So, so very quiet…

Why so quiet? Well, I got a ‘cease and desist’ email at work. Apparently they actually _do_ monitor our network activity. Anyway, I was told to knock it off, so I knocked it off. That meant, though, that I had no way to entertain my brain other than surfing the web (I have nothing to do at work and have complained a number of times about that) and that generally means I am so sick and tired of sitting in front of the computer that I barely check email once I get home. Today I have taken the day off and don’t even have to do construction! We went to Las Vegas for a wedding and since I knew we were going to get in really late Sunday (or really early Monday, depending on your point of view) I decided in advance I wasn’t going to go to work. My boy was quite insulted that I got to stay home while he had to go to school.

I have been working toward a resolution regarding having nothing to do at work, but have not achieved closure.

My novel writing has ground to almost a complete halt as well, in the six weeks or so since I was told to quit writing at work I have probably spent an hour or so and wrote 1K words. I have, though, made a lot of notes and my brain has been very active thinking thoughts. I hope to be able to put in a couple of hours today. For those of you keeping score, I have completed two novels and have about a third of a third written. I have also come up with ideas for a couple more in the event that there seems a point to it.

After my aunt, who has looked at most of the first book, sent me a link to a blog post where the author said that getting an agent and paying their 15% would almost certainly result in more than 15% increased compensation from the publisher. Thus the agent basically pay for herself (according to my informal survey, 90%+ agents are women). In addition publishers today rely on agents to act as gatekeepers and it is very difficult to find a major publisher that will consider unsolicited manuscripts. Thus I have started the journey to find an agent. I wrote a ‘query letter’ (the one page opportunity to attract an agent’s attention, sort of like a resume to HR) and started to dig around in various on-line databases of agents that would accept electronic submissions (I am way too cheap to spend all that money killing trees). I found a couple that seemed promising (it is considered a very bad idea to ‘spam’ agents, it is a small industry and my last name is easy to remember, so I wanted to carefully select the people I wanted to contact) and sent them an email. They generally say they will 4-8 weeks to respond (after all, if the agents are successful they are already representing published authors) and no response is considered normal unless they are interested (exactly like applying for jobs, so many similarities).

Surprisingly, though I got negative feedback regarding their willingness to represent my work (“Diary of a Contract Killer” if you haven’t seen my old posts), I got two personalized responses:

Thanks so much for your query! I’m flattered that you chose to share this with me, and grateful for the chance to consider your work. Unfortunately, I’m not quite connecting with this particular project. I do hope you will try me again with future work if you don’t find representation for this one.


Thank you for letting me take a look. I’m afraid this doesn’t seem like the right project for me, but I’m sure other agents will feel differently. Best of luck placing your work.

The implication, to me anyway, is that my writing has potential, I just need to find an agent who thinks my story is interesting enough to devote her time and effort to finding a publisher. That made me two for two in getting a response, where getting 1-2 out of 10 to respond at all is considered good. Of course, I still need someone to request the whole manuscript (they generally only want to see the first couple of chapters), then, naturally, offer to represent me. Then I need to be satisfied that they are going to be the right person/firm to represent me (initially I only do minimal vetting since I am expecting to send out dozens before getting the desired response). Since my first two I have sent an additional six and expect to send a couple every day until I get to a couple dozen. It has surprised me how quickly I am finding repetition in my search (there are quite a few on-line resources for finding agents), it really is a small world. Realistically there might only be a couple of dozen agents who have the potential to represent my work.

Getting an agent, of course, only starts the clock ticking on getting a publisher and naturally simply finding a publisher isn’t enough, the publisher needs to be vetted and their promised promotional and marketing efforts evaluated. It might still be better to self publish, but getting a novel properly edited and ready for electronic / print-on-demand publishing could cost $5K, so not something to be done lightly. Still, the various stuff I have read on the ‘net indicates that agents can manage to contact publishers in parallel while doing so myself would basically get me blacklisted if they found out.

We are almost finished with the greenhouse/pool construction. I still think it is feasible to be done by the end of this year, but we may very well be working over the Christmas break. We were just able to heat the pool during the summer, but at the expense of a huge amount of propane (way more than I had expected, instead of filling up once a year we might have to fill up several times). As the weather cooled and the air dried out we could no longer reach the target temp. In desperation we decided to put on a pool cover. Surprisingly, sad to report, the cover worked amazingly well and even allowed us to heat the pool to 84F for my mother-in-law (who didn’t actually manage to take a dip this visit). I say ‘sadly’ because in retrospect I should have known that the cover was basically a requirement, most of the heat loss is through evaporation. Before the cover the air inside was so humid that the walls and ceiling literally dripped. Now, while it is certainly more humid than outside, there is no condensation (at least when the outside temp is in the mid 30’s, well see when it really gets cold). My genius wife thought of ways to attach the cover and easily roll it up, so it is fairly easy to work with.

