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Week of 17 January 2011

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Monday, 17 January 2011
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09:35 - There's a recurring discussion over on the forums about flashlights. Ray Thompson is a big proponent of premium flashlights that sell for $50 to $200 or more. That's always struck me as ridiculous.

There's a lot to be said for being good enough to get the job done, but no better. And that's the way I look at flashlights. So, while we were at Home Depot yesterday, I picked up some Brinkman flashlights. They have six white LEDs and use three AAA batteries. They cost me $9.88. For a pack of ten. Including batteries. That's right, a buck each. They're also very bright. I gave Barbara five of them and kept five for myself. We now have flashlights all over the place.

More on the Kindle. Regular readers may recall that I said I'd never buy a Kindle unless two things changed. First, the DRM. That's no longer a factor, as many authors are choosing to publish their books without DRM and even those books that do have DRM are easily stripped of it it. Second, I consider an ebook to be worth, at most, the price of a used paperback. More and more authors, including Joe Konrath, are pricing their ebooks at $2.99. Actually, many of them would price them even lower, except that Amazon pays the 70% royalty only for books priced between $2.99 and $9.99. If the book is priced outside that range, higher or lower, the royalty percentage drops to 35%.

I suspect Amazon will change that policy, and probably sooner rather than later. We now have a lot of data on ebook sales and price elasticity of demand, and one thing that's become glaringly obvious is that ebooks priced higher than about $2.99 simply don't sell in very large numbers. That will certainly be true for me. I have no plans ever to buy an ebook that costs more than $2.99. If I see books I'd like to buy that're priced higher than that, I'm going to email the authors and tell them why I'm not buying their ebooks. I'll also point them to Konrath's blog, and encourage them to self-publish rather than allowing a traditional publisher to publish their ebooks at much too high a price (and leave the authors with only a 17.5% royalty). A lot of authors and their backlists are tied up contractually, but that'll sort out over the next few years.

Basically, at this point, I think any fiction author who does anything with a new book but self-publish it as a e-book is nuts. Print is already becoming a subsidiary right, like audio or foreign translations. If I were writing fiction, which I would do if I had time, I'd contract out cover design, layout, and other skilled jobs, and publish it myself, without DRM, on Amazon and all of the other e-book services. I'd still use an agent, but only to auction print-only and other subsidiary rights to any traditional publishers who were interested.

One of the main reasons I use a multi-core beast with gobs of RAM for my primary desktop is that Firefox is a pig. Of course, I probably put more demands on Firefox than nearly anyone else. For example, right now I have 93 Firefox windows active. Not tabs. Windows. Each of those windows has anything from one to 25 tabs open. Call it an average of half a dozen tabs per window, or between 500 and 600 total tabs.

What I really need, and what apparently doesn't exist, is a one-click "Save All" option that would save the URLs for all of those open windows and tabs to a bookmark file, ideally one sortable by page and by the window in which it originally existed. Alternatively, I may just use the ScrapBook plug-in and get in the habit of saving entire pages to the ScrapBook file, where they can be indexed by Beagle and later searched.


Tuesday, 18 January 2011
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08:00 - Paul Jones stopped by on his way home from work yesterday and turned down our thermostat to 59 F (15 C). Well, not intentionally. He rang the doorbell, the doorbell cover fell off, and on its way to the floor it reset the thermostat. We didn't notice all evening because we were sitting in the den with the natural gas logs burning. Barbara said this morning that when we went back to bed it felt a little cool but she didn't think much about it. In the middle of the night, she got chilly, which is unusual for Barbara, to say the least. She got up and went out to look at the thermostat and reset it to 68 F (20 C).

The morning paper has an article about the horrible cuts imminent for our school system. The superintendent has presented budget estimates for cuts of 5%, 10%, and 15%, which involve staff reductions of between 500 and 1,000 employees. As serious as that sounds, it's far less than the cuts they should be making. The Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools currently have about 8,000 total employees in 80 schools with 52,000 students. That's one employee for every 6.5(!) students. When I was attending public school in the 60's, I'd guess we had one employee for every 20 students, and we had a truly first-rate school system. Barbara says the employee head-count was probably about the same here in Winston-Salem when she was in public school. On that basis, the WSFC Schools should have cut employees from 8,000 down to 2,600.

