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Week of 9 March 2009

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Monday, 9 March 2009
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08:28 - When Barbara and I were walking the dogs last night, we stopped to talk to some of our neighbors. They have a 2-year-old XP system that from their description is probably loaded with viruses and worms. I told them I'd take a quick look at it, but it's been so long since I dealt with Windows that I no longer know what are the best choices in free AV software and malware scanners. I thought ClamAV was the best choice for a free AV package, but a quick check shows it's no longer available for Windows. As far as I'm aware, the free version of AVG seems to be the best choice, along with Spybot Search & Destroy. If there are better choices, please let me know. Otherwise, I'll download those and scan their system for them.

15:50 - Here's some cheering news for us rationalists. The Pew American Religious Identification Survey says that the percentage of US adults who say they have no religion has skyrocketed from 8.2% in 1990 to 15% now. At the same time, the percentage of US adults who self-identify as Christian has plummeted from 86% in 1990 to 76% today. Among other religions, the Mormons held steady at about 1.4%, and the Jews dropped from 1.8% to 1.2%. Islam, Buddhism, and other minor religions are just an asterisk at less than 1%, probably combined. If this trend continues, those of us with no religion will soon be in the majority in New England. In a few decades, we'll be in the majority in the US as a whole. Let's hope the trend accelerates.


Tuesday, 10 March 2009
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08:50 - Ars has a pretty good summary of the Obama administration's announcement about changes in the regulations covering stem cell research. One thing is clear. Obama's attitudes about science are a lot more enlightened than those of the Bush administration, which generally treated science as the enemy. With the notable exception of backing AGW alarmism, Obama "gets" science, which Bush was never able to do.

Of course, Obama's support for embryonic stem cell research is lukewarm, at best. Obama errs in allowing opponents of science to continue to define the rules, by unwisely conceding that there are "ethical" issues involved in ESC research. There aren't. In one sense, Obama's position differs little from Bush's position. Developing new ESC lines is still forbidden, but Obama has expanded the number of existing ESC lines available for research from a handful to perhaps 1,000.

Obama should instead have eliminated the restrictions on ESC lines entirely, allowing researchers to use any available embryonic tissue to develop new ESC lines. That he did not is a foolish concession to the anti-abortion fanatics of the religious right, who are determined to eliminate both abortion and ESC research. There are no ethical issues involved in using discarded tissue for research, and Obama should have made that completely clear. A fertilized human ovum is not a human, which Obama's new policy fails to make clear.

I was also deeply disappointed that Obama's new policy continues to forbid human cloning research, which we should be pursuing vigorously.


Wednesday, 11 March 2009
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09:00 - Barbara took her sister out to dinner last night. I told her when she left for work yesterday that I'd probably just have PB&J sandwiches for dinner. When Barbara got home, she asked what I'd had for dinner. When I told her I'd had fried rice, she assumed I'd ordered take-out. No, I told her, I'd made it myself. She made me describe, step by step, how I'd made the fried rice. It took quite a while to convince her that I'd actually made fried rice from scratch.

In all fairness, her surprise was justified. For example, years ago Marcia Bilbrey posted two of my recipes--well, my only two recipes--one for an appetizer and one for a main course. Until recently, those were the sum of my culinary skills, as far as anyone knew. So when I told Barbara that I'd sautéed garlic and onions, folded eggs, and so on, her skepticism was not unexpected.

Okay, here's the truth. I do know how to cook, kind of. I can make a passable Coq au vin or chocolate mousse, and I've even made Beef Wellington a time or two. But when I was in college, a friend commented that he would never let anyone know that he could cook for himself. If you appear helpless, he claimed, women will take pity on you and you'll never have to cook again. I took his advice, not because I'm lazy but because I begrudge the time it takes to cook properly. Anyway, I'm just as happy with a bag of potato chips and a bowl of tuna shock.


Thursday, 12 March 2009
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08:16 - I believe I may have discovered a phenomenon previously unknown to science. People's hands are getting smaller.

This first came to my attention when I visited a sporting goods store with a friend. I haven't played tennis in more than 30 years, but I wandered over to the tennis section, where I found a wall with hundreds of tennis rackets displayed. The first racket I picked up had a 4-1/4" grip. Hmm, I thought, must be a kid's racket. So I went off in search of rackets with larger grips. I found a lot of 4", 4-1/8", 4-1/4", 4-3/8", and 4-1/2" grips, along with one lonely 4-5/8" grip. Hmmm.

When I was active in tennis, in the late 60's and early 70's, the common grip sizes were as follows:

4-1/4" - kids and women with small hands
4-3/8" - kids and women with average hands
4-1/2" - women with large hands and men with small hands
4-5/8" - men with average hands
4-3/4" - men with large hands

All of those grip sizes were readily available, with the 4-1/2" and 4-5/8" most common. Back then, on a store wall with 100 rackets, there would probably be 35 in each of those two sizes, with maybe 15 4-3/8", 10 4-1/4", and 5 4-3/4". Rarely, you'd see a 4-7/8" grip. Although they were produced commercially, most of the time you had to build up the grip yourself if you wanted anything larger than 4-3/4".

Although my hands are average size--I can just barely palm a basketball--I used all three sizes from 4-5/8" to 4-7/8", but probably 95%+ of my rackets were 4-3/4". I'd use a borrowed 4-5/8" at times when I didn't have any of my own rackets with me, but I was very careful about doing that, because I'd sometimes lose my grip on a 4-5/8" racket during the follow through of my cannonball serve or an overhead. On a hardcourt or clay, that meant the racket was an instant write-off, and even on grass the racket usually didn't survive. And, although I actually preferred the feel of a 4-7/8" grip, that was just enough too big that I frequently lost my grip on the serve follow-through. I destroyed probably a dozen 4-7/8" rackets before I finally admitted that, as much as Iiked that grip size, I just couldn't hold onto it reliably. So I pretty much standardized on a 4-3/4" grip, which I seldom lost control of.

