Wednesday, 31 August 2011

09:20 – We’re well into the endgame for the euro. Even with the ECB buying huge amounts of Italian debt on the secondary market, yields on new Italian debt crept above 5% yesterday in the first auction since the ECB began propping up Italy. And one of the German heavy-hitters has finally publicly come out in favor of Germany leaving the euro. (Of course, he’s merely said out loud what most Germans are already thinking.)

German business chief calls for country to quit euro and join new currency with Austria, Holland and Finland

If (when) that happens, the Euro crashes and burns. Those holding euro-denominated debt are likely to lose nearly all of their investments. Without the northern tier backing it, the euro is backed only by countries that are already bankrupt, and will have no option but to inflate the euro into worthlessness. A 100 euro note may buy a cup of coffee, if you’re lucky. Of course, the upside is that Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Belgium, and France won’t have to default on their debts. They’ll simply pay them off in worthless euros, after which no doubt these weak economies will soon revert to their former local currencies. The other upside is that having devalued their currencies, these weak countries will be able to export much, much more to nations with stronger currencies, thereby allowing their economies to grow again after many years of zero or negative growth. That may be some consolation to their citizens, who won’t be able to afford to import goods from wealthier countries.


Barbara and I were watching something the other night in which one of the characters was pregnant and several of them were sitting around discussing what a horrible idea it was for a pregnant woman to drink any alcohol at all. This is one of those things that everyone knows that turns out not to be true. There is zero evidence that light to moderate alcohol consumption is dangerous for the mother or the fetus, and in fact there is some evidence that one drink or less per day is actually beneficial. Intuitively, it would seem to most reasonable people that heavy drinking is a really bad idea for a pregnant women, but then it’s a really bad idea for anyone else as well.

When I visited the Wikipedia page on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, I learned that 30% to 33% of pregnant women who consume 18 drinks per day or more give birth to babies with FAS. I assume they meant 18 drinks per week; at 18 drinks per day the baby would be born an alcoholic. But perhaps they really did mean 18 drinks per day, because FAS is relatively rare, so perhaps a 30% to 33% incidence does require that much alcohol consumption.

Clicking around Wikipedia, I came across something that made me wonder if there are words other than “foot” whose plurals vary depending on context. Not usage; those are relatively common. Context. The phrase in question concerned someone’s height, which it gave as “five feet and eight inches”. My first thought was that the person who wrote the article was not a native English speaker, or at least not a native US English speaker. In US English, when referring to a person’s height, the plural of “foot” is “foot”, “and” is never used between the numbers, and “inches” is always understood rather than spoken. For example, if someone asked me how tall my friend Paul Jones is, I would reply “six foot four” (or just “six four”). Conversely, if someone asked me how tall the Washington Monument is, I would reply “555 feet, 5 inches”. So, are there any other words whose plurals are context-dependent? I can’t think of any.


12:28 – Barbara was playing around with the new Pentax K-r DSLR the other day, and shot a few images of Colin at 28 weeks old. Here’s a crop (about 4.8 MP from the original 12.2 MP file).

There’s nothing in the image to provide scale, but Colin is one huge Border Collie puppy. He’s about as large at 28 weeks as a typical adult male BC. We don’t have a scale, but I estimate his weight is in the 50 pound (23 kilo) range already and he can stand with his paws on my chest.

I may reconsider having the camera set to save both RAW and JPG by default. The JPG images it produces are fairly large (about 5.5 MB), and the camera’s processor does a very good job of compression. I looked at zoomed in portions of various images in RAW and JPG form. RAW has a bit more detail, but not much. So I’ll probably reserve RAW form for times when white balance or brightness range is likely to be a problem.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

08:00 – The Pentax K-r DSLR showed up yesterday, along with its kit lens, a spare battery, and a memory card. When I opened the battery and charger, I plugged in the charger and plunked in the battery, only to see the indicator light green. I assumed that meant the battery was fully charged, so I installed it in the camera. It had a very low charge, so I resorted to reading the manual. As it turns out, the charger light is green as long as the battery is charging and goes out when the charge is complete. One interesting thing. The manual recommends not storing the battery completely charged, because that reduces its service life. That’s a new one on me. I thought storing a partially-charged battery was bad, but at least for the Pentax battery that’s the recommended procedure.


