Month: October 2011

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

09:25 – Barbara is doing well, and Colin is delighted that she’s home. The only thing I’m dreading now is Barbara returning to work after Colin having several weeks to get used to having her full-time attention. He’s always demonic on Mondays, after having her home for just two days, so I suspect he’ll take a long time to adjust after she finally returns to work.

The news is full of articles about Netflix’s reversal of its split. The general attitude seems to be that Reed Hastings is incompetent and that Netflix has made huge mistakes from which it may not recover. My attitude is that it’s a mistake to assume that a smart guy like Hastings has suddenly turned stupid. Everyone seems to think that the decrease in Netflix’s subscriber base is a Very Bad Thing, which simply shows that most people can’t think. Netflix may have lost something like 3% of its subscribers, true. But those 3% were mostly subscribers that Netflix didn’t want, ones that were actually costing it money rather than contributing to its profits. Ones like me, in other words.

If Netflix had left its pricing unchanged and somehow still gotten rid of those 3% of undesirable subscribers, they’d have increased their profits. As it is, they also increased their prices, which means many of the remaining 97% of their subscribers are paying significantly more than they had been. Much of that increase will be spent on licensing additional programming–Netflix has added about 3,500 new TV episodes in just the last couple of weeks–but no doubt some of it will go to the bottom line. Netflix will be much more profitable than they otherwise would have been. Which is why it’s stupid that the stock price crashed. It should have skyrocketed. And it likely will, once the market realizes what just happened. As I said, Hastings is a very smart guy.

11:00 – I just ordered a cane for Barbara from Costco. She’s currently using a walker frame that belonged to my mom, but she’ll probably be off it and using a cane before too much longer.

We actually had a big argument about which cane model to buy. She ended up getting her way, and I ordered her a plain old cane-cane for about $18 with shipping. I tried to convince her to go with an upgraded model with a built-in 12-gauge shotgun, but she flatly refused. So I went to Plan B, and tried to convince her to go with a model with a built-in 32″ (81 cm) sword blade. She wouldn’t go for that, either, so I went to Plan C and tried to convince her to get one with a built-in tear gas dispenser. No dice. So she’s getting just a plain old cane-cane.

11:53 – Barbara has been using the regular toilet since she came home, so we moved the potty-chair frame into the shower in our master bath for her to sit on while she showers. I didn’t want to move it, so I just took a shower in the downstairs bathroom, next to my lab. There was already soap, regular shampoo, and so on in that shower, but I happened to notice a bottle of oatmeal and baking soda shampoo with a picture of a pretty Golden Retriever on the front. It promised a smooth and glossy coat, so I decided to give it a try. Sure enough, when I came upstairs, Barbara commented, “You sure have a smooth and glossy coat”. Or something like that.

Monday, 10 October 2011

09:04 – Barbara went to the hospital Thursday for knee-replacement surgery. Everything went extremely well. She was released yesterday and will now be recuperating at home for the next few weeks. Colin, of course, is delighted that she’s home. Few things worry a puppy more than having a litter mate disappear. He was obviously stressed the entire time she was gone. He had been just about perfect on house-training, but that suffered while she was gone. There was constant whining, yipping, and wandering around the house looking for her, and that was just me.

Barbara left the hospital with only two prescriptions, one for 10 syringes of an injectable anticoagulant and the other for a hundred 5 mg oxycodone tablets. She insisted on stopping at Walgreens on the way home to get the prescriptions filled, so I handed them to the pharmacist and waited while she filled them. I was quite disturbed at what happened. When she’d finished making up the prescriptions, she told me that they had only two of the anticoagulant injectors in stock and that I’d have to stop by Tuesday to pick up the other two. The other two? I was expecting eight more. I figured maybe the injectors were multi-dose, but when I got back out to the car I asked Barbara and we checked the paperwork they’d given her. Sure enough, we were supposed to get ten syringes. So I went back in and waited another five or ten minutes to talk to the pharmacist. When I mentioned the problem, she treated it very casually, saying that indeed I was supposed to get eight more syringes on Tuesday and that she’d been confused by the dosage of 0.4 mg into thinking I was to get a total of only four. Isn’t the first duty of a pharmacist not to make such mistakes in dispensing medication? In this case, we caught the mistake, but we shouldn’t have had to. I’m still thinking about whether to report this to Walgreens. She seemed like a nice young woman, but mistakes like this could have fatal consequences.

