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Week of 31 August 2009

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Monday, 31 August 2009
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08:20 - Costco run and dinner with Mary and Paul yesterday. I brought Mary's personal notebook system home with me. It's the Toshiba Satellite she bought just before she left for her around-the-world run two years ago, and it now refuses to boot into Vista, complaining of drive corruption. I booted an Ubuntu 9.04 live CD on it last night, and was able to see the drive contents.

Today, I'll connect an external USB hard drive formatted FAT32 and copy everything off to it and then up to my drive array before I attempt to use the Vista repair tools. As far as I know, we don't have a Vista install disc, so I'll have to depend on the hidden partition to restore Vista. If that doesn't work, Mary said she won't be at all disappointed if she gets her notebook back with Ubuntu 9.04 installed on it. I've already verified that the video, sound, and wireless networking are supported by Ubuntu 9.04.

We're continuing to prepare for the MAKE: Science Room launch. Although none of us are happy about the delay, it does allow us to get more stuff ready before the launch. And, as I've often said, the launch isn't a deadline, but merely a milestone in an ongoing process.

10:36 - The hard drive in Mary's notebook is acting flaky, with repeated read errors. The drive needs to be replaced, but I've never worked on a notebook system and know nothing about notebook hard drives. I looked on NewEgg and see a 250 GB Seagate Momentus drive listed for $60 with free shipping. I know that 7200 RPM drives produce more heat and shorten battery life, but I think Mary would prefer a 7200 RPM drive to a 4200 or 5400 RPM unit for the snappier response. Are there any issues I need to be aware of before I have her order this drive? I assume the 2.5" form factor is standard and that any notebook hard drive will fit physically into her notebook, but I don't know that for sure. Is a two-year-old Toshiba Satellite T2080 likely to have any problems with this SATA drive? Any advice appreciated.


Tuesday, 1 September 2009
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08:23 - We watched Lost in Austen last night. Barbara knows I dislike Bronte/Austen stuff, and was worried that I'd overdose. I told her not to worry. As long as there were plenty of "I like her dress" moments, I'd be fine. (Actually, I'd prefer that the actresses were topless, but good dresses are acceptable.)

I actually dislike pretty much all "literary" fiction, but I have a special dislike for the Bronte/Austen stuff. No car chases, no shooting, nothing at all interesting except good dresses. I blame it on my eighth grade English teacher, who subjected us to a constant diet of literary fiction. In essence, she had us read stuff that she liked. That was fine for the girls in the class, but I (along with all of the other boys) was almost comatose for the entire eighth-grade English course. I mean, Great Expectations? Give me a break. I didn't care about the supposed symbolism of Miss Faversham and her stupid cake. I wanted to mash Miss Faversham's face in her stupid cake. If they wanted to teach 19th century British literature, they should have divided the class by sex and let the boys read stuff like Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle. To this day, I don't read "literary" fiction.

The consensus about replacing the notebook hard drive is that there is no consensus. I've been advised to on no account install a 7,200 RPM drive; on no account to install anything except a 7,200 RPM drive; to buy nothing but Seagate; to buy anything but Seagate; and so on. I conclude that no matter what I decide to recommend to Mary, someone will have had good experience going that route and someone else will have had terrible experience. Hmmm.

Mary called last night while we were watching Lost in Austen. She wanted to know if we had a notebook she could borrow to lend to her friend Rudi, who was one of her teammates on the Blue Planet Run. He's doing the Blue Planet Ride, and is currently riding a bicycle across the country. Mary and Paul met Rudi and put him up for the night. Apparently, his own notebook died and he needs a loaner so that he can keep blogging as he rides. We don't own a notebook, but I told Mary I might be able to get hers into somewhat usable condition by installing Linux on it.

So that's what I did while we watched the rest of the program. The hard drive is definitely flaky, but it may last long enough to let Rudi continue blogging until he can get a replacement of his own. When I rebooted the notebook after installing Ubuntu 9.04, a whole lot of text scrolled past listing disk read/write errors, and I ended up at a black screen. At that point, I thought the system was DOA, but I tried rebooting it and it came up normally. Everything just works, including wireless networking. Paul is stopping by this morning to pick it up. Let's hope it lasts until Rudi's replacement notebook arrives.


Wednesday, 2 September 2009
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08:31 - A local man is to be freed today after spending 14 years in prison for crimes he did not commit. He was convicted in 1995 of raping two teenage girls, but reanalysis of the DNA evidence has now established that he was not the person responsible. He was convicted based on eyewitness testimony, which is notoriously unreliable. Unfortunately for him, DNA analysis at the time was relatively primitive, and the results did not rule him out. Fortunately, DNA analysis has improved sufficiently that new DNA tests were able to establish conclusively that he was not the rapist. I suppose he must be both delighted to be exonerated, finally, and frustrated that it took so long.

All of which gets me thinking about DNA projects for the Science Room.

