Monday, 8 July 2013

07:41 – Costco run and dinner with Mary and Paul yesterday. I asked Paul about the lab skills of incoming freshmen chemistry students, and he said that with very few exceptions they pretty much didn’t have any. Many of them are very bright kids. They easily grasp the theory, but they’ve never had any hands-on lab work to speak of so they’re clueless about how to do even simple procedures. Paul mentioned one first lab class where they were doing simple procedures that he said either of us would have finished in half an hour. Hours later, the kids were still struggling and nowhere near finished. He finally just told them to go home. Paul particularly remembered one boy, who was extremely bright but had no practical experience. Paul was horrified to find the boy weighing out a chemical by transferring it directly to the pan of the scale rather than using a weigh paper or boat. He asked the boy how he planned to get the chemical off the scale. Presumably by inverting the scale to dump the chemical.

When I was doing high-school and undergrad chemistry, we spent much, much more time in lab than kids do nowadays. That’s probably a result of both costs and concerns about safety. Many public schools nowadays have limited or no lab facilities and the cost of materials is a big hurdle for most of them. A year-long highschool chemistry course in many public schools provides little or no actual hands-on lab work. Students watch demonstrations. If they’re lucky, it’s the teacher doing an actual demonstration, but increasingly it’s demonstration videos. As I’ve said, that’s kind of like trying to learn to drive a car by watching a video of someone else doing it.

Homeschoolers generally do better, but still devote too little time to hands-on lab work. A typical homeschool chemistry course may devote one day every two weeks to lab work. When one of them asks me, I recommend that they average spending 40% to 50% of their time on lab work, call it two sessions or more a week. And I also recommend that they reverse the usual prioritization. Instead of making textbook lecture first priority and filling in any remaining time with lab work, devote as much time as necessary to getting through all the labs and then use whatever time is left over for lectures. Their kids will be better prepared for college science. They’ll hit the ground running.

Yesterday and overnight, we had almost 3 inches (7.5 cm) of rain. Another month’s worth of rain in one day. Things are getting a bit soggy around here.


11:25 – I’m filling some containers with chemicals that are hazardous or obnoxious, or both. These are ones that I won’t let Barbara deal with. I just finished a batch of thirty 25 g bottles of sodium dithionite. It’s hazardous because it’s a spontaneously flammable solid, and it’s obnoxious because it reeks to high heaven. The odor isn’t intense or immediately obvious, but it’s persistent and it smells like something died.

Next up is filling a bunch of polypropylene RIA vials with 500 mg each of crystal iodine. It’s nasty stuff, a strong corrosive. It’s not as bad as bromine, which in turn isn’t as bad as fluorine, but it’s still pretty bad. Not something I want to get on my skin, so I’ll wear nitrile gloves. Which should tell you something, because I usually don’t wear gloves to handle the big three concentrated mineral acids–hydrochloric, sulfuric, and nitric. But iodine is corrosive enough that I won’t take chances with it. Put it this way: one time I was weighing out iodine to make up iodine-iodide solution and made the mistake of using a chrome-plated steel spatula. As I transferred the iodine crystals from the spatula to the weigh boat, I noticed that the spatula was no longer chrome-plated where the iodine had contacted it.

After that, I’ll fill a bunch of polypropylene RIA vials with 500 mg each of ninhydrin, which isn’t particularly hazardous but is another of the chemicals I won’t let Barbara handle. Ninhydrin is used to visualize latent fingerprints. It reacts with skin oils to form an intense purple dye. Which means it also stains skin an intense purple color, which stains aren’t easily delible.

57 thoughts on “Monday, 8 July 2013”

  1. That’s probably a result of both costs and concerns about safety.

    I would also add liability reasons. The lawyers have pretty much shut down any activity that involves anything remotely more dangerous than playing with dolls (as long as there are no vestiges of sexual organs).

  2. “Yesterday and overnight, we had almost 3 inches (7.5 cm) of rain. Another month’s worth of rain in one day. Things are getting a bit soggy around here.”

    TV weather yappers love to use the phrase: “..torrential downpour..”
    An overused redundancy as both terms describe rain. Worse yet, in that vain, a local weather yapper recently spewed: “…hot hot heat….”

