I got yer “suspicious package” right here, pal!

Boston Police, laughingstock of the nation for their response to the Mooninite Invasion, are now blowing up “suspicious” DOT-installed traffic counters chained to lamp posts in the financial district.This link has video, kids. Watch an innocent traffic counting device get blowed the fuck up!

Bag-o-BOOM!Brilliant! Now I know what to make my bomb packages look like! And even where I should put them!

Someone, somewhere has committed what we used to refer to as a “thinking accident”. Like the old Centipede’s Dilemma, which is when you make a centipede think about how it organizes its leg movements when it walks, it stops being able to walk……and here you have a mall security force that, due to trying to think about how to increase awareness of “suspicious packages”, has found a spectacular way to immunize the populace against responding to seriously overt threats. Way to go.

Seymour Hersh indicts the Bush Administration of spending money in Iraq to incite sectarian violence…

…including supporting groups known to be aligned with al-Qaeda against Shiite pro-Hezbollah groups.For those of you that aren’t forty years old and/or haven’t been paying attention, that’s an order of magnitude worse than Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal, where Reagan sold weapons to Iran for money to support the Contras in Nicaragua.

Robert Gates, current secretary of Defense, was Deputy Director of Central Intelligence back then (and Director during the First Gulf War under Bush, Sr.). There’s no way that sort of thing is going on this time, is there? Whaddya say, Rob? Are we supplying the weapons that are blowing up our own troops? Are we paying the people, directly or indirectly, who theoretically knocked down the WTC and smacked a hole in the Pentagon? All because we’re not happy with the new Shiite power structure that’s emerging in Iraq and Iran?

What a mess.


PS: Bonus image.

Fun fun fun!


February 28, 2007 · Posted in Everything Else  

…I’m having enough trouble getting XP drivers that are happy with my 2GHz Intel Centrino Core Duo. It’s a Dell notebook, for Chrissakes. Bluescreens from video drivers? Why did you sell it if it wasn’t ready? It’s been months and I’m fairly religious about updates and patches….

In any case, I haven’t heard many good things about Vista yet. The bad things I’ve heard include “it’s slower” and “some shit doesn’t work”. That’s bad, since I use a lot of stuff (i.e., “shit”) that might not be rewritten for Vista anytime soon.

Instead, I use:

So hey, $35US for Vista-like eye candy without the software crashes and slowdown? Extra usability, too? And, for you lucky goobs with extra monitors, all of the above supports multiple monitors.

Zoomy Flip3D goodness

Note the tabs across the top for the virtual screens

And since VMWARE server is now free also (Yes, I’ve enabled the virtualization stuff in BIOS), I can flip over to a virtual screen where a VNC session is open to my free CentOS 4.4 install (XFCE, why do you ask?), where I have access to my true hack-o-matic tools.

Zoomy Flip3D goodness

Yeah, sure, whatever. If I can’t smell my CPU sweating, it’s not working.


February 28, 2007 · Posted in reviews  
February 28, 2007 · Posted in Everything Else  

Some of you may have seen this. Some of you may not have seen this because of bandwidth issues.

Click here for huge image.

Things I learned from this:

To fundamentalist conservatives, the idea of Satan as a creator-god demiurge is preferable to a theory of “materialistic evolution”, as the toxic alkaloids produced by plants that have the survival-oriented effect of repelling insects quite obviously has a more intentional effect of providing evil hallucinatory experience for people who may nibble on them. At least Satan can be considered to be an Intelligence worthy of being blamed for some of the more obviously evil aspects of Intelligent Design. Like mescaline and psilocybin. And Albert Hoffman and Aldous Huxley, by extension.

How amazingly Catharist! Is that really a conservative viewpoint worthy of being espoused in the All-American, Christian-dominated Conservapedia?

Also, the conservative viewpoint seems to embrace whole-heartedly that destruction of our shared environment is A-OK, as dominion and stewardship include a God(? Satan?)-endorsed right to what amounts to criminal negligence. At least as far as poisonous cacti are concerned. Which may or may not have been created by Satan anyway, so who cares?

Also also, a “cursory glance” is a scientific tool that totally dominates, like, microscopes and shit. Because Intelligent Design, whether by God or Satan, never produces any puzzles that require you to look beneath the surface of what you see with a cursory glance. Like why the earth’s crust seems to be peppered with skeletons of giant lizards. And so on.

Also also also, the belief put forth by “the natives” of the Sonoran Desert that saguaro cacti might be reincarnations of deceased ancestors is preferable to “Darwinism” because, for some reason, reincarnation as plant matter has to involve an Intelligence directing the process. However, this Intelligence is doing a shitty job because the saguaros are slow-growing, slow to reproduce, and subject to pests—striking yet another blow for the conservative Christian-endorsed theory that the Creator is either evil or incompetent and is in the habit of stuffing souls He has no current use for into the interiors of saguaro cacti.

I just thought you should know these things too. Especially if you’re a conservative American Christian.


February 27, 2007 · Posted in Everything Else  

Talking Science“Talking Science”

A few of you have met me in person. Of those of you that have, raise your hand if I have failed to make your eyes glaze over even once discussing scientific topics.

You, with your hand up: Don’t worry. I’ll get around to you soon.


I used to watch MacGyver all the time with my mom, and one of the ways I would attempt to ruin her enjoyment of the show was by saying things like, “Hey! You can’t make an electromagnet out of uninsulated wire!” or “Nobody puts potassium permanganate in snakebite kits anymore because it makes a great impact fuse for homemade explosives!” or “Tilex and Windex sprayed into the air together do make a good smoke screen, but they also make a wonderfully toxic tear gas! Why is he just standing there in a cloud of chlorine?” Mom swears it didn’t much ruin her enjoyment of the show, but, you know, if mom was ever in a situation where she needed to get away from the bad guys, I didn’t want her electrocuting herself of gassing herself or fiddling around with useless snakebite kits—especially when public establishments are starting to leave defibrillators lying around all over the place. (The good ones check for a pulse first before they let you shock somebody, but it’s almost always worth a shot.)