10:18 – This is cool. My old friend John Mikol just emailed me:

Leo Laporte was plugging your chemistry set and book, I hope it sends some sales your way.

It’s about 32 minutes in:

13:24 – Incidentally, I just realized I hadn’t commented yet on using the Baby Kindle 4. Side-by-side with my Kindle 3, the Baby Kindle 4 is noticeably smaller and lighter. Not that the Kindle 3 is particularly large or heavy, but the Baby Kindle 4 is enough smaller that it’s much easier for me to grip securely. With the Kindle 3, I was always afraid that I’d drop it if Colin nudged my arm or something. I can grip the Kindle 4 securely. And it’s still running on its original charge, despite the fact that its battery is half the capacity of the Kindle 3’s and I used it fairly heavily while Barbara was in the hospital. Overall, I’m very pleased with the Baby Kindle 4 and happy that I chose it rather than the touch model. Even the ads aren’t intrusive, although I understand there’s now an option to remove them by paying Amazon another $30.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

06:17 – Wow. I seldom manage to choose anything really bad from Netflix, but the latest disc was an exception. The series is called Off the Map. I decided to sample disc 1 because it stars the delightful Caroline Dhavernas, late of Wonderfalls. (What is it about the Canadians? They consistently come up with adorable young actresses like Dhavernas and Emily Van Camp. Come to think of it, they’re both native French speakers as well. And I guess New Zealand isn’t far behind, with young actresses like Lisa Chappell and Jessica Napier.)

At any rate, Off the Map had a usable premise, basically Young Doctors Without Borders. There’s a great setting–medicine in the jungle–and all of the technical parts, such as cinematography and sound, are well done. The cast seems decent, although of course Dhavernas stands out. In the hands of competent writers, this could have been a really good series. Unfortunately the writing is as bad as I’ve seen. Sappy garbage, with every cliche in the book. The music is ham-handed and intrusive.

I got through the first 20 minutes or so of the first episode before I decided the series was hopeless. And I really wanted to like this series, because I like Dhavernas and enjoy watching her. Still, enough was enough. My first hint should have been the fact that IMDB rates this series 6.2 stars, which is truly terrible. Netflix let me down. The average of 3,000+ ratings on Netflix is 3.9 stars, although admittedly they did estimate I’d give it only 2.9 stars. I gave it one star, but only because that was the worst rating I could give it. Don’t even think about renting this stinker.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

09:37 – Our friends Mary and Paul dropped by for a visit yesterday evening. I asked them if they were attending the sunrise service this morning. They both use iPhones and iPods, you see, and this morning is the third day. Steve is risen.

Paul has drunk the Kool-Aid more than Mary, I think. He commented that he liked his iPhone, but he really liked his iPod. Where else, he asked, could one get a pocket-size music player? Barbara and I pointed out that she had one connected to her car audio system right now, a Sansa model. Yes, he said, but where can you get music to load on it? Barbara pointed out that she had several thousand tracks converted to MP3 that she’d ripped from her CDs, about a thousand of which were on her Sansa player at the moment. I added that if he wanted to buy music on-line he could visit Amazon, which has a huge selection with often better prices, and has never had copy protection.

I really don’t understand all the eulogizing. Not only did Jobs never do anything to help the advance of personal technology; much of what he did hurt it. He went from selling overpriced, underpowered PCs to selling overpriced music players and tracks to selling overpriced cellphones. Everything he ever did was aimed at pillaging his customers’ wallets and locking them into his “walled garden”. And, no, I haven’t forgotten the Apple ][, which deserves at best an asterisk in PC history.

Laundry this morning, with work interspersed on the biology lab book. Right now, I’m working on the chapter on cells and unicellular organisms. I’m just starting a session on making culturing media and filling Petri dishes and slant tubes with agar gel medium and test tubes with broth medium. We’ll use the Petri dishes in the following session to culture bacteria, after which we’ll isolate selected species and grow pure cultures of them in slant tubes and eventually broth tubes. We’ll then flood Petri dishes with broth culture to grow bacterial “lawns”, which can then be used for antibiotic sensitivity testing.