  3. Sock puppets are far safer.

    Sock puppets could be ingested. Best to just use finger gestures I guess. As long as you don’t poke yourself in the eye.

  4. Just being alive is a danger; maybe the powers-that-be who decide all these weighty matters should euthanize the lot of us and then seal themselves in frozen suspended animation until robots can figure out a cure for human stupidity and error and ignorance and carelessness, etc., etc., etc.

    I have zero doubts that if that was a viable option, our present regime would undertake it forthwith.

    But then they’d screw it up, of course.

    Being human.

  5. I had a pretty good lab section in high school Chemistry. Lab was much better than lecture, because the teacher was terrible at lectures. I also had a great Gilbert chemistry set at home, with stuff added from my dad’s medical catalogs. Most of today’s commercial chemistry sets are a joke. Micro chemistry experiments done in small plastic wells. Bletch.

    On the safety front, I wrote an email to the head of Food Network about unsafe practices on their shows, especially Iron Chef. I’ve seen multiple instances of chefs preparing things with liquid Nitrogen, and wearing no protective equipment at all. The recommended PPE for LN2 handling is safety goggles without vents, a full face shield, loose fitting gloves, long lab coat, long pants without cuffs and not tucked in, and (if large Dewars are handled) an apron. The chefs are pouring it and looking directly down into the containers to check the levels as they pour.

  6. Whoa! Food Network is run by a guy who passed through the same station I worked at in Indy, and who also graduated from my alma mater. Yikes! It is all about show, though. Those chef guys probably never had a serious chemistry course in their lives, but they learned how to juggle knives and that makes them a star. Nevertheless, there is no excuse to give anybody the wrong kind of impression when danger is involved.

    Bill Gates said recently in Wired, that there is no testing whatever in the US to determine the most effective teaching techniques. He claimed that the US is not really losing ground to other countries—we have been at #20 in the world for education for quite a long while. The problem, he contends, is that it is costing dramatically more money to hold that #20. He also questions the sanity of pushing kids to the level Singapore and some others do who are ahead of us, and figures we do okay overall. He said he focuses on Africa because it is the place where the results of his money is going to benefit more people to a greater degree than anywhere else they looked.

    Are you homesick for Deutschland, Ray?

    http://www.finanzen.de/webcam

    That looks pretty close to the shot you took at Warschauer Str., and it is refreshed continuously. Not sure if it is from the same side as you took, as you can see the Fernsehturm at Alexanderplatz in this shot, so it is shooting west. The narrative says the view includes the rotating Daimler star, but that I do not see.

    The amount of building going on in Berlin just astounds me. You can see multiple cranes in this shot. Those heavily dotted the city from the time we arrived—through to now, I guess.

  7. Wow. Where to begin. The US is not 20th in the world in education. It’s #1, in both quality and quantity. If you don’t believe that, find a list of the top 100 universities in the world and count how many are in the US. Or look up how many science patents we produce compared to the rest of the world. There are quite a few US universities that each produce more than many entire countries, far more. Or look up the number and quality of STEM grad students we produce. Granted, China is catching up in raw numbers, but the average quality of their Ph.D. graduates, particularly in science and engineering, is much, much lower. In fact, the average science or engineering Ph.D. is about the same level as a lab assistant in the US.

    Why do you think such a high percentage of foreign STEM students come to the US for graduate work? Or, for that matter, why do you think anyone rich enough comes to the US for medical treatment?

  8. The US public education establishment has been in a state of improvement ever since they threw out Thomas Alva Edison as being “ineducable.”

    OTOH, they should resume such and dispense with the 20% which are truly ineducable. Why is it a superior alternative to squander my tax dollars on those who cannot learn the 3 Rs in a minimal fashion after 12 years in attendance?

  9. That looks pretty close to the shot you took at Warschauer Str.,

    I think that video is from the opposite side of the bridge. I say that because of all the cranes in the background. Those cranes were directly behind me when I took my images in what was formerly East Berlin. There is a lot of construction in the former eastern zone, sort of catching up I guess.

