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Week of 18 October 2010

Latest Update: Sunday, 24 October 2010 09:28 -0400

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Monday, 18 October 2010
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09:27 - Costco run and dinner yesterday with Mary and Paul. Mary and I have similar temperature preferences, as do Barbara and Paul. Everyone commented on it when we picked them up. Barbara and Paul were wearing shorts and short-sleeve shirts. Mary and I were wearing long pants and long-sleeve shirts, and I had a hoodie in the truck just in case. We had dinner outdoors, with Barbara and Paul sitting in the shade, probably sweating, and Mary and I sitting in the sun, shivering. Mary ended up wearing my hoodie.

I'll spend today putting together a proposal/outline/TOC for the new book, and then get back to working on the microchemistry kit documentation.


Tuesday, 19 October 2010
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10:40 - I'm still working on the proposal/TOC for the new book. No doubt I'll be giving O'Reilly more detail than they really need, and much of that detail will change as I actually do the book, but at least this gives me an opportunity to work the book structure and flow out in my head so that I can hit the ground running. Always assuming we end up doing the book, of course.

I also put together a prototype microchemistry kit yesterday, just to check volume. The good news is that it all fits snugly within a USPS medium (11" x 8.5" x 5.5") flat-rate Priority Mail box, which is pretty amazing for the amount of stuff that's in the kit. I thought about the Veronica Mars episode where Veronica refers to Cornish hens as "dense little turkeys".


Wednesday, 20 October 2010
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11:44 - The contents of the microchemistry kit aren't finalized, but here's what I'm working with right now. No doubt that I'll end up adding a few things, perhaps changing some molarities, and removing some others.

Chemicals and Indicators

□ Acetic acid, 1.0 M
□ Ammonia, 1.0 M
□ Barium nitrate, 0.1 M
□ Benedict's reagent
□ Bromothymol blue indicator solution
□ Calcium nitrate, 0.1 M
□ Charcoal, activated
□ Copper (wire)
□ Copper(II) sulfate, 1.0 M
□ Dragendorff's reagent
□ Hydrochloric acid, 1.0 M
□ Iodine/iodide solution, 0.1 M
□ Iron (nail)
□ Iron(II) sulfate, 0.1 M
□ Iron(III) chloride, 0.1 M
□ Lead acetate, 0.1 M
□ Magnesium (ribbon)
□ Magnesium sulfate
□ Methyl orange indicator solution
□ Methyl red indicator solution
□ Oxalic acid, 0.5 M
□ Phosphoric acid, 1.0 M
□ Potassium bromide, 0.1 M
□ Potassium dichromate, 0.1 M
□ Potassium ferricyanide, 0.1 M
□ Potassium iodide, 0.1 M
□ Potassium permanganate, 0.02 M
□ Potassium thiocyanate, 0.1 M
□ Scott's reagent
□ Sodium bisulfate, 1.0 M
□ Sodium bisulfite, 1.0 M
□ Sodium borate, 0.1% w/r to boron
□ Sodium carbonate, 1.0 M
□ Sodium ferrocyanide, 0.1 M
□ Sodium hydroxide, 1.0 M
□ Sodium salicylate, 200 ppm w/r to salicylate
□ Sodium sulfide, 0.1 M
□ Sodium sulfite, 1.0 M
□ Sodium thiosulfate, 1.0 M (stabilized)
□ Sulfuric acid, 1.0 M
□ Test paper strips, cobalt chloride
□ Test paper strips, phenolphthalein
□ Test paper strips, wide-range pH
□ Thymol blue indicator solution
□ Turmeric reagent
□ Unknown anion specimen for analysis
□ Unknown cation specimen for analysis
□ Vegetable oil
□ Water, distilled


