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January 25, 2006

Brominated Vegetable Oil

I was reading through some ingredients today, this time on a can of Sparkling Black Cherry Fresca. I came across one called "brominated vegetable oil". Concerned after my last experience, I went to Google to find a Wikipedia article about it. Although it is apparently banned in some countries, it doesn't seem harmful except in their example where a man drank eight liters of Ruby Red Squirt (containing "bvo") a day and came down with a case of bromoderma which turned his skin red. Given that many servings of Squirt, it seems lucky that's all he came down with.

Fresca is an amazing witch's brew of other funky ingredients. Sure there are the regulars: potassium citrate, potassium benzoate, and EDTA, but it also has carob bean gum, glycerol ester of wood rosin, and acacia, though I imagine most soft drinks refer to these only as "natural and artificial flavors".

January 22, 2006

Color Wheel

I have inherited webmaster duties for a DOT employees organization. For the most part the site is very neglected, somebody put a lot of effort into it one time and then nothing really came of it. It also uses frames. The problem I have with frames is you never really know where you are and in this case there are eight different local branches of the club, plus the statewide organization. The colors and buttons are kind of simple. I thought using I could use a format kind of like what the blogs use where there are two columns, one for links and one for content. But I'm terrible with colors and didn't just want to use Vicksburg Olive like my blog does, even though I like the way those colors work together.

I found a neat website that offers a color wheel. It may be in different places because they guy says he will let you put the source on your own page (with ads), but this is where I found it:

Colour Scheme Chooser

You pick any color by changing the Red, Green, and Blue values and it comes up with a palette of complimentary colors usings that color (or something close to it, really he rounds everthing off so that you are only choosing from 4,000 instead of 16,777,216 colors).

So what I did was took the Vicksburg theme CSS, then added in the basic CSS to have everything in one file. Then I took a snapshot of my blog page and used LView to tell me what the different color values were for the background, text color, etc. There are about 8 colors used. Then I went to color wheel and picked a scheme I liked and wrote down 8 color values that I wanted to use, trying to match them up with my blog snapshot. Lastly, I opened the CSS file for editing and did a find and replace for the original color value and replaced it with the new color value. I'm sure that as uncomplicated as my example is that I didn't need 90% of the CSS that was in the file but it was easier to do a global replace than edit the sheet (it was enough trouble putting the module column on the left instead of the right).

The original:


The new color scheme:


I posted some test pages at the original site. The first is based on Vicksburg Olive, the second on the new one above, and the third is another one I came up with later. I have modified the style sheets to take out most of what I don't need and renaming some of the classes to be more appropriate to a web page. It was all very confusing, but the results look pretty professional, I think.

January 16, 2006

Nick Lowe

This past weekend, Susan and I saw Walk the Line, the movie about Johnny Cash (it got a good review from me). As such things do, it got me doing some research about Johnny Cash. I had been kind of disappointed with the greatest hits CD I had gotten several years ago. It had "Ring of Fire" and "Boy Named Sue" (which I don't even like, though it's a good story), but seemed lacking. A lot of the songs in the movie were from his earliest days at Sun records and were more appealing to me. So I went off looking for some of that music and bought a few songs from iTunes, plus a good duet with June Carter they played at the end of the movie. Then I decided to make a virtual CD in iTunes of the new stuff from iTunes and the good stuff from my CD, filtering out songs I wasn't crazy about. I was trying to figure out what would be good from my old CD and in the liner notes saw that one of the later songs was by Nick Lowe with Nick Lowe on guitar. I don't know if I'd never made it that far on the CD, but I'd never noticed it before and it was a pretty good song ("Without Love," the CD also has Cash doing a cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Highway Patrolman" which Jeb would probably like, but didn't make my cut). I'd seen Nick Lowe's name come up a lot before and I just had to figure out who he was.

