Thursday, 22 June 2017

08:37 – It was 64.5F (18C) when I took Colin out around 0630 this morning, mostly cloudy. Barbara is off to Winston today to get a haircut, make a Costco run, have lunch with friends, and do some miscellaneous errands.


Ruh-roh. Lisa has hooked up with Jen and Brittany. These women are going to take over the world, I tell you.

I got email overnight from Lisa, CC’d to Jen and Brittany, congratulating me on getting my ham radio ticket. Lisa had been thinking about ham radio for a while, and asked me what she needed to do, on a budget, to get started. What to do, how to get licensed, what to buy, etc. As happens so often, she wanted to know exactly what I did because she intends to copy me. So, with the usual provisos that she is not me and what’s right for me isn’t necessarily right for her, here’s what I told her:

How to Get Started

First, go to http://www.arrl.org/find-a-club and locate the nearest ham radio club. Contact them and attend the next club meeting. Take your family along and let them know you’re interested in getting licensed. I’ve never met a ham who wasn’t friendly and eager to get others involved in the hobby. You’ll find the club very welcoming.

Find out if they offer classes for getting your license, and when and where the license exams occur. The exam for the entry-level Technician Class license and the second-level General Class license each comprises 35 questions from a published pool of 400+ questions. You don’t absolutely have to attend classes to pass your exam. Many people do so just by using on-line ham resources like hamexam.org, which has the question pool (with correct answers), flash cards, and sample tests.

If you’re interested only in local two-way communications–say within a 20-or 30-mile radius or within your county–all you need is your Technician Class license, and that exam is pretty easy to pass. If you’re interested in talking with other hams around the country or around the world, you’ll also want to take the General Class exam, which offers almost complete ham privileges. The General Class exam is harder than the Technician Class, but is still pretty easy.

Once you decide which license class each of you wants to get, start preparing for the exam. If you wish, you can buy the official ARRL study manuals for Technician and General Class, but chances are you’ll do fine just drilling on hamexam.org.

The tests are administered by a group of three Volunteer Examiners. There is usually a $10 per person charge for an exam session. During that session, you can take only the Technician Class exam if you wish, but if you pass that you can go on to take the General Class exam without paying any more. In fact, you can take all three, including the top-level Amateur Extra exam, at one session for the one $10 charge. You have to pass each lower level before you’re allowed to take the next level up.

What to Buy

Again, I’ll emphasize that what I recommend here isn’t best for everyone, but it’ll certainly get you started well.

⊕ Transceivers are available in hand-held versions (called HT’s for handy-talkies), mobile versions designed to install in the dashboard of your vehicle, and base station versions that are designed to sit on a desk or table at home. Nowadays, most hams start with an HT, and many never use anything else.

HT’s are available in a wide range of prices. Name-brand units (Icom, Yaesu, Kenwood, etc.) are generally quite expensive ($150 to several times that), and are limited to transmitting only on amateur radio frequencies. No-name Chinese models (BaoFeng/Pofung, etc.) are much, much less expensive (typically $20 to maybe $70), and can transmit across a broad range of frequencies, typically 136 to 174 MHz and 400 to 520 MHz). That range includes the amateur 2-meter and 70-cm (440 MHz) bands, but also includes many other services, such as FRS/GMRS, MURS, Marine Band, Business Band, etc. Many experienced hams dislike these programmable HTs for just that reason, while most preppers love them, for just that reason.

You might think you couldn’t possibly get much of a radio for a quarter to a tenth or less the price of a name-brand model, but you’d be wrong. A $30 BaoFeng HT has specifications (power output, sensitivity, selectivity, etc.) very similar to a $300 Icom or Yaesu.

There’s not much difference in terms of construction quality, either. One guy on Youtube torture-tested a $30 Chinese HT. He froze it, baked it, drenched it with a hose, and ran over it with his truck. Each time, it kept on working. Finally, he drenched it with gasoline and set it on fire. When the fire finally burned out, the case was charred and melted and the rubber-duck antenna was just a naked coil of wire. And it still worked. Note that he tested the UV-5R, which “feels” like a consumer-grade radio. The UV-82 “feels” a lot more like a commercial/industrial-grade model.

In fact, the commercial model of the UV-82, the UV-82C, is widely used by government and NGO emergency services agencies and volunteer groups that work with them. The only difference between the C model and the regular UV-82 is that the former costs about $60 rather than $30 and is a Type Accepted Part 90 device. It has had keypad access to VFO disabled, so new frequencies can’t be input from the keypad. These units have to be programmed with a computer and cable.

So I have no hesitation in recommending these radios for new ham operators, particularly those on a budget. You can buy a $30 model and use it as-is. If you want to accessorize it, you can spend another $10 or $20 each on things like a spare battery, a battery eliminator that let’s you plug into the cigarette lighter socket in your car, a AAA battery adapter that lets you use AAA alkalines or NiMH rechargeable, a good whip antenna, a speaker/mic, and so on.

So, what specific items do I recommend for getting started on a budget?

BaoFeng UV-82 HT – buy one or more of these. They run about $30 each. Assuming all of your group are getting their ham licenses, buy one for each of them. You can use them legally on the 2-meter and 70-cm ham bands to communicate directly between units (simplex mode) or with local repeaters (duplex mode) to extend your comm range over probably a 50- to 100-mile radius.

BaoFeng programming cable – The UV-82 has 99 programmable channels. You can program it manually, from the keypad on the radio, but it’s much easier to use a programming cable connected to your computer. This genuine BaoFeng Tech cable costs about $20, but it Just Works. Don’t make the mistake of buying one of the cheaper clone cables for $6 or whatever. They use an obsolete chipset that requires old drivers that screw up your computer. The cheap cables are nothing but headaches. You only need one programming cable no matter how many units you need to program, unless you just want a second one as a spare. (two is one …)

Download a free copy of the CHIRP software (available for Linux, MAC OS, or Windows) and use it to program your radios. You can also download various templates for CHIRP that include groups of 99 useful frequencies. Here’s one example, which includes a useful set of frequencies for preppers.

