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Week of 8 June 2009

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Monday, 8 June 2009
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09:02 - Things I never knew didn't always work: potassium permanganate and glycerol. At least a dozen times, starting when I was a teenager and most recently at Maker Faire last year, I've poured out a small pile of potassium permanganate crystals and added some glycerol to the pile. Every time, after a pause of 10 or 15 seconds, the two chemicals burst into an intense flame. So intense that permanganate/glyercol is often used to initiate thermite, which is notoriously difficult to get started burning.

So, yesterday I was down in the lab shooting a series of video clips of visually interesting stuff. (Kip Kay has kindly offered to use these clips to put together opening and closing sequences for some science videos I'm shooting.) I set up the camcorder, pointing at a porcelain evaporating dish with a small pile of potassium permanganate crystals. I added some glycerol to the pile, and waited. And waited. Six minutes later, not only has the pile not burst into flames, it's not even warm. Hmmm. I got out a new evaporating dish, added some more potassium permanganate and glycerol, and waited. Again, nothing.

I know when I'm beat. Ordinarily, I'd have tried to figure out what went wrong, perhaps substituting potassium permanganate and glycerol from different sources. But I was in a hurry yesterday to get several clips shot, so I decided just to substitute something else. I decided to use the old sugar and sulfuric acid demonstration, where the concentrated sulfuric acid literally sucks the water out of sucrose molecules, leaving only carbon, which rises from the beaker as an amorphous black column. That one's pretty impressive. Probably not something I'll do again indoors, though. Even with the exhaust fans running on high, the stink was pretty bad, not least because of the vaporized sulfuric acid. I got me and my camcorder out of the lab before the vapor ate my camcorder, and let the exhaust fans run for an hour or so to clear the air.

10:19 -

From: Rod Schaffter
  To: Bob Thompson
Date: Mon Jun  8 09:48:19 2009
  Re: Wet Glycerol and Scientists vs Celebrities

Hi Bob,

Glycerol is quite hygroscopic, so I suspect that water picked up from the air during storage of the glycerol may be quenching the reaction, although I would think it would at least get warm.

Here is an interesting piece on Celebrities vs Scientists, which debunks assertions made by prominent people:


I think they were a bit hard on tobacco, though, as lung cancer was virtually unknown before the 1920s, so I think the problem is cigarettes rather than tobacco in, a pipe or cigar.

Lastly,  Here is an unusual experiment, but the authors used the scientific method well:



Rod Schaffter

I don't think water was the problem. For the first run, I used glycerol from a Barnes bottle (glycerol is an excellent temporary mountant for microscope slide). But for the second run, I used a freshly-opened Costco bottle of glycerol, labeled Glycerol - USP - 96%.

I suppose it's too much to hope for that celebrities will speak only about things they understand and keep silent otherwise. In general, they know nothing about science or logic. In particular, the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy seems to be popular among celebrities. That's why it's so refreshing to hear someone like Amanda Peet speak sensibly about science. I only wish she hadn't apologized for characterizing anti-vaccine parents as "parasites", because that's exactly what they are. It's true that they can avoid a vanishingly small risk to their children by avoiding vaccines, but they do so by depending on herd immunity. That works fine as long as the anti-vaccine nutters are in the tiny minority, but, as we've seen recently in the UK, when the anti-vaccine position goes mainstream we end up with a lot of sick and dying children.

As to the condom experiment, I wonder if they actually paid for all of them or used condoms donated by a manufacturer. If the former, that was a pretty expensive experiment.


Tuesday, 9 June 2009
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08:27 - You can't get there from here. I got a call yesterday from Mary, Kim's mother. She was on her cell phone and breaking up so badly that I couldn't understand most of what she was saying. She managed to convey that their VoIP phone service from Time-Warner wasn't working, so I walked down to their house. The cable modem power and telephone-1 lights were lit solid and all of the other lights were blinking in sync. I power reset the cable modem, and it came back up the same way. Hmmm.

Mary's cell phone has such poor service from their house that she wasn't able to reach Time-Warner on it, so I walked back down to our house and called TW service from there. They didn't want to talk to me because I wasn't calling from the location where the problem occurred. I explained patiently to them that I couldn't call them from there because the TW digital phone service at that location WASN'T WORKING. They suggested that Mary call them from her house on her cell phone. Say what? I explained that her cell phone didn't work from her house, that Mary is a frail, elderly woman who was now without phone service, and asked if they really wanted to be responsible for her being without a phone for any longer than necessary.

