Thursday, September 12, 2013

"Putin: Rhymes With Rasputin"

Flashback on the world stage to the moment when Vladimir Putin first appeared to us and William Safire memorably quipped: "Putin: Rhymes with Rasputin."

Put your way back machine on to 2000 and reread Safire's NYT article; it's well worth it -- from a time when I still read that paper religiously. I picked out a few excerpts:
Acting President Putin (pronounced POO-teen, rhymes with Ras-POO-teen) rocketed to popularity on Russian jubilation about the massacre of dark-skinned Chechens who dare to demand independence. He needed a snap election before the blood lust cooled and Russian body bags began returning home.
Was Safire pro-Chechen or just sympathetic? The question is clouded by the Brother’s Tsarnaev who were Chechens; remember what they did here: atrocities to bring attention to…? Well, not exactly to bring attention to al-Qaeda...but what then?
It is the Chechens who seek to liberate themselves from Russian rule. The Russian militarists are the ones raining bombs and shells on people who want the same independence as Georgians and Ukrainians. For Clinton to characterize the rape of Grozny as ''liberation'' is an abomination.
Al-Qaeda you will recall, first appeared on our radar in Afghanistan. But they did fight the Russians (Soviets) before us. It's all so confusing. And Bill Clinton, siding with Putin's take on Chechnya? What will Hillary say and do?
Their task, after last week's coup de main, is to present Putin (means ''born on the road'') to the electorate as a man on horseback out to crush the terrorists trying to tear Mother Russia asunder. 
I would have never guessed that. Safire was very good at etymology; I didn't know he covered Russian etymology too.
Putin is in a race with disillusionment -- that moment when Russians realize that the Chechens won't be beaten without heavy losses, that the flight of capital will continue under Chubais-Berezovsky, and that military spending robs Russia of its ability to compete.
Can I recast that?:

Obama is in a race with disillusionment -- that moment when Americans realize that al-Qaeda  won't be beaten without heavy losses, that the flight of capital will continue under Cloward-Piven, and that military spending robs America of its ability to compete.

It's a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Awful Chemical Language Continued

Back here somewhere I commented that new chemical terms were relatively rare -- infrequent enough to keep up with them. Well here's a new one: "agostomer."  Classics scholars and word lovers should like the origin of this new word.

The word agostic was coined about 30 years or so ago to describe how certain two-point bonding occurs. The Greek word agostos (ἀγοστός) means the "flat of the hand" and is apparently very rare and only occurs once in Homer's Iliad (it took me some doing to find that Greek link). The metaphor is that the bonding resembles a man's bent arm with the flat of one hand on a hip such that there are two points of arm attachment to the body: a strong one at the shoulder and a weaker one between the hand and the hip.

Recently, an old friend of mine co-discovered and reported on a remarkable new compound which crystallized in two subtly different ways, one analogous to having the palm on the hip and the other with the back of the hand on the hip. The two isomers are termed "agostomers" and also show the  interesting property that one agostomer crystal is orange and the other one is blue. Here's a depiction:

Sunday, August 11, 2013

What Should Be Forgiven?

Trespasses, sins, guilt, debts, shoulds?

Palladian's version of the Lord's Prayer (evolved from a machine) struck me because of how the words "trespasses" and "trespassed" survived wholly intact:

Or father
court in heaven
shall be dining biking them,
but I will be done
on corporate as it is in heaven
give us this day ordeal the bride
and for guests are trespasses
as a brief for give those who trespassed against its
and leave us not into temptation
to deliver us from evil
for design to step forward
and glory forever,
on and.

The Lord's Prayer has appeared in English since the latter's earliest recorded times but the word "trespass" did not appear until the 16th century. Originally, we used the word gyltas which is cognate with the modern English word "guilt":

Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum
si þin nama gehalgod
tobecume þin rice
gewurþe þin willa
on eorðan swa swa on heofonum
urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us to dæg
and forgyf us ure gyltas
swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum
and ne gelæd þu us on costnunge
ac alys us of yfele soþlice.