CHIRP templates are stored as simple CSV files, which you can edit with any text editor. You might want to edit the template mentioned above to remove some of the less useful frequencies (like the PMR446 group, which are kind of the European equivalent of the US FRS/GMRS frequencies). You can then use those free channels for 2-meter and 70-cm ham frequencies that are popular in your area for either simplex (direct unit-to-unit) or duplex (repeater). Programming frequencies, mode, etc. is very easy once you look at the CSV file. Pretty much self-explanatory.

The UV-82 itself comes with a charging base, battery, and rubber-duck antenna, which is all you really NEED to get on the air. I consider the programming cable and CHIRP almost a necessity, so I also included it above. There are also several optional items you might WANT. Here are the most popular ones:

Nagoya NA-771 replacement antenna – this 15.6″ dual-band whip antenna costs about $17 and is a direct screw-in replacement for the rubber duck antenna included with the radio. It is much, much more efficient and effective than the standard antenna. Using it can easily double the effective range of your UV-82.

⊕ BaoFeng BL-8 7.4V 1800 mAh battery – you’ll probably want a spare battery for each of your UV-82 HT’s. Battery life is good on the UV-82, but if you ever need to run your HT’s 24×7, spare batteries for each are critical.

Buy the Nagoya-branded antenna and BaoFeng-branded battery, and buy them on Amazon from BaoFeng Tech or BTech (same vendor), which is the authorized US distributor for BaoFeng. Do NOT buy them if Amazon is listed as the vendor. Amazon and its third-party vendors are both notorious for shipping counterfeit products. The branded units from BTech/BaoFeng Tech cost about the same price Amazon charges if they’re selling them, and BTech doesn’t charge sales tax to most locations. Amazon ships it, but BaoFeng Tech is the seller.

BaoFeng battery eliminator – this $16 item has a cigarette lighter plug on one end. The other end looks just like the UV-82 battery, and slides onto the HT in place of the real battery. You’ll probably want at least one or two of these, and maybe one for each radio or at least each vehicle, if you plan to use them a lot in vehicles. Once again, buy these from BTech or BaoFeng Tech as the vendor.

BL-8 AAA battery – another $16 item that’s basically just an empty battery housing for the UV-82. It lets you use AAA alkaline or rechargeables. Interestingly, this adapter requires only five alkaline AAA’s but SIX NiMH rechargeable AAA’s. That’s because the real battery is 7.4V. Five alkalines is 7.5V, which is close enough; six NiMH’s is 7.2V, which again is close enough. But if you put six alkalines in this adapter, it’s delivering 9V, which is too much. The UV-82 apparently continues to work, but it won’t transmit. That’s why this adapter includes a dummy/spacer battery, for when you use alkalines. Again, buy these only from BaoFeng Tech or BTech as the vendor.

⊕ Finally, if you can find it, you might want a clone-and-copy cable. I bought one of these from Amazon back in 2013 or so but they’re now listed as no longer available. Like the programming cable, they have a two-prong connector on one end, but instead of having a USB connector on the other, they have a second two-prong connector. That allows you to connect two UV-82 HT’s directly together and transfer the programming from one unit to the other. The only reason you’d use this is if you don’t have access to a working computer to program units directly. And, if absolutely necessary, you can program units directly from their keypads. So this is definitely an optional item.

So this is what I recommend, in the sense that this is what I actually did and bought.

 

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

10:32 – It was 50.8F (10.5C) when I took Colin out at 0700 this morning, sunny and bright. By the time Lori showed up with our mail around 0915, it was 68F (20C). Ray of Ray’s Weather said yesterday he’d put away his snow meter for the year because we’re unlikely to see any more snow. But we’re still likely to see one or more freezes/frosts between now and mid- to late-May.

Lori had only two packages for us, both from Amazon, one the ARRL General Class license manual and the other a pack of five 7-gallon planting bags. Our lettuce is already sprouting gangbusters in the small starting pots, so we’ll probably use at least one of the bags for lettuce. I think we planted too much lettuce, especially since we don’t have any rabbits to feed it to.

We’re near finishing up several series we’ve been watching on Netflix and Amazon streaming, including a British series called Escape to the Country. In each episode, the presenter meets a couple who want to relocate to a rural area. The presenter shows them three houses.

I said to Barbara last night that nearly all of the couples are likable and remind me of us. They’re looking for the same thing we were looking for: to get away from big city rat race (or “rat run” as the Brits apparently call it) and live in a rural area. Most of them want to have a big garden. (Again, what Americans call having a green thumb in Britain is apparently called having green fingers. I think they do it just to annoy us…)

Another thing that struck us is the high prices of homes and particularly land in Britain. I suppose that makes sense, given their much higher population density. A nice home that might cost $200,000 in a rural area in the US often costs two, three, or even four times that in the UK, depending on how close it is to London or another large city. The buyers often say they want quite a bit of land with the home, but the homes they’re shown often include half an acre or less, what in the US would be considered a typical suburban residential plot. In the 20 or so episodes we’ve watched, only a handful of the properties they’ve shown have included even one full acre.