I’ve thought seriously about recommending that readers avoid culturing environmental bacteria and instead purchase pure cultures of known-harmless bacteria from Carolina Biological Supply or wherever. The issue is that there are a lot of pathogenic bacteria floating around in the wild. Ordinarily, they’re harmless, because our bodies defenses can deal with small numbers of them. But culturing them produces large numbers of them, so one must take care to avoid being exposed to them. With proper technique, the danger is nearly non-existent, but some danger does still exist. We’ll minimize that by using a simple beef or chicken broth and sucrose nutrient mixture and culturing at room temperature rather than body temperature. Those factors favor growth of bacteria that prefer the lower temperature, which is to say not most pathogens.

Of course, we’ll subsequently be using forced selection to breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria from those original cultures, and if you don’t want wild pathogens floating around the room, you really don’t want drug-resistant wild pathogens floating free. Of course, we could temper that risk by using antibiotics that are not usually used in humans, such as neomycin, sulfadimethoxine, and so on. We can also take steps to minimize exposure risk, including wearing an N100 mask, misting the area with Lysol spray and so on. On balance, I think I’ll do the lab with environmental bacteria, but warn readers that for complete safety they should purchase a known-harmless culture as their starting point.

Colin is still very much a puppy. Barbara had dinner out yesterday, so I made myself a bowl of tuna shock. Except that I didn’t have any tuna or any shock, so I just put a can of olives (less the can and lid) and a can of Costco chicken chunks (less the can and lid) in a big bowl and then added a large glop of mayonnaise. I’d eaten about a third of it when the doorbell rang. I got up to answer it, first warning Colin not to touch my food. When I got back a moment later, he had his snout in my bowl. Fortunately, he hadn’t eaten much of it, so I finished the rest.

Friday, 7 October 2011

10:37 – I’ve just had my first report of shipping damage on a kit, in this case a broken thermometer. The buyer wanted to know if there was anywhere local that she could buy another one. I apologized for the inconvenience, and told her I’d get a replacement in the mail this afternoon, which should arrive Monday. It surprised me that it would even occur to her that the breakage was her problem.

That is, perhaps, a commentary on the declining level of customer service among many American companies. Not all, by any means. Companies like LL Bean and Costco do well, in no small part because their policy is to treat their customers (and employees) as they themselves would want to be treated. That used to be the norm for American businesses: “The customer is always right.” That’s the type of business I patronize, and I’ve always known that when I started a business, that’s the way I’d treat my own customers.

Doing so is simple enlightened self-interest. Treat customers badly, and they’ll never buy from you again. They’ll also tell everyone they know of their experience. Treat customers right, and you’ve made a friend for life. They’ll continue buying from you, and they’ll recommend you to their friends.

Solving a problem for a customer at no expense to them often involves incurring a cost, so “results-oriented” short-term thinkers consider it foolish to take a loss rather than charge the customer again. In fact, that small short-term loss nearly always translates into a much greater long-term profit. For example, one person who bought one of our kits emailed me to say that she’d spilled one of the chemicals, and asked if she could buy another bottle. Sure, I could have charged her for the replacement bottle and shipping costs, and she wouldn’t have thought twice about it. But instead I just shipped her a replacement bottle without charge. Counting the item itself, as well as time, packaging, and shipping costs, that might’ve cost me $10 or $12. But that small loss translates into a very happy customer. She’ll tell her friends, and some of those friends may in turn become new customers.

13:37 – Colin is closely related to both Duncan and Malcolm, with several recent ancestors in common, so it’s no surprise that Colin shares many of Duncan’s and Malcolm’s personality traits. Colin is much nearer in personality to Duncan than Malcolm in most respects, and I was reminded of one of them a minute ago, when I gave Colin a dog treat.

