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Week of 14 April 2008

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Monday, 14 April 2008
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08:47 - The taxes are finished and in the mail. At least I don't have to worry about that for another year. I now have two weeks of flat-out effort to get ready for the book hitting the stores and to prepare for my trip to Maker Faire. I just checked my to-do list for all of that and found 46 items, about a quarter of which are partially complete and the remainder not yet started. I'm going to be busy between now and the first week of May, so my posts here are likely to be short and sporadic.

Paul and Mary stopped by Saturday afternoon to give me a t-shirt they'd bought for me to wear at Maker Faire.


We Do Stuff In Lab That Would
Be A Felony In Your Garage

Then I realized. They have labs. I'm the one with the garage...

14:35 - Winston-Salem has bulky-item pickup once a year. Well, most of Winston-Salem does. The slum areas have bulky-item pickup every week, which I always thought was ironic considering that the rest of the city pays about 99% of the property taxes collected. At any rate, they announce a month or so in advance which neighborhoods are having bulky-item pickup on a particular week. Ours is this week. Sometime. We don't know which day until they actually show up.

So, we're supposed to put our bulky items at the curb no earlier than the Friday before the week we're scheduled for pickup. A lot of people put their stuff out earlier, of course, so the curbs are always cluttered with trash for a week or so before the scheduled start day.

The trash scavengers start showing up soon after, picking through what everyone has put out. In one sense, that's good, because it's better for useful items to be recycled than thrown in a landfill. Also, I suspect, many of the scavengers can use the money they make from fixing up and reselling some of the stuff. Many of them drive old beaters and it's obvious from looking at them that they're very poor. On the other hand, I have seen people driving $50,000 SUVs scavenging. I'm not sure why anyone who can afford to spend that much on a vehicle would waste his time scavenging trash, but it's not an uncommon sight.

Barbara and I put out our bulky items yesterday. Two of the disposable foam coolers that Southern Foods sends us bulk meat shipments in, and one cardboard computer case box filled with other small boxes. Last night, while we were out walking the dogs, I saw a truck stop in front of our house. We were at the end of the block and it was dark, so I couldn't see exactly what was going on. When we got back, one of the coolers was gone. As I asked Barbara, why one? Why not neither or both? Apparently, the scavengers had a need for just one disposable cooler.

I'd intended to clear out the closet in my office this year, but since our bulky-item pickup was scheduled for tax week, I decided to wait until next year. I was whacked after finishing the taxes yesterday, and just couldn't face tearing down old systems to pull the hard drives. Barbara suggested I give them to Goodwill, but these systems are so old they're worthless. I'm talking 286/386/486-era systems.

This morning, I decided to go ahead and at least partially clear out my closet. I ended up putting out half a dozen old systems--all of which used AT keyboards if that's any indication--along with a monochrome monitor (not mono VGA, but original XT-era monochrome), along with a couple of old UPSs, and so on.

Although I've sometimes joked about it, this was the first time I've actually used a hammer on a system. Two of the systems were desktop AT form factor. They both had 3.5" hard drives in 5.25" chassis to adapt them to the cases, because desktop AT cases didn't have 3.5" drive bays. Those two chassis adapters were well and truly stuck. So I used a claw hammer, pounding on the back of the hard drives until they popped loose.

Everything I wanted to get rid of is now at the curb, with the exception of a 1400VA UPS with an extended-runtime battery, which I was just too tired to pick up and haul out. That thing must weigh 125 pounds. I may haul it out tomorrow if they haven't already done the pickup.


Tuesday, 15 April 2008
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08:58 - Another 1964 catalog, this one posted by Jeff Duntemann. And I remember this exact catalog, with the pink handy-talkie on the cover. As a matter of fact, I'm pretty sure I ordered some stuff from it. Back then, I was building a lot of electronic gear, some of which actually worked, and was a year or two away from getting my novice ham license.

Jeff is a year older than I am, but even so I suspect we would have been close friends if not for the fact that he was in Chicago, Illinois and I was in New Castle, Pennsylvania. We were both interested in the same stuff, as were many other boys our age. For both of us, I suspect, it was a matter of having to choose among so many interesting things that time and budget inevitably meant we had to let some things go. For me, electronics lost out to chemistry, photography, and astronomy. Jeff maintained his interest in electronics and astronomy.

And there were a lot of kids like Jeff and me, all of us actually doing hands-on stuff, from building ham radios and home darkrooms to designing and building rockets to grinding mirrors and building telescopes to designing and building go-carts from old lawnmower engines. Not all kids did those things, of course. Then as now a lot of kids wasted most of their time in useless activities like watching television or playing sports.

