HOWTO: Blow Shit Up

Chemist Derek Lowe has thoughtfully provided us with a list of Things I Won’t Work With. A bit:

The latest addition to the long list of chemicals that I never hope to encounter takes us back to the wonderful world of fluorine chemistry. I’m always struck by how much work has taken place in that field, how long ago some of it was first done, and how many violently hideous compounds have been carefully studied. Here’s how the experimental prep of today’s fragrant breath of spring starts:

The heater was warmed to approximately 700C. The heater block glowed a dull red color, observable with room lights turned off. The ballast tank was filled to 300 torr with oxygen, and fluorine was added until the total pressure was 901 torr. . .

And yes, what happens next is just what you think happens: you run a mixture of oxygen and fluorine through a 700-degree-heating block. “Oh, no you don’t,” is the common reaction of most chemists to that proposal, “. . .not unless I’m at least a mile away, two miles if I’m downwind.” This, folks, is the bracingly direct route to preparing dioxygen difluoride, often referred to in the literature by its evocative formula of FOOF.

Well, “often” is sort of a relative term. Most of the references to this stuff are clearly from groups who’ve just been thinking about it, not making it. Rarely does an abstract that mentions density function theory ever lead to a paper featuring machine-shop diagrams, and so it is here. Once you strip away all the “calculated geometry of. . .” underbrush from the reference list, you’re left with a much smaller core of experimental papers.

And a hard core it is! This stuff was first prepared in Germany in 1932 by Ruff and Menzel, who must have been likely lads indeed, because it’s not like people didn’t respect fluorine back then. No, elemental fluorine has commanded respect since well before anyone managed to isolate it, a process that took a good fifty years to work out in the 1800s. (The list of people who were blown up or poisoned while trying to do so is impressive). And that’s at room temperature. At seven hundred freaking degrees, fluorine starts to dissociate into monoatomic radicals, thereby losing its gentle and forgiving nature. But that’s how you get it to react with oxygen to make a product that’s worse in pretty much every way.

FOOF is only stable at low temperatures; you’ll never get close to RT with the stuff without it tearing itself to pieces. I’ve seen one reference to storing it as a solid at 90 Kelvin for later use, but that paper, a 1962 effort from A. G. Streng of Temple University, is deeply alarming in several ways. Not only did Streng prepare multiple batches of dioxygen difluoride and keep it around, he was apparently charged with finding out what it did to things. All sorts of things. One damn thing after another, actually:

“Being a high energy oxidizer, dioxygen difluoride reacted vigorously with organic compounds, even at temperatures close to its melting point. It reacted instantaneously with solid ethyl alcohol, producing a blue flame and an explosion. When a drop of liquid 02F2 was added to liquid methane, cooled at 90°K., a white flame was produced instantaneously, which turned green upon further burning. When 0.2 (mL) of liquid 02F2 was added to 0.5 (mL) of liquid CH4 at 90°K., a violent explosion occurred.”

And he’s just getting warmed up, if that’s the right phrase to use for something that detonates things at -180C (that’s -300 Fahrenheit, if you only have a kitchen thermometer). The great majority of Streng’s reactions have surely never been run again. The paper goes on to react FOOF with everything else you wouldn’t react it with: ammonia (“vigorous”, this at 100K), water ice (explosion, natch), chlorine (“violent explosion”, so he added it more slowly the second time), red phosphorus (not good), bromine fluoride, chlorine trifluoride (say what?), perchloryl fluoride (!), tetrafluorohydrazine (how on Earth. . .), and on, and on. If the paper weren’t laid out in complete grammatical sentences and published in JACS, you’d swear it was the work of a violent lunatic. I ran out of vulgar expletives after the second page. A. G. Streng, folks, absolutely takes the corrosive exploding cake, and I have to tip my asbestos-lined titanium hat to him.

Do this.

Prompted by this post, I have just revisited my backup strategy. You should, too. Here’s what I do. Listen to me. Seriously.

