage area, got wired up for audio, and took off running after an introduction by Dale Dougherty, the publisher of MAKE.

When I finished up, Dale greeted me as I came down from the stage, and commented that with my goggles, lab coat, and unruly hair, I looked like a mad scientist up on the stage. When I started to apologize, Dale responded, "No, that's great!". So, a mad scientist I am.


Thursday, 3 July 2008
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00:00 - Barbara's mom is in the hospital, and Barbara's been spending most of her time at the hospital with her dad. Barbara made a flying visit home last night and then headed over to spend the night at her parents' house. She called me about 8:15 this morning to let me know that her mom was in no danger, was resting comfortably, and was waiting for some tests this afternoon.

It sounds to me as though they suspect a duodenal ulcer. They've been siphoning out the stomach contents over the last day or so, and plan to send a tiny camera down this afternoon to take a look. Apparently, there's a possibility that they'll be able to treat the problem with strong antibiotics rather than surgery, which we're all hoping is the case.

I spoke too soon. Although my main system has been completely stable--it was obviously a power supply problem--when I checked the CPU temperature again yesterday afternoon, it was at 77 C with the system at idle. Not good. Obviously, that Intel CPU cooler isn't making good contact with the CPU die. I'll have to take the system down again, remove the old CPU goop and try again. This is starting to get annoying.

Hmmm. The Netflix super-ultra-hyper throttle-weasels are now in control. Here's the relevant portion of my queue as of yesterday afternoon. Item # 1 should have shipped Tuesday, 1 July, for delivery yesterday, 2 July. Instead, it was shipped yesterday, and from Panama City, Florida, for delivery next Monday. Items #2 and #3 should have shipped Monday, 30 June, for delivery Tuesday, 1 July. Instead, they shipped Tuesday from Salem, Oregon and Little Rock, Arkansas, for delivery Saturday.

This is an all-time record for Netflix throttling. They've cost me three disc-days each on #2 and #3 (taking into account the post office being closed on 4 July) and at least two disc-days on #1. That's eight excess disc-days in one week, which translates to getting only three discs in one week plus a day, versus the expected six per week. Of course, it really doesn't matter much, with Barbara not home to watch them.


Friday, 4 July 2008
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08:30 - Independence Day, which I celebrate twice; once for our political independence from Britain more than 200 years ago, and once for my own independence from Microsoft software as of four years ago, on 4 July 2004.

Back then, I faced the idea of doing without Windows and Windows apps with some trepidation, but I just held my breath and jumped in. I soon found that the water was fine, and there'd really been nothing to fear. Nowadays, with the constant improvement of Linux and Linux apps over the years, the transition should be much easier for any would-be Windows refugee.

If you're considering making the move from Windows to Linux, I encourage you to Just Do It. Download Ubuntu 8.04 and install it on a spare machine, or in dual-boot mode on your primary machine. Dive in, and be determined to make it work. There'll be some early problems and frustrations, but you can get past those if you stick to it. At the end, you'll find your efforts were worthwhile.

Barbara spent the night at her parents' house, keeping an eye on her dad. Barbara's mom is still in the hospital, and will be at least until Sunday. We did get some very good news yesterday afternoon. The results of the micro-camera examination were, in the doctor's words, the best that could be hoped for. There is a blockage, caused by a bleeding ulcer, but the doctor is confident that it can be treated with drugs rather than surgery.

Barbara plans to spend the morning at the hospital with her mom and dad, and then head home after her sister arrives. Our friends Mary Chervenak and Paul Jones are coming over this afternoon to shoot some more chem lab video, after which the four of us will probably have dinner.

Otherwise, it'll be a normal workday for me. I'm still cranking away on The Chapter That Will Not Die, Hair and Fiber Analysis, which has 12 lab sessions.

In the more than ten years that I've been keeping this journal page, this is the first such message I've gotten.

From: Rob Megarrity
  To: Robert Bruce Thompson
Date: Thu Jul  3 22:14:57 2008
  Re: Bye Bye Bloggers


Each year at this time, I review my business and personal contacts...

While I certainly wish you well in your various endeavours, I'm afraid that your blog is no longer of much interest to me.

While I have removed you from my list of favourites, I may revisit every year or so for historical reasons. Same goes for JEP. Seems that he ONLY does silly things these days.

Thanks for the useful info over the years.

Attaching a photo of my latest "toy". Has room for a notebook (Runs Vista!) and not much else.

Attachments: Bob's Car.jpg

Ah, well. Win some, lose some. Thanks for sticking around so long and for all your comments over the years. Nice car.


Saturday, 5 July 2008
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08:55 - Paul Jones and Mary Chervenak came over yesterday to shoot a few minutes of video that I needed to complete the first three homechemlab.com videos. After we finished shooting video, we grilled steaks, chicken, veggie burgers, and squash for dinner. Mary brought the dessert, which was young, tiny, tender chocolate cupcakes. I always feel guilty eating the baby ones, but these were delicious.

After we'd finished shooting the videos, I asked Mary if she'd be willing to volunteer to do an experiment to satisfy my curiosity. When I was in college, on a sort of bet I'd attempted to do push-ups with my then-girlfriend standing on my shoulders. I'd managed to do five push-ups, and I wondered if in my current state of fitness I could manage to do the same (or even to do one). So I asked Mary, who weighs about what my girlfriend did, if she'd be willing to participate. She was.

So, I placed myself on the floor, and Mary stood on my shoulders. To no one's surprise, including my own, Mary's weight pinned me to the floor. I wasn't able to budge with her on my shoulders. Interestingly, when Paul, who is 18 years my junior, took my place, he wasn't able to budge, either, so I didn't feel as bad about it as I might have.

But then Mary got down on the floor and, as I looked on in amazement, did a dozen or so push-ups with no apparent effort. Not girl push-ups, either, but real guy push-ups. I asked Mary how many push-ups she could do, and her answer depressed me. She can do 40 without breaking a sweat, and she said she could do 60 if she really went all-out. So there you have it. Mary Chervenak can not only do more push-ups than I can, she can do many more.

And people think I'm kidding when I say that I fear Mary's Fist of Death.

Barbara spent the night at home last night. Her mom is still in the hospital, but is doing much better. Barbara's going to head down to the hospital this afternoon to give her dad and sister a break, and then come home for the evening. Tomorrow afternoon, she'll head back to the hospital and then spend the night at her parents' house to keep her dad company. It looks as though her mom will be in the hospital for at least the next two or three days, and possibly longer. We're just playing it by ear, but at least the prognosis is excellent.


Sunday, 6 July 2008
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00:00 -


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