I went to AllMusic and found out he was a member of Brinsley Schwarz in the early 70's, which meant nothing to me since I'd never heard of them. He's considered a founder of New Wave, but the only hit song he had in the US was "Cruel To Be Kind" in the 80's (which I remember). He also wrote "Wha'ts so Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding?" which Elvis Costello later performed and put on his greatest hits album. I knew he had been connected with Elvis Costello and it turns out he produced several of Costello's albums. He also produced some songs by The Pretenders when they were big.

It turns out he is a real character. To get out of a record contract with United Artists once, he decided to write really bad songs. One of them was "Bay City Rollers We Love You" but it became a surprise hit in Japan and the record company kept him under contract. As far as I can tell he stayed mostly below the radar for his entire career (though he's still around, so who knows?). In 1987 someone (not Elvis Costello) remade "Peace Love" again for the soundtrack for The Bodyguard which also featured Whitney Houston's giant, enormous hit (by Dolly Parton) "I Will Always Love You". The album broke all kinds of sales records for a soundtrack and Lowe became a millionaire just from the royalties for writing a song most people probably skipped. Happy ending.

And the Johnny Cash connection? It turns out that just before Cash made that song with Lowe, Lowe had married Carlene Carter who was Johnny's wife's daughter by a previous marriage. So Cash was Lowe's step father in law (until they got divorced in 1990).

Here's the whole article though I've told you most of the good parts.

January 12, 2006

Sony MDR-EX81 Headphones

My review of my new headphones on Amazon.

Four stars

I read the reviews here, and decided to get these headphones anyway. Essentially they are pretty good: they are comfortable and sound good. I hoped for more though.

The sound can be good just by itself, but on the iPod I have to crank it up to about 80% for it to sound its best. While I disagree with people who said the buds have no bass (they must not have the fit worked out), I do agree that especially with rock music the sound can be tinny. Using the iPod equalizer setting called Treble Reducer seems to help, but then if you play the iPod over a car or home stereo you have to remember to turn the equalizer off again or the iPod sounds muddy.


The buds are very comfortable, but they do go pretty far in your ear. They block out a lot of noise (I couldn't hear my cell ringing until I got to a silent part between songs), but not everything. I'm not sure the ear hooks are even necessary since the buds fit in the ear pretty snugly. Plus the hooks tangle like crazy, catching on every cord they come across. I didn't like the asymetric cords until I realized the longer cord was supposed to go behind your neck instead of under your chin. That way if you need to talk to someone you can take the earbuds out and they hang around your neck. That's a nice feature.

I can't strongly recommend these, but I don't know that I would recommend avoiding them either. And they are certainly better than a lot of things you will find out there.

January 11, 2006

iPod at its peak

Before Christmas, a co-worker told me he had put iPod nano's on layway for his two kids as their big Christmas gift. But as Christmas got closer he was talking to his older son (age 15) about iPods and his son said that he would rather have a Playstation Portable (PSP) because it plays music too but also plays movies and the best video games. Upon hearing this, his younger sister (about 10) said that was what she wanted too. So the layaway order for the iPods was cancelled and the kids got PSP's.

I think that was a really big turning point. The iPod has gone from being so cool that you have to have it, to coming up short on features. Yes, the new ones play video that you download from iTunes, but how long will people be satisfied with something that only plays music and tiny videos?

The Palm went through this. For a while it was the hot thing and every business person needed one. They "couldn't live" without their Palms. I still feel that way about mine and for a while Palm seemed unstoppable. But then Dell and HP took huge chunks of market share by selling more advanced (and more expensive) handheld devices that were almost like tiny laptops (with Microsoft Windows and Office even). Now some people have Blackberries, some have RAZR phones with cameras. Palm has some phones and has licensed its operating system to other phone makers, but a Palm isn't a must-have. Having a simple, fairly inexpensive device, that only stores phone numbers and your calendar seems like a waste of pocket real estate.

