Monday, September 5, 2016

Partially Plumbed

In chemistry you often heat reactions but don't want any of the liquid to boil away. The solution is to use a condenser on top of your flask-full-of-science. A condenser, like the one pictured here, is simply a double-walled glass tube. You run cold water through the outer portion, which cools any vapor on the inner portion enough that it condenses to liquid again and falls back into the flask. 
* Image of Allihn condenser from

The slightly warmer water then runs into a sink and down the drain. From there, it tends to become the concern of your municipal waterworks. 

Unless, of course, the pipe draining your sink simply runs 40 feet through the wall and fails to connect to anything resembling regular plumbing.

In that case, it will fill up the pipe until either the purple laboratory glove shoved into the open end bursts a leak, or until the duct tape holding it in place gives up the fight.

Which, naturally, explains why a lab-mate and I discovered a quarter inch of standing water in one of our rooms just before 5pm on Friday. 

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Walden 2.0

On our Labor Day weekend we visited Walden Pond. Thoreau met us outside his cabin to show us how much simpler things are now that he can simply write his blog using his smartphone. 

We even got to take this selfie together!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Just (can't be) Right

There are some things we've been told enough times that we just accept them as truth. But some of them clearly don't add up, and now that I'm noticing the discrepancies, it is hard to know which parts of our received wisdom can really be trusted. I'm talking, of course, about the story of Goldilocks and the three bears.

The glaring problem is the porridge temperature. You know the story: the Bear family serves porridge into bowls and goes for a walk while waiting for it to cool. Goldilocks arrives on the scene, sees the three bowls set out on the table,  and promptly samples each one. Big bowl: too hot. Medium bowl: too cold. Small bowl: just right. 
Wait, WHAT!? 
It is the same porridge, in the same room, on the same table. How did Mama Bear's porridge cool off more than Baby Bear's? All three servings started at the same temperature, and judging both by experience and by the laws of thermodynamics the smaller portion should cool off faster than the larger one. Unless Mama Bear keeps her cast iron bowl in the ice box between meals, we've been lied to. It was Mama Bear's porridge that should have been just right!

No doubt you are now imagining some (unlikely and unsatisfying) explanations that could potentially account for the reported temperatures. But before we get sidetracked into a discussion of bowl shape or fireplace proximity, let's consider the other suspect elements in the story. The Bears return home, discover the eaten porridge, and proceed to the sitting room where Papa Bear and Mama Bear both comment on the mussed cushions or other small indications that someone has been sitting, however briefly, in these well-used chairs. Can't you hear Baby Bear's incredulity when he ventures to mention that someone has broken his chair to pieces, right there on the floor! How did Mama and Papa not notice that first?

The same scene basically repeats itself upstairs. Despite the fact that it should be clear to both of the adults that they are dealing with some form of home invasion, they studiously avoid noticing the actual person sleeping in their child's bed, instead drawing attention to how their own blankets have been disturbed. How wrong is that?!

I'm sure that you can see the conclusion we must draw. Either these parents are self-centered to the point of total neglect for their child's safety and well-being, or the whole situation was purposefully staged. Recall that neither parent moves to question Goldilocks or stop her from departing. 

What kind of parents would pull a stunt like that? Apparently they hired Goldilocks to teach Baby Bear some sort of life lesson. Fear of strangers? Importance of locking doors and protecting personal property? Don't go on walks? I don't know what they told Baby Bear afterward, but I am disinclined to trust any moral derived from such a manipulative experience. 

Papa Bear's story is too contrived. Mama Bear's story is too worrying. Baby Bear's story is just not right.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016


The experience of getting a song stuck in your head is somehow universal. A casual association reminds you of the beat or the melody or the lyrics and before you can say "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" the song had taken up residence and you will be living with it for the next two or three eternities. The squatter in your brain can range from benign to maddening. Occasionally they will leave their own, but usually they have to be forcibly evicted by (per the usual method) trying to invite a more tenacious guest supplant them. The most disconcerting for me is when someone around me starts singing along, in sync with the song my head. Then I know that the invading troops have suborned my vocal cords and are launching a sotto vocce invasion of the world around me.

