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Week of 13 June 2011

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Monday, 13 June 2011
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08:46 - I should have known to trust myself. I was right; the local post office staff was wrong. Not that I blame them. Shipping regulations are incredibly complex. But, to make a very long story short, I can legally mail the chemistry kits via Priority Mail under the section 334 Small Quantity provisions. Here are the relevant sections (the highlighting is mine):

334 Small Quantity

334.1 Definition

A small quantity is the maximum amount of a specific hazardous material that is not subject to any DOT requirements (e.g., packaging, marking, labeling) other than those in 49 CFR 173.4. Not every hazardous material is eligible to be shipped as a small quantity. Additionally, for Postal Service purposes, Class 7 materials are not permitted to be sent as a small quantity.

The DOT small quantity provision, like the DOT ORM–D category, is unique to the United States. Its use is prohibited with international shipments of hazardous materials and cannot be used in international mail.

334.2 Mailability

Hazardous materials in Class 3, Division 4.1, Division 4.2 (Packing Groups II and III only), Division 4.3 (Packing Groups II and III only), Division 5.1, Division 5.2, Division 6.1 (Packing Groups II and III only), Class 8, and Class 9 are eligible to be sent in the domestic mail under the small quantity provision only when each primary receptacle is limited to the following quantity, as applicable:

  1. 30 ml (1 oz) or less for liquids other than Division 6.1 (Packing Group I) materials.
  2. 30 g (1 oz) or less for solids other than Division 6.1 (Packing Group I) materials.
  3. 1 g (0.04 oz) or less for Division 6.1 (Packing Group I) materials.

334.3 Packaging and Marking

Hazardous materials eligible to be shipped under the small quantity provision permitted in 49 CFR and 334.2 must be prepared following Packaging Instruction 10A in Appendix C. Each mailpiece that qualifies to be sent under the small quantity provision must be clearly marked on the address side with the following words: “This package conforms to 49 CFR 173.4.”

USPS Packaging Instruction 10A

Small Quantity Provision

Some types of hazardous materials, as permitted in 334 and 49 CFR 173.4, may be prepared for mailing using the “small quantity” provision. The small quantity provision, like the ORM–D materials category, is unique within the United States, and its use is prohibited in international mail.

Proper Shipping Name and ID Number

Prototype Testing Requirement


Required Packaging

Inner Receptacle
Absorbent and Cushioning Material
Secondary Packaging
Outer Packaging

The chemistry kits meet every requirement under 334, which means I can ship them in a flat-rate Priority Mail box. I can also ship them via USPS Surface, which I'll do for orders to nearby addresses. Basically, USPS Priority Mail gets me 1 to 3 day delivery to all 50 states, including Alaska and Hawaii. For orders to North Carolina and bordering states, USPS Surface gets me 1 to 2 day delivery, so I'll use it for kits shipped to those locations. Assuming, of course, that the weight of the kits (Surface has no flat-rate option) allows them to be mailed for less postage than PM.

The first batch of kits goes out today.


Tuesday, 14 June 2011
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08:55 - When I hauled the packages to the post office yesterday, a very nice lady helped me. As she was processing the first one, she ran through what was obviously a canned spiel, asking me if the package contained hazardous chemicals, biohazards, and a bunch of other non-mailable item classes. I said, "Yes, the packages do contain hazardous chemicals, but they're mailable via Priority Mail under the Section 334 Small Quantity Provision of 49 CFR 173.4" and pointed to the "This package conforms to 49 CFR 173.4" label. She said, "Okay, if you say so..." She then accepted all of the packages without further ado.

We've been talking about medical costs over on the forums. There was an article in this morning's paper that illustrates one aspect of the problem, prescription drug costs.

A woman on Medicare took a prescription for an anti-cancer drug to have it filled at the pharmacy. She was stunned when she found out that the 25% co-pay she was responsible for paying was $2,400 for a 30-day supply of the drug. In other words, the true cost of that drug is $9,600 per month. Her out-of-pocket share is $2,400, and the government pays the remaining $7,200 per month.

Now, I don't know exactly what her condition is or which drug she was prescribed, but I do know enough about anti-cancer drugs to strongly suspect that the cost/benefit ratio of this drug was huge. In other words, the cost is gigantic and the benefit is tiny, if indeed there is any measurable benefit at all. In most cases, expensive new anti-cancer drugs provide little or no additional survival time--sometimes literally only days, and that measured statistically on the basis of overall outcomes in a large trial--and no improvement in quality of life. As the article pointed out, inexpensive older drugs are often just as good or better than the expensive new drug.