    And yes, I do miss Germany. But that may be due to my being a tourist, staying with friends, having meals paid for or produced in their homes. Living there as a resident may be a different story. What I do not miss is the traffic and congestion, limited to no parking, and traffic signs to tell you about a traffic signs.

    I do miss the fresh bread baked daily. I do miss fresh Gummi Bears. Interesting that DB handed out little packages of Gummi Bears (Haribo) in 1st class.

    The trains were nice but I was traveling in 1st class. Peering back into coach it seemed like little more than cattle cars with the occasional obnoxious teenagers with no regard for others. Such people would have been booted from 1st class. The quiet car/section in particular was nice.

  10. Gates’ words, not mine. With my kids all through with school, I do not spend much time tracking or lobbying about education anymore, but Gates’ point seemed to be that the US is in good shape overall despite the ranking he noted (which I do not recall was qualified by a source).

    I do know that those who have been long-time teachers at one or the other of the higher education schools I attended, note that they feel like they are teaching high-schoolers these days, and are not dealing with the level of education that they once did. One friend who has been teaching for over 35 years at the same school, when asked what he does for a living, replies, “I’m a college professor teaching high school courses.”

  11. [snip] It reacts with skin oils to form an intense purple dye. [snip]

    That brings back memories of my undergrad years. Silver nitrate on the door handles, ninhydrin on the faucets or toilet seats.

  12. Wow. Where to begin. The US is not 20th in the world in education. It’s #1, in both quality and quantity. If you don’t believe that, find a list of the top 100 universities in the world and count how many are in the US.

    It depends on what part of the education system you’re talking about. Yes, graduate level STEM education still works. Everything else in education no longer works that well. When I graduated from Indianapolis Public Schools 31 years ago, the system had issues. I don’t think they’ve gotten any better.

    Why do you think such a high percentage of foreign STEM students come to the US for graduate work?

    Because we have good STEM graduate schools and a shortage of qualified native graduate students.

    Or, for that matter, why do you think anyone rich enough comes to the US for medical treatment?

    Because it’s legal to pay cash for health care in the US. (Or it was the last time I checked.)

  13. What percentage of those STEM grad students got there by way of our education system? Likewise their instructors and professors?

  14. STEM at the university and graduate levels is the only thing that matters. Yes, our public K-12 education, with few exceptions, sucks. But that harms mainly the kids from average to bright. The really bright–say 130+ and smarter–ones will learn in spite of obstacles, and they’re ultimately the only ones who matter.

  15. What? A 22 year old female with a degree in Event Planning and $100K in student loans is a bad investment?

  16. What? A 22 year old female with a degree in Event Planning and $100K in student loans is a bad investment?

    Only if YOU marry her. Otherwise she is someone else’s problem.

  17. And yes, I do miss Germany. But that may be due to my being a tourist, staying with friends, having meals paid for or produced in their homes. Living there as a resident may be a different story. What I do not miss is the traffic and congestion, limited to no parking, and traffic signs to tell you about a traffic signs.

    I never owned a car in Berlin, and do not know why anyone would. Only 30% of Berliners own a car, and I suspect that the other 70% do not even possess a driver’s license. That license is not ubiquitous, as it is in the US—in fact, it is rare. Few people I knew had one. These days, it is several thousand euro for mandatory driver training before one can get a license. Those fees are set purposely high in order to discourage the masses from getting one.

    My relatives here belittle me at every opportunity for never having owned a car in nearly ten years over there. It’s that old class thing that well-off people here would not touch mass transit with rubber gloves as that is for indigents, but of course, they have no idea at all what good mass transit is. I tell my relatives that even had I owned a car, I would not have taken it to work, as mass transit got me to Berlin in just under 90 minutes, whereas it was over 2 hours to get to the same destination via car.

    But overall, the problems with traffic when I did drive were no worse than living with a car in Chicago when I left there in 1987. The rule of thumb back then was to allow 20 minutes to find a parking space anywhere in the city of Chicago. Even parking garages in the Loop were often full to capacity, so it even took time to drive around finding one that was not closed. It is about the same in Berlin. Takes a good 15 to 20 minutes of driving around to find a space. Had I taken a car to work it would have been a minimum of 2 hours, then add the 20 minutes to locate parking, which might have added as much as another 10 minutes of walking to get to my job.

