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Week of 28 February 2011

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Monday, 28 February 2011
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09:46 - Disturbing article in the paper this morning about health inspections of North Carolina restaurants. Of about 375,000 inspections, nearly all of them resulted in an A rating. Only about 5,000 of them resulted in C ratings, and only 17 of the 375,000 resulted in failing ratings. Nor is this a matter of inspectors being bribed or going too easy on the restaurants they're inspecting. The inspectors are actually constrained by regulation from awarding low grades to restaurants that any normal person would award a failing rating. Apparently, it's actually not just possible but routine for restaurants infested with cockroaches to receive A ratings. I suspect other states are similarly lax.

With my self-imposed deadline of 15 May to start shipping the microchemistry kits, I'm going to a 4:3 schedule. Mondays through Thursdays I'll devote to the home biology book. Fridays and the weekends will be devoted to the microchemistry kit. There's really not that much left to do on the microchemistry kits, other than administrative details. The documentation needs a bit of polishing, and I need to pick up a few final pieces locally. Stuff like copper wire, steel wool, cotton balls, toothpicks, and so on.

Next weekend, we'll build a bench in the unfinished area of the basement, which'll serve as a staging area for assembling the kits.


Tuesday, 1 March 2011
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10:25 - Barbara sent me a link to a video of Paige the Border Collie making breakfast. It's currently on the top of the playlist on Paige's YouTube channel. Other breeds can be trained; Border Collies can be educated. (Incidentally, those of you who aren't dog owners probably assume that after the video ended Lauren gave the waffle to Paige or threw it away; I'm betting Lauren ate it herself. Well, I'm sure she gave Paige part of it.)

According to my 4:3 schedule, I should be working on biology lab stuff today, but I was in the middle of a lab session on synthesizing esters for the microchemistry kit so I decided to finish it up. Maybe I'll whip up some isoamyl acetate, which smells like bananas. It also attracts bees from great distances and excites them into a stinging frenzy. Years ago, I suggested isoamyl acetate incorporated into suntan lotion as a subtle murder weapon to novelist Peter Robinson, but I guess he decided not to use it.

Free Kindle ebook of the day: Breakthrough!: How the 10 Greatest Discoveries in Medicine Saved Millions and Changed Our View of the World


Wednesday, 2 March 2011
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10:27 - What is it about US politicians, who always seem to act first and think later, if ever? Just because Libya is in turmoil doesn't mean the US has to do anything about it. At most, the US government should concern itself with getting our own people out of there, which has apparently been done. Why, then, have we moved a carrier and other assets into position off the Libyan coast? What happens in Libya is none of our business, and certainly not our responsibility. I don't really care what happens in Libya, or Egypt, or anywhere else in islam. I don't like any of the sides, and it doesn't matter much which ends up on top. They all hate us anyway.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to the old saying about when all you have is a hammer. We have lots of hammers. They're called carrier strike groups. They cost an unbelievable amount of money to build and maintain, so I guess our politicians feel compelled to use them. The only thing they're good for is projecting power to influence events in other countries, which is something we shouldn't be doing anyway.

With all this talk about the budget crisis, I have an obvious suggestion: let's mothball all or at least most of those carrier strike groups. We have 11 of them now, which is about 9 or 10 too many. Maybe keep one or two active just in case someone really pisses us off. In addition to the obvious money savings, direct and indirect, that would also greatly reduce our ability to intervene in things that are none of our business.

While we're at it, we need to be looking at other serious cuts in the so-called defense budget, which is at least 10 times larger than it should be. The truth is, we don't have a defense budget; we have an offense budget. Or, more properly, an intervention budget. We should be spending only enough to protect the US from invasion, which can be accomplished for a tiny fraction of what we spend now. We also need to maintain deterrent capabilities, for which we need only warheads and the means to deliver them. Turning a target into a smoking heap of rubble is sufficient; we don't need to be able to put forces on the ground, let alone keep them there for years on end.


Thursday, 3 March 2011
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07:59 - This is a bit disconcerting. I download ebooks from Amazon to my computer rather than directly to my Kindle, mainly because I don't trust the cloud and prefer to keep a local copy. I also keep Wi-Fi turned off on my Kindle, both because having it on reduces battery life and because I really don't want Amazon fiddling around with my Kindle.

