November 12th, 2009
[My response during a discussion, 'If you could have any superpower, what would it be?']
This is the amazing thing:
WE ALREADY HAVE SUPERPOWERS!
My brain, which looks like a Jello mold made of moldy oatmeal, generates ideas, thoughts, needs, wishes, hates, loves, all by itself, and then it goes out and acts on the world to satisfy these impulses. Limbs move, voice speaks, lungs and heart work without my telling them to.
When I want a drink of water, by sheer force of will I make myself stand up, walk to the sink, and, in a coordinated ballet of hundreds of muscles, draw a glass of water and drink it. Then there are my eyes, which receive light waves, so I can actually form an image of the things going on out there, and my ears, which pick up invisible vibrations from the air.
There is no part of your body or its functioning that isn't a frakking miracle. The fact that these things happen all the time makes them no less 'super'. The simplest movement or function is a complex dance of cells, tissues, nerves, which goes on right down to the level of molecules.
And the whole enterprise runs on simple, available fuels like animal flesh and plant material. If those things aren't superpowers, then neither are trifling things like flight, invisibility, superstrength, or the ability to vaporize women's clothing at a glance?
November 11th, 2009
Normally, when flying, I barely notice the 'In Case of Motion Discomfort' bags in the seat pockets. But last night, flying home on Southwest, I happened to pull the bag from the pocket and saw that it was imprinted with a single line, 'U.S. Patent No. 7,041,042'.
'How can this be?' I thought. 'Airsick bags have been in use since the Wright Brothers. How can someone take out a patent on them now?' Also, I had in mind that in the past 20 years, people have slipped the most familiar items through the patent system, things like pie charts, training manuals, and other things that should be unpatentable.
This morning, I went to www.freepatentsonline.com, one of my favorite browsing sites, and looked up US Pat. No. 7,041,042. 'Method for making a seamless plastic motion discomfort receptacle,' by Louis Chertkow and Pam Pananon, and assigned to Elkay Plastics Company, Inc, of Los Angeles.
My early thoughts were mistaken. They hadn't simply repatented something that's been around for years, they had developed a whole new concept in barf bags.
There is nothing simple about these bags. A mixture of polyethylene and polypropylene plastics are melted and extruded under thousands of pounds of pressure through a tube-shaped mold to make an endless tube of thin plastic without a seam. The tube is folded at the edges (130 in the diagram), cut off at the bottom, and heat-sealed (so it is not 100% seamless). A wire tape is glued to the top edge to close the bag after use.
Finally, the patent number (and possibly other information) is printed on the bags, and they're sent off for our fellow citizens to be sick in around the world.
When I see a product like this, I think, not of the lunch burrito that didn't sit too well, but of the numerous finely-engineered steps needed to make this bag, an item that by necessity, has to perform flawlessly and sell pretty cheaply. The plastics composition has to be precisely determined. The mold has to form endless miles of plastic tubing of uniform thickness. Imagine the complexity of the folding machine that makes precise folks in the material, thousands after thousands; if the folds are off by even a tiny fraction of an inch, the bags won't fold flat and stack neatly, and will take up much more space in shipping. Even printing the Airline Logo on the plastic can be a challenge; you likely have observed how weakly ordinary ink sticks to plastics.
Now the otherwise unlabeled 'U.S. Patent No. 7,041,042' has been proudly added to my modest collection of bags collected from airlines since the 1970s, many from airlines that no longer exist. But if you want to see a real collection, go here:
October 22nd, 2009
Of course, I'm being sarcastic. Medical care in Canada is available, humane, and refreshingly free of paperwork and insurance industry death panels. Below is a letter received this morning from a friend whose wife was just diagnosed with breast cancer:
[Wife] and I just spent the morning at the cancer clinic. I was blown away at how efficient and agreeable the whole experience was. We are very lucky to have the Juravinski Cancer Clinic right here at the Henderson hospital ten minutes away. The place is a virtual beehive of activity. It gave us a good perspective on how rampant this disease is. It is a fairly new clinic with all possible facilities right there including treatment rooms, pharmacy, labs, examination rooms, teaching classrooms and really efficient professionals (from the receptionist to the nurses and doctors). They could not have been more helpful. Our contact person is a nurse who has done this a thousand times before, very personable and was extremely helpful with information. She answered all our questions thoroughly and ended up giving us a tour and a bagful of literature and write-ups on everything including the drugs used and the different treatments over the next six to eight months. She did all the scheduling for the various tests, a class on chemotherapy, the pre-treatment examinations and the actual chemo treatments. She explained everything she had done and wasn’t at all hurried. We have a really good handle on what our life if going to be like for the next eight to ten months. She even pointed us to wig and hat suppliers specializing in cancer patients.
