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Week of 18 June 2007

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Monday, 18 June 2007
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10:48 - The Netflix rating system is supposed to be pretty reliable, particularly the personalized ratings. I rate most of the discs we watch, and gradually our personalized ratings for discs we haven't seen have diverged from the general ratings. For example, a particular disc might have an overall rating of 4.2 out of 5 stars, but our personalized rating on it might be only 2.7. That means that most people really like that disc, but that "raters like you" are less likely to like it. Conversely, a disc with a 2.7 overall rating might have a personalized rating of 4.2, meaning that we're much more likely to enjoy it than are most people.

So I was surprised when we got the first disc of the British comedy Absolutely Fabulous. It had been rated by more than 91,000 Netflix subscribers, with an overall rating of 4.0, but "raters like you" rated it 4.3. Barbara and I watched the first episode of series 1 this weekend and decided it was so bad we wouldn't bother watching the rest of that disc, let alone renting the rest of the series. I expected it to be like Coupling, which was laugh-out-loud funny. It wasn't.

Speaking of Coupling, I just checked. According to Netflix, more than 93,000 raters give Coupling a 4.0/5 rating, while "raters like you" give it only a 3.4/5. Perhaps our taste is simply too eclectic for Netflix's rating system to be useful.

News from Mary Chervenak.

From: Mary Chervenak
  To: Robert Bruce Thompson
  Date: Today 08:28:08
Re: Czech porcupines

Hi Bob --

No squirrel attacks, but I was surprised by a porcupine last night!  And no, I didn't sit on it.  It wandered out into the road, saw me, and then wandered back into the ditch.  Czech porcupines seem very relaxed.  Much like the drunk Czech guys I ran past.  Maybe it's a country-wide thing.

I just had a rest day, but I'm ready for another one.  My team spend our day off in Prague, which was a nice reward after a ton of running.  Prague is absolutely gorgeous and a great place to spend a lazy day.  The city looks like it was designed by someone who really liked crayons!!

Our day off was followed by a cold dose of reality, of course!  We started the graveyard shift (9 PM to 3 AM) last night.  Ugh.  I had a great run (truly -- no sarcasm) from midnight to 1:30 AM, but the long drive in the car, coupled with no sleep and no food has left me feeling like a wrung-out dish rag.  I'm not sure how I'm going to get through tonight's 10 miles!

The father of one of my teammates read your recent blog about me.  He contacted his daughter and asked why I had been compared to a dog (his command of English isn't great).

I'm off to try to get a bit more rest before tonight's escapade.  Talk to you soon.


I've heard that Czech porcupines drink more beer per capita than porcupines from any other country.

Tell Shiri's dad that in addition to you and Border Collies both having very efficient running styles, you both also are extremely task-focused, are workaholics, and like to chase tennis balls and chew sticks. (I made up that last part; I've never seen you chase a tennis ball.)

Paul mentioned that your Internet time is very limited, and I suspect it'll become more so once you get through Austria and Poland. Please don't feel obligated to reply to my messages if you're short on time or have limited Internet access. I know you and Paul have lots to talk about. Anyway, it's nice to harass you when you're unable to respond.

Barbara and I are following your progress and cheering you on from here.


Tuesday, 19 June 2007
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09:10 - Yesterday morning, Dvorak's blog had an interesting article: Do you want your children to learn about chemistry? Be careful, you could be breaking the law. That led me to this page, which had a link to an image of a serious home chemistry lab in Florida.

My first thought when I saw this image was to wonder if this guy is going to get busted first by the DEA or DHS. As it turns out, he doesn't have anything to worry about.

Then, when Barbara got home, she mentioned that there'd been an explosion in an apartment, and the news was reporting that it was caused by someone attempting to make fireworks. The local newscasts last night didn't give much more information, but the paper this morning included this article: 'Frightening:' Police say chemicals caused blast

Ah, that explains it. You can't trust nasty things like chemicals. Obviously, the people in the apartment were innocent bystanders. There they were, minding their own business, when all of a sudden and for no reason they were attacked by chemicals. Chemicals. You just can't trust them. FTA:

"He said that police told him that at least two chemicals were present in the apartment, and there were enough to have done more damage.

Dobson said he was told that one of the chemicals was ammonium sulfate, a synthetic fertilizer."