Take a blackberry, RAZR, or even a Palm and add a tiny 20 GB hard drive and who needs an iPod anymore? Maybe you won't even need the hard drive, maybe you can just get songs wirelessly from music services, satellite, or even your home computer. Apple is still the top of the heap, but I see them getting left behind. The iPod has been a very successful mp3 player, but I don't know if people will settle for mp3 players for much longer. And Apple can't change the iPod too much without it not really being an iPod anymore.

January 5, 2006

Op amps

At first my Sony MDR-EX81 headphones didn't seem to get that loud. I thought maybe I needed to get an amplifier. When I built my Band Aids battery pack for the iPod, there were already people putting battery packs in Altoids tins. I soon found out that some people were also building amplifiers in Altoids tins. They have a line in from the iPod and a line out to the headphones and make the sound much louder in headphones that require more oomph than the typical ear buds (or for people who just want their music really loud). Susan even told me that her nephew made some of these Altoids amplifiers. So I started researching them around the Christmas holidays.

Most are based on a pretty simple circuit board project consisting of a few resistors, capacitors, hardware for batteries, jacks, and switches, a power LED, and a chip called an "op amp". I had learned about op amps in college when I took a class in electrical engineering for people who aren't electrical engineers. They make building amplifiers a lot cheaper and now just about everything with volume controls uses op amps. This project involves soldering probably 20 different parts and seemed beyond my ability to make, but people sell them on eBay. However there are all kinds of variations where people use bigger capacitors (for more bass) or separate op amp circuits for the right and left channels. They are call cmoy amps, or chu moy amps, after a guy that developed the design and helped people build their own, named Chu Moy. I saw the cmoy name long before I realized it was short for a person's name.

On eBay a comparatively inexpensive one had a single op amp, and no volume knob (you use the volume on the source or the headphones). It usually auctions for about $22. Another one has two separate op amps and sells for $65 but the guy custom makes them and takes $5 off if you don't want the volume knob. There are a couple of others that don't use the cmoy design. One typically sells for around $70-80. All of those come in black plastic boxes. But there is a guy in Germany who builds his into mint tins (he uses Penguin Caffeinated mints which have several really cool tins). His typically auction for between $50 and $80. A couple of them have an extra jack for external power that will recharge the batteries inside (usually a 9-volt, but one uses 2 AA's) or just power the amp without a battery. The eBay ads are pretty funny because they go into extensive detail about the electronic components and how they came up with the design. Some have maybe ten pages (if you printed it out) of text and pictures.


I bid $21 on the cheap one several times, hoping I could take the guts out and put it in a mint tin, but I never won. People have been making these for several years and selling them on eBay, but I'm not sure why someone hasn't figured out to mass produce them in China using the same high quality components for a fraction of the cost. You pay a lot for labor, profit, and shipping on eBay.

Lately I've decided my headphones are plenty loud for me and about the only use I would have for a headphone amplifier is if two people wanted to listen to the iPod at the same time. And the only time this happened was on a trip to Florida when Danny and I watched Black Hawk Down on Jeb's laptop and the volume wasn't that loud over the headphone splitter I had gotten. I think what these amps are really for is headphones that are usually used with home stereos instead of portables and require a much stronger signal. Still, it's a neat project.

January 4, 2006

Bad Engineering

Today I was reading articles from space.com on my Palm. One article concerned the Stardust space probe which is due to come back to Earth on January 15th carrying, what else, stardust that it has collected in space.

The mission is similar to the Genesis probe which also collected space dust and returned to earth. The idea was it would re-enter the atmosphere, deploy a parachute, and then be intercepted gently by a helicopter on the way down to avoid breaking the fragile collection plates sealed inside the probe. Well, the parachutes never deployed, the helicopters couldn't catch it, and Genesis crashed into the ground at high speed in September 2004, ruining a $264 million science experiment.

