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Week of 3 January 2011

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Monday, 3 January 2011
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09:52 - Barbara's off to work for the first time since before Christmas. She said she was looking forward to getting back to work.

We watched several episodes of McLeod's Daughters last night on Netflix streaming. There've been a couple more glitches with streaming, but it's no big deal. The screen suddenly goes black and the buffering screen pops up for a few seconds, and the episode resumes where it left off. It's no more annoying nor more frequent than similar glitches with physical discs.

What is annoying is that stuff in our streaming queue expires. I'd put all eight seasons of McLeod's Daughters in our streaming queue, even though I'm told the series jumped the shark long before they stopped making it. So, we were about 18 episodes into series 3 last night (of 30 episodes) when we started watching. I happened to check my Netflix queue, which I'd looked at earlier in the day, and I saw that all eight series of McLeod's Daughters would no longer be available streaming as of 5 January. It would be very nice if Netflix posted the expiration date when they first post a disc or series to their list of streaming programs available. Instead, they wait until two or three days before the material expires before they bother to tell anyone about it.

Oh, well. At least the other series are available on disc. I'm not sure how much more of this we'll watch, anyway. Lisa Chappell and Jessica Napier left after this season, and the producers started playing musical chairs with series regulars. Several people have told me that we might want to try series 4, but that it started to go downhill in series 5. It's not like we don't have plenty of other stuff queued up to watch.

I'm still working heads-down on lab chapters for the biology book. I met the two-complete chapters milestone on 31 December, two months earlier than the contract states, which may be an all-time record for authors. Most authors have a hate-hate relationship with deadlines, which they tend to meet either late or very late. When editors get together, they reminisce about this one author who actually beat his deadline. I think that was back in 1939.


Tuesday, 4 January 2011
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13:39 - I'm still working heads-down on the biology book, right now on the first of several chapters (acids and bases) about the chemistry of life. I'm starting small, with biologically-important molecules, and working my way up through organelles, cells, tissues, organs, and eventually to organisms.

Right now, I'm giving some serious thought to the survey lab sessions, of which there'll be many. My problem is in deciding how much to depend on purchased versus found specimens. In terms of purchased specimens, there is some commonality among things that can be bought at the supermarket, aquarium supply stores, and so on, and of course a huge range of specimens can be purchased from Carolina Biological Supply and similar vendors. Going that route offers the advantage of commonality. I can work with specific species and know that readers will be working with the same species. Unfortunately, the downside is that readers could end up spending a lot of money with CBS. The alternative, found specimens, has the huge advantage of allowing a broad range of specimens to be collected at little or no cost, but the disadvantage of sacrificing commonality.

For example, in one early session we'll be taking a look at molds. Any number of different mold species can be purchased from CBS, but the no-cost solution is to dampen a slice of bread and allow it to grow moldy. Same thing for species like protists and algae, which can be gathered for free from any handy pond or birdbath. The downside to that, of course, is that readers will be looking at different, perhaps very different, species.

This is particularly problematic for bacteria and other microorganisms, which are very diverse, often geographically specific, very hard to identify with specificity, and potentially pathogenic. Right now, I'm inclined to supply some of these (no, not the pathogenic ones..) with the kit. The problem with that is that I can't just send a culture. Cultures have this nasty tendency to grow until they reach the limits of their food supply and then often mutate before they die off. Live cultures, like those supplied by CBS, often have to be shipped FedEx and often require refrigeration. That's simply not practical, logistically or economically. So what I'm thinking about doing is supplying suspensions of these microorganisms in screw-top centrifuge tubes, using phosphate-buffered saline at pH 7.2 as the media. There's no food there, so the cultures won't grow (and die), but they should remain viable for months to decades at room temperature in the dark. When readers are ready to use them, they can simply culture them in broth or on agar, or for some purposes just use the suspensions directly.

I need to do considerable research on this topic, and by that I don't mean just reading about it. I need to pick out some specific species now, culture them, put them in stasis, and determine if and how long they remain viable. Any thoughts on this would be greatly appreciated.


Wednesday, 5 January 2011
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08:23 - George Will's column in the paper this morning contained a horrifying number. Only about one in six US college graduates receive degrees in natural science or engineering, which puts us in 27th place. The percentage in China is about three times higher, and even that isn't nearly high enough. I think we should aim for two out of three or even three out of four.