Of those of you who have met me in person, you know that my pockets are perpetually full of bizarre crap. The reason is that quite frequently the solution to a quite mundane situation—one that doesn’t involve bad guys or death traps—is in one of the assorted sizes of paper clips (sometimes with a magnet stuck on it) or a length of elastic string or many of the other odds and ends and fiddly bits I keep my pockets full of. Strips of double-sided Velcro, spring clips, ball bearings, Canadian coinage, bubble liquid, light-up pigs that go oink, etc. This includes breaking into snack machines when I have no coins, leaving dollar bills in the coin box and taking the change I was due after helping myself.

Those of you who have met me in person know that I actually strap extra pockets to my body on a kind of harness, like a backpack with no main pack on it. When people mistake me for a photographer, I just nod and smile. If I indeed had a camera other than the 640×480 pixel cam in my cell phone, it would probably go in a pouch on the harness. These extra pockets merely contain the crap that can’t fit in my usual pockets, like sunglasses and cigarettes (and a meerschaum pipe with attendant pipe tools, which are a subset of MacGyver gear unto themselves) and folding multitools and writing implements and specialized pocket knives and USB memory keys and cell phones and mp3 players and headphones and extra batteries and binoculars and … you know. Stuff you would ordinarily keep in your pockets if it weren’t for all the bizarre, less useful crap.

If I just put it in a bag, I’d tip over. I’ve tried it. The harness gives the best weight distribution. Also, Batman has it all wrong. If you put all that crap on your belt, your pants fall down all the time, and when they’re up you can’t bend at the waist in any direction without stabbing yourself with something or other.

(I’ve modified my rig with snap-links so I can swap the pouches around and I’ve added an extra pouch across the back to keep the side pouches from flapping and dangling when I lean forward. I also don’t much take advantage of the wiring conduit for headphones and hands-free stuff, because, hey, Bluetooth. But should I need it….)

The answer to the question I always get about this thing: Yes, I’ve worn it through airports. After taking out all the lighters and sharp things. I just run it down the conveyor through the scanner and shrug it back on at the other side of the beepy gate—after the pat-down and having had The Wand inserted into every convenient orifice. I’ll set off the beepy gate bare-ass naked. No, I don’t know why, but I have a few suspicions.

I've been rejected by the New Yorker“I’ve been rejected by the New Yorker”

And the New York Times. And the Washington Post. And Glimmer Train. And Analog. And Asimov’s. And McSweeney’s. And Salon. And, in a kind of “maybe if we ignore him he’ll go away” kind of way, Nerve. And a bunch of other places. I’ve made it into print (paper and electronic) a handful of times with both fiction and nonfiction (and even poetry once or twice), published by people I hardly knew at all before I submitted stuff. Call it a dream come true.

For some reason there’s no OotSSoERaAAP badge for having published, like, peer-reviewed science in peer-reviewed journals, but being accepted or rejected by the New Yorker gets its own set of badges. Also, if you have a TV gig that doesn’t make you wear a lab coat all the time or if you’re a rock star.

Good thing for me I’m not wasting my time with those crappy science journals. If they’re not good for a badge, why should I bother?

I blog about science“I blog about science”

You’re soaking in it, Marge. Although this is actually blogging about blogging about science. Except that last sentence, which is about blogging about blogging about science, and this sentence, which is about to make people beat their heads on their keyboards.

Arts and Crafts“Arts and Crafts”

…because every set of badges has an Arts and Crafts badge. Writing is an art and a craft. Also, I do that origami thing, which is about as geekly an art (or craft, depending on whether you make paper sculptures or churn out paper models of animals, objects, or geometric shapes) as I can imagine. At the core it’s more math than science, or, if you’re trying to get the bugger to stand up and balance, it’s materials engineering and statics. But, you know, once we have the technology to fold spatial membranes to suit our purposes, it’ll take roughly thirty seconds for some wiseass to fold a spatial membrane into a swan. And another ten seconds for some other wiseass to say, “Any gradeschool kid could do that!”

I'm pretty confident around an open flame“I’m pretty confident around an open flame”

I’ve been on fire, um, several times. Silly thing to lose count of, especially when I’m sure it’s less than ten, probably more than five, but that’s the whole point, innit? It just never seems … important. I mean, some of the shit I’ve been up to, being on fire is the absolute logical result. Fire is just an exothermic, frequently luminous chemical reaction, and when you starve it of heat, or fuel, or oxygen (or whatever it’s using in place of oxygen), it gives up and goes away. So far I’ve always addressed it before I’ve lost anything valuable, and any hair involved has grown back. I just found a knot in one of my eyebrow hairs, so the most frequent victims seem to be doing fairly well.

Even around fire not of my own causing, I’ve never panicked. I was once part of a two-man team who perpetrated the most-reluctant-ever-and-yet-still-successful firefight, which is worth its own story. I’ve put out lab partners. And, quite literally, the cat. These stand out because it’s very important not to let them know they’re on fire so you don’t have to chase them down to do it. You don’t want the wind whooshing past fanning the flames, nor do you want them setting more fires throughout the building. Important considerations. For creatures who are not cats, you can usually get by with pointing and shouting, “Look! Baby wolf!” and then jumping them from behind.

Production of fire and removal of it when you’re done with it is a hallmark of, like, not being a caveman. It’s not the only one by any means, but still. I was severely disappointed at the first episode of Season 2 of Survivor when forty people in a desert, some of them wearing magnifying glasses on their faces, could not start a fire. Sometimes I feel I inadvertently trail fire behind me and I have to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand. It’s just not right. I can start a fire with a bar of chocolate and a can of Coke. And, I have recently discovered, with my wristwatch, if I’m not careful.

As superpowers rate, it’s fairly microscopic. But still a point of pride.

Inappropriate nocturnal use of lab equipment in the name of alternative science experimentation / communication“Inappropriate nocturnal use of lab equipment in the name of alternative science experimentation / communication”

This is a huge list. It starts with pretty much never not having been given the key to the chemistry supply cabinet for science classes, particularly when I was experimenting with oxidizable replacements for sulfur in classic recipes for black powder (note: confectioners sugar –> big thumbs up. Also, ground-up pencil lead isn’t a horrible substitute for charcoal, but not great either) and from there, access continues because you appear to have survived it last year….