The Vegas trip sucked almost entirely. My wife insisted we leave to get to the airport last Thursday at 4PM for an 8:45PM flight. My mother-in-law kindly reserved a front row seat for me not realizing that regular seats have better leg room, so instead of sitting next to my wife and being able to straighten my knees, I had to sit next to a stranger (who had a dog! at least it didn’t cry) and have sore knees for 5 hours. Normally I sit against the window and can lean against the wall to doze, this time my head just lolled about and I got a really sore, stiff neck. Then, in Vegas, you have to take a 10-15 minute bus ride to get to the car rental where you then get to stand in line for a half hour to get the car, then, though the room was maybe 2 miles as the crow flies, drive close to 10 miles to get there. All in all 13 hours door-to-door and barely any sleep. It was 1:30 AM Friday, local time (or 4:30 AM back home, when my alarm goes off) when I could finally get to bed. Naturally I was only able to sleep a few hours, so was up around sunup, all alone (the rest of the family went out to eat and didn’t get to bed until 3:30).

I had planned to play in at least one poker tournament and had figured on Friday at noon was the best time (if you wind up winning you are playing for 4-5 hours, of course you could bust out on the first hand or anywhere in between). A combination of things scratched that off the list, then we had planned to visit with my wife’s childhood friend who happens to live in Vegas Friday evening, but we were too tired despite taking several naps. We did manage to squeeze in a trip to a buffet where we ate until we hurt, but then decided to walk the not-quite 2 miles back to our room. That, plus a constitutional, helped immensely with the pain. Saturday was all about the wedding, though naturally there was plenty of hurry up and wait. The ceremony was quite nice, at the Bellagio overlooking the pool where the water show is. They timed the ceremony to end exactly when the water show started (or, more likely, held the beginning of the water show until the end of the ceremony). Quite lovely, though there was no place to sit and my feet were killing me.

The reception was just later enough to mean the time in between was wasted, then we went to Maggiano’s restaurant for 4 hours. Though the food was quite good, I really don’t care for loud parties and though I tried hard not to ruin it for anyone, I spent most of my time there with a stony expression just counting down the seconds until it was finally over.

Sunday was no better, when the family is all together even the most trivial decisions take an hour, so other than getting some Thai food we just sat around and packed. The trip back, thankfully, was much better. The boss only insisted we leave 2 hours before departure, we got to the gate a half hour before it was time to leave (yes, it did take 90 minutes to travel the 2 miles (as the crow flies), drop off the car, get through security and the airport). The plane left on time, I got to sit next to my wife in a regular seat against the window and actually got some decent rest. We got lucky and the parking shuttle bus arrived exactly as we made it to the pickup point and the roads were wide open. At least the trip home was angst free, though I had already vowed that this would be my last trip before we even left on Thursday. We’ll see; perhaps if we aren’t checking in tons of my ‘rents-in-law luggage (one of the reasons the boss wanted to leave so early on the way out) and can leave in the morning rather than evening (so our sleep schedule isn’t so completely screwed up) and we can stay for a week. We have a timeshare in Vegas, so the room is prepaid, if we use miles to fly the trip can be quite inexpensive, though we have to go during the summer since the boy is in school and summer in Vegas sucks.

I was quite disappointed in the level of eye candy when we were at Vegas. Being in the mid 60’s with a brisk breeze no doubt caused a lot of women to cover up, but even inside the casinos the women just weren’t what I was desiring to look at. There were ‘bits and pieces’ all over, of course, lots of beautiful hair, excellent legs, nice butts, perky breasts, flat tummies, but not in single packages. The best I remember was actually a fellow passenger on the flight out. As I like to say, though she so seldom seems to respond as if it is received as the complement I intend, there was very little competition for my wife.

I hope I can pick up the posting pace to something better than glacial, but until my work situation improves I am not optimistic. In any case, if I find the right agent I may keep my focus on writing novels instead of blogging as with only the evenings (though with construction nearly over, I might be able to start doing some sort of writing on the weekends come next year) I have to prioritize.

Step away from the salad bar!

So no one gets hurt!