According to the TW rep, they are concerned about "security". Apparently, they're afraid that people will put in hoax repair requests or something. Given that we're also TW customers and that they knew who I am, what number I was calling from (which is the same as the number they have on our customer record), and that they know I'm at 4231 Witherow Road, three houses down the street from Mary at 4205 Witherow Road, it seemed to me that any reasonable person would realize that this wasn't a prank call. So I suggested to the rep that she do remote diagnostics to see if there was a problem at 4205 Witherow. She replied that she'd already done that, and that there was indeed a problem. So I asked her why she couldn't just put in a repair request to fix the problem that she knew existed. She finally agreed as a "courtesy" to log the repair request. I asked when someone would be there to fix the problem, reminding her that this was an elderly woman without phone service, and she promised someone would be out that afternoon. They took my phone number and said the repairman would call me before he showed up.

So, the day passed with no call. After dinner, about 7:00, Barbara and I walked the dogs, and I stopped to find out if their phone had been fixed. Mary said no one had been there. So I went back home and called TW yet again, prepared to spend another half hour on hold. The call queuing system said to expect 15 to 20 minutes on hold, but as it turned out it took only a couple minutes before I was connected to another rep. He wanted the last four digits of Mary's social security number. I told him I had no idea what those were, and explained the situation again. He finally, as a "courtesy", told me that a repair visit was logged for Mary's problem but that he couldn't give me a time. I asked if it'd be that evening or if Mary would have to do without a phone until the next day. He said it would be that evening, but it might be as late as 9:30 or 10:00. Okay. I walked back down and told Mary what I'd learned. Finally, about 9:00, she called to say that they'd come and fixed her phone.


Wednesday, 10 June 2009
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15:57 - Today has been so hectic that I just now got a moment to post.

I misunderstood the situation with Mary's VoIP. I thought a Time-Warner repairman had come out Monday evening and repaired the problem. Not so. The problem fixed itself, supposedly. Yesterday, I got a call from the TW repairman saying that he was 5 minutes from Mary's house. I met him there. As it turned out, he was the first to respond. He realized immediately that I knew something about TCP/IP and cable systems, so he didn't try to blow any smoke.

What apparently really happened Monday is that someone at TW pressed the wrong key and accidentally turned off Mary's VoIP service. When I put in the first problem report, it must have taken several hours to make its way to the person who finally realized what had happened. That person undid the wrong keystroke, and turned Mary's VoIP service back on. When it came on, Mary (who must have been checking it periodically) called and spoke to Barbara. I thought the TW repairman had shown up and fixed it, but all Mary told Barbara was that the phone was now working.

As annoying as that was for Mary (and me), it must also have been annoying to the serviceman, who made a needless service call. All someone had to do was let him know that the problem had been fixed. Instead, he ended up wasting time with a pointless service call.

I spent 45 minutes on the phone early this afternoon with Dan Woods at MAKE, talking about the project I'm currently working on and will be occupied with for some time to come. Dan finally convinced me to come to Maker Faire next May and to bring Barbara along. We plan to take the train and turn it into a vacation for Barbara and a working vacation for me. I'm sure I'll be storming around the main stage at Maker Faire doing presentations, along with a lot of demonstrations in the Maker Shed and Maker Booth.

I suppose that also means I'll need to buy a notebook to use on the trip out and back, or I won't be able to get any work done. And probably a cell phone, too. For a guy who writes about technology, I'm a real Luddite. At Maker Faire last year, I think I was the only O'Reilly person there who didn't have both a notebook and a cell phone. My editor, Brian Jepson, ended up lending me spares.


Thursday, 11 June 2009
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17:04 - I'm busier than usual, which is saying something. My to-do list of individual items eventually got so ridiculously long that I consolidated it into category groupings. Now even that's getting ridiculously long.

Thanks to everyone who's been suggesting specific cell phones and notebooks, but I probably won't buy either one until shortly before next year's Maker Faire. I so seldom leave the house that I don't need either one. My truck hasn't left the garage for the last two or three months. Or, as a girl I dated long ago once said, "The phrase 'cabin fever' is meaningless to you, isn't it?" Yep.


Friday, 12 June 2009
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Saturday, 13 June 2009
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Sunday, 14 June 2009
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Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.