By the 14th century, the word had evolved to a combination of dettis and synnys, which are cognate with modern English words "debts" and "sins;" Middle English had clearly felt the influence of the Norman Conquest (1066):

Oure fadir þat art in heuenes halwid be þi name;
þi reume or kyngdom come to be.
Be þi wille don in herþe as it is doun in heuene.
yeue to us today oure eche dayes bred.
And foryeue to us oure dettis þat is oure synnys
As we foryeuen to oure dettouris þat is to men þat han synned in us.
And lede us not into temptacion but delyuere us from euyl.

By the 16th century, "trespasses" had supplanted guilt, sin, and debt to give the verses we know by heart:

Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation. But deliver us from evil.
"Trespass" has an archaic meaning of sin or transgression but the word today largely means to stray into another's territory--like being "offsides" -- 5 yard penalty. The OED instructs on the origin of trespass; it is French in origin, meaning to transgress or literally to go beyond. It's odd that we use a word of French origin when the French themselves use the word debit or debt and apparently always have done so: link

The Italians use debito and the Latin Mass uses the identical concept: link

I once wrote a blog post on this topic (which originated in an Althouse comment). There is a curious convolution of monetary debt and sin in the German language (Nietzsche is involved) and I wrote about it here.

[Cross-posted with a question here]

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Awful Chemical Language

I was often asked to explain chemical nomenclature in the context of such and such intellectual property law matter and one day I surprised a trial lawyer — an elderly gent — with my knowledge. He was actually annoyed at first, perhaps because he felt hostage to knowledge which he did not possess. Actually, he probably just resented that I could bill time for knowledge which I already possessed — just like he could. Had he known what it had cost me to acquire my art, he would also have known that it would break any law firm to buy it. Meanwhile, I had been hard at work learning legal terminology for several weeks, and although I had made good progress, it had been accomplished under great difficulty and annoyance. But he was greatly impressed and after I had explained a while, he said my explanation of the chemical language was very rare, possibly "unique" and he wanted to add me to his litigation team.

Friedrich Wöhler, the father of modern organic chemistry, already remarked in 1835:
Organic chemistry just now is enough to drive one mad. It gives me the impression of a primeval forest full of the most remarkable things, a monstrous and boundless thicket, with no way of escape, into which one may well dread to enter.
A person who has not studied chemistry — especially organic chemistry — can form no idea of what a perplexing language describes that thicket. Or perhaps they can, but can come up with no logical explanation for why things are so. I aim here to simplify.

The Germans invented modern organic chemistry and they logically fashioned the nomenclature in their own image — and just as the German language is troublesome for the beginner — having so many parts of speech — it's no wonder organic nomenclature is so troublesome.

An average organic chemical name is a sublime and impressive curiosity; it may occupy several lines and comprise several unfamiliar names and numbers — things called moieties — and even Greek letters; it is built mainly of compound words synthesized by the writer around a core or parent name; it's quite often a word not to be found in any normal dictionary — several words compacted into one, but with joints and seams — that is, with hyphens; it may treat of up to umpteen different subunits, each enclosed in a parenthesis of its own, with here and there extra parentheses which reinclose three or four of the minor parentheses, making pens within pens: finally, all the parentheses and re-parentheses are massed together between a couple of king-parentheses, one of which is placed in the first line of the majestic structure and the other in the middle of the last line of it — after which comes the parent compound name, and you find out for the first time what the molecule is or at least what some chemical lexicographer thought it should be derived from. Sometimes, often as an afterthought — merely by way of differentiation — the writer shovels in the name of a salt, or in patent parlance "or salts thereof," signifying that the delicate molecular flower has been preserved as a salt, and the monument is finished. I suppose that this closing hurrah is often the doing of patent attorneys seeking to claim more broadly; it's not necessary, but covers the doctrine of equivalents.