The oncologist who met with us is part of the team of doctors at the clinic and was very good at explaining everything to us from the various drugs used, what we could expect in side effects, the worst case and best case scenarios, the procedures and treatments and timing for the whole process from today until next summer. There are nurses and a clinic doctor on call 24/7 in case you need help or advice.
We have a class in a couple of weeks on chemotherapy and [wife] starts the whole process on November 2nd. She will have chemo every two weeks for eight sessions. Each session is followed by eight days of daily injections to stimulate the bone marrow which assists in preventing loss of blood cells. There are also various medications for things like nausea and vomiting. In four months or so she stops the chemo, takes a month off and then goes for surgery to remove the affected tissue (breast and lymph nodes) and then gets radiation for a few months after that.
The only possible set back is a couple of more tests she needs to take to determine that the cancer has not moved into her bone marrow or organs. That would not be good. They are pretty sure it hasn’t judging by how fast this happened and how localized the growth appears to be, but need to know for sure to be more positive on the prognosis.
It sounds like the only expense I will have is a couple of the medications which are fairly costly, so the Maserati will have to wait. The good news is they have their own pharmacy and they work at cost plus overhead (they made a point of telling us they do not take a profit on the meds). Everything else is pretty much covered by OHIP. [Emphasis mine][OHIP: The Province of Ontario medical plan.]
Not the adventure I had anticipated at this point in life, but off we go!
October 21st, 2009
I’ve been looking into my crystal ball. It’s just back from the shop after having that crack repaired, and I’m going to make a prognostication about book publishing and distribution in the near future.
Some say the future is in e-books, but until someone comes up with an inexpensive reader that you can run over with your car and put through the wash and spin cycle, most people are just going to love the look and feel – and, yes, the smell – of a real book printed on paper.
Imagine a network of bookstores, including your local Barnes & Noble and Borders, but also including Kinko’s, indie bookshops, and even coffee shops. But now, as a customer, instead of a vast field of choices to pick up and browse, you’ll find a few shelves of best sellers, common reference books, and coffee table books – and rows of terminals. You may browse the shelves, but your real destination is the terminals, where you can sit and browse books the way you might browse Amazon.com today. In fact, you’ll make your selections and pay via the terminal, same as you would with an online store.
After placing your order, you get up and have a coffee or browse the books and gift shop for ten minutes, until your name is called. You go to the output window and pick up your purchases, freshly printed and bound for you. Behind the counter are one, two, three, or more POD printing machines, depending on the size of the store. And you’re on your way.
There will also be the option of choosing your book from home, driving to the store, and picking up your book, which will be finished by the time you get there. In other words, it will be much like getting a prescription filled today.
Like every new technology, POD printers have fallen rapidly in price. Some models are selling for as little as $100K, less than the cost of inventory in a modest-sized bookstore. Look for prices near $30K before long. Even a little indie bookshop will have one or two. The University of Michigan is already Johnny On The Spot, having installed a machine in their library.
Not everyone will be thrilled with the new business model. Traditional publishers and mega-distributors like Amazon.com are accustomed to controlling the channels of distribution, but the economic imperatives to on-site printing are too strong. Smart publishers will attempt to co-opt POD based distribution, but ultimately, you should be able to dial up almost anything in Books In Print or outside of it, and get your own personal copy, complete with bookplate, printed up while-U-wait.
Price breakdown for a $15 trade book of 300 pages would look something like this:
$ 6.00 - The bookstore’s traditional 40% vigorish
$ 1.50 - Author royalty
$ 4.00 - Cost of production, also remitted to the bookstore or third party machine owner
$ 3.50 - Publisher’s gross income.
Here are the reasons I think this model is inevitable:
1. There will be no flushing of new books from the shelves after 60 or 90 days. All books will remain in print as long as the publisher wishes.
2. You will be able to send your own books to be printed, much like the service lulu.com provides.
3. Copyright concerns will make sure that the purchasing software tracks sales and remits payments to the publisher for each book printed. Auditing will be straightforward.
4. Zero shipping costs.
5. It creates an environment resembling the present model of book shopping. In fact, bookstores may print up copies of selected books for instant sale during idle machine time if they know sales are likely, in the case of a known best seller. Casual browsers will still be attracted.