Other notable hijacks involve the taking over of a GaTech Sun Sparc workstation to run a MUSH known as NanoMUSH in which I modeled emergent herd/horde behavior among identically (or nearly identically) coded individual creature-models, including a study of half-life and critical mass in said models. Otherwise referred to as the exploding rabid lemmings project. This happened about the same time as Psygnosis released the first Lemmings game, or shortly thereafter, so I know where the inspiration came from. NanoMUSH was also the development/launch point for my Simple Mail Transfer Penguins, and (not done by me, but by a roommate of mine) a working model of an AT&T telephone system.

It wouldn’t have been half as thrilling to have taken a class for which these things could have been approved as projects for a grade or some shit like that. And I’m sure I could have picked a more marketable OO language to have mastered, but there’s no fun in that either.

Destroyer of Quackery“Destroyer of Quackery”

One of the first articles I ever published for TwoHeadedCat was “Dr. Leon Kass, MD, PhD, is a Punk-Ass Bitch!”, in which I address the inappropriateness of a medical doctor who has trouble with the concept of autopsies being the Chair of GWB’s advisory council on bioethics. “MD” stands for “medical doctor”, and medicine is all about taking human misery out of the hands of God and putting it in our own. His emphasis on the dignity of death and aging shows beyond a doubt that he’s in favor of both, and meanwhile, his oath to alleviate human suffering seems to come into play, like, never. Practicing un-medicine is quackery at the highest level. All the built-in survival coding I have screams that it’s way more likely that any (postulated) God responsible for my design and creation wants me to fight against dying by any means necessary, and this includes wearing glasses when I drive and drinking alcohol until the urge to murder goes away, because if I kill someone, getting caught and jailed and possibly killed in return will negatively impact my quality of life.

That’s medical quackery. There are other kinds. In particular, arguments from any kind of scientist who supports unprovable convictions draws my ire. Arguments from the authority of previous generations instead of inspecting reasoning at every point makes my canines a little bit longer. Any scientist who back-figures to generate “science” to support what he or she believed before examining the issues in detail is already sporting a bill and tailfeathers and looking for webbed feet and waterproofing to follow.

And when they get a hold on our politicians? I can only pray that an unreadable website will save me from having to start the shooting.

If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s a fucking quack. Tar and feathers soon to follow.

I may look like a scientist but I'm actually also a ninja“I may look like a scientist but I’m actually also a ninja”

Appendix B of the Hacker’s Dictionary. It’s a scary thing. It’s a personality profile of the modern hacker-nerd-geek, and it’s chilling. People who have people of that sort in their daily circle of people with whom they must interact yet not throttle need to give it a close reading.

In any case, it’s a matter of course when you meet one of the hacker-nerd-geek crowd, you can skip asking whether he/she/whatever has studied a martial art and skip right to asking which one(s). The same with languages, and I’m not just talking programming languages.

Personally, I skipped the foreign languages requirement. I’ve studied linguistics and put a number of miles on playing with the reconstructed Indo-European stuff, but I’m not sure that counts. I’ve hyperfocused on English, but that’s not rare either in the genus.

The martial art I studied is hapkido. If you follow the link, note that the people in the pictures seem to be logging an awful lot of time in flight. I could possibly have earned a simultaneous pilot license with my belts—if there had been a subcategory for unpowered, non-gliding flight (i.e., “plummeting”). What the pictures don’t show are people writhing around in pain with arms and legs twisted at unnatural angles, which is odd, because that happened to me more often even than being aloft and plummeting. See, I was the exact height of the instructor. I was his favorite target for demonstrating techniques.

It was unknown to me at the time, but hapkido seems to be favored among CIA operatives and Special Forces soldiers. I have no intention of claiming to be similarly bad-assed, but to me “ninja” means footsoldier and the melee equivalent of cannon fodder whenever bad-asses show up, and I’m certain I can play that role. I could even make it look good before I died. But I’d be really good at assassinating unsuspecting peasants, and I’d have a reasonable chance at taking out the guards quietly. Also, I could supply my own smoke bombs.

Sexing up Science“Sexing up Science”

Anecdotes are weak here, but present. I took biology and life science classes and enjoyed them. I played with fruit flies and have hand-pollinated plants, which are the kinds of things that count toward this badge. There’s a separate badge for knowing how to collect semen from two or more species of creatures (not counting humans) and that’s one I haven’t earned, though I’m familiar with the theories involved. But I’m okay for inheritable traits and selective breeding and such, and I included those kinds of things on my simulated lemmings. (Tendency toward violence is sexually selected against, yet is a survival trait in frequently lethal lemming-on-lemming contests… Let the population run a few generations and see what happens. That kind of thing.)

You never got to see the lemmings mating. The internet was still growing back then, so I just assumed if that was what you wanted to see, you could download it from the relevant alt.binaries.* newsgroup and leave me out of it.

Though in real lemmings the risk of exploding at the point of orgasm—and triggering a chain reaction in the population—is practically nil. With or without duct tape.

My degree inadvertently makes me competent in fixing household appliances“My degree (or degree equivalent) inadvertently makes me competent in fixing household appliances”

Full disclosure: I did not complete my undergraduate degree. I changed majors a couple of times while I was studying at Georgia Tech, and it kind of sets you back when classes in your major field turn into electives. I got as many quarter hours as would have been necessary for graduation, but I never actually completed the requirements for any specific degree before my scholarships ran out and I had to find a way to support myself. I left on good standing.

Does that equate to a degree, though? Probably not. But what I did for a living after that (and to some extent, during) was work with computers in just about every way possible, and I’ve done so since 1986. Not counting taking a year or so off to concentrate on my writing.

The one appliance I can be trusted to take a screwdriver to is your PC. However, anything that comes in a metal box and responds okay sometimes to a gentle soldering is probably not outside the scope of my abilities. I can re-seat connections, swap out components, replace fuses, etc. I know which is the wrong side of a power supply to poke with a metal thingy. I know which funny smells mean bad, bad things and which you can ignore. I don’t like to take apart anything that runs on more than twelve volts, but, hey, if it was considered broken already before I touched it, what could it hurt? As long as it’s unplugged before surgery begins, anyway.

My actual classwork was in chemistry and psychology. Not many household appliances run on chemistry, and those that do should probably remain sealed. If you had a pigeon or rat you needed trained to press a lever under certain circumstances, I’d probably be okay with that. But there are very few appliances that are pigeon or rodent powered—and if there are, they should probably remain sealed, too. I’m doing okay training the dogs, but they’re probably not appliances either. Unless you consider them part of the security system.