To repeat, organic chemistry nomenclature was invented by 19th century Germans who wanted to create a simple system which closely mimicked the logic of their own language. Full stop. Therein lies the secret why that nomenclature is so seemingly obtuse — it is patterned after German syntax. In linguistics, syntax refers to the way in which morphemes are arranged. By analogy, "chemical morphemes" are irreducible units of metaphor — core words like "meth-," eth-," "prop-," and "but-" and ringed ones like "phen-" or "benz-" represent chemical entities. [1]  The studied reader may already recognize these morphemes in methane, ethane, propane, butane, phenyl, and benzene and the like. The endings "ane," "yl," and "ene" are, in a linguistic sense, inflections of the morphemes. Another word related to morphemes commonly used by chemists is moiety. Moiety refers to small clusters of recognizable function, for example, "acyl," carboxyl," "alkyl," etc.

By way of example, consider the common pain reliever ibuprofen which more properly goes by the name
RS-2-(4-(2-methylpropyl)phenyl)propanoic acid.

Chemical names are easier to read when you hold them next to the actual structure which is like a pictograph (hold that thought for later) or read them backwards in a mirror or stand on your head — so as to reverse the construction -- but because many refuse to learn the real language of chemistry — structural short hand — I'll muddle through the name of ibuprofen by way of example.  It's not a particularly elaborate molecule or name, but it strikes a nice balance between complexity and simplicity.

R,S-2-(4-(2-methylpropyl)phenyl)propanoic acid

First comes "R,S." The "R" stands for rectus (Latin for right) and the "S" stands for sinister (Latin for left). This gives the enlightened reader notice that chirality is at hand — more on this later.

R,S-2-(4-(2-methylpropyl)phenyl)propanoic acid

The second element in the name is the number 2, and because this number stands alone — outside of parentheses — the reader is asked to hold its meaning in abeyance until such a time as the parent morpheme is finally reached after much exhaustion of patience. Putting the "2" in front resembles the dreaded separable prefix verbs so common to German. Mark Twain wrote in his delightful essay, The Awful German Language:
The Germans have another kind of parenthesis, which they make by splitting a verb in two and putting half of it at the beginning of an exciting chapter and the other half at the end of it. Can any one conceive of anything more confusing than that? These things are called "separable verbs." The German grammar is blistered all over with separable verbs; and the wider the two portions of one of them are spread apart, the better the author of the crime is pleased with his performance.
R,S-2-(4-(2-methylpropyl)phenyl)propanoic acid

The third element, (4-(2-methylpropyl)phenyl) is a microcosm of the whole name writ larger; in it we have a 2-methylpropyl corralled by parentheses, which is itself corralled by "4-" and "phenyl." The name is starting to look like a matryoshka doll.

R,S-2-(4-(2-methylpropyl)phenyl)propanoic acid

At long last we arrive at the parent morpheme, which like the verb in a German sentence, tells us the key information: propanoic acid. In the lexicographer's mind, ibuprofen is a derivative of propanoic acid.

We have the germanic parenthesis disease in our language, too; also often expressed with em dashes and sometimes elipses and one may see cases of it every day in our books and blog posts: but with us it is — unless botched — the mark and sign of a practiced writer or a clear intellect, whereas with the Germans and chemical lexicographers it is doubtless the mark and sign of a practiced pen and of the presence of that sort of luminous intellectual fog which stands for clearness among these people. For surely it is not clearness — it necessarily can't be clearness.

