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Week of 27 September 2010


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Monday, 27 September 2010
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14:10 - How rich does one have to be for it to be worth spending $24,000 to extend one's life by 12 days? Most people, I suspect, would prefer to give up that 12 days, particularly since they're likely to be a miserable 12 days, and leave the $24,000 for their families. Of course, all bets are off if someone else is paying for it. Unfortunately, through our taxes and health insurance premiums, we're all the "someone else".

The solution seems obvious to me. No government health care or insurance program--including Medicare, Medicaid, and insurance provided to government employees and retirees--should provide or pay for anything other than generic pharmaceuticals. Under any circumstances. Period. Pharmaceuticals that are still under patent should be available only to people who are willing to pay for them themselves or whose private medical insurance or supplemental insurance covers them.



Not that we need any more, but here's yet another good reason to homeschool your kids. What are these people thinking? Large corporations are at least as much of a threat as government and religion. Taken together, they are the real trinity.



Every once in a great while, an article comes along that's an incredible time-saver. Here is one such article. Spend a few minutes reading this article and you'll never have to waste any time reading any "science" article in a mainstream newspaper, magazine, or news web site. Seriously. This one article tells you everything you need to know about everything, at least from the perspective of mainstream science "reporting".


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Tuesday, 28 September 2010
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08:03 - One bogus charge frequently leveled by the religious and accommodationists against us Gnu Atheists is that we aren't qualified to criticize religious beliefs because we haven't devoted years of study to understanding the nuances of those beliefs. My response to that argument is that a thing not worth studying is not worth studying well. I don't need a Ph.D. in unicornology to point out that no one has ever provided any objective evidence that unicorns exist. PZ Myers also responded devastatingly to this charge with his Courtier's Reply.

As it turns out, we needn't have bothered. A recent Pew survey studied American's level of knowledge about religion and found that atheists on average know more about religion than the people who practice it. We atheists scored an average of 21 correct answers. Roman Catholics came in last, at only 15 correct answers.

Of course, that came as no surprise to me. Atheists are, on average, considerably smarter and far better-read than the average religious person. I have never, for example, encountered a New Earth Creationist who has actually read Darwin's Origin. Conversely, I don't think I've ever encountered an atheist who has not read the bible.


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Wednesday, 29 September 2010
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14:38 - If Barbara only knew what I get up to while she's gone...

Right now, I'm baking a pound or so of her baking soda in her oven. Why? Well, I'm writing up an experiment on determining solubility curves--how the solubility of a compound varies at different temperatures. I needed a compound that was cheap, pure, and readily-available. Sodium chloride (table salt) would be ideal, but it's solubility curve is nearly flat. (Its solubility in boiling water is only about 1.1 times higher than its solubility in freezing water.) Sodium hydrogen carbonate (sodium bicarbonate, baking soda) has a steeper curve, but not enough steeper to suit me. I want something that shows serious solubility differences at low and high temperatures, because most of my kit users won't have a balance. Sucrose is about like baking soda; roughly three times as soluble at boiling as at freezing. And it takes a lot of sucrose to saturate a solution, which makes a highly viscous mess. Hmmm.

So I decided to use sodium carbonate, which is six or seven times more soluble in boiling water than in freezing water, and has solubilities that are appropriate for volumetric measurement (teaspoons, a couple mL in the small graduated cylinder, or whatever). So, the first part of the lab session will have our young experimenters converting baking soda into sodium carbonate. Fortunately, that's trivially easy. At 200 C or higher, two molecules of baking soda lose a molecule each of carbon dioxide and water, both of which conveniently outgas, to form one molecule of sodium carbonate.

The problem is, those readers without a balance need a way to convert volumetric measurements into masses. How much does 5 mL of sodium carbonate weigh? So I'm now heating Arm & Hammer baking soda to produce anhydrous sodium carbonate so that I can weigh volumetric samples to determine its density.