I’ve trained the pugs not to rush the food bowl as soon as food is put in it. I’m proud of that. Anyone who knows pugs knows it’s usually futile to try to get between a pug and dinner. Or anything else they want to eat. It’s a start.

I can be a prick when it comes to science“I can be a prick when it comes to science”

When I’m not sure I’m right, I don’t argue like I think I’m absolutely right. I cut the people on the other side of the argument some slack. When I think I’m right, however, there will be no slack. Even if I’m dead wrong. If someone offers evidence that I’m wrong, however, I fold my hand gracefully and take my whuppin’. However. Even when I’m not sure at all I’m right, but when I’m dead sure the other guy is wrong, there is no mercy.

This certainly extends to science. Because whether or not something is provable as right or wrong, it’s fairly easy to tell whether it’s good science, and whether the situation described is consistent with known facts, with itself, and with the scope of rational thought. Science, as a body of laws and theories and such, it particularly plastic. You can’t get married to any of it. But science as a process, science as rigorous testing of hypotheses and verification under as many different circumstances as can be arranged—that’s concrete. If what you’re waving in my face and calling science isn’t a product of the scientific process, I will drag your ass out to the woodshed.

Intellectually, I am certain that even the process of science is subject to its own laws—i.e., as soon as something better comes along, we are forced to embrace it, whatever it is. But you will never convince me that “something better” can be a gut feeling, a private communication from some self-proclaimed authority, or some thousands-of-years-old text that is right because it says so.

Find me something that produces more accurate and more consistent results than the scientific process and I’ll buy it off you on the spot.

I left the respectable sciences to pursue humanistic studies of the sciences“I left the respectable sciences to pursue humanistic studies of the sciences”

It was a hard choice, but, not having the money to finish a degree and get employed in a lab that I could raid surreptitiously at night, I had to move to theory and theory about theory. The hard sciences—the ones that stink and shock and make loud popping noises and such—will always be my first love. But I was wooed away by the phenomenon of emergence, that feature or natural science where simple things band together and form unexpectedly complex phenomena. This happens at every juncture of the sciences, from quantum dynamics to subatomic physics, from subatomic particles to atomic structures, from single atoms to molecular chemistry, from chemistry to biochemistry, from biochemistry to biology, from biology to physiology, from physiology to psychology, from psychology to sociology, from sociology to … the next thing. And we all know there is a next thing, even if we don’t know what it is yet. There’s also the possibility that sociology is the wrong branch to follow, and we should be watching something else. Like there are other forms of chemistry than biochemistry that someone could choose to focus on to see where it should go. Carbon chemistry was the jumping off point on our planet, but who knows what it might be elsewhere? Religion and sociology and politics are all emergent from individual and small-group/tribal psychology, but which is the one that bears watching? Could it be more than one? Or something else entirely?

Maybe you get the idea, maybe you don’t. In any case, that’s one of the reasons I write. I write about things I know about, but I write pointed in the direction of the unknown. Various and sundry genres of speculative fiction, speculation and surrealist sketches … this is why I write what I write. That’s the direction I’m permanently facing. I want to see it coming.

Will gladly kick sexual harasser's ass“Will gladly kick sexual harasser’s ass”

I’m quite aware that’s not an ass being kicked on the badge, but it gets the point across.

I think under most circumstances gender is completely irrelevant. If we aren’t discussing physiological processes that are distinct to XX or XY configurations of genetic material or contemplating having sex and trying to work out the plumbing involved, I don’t want to hear about it. If I catch you saying something that reveals you to be the sexist pig you are, I will let you know I’m onto you.

I don’t care who (or what) you have sex with as long as the other party/parties is/are willing. Not my business. You can have whatever opinions you like, but I’d better not catch you enforcing your prejudice toward or against some gender’s abilities or judgment or emotional stability or any other feature that denies some individual the shadow of the doubt that he/she/they/it can perform at any level they care to achieve. Gender isn’t the only prejudice I’ll take to task, but it’s certainly a hot button of mine. Race, physiological configuration, sexual orientation, background, creed, religion, wealth, IQ, whatever…none of these things determine any person’s worth as a human being. If you want to know if someone can do something, you let them attempt it and then judge. End of story.

And if I catch you using your position or trust and/or authority to pursue any kind of gratification at the expense of someone else, particularly in any way that shows a lack of respect for them as a human being, you’ll be lucky if all you get from me is a bootheel to the groin. If you’re a friend you might get a warning first, but if you’re the sort of person who would do that, odds are you’re not my friend and I won’t have to worry about hurting your feelings when I taser your gonads.

Has frozen stuff just to see what happens I“Has frozen stuff just to see what happens I”

First thing I ever froze was a mood ring I slipped away from my oldest sister when she wasn’t looking. It was a 1970s model, so it wasn’t very durable. This sort of single-layer version would just go directly to dark blue on my hand and stay there, so I would do what I could to enjoy the changing colors in an unairconditioned house in Georgia in the summer. Those old-school LCD thingies tended not to recover too well from a long stint in the freezer.

Anything that was ever remotely associated with being a thermometer would visit the freezer at least for a little while. As well as liquids that could be expected to change viscosity. I remember a jar of honey I put in the freezer for a day and then turned it over to see if it would ever flow down toward the lid, even given a week or two. I never figured out how it would end because someone invariably needed the honey for something before the experimental period was over. Usually whoever needed liquid honey would be somewhat less than amused.

I was also fond of psychological experiments that involved putting stuff in the freezer. Like, say, taking a latex glove, filling it to normal hand-shape with hot water (less air in it to form bubbles), tying it off, freezing it solid, cutting the glove off, and then leaving it in the icemaker in the fridge at work to shake hands with the next person who needed ice for their soda.

Sure, the science of that is pretty weak and juvenile and didn’t necessarily need repeating in order to confirm the basic facts: Water takes the shape of its container, water gets hard when it gets cold, coworkers scream their fool heads off when they find an inexplicable frozen hand in the icemaker. But it was always good for a laugh.