So, the other night, I'd downloaded several ebooks to the computer in my office but I was in the den. Rather than go find the USB cable to link my Kindle to the computer, I just turned on Wi-Fi and re-downloaded the books directly to my Kindle. I then turned off Wi-Fi, turned off the Kindle, and put it in the rack next to the display for my den system. As I was sitting there browsing the web or checking email, the Kindle turned itself on and displayed a message that it was downloading a software update. I watched it for several minutes as it downloaded and installed the update and then rebooted and shut itself off. Hmmm.

I then picked up the Kindle and turned it on. When it came up to my home page, all of my books were gone. Fortunately, they weren't really gone. After two or three seconds, the list repopulated. Still, I don't like the fact that Amazon is controlling my Kindle remotely, nor the fact that they may be looking at what books I have installed on it. Why did my list of books disappear even momentarily? Was Amazon verifying that I was entitled to have those books and checking to see if it wanted to delete any of them? Perhaps I'm just paranoid, but I really don't like this.

11:22 - I'm working on the home biology book, and I just added another chemical to the list for both it and the microchemistry kit. It's starch indicator solution, which is used in iodometric titrations. Until now, I'd just told readers to use water that pasta, potatoes, rice or another starchy food had been boiled in. That's easy enough to do--add a few grains of rice to a test tube half full of water and boil it for a couple of minutes--but it's one more task that needs to be done before they get to the good stuff. Also, homemade starch water doesn't keep for long, even stored in the refrigerator.

So I decided just to include it in the kits. It's easy enough to make up. Just make a paste of 10 grams of soluble starch in a little cold water, add a liter of boiling water and boil for a few minutes, cool, filter if necessary, and finally add a few crystals of thymol as a preservative. That stabilized 1% starch solution keeps reasonably well, particularly if refrigerated, but I'll probably fill 80 or 120 15 mL centrifuge tubes at a time, put them in wet-dry racks, and autoclave them. That way, they'll stay good forever until opened, after which they can be refrigerated or even frozen.


Friday, 4 March 2011
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08:20 - Now, this is disgusting: Fecal Matter Found on 72 Percent of Grocery Carts

I guess the next time we go to Costco we'll have to remember to take along hand sanitizer and wipe down the handle of our cart. When I mentioned this to Barbara, she told me that all the local supermarkets have sanitary wipes at the door so that people can wipe the grocery cart handles. I'd never even thought about this problem, but apparently others have.

Barbara and I have been watching In Plain Sight on Netflix streaming. It's a decent program, well-written and with good acting. It's set in Albuquerque and features federal marshals who operate the witness protection program. They relocate and babysit witnesses, and frequently investigate murders and attempted murders of these witnesses.

I've mentioned before that in science pronunciation is often a matter of opinion, with different scientists pronouncing some words in distinctly different ways and no one thinking twice about those variations. For example, I pronounce the common chemical phenol as fen-all, with equal emphasis on the syllables, but it's also commonly pronounced feen-all, fenn-ohl, feen-ohl, and probably other ways, with differing emphasis on the syllables. And I pronounce the common indicator phenolphthalein as feen-all-thay-lein, which is one of literally a dozen ways I've heard it pronounced. Another example I mentioned in the biology book is the very common biological stain hematoxylin, which is properly pronounced hee-matt-oh-ZYE-linn, but which many biologists pronounce hee-muh-TOX-uh-linn. And, as I said, no one thinks twice about these differing pronunciations. It's probably all how one's first professor pronounced something.

But every once in a great while, something grates on me. During that episode last night, it turned out that their witness had been poisoned by aconitine, which is one of the alkaloids in monkshood. The proper pronunciation is ack-oh-NYE-teen, derived from another common name for monkshood, aconite. (The Greeks used it under that name to poison spear and arrow tips.) But throughout the episode, the characters pronounced aconitine as uh-KAWN-uh-teen. Not once or twice, mind you, but probably 20 or 30 times. The first time, it took me a moment to realize what they were talking about. After that, it just jarred.