Before anyone objects that we don't need that many new scientists and engineers or have enough bright kids to fill those classes, I'm not suggesting that we quadruple or quintuple the number of scientists and engineers we're graduating, although increasing it by 50% to 100% might be good. I'm suggesting we reduce the number of students in college until we reach that ratio. In particular, I'm suggesting reducing the number of students in publicly-supported colleges and universities. The rationale for taxpayer-supported universities was not to give any kid who applied a four-year vacation paid for by taxpayers; it was to educate our best and brightest to benefit society.

We already have many more people with degrees in sociology and history and literature and women's studies than we need, and there's no excuse for forcing taxpayers to pay for more of them. The new economic realities mean that public education expenditures are going to take a serious and ongoing hit. We need to make sure those cuts are rational. We could cut public university funding by 50% or more with no real impact, so long as those cuts are made wisely. Eliminate entire departments whose only output is graduates with degrees in useless subjects. Shift additional funding to the science and engineering departments.  Make sure that any kid who's qualified and wants to major in science or engineering or medicine or agriculture or library science or accounting is guaranteed a place and whatever scholarships or aid that kid needs to get his degree. If a kid wants to major in sociology or literature or women's studies, fine. Let him pay for it himself.


Thursday, 6 January 2011
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11:09 - I finished the second lab chapter yesterday, Chemistry of Life I: Acids, Bases, and Buffers . Right now, I'm immersed in the third lab chapter, which was originally titled Chemistry of Life II: Carbohydrates, Amino Acids, Proteins, Enzymes, and Lipids. My problem is that I could easily write an entire 350 page lab book just on carbohydrates. As Bob Seger said, "what to leave in, what to leave out."

Here's a time-waster. TelevisionTunes.com. (Thanks to Jeff Duntemann). After two simple tests, I'm prepared to believe that if they don't have every US television theme song ever made, they must come close.

First, It's About Time (It's about time. It's about space. About strange people in the strangest place ...)

Second, The Double Life of Henry Phyfe (A foreign spy arrives by the name of U-31. On his first day in he's done in by a hit-and-run...)

Any site that nailed both of those obscure titles must be good.


Friday, 7 January 2011
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10:05 - We've been having some problems with Netflix streaming, but I don't think it's the fault of either Netflix or the Roku box. I think we have wireless issues.

We've been getting more frequent drops, where the screen suddenly goes to black and we get the buffering message. Ordinarily, that's about a 10 second interruption, followed by the program we were watching resuming right where it left off. But the other night we had a complete failure of the Roku box to connect to Netflix. I played around in the wireless router configuration screens, and saw that although the signal strength was 100% the data rate was very low and the error count very high. At one point, the Roku box was showing up with an IP address of Not good.

During the Roku reconfiguration process, I spotted something new. Apparently, our next-door neighbors recently installed a WAP, which is showing up as "hardy-linksys". I suspect we're on the same channel. Ordinarily, I'd go over there, explain what's going on and get things worked out, but that's difficult since they're not speaking to us.

I just checked, and I'm showing 100% signal strength and a data rate of 39. That's more than good enough for streaming, so I'll just let it lie for now. If necessary, I can just change channels.

I hate this. I just wrote up a lab session procedure in detail and ended up discarding it. Well, turning it into a short Note, actually. It was about using Molisch's reagent, a general test for carbohydrates. The Molisch's reagent itself wasn't the problem. The procedure requires using concentrated sulfuric acid, and I decided I really didn't want that in the kit. I may change my mind if it turns out that some other, more essential, procedure I write up later requires concentrated sulfuric acid, but otherwise I'll just mention the test in a Note.


Saturday, 8 January 2011
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11:24 - I just emailed our friend Mary Chervenak, who's a Marathon runner, to ask if she, like many athletes, takes L-glutamine supplements and, if so, if I could bum one from her. I need a source of a relatively pure amino acid for one of the lab sessions, and I didn't want to buy a whole bottle until I knew it'd work. Also, I need to test its stability in solution. To do that, I'll make up a solution of the capsule contents in distilled water and do a quantitative analysis for the amino acid. Then, 6 or 8 months from now, when I start building biology kits, I'll repeat the quant analysis on the same solution to compare results. If they match reasonably closely, I'll know I don't have a storage problem for that solution (or the kits). If they don't match, it's time to rethink.

