Week of 14 April 2008
Update: Friday, 18 April 2008 08:58 -0500
The taxes are finished and in the mail. At least I don't have to worry
about that for another year. I now have two weeks of flat-out effort to
get ready for the book hitting the stores and to prepare for my trip to
Maker Faire. I just checked my to-do list for all of that and found 46
items, about a quarter of which are partially complete and the
remainder not yet started. I'm going to be busy between now and the
first week of May, so my posts here are likely to be short and sporadic.
Paul and Mary stopped by Saturday afternoon to give me a t-shirt they'd bought for me to wear at Maker Faire.
ChemistryWe Do Stuff In Lab That Would
Be A Felony In Your Garage
Then I realized. They have labs. I'm the one with the garage...
Winston-Salem has bulky-item pickup once a year. Well, most of
Winston-Salem does. The slum areas have bulky-item pickup every week,
which I always thought was ironic considering that the rest of the city
pays about 99% of the property taxes collected. At any rate, they
announce a month or so in advance which neighborhoods are having
bulky-item pickup on a particular week. Ours is this week. Sometime. We
don't know which day until they actually show up.
supposed to put our bulky items at the curb no earlier than the Friday
before the week we're scheduled for pickup. A lot of people put their
stuff out earlier, of course, so the curbs are always cluttered with
trash for a week or so before the scheduled start day.
scavengers start showing up soon after, picking through what everyone
has put out. In one sense, that's good, because it's better for useful
items to be recycled than thrown in a landfill. Also, I suspect, many
of the scavengers can use the money they make from fixing up and
reselling some of the stuff. Many of them drive old beaters and it's
obvious from looking at them that they're very poor. On the other hand,
I have seen people driving $50,000 SUVs scavenging. I'm not sure why
anyone who can afford to spend that much on a vehicle would waste his
time scavenging trash, but it's not an uncommon sight.
Barbara and I put out our bulky items yesterday. Two of the disposable foam coolers that Southern Foods
sends us bulk meat shipments in, and one cardboard computer case box
filled with other small boxes. Last night, while we were out walking
the dogs, I saw a truck stop in front of our house. We were at the end
of the block and it was dark, so I couldn't see exactly what was going
on. When we got back, one of the coolers was gone. As I asked Barbara,
why one? Why not neither or both? Apparently, the scavengers had a need
for just one disposable cooler.
I'd intended to clear out the
closet in my office this year, but since our bulky-item pickup was
scheduled for tax week, I decided to wait until next year. I was
whacked after finishing the taxes yesterday, and just couldn't face
tearing down old systems to pull the hard drives. Barbara suggested I
give them to Goodwill, but these systems are so old they're worthless.
I'm talking 286/386/486-era systems.
This morning, I decided to
go ahead and at least partially clear out my closet. I ended up putting
out half a dozen old systems--all of which used AT keyboards if that's
any indication--along with a monochrome monitor (not mono VGA, but
original XT-era monochrome), along with a couple of old UPSs, and so on.
I've sometimes joked about it, this was the first time I've actually
used a hammer on a system. Two of the systems were desktop AT form
factor. They both had 3.5" hard drives in 5.25" chassis to adapt them
to the cases, because desktop AT cases didn't have 3.5" drive bays.
Those two chassis adapters were well and truly stuck. So I used a claw
hammer, pounding on the back of the hard drives until they popped loose.
I wanted to get rid of is now at the curb, with the exception of a
1400VA UPS with an extended-runtime battery, which I was just too
tired to pick up and haul out. That thing must weigh 125 pounds. I
may haul it out tomorrow if they haven't already done the pickup.
- Another 1964 catalog,
this one posted by Jeff Duntemann. And I remember this exact catalog,
with the pink handy-talkie on the cover. As a matter of fact, I'm
pretty sure I ordered some stuff from it. Back then, I was building a
lot of electronic gear, some of which actually worked, and was a year
or two away from getting my novice ham license.
Jeff is a
year older than I am, but even so I suspect we would have been
close friends if not for the fact that he was in Chicago, Illinois and
I was in New Castle, Pennsylvania. We were both interested in the same
stuff, as were many other boys our age. For both of us, I suspect, it
was a matter of having to choose among so many interesting things that
time and budget inevitably meant we had to let some things go. For
me, electronics lost out to chemistry, photography, and astronomy.
Jeff maintained his interest in electronics and astronomy.
there were a lot of kids like Jeff and me, all of us actually doing
hands-on stuff, from building ham radios and home darkrooms to
designing and building rockets to grinding mirrors and building
telescopes to designing and building go-carts from old lawnmower
engines. Not all kids did those things, of course. Then as now a lot of
kids wasted most of their time in useless activities like
watching television or playing sports.