I’m still working on the biology book and kit. One thing I want to include is several different antibiotic resistance samples–amoxicillin, cephalexin, erythromycin, penicillin, tetracycline or doxycycline, metronidazole, and so on. The problem is, the things are ridiculous expensive to buy.

For example, Home Science Tools sells a set of eight antibiotic test discs–two each of penicillin, ampicillin, neomycin, and erythromycin–for $3.95. These discs are tiny. They appear to be about 3/16″ (4.8 mm) in diameter, about the size of the discs produced by a notebook 3-hole punch. And you only get two of each for $4.

I could buy antibiotic discs from a wholesaler for maybe $10 per hundred, but that’s still $0.10 each. That starts to add up if I include multiple discs of several different antibiotics. So I decided to make my own and supply them in the biology kit as 2X2″ (5X5 cm) squares, which the user can trim or punch to the desired size. With half-centimeter squares, for example, a 5X5 cm sheet would provide 100 test pieces, each 5X5 mm, or 5 mm circular pieces if they used a hole punch. (Sterility is not a major issue; even bacteria that are resistant to a particular antibiotic are typically resistant only to the levels found in blood plasma, not to the levels present in these test papers.)

I can buy filter paper in 8.5X11″ (21.6X28 cm) sheets, each of which will provide 20 squares, each about 5 cm square. I’ll run each sheet through the laser printer and print the type and concentration of antibiotic in small print repeated at frequent intervals. I’ll then sterilize the sheets with dry heat and absorb an aqueous solution of the relevant antibiotic into each sheet. Of course, the issue then becomes how to determine the concentration. To do that. I’ll weigh a sheet of the filter paper dry, soak it in water, allow it to drain, and reweigh it. Knowing how much water each sheet absorbs will allow me to calculate how concentrated to make the solution to reach a given concentration of antibiotic in a specified area of the filter paper. I love devising cunning plans.


09:35 – Well, no more site traffic stats for me. When I clicked on the site stats link, WordPress told me that the stats plugin now required installing and enabling something called Jet Pack and setting up an account on WordPress so that I could get to my stats in the WordPress cloud. I hate clouds. And site traffic doesn’t matter to me. I don’t care if I average 100 visitors a day or 10,000. I write this journal for myself, not for anyone else.


12:17 – I just assembled enough chemistry kits to fill the orders that have been outstanding since I ran out of kits on Saturday. While I was at it, I built a dozen extra kits and put them on the shelf. Final kit assembly goes much faster now that I have all the components organized and ready to hand. Assembling a dozen kits from subassemblies and individual components now takes less than an hour.

Monday, 29 August 2011

08:58 – As regular readers know, I’m no friend of either government or religion, which I consider to be twin plagues on humanity. Either on its own is bad enough; the two working together have historically been the single greatest threat to human rights. As you might expect, I’m a strong advocate of the separation of church and state.

So it may surprise you that I’m also a strong advocate of school voucher programs, despite the fact that these vouchers are often used to support religious schools. This morning, I read an article in the paper about a small school voucher program in Indiana, only about 3,000 students, that’s being decried as the apocalypse by public schools. Then, when I flipped to the editorial page, I found an article by George Will about a school choice program in Castle Rock, Colorado.

These stories have the same thread in common. In both cases, opponents have introduced the red herring of church-state separation. In both cases, religion has nothing to do with the issue, other than peripherally. The real issue is that public schools–whose employees are grossly overpaid, grossly underworked, and grossly underperforming–live in fear of having to compete with private alternatives. They understand that, given the choice, parents will opt for superior schools provided by the free market. There go their ridiculously high salaries and benefits, not to mention their job security. They’re fully aware that they can’t compete.

My solution to this problem has always been simple: establish school voucher programs without limitations on the number of students eligible. Make them dollar-for-dollar programs. Parents who wish to enroll their children in private schools receive a voucher in the amount of the average amount spent per student in the public schools, including facilities costs. That amount is deducted from the amount provided to the public schools. And homeschoolers should be eligible to cash these vouchers up to, say, three students worth, to help stay-at-home moms and dads who are educating their own children at home.

If such programs were widely implemented, the results are predictable. Public schools would wither. The only students who would attend public schools would be those whose parents don’t care enough to seek better alternatives for their children. The overall educational level of children would soon show huge gains, since private schools and home schools are demonstrably hugely superior to public schools. The total cost of education would plummet as public schools died and the voucher amount was adjusted downward to reflect reduced costs.