And detached homes are apparently pretty rare. A high percentage of the homes they show are semi-detached, which in the US would be called duplexes, and are pretty rare even in cities, let alone rural areas. And the Brits apparently have a lot more words and arrangements for sanitary facilities than we Americans do. In the US, a half-bath includes a toilet and sink, and a full bath includes those plus a shower and/or bathtub. In Britain, there are many different arrangements, including shower rooms that include only a shower, shower  rooms that include a shower and sink, bathrooms that include only a bathtub, and toilets that include only a toilet and no sink, which strikes Americans as bizarre. Where do you wash your hands after using the toilet?

At any rate, we’ve enjoyed the series. There are only 25 episodes on Netflix, out of (IIRC) something like 750 episodes that the BBC has broadcast over the last several years.


 

I read a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction. Most of it uses any of several recurring memes, all of which make for a good (and easy-to-write) story, but none of which are particularly realistic. Here, in no particular order, are several of those memes:

Zombies

There is no such thing as a zombie. Enough said. Serious preppers may tell you they’re preparing for a Zombie Apocalypse, but they aren’t serious. That’s just shorthand for preparing for any eventuality.

Walking Home

The protagonist of these stories is often stranded hundreds or even thousands of miles from home and loved ones, and proceeds to walk home. He or they have many violent encounters, but always come through pretty much unscathed. Using just what they have in their (usually outrageously heavy) backpacks, they make it home after weeks or even months of walking, conveniently finding everything they need to make the trip.

Some of these treks are more realistic than others, notably Franklin Horton’s Borrowed World series and Angery American’s Home series, but ultimately all of them are fantasies. The reality is that if the S really HTF and you find yourself more than two or three days’ walk away from home, you’re not going to make it unless you start that trek before the majority of people realize what’s happened.

For example, if I were writing such a scenario and had Barbara stranded down in Winston-Salem, 60 miles or so from home, I’m not going to have her walk home. She’s in excellent shape for a woman her age, but even so it’s just not practical. Instead, I’d have her walk some and hitch rides when possible. Her trip back home won’t take weeks, let alone months. Instead, she’ll leave the moment the Event occurs and arrive back home in a day, if not later the same day. Better yet, she’d just drive home, making the normal 1.5 hour trip in, oh, 1.5 hours.

Destruction of Electronics

The two best-known books based on this meme are David Crawford’s Lights Out and William R. Forstchen’s One Second After. Both are better-written than average for this genre. The problem is, their scenario is very unlikely. There are two mechanisms for such an event:

o a Carrington-class solar storm (coronal mass ejection), which would damage long transmission lines, transformers, and any AC equipment that was connected, but not unconnected electronics, such as automobiles, cell phones, pacemakers, etc. etc. The aftermath would be hideously bad, but would not destroy all electronics, let alone electric motors and so on. Note that a CME is predictable, and that the world would have probably several days’ warning to take measures to minimize damage.

o a high-altitude nuclear electromagnetic pulse (HEMP or just EMP) event would have extremely severe consequences, but the extent and level of severity are unknowable, simply because it’s never happened. There are simply so many variables that making even a rough prediction is impossible. It’s safe to bet that a major EMP event would do incredible damage to our electric power grid and any electric/electronic devices connected to it, as well as many unconnected devices such as cell phones and other portable electronics. As to vehicles, the common meme is that all of them would be damaged beyond usability with the exception of diesels and elderly gasoline vehicles, those made in 1980 or before, which use carburetors and distributors rather than fuel-injection. In reality, modern diesels would actually be as much (or as little) affected as modern gasoline engines. My guess is that a significant percentage of EFI gasoline engines would be unaffected, other than perhaps requiring the battery to be disconnected and then reconnected to cause the vehicle computer(s) to reboot. Those vehicle computers are generally very well protected, in what amounts to Faraday cages.

Rawles’ Golden Hordes

In his books, Rawles was one of the first authors other than Pournelle and Niven to predict ravening hordes of refugees flowing out of the cities and into rural areas, where they’d overwhelm the locals. That’s possible, of course, depending on the type of disaster that occurs. In a financial collapse or similar widespread disaster, we’d probably see the converse: people migrating from rural areas to the large cities, because that’s where government disaster relief efforts would be concentrated. Rural areas would be the last to get any such relief efforts, if indeed they received any help at all.

Even in a worst-case scenario, such as terrorists setting off dirty bombs in large cities, mass migrations to rural areas are unlikely. Most ordinary people in the cities will wait too long before deciding to evacuate, by which time it will be impossible to do so. Look what less than an inch of snow did to Atlanta in 2014. Interstates literally turned into parking lots, even though the event had been forecast well in advance. A dirty bomb attack or similar event that occurred with no notice would clog highways even faster. Accidents, disabled vehicles, and all of the other things that happen in such circumstances would make roads impassable, starting with the interstates and other main highways, but quickly clogging even 2-lane roads.

What Rawles and others ignore is what I call the tenth-value distance. How many miles of road is sufficient to cut the number of people down to 10% of the original number? That TVD obviously varies with the specifics for an area. For the Triad and Charlotte populations trying to evacuate towards Sparta, I estimated the TVD at 10 miles. In other words, if 100,000 people set out from the Triad heading towards Sparta, after 10 miles that’d be down to 10,000, after 20 miles down to 1,000, and so on. After the 60 miles to Sparta, that original number of people would be down to (0.1)e6, or one one-millionth of the original number. Call it one tenth of a person would reach Sparta.

That’s the good news, at least for Sparta residents if not Triad residents. The bad news is that the TVD applies to average people. The TVD for really bad people–one percenter motorcycle gangs, inner-city gangs, and so on–is much higher. Yeah, we’d see groups of them up here, but there are plenty of Good Old Boys here, most of whom grew up hunting and shooting. Gang members who decide to come up here to rob, rape, and pillage would find themselves dead pretty quickly.