Oh, the horror. There were two chemicals in that apartment. Or perhaps more. It's not clear from the article whether "enough" refers to the number of chemicals the police found or the amounts of each. Can you imagine, though, how nervous it must make normal people to live in an apartment in which two chemicals are present?

And, horror of horrors, one of those nasty chemicals was ammonium sulfate fertilizer. Silly me. Here I thought ammonium sulfate was an inert, non-toxic compound. Oh, wait. It is.

The really sad part is that the state of science education in this country, and particularly the state of chemistry education, is so poor that probably not one in a thousand of the people who read that article will realize how ridiculous it is. We're all surrounded by "chemicals". Hell, our bodies are made of chemicals. The average home has dozens of chemicals in relatively pure form, including many that are potentially hazardous.

Most homes contain everything necessary to produce some truly nasty stuff. For example, chances are you already have hydrogen peroxide, acetone, and sulfuric acid. If not, you can get 3% hydrogen peroxide at a drugstore, or more concentrated solutions at a hardware store or beautician supply store. Acetone can be bought by the gallon at the hardware store, and is also the primary component of nail polish remover. You can get the few drops of sulfuric acid you need to catalyze the reaction from your car battery, or buy it by the gallon at an auto parts store. With those three chemicals, it's trivially easy (although horribly dangerous) to produce acetone peroxide, the high explosive used in the London bombings and by Reid, the shoe-bomber.

It's not much harder to produce nitroglycerine, mercury fulminate, and military-grade explosives like RDX and PETN. I know. I made all of those 40 years ago as a young teenager, along with acetone peroxide and many other explosives. And if I could do it then, anyone could do it now.

From the fed's point of view, the unfortunate fact is that it's impossible to control the precursors for explosives because all of them are essential for other, legal purposes or are easily synthesized from other, uncontrollable chemicals. Since the chemicals are uncontrollable, it appears that the feds are trying to control the knowledge needed to use those chemicals to produce explosives. But we're in the age of the Internet, so clearly that's not going to work. There are thousands of pages on the Internet with step-by-step instructions for making explosives. Some of them are even correct.

Okay, when Plan A doesn't work and Plan B doesn't work, it's time for Plan C. Apparently, Plan C consists of a long-term program to make sure that no one learns anything about chemistry. If there aren't any chemists, the feds won't have to worry about controlling chemicals because no one will have any idea what to do with them. In just fifty years or so, everyone will be safe because all those nasty chemists will have died off and there won't be any new ones to replace them. Of course, the economy will also collapse and everyone will be back to living in mud huts and dying of starvation before they're old enough to vote, but that's a small price to pay.

Well, okay, perhaps that's overstating it. We do, after all, still have a few high schools that continue to teach serious chemistry, and most colleges and universities have chemistry departments. For now, anyway. But don't be surprised in the coming years if the feds require chemistry majors to register with them, obtain a license to practice chemistry, and agree to full-time surveillance of their activities.

And if you think that's ridiculous, just imagine what you'd have thought ten years ago if I'd predicted that one day you'd need a license to possess an Erlenmeyer flask. Hell, in Texas, you need a license to possess a transformer. That means there are millions of people in Texas who are currently in violation of the law. Everyone who has an unlicensed doorbell, in fact.


Wednesday, 20 June 2007
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13:49 - In my first full month since I rejoined Netflix on 21 May, they've shipped me 25 discs. Two of those were damaged--one gouged and unplayable and the other cracked nearly in half and repaired with glue--for a net total of 23 discs. That's about average or a bit more for Netflix. I turn around discs immediately, so any delays are on the part of Netflix. I think the worst month ever was the one they shipped me only 13 discs and the best was 25 or 26 discs. I'm convinced that I get throttled less than many heavy Netflix users because I always try to send back two discs in one envelope.

Paul picked up Chinese and brought it over to our place for dinner last night. He told us a lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff that's going on with the Blue Planet Run. (For those who haven't been following this journal, Paul's wife, Mary Chervenak, is one of the 20 runners who are running around the world from 1 June through early September.) As of now, they're just over 3,000 miles into the run, or about 20% complete.

Mary has a new blog entry posted, in her usual inimitable style.

"The evening of June 13th, the team stayed in a hyper modern hotel in the middle of Hamburg, Germany. We finished running around 9 PM and arrived at the hotel close to 11 PM. I was tired and, for the first time since arriving at Lake Placid, I had no roommate – so, no one to consult on all things German and hyper modern. Initially, I was confused as to which of the gadgets/appliances was actually the toilet, but I think I figured it out. I hope I figured it out. I really, really hope I figured it out."