Less obvious, perhaps, is that such programs would also nearly eliminate home schooling in the current sense. Many, probably most, parents who currently home school their own children would not do so if they could instead send their children to schools that they approved of. Traditional private schools, religious and secular, would initially grow by leaps and bounds, but alternative small private schools would also thrive. Most of these alternative private schools would be founded by homeschoolers who really enjoyed what they were doing and were good at it. Instead of educating just their own children, they’d begin educating other children as well, and eventually become actual schools.

Of course, the teachers’ unions and state government education departments will do everything they can to prevent this from happening. We see that now, with artificial restrictions and regulations enforced on home schoolers to prevent the homeschool phenomenon from developing further. In many states, for example, it would be illegal for a homeschool family to hire my friend Paul Jones, a chemistry professor at Wake Forest University, to come in and teach chemistry to their children. Those state laws consider the parents qualified to teach their own children, but do not consider Dr. Jones qualified to teach them. Similarly, many state laws prohibit a homeschool mom or dad from teaching other people’s children, once again to prevent small private alternative schools from flourishing. At the behest of teachers’ unions and other self-interested parties, many states have ridiculous health, environmental, and facilities regulations for any school that teaches students from more than one family. Again, those have nothing to do with the safety of or quality of education for the students themselves. They’re there only to protect entrenched public education interests.

That’s why I’m encouraged every time I read an article about good things happening for home schoolers and the advance of school choice.


Saturday, we shipped the last two chemistry kits we had in stock. We now have another dozen and a half in the final stages of assembly and have gotten started on the next batch of two dozen. We’ll ship outstanding orders tomorrow or Wednesday.


11:02 – At least some of the MSM are starting to catch on…

Eurozone crisis: ‘I’ve tried A! I’ve tried B! I’ve tried C!…’ Click, and out

Sunday, 28 August 2011

12:17 – Irene nailed the North Carolina and Virginia coastal areas pretty badly, but we saw no effects in Winston-Salem other than a stiff breeze and a bit of rain. This storm had the potential to make landfall as a Category 3 or even 4, so most of those in the affected areas are probably feeling pretty lucky that it was “only” a Category 1. Of course, that’s small consolation to those who were killed or injured by this storm, or suffered severe property damage.


I’m still working on the biology kits (and book). We made up subassemblies yesterday for another 18 chemistry kits, which means I need to start getting orders ready for more components. While I’m doing those orders, I’ll add the stuff I need to prototype the biology kit and produce maybe a dozen of them.


I periodically get emails and a few comments about how the Euro crisis is not really serious. Those messages invariably comment on the size of the US debt relative to Euro nation debts. Now, it’s true that the US is highly indebted, but what really counts is how much each country has to pay on that debt. Assuming that Greece, Italy, and the US all had to refinance all of their existing debt tomorrow at the current bond yields, here are some rough numbers with interest payments as a percentage of GDP.

US – interest payments of about $200 billion a year on outstanding debt of about $15 trillion, with GDP around $15 trillion = 1.33% of GDP

Italy – interest payments of about $200 billion a year on outstanding debt of about $3 trillion, with GDP around $2 trillion = 10% of GDP

Greece – interest payments of about $200 billion a year on outstanding debt of about $488 billion, with GDP around $305 billion = 66% of GDP

I’m making some assumptions here that render these percentages meaningless, because the market would not continue to lend money to any of these countries if they attempted to refinance their entire debts at one time. For Italy, I’m assuming yields of about 6.7%. They’re currently right at 5% on 10-year debt, but that’s with the ECB buying Italian bonds like crazy. They can’t do that much longer, and when they stop doing it the yields on Italian bonds will skyrocket. On Greek debt, I’m using the current 2-year yields, which are north of 40%, because few people are crazy enough to lend money to Greece on a 2-year basis, let alone for 10 years. And, of course, these countries don’t need to refinance all of their debt overnight. But Italy and Greece do need to refinance a huge chunk of their current debt over the next few months, and these yields are reasonable in that scenario. In fact, I’d expect to see yields north of 10% if not 15% on Italian debt when the big chunks come due for refinancing, and yields considerably over 50% for Greece. That won’t actually happen, of course, because both Greece and Italy will default first.

