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Daily Notebook

Popular topics on this page:
Tabbed browsing of UGA Libraries Journals
My next career move
The weird world of pharmaceutical Latin

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New furnace day

After 27 years of faithful service, our old furnace (for the downstairs central heating) is worn out and has had to be replaced. The new furnace was put in on November 28 and 29.

What's more, we will soon be replacing all the ductwork for the downstairs system. It has 38 years of dust in it, and replacing it is actually cheaper than cleaning it.

How to disqualify yourself

If you want me to help you get a job that requires a college degree:

(1) Don't brag about being "bad at math." It's OK to say you haven't studied much mathematics, but don't brag about a lack of talent or intuition.

(2) Don't brag about, or demonstrate, an inability to spell and punctuate in your native language. If you can't be bothered to learn what an apostrophe means, I'll assume you can't be bothered to learn the details of other things either.

More importantly, if your attitude is, "I'll do sloppy work and other people just have to put up with it," you don't have much of a future.

On that cheerful note, I'll end the month. See you in December, which is less than 24 hours away!


Stupid bank tricks

My Bank of America credit card payment scheduled for November 24 was not processed on November 24, even though they had already given me a printable confirmation that it would be processed that day.

It is being processed now, but it missed the due date and incurred a late fee. They waived the late fee after I asked about it.

I know the 24th was the Saturday after Thanksgiving, but Bank of America accepts payments on virtually every day of the year (and warns you if you choose an unavailable one). The bank does not have to be open on the day of a payment — they just have to put the right date on it when they get around to processing it. And that's what they didn't do this time.

Everybody else with payments to Bank of America that fell due last week, please check your accounts.


More pharmaceutical and medical trivia


If you want a whole course in Latin for pharmacists (of the early 20th Century), click here. Definitely an unusual book.

There are many pharmacy museums in the United States. I'm probably going to go look at the ones in Jefferson, Ga., and Lexington, Ky., as the opportunities present themselves. The most interesting online presence is probably the one in St. Peter, Minnesota, whose web site is well worth reading. (I wonder how much time they spend telling people they're not in St. Paul, Minnesota.)

I'm just old enough to remember when prescription medicines didn't have the name of the drug on the container. (That was normal in the 1960s and 1970s; then we started getting coded abbreviations, and finally the full name and strength.) I'm told that, by regulation, in the 1930s pharmacists could not even give advice about prescribed medicines, other than to pass along the doctor's instructions. They couldn't even tell you what you were taking unless the doctor said to label it.

We live in a different world today. Medicine is science, not mystique, and many patients are well-enough educated to understand their own conditions and treatment in considerable detail. The medical profession is a bit daunted by the concept of "expert patients".

But that brings to mind an analogy. Looking at technology magazines from the 1960s, I note that in those days, TV repair shops were afraid of would-be "expert customers" — thought they were invariably mistaken and hard to deal with — but auto mechanics embraced them. Perhaps because of the way automobiles entered society, there has always been a smooth gradient between professionals and knowledgeable do-it-yourselfers.

In medical care, "do-it-yourselfer" is not quite the right word, but maybe the medical profession can embrace the notion of patient as colleague. Indeed, Melody and I have found that our doctors welcome our attempts to educate ourselves, as long as we aren't arrogant. It might not be the same outside of a university town.

Another curiosity I remember from the 1960s is medicines (and chemicals) that were manufactured centrally but dispensed by individual pharmacies, with preprinted labels. The pharmacist would fill a bottle for you from a larger container and affix a label with a description of the product and the logo and address of his own pharmacy. Labels of this kind are now widely traded on eBay. I suppose this was economical when the amounts dispensed were small and variable and some intervention by the pharmacist was required anyhow (such as keeping records of relatively dangerous substances). But in some cases it was hardly more than an advertising gimmick. I remember Numol, a scented liquid that could be put on a baby's shirt so that breathing the fumes would alleviate coughing. In the 1960s, it came in a bottle with the local pharmacy's preprinted label; by the late 1980s, it came in a factory bottle. Since it was used for nothing else — not an ingredient in prescriptions, as far as I know — surely the local dispensing was just to build customer loyalty.


The weird world of pharmaceutical Latin

The makers of Victorian Pharmacy were guided by a classic book called The Art of Dispensing. I found the 1891 edition of it on Google Books. It brought back memories, because in sixth grade, my teacher lent me a Merck Manual from about 1940, and what intrigued me was not the medical science but the strange language and notation.

Before World War II, prescriptions were written in something that purported to be Latin, but no ancient Roman would have recognized it. What's more, the names of the chemicals worked differently in different countries. A British prescription for potassium iodide, for example, would say something like Potassii iodidi gr. ix (9 grains of potassium iodide), but a German doctor would write Kalii hydroiodici 0.6 (0.6 gram of potassium iodide by a different name). The syntax is different: in Anglo-Latin, "iodide" is the noun, "of potassium" (potassii iodidum when written alone); in German-Latin, "potassium" (which they call kalium) is the noun, and hydroiodicum is the adjective.

