Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Povera Casavecchia

Non so cosa dire. Solo Dio lo sa. E ha lasciato la scena nel 1966.

Friday, July 26, 2013

I Got A Postcard From London...

...It said "Happy Christmas in July"

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Trade Secrets

I'm not certain what to make of this study which asserts that 90+% of truly useful innovations are not patented. I have my doubts because in the chemical arts--and pharmaceutical inventions in particular--the converse is more likely the case. The paper takes a minute to load so here's the abstract:

It is well known that not all innovations are patented, but the exact volume of innovative activities undertaken outside the coverage of patent protection and, relatedly, the actual propensity to patent an innovation in different contexts remain, to a major degree, a matter of speculation. This paper presents an exploratory study comparing systematically patented and unpatented innovations over the period 1977-2004 across industrial sectors. The main data source is the ‘R&D 100 Awards’ competition organized by the journal Research and Development. Since 1963, the magazine has been awarding this prize to the 100 most technologically significant new products available for sale or licensing in the year preceding the judgments. We match the products winners of the R&D 100 awards competition with USPTO patents and we examine the variation of patent propensity across different contexts (industries, geographical areas and organizations). Finally we compare our findings with previous assessments of patent propensity based on several sources of data.

Trade secrecy is the default setting for intellectual property law. It's what the system reverts to when things get ugly, costly and when openness is abused. Trade secrecy is not what Thomas Jefferson wanted for us.

Friday, July 19, 2013

On The Roof (1986)

I know
I said you can't (even) fly
On your way
I hope you'll be OK

Stop for a while
Talk about it
For a while

From now on
Sooner or later
Sing a new song
Call me when you're better

Stop for a while
Talk about it
For a while

In a while
In a while
For a while
For a while

Inspired By Amba

Amba wrote this a while back on her blog Ambiance:
Matter is a corrective. Matter exerts a resistance, a counterforce, like wood to a carving knife or water to a ship’s keel or air under an airplane’s wings, that paradoxically enables us to get somewhere by making it more difficult. link
To which I responded:
OK, this is way off-topic and perhaps I should write it as another “inspired-by-Amba” blogpost, but I had to mention two connections this triggered for me. The first was the old-fashioned way that nations used to settled trade imbalances: there might be trade exchanges in one direction: goods or services for example. At the end of the day, there would be a reckoning and something like gold would flow in the other direction. In this way gold, having gravitas, kept thing[s] grounded. 
The second was the way chemical reactions occur. Chemistry is valence electrons exchanging and rearranging. The nuclei hardly change at all (unless we’re talking nuclear chemistry). Anyways, electrons, being flighty and fleet, are forever waiting around for the heavier nuclei to get into the right configurations for exchange. When the laggard atoms finally are…zip…the electrons are already there like magic. link
She responded:
Anyways, electrons, being flighty and fleet, are forever waiting around for the heavier nuclei to get into the right configurations for exchange. When the laggard atoms finally are…zip…the electrons are already there like magic. 
That is totally what it’s like to write, or perhaps to create in any medium. You have to do the heavy, lumbering work of getting yourself properly aligned, then–inspiration is there. link 

For too long I've behaved like water or electricity -- always seeking the path of least resistance. If I wish to channel my thoughts -- to steer them in a meaningful direction-- I must also do the work of building the embankments to contain them. I'll have to move a few atoms. I've done this before and so am no stranger.

Monday, July 15, 2013

I Believe In You (2008)

This is a cover of a Bob Dylan song from his 1979 album "Slow Train Coming"

Her cover version retains the same words and lyrics of Dylan's orginal but taken out of context of Dylan's album, she could be singing about faith in another person.

I saw Cat Power perform this song at San Diego's "Street Scenes" music festival a few years ago. Here are links to that which I want to watch later on. link  Her guitar player was a guy named Judah Bauer who played in the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.

