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Week of 11 August 2008

Latest Update: Sunday, 17 August 2008 08:53 -0500

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Monday, 11 August 2008
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09:53 - Barbara arrived home yesterday. I met the bus at the K-Mart on the other side of town, and we were home by 6:00. Barbara grilled out steaks and some mushrooms she'd picked up at a fresh market during a stop in Asheville.

Malcolm and I did our happy dance. Duncan, as usual, shunned Barbara for long enough to let her know that he was displeased by her absence. Still, he decided soon enough to welcome her home. Barbara spent most of the evening catching up on email, snailmail, and a week's worth of newspapers. Things are back to normal around here, although Barbara is still a bit bus-lagged.

I'm on the Netflix 3-at-a-time plan, but four discs arrived Saturday from Netflix. I'm not sure why, but they decided to send me the two discs of Brannaugh's 1996 Hamlet Special Edition and count it as only one disc even though the two discs arrived in separate envelopes.

My Netflix billing cycle runs from the 11th through the 10th, so yesterday was the end of the July-August cycle. I sure can't complain about throttling this month. From 11 July through 10 August, Netflix sent me 27 discs, which is only two or three discs short of the maximum theoretically possible number for a month, and probably belongs in the Guiness Book of World Records. If anyone on the three-at-a-time plan has gotten more than 27 discs in one month, I'd like to know about it.

Oddly, Netflix dug way down in my queue for the discs they sent me. Hamlet was pretty high in the queue, but the other two discs were far down. They skipped past at least 15 discs that were showing "available now" to send me the ones they sent me.

One of those was S1D1 of Picket Fences, which I'd stuck in there just to see if it was as good as I remembered it being. It wasn't. I watched the pilot episode Saturday evening. It was good, but not great, television. Certainly nowhere near as good as the stuff we've been picking and choosing from Netflix. I should probably put S1D1 of Northern Exposure in my queue to see how it holds up after several years.

For now, we have a bunch of Inspector Alleyn Mysteries and P. D. James Adam Dalgliesh mysteries in the queue, along with several biographies, including Jefferson and Franklin, and some science documentaries. We find ourselves growing more selective about what we'll spend time watching. If it's not first-rate, it's not worth the time to watch it.


Tuesday, 12 August 2008
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08:36 - Dale Dougherty asked me to comment on this article for the MAKE blog. My broadside is posted here.

Greg Laden adds his own comments here, in which he takes issue with my characterization of Massachusetts as a nanny state and of the actions of Massachusetts authorities as "tyranny". By my definition, a nanny state uses the force of law to restrict the personal activities of competent adults, which I think applies in spades here. A quick check of dictionary.com for "tyranny" shows the first definition as "arbitrary or unrestrained exercise of power; despotic abuse of authority", which seems to describe perfectly the actions taken in this case by the Massachusetts authorities.

Yet another reason why I don't like Mac OS X. A week or so ago, I did some rough edits on the raw video footage for the first homechemlab.com video, rendered it as a 300 MB mpeg file, and posted it on my server for the folks at O'Reilly to take a look at. Phil Torrone emailed me immediately to say that he couldn't play the file, which seemed strange given that it played perfectly with any of several applications on my Linux boxes, including mplayer and VLC.

Yesterday evening, I got email from my editor, Brian Jepson, saying that Phil couldn't view the video because OS X didn't have a codec to play the file. No codec to play an MPEG? That seems odd. Brian had re-rendered the file as an MP4 and posted it on his server. Using the Mac Mini that Brian so kindly let me borrow, I clicked on the link. The file loaded and played normally.

Then I decided to save a copy of the MP4 file, so I right-clicked in the video window. Up popped a dialog that offered to save the file as a Quicktime movie or as source. I chose the Quicktime movie option, and OS X informed me that that option required me to buy the premium version of Quicktime. Okay, that was annoying, but I can understand that Apple wants to sell software.

So I canceled out of that dialog and right-clicked on the video window again. This time, I chose the option to save as source, which the dialog explained would save a copy of the video in its original format to my hard drive. When I told it to do that, up popped a window that told me that this option required the paid-for version of Quicktime. Give me a break. I can't even save the video in its original format without buying more software from Apple? That's outrageous.

Speaking of videos, I'm really enjoying shooting them, and I plan to do a lot more of them. We have another dozen or so homechemlab.com videos lined up. We're also going to do a short series of videos to capture the chemistry demos that Mary Chervenak does at elementary schools. She and Paul Jones are going to come over one weekend soon to get several of those shot.