One easy way to do that would be to double class sizes and fire the worst 50% of the teachers. (Yes, most classrooms are large enough to hold many more students. If they aren't, knock out some walls.) Everyone benefits except the incompetent teachers who lose their jobs. The teachers keep screaming about class sizes, but the simple truth is that generations of experience have shown that class sizes of 30 students are as effective as classes half or a third that size. And keeping only the best 50% of the teachers means the students will be taught by better teachers. Think about it. Are kids on average better off in one class of 30 with a good teacher, or in two classes of 15, one with a good teacher and one with an incompetent one? The answer should be obvious. Here's the truth: the only reason for smaller class sizes is to employ more incompetent teachers. Period.

Holden Aust sent me a link to an article in the New York Times this morning about Chaser the Border Collie. The end of the article says pretty much what anyone who has experience with BC's already knows; there's nothing extraordinary about Chaser. In fact, Chaser may actually not be as bright as a lot of BCs.

11:57 - P. Z. Myers responds devastatingly to some right-to-life nutters.

"We all understand "being human" to mean something more than being a eukaryote with a certain assortment of genes: there are "fully human" cells that I will unconcernedly dump into the toilet and flush away every morning, and there are fully developed individuals in my life who I will revere and honor, and everything in between. The dehumanizing aspect of the so-called pro-life position is the flattening of the complexity of humanity and personhood, and its reduction to nothing more than possession of a specific set of chromosomes. To regard a freshly fertilized zygote as the full legal, ethical, and social equivalent of a young woman diminishes the woman; it does not elevate the zygote, which is still just a single cell. It is that fundamentalist Christian view, shallow and ignorant as it is, that is ultimately the corrosive agent in our culture, since it demands unthinking obedience to a rigid dogma rather than an honest evaluation of reality, and it harms the conscious agents who actually create and maintain our culture.

My position is one that demands we respect an organism for what it is, not what it isn't. It recognizes that an epithelial cell shed from the lining of my colon is less valuable than a gamete is less valuable than a zygote is less valuable than a fetus is less valuable than a newborn. It does not imply that one must still adhere to the black & and white thinking of the IDiots and draw a line, and say that on one side of the line, everything is garbage that can be destroyed without concern, and on the other side, everything is sacred and must be preserved at all costs.

A seed is not a tree. That doesn't imply that I'm on a crusade to destroy seeds."

12:22 - After posting that, I decided to return and add a bit of commentary. I think PZ should have extended the string beyond "newborn" to include, "is less valuable than a toddler, is less valuable than a teenager, is less valuable than an adult." All of which has, at various times and places, been recognized in law. For example, well into the 20th century, the Brits had a crime called "infant killing". A mother who killed a baby before its first birthday was arrested and tried. If convicted, she was usually sentenced to a short custodial period or sometimes merely probation. This was true at a time when a mother who killed an older child (or anyone else) would have been hanged. The much lighter punishment for infant killing was based on two considerations: first, that new mothers sometimes suffered post-partum depression and so could not be held entirely responsible for their actions, and second (tacitly) that a newborn infant was not yet truly a complete person.

In fact, a baby is literally a parasite, in the sense that it's incapable of remaining alive without support from its host. Of course, we don't think of a baby in that way, but as something to be cherished and protected at all costs. As one of my girlfriends once remarked, "it's lucky for babies that they're so cute, because otherwise the human race would have died out after one generation." Which is true. If we weren't genetically wired to protect our young despite the cost and aggravation we incur in doing so, we wouldn't have a next generation. Just ask any new parents what they're going through. I remember one time Barbara and I were watching a movie in which one of the actresses commented about looking forward to menopause because it meant she wouldn't have to have any more babies. As I commented to Barbara, nature arranged things that way because a young woman can, barely, survive being run ragged and sleep-deprived as a new mother. Having a baby would kill an older woman.