I suppose it's
inevitable that most kids, then or now, have neither the drive nor the
intelligence to pursue useful activities. The difference is that then a
significant percentage of kids, those who did have the drive and
intelligence, did pursue useful activities because those opportunities
were open to them and there weren't many distractions. I watched some
television and played some sports, but I soon became bored with
doing that, and it was up to me to find something more interesting to
do. Nowadays, there are simply too many interesting but useless ways
for kids to waste their time, and too few opportunities for them to
experience useful but interesting pursuits.
I had a nice talk with Kim yesterday afternoon. She tells me that
Jasmine decided to take all honors courses in 10th grade next year. Jas
had already signed up for all honors courses except honors
geometry, which gave her pause. Jas positively hates to get any grade
lower than an A, and was afraid she might not be able to do A-level
work in honors math, particularly with all the other honors courses
she'd be taking.
Kim suggested that Jasmine talk to me about it.
Like nearly all girls, Jas underestimates her own abilities. I told Jas
that she needed to push herself, and that unless she signed up for what
she thought was a complete overload she wasn't pushing herself enough.
Besides, I told her, even if what she fears comes to pass, a B in
honors geometry is better than an A in regular geometry. Jasmine wasn't
too sure about that, although she's too polite to challenge me (a
problem I hope to address with her as time goes on...).
gymnastics at a local gym, so I asked her which she'd rather have: a
win at Salem Gymnastics, or a silver medal at the Olympics. Of course,
she picked the silver medal. When I asked her why she'd picked that
even though it was second place instead of first, she replied that the
Olympics were higher (the "duh" was unspoken). Exactly, I told her. And
honors geometry is higher than regular geometry.
I don't know
how much effect my advice had, but Jasmine did choose to do honors
geometry next year, which made Kim very happy. Characteristically,
Jasmine didn't tell Kim, who found out by chance when she happened to
see Jasmine's class list for next year.
geometry isn't the hardest course Jas will be taking. Honors
biology is apparently very difficult. Her teacher told Jas that regular
biology was a pretty tough course, but nothing compared to honors
biology. I suggested to Kim that it might be a good idea for Jas to
spend some time this coming summer going through the honors
geometry textbook or the honors biology textbook, or both. Not to
the exclusion of having some fun, but spending enough time at it to get
all the way through the books before the course starts.
sometime soon, I'm going to sit down with Jas and Kim and talk about
that. If Jas wants to try independent study this summer for geometry or
biology or both, I'll be available to help her. It's been forty years
since I took geometry or biology, but I'm willing to spend a day or two
each going through the geometry and biology texts to refresh my memory
and, for biology, to catch up on things that have changed.
Jas wants to do some biology labs, which I hope she does, I also have a
pretty well-equipped biology lab, including a better microscope than
she'd be using at her school. Specimens and so on we can order in as
When I asked Paul Jones what he thought of Jas doing
independent study this summer, he said he thought it was a good idea,
and one that he always recommended to his own students. He qualified
that by saying that students talk about doing it, but they
never actually do. Jas may be an exception, especially if I point out
that doing independent study this summer pretty much ensures that
she'll get an A in both courses.
Yesterday I stumbled across a reference to the Dr. John T. Shaw
Memorial Fund. I'll never forget my first organic chemistry class or
Professor Shaw. As soon as the students finished seating
themselves in the lecture hall, Dr. Shaw started counting us. He
then announced that there were 70-odd students in the lecture hall, but
only 36 positions available in the lab. "Oh, well," he said, "we'll be
down to 36 after the first exam." (Sure enough, we were.)
started the lecture by drawing a hexagon with a circle inside it. "This
is benzene," he said, "and by the end of this course you'll know more
about it than you ever dreamed there was to know." He was right about
that, too. He went on to sketch some substituted benzenes, including
toluene, aniline, and phenol, which he pronounced fen-OLE. I'd heard it
pronounced FEN-all and FEEN-all (as in alcohol), but never before the
way he pronounced it.
He was consistent, too, which I am not. I
pronounce phenol FEN-all but phenolphthalein FEEN-all-THAY-leen.
He pronounced the later chemical fen-OLE-THAY-leen.
Oh, as to
the test that cleared half the enrolled students from the roster: Dr.
Shaw gave a type of test I've never seen before or since. If you got
the wrong answer to one question, he could stop grading the test at
that point because by definition you'd also have the wrong answers to
all of the following questions.
The first question specified a
synthesis for which you had to determine what the product would be (or,
in some cases, what the predominant product in a mix would be, such as
the ortho, meta, or para isomer). The second question used the
unspecified product from the first reaction as a reactant for a second
synthesis, and you had to determine the product or products. And so on,
down the page. If your answer to the first question was wrong, by
definition all of your other answers were also wrong.