Making matters worse, while the US can print as many dollars as it needs to avoid default, that option is not open to Greece or Italy. There are two potential directions this could go. First, Greece and Italy could abandon the euro and return to the drachma and lira, respectively. If that happens, their local currencies will be devalued hugely literally overnight. They won’t be able to buy enough euros to honor their debts, and they will default. Conversely, Germany and the other northern tier countries may abandon the euro and return to their local currencies. If that happens, the countries that remain in the Eurozone will see the value of the euro plummet relative to the northern tier currencies as well as the pound and dollar. The new ECB can print as many euros as it needs to, and it will need a lot to pay off all those debts. Someone who holds a euro-denominated bond for a billion euros will in fact be paid that billion euros. The problem is, those billion euros will be worth probably at most a tenth of what they’re worth now relative to the dollar or pound or Swiss franc. The remaining Eurozone countries become dirt-poor overnight, while the northern tier countries benefit by paying off their euro-denominated debt in euros that are nearly worthless. Of course, the holders of that debt suffer badly, as will holders of any euro-denominated debt. Northern-tier countries see their exports plummet, but those high levels of exports to other EU countries were never anything other than illusory anyway. There’s no point in sending goods to countries that aren’t going to pay for them.

All of this makes me wonder when our politicians are going to wake up to the fact that J. M. Keynes was completely wrong. If they had any sense, they’d be reading F. A. Hayek, who had it completely right all along. Of course, being politicians, by definition they have no sense. And, to a politician, Keynes’ advice to governments to intervene constantly and heavily in markets is much more appealing than Hayek’s advice to keep their damned hands off the markets.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

11:11 – Irene has made landfall on the North Carolina coast, fortunately as a Category 1. We’ve seen almost no effects from Irene here in Winston-Salem. It was a bit breezy when I took Colin out around 0700 this morning, but we’ve had no rain and aren’t expecting any. Some rain would have been welcome, but not at the expense of the eastern part of the state suffering even more than it is.

I see that New York City has closed its subway system for the first time ever due to weather, and that about 300,000 New York City residents have been ordered to evacuate. Very few NYC residents own automobiles, which makes me wonder how and to where they intend to evacuate these people. Perhaps it’s enough just to move them from low-lying areas to parts of the city that are a bit higher. Let’s hope that Irene continues to weaken. A direct strike on NYC by even a Category 1 hurricane would have disastrous results in terms of both the human and economic toll.

The human toll in particular, because few New Yorkers have experienced a hurricane up close and personal. Most of them probably just think of it as just the sort of storm they’re used to, but on a larger scale. As Mark Twain commented on another subject, the reality of a hurricane compared to normal storms is like the difference between lightning and lightning bugs. Even here in the southeast, where people are experienced with hurricanes, there are numerous idiots who rush to the coast to experience a hurricane. Every time we have a strike, there are at least a few Darwin Awards candidates who end up being injured or killed because they were somewhere they shouldn’t have been, doing something they shouldn’t have been doing.


Paul Jones stopped by yesterday to borrow my Plextor analog-to-digital converter. He has some old personal VHS tapes he wants to transfer to DVD. He asked about the DSLR I’d just ordered, and I mentioned that the AA battery adapter was on back-order so I’d ordered a spare $44 lithium-ion battery. Paul mentioned that he’d ordered three spare batteries when he’d bought his DSLR, and he’d paid only $8 each. My hair stood on end. I mentioned that Chinese DSLR batteries are famous for damaging cameras, if not actually catching fire, and he said he’d had no problems with them in the three years since he’d bought them. Hmmm. This morning, Paul emailed me to say that he was mistaken. It was the IR remote he’d ordered that’d cost $8. The batteries listed for $49 each, but he’d gotten three of them from Amazon for $30 each.


Barbara and I are assembling 18 more chemistry kits today. I’m also going to try to semi-finalize the contents of the kit for the biology book this weekend. At some point, I simply have to declare enough, and stop adding items to the biology kit. One of the primary goals, after all, is to keep the kit affordable. For example, I’m going to include a bottle of sterile pre-made nutrient agar in the kit. Home Science Tools sells the same item for, IIRC, $7, which is reasonable. But I’m going to remove one of the lab sessions I’ve already written, on coliform testing of water, because that lab session would also require either EMB (eosin/methylene blue) agar or MacConkey agar as well as TSI (tri-sugar/iron) agar. Allocating $21 of the kit price to these three agars is too much, so I’ll have to settle for including just the nutrient agar.