Now dear reader, allow me to introduce a better way to depict all the foregoing and to illustrate the  foolishness:
R,S-2-(4-(2-methylpropyl)phenyl)propanoic acid

I have color-coded the three main parts of the molecule, both in name and in the depiction. The reader immediately grasps that the red propanoic acid portion has a three carbon chain. The red number "2" in the name describes wherefrom the rest depends. The "R,S" refers to the two possible ways that the invisible hydrogen atom attached to carbon 2 may point: either out of or into to the screen or page. The portion circled in light blue is a phenyl moiety having six carbons numbered as shown. The curious reader can attest that the portion in green indeed appends from carbon 4 of the blue phenyl. The left-most portion — circled in green — is the "2-methylpropyl" portion: it's really a 3-carbon propyl chain having a methyl affixed to carbon 2.

Lastly, it is perhaps now apparent (to me at least) where the trivial name ibuprofen comes from: I parse ibuprofen into three separable pieces: ibu/pro/fen

"ibu" is short for "isobutyl (another name for 2-methylpropyl;"
"pro" is short for "propanoic acid;"
"fen" stands for "phenyl."

Have you got a headache yet?
Suggested further reading:

[1] An Algorithm For Translating Chemical Names To Molecular Formulas
[2] Development Of Systematic Names For The Simple Alkanes

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.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

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. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

This Blog Is Suspended Until Further Notice

Before I go, I just wanted to post a little replay of an Althouse comment written back in 2009 by someone called t-man. I cut and paste here verbatim:

t-man said...
Chickenlittle -
The trouble is that the people who were willfully blind about Obama before the election and supported him, all thought, and still think, that they are far more intelligent that those who opposed Obama. Their self image depends upon perceived intellectual superiority, and it will be extremely difficult for them to admit to themselves that they were wrong.
The best chance it to give these people an excuse - "I was misled by the media" is the best option here. This is one of the reasons I think that the Breitbart assault on the mainstream media is so dangerous to Obama.
9/26/09, 12:19 PM  Link

I would love to parse that comment sentence-by-sentence because it was so prophetic at the time (2009) and we are seeing it come true this week at long last.

The best chance it to give these people an excuse - "I was misled by the media" is the best option here. 

So now are you onboard? 

Monday, May 6, 2013

Shenandoah (1965)

My posting this clip got a rise out of a commenter over on Althouse who thought the Jimmy Stewart character was a pretty much a pussy:

rcocean said...
Thanks for the link. Funny how some farmer who saw the idiocy of the civil war is turned into some Ayn Randian "free marketer". Jimmy of course owed an obligation to either the state of Virginia or the USA. Had some foreign power decided to invade & take HIS sons and take HIS land he wouldn't pulled his absurd "When did the state raise my kids?" shtick. Instead he'd be cryin' for mama. 
No man is an island. I'm always amazed at how many dumb-ass white boys think they're "citizens of the world" who just happen to live in the USA. Yep, it's all about you boy-o, and how you don't owe nothing to nobody. We're just random individuals - competing. The East Asians and lots of others are laughing at you. 
5/6/13, 11:03 PM

Sunday, April 28, 2013

"We Drove That Car As Far As We Could, Abandoned It Out West"

In 1993 I moved back to America from Europe to get married. I had been living there for three years with my girlfriend, but she had tired of Europe and wanted to come back.  If I'd had my druthers, I would have stayed there. But I was in love and so I came back too.

When we married, her parents gave us $2000 and we decided to buy our first car together. We had each owned cars before, but we had sold them before moving to Europe where we didn't need them. We needed one in America. Since we couldn't afford reliability, we decided on promise instead. Older restored American cars had caught my eye but they were still out of our price range and we knew we'd have to compromise. And compromise we did. A newspaper ad (this was 1994--no craigslist) offered a 1963 Ford Thunderbird in Greeley, CO. We made an appointment and went to see it.

The car was over 30 years old then but had only had two owners. It had been stored in a barn for years, but showed lots of sun damage. I didn't care. That's what project cars are for. Thinking back, what must have been going through my head was that I could blend ingenuity and curiosity with need. Plus I carried the absurd notion that I was helping fix-up a part of America's past.

