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Week of 24 September 2007

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Monday, 24 September 2007
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08:35 - Busy weekend. Paul and I spent Saturday morning at Costco, laying in food, drinks, and other supplies for Mary's official welcome-home party. We hauled off two heaping shopping carts' worth that nearly filled the back of his SUV. It took us ten minutes to haul the stuff out of his SUV and store the cold stuff in their garage refrigerator. It was pretty empty when we started and packed full when we finished. Then it was off home for me, to work some more on a chapter for the chem lab book.

Barbara arrived home late Saturday evening to much joyous barking and wagging of tails. Sunday morning, Barbara cleaned house while I did large piles of laundry. Around lunchtime, we headed over to the city park that Paul had rented for Mary's party. Around 50 people showed up, and everyone had a good time. Paul and Mary had a couple of notebooks set up doing slideshows of Mary's pictures on LCD displays. There were a lot of fascinating images that I hadn't seen before. I tried to talk Mary into setting up her own website so that other people can see them.

Mary told lots of stories about the run, including the real story about something that should have received a great deal more comment than it did. There were several world-class runners participating in the Blue Planet Run. One of them, Emmanuel Kibet from Kenya, routinely ran his 10-mile leg in about an hour, considerably faster than the 90 minutes that were budgeted for each 10-mile leg. Knowing that 60 minutes was a very fast time for a 10-mile run, I was surprised when I read the BPR update one day and learned that Scottish runner Paul Rogan had completed his leg in 47 minutes.

I asked Mary how it was possible for a human to run 10 miles in 47 minutes, and asked if even Emmanuel could do that. She said that Emmanuel might, if the conditions were perfect and everything came together just right, run a 10-mile leg in 50 minutes or so, but she doubted even he could do a 47-minute leg. Paul Rogan, Mary said, is extremely sarcastic and funny. What happened was he and his pilot van got lost, and he ended up running 2 miles in the wrong direction. Instead of driving him back to where he should have been and letting him restart from there, the pilot van had him run back to where he should have been, so he ended up running 14 miles on that leg. He'd turned off his watch, as apparently had the pilot van, so at the end of it no one had an accurate time for his run. Someone asked him how long he'd taken to do that leg, and he replied in jest that he'd done it in 47 minutes. Someone took him seriously, and his 47-minute run was memorialized for all time on the BPR page.

Mary also talked more about how bad things had gotten while they were in China. At one point, half or more of the runners and staff, including the team physician, were down with severe food poisoning. As an indication of how bad things got, Mary had been down with food poisoning for 36 hours, throwing up every half hour on the half hour. The BPR staff came to her and asked how she was feeling. She allowed that she was feeling a bit better than she had been. Can you stand up, they asked? Yes, she told them, she felt sure that she could stand up. Can you walk, they asked her? Maybe, she said, although she wasn't entirely sure about that. So, they asked her, can you run a shift? Apparently, as weak and ill as she was, Mary was still in the best shape of all the sick runners. So she answered the call and went out to run. When the going got tough, the tough got going, indeed.


Tuesday, 25 September 2007
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08:28 - I had an exchange of emails yesterday with Brian Jepson, my primary editor at O'Reilly. I thought I'd post them to give my readers a behind-the-scenes glance at some of what goes on during the process of writing a book.

From: Brian Jepson
  To: Robert Thompson
Date: Mon Sep 24 11:53:39 2007
  Re: Sales+Marketing folks need Home Chemistry info


Could you send me your current outline today? Whatever you have will be fine as-is; I just want to show the sales and marketing folks the topics that you will cover.

From: Robert Bruce Thompson
  To: Brian Jepson
Date: Mon Sep 24 12:01:58 2007
  Re: Sales+Marketing folks need Home Chemistry info

Let me clean it up a bit and I'll get a copy to you shortly. I'm still in juggling mode as to what I'll be able to include and what I'll have to leave out for space reasons, so let them know that this outline is subject to change. Would it be better to include only stuff that I know for sure is going to be in there? They can always say "and more", but I guess we don't want to mention something that might end up on the cutting room floor, right?