  • Because I’m on a Mac, I can use Time Machine. Whenever I’m at my desk, my laptop is plugged into a 1TB USB drive and is backed up incrementally every hour. With TM, not only can I immediately recover from “oh shit!” moments, I can also “scroll back” and pick up prior versions of files. (Cost: Free with OSX.)

  • Because that’s not enough, I also create a complete clone of my internal drive about every two weeks using SuperDuper. I’m sure there are Windows versions of this tool, but the Mac makes it pretty easy. (This utility is also super-handy for hard drive upgrades; $27.95 for the full version.)

  • Because I work on multiple computers, I also keep nearly all my current files in my Dropbox folder. Dropbox costs money every month, but the peace of mind is worth it. When I make changes to a document on one computer, they’re almost instantly sync’d up to the Dropbox server, and then sync’d down to any other computers I choose to associate with my Dropbox account. This is immensely powerful stuff. Bonus: I can also grab any file from my Dropbox account from any Internet-connected computer simply by logging into the web site. Oh, and there’s even a friggiin’ iPhone client. Booyah. (Free for 2GB; $9.99/mo for 50GB; $19.99/mo for 100GB.)

  • Finally, I’ve just signed up for Crashplan after basically giving up on Mozy. Mozy was kind of early in this market, but they’ve suffered from software maturity issues on the Mac side pretty much the whole time, and I’m actively trying to find an online backup tool that works not just for me, but also for my company’s mobile professionals. Crashplan looks much better. Like several other tools, Crashplan backs your designated folders up to the server, which is how you get protection from catastrophic issues like fire or (more likely where I live) hurricanes. It also provides file versioning, which is a great boon and hedge against creeping data corruption. The downside (to all such services) is initial backup speed: I’m about two days into a 39-day initial upload. :( (You can pay them to send you a drive to seed your initial backup, but I made the command decision not to bother with the cost.) (Crashplan’s online option for individuals is $54/year for unlimited storage; other options exist for local and even enterprise backup.)

There are two kinds of people: Those who have had catastrophic data loss, and those who will. Protect yourself. If you can’t tell someone clearly how you back up your pictures, your documents, your financial data, etc., then you’re not backing up well enough. Give it some thought. Sign up for a cloud service, and get a big-ass backup drive at the very minimum. The data you save may be your own.

Dear Publishers: We’re Not Idiots

And you should refrain from saying stupid things about ebook consumers, like “if you can afford an ebook device, you can pay more for ebooks.” Bollocks. Consumerist lays down some pointers you may want to check out:

On a more basic level, what consumers are willing to pay for a device and what they’re willing to pay for an ebook are two different matters and can’t be compared. But since [this publisher] is doing so, let’s take a look at them.

Maybe a customer can pay more for a digital book, but why should he? Currently, nearly all the value of the ebook format comes from the device, not the publisher. Portability, frictionless purchasing experience, syncing across multiple registered devices–all of that is provided by the device and the retailer’s back-end.

By contrast, here’s what the publisher currently provides in an ebook edition: typos, no additional content over the print version, no cover art, perhaps no photographs or illustrations, and no custom formatting. Saddle that with DRM that deliberately interferes with the consumer’s ability to preserve or make full use of his library, and you’ve got one pretty low-value digital offering from a publisher.

[...]

So you’re right, publisher; maybe I can afford to buy an ereader device. That doesn’t mean you can jack up the price on your crappy digital copy that currently offers less usefulness than a physical copy, and then hide behind the device’s potential and cry, “I want to be treated like I make expensive baubles too!” Because you don’t. You currently make poorly proofread digital files stripped of most of the qualities that make digital content awesome.

So here’s some other advice for publishers who want to win the cooperation of customers while also pricing ebooks in a way that’s fair to both sides:

Stop acting like consumers are being cheap. What consumers actually want are ebooks that are fairly priced. You’re trying to frame the other side as being irrational and greedy, but in reality consumers–despite the more histrionic posts on Amazon’s forums–are still not convinced that publishers have done anything to add value to the ebook.