I have to wonder what the physician was thinking. He knew this woman was on Medicare, and he certainly might reasonably expect that she was on a fixed income. Why would he prescribe a medication that he knew she couldn't afford, particularly since the probability of it actually helping her in any real sense is vanishingly small? I also have to wonder what Medicare is thinking. Why would they even have this drug on their approved list? They're bankrupt already, and they certainly can't afford to pay $7,200/month for a drug that provides no real benefit.

If Medicare is going to cover prescription drug costs, it seems to me that it should cover only generic drugs that have demonstrated real benefits. And it should use its huge purchasing power to negotiate the lowest possible cost for those drugs and allow participating pharmacies to buy those generics in bulk from the winning bidders. The actual cost of the drugs for prescriptions filled for people under Medicare should be no higher than those paid by, for example, the UN when it purchases drugs in bulk for third-world countries, which is typically a buck or less for a course of treatment or a month's supply. Of course, the pharmacy has to cover its operating costs as well, but a filled prescription for a 30-day supply of most drugs should cost Medicare no more than $5 or so.

Come to that, most standard health insurance plans should do the same. The simple truth is that most of the low-hanging fruit in pharmaceuticals has already been plucked. Most new drugs never come to market, because they don't make the bar for efficacy or safety. With very few exceptions, those that do make it to market typically provide at best very minor improvements over existing generic drugs. Often, they're actually inferior to existing drugs by any reasonable yardstick. Any advantage the new drug provides is usually trivial, such as requiring only one dose per day instead of two. Paying 10, 100, or even 1,000 times as much for at best trivial improvements makes no sense whatsoever.

Obviously, there are exceptions, but not many. A (very) few new drugs actually are actually substantially better than older drugs, but price/performance is still a major consideration, or should be. The FDA has nothing to say about drug pricing, which is as it should be, but they do need to revise their rules on efficacy. Right now, the standard is very low: does the new drug work? Even if there a dozen generics on the market, all of which are actually superior in every way to the new drug, the FDA will approve that new drug if it is safe and efficacious. I suggest that the FDA approve a new drug only if it is superior to existing drugs in some significant way. In other words, it must be safer and/or better at addressing the condition in question than existing drugs, or it doesn't get approved. I think most people would agree that that's a reasonable working rule.

Of course, that pretty much puts Big Pharma out of business, which may be no bad thing. Big Pharma is as broken as the rest of our medical care system, if not more so. It spends billions on research and clinical trials every year, and yet the pipeline is pretty much empty and has been for a decade or more. Big Pharma is in a panic right now because so many of its patented drugs that generate billions a year are about to go off-patent or have recently done so and they have nothing even on the horizon to replace them with. Perhaps it's time to admit that this isn't working and try something else.


Wednesday, 15 June 2011
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08:45 - Jerry Coyne has posted an article worth reading, Steve Gould Gets it in the neck. Although I never met Stephen Jay Gould, I've read several of his books, including (of course) The Mismeasure of Man. He was widely considered one of the best popularizers of science; I considered him one of the worst, and number myself--along with Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, and E. O. Wilson--among his harshest critics. I never trusted the guy. His science always seemed to take a distant backseat to his liberal political agenda.

And now, as it turns out, my suspicions have been confirmed. A recent paper published by PLoS destroys Gould's harsh criticisms of the 19th-century scientist Samuel George Morton, concluding essentially that it was Morton's paper that was scientific, unbiased, and relatively error-free, while Gould's response to that paper was unscientific, biased, and replete with errors. In fact, although the authors of the PLoS paper don't say so explicitly, they're essentially charging Gould with scientific misconduct, including intentionally misrepresenting the data, if not making it up from whole cloth. (He apparently didn't even examine the skulls in question, let alone make his own measurements.) Gould also attributes racist motivations to Morton, when there is apparently no evidence in Morton's paper (I haven't read it) that he was doing anything other than pursuing pure science.

I confess that I'm happy to see Gould being raked over the coals, if only for the damage done to science by his accommodationist concept of non-overlapping magisteria (NOLM). Oh, well. Gould is a nasty old fraud, but at least he's a dead nasty old fraud.

Last night, Barbara and I started watching the HBO series Big Love, which is about a polygamist family in Utah. She completely opposes one man having multiple wives. I asked her why, since she's a strong supporter of gay marriage, she opposes the right of these people to marry in whatever fashion they wish. She admitted that, to be consistent, she should also support polygamy, but said she just thinks it's unnatural for a marriage to be more than two people.

As a libertarian anarchist, I, of course, support people's right to marry however they see fit: one man with one woman, two men, two women, polygamy, polyandry, group marriages, whatever. It's none of my business and none of the government's business how other consenting adults choose to lead their lives.