Has frozen stuff just to see what happens II“Has frozen stuff just to see what happens II”

“Has frozen stuff just to see what happens I” was ordinary freezer temperatures. Badge level II in this series involves dry ice (solidified CO2). When I was in college, this was another thing you had to smuggle out of the chemistry lab, but no one ever had any need to work to hard at it because it was available in serious quantity. Like acetone, which was used to wash everything in organics labs. (I don’t know a single O-Chem student who ever had to buy fingernail polish remover. For that matter, I don’t know a single O-Chem student who managed to have a decent nail job survive a six-hour lab.) In any case, there was never any reason to be stingy with the dry ice. Typically if you had a reaction that needed dry ice to slow it down to a manageable speed, no one in a five-block radius ever wanted you to run out of dry ice. Strangers, if they knew you were running low, would run up and hand you buckets of dry ice that they stole from the local Emergency Room.

For instance, if you’re making nitroglycerin and the procedure doesn’t involve a dry ice bath for your reagents to mix in, you are in serious danger of doing some unlicensed plummeting. Not that you’ll be conscious for that. Or alive.

I never made nitroglycerin. There are limits. But I was an occasional supplier for people who needed dry ice to provide that calf-high fog that meant your party included someone with access to the chemistry supply room. Many parties needed a fog around floor level to disguise the fact that no one had bothered to sweep, vacuum, or collect all the stray socks that might litter the floor in the party area, and the fog also neatly hid any other party-oriented debris that occurred as the night continued, like spilled drinks or plates, prone drunk people (alone or in pairs or small groups), inconvenient piles of vomit, discarded clothing, and small household pests/pets. Dry ice fog was a panacea for poor housekeeping.

A GA Tech classmate of mine smuggled some dry ice to drop in a pitcher of iced tea at a local pizza joint. He called our waitress over and said, “Miss, I think there’s something wrong with our tea?” pointing to the pitcher with fog pouring out of the top of it. She wasted no time hauling his ass out of his chair by his shirt-front and remarking at quite close range, “I go to school the same place you do, asshole!” Saved me the trouble of tasering his gonads.

But, of course, while we had the dry ice, there was nothing that wouldn’t get hard-frozen. A lot of foods are easier to cut into very thin slices if they are frozen in dry ice, although you may end up needing to upgrade your cutlery. Jello shots set much, much faster in a dry ice bath. A dry ice pellet would cool a drink very quickly without watering down the flavor. And since alcohol has a lower freezing point than water, you can set your home-brew in a dry ice bath and keep hauling the ice out as it forms and what you have left will be much, much more potent. Once you are familiar with the principles involved, the culinary applications are unlimited.

Now you can buy dry ice at many supermarkets. Takes much of the fun out of it, it being so easy to put your hands on. Although you really shouldn’t put your hands on it literally, because you’ll lose skin you were fond of. And keep it out of your mouth. Seriously.

Has frozen stuff just to see what happens III“Has frozen stuff just to see what happens III”

Level III of this badge involves liquid nitrogen, which is scary cold. It’s still not as dangerous as nitroglycerin, but the volume change from liquid to gaseous at room temperature is about a factor of 2000, so realize if you trap any liquid nitrogen in a bottle or a jar and walk away from it, you’ve created a bomb. One that leaves no traces, but a bomb nonetheless. Um. Try not to put that knowledge to use. And if you do, please fail to mention where you heard it.

I didn’t have nearly as much access to liquid nitrogen as I did to dry ice. My O-Chem professor was fond of flinging it around, however, and once after doing so he accidentally broke a test paper he hadn’t handed back to me yet. He had to spend a little time taping the pieces back together so I could figure out why I only made a 73.

I remember a few of us decided to figure out a new set of Mohs hardness scale values for things dipped in liquid nitrogen. It wasn’t very scientific since we weren’t really able to maintain the temperature of the items we were trying to scratch glass with. We were just looking for ballpark values, regardless. Or maybe we were just trying to find a unique way to graffiti glass. I don’t remember much of this scenario, as really, really cold beer was also involved (frozen beer: not hard enough to scratch glass) but I do recall that chalk soaked in liquid nitrogen seriously misbehaves. We got distracted by that and, to my knowledge, never finished the test sequence.

I do know that we used liquid nitrogen in a few different ways to try to attempt the proverbially impossible feat of nailing jelly to a wall. Jelly shatters pretty easily once frozen in liquid nitrogen, so you have to pre-drill your holes, but it’s a good temporary solution. And watching a disc of smoking jelly thawing on a wall (that doesn’t belong to you) is an acceptable pastime if you’re bored enough. Also, you can cast your jelly into the form of a good sturdy nail, freeze it solid, and hammer it right into sheet rock. It’s not so good for cinderblock walls. When the jelly-nail shatters, the edges are sharp enough to cut. But if you cast your nails out of jelly, cast a disc out of jelly, freeze them solid with liquid nitrogen, pre-drill your hole in the disc…you can nail jelly to a gypsum board wall with jelly nails, which ought to be good enough for extra points. Wood, other than plywood, works okay too, if it’s a softer wood or you’re some combination of gentle and quick. But in any case it should be someone else’s wall. Very important, that last part.

I suppose you could probably herd housecats by dipping them in liquid nitrogen first, too. Never tried it.

Dodger of Monkey Shit“Dodger of Monkey Shit”

More than one of my psychology classes involved visiting zoos and primate centers and a primate language lab to hang out for a while with primates and their handlers and the researchers who ran the places. I have to say that the larger apes at Zoo Atlanta were very well behaved and took our presence politely, as a matter of course.

The spider monkeys and rhesus monkeys at the Yerkes Primate Lab on Emory campus were a little less well behaved, but considering what was being done to them there, we all just considered them as making the necessary effort to get their own back for various and sundry indignities and no one took it badly. Lab coats and smocks there are selected for their launderability and resistance to stains, and even their loaners were pristine. See, just about every behavioral science procedure that involves animals and primates other than college sophomores starts with the instruction, “Starve the animal to 90% of its free-feeding weight” so that its ability to be motivated by food is somewhat standardized. Monkeys who think perhaps you have just forgotten to feed them today will try all manner of different ways to get your attention, frequently settling on pelting you with “renewable resources”.

GSU’s Language Research Center was populated by chimps and bonobos. The bonobos were fairly calm and friendly and remained mostly intent on punching oversized buttons on their modified Commodore VIC-20s, and the few chimps interior to the building were also quite charming. But what few people realize is that the chimps you used to see on television and in old Ronald Reagan movies are basically toddlers and children. Adult chimpanzees are hulking brutes that, while smaller than gorillas, can still bench-press Buicks and are totally caught up in adult chimpanzee politics, which involve things like pummeling the crap out of one another to see who will be king of the tribe and banding together to drive off perceived threats to territorial food supplies, e.g., visiting psychology students.