From: Brian Jepson
  To: Robert Bruce Thompson
Date: Mon Sep 24 12:18:23 2007
  Re: Re: Sales+Marketing folks need Home Chemistry info

That's right--it's better to only include stuff that's definitely in, so that we don't end up with incorrect descriptions on Amazon, etc.

From: Robert Bruce Thompson
  To: Brian Jepson
Date: Mon Sep 24 12:38:25 2007
  Re: Re: Sales+Marketing folks need Home Chemistry info

Okay, here's the current outline.

All of the lab chapters in this outline are either complete or in progress. I will probably add at least one or two additional lab chapters, as well as possibly adding additional lab sessions to the current chapters.

What do you think of where I am so far?

Home Chemistry Lab Handbook   
Preliminary Outline   
0. Preface   
1. Introduction   
2. Laboratory Safety   
3. Equipping a Home Chemistry Lab   
4. Chemicals for the Home Chemistry Lab   
5. Mastering Laboratory Skills   
6. Laboratory: Separating Mixtures   
    Differential Solubility: Separate Sugar and Sand
    Distillation: Purify Ethanol
    Recrystallization: Purify Copper Sulfate
    Solvent Extraction
    Chromatography: Two-Phase Separation of Mixtures
    Determine the Formula of a Hydrate
7. Laboratory: Solubility and Solutions   
    Make Up a Molar Solution of a Solid Chemical
    Make Up a Molal Solution of a Solid Chemical
    Make Up a Molar Solution of a Liquid Chemical
    Make Up a Mass-to-Volume Percentage Solution
    Determine Concentration of a Solution by Visual Colorimetry
8. Laboratory: Colligative Properties of Solutions   
    Determine Molar Mass by Boiling Point Elevation
    Determine Molar Mass by Freezing Point Depression
    Observe the Effects of Osmotic Pressure
9. Laboratory: Introduction to Chemical Reactions & Stoichiometry   
    Observe a Composition Reaction
    Observe a Decomposition Reaction
    Observe a Single-Displacement Reaction
    Stoichiometry of a Double Displacement Reaction
10. Laboratory: Reduction-Oxidation (Redox) Reactions   
    Reduction of Copper Ore to Copper Metal
    Observe the Oxidation States of Manganese
11. Laboratory: Acid-Base Chemistry   
    Determine the Effect of Concentration on pH
    Determine the pH of Aqueous Salt Solutions
    Observe the Characteristics of a Buffer Solution
    Standardize a Hydrochloric Acid Solution by Titration
12. Laboratory: Chemical Kinetics   
    Determine the Effect of Temperature on Reaction Rate
    Determine the Effect of Surface Area on Reaction Rate
    Determine the Effect of Concentration on Reaction Rate
13. Laboratory: Chemical Equilibrium and Le Chatelier's Principle   
    Observe Le Chatlier's Principle in Action
    Quantify the Common Ion Effect
14. Laboratory: Gas Chemistry   
    Observe the Volume-Pressure Relationship of Gases (Boyle's Law)
    Observe the Volume-Temperature Relationship of Gases (Charles's Law)
    Observe the Pressure-Temperature Relationship of Gases (Gay-Lussac's Law)
    Use the Ideal Gas Law to Determine the Percentage of Acetic Acid in Vinegar
15. Laboratory: Thermochemistry and Calorimetry   
    Determine Heat of Solution
    Determine the Specific Heat of Ice
    Determine the Specific Heat of a Metal
    Determine the Enthalpy Change of a Reaction
16. Laboratory: Electrochemistry   
    Produce Hydrogen and Oxygen by Electrolysis of Water
    Observe the Electrochemical Oxidation of Iron
    Measure Electrode Potentials
    Observe Energy Transformation
    Build a Voltaic Cell
    Build a Battery
17. Laboratory: Photochemistry   
    Photochemical Reaction of Iodine and Oxalate
18. Laboratory: Chemistry of Colloids   
    Prepare a Colloid and Observe Its Properties
19. Laboratory: Forensic Chemistry   
    Use the Sherlock Holmes Test to Detect Blood
    Perform a Presumptive Test for Illicit Drugs
    Reveal Latent Fingerprints
    Use the Marsh Test to Detect Arsenic or Antimony

From: Brian Jepson
  To: Robert Bruce Thompson
Date: Mon Sep 24 15:05:19 2007
  Re: Re: Sales+Marketing folks need Home Chemistry info

It's awesome. I'm torn between its sheer awesomeness and my lack of time to try it all out right now. It all looks seriously cool. I've looked through some of the chapters, and it seems to be in really good shape. The lab equipment and chemical chapters make me want to spend money.