Friday, 26 August 2011

09:30 – Colin loves sticks, and we always try to keep a “good stick” on hand. That is, one that’s solid wood and maybe a cm or two in diameter by 30 or 40 cm long. Yesterday, I let Colin off leash while I rolled the yard cart from the curb to the back yard and rolled the trash cart up to the curb. He ran around our and our neighbors’ back yards while I was doing that, and when he returned he didn’t have his good stick. So, while I was taking him for a walk, I looked for another good stick. I found what looked like an ideal candidate, but when I picked it up it was rotten and weighed next to nothing.

Which got me to thinking about Steve Jobs, who has just retired as CEO of Apple. Even with Jobs’ retirement, the value of Apple’s outstanding stock is still greater than the cumulative value of Europe’s 91 large banks. Like the stick I rejected, Europe’s banks appear solid but are actually rotten and lightweight.

The main problem is that those banks have huge exposure to Eurozone sovereign debt. Due to an accounting oddity, sovereign debt, regardless of its actual solidity, is always considered to be default-proof, and so is carried on balance sheets at nominal value. The reality is very different, of course. A bank that holds, say, €1 billion of Greek sovereign debt even now carries that debt on its balance sheet as a €1 billion asset. Current yields on 2-year Greek debt are getting very close to 50%, which means that debt should be written down on balance sheets to a small fraction of nominal, if not written off entirely. But the banks haven’t done that, for Greek, Portuguese, and Irish debt or any of the other peripheral sovereign debt, let alone “core” Eurozone debt issued by France or Belgium. The ridiculous bank “stress test” done a couple of months ago estimated that Europe’s largest 91 banks would require only about €2.4 billion to meet capitalization requirements. The reality is that they’ll need more like €150 billion to meet even the minimum requirements with rosy assumptions including high EU growth and no sovereign defaults.

Back in the real world, the truth is that all or nearly all of those banks are already bankrupt, and the EU no longer has the ammunition to do anything about that. The ECB is already bent completely out of its intended shape, engaging in legally-questionable if not outright illegal purchases of sovereign bonds and accepting essentially worthless paper as collateral. In effect, the ECB itself is in deep trouble, with its nominal balance sheet having no relation to reality. Making matters worse, as the EU lender of last resort, the ECB is now attempting to do what the banks themselves should be doing. The situation in the EU is so bad now that banks no longer trust each other. Banks with a temporary surplus would ordinarily do overnight loans of those surplus funds to other banks, earning some interest in the process. Instead, those banks are depositing the excess funds with the ECB, earning only tiny amounts of interest on them.

So it’s true. The ECB and Europe’s commercial banks are rotten sticks. Even Colin wouldn’t touch them.


I just got orders for the last two chemistry kits I had already built, so we’ll build another dozen or so kits this weekend. We’re still in pretty good shape in terms of components to build more kits, but once this batch of components runs out it looks like we’ll have to increase the price of the kits by $10 or so to cover increased costs. I hate to do that, because we’re trying to keep the kits as affordable as possible, but anyone who thinks these massive so-called “quantitative easings” don’t affect prices doesn’t understand economics. The true definition of inflation is “an increase in the money supply”, and quantitative easing is simply a weasel phrase for inflating the currency. That shows up sooner or later, usually sooner, in the prices we pay for everything.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

08:22 – I’ve been thinking about unusual antonyms, ones that almost no one knows. Last night, I was thinking about writing something about the Euro crisis, focusing on the mistaken idea that the Eurozone is an “optimal currency area”. Far from it, the Eurozone is the opposite of optimal. So what’s the antonym for optimal? I had to think about for a moment. So, quickly and without looking it up, what’s the antonym?

Having thought of it, I did a quick google search on “optimal” and its antonym. The results were about 200 million hits on “optimal” and about an eighth of a million on the antonym, making “optimal” about 1,600 times more commonly used than “pessimal”.


In every one of my books, I’ve included one horrible pun, often quite subtle, and I just added the one for the biology lab book. I was writing up a lab session about the effect of nitrogen-fixing bacteria (rhizobium) on the growth of lima bean plants, touching on the ecological principles of mutualism and commensalism.

In mutualism, each species benefits from the relationship with the other species. In a commensalist relationship, only one of the two species benefits. The other does not benefit, but suffers no harm. For example, on one level the relationship between squirrels and oak trees is commensalist. The oak tree provides shelter for the squirrel by providing a secure location for its nest, but the tree does not benefit from the presence of the nest. (In another sense, the relationship is mutualist, because the squirrel benefits from acorns as a food source, while the tree benefits by having the squirrel bury its acorns far afield, where they can germinate.)