The seller got the car started and that was enough proof for me that it still had life. Prophetically, the car made it home the 30 miles or so--but just an hour later it had two flat tires. We took it to a local shop the next day and got four new tires all around--the tire guy saved us the best looking old one as a spare. We figured new tires on a 30-year old car was a reasonable investment.

Now the 1963 Thunderbird was a nice design. Here is what ours might have looked like new:

Detroit stylists had conceived the design as a convertible. Of course ours was a hardtop. but I didn't mind so much. Colorado wasn't exactly convertible weather much of the year. The one thing I was wary of was rust. Thankfully, Colorado doesn't salt their roads and the car checked out free of rust.

After the tires, the next item I deemed essential was the windshield washer reservoir (later, I found that virtually all the plastic parts--moving or not--had deteriorated and need replacing. In those days, the washer reservoir was essentially a bladder under the hood off to the side. A small "aquarium pump" sent fluid to the nozzles which squirted the windshield. Those were the early days of Internet marketing and I was pleased when I found a vendor in Arizona who sold remakes of the vinyl originals. I ended up sending them quite a bit of money over the years. The new bag looked like this:

That shiny new accessory on the dirty old Bird looked like a Fendi bag on a bag lady. Of course I also had to replace the little electric pump as well. I spent that spring and summer fixing all kinds of little things throughout the car.  I bought the wiring diagram (a factory schematic) and later on -- a shop manual. I replaced a power window motor and its switch, the cigar lighternot a cigarette lighterthe 1963 Thunderbird was a gentleman's car afterall. I even bought a replica owner's manual to keep in the glove box. I was stylin'.

My wife suggested that we make a cross-country road trip in the Bird and I had been invited to give a talk at the Berkeley Chemistry Department. I didn't think the front suspension was roadworthy and so I took it in for its first "big repair" which amounted to a front suspension overhaul: idler arms, ball joints--the whole works. My mom and dad visited early that summer from Wisconsin--my dad wanted to see what I had foolishly bought into. I remember him chuckling and telling me that he too had fallen for such a Thunderbird but had returned it to the dealer when he realized just how bad it was on gas mileage. There was something else weird about that visit. My dad was showing symptoms of what seem like a constant sinus infection--like a cold that wouldn't go away--except that it was summertime.

My folks had been to our wedding in Denver the previous fall but they wanted to see more of Colorado and so we went on a road trip further west to Mesa Verde, Four Corners, Monument Valley, and the Grand Canyon--all places very close geographically but separated by chasms of culture and epochs. My wife didn't come along because she had recently started a new job and wanted to save her time off for our California road trip later on. We took my dad's car because my T-Bird was still entirely too unreliable. For me, that vacation reprised the family road trips I knew and loved as a child. I may have suspected, but I didn't know then--that it would be our last.

Later that summer my wife and I hit the road in the 'Bird. She dolled it up with makeshift seat covers and a boom box stereo. The car only came with an AM radio which still worked and actually out-performed the boom box--for AM reception--in the desert. We took I-80 from north of Fort Collins, CO to Berkeley. That old car could move at a jaunty clip! We made it to the coast with no problems. I gave my talk--a triumph for me because I met the author of a famous 1950's paper on equilibrium isotope effects. I came to challenge his dogma, preaching my own brand of their causality. He listened politely and said he enjoyed my talk. Afterwards, we cruised the Bird up and down University Avenue before heading down to L.A.

From Berkeley, we headed back over to I-5 to get to Los Angeles. We had previously done the scenic route down the coast and we were kind of in a hurry.  I had noticed that the car was using oil but there was no visible smoke in the exhaust. The car made it fine down the "Big Valley," consuming a quart or two of oil. By the time we got to the The Grapevine--the relentless climb over the mountains from the San Joaquin Valley into the L.A. basin, the Bird began to falter. We barely made it up that long steep grade. The Bird began seriously consuming oil. Going uphill, exhaust leaked through the heating duct into the interior. We could see and smell it. Slowly and surely, we made it up and over that mountain. The car was fine on the other side, going downhill just fine.