    I doubt that there are many people who actually track what a car costs them. Before we moved, we had an 8 year-old Nissan Maxima. During the several years we had that car, total expenses were close to $7,000 each year—not including amortizing the purchase price. When we lived in Berlin, a yearly pass for travel in the city was right at 600 euro for each of us, so that left plenty of room for long-distance travel without ever equaling $7,000. When we moved out to Strausberg, the distance increased the yearly pass to around 800 euro—still a bargain, compared to owning a car.

    Were I given a car in Berlin, I would sell it.

    Peering back into coach it seemed like little more than cattle cars with the occasional obnoxious teenagers with no regard for others.

    That was intercity trains? I always found coach to be like first-class on those. My city transit pass was good on any intercity train within Berlin, so I often hopped on one of those to travel across town, because it was so pleasant.

    As for teens, I found that they do respond to criticism—their parents do not raise them to be rude, it just comes naturally. Not really a problem for me, because they are dead silent/sleepy on the way to school during the morning rush, and are only a problem going home in the afternoon, needing to vent their pent-up energy, I guess. By adult rush hour home, their student passes were not valid, so they were seldom on the trains in numbers to be pests.

    I think that video is from the opposite side of the bridge. I say that because of all the cranes in the background. Those cranes were directly behind me when I took my images in what was formerly East Berlin.

    Actually, all that territory, all the way to Alexanderplatz and the Fernsehturm is the former East. So everything you saw, both in front and behind you, would have been the former East. The Chemical Company bought an old light-bulb factory—which is on the other side of the building that you see on the right—and completely refurbished it to a palace-like working place. That building on the right, houses Universal, the music publishing company, which now owns just about every record label known to man. There is a very nice Kantine in that building. No food at The Chemical Company, so that was the closest place for lunch.

  18. US health care is undoubtedly world class but I would never want to have to go there for treatment. Other countries (such as Australia) have excellent health care in the main and it’s generally affordable.

  19. “The really bright–say 130+ and smarter–ones will learn in spite of obstacles…”

    I’m surprised you think 130+ is really bright. I would have expected 150+ would be needed to be qualified thus.

  20. [snip] The rule of thumb back then was to allow 20 minutes to find a parking space anywhere in the city of Chicago. [snip]

    Several years ago, a good friend who lives in Los Angeles was working for a firm whose offices were on Wilshire Blvd, very close to the La Brea Tar Pits. If he paid up front, a space in the parking garage was $1000 / year. Not a guaranteed particular space, but the guarantee of having a space. Ouch.

  21. Well, parking in the Loop back in 1987 was $65/mo, which is $780/yr, so $1,000/yr is probably cheap in today’s market. There seems no end to the money this country will pay to avoid cheap, efficient, mass-transit.

    Plus, my main argument for years is that driving for a couple hours a day keeps everyone in the driver’s seat—multi-millions of people—from doing ANYTHING productive during that time. I listen to podcasts, but I can tell you my focus listening while driving is nothing like what I could devote sitting on the train during that time. And I COULD sleep on the train, if necessary, while the train driver delivered me where I was going. But no sleeping at the driver’s wheel, even if you are dead tired.

  22. “And I COULD sleep on the train, if necessary…”

    It never ceased to amaze me, commuting between Aylesbury and London, and Dartford and London, how people could doze off and yet infallibly wake a few minutes before their stop.

    —–

    $1000 per year for inner city parking sounds very cheap to me. You couldn’t get under cover parking at that rate in Sydney or Melbourne, I’m sure.

    I no longer have to go to work, so I no longer think about public transport here. It would be a royal PITA to get from one side of Canberra to the other because it’s so spread out and there can be three or more connections. Going to work for me was easy and convenient, only one ride and it took, at best, about 25 minutes door to door. There were often misfits on the bus outside of peak hours, which was annoying.

    Chuck, if I was planning a holiday in Germany would I be best off going by train? I’d rather hire a car, stay on the outskirts of cities where free parking was available, and commute in. Would it be advisable to get on top of German, or does everyone that matters speak English?

