Thursday, 17 November 2011

08:44 – Apparently, some people took one of my comments yesterday to mean that I was planning to abandon Linux for Windows. I’m not. What I may do is buy a low-end PC with Windows on it to do some stuff that requires Windows.

For example, right now I’m driving to the post office to mail kits. The USPS has a web site where I could print labels with postage and have the mailman pick up the kits at our home. That’d save me a lot of trips to the post office, but the problem is that I’ve never gotten that site to work properly on our Linux boxes. When I try to use it, it goes off into an endless loop. I think the problem is the version of Adobe Reader rather than Linux per se, but of course that still means it doesn’t work on Linux. And there are a few other Windows-only applications that might be useful for the business. I am and always have been practical about operating systems. They’re not a religious issue for me. If I need Windows, I’ll use Windows. If I need OS X, I’ll buy a Mac. I prefer to use Linux simply because it’s secure and doesn’t lock me in to a corporate walled garden, as the alternatives do.


And, speaking of kits, we just sold the last chemistry kit in stock. We had to increase prices on the new batch by $10 per kit. We’ll be assembling three dozen of those over the next couple of weeks. We’re still accepting orders for kits to be shipped the week of December 4th. With Christmas and the winter semester approaching, this new batch probably won’t last long, so I also need to get orders placed for the components we need to build another batch.


09:49 – Old memories. I used to do a lot of darkroom work, including processing color film, which was a big deal to do in a home darkroom back in the 60’s. There were kits available: E3 and later E4 for processing Ektachrome color slides, and other kits for processing color negatives and color prints. I ran through all of those, but was looking for a new challenge. So I decided to process Kodachrome at home.

Kodachrome is (was) utterly different from standard color films and papers. Those were called “substantive”, which meant they had the color couplers built into the emulsion layers. There was just one development step, during which an organic chemical in the developer reacted with each of the three color couplers to form the three dyes needed to make up the color image. Kodachrome, on the other hand, was actually a black and white film. No color couplers. Instead, it had three separate black and white emulsion layers, each sensitive to only part of the color spectrum. During processing (which, IIRC, involved more than 30 separate steps) the film was first developed in an ordinary black-and-white developer and then exposed individually to monochromatic light to fog the unexposed silver halides in each emulsion layer. After each layer was fogged to reverse it, it was developed with a specific developer that produced the appropriate dye for that layer. The final layer was fogged with white light and then color-developed. There were numerous intermediate steps.

I actually got recognizable results on my first attempt. Not good, but recognizable. So I wrote Kodak to ask them for some tips. By return mail, I got a very polite letter from Kodak, which basically said as inoffensively as possible that they didn’t believe I was doing what I claimed to be doing. So I mailed the guy back and told him I most certainly was. He then, again very politely, basically asked me to prove it by sending him a Kodachrome slide developed as a negative. So I did that.

It was a couple of weeks before I heard back from him, and when I did he was asking me if I’d like to come up to Rochester for a job interview. I replied, thanking him for his interest, but explaining that my parents thought it would be inappropriate for me to apply for a job with Kodak since I was still in junior high school.

Oh, yeah. The reason I was thinking about this is that we just sold the last kit in stock to a guy who’s a professor at Rochester Institute of Technology–sometimes called Kodak Institute of Technology–where I did graduate work. Of course, as I’ve mentioned before, RIT isn’t actually in Rochester, NY. It’s in South Henrietta, NY. I used to have a great t-shirt for the South Henrietta Institute of Technology.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

08:58 – Well, I’m no longer running Kubuntu 11.10. It locked up on me this morning, and I finally rebooted. Instead of the GUI coming up, I got a terminal login prompt. Enough is enough. I removed that hard drive and put the original hard drive back in, so I’m back to running Ubuntu 9.04, exactly where I was a couple days ago. Overall, this has cost me more than a full day of work, and I’m not happy about it.


Tuesday, 15 November 2011

10:00 – There’s still a lot remaining to be done, but I now have Kubuntu 11.10 to the point where I can work with it. Most of the stuff remaining to be done can be done on the fly as I discover missing pieces. For example, I just realized I need to install NVU or something like it to edit HTML pages.

I’m now using LibreOffice instead of OOo, but I don’t see many differences. I did run across one, which may be an artifact of old files created with much earlier versions of OOo. I have a spreadsheet that lists every disc I’ve ever received from Netflix, including the dates received by us, returned, and then received by Netflix. When I open that file in LibreOffice, what I see is a two-year-old version of the data. The file I opened is definitely the current version, so I’m not sure what’s going on. I may unzip it and look at the raw data, but I suspect what LibreOffice is showing me is the last version that was saved with a much earlier version of OOo.