Stop hiding behind your industry’s inefficiencies. You should try to improve them, not use them as a shield to protect you from criticism. The first thing that comes to mind is the waste inherent in how printed copies are sold to bookstores. In addition, acquiring, preparing for publication, and marketing books are all areas where publishers seem unable to innovate, despite the cost savings that digital distribution should convey over long periods of time.

Stop saying “trust us.” Smart consumers know that no self-respecting company is innately trustworthy, no matter how many years it’s spent trying to integrate that idea into its brand [...]. Demonstrate. Prove your intentions through behavior. By that measure, publishers have so far only indicated that they want ebooks to be priced in the realm of hardcovers. [...]

Stop the emotional appeals. Saying digital publishing will starve authors and kill first born sons makes it seem like you’re basing your business decisions on irrational fears, which helps no one. Just admit that you want to price your ebooks as high as the market will bear. There’s no shame in admitting that, and the sooner you do the sooner ebook consumers can demand that you step up and start providing real value in exchange for higher prices.

This just in:

Congressional Democrats grow a pair or two. Reid: GOP Should Stop Crying About Reconciliation.

“Realistically, they should stop crying about reconciliation as if it’s never been done before,” Reid advised the GOP. It’s been done in almost every Congress. And they’re the ones who used it more than anyone else.”

Reid then rattled off a list of Republican legislative achievements that were pushed through the Senate. “Most of the stuff in the Contract for America was done with reconciliation; tax cuts, done with reconciliation; Medicare [prescription drug benefits], done with reconciliation,” said Reid.

Wow. Somebody needs to go to jail over this.

That student-laptop-webcam-spying thing? Yeah, it just gets worse and worse for the jackass administrators who set this thing up.

  • Students were required to use the laptops.
  • Attempts to disable or control the webcam could be grounds for expulsion
  • The laptops were locked down such that there was no way to control the camera or microphone locally — but, of course, the spyware could do those things remotely.

Fortunately, it turns out the “tech” at the school can’t keep his mouth shut, and has been bragging about their security and surveillance methods online (which makes it obvious the administration was lying when they said this was only for stolen laptops).

More here.

Also, refreshingly and delighfully, the FBI is now involved.

Creepiest High School Admins EVAR

A Pennsylvania high school is in hot water after it was disclosed that the laptops they supplied to students were loaded with software that allowed the administration to remotely access the built-in camera. The goons are now admitting it, saying it was only in the event of theft, but we’re calling bullshit, especially since the administrators gave bullshit excuses when the students noticed the tell-tale green light coming on at random intervals.

There is, inevitably, a lawsuit.

TSA: Still Useless.

A Pennsylvania college student was detained recently by TSA because he had Arabic language flash cards with him.

The following exchange took place between George and a TSA supervisor who questioned him:

TSA Supervisor: You know who did 9/11?
George: Osama bin Laden.
TSA Supervisor: Do you know what language he spoke?
George: Arabic.

At that point, the TSA supervisor held up George’s flash cards—which had words such as “to smile” and “funny” and on them—and said: “Do you see why these cards are suspicious?”

Dept. of Surprising Software Developments

For years, Microsoft has offered webmail for Exchange sites via a tool called Outlook Web Access (“OWA”). It’s an acceptable tool, but has generally lagged behind more widely-used webmail tools like Gmail. Also, and crucially, the most fully functional version of OWA has heretofore only been available to users with Internet Explorer — which gives the short shrift to multiplatform folks with Exchange accounts, but that was never something Microsoft gave two shits about. Sure, you could still use OWA from Firefox, or from a Linux box, but you’d have only limited access to the tool (no formatting, no rules, etc).

Well, we just upgraded to Exchange 2010 at work (hosted externally, thank God), and I’ve noticed something amusing about the 2010 version of OWA. It still has a “basic” version you can use optionally (nice on a low-bandwidth connection), but you get pretty much the full set of features on nearly every browser I’ve tried: IE 7 and 8, obviously, but also Firefox (Win and Mac) and Safari (Mac, but probably Windows, too). There’s actually only one browser I’ve tried that forces the crappy OWA on the user: Internet Explorer 6.