Shaw was also completely fair. On the first test, I got an A, but well
down the page I had an incorrect answer that caused me to lose points
for the final two or three questions. When I got the exam back, I
looked at it and couldn't figure out why my answer was wrong. So I
visited Dr. Shaw's office and told him that I wasn't complaining about
an A grade, but I didn't understand why my answer was wrong. He looked
at the test and my answer, and said, "You're right. That's a bad
question and your answer is correct based on what you know so far." He
regraded my exam to 100%, and then explained to me why my "correct"
answer had actually been wrong and where to look in Morrison & Boyd
to learn more about it.
As I was leaving his office, I turned
and asked him if this meant he had to regrade all of the tests. "No,"
he replied, "you're the only one who made it that far."
stopped by their house yesterday afternoon to visit Paul and Mary,
who'd gotten me yet another t-shirt to wear at Maker Faire. This one
has a silhouette drawing of a boy with his chemistry set and the
Three parts Salt Peter
One Part Charcoal
A Pinch of Sulfer.
That should take care of the gym."
They're trying to get me arrested, I tell you.
In fact, Paul emailed my editor yesterday about some administrative stuff, and added:
supplied Bob with some shirts that should ensure he passes through TSA
without any trouble at all. I've taken the liberty of sprinkling
the shirts with a bit of potassium nitrate, which should serve to
entertain him, and his TSA friends, during his travels.
To which I replied,
for the potassium nitrate. Remember that I have a key to your house. I
also have a small spray bottle of mixed nitrated aromatics, so I'll
return the favor by spraying your underpants with it.
When I was a teenager, my recipe for black powder was a bit different. To make 100 grams of black powder, I started with
75 g potassium nitrate
15 g charcoal
10 g sulfur
ground each of them separately with a mortar and pestle until they were
a fine powder, like baking flour, and sifted them to remove any larger
particles. I then weighed out the proper proportions of each chemical,
combined and mixed them thoroughly, and added just enough of a mixture
of one part water to four parts acetone with a little bit of Elmer's
Glue to make a very thick mud. Charcoal and sulfur don't wet easily, so
I used a few drops of dishwashing liquid in the water/acetone/glue
mixture to make sure all of the chemicals would be thoroughly wetted.
then pressed the mud through a piece of window screen to make noodles
of black powder, and set them aside to dry thoroughly. After they were
dry, I'd gently crush the mass to break it up and pass it through
sieves to separate it by particle size. The larger grains burn much
faster, and were for main charges in larger pyrotechnics. The
smaller particles I used in firecrackers. The fine powder was for fuzes.
all of that was 40 years ago or more, and I sure don't recommend anyone
try this today. Unless they want to go to prison.
I called Roadrunner tech support yesterday and was pleasantly
surprised. Most of our email, inbound and outbound, goes through
zidane, the co-located server that Greg Lincoln and Brian Bilbrey
maintain, and which hosts all of our domains. But Barbara has a legacy
email account set up on the triad.rr.com POP server, and a few days ago
Kmail started returning an error message when she tried to POP mail
from that account.
When I called Roadrunner tech support, I
spent a minute in a voice menu system, another couple minutes on hold,
and was then connected to Jake, who turned out to speak American
English and who knew his job. In a moment of insanity, when Jake asked
me if Barbara was running Outlook I told him that we were an all-Linux
household. He replied that he used to use Linux but had come back to
Windows. He treated me just as he would anyone who was running Windows.
We ran through his checklist, and then I suggested that he simply reset
the password for the account (I had no clue what it was currently, or so I thought).
was a bit of a problem, since he's constrained by privacy and security
policies. Eventually, he asked me to read the MAC address on the cable
modem. Having given him that, and presumably having my phone number up
on his display, he was satisfied that I was who I said I was. We then
set a security question (Barbara's favorite author) and he changed the
that point, I was able to get into Barbara's mailbox with webmail. As
it turns out, I did know Barbara's original password, which I'd tried
before calling tech support. When I'd used the original password to try
to access her box via webmail, I got an error message about an
incorrect password. That was deceptive, because in fact the password
was correct but the box was otherwise inaccessible. After all the
fiddling around and resetting the password, apparently the box was
unlocked and I was able to access it with the new password. Jake
speculated that there was a corrupted message in the mailbox and that
somehow caused the problems.
Once I got into Barbara's mailbox
with webmail, I just left it up on screen for her to read the messages
once she got home, and I set the box to autoforward messages to her
main POP account on zidane. I told her I'd leave the autoforward set,
but to change any mailing list subscriptions that used that address to
use one of her main addresses on zidane. Problem solved.
- Oh, yeah. It occurred to me that I hadn't posted an image of the cover. Here it is.
Obviously, the photographer who shot the cover image is in his Blue Period.
perhaps O'Reilly took me seriously. When they sent me a sample layout
months ago, they used green as the spot color. My first reaction was,
"No, no, no. Chemistry is BLUE, not green." I checked with Mary and
Paul, who agreed that chemistry is blue. So did Barbara. So I told
O'Reilly that we were all agreed. Chemistry is blue. So they made it
1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 by Robert