14:14 - It may have been Heinlein who observed that most people can't think, and most people who can think don't think. I was reminded of that a moment ago while I read the most recent article on PZ Myers' blog. We all tend to think that others are pretty much like us, and it's useful to be reminded from time to time that there are millions of people out there, most of them fundamentalist religious nutters, who consider their own inability or unwillingness to think to be a virtue rather than a tragic flaw. It's pointless even to attempt debate with such people, who show up unarmed for a battle of the wits and are too stupid or too ignorant to understand even the questions let alone the answers. Needless to say, they never realize that they're beaten even before they show up.

We continue to engage these creationist nutters, not because we have any hope that their minds can be salvaged, but because we want to do what we can to stop them from damaging the minds of young people by filling them with their irrational garbage and producing new generations of creationist nutters. The accommodationists would have us treat these nutters with respect and deference, which clearly hasn't worked and can't work. I'm a member of the camp that believes the most effective way to neuter these morons is to ridicule them ceaselessly, pointing out that their emperor has no clothes. That will have no effect on them, of course, but I think it's the most effective way to make sure that bystanders and fence-sitters steer clear of their lunacy.

Also, I think we need to start insisting that the fundamentalists put their money where their mouths are. For example, I just read an article about Pat Robertson undergoing 10 hours of heart surgery. Why? If he really believes what he claims to believe, isn't having heart surgery going against the will of his god? Shouldn't Robertson be anxious to die as soon as possible so that he can meet his maker? Why should fundamentalists have access to medical care, antibiotics, insulin, vaccines, and all the other things that artificially extend their life spans? In fact, why should fundamentalists benefit from anything produced by science? They're against science. They're trying to destroy science. So why allow them to benefit from science? Why don't they withdraw from society, like the Amish do, and leave the rest of us alone?

The answer, of course, is that fundamentalists are hypocrites first, last, and always. They don't really believe what they claim to believe. Note the recent study that found a strong correlation between depth of religious belief and extreme measures taken to prolong life. The more religious people are, the more likely they are to insist on strong, often extreme, measures being taken to prolong their lives. That tells me that they know they're wrong. There's no afterlife, they know that, and they're terrified because they are weak and cowardly. Which pretty much sums up creationists: weak, cowardly, ignorant, and stupid.


Thursday, 3 September 2009
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15:46 - That guy I mentioned yesterday who was wrongfully convicted of rape and spent 14 years in prison was luckier than I realized. According to an article in the paper this morning, the Winston-Salem Police Department retained the evidence even though they were not required to do so. Until a few years ago, the standard was that evidence was retained until the trial was over and all possible appeals had been completed. Under that standard, the WSPD was entitled to discard the evidence years ago, but it chose to hold onto it as well as evidence from other cases, at no small financial cost to Winston-Salem taxpayers.

Three cheers for the WSPD, which knowingly undertook a potentially very unpopular action in the sole interest of justice. Or so I suppose; I cannot think of any other reason why the WSPD would knowingly and intentionally spend thousands of dollars to retain "obsolete" evidence, if not to support future reexamination. It's a truism that cops want to put away the right guy, whether or not they can prove he did it, because cops don't like bad guys; DAs want to convict someone, anyone, and they don't much care if he actually did it or not, as long as they can "prove" he did. One wonders how many wrongfully convicted people from other North Carolina cities will never see justice because the evidence in their cases was discarded before it could be subjected to improved DNA analysis.

NCSE has released an interesting report that examines public school science standards, state by state. You'll probably be surprised two ways. Some of the states that one might expect to be "good" aren't, and vice versa. Connecticut, for example, gets a D, and South Carolina an A (!). North Carolina gets a solid B, which is down from an A in the previous review a decade or so ago. 

Keep in mind that these grades are based only on the published science standards, and don't necessarily reflect reality in the classrooms. For example, although South Carolina gets a nominal A, I'd be very surprised if many (perhaps most) actual South Carolina high school biology classes don't have a strong creationist slant. The converse is probably also true, of course. I'm sure that in those benighted states of Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Alabama, and West Virginia there are large numbers of high school science teachers who really do teach science instead of thinly-disguised religion. And brave people they are, too, for placing their students' interests ahead of their own security and comfort.


Friday, 4 September 2009
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08:35 - Barbara took PTO today to give herself a 4-day weekend. I'll probably take a bit of down time as well. I also need to take some time to get my lab cleaned up. When I'm writing up lab sessions and shooting videos, I tend to do something and then just stack stuff in the lab, intending to straighten things up later. Every once in a while, I need to declare it "later" or things would never get cleaned up.

Sooner than I expected, I've started writing up and shooting video of some biology labs for the MAKE: Science Room. I'm starting with microbiology, so I need to get set up to culture bacteria. That means I need an autoclave, but those aren't cheap so instead I'll buy an inexpensive pressure cooker from Wal*Mart or Home Depot.

I remember when I started doing microbiology as a teenager. My mother had a pressure cooker, and for once I asked permission instead of just snatching what I needed. She was a bit concerned when I told her what I'd be doing with it, but I assured her that I'd be culturing only harmless bacteria and that the pressure cooker could still be used for its intended purpose.