I suppose it's inevitable that most kids, then or now, have neither the drive nor the intelligence to pursue useful activities. The difference is that then a significant percentage of kids, those who did have the drive and intelligence, did pursue useful activities because those opportunities were open to them and there weren't many distractions. I watched some television and played some sports, but I soon became bored with doing that, and it was up to me to find something more interesting to do. Nowadays, there are simply too many interesting but useless ways for kids to waste their time, and too few opportunities for them to experience useful but interesting pursuits.


Wednesday, 16 April 2008
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08:15 - I had a nice talk with Kim yesterday afternoon. She tells me that Jasmine decided to take all honors courses in 10th grade next year. Jas had already signed up for all honors courses except honors geometry, which gave her pause. Jas positively hates to get any grade lower than an A, and was afraid she might not be able to do A-level work in honors math, particularly with all the other honors courses she'd be taking.

Kim suggested that Jasmine talk to me about it. Like nearly all girls, Jas underestimates her own abilities. I told Jas that she needed to push herself, and that unless she signed up for what she thought was a complete overload she wasn't pushing herself enough. Besides, I told her, even if what she fears comes to pass, a B in honors geometry is better than an A in regular geometry. Jasmine wasn't too sure about that, although she's too polite to challenge me (a problem I hope to address with her as time goes on...).

Jas does gymnastics at a local gym, so I asked her which she'd rather have: a win at Salem Gymnastics, or a silver medal at the Olympics. Of course, she picked the silver medal. When I asked her why she'd picked that even though it was second place instead of first, she replied that the Olympics were higher (the "duh" was unspoken). Exactly, I told her. And honors geometry is higher than regular geometry.

I don't know how much effect my advice had, but Jasmine did choose to do honors geometry next year, which made Kim very happy. Characteristically, Jasmine didn't tell Kim, who found out by chance when she happened to see Jasmine's class list for next year.

Interestingly, geometry isn't the hardest course Jas will be taking. Honors biology is apparently very difficult. Her teacher told Jas that regular biology was a pretty tough course, but nothing compared to honors biology. I suggested to Kim that it might be a good idea for Jas to spend some time this coming summer going through the honors geometry textbook or the honors biology textbook, or both. Not to the exclusion of having some fun, but spending enough time at it to get all the way through the books before the course starts.

So, sometime soon, I'm going to sit down with Jas and Kim and talk about that. If Jas wants to try independent study this summer for geometry or biology or both, I'll be available to help her. It's been forty years since I took geometry or biology, but I'm willing to spend a day or two each going through the geometry and biology texts to refresh my memory and, for biology, to catch up on things that have changed.

If Jas wants to do some biology labs, which I hope she does, I also have a pretty well-equipped biology lab, including a better microscope than she'd be using at her school. Specimens and so on we can order in as needed.

When I asked Paul Jones what he thought of Jas doing independent study this summer, he said he thought it was a good idea, and one that he always recommended to his own students. He qualified that by saying that students talk about doing it, but they never actually do. Jas may be an exception, especially if I point out that doing independent study this summer pretty much ensures that she'll get an A in both courses.


Thursday, 17 April 2008
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08:28 - Yesterday I stumbled across a reference to the Dr. John T. Shaw Memorial Fund. I'll never forget my first organic chemistry class or Professor Shaw. As soon as the students finished seating themselves in the lecture hall, Dr. Shaw started counting us. He then announced that there were 70-odd students in the lecture hall, but only 36 positions available in the lab. "Oh, well," he said, "we'll be down to 36 after the first exam." (Sure enough, we were.)

He started the lecture by drawing a hexagon with a circle inside it. "This is benzene," he said, "and by the end of this course you'll know more about it than you ever dreamed there was to know." He was right about that, too. He went on to sketch some substituted benzenes, including toluene, aniline, and phenol, which he pronounced fen-OLE. I'd heard it pronounced FEN-all and FEEN-all (as in alcohol), but never before the way he pronounced it.

He was consistent, too, which I am not. I pronounce phenol FEN-all but phenolphthalein FEEN-all-THAY-leen. He pronounced the later chemical fen-OLE-THAY-leen.

Oh, as to the test that cleared half the enrolled students from the roster: Dr. Shaw gave a type of test I've never seen before or since. If you got the wrong answer to one question, he could stop grading the test at that point because by definition you'd also have the wrong answers to all of the following questions.

The first question specified a synthesis for which you had to determine what the product would be (or, in some cases, what the predominant product in a mix would be, such as the ortho, meta, or para isomer). The second question used the unspecified product from the first reaction as a reactant for a second synthesis, and you had to determine the product or products. And so on, down the page. If your answer to the first question was wrong, by definition all of your other answers were also wrong.

But Dr. Shaw was also completely fair. On the first test, I got an A, but well down the page I had an incorrect answer that caused me to lose points for the final two or three questions. When I got the exam back, I looked at it and couldn't figure out why my answer was wrong. So I visited Dr. Shaw's office and told him that I wasn't complaining about an A grade, but I didn't understand why my answer was wrong. He looked at the test and my answer, and said, "You're right. That's a bad question and your answer is correct based on what you know so far." He regraded my exam to 100%, and then explained to me why my "correct" answer had actually been wrong and where to look in Morrison & Boyd to learn more about it.

