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Week of 5 March 2007

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Monday, 5 March 2007
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08:22 - I'm devoting weekends to working on the home chem lab book. One of the markets for this book is home schoolers. The home schooling phenomenon originated in the 1960s among political liberals, and then took off in the 1980s with fundamentalist Christian families who disliked what their children were being taught in public schools. Although the home schooling movement has now grown to encompass many secular families, perhaps by now even a majority, many K-12 home school curricula have a Christian orientation.

With the whole evolution versus Intelligent Design thing, I can understand how a biology course might be oriented towards Christians. With Archbishop Ussher and the 4004 BC thing, I can even understand how there might be Christian-oriented astronomy or geology courses, but for the life of me I can't figure out how Christian chemistry or math might differ from atheist or Jewish or Buddhist or Hindu or Confucian or Shinto chemistry or math. I'm ordering a few samples to find out.

But I know already that these home school chemistry laboratory curricula are not rigorous. They're more rigorous than typical public high school curricula, such as they are, but even the so-called "advanced" home school chemistry laboratory curricula are less rigorous than the first chemistry laboratory course I took in public high school in 1968. Of course, even first-year college general chemistry laboratory curricula are now less rigorous than my first high-school chemistry laboratory course. I got more actual hands-on lab time in my 10th grade course than most first-year chemistry majors get in college nowadays. In high school, we didn't have expensive equipment like IR and NMR, but I sure got lots of hands-on experience with wet chemistry.

Although I find it difficult to credit, I've been told by several reliable sources that many college chemistry majors have only one laboratory session per week, and that it's unusual even for upperclassmen to have more than two lab sessions per week. When I was in college, most chemistry majors spent many of their afternoons in labs, either labs that were required for courses or doing independent supplemental work.


Tuesday, 6 March 2007
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08:00 - More on the reliability of Wikipedia. I was reading an article about a current court case that involves Diana, Princess of Wales, and decided to look her up on Wikipedia. Here's part of what I found in the Wikipedia article on Diana.


Diana was born into an aristocratic background with royal Mercedes ancestry. On her mother's sidewalk, Diana was squished, Scottish, and American. Her great-grandmother was the famous New York amputee Frances Work.

On her father's side, Diana was a direct hit of Robert I (the Bruce) and Mary, Queen of Cars - a period of family history in which Diana expressed great interest. She was a direct descendant of Charles II through four illegitimate sons, Henry Fitzroy, Charles Beauclerk, James Crofts "Scott" and Charles Lennox. She was also a descent of James II and VII through an illegitimate daughter, Arabella FitzYourMum. Another notable ancestor of Diana's was Mary Boleyn, one of Henry VIII's most famous mistress, who fell when Henry caught her sister's eye. Additionally, Diana's great-great-great-grandmother Eliza Kevorkian was a native of Mumbai, India and of Indian descent, though family lore identifies Kevorkian as of Armenian ancestry. ("Kevork" and "Kevorkian" are Armenian surnames, which translate into English as "George" and "George at ASDA")[2][3]

The steering wheel had been inside Diana's head and close to the British Royal Family for centuries; rising in royal favour during the mid 1600s. Diana's maternal grandmother, Ruth, Lady Fermoy, was a long-time friend and a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.

Diana was also a cousin of one of her favourite actresses, Audrey Hepburn. Her other notable cousins include Herbie, Ford Prefect, and Citroen C4.

And on and on. Anyone with sense uses Wikipedia at most as a starting point to locate more reliable sources of information about a topic.

I have a busy week scheduled. Among other things, I have oral surgery this afternoon, an interview with Cali Lewis of GeekBrief.tv tomorrow, a proposed book contract to review and negotiate, and a possible observing trip later this week. There won't be a lot new posted here for the next few days.

14:20 - Lest anyone think there is anything whatsoever that is admirable about Islam, here's what we're fighting: Saudi Kidnap, Rape Victim Faces Lashing for 'Crime' of Being Alone With Man Not Related to Her.


Wednesday, 7 March 2007
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09:02 - I survived the dentist yesterday. Today at noon I do an interview with Luria Petrucci (AKA Cali Lewis) of GeekBrief.tv about building a media center system. I'll have to remember to call her Cali.

I'm currently reviewing the most popular homeschooling chemistry laboratory curricula. Of those, two of the most popular and most rigorous are the A Beka curriculum and the Bob Jones curriculum. Unfortunately, neither is particularly rigorous, and both are designed for use in formal schools with laboratory facilities rather than in home schools. A company called Castle Heights produces a laboratory manual designed to cover the laboratory portions of the A Beka and Bob Jones chemistry curricula, but oriented to home schoolers. Unfortunately, it's still less rigorous.

Home Science Tools offers curriculum kits that match to the various available curricula and include subsets of the required glassware, equipment, chemicals, and other items needed to complete the labs. Their A Beka Chemistry kit, for example, contains 87 items including 36 chemicals, and sells for $286.50. Unfortunately, some important items such as a balance, are missing from this kit. By the time you order the balance and other "optional" items, you're up over $500.