Rhizobium forms nodules on the plant roots, and converts atmospheric nitrogen into nitrates that the plant can use, an obvious benefit to the plant. But what is the benefit to the bacteria? Obviously, there must be some benefit to the bacteria from a close association with the plant, or the bacteria would be distributed throughout the soil, rather than forming nodules on the plant roots. Oh, yeah. The pun. I mention the plant providing the bacteria with a location for a nice, cozy nodular home.


09:09 – I just ordered a Pentax K-r DSLR with the kit lens from B&H, along with a spare Pentax battery and a Class 10 memory card. The AA battery adapter is back-ordered, so I’ll pick up one of those later. B&H is supposed to email me when they’re back in stock.

This is the first DSLR we’ve bought that can save image files simultaneously in RAW and .jpg formats, a feature that I’ll definitely use. For the last few years, we’ve always saved as RAW format and then I’ve used showFoto to convert to .jpg for printing at Walgreens and so on. Having the camera produce and save .jpg files along with RAW files will save some time and effort. Speaking of RAW, that raises another question. All of our past Pentax DSLRs have offered only the proprietary Pentax .pef RAW format. This camera offers the choice of saving RAW as .pef or .dng. Is there any advantage or drawback to choosing one or the other?


16:06 – As usual, good sense from Pat Condell, this time concerning the European Union.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

08:34 – The biggest earthquake in almost 70 years hit the east coast yesterday afternoon, and I missed it. A few minutes before 14:00 local time, Colin started running flat out up and down the hall, barking insanely. I couldn’t figure out what had set him off. I didn’t hear or feel anything. A few minutes later, Barbara called to ask if I’d felt the earthquake. Earthquake? She works in a high-rise, and said her chair was going up and down. Like nearly everyone else, she thought there’d been an explosion, plane crash, or some other extreme event of human origin. We just don’t think about earthquakes around here.


We do, however, think about hurricanes. If Irene follows its projected path, it will sideswipe the North Carolina coast Saturday as a Category 2 or 3 hurricane. We’re a long way from the coast, but it’s possible we’ll see torrential rains and heavy winds. The last time we had an actual hurricane in Winston-Salem was 1989, when the eye of Hugo passed directly through Winston-Salem, still as a Category 1 hurricane.


09:12 – Oh, yeah. I forgot to mention that I think we have a colony of coyotes (Canis soupus) in our neighborhood. A week or so ago, the newspaper reported that animal control had shot a coyote a mile or so from our house. Last night, I had Colin out around 0130 or 0200, and we heard what sounded to me like coyotes, perhaps two or three hundred meters away. They weren’t howling, but instead making yips and sharp barks that did not sound dog-like. Colin certainly paid attention to them, more so than he normally would to the sound of distant dogs. I suspect he too noticed something unusual about the sounds.

Healthy coyotes aren’t much threat to adult humans, although they do commonly kill and eat cats and small lapdogs and they have been known to attack and occasionally kill small children. They generally steer well clear of predators that are larger than they are, particularly anything that resembles a wolf, and Colin qualifies on all counts. Still, he is a puppy rather than a dog, and a pack of coyotes might not be threatened by a puppy, even a very large one. I’ll be cautious when I have him out late at night. I doubt we’ll be attacked by a pack of coyotes, but if it happens I have an assault rifle with 30 rounds just a few steps away. Interestingly, I actually shot a coyote with that same rifle, although it’s been more than 30 years ago. It was a snap shot at a running coyote maybe 60 to 70 meters away, and it knocked the coyote rolling, dead before it hit the ground. Even a light 5.56 mm bullet at 1,000 meters/sec is pretty strong medicine against a 15 kilo coyote.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

08:38 – Urk. I’m down to two of the chemistry kits in stock, which means I need to build another batch today. Fortunately, that doesn’t take long, as long as I have all the components at hand, maybe an hour or so to assemble a dozen kits.


I ran into Melissa while I was walking Colin yesterday. She’s the 20-something young woman who borrowed my Kindle for a few days. She’s a biologist, so our discussions are always interesting. (She reads science papers for recreation; I like that in a girl.) She said her husband was encouraging her to go back to school to get her Ph.D., but she’s not sure she wants to do that. It’d probably take five years to get her Ph.D., followed by a postdoc or two. Even then, job prospects are very uncertain. She’s not interested in joining academia, and there are a lot of Ph.D. biologists waiting tables, driving taxis, or serving coffee at Starbucks.

