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Week of 16 February 2009

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Monday, 16 February 2009
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08:20 - Dinner with Paul and Mary last night. We were planning to head for Costco before dinner, but Mary spent the afternoon dosing herself with antihistamines and recovering from her encounter with a friendly chocolate Lab that insisted on nuzzling Mary during her run that morning. After work this evening, Barbara is off for a haircut and to run errands, so I'll have the other half of the large stromboli I had last night for dinner tonight.

Today, I'll continue working on supplemental lab sessions.

12:04 - Bas posted this over on the messageboard, and I thought it was worth reposting here:

I can't vouch for its provenance but it came from a friend in the industry:

This is a first-hand account from a passenger on Flight 1549. It is an internal memo to the members of his firm. It is very well written, is descriptive, and gives this man's honest reactions to the events around him.

This is from a Partner at Heidrick & Struggles, an executive recruiting firm, who was on Flight 1549. Gerry McNamara (New York/Charlotte) was on US Airways Flight 1549 last week. Here is his account of the event:

Thursday was a difficult day for all of us at the firm and I left the Park Avenue office early afternoon to catch a cab bound for LaGuardia Airport .

I was scheduled for a 5 pm departure, but able to secure a seat on the earlier flight scheduled to leave at 3PM. As many of us who fly frequently often do, I recall wondering if I'd just placed myself on a flight I shouldn't be on! Just prior to boarding I finished up a conference call with my associate, Jenn Sparks ( New York ), and our placement, the CIO of United Airlines. When I told him that I was about to board a US Airways flight, we all had a little fun with it. I remember walking on the plane and seeing a fellow with grey hair in the cockpit and thinking "that's a good thing... I like to see grey hair in the cockpit!"

I was seated in 8F, on the starboard side window and next to a young business man. The New York to Charlotte flight is one I've taken what seems like hundreds of times over the years. We take off north over the Bronx and as we climb, turn west over the Hudson River to New Jersey and tack south. I love to fly, always have, and this flight plan gives a great view of several NY landmarks including Yankee Stadium and the George Washington Bridge
I had started to point out items of interest to the gentleman next tome when we heard a terrible crash - a sound no one ever wants to hear while flying - and then the engines wound down to a screeching halt.10 seconds later, there was a strong smell of jet fuel. I knew we would be landing and thought the pilot would take us down no doubt to Newark Airport . As we began to turn south I noticed the pilot lining up on the river still - I thought - en route for Newark. Next thing we heard was "Brace for impact!" - a phrase I had heard many years before as an active duty Marine Officer but never before on a commercial air flight. Everyone looked at each other in shock. It all happened so fast we were astonished! We began to descend rapidly and it started to sink in. This is the last flight. I'm going to die today. This is it. I recited my favorite bible verse, the Lord's Prayer, and asked God to take care of my wife, children, family and friends.  When I raised my head I noticed people texting their friends and family....getting off a last message. My blackberry was turned off and in my trouser pocket...no time to get at it. Our descent continued and I prayed for courage to control my fear and help if able.

I quickly realized that one of two things was going to happen, neither of them good. We could hit by the nose, flip and break up, leaving few if any survivors, bodies, cold water, fuel. Or we could hit one of the wings and roll and flip with the same result. I tightened my seat belt as tight as I could possibly get it so I would remain intact.  As we came in for the landing, I looked out the windows and  remember seeing the buildings in New Jersey , the cliffs inWeehawken , and then the piers. The water was dark green and sure to be freezing cold. The stewardesses were yelling in unison "Brace! Brace! Brace!"

It was a violent hit - the water flew up over my window - but we bobbed up and were all amazed that we remained intact. There was some panic - people jumping over seats and running towards the doors, but we soon got everyone straightened out and calmed down. There were a lot of people that took leadership roles in little ways. Those sitting at the doors over the wing did a fantastic job...they were opened in a New York second! Everyone  worked together - teamed up and in groups to figure out how to help each other. I exited on the starboard side of the plane, 3 or 4 rows behind my seat through a door over the wing and was, I believe, the 10th or 12th person out. I took my seat cushion as a flotation device and once outside saw I was the only one who did....none of us remembered to take the yellow inflatable life vests from under the seat.