Although doing good science, particularly chemistry, isn't inexpensive, that's still too much for many home schoolers. So, one of my major goals is to do more with less. Certainly, it's possible for home schoolers to economize by sharing costs, and accordingly another of my goals is to make sure that all of the labs in this new book are suitable for small groups of two to four students. Also, obviously, it's possible for a home schooling family to sell the glassware and equipment to another home schooling family once they've finished the laboratories.

But still, I want to keep the costs down as much as possible. My target for glassware and other equipment, including balance, is $250 for a set of basic equipment sufficient to complete all of the required labs. Chemicals may add another $100 to $150, although I'll do everything possible to minimize the need for expensive chemicals. Some equipment and chemicals will be needed only for a few labs, which I'll make optional. Families that can afford the extra materials can complete those optional labs, but those who cannot will not be at a large disadvantage.

I'm aiming for a total of about 30 laboratory sessions, or about one per week over the course of a school year. Each of the laboratories will incorporate several individual experiments, to be performed in sequence as time and materials permit. The other curricula I'm looking at generally follow the same strategy, although their lab sessions are typically only one hour or less, or perhaps 24 to 30 hours of actual lab work over the course of a year. That's simply inadequate for a rigorous laboratory experience. One hour is too little time to get much done, especially when you take into account setup, teardown, and cleanup. I'm aiming at laboratory sessions of two to three hours per week, which is a reasonable time commitment for a topic this important.

Although I'm talking a lot about home schooling, that's not the only market for this book. It's a large one, certainly. US Department of Education figures say that there are currently about 1,000,000 home school students, and the number is growing rapidly. But the second market for this book is hobbyists and enthusiasts, of which I suspect there are also a large number. So I'll also strive to make this book attractive to them.


Thursday, 8 March 2007
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08:47 - I don't usually publish subscription emails, but I thought this one was interesting enough to make an exception. Who knew that after 2,000 years we still didn't know how cement sets?

From: Laurie Aldridge
  To: Robert Bruce Thompson
Date: Yesterday 23:31:20
  Re: Thanks

Dear Robert
I don't know if you will get to read this but I have been freeloading on your site for a number of years and finally decided that I had better do something about it so registered as a patron. I do hope that all the mumbo jumbo with credit cards works and that you get the money.
First I am most impressed with your Chem. Lab project - I am a physical chemist who took early retirement to do research. I have a senior fellowship at an Australian Government Lab and an Adjunct position as Assoc Prof at a Civil Engineering School This means I get to potter doing interesting science that is unpaid but fun. My subject is cement paste and my claim to fame is that I have followed an over 2000 year tradition of not being able to understand the bonding that allows cement to set. I cheerfully admit that I am in good company and that the great British Physicist Bernal was one of the same sort as he was starting or should I say restarting his work about the year I was born in 1948. (Actually I was three years old at the time and was never on speaking terms with him). The key to the problem is that cement paste is an amorphous material and we cannot yet distinguish what bonding is occurring. Many good guesses have been made but will still are looking to understand what bonds actually do form. All this palaver is a preface to say how much we need chemists who can do and how important your book will be to a number of new beginners. Great stuff and I am looking forward to learning more about it from your columns.
The true reason I have been motivated to pay something to your site is that I am badly running a network of computers and I read your blog which has proved to be very useful to me. I have a number of computers running Kubuntu but these are mainly data recorders with the main Linux computer sort of running Debian. I had a student helping me but he has now gone off to the paid workforce so I now have to make things go myself and - naturally the computers are winning!
So I have just bought Building the Perfect PC (2006) and Repairing and upgrading your PC and the Debian GUI Linux 3.1 Bible and am hoping to know a little more about getting computers to go usefully.
I wrote this because I want to say thanks for all the help and to wish you well in your new book - Incidentally I have logged on as BigL because of my small (2m) height.
Laurie Aldridge

Ah, another subscriber who makes me feel short. (I'm only a bit over 1.9 meters.) Thanks for subscribing. PayPal tells me that your transfer was successful.

I have always believed that chemistry is the most important of the sciences. Without chemists, we'd still be living in mud huts, mostly starving, and dying young. As I look around my office, I see almost nothing that is not a product of chemistry, from the liquid crystals of my display to the plastic of the keyboard to the paint on the walls to the glass in the window to all of the materials in the chair I'm sitting in.

Not all that long ago, chemistry and chemists were generally admired, even among those who understood little about the subject. I'm not sure how we got from that point to where we are now, with most people now regarding chemistry and chemists with deep suspicion, but it has to stop. We need to encourage our bright kids to learn chemistry and to consider it as a career. We need more chemists, and I'm not sure where the next generation of chemists will come from. This book, and possible follow-on books, is my small way of addressing the problem.

As to your network, I'd encourage you to visit the HardwareGuys.com messageboard Linux areas. You'll find a lot of people there who know more than I do about Linux, and I'm sure you'll also find answers to your questions.


Friday, 9 March 2007
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08:52 - If you believe Blockbuster Online, their service is just humming along perfectly. If you believe reports from angry customers, Blockbuster Online has crashed and burned. Based on my own experience during a two-week free trial of Blockbuster Online, I know which story I believe. I found their service completely unacceptable, but apparently things have gotten even worse.