Time would also be an issue. She has what seems like 17 or 18 preschool children running around, but may actually be only two or three. And, in yet another demonstration of my obliviousness, I didn’t realize until she told me that she’s eight months pregnant. I just thought she’d gained a bit of weight.

What she’s really interested in is not the degree per se. She wants to do the science. I suggested she do it herself. Most or all of the technologies she’d need are already accessible for home scientists. Gel and column electrophoresis, PCR, -80C freezers, ultracentrifuges, and so on are now affordable for home labs. She was stunned when I told her I’d put together an ultracentrifuge capable of 60,000+ G for less than $150. (That’s sufficient to destroy a polypropylene Eppie tube.) She can easily get the same access to the literature that she’d have in a formal Ph.D. program. After a few years of study, for all intents and purposes she’d have her Ph.D. in molecular biology and epidemiology in all but name. And since she doesn’t care about the letters after her name, why go through what she’d need to to get those letters?

Monday, 22 August 2011

10:11 – The Euro continues to stagger toward its inevitable collapse. Finland, Austria, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Holland have now essentially pulled out of the second Greek bailout, calling into question whether Greece will ever see those funds. Other EU nations, which are still on the hook for their share of the bailout, are rightly questioning why their taxpayers should be subsidizing Greece while those of other EU nations are not. Ultimately, it may be up to Germany to carry the full load, and it’s by no means certain that German taxpayers will agree to do so.

There are increasingly shrill demands for Eurobonds, a proposed solution that will not and cannot work, as the Germans have made abundantly clear. Even if the Germans could somehow magically be convinced to go along with Eurobonds, those bonds would be self-defeating. In essence, Germany would be agreeing to take on the cumulative debt of the spendthrift EU nations, adding that debt to their own balance sheet. If that happened, Germany would lose its own AAA rating overnight, making the cost of its own borrowing skyrocket and causing bondholders to dump German debt and flee to perceived safer havens like the UK and the US bond markets. In effect, by agreeing to Eurobonds, Germany would be cutting its own throat.

There are only two possible solutions to the Euro crisis. First, Germany and the other fiscally responsible nations in the northern tier could withdraw from the Euro, leaving the Euro to collapse, along with the poor southern nations that would still be using it. Second, the EU could adopt complete fiscal integration, with all member nations completing giving up their sovereignty to the EU federal government. That’s not going to happen, and even if it did it would take so long to implement that the Euro would be just a distant memory by the time it was implemented.

We have such a transfer union here in the United States on at least two levels, with richer states subsidizing poorer states, and richer areas of a particular state subsidizing poorer areas of that state. We tolerate that because it’s been that way for so long that few people even think about it. But if the United States were a collection of truly independent states, much as the EU is now, the chances of those 50 states agreeing to form a federal union, with the fiscal integration and ongoing transfers from rich to poor that that implies, would be nearly zero. For that matter, there’d be nearly zero chance that the taxpayers of North Carolina would agree to implement the present system, where those of us in the rich urban areas pay a grossly excessive portion of state taxes, which are then transferred to poor rural areas. That’s the choice that EU taxpayers are faced with, and they’re simply not going to agree to it.

There is actually a third solution, but depending on it would prove truly catastrophic. The ECB can simply print more Euros, and use them to buy back worthless Greek, Irish, Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian debt with inflated (devalued) Euros. The ECB actually started doing this a couple of weeks ago, with the stated intention of propping up Spanish and Italian debt. The more responsible ECB authorities, fully aware of the implications of such an action, argued strenuously against doing it, but they were overruled. However, there’s a big difference between using inflated Euros to buy $30 billion of bonds a week for two or three weeks and spending $50 billion a week in inflated Euros for months or years on end. Even those ECB authorities who supported these bond buys on a short-term basis are very unlikely to agree to continue doing so indefinitely. Even they must realize that doing that must inevitable destroy the Euro, and in a period measured in months rather than years.


11:17 – Several days ago, I mentioned a very encouraging paper on broad-spectrum antivirals, which may eventually lead to a real breakthrough in viral therapies. Derek Lowe, a pharmaceutical chemist, has an interesting take on this paper. If you have any interest in antivirals, Derek’s column is well worth reading (as is the original paper).