We were standing in 6-8 inches of water and it was freezing. There were two women on the wing, one of whom slipped off into the water. Another passenger and I pulled her back on and had her kneel down to keep from falling off again. By that point we were totally soaked and absolutely frozen from the icy wind. The ferries were the first to arrive, and although they're not made for rescue, they did an incredible job. I know this river, having swum in it as a boy. The Hudson is an estuary - part salt and part fresh water - and moves with the tide. I could tell the tide was moving out because we were tacking slowly south towards Ellis Island , The Statue of Liberty, and The Battery. The first ferry boat pulled its bow up to the tip of the wing, and the first mate lowered the Jacobs ladder down to us.

We got a couple people up the ladder to safety, but the current was strong pushing the stern of the boat into the inflatable slide and we were afraid it would puncture it...there must have been 25 passengers in it by now. Only two or three were able to board the first ferry before it moved away. Another ferry came up, and we were able to get the woman that had fallen into the water on the ladder, but she just couldn't move her legs and fell off. Back onto the ladder she went; however, the ferry had to back away because of the swift current. A helicopter arrived on station (nearly blowing us all off the wing) and followed the  ferry with the woman on the ladder. We lost view of the situation but I believe the helicopter lowered its basket to rescue her. As more ferries arrived, we were able to get people up on the boats a few at a time. The fellow in front of me fell off the ladder and into the water. When we got him back on the ladder he could not move his legs to climb. I  couldn't help him from my position so I climbed up the ladder to the ferry deck where the first mate and I  hoisted the Jacobs ladder with him on it....when he got close enough we grabbed histrouser belt and hauled him on deck.. We were all safely off the wing.  We could not stop shaking. Uncontrollable shaking. The only thing I had with me was my blackberry, which had gotten wet and was not working. (It started working again a few hours later).

The ferry took us to the Weehawken Terminal in NJ where I borrowed a phone and called my wife to let her know I was okay. The second call I made was to Jenn. I knew she would be worried about me and could communicate to the rest of the firm that I was fine. At the terminal, first responders assessed everyone's condition and sent people to the hospital as needed. As we pulled out of Weehawken my history kicked in and I recall it was the site of the famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804. Thankfully I left town in better condition than Mr. Hamilton who died of a mortal wound the next day! I stayed with my sister on Long Island that evening, then flew home the next day. I am struck by what was truly a miracle. Had this happened a few hours later, it would have been pitch dark and much harder to land. Ferries would no longer have been running after rush hour and it would not have been the same uplifting story. Surely there would have been fatalities, hypothermia, an absolute disaster! I witnessed the best of humanity that day. I and everyone on that plane survived and have been given a second chance. It struck me that in our work we continuously seek excellence to solve our client's leadership problems. We talk to clients all the time about the importance of experience and the ability to execute. Experience showed up big time on Flight 1549 as our pilot was a dedicated, trained, experienced professional who executed flawlessly when he had to.

I have received scores of emails from across the firm and I am so grateful for the outpouring of interest and concern. We all fly a great deal or work with someone who does and so I wanted to share this story - the story of a miracle. I am thankful to be here to tell the tale. There is a great deal to be learned including: Why has this happened to me? Why have I survived and what am I supposed to do with this gift? For me, the answers to these questions and more will come over time, but already I find myself being more patient and forgiving, less critical and judgmental.

For now I have 4 lessons I would like to share:
1. Cherish your families as never before and go to great lengths to keep your promises.
2. Be thankful and grateful for everything you have and don't worry about the things you don't have.
3. Keep in shape. You never know when you'll be called upon to save your own life, or help someone else save theirs.
4. When you fly, wear practical clothing. You never know when you'll end up in an  emergency or on an icy wing in flip flops and pajamas and of absolutely no use to yourself or anyone else.

And I'd like to add: Fly with grey haired Captains


Tuesday, 17 February 2009
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08:39 - I've now received comments on all chapters of the forensics book by all tech reviewers, so I'll spend some time today getting all of those comments/corrections incorporated in the manuscript chapters. At that point, the book will be in O'Reilly's hands. It feels good to put the ball in their court, finally.