We’re just about out of chemistry kits, so Barbara and I intend to spend some time this weekend building two or three dozen more. We have all the purchased components in hand, but we need to make up and package chemicals, which means we may not be able to ship kits until early December. We’ll continue accepting orders in the meantime, letting customers know that shipment will be delayed for a couple of weeks. This new batch will be priced $10 higher because it’ll be built using some components I ordered at higher cost than the preceding batches. And once we have that batch built, I need to place orders for more components.

Monday, 14 November 2011

08:15 – Another Monday, which means Barbara is at work after a weekend, which means Colin is expecting me to play with him all day long. I can’t blame him for pestering constantly. He’s a nine-month-old Border Collie pup, and his priorities all involve constant work, which requires my involvement as well. If I try to ignore his requests he whimpers. If I ignore that, he starts climbing up on the arm of my chair and pawing me. If I ignore that, he takes my arm in his mouth (gently), and starts pulling me toward the front door. My only option is to use a baby gate to pen him outside my office. The problem with that is that I never know what he’ll get up to when he’s out of my sight. Usually something I don’t want him doing.


11:52 – Well, I’ve been trying to avoid this, but enough is enough. OpenOffice writer keeps hanging, and if there’s one thing I can’t tolerate while I’m writing, it’s an unreliable word processor. That was what motivated me to abandon MS Word for OOo Writer long before I converted to Linux.

My main system is old, really old. If it’s any indication, I’m currently running Ubuntu 9.04, which hasn’t been maintained for quite a while now. The system drive is a 500 GB Seagate Barracuda and the second hard drive is a 750 GB Seagate Barracuda that I installed before they were officially released. There used to be two of those 750 GB drives, as DATA_1 and DATA_2, but DATA_1 failed a couple of months ago. I should have stopped what I was doing then and built a new system, but I didn’t have time. I should stop what I’m doing now and build a new system, but I have even less time. So I’m going to nuke the current installation, run detailed scans on both drives, and (assuming they pass) re-install Linux.

The question is, which Linux? Ubuntu has gone off the rails, with Unity and Gnome 3.0. As ESR recently wrote, it’s not even worth messing with. He switched to KDE. Others have switched to Linux Mint. I think I’ll go with Kubuntu 11.10. Of course, that’s a major undertaking itself, just getting all my stuff migrated over. Don’t expect to hear from me for a while.


14:11 – I’m up on my knees at this point. I ended up pulling the original drives and replacing them with an old but unused 1.5 TB Seagate Barracuda. Kubuntu 11.10 is installed and updated, and I’m currently copying several hundred GB of data from an external backup drive. At this point, basically nothing is configured. I’m writing this in the default Kubuntu browser, which is called rekonq. I’ll install Firefox and/or Google Chrome when I get a moment. LibreOffice is installed by default, but I have a dozen or more key apps I’ll need to install before this system is really usable. Stuff like digikam, for example, not to mention one or more video-editing apps.

There are also a lot of minor annoyances to deal with. Sound isn’t working at all, for example, which is probably just a matter of finding and fixing a configuration setting somewhere in the KDE GUI. I’ll also try to find time to get my old Epson scanner working. It used to work perfectly and then one day it just stopped working. I don’t think the problem is the scanner, but just something that got borked on my increasingly cluttered Ubuntu 9.04 setup. We’ll see if a clean Kubuntu 11.10 will recognize and use the scanner.

I made a conscious decision to leave a lot of data behind. Stuff that I’ll never use again, such as hundreds of GB of raw .DV video files. When I finish transferring data, this 1.5 TB drive probably won’t be more than about half or two-thirds full. Barbara, being the thrower-away of the family, will be pleased that I, being the keeper of the family, have decided to throw out all this old stuff. We watched an episode of House, MD not long ago that featured a hoarder. During the scenes of the guy’s house, Barbara kept muttering, “Just like you…” Now, it’s true that I sometimes save things that nearly anyone would consider eminently throw-outable (such as burned out lightbulbs or dead alkaline cells), but there really is method to my madness. (In the first case, I wanted a small specimen of tungsten; in the second, I wanted to dissassemble the alkaline cells and compare them chemically to a new cell.)