In L.A., we stayed with friends and took the car to a shop in Long Beach. The mechanic laughed when he gave the verdict: "blow-by." That is a mechanic's term for a motor whose pistons are so worn that they no longer hold compression. The gases just vent around the piston rings, sometimes leading to ring failure. That explained the oil consumption because the oil gets blown through too. But still no blue smoke.

We went camping on Catalina (I wrote about it a bit back here) where they don't even allow cars and I was happy to be rid of it for a while. After Catalina, we visited my wife's sister who lived in Costa Mesa in Orange County. We were all sitting there in the living room when my mother telephoned from Wisconsin. Her voice was nervous but steady as she said "Bruce, your father's tumor has come back. You need to come home now."

So we left the Bird in Costa Mesa and flew back to face reality. Months later, after he died, I paid to have the car trailered back to Colorado. I wasn't going to give up that easily. I ended up rebuilding the motor and got the thing running well again. We used that car for years--our kids even remember it, though I sold it several years ago--for $2000.

Here it is, where it sat in California for several months, waiting for me to get back to it:

 The '63 T-Bird was wider and lower-slung than today's cars. 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Space Station #5 (1973)

I always thought that song was eminently crank-worthy. But geez, what a horrific story about his suicide (link).  Don't look if you can't undo such knowledge.


Thursday, April 25, 2013

Look Behind The Face

"You got a face with a view" is a line in a Talking Heads song (see previous post). Another blogger was inspired by the same David Byrne phrase: link. I'm not so hooked on the E.M. Forster nuance (though I did enjoy the filmed version). "Face with a view" also pinged my brain 30 years ago when that song first came out.

It seems that "face" and "view" express a sort of grammatical/real world reflection.

Face or facie, is a replacement word in English. Like so many other names of body parts, face replaced the Old English ondwlita or andwlita (which survived briefly in Middle English as anleth). Given the Norman Conquest, we might look to French to see a deeper meaning of face, but the French gave up the use of face for "front of the head" in the 17th century and replaced it with visage (older vis), back-formed from Latin visus "sight" derived from the Latin verb videre. Of course view derives from videre as well.

Now vision and view also mean sight and there is a parallel Germanic etymology behind the word sight. In modern German, das Gesicht means face (in which you might see the root Sicht, cognate with the English word sight = view). But there's an even older German word, Antlitz (used only poetically these days much as we'd use visage). Antlitz in turn relates back etymologically to the Old English andwlita. What a strange circle. It's like looking at a face in the mirror.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Stop Making Sense (1984)

From Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense (1984):

I adore the floorlamp stage prop. And who among us didn't fall in love with Tina Weymouth?
Home is where I want to be
Pick me up and turn me around
I feel numb, born with a weak heart
Guess I must be having fun
The less we say about it the better
Make it up as we go along
Feet on the ground, head in the sky
It's okay, I know nothing's wrong, nothing
I got plenty of time
You got light in your eyes
And you're standing here beside me
I love the passing of time
Never for money, always for love
Cover up and say goodnight, say goodnight 
Home, is where I want to be
But I guess I'm already there
I come home, she lifted up her wings
I guess that this must be the place
I can't tell one from another
Did I find you, or you find me?
There was a time before we were born
If someone asks, this is where I'll be, where I'll be
We drift in and out
Sing into my mouth
Out of all those kinds of people
You got a face with a view
I'm just an animal looking for a home
And share the same space for a minute or two
And you love me till my heart stops
Love me till I'm dead
Eyes that light up
Eyes look through you
Cover up the blank spots
Hit me on the head

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Play Me (1972)

I can't find my concert ticket stub from his show in Madison in the mid to late 70's but I was there.

Monday, April 15, 2013

How Air Separates Water And Goes Boom

Fertilizer bombs typically use ammonium nitrate, NH4NO3. Bombers use it because the stuff is so ubiquitous and so plentiful.