Why salad is so overrated

Tamar is an interesting writer (her blog, the rest of her writing at the Post). She often takes a controversial subject in the world of food and does in-depth analysis on it (sort of like how the Do The Math blog does for alternative energy). In this article she looks at the value of salad, specifically the cost/benefit when including the farm and transportation costs. I knew things were bad, but didn’t realize how bad they were. She puts a comparison thus:

A head of iceberg lettuce has the same water content as a bottle of Evian (1-liter size: 96 percent water, 4 percent bottle) and is only marginally more nutritious [lettuce is 95 to 97 percent water].

This is an interesting image from the article:

Picture of salads, without the salad
Minus their greens, left to right: the Caesar Salad With Chicken from the Cheesecake Factory; the Quesadilla Explosion Salad from Chili’s Grill & Bar; the Waldorf Salad from California Pizza Kitchen. (T.J. Kirkpatrick/For The Washington Post)

Elevator to spaaayyyycccceeee!

Space elevator could take astronauts into the stratosphere
Canadian firm granted patents for elevator designed to reach 20km above Earth

Their space elevator idea has some promise, but I expect it is still $100’s of millions, if not billions, to build it. Finding someone willing to put that much green into something with only a 30% savings in fuel is likely to be challenging. It will be a serious engineering challenge as well.

My idea is to launch from a tube in the ocean (see here from back when I laughably thought I could interest others in my efforts) with an assist via microwave powered air breathing ‘rocket’ until the atmosphere runs out, then, in the case of fragile payloads (e.g., humans) a small rocket to get the rest of the way to the orbital space station. Non-fragile, non-perishable payloads can be sent much faster, thus should be able to get into orbit directly, then can use slow but efficient means to reach the station via ion drives. Yes, I have spent a lot of time thinking about this, 40+ years…

Good news, bad news

The latest on my vanity patent:

After much back and forth-ing with the examiner and his supervisor it seems my claims are being approved. That’s the good news. That’s it. The rest is bad news…

The bad news is the examiner has made this moronic insistence that I include a specific detection method in the claims which naturally means that if anyone were to produce the exact same product, but using a different detection method, they wouldn’t be infringing. The particular detection method is only meant to be used at the largest commercial scale (250K+ parallel sequencers) and there is plenty of money to be made at a much smaller scale (I already have a design with 40K parallel sequencers that would work just peachy, except uses a different detection method). Basically the patent is useless for any sort of intellectual property protection. Of course, if I had more money I could get around this nonsense, but the lawyer charges $675/hr and even though he has been generous in his accounting, I and my small investor just can’t afford to put in more money.

The worst thing, as if this weren’t bad enough, is the deadline to file for world-wide rights is Sept 15 and the lawyer needs at least 2 weeks to get the applications ready. Oh, the cost estimate for this process is $90-120K, more than the cost to validate the design. Thus, my uselessly narrowed patent will only be applicable in the US, probably no more than 20% of the market. My small investor took a tiny (yet still $1,000) ad out in the Wall Street Journal and to my mild surprise I got three inquiries. None amounted to anything; only one actually said no, the other two never got back to me despite my gentle nagging.

This whole process has really soured me on the idea of getting a patent. I’m quite certain that if we had a competent examiner that actually spoke comprehensible English we could have agreed on a set of claims that would have been commercially useful long ago and without getting the supervisor involved. A crap shoot on which examiner I get, though they all have specializations, so not totally random. Sort of like judges for trial, wind up with the hanging judge and spend the rest of your life in jail for a minor offense, get the bleeding heart judge and get probation for murder. Oh, examiners are basically paid piece work, so he has been reluctant to spend more time on my application since he has been working for ‘free’. I understand the government’s incentive to try and motivate the examiners with this approach, but now I’m being punished because of his incompetent insistence on wasting his time on irrelevancies.