Geez, I wish this copy would complete so that I could get back to writing. Once again, I’ve reorganized something. I had algae in with the Group VII lab sessions (protista), which is where they are categorized in some classification systems. But it’s equally valid to put algae in with plantae rather than protista. In fact, I think it makes more sense to do it that way, considering that grouping algae with plantae turns a polyphyletic grouping into a monophyletic one. So I moved algae into the Group IX lab sessions (plantae), immediately following Group VIII (fungi). Now if only I could start writing about them.


Sunday, 13 November 2011

10:32 – Still working on the biology book. I decided to stop trying to organize the protist stuff and just write labs. I’ll worry later about how to organize everything.

I also spent a couple hours on the chemistry lab kits. We’re down to a handful in stock. Making up the next batch will involve some changes, primarily a shift from using polypropylene centrifuge tubes as chemical containers to using a mix of dropper bottles and wide-mouth pharma packer bottles. That also means reorganizing the work flow and packing groups. We may end up being out-of-stock on the chemistry kits for two or three weeks, but that’s not a big deal at this time of year because orders are slow. I expect they’ll start coming in faster with Christmas and the winter semester fast approaching, so we want to have at least two or three dozen kits in inventory by early next month.


Saturday, 12 November 2011

08:34 – Yesterday I started a group of lab sessions on protozoa/protista/protists, which is a very annoying topic. The problem is that p/p/p is a grab-bag grouping, basically “everything other than prokaryotes that isn’t a plant/animal/fungi”. That said, protists actually fall into three unofficial groups: plant-like (e.g. green algae), animal-like (e.g. amoebae), and fungi-like (e.g. slime molds).

It doesn’t do it justice to call this “group” polyphyletic. More like mega-super-ultra-hyper-phyletic. About the only thing they have in common is that they’re all eukaryotic, are unicellular or simple multicellular, and they mostly live in water or damp soil. Otherwise, they’re all over the map. Some are autotrophs, some heterotrophs, and some can be either depending on their environments. They use different motility methods (or none at all). They reproduce by binary fission or mitosis and/or conjugation and/or cyst formation. Try organizing that grab-bag into something.


Friday, 11 November 2011

09:01 – Even the scummiest of politicians will sometimes tell the truth when it suits his own agendum. So, it was with no surprise that I read Eurozone collapse ‘will send continent into depression’

According to no less than Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, a collapse of the eurozone would instantly wipe out half the value of the eurozone’s economy, plunging Europe into a deep depression, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the 1930’s and reducing living standards to Latin American levels. Barroso has his own agendum, of course, which, as always, is “More Europe”. As with all statists, his motto is Never Waste a Good Crisis. And, in fact, he exaggerates. Living standards in the southern tier, including his own country, may in fact fall by 50% or more, but the effects on the FANG nations will be considerably less severe.


Someone asked me the other day why I am more optimistic about the future of the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand than I am about the rest of the world, including other first-world countries that use other languages. Two reasons: first, and the importance of this should not be underestimated, we speak English, which is demonstrably superior to all other languages. As a rough guide to relative usefulness, I suggest cubing the ratio of the number of words in the English vocabulary to that of the comparison language. Second, and even more important, our women have equal rights and responsibilities. We don’t waste half our population. Of course, that’s also true of Europe, particularly northwestern Europe, but they have saddled themselves with inferior languages, which limits their competitiveness.

Still, Europe is in wonderful shape compared to most of the rest of the world, where women are treated at best as less-than-a-man and more commonly pretty much like livestock, if that well. (A woman, of course, is often cheaper than a cow, and easier to replace.) This situation applies throughout the entire islamic world, India, nearly all of Africa, and much of Asia, Central America, and South America. It’s no wonder that these are all third-world countries, and doomed to remain so.

And yet, people are often surprised to learn that I consider myself a feminist. In truth, I’m an elitist. I value hard-working competent people above others. I have no use for people who are lazy or incompetent, or both. If people are hard-working and competent, I don’t care what color their skin is or whether they pee sitting down or standing up. And I think that attitude is common in the first world and rare otherwise.


Work on the biology book continues. I’ve finished three microcosm lab sessions, leaving only one on observing Winogradsky columns in the to-do pile. Today, I’ll jump to a different topic altogether, although I’m not sure which one.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

09:02 – I’m so busy and the euro situation is so hopeless that I’m not going to bother to write about it any more. Merkozy are now talking openly about the breakup of the euro and the EU itself, and they’re talking about it as though it’s likely to occur sooner rather than later. Italian bond yields spiked to 8.1% yesterday, which is far past the point of no return. The 7% threshold is very real psychologically for the markets; once yields reach 7%, investors write off the issuer as so likely to default that it’s simply too risky to invest. That in turn causes bond yields to increase further in a vicious circle. So, Italy is gone, which means Spain and then France won’t be far behind. There’s nothing that can be done to stop the collapse–short of the ECB turning on the printing presses, which they’re not going to do–so it’s pointless to continue discussing it. The patient is brain-dead.