Malcolm would eat anything we were eating, without hesitation. Pickles, celery, anything. In fact, Malcolm would eat anything we offered him. That made it very easy to give him pills. Hold down the pill to him, and he’d take it gently and swallow it without question. Duncan, on the other hand, was almost insulting. He’d beg when we were eating, but if we offered him some of what we were eating, he’d sniff it thoroughly before eating it, just to make sure. I actually had a conversation with Duncan about this, explaining that he was insulting us by implication, suggesting that something good enough for humans might not be good enough for him.

And Colin is much like Duncan in that respect. I just went into the kitchen to refill my Coke, and decided to give Colin a dog treat. He watched me take down the container from the shelf. He knows that container is full of dog treats. He sat on command, waiting for the treat. When I held it down to him, he spent two or three seconds sniffing it before he took it. Just like Duncan.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

08:32 – It occurred to me that a few of my readers may be unaware of the weasely ways that governments try to make things appear better than they are by using phrases like “primary budget surplus” and “current account deficit”, both of which should be red flags. So let me explain it in personal terms.

Let’s say that you expect your household income to be $50,000 in 2012. Your expected expenses for food, utilities, insurance, car expenses, and so on total $49,000. Congratulations. You’re running a “primary budget surplus” of $1,000. (If your expected expenses had instead been $51,000, you’d be running a “current account deficit” of $1,000.)

But wait. By definition, these figures do not incorporate debt service expenses. You have a mortgage upon which you’re paying interest and principal of $1,500/month, or $18,000 per year. If you take that figure into account–which of course you have to, being a person rather than a government–your expenses now total $49,000 + $18,000 = $67,000 for 2012, but your expected revenue remains $50,000. You’re $17,000 in the hole. There’s no alternative to paying your mortgage, so your only options are to cut spending elsewhere or borrow an additional $17,000 to balance your books. In real life, of course, people cut the other expenses and governments borrow the money.

But it gets worse. Your brother-in-law retires next year, and you’ve signed an unbreakable contract to pay him $5,000 per month and cover his medical insurance costs, which total another $1,500 per month. Starting next January, you’re on the hook for an additional $6,500/month in expenses, or $78,000/year. So, at this point, you expect your actual revenue for 2012 to be $50,000, and your actual expenses to be $145,000. You have to come up with an extra $95,000 in 2012 and, not being a government, you can’t just print the money. Nor can you borrow it, because no one will lend to you. Your personal financial world collapses, but at least you can say you were running a “primary budget surplus”.

It gets worse still. Your sister-in-law retires at the beginning of 2013, and you’ve also agreed to pay her retirement and medical expenses, for an additional $6,500/month. And your company has announced that sales are falling and it will cut all salaries 10% across the board starting in January. So, as of 2013, your expected revenue is $45,000/year and your expected expenses are $223,000. How long can this go on? Well, the obvious answer is “not for long”. And that’s what nations are now finding out: eventually, you have to pay the piper.

Oh, yeah. Did I mention that many of your 50 adult children, such as California and Illinois, are deeply in debt, with no chance ever of paying what they owe? Technically, you’re not responsible for their debts, but you don’t want to see them go to debtors’ prison for life, so you’ll probably end up having to pay off their debts as well.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

08:47 – I happened across this article, Best paid jobs: A guide to UK salaries, and was surprised both by how little UK employees earn and how small the spread between best- and worst-paid jobs. The top-paid job, for example, is “Directors and chief executives of major organisations” at £96,202 (about $146,000/year). That’s a small fraction–10% to 1% or less–of what similar jobs pay in the US. Physicians, corporate managers, and senior officials make about £70,000/year, senior police officers (inspectors and above) make about £55,000/year (is an inspector really considered senior?), and a few other jobs pay £50,000 or more. After that, it starts decreasing rapidly. Nurses, at position #149 of the 402 jobs listed, make only about £26,000/year.

Of course, it’s not just how much you earn. Tax rates and other cost-of-living issues determine how much that salary buys. And in that respect the UK suffers greatly in comparison to the US. Tax rates are very high, and everything costs much more than it does in the US. Twenty years ago, one of our friends who’d moved here from the UK had her family over for a visit. I had a chance to talk for some time with her brother-in-law, Gavin. This was his first trip to the US, and he couldn’t believe the prices here.