As an aside, I’m sure that none of the adult chimpanzees had any real history of having to fight off invading college students in order to protect their catered fruit trays. They were just being assholes, comfortable in the knowledge that they were behind a fence and we weren’t allowed to fight back. Not that it wouldn’t have all gone their way if we had decided to fight back in any serious way, but you know what I’m saying. Any primate behind a transparent yet impenetrable barrier will be tempted to act the same way, as you can see in the cars near you on the road.

I’ve never had a fellow motorist fling shit at me, but I have recognized a few of the facial expressions from my trips to the LRC.

I will crush you with my math prowess“I will crush you with my math prowess”

I got a slow start on my math in grade school. I led the pack with no trouble through my elementary school years, but after I moved out to the sticks where the human population was somewhat less dense than that of neighboring herds of deer, the choices for curricula were … deprived. Calculus wasn’t taught in my high school, for example, because there wasn’t a teacher there qualified to teach it. The best teachers we had eventually learned to watch my face for a subtle nod or head-shake to let them know whether what they just wrote on the board was bogus. But there’s no prestige to being a twelfth-grade master of mere trigonometry. I was stuck. I got a little extra help from a summer program I attended for hopeless academic overachievers, but that just gave me a taste.

When I made it to GA Tech, I was pretty near the bottom of the pack. Calculus wasn’t a completely foreign concept, but I certainly had no practice and very little background. Frequently I needed to take a physics course for which the Calc class I was attempting was a prerequisite before the intuitive grasp of what was going on would settle in, and thus it took me eight quarters to get satisfactory grades in five quarters’ worth of Calculus.

Wait a minute, you might ask. Why would a Chemistry or Psych major need five fucking quarters of Calculus? Well, I’m glad you asked. We didn’t need it. We just had to take it so that students who couldn’t handle the math required for their engineering degree wouldn’t come pouring into Chem or Psych programs because they couldn’t hack it elsewhere and still wanted a prestigious GA Tech diploma. I’m not kidding. So my Psych degree requirements included five quarters of calculus, a quarter of Testing (basically hardcore statistical analysis), a separate statistics and combinatorics class … and they leaned on you to take at least one quarter of Symbolic Logic from the philosophy department, even though it was as much math as any other math class I took there. And I took both quarters of Symbolic Logic. I have as many math credits as I have credits in any of the subjects that were my majors. And I ended up taking the physics courses that were requirements for physics majors because those were the only classes that would teach me the calculus I needed in order to pass the Calc classes. Leaving me with enough physics elective credits to equal the number of math credits.

I have found, however, that there are limits to the amount of math I can keep in my head. I can do simultaneous multivariate analysis of variance and partial derivatives and partial integrals of obscenely complex multidimensional topologies, but I forget my multiplication tables and can’t balance my checkbook without a spreadsheet. But with a calculator nearby so I can keep track of what 7 x 8 is and what happens to the signs, I can hold my own. All things considered, though, I consider myself a math ninja, not a math bad-ass. See a previous post in this series for the distinction.

I did use my math skills to draw pretty pictures with a computer, though. I loved the discrete maths and fractals and stuff. I was good enough to determine on my own that the three(+)-dimensional version of the beautiful (and now trite) Mandelbrot Set looks like something the cat hacked up on the rug, but any two(+)-dimensional slice is still quite pretty.

Inordinately fond of invertebrates“Inordinately fond of invertebrates”

Does this really need explaining? Cuttlefish are cute and cuddly.

But also, invertebrates feature prominently at the cusps of that “emergence” phenomenon I mentioned in a previous post. For example, individual and ordinarily self-sufficient amoebas will, in times of drought and famine, band together into slime molds, which is a whole different kind of animal. It has differentiated tissues and organs and such, including forming fruiting bodies for reproduction. Every component amoeba gets a different job to do for the duration. And as soon as the crisis is over they all shake hands, pat each other on the back, and go their separate ways. If you ask me, that’s how government is supposed to work—help distribute resources effectively for the duration of the necessity of an economy, and then get the hell out of the way when it’s over. And this is the whole Republican conundrum. The wealthy see no need at all for government interference because they are effectively outside of the economy. They have no needs they can’t immediately fulfill and very few desires they can’t satisfy at whim. Independent amoebas. Poorer segments of society? Starving slime molds working in cooperation to keep from starving. One’s opinion of government tends to be based entirely on what one needs out of it and one’s ability to empathize with the other “half”.

I find other colonial creatures fascinating, too. Salps and jellyfish and corals and sponges and such are differing grades of cooperative societies, each with differing strengths and weaknesses. Molluscs and worms and such are just on the “permanent settlement” side of the equation, each having made their separate solutions to the problem of having banded together, and each seeming to have had different reasons for having done so in the first place.

Human society doesn’t seem to have advanced any further than the amoeba/slime mold stage, but I can see forces trying to push it farther, and it makes me wonder.

Also, a few of the cephalopods are alarmingly bright and tremendous problem-solvers. I’d really like to be here in a few dozen million years to see what they turn into.

On the arthropod/insect side of the invertebrate tree, we get to see social insect societies, each with their own quirks and solutions to equations about how to handle economies and task specialization. Here we have a branch that’s more similar on the surface to multicelled creatures (like ourselves) banding together without forming, like, some kind of Voltron Super Bee. It’s another solution, but it’s hard to see whether that has any significant benefit over the close-contact/amoeboid/slime mold approach to handling scarcity. Maybe once you’re locked into a multicellular structure, your ability to further band together physically is limited. Maybe it’s limited to the strengths of the physical materials the component creatures are made of. The upcoming scenarios of zero-gravity and digital life will have a tremendous impact in the short term.

In any case, the questions raised by these lines of thinking probably won’t be answered during an ordinary human lifetime, and that sucks. In the meanwhile I’ll just have to look for analogies in the biosciences and do what speculation I can.