Wednesday, 18 February 2009
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08:47 - Ars Technica has an interesting article posted about getting more kids interested in careers in science. Throwing more money at the problem isn't the solution, but then we already knew that. The trick, it seems, is to get kids hooked up with working scientists who can mentor those kids. As my regular readers know, that's something I've been pushing for a long time.

The obvious goal is to turn on kids to science in the hope that they'll eventually decide to become scientists. That's important, so much so that it's difficult to overstate. But there's a less obvious goal as well. If only 1% of the kids who read my books and other writing decide to become working scientists, I'll be content. But the other 99% are just as important, if not more so. It's true that we need a new crop of scientists, but realistically we need only a small percentage of kids to choose careers in science. But it's critically important that the 99% of kids who choose not to become scientists still have a basic understanding of science and an appreciation for it, because those kids are tomorrow's voters and opinion leaders.

At its root, science isn't really about lab benches and test tubes and spectrometers. It's a structured, rational way of thinking and of gaining knowledge by observation, by far the most powerful way developed by humanity over its history. By teaching kids to think scientifically, even for routine day-to-day life decisions, we do them and society an immeasurably great favor. That, to me, is what science mentoring is really all about.


Thursday, 19 February 2009
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08:48 - I see that our new attorney general declares that we are a "nation of cowards" when it comes to talking about race. From the perspective of whites, at least, to the extent that's true, it's a matter of the pot calling the kettle black. If we're cowards, it's because the government, the media, and racist self-nominated black "leaders" like Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Jeremiah Wright have done everything within their power to make us so. All whites know that speaking frankly about race issues risks being tarred with the racist brush.

Jerry Pournelle, for example, often mentions growing up in the Old South, before, during, and just after World War II. As a young man, he was accused of being radical, a communist, or worse, simply for stating his belief that the government should be colorblind and treat everyone equally. Jerry's position hasn't changed, but nowadays some people call him a racist for expressing it. Imagine that. Somehow, the idea that the government should treat everyone equally has become a racist belief.

I have never understood why some white people hate all black people and vice versa. I suspect that's in large part a result of my early upbringing in New Castle, Pennsylvania. My brother was born two weeks before my second birthday. At about the same time, my parents moved out of my maternal grandmother's house and into their first house. Things must have been overwhelming for my mother, with a 2-year-old, a new baby, and a new house. My mom and dad hired a woman to help my mom several mornings a week. Her name was Florida, and she was black. At two years old, of course, I didn't realize that Florida was my parents' employee. To me, she was just a second mother. She wasn't with us long, a few months perhaps, but that early experience taught me that skin color doesn't matter.

Our neighborhood was all white, and there were no black kids in my elementary school, but I had plenty of positive exposure to black people during those early years anyway. My junior high school was fully integrated, as was my high school. I had black friends, or at least close acquaintances, in junior and senior high school. Those were the 60's, when race riots were taking place elsewhere, but New Castle was quiet. In college and grad school, I dated a couple of black girls, who were just as wonderful as the white girls and one Asian girl I dated.

In short, I think it's a question of exposure. White people who hate black people, and vice versa, haven't been exposed enough to people of other races to know them as people. That may be changing, though, and it may be a good outcome from forced integration. Jasmine, for example, tells me that race isn't an issue for her and the other kids in her high school. Jas is as likely to have white friends as black, and none of their friends would give it a second thought if Jas started dating a white guy. So perhaps we'll see an end to true racism with Jasmine's generation.


Friday, 20 February 2009
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09:05 - I'm still working on the March homechemlab subscriber supplement, which is almost complete. This one contains two lab sessions. The first is about purifying aspirin tablets to pure acetylsalicylic acid. The second includes doing several interesting organic syntheses from that purified ASA, including synthesizing salicylic acid from the ASA, phenol from the salicylic acid, and phenolphthalein from the phenol. I should have that complete by this afternoon, after which I start working on a proposal for my next project for O'Reilly/MAKE.

