Week of 8 June 2009
Update: Thursday, 11 June 2009 17:04 -0500
Things I never knew didn't always work: potassium permanganate and
glycerol. At least a dozen times, starting when I was a teenager and
most recently at Maker Faire last year, I've poured out a small pile of
potassium permanganate crystals and added some glycerol to the pile.
Every time, after a pause of 10 or 15 seconds, the two chemicals burst
into an intense flame. So intense that permanganate/glyercol is often
used to initiate thermite, which is notoriously difficult to get
So, yesterday I was down in the lab shooting a series of video clips of visually interesting stuff. (Kip Kay
has kindly offered to use these clips to put together opening and
closing sequences for some science videos I'm shooting.) I set up
the camcorder, pointing at a porcelain evaporating dish with a small
pile of potassium permanganate crystals. I added some glycerol to the
pile, and waited. And waited. Six minutes later, not only has the pile
not burst into flames, it's not even warm. Hmmm. I got out a new
evaporating dish, added some more potassium permanganate and glycerol,
and waited. Again, nothing.
I know when I'm beat. Ordinarily,
I'd have tried to figure out what went wrong, perhaps substituting
potassium permanganate and glycerol from different sources. But I was
in a hurry yesterday to get several clips shot, so I decided just to
substitute something else. I decided to use the old sugar and sulfuric
acid demonstration, where the concentrated sulfuric acid literally
sucks the water out of sucrose molecules, leaving only carbon, which
rises from the beaker as an amorphous black column. That one's pretty
impressive. Probably not something I'll do again indoors, though. Even
with the exhaust fans running on high, the stink was pretty bad, not
least because of the vaporized sulfuric acid. I got me and my camcorder
out of the lab before the vapor ate my camcorder, and let the exhaust
fans run for an hour or so to clear the air.
From: Rod Schaffter To: Bob ThompsonDate: Mon Jun 8 09:48:19 2009 Re: Wet Glycerol and Scientists vs CelebritiesHi Bob,Glycerol
is quite hygroscopic, so I suspect that water picked up from the air
during storage of the glycerol may be quenching the reaction, although
I would think it would at least get warm.Here is an interesting piece on Celebrities vs Scientists, which debunks assertions made by prominent people:http://www.acsh.org/publications/pubID.1668/pub_detail.aspI
think they were a bit hard on tobacco, though, as lung cancer was
virtually unknown before the 1920s, so I think the problem is
cigarettes rather than tobacco in, a pipe or cigar.Lastly, Here is an unusual experiment, but the authors used the scientific method well:http://www.myscienceproject.org/condoms.htmlCheers,
don't think water was the problem. For the first run, I used glycerol
from a Barnes bottle (glycerol is an excellent temporary mountant for
microscope slide). But for the second run, I used a freshly-opened
Costco bottle of glycerol, labeled Glycerol - USP - 96%.
suppose it's too much to hope for that celebrities will speak only
about things they understand and keep silent otherwise. In
general, they know nothing about science or logic. In particular, the post hoc ergo propter hoc
fallacy seems to be popular among celebrities. That's why it's so
refreshing to hear someone like Amanda Peet speak sensibly about
science. I only wish she hadn't apologized for characterizing
anti-vaccine parents as "parasites", because that's exactly what they
are. It's true that they can avoid a vanishingly small risk to their
children by avoiding vaccines, but they do so by depending on herd
immunity. That works fine as long as the anti-vaccine nutters are in
the tiny minority, but, as we've seen recently in the UK, when the
anti-vaccine position goes mainstream we end up with a lot of sick and
As to the condom experiment, I wonder if they
actually paid for all of them or used condoms donated by a
manufacturer. If the former, that was a pretty expensive experiment.
You can't get there from here. I got a call yesterday from Mary, Kim's
mother. She was on her cell phone and breaking up so badly that I
couldn't understand most of what she was saying. She managed to convey
that their VoIP phone service from Time-Warner wasn't working, so I
walked down to their house. The cable modem power and telephone-1
lights were lit solid and all of the other lights were blinking in
sync. I power reset the cable modem, and it came back up the same way.