From: Robert Bruce Thompson
  To: Brian Jepson
Date: Mon Sep 24 15:17:29 2007
  Re: Re: Sales+Marketing folks need Home Chemistry info

Don't spend any money yet. I need to do another pass through the equipment and chemical chapters after I finish all the lab chapters. I'm going to do a spreadsheet that has equipment and chemicals down the left column and lab # across the top row. Then I'll figure out exactly which equipment and chemicals are actually needed for this book, and trim those chapters down to match. The spreadsheet data will actually be incorporated into the intro chapter, so that if there are any pieces of equipment and/or chemicals that are needed in only one or a few labs, people who want to economize can do so by not buying those seldom-needed supplies and just skipping the lab or labs in question.


Wednesday, 26 September 2007
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08:55 - Duncan took another hard fall yesterday. We were standing talking to Kim in her yard when Duncan spotted two dogs he doesn't like being walked by their humans. Duncan went into his berserker mode, barking ferociously and whipping around on the end of his leash. Unfortunately, his back end isn't up to that any more, and it gave out on him. He went down and wasn't able to get up.

I let him rest for a few minutes, and then lifted his back end up for him. He went down again immediately. I was going to carry him home, but he really dislikes being picked up, so I helped him home by using his tail as a handle to take some of the weight off his hips. We got home, and he was unable to stand at all. This was about 2:30 in the afternoon, and he still wasn't able to stand by the time Barbara got home three hours later.

Barbara was afraid we'd need to have him put down, but I told her this was exactly what had happened a few weeks ago, and he recovered from that very well. I think he basically sprained his butt. Fortunately, I was right. This morning, Duncan is getting around pretty well. A bit stiff, but he's able to get up and walk around. Another day or two of taking it easy should see him back to normal.

I am going to stop walking him on the street, at least for the next several days. There's always the danger of a delivery truck or something else that drives Duncan berserk appearing with little warning, and we can't take that chance. So instead of walking him on the street, I'll just walk him down in the back yard.

Work continues on the home chem lab book. I almost added another lab session, but I thought better of it.

18. Laboratory: Chemistry of Colloids   
    Prepare a Colloid and Observe Its Properties
    Prepare an Organogel

The organogel in question is prepared by adding sufficient polystyrene packing peanuts to gasoline to produce a syrup-like gel. That gel actually has a common name. It's called napalm-B or Super Napalm. Well, technically, napalm-B also includes a small percentage of benzene, but in practical terms there's no difference.

I was also going to suggest storing the product in a wine bottle to which a couple centimeters of concentrated sulfuric acid had been added, and wrapping the bottle in paper that had been soaked in a saturated solution of potassium chlorate. Of course, that would be a self-igniting Molotov cocktail, so prudence suggests not including that lab session in the book.


Thursday, 27 September 2007
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07:42 - I figured you folks might want to see how much fun I'm having with this home chem lab book, so here's an image I just shot for the gas chemistry chapter. That's a 600 mL beaker mostly full of 95% denatured ethanol, with a big chunk of dry ice in it. Actually, it was a much bigger chunk when it started, but much of it has eroded in the process of lowering the temperature of the alcohol, which was -59 C when I shot this image.

The black box to the left is an electronic thermometer. The big black thing in the beaker is the probe. The yellow thing in the beaker is a disposable syringe with the tip capped (you can just see the yellow tip cap to the extreme right edge of the beaker). The object on the right is a pair of tongs, because it's a really, really bad idea to use your bare hands when working with dry ice. Talk about instant frostbite.