I'm going to take some time off work this weekend to get things finished up in the kitchen. Barbara has shown great patience, but it's time to get the few remaining tasks completed. I also need to spend a couple of hours getting my lab cleaned up and back into shape, and we'll probably make a Costco run sometime this weekend.

10:13 - Barbara pointed out an interesting article in this morning's newspaper about UNC's Destiny Bus, a science roadshow that visited a local high school. This time, the Destiny Bus was set up to give biology students a chance to spend 90 minutes doing hands-on DNA gel electrophoresis. Predictably, combining a hot-button topic like forensics with the chance to actually do it rather than just hearing about it, reading about it, or watching it being done turned on a lot of these kids to science.

Eric Brown, the operations manager of Destiny Bus, commented:

"I always hear some kid say, ask their teacher, ‘Why can't we do this all the time?' so they really enjoy it, working with all the equipment that scientists actually use," Brown said. "We need to get the kids interested in science and math because that's going to be their future."

Which raises an obvious question. Why do these kids have to wait for a bus to pull up in the school parking lot to have a chance to do this kind of stuff? Every kid in every 9th or 10th grade biology class should have a chance to do hands-on DNA gel electrophoresis, along with dozens of other fascinating experiments. It pays big dividends. Here's what sophomore Michael Lynn had to say:

"Honestly, I'm not really a big science person, never been," Lynn said. "It kind of opened my eyes, like I said. I'm not much of a science person so it's not normally something I'm interested in, but today kind of changed my mind."

Multiply that by the millions of kids who should be doing hands-on science every day. The potential is obvious, as is the fact that we're now ignoring that potential. Not every kid who's exposed to hands-on science will choose science as a career, obviously, but a very large percentage of them will develop an appreciation for science and what it can do.

I could almost forgive No Child Left Behind, almost, if instead of focusing solely on reading and math it added science to the mix. These kids are the future, and how that future turns out will be determined largely by how many of our brightest kids we can interested in STEM (Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics). The Destiny Bus is a great start, but we need to do much, much more.


Saturday, 21 February 2009
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09:44 - There was a front-page article in the paper this morning about the widespread anger at the housing bailout. So much so that it doesn't bode well for the Democrats in the 2010 and 2012 elections.

Those of us, a large majority, who behaved responsibly deeply resent being taxed to bail out people who behaved irresponsibly. Having money extracted from us and given to people who are in danger of losing their homes because they've lost their jobs is bad enough. Having money extracted from us and given to people who are about to lose homes they couldn't afford in the first place is much worse. We have to pay not just our own mortgages, but the mortgages of people who "bought" more expensive homes than our own, giving them taxpayer-funded welfare to allow them to live in better houses than our own. One could be forgiven for wanting to burn down these houses with those leeches still in them.

But having money extracted from us and given to people who are in no danger of losing their houses, but merely owe more on their mortgages than their houses are worth is reason to storm Congress with torches and pitchforks. There isn't a word to communicate the level of outrage this deserves. Someone, for example, who owes $600,000 on a home that is now worth only $450,000 will have that loan written down to $450,000, at taxpayer expense.

What about our house? Barbara and I have paid off our mortgage, and our house is now worth less than it was. Why shouldn't we also be paid for that loss? What about our many friends who have paid down their mortgages for years, and now owe less than their homes are worth, even at current market values? Why shouldn't they also be paid for their losses?

The world is now upside down. People who behaved responsibly are being penalized, taxed to make what amount to direct transfers from their bank accounts into the bank accounts of people who behaved irresponsibly. And all thanks to our politicians. Voting them out of office isn't enough. Hanging is too good for them.

12:44 - This video is pretty cool. An atheist stand-up comic does his thing in church. It's in Swedish, but with English subtitles. Of course, from what I've read, the minority of Swedes who attend church are about as likely to be atheists as Americans who do not attend church.

The interesting thing for me was that as I was reading the subtitles I realized that I kind of understood what he was saying. Not entirely, but many words and phrases were intelligible to me, I guess because many years ago I kind of spoke German. Well, read it, actually. If you were a chemist in the early 1970's, you really had no choice but to learn at least enough German to read Beilstein and the other primary sources, most of which were available only in German.


Sunday, 22 February 2009
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Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.