It’s not often I’m happy about something Microsoft does with web standards, but this is clearly an example. OWA required IE-only in the past because it was built to rely on special Microsoft-only proprietary web development techniques, and only IE honored them. At the same time, IE6 was built in such a way that properly-built web apps typically had to have special “and for IE6, do this” code clauses because of how dependent it was on MSFT-only tricks, and how poorly it handled standards-based development. MSFT did this deliberately, it’s assumed, because a fully-functional cross-platform web hits them where they live, and they wished to retard its growth.

The implication with this new “everybody but IE6″ approach with OWA is that OWA has been rewritten in a much more standards-friendly way, and so much so that the full version won’t even work in IE6, and MSFT didn’t care to write a special version that would.

Welcome to the standards-based web, Redmond. Come on in. The water’s fine.

Here’s all I got.

The New Orleans Saints just won the Super Bowl. How cool is that?

(As for the Manning drama, read this. I had no idea of the other familial connections between Brees and the Mannings, which makes the whole thing more weird.)

As if there was any doubt

The Beast has its 50 Most Loathsome People of 2009 up; can there be any doubt who has earned the top spot?

  1. Glenn Beck

Charges: As the Sybil of cable punditry and graduate of the prestigious University of I Don’t Remember, Beck’s bipolar professor routine is hands down the funniest thing on TV. When he gets out the chalkboard and starts drawing trees and playing misspelled word association games with a comically grave demeanor, Beck makes Stephen Colbert look like a piker. The fact that millions of Americans think he knows what he’s talking about, however, is not funny at all. If this simpering boob, blubbering the same old reds-under-the-bed melodrama from the ‘50s with a sophomoric Da Vinci Code twist, is the face of the people’s rebellion, sign us up for the empire.

Exhibit A: “This president has exposed himself as a guy, over and over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture… I’m not saying that he doesn’t like white people.”

Sentence: Drowned in crocodile tears; eaten by crocodile.

Scenes from the Tea Party

Tom “Racist As I Wanna Be” Tancredo kicked it off with an open appeal for literacy tests as a condition of suffrage, a tactic well known to my home state.

The opening-night speaker at first ever National Tea Party Convention ripped into President Obama, Sen. John McCain and “the cult of multiculturalism,” asserting that Obama was elected because “we do not have a civics, literacy test before people can vote in this country.”

The speaker, former Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., told about 600 delegates in a Nashville, Tenn., ballroom that in the 2008 election, America “put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House … Barack Hussein Obama.”

Jesus.

Ha!

The Onion: Peyton Manning Studying Saints Game Film From 1974:

MIAMI – According to his teammates and coaches, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning has been sequestered in the film room at Sun Life Stadium for the last three days reviewing game tape from the Saints’ 1974 season. “Can’t be too prepared,” a bleary-eyed Manning reportedly told a team manager, adding that if the Saints decide to sign former middle linebacker Joe Federspiel, 60, before the game this Sunday, he’ll know exactly what adjustments to make. “Could you get me that Rams game from November? I need to see how quick [former strong safety] Johnny Fuller got to the quarterback on the blitz. Go now.” Manning later told the Colts defense that they didn’t need to watch any of the game film, as the Saints’ quarterback in 1974 was “absolutely terrible.”

Today’s Pop Culture Assertion

In addition to her output as both a solo artist and as part of the Dresden Dolls, and also in addition to her choice of companion, there is much to love about Amanda Fucking Palmer.

Click through to Palmer’s own review of the event as well, which provides context for some of the shots reproduced on Fug and elsewhere.

My favorite part: Neil’s own summary:

2) I went to the Golden Globes for Coraline. We lost. But we lost to Up! so no surprise there. Amanda, who was with me, wore a classic 1920s beaded dress with very little underneath it, and nobody noticed me at all. The Golden Globes were interesting. The strangest moment was as we were leaving the NBC party, the photographers grumbled that they hadn’t got any photos of us going in, so we agreed to pose for them… and when they complained that Amanda was no longer wearing the amazing beaded dress she’d worn on the Red Carpet, she changed back into it for them (with me holding up a jacket as a makeshift changing area — the area was deserted but for photographers). They took photographs. (When shot with a flash the dress looks a lot more naked than it did when I was standing next to her.) My favourite bit was that when the photos appeared Amanda was named and I was listed as “and guest”.