Yes, they do have a chapter on reading illegible handwriting — but even the "good" handwriting samples in the book look like gibberish to me. (Reminds me of the joke about the doctor who fell in love with his nurse, and every time he wrote her a love letter, she went off somewhere with it. After a while he asked where she was going. "To the pharmacy, to find out what it says!")

Of more scientific interest, perhaps, are the chapters on what to do if the ingredients of a prescription are going to react chemically, or are insoluble, or are likely to explode.

Nowadays prescriptions are no longer written in Latin, but they are full of Latin abbreviations such as p.r.n. (pro re nata, "as needed") and Sig[illum] "label." And of course R/ or Rx, for recipe "take" (from the shelf, a list of ingredients, and mix them). Present-day prescriptions almost never require mixing.


Two short notes

Jeff Duntemann has nailed the essence of Black Friday shopping — it's not shopping; it's a collective experience.

I've added a couple of paragraphs to my recent entry about Victorian Pharmacy.


X and J in Spanish

Here is a story that many of us know part of, and it's interesting to know the rest.

We know that in Spanish words like Mexico and Quixote, the x has the same sound as Spanish j ("Me-hee-ko," "Kee-ho-tay") — in fact, in Spain, those words are now written with j.

But there's more to the story. Until two or three centuries ago, x in Spanish stood for a sound like English sh (as it still does in Portuguese). That is how Xerez gave us "sherry" and Don Quixote became "Don Quichotte" in French.

It's also how Mexicanos became chicanos. In extreme northern New Mexico, there were places that preserved the sh sound as recently as 1900. Other Spanish speakers interpreted it as ch and clipped the word "Meshicano" to give "chicano."

That particular etymology is the only one I've ever done research on — at the 1980 Linguistic Institute in Albuqerque (where else?) under the tutelage of the late Yakov Malkiel.


Thanksgiving for two

For the first time since 1983, Melody and I are together for Thanksgiving, without any other family members. Cathy is of course in Kentucky with her husband, and Sharon is joining a group of friends for Thanksgiving dinner. We aren't eating much because of minor illnesses (a chest cold and a digestive problem respectively) which we don't want to share with relatives. So we're going to enjoy each other's company but not cook a turkey.

We have much to be thankful for, including a major item that is not yet ripe for disclosure (and I don't mean retirement). Stand by for news within the next few weeks...


Something interesting on TV

Sharon put me on the trail of the BBC's Victorian Pharmacy documentary (which you can also find on line at other sites, perhaps without such noisy commercials).

Just the right mix of science, social history, and British nostalgia.

It is set in this Victorian town (Blists Hill, Shropshire, a living museum; a sort of British counterpart to our Colonial Williamsburg). I've never been there.

[Addendum:] Well done. I did notice a few avoidable anachronisms: (1) Phillips-head deck screws in a wooden wheel gadget; (2) at least one modern Kimax or Pyrex beaker in the chemistry lab; and (3) most seriously, a photographic negative that was a sheet of acetate rather than a glass plate. But they made up for that with the demonstration of gum bichromate printing.

I'm not sure I actually wanted to see how condoms were made in 1880.


My political career?

I've been advised that I received at least one write-in vote in the recent election, for the congressional seat of Paul Broun, who was running unopposed. Mr. Broun is a young-earth creationist, and a few thousand people wrote in "Charles Darwin" as an alternative. Reportedly there were a number of other names, including mine.

I do not want to be a Congressman.

Happy birthday, Sharon!


What Bible translation do I use?

Knowing that I am both a practicing Christian and a linguist, people regularly ask me what Bible translation I use. The answer isn't as simple as you might wish.

By way of background, because I know the original languages (Hebrew and Greek), I'm not totally dependent on translations. I look at the original languages, and at scholarly studies of them, if something is unclear.

Also, as a point of methodology, I'm not trying to find a translation that supports all of my opinions about disputed points of doctrine. I think that would be a dangerous thing to do. I'm not trying to find support for what I already think — I'm trying to find out what the Bible actually says!

In fact, if a passage is hard to translate, or if its meaning is unclear or disputed, I want to know. The quickest way to find this out is to look at several translations and see if they differ. If they do, then rather than pick the one I like, I have to try to dig in and learn something.

One further point. I know how ancient languages express gender, and I know that no matter what you do, you can't match them in English. "Brothers" almost always means "brothers and sisters." "Men" very often means "men and women." I know this as a fact about the languages, and I don't like translations that use awkward English to convey it.

So... what translations do I use? Several. The Revised Standard Version (RSV) and New International Version (NIV) are both good, although, in my opinion, revisions to make them gender-neutral have not improved them.