So for any of you following this saga with any thought of getting a patent of your own, here are some bullet points for you based on my experience:

  • Never, ever, do this yourself. Your claims are everything. If you fuck up your claims before the examiner gets his (or her) mitts on them there is no recovery. Claims are legal statements, think about how easily Congress screws things up all the time. Don’t write your own claims unless you want to spend all your time and money on nothing.
  • Have deep pockets! I haven’t done a final accounting yet, but I am pretty sure I will have spent more than $20K for my useless patent. While it’s feasible to find a lawyer that charges a lot less than $675/hr (it isn’t like my lawyer gets all that, his firm has to pay for a nice building in the middle of DC, not to mention all the support staff) you have to be absolutely sure you have the right guy as this is an area where there are so many subspecialties it’s ridiculous. A portion of my patent mentioned LEDs and my lawyer worked with a specialist in LEDs to make sure all the right verbiage was included in my application.
  • Either plan to cover the global patents up-front or decide they aren’t necessary, this process is so long and drawn out that its just not practical to think you can get the US patent finalized before you go for the rest of the world. Though I never got to the point of doing the global applications (you apply for each country individually, in that country’s official language; let that sink in for a while) I have had a number of estimates in the same range. Thus, expect to have a working budget of at least $150K to get global coverage
  • Don’t bother. That is my take-away message from this debacle. All a patent grants you is the right to sue someone for infringement. If your idea is worthless to begin with, you won’t have any problems with infringers because you already wasted your time and money. If your idea is worth a mint (as I remain convinced mine _was_; now it is basically free to anyone, thus worthless to me) then you need to prepare every step of the way for prosecuting infringers AND have deep enough pockets to take them on. The US system is carefully crafted to basically make the odds of success for the individual on par with the lottery. I’m quite sure if I had ‘invested’ that $20K in lotto tickets I would have more to show for my efforts than I will ever get out of this patent.

Here is a partial list of other billion-dollar ideas I won’t be pursuing:

  • Long-term (million-year) archival storage with read speeds as fast as today’s fastest drives.
  • Table-top fusion. Actually, if this works it’s a trillion dollar idea.
  • Molecular memory that’s as fast as RAM, retains information without power and is infinitely re-writable.
  • This is probably only a $100 million idea: synthetic anti-freeze protein for tissue and organ preservation.

Aquaponics is probably my last attempt at elevating myself out of (upper) middle class. If I can get reality to match my pretty spreadsheet I can leverage our current resources into a nation-wide network that has billion-dollar potential. On days like today, though, it’s hard to get enthusiastic about the potential…

Burning to live longer

Study: Can Spicy Food Actually Increase Life Span?

Would you eat chili peppers 2-4 times a week to live 10-14% longer?

I love the taste going in, but can’t stand the burn going out. Even with bidets, all I get is very temporary relief as the cool water flows, as soon as I turn the water off the burn is at least as bad as before. I like horseradish (wasabi) because it only burns going in.

I only half jokingly like to say: what is the point of living forever if your life sucks?

The paper.

Insecure IoT

Vulnerabilities in Brink’s Smart Safe

This is far from shocking to anyone who has studied infosec. More of a total yawn, actually. Clueless people racing to claim market segments are naturally going to trip over complex things like security. Anything meant to be secure only has a chance of being such if the only way to change configuration is to properly authenticate. Customers hate that, though, because when they forget their password then they have an expensive brick on their hands. I experienced that myself: I bought a solid state computer I was intending at the time to use for hosting my web sites (my provider, at the time, was being incredibly unresponsive to my complaints). I chose a password that would be trivial to remember so naturally didn’t write it down. Over a year later I remember the thing is sitting in the basement and lo and behold, I have no idea what the damn password is. I believe I was eventually able to reset the box and get back onto it (I can’t remember, it was many months ago when I tried for a couple of days), but anyone else who had physical possession of the box could also do that. I quite doubt that the drive was encrypted such that it became a incomprehensible mess upon reset, I expect all the data would be there plain as day. Since I only paid a couple of hundred for the box I was frustrated, but it wasn’t a big deal. What if you had paid 100’s of thousands or millions? In that case you would demand that there be a back door (but only a ‘secure one’, whatever the hell that means!) so if the gewgaw was unable to be reached for some reason you could get around it and still get your money’s worth.

Real security is expensive and hard and is still steeped with vulnerabilities. Anything else is just window dressing advertising to a credulous customer designed to improve profit margins at the expense of ignorance.

Designer Virus’

Ancient Viruses as Gene Therapy Vectors
Researchers deploy ancestors of today’s adeno-associated viruses to deliver gene therapies without immune system interference.

The interesting thing to me is that the _exact same_ techniques can be used to produce a variant for a lethal virus, yet there have been no calls to bury this research.

A hammer can be a tool for building a house, or a weapon for bashing someone’s brains out, but it is still just a lump of metal at the end of a shaft. One interesting thing about this tool is while it is trivial for a non-carpenter to grab up a hammer and kill someone with it, in order to use the techniques mentioned in the article to develop a lethal virus you actually have to be smarter than the people who developed the original tool. That day will come, of course, but it does mean that it isn’t likely to be a tool for terrorists, at least not ones with poor resources. No doubt a bent billionaire could hire the right people to develop such a weapon, but how realistic is that?