  23. I’m surprised you think 130+ is really bright. I would have expected 150+ would be needed to be qualified thus.

    IQ may be the best measurement of intelligence we have, but I don’t know if it’s worth quibbling too much about scores. Supposedly Richard Feynman had a score of 125.

  24. I think I once read that Dubya had an IQ of 125. I know Chuck thinks lazy presidents are a good thing, but I would expect a president of the US to be smarter than that.

    Yeah, I’m cynical about IQ too. Mine’s not that high (self assessed at 118, but I think it’s really a bit higher) but IQ is only part of the equation. Environment and capacity to knuckle down and work are important too.

  25. He asked the boy how he planned to get the chemical off the scale. Presumably by inverting the scale to dump the chemical.

    Uh…

    That’s exactly what we did in high school chemistry. The pans of the triple-beam balances came off and had slightly raised rims with a pouring “spout”.

    Our high school lab courses were twice a week, periods of 42 minutes. Assuming the (elderly) teachers weren’t out, and they often were. That 42 minutes included attendance, setup, and cleanup. Three people per station, two if you were lucky. The only slide I recall preparing was in biology, and it was just a hair plucked from our heads and covered with one of those, er, slide covers. I don’t have a clue about how to make a slide of, say, a leaf, other than slice it real thin somehow and then sploop it onto the slide. I dropped out of high school before taking 12th grade Physics, but have no reason to believe labs were run any different than in Biology and Chemistry.

    I probably learned some lab technique in Chem 101 and 102 in college, but I don’t remember much of my college years. Not because I was drunk or high all the time but because I put myself through engineering school and worked two or three part-time jobs while taking 16-22 credits per semester. Sleep? Don’t know what you’re talking about. Caffeine abuse? I could write a dissertation.

  26. I’m surprised you think 130+ is really bright. I would have expected 150+ would be needed to be qualified thus.

    Well, I’d originally typed “145” but I didn’t want you guys to think I was an elitist.

    IQ scores correlate very well with success, however one defines that. But in the upper reaches, it’s very hard to get meaningful numbers. Pournelle batches them all together and calls them “160-plus”. As Jerry says, the only real way to sort out the universal geniuses is to ask a group of geniuses who’s the smart one in the group. Chances are, they’ll all point to the same guy (and it will almost certainly be a guy; there have been only one or two women universal geniuses in all of recorded history, and vos Savant isn’t one of them).

  27. Toronto had 90mm of rain in less than 2 hours this afternoon. We’re somehat damp at the moment.

    I haven’t owned a car since 1983. Can’t say that I miss have one very much but I’ve found that I can get around quite well on public transit. When I was still working, I had access to a car but after a few years of driving to and from work, I went back to transit. I just hate, I really mean hate, detest, abhor, driving in the city. Toronto is also the only city that I know of where a transit pass costs more than tokens for a normal 5 day commute. You have to make at least 6 round trips a week to just break even on the cost of a pass. The TTC (Toronto Transit Commission also known as Take The Car) has to get more of its operating budget from the fare box than any other transit system in North America. But it’s still cheaper than driving.

    I have fond memories of my Gilbert Chemistry set. I also remember going to the drug store for flowers of sulphur, saltpeter and powdered charcoal. The pharmacist telling me to be careful (with a chuckle).

    It was the late fifties, a very different time.

  28. I’m on the fence about IQ. In terms of overall life success, with success measured in income or happy family or whatever, it’s a factor but not as important as some other personality traits, as mentioned above.

    However… when it comes to thinking deep thoughts, there’s no substitute. You can put together a legion of IQ130 “bright” people and they’re not going to start with a handful of measurement anomalies and invent the Special Theory of Relativity.

    And when it comes to the nation’s success, RBT is absolutely correct: the success of a technological nation depends on whether its bright children are educated and stimulated and motivated. It’s nothing more than a feel-good story if an exceptional teacher manages to get every student in his special ed classroom to be able to write his own name; from a national point of view it doesn’t matter if those kids are literate, illiterate, or turned into Soylent Green. (Well, that last might matter. A society which callously discards its least valuable members has serious problems.) From a national point of view, if a dozen bright kids are steered away from STEM, we’ve lost millions of dollars of productivity.