Bugging Out

The concept of bugging out is hugely popular in PA fiction, but the reality is that it almost never makes sense to bug out except in a disaster that’s very localized. If a train wreck dumps toxic chemicals near your home or a huge wildfire is approaching, yes it makes sense to bug out, but the idea of a very localized disaster with everywhere outside the immediate area unaffected is, by definition, not an apocalyptic scenario. In a widespread catastrophe, leaving your home and going out on the road is simply stupid. At home, you have all of your supplies and you are surrounded by people you’ve known for years. Hunkering down preserves those advantages; bugging out gives up all of them in exchange for the uncertainties of the road. Even if you have a well-stocked bugout location, getting there is by no means certain. And even if you do get there, there’s a good chance you’ll find it looted and perhaps occupied by squatters. Hunkering down is far safer, even if you’re in a suburb of a larger city. Making a run for it is not far from suicidal.

Evil FEMA/DHS

PA authors love to cast FEMA/DHS as evil jackbooted thugs. The reality is that they’re mostly ordinary people. In a catastrophe, they’ll being doing their best to do their jobs. Sure there’ll be some petty bureaucrats drunken with power who make things for refugees worse than they might have been, and yes the realities of having to care for thousands or tens of thousands of people will require them to enforce strict rules, but the idea that FEMA/DHS will end up running concentration camps, let alone death camps, is ridiculous. They won’t be trying to make people miserable, let alone enslave them.

Not that things wouldn’t be miserable despite their best efforts. Even if the country mobilized every resource available, the state and federal governments simply don’t have sufficient resources to deal with even a regional disaster, let alone one that’s nationwide. There simply isn’t enough spare food sitting around to feed everyone, or pure water, or spare electrical generation capacity, or drugs, or anything else. Everything would be in extremely short supply, and conditions in such refugee camps would soon become unspeakably bad. But don’t blame that on FEMA/DHS. Just resolve to do what it takes to take care of yourself and your family and friends, because if there is a large scale catastrophe the last place you want to be is anywhere near a refugee camp.

Breakdown of Law

Another common meme is WROL (without rule of law). The idea that the government becomes utterly incapable of enforcing even fundamental laws like those against rape, robbery, and murder. Since they can’t or won’t enforce such fundamental laws, plucky preppers have to do it themselves. These preppers have no fear of ever facing charges for shooting people out of hand and so on, because the government isn’t there any more. Don’t count on it. State and local law enforcement may be overwhelmed initially, and in fact probably would be. But they’ll still be there, and when things begin to settle down they’re likely to show up at your door and ask you some hard questions about that pile of bodies surrounding your house. The metric will be “were these the actions of a reasonable man?” Law enforcement, particularly in rural areas and small towns, will tend to sympathize with ordinary people who were forced to use lethal force to defend themselves, but that’s about as far as it will go.

Isolated Cabins

PA novelists often fantasize about a family living in their retreat, a self-sufficient homestead miles from their nearest neighbors. In reality, such a site would be about as dangerous as living in a central city. Maybe more so. Isolating yourself geographically from bad events makes sense superficially, but only for as long as it takes you to consider the implications. Being miles from your nearest neighbor doesn’t mean the bad guys won’t find you. It just means the nearest help is miles away. The bad guys, if they have the common sense of a turnip, will ambush you, snipe you, and otherwise pick at you piecemeal until they’ve eliminated your ability to defend yourself, which was pretty limited to begin with. You’re on your own. No one is coming to help you. You and your family will die alone, and the bad guys will eat everything you have stored away and then move to the next isolated cabin and do it again.

It’s far better to put yourself in a small-town/rural setting where you have friends and neighbors. Not just for a common defense, but to share skills, knowledge, and other resources. I know a lot about a lot, but I don’t know everything about everything, and some or many of the things I know nothing about may turn out to be critical. That’s why Barbara and I chose to move where we did. There are a lot of people around here who have useful/critical skills, and by becoming part of the community we are preparing to share our own skills in the expectation that others will do the same.

So I’m preparing for none of those scenarios because none of them are very likely. Which brings me to the final common meme in PA novels, but this one actually does make sense.

Doubling Up

What Rawles calls “doubling up” essentially means sharing not just your skills but your living space with others who have complementary skills and supplies. In a critical situation, when you’re surrounded by potential threats, you need trusted people above all. You and your wife aren’t enough. Even if you invite your extended family to stay with you during an emergency, that’s probably not enough people. There’ll be loads of work to do and not enough people to do it all. Finding additional trustworthy people to be part of your group should be your highest priority.

And that turns out to be the toughest preparation of all for most preppers. And that’s why I’m storing extra food, because I want to be able to offer refuge to unprepared friends. People I can trust not to shoot me in the back if the S really HTF.

I actually had this conversation with Lori quite some time ago. We’re better-prepared than Lori is, if you don’t count the fact that she has a 40-acre farm stocked with beef cattle and also has a year-round spring on the property. But if things ever got really bad, Lori knows we’d take her and her daughter in, and she volunteered to do the same for us. I hope it never comes to that, but it’s nice to have a fall-back position.

* * * * *

Monday, 13 March 2017

09:41 – It was 27.5F (-2.5C) when when I took Colin out around 0730 this morning. The forecast snow still hasn’t showed up, although they swear it’s supposed to show up this afternoon and evening, this time for sure. Barbara is off to the gym. When she gets back, we’ll start on yet more kit stuff.

Someone emailed me to ask what kind of oils to buy for LTS. The truth is, it doesn’t matter much. All of the common oils are reasonably shelf-stable. Keep them in sealed glass or plastic containers at room temperature or below out of direct sunlight and they’ll remain good for years.

