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Week of 1 February 2010

Latest Update: Sunday, 7 February 2010 11:27 -0500

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Monday, 1 February 2010
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09:49 - The severe winter storm that nailed the Southeast on Friday evening hit just as Barbara and her parents were coming back from her uncle's funeral in Allentown. They left Allentown about 4:45 p.m. and pushed to get home before the worst of the storm arrived. Unfortunately, they made it only 99% of the way home before they had a minor accident. Barbara had been calling me periodically to let me know their progress and get storm updates. When the phone rang around 2:05 a.m. I thought it would be Barbara telling me they'd arrived at her parents' home. Unfortunately, they came up a couple miles short. They slid off US 52 just short of their exit and into a sign support beam. No one was hurt, but the car was undriveable.

I unloaded everything from my Trooper and headed over to pick them up. I arrived just as the tow truck got there. We hauled Barbara's parents home and unloaded their stuff. Barbara drove her Trooper home, with me following in mine. We averaged maybe 15 to 20 MPH, and arrived home around 4:30 a.m. Incredibly, a moron in another 4X4 actually passed us on Silas Creek Parkway. Unfortunately, many Southern drivers have a confidence in 4-wheel drive on ice that Northern drivers know has little basis in reality.

Barbara called from work to let me know that she'd made it in safely. She said even the main roads were a mix of everything from dry to packed snow to black ice. Things are very quiet. School of course is called off until further notice. We have more winter weather forecast for later this week, so I'll be surprised if the kids have any school at all this week.


Tuesday, 2 February 2010
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08:10 - Just as the road crews were making some progress on getting the snow and ice cleared, we have another blast of winter precipitation arriving today, with an inch or so of freezing rain and sleet forecast for this morning and into the afternoon. Tomorrow is to warm up slightly, but not enough to melt much of what's already on the ground, and then more is forecast for Friday. They're not forecasting any sustained period of above freezing weather for at least the next couple of weeks, so this ice and snow will probably stick around. I doubt the kids will have school at all this week, and possibly into next week.

I've made my first mini-goal for my YouTube channel, passing 500 subscribers and 20,000 video views. Not bad, for a couple of weeks in. (I created the channel on the 10th of January, but it didn't go public until a couple weeks ago.) I want to get several more videos posted before I start really pushing for numbers.


Wednesday, 3 February 2010
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00:00 -


Thursday, 4 February 2010
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07:52 - Poor Toyota. In addition to the stuck gas pedal problem, I'm now reading reports of random, uncontrolled acceleration unrelated to the gas pedal. And, of course, there's the braking problem in 2010 Prius models, which apparently causes a lag of up to a second between the time the brakes are applied and when they begin to take effect. A second is a very, very long time at highway speeds. Counting the driver's reaction time, that means that a car traveling at highway speeds may move 50 meters or so--more than half a football field--before the brakes even begin to take effect. It sounds like Toyota needs a new slogan: Random Acceleration, No Brakes. No wonder some owners are afraid to drive them. Which also suggests a great new model name. The Toyota Kamikaze.

More bad weather is on the way in, with rain turning to freezing rain tonight and into tomorrow, followed by snow tomorrow and into Saturday, followed by more freezing rain. That'll be three weekends in a row with winter storms, and all of that following the big December storm. That's pretty bad for around here. We have many years when only a trace of snow or less is recorded.

"Don't worry about the icy roads, dear. I'll be safe in my Toyota Kamikaze."


Friday, 5 February 2010
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10:04 - Still more snow and ice, as forecast. Barbara called to let me know she'd made it in to work safely. This is to go on all day and into tomorrow, so she said she might leave a little bit early. The kids are probably getting cabin fever by now. The schools opened two hours late yesterday and I think they closed early as well. Other than that, the kids haven't been in school all week.

I just finished shooting and editing a video about synthesizing ammonium metavanadate, which I'll upload to YouTube shortly. I want to do a segment (or, more likely, segments) about forensic presumptive drug testing. The two major test reagents used for alkaloids (including opium and its derivatives) as well as Ecstasy and similar drugs are Marquis reagent and Mandelin reagent. Both are made up mostly of concentrated sulfuric acid. Marquis reagent includes a small amount of formaldehyde, and Mandelin includes instead a small amount of ammonium metavanadate. With either reagent, the concentrated sulfuric acid basically rips the drug molecule to shreds and the formaldehyde or AMV then reacts with those fragments to produce chromophores (color-producing moieties) that yield characteristic colors and sequences of color changes that can be used to tentatively identify the particular drug or drugs present.

Formaldehyde is easy to find and cheap. AMV can be purchased, but most science suppliers don't carry it or charge a very high price for it. Maker Shed, for example, charges $10 for a 5-gram bottle, and Elemental Scientific charges $45 for a 25 g bottle. So in the video I used a dollar or two's worth of pottery chemicals to synthesize AMV. I'll use some formaldehyde, the AMV I just synthesized, and the Rooto Professional Drain Opener I got at Ace Hardware to make up the Marquis and Mandelin reagents.