At the time, the £:$ exchange rate was about $2/£, and he was stunned to find that everything cost the same (or less) in dollars here as it cost in pounds in England. “Everything?”, I asked him. “Everything!”, he replied. “That car that costs $20,000 here would be £20,000 at home. We just paid about $70 for children’s clothing that would have been £70 or £80 in England. Last night, we had dinner with wine at a nice restaurant for $120. That would have been £120 or more in England.” And to make matters worse, he said, his salary in pounds was less than a third of what a comparable job paid here in dollars. Then we started to talk about things like property and income tax rates, housing costs, and so on. It may be no coincidence that soon after Gavin and Eileen returned to the UK he requested and was granted a transfer to one of his company’s facilities in Estonia.

16:17 – The postman just showed up with my Baby Kindle 4. I’ve set up WiFi access, and it’s charging right now. It’s noticeably smaller and lighter than my Kindle 3, and of course lacks a physical keyboard. One thing did surprise me; the color appears to be white or off-white on the Amazon pages, but in real life it’s charcoal gray, much like the Kindle 3. Perhaps identical; I haven’t compared them yet because the K4 is in my office and the K3 is out in the den.

Once it finishes charging I’ll transfer some books to it. Ironically, despite Amazon’s claim that no computer is required, charging is only via USB unless you already have the AC->USB dongle or buy one separately. So, I suppose Amazon is entitled to make that claim, but only if they include a disclaimer “unless you ever want to charge the unit”.

The power switch gave me pause momentarily. Unlike the slide switch on the Kindle 3, this one is a push switch. I was trying to turn on the new Kindle without looking at the switch, and wondered why it refused to slide. I actually prefer the push switch.

The ads are not intrusive, particularly since I seldom keep the Kindle 3 in sleep mode and so never see the screensaver. Presumably the Kindle 4 works the same way–press the switch to put it to sleep; press and hold the switch to turn it off. The only other place the ads appear is at the bottom of the home page, where they occupy only a small fraction of the screen. I’ll probably actually look at the ads periodically. They’ve had stuff like a $20 Amazon coupon for $10 and so on.

The smaller battery is a minor concern. Amazon rates the Baby Kindle 4 at 30 days of battery life, but that assumes only 30 minutes of reading per day, or a total of 15 hours of reading. As always, it’s page turns that take power, and since I read something like six times faster than average, 30 minutes a day of reading for me is probably as many page turns as perhaps three hours of reading by an average reader. So, I’m expecting maybe five or six actual reading hours per charge, which means I’ll be recharging every two or three days on average days and probably once a day on heavier reading days.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

08:25 – Barbara had another scare last night, when her sister called to tell her that she was taking their mom to the emergency room. She’d hurt her leg that afternoon while volunteering at the hospital, and of course at her age there’s always concern about broken bones. All turned out happily, though. Barbara’s mom had only sprained her knee. The emergency room docs put a brace on it and allowed her to return home.

I got email last night from my editor, Brian Jepson, with great news. O’Reilly has decided to do the biology book in four-color. Every book has a budget, based on expected production costs and projected sales. The only way Brian had been able to get this book approved originally was to put tight limits on page count (extra pages cost money) and printing costs (four-color costs a lot more money). So we went into the project with a strict page-count limit and a center section of full-color plates. Before long, I asked Brian if I could trade the color section for more page count, to which he agreed. I really didn’t want to give up color images completely, but I really needed the extra page count.

But apparently the cost of four-color printing has come down somewhat, and Brian said that when he was discussing things with his colleagues they commented that it makes no sense to do a biology lab book with monochrome images. I suspect the sales history of the chemistry lab book also might have had something to do with it. That book is what publishers call an “evergreen” title. That is, it continues selling steadily for many years. That’s in stark contrast to most titles, which sell 90% or even 99% of their total lifetime sales within a few months of publication. The biology lab book should have a similar sales trajectory to the chemistry lab book

10:15 – I just checked my Netflix disc queue and found that there isn’t much disc-only material that we care about. When I upgraded a couple weeks ago from streaming + one-disc to streaming + two-disc, our disc queue was jammed with 30 or 40 discs that we wanted, most of which are series that Barbara likes and that were initially disc-only. Several of those quickly changed to add streaming, including the most recent seasons available of Army Wives, Brothers & Sisters, and Grey’s Anatomy. As soon as that happened, I pulled them from our disc queue and added them to our instant queue. So we’ve gone from 30 or 40 discs we want down to four Sons of Anarchy S3 discs and a handful of others.