I wish I still had that pressure cooker. It had been my grandmother's, and she'd used it for home canning. It was quite large, and I think it was made of cast-iron. It had a built-in thermometer and pressure gauge. The pressure (and therefore temperature) was set by placing one of two or three different weights that came with the pressure cooker in the hole in the lid. The weights were mushroom shaped with cylindrical stems, each labeled with the PSI it produced. You set the stove burner just high enough to keep the weight "bumping" slightly, with wisps of steam escaping around the base of the weight. I wonder if current pressure cookers still work the same way.


Saturday, 5 September 2009
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09:51 - Barbara and I ran a bunch of errands yesterday, including finding me a pressure cooker for microbiology experiments. Home Depot has a bunch of pressure cookers on their web site, but when we stopped at the Home Depot we learned that they're only sold on the web site. So we headed for Wal*Mart, where we found only one in stock, a huge model intended for home canning. That was $70, so I passed on it. I was surprised to see shelves and shelves full of home canning supplies. Wal*Mart doesn't devote shelf space to stuff that doesn't move, so home canning must still be popular.

We stopped by the sporting goods section, where I intended to buy a few thousand rounds of .22 rimfire ammunition. The last time I was there, I bought two or three 550-round boxes of .22 long rifle for $10 each. I knew that ammunition in general was hard to come by because everyone started stocking up after Obama was elected, but I didn't expect .22 to be difficult to find. Wal*Mart had only a few boxes of 100 of, as the clerk described it, low-power .22 rimfire rounds, at $6/box. No thanks.

We ended up hitting the checkout lane with only one plastic kitchen container that Barbara wanted to store cereal in. The total was $6.34, and Barbara handed the cashier a $5 bill, a $1 bill, and 34 cents in coins. I asked the cashier if men ever paid with coins, and she said they did. (That may be because of Wal*Mart's demographic.) Barbara asked if I thought that was a secondary sex characteristic, and I told her I did. Other than very elderly men, who grew up when coins were real money, I don't think I know any man who carries and uses coins, and I don't think I know any woman who doesn't. A guy would have paid for that purchase with a $10 or $20 bill, stuck the bills the cashier handed back to him in his wallet, and put the coins in his pocket. When he got home that evening, he'd dump the coins into a bowl on the dresser where it would accumulate with other coins, possibly for months or even years. Eventually, his wife or girlfriend would take all the coins to a bank and get bills in return.

We then went to Target, which also had only one pressure cooker on the shelves, a 7-liter IMUSA model for $33. I actually wanted one of the smaller Presto units, which sells for about $20, but I decided I'd better grab what was available. Oddly, the box had a UL-approved logo on the front. Some of the more expensive pressure cookers are electric, but the image on the box showed no cord or switch so I opened the box to find out if it had a power cord. It didn't, so I'm still wondering why it was UL approved. Oh, well.

So now I have a medium size pressure cooker, large enough to sterilize about a hundred Petri dishes or slant tubes at a time. I'll probably be doing about a tenth that number at any one time, so my few poor dishes and tubes will look pretty lonely in that cavernous interior. I told Barbara that she could use the same pressure cooker to cook regular food, and she looked at me strangely. In the first place, she said, she'd never used a pressure cooker and had no interest in using one. In the second place, did I think she was insane enough to put food in something I'd been using with bacterial cultures? I told her the whole idea of the pressure cooker was that it killed anything, and besides the most dangerous bacteria I'd be culturing was only the Andromeda Strain.


Sunday, 6 September 2009
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11:25 - Dogs and babies prone to same classic mistake. This report on a study of the interaction between babies and adults versus domestic dogs and adult humans is quite interesting. The study strongly suggests that dogs have evolved in the last few thousand years, resulting in a strengthening of the symbiotic relationship between them and people. No suggestion that people may have evolved with similar results.

I have an image in my mind of how humans first hooked up with canines. Here's what I think happened. It all started maybe 20,000 or 30,000 years ago, when an injured, pregnant, starving wolf overcame her fear--what did she have to lose?--and slunk into a group of people around a campfire, hoping for a handout. The men wanted to kill her immediately, of course. She was, after all, a wolf. But the women, seeing she was pregnant, took pity on her, protected her from the men, and fed her. The women nursed her back to health, and she gave birth to a litter of wolf puppies. Even the men had to admit that the puppies were cute. The puppies instinctively expected a pack relationship, and took on that group of humans as their pack.

The humans soon realized that there were real advantages to having the wolves as members of their group. The wolves kept watch at night, and their hunting instincts and speed made hunting much more efficient and effective. The wolves, being extremely smart, also soon realized that there were real advantages to having the humans in their group. Human weapons allowed them to take large game reliably, so eating became much less hit-or-miss. And on cold nights, that fire was nice. The humans soon noticed that some of the wolves were better than others at certain things, and began selectively breeding for specific strengths. Eventually, they developed breeds that were particularly good at hunting, guarding, herding, protection, and so on, from which our modern breeds were developed. And things have never been the same since.


Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.