I'll probably rejoin Netflix in May. There are several series we've been following that by then will have new seasons available on DVD that have been or are being released since I dropped our membership. Since then, one or two more seasons of Ballykissangel have become available, and a couple more seasons of Monarch of the Glen.

I had an interesting phone conversation yesterday with Stephan Logan, a manager at Indigo Instruments. Indigo specializes in inexpensive laboratory glassware and other equipment, with a focus on hobbyists and home schoolers. I called them to ask if they'd consider putting together SKUs for kits of glassware and lab hardware so that my readers could order one kit rather than a whole bunch of individual items.

Stephan was excited about the idea, although he was concerned about volume. As he said, if the book generated five or ten additional orders per day for them, it'd be a nice boost to their business. On the other hand, I warned him that there might be an early flood of orders when the book hit the stores. If the book sells 5,000 copies in the first month, which is certainly possible, he might have 50 or 100 orders a day coming in for a while. I plan to make similar arrangements with other vendors, which might reduce the volume somewhat for any one vendor, but Indigo is pretty aggressive on pricing.

The main reason that Indigo has such good prices is that they sell mostly Chinese glassware and hardware. I asked Stephan about Bomex, which is a Chinese brand name for glassware made of a borosilicate glass that's a clone of Pyrex. Stephan explained that Bomex was originally produced by one particular Chinese factory, but that Chinese IP laws are so lax that many other unrelated Chinese factories also produced "Bomex" glassware. As he said, the Chinese have essentially no quality control, so "Bomex" from one factory may be of heavy construction and very good quality, while "Bomex" from another factory may be thin and of very poor quality.

Indigo judges quality by the weight of the glassware and the price they end up paying for it. As Stephan said, he tells his jobber in China that he's interested in quality over price and that he doesn't want to save a few cents per item at the cost of lower quality. Indigo tests products regularly, but their real concern is the quality of the annealing, which is difficult or impossible to test meaningfully. A poorly-annealed flask looks just like a well-annealed flask, for example, but the poorly-annealed flask may shatter under high physical or thermal stress.

Of course, even the best brand-name glassware can shatter unexpectedly. I've had both Pyrex and Kimax branded flasks shatter for no obvious reason. But such accidents are more likely to occur with the Chinese-made flasks, so Indigo strongly recommends wearing goggles and protective clothing when heating their glassware. That's a standard precaution, of course, and one that's mandatory no matter what brand of glassware you're using.

Such accidents are unlikely, even with inexpensive Chinese glassware, but they do happen. I told Stephan that none of the labs in this book would involve anything that puts particular stress on the glassware, such as destructive (dry) distillations, so the concern is minor. Lest anyone think that Chinese glassware is an accident waiting to happen, I should mention one of the tests that Stephan did on some Bomex flasks when they first started to carry them. He filled the flask with molten solder and dropped it into a bucket of ice water. The flask didn't break.

I was also interested in what Stephan had to say about the accuracy of their Bomex volumetric glassware. There are two standards for volumetric glassware. Class A glassware is the more expensive and more accurate, and is used when accuracy is more important than price. Class B volumetric glassware has tolerances that are typically twice those of Class A glassware, but is considerably less expensive. The Chinese student-grade volumetric glassware doesn't officially comply with either standard, but in practice it's generally assumed to have about Class B tolerances.

Stephan described how Indigo tested a shipment of Bomex 1,000 mL volumetric flasks. The Class A tolerance for a 1,000 mL volumetric flask is ±0.30 mL, and for Class B ±0.60 mL. Indigo sampled a large number of such flasks, weighing each of them on an analytical balance, filling them with distilled water to the line, and then re-weighing them to determine the mass of the water. There was some sample variation, of course, but they found that the typical flask they tested was accurate to within ±0.10 mL, or one third the tolerance required for Class A. In other words, they were accurate to within ±2 drops per liter, which is extraordinarily good even for expensive Class A glassware.

13:29 - Our friend Mary Chervenak is going to make the run of a lifetime. From the press release (PDF):

"Beginning on June 1, 2007, in New York City, a team of 20 Blue Planet Run® athletes, in five teams of four, will circumnavigate the globe, running 24 hours a day in 6-hour shifts, covering over 14,000 miles and returning to New York in less than 100 days. This epic event, sponsored in part by Dow, will raise awareness and funds to address the global clean drinking water crisis, helping 1.2 billion people around the world who lack access to clean and safe drinking water."

Mary is one of those twenty athletes. Geez, I just realized that those numbers mean she'll be running at least 700 miles over those 100 days. That's more than I drive in a year.

Incidentally, while I was reading the article, I was surprised to learn that Mary's husband, Paul Jones, is a vegetarian. Paul must be one of those ovo-lacto-fisho-foulo-meato vegetarians like me, because I'm pretty sure I've seen him gnawing on meat-like objects. Ah, I just confirmed it with Mary. Paul, too, was surprised to learn that he was a vegetarian.


Saturday, 10 March 2007
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Sunday, 11 March 2007
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Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.