□ Alligator clips
□ Battery adapter, 9V
□ Beaker, polypropylene, 50 mL
□ Beaker, polypropylene, 100 mL
□ Beaker, polypropylene, 500 mL
□ Beaker, glass, 250 mL
□ Centrifuge tubes, 15 mL
□ Centrifuge tubes, 50 mL, self-standing
□ Cylinder, graduated, polypropylene, 10 mL
□ Cylinder, graduated, polypropylene, 100 mL
□ Digital multimeter (optional)
□ Funnel, polypropylene, long-stem, 50mm
□ Goggles, chemical splash (w/ cap vents)
□ Pipettes, polyethylene
□ Reaction plate, 24-well
□ Reaction plate, 96-well
□ Ruler (6”/150mm)
□ Spatula, stainless, 4”, flat/spoon
□ Stirring rod, 6” x 5mm
□ Syringe, oral, with cap
□ Stoppers
□ Test tube brush
□ Test tube clamp
□ Test tubes
□ Thermometer


□ Battery, 9V
□ Chromatography paper strips
□ Cotton swabs
□ Lab notebook
□ Sharpie marking pen
□ Wood splints

DVD contents

□ Manual
□ Teacher guide/answer key
□ Student worksheets
□ Introductory videos


Thursday, 21 October 2010
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08:08 - Barbara's taking a vacation day today. She and her friend Marcie are taking a day trip up to Mt. Airy and Elkin. I'm going to work.

Barbara sent me this link to the best self-promotion video ever. It stars a Border Collie mix who looks, sits, and acts a lot like Malcolm.

The Periodic Table of Irrational Nonsense. [HT to reader Rob Clay]

I really enjoy reading Abbie Smith's blog. It's one of a minority on ScienceBlogs that's actually mostly about science, with only occasional forays into politics. As a twenty-something grad student, Abbie (AKA Darwin's Pit Bull) frequently uses LOLspeak. The other day, I started to laugh, thinking about a time 35 years ago when LOL had a very different meaning to me.

Back in college, I was a serious duplicate bridge player. To me, then, an LOL was a Little Old Lady. LOLs were famous among good bridge players for screwing things up by doing unexpected and insane things for no good reason. They were, in short, clueless, and every good bridge player feared them for that reason. (You can count on good opponents to bid and play in the best interests of their partnership; you can count on LOL's not even to understand what's in their own best interests.) Here's my favorite LOL story, in which I was the victim.

First, I have to tell you briefly about a bridge convention. Sometimes, it doesn't matter which card you play to a trick. If your partner makes the opening lead, for example, you might have nothing but small cards in that suit. The card you choose to play from that motley holding can give your partner useful information. For example, to encourage partner to continue leading that suit, you'd play the highest of your small ones. To discourage, you'd play the lowest. Or you might prefer partner to lead a different suit. Playing your highest card tells partner to lead the higher ranking (in the order spades, hearts, diamonds, clubs) side suit (other than trumps). Finally, you can give partner a count. Echoing, which is playing a higher card followed by a lower one, technically indicates only that you have an even number of cards in that suit, but in practice means you have specifically a doubleton. It might seem confusing to have one card potentially represent encourage/discourage, a suit shift preference, or count, but in actual play it's usually obvious to your partner which meaning you intend to convey. But the critical thing about signaling is that you do it only when it doesn't matter which card you play. Under anything but extreme circumstances, you don't signal with a card that might later win a trick. (Once or twice when I was void in the suit partner led, I signaled by discarding a side-suit ace, which he correctly took to mean that I emphatically didn't want him to lead that suit.)

So, my partner Bruce Allshouse and I are playing our first board against a pair of women whom we don't yet know to be LOLs. We've bid ourselves into an optimistic but makable contract. I'm declarer, and all I have to do is make the contract to get a top on the board. My left-hand opponent leads and Bruce lays down the dummy. It's immediately apparent that the contract depends on bringing in the diamonds in dummy, which have to run because dummy has no other entries. So I play some tricks to get counts, finding that my right-hand opponent is short in diamonds. I lead a small diamond from my hand. My left-hand opponent covers low. I call for Bruce to put up the king. Sure enough, my right-hand opponent's queen drops singleton, so I'm home free once I pick up my left-hand opponent's diamond ten. I return to my hand and lead my only remaining diamond (another small one) for the marked finesse to trap LHO's diamond ten. LHO plays low, and I call for Bruce to play the diamond nine from dummy, knowing that RHO will have to discard because she's out of diamonds. I'm just about to call for Bruce to lead the next card from dummy when, impossibly, I see RHO drop the diamond ten, winning the trick and at the same time ensuring that I can no longer bring in the diamond suit. So, we go from what should have been a top on the board to a bottom on the board. Shit.