Notes on "The Disappearing Spoon"

[continuation in part]

I'm reading Sam Kean's book "The Disappearing Spoon" and posting comments about it. I'm on page 29:
Reading the periodic table across each row reveals a lot about the elements, but that's only part of the story, and not even the best part. Elements in the same column, latitudinal neighbors, are actually far more intimately related than horizontal neighbors. People are used to reading from left to right (or right to left) in virtually every human language, but reading the periodic table up and down, column by column, as in some forms of Japanese, is actually more significant. Doing so reveals a rich subtext of relationships among elements, including unexpected rivalries and antagonisms. The periodic table has its own grammar, and reading between its lines reveals whole new stories. 
Very very nice. I call the up down periodic relationship between elements "rhyming;" each element rhymes with the one above and below it.  The table is written in 2n2 meter, where n = 1, 2, 3, 4... link

Next up, Chapter 2: "Near Twins and Black Sheep: The genealogy of Elements C, Si, Ge" wherein I pretend to get nasty.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack Of Hearts (1975)

More notes on "The Disappearing Spoon"

[continuation in part]

I'm reading a book and posting comments about it. I'm on page 27:
Electron behavior drives the periodic table. But to really understand the elements, you can't ignore the part that makes up more than 99 percent of their mass---the nucleus. And whereas electrons obey the laws of the greatest scientist never to win the Nobel Prize, the nucleus obeys the dictates of probably the most unlikely Nobel laureate ever, a woman whose career was even more nomadic than Lewis's.
Maria Goeppert-Mayer. I blogged about her here. She was the poster girl for how badly science used to treat women. Kean tells a good story, but mischaracterizes one aspect which I'd like to correct and add to. At page 28, middle of the second paragraph:
After the Depression lifted, hundreds of her intellectual peers gathered for the Manhattan Project, perhaps the most vitalizing exchange of scientific ideas ever. Goeppert-Mayer received an invitation to participate, but peripherally, on a useless side project to separate uranium with flashing lights. No doubt she chafed in private, but she craved science enough to continue to work under such conditions.
I object to the characterization of "useless side project to separate uranium with flashing lights," or whatever that means. What Goeppert-Mayer was working on was the separation of uranium isotopes, under the direction of H.C. Urey at Columbia University. I suppose that work could be characterized as "useless" because ultimately gaseous diffusion solved the problem. But Goeppert-Mayer did make a valuable contribution to science during the war. The results were declassified and finally published in 1947 and became the seminal paper for the science of isotope effect chemistry.

Years ago, I corresponded with Jacob Bigeleisen, the doyen of that branch of science. He was her junior coworker at Columbia U on the Manhattan Project and was a coauthor of the 1947 paper I mentioned above. I happened to ask him about his role in isotope chemistry and he opened up, telling me a great story involving her which I already blogged on here. It's long, but well worth a read. I'm just going to re-post the part where he later told a reporter about the amazing moment when he was briefly overwhelmed by Goeppert-Mayer's brilliance. Bigeleisen had been struggling to derive an equation and to simplify it. Goeppert-Mayer glanced at his work and instantly finished it for him:
She looked at my work and asked 'why don't you finish it up by taking out the classical part?'  Without a pause, she wrote the simplified equation, saying 'Now you have it; it's all done.' I didn't immediately understand what she meant when she said to cut out the classical part. I went home. I worked on it, and eventually I got the same result. link
I suppose that those with an ax to grind could subtitle that moment in time "superior female intellect briefly overwhelms male dominance." I'm sure that she had other moments later on. But all the players are now dead and together somewhere, I suppose.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

More notes on "The Disappearing Spoon"

[continued from previous post]

Part I   "Orientation: Column By Column, Row by Row"

1. Geography Is Destiny: H, He, B, Be, Sb

Page 21, bottom of page:
Egyptian women were applying a different form of antimony as mascara, both to decorate their faces and to give themselves witchlike powers to cast the evil eye on enemies.
They used stibnite in which you can still see the Latin origin of antimony's chemical symbol, Sb. Stibnite gave the blueish black look which is still alluring, though antimony has been removed from reformulated modern eyeliner. The alchemist's symbol for antimony is:

which sort of resembles an upside down version of the female symbol.

Kean writes at length about Gilbert N. Lewis, as have I. My take on him is here and here.

Now on to some substantive descriptive chemistry: Page 24, bottom:
As we move horizontally across the periodic table, each element has one more electron than it neighbor to the left. Sodium, element eleven, normally has eleven electrons; magnesium, element 12, has twelve electrons; and so on. As elements swell in size, they not only sort electrons into energy levels, they also store those electrons in different shaped bunks, called shells.
Early German quantum mechanics called this Aufbau or building up. Kean describes how electrons build shells -- s, p, d, and f orbitals -- in a logical way. His descriptions of p-orbitals as a "misshapen lung" and "d-orbitals" as balloon animals is amusing, but I would explain it differently. They more resemble blobs with 0, 1, 2, and 3 nodes as described here.