Other than "the parachutes failed to open" I had never heard what caused the accident. But they did investigate. There were switches inside the spacecraft that would trigger the release of the parachute by detecting g-forces. At three g's (as the spacecraft first hit the atmosphere) the switch would engage but not release the parachute until the g forces rose to 30 g's and then came back down below 3 g's again when it would be safe for the parachutes to deploy. But the designer at Lockheed put the gravity switch in upside down so the switch saw g's in the wrong direction and never engaged. But they're not complete idiots: there was a backup switch. It was upside down too. No one ever caught the mistakes. It would be like putting airbags in your headrest instead of the steering wheel.

Stardust was designed by Lockheed too. Watch out for falling spacecraft on the 15th.

January 3, 2006


It’s the beginning of the year so I used this past weekend to figure out how my investments did last year and decide where to put my 2006 installment of my Roth IRA. As you will recall, last December and January I had put the 2004 and 2005 contributions into Vanguard’s Small Cap Value Index. Small Cap stocks had a pretty good run prior to that time and this past year continued to (barely) outpace the Dow and S&P 500 (though medium sized companies did better than all of them in 2005). So I was going to leave that money where it was, but thought it was time to diversify the new contribution into something else.

I like international funds because they offer pretty good diversity from US stocks. I bought Janus Overseas back in 1998 and had been happy with it until it started lagging in 2002 and 2003 when I sold half of it and put it in a higher-rated (by Morningstar) fund, Fidelity Diversified International (which was actually the first foreign fund I had bought 1995, but I had to sell it to buy my house in 1997). I watched them both for two years as they went up in value at about the same impressive rate (40% in 2003, 20% in 2004). Meanwhile, in my Deferred Compensation account at work I had put 20% in American Europacific Growth and it had also done quite well. This past year Janus really leaped ahead, rising 32% to Fidelity’s 17%. So I'm glad I didn't abandon Janus entirely.

I looked at Vanguard’s Total International Stock Index fund which has only three holdings, each another Vanguard index fund for European, Asian, and emerging markets (I wanted some exposure to emerging markets since that is part of what helped Janus outperform Fidelity this year). But after thinking about it I decided that foreign stocks had probably enjoyed a good run, but couldn’t sustain it. I’m not selling any of my foreign funds, but I don’t think it is a good time to commit more money to that area either.

So that got me thinking that I needed to put money somewhere that didn’t do as well this year. Telecoms, technology, and pharmaceuticals didn’t do so great this year. Also large cap growth companies lagged. So I started looking for something like that. Vanguard had a few things, but possibly because of that lagging performance, a lot of their funds only got two stars out of five from Morningstar. I thought I could just put money in Vanguard’s large cap growth index fund. But then I found a fund that used to be called Vanguard Calvert Social Index. It is a 4-star fund and its performance was nearly identical to Vanguard’s Growth Index. Its top 3 holdings are Microsoft, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson: tech and pharmaceuticals. As a side bonus it doesn’t invest in tobacco, weapons, or nuclear power companies while it screens companies based on their human rights, labor practices, and environmental records. I thought that was worth something and it still seemed like a good investment. I found an article where a guy came up with an anti-social index of companies that are excluded and said they outperform the S&P 500 while the social index underperforms. But if that is true then why is the performance so close? (here’s a graph showing the 5-year performance of VCSIX (social index), VIGRX (the growth index) and the S&P 500 (GSPC)). I guess Calvert (who have their own mutual funds) wanted a license fee from Vanguard so in December Vanguard renamed their fund the FTSE Social Index, based on a similar index, FTSE4good, by the British company, FTSE (who donate their license fees for the social index to the UN). So I put my $4,000 on that horse. We’ll see how it does.

Interestingly, today the stock market had a big rally and everything that did well last year, continued to do really well. The Dow (large caps) was up by 1.2%, but the broader S&P 500 and small cap Russell 2000 were up 1.6% each. Meanwhile Janus picked right up where it was and rose 2.6% along with Fidelity. The FTSE fund, meanwhile was up only 1.4%. But I didn’t want it to go up today since I was buying at the closing price (that 1.4% rally cost me $56).