At this point, it's all over but the crying, but we finish playing the hand. I turn to RHO, saying. "Congratulations. Your diamond queen was an absolutely brilliant falsecard." "Oh," says she, "thanks, but I always signal high-low with a doubleton."

ARRRRRRGGGGHHHHH. That was one of the very few times in my life when I have literally been struck speechless. Bruce just started to laugh, and told me later that my face had turned various shades and that I was opening and closing my mouth like a dying fish, with no sounds coming out.

In all fairness, though, I have to admit that Bruce and I came close to giving a fair-to-middling player a heart attack. It was Marshall Ruscetti, who was the accountant/auditor for our school system, where my dad was the Business Manager. On the hand in question, Marshall and his partner obviously had good cards, and were bidding spades and diamonds. Marshall bid game at four spades. I was void in spades, but Marshall wasn't acting like a guy with all that many spades, so I figured Bruce must have all the outstanding spades. I doubled for penalties. Marshall ran to the game at five diamonds, of which I had five in my hand. Bruce, with a diamond void and apparently figuring that I must have all our diamonds, doubled Marshall for penalties.

So, here's Marshall, thinking the spades were stacked in my hand and the diamonds in Bruce's, when it fact it was just the opposite. Marshall is playing at the five level with a 4-4 trump fit against my stack of five trumps. Assuming diamonds were probably 4-1 or (shudder) 5-0 in Bruce's favor, Marshall butchered the play. On his first trump lead, Bruce showed out. Marshall realized I'd started with all five of the missing trumps and that he was going down, big time. So he folds his hand, puts it on the table, and, with his face bright pink, shouts "Director!" Bertie Gardner hurried over to the table. Marshall tells her that there's no way I could reasonably have doubled the spade game with my void in spades, or that Bruce could have doubled the diamond game with his void in diamonds. He didn't actually accuse us of cheating in so many words, but the strong implication was there. Bertie looked at all four hands and reviewed the bidding. She told Marshall that, based on her knowledge of our abilities, Bruce and I had both bid reasonably in her estimation, and to shut up and play the next board.

So a few days later my dad asks me what the hell I did to Marshall Ruscetti. I told him what had happened, and my dad said that Marshall was going around at work telling anyone who'd listen that Bruce and I were probably card cheats. I was 19 at the time, and even more arrogant than I am now. I ran into Marshall some time later, and told him that Bruce and I had never cheated at cards, that we greatly resented him claiming that we had done so, and that he simply wasn't a good enough bridge player to realize when he was playing against a partnership that was utterly out of his class. In retrospect, I wish I hadn't done that, or at least that I hadn't demeaned his bridge skills. Marshall was a competent albeit not outstanding bridge player, but the important thing was that he was actually a really nice guy. Maybe he'd had a bad day and we were the camel straw.

But what goes around comes around. Not too long after that, Bruce and I were playing in the Masters Pairs event at the ACBL National tournament, which was held in Pittsburgh that year. (Actually, we shouldn't have been there, because neither of us had yet qualified as a Life Master, but they let us play anyway.) During a preliminary event we ended up playing a set of boards against two girls, and I do mean girls. I'd guess they were maybe 11 years old. Sitting in standard chairs, neither of them had legs long enough for their feet to reach the floor. Bruce and I both had a hard time keeping straight faces when they sat down at our table. I know what I was thinking, and I'm sure Bruce was thinking the same thing. Here are a couple of easy tops. We were stunned when they handed us our heads on both boards. Bruce muttered for weeks afterward about those "little girl weasels". Even the fact that later in the Masters Pairs event we managed to hand Charles Goren and his partner two bad boards wasn't enough to make up for what those little girl weasels did to us.


Friday, 22 October 2010
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09:43 - Paul Jones emailed me about upgrading Mary's notebook system. He wants to take the memory to 4 GB and replace the current hard drive with something with a lot more capacity. I've never done much work on notebook systems. For the memory, I'll just check the Crucial configurator. But is there anything I need to watch out for about the hard drive? I think I know that these units use standard connectors that combine the SATA data and power pins onto one connector. But I seem to recall that notebook hard drives come in different thicknesses. IIRC, Mary's notebook accepts 9mm (?) thick drives. Any gotchas I need to be alert for?

