Category Archives: technology basics

And this is an experiment.

Right now, the weather forecasts are threatening The End Of The World As We Know It, or at least the biggest baddest storm ever – “Frankenstorm” seems to be the favored name. (Our weather forecasters love drama.)

Some say it’s going to make landfall in Delaware and proceed up the Delaware Bay; some say it’s going to hit near Atlantic City and grind westward across New Jersey; a few are holding out for a direct hit on New York City; I don’t think I’ve heard any predictions today that were still threatening Boston.

Anyway, the consensus around here (but see drama, above) seems to be that the hurricane of the week will either follow the Delaware River or head overland through New Jersey – either way, they tell us it’s going to make a direct hit on Philadelphia. Philly’s only a few miles away. We’re being told to expect to be without electricity for at least a couple of days early next week.

So, just in case, I’m going to see if I can figure out how to create a post and have it publish on a designated day, later than when I click the “Publish” button. Right now it’s late evening on Friday the 26th. I’m going to tell this one to wait until Saturday to become generally available. And we’ll see if it works.

(Aha! Now that I set the “Publish” options to “Schedule for 10-Oct 27, 2012”, that familiar button caption has changed from “Publish” to Schedule”. I think I’ve got it. But we’ll see. Okay….clicking “Schedule” now………)

Note: And this is a successful experiment. I set this to post at 8:57 Saturday morning. It’s now 8:59. I just finished answering a comment on the previous post; when I scrolled up to the top to check, there it was – the nice new link pointing to this entry.

A like-hate relationship

These would all fit in a gadget I can hold in my palm. Cool!

I like techy things. I think it’s cool beyond words that I can theoretically store a library worth of books on a thumb drive the size of my little finger. (Okay, okay, I need some add-ons – a monitor, a computer – to read them from an ittybitty 16 G thumb drive, and those are unwieldy. But it’s the concept.)

So you would think I’d be completely thrilled with the e-reader I bought a couple of months ago. And I’m not. I admire it. It’s a worthwhile tool. But I don’t love it the way I love my paper books.

(Note: Okay, what I actually bought is a Kindle. But none of this post is meant as criticism of Kindles as such – I’m sure I would feel the same way about a Nook or any other brand. So I’m going to refer to it here as an “e-reader”.)

Anyway – why don’t I love my e-reader? A couple of reasons. The first one may go away with time: It feels funny, because I haven’t used it heavily yet, because I’m reading through a lot of the books we have on hand so I can find ones to give away. Changing pages still isn’t automatic: I keep thinking that I should press a button on the right side to page forward, and the left side to go back. The size seems off, though I’m comfortable holding books that are either larger or smaller. But these are things I’ll get used to. What else is wrong?

These were all cutting edge once. How long can I use the one on top?

Well, I don’t fully trust it. I made my living from computers since back before there were PCs, and I know how fast everything goes out of date. It’s not practical to get at data that was stored when today’s ten-year-olds were in diapers. But I own lots of books that were printed twenty, thirty, forty years ago that still work as designed.

On the other hand, books do wear out – and the ones you like most wear out fastest. Some of these can only be read because they’ve been taped together:

Read to pieces

I should probably get e-reader versions of all the books I really value and rely on those. And yet, it’s so much faster and easier to flip back and forth to different parts of a paper book. Sure, I can bookmark specific locations in an e-reader, but moving between them is much slower than checking a paper page with a physical bookmark.

Then again, I can search the e-reader for particular phrases…something that’s completely impractical with paper.

And it’s so compact.

But who knows when it will become obsolete and leave me locked out of my electronic library?

I like it. I don’t trust it. Bah.



The critter construction kit

Review – Endless Forms Most Beautiful
by Sean B. Carroll

A keeper? Definitely. And you should read it too.

Okay, you have a cell – just one – containing a bunch of genes. Where can we go from here? More to the point, since we can look around us pretty much anyplace on earth and see a lot of possible end points ranging from humans to nasturtiums, HOW can we get there from here?

