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Week of 14 July 2008

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Monday, 14 July 2008
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10:28 - Still working on the Chapter That Will Not Die. It's not that I'm having problems with the chapter; it's that there's so much in the chapter. It's the one about hair and fiber evidence, and there are twelve lab sessions in the chapter, many of them fairly long and complex.

Yet another woman runner has disappeared, this one in Cary, NC, which is about 90 minutes east of us. Everyone is hoping that she'll be found alive, but it's now been 48 hours so things are not looking good. I suppose the lesson here is that women runners should always run with at least one partner, ideally of the male human or large male canine variety.


Tuesday, 15 July 2008
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08:34 - Today, Joss Whedon is releasing Part I of Dr. Horrible, a three-part streaming video supervillain musical starring Neil Patrick Harris, Felicia Day, and Nathan Fillion. Part II releases on the 17th and Part III on the 19th. On the 20th, the streaming links go dark. After that, you'll be able to download the entire 40-minute video for a nominal fee, and eventually you'll be able to buy it on DVD.

Official site: <http://drhorrible.com/>

Fan site: <http://doctorhorrible.net/faq/>

First episode: <http://drhorrible.com/act_I.html>

Before I watched the first segment I knew I'd buy the download or the DVD, or both. Even if it turned out to be terrible--home run hitters also strike out a lot--geniuses like Joss Whedon need to be encouraged to keep doing what they do. Were it not for the support of wealthy patrons, Johann Sebastian Bach would not have composed his wonderful music. With the Internet, all of us, wealthy or not, have the opportunity to patronize artists of genius like Whedon.


Wednesday, 16 July 2008
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10:25 - I'm still doing heads-down writing, mixed in with some lab work. At some point, I need to devote a day or two to learning more about shooting images through the microscope. It's not a simple matter of rigging up the camera and shooting away. There are many variables that can make the difference between a good image and a poor one. I don't need perfect images, but I do want decent ones, so a little practice and experimentation will no doubt pay dividends.

I haven't been getting much recreational reading done lately. Barbara and I have been watching a lot of DVDs from Netflix. Recently, we've watched several complete series, including both series of Jericho, series one through three of Lovejoy (all that're available), and series one of Eureka. We've also finished with Foyle's War and all of the available Midsomer Murders discs and gotten started on Torchwood. All of those are good to excellent.

The one disappointment has been the 2006 version of Robin Hood. The other night, as we watched the final episode on series one disc three, I turned to Barbara and asked if she was watching it because she thought I wanted to watch it. She was, which is unfortunate, because I was watching it because I thought she wanted to watch it. We agreed that it was okay but nothing special. 

What I find grating about it is that it projects early 21st century politically-correct sensibilities onto a late 12th century story. Maid Marian is now Lady Marian, and she's liberated. Every time she mouths off to one of the men, I think to myself that any 12th-century woman who did that would have been flogged and then sent to a nunnery, if she was lucky.

The fourth and final disc should arrive today, so we might as well finish watching series one. Series two isn't out on DVD yet. I had it in my queue, but I removed it.


Thursday, 17 July 2008
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09:25 - Barbara picked me up after work last night, and we made a quick stop at the library followed by a visit to Dioli's, a local deli, for dinner. Following that, we headed to Walgreens.

While Barbara was shopping, I went over to the photography section to see if I could sweet-talk them out of some 35mm film cans. Not all that many years ago, those little plastic film cans were ubiquitous. Any Photomat or drugstore filled large trashbags with them every week. Nowadays, digital cameras have pretty much killed 35mm, and what little 35mm is still used is mostly in the form of disposable cameras. I wanted to accumulate a bunch of these 35mm film cans, so I figured I'd better start getting them while the getting was good.

The woman at the counter told me she had a few in back. She pulled out a small box with maybe 50 empty cans and put most of them in a bag for me, saving a few for their own use. She agreed to accumulate them for me. I'll stop in every two or three weeks and pick them up. She said they usually get only a few per day now, down from a hundred or more a day before digital cameras became common. I figure in two or three weeks they may accumulate a hundred or so. I'd like to get maybe a thousand of them, so I may ask the CVS if they'll also save them for me.

Why do I want them? They make excellent storage containers for small samples, chemicals, and so on. Our neighbor Mimi is getting her 5-year-old son, Shane, interested in doing science at home. In not too many years, he's probably going to want a chemistry set. There aren't any really good chemistry sets out there. The Thames & Kosmos C3000 is a decent entry-level set, but it costs $200 and there's no guarantee that it'll still be available when Shane is ready for his first set.

So, when he's ready, I'll build him a chemistry set, and for that I'll need at least a couple dozen small storage bottles for chemicals. Film cans are the perfect size for this. It's easy to label them with a computer-generated sticky label. They're made of HDPE, which is resistant to chemicals. And they have a snug air-tight cap.