What Aufbau builds on is how electrons self-organize around an increasingly charged nucleus in moving from hydrogen to higher and higher elements. Start with the simplest atom having one proton and one electron. The very first electron goes into a spherical shaped 1s orbital surrounding the proton. Now if we add another proton to that picture to get to the next element (helium), we must add a second electron. It too goes into the same 1s-orbital and two electrons are happy as clams--perfectly-paired. The pairing of electrons is one of the most sublime aspects of electronic theory and is one which I struggle to understand.

Now move on to element 3, lithium: the third electron cannot occupy the same orbital space as its first two, so it must go into a higher energy orbital, the so-call 2s orbital. The 2s orbital is not exactly just a larger s-orbital; it actually interleaves with the 1s orbital as I drew attention to here:

The fourth electron in element 4, beryllium, perfectly pairs with the third one and fills the 2s orbital. Now, the fifth electron in boron could go into what's called a 3s orbital depicted above, i.e., electrons could just keep building higher and higher energy shells of spherical symmetry, but something else happens. A different type of node appears which breaks the spherical symmetry, creating what's called a p-orbital:

The 2p-orbitals are lower in energy than the 3s orbitals and that's why the next 6 electrons fill those first. There are 6 spaces because the electrons pair and go into 3 different p-orbitals -- one for each Cartesian dimension, x, y, and z.

[more soon]

Friday, July 12, 2013

Pere Ubu, Final Solution (1976)

A proto-angst ridden number from the past with direct links to bands like Sonic Youth in the future. I don't think Pere Ubu ever had a commercial success, but that doesn't matter, they're still great. They're still around too.

Divide And Conquer

Strangely prophetic for 1985:

Well they divided up all the land
And we've got states and cities
Cities have their neighborhoods
And more subdivisions

There's countries divided by walls
Oceans and latitudes
And longitude, longing to find out
Just what they're missing

They're lots of area codes
And nine digit zip codes
Secret decoder ring codes
Arteries, shopping nodes

We'll invent some new computers
Link up the global village
And get AP, UPI, and Reuters
To tell everybody the newest news

We'll be one happy neighborhood
Spread out across the world
But who's going to stop that burglar
From breaking in my house
If he lives that far away

We'll be just like old friends
No means to your ends
The police state is too busy
And the neighborhood's getting out of hand

Big Brother on every wall
Muzak plays in all the halls
Empires see the rise and fall
They divide, conquer

It's not about my politics
Something happened way too quick
A bunch of men who played it sick
They divide, conquer

It's all here before your eyes
Safety is a big disguise
That hides among the other lies
They divide, conquer

Well I expect I won't be heard
Because my silence is assured
Never a discouraging word
They divide, conquer

They divide and conquer

Special Secret Song Inside

I know it sounds like an urban legend, but these guys incited a riot in Fort Collins, CO after they played there in 1987. This was on the play list:

Easy To Be Hard

More Notes on "The Disappearing Spoon"

[continuation in part]

I'm reading a book and posting comments about it:

Sam Kean wrote a book a couple years back called "The Disappearing Spoon And Other True Tales Of Madness, Love, And The History Of The World From The Periodic Table Of The Elements." 

I am at:

Part I   "Orientation: Column By Column, Row by Row"

1. Geography Is Destiny: He, B, Sb, Tm, O, Ho

This chapter is an excellent introduction but risks alienation from the start. Page 12, line 1:
Probably the biggest frustration for many students was that the people who got the periodic chart, who could really unpack how it worked, could pull so many facts from it with such dweeby nonchalance.
Dweeb: noun: an insignificant student who is ridiculed as being affected or studying excessively.