But the point is that it isn't only songs that get stuck on mental flypaper. While earworms are the most common, I've discovered that many people experience the equivalent with their own unique mental constructs. For one of my sisters, it is typing sequences on a keyboard. One of my friends has numbers follow him around. In my case it is words.

Words that get stuck and repeat themselves in my mind for hours or days at a time are necessarily interesting. (Or at least, I only ever notice one that is uncommon.) The ones that stay the longest are those whose meaning or usage have somehow escaped me. The less I know about the word, the more insistently it presents itself, as though it is confident that this time, there must surely be a way to apply it to the situation. In these cases looking up the definition is often enough to start the eviction process.

Anyway, here are some examples of my recent thought-guests. I will post more as they come up, with far less of an introduction.
  • Hirsute
  • Inveigle
  • Anodyne
  • Philately
EDIT: It looks like I've mentioned this in passing before.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Sick Odds

I like to play the Pandemic cooperative board game series (for which I just learned there is now a third expansion, along with the non-cooperative tie-in game where you play as diseases trying to wipe out mankind). Awhile ago received a present of the dice version, called Pandemic: The Cure, so on my birthday I got to choose a game to play, and that's what I picked. We'd only played it once before that, and I was surprised when we lost badly three times in a row. Only one of those times were we even close.

While our strategy was certainly suboptimal, the real culprit, I believe, was the number of players. Three seems to be perfect for most of the board game variants, with other numbers of players (both higher and lower) possible but tricky. For The Cure, though, I suspect more is always better. The game is listed as 2-5 players, but it seemed that three was too few. When we played the first time out of the box, we went ahead and used all seven characters since that was the number of people we had present, and the game was simple to beat. We will have to play some more and see if the number of players really makes that much of a difference, or if we just had a bad night of poor strategy. (The link above suggests that other people disagree and think 3-4 is probably best, and that the game can swing between simple and brutal on just a few dice rolls.)

The thing that stuck out to me, though, was the dice themselves. Each color (representing a different disease) has a different set of numbers on its faces. For example, black has three 3s, and one each of 0, 4, and 5. Compare that to blue, which has one each of 0, 1, 2, 3, and 4, plus two 6s. Since you roll the disease cubes individually to see where they end up, this ensures that the different colors show up preferentially on different continents (numbered 1-6, plus 0 for no effect). But since you also roll multiple dice of a given color together to try to "find a cure," it also impacts the odds of rolling the required sum (usually 13).

I was going to do the math to figure out the probabilities, but a quick web search reveals that other geeks have already done this. The upshot is that with 4 or more dice the colors behave nearly the same: all have a 45% chance of success with 4 dice, 5 dice takes you up to between 67% (red & blue), and 77% (black), and 6+ gets you into 90% territory. But if you are trying with only 3 dice, you'd better be using the scientist (who only needs a sum of 11) because she has about a 1 in 3 chance with all colors. Everybody else needs to pay attention to the color, because they are very different from each other. With three dice, your chances of success are: 23% (blue), 20% (red), 12% (yellow), and 7% (black).

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

In His Father's Footsteps

Jace likes to take off his shoes. I wasn't at all surprised this morning to see him shoeless and sockless in the back of the car only a few brief instants after I had put him there fully shod. The surprise came when I went to put a sock back on him and found it covered in gunk. Worse, I recognized that gunk. Sure enough, his left shoe had half a banana shoved up into the toe.  (I'm still not sure how there was room for his foot.)

I'm glad we found this errant banana faster than the last one. Nobody needs a repeat of that backpack business.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Shakespeare's Robots

I tend to only skim the Emory newsletters I receive in my inbox. As with most University publications they contain a mix of news releases about recent research and coverage of local events. When a newsletter arrives in my inbox, the subject line is a concatenation of the top three headlines, so it is not uncommon for me to parse them incorrectly. Today's was a winner, though. This is what I saw:

Shakespeare's Dictionary: 'Robot Scientist'

In actuality, that is two stories separated by a semicolon, not a single story punctuated as shown, but I have to say that my version sounds pretty exciting. The Shakespeare story is fairly interesting on its own merits, but don't read it expecting 16th century automata.