By the time Barbara arrives home, no forensic evidence will remain.


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Thursday, 30 September 2010
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08:30 - Having the right to do something doesn't mean it's right to do it. There's no better example of that principle than Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, those scum who show up at the funerals of soldiers with banners saying that god hates them. Now SCOTUS is taking on a case in which someone sued WBC for intentionally inflicting emotional distress. Much is being made of the First Amendment issues, of course, but I'm not sure this case has anything to do with the First Amendment. The First Amendment is concerned with government censoring speech by individuals. No government agency forbade WBC from protesting, nor attempted to punish them for doing so. This is a civil suit filed by an individual against WBC for emotional distress.

Calling the WBC protesters lunatic fringe is an insult to lunatics. There are few other issues upon which Americans are in such complete agreement. Conservative or liberal, man or woman, black or white, gay or straight, devout or atheist, young or old, Californian or West Virginian, executive or biker. You'd be hard pressed to find any American anywhere who does not think these people are scum.

I'm actually surprised that WBC members haven't already been attacked with great violence. One of these days, a parent of a dead soldier is likely to show up at WBC with an automatic weapon and lots of ammunition. If I were there when that happened, I'd just turn away. I certainly wouldn't do anything to stop the killing or to render aid to the shooting victims. If I were a cop, I sure wouldn't devote a lot of effort to trying to catch the assailant. And if he were caught somehow and I ended up on his jury, I'd certainly vote to acquit. Justifiable homicide is a reasonable defense. Or, in that traditional plea, which was accepted until very recently in many Southern courts, "He needed killing, your honor." The world would be a better place if the WBC members weren't in it.



I'm beginning to think I wasn't exaggerating when I said I had a million details to deal with in putting together these microchemistry kits. I used to order test tubes for Maker Shed from United Scientific. The were sold by the case of 72 test tubes, packaged in six nicely cushioned boxes of 12 test tubes each. Glassware is subject to breakage in shipping, so the smallest unit we sold at Maker Shed was a box of 12 test tubes. Although the kits don't really need 12 test tubes, I'd planned to include a box of 12 to simplify packing the kits. The cost of including a few more test tubes than were really needed was much smaller than the cost in time of packing tubes individually.

I just got my sales tax exemption number, which wholesalers require before they can set up an account. So I emailed my contact at United Scientific the other day and gave him that number and asked him to set up an account for me. He soon mailed me back to say the account was set up and said to contact him if I had any questions. I asked if the test tubes still came in cases of 72 tubes packed in boxes of 12. Nope. They now come in cases of 72 with simple dividers in the case. Crap. That means I'd have to pack each tube individually. All my other wholesalers also supply test tubes in cases of 72 with simple dividers. So I may have to re-think what I'll include in the kit.



The difference between scientists and normal people.


Of course, biologists are known for being more emotional than other scientists.


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Friday, 1 October 2010
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09:22 - There's an interesting article on Derek Lowe's blog about how many hours a week scientists work. With few exceptions, the commenters seem to agree that 40 hours a week is about the most that can reasonably be expected. One of them even suggested that those who work more than 40 hours a week should be paid time-and-a-half, and double-time for holidays. Perhaps he should join the Teamsters.

It seems to me that this is really a question of what you do versus who you are. Those who put in 40 hours a week think of being a scientist as a job. Those who can routinely be found in the lab evenings, weekends, and holidays, and who do so voluntarily rather than from pressure from a PI or employer, think of being a scientist as who they are. It's the difference between doing a job to earn money and doing something one loves to do, and would do for free if he could afford to.

None of which is a slam on those scientists who work 40 hours a week. I'm sure most of them are perfectly competent scientists, and are doing perfectly good science. Most of them probably like doing science, and most of them are probably good and productive employees. But the ones who of their own free will can be found in the lab at all hours are the ones who love doing science. Most of the great discoveries probably come from the latter group, if only because you can't make a great discovery when you're playing with your kids or taking your wife out to dinner.