For my own study I usually read the English Standard Version (ESV), which is a minor revision of the RSV.

I also highly recommend that Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) because it does such a good job of explaining why other translations differ.

[Addendum:] The NET Bible (New English Translation, not to be confused with New English Bible) also looks good, largely because of its abundant notes about the Hebrew and Greek text and the translator's decisions. I have not evaluated it extensively. For completeness I should also mention the New American Standard Bible (NASB), a reliable and relatively literal translation that is well suited for scripture memorization.

There are many others. Since the 1970s, publishers have been commissioning Bible translations simply for the sake of market share, and they're all based on almost exactly the same scholarly research, differing only on points that are matters of opinion.

I would of course avoid "gimmicky" translations. The purpose of a translation is to tell you what the original says, not to impose someone else's ideas upon it.

And I would particularly caution people against adopting the attitude, "This particular translation is The One and all the others are the work of an evil conspiracy." That's just not how it works.

Why don't I use the King James Version (Authorised Version)? Because it's not in modern English and is vulnerable to misunderstanding for that reason. In its time, it was a fine translation and I still use it devotionally to some extent. I would not say it is more accurate than others; much less archeological information was available when it was made compared to now.


Stand by for backlog...

Today's long Notebook entry will make up for lost time. Hang on to your hats.

Does anybody really know what time it is?
UTC, UT1, ET, TIA, and all that

Recently, looking at a book on the measurement of time, I was reminded that the world now has several competing time scales, largely because atomic clocks have been invented that are more accurate than anything else, even the earth itself.

We set our clocks to a local time zone that is officially a whole number of half-hours from UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). This is the world's official standard, formerly known as Greenwich Mean Time, and it is used for planning and scheduling human activities.

No clock in the world can keep perfect UTC (or local zone time) by itself because of leap seconds. That's right — to keep UTC synchronized with the earth itself, whose rotation is slowing down, international authorities periodically insert an extra second. My understanding is that leap seconds have become an unpopular practice because they disrupt such things as computer programs that are supposed to start at midnight (and end up starting twice).

Why do we keep UTC synchronized with the earth? So that sunrise, noon, etc., will always happen at the expected time in each place. But UTC itself is measured with atomic clocks.

And thereby hangs a tale. The rotation of the earth isn't perfectly uniform, nor even predictable. It is gradually slowing down due to the moon's gravitational pull, but it also has irregular variations caused by earthquakes and weather. If you use the earth itself as a clock, you get UT1 (Universal Time 1), which is defined as the actual position of the rotating earth. That is, UT1 midnight is always, by definition, the moment when the star directly over your head, if any, is one whose right ascension is computed by a simple formula from UT1, the earth's orbital position, and your longitude.

Meanwhile, atomic clocks, running with perfect smoothness, keep TAI (Time, Atomic, International), which is used by scientists to measure duration. And UTC is defined as being as close you can get to UT1 by adding a whole number of seconds to TAI. When that number changes, a leap second is inserted.

The GPS satellite system also has its own atomic clock, which tracks TAI but is offset from it a fixed number of seconds (so that at one time it matched UTC, but no more).

And then there's ET (Ephemeris Time). This is measured using the orbit of the earth around the sun. It agrees closely with UTC, but there is a small difference that cannot entirely be predicted in advance.

For example, when there's an eclipse of the sun, the moment when the moon's shadow touches the earth is calculated in ET because that's how orbits are measured. But the place on earth where the shadow touches down depends on rotation of the earth, calculated in UT1. If there is a big discrepancy between the two, the eclipse occurs east or west of the predicted location. That is why astronomers are so interested in records of eclipses from ancient times — it gives them a way to calibrate the earth's rotation over millennia.

Some heartening news

An eminent psychologist has noticed that war is becoming unpopular with humankind as a whole. I said some things about this back in 2005. It is true that Islamist terrorism is a serious hazard right now — but what is heartening is that the whole civilized world regards it as freakish, not an instance of nations doing what nations are supposed to do.

Meanwhile, it looks as if the United States will achieve energy independence within my lifetime.

That would do wonders for our foreign policy. It wouldn't deprive Middle Eastern states of money because Europe and Asia would still buy their oil. (Demand from Asia is skyrocketing; Africa is next.) But it would mean that we no longer have to be friendly to oppressive regimes and inept governments. Consider Saudi Arabia, one of the least free countries in the world. Right now the U.S. considers it a "friend" for the sake of oil. That could change.

And some odd news

I assume you're already following the strange story of General Petraeus, which is rapidly starting to involve more people. My take on it: The director of the CIA shouldn't get away with behavior that would cause any lower-ranking person to lose his or her security clearance. Sexual morality aside, a person in a critical job has a duty not to get into that level of avoidable personal problems and expose himself to blackmail.

