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Week of 15 February 2010

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Monday, 15 February 2010
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12:28 - Costco run yesterday with Paul and Mary, followed by dinner.

One of my viewers had an interesting question. He's interested in alternative photographic processes and wanted an inexpensive source for pyrogallol, a developing agent that was used in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He's in Canada, and said the cheapest source he could find for pyrogallol was $120 for 100 grams, and that hazardous shipping charges increased that cost significantly. I believe it, because pyrogallol was hideously expensive even when I was using it back in the 1960s. He wanted to know if he could do his own synthesis of pyrogallol, starting with cheap tannic acid.

Pyrogallol is actually a benzene ring with three adjacent hydroxyl groups, i.e., 1,2,3-trihydroxybenzene. It was first synthesized by Carl Scheele in the late 18th century by destructive distillation of gallic acid (hence the name "pyro" gallol). Gallic acid, which also isn't cheap, is 3,4,5-trihydroxybenzoic acid. Decarboxylating the ring, either by destructive distillation or chemical means, produces fairly pure pyrogallol in good yield.

So, the question is, how to get cheap gallic acid. Tannic acid is actually a glucose molecule in which each hydroxyl group has esterified with the carboxyl group on a gallic acid molecule and in which one of the hydroxyl groups on each of those gallic acid molecules has esterified with a the carboxyl group from a second gallic acid molecule. The resulting tannic acid molecule, the structure of which is shown here, is what organic chemists refer to in jest as 1,2-dimethylchickenwire.

Paul's first reaction was that we should be able to hydrolyze the ester with sodium hydroxide, yielding only gallic acid and glucose, precipitate the gallic acid by adding a mineral acid to the reaction vessel, and then decarboxylate the gallic acid using heat or chemical means to yield pyrogallol. He's checking further, so we'll see. If this is practical, I may shoot a video of the synthesis.

Speaking of which, I had some old footage I shot soon after I got my camcorder of Paul synthesizing nitrocellulose (guncotton). I've edited nearly an hour of original footage down into something that'll fit on YouTube, and I'll post it shortly. The audio and video suck, but it's an interesting procedure.


Tuesday, 16 February 2010
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09:40 - Here's an interesting interview with Professor Phil Jones of CRU/East Anglia that actually raises more questions than it answers.

The interview touches briefly on the Medieval Warm Period, which is the bane of AGW alarmists. Bizarrely, Dr. Jones' position seems to be that because we do not have and cannot ever get data about Southern hemisphere temperatures during that period, we must assume that the MWP was not a global phenomenon. In other words, although all of the data that is or can ever be available about that period indicates that it was warmer than current temperatures, we have to write that data off because other data, which we can never get, might have established that the MWP was a Northern-hemisphere-only phenomenon. All of those data, albeit incomplete and forever to remain so, indicate one thing. Professor Jones says we must assume the opposite in the absence of any data to support that position.

He makes similarly bizarre assumptions about proxies. Briefly, when compared to actual measurements, tree-ring data for the last 50 years or so has been shown to be an unreliable proxy for actual measured temperatures. And yet Professor Jones assumes that that same tree-ring data is a reliable proxy for temperatures over the preceding 1,000 years, for which we don't have measured temperatures.

Professor Jones says he's sure the climate is warming, but he's apparently less certain that human activities are responsible for that warming since 1950. My first question to him would be "warming over what period?" Since the Little Ice Age? I don't think anyone would dispute that global temperatures have been increasing since the LIA, nor that natural causes were certainly responsible for that warming prior to the 20th century. So the question becomes what part, if any, of global temperature increases during the last 60 years or so have been caused by human activities.

Based on his data, such as they are, I see no indication, let alone proof, that human activities have been responsible for most of the warming since 1950, as he claims. The truth is that we have only about a decade's worth of reliable global temperature data, all of it produced by satellites. And those data show that we're currently cooling, not warming.