I, like most people, first encountered the periodic chart in high school. And I was unaware of any beauty behind the periodic chart or chemical theory. I was somewhat attracted to the mechanical aspects of the chemistry lab -- the glassware, the Bunsen burners -- and all the tangible aspects. But instead of focusing on experiments, I built elaborate rubber gas lines snaking under desks in order to "gas out" other students according to some WW I trench warfare reenactment going on in my head. Seriously, I don't remember much from high school chemistry. I may have learned the names of a few elements, but I was pretty much a smart ass in my first two years of high school and I paid a price for that. It probably didn't help that I had a terrible teacher who didn't know much chemistry himself (he was an earth science teacher). My high school had a regular chemistry teacher with a chemistry background (Mr. Z), but space was limited in his class and I didn't make the cut. The irony. But I digress. Getting back to the book: yes I too associated chemistry with dweebs. I fought the dweebs and the dweebs won. I became a dweeb or as we affectionately called ourselves in grad school "chem nerds."

Page 12, middle:
Before introducing the periodic table, every teacher should strip away all the clutter and have students just stare at the thing, blank.
Hey!  I made a similar point back here, except I proposed actually testing such knowledge.

The author is keen on stressing the rectilinear grid structure -- the Cartesian qualities. And for good reason: the chart is the form we all know -- but still, it is just a convention. There is nothing intrinsic about that flat tabular presentation.  I "co-invented" an alternative version here.

There is a rich history of how the grid was assembled. First came columns in the early 19th century: Döbereiner's triads --though the column metaphor presumes a vertical relation which didn't yet exist. Then came Newlands with his rows and notions of repeating layers. And then came Mendeleev who envisioned the whole thing well enough to predict where holes were for missing elements.

Page 13, last paragraph:
For each element, its geography is destiny. In fact, now that you have a sense of what the table looks like in outline, I can switch to a more useful metaphor: the periodic table as a map. And to sketch in a bit more detail, I'm going to plot this map from east to west, lingering over both well-known and out-of-the-way elements.
This reminded me of lecture I heard at the UW-Madison ca. 1982 given by a guest lecturer (I wasn't a grad student but rather a precocious undergrad). He put up a periodic table in which he likened it to a US map and showed how certain university research groups were working on the chemistry of elements in a "geographic" way: "Oh look, there's Jack Halpern in Chicago working on rhodium which sits in the "midwest"; and just north of him on the chart is Chuck Casey at Madison, working on iron; out west on the leftern edge is the Bercaw group exploring scandium; out east there's so and so." The modern periodic table is iconic.

Page 17, middle paragraph:
The repose of the noble gases is rare, however. One column to the west sits the most energetic and reactive gases on the periodic table, the halogens. And if you think of the table wrapping around like a Mercator map, so east meets west and column eighteen meets column one, even more violent elements appear on the western edge, the alkali metal. The pacifist noble gases are a demilitarized zone surrounded by unstable neighbors.
I love that. I made the identical point about the Mercator aspect back here (and this was before Kean published, WTF?). But none of this is original, so far...

...Doodle du jour:

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Remembering Elizabeth Reed Redux

I ran across an excellent YouTube video of the classic Fillmore East live version of the Allman Brother's "In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed." It's actually video footage of another night overlayed on the original sound track. There is no extant footage of that live version that I know of.  I am in love with this song, having written about it at length once before: link It haunts me somehow.

Duane Allman introduces the song, snapping his fingers to mark time (you can clearly hear this in the remastered CD version). Duane was a dirty hippy but there is something very southern gentleman in his voice: "A song Dickey Betts wrote from our second album....uh, In Memory of Elizabeth Reed...ready gentlemen? 1..2..3..."

Notes on "The Disappearing Spoon"

Sam Kean wrote a book a couple years back called "The Disappearing Spoon And Other True Tales Of Madness, Love, And The History Of The World From The Periodic Table Of The Elements." I started it but never finished it. A commenter mentioned the book yesterday on Trooper York, and I suggested that we and another should read and discuss it and so I'm going to give that a shot. I'm going to take this very slowly at first in case you want to buy the book and follow along as well.

I read the Intro and Chapter 1 last night and flagged several passages that struck me as either very well expressed or perhaps worthy of further explanation.

Kean arranges his book into parts and chapters and each concerns a specific element or elements.

My style is to assume that the reader has the book and can proceed along with me on this journey. I'm going to drop quotes where I made markers and then write a few words.  If I don't say anything about a certain passage, it's not because I think it's good or bad or that I disagree. Feel free to ask questions or challenge me in the comments. This first post isn't very chemical at all and is mostly historical in nature. That changes pretty quickly.