Wiki draws a pretty picture of ammonium nitrate, which partially reveals its explosive potential:
Don't skip over that structure--it's a work of art: two very different nitrogen atoms separate elements of hydrogen and oxygen. On the left, four hydrogens surround a central nitrogen while on the right, three oxygen atoms surround a central nitrogen. There's an unbalanced symmetry. Those H's and O's would love to get together and quench, making water, leaving the naked nitrogens to couple, making N2 which is essentially air. The chemical structure of ammonium nitrate is a depiction of air separating water.

We never hear about spontaneous explosions of ammonium nitrate. Why is that? An old word from the Greek called stoichiometry answers why. Try and balance the chemical equation of NH4NO3 making N2 and H2O:

             NH4NO3  =>  N2  +  H2O

Look easy? I gave up. The reason is that the hydrogen to oxygen ratio is inherently 4 to 3 on one side and 2 to 1 on the other. No amount of tweaking the coefficients will balance that reaction. The stoichiometry just doesn't work.

This brings up just how fertilizer bombs do work, because they do make air and water from ammonium nitrate. There is always a little admixture of carbon (typically fuel oil) but charcoal would work too. The carbon combines with the "excess" oxygen present in NH4NO3, making CO2. This trick even has a name: cf. detonation vs. deflagration

Here's a question for any munitions experts out there: were ANFO's involved in Boston? I've heard that the differing sounds of detonation versus deflagration are diagnostic.

A second question is technical: is it possible (in theory) to isotopically label the nitrogen in manufactured ammonium nitrate and thus, after isotopic analysis of air samples at the bombing site prior to mixing, identify the source?
[Added]  Well this breaking news should cause a spike in ammo and food prices. The report says that water sprayed on NH4NO3 made it explode. That may actually have been heat from the fire or could have resulted from of what's called heat of hydration when a dry salt suddenly mixes with water. Some salts suddenly mixed with water actually make the water colder.

Ammonium nitrate (AN) is not known to chemically react with water in an explosive way. However, if heated it reacts explosively:

             2NH4NO3  =>  2N2  + O2  + 4H2O

Now that reaction really produces a sky-full: nitrogen, oxygen, & cloud.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Empty Pews At The Church Of Truth


Read more: link

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Kermit The Frog*

Peace Frog lyrics were Morrison's own, culled from unpublished poetry/verse entitled "Abortion Stories"
There's blood in the streets, it's up to my ankles
She came
Blood in the streets, it's up to my knee
She came
Blood in the street, the town of Chicago
She came
Blood on the rise, it's following me
Just about the break of day
She came and then she drove away
Sunlight in her hair
She came
Blood in the streets runs a river of sadness
She came
Blood in the streets it's up to my thigh
She came
Yeah the river of red down the legs of the city
She came
The women cryin' red rivers of weepin'
She came in town and then she drove away
Sunlight in her hair
Indians scattered on dawn's highway bleeding
Ghosts crowd the young child's fragile eggshell mind 
Blood in the streets in the town of New Haven
Blood stains the roofs and the palm trees of Venice
Blood in my love in the terrible summer
Bloody red sun of fantastic L.A. 
Blood screams the brain** as they chop off her fingers
Blood will be born in the birth of a nation
Blood is the rose of mysterious union
There's blood in the streets, it's up to my ankles
Blood in the streets, it's up to my knee
Blood in the streets, the town of Chicago
Blood on the rise, it's following me
I linked the YouTube version of Peace Frog that also includes Blue Sunday because on the vinyl edition of Morrison Hotel they ran smoothly together. The latter song is a love ballad juxtaposed with the horror of Peace Frog.

Friday, April 5, 2013

David Stockman Saw Something Nasty In The Woodshed

Cold Comfort Farm (1995) is such a hilarious movie. I miss talking about it with you.

Need You Now (2010)