Week of 18 June 2007
Update: Saturday, 23 June 2007 08:50 -0400
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
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
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
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
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.
- 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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
- 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
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
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.
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
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".
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.
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
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
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
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
- A correction from Paul. It wasn't an explosion. Honest.
From: Paul Jones
To: Robert Bruce Thompson
Date: Today 14:00:04
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:
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
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.
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
Back to work on the photochemistry chapter.
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
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
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.
1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 by Robert Bruce