This reminds me of a query I fielded at Maker Faire. Someone said something to me on the order of, "This is all very nice, but what do you *make*?" I replied that chemists are, among other things, atom-wranglers, and that most of the items he saw around him were made by chemists. In the not-too-distant past, most chemists made most of their own chemicals from common precursors. In fact, that's still true today for organic chemists. There are thousands of organics available from suppliers, but that's a drop in the bucket compared to the billions or trillions of possible organic compounds. So, at least at the graduate level and beyond, organic chemists often find themselves having to make one or more of the compounds they need to do a synthesis. Kind of like building your own tools before you start a construction project.

When I was in college in the early to mid-70's, our supply rooms were well stocked with inorganics and most of the common organics. When we needed something, we could usually just pull a bottle off the shelf in the stock room. But several of my older professors remembered the old days, when they often had to make their own chemicals, including inorganics. In fact, as late as the 40's and 50's, it wasn't at all unusual for promising undergrad chem majors to get summer internships, which they spent making up chemicals for the following year for use in the teaching laboratories. If the chem department thought they'd need, say, two pounds of copper acetate for the following year--chemicals were often still measured in traditional units back then--some intern would spend part of his or her time the preceding summer synthesizing and recrystallizing that copper acetate. Common precursors like acids and bases were often purchased (or made) in 55 gallon drums. What chemicals they needed, they made themselves, with few exceptions.

Although the modern method of just reaching for a bottle is obviously a lot more convenient and efficient, I think we've lost something by no longer making our own chemicals. And, of course, for a home lab, rolling your own is often the only practical way to get the chemicals you need. So I'll be doing a lot more of my "chemicals on the cheap" videos over the coming months.


Saturday, 6 February 2010
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10:56 - It's still snowing here, but nothing compared to what they're getting up in the Washington, DC area. Brian and Marcia may be snowbound.

I'm considering doing a research project on AGS, or anthropogenic global shortening, a heretofore unrecognized critical danger.

According to my preliminary figures--which I obtained by making them up and then applying arbitrary adjustments--it appears that the average height of Winston-Salem adult residents reached a peak in 1938 when Robert Pershing Wadlow visited. Using him as the proxy for 1938 puts the average height of Winston-Salem residents in 1938 at 8'11.1" or about 272 centimeters. The current average adult height, which I obtained by glancing at three random people and guessing their heights, is 5'7.7", or 172 centimeters. That means the average adult Winston-Salem resident is now 100 centimeters shorter than the average 72 years ago, a loss of about 1.39 centimeters per year.

Although two points define a line (and that's good enough for some researchers) I wanted to go that extra mile by getting a third point. So, after looking at the straight line I'd produced with the 1938 and 2010 data points, I decided to estimate an intermediate value to determine how closely it matched my line. I randomly chose a home built 22 years ago and looked at the height of a doorway in that home, which I estimated to be 6'8" high (about 203 centimeters). Using that proxy, I estimated the average height of adult Winston-Salem residents 22 years ago as 6'8", or 203 centimeters. When I plotted that point on my line, I was shocked--shocked, I say--to find that it fit perfectly. Obviously, I'm onto something here.

Running the numbers gives a frightening result. If this straight-line trend continues, we can expect the average height of adult Winston-Salem residents to decline to about 47 centimeters by the turn of the next century. By 2133, you'll need a magnifying glass to see much detail in an adult Winston-Salem resident, and before 2150 adult Winston-Salem residents will have shruken away entirely. Unfortunately, children are always more vulnerable to such trends, and it's entirely possible that many Winston-Salem children will have shrunken to zero height before the end of the current century.

Obviously, we have to do something, anything, to address this problem. But before we can address the problem we need more data, and that costs money. So I've sent an email to the UN IPEC (International Panel on Elevation Change) to request a billion or two in funding for further studies. Of course, I realize I'll have to kick back a significant percentage of that into their personal bank accounts, but I should be able to do some real science with whatever they leave me. I've also emailed Obama to suggest he make it a national priority to build more racks. Stretching people is obviously an interim solution, but spending a trillion bucks or so on a crash program to produce more racks will at least give us more time to come up with a permanent solution.


Sunday, 7 February 2010
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11:27 - Things have started coming together with my YouTube channel. NurdRage posted a promo video last night. I knew the moment he posted it, because I was reading email on my den system at the time. When I finished reading an email and returned to the message list, I found about 20 subscription emails from YouTube had arrived in the couple minutes I'd spent reading and replying to the email message. Before he posted that video, I was sitting at just under 600 subscribers. As of now, I'm at about twice that, and still climbing.

Subscriber count is important because it's the primary metric YouTube uses to determine if and when to offer a partnership to a channel. Channel partners are featured and promoted a lot more heavily, which in turn generates significantly more traffic. My channel will never be on the YouTube A-list, simply because what I'm doing appeals to a niche audience rather than a mass audience, but at least I have some traction now. All thanks to NurdRage.


Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.