  29. “Well, I’d originally typed “145″ but I didn’t want you guys to think I was an elitist.”

    If you’d typed 180 I would have called you elitist. 145 is fairly smart, and I wish my IQ was that high, but the people I notice and envy are the ones who breeze through but still get 100% for practically everything. My best ever exam percentage was 91% for (CDC Cyber) assembly language, which put me 6th in a class of about 150.

    Yes, I agree that high IQ is a good predictor, and I’d rather have high IQ than low. What I said was that other factors are important too, which is clearly true.

  30. There seems no end to the money this country will pay to avoid cheap, efficient, mass-transit.

    Nor any end to the money to build it. Billion dollar a mile subways, $6B plus for half a broken bridge to San Francisco, $100B for a train that no one will use. We got all the mass transit we can afford out here in California.

    (of course most of it is not really for transportation. It’s for politicians to buy union support).

  31. and vos Savant isn’t one of them

    Gah. The Mega Test is entertaining but I entertain some doubts about its value in ranking IQs. Most of the questions involved some trick and once you figured out the trick the answer was obvious. However, if you didn’t have a bit of information (eg, that “pain” is French for “bread”) you’d never be able to figure it out. Yah, there’s a correlation between IQ and wide-ranging curiosity, but as I said, I’m not sure this test is terribly useful.

  32. I was given a chemistry set when I was about 10. Very soon I was given a second, when my brother didn’t want his. I like chemistry but don’t love it, although I did enjoy hooking my Bunsen burner up to mum’s gas stove and playing around (*not* working studiously as RBT would have.)

    My favourite gift was a Philips snap together electronics set. There was a particleboard substrate, spring clips and components. I was always an electronics nut and back then thought about setting up as a ham radio operator.

  33. I’m sure my IQ was tested a number of times in school, but if I was given the results I don’t remember them.

    About 10 years ago my sister gave me a self-test IQ book for Christmas. I took the test under the conditions they said I should and came up with a score of 118. I suspect my IQ is a bit (but not vastly) higher, as my younger nephew scored 120 at age 5-6 and I know I’m a lot smarter than him, especially in STEM. (I’m assuming that IQ does not vary significantly with age, not sure if that’s a valid assumption or not.)

  34. Weird, I just left a comment, but it’s not showing up. Tried to leave it again, and WordPress says “duplicate comment detected”.

    Did I put in too many links?

  35. No.

    I tried to add a comment after Chuck’s, last Monday IIRC, and it failed in exactly the same way as yours. It had two links in it, which is the limit. Three or more links and our host has to moderate it.

  36. There are no comments from either of you in the queue waiting to be approved. I don’t know what happened to them.

    Re: IQ, it’s the teaching calculus to a horse thing. I’m not saying that non-geniuses are worthless people or that we should turn them into our food supply or anything like that. I’m saying that since humans have existed it’s been the brightest 0.1% (actually, probably the brightest 0.001%) who’ve been the ones who made a real difference to human progress. If not for them, we’d still be living in mud huts and dying of old age at 23.

    The super-intelligent are humanity’s seed corn, and we must do everything we can to protect and nurture them. We also need to encourage them to go into disciplines where their intelligence can make a real difference. Every super-intelligent person who goes into business or law rather than STEM is a loss to the human race. And the way to avoid that loss is to make sure that any super-intelligent person is guaranteed a well-paid job in his or her choice of field, as long as it’s STEM.

  37. if I was planning a holiday in Germany would I be best off going by train?

    Based on my experience, absolutely. With a foreign passport you get really cheap train tickets from DB. You can get three day, four day, etc. tickets that are good for those number of days within a 30 day period. You pick the date when you get on the train. It is good for all day, any train. 1st class is not that much more expensive and in my opinion is worth it. On my last trip trip Germany I purchased two tickets, six days, 1st class, for $516.00. That is cheaper than renting a car as you have to have insurance which is expensive.

    Even the local city trains are fairly cheap if you get a day pass, usually by zones. Buy one ticket at the ticket kiosk at the station, don’t forget to get it date stamped at the stamping station (voice of experience), and you are good for the day. Cheaper than a taxi and you avoid traffic congestion. You just have to deal with the train schedules which are quite frequent.