The excellent Smithsonian MicroChem XM 5000 chemistry kit is no longer available, but for now at least the PDF manual can still be downloaded. With a copy of that manual and the kit I put together for him, Shane will have what he needs to get started with chemistry lab work at home. And, while I'll need only two or three dozen of them for Shane, I hope there will be many other Shanes over the coming years, so I want to be ready to build sets for them as well.

After Barbara finished at the drugstore, we headed over to Harris-Teeter to pick up a few groceries. I stayed in the truck while Barbara went in to shop. As I was sitting there reading a book, a guy pulled into the next parking place in a 280ZX. He got out of the car, leaving the engine running, went around to the back of the car and did something I couldn't see, and then walked away toward the supermarket, with the engine still running.

That was certainly odd, so I waited about ten seconds and then got out of our truck and walked away, putting several cars and a cart-return shelter between me and his still-running car. The guy looked Hispanic, so I kind of ambled away from his car. If he'd looked Islamic, I'd have run like hell.

At that point, I had no idea what was going on. I figured if he was going to rob the place, he'd have left his car out front rather than out in the lot. So I stood watching the supermarket doors for a few minutes. He came back out of the supermarket, not carrying anything, and shouted "Sir!". I ignored him until he shouted again. He walked up to me and politely explained that if he turned his car off it wouldn't start again. I guess that was a reasonable explanation, although I sure wouldn't leave my car running in a parking lot.


Friday, 18 July 2008
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09:05 - The Chapter That Will Not Die is nearing completion. It's about hair and fiber analysis, which is a major part of the work of any forensics lab, and it's pretty comprehensive from a wet lab perspective. Real forensics labs do a lot of instrumental analysis, of course, but few home labs have AA/MS/GC/HPLC instruments, so I've covered the topic about as thoroughly as it's possible to do on a realistic budget.

Today I hope to finish up the next-to-last lab session, which is about the morphology of fibers including observing birefringence and relative refractive indices by polarized light. That leaves only the final lab session, which is about doing fiber cross sections. That's more challenging than it might seem, given only the equipment available in a home lab. I'll be doing cross sections at least three ways, one of which involves a soda straw and another a nut and bolt, both with a candle and single-edge razor blade, and the last of which involves a plastic microscope slide and coverslip and a hot needle.

When I got out of my truck and walked away, I wondered if I was acting paranoid. Apparently, I wasn't. When I mentioned it to Barbara when she came out of the supermarket, she said she'd have done the same thing. So did Paul Jones when I mentioned it to him yesterday. So did several people who've emailed me about the situation. In today's environment of terrorism and car bombs and random shooting rampages, when someone behaves very strangely in a public place, it makes sense to take precautions.

Bo Leuf has a good question about something I didn't make clear in my original post.

From: Bo Leuf
  To: Robert Bruce Thompson
Date: Fri Jul 18 03:38:44 2008
  Re: car left running
Hi Bob,

It kind of struck me as odd that you would leave your truck and walk away in that situation. Wouldn't it make more sense, and provide more personal protection, to just drive your truck out of that slot to another area of the parking lot?

Of course, I can't tell from your description if Barbara had been driving putting you in the passenger seat, which side of you (driver or passenger) the other car was, and how the parking slots were arranged.

Judging from the way the driver later wanted to explain to you, he clearly must get strong reactions from other people quite often.

Maybe a future handbook in there: "Coping in an anti-terrorist society"

/ Bo

Yeah, Barbara had driven there, and I was in the passenger seat. It's a typical shopping center parking lot with parallel slots. He pulled into a parking place right next to the passenger side of our truck. I didn't want to take time to move the truck, so I just followed the guy a few seconds after he walked away and put as much mass as possible between me and his car.

I've come to depend on Beagle, a desktop search application for Linux. The other day, I wanted to locate a PDF file that had instructions for synthesizing ammonium metavanadate. So I brought up the Beagle search window, typed in "ammonium metavanadate", and told it to go find the document. Beagle returned zero results, which was very odd. I knew the document was there, so I tried a few other searches. When I typed in "jepson" (the name of my editor), I got only two results, both emails. There should have been hundreds of results. So I typed in "thompson" and got three results. Hmmm.

To make a long story short, apparently Beagle just stops working sometimes. The only solution I could find with a Google search was to delete the Beagle index, which was about a gigabyte, and tell it to reindex. I did that, and Beagle is now working again. Very strange.


Saturday, 19 July 2008
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09:37 - Jerry Pournelle and I have been friends for more than 20 years. We agree on some things, but as you might expect we also disagree on quite a lot of things. One of the areas of disagreement is science and religion.

For the last few years, Jerry has been vigorously defending Intelligent Design and other attempts to introduce religion into science classrooms, which I consider abominable. Our latest exchange started from Jerry's response to the first reader message here.