I'm back to working on lab sessions for the microchemistry kits. With the exception of a few minor items--lab notebooks, purple Sharpies, and 9V batteries--I have everything I need for the first three dozen kits either in-hand or on order. I'll probably get those items on order today.

Inevitably, as I work on this kit, I come up with ideas for lab sessions for other kits, including AP chemistry, Standard/Honors biology, and AP biology. (I've been waiting more than 30 years to design a lab session that involves the intercostal clavicle.) So those kits are gradually getting stubbed out as well.

10:23 - Winston-Salem is in the process of changing from backyard trash pickup to curbside pickup. We got our trash cart a month or so ago, but some people still have not gotten theirs.

As I rolled our empty cart back down the driveway this morning, a though occurred to me. Perhaps my mind is subtler than most, but I consider this shift to curbside pickup a major expansion of police powers and an inexcusable diminution of civil rights.

With backyard pickup, the police required a search warrant if they wanted to come onto your property to examine your garbage. (My understanding is that that was true even if they waited for the garbage collectors to carry your garbage off your property before examining it; not being sworn officers, the garbage collectors break any legal chain of custody.) With curbside pickup, our garbage is no longer protected against warrentless searches, because anything placed at the curb for pickup is legally considered to be abandoned. The cops are now free to carry away anyone's garbage and examine it.

Lest you think I'm joking, such dumpster diving is frequently a source of evidence in criminal cases. Many people have been convicted of serious crimes based on evidence found in their garbage. It's possible to find out an awful lot about most people just by examining their garbage carefully. There will probably be documents, of course, but there will also be fingerprints and DNA, and possibly evidence of drug use or other illegal activities. In short, your garbage is a gold mine for the local police and federal authorities. And Winston-Salem just gave them carte blanche to search our garbage without a warrant. Perhaps I'll start putting our garbage cart on our side of the curb rather than in the street, but I doubt that'd make any difference legally.

Barbara does have a shredder that she uses to turn any sensitive documents into thin strips. That's not really good enough, of course. Anyone with some patience can reassemble those strips into the original documents. I think we need a burn bag.


Saturday, 23 October 2010
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00:00 -


Sunday, 24 October 2010
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09:28 - I've never kept up very well with pop culture. I think it was about 1971 before I really noticed The Rolling Stones, for example. I thought about that yesterday while I was reading a blog entry by ERV, in which she criticizes two candidates for governor in Oklahoma for being unaware of current popular television programs and books, specifically Mad Men versus The Office and Harry Potter versus Twilight.

I'm not sure why Abbie believes a knowledge of popular culture should be a requirement for holding office in Oklahoma or anywhere else. By her standards, I don't qualify. Barbara and I watch Mad Men, but we've never seen The Office (or hundreds of other television programs over the years). I've heard of Harry Potter and Twilight, of course, but I've never read either series, nor do I have any intention of doing so.

So, last night I happened to notice a headline on the CNN or Foxnews web site about the disastrous 2010 television season. Apparently, the usual success rate for new series--with "success" being defined as being renewed for a second season--is about 30%. For this season, I think the article said 25 new series had premiered. Three of those have already been canceled, and all of the other 22 are teetering on the edge. So I clicked through to another article that listed all of the existing and new broadcast network programs, divided into those that are considered likely to be renewed for another season and those that are likely to disappear. I recognized the names of maybe a quarter of them. Of all of them, Barbara and I have seen only two: Brothers & Sisters and Castle, both of which we watch on DVDs from Netflix.

So, on the awareness-of-pop-culture scale, I get about an F-. Barbara is slightly better, at maybe a D+.

Sometimes, though, I lead rather than lag on pop culture. For example, I read Dilbert every day before more than a tiny percentage of the general population had ever heard of it. I used to read it on the Internet, back in the early 90's, before it was published in any newspaper and indeed before most people had even heard of the Internet. And I was surprised to see that one of those new series, $h*! My Dad Says (pronounced Shit My Dad Says), is based on Justin Halpern's twitter feed, @shitmydadsays, so I'd actually heard of it before it reached broadcast television.


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