    If you have a smartphone with data download the DB app to get train schedules. You can get a SIM and phone number with a data plan when you arrive in Germany. I did and it was well worth it to stay in touch with the friends in Germany to advise of my schedule.

    Would it be advisable to get on top of German, or does everyone that matters speak English?

    Almost everyone speaks some English. The younger people (under 40) speak English quite well as they have had to take many years of English in school. If you find someone who does not speak English you can get by with grunts, gestures and pointing. Being able to speak a few words of German does help as the German people at least know you are trying and they appreciate it.

  38. I think everyone appreciates a tourist trying to speak their language. Except the French, of course, many of whom take it as an insult.

    In Germany, I’d think you could get along pretty well with no more than 200 words, among which please (Bitte) and thank you (Danke) are by far the most important. Learn a few interrogatory phrases like “where is …” (Bitte, wo ist …) and “how much” (Bitte, wie wiel …) and a few verbs and nouns, along with the numbers one through ten, twenty (zwanzig) through ninety (neunzig) by tens, hundred (hundert) and thousand (tausend).

    German is in many cases close enough to English that most Germans will understand a pidgin version. If you say, “Bitte, wie viel does a ticket cost?” or even “Bitte, how much does a ticket cost?” instead of “Bitte, wie viel kostet ein Ticket?”, most Germans would figure out what you’re asking. Learn the German word for some common nouns like mens room (Herrentoilette), bus (Omnibus or even just Bus), hotel (Hotel), and hospital (Krankenhaus). You’ll screw up the gender of the articles, which’ll be mildly amusing, but you’ll get along fine.

  39. Actually, when I was in France I didn’t try my (very poor) schoolboy French, except at one hotel in Biarritz, where saying “Merci beaucoup” got me a nice smile at reception.

    And German sounds a lot better than I thought. At school I was the only member of the family who studied French, everyone else did German, and I used to love teasing my sister about how guttural it is. (She teaches some German in her primary school classes.) I usually got a bite but after hearing it used in Germany in 2003 I decided it didn’t sound too bad.

  40. Apropos of nothing, a Swiss director just released a comedy with the premise that Germany gets tires of the EU and decides to join Switzerland as the 27th canton. So on that note, as a Swiss I’ll chime in on Miles’ questions as well:

    – Be sure to buy your rail pass while you are in the US. The same deals are *not* available from Europe. If you need a car for some special trip where the train doesn’t go, you can always rent one for a day or two.

    – If you have time, it’s worth knowing the basic tourist vocabulary in German. Sure, “everyone” speaks English, except when you really, really need to know where the nearest toilet is. Besides, as Ray says, it makes a good impression, even if you don’t get past “Guten Tag, sprechen Sie Englisch?”

    If you get down to Switzerland, let me know and I’ll buy you a beer…

  41. Be sure to buy your rail pass while you are in the US. The same deals are *not* available from Europe.

    That was not the case on my fourth trip to Germany. I was advised that the DB ticket counter (pick a younger person) would be able to get me the same deals as I could get on the web. They were right. That was 4 years ago so maybe the times have changed.

    On my last trip I used the web so I would have everything taken care of before I arrived. Turned out that DB was running a special. If you purchased your tickets before March 31 and traveled before the end of May, there was a 90 euro discount on the tickets.

    And having no current ability to verify web prices to local prices I will defer to your wisdom on that matter. You do need a non-European passport. I had to provide that passport information when I purchased the tickets online.

    Using the web was convenient. Tickets arrived in 5 days. But you have to call your credit card company and inform them that you are making a foreign purchase, from who and the approximate amount.

    If you get down to Switzerland, let me know and I’ll buy you a beer

    I plan on returning to Switzerland, specifically the Interlaken and Lauterbrunnen area. Really enjoyed it when I was there but I did not spend enough time. There is a small area up the cog railroad from Lauterbrunnen that is nothing but hotels. I want to spend a couple of nights there and make another trip up the Eiger. I have also been to Lucerne and Pilatas which were quite nice. Hope to return to those areas on the same trip.