What I Think About When I Think About Ebooks

The eventual widespread digital distribution of books and other media is taken now as a foregone conclusion; the modest success of products from Sony, Barnes & Noble, and (notably) Amazon put the issue in the public eye initially, but the biggest splash came last week with Apple’s introduction of the iPad — a category killer almost for sure, given its additional capabilities over its e-reader competitors and its likely ability to consume books from both its own store and Amazon’s Kindle store. (There’s a Kindle app for the iPhone already.)

Also very public at this point is the spat between Amazon and publishing house Macmillan over ebook pricing. Amazon wanted to hold the line at $9.99, but the publisher wanted half again more; the situation devolved enough that Amazon actually delisted all physical and electronic copies of Macmillan books for the duration of last weekend, and has in fact still not reinstated all of them despite acquiescing to Macmillan’s demands.

The whole situation reminds many of the sturm und drang surrounding the widespread adoption of MP3 players, and the resultant rush to find ways to sell music online. There, too, we find Apple at the forefront (it’s a safe bet to assume that, with the Kindle, Jeff Bezos and Amazon were hoping to imitate Apple’s musical success in the ebook market). A quick survey of the history here might lead you to believe that the book situation will evolve similarly, but I for one am not completely convinced, at least not with the current pricing and parameters.

Let’s look at music for a moment and consider what’s gone before, and then see how that applies to books.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the MP3

Ten years ago, only serious nerds had any kind of digital music collection. The market was anybody’s, and it stayed that way until “anybody” became “Apple.” Not the first or even most feature-laden MP3 player, the iPod instead represented the first one normal people actually bought to use.

Back then, there was no legal online music; you bought your CDs and ripped them at home, using one of several formats (most famously MP3, but AAC and Ogg and WMA are out there, too), before using some purpose-built software to copy those files to your player. It was a bit of a hassle, but high-capacity players like the iPod made the tedium pay off in your ability to carry hundreds of albums around with you all the time.

Then people started selling music online. The most successful, obviously, was Apple, at the benchmark price of $0.99 per track. This price mirrored, on average, what we pay for CDs in music stores — most albums have 10 to 15 tracks, and we pay $10 to $15 for a CD.

I bought very, very little of this music. Why? Because the seller was giving me a less useful product, but hadn’t lowered the price. By buying digitally in those days, I was getting locked-down, DRM’d music at a limited bitrate that would only work with one firm’s devices. Apple’s approach was more benign than some, but it was still a pain, and it limited what I was willing to buy. One-off, single song purchases to satisfy an earworm? Sure. Some top-40 crap I’m pretty sure I won’t care about in 5 years? Absolutely. But for anything real that I actually cared about, I bought a CD — and in so doing, I acquired a few more things for my money:

  • A physical artifact. This may be a boon or a bust, depending on your POV.

  • The ability to easily format shift — despite trying, nobody ever made a genuinely unrippable CD, which means every one sold will play in any CD deck, and can be ripped into any digital format I want.

  • Additional fidelity. Early digital music was at lower bitrates, which produced slightly lower quality than actual CDs. This doesn’t matter for most people (or for headphones), but I have a nice enough stereo that naive, non-nerdy listeners can usually tell a low-bitrate MP3 from CD source.

Since the digital and physical prices were the same, a digital purchase gave me less for the same money. That’s a bad deal, so I behaved accordingly.

In the years since, a couple interesting things have happened:

  • Nobody is selling music with DRM on it anymore (not counting streamed, subscription services, which are a different creature). Music bought from Amazon or Apple is actually yours, and can’t be turned off or zapped remotely anymore.

  • Most digital sources are offering higher bitrate files, essentially indistinguishable from CD source even on nice stereos.

  • Some “digital albums” come with extras, like booklets and linernotes and even videos, which helps create a better “album purchase” experience and make up for the lack of a physical object. We still lack that, but, as I noted, this can be seen as a feature or a bug, depending on your POV.