From a biological and social perspective, polygamy actually makes a lot of sense. Men are fertile from puberty to the end of their lives, with only a slight decrease in fertility as they age. Women, on the other hand, have a relatively short window of fertility. For the first few years after puberty, they can become pregnant, but are much less likely to do so than when they've reached age 18 or 19. And that period of peak fertility lasts little more than a decade, with women's fertility starting a rapid decline after age 30 or 35 at most. So, assuming the male biological imperative of having as many children as possible, it makes sense for the man to take a new young wife as each of his existing wives ages out of her most fertile period.

As I said to Barbara, many men do this serially, divorcing older wives and marrying younger ones. Which is preferable? Dumping the old wives as they are no longer capable of bearing children, or keeping them in the family and just adding new ones? I vote for the latter. That said, although I have no data, I strongly suspect that men who have multiple wives probably die younger than monogamists. Having one wife can be stressful at times; having three or four must be a killer, literally. The poor husband in the series is forty-something, has three wives ranging in age from his own age down to 24 or so, and pops Viagra like breath mints just to keep up.

Barbara and I also differ in how we perceive the wives. She thinks they're just brood mares, whose only purpose is to pop out babies. I think they're equal partners in the marriage; it's just that this particular marriage is a partnership of four rather than two. In effect, the three wives are sister-wives, and who has the right to say that this isn't a good arrangement for them?

Okay, I will admit there is a downside. In a polygamous society, there must by definition be a lot of men without partners. Some of them will end up with other males as partners, but only a relatively small percentage of men are gay. That leaves a lot of frustrated young men, and frustrated young men cause trouble. So perhaps we need a rough rule of thumb, enforced only by social pressure; one wife is ideal, two is acceptable if you can support them both, but any more than two is simply greedy. Of course, in practice that means a young man should at around age 20 marry his first wife at around age 14, and then at around age 35 to 45 should marry his second wife, also at around age 14. Which actually has been the historical norm.

10:49 - Ah, I forgot to mention that Jas is disappearing sooner than expected. She's off with some friends to Myrtle Beach for a week. When she returns, she'll be home until early July, when she heads off for a five-week summer session at UNC. When Kim told Barbara and me about this last night, I thought she was talking about some kind of long orientation, but this is actual classes. Jas will get seven credit hours for those five weeks. She returns home August 10th, and then has two weeks at home before she leaves again to start the autumn semester.

I had a talk with Jas the other day about her major. She really, really wants to be in business for herself, and for quite a while she was determined to major in business. I told Jas that in this economic climate the vast majority of graduating business majors find themselves working the counter at McDonalds, if not unemployed. Furthermore, majoring in business isn't going to teach Jas how to run her own business. What they teach in college about business has almost no relation to starting and running one's own business in the real world.

I encouraged Jas to major in engineering or a hard science, even if she has no intention of pursuing it as a career. I told her that engineering or a hard science would teach her how to think, which most kids come out of college not knowing how to do. The problem is, I don't know if Jas is smart enough to major in engineering or a hard science. I know she gets good grades and she works incredibly hard, and for most endeavors that's sufficient. But not for engineering or hard science.

I suggested the other evening that Jas at least give it a try. I told her that if she sits down in her first, say, engineering class, there may be a couple hundred students in there, half of whom will be gone by the end of the first semester. If she's one of them, fine. There's no shame in that. But if she can cut it, I think she'll be much better off challenging herself with a rigorous, demanding course load. She can always take some elective courses in stuff like business law and intro accounting to help prepare for running her own business. Whatever Jas ends up doing with her life, she'll be a lot better off as a graduating senior with a degree in engineering or a hard science than she would be with a degree in a non-rigorous subject.

Jas, of course, listened politely to what I had to say, but she didn't give any indication of what she was thinking. Probably because she's not sure what she'll end up doing.


Thursday, 16 June 2011
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08:13 - Greece is in the news again. Greeks are rioting to protest government austerity measures that amount to bandaids. The irony is that if all of those austerity measures are implemented, they'll at most stave off default for a few more months. Greece is going to default. Everyone knows that, and everyone is pretending that it might still be avoided. Greece is already paying 18.4% on bonds, but 18.4% isn't sufficient to tempt investors who know that those bonds are essentially worthless. Smart money long ago fled to the US dollar, and the supply of dumb money is fast drying up.

At this point, everyone is fully aware that giving any money to Greece is throwing good money after bad. And yet the EU continues to do so, because when Greece collapses, the collapse of Portugal, Spain, and Ireland must soon follow. Italy, Belgium, and France won't be far behind. Essentially, the Euro is toast, and everyone knows that. Germany is already drained, and cannot continue to impoverish its own citizens to subsidize the rest of the EU. When Germany opts out, the whole row of dominoes topples, and much of Europe will find itself for all intents and purposes joining the Third World. This is going to get ugly, fast.