Meanwhile our instant queue now totals 94 items, including a dozen or more series that between them total hundreds of episodes. We are not, to put it mildly, short of things to watch, even without discs, particularly since Netflix is adding more streaming titles every day. Our anniversary date is the 26th of the month, so in three weeks I’m going to downgrade our plan to the $8/month streaming only option. We’ll do without discs for the next few months while we catch up on streaming material, if we ever do. Once there are a reasonable number of disc-only titles we want, I’ll bump it back up to include discs for a month or three and then drop back to streaming-only.

Monday, 3 October 2011

10:25 – The first weekday of what may be Black October. Or, perhaps more fittingly, Red October.

Greece is near collapse. Not just the economy; the country itself. Greece did not meet the requirements of the troika, so if the troika auditors follow their own rules they will recommend against releasing the final tranche of the 2010 bailout. Most people, including me, think they’ll ignore their own rules and release the final tranche just to stave off collapse for a few (or a couple) more weeks. If it were up to the EU and the ECB, that tranche would be released, period. But the IMF also has a vote, and it’s possible the IMF will stick to the rules. If so, Greece will default within days; if not, it may be a few more weeks. But it’s as certain as can be that Greece will default by the end of this year.

Several weeks ago, I mentioned rumors that Germany was already printing Deutsche Marks, and I’ve since heard the same rumor from several independent sources. It’s hard to keep something like that quiet. The current rumors say that Germany has placed a rush order with the printers, presumably to make sure it has new notes available when Greece defaults. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Germany will leave the euro, at least not immediately. This may be simply a contingency plan. But, contingency plan or not, I expect to see Germany re-introduce the DM sometime within the next few months, if not weeks. I don’t think there’ll be much choice.

I’m still working hard on the biology lab book. I have a couple of dozen lab sessions complete, other than images, with many more in progress. I’m getting more worried about sticking to my page count budget, but at this point I’m just continuing to add new lab sessions, and sometimes expand existing ones. By the time we get to 100% completion (scheduled for 31 December), I’ll probably have more lab sessions than we have room for in the book. If so, I’ll probably self-publish them as a supplemental set.

I also need to run or re-run some lab sessions to verify things. For example, yesterday I finished writing the lab session on extracting, isolating, and visualizing DNA. I’ve done that lab many times before, but always using 95% ethanol or 99% isopropanol. So the lab session is currently written using 95% ethanol, but I want to see how (and if) it works using 70% ethanol or 70% isopropanol, both of which are cheaper and easier to find than the 95%/99% varieties. The potential problem is that DNA is relatively soluble in water, but extremely insoluble in pure ethanol or isopropanol. During the isolation phase, one gently pours alcohol into the test tube that contains the aqueous DNA solution. That alcohol forms a layer on top of the aqueous layer, and DNA precipitates out at the boundary layer. If the alcohol contains significant water, I’m not sure how well that precipitation and the subsequent spooling of the DNA goop will work.

I could just specify 95% ethanol or 99% isopropanol, but I want to make it as easy and inexpensive as possible for readers to do the labs. So I’ll spend some time checking.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

10:04 – It’s a standard Sunday around here, and most certainly cooler than usual this time of year. We finally turned on the central heat, because it was down to 66F (19C) in the house, and falling. The high today is to be 59F (15C) and the low tonight 41F (5C), so it’d get a bit chilly in here without the furnace running. I fired up the gas logs to test them. As expected, they burned for a couple minutes and then went out. Time to blow out the oxygen sensor with canned air.

Barbara and Colin are out in the yard blowing leaves and enjoying the cool weather outdoors. I’m working on a couple lab sessions about extracting and visualizing DNA and doing gel electrophoresis, enjoying the warmer weather indoors.

12:04 – This article summarizes the current euro situation pretty well. In short, no matter how bad you think it is, it’s actually far, far worse. If anything, I think the article is overly optimistic. I don’t think we have months left before the crash. We may not have weeks.

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