Mary's cell phone has such poor service from their house
that she wasn't able to reach Time-Warner on it, so I walked back down
to our house and called TW service from there. They didn't want to talk
to me because I wasn't calling from the location where the problem
occurred. I explained patiently to them that I couldn't call them from
there because the TW digital phone service at that location WASN'T
WORKING. They suggested that Mary call them from her house on her cell
phone. Say what? I explained that her cell phone didn't work from her
house, that Mary is a frail, elderly woman who was now without phone
service, and asked if they really wanted to be responsible for her
being without a phone for any longer than necessary.
to the TW rep, they are concerned about "security". Apparently, they're
afraid that people will put in hoax repair requests or something. Given
that we're also TW customers and that they knew who I am, what number I
was calling from (which is the same as the number they have on our
customer record), and that they know I'm at 4231 Witherow Road, three
houses down the street from Mary at 4205 Witherow Road, it seemed to me
that any reasonable person would realize that this wasn't a prank call.
So I suggested to the rep that she do remote diagnostics to see if
there was a problem at 4205 Witherow. She replied that she'd already
done that, and that there was indeed a problem. So I asked her why she
couldn't just put in a repair request to fix the problem that she knew
existed. She finally agreed as a "courtesy" to log the repair request.
I asked when someone would be there to fix the problem, reminding her
that this was an elderly woman without phone service, and she promised
someone would be out that afternoon. They took my phone number and said
the repairman would call me before he showed up.
So, the day
passed with no call. After dinner, about 7:00, Barbara and I walked the
dogs, and I stopped to find out if their phone had been fixed. Mary
said no one had been there. So I went back home and called TW yet
again, prepared to spend another half hour on hold. The call queuing
system said to expect 15 to 20 minutes on hold, but as it turned out it
took only a couple minutes before I was connected to another rep. He
wanted the last four digits of Mary's social security number. I told
him I had no idea what those were, and explained the situation again.
He finally, as a "courtesy", told me that a repair visit was logged for
Mary's problem but that he couldn't give me a time. I asked if it'd be
that evening or if Mary would have to do without a phone until the next
day. He said it would be that evening, but it might be as late as 9:30
or 10:00. Okay. I walked back down and told Mary what I'd learned.
Finally, about 9:00, she called to say that they'd come and fixed her
- Today has been so hectic that I just now got a moment to post.
misunderstood the situation with Mary's VoIP. I thought a Time-Warner
repairman had come out Monday evening and repaired the problem. Not so.
The problem fixed itself, supposedly. Yesterday, I got a call from the
TW repairman saying that he was 5 minutes from Mary's house. I met him
there. As it turned out, he was the first to respond. He realized
immediately that I knew something about TCP/IP and cable systems, so he
didn't try to blow any smoke.
What apparently really happened
Monday is that someone at TW pressed the wrong key and accidentally
turned off Mary's VoIP service. When I put in the first problem report,
it must have taken several hours to make its way to the person who
finally realized what had happened. That person undid the wrong
keystroke, and turned Mary's VoIP service back on. When it came on,
Mary (who must have been checking it periodically) called and spoke to
Barbara. I thought the TW repairman had shown up and fixed it, but all
Mary told Barbara was that the phone was now working.
annoying as that was for Mary (and me), it must also have been annoying
to the serviceman, who made a needless service call. All someone had to
do was let him know that the problem had been fixed. Instead, he ended
up wasting time with a pointless service call.
spent 45 minutes on the phone early this afternoon with Dan Woods at
MAKE, talking about the project I'm currently working on and will be
occupied with for some time to come. Dan finally convinced me to come
to Maker Faire next May and to bring Barbara along. We plan to take the
train and turn it into a vacation for Barbara and a working vacation
for me. I'm sure I'll be storming around the main stage at Maker Faire
doing presentations, along with a lot of demonstrations in the Maker
Shed and Maker Booth.
I suppose that also means I'll need to buy
a notebook to use on the trip out and back, or I won't be able to get
any work done. And probably a cell phone, too. For a guy who writes
about technology, I'm a real Luddite. At Maker Faire last year, I think
I was the only O'Reilly person there who didn't have both a notebook
and a cell phone. My editor, Brian Jepson, ended up lending me spares.
I'm busier than usual, which is saying something. My to-do list of
individual items eventually got so ridiculously long that I
consolidated it into category groupings. Now even that's getting
Thanks to everyone who's been suggesting
specific cell phones and notebooks, but I probably won't buy either one
until shortly before next year's Maker Faire. I so seldom leave the
house that I don't need either one. My truck hasn't left the garage for
the last two or three months. Or, as a girl I dated long ago once said,
"The phrase 'cabin fever' is meaningless to you, isn't it?" Yep.
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