If you have sharp eyes, you may have noticed that the plunger of the syringe is down near the tip. Charle's Law says that as the temperature in the beaker decreases, the volume of the gas contained in the syringe also decreases. The volume of a gas is proportional to the absolute temperature in kelvins, so if a given amount of gas occupies volume X at 273 K (about 0 C), it occupies about a third (100/273) more at 373 K and about a third less at 173 K. In a home lab, a reasonable range of temperatures for this test ranges from about 100 C (boiling water) at the high end to as low as I could get it with dry ice, which was -59 C.

I could have used a higher-boiling liquid, like vegetable or motor oil, but I was afraid I'd melt or distort the plastic syringe. And I suppose I could have gotten lower by taking extraordinary measures, but -59 C serves to illustrate the principle, and getting much lower would have increased the danger and cost greatly.

If you're wondering why the plunger is so far down, well, that's a good question. I originally planned to have the plunger as far up as possible to increase the initial volume and thereby increase the accuracy of the measurement of the volume decrease. I can get to within about 0.05 mL using the gradations on the syringe, so it would obviously have been better to start with a volume of gas as close as possible to the full 10.00 mL capacity of the syringe.

The problem was that the damned thing floats. Depressing the plunger to start with an initial volume of only a couple of mL allowed me to let the top portion of the syringe fill with ethanol, which weighted the syringe down just enough to keep the gas-filled portion submerged. There's a huge temperature difference between just below the surface of the ethanol and just above it, so I wanted to make sure that the gas-filled portion was completely submerged. That meant starting with a smaller baseline volume, but there's so much slop in this procedure that it really didn't have a great impact on the accuracy of the results, which were surprisingly good.

Still, I'm thinking about repeating the experiment using some sort of weight to keep the tip of the syringe under the liquid. I may do that if I have time.


Friday, 28 September 2007
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08:23 - I finished the electrochemistry chapter yesterday. The final two laboratory chapters, gas chemistry and colloid chemistry, are in progress and should be complete in the next few days.

Once the lab chapters are complete, I'll return to working on the initial narrative chapters. Two of the three major narrative chapters, Equipping a Home Chemistry Lab and Chemicals for the Home Chemistry Lab, are complete in first-draft form. I'll go back and rewrite those based on the actual equipment and chemicals needed to complete all of the sessions in the lab chapters, removing stuff that's in there now but isn't needed and adding stuff I forgot to include. I'll build a spreadsheet, with lab sessions across the top and equipment/chemical items down the left side. That leaves the third major narrative chapter, Mastering Laboratory Skills, which is partially complete, as well as two minor narrative chapters, Introduction and Laboratory Safety, both of which are also partially complete.

Once I finish those, I'll step back, take a deep breath, and see where I stand in terms of time and page count. If I have time and page count remaining, I'll look at adding some of the lab chapters I wanted to include but didn't, as well as additional lab sessions within the current lab chapters. I'll prioritize those, write however many I have time and page count for, and declare the book done. One way or the other, that should happen by the end of October. Then it'll be on to the next book.


Saturday, 29 September 2007
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07:55 - I didn't know until now how easy the U.S. citizenship test is. Disgustingly easy. No test at all, really. The article gives examples of the "hard" questions, namely, "What is the rule of law?" and "Who was the president during World War I?". Only ten questions are asked, and a passing grade requires answering only six of those correctly. And even then, there's apparently considerable discretion given to graders to accept partial answers as correct. As an indication of just how easy this test is, the lowest success rate is among central Americans, at 85.1% successful. Several groups have 100% success rates. What kind of test is it that nearly everyone passes? We should be aiming for something more like a 5% pass rate, if not 1%. We only want the smart ones.

The test should have at least 100 questions selected randomly from a pool of 5,000 or more. An "easy" question should be something like "What rights are guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment?", or "Which representatives and senators were the principle supporters and opponents of the Fugitive Slave Act?" or "In what famous trial did William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow appear for the prosecution and defense, respectively?", or "What was the primary casus belli of the War of 1812?". And most of the questions should not be easy. A passing score of 60% is absurd. At least a 90% score should be required to pass.

And to anyone who claims that most native-born American citizens could not answer these questions correctly, my response is "so what?" Those people have been out of school for some time. Prospective citizens have no doubt been cramming right up to the time they take the test.


Sunday, 30 September 2007
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Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.