Anyway, we are slowly creeping towards a high quality medical system that can fix all sorts of chronic problems. In a generation or two hence these problems will be relegated to the medical history books.

Can’t happen soon enough for me!

Life companions: you and your microbiome

The Sum of Our Parts
Putting the microbiome front and center in health care, in preventive strategies, and in health-risk assessments could stem the epidemic of noncommunicable diseases.

This is a really interesting article that sums up the evolving state-of-the-art regarding the health impacts of our microbiome. I knew that things were rapidly evolving but hadn’t realized that this research had gone from fringe to mainstream. I have discussed the microbiome a number of times and see it as a critical missing element in our health care regime.

Below are a couple of quotes as teasers to try and get you to read the full article. Your continuing health depends on this, though you probably don’t know it, and the health of your children even more so.

Germ-free (gnotobiotic) mice provide a sobering model for what happens to a developing human immune system in the absence of microbiome-based training. When microbiota are absent, normal postnatal immune maturation is blocked, and tissue homeostasis is never fully established. Lymphoid deficiencies occur in both the body’s mucous membranes and its systemic tissues, such as the lymph nodes and spleen. Germ-free mice also develop imbalances among specialized immune cell populations that result in improper immune responses when challenged with injury or a pathogen. Depending on the nature of the challenge, defective host immune responses may include increased susceptibility to certain infections, reduced vaccine responses, and/or inflammation-induced tissue pathologies, such as asthma or colitis.

Given the undeniable importance of commensal microbes in both training our immune systems and serving as a barrier between ourselves and the outside world, one of us (R.D.) has posited that a complete microbiome, seeded at birth, is absolutely critical for a healthful life, an idea called “the completed self hypothesis.” Single-celled organisms from all three domains of life—eukaryotes, archaea, and bacteria—join our mammalian cells to create a superorganism. Inadequate or inappropriate seeding of the microbiome is in many ways the equivalent of being born with a serious birth defect, resulting in inappropriately matured physiological systems. In the absence of effective microbiome-based training, the immune system does not learn what is safe outside of the body, resulting in haphazard, inappropriate reactions to innocuous environmental factors—allergens such as pollen, mold, cat dander, and peanuts. It also fails to properly recognize and ignore internal targets, resulting in autoimmune and inflammatory responses that are misdirected, ineffective, and sometimes never-ending. Such reactions can eventually compromise the function of our own tissues and organs.

There is a sidebar at the end that talks about direct manipulation of the microbiome, but we are still in our infancy in that regard. Right now it is tedious and time consuming to get details on exactly what is growing in/on us, when that process has finally become quick and economical we will surely make great strides in determining what is an optimal microbiome.

PIXAR’s life lessons

8 Dark Life Lessons Kids Learn From Pixar Films

While there are a large number of articles at Cracked that are funny, every now and again you get one that is funny and thoughtful. Actually I take that back: they have lots that are funny and thoughtful; every now and then I find one that is funny and thoughtful and I want to blog about it…

I hadn’t thought about things the way the author has, I sort of sat back and just enjoyed the movies, but everything the author talks about is dead on. PIXAR is really giving kids a valuable education even if it never winds up on the SOL exams and doing it in a way where PIXAR makes tons of money, the kids have a great time and even adults can enjoy themselves. What an amazing combination!

Anyway, just had to ‘retweet’ this…

Living in a Vacuum

The Judgy Bubble

Yet another interesting post by Scott. If you show to other people that you will be an asshole if they reveal certain information, what is the chance they will do so? Pretty slim, wouldn’t you think? That is the gist of his short post. Thus if you are a judgmental asshole you could actually be living in a different world from your family, friends and neighbors, because people would self-censor around you just to avoid hearing you mouth off. Quite an interesting concept, it helps to explain the ‘echo chamber‘. If you annoy the crap out of people who are the slightest bit critical of you, except for a few select assholes who love to piss those sorts of people off, you should expect that the vast majority of people will simply stop being honest with you. If no one around you will point out your idiocy why should anyone expect you would have even the tiniest thought that you were a moron incapable of seeing reality?

It is always nice to hear a theory that seems to fit all the facts. This one allows for some experimentation as well, such as what if you could isolate someone from his or her echo chamber, could you get them to acknowledge they’ve been in one?