Wednesday, 19 January 2011
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08:54 - Dr. Ben Goldacre on placebos. (Believe it or not, this is NSFW.) This guy talks faster than Joe Isuzu.


Thursday, 20 January 2011
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08:38 - Welfare Tab for Children of Illegal Immigrants Estimated at $600M in L.A. County

Wow. And if you read the article, it appears the total cost is more like $2 billion a year. Just for Los Angeles County.

Here's my proposal for immigration reform. If at least one of your parents is a legitimate US citizen, you're a citizen no matter where you're born. If neither of your parents is a legitimate US citizen, you're not a US citizen, no matter where you're born, unless you become naturalized. That's the way just about every other country on the planet does it, and has always done it.

Of course, to be a "legitimate US citizen" means that at least one of your parents must have been a legitimate US citizen, so we'd need to go back at least several generations to sort things out. In other words, a child who was born of two parents neither of whom was a US citizen other than by virtue of being born in this country is not a US citizen. If you're not a legitimate US citizen, back you go. And we really need to charge Mexico retroactively for all of the costs we've carried for so many decades.

But we shouldn't throw out the baby with the bathwater. So I propose a compromise. We expel the losers--the poor and the stupid--back to Mexico, where they belong. The good ones, we keep. Furthermore, as part of my immigration reform program, I propose that we make it a lot easier for citizens of Mexico and other countries to become US citizens. Anyone who can speak English fluently and can pass a means test and an educational proficiency test is welcome to stay here. In fact, anyone that can pass those tests is welcome to immigrate here and become a citizen. In other words, we'll take the good ones. We don't want the losers.

I spent some time yesterday thinking about cheap solutions to the photometry problem. Ideally, I'd like to use a spectrophotometer for the biology lab book. The problem is, even an entry-level spectrophotometer sells for $500 and up. It's actually possible to make a usable spectrophotometer with reasonably good resolution and accuracy (here, for example), but that's a lot of work and fiddling and not something that many of my readers will want to do.

So I wondered if instead of a spectrophotometer I could use a simpler colorimeter. (The difference is that a spectrophotometer measures transmittance/absorbance at hundreds or thousands of discrete wavelengths across the UV, visible, and/or IR spectrum, while a colorimeter measures transmittance/absorbance at just a few specific wavelengths, typically blue, green, and red.) I decided that a colorimeter would suffice, so the next step was to figure out how to make a usable colorimeter from $10 worth of parts from Radio Shack and 10 minutes' work.

I finally decided that the best answer was to make not one colorimeter, but several, one devoted to each wavelength. I'll use polystyrene cuvettes (basically, square plastic test tubes) as the specimen containers. I'll superglue a blue, green, yellow, or red LED (and perhaps also an IR and/or UV LED) to one side of a cuvette and a cadmium sulfide photoresistor to the opposite side and then wrap the assembly in black plastic electrician's tape. The LEDs are driven by a pair of AA alkaline cells in a $0.99 battery holder and I read the resistance from the CdS photoresistor with a digital multimeter. This ought to work, and it should be reasonably accurate.


Friday, 21 January 2011
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10:40 - Amazon tells me my new Kindle should arrive Monday, so I need to download some books for it. I intend to get all of the novels and short stories of one of the best mystery writers who ever lived, and one that few people today have even heard of. His name was R. Austin Freeman. He dominated the British mystery scene for 30 years, and invented the inverted mystery (where you start out knowing what happened and who did it, but you have to figure out how he did it). Freeman was a physician and a forensic scientist, which goes a long way toward explaining why he was as good as he was at what he did. He is probably unique among mystery/procedural novelists in that, as he was writing each novel, he actually did everything in his own lab that he had his detective doing in the book.

Freeman was also unusual in that he ignored "playing fair with the reader", which was considered a paramount requirement for a good mystery in the Golden Age. That is, the solutions to his mysteries often depended upon having arcane knowledge, such as the effect of a particular poison on a particular type of animal. One other famous mystery writer who was often excoriated for using arcane knowledge in this way was none other than Agatha Christie. (I think Freeman's novels are at least as good as Christie's, if that's any indication.)