Work continues on the biology book. I’m doing a lab session right now on the effects of pollution on succession in microcosms. What fun. Build a tiny little world and then poison it. Forced selection and survival of the fittest.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

07:18 – So, how do I know when I’ve been writing too long? Here’s an example. By late afternoon yesterday, I was getting pretty tired, after more than eight hours of heads-down writing with only a few short breaks to walk Colin. I was writing a lab session about succession in pond-water microcosms, giving a detailed procedure for observing and documenting the microorganisms present in various parts of the microcosms. I mentioned adding a drop of methylcellulose, which is added to water to reduce the motility of some organisms. I actually found myself writing this sentence: “Some of these little fuckers are FAST.” (I actually intended to write “suckers” but I apparently experienced a Freudian slap.)

Now, it’s true that we’re often complimented on our informal writing style, but I thought that was a bit too informal even for us. After thinking about it, I left the sentence as is for then and decided to knock off for the day. I’ll fix it this morning.


08:34 – Ruh-roh. When I checked Italian bond yields this morning, I found they’d already touched 7.4% and seem likely to continue climbing. That’s very, very bad for a country that has about $3 trillion in outstanding sovereign debt, with about a sixth of that coming due in the next twelve months. About the only good thing that can be said is that, at six or seven years, Italy’s average maturity is longer than average for the eurozone. Still, there’s no way it’s sustainable to have to finance half a trillion dollars a year at the current rates Italy has to pay.

The fear all along, of course, has been that Italy is “too big to bail” and that fear is about to come home to roost. The ECB is legally prohibited from helping. In fact, their purchases of Italian and Spanish bonds are illegal, and the ECB is getting very nervous about that. Nor can the EFSF “bailout fund” help. Although it’s usually reported as having a €440 billion war chest, the fact is that it doesn’t really have any money to speak of. In terms of actual cash in the bank, it might have €4 billion. The remainder is in the form of promises from EU governments to commit funds to the EFSF. And one of the major guarantors of the EFSF is–you guessed it–Italy. Other EFSF guarantors include such already-bankrupt nations as Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and … Greece. The only currently-solvent nations backing the EFSF to any significant extent are France–which itself is likely to a bailout candidate–and Germany. In effect, the EU nations are cosigning loans to themselves.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

06:49 – I finally finished cleaning off the kitchen table Sunday. I’d had the microscope and various other stuff set up there to shoot the cover image. Barbara’s happy that she has her kitchen table back. I’m happy that I have my microscope back. It wasn’t doing me any good sitting on the kitchen table.

Instead of moving the microscope back onto the microscope desk in my office, I set it up on a stackable table that’s about 18″ (46 cm) high. That puts the primary eyepiece a bit too low to be comfortable, but it also puts the back of the Pentax DSLR at a level where I can see it without standing up. That’s desirable because I’m now shooting images with the Pentax K-r, which is the first Pentax DSLR we’ve had that offers live-view. That’s important because it’s nearly impossible to focus through the microscope using the focusing screen. Without live-view, I often shot literally 15 or 20 images with slight focusing tweaks for each to get one usable image. With live-view, I can instead focus on the 3″ (7.5 cm) LCD monitor, which is both brighter and sharper than the TTL focusing screen, so my success ratio should be a lot higher. Not to mention that it’ll take a lot less time and effort to get usable images.


I’m not exactly going on hiatus, but posts and replies to comments here are going to be short and sporadic for about the next three months. I just talked to Brian Jepson, my editor, yesterday, and we agreed on a drop-dead book deadline of 31 January. Brian needs that to make sure the book will be available in time for Maker Faire next May, and of course I also want that. Not to mention the fact that being available in time for Maker Faire also means the book will be available in time for summer session.

I’ve already been on a seven-day work schedule for some time. Well, the truth is that I’m always on a seven-day work schedule. But now I’m going to ramp it up somewhat, to perhaps eight hours a day of actual writing on weekdays (which is kind of like working 12-hour days at most jobs; ask any writer) and at least six hours of actual writing on weekend days. I won’t have time (or energy) to do much else.