In general, the more saturated the oil/fat, the longer it’ll store. The most saturated common oil is coconut oil, which is about 91% saturated fats. It stores on the shelf indefinitely. Some brands don’t even put a best-by date on their containers. After that, the solid fats like lard and shortening have the longest shelf lives, but even common oils like peanut, olive, and soybean are good for several years at room temperature and much longer if refrigerated or frozen. Most people who do much cooking at home go through enough cooking oil that shelf-life shouldn’t be a problem.

Answering that email prompted me to eyeball our LTS lipids inventory. We were a bit light for comfort, so I ordered a 3-gallon container of peanut oil from Walmart, as well as another dozen cans of Keystone canned pork. Three gallons (12 liters) of oil is sufficient for one person/year.

There was a lot of discussion about IQ in the comments yesterday, including a link to Fred Reed blathering on about it. What Fred doesn’t get, something he has in common with most people, is that mean IQ doesn’t matter. The IQ of groups differs, but all that really matters is that a population has enough really, really smart people to do the science and invent things. Once that’s done, the averagely bright can implement.

For centuries, the group with the highest IQ has been the Ashkenazim, with a mean IQ of about 115, or one standard deviation above the mean for the general population. (Not the Sephardim, whose mean IQ is about 100.) Then there’s the Chinese and Koreans, at about 105 mean. (Not the Japanese or other east Asians, who again average about 100.)

There are also differences between men and women. The mean IQ of men species-wide is probably about 101 to 101.5, with women at 98.5 to 99. That difference is trivial overall. What really matters is that the standard deviation for men is much larger than that for women. That in turn means that at the extremes of the bell curve, men are dramatically overrepresented relative to women, both on the smart end and the stupid end. In other words, the curve for men is a lot flatter than that for women, who tend to cluster centrally.

But it isn’t only IQ that matters. White European culture and particularly white northwest European culture overwhelmingly dominates intellectual and scientific matters not just because it’s had a good number of really smart people through the centuries, but because of the English language and even more critically a heritage of political, economic, and intellectual freedom.

Yes, the Chinese (and India) have more really bright people than the US does. But both are hampered by their languages and by their historic lack of freedom to innovate and to profit from those innovations. In short, freedom to create and profit is as important as IQ.

* * * * *

Thursday, 28 August 2014

07:57 – So, I was down in the lab yesterday making up a new batch of Kastle-Meyer reagent, which is used in forensic science as a presumptive test for blood. It’s made by dissolving phenolphthalein powder in a concentrated solution of potassium hydroxide and then refluxing it over powdered zinc until the intense pink color of phenolphthalein in basic solution fades to colorless as the phenolphthalein is reduced to phenolphthalin.

Even cold, concentrated solutions of strong bases like potassium hydroxide etch/dissolve glass, and if they’re boiling they do so very quickly. Within a couple of minutes, the glass starts to turn cloudy with chalky white streaks. Once a flask is used to make up KM reagent, it’s too ugly to even consider using for anything else. So, the first time I made up a big batch of KM reagent a couple of years ago, I devoted a 2 L Erlenmeyer flask to the job, and that’s all I’ve used it for ever since. For the first batch, I put a kilo or so of zinc powder in the flask, made up the KM reagent, and then washed the flask out with several changes of water, leaving the unreacted zinc powder in the bottom of the flask. I store the flask full of water and stoppered, because damp zinc powder is pyrophoric (catches fire spontaneously when exposed to air). The next time I need to make up a batch, I drain the water, rinse the zinc several times, and use it again for that batch. I’ve done that several times over the last couple of years, and it’s always worked as expected.

Normally, I just add a liter of water to the flask along with the appropriate amounts of potassium hydroxide and phenolphthalein powder, put it on the hot plate, bring it to a boil, and then let it reflux for a few minutes. As it simmers, the bright pink color starts to fade and after five or ten minutes the solution turns colorless. But yesterday it didn’t work. After sitting there refluxing for half an hour or more, the solution was as pink as ever. Hmmm. Obviously, the zinc wasn’t reducing the phenolphthalein to phenolphthalin. It looked like there was still plenty of zinc in the flask, but instead of powder it looked more like a zinc coral reef. So I transferred another couple hundred grams of zinc powder to the flask. Sure enough, within five minutes the solution had turned colorless. The moral here is that just because it looks like there’s plenty of zinc remaining doesn’t mean there is.


10:45 – I get a surprising amount of private email from preppers, many of which ask me science-related questions. Sometimes they link to threads on various prepper forums. For example, one topic that I’m frequently asked about is storing antibiotics. The usual questions have to do with how long various antibiotics can be stored and the suitability of veterinary antibiotics for human use. I’m always surprised by how bad the information is on many of these threads, including quite a few comments by physicians, who should know better.

With regard to shelf life, the real answer is that most antibiotics if stored in the freezer will still be usable 20 or more years from now. Their potency may decline a bit, but long-term tests have shown that most antibiotics lose 10% or less (often, much less) of their potency after being stored frozen for 10 years. Just as important, any degradation that does occur does not create toxic byproducts. The one exception is the tetracyclines, which should not be stored long term. Tetracyclines do in fact produce hepatotoxic and nephrotoxic degradation products. Administering old tetracycline or its derivatives can kill the patient from liver or kidney failure.

With regard to human use of veterinary antibiotics, that’s generally not a problem. It’s not like pharmaceutical companies produce amoxicillin for humans in one plant and amoxicillin for veterinary use in another. It all comes from the same vats, and veterinary medications are packaged as carefully as human medications. One problem arises because people are not dogs or cows or chickens. The mechanisms are very similar in any of these animals, including humans, but our internal organs and processes may differ, sometimes significantly.