I'm still cranking away on the home bio lab book. As usual at this stage in the process, things are a complete mess. I currently have 27(!) lab session chapters in progress, but most of them are only partially stubbed out. What happens is I'll be writing along on one chapter when I have an idea for another. The only way I know to capture that new idea is to go start the chapter that it belongs in. So I have a bunch of just-started chapters with brief descriptions of lab session ideas, sometimes only a paragraph or even a sentence.

Quite often, a new idea comes up from a piece of equipment or a chemical that I'm using in the session I'm currently working on. I'll realize that I could also use it for something else useful, so I have to go stub out that idea before I lose it. The annoying part is when I have an idea that I'm not sure will work. For example, I'm going to head over to Radio Shack in the next couple of days to buy an assortment of LEDs, CdS photoresistors, battery holders, switches, and so on. I'll use those to build the $2.00 colorimeters I mentioned yesterday. There's no reason those shouldn't work, but before I start spending a lot of time on lab sessions that incorporate them, I actually have to build them and verify that they work.

And here's a request for ideas. I want to allow readers to do DNA gel electrophoresis on the cheap, and the only real problem is that I need a good source of DC power. I've used five 9V batteries in series to yield 45 VDC. That works fine, but 9V batteries aren't cheap, and a set of five doesn't last for many runs. What I'd like is a DC power supply that's driven from a standard AC wall receptacle and provides DC voltage somewhere in the range of 45V or 50V to 250V. Ideally, the voltage would be variable or at least steppable, but a fixed-voltage unit in the 45V to 125V range would work. I wouldn't need much amperage. It has to be readily available, ideally locally. Oh, and it needs to be cheap. Certainly less than $25, and ideally less than $10.

12:35 -
As Malcolm and I were returning from our walk, we met our neighbor Paula, walking Max. Max is a year older than Malcolm, and suffering the aches and pains of an older dog. He looked pretty sprightly this morning, and I commented on it to Paula. I asked if she was giving him any pain medication, and she said she was. The vet warned her about hepatotoxicity and recommended she give Max only half a tablet. That scared her, so she gives him only a quarter tablet.

I mentioned that Malcolm also had liver issues and that our vet had prescribed something she said was a lot safer for the liver. Paula wanted to know what it was, but I couldn't for the life of me remember the name. Well, I could, but the name I remembered wouldn't do Paula (or probably her vet) any good. It's (1R,2R)-rel-2-[(dimethylamino)methyl]-1-(3-methoxyphenyl)cyclohexanol. That's relatively easy for me to remember, because the name describes the structure. (Cyclohexanol with a dimethylamino group hung off a methyl group at the 2-position of the alcohol and a 3-methoxyphenyl group on the same carbon as the hydroxyl, at the 1-position.) The name they sell it under, on the other hand, is impossible for me to remember because it has no referent. Tramadol. Geez. If we had a scientifically-literate population, we wouldn't need these crap names.

12:49 - Asked and answered. One of the regulars over on the forums, bradley13, posted a link to this $20 DC power supply, which looks like it'll do the job. 58VDC at 1A is more than sufficient, particularly for small gels, and has the advantage of using a low enough voltage that inexperienced users are unlikely to be electrocuted to death. (I'm so pedantic; one can be electrocuted without fatal results...).


Saturday, 22 January 2011
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09:44 - Okay, guys. We finally have scientific evidence that we've been right all along and the women have been wrong: Not washing jeans for 15 months is trendy -- and safe

Disgusting, perhaps, but safe.

In other news, scientists have found that guys have been right all along about bathing frequency. It's perfectly safe to go weeks or even months between baths or showers. You won't get many dates, but it is safe.

Which reminds me of one of the guys who lived in my dorm my sophomore year of college. He shall remain nameless, except to say that his name was Fred McCorm*ck. Our dorm rooms had built-in wardrobes with a series of six drawers. Fred would wear underpants from the top drawer once, and then put them in the second drawer. When he ran out of clean underpants, he'd take a pair from the second drawer, wear them, and then put them in the third drawer. And so on. When all his underpants were in the bottom drawer, he'd finally do laundry.