A local teacher has just been convicted of taking nude photographs of a 14-year-old girl, one of his students. I think we can all agree that this SOB should be fired and never allowed to teach again. However, the penalty he actually faces is so grossly excessive I think it's probably unconstitutional. He hasn't been sentenced yet, but he's facing a prison term of 60 years. He could have murdered the girl in cold blood and probably been sentenced to only half that, and been out in 15 years with good behavior. Ultimately, it all comes back to the religious nutters' fear and loathing of anything to do with sex.


Saturday, 5 March 2011
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13:31 - Barbara brought me Ken Follett's latest, Fall of Giants, from the library. At nearly 1,000 pages, 320,000 words, and about 1.5 kilos, it's a brick. So I went over to Amazon, hoping without any real expectation to find a Kindle version at a reasonable price. I'd have paid $2.99 for it, grudgingly, although $0.99 would be more reasonable. (I was expecting it to be priced at $9.99 or thereabouts.)

But the moron publisher has priced the ebook at $19.99, $1.24 more than Amazon charges for the hardcover pbook. NFW am I or any reasonable person going to pay twenty bucks for a fiction ebook. They could have had $2.99 from me, but they didn't want it. Bizarrely, they seem to believe that the alternatives are to pay $20 or not have the ebook, when of course in reality the alternatives are to pay $20 or to have it for $0.

I just checked. It took me literally 12 seconds to find a free copy of that book for the Kindle. I didn't bother to download it because I'm already most of the way through the pbook. But you can be sure that a lot more people will download that file for free than will pay $20 for it. Most people don't re-read books, and publishers need to realize that they're not really selling a copy of the book; they're doing the equivalent of streaming a music track or a video. And they need to price it on that basis.

It's interesting to watch the publishing industry commit suicide, just as the music industry has been doing. And, just as there is no shortage of talented musicians selling their work directly to their fans, there's no shortage of talented novelists doing the same.


Sunday, 6 March 2011
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10:10 - Traditionally-published authors are quickly disappearing from the Amazon Kindle Top 100 paid list. As of yesterday, there were 77 fiction books in the Top 100. Of those, 29 were by indie authors, or about 3/8ths. Contrast that to just a few months ago, when almost no indie authors were making the Top 100 list.

The reality is actually more impressive for indies. Amazon lists are time-weighted to something like 40% hour, 30% day, 20% week, and 10% month, which means it takes longer to get onto the Top 100 list and longer to fall off of it. Traditional publishers were having a big sale recently, which has now ended. They were selling titles by their heavy hitters for $0.99 to $4.99, and many of those titles were high in the rankings. They've now raised the prices on those books back into the $7.99 to $14.99 range, which will cut their unit sales volumes by a factor of 10 to 100, if not more. For example, Alone by Lisa Gardner is currently at #2, priced at $7.99. But the only reason she's at #2 is that until a couple of days ago Alone was priced at $0.99. A week from now, she'll be lucky to remain in the Top 100, and a month from now she'll be gone. So, in reality, if we could get an instant snapshot of Amazon's Top 100 at this point, indie authors would probably make up more than 50% of fiction titles.

If I were a traditionally-published big-name author, I'd be pissed, because I'd know that I'm not going to remain a big-name author for long if my publisher insists on pricing my ebooks at levels that ensure they'll sell in small numbers. Just two authors, Amanda Hocking and John Locke, both of them indie, hold 13 of those top 77 positions all by themselves, with a mix of books priced at $0.99 to $2.99. They're well on their way to becoming the new Pattersons and Grishams and Cornwells and Larsons. The old ones will be just fading memories.

The growth of indie authors would be even faster if it weren't for the perception problem. As I said to Barbara this morning, many people tacitly assume that the musicians promoted by the major labels must be the best of the best and that indie musicians must be inferior. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. There are scads of indie musicians out there who are as good as or better than the big-name musicians. The same is true of indie authors, as Hocking and Locke are proving. I've never read anything by either of them, but I'd be very surprised if their combined sales of about 30,000 books per day is pure luck. They're obviously good story-tellers, and they're providing value for money. The traditional publishers aren't. Case closed.


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