I told Paul last night that I was trying to come up with a good word. I wanted to send Mary email, saying, "No, Mary, it wasn't the toilet. It was the ...", but I couldn't come up with a word that sounded credible. Mary's a world traveler, even before this run, so she knows what a bidet looks like, even a hyper-modern German one. So what else might be in a bathroom, particularly something far removed from excretory functions, and what word could I make up to describe it? I mean, I could say, "No Mary, you peed in the refrigerator", but that wouldn't be credible.

While we were eating dinner, we talked about the explosion in the apartment building that I mentioned yesterday. Paul and I had both concluded from what little information was available about the size of the explosion and the degree of injuries and property damage that the guy had probably mixed up an ounce or two of flashpowder, which would suggest probably potassium chlorate and aluminum powder or a similar fuel. We got it exactly right. The morning paper reported that the explosion had been caused by potassium chlorate and aluminum.

The guy apparently lost both hands and an eye, and his wife suffered minor injuries to her arm. As far as I'm concerned, this guy should rank pretty highly in the Darwin Awards list. My guess is that he came very close to a do-it-yourself orchidectomy, which would have definitely earned him a high ranking in the Darwin Awards.

If I were going to mix up flashpowder, which I'm not, I'd keep a thick polycarbonate explosion shield between me and the mixture, and I'd use some sort of ad hoc waldoes to handle it. Flashpowder is dangerously unstable and hazardous to handle in even gram quantities, let alone ounce quantities.

Which brought up the subject of safety in a chemistry lab. Frederick the Great said that he who defended everything defended nothing, and as far as I'm concerned the same principle applies to warnings about lab safety. If you tell people "this is dangerous" too often, then how do you teach them to discriminate between minor hazards and really serious ones?

We were talking about acids. Paul dropped a nearly full 4 liter bottle of concentrated hydrochloric acid. Because of hazmat regulations, he had to call in the guys in white suits, who proceeded to do what back before all the regulations anyone would have done himself--dumped several pounds of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) on the spill to neutralize it.

So we started talking about the two other major mineral acids, sulfuric acid and nitric acid. In a chemical sense, hydrochloric acid is the strongest of the three, but in a safety sense, it's the least dangerous to work with. As Paul said, sulfuric acid is thick and sticks to you. And nitric acid, well, nitric acid reacts vigorously with just about anything, including people. People are afraid of these acids, when what they should be is just cautious.

Obviously, you don't want to get any of these on you, particularly in your eyes, if you can possibly avoid it. And yet, Paul, Mary, and I (along with every other chemist I know) have at one time or another gotten these acids on ourselves. When that happened, we did what any chemist would do. We instantly moved to the sink or emergency shower, turned on the water, and rinsed the acid off for several minutes.

In my case, the worst thing that happened with hydrochloric or sulfuric acid was that my hand was a bit reddened, much like a minor sun burn, and stung a bit. The nitric acid had the same result, with the additional benefit of turning my skin orange. Don't get me wrong. If I hadn't rinsed the stuff copiously immediately after the accident, the results would have been much worse, particularly with the concentrated sulfuric and nitric acids. But on a hazard scale, this kind of minor accident rates pretty low. Contrast that with the possible results of mixing up flashpowder, which can literally kill you without warning.

So, if we tell people:

acids = Danger, Will Robinson!
flashpowder = Danger, Will Robinson!

how are they supposed to discriminate the relative levels of danger? What we need is something more like:

acids = treat these with respect
flashpowder = you're going to die


Thursday, 21 June 2007
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08:42 - Mary Chervenak continues her run around the world. The Blue Planet Run passed the 20% complete point yesterday, at 3,040 miles of 15,200. One down, four to go. I think they're in Warsaw today, and crossing into Belarus tomorrow. They enter Russia on the 26th, where they will spend more than three weeks before they begin their run across Mongolia, China, and Japan, which will take 11 days. They arrive on the west coast of the United States on 1 August, and then face a run of more than a month to cross North America and return to their starting point on 4 September.

Brian Jepson, my editor at O'Reilly, sent me some PDFs yesterday of the layout of the new astronomy book. They're beautiful. As always, O'Reilly's layout and design folks have done a wonderful job. There's some tweaking left to be done, but the PDFs gave me a very good idea of what the final book will look like. It's clean, readable, and attractive.