And I'm going to do our first PC build video in the next few weeks. It's about time to update the standard reference configuration for the mainstream system for hardwareguys.com. I already have the Antec case I'll use. UPS showed up yesterday with a motherboard and a Core2 Quad processor from Intel. Crucial is sending me 8 GB of memory for the new system, and Seagate is sending me three of their new 1.5 TB Barracuda 7200.11 hard drives when they become available later this month. (I'll be doing a lot of video editing on this system, so I need a lot of disk space.)

I'll install Windows on the new system just to verify compatibility, but of course it'll actually run Linux. After I get all the kinks worked out, this'll be my new main office system. After some cleanup and updating, my current system, a Core2 Duo with 4 GB of memory and 1.5 TB of internal disk storage, will become my new den system, although I'll probably drop the disk storage down quite a bit and use those hard drives in external enclosures.


Wednesday, 13 August 2008
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10:46 - I am busier than a one-armed juggler at the moment. Posts here are likely to be very short and sporadic until further notice.


Thursday, 14 August 2008
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08:05 - Apparently, the Netflix shipping system has collapsed.

I returned four discs, including a bonus disc, to them Monday, which means they received them Tuesday. I should have received three replacement discs yesterday. Instead, Netfix didn't acknowledge receiving the discs from me until yesterday morning. At that point, my queue said they expected to ship my three replacement discs that day, but the status on all three of those discs remained as "processing" all day long. This morning, the queue still lists the status of all three discs as "we expect to ship your next available movie today" but the following bulletin appears at the top of my queue.

IMPORTANT: Your DVD shipments might be delayed…
Click here to learn more

We're sorry to report that we've been experiencing issues with our shipping system, so some of you are not receiving DVDs in a timely manner and some of you have not received emails letting you know we got a DVD back from you.

We apologize and we'll be automatically issuing credits to all of you whose shipments have been delayed. Our goal is to ship DVDs as soon as possible and to provide a personalized email update to you if your DVD shipment was delayed.

We're sorry for any inconvenience we've caused you and thank you for your patience.
The Netflix Team

I've been a member of Netflix off-and-on for several years now, and this is the first time I've seen a problem like this. Their queue management has been down several times, but that's had no effect on disc shipments. I couldn't manage my queue, but Netflix continued to ship discs from the queue. This time, the problem is actually affecting shipping.

I imagine there'll be howls of outrage from Netflix customers, but I'm not going to complain. I don't even care if they issue me a credit. On average, I've been paying Netflix something under $1 per disc rental, so this is just a minor bump. Despite my ocassional complaints about the throttle-weasels, Netflix is one of the better companies out there.

And, without any new discs to watch, Barbara and I spent yesterday evening reading, which was nice. We'll soon be back to reading most evenings, because I'm running out of discs we want to watch. At that point, I'll resign from Netflix subscription for several months to give them a chance to accumulate more discs we want to watch. Three or four months on and six to eight months off is about the norm for us anyway.

Sanity sometimes prevails even in federal courts.

A federal judge says the University of California can deny course credit to applicants from Christian high schools whose textbooks declare the Bible infallible and reject evolution. [more]

I'm still working on the forensic drug testing chapter of the home forensics lab book. I finished the lab session on chromatography of drugs yesterday and got started on the lab session on microcrystal analysis.


Friday, 15 August 2008
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08:16 - Netflix is still down. They shipped no discs on Tuesday, "a few" on Wednesday, and none as of noon yesterday. They're hoping to resume shipments from all 55 of their distribution centers today, but obviously that may not happen. So far, Netflix customers appear to be taking it well. A Netflix spokesman said they'd had only a couple of dozen vociferous complainers among their 8.4 million subscribers.

Comments on their community blog have been generally supportive, recognizing that this is a good company that's experiencing a temporary problem. Netflix has been upfront about the problem. Although they haven't said what caused the problem, they quickly admitted that there was a problem, both on their web site and by emails to subscribers, and they immediately promised a discount on next month's membership fee. Contrasted with typical corporate behavior, such as Apple's recent stonewalling over the Mobile Me problems, Netflix's behavior has been impecable.

I ordered an ASUS DVD writer from NewEgg yesterday, which is the final piece for the new mainstream reference system. I'm building it around an Antec NSK-4480 case and power supply, with an Intel DG45ID motherboard and Core2 Quad Q9650 processor, 8 GB of Crucial memory (2 GB x 4), and three Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 1.5 TB SATA hard drives. We'll build it on the kitchen table, as usual, but this time we'll shoot a video of the build.