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Saturday, 2 October 2010
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10:26 - Barbara forwarded an email to me late yesterday afternoon that was supposedly from a local sheriff's department warning about bottle bombs being left in people's yards. Her first thought was that it was a hoax, but she checked Snopes to make sure. It's no hoax. These infernal devices are horribly dangerous. They can injure, blind, or even kill unsuspecting victims. The people who leave them for others to come upon are probably mostly teenage punks, but they're real terrorists nonetheless.

If you come upon a soda bottle that appears to have some liquid and aluminum foil in it, do not touch it. Keep people and pets at least 50 yards away from it--100 yards would be better--and call 911. Seriously. The authorities won't hassle you for doing so. These bottle bombs are potential killers. Watch the video on Snopes. When that thing detonated, it sprayed sodium hydroxide (lye) solution all over the place. That liquid can blind you permanently in literally seconds.

It's worrisome that we have at least one bottle bomber just one county over from where we live. I'm going to mention this to our neighbors, to make sure they're aware of the danger. Unfortunately, this is just the kind of thing that'll make the morning paper and the lunch table conversation at schools, where would-be copycats are sure to hear about it.



The lady across the street is one of our school system's top teachers. She teaches mathematics to elementary pupils. While I was walking Malcolm yesterday, she was pulling out of her drive. She stopped to chat, and gave me an example of a math problem from the book her 4th graders are using.

A has three times as many apples as B. A gives B 24 apples, after which A has twice as many apples as B. How many apples did A and B have initially?

I'm sure most of my readers have already mentally worked out that A started with 216 apples and B with 72, but I'd guess that probably not more than one in a hundred American adults could determine the correct answer other than by a brute-force crack. Is it just me, or does that question seem a bit much for 4th graders, even bright ones? Apparently, they're teaching Algebra I to 9-year-olds now.



11:11 - Holy Cow! Here's a serious home lab, complete with pipe organ (the guy's other hobby). It's in Ireland. If it were in the US, it'd probably have been raided and shut down long ago.






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Sunday, 3 October 2010
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10:28 - As an example of the crap I'm going through trying to design and produce the microchemistry kits, see this article. Incredible as it may seem, the CPSIA makes it legally hazardous for science kit makers to include so trivial an item as paper clips in their science kits, if those kits are intended or marketed for use or might reasonably be expected to be used by "children" aged 12 or under.

And it's not just paper clips. It's every item in the kits. Want to include, say, a pencil? Be prepared to have that pencil tested and certified by an approved independent laboratory, at a cost of hundreds to thousands of dollars. And you'd better buy a lifetime supply of pencils for that test, because if you run out of pencils from one batch, you'll have to have the next batch tested as well.

You might think one could avoid this problem simply by heading for Office Depot and buying cases of paper clips or pencils that had already been tested and approved. It doesn't work that way. If you package an item in one of your kits, you can't take someone else's word for its safety. You're responsible, with potentially devasting fines and penalties if you happen to include an item that's out of compliance with the ever-changing guidelines. You're betting your company that your upstream supplier hasn't lied or screwed up. The burden is entirely on you.

Nor does the law apply only to commercial products. Literally, a PTA mom who makes craft items for her kid's elementary school class is subject to this law and could be prosecuted and fined huge amounts for unintentionally using an item that was not certified compliant. Flea market and eBay sellers are also liable, not just for new products they make themselves, but for reselling used products that are not certified compliant. Public libraries are destroying children's books because those books are not certain to be compliant, and the library could be subject to huge penalties for allowing an 11-year-old to check out such a book.

The outcome of this insanity is predictable. Science kits targeted at kids under 13 will disappear (and are disappearing) from the market. If some few remain, they'll be unaffordable.

Fortunately, none of this has any real bearing on my kits, which are intended for high-school students. Still, it's annoying to be effectively forbidden from producing kits intended for elementary school pupils.


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