Pharma Shill“Pharma Shill”

This just means that I believe in Westernized medicine. Doesn’t mean I don’t believe that the system is completely fucked up and occasionally oriented in completely the wrong direction. For instance, you only pay a doctor when you are sick. This means, necessarily, that it is in your doctor’s best interest to keep you just sick enough to linger on forever, needing constant attention for the duration, rather than to make you healthy enough that you don’t need to see him/her/it/whatever. Also, this encourages other attendant facilities, test and scan companies, drug companies, etc., to follow suit, because it would suck if you ever stopped giving them money. Also, it would be better for them, financially, to treat each individual symptom with a different pill and in no way help you make a lifestyle change that would preclude any need for medicine entirely.

Yeah. And that’s without even touching the medical insurance and HMO chaos, which is the humongous tumorous leech that has no purpose except to feed off the system and get larger and larger until it explodes.

Anyway, this doesn’t mean that medicine, in and of itself, isn’t good for you. If you are sick, see a doctor. Keep looking around until you find one for whom their Hippocratic oath means more than sucking a hundred dollars per visit out of your insurance company and maintaining a decent financial relationship with the people who do his bloodwork and urinalysis. Take your over-the-counter medicine when you can no longer function at an acceptable level from the pain and the snot and not before, and remember that ordinary soap is a lovely topical antibiotic/antiviral during cold and flu season.

If you have found a competent doctor that you trust to not just use you for a crowbar to pry money out of your insurance company, you are an idiot if you do not follow the advice they give you and take the medicine they prescribe in the manner in which it is prescribed to you. If you are at all responsible for the wellbeing of other human beings, then it is in your best interest to operate at your fullest capacity so that you can be more generous of yourself with others.

Also, you are an idiot if you do not realize that no regimen of pills will save you from early death if you get no exercise and eat like an unsupervised five-year-old. You have a responsibility to stay active so you will not end up like one of those scary zombies at the assisted living cemeteries shuffling around behind a walker with rattling pockets full of pills that no one has any idea what they do.

I’m sure Craigslist is full of abandoned exercise equipment that’s looking for a good home. It’s no substitute for a walk in fresh air, but it’s something. And when in a month or two your metabolism is up to the point where a flight of stairs doesn’t make you breathe hard, then maybe you’ll start taking the stairs instead of the elevator and not freak out when one of your friends suggests a light hike to go see a waterfall. And then afterward you can pass on the old elliptical bike-thingy to some other slob who needs saving.

As far as psychiatric medicine is concerned: same rules apply. If your life is so miserable that you can’t stand it, if your life is so miserable that you are making other people miserable, go see a fucking doctor and keep an open mind about medicine. Modern psychiatric medicine is better targeted that the old dope and has fewer side effects as long as you stick with the absolute minimum dose it takes to make you functional again. And when you’re better, set the shit aside, get some fucking exercise (because that has a significant uniformly beneficial psychological impact, too), and get back to living.

I know what a tadpole is“I know what a tadpole is”

Okay, this badge has no other purpose than to console those who don’t get to have one of the “sperm” patches for knowing how to extract semen from at least two species other than humans.

I do, indeed, know what a tadpole is. I’ve seen them up close and have monitored their transformations into frogs and toads. I have even played with the monstrous ones that turn into bullfrogs, of which only one or two will fit in a baby food jar.

So there.

Experienced with electrical shock I“Experienced with electrical shock I”

This entails experience with electrocuting lesser creatures. Level II involves electrocuting other humans, and level III involves being electrocuted oneself. I earned these badges in reverse order.

I was never one for torturing small animals with high voltage, so it took me a while to get around to this. Not counting shuffling around on the carpet, sneaking up behind whatever furry housepet we had at the time, and shocking the living daylights out of them with a static charge. I hardly ever had to do it intentionally as it happened accidentally enough to be sufficiently amusing. During the dry, wintry seasons, I generate enough static voltage to possibly endanger life. I’m not alone in this. If it’s still blustery where you live, yet not quite blustery enough that people have to wear gloves all the time to get from their cars to nearby buildings, just look around for fingerprints in the middle of driver’s side windows. These belong to the people who close their car doors by pushing as firmly as they dare on the window glass, because that’s the only way they can avoid being shocked through their shoes or clothing or however else they’ve attempted to avoid electrical death in the past. There is nothing, let me tell you, nothing that compares with being shocked through a fingernail or toenail because you thought you were being clever about how to push a car door closed.

Anyway, when I was in my college Macrobiology course, we have to take apart frogs that were, for some definition of living, still living. We were measuring the effects of atropine and epinephrine on heart rate, and apparently the best way to do this is to remove the still-beating heart from a pithed frog, drop it on a little watch glass, and stare at it while it speeds up and slows down, depending on what you’ve just done to it. Little chilled pithed froggy hearts are apparently good for more than half an hour without having a frog attached.

Our lab gear came with a defibrillator, which is to say, a green metal box about half the size of a shoebox that had a couple of dials on it and a pair of probes like those on a multimeter. The lab TA remarked that he never knew why it was supplied because no one had been able to use it effectively and consistently enough to prevent people from having to go back for second or third frogs in the instances when they used too much atropine.

And then there was the fact that the labels somehow had gotten switched on the atropine and epinephrine bottles. So that when people were trying to keep their little drugged froggy hearts beating when they started to stutter and fail, they’d add the chemical guaranteed to stop it completely.

I was the one to discover that the bottles were mislabeled, but not everyone bought my story. In any case, I had no trouble setting the dials to the values the lab materials specified, and the defibrillator was simply moved to my own desk because I could make it work consistently, shocking the widdle hearts into another ten or fifteen minutes of pointless labor with a gentle caress from the probes. It was no time at all before I had a queue at my desk of squeamish students holding their little grisly watch glasses as delicately and nonchalantly as possible while waiting for me to take a break from writing down my numbers. As I restarted the hearts, I reminded people that the bottles were mislabeled and sent them off. When people came through a second time, I charged them a quarter. The third time cost fifty cents, and the fourth and subsequent times were a dollar per visit.

I got the only A on the lab and I made more than $18. I don’t know how many pithed and refrigerated frogs I saved from further indignity, but I doubt they cared, being, well, pithed and refrigerated.