    (And I may have spelled the names wrong, don’t feel like looking it up today.)

  42. brad wrote:

    “- Be sure to buy your rail pass while you are in the US.”

    I’m in Australia, but we may become the 51st state before too long… 🙂

    “If you get down to Switzerland, let me know and I’ll buy you a beer…”

    Been there in 1995, but will keep in mind if I get that far south. I like to do a mixture of coach tours (so I don’t have to worry about stuff) and independent. I don’t know when this is happening, perhaps next year or 2015. Complicated by the fact that I might get a dog when I move to Adelaide and/or start a BSc.

  43. Some of the cornfields are pretty soggy, those in low-lying areas; but most of them that I’ve seen along this Champlain Valley area in recent weeks are doing swell. A lot of it is now over my head, which is unusual for this early in July. And we had a window of opportunity for local strawberries and bought a tray of boxes of them this past week and froze most of them. We’ll whip them out in mid-January. We’re also planting blueberries and blackberries in the back yahd here.

    Second day in a row of blue skies and sun; quite a treat, though still humid.

  44. if I was planning a holiday in Germany would I be best off going by train?

    I am not sure that I would say that about a business trip into Germany with a side trip to Denmark. I landed once in Dusseldorf, rented a car and visited a client in Gelsenkirchen, visited a client in Cologne, visited a client in Frankfurt and then drove the Rhine up to ??? and drove into Esberg, Denmark for a client visit. Then drove to Copenhagen, visited a client and took a ferry back into old East Germany. About 1,000 miles of driving in a week plus two major ferry trips (30 miles and 100+ miles). Trains would have taken two+ weeks.

    The fun part of that trip was driving the Rhine river for two days and the wife saying, “Ooh castle, lets visit”. Just finding the road up to the castle was often the adventure. We visited about ten castles in two days and spent the night in one of them. Was very interesting to contrast castles started from 1000 AD to 1850 AD. Functionality to beauty.

  45. I’m in Australia, but we may become the 51st state before too long… 🙂

    One of the Science Fiction authors, Travis Taylor, writes milsf books in the 2200s about the 200 states of the United States. 20+ states are on Mars.

  46. @Miles: Oops, sorry, of course I know you are in Australia. I suppose I wrote “US” because I was remembering a friend (from the US) who stayed with us a couple years ago. She wanted to get a rail pass, and was told she should have bought it before leaving home.

    Now, maybe Ray is right and you can buy it in Germany. Could be that my friend just got a really unhelpful clerk…I honestly haven’t looked into it myself.

  47. “…the big three concentrated mineral acids–hydrochloric, sulfuric, and nitric.’

    Why are the called *mineral* acids? According to Wikipedia they are also called inorganic acids, which I get, but mineral?

  48. The original source for them was minerals that alchemists heated in retorts.

  49. <i.Now, maybe Ray is right and you can buy it in Germany.

    My tickets were for the German rail system only, not a EuroRail pass. That may indeed change the cost.

    I was also told to get young clerk as they generally speak better English. They are also more willing, and perhaps able, to find the better prices for non-European visitors. That was my experience 4 years ago. Tried to find the the platform for the train to Kronberg while in the Frankfurt station. I said one word to the old fellow “Kronberg” but apparently did not roll the first “R” and the “berg” was not pronounced correctly. Until I spelled the name he had no idea what I was talking about.

  50. Probably the “berg” part. We Americans say “birg” as in “bird” with no distinguishing between “berg” and “burg”. “berg” would be “bair-g” and “burg” “bourg” with the “our” kind of like they say “Uhr” for “hour”. Not “er”, but “U-u-u-r”. “boo-ur-g”.

    They have both long and short sounds for vowels, but the long sound almost always prevails: ah, eh, ee, oh, ooh. Not sure what to do with the “Kron” part, but it is probably “Kuh-r-oh-n” with the “r” coming from way back in the throat. The rules for long and short are the same as I was taught for English—one consonant separating two vowels, first vowel is long; two or more consonants between vowels and the first vowel is short. Eg. Sony vs. sonnet. But somehow, I’ll bet Kronberg is a long “o” as in “oh”.

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