I never could figure out why he waited so long. I told him once that was why he couldn't get a date, but he apparently hated to do laundry. It was really quite easy. One of our men's dorms had a laundromat in the basement. They charged $0.25 for the washers, but the dryers were free. The first time I did laundry as a freshman, I washed and dried my clothes. As I was taking the dry clothes out of the dryer and putting them back in the laundry basket, an upperclassman pointed out to me the folly of my ways.

You see, the women's dorms didn't have laundromats, so they had to bring their clothes to the one men's dorm that did. The upperclassman pointed out to me that women were constitutionally incapable of dumping wet laundry from the washer onto a sorting table, so all I had to do was start the washer running and walk away. A few hours later, I'd return to recover my dry clothes. Apparently, women were also constitutionally incapable of dumping even dry clothes on a sorting table, because my clothes would always be neatly folded when I returned. Alas, that didn't work in grad school, because the women had their own laundromats and chased us out if they found us there.

Well, I need to go start the laundry. I proposed to Barbara that, instead of doing laundry every weekend, I do laundry once a year. She said that was fine for my stuff, but she'd still do hers every week. Oh, well.

Here's what I picked up after dinner at Radio Shack last night:

Rectangular High-Brightness Blue LED Lamp
Model: 276-013  | Catalog #: 276-013 $1.99

Rectangular High-Brightness Green LED Lamp (2-Pack)
Model: 276-009  | Catalog #: 276-009 $1.99

Rectangular High-Brightness Yellow LED (2-Pack)
Model: 276-010  | Catalog #: 276-010 $1.99

Rectangular High-Brightness Red LED Lamp (2-Pack)
Model: 276-008  | Catalog #: 276-008 $1.99

5mm High-Brightness Ultraviolet LED (2-Pack)
Model: 276-014 | Catalog #: 276-014 $1.79

CdS Photoresistors (5-Pack)
Model: 276-1657 | Catalog #: 276-1657 $2.99

2-Pole, 6-Position Rotary Switch
Model: 275-1386 | Catalog #: 275-1386 $2.99

2 "AAA" Battery Holder
Model: 270-398 | Catalog #: 270-398 $0.99

Project Enclosure (6x3x2")
Model: 270-1805 | Catalog #: 270-1805 $3.79

47 ohm 1/2W 5% Carbon Film Resistor pk/5
Model: 271-1105 | Catalog #: 271-1105 $0.99

I also got a pack of two knobs to fit the switch. I wanted some kind of clip or well contacts for the DMM probe tips, but didn't see anything I liked. I'll come up with something, even if it's only alligator clips. The 47-ohm resistors are needed to drop the 3.0V supply voltage to 2.1V, which is within spec for the green, yellow, and red LEDs. The blue and UV LEDs can be driven at 3.0V.

I haven't soldered anything electronic in more than 30 years. Fortunately, our next-door neighbor is a ham radio operator, and I'm betting he'll be more than happy to give me a hand. Now I just need to come up with some kind of well for the 12.5mm square cuvette tubes that'll hold and position them correctly and block extraneous light.


Sunday, 23 January 2011
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09:23 - On weekend mornings, I usually get up around 7:00 to let Malcolm out, and then read or browse the web while Barbara sleeps in. This morning, the phone rang at 8:00, which is never a good thing. It was Barbara's sister, Frances, calling to tell her that she was on her way to their parents' house. Their dad was having trouble breathing and their mom had called 911. While Barbara was getting dressed, Frances called again to tell her that the EMTs said Dutch was in congestive heart failure and they were transporting him to the emergency room.

I'm holding down the fort here, waiting to hear from Barbara once they know more. Malcolm is obviously distraught. He's very sensitive to Barbara's emotional state, and he knows something's wrong. He's walking around whimpering as I'm writing this.

Dutch is 88 years old, but he's tough. I suspect they'll put him on diuretics and if they admit him it'll probably only be for a day or so.


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