6. The used-book market will still thrive.
7. Since the publisher still sets the book prices, treasured sinecures like $200 college textbooks will still sell for $200. On the other hand, teachers fed up with high textbook prices will be better positioned to issue their own textbooks.
EDIT: No sooner said than done. Tiremaker Bridgestone is preparing for market an ebook reader that is flexible and that you can drive over (if you have Bridgestone tires, of course).
June 10th, 2009
'Open access' journals were the great hope of scientists weary of long waits for publication, especially with tenure and grants in the balance. But it didn't take the commercial journal publishers long to zero in on open access as another profit center, regardless of quality.
In the biotech magazine The Scientist', Bob Grant describes a successful attempt to hoax an open access journal:
"An open access journal has agreed to publish a nonsensical article written by a computer program, claiming that the manuscript was peer reviewed and requesting that the "authors" pay $800 in "open access fees."
"Philip Davis, a PhD student in scientific communications at Cornell University, and Kent Anderson, executive director of international business and product development at the New England Journal of Medicine, submitted the fake manuscript to The Open Information Science Journal (TOISCIJ) at the end of January.
"Davis generated the paper, which was titled "Deconstructing Access Points," using a computer program -- called SCIgen -- created at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He and Anderson signed the work using pseudonyms (David Phillips and Andrew Kent). The two listed the "Center for Research in Applied Phrenology" (CRAP) as their home institution on the paper, which featured fictitious tables, figures and references."
[...lengthy article continues]
[The Scientist online edition is free, but its website hides behind a password. You can register by declaring that you work in the biosciences and that you buy a lot of stuff that they advertise.]
Links to the phony paper are given.
May 30th, 2009
Report from the Pima College Writers’ Workshop
Tucson, AZ, May 29-31, 2009
Don’t bite me; I’m only the messenger.
An update on the publishing industry by Jeff Gerecke, of the Gina Maccoby Agency, NYC:
In summary, traditional publishing is doing worse than ever, while self-publishing is beginning to seem more like a viable option. To summarize his 75 minute talk:
1. The ‘blockbuster’ marketing philosophy pioneered by Putnam and picked up by most majors still dominates the industry. According to publishers, readers want the comfort of familiar names and genres. Whereas all publishers say they want fresh and new, what they buy is the formula, the familiar, the tight genre definition. The herd mentality rules. Viva Dan Brown.
2. As a writer, you have to write to accepted formulas. But literary authors can be branded, too, so they’re not shut out by the current state of the market. New authors usually get in by way of the minor imprints of the big houses, many of which are still run like the old-fashioned small, adventurous presses.
3. Preference is given to books that can be marketed in multiple channels, eg, movies and merchandise as well as the book.
4. Marketing has been seriously impacted as newspapers have eliminated their book review sections.
5. The last six months have been ‘apocalyptic’ for the traditional publishing industry. Random House closed two of its five divisions in December. Backlist sales have tanked.
6. He uses Amazon for market research, both to find books that will compete with a new submission and to see what readers are also buying (using ‘people who bought this book also bought...’ listings)
7. Many publishers no longer see self-publication as simple vanity; instead, many are regarding self-publishers as go-getters who will aggressively market themselves, and worth moving to the top of the slush pile.
8. Self-publishers are tending to cluster in semi-isolated universes where most of the major players are well known and sales are modest but promising, considering the size of the potential readership within the closed universe. Some of these will ‘graduate’ to the major publishers.
9. The Internet has facilitated online meetings with book circles in distant cities.
10. Fan and genre conventions (mystery writers, scifi, etc.) are marketing opportunities with high return for the money invested.
11. The Kindle and other ebook readers appear to be revolutionizing book publishing, but it is too early to be sure. Amazon may be the big winner in traditional publishing AND self-publishing.
12. A quote from Gerecke in response to a client who claimed his success was a ‘miracle’: “All publishing success stories are miracles...a series of random coincidences that are not easily duplicated.”
December 16th, 2008
The Christmas Police – A Love Story
'Twas the morning of Christmas, the night was over;
The grown-ups were nursing a king-sized hangover.
I had waited for Santa, but now I was pissed.
My father was right--he didn't exist.
Then out in the driveway, there came such a clatter,
Dad took down his shotgun to see what was the matter.
A pounding and thumping began at the gate,
So I knew that Santa'd just been late.
He was clad all in blue from bottom to top;
This Santa was dressed like a big Irish cop!
A big old Beretta hung round his big gut,
And his nose was as red as a baboon's butt.
He kicked the door in. "Santa!" I cried with joy,
But Santa had collared the Pizza Hut boy (1).