As I was leaving his office, I turned and asked him if this meant he had to regrade all of the tests. "No," he replied, "you're the only one who made it that far."

I stopped by their house yesterday afternoon to visit Paul and Mary, who'd gotten me yet another t-shirt to wear at Maker Faire. This one has a silhouette drawing of a boy with his chemistry set and the caption.

"Let's see
Three parts Salt Peter
One Part Charcoal
A Pinch of Sulfer.
That should take care of the gym."

They're trying to get me arrested, I tell you.

In fact, Paul emailed my editor yesterday about some administrative stuff, and added:

We've supplied Bob with some shirts that should ensure he passes through TSA without any trouble at all.  I've taken the liberty of sprinkling the shirts with a bit of potassium nitrate, which should serve to entertain him, and his TSA friends, during his travels.

To which I replied,

Thanks for the potassium nitrate. Remember that I have a key to your house. I also have a small spray bottle of mixed nitrated aromatics, so I'll return the favor by spraying your underpants with it.

When I was a teenager, my recipe for black powder was a bit different. To make 100 grams of black powder, I started with

75 g potassium nitrate
15 g charcoal
10 g sulfur

I ground each of them separately with a mortar and pestle until they were a fine powder, like baking flour, and sifted them to remove any larger particles. I then weighed out the proper proportions of each chemical, combined and mixed them thoroughly, and added just enough of a mixture of one part water to four parts acetone with a little bit of Elmer's Glue to make a very thick mud. Charcoal and sulfur don't wet easily, so I used a few drops of dishwashing liquid in the water/acetone/glue mixture to make sure all of the chemicals would be thoroughly wetted.

I then pressed the mud through a piece of window screen to make noodles of black powder, and set them aside to dry thoroughly. After they were dry, I'd gently crush the mass to break it up and pass it through sieves to separate it by particle size. The larger grains burn much faster, and were for main charges in larger pyrotechnics. The smaller particles I used in firecrackers. The fine powder was for fuzes.

But all of that was 40 years ago or more, and I sure don't recommend anyone try this today. Unless they want to go to prison.


Friday, 18 April 2008
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08:20 - I called Roadrunner tech support yesterday and was pleasantly surprised. Most of our email, inbound and outbound, goes through zidane, the co-located server that Greg Lincoln and Brian Bilbrey maintain, and which hosts all of our domains. But Barbara has a legacy email account set up on the triad.rr.com POP server, and a few days ago Kmail started returning an error message when she tried to POP mail from that account.

When I called Roadrunner tech support, I spent a minute in a voice menu system, another couple minutes on hold, and was then connected to Jake, who turned out to speak American English and who knew his job. In a moment of insanity, when Jake asked me if Barbara was running Outlook I told him that we were an all-Linux household. He replied that he used to use Linux but had come back to Windows. He treated me just as he would anyone who was running Windows. We ran through his checklist, and then I suggested that he simply reset the password for the account (I had no clue what it was currently, or so I thought).

That was a bit of a problem, since he's constrained by privacy and security policies. Eventually, he asked me to read the MAC address on the cable modem. Having given him that, and presumably having my phone number up on his display, he was satisfied that I was who I said I was. We then set a security question (Barbara's favorite author) and he changed the account password.

At that point, I was able to get into Barbara's mailbox with webmail. As it turns out, I did know Barbara's original password, which I'd tried before calling tech support. When I'd used the original password to try to access her box via webmail, I got an error message about an incorrect password. That was deceptive, because in fact the password was correct but the box was otherwise inaccessible. After all the fiddling around and resetting the password, apparently the box was unlocked and I was able to access it with the new password. Jake speculated that there was a corrupted message in the mailbox and that somehow caused the problems.

Once I got into Barbara's mailbox with webmail, I just left it up on screen for her to read the messages once she got home, and I set the box to autoforward messages to her main POP account on zidane. I told her I'd leave the autoforward set, but to change any mailing list subscriptions that used that address to use one of her main addresses on zidane. Problem solved.

08:58 - Oh, yeah. It occurred to me that I hadn't posted an image of the cover. Here it is.

Obviously, the photographer who shot the cover image is in his Blue Period.

Or perhaps O'Reilly took me seriously. When they sent me a sample layout months ago, they used green as the spot color. My first reaction was, "No, no, no. Chemistry is BLUE, not green." I checked with Mary and Paul, who agreed that chemistry is blue. So did Barbara. So I told O'Reilly that we were all agreed. Chemistry is blue. So they made it blue.


Saturday, 19 April 2008
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Sunday, 20 April 2008
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Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.