Experienced with electrical shock II“Experienced with electrical shock II”

My most spectacular time of electrocuting another human being was when I was twelve or so. This was back during the era of when I was attending the church of my parents’ choice three or more times a week, and I was in the youth choir. The sanctuary of the church had a baby grand piano and brand new carpeting from a recent renovation, and I had a new-ish pair of leather boots.

We were still in the warming-up stage. The pianist was playing scales and such, nothing too serious or organized, and I was doing shuffling laps around the largish sanctuary. I was on my eighth or ninth lap. Don was leaning into the piano and irritating the pianist by putting his hands on the large, copper-wound strings on the bass side in the piano. I shuffled around a couple more laps. I had carpet lint sticking to my legs all the way up to the knee, like a bee gathering pollen. Don had his left hand firmly on the strings, dampening their sound, and had his back to me. I leaned over to touch his shoulder….

I didn’t get within four inches of touching him. The flash was like a high-end camera’s xenon bulb, and the pop was drowned out only by the powerful strumming Don gave the bass piano strings as he yanked his hand away. He may or may not have also hit his head on the propped-up cover of the piano, but I doubt he knows for sure either.

My right arm went numb to the shoulder. All the carpet pollen had leaped off of my legs, leaving visible circular piles around my feet. Don danced around in bizarre little spirals trying to split his time between holding his hand and holding his shoulder, and then tipped over sideways onto the pulpit to catch his breath. We all laughed and laughed and laughed—until we noticed that Don’s left handprint was permanently burned into the copper windings of the bass strings in the piano. Apparently electrified sweat is particularly corrosive to copper.

That piano kept the handprint on the strings for the remainder of the time I attended the church. Somewhere my parents have a pictorial membership directory that has pictures in it of the piano in which the handprint is visible. If the piano is still in use and hasn’t been restrung, I’m sure the handprint is still there.

I’ve also owned a cattle-prod (last known to be used at a baby shower to which an artificial leg of my acquaintance received a separate invitation) and a couple of pocket-sized stock-prod-type taser-thingies, a few home-built devices from earlier in my childhood that I used on close relatives, and, more mundanely, have been trained in the use of defibrillators as a part of a CPR course.

Experienced with electrical shock III“Experienced with electrical shock III”


I’m leaving out any reiteration of my problems with static electricity. And I’m not spending too much time on forgetting to flip switches before changing lightbulbs or mishaps with plugging in or unplugging household equipment.

See, I first met 220-volt household current when I was three years old. Apparently, without my father’s knowledge, I was “helping” him install a clothes dryer. After I regained consciousness, Dad continued to encourage me to electrocute myself at any available opportunity by leaving screwdrivers where I could get them, and, later, providing me with electric train sets and kits with all kinds of components on them, complete with insulated wires and spring connectors so that, with an ordinary nine-volt battery, you could make a crystal radio, all manner of oscillating circuits, weird blinky light thingies, complicated switches and tone generators, and little wire probes that carried upwards of 50,000 volts. I applied these to myself until I no longer noticed any discomfort, and I applied these to my sisters and nieces and nephews and cousins until they learned to avoid me whenever they heard the whine of a capacitor charging or smelled that faint whiff of ozone…. But we were talking about me, here.

None of this electrocution of household pets, friends, and close relatives had anything to do with any kind of divine retribution behind the subsequent lightning strikes of my middle-teen years. I swear. But I do know exactly where to stand during a brewing storm in West Central Georgia to maximize your chances of at least a glancing blow—and that’s on top of clay-bound iron deposit under a forty-foot pine tree at the edge of a pond near my parents’ property. In fact, you can get a similar treatment from simply sitting in the living room at my parents’ house minding your own business and talking with a friend on the phone. From this I learned that if it wants you, it will come and get you no matter where you might be hiding.

Anyway, since 1984 I’ve had nothing but nyaah-nyaahs and near misses, except maybe for the strike that hit my house a couple of years ago (or maybe landed in my backyard) that EMPed my house’s ethernet network, burning out every switch, router, and ethernet card in the house. I wasn’t in the house at the time, so if you were aiming for me, God, you should phone ahead next time and make sure I’m home.

Totally digs highly exothermic reactions“Totally digs highly exothermic reactions”

Otherwise known as the “my high school science fair project was visible from orbit” badge. Although I had science department endorsement and, supposedly, oversight and supervision, it wasn’t for a science fair, and, as far as publicity and press coverage was concerned, we were directed to feign ignorance if anyone official-looking came asking.

I’m getting weary of posting bomb recipes. Suffice it to say that it’s no serious challenge to collect six pounds of powdered red iron rust, two pounds of powdered aluminum, enough hand lotion to act as a binder when it’s all mixed up, and a strip of magnesium to use as a fuse. The challenge was finding enough rocks and dirt to fill in the really, really, no, seriously, really, tremendously deep hole in the ground afterward. And more to add on top every time it rained.

To the best of my memory, the sacks of marshmallows and the straightened wire clothes-hangers went unused.

Somewhat confused as to what scientific field I actually belong to“Somewhat confused as to what scientific field I actually belong to”

Seeing as I don’t actually do scientific research these days, I’m pretty firmly in the field of amateur pop-sci evangelism. But as far as which segment of science is my specialty…I have no idea. I like all of it and I make the effort to understand everything I read well enough to explain it to someone else who doesn’t have my background. Cosmology, quantum stuff, physics, chemistry, biochem, biology, ecology, physiology, psychology, sociology, etc. I’ve no claim to have mastered any of it, but it there’s any part I can’t hold a conversation in, I’ve failed.

I mentioned earlier that I’m most interested in the transitions from one field to the next more complex area of study, something referred to as “emergence”. I have no idea whether the study of emergent phenomena is its own field yet, i.e., you can get a degree from an accredited university in it. If that turns out to be the case, then I seriously, seriously want to go back to school like right fucking now. Maybe double-major in that and journalism/fine-arts writing.

Seriously. If you know of any programs I should apply to, let me know.

I'm into telescopes astro I“I’m into telescopes astro I”

You can’t be a serious multidisciplinarian without being able to look up and know what it is you’re looking at. I’ve put my eye to the eyepiece of a couple of not-exactly-man-portable scopes and tremendously enjoyed being taught about what I’ve seen, but most modern, important astronomy isn’t done in the visible spectrum. There are four levels to this badge, and they require use of a professional scope at an observatory, time spent on a space-based scope, and being such a telescope fiend that you begin