The other day, I looked up "tennis racket" on Wikipedia, and found that standard grip sizes are now a lot smaller than they used to be. According to Wikipedia,

"Grip sizes 3⅞ and 4 are for juniors where 4¼, 4⅜, 4½, and 4⅝ are for adults. The average size for female is 4¼, while the average size for male is 4⅜."

4"? That grip size didn't even used to be available commercially, let alone 3-7/8". People's hands definitely must be getting smaller.

And weaker, too. I was stunned by the light weight of current rackets. When I was playing, I bought the heaviest available rackets, which were 17 or 18 ounces and heavy in the head. Sometimes I even duct-taped wheel weights to the head to increase its weight. I wanted as much mass as possible moving as fast as possible at the point of contact. The only reason to use a lighter racket would be if you couldn't move the heavier racket at the same head speed, which I could. Well, that and the fact that tennis elbow is associated with using heavier rackets. But back then, IIRC, a typical kid's racket weighed 11 or 12 ounces, women's rackets around 12 to 14 ounces, and men's rackets 16 ounces or more.

When I picked up the first racket during that store visit, I honestly thought for a moment that somehow a badminton racket had ended up mixed with the tennis rackets. It weighed 9 ounces! That's half of what I was used to. What's the point to a 9-ounce racket? You'd have to be very weak to need a 9 ounce racket for maximum head speed.

Of course, I admit that I was fixated on head speed, because, all other things being equal, racket head speed determines the pace of the shot. I was the despair of Alex Orlando, my first tennis coach, because I used wrist snap for everything except volleys. Wrist snap translates to much higher head speed and greater power. So I hit groundstrokes from both sides with full wrist snap, just as when serving. I usually hit my backhand dead flat, with the same motion one uses to throw a Frisbee. Get as much speed as possible with the arm, and then add in a lot more head speed by snapping the wrist at the moment of contact. Same thing on the forehand side. When I was near the point of contact, with my arm parallel to the net, the racket head would still be at nearly 90 degrees to my arm, pointing toward my own baseline. Just before contact, I'd snap my wrist to bring the racket head through as fast as possible.

Mr. Orlando kept telling me to work on control first and that power would come later. I told him that I'd work on power first, because if I used a stiff wrist as he insisted I'd never develop the kind of power I wanted.


Friday, 13 March 2009
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08:36 - Friday the 13th falls on a Friday this month.

Yesterday I finished writing up a lab about synthesizing dimethylglyoxime for the subscriber supplement. DMG is used for qualitative and gravimetric quantitative tests for nickel, with which it yields a bright red precipitate of this Ni-DMG complex.

DMG is easy to come by nowadays, although it's not exactly cheap. (HMS Beagle sells 5 grams for $8.) But more than 40 years ago, when I was 14, I wasn't able to get my hands on any. I wanted to do a quantitative analysis of nickel in nickel coins, so the only practical alternative was to make some DMG myself. DMG was the first "complex" synthesis I did, using a process I found in an old book at the library called Organic Synthesis. Of course, back then, the book was only about 25 years old.

I had to scale down the synthesis quite a bit. The instructions called for a 15-liter flask, for example, and the largest I had was 500 mL. So I scaled it down by a factor of 20, made some other modifications to adapt the synthesis to the equipment I had available, and ended up with 25 g or so of DMG. I hadn't thought about that synthesis in years, until I read an article about the US government cutting the nickel content in coins way down. That reminded me of the nickel assay I'd done all those years ago, which reminded me of my early DMG synthesis.

So I wrote up the supplemental lab session by modifying the OrgSyn instructions as I'd done more than 40 years ago. I haven't actually done the synthesis yet, unless you count the time I did in in 1967, but I plan to do it sometime next week. Or maybe I'll see if I can sweet talk Mary Chervenak into doing the synthesis while I shoot video of it.


Saturday, 14 March 2009
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11:41 - Yesterday, I finally got around to upgrading my office system to OpenOffice.org 3.0. Unfortunately, OOo 3.0 wasn't quite ready in time for the Ubuntu 8.10 release, but it takes only a minute to upgrade to OOo 3.0 directly from the OOo repositories. I've been making do with OOo 2.x on the if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix it principle. If the OOo 3.0 upgrade borked something, it'd be easy enough to uninstall it, remove the OOo repositories, and reinstall OOo 2.x from the Ubuntu repositories. Still, I try never to do anything insane until I have time to deal with an unexpected aftermath.

OOo 3.0 looks just like OOo 2.x. It isn't until you start delving down that you find some nice upgraded features. Anyone who's used to OOo 2.x or versions of MS Office before Microsoft butchered it will immediately feel at home in OOo 3.0. I didn't attempt any kind of benchmarks, but OOo 3.0 "feels" noticeably faster than 2.x on my hardware.

Barbara announced this morning that we were going to clean up the basement, both the finished and unfinished sides. We did the unfinished side first, which took only half an hour or so. Then we started cleaning up the finished area, except for my lab. That took me another half hour or so to get the clutter cleared away. Barbara is vacuuming and dusting as I write this.

I haven't done my daily backup yet, which I usually do first thing, so I'd better get that done. And then I'm going to continue work on the subscriber supplement with a lab session about screening for alkaloid poisons.


Sunday, 15 March 2009
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