For example, on one forum thread someone asked if erythromycin packaged for oral veterinary use was suitable for oral human use. A physician responded that it was fine. It’s not. Veterinary erythromycin for oral use is often in the form of the phosphate salt. That’s fine if you’re treating chickens or turkeys. In humans (or other mammals), not so good. The problem is that the phosphate salt is quickly broken down by human gastric juices and the erythromycin is destroyed before it can be absorbed. Erythromycin for oral use in mammals is compounded with a different anion that renders the salt much less subject to being broken down by the hydrochloric acid in mammalian stomachs.

I keep a pretty good stock of veterinary antibiotics. For example, I order penicillin G potassium and sulfadimethoxine literally by the kilo for use in biology kits. Neither is intended for human use, but both are usable. The penicillin G potassium is not ideal for oral human use because it’s also degraded by stomach acids, but it can be used orally by increasing the dose and administering it when stomach acid is minimal, such as an hour or so before meals. One can also administer sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) a few minutes before the antibiotic to reduce stomach acidity even further. The sulfadimethoxine has never been approved for human use in the US, but it’s widely used in other countries, particularly Russia, and has been for decades. It’s as effective as the other sulfas on organisms susceptible to sulfas, and it has the added advantage of a very long biological half-time. That means it needs to be administered only once per day rather than the every four hours typical for short-acting sulfas.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

09:40 – Here’s a headline I didn’t want to see: Winston-Salem ranks high in national poverty study

Winston-Salem was second to Colorado Springs by this metric, which essentially measures the growth rate of formerly middle-class people in the suburbs falling into poverty as a result of long-term unemployment. It doesn’t mean that the city is the second-poorest in the nation. Far from it. The city itself is actually excluded from this study, which counts only the surrounding suburban and exurban metro area. In terms of numbers and percentages of people in poverty, the Winston-Salem area is far from the worst in North Carolina, let alone the rest of the country. What’s disturbing about the results of the study is that the Winston-Salem metro area has experienced very fast growth in the numbers/percentages of formerly middle-class people who are now living lives of quiet desperation. Their unemployment compensation payments have run out–North Carolina has by far the stingiest unemployment insurance in the nation, both in terms of amount and duration–and they are now surviving on little or no income other than welfare and food stamps. Many married couples where formerly both were employed are now down to one income, and barely making it on that one income.

As I’ve said before, welcome to the new normal, the post-employment society. Even as manufacturing continues to grow in the US–which it has done every year for the last several decades–manufacturing employment continues to fall, as it has done for the last several decades. Factories that employed 5,000 workers were replaced by factories that employed 500 workers, which in turn are being replaced by factories that employ 50 workers, and the output has increased with each reduction in employee head-count. Not the output per employee, you understand, the absolute output. Many manufacturing employees produce literally ten times what their fathers did, and 100 times what their grandfathers did. Robotics is the death-knell for manufacturing employment. Robots are much cheaper than people, and do much better work.

The good news is that the output is all that matters, and manufacturing output is ultimately purely dependent on capital. Ignoring allocated capital costs and profit, something like 99.9% of the price of anything you buy is a result of labor costs. If labor costs could be eliminated entirely, the only costs that remain are allocated capital costs and profit, which are a very small percentage of the whole. (Materials costs are really just disguised labor costs: excluding allocated capital costs and profit, the cost of that ton of steel that goes into a new vehicle is very low. What costs money is getting it out of the ground, smelting it, and transporting it.)

So, the obvious problem is that we have robotically-produced BMWs and TVs and food and everything else consumers want. They’re all incredibly cheap, but no one has a job or any income, so no one can afford to buy anything. There is no consumer demand, so all the factories stop making things and shut down. That’s why I and many other libertarians advocate the Basic Income.

The Basic Income simply means that every adult US citizen gets a check every month from the government. There’s no means testing: we all get the same amount, whether we’re destitute or Bill Gates. That amount might be set at, say, $1,500 per month. And it replaces every government social welfare program at every level from local to federal. No more Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, AFDC, etc. etc. No more government or military pensions of any type. No more bureaucrats overseeing all these hundreds of social welfare programs, either. No more subsidized government housing or medical care. No more subsidized government anything.

So, like every other married couple who are US citizens, Barbara and I get $36,000/year automatically from the government. We don’t have to work for it; it’s automatic. Bill and Melinda Gates also get $36,000/year, as do all those unemployed married couples that newspaper article was talking about. And any of us that choose to work can earn as much as we like or we can, without affecting our BI payment.

But, as people always ask, what about the huge costs involved in such a program? I always reply, “What costs?” We are already paying them, directly and indirectly. BI is simply a redesigned, much more efficient means of income redistribution than what we have now.


Friday, 3 May 2013

07:26 – Let me rephrase that. Some months ago, I said that a nice young couple had moved into the house across the street from us and three houses down. As it turns out, maybe not so nice. The paper reports this morning that the husband has been charged with sexually molesting a student and is in jail on $500,000 bond. I’ve spoken to the wife only once, briefly, and Barbara has never spoken to them at all.

It’s probably just as well that we never see them when we’re out with Colin. It’d be awkward to run into her. I mean, what could we say? We’re sorry to hear your husband’s in jail for raping a student. Oh, well. I suspect that house will be on the market again shortly. The wife probably can’t afford the mortgage on one salary, and even if she could she certainly wouldn’t want to live here, with everyone knowing what her husband is accused of doing.

The girl in question is 15 years old, and there’s been no suggestion that the sexual activities were anything other than consensual. He’s only 24, and a first-year teacher. As I’ve said with regard to other similar cases, if he’s guilty, he should be fired under the no-fucking-the-students rule and never be allowed to teach again, but prosecuting him on multiple felony counts seems a bit excessive unless he in fact coerced the girl.