Introduction: Mercury

Kean introduces mercury which he's known since childhood (as no doubt have many of a certain age before the stuff was so shunned).  Of course mercury was known to the ancients as well. Page 4, middle of page:
Medieval alchemists, despite their lust for gold, considered mercury the most potent and poetic substance in the universe.
Alchemists considered mercury to be the "spirit" of matter and sulfur to be its "soul." The arcane symbols used for the elements are here. In nature, mercury is commonly found combined with sulfur as the mineral cinnabar. The Romans mined the stuff in Spain and some of the mines are still producing it. I linked to photo of a man floating on a vat of mercury and wrote of some of my own experiences with mercury here and here.

Next we learn how Lewis and Clark left telltale signs along their trek because they carried with and used mercuric chloride as a laxative or emetic. Page 5, about 5 lines up from bottom:
With the weird food and questionable water they encountered in the wild, someone in their party was always queasy, and to this day, mercury deposits dot the soil many places were the gang dug a latrine, perhaps after one of Dr. Rush's "Thunderclappers" had worked a little too well.
This is fascinating. But it's no surprise because mercury persists in the environment. Ingested as insoluble mercuric chloride, it's likely to stay put as mercuric chloride.

Bottom of page 5:
I latched onto those tales, and recently, while reminiscing about mercury over breakfast, I realized that there's a funny, or odd, or chilling tale attached to every element on the periodic table. At the same time, the table is one of the great intellectual achievements of humankind. It's both a scientific accomplishment and a storybook, and I wrote this book to peel back all of the layers one by one, like the transparencies in an anatomy textbook that tell the same story at different depths.
I can relate. I began blogging about the chemical elements after watching 4th of July fireworks 4 years ago: link  I too realized that I had personal experience with many of them and I wanted to pull them together in my own way too. I started a series, using the tag "The Elements Series."  I intend to use some of these posts along the way. Eventually, I intend to extend the series beyond rhodium.
Next up: Part I   "Orientation: Column By Column, Row by Row"

1. Geography Is Destiny

Monday, July 8, 2013

What You May Have Missed

My modest blog just passed the quarter million views mark which is an inflated way of saying 250,063 pageviews. Thank you dear readers!

Here are the "top ten" posts according to my Blogger statistics, as well as a short recap:

1  The Parable Of The Doorkeeper*  19,420 views
This post is just my favorite Kafka parable and compares the German and English texts. It must be others' favorite too as it was Instalaunched (thank you, Professor Reynolds!)
2   Hail Britannic!  16,311 views
This one concerned the RMS Titanic's younger sister ship, HMHS Britannic and her sad story. Also, I drew a link between Jacques Cousteau's TV coverage of the shipwreck and the plot of James Cameron's Titanic. But I think many people were just looking for the interesting photo. 
3  Titanic Centennial: at the real Café Parisien  9,698 views
I think it odd that this post is number 3. It's just a famous old photograph of a very hip cafe on board the Titanic. Maybe that's all people were looking for. I did a series of posts on Titanic.
4  Forgotten Americans: Jack Thayer, Titanic Survivor  3,918 views
This post tells the story of young Jack Thayer and his heroic account of surviving the sinking. He was the first to publicly assert that Titanic broke in two. His views were contradicted in the official investigations and reports at the time, but he was vindicated when the wreck was actually found. Sadly, he committed suicide. 
5  The SS Great Eastern  3,452 views
Another famous ship and shipwreck story here. The photo is a haunting one and is worth a look. 
6  It's No Lye That Soap Is Made From Pot Ash  2,087 views
This post concerns the element potassium and was one of a series of posts I did covering the chemical elements. I got as far as rhodium with that series and plan to pick it up again with palladium.
7  Newlands' Law of Octaves 1,676 views
This post retells the interesting saga of John Newlands, the man who first drew attention to the chemical periodicity of the elements, a very favorite topic of mine. 
8  Last Letters From Stalingrad: #23  1,572 views
This post is one of a series of letters I transcribed from Last Letters From Stalingrad, an out-of-print, but very haunting book. See the links at the bottom of that post for more on that series. 
9  Last Letters From Stalingrad: #9  1,271 views

10  The Essence of Distillation 972 views
This is actually my personal favorite of the 10. If I could write more of these, I'd do it all day long.