Wednesday, 17 February 2010
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09:16 - Today is the one-month anniversary of my YouTube channel. (I actually posted the first group of videos on 12 January, but the channel wasn't officially public until 17 January.) After one month, I now have 17 videos posted, about 1,700 subscribers, and close to 40,000 video views. Not as good as I hoped, but better than I feared. We'll see how things look after six months and a year.

Barbara is watching some of the Olympic events. Last night, Jim Cantore, whom I'd last seen several years ago on the Weather Channel, was doing the Olympic weather forecast. I didn't recognize him at first, because he's now completely bald. At any rate, I thought it was interesting that his forecast highs and lows for the Vancouver Olympic sites over the next few days were actually warmer than the forecasts for Winston-Salem.

I just boxed up the MacBook that O'Reilly lent me for video editing and called FedEx to come to pick it up. This is the second time I've had a loaner Mac--the first was from my editor Brian Jepson--and I've not been able to get interested in it either time. I'm sure that purchased Adobe applications for video editing are extremely powerful, but the iMovie applet is simply too clumsy and feature-poor to bother with.

I'm using Cinelarra under Linux now, and I suspect it compares pretty well feature-for-feature with the industrial-strength commercial apps. The crashes that I was experiencing with Cinelarra turned out to be my fault, and since I figured out what I was doing wrong I haven't had a single crash. I haven't even scratched the surface of what Cinelarra can do, but it sure does everything I need for my simple requirements.

Cinelarra is fast. On my quad-core system, it renders 720X480 DV video to Quicktime faster than real-time. Rendering DV to DV while assembling clips is extremely fast. Short clips render before I can move the mouse from the button, and even long clips render in just a few seconds.


Thursday, 18 February 2010
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08:08 - Wow. Chuck Waggoner just posted something on the forum about a problem I'd never heard about.

Son's SO lost her SAAB keys a few days ago while on a 10 mile practice run of some kind, so no chance of finding them.  Want to know how much it will cost to get them replaced?


She had no idea.  Thought it would be $10 or 15.  I am not in favor of lots of laws, but there ought to be one against this kind of stuff.

The problem is apparently not that she lost a key to her car, but that she no longer has any key to her car. bradley13 replies:

That was so strange, I spent a couple of minutes surfing. There is a thread about this, with the key explanation being:

"...Saab uses three matched components (an antenna, a theft computer, and a transponder-type ignition key. If you had one working key, and less than four keys had ever been programmed to work with the antenna and theft computer, it would be possible to program another key. But because you have no key, all three components need to be replaced, and then the transponder key has to be programmed."

Replies later in the thread point out that you can get the essential components from other sources - I didn't read the details, but I expect the idea is to pull the components out of a wrecked Saab. Cost point is still about $500.

But the essential question is: does she not have another key? You always get at least two keys when you by a car...

I suspect the problem is not unique to Saab vehicles, although perhaps the cost of a lost key for them is higher than other manufacturers. Still, if you car has an electronic key system, it might be worth checking into.

I understand the arguments in favor of electronic key systems, but the way Saab has implemented this still seems inexcusable to me. At the very least, one should be able to override the security and reset the system to defaults without having to replace hardware, perhaps by having a dealer plug in a controller and allowing you to enter your passcode.


Friday, 19 February 2010
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Saturday, 20 February 2010
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10:32 - For an upcoming video, I'm going to be making something I haven't made in 40 years. Black powder.

I hesitated to make this video, because there must be hundreds of videos already on YouTube about making black powder. The problem is, most of them aren't really making black powder at all, but meal powder. Simply mixing 75% potassium nitrate, 15% charcoal, and 10% sulfur doesn't produce black powder. It gives you meal powder, which burns quickly, but nowhere near as fast as real black powder.

I first made black powder when I was 9 or 10 years old. The local Thrift Drugs had everything I needed, all on one wall, in nice cylindrical cardboard canisters in the red, white, and light blue trade dress of Thrift Drugs. I used my carefully-hoarded pocket change to buy a one-pound canister of potassium nitrate and four-ounce canisters of activated charcoal and sulfur. At the time I didn't yet have a balance, so when I got them home the first thing I did was carefully count the number of level teaspoons contained in each canister so that I could calculate the proper masses volumetrically.