One of the very nice things about this book is that when it's done, it's done. When I finish a computer book, I'm always aware that things are changing even as I'm reviewing the galleys. I start making notes for changes and additions that will be needed in the next edition even before the current edition has gone to the printers. With this astronomy book, that won't be necessary. It can go into print and stay in print for years without any revisions being needed.

Chris Christensen raises a good point about HF (hydrofluoric acid) and hydrogen peroxide.

From: Chris Christensen
  To: Robert Bruce Thompson
Date: Yesterday 18:11:50
  Re: Mineral acids

I consider the common mineral acids relatively innocuous compared to HF, which scares the willies out of me.  Being a metallurgist, I end up using them all for metallographic etches.


Having said that, the only thing I routinely burn myself with is hydrogen peroxide.  We use 30% for some specialized uses, and my track record is "blemished".

For the non-chemists among my readers, what scares Chris (and me, and every other chemist) about hydrofluoric acid isn't so much that it's corrosive, which it is, but that the extremely reactive fluoride ion is easily absorbed by the body and even a relatively small exposure often results in a lingering, horrible death. I won't have the stuff in my lab.

Back when Barbara used to watch ER, I remember an episode where a guy had been splashed with hydrofluoric acid over a substantial part of his body. They treated the burns, but he was a walking dead man because of the fluoride ion effect.

As to hydrogen peroxide, I've never been burned by it, but I'm always cautious. I have a 100 mL bottle of the 30% stuff in my lab for when it's really needed, but for most purposes the 3% drugstore product works just fine.

It's Jasmine's birthday today. She turns 14. She's had a rough last few months. Earlier this year, she broke her leg as a result of a springboard accident in gymnastics, and was on crutches for several weeks. Then, a couple of weeks ago, she had her wisdom teeth extracted. The dentist prescribed hydrocodone for pain. Kim asked the dentist about gymnastics, and he told her to give it a couple of days after which Jasmine could participate.

So she went to gymnastics early last week. She was on hydrocodone, but felt fine. Unfortunately, she got dizzy and fell badly, breaking the same leg again, although at a different place. So Jas is on crutches again, and likely to remain so for the next several weeks, which pretty much covers her entire summer vacation from school.

10:22 - Ah, my mistake. Mary isn't in Warsaw yet, according to the latest update from Paul. (The reference to the explosion is from a message he sent out yesterday that mentioned he'd had an explosion in his lab.)

From: Paul Jones
  To: Paul Jones
  CC: <many recipients>
Date: Today 10:08:55
  Re: Poland

Good morning.

Mary has finished the graveyard shift. She sounded pretty tired but reports that the runs went well (enough) and that minor leg troubles a few nights ago seem to have resolved themselves. Unfortunately, her team missed Krakow. As you may know, they have (coincidentally?) been the team running up to the outskirts of a city, only to hand off to another team to run through the city. This suits Mary pretty well as she likes rural running much more than urban running. However, it results in their usually hopping in a van, driving through (or more often around) a famous, beautiful city and a few hours on to stay in a smaller city or town, near their starting point for the next night. They are right now in Radom, Poland, which is about 3/4 the way between Krakow and Warsaw, where they're spending the day. They'll be back on the 3am-9am shift starting on the 23rd (? I think).

So, she missed Krakow, of which she'd heard good things. Her teammate Shiri has been staying with the team that takes over for them and "seeing" the city they missed. You can read about this at Shiri's blog but it's going about as you'd expect. She doesn't see much of the city and then doesn't get to the hotel until a few hours before they need to leave for their run. Ah, to be 23.

I have stories. The best involve Czech prostitutes*, teammates dating and evil showers. I'll wait to see what she puts in her blog because she'll tell them much better than I can.

For those concerned, I didn't really blow anything up. Just a vile rumor. Nothing to see here. Cleanup continues.


*  actually, now that I think about it, that would be two stories, maybe three - the oldest profession seems to be thriving in the Czech Republic, sort of like Starbucks everywhere else

15:03 - A correction from Paul. It wasn't an explosion. Honest.