"Who's ordering pizza on my special day?
Roast turkey and gravy is the only legal way!"
But Dad grabbed the food from the pizza boy's grip,
And sent him away without giving a tip.
Santa exclaimed as we sat down to feast,
"Freeze, turkeys! I'm the Christmas police!"
And out of his squad he pulled a great bird,
And wrung its long neck without saying a word.
He nuked it on high 30 seconds at least (2)
And served it at table and said "Eat *this* beast!"
Dad started to say, "I want my lawyer",
But he was looking the wrong way down the cop's .44. (3)
"No excuses allowed!", said Santa with a grin,
"You must eat turkey until the floor caves in."
But Dad had finished a keg the night before---
One whiff of roast turkey, and he barfed on the floor.
Officer Nick bellowed as he see-cured the scene,
"Disrespect for Christmas gets you ten to fifteen!"
So have a Merry Christmas--IT'S THE LAW! (4)
(c) WRP 1999 (5)
Brought to you as a public service by
Industrial Strength Poetry, Division of
Custom Sensor Solution, Inc.
"Dedicated to the primacy of content over art."
Notes and Disclaimers
Note 1: Yeah, I know Pizza Hut doesn't deliver.
Note 2: It is considered unsafe to cook turkey to an
internal temperature less than 170 F.
Note 3: Yes, I also know Beretta doesn't make a .44.
Note 4: Also have a decadent New Year.
Note 5: Who disclaims any responsibility on the grounds
of being hopped up on cold medications.
September 29th, 2008
I've wondered why scientists spend time on global warming when the
whole issue is decided by political alignment anyway. And why are they
finding cures for diseases when no one has health insurance to afford the cures?
Here's a man who has the right idea. Turns out that lap-dancers make
bigger tips during their fertile time of the month:
"Miller, G. F., Tybur, J., & Jordan, B. (in press; published online
Sept. 27). Ovulatory cycle effects on tip earnings by lap-dancers:
Economic evidence for human estrus? Evolution and Human Behavior."
Put a political spin on *that*.
August 8th, 2008
...is located on Hwy 79 about halfway between the town of Florence and Tucson, Arizona. There's a little memorial there to the cowboy movie hero, though the bronze plaque and sculpture were pried loose and stolen two years ago. Mix drove his car off a washed-out bridge into the dry river bed that now bears his name. Though he wore a seat belt, his metal luggage in the back seat flew forward and killed him. This was in 1940.
I've driven that way often. It's a lonely and scenic stretch of road, 40 miles long and dead straight with few potholes and no traffic, so you can go pretty fast. I've never seen a police car along there, either, nor picked up a cell signal. It's my preferred way of driving to Phoenix when time isn't a factor.
Yesterday, a speeding Chevy Suburban packed with 19 illegals overturned near Tom Mix Wash. Nine of them were killed. The others were injured but unable to get out of the car. I can't imagine what it must have been like for the survivors for the half hour it took help to arrive.
For the edification of those that really don't like illegals, the Star has provided a slideshow:
The irony is that, at the end of this road, is the town of Florence, whose only industry is prisons. There are about a dozen, private and state-owned.
There are many such crashes like this, involving ordinary vehicles packed with illegals, traveling at outrageous speeds. Sometimes they take others with them when they crash; most of the time they're single vehicle accidents.
August 6th, 2008
An MIT scientist has found a way to split water with hydrogen and
oxygen using sunlight.
The original publications are indecipherable(1), but here's a podcast
transcript that's halfway comprehensible to me:
"You take water plus these catalysts and light from the photovoltaic and you make hydrogen and oxygen. You store the hydrogen and oxygen, then when you combine it back over, say, a fuel cell, you get water back and electricity out. ... you’re in a closed loop, and it’s just humming away with light as an input from a photovoltaic."
United States Patent Application 20060286027
Brewer; Karen J. ; et al. December 21, 2006
SUPRAMOLECULAR COMPLEXES AS PHOTOCATALYSTS FOR THE PRODUCTION OF
HYDROGEN FROM WATER "Supramolecular complexes designed to produce
hydrogen from water are provided. The supramolecular complexes absorb
visible light and undergo charge transfer, leading to the collection
of electrons at a reactive metal center, where the electrons reduce
water to hydrogen. The complex remains intact during electron
collection and hydrogen production."
If it pans out, this is the sort of obscure discovery that can change
how civilizations work. (If Exxon doesn't bury it first.)
Note 1: Indecipherable to me, I mean, and I've been a chemist for 45