For a long, long time, the details were mysterious. Some of them still aren’t clear. But now, by combining DNA analysis and embryology, an overall picture is forming out of the mist. (The “evo devo” of the subtitle is short for “evolutionary developmental biology”. Cute, and much easier to say.)

It turns out that living creatures share an amazing number of basic genes that control how their bodies are formed. Some of these genes are so universal that they must go back to before the Cambrian period, half a billion years ago. Then how can there be so much variety? It turns out that “gene” is biologist-speak for “a segment of DNA that makes a particular protein”, and there are stretches of DNA that don’t qualify as “genes”. What do they do? They control details of when and how specific genes and their proteins become active in the developing embryonic creature. (This, of course, is a horribly compressed version of what “Endless Forms” has to say. There’s more, so much more.)

Carroll shows how the interaction of genes and this “DNA dark matter” works. He also explains how such a variety of animals can be formed by tinkering with reusable parts – the dozens of ways that insects and crustaceans have started from a simple limb with a pincer on the end to build legs and mouths and feelers and gills and wings, for example.

What’s wrong with the book? First, Carroll is a specialist in fruit flies, and it shows sometimes. One or two chapters told me much more than I ever wanted to know about insect development, but even here there were unexpected nuggets of interesting stuff. Second, “Endless Forms” is not an easy read. I don’t think it could be easy and still do the subject justice. Be prepared to spend several weeks on it, and to re-read some parts and think about them before that part of the picture becomes clear.

Overall, though, if you have the slightest curiosity about the “hows” of life, if you aren’t already up to date on the latest in biology, you need to read “Endless Forms.” It’s that good.

She’s at it again – No Comfort

Yes, I found another bloggy webby challenge to get entangled in – “No Comfort Zone.” This one’s dedicated to the goal of making yourself do one thing a week that you wouldn’t ordinarily try, and if the idea intrigues you, by all means click on the button to the right and learn more.

I have a LOT of things I’d like to tackle – silly and fun, to practical, to over ambitious, to is-she-nuts-or-what. But I don’t have a  list of weekly projects to carry me all the way to the end of 2012 right this minute – I’m sure things will come up, though, not to mention projects that will carry over past their assigned week. (More on that topic in my next post.) But my first No Comfort project almost fell, or jumped, into my lap:

How the heck DO you get one of those special buttons to show up in the side column of your WordPress blog?

Done, at last, after several days of worrying at it when I had five spare minutes. If you find installing those buttons – “Widgets” – confusing too, well, Inside Out Cafe has a helpful page of instructions. If you’re like me and still don’t get it, go to the source – take a look at the instructions on WordPress support.

Done with that one. Whew.

What’s more important?

So today’s suggested topic is “What’s more important, electricity or the internet?”

Ay yi yi.

The only hard part about answering this question is thinking up good analogies. For example, “What’s more important, the wheel or the car?” or “What’s more important, learning to read or getting an A in freshman English class?”

If you can’t have thing #2 unless you already have thing #1, Then Thing Number One Is More Important.

Yes, the Internet is new enough that most adults remember when we didn’t have it, so we know how much things have changed. (In 1995, newspapers were secure and popular. In 1995, if you wanted to look up information about something, you went to the library and used an encyclopedia. In 1995, if none of the stores in your area sold a particular item, you did without…and you probably didn’t know there was any such thing, anyway.)

But try just a tiny thought experiment. Have you ever gone tent camping? Carrying ice with you to keep food from spoiling, cooking over a campfire, relying on a propane lamp for light after dark? Okay. This is how everybody lived for thousands and thousands of years, except that the propane lamp is high-tech modern – you wouldn’t have had an equivalent in your house until the middle of the 1800’s. Or what about air conditioning – you know, that stuff that makes your electric bill so much bigger in the summer? Without electricity, you sweat. Without electricity – well, it’s easy to explain how basic and important electricity is to life as we know it.

Without electricity, no Internet.