From: Paul Jones
  To: Robert Bruce Thompson
Date: Today 14:00:04
  Re: post

Hey Bob,

It wasn't really an explosion.  It was just an exotherm.  I'd put the reaction in an ice-bath, but that evidently wasn't sufficient.  Here is what I wrote to Mary:

Turns out the Sn2 reaction is alive and well.  I mixed sodium acetylide (the sodium salt of acetylene - I didn't know that) and allyl bromide, hoping that the acetylide would displace the bromide and give me a 5 carbon molecule with a terminal alkene and, on the other end, a terminal alkyne - for chemistry I haven't talked to you about (really just a crazy idea that probably won't work, but I'm on leave yeah).  Anyway, I had it at 0 C, added the allyl bromide and cleaned up a bit.  I went to take a look at it and, with Austin (who is really, really jumpy) watching it went from a very pale tan to yellow, to bright yellow to a sort of pinkish yellow, bubbles began to form and, just as I thought, "uh oh" it went WHOOSH! all over the hood (this entire process was about three seconds).  I'm not sure Austin will ever recover.  Of course, I was laughing hysterically.  I'd never seen the entire exotherm process - usually just hearing it and then seeing the end.  So, today I will cool it to -78 and do the reaction in a solvent less conducive to the Sn2 (switching out xylene for DMF - the sodium acetylide comes as a slurry in xylene so I'll just dilute it some more.  Maybe add just a little DMF to solubilize the stuff).

Anyway, it was a fairly impressive pinkish-yellow plume of boiling solvent.  Most of it ended up on the roof of the hood, so it had some momentum.

Yeah, fluoride is nasty.  I'll tell you the prostitute story next time we get together.  I'm not sure I can send that out over general wires.


Friday, 22 June 2007
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10:39 - Late start this morning. Brian Jepson sent me seven marked-up chapters from the astronomy book, which I just finished reviewing. This book is rapidly reaching the final stages. I'm really looking forward to seeing it in print. It won't do us any good now, of course. This is the book I wish we'd had when Barbara and I first got started observing. (Well, in my case, re-started after a 30 year hiatus.)

Barbara and I got separate emails from Mary Chervenak. She's doing well, although she's scheduled to go back on the dreaded graveyard shift, 9:00 p.m. until 3:00 a.m. Mary's teammate, Shiri Leventhal, is a very brave young woman. Shiri says she has two fears: running in the dark and being attacked by dogs. On the graveyard shift, Shiri will be running in the dark, and apparently there aren't leash laws in the areas they're now running through, so there are a lot of dogs running free. Despite that, Shiri continues to run her 10-mile shifts, in the dark and with dogs barking at her and sometimes charging her. Someone once said that courage isn't the absence of fear, but rather overcoming one's fears and doing the job anyway. By that definition, Shiri is certainly courageous.

Back to work on the photochemistry chapter.


Saturday, 23 June 2007
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08:50 - I violated yet another federal law yesterday. Barbara went back to bed around 9:00 last night. She usually reads for an hour or so before turning out the light. I stay out in the den reading until usually 11:00 or 11:30. About 10:30, I heard a loud clatter on the deck. I thought it might be Santa Claus and his reindeer arriving six months early, so I flipped on the light and looked out the window. There sat a raccoon, looking up at me. In the corner of the deck sat the garbage can that Barbara uses to store seed for the bird feeders, with the lid flipped off onto the deck and the bungee cord that had secured it chewed through.

With visions of a coonskin cap dancing in my head, I asked Barbara (who had showed up with the dogs by then) to get me a club. We couldn't find a club, so I came up with Plan B. I was going to shoot it with my .22 pistol. It's close enough to July 4th that anyone who heard the shot would almost certainly mistake it for an early firecracker. Barbara wouldn't let me shoot it.

I thought I'd lost my chance, because when I opened the door the raccoon scampered off. As soon as we shut the door, though, it came back. It was then that I violated federal law. No club, and she wouldn't let me shoot it, so it was time for Plan C. I asked Barbara to get me the can of Hot Shot wasp killer. When the raccoon returned and climbed up on the garbage can to get more bird seed, I quickly opened the door and drenched it with bug killer. It left skid marks as it departed.

But it was soon back again. We decided that if we wanted to get any sleep, the only option was to bring the garbage can indoors. It's now sitting in the basement, where we hope it will remain raccoon free. After we brought the seed supply indoors, I happened to read the label on the can of spray. It had a warning that using it other than as directed was a violation of federal law. I could have sworn that it listed raccoons among the bees, wasps, and other things it was intended for, but as it turns out it didn't. I'm expecting federal marshals to show up any time now.


Sunday, 24 June 2007
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00:00 -


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