From: Robert Bruce Thompson
  To: Jerry Pournelle
Date: Fri Jul 18 17:30:25 2008
  Re: Psychic evidence

> Spectral Evidence. Psychics. But what we have to worry about is allowing
> any alternative to Darwinism being taught in schools. After all, spectral
> evidence is only "controversial"; there are plenty of precedents. How many
> were hanged as witches on spectral evidence? Plenty of precedent.
> An EA went to a psychic. And that is to be taken seriously by the police.

You think there might be some connection there?

Scientists didn't burn witches. The church burned witches and the civil authorities burned witches, based on what religion taught them.

So now science is held in lower and lower repute every year by average people. Probably not one non-scientist in a thousand can define the Scientific Method, and you wonder how they can accept crap like psychic evidence?

And you're not helping by defending the whackos who are pushing intelligent design, or whatever they're calling it this month. As you must know, there *is* no alternative to evolution, or perhaps I should say that there is no scientific alternative. As you must know, evolution is as well-established as any other scientific theory, and better than most. And, as you must also know, a theory in the scientific sense is the next closest thing to a fact.

Jerry replied publicly as follows:


Spectral evidence was accepted in Massachusetts, but a number of civil authorities rejected the whole notion. There's a lot of literature on the subject -- and all of it irrelevant in the present case.

You contend that suppression and censorship are a better way to defend what you are calling the scientific method than rational discussion.

Your theory, carried to its logical end, says that what I think and what you think are irrelevant, because it's all determined, just as the Big Bang Stuff would inevitably perform Swan Lake and generate Carl Sagan; to which I can only say if you believe that you have the faith that will move mountains.

What is usually put forth as the theory of evolution is generally not well presented, and inconsistent. There may be plenty of experts who really understand what they are saying, but I never get to meet them. The people I meet eventually resort to censorship as their best means of discussion.

Reducationism has been responsible for as many ills as any faith, and for about the same reason. The unexamined life is not worth living, and unexamined theories are not worth propagating. But that's an old fashioned Thomistic view of the world, and quite lost to nearly everyone.

The Church (Catholic Church) tried suppression and censorship, not once but many times, with pretty bad results: bad for the Church.

Censorship and suppression can work, for a while, but it takes a totalitarian state, which is pretty hard to maintain in this modern age.

And privately as follows:

From: Jerry Pournelle
  To: 'Robert Bruce Thompson
  Date: Fri Jul 18 22:19:35 2008
Re: RE: Psychic evidence

What church?

And I sure am harming the cause by advocating rational discussion over suppression and censorship. Sure.

To which I replied:

From: Robert Bruce Thompson
  To: Jerry Pournelle
Date: Sat Jul 19 09:18:52 2008
  Re: Re: Psychic evidence

Any church. Faith is incompatible with reason, and religion with science.

Yeah, you are harming science, in exactly the same way you'd be harming science if you insisted that selenologists must waste their time by taking seriously assertions that Luna is made of green cheese.

There's nothing rational about ID, and it's no more suppression or censorship for scientists to ignore the blatherings of the IDiots than it would be for selenologists to ignore the blatherings of the green cheesers. The ID and GC propositions are on the same level, which is to say that neither even reaches the level of hypotheses.

If you want rational discussion about evolution theory, propose an alternative hypothesis that's falsifiable and useful. ID is neither. If you believe religion should be taught in public schools, fine. Argue that. But please don't try to sneak religion into science courses in public schools.

All of which is a waste of time on both our parts. I'm never going to convince Jerry, and he's never going to convince me. And both of us are absolutely certain that we're right. The difference, of course, is that I am right.


Sunday, 20 July 2008
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10:57 - There was an article in the paper this morning about a Vermont librarian who stood up to the Vermont State Police when they attempted to search the library's public-access PCs. She demanded that they produce a search warrant, which they eventually did, but that delayed the search by eight hours.

Although I agree in principle that standing up for patrons' privacy is the right thing to do, in this case I think she made the wrong decision. The state cops were frantically searching for a 12-year-old girl, Brooke Bennett, who was later found murdered. I mentioned the article to Barbara, and asked what she would have done in a similar situation.

As it turns out, she didn't have to speculate about what she might actually have done. Back when she was the head librarian of the local branch, the cops arrived one day and wanted to search her public-access PCs. Those cops were also frantically searching for a missing kid. Barbara called the library administration to tell them what was going on and what she was going to do, and then she stood back and told the cops to have at it. She made the right call.

If the cops are simply trying to build a case--to arrest and convict a bad guy after the crime has already been committed--they need to follow the rules. But an emergent situation like a child in danger or an imminent terrorist bombing changes the rules. Shortcuts are justified when they're a matter of saving innocent lives.

I wonder how that librarian feels. She stood up for what she believed to be right, and indeed what nearly all librarians believe to be right, but she must be wondering if without that 8-hour delay Brooke Bennett might have been found alive. For her sake, I hope it turns out that the delay wasn't a factor.


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