Today, Barbara and I are cleaning the Augean Stables (AKA the unfinished area of our basement). Some of the stuff gets thrown away, some goes in the recycling bin, but most of it goes to Good Will. We've mostly cleaned out the space between the foundation wall and the stud wall that's the back of the kitchen/lab in the finished area. That area will eventually become my staging area for assembling and packing kits. It's about 8X5', which is sufficient. I'll use some 2X4's, a 2X8' sheet of plywood, and some adjustable legs from Home Depot to build a sturdy work surface, put up some shelves, and I'm good to go. When we finished the kitchen, now the lab, we put in lots of electrical receptacles on that side of the wall because we originally intended to turn that area into a darkroom. They'll serve just as well for the work area.

12:08 - Real journalism is alive and well in Australia, at least if Tracey Spicer is any example. I was delighted to listen to Tracey demolishing an antivax nutter. None of this "fair and balanced" crap in a situation where no rational person believes there's anything to debate. Tracey finally cuts this lunatic off and ends the interview as the lunatic attempts to give the URL of her lunatic website.

Of course, we all knew that the recent news about Andrew Wakefield would not convince Jenny McCarthy and her crowd. One cannot convince irrational people by using rational arguments. Their minds are made up; don't confuse them with the facts. So these nutters will go on destroying lives. The antivax movement should be proud of itself. It's now killed more children than every serial killer in history, combined.


Sunday, 9 January 2011
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08:47 - On "consensus science".

Science is not done by consensus. There is no large, ornate chamber where scientists are seated row on row and called to vote upon scientific proposals. Science advances when a scientist develops a hypothesis, which is a testable proposed explanation for a phenomenon. He (and other scientists) tests that hypothesis by designing and running experiments to discover information that will support or disprove that hypothesis.

Note my choice of words. Even if a huge number of experimental data points supports a hypothesis, that does not "prove" the hypothesis to be true, but even one experimental data point is sufficient to establish that a hypothesis is faulty. Scientists do not deal in proof; we deal in evidence. No scientist would ever refer to a hypothesis as "proven" to be true. We don't think that way. Even if I or another scientist strongly believes that a hypothesis is correct, we are always open to new data that might reveal that hypothesis to be flawed.

But when a hypothesis has been widely and extensively tested experimentally and appears to hold up, that hypothesis becomes a theory. The evolution hypothesis, for example, has been tested by many, many scientists over 150 years with millions of experiments. All of the experimental data supports the accuracy of the evolution hypothesis; none of it is in conflict with evolution being an accurate representation of reality. When a hypothesis has been so widely tested without finding any significant flaws in it, that hypothesis becomes a theory.

There is no formal requirement that must be met to turn a hypothesis into a theory, so in that sense scientific theories are in fact determined by consensus. The time arrives when all serious scientists accept the reality of a theory, but even at that point the theory is not sacrosanct; it can still be disproven by one experiment that falsifies it. If that occurs, all scientists would accept that that theory belongs in the trashbin of science.

So, Jeff Timm posted on the forums about my comments about anti-vax nutters.

The problem with "AntiVax Nutters" is our so called scientists have degraded their level of respect to nothing.

But of course it's not science that's blackened its own reputation; it's individual scientists or people representing themselves to be scientists who have done so. If you look deeper, you'll find that scientists in general accept some things as true but do not agree on others. I use the three-nines test to sort them out.

For example, if you poll 1,000 random qualified scientists about the reality of evolution, you'll find that 999 of them (if not 1,000) agree that evolution is true. And I'm not limiting your sample to biologists. If you poll 1,000 chemists or physicists or astronomers or geologists, your results will be similar or identical. You'll get the same results if you ask them about other theories, such as the germ theory of disease or atomic theory. And if you ask your 1,000 scientists about the relationship between vaccines and autism, you'll also get similar results. The vast, vast majority will tell you that there is no vaccine theory of autism, that this hypothesis has been tested rigorously and found to be false.

The problem occurs when, for political or economic reasons, a hypothesis is claimed by some to be a theory. We've seen this with AGW. I consider AGW to be a disproven hypothesis; there is simply too much data that does not support the hypothesis or in fact contradicts it. In fact, I don't think it even qualifies as a hypothesis, because it's not testable. Many scientists disagree, and consider AGW a valid hypothesis. Some claim it rates theory status. But AGW fails the three-nines test, and fails it badly. If you poll your 1,000 scientists about the likelihood of AGW being true, you'll find that perhaps 700 of them agree. The remaining 300 either have doubts about the truth of this proposal, or in many cases dispute it vehemently. Those numbers by themselves are sufficient to establish that AGW is not a theory.


Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.