I just hope the US does nothing rather than dumping any of our own resources down that rathole. We need to withdraw from Europe entirely, including from NATO, and let the Europeans fix their own mess. We have a big enough mess of our own to deal with.


Friday, 17 June 2011
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09:07 - Apparently, the situation in Greece is even worse than the mainstream media has been reporting. The S&P credit rating for Greece is now lower than that of Ecuador, which has actually defaulted twice in the last dozen years, most recently about five years ago. The flag can't get much redder than that.

The IMF, although it promised yesterday to deliver the next portion of the bailout so that Greece could meet its obligations through the summer, has concluded that Greece cannot be saved. At this point, they're knowingly throwing good money after bad, on the slim hope that by extending the time until Greece defaults by a year or two, they may be able to decouple Spain, Italy, and the other weakest members of the EU from the Greek catastrophe. Slim hope, fat chance. Tossing Greece to the wolves may delay the European crash by a few months, but nothing more.

As this plays out, expect the Euro, which currently buys about $1.41, to fall below dollar parity later this year, and then continue to spiral downward. The pressure on European banks and governments will be incredible, with interest rates spiking as money flees the Euro for the dollar. The effect here in the US won't be good, as the stronger dollar makes it harder for US firms to sell to Europe and US firms find themselves competing in our local markets with cheaper European imports. But the effect in Europe will be disastrous. The days of bread and circuses are rapidly drawing to a close.

We may very well be seeing the first stages of a revolution in Greece. The mainstream media mostly calls what's going on in Greece "protests", but make no mistake. These are full-blown, large-scale riots, with the rioters throwing Molotov cocktails, reminiscent of the similar riots a few years ago in France. These people are deadly serious, and they're not going to get what they're demanding. That bodes ill, not just for Greece, but for Portugal, Spain, Ireland, and the rest of the EU as the economic situation continues to get worse.

A look at the Wikipedia S&P ratings map shows just how bad things are:

Countries shown in green are in the best shape economically, which is to say horrible shape. Those in turquoise, such as Spain, China, and Japan, are teetering on the edge. Those in light blue, such as Italy, Poland, and Chile, are already past salvage. Those in dark blue, such as India, Russia, Brazil, and Mexico are utterly hopeless. Those in magenta, such as Egypt, Turkey, and much of southeast Asia, are in Cheyne-Stokes breathing. Those in red are zombies, and those in gray are vampires that have already been staked.

And we all have our respective governments to thank for this mess.


Saturday, 18 June 2011
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00:00 -


Sunday, 19 June 2011
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10:11 - Barbara and I drove over to the state fairgrounds in Raleigh yesterday to attend Maker Faire North Carolina. Although the event is sanctioned by O'Reilly/MAKE, it's organized and managed by a group of local volunteers. We arrived just after the event opened at 10:00 a.m., and our timing was perfect. We walked up to the ticket office and bought tickets without having to stand in line. Literally one minute later, the line for tickets extended across the floor, out the door, and around the building.

I was surprised by the number of exhibitors, which was much higher than I expected. The image below shows part of the show floor shortly after opening. At that point, Barbara and I both estimated there were already several hundred attendees on the floor. I suspect the final attendance numbers will exceed the hopes of the organizers.

There were many interesting exhibits, but the real reason we attended was that our long-time editor, Brian Jepson, was attending, and Barbara had never met him face-to-face. That's Brian on the left. In case you can't read my t-shirt, which was a gift from Paul Jones and Mary Chervenak, it says, "Chemistry / We Do Stuff In Lab That Would Be A Felony In Your Garage". A dozen or more people stopped me to tell me they liked the shirt.

13:46 - I'm seriously considering doing Netflix a big favor: cutting my current $20/month 3-discs-at-a-time plan to their $10/month 1-at-a-time plan. I'll be paying them half as much, but for one third as many discs, and shipping discs back and forth is what really costs them money. And they actually may end up making a (small) profit on me, which is better than losing money on me every month as they've been doing for years.

We can watch as many discs as they send us on the current plan, but that doesn't leave a lot of time to watch streaming stuff, of which there's a lot in our queue. Cutting back the number of discs and watching more streaming will make Netflix happy, and frankly most of what is in our disc queue right now is stuff that I'd be willing to watch, but wouldn't go out of my way to get. At the same time, there's a lot of stuff in our instant queue that I really would like to watch.

If only Netflix could get everything in their instant catalog that's in their disc catalog, I'd happily pay them $20/month for a 0-discs-at-a-time plan and just watch streaming.


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