Consequently, I now buy most of my music online, generally from Apple or Amazon. The price is about the same as physical, but what I get (easier storage and retrieval, immediate gratification) is a fair trade vs. what I give up (the need to store a physical CD, some theoretical level of fidelity).

Why this won’t happen for books

The music market, though, has a couple fundamental differences from the book market.

  • With music, I don’t have to choose one format over the other. Format shifting is simple. A physical CD can be ripped for use on my iPod; a digital album can be burned to CD to play in the car. You can’t easily go either way with books: if you want a digital copy, give up reading it in the bath. If you want a physical copy, prepare to give up space in your carryon. If you want both, they want you to pay twice. Fuck that.

  • In contrast to the modern e-music market, the book market remains a DRM’d wasteland. If you buy content with rights-management crap attached, you don’t own it. You only get to use it (legally) as long as the DRM vendor thinks it’s okay. If the authorization servers go kaput, your content may not work anymore. (More here.) Amazon made this abundantly clear when, after a rights dispute, they removed books that people had purchased from their Kindles. Apple will be no better in this regard.

  • Notwithstanding the prior points, publishers are working hard to ensure the ebook price is nearly the same as a hardback despite the fact that the electronic versions are, for all practical purposes, defective by design.

It seems clear to me that selling me (or, rather, renting me) an inflexibly formatted version of a book is worth vastly less money than a robust, flexible, physical tome I can keep in my house forever, loaning or reselling as I see fit.

Adding to this absurdity is the fact that, for books (just as with CDs), the physical aspect of the artifact is responsible for a huge chunk of the final cost. Books must be printed and shipped all over the place, and then (potentially) shipped back for remaindering. None of this is true with digital distribution; this, to me, means that the publishers’ attempts to push ebook prices to hardback parity are nothing more than transparent attempts to screw the consumer. (I’m all for authors and musicians getting paid, but let’s be honest: the middleman here is the guy who needs to justify his share of the deal, not the content creator. If ebooks get real traction and free writers from the need to use a printing press and physical distribution network, we’ll see more authors disintermediating the publisher just as more and more bands skip the exploitative deals that used to define pop music success.)

This matters more to me for books because, at the end of the day, I give up little functional utility with a digital music purchase — it’s more or less the same to me. As outlined above, though, ebooks suck compared to physical ones, and can’t ever be “mine” in any real sense that matters under the current terms of the deal.

Would I buy DRM’d, limited-use ebooks at any price? Sure. But that price needs to be much, much lower than even the $9.99 Amazon was pushing for. Maybe none of this matters for some use cases — you’re a voracious consumer of disposable paperbacks you inevitably sell to Half Price Books just to get ‘em out of the house, or you travel as much as I did this summer — but for general reading, it’s a complete nonstarter.

It’ll be interesting to see how quickly folks realize this, and how the market evolves.

A final note: Something that I would buy, and that I think people would be interested in, is nondiscounted hardbacks (at what, $25?) that include the digital edition. That way, I’d get format shifting if i wanted it, I’d get loan-ability and shelf appeal and fault-tolerance, but I’d also get the portability and searchability that digital books excel at. But you can be sure that, in such a situation, I’d have zero interest in paying $15 for it on top of a $25 hardback.

Today’s geekiest post, or, Hey Dorman! Check this out!

Almost 20 years ago, some heathen compatriots and I worked hard to create absurdly baroque DOS prompts with ANSI.SYS and, inevitably, larger-than-normal environment memory on pre-Windows systems. I wish I had a copy of the PROMPT command used to create my own version of that monstrosity — it danced the cursor around to put the current path at the top of the screen, the date in the corner, yadda yadda yadda.

It turns out, people still do this sort of thing on unixy systems.

How much do I love this device?

Check it out:

Every ten minutes the black box pings a server on the internet via the ethernet connection to check if it is for sale on the eBay. If its auction has ended or it has sold, it automatically creates a new auction of itself.

If a person buys it on eBay, the current owner is required to send it to the new owner. The new owner must then plug it into ethernet, and the cycle repeats itself.