My first effort was semi-successful, in the sense that the product burned ferociously, much like a road flare. But that wasn't good enough for me, so I visited the library and found some old books that described the proper procedure. I soon realized that I had two problems. First, I didn't have a ball mill, which is pretty much required to get the mixture intimately mixed, embedding particles of each of the components together. What I had was a loose mixture. Second, I had no way to do the corning procedure, in which the meal powder is tightly compressed and then broken up and sieved to yield granules rather than a fine powder.

I reasoned that one way to improve the homogeneity of the mixture would be to dissolve the potassium nitrate--the only soluble component--in a minimum of boiling water and then stir all three components together in a paste. Alas, both the charcoal and sulfur are hydrophobic. In other words, water doesn't wet them very well, so they tend to clump together instead of making a smooth paste. I solved that problem by raiding the kitchen for a drop or two of dishwashing liquid and adding it to the mix.

The second problem was grain size. The stuff I produced on the first run was an extremely fine powder, similar in grain size to talcum powder. Fine powder burns much slower than larger granules because the flame front has to work its way through what amounts to a solid mass. Commercial black powder comes in granular rather than powder form. The air gaps between the granules allow the flame front to move much faster through the mass, producing nearly simultaneous ignition of the entire mass.

So I decided to produce granules by pressing my paste through a scrap piece of window screen. That produced little worms of black powder, and at first I thought it had worked. The problem was, when I dried the little black worms, they fell apart into powder. Back to the drawing board. I'd read that in the early days of black powder production, workers had boiled down large volumes of human urine and used it to wet the meal powder before pressing. The important characteristic of the boiled-down urine was that it was very sticky, which caused the powder to stick together. I wasn't up for boiling down urine (and I didn't want to wait long enough to produce enough urine to boil down), so I decided to use a substitute. Looking around the shelves in the garage, I noticed a bottle of Elmer's Glue. I added a bit of that to my paste, and found that the little black worms no longer fell apart into powder upon drying. I could dry them thoroughly, crush them gently to break them up into granules, and sieve the product with different size sieves to produce real granular black powder that burned much better than the meal powder I'd made initially.

Which actually led to the first (of three) times I was responsible for a school building being evacuated. In sixth grade, we had a group project, with the class divided into five or six small groups of students. My best friend, David Silvis, and I took the lead for our group. Our project was to build a tabletop model of the volcano Parícutin. David built the model itself on a 4X4 sheet of plywood, with the volcano itself made from a large amount of aluminum foil. Others decorated the project with tiny trees, burros, people, and so on. My part was to supply the charge. I wanted lots of steam and sulfurous vapors, so rather than using black powder I made up a similar mixture that substituted sugar for the charcoal and used a significant excess of sulfur. I made up a pound of it, enough to fill the inside of the volcano. I kept it finely powdered to extend the burn time.

After the teacher and other students had examined our project closely, it was time for the grand finale. When I touched it off, the results were even more impressive than I'd hoped for. An intense flame shot two or three feet straight up from the mouth of the volcano, which also emitted clouds of steam and sulfurous gas, and a nice flow of "lava" out of the mouth and down the sides. Alas, there was a bit too much gas. Within seconds, all of the students and the teacher were gasping and running for the door. The teacher pulled the fire alarm, and the whole school was evacuated. We all stood outside waiting for the fire trucks to arrive. It was an hour or so before we were allowed back in, by which time most of the sulfur dioxide had dissipated.

The teacher congratulated our group for doing a spectacular project. Her only comment to me was, "Next time, I think you should use a bit less powder." Oh, yeah. We were awarded an A for our project and won the competition. Nowadays, an 11-year-old kid who did that would be hauled off in handcuffs and probably sentenced to life.


Sunday, 21 February 2010
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Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.