That goes for President Clinton too.

Meanwhile, the founder of McAfee Software (the antivirus company) has had some odd adventures.

Last, have you seen a bogus electrocardiogram lately? Not being medically trained, I didn't pay any attention to this until just now, but it's something must bug doctors and nurses. Quite often, when you see a waveform of a human heartbeat on a book cover, advertisement, or a poster, it isn't realistic. Look at the real thing and then these stylized graphics. I know it's just art, but to a doctor, these must look the way misspelled words look to me. And then what if the artist accidentally makes a realistic image of something seriously abnormal?


Welcome to my clutter!

Click to enlarge...

Today (November 10) I decided to photograph all the contents of my office, with Melody's help, to preserve a record of what it was like before I start moving things out. (I've had the same office for, I think, 22 years.)

So here's how I look to people coming in to see me. I can't blame them for being frightened. Some people have never seen so many books.

About a third of the books will be sold, given away, or deposited with the University. About a third can be packed up indefinitely, though I want to preserve them as a record of computer history. And about a third have to come home and be accessible as soon as I retire, so we're getting ready to build some bookcases.


Post-election comments

Several things...

(1) Perhaps the worst effect of our long-obsolete Electoral College is that states get labeled "red" or "blue." If you live in a "red state," Democrats shun you and see no need to try to represent you. If you live in a "blue state," the same goes for Republicans. Afterward, there is long-lasting animosity against whole states (not just the voters in them).

(2) I was gratified that Governor Romney made a gracious concession speech and is not a sore loser. Whining will not solve any of the country's problems — we need to pull together and make our country better.

On Facebook, some people are saying they will "unfriend" anybody who voted for the candidate they oppose. I hope they're not serious. If they are, they should go ahead an "unfriend" me too, because I'm not going to tell you how I voted. Nor do I want to be cut off from people who voted the other way.

(3) We heard a lot about minor irregularities and suspicion of election fraud this year. That's good. It means we have an alert, connected public. In 1960, election fraud was easy to cover up; now that we have the Internet, it isn't.

(4) I'm still against electronic voting machines.

(5) Why didn't this make the headlines? Puerto Rico has voted for statehood. The referendum is non-binding, but they have gone on record as solidly in favor of becoming our 51st state. Votes on this issue have been taken periodically over the years, and as I understand it, this is the first time statehood has won.


My next career move

The time has come to go public with something I've known for more than a year:


By way of clarification: I'm not going to be "retired" in the sense of having time to play golf, putter about the house, or engage in competitive lawnmowing (which seems to be a big sport around here). I'm very much starting a new career, not stopping work. Although I think I have some good consulting work lined up, I am always glad to hear about further opportunities.

Also, please note that this doesn't happen until June. Until then, I'm still a full-time Senior Research Scientist at UGA.


Three warnings before the election

Watch out for people who tell you not to vote because both presidential candidates are imperfect, or because your vote won't affect the way your state goes in the Electoral College.

Chances are, they're not practicing what they preach; they just don't want you to vote against their candidate. As for the Electoral College, remember that the popular vote statistics are eventually reported to the public, so they do have some effect on public opinion after the election. Anyhow, you need to vote in state and local races.

Watch out for people who think one candidate is 100% good and the other is 100% evil. That is the perspective of hate, prejudice, and fantasy, not clear political thinking. There may indeed be compelling moral reasons to prefer one candidate, but that doesn't mean the other one is the devil incarnate, nor that the better one is God's anointed. As a Christian, I see some moral virtues promoted, and others neglected, by each party.

Watch out for weird gossip about the candidates. At the last minute — when there's no time to prove it wrong — some people are going to hurl strange accusations at the candidates. Don't believe them. Don't even let them lodge in the recesses of your mind.


Forcing Firefox to display all new windows as tabs
(Tabbed browsing of UGA Libraries E-Journals)

Like all major academic libraries, The University of Georgia makes many scholarly journals available through the Web. The address is http://www.libs.uga.edu/ejournals/ and you will need the GALILEO password to see most of the content from off campus.

What I don't like about the user experience is the way their web page insists on opening as many as half a dozen new browser windows — not tabs but windows — as you make your way from the opening screen to what you want to see. Here's what it looks like:

In this era of tabbed browsing, if these pop-ups are really needed, they all ought to be tabs, not windows. In Internet Explorer, you can specify that all pop-ups must open as tabs, and that's that. But in Firefox, that's not enough. The scripting on the web site really asks for windows, and that's what it gets.

I found a workaround for Firefox.

(1) In place of a web address, type: about:config

(2) Ignore the warning.

(3) Change the setting browser.link.open_newwindow_restriction to 0.

There. Firefox will keep everything in one window with multiple tabs. But the web site should have done that in the first place!

If what you are looking for is not here, please look at previous months.