Saturday, 16 August 2008
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08:36 - If you're one of my friends (as opposed to acquaintances), you get used to me asking you for bizarre favors. Here's an example.

From: Robert Bruce Thompson
  To: Mary Chervenak, Paul Jones
  CC: Barbara Thompson
  Date: Fri Aug 15 11:06:23 2008
Re: Assay Vitamin C in Urine

I think I remember Mary commenting once that one of her favorite experiments in college biology was doing an assay of vitamin C in urine. I'm working on the forensic drug testing chapter right now, and for the fifth and final lab session in that chapter I plan to do "Assay Vitamin C in Urine".

I'm just starting the write-up, which I always do before I do the actual lab, and I wondered if you guys had any suggestions. Unless you have a better idea, I plan to do a redox titration using 2,6-dichlorophenolindophenol, standardized against a vitamin C tablet (for which I assume the labeled amount of vitamin C will be quite accurate). Of course, I also need to find out what the expected range of concentrations of vitamin C in urine is in order to determine reasonable volume and concentration for the titrant.

In the "Optional Activities" section, I'm going to suggest repeated titrations against different aliquots of the same urine sample after various times have passed. Obviously, unless steps are taken to prevent it from degrading, the vitamin C concentration in fresh urine is going to be much higher than in urine that's an hour or several hours old. I may also suggest that readers take a large dose of vitamin C and then obtain periodic urine samples over several hours to determine excretion rate. Again, any suggestions would be appreciated.

Finally, I have only myself and Barbara as urine sources, and I'd like additional data points. Would either or both of you be willing to provide samples when I'm ready to actually do the lab? (Can you tell that I consider both of you real friends?)

Speaking of 2,6-dichlorphenolindophenol, I know that things are getting more expensive, but this is ridiculous. A year or so ago, I ordered 2 grams of DCPIP from Home Science Tools for $2.75. I just checked their web site, and they're now selling 0.5 g for $5.00. In other words, they've increased the cost of this chemical from about $1.38 per gram to $10 per gram, about a seven-fold increase. Geez.

Fortunately, there's an alternative. Instead of using DCPIP, I can use iodometric titration for the vitamin C assay. I did a quick test run yesterday, dissolving a 500 mg vitamin C tablet in some water and using that solution dropwise to titrate an arbitrary amount of tincture of iodine that I'd added to some water acidified with distilled white vinegar in an Erlenmeyer flask.

Now the only problem is the tincture of iodine. Before the DEA put iodine on List I, you could walk into any outfitter and buy a reasonable size bottle of 5% to 7% tincture of iodine. Now, the only exception the DEA makes to the paperwork requirements is allowing people to buy one bottle of one fluid ounce or less of tincture of iodine that contains 2.2% or less of iodine.

And the stuff isn't cheap. I found a one-ounce bottle of 2% iodine tincture at Walgreens for $3. In other words, three bucks buys you about half a gram of iodine. That's an easy and cheap (if expensive on a per-gram basis) way to get the iodine. It would be enough for several titrations using small aliquots, so I'll include that as one possible method. But for someone who'll be doing a lot of titrations it's far cheaper on a per-gram basis to buy potassium iodide, use it to produce your own iodine, and make up your own iodine tincture.


Sunday, 17 August 2008
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08:53 - Barbara and I watched the first disc (six episodes) of the Showtime series Weeds yesterevening. In my opinion, it's not remotely in the same class as Californication, but it's a good series nonetheless. Good enough that Barbara asked me to put the remaining six available discs in our queue. It stars Mary-Louise Parker, who graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts here in Winston-Salem, and whom we enjoyed in her recurring role as Amy Gardner in Left Wing. The delightful Shoshannah Stern, whom we last saw as Bonnie Richmond in Jericho, plays a supporting role.

I scrapped what I'd written for the lab session on assaying vitamin C in urine using 2,6-dichlorophenolindophenol and rewrote it from scratch using iodometric titration. A $3 bottle of tincture of iodine from Walgreens contains between 500 and 600 mg of iodine. It takes about 1.44 mg of iodine to react with 1 mg of vitamin C. Typical urine contains between 100 mg and 1,000 mg per liter, so that amount of iodine is sufficient to do several to many titration runs.

I ran a couple of test titrations yesterday, using both a standardized vitamin C solution and urine, and everything works as expected. The low cost and easy availability of iodine tincture trumps the advantages of DCPIP, so I'm going with iodometric titration for this lab session.


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