09:08 – Reflecting on what’s happened to our neighbor, I’m again struck by how little credit women give men for their generally excellent behavior. The simple fact, rooted in biology and instinct, is that all heterosexual guys–from boys just past puberty to old men on their death beds–really, really want to have sex with every attractive young woman they encounter. Any guy who denies this is either lying or deluding himself. Three million years of evolution has created this biological imperative: all men want to impregnate as many women as possible, thereby spreading and immortalizing their own genes.

The disconnect exists because women’s reproductive interests are diametrically opposed to those of men. A man’s part in reproduction takes five minutes. A woman’s part takes nine months. Plus the 18 years or more that it takes her to nurture her new baby to maturity. So, ideally, men want to have sex with as many different women as possible every day, while a woman wants one man who will stay with her to aid in child rearing.

The other thing is that men don’t want to have sex with just any women. They want to have sex with attractive young women. The age of the man doesn’t matter. It’s all about the age (read fertility) of the women in question. Biologically, an attractive young woman is attractive precisely because she’s fertile. It’s a subliminal thing for men. We generally don’t understand at all why a particular woman is attractive. But studies have shown that men are subconsciously evaluating the suitability of women for reproduction, subconsciously judging things like their hip/waist/bust ratios and so on. And, while we think of pheromones as something that apply to insects and “lower animals”, we humans are just as subject to pheromones as any other animal. It has been established beyond question that men find women most attractive when the women are ovulating. How can we tell? Because, subconsciously, we recognize that these women smell fertile.

And that brings up the second disconnect. Women think it’s unfair that, regardless of their age, men remain sexually attractive to women, and in fact many women find older men more attractive than younger ones, while men are sexually attracted to young women. It’s no coincidence that the vast majority of men find women in their teens and 20’s most attractive. It’s because women of that age are in by far the most fertile period of their lives. Women’s fertility begins declining when they’re in their late 20’s, and declines precipitously after age 35 or so. But neither women nor men are to blame here. We’re both simply acting on instinct. The wonder is not that some men stray in favor of younger women. The wonder is that most of us don’t. Most of us are well-trained to act against our own instincts, and women don’t give us nearly enough credit for that. As Anonymous famously observed:

Hogamus Higamus
Men are Polygamous
Higamus Hogamus
Women Monogamous

Until very recently, women were realistic about this phenomenon. When a husband strayed, the wife generally didn’t divorce him. She made him aware that he’d been a very bad dog, and hit him on the snout with a rolled-up newspaper. She reserved her ire for the Other Woman, whom she called a home-wrecker. She understood that it wasn’t her poor husband’s fault. He couldn’t help himself. It was the other woman who deserved all the blame, so the wife would confront her and claw her eyes out. That’s biology.


09:29 – Oh, yeah. Here’s a working link to that video that Barbara sent me yesterday. She originally sent me a WMV file rather than a link, but apparently some of my readers are having trouble viewing that file.

It’s a TV commercial, which I generally hate on principle, but I have to admit that this one was creative and well done. Speaking of things I generally hate, I see that Netflix streaming has replaced the butchered version of Coupling with the original, full-length episodes. Ordinarily, I’d refuse to watch any TV series with a laugh track, but I made an exception for Coupling. Mainly because I’m usually too busy laughing myself to pay any attention to the laugh track.

This series (the original British version, NOT the pathetic US knock-off version) gets my vote as the funniest TV series ever. Funnier than Black Adder, even. I’ve been re-watching an episode or two after I knock off for the day and am waiting for Barbara to get home from the gym. Last night, I watched S2E1, which had to be the funniest TV episode ever. I then watched S2E2, which had to be the funniest TV episode ever.


10:56 – Today, I’m making up three different types of antibiotic test paper for the life science kits: neomycin sulfate, penicillin G potassium, and sulfadimethoxine. These test papers are commercially available from BD and other suppliers, but they’re ridiculously expensive for student use. Home Science Tools, for example, sells a set of eight 1/4″ (6.35mm) discs, two discs of each of four antibiotics, for $3.95. That’s $0.50 per disc. Or, even worse, about $1.56 per square centimeter. Or they’ll sell you vial of 50 discs of any of the four antibiotics for $11.50, or $0.23 per disc.

The main reason these tiny test discs are so expensive is that they’re intended for medical/diagnostic use. The antibiotic concentrations are very precise and tightly controlled, and BD and other suppliers always have to build in a lot of margin to cover legal costs if they’re sued. But this is gross overkill for student lab sessions.

We do everything we can to keep the costs of our kits as low as possible, and this was a clear case of something we could do. Make our own antibiotic test papers. The antibiotic concentrations are the same for all three of our test papers: about 100 micrograms per square centimeter, accurate to maybe 10% either way. That’s more than accurate enough for school science labs. This in contrast to the BD discs, which have different concentrations for different antibiotics. (That’s because serum levels are an important consideration for human treatment; the achievable concentration in blood serum varies from antibiotic to antibiotic. For our purposes, we’re actually better off having the same concentration for each antibiotic, so that students can compare apples to apples when they determine which antibiotics are most effective for different types of bacteria.) And, rather than supply the papers as tiny discs, we’ll supply a 2.25×3″ piece of each paper. That’s about 43 square centimeters of each. That’s enough for at least 50 tests with each type of antibiotic, and at a small fraction the cost of using the BD discs. The students can punch their own discs with a standard paper punch.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

08:15 – Barbara’s mom is home and seems to be doing okay. Frances stayed with them last night and will also stay with them tonight so that Barbara can go out to dinner with friends. Today, they have a home aide coming in to spend the day with them. Then Barbara will stay with them tomorrow night, all day Friday, and Friday night. Barbara and Frances are hoping that by the weekend their parents will be able to get along at night without one of them there.

Science kit sales have slacked off a bit, but are still running at several times the rate of a year ago. Two orders for chemistry kits came in overnight, which takes us down to half a dozen or so in stock. Those should take us through at least the weekend, when I’ll start building another batch of 30. Fortunately, we’re still in good shape on biology and forensics kits, although we do need to get bottles labeled and filled for the biology kits.


15:33 – I don’t usually bother reading stuff like this, but I read this opinion piece about the long-term unemployed all the way through. Like most leftish opinion pieces, this one shows prima facie that the author isn’t capable of thinking things through. He actually believes that Obama’s plan to boost the minimum wage is good news for the poor and long-term unemployed. In fact, it’s a catastrophe.

As late as 2007, the federal minimum wage was $5.15/hour. Even that was too high, pricing many would-be workers out of the market. It’s now $7.25/hour, which has caused a catastrophic rise in unemployment among the poor and low/no-skilled. And Obama wants to boost it to $9.00? As someone once said, the minimum wage doesn’t guarantee anyone a job at that hourly rate; all it does is guarantee that you can’t legally work for a lower hourly rate. And the upshot of the latest increases in the minimum wage have shown that beyond question. If Obama gets his wish, the effect will be more of the same. More unemployed poor people. More long-term unemployment. More people homeless or on welfare. With friends like Obama, the poor don’t need enemies.

And the other thing that annoys me is that most such articles mention that a family of four whose wage-earner is paid minimum wage is below the poverty line. So what? They never mention that a family of four with two wage-earners who each are paid minimum wage is well above the poverty line. And that’s the calculation they should really be making. If mom and dad both work for minimum wage, they can support those two kids at a lower middle-class standard of living. And what about single moms? Well, how about they share an apartment, which takes them both, with their children, to a lower middle-class standard of living.

If Obama were really concerned about the poor and long-term unemployed, he’d be pushing to eliminate the minimum wage, or at least reduce it to the $5.15/hour level that prevailed in 2007. By pushing to raise it from its already ridiculously high level, he’s dooming millions of low/no-skill people to permanent unemployment. He’s also dooming their children to being permanent members of the underclass.

And he’s making jobs disappear permanently. Most current minimum wage jobs are easily automated. The business decision is often whether it’s cheaper to pay a cheap person or make the capital investment to automate that job. And once that job is automated it’s gone forever. One day in the not-too-distant future, you may walk into McDonalds and find the only employees are the manager and his dog. Everything else is automated.

Unscientificacy

One frequently sees newspaper articles and news reports deploring the high rate of illiteracy in the United States, the wealthiest country in the world. Certainly, literacy is fundamental; if one cannot read or write, one’s ability to learn is crippled. Compounding the problem are the aliterates, those who can read but don’t read, which leaves them no better off than those who can’t read at all.

Less frequently, one sees articles about innumeracy, the inability to deal with even simple mathematics. Innumerates cannot calculate the correct tip in a restaurant, balance their checkbooks, or calculate the proper change when they buy something. One suspects that more than a few sales clerks would be lost if their cash registers didn’t calculate the correct change for them.

As devastating as ignorance of basic reading and math is, there is another class of ignorance that is nearly as important and almost never mentioned. For lack of a word, I’ll call it unscientificacy, or the inability to understand or deal with even simple science concepts. Because they lack the ability to reason critically, unscientificates are easy prey for anyone who tells a good story.

Vaccines cause autism? That may sound reasonable to someone with no understanding of science, but to anyone who has even a modicum of scientific knowledge it’s obvious from a brief glance at the facts that there’s no correlation. Chelation therapy, homeopathy, astrology, chiropractic, aroma therapy, magic wristbands, snake-oil nutrition supplements–the list of pseudosciencey crap goes on and on. All attract large followings among the ignorant, and not a one of them is evidence-based. To the extent that any make falsifiable predictions, those predictions have been tested and found to fail.

To me, the truly frightening thing is that these credulous True Believers are allowed to vote on issues that affect all of us. Now, I realize that the universal franchise is held sacred by most people, but when I visualize a new-agey know-nothing space cadet entering a voting booth, I think the “you’re too ignorant about everything that matters to be be allowed to vote” argument should be reasonable grounds for disqualification.

Literacy tests were formerly used to restrict voting, but came into disrepute because they were perceived to be racist. Be that as it it may, it seems reasonable to me to set a bar on voting by requiring some minimum level of knowledge among voters. The ability to read and explain a paragraph of plain English text would be a good start, as would demonstrating some basic facility with mathematics and science. I’m not suggesting that we require competence in, say, differential equations or orbital mechanics to qualify someone to vote, but it would be nice to require, say, the ability to answer correctly such simple science-related questions as the orbital period of Earth or the freezing point of water. Anyone who cannot answer such simple questions can safely be assumed to be incapable of reasoning out which candidate he should vote for. Allowing such people to vote dooms us to suffer politicians elected by the stupid and the ignorant.

While we’re at it, it wouldn’t hurt to require a basic knowledge of history, at least US history. I was stunned the other day when I read a link on Jerry Pournelle’s site about a guest lecturer asking a class of graduate students in history to raise their hands if they knew who George Marshall was. Not a single hand was raised. In a class of history students in graduate school.

Hello? George C. Marshall? A five-star general and the Army Chief of Staff during WWII. The author of the Marshall Plan. Geez.

Well, perhaps I’m being too harsh. These were, after all, only graduate history students. One can’t expect them to know much about recent US history. And, even in their abysmal ignorance, they probably still know more about history than most US high school students, the majority of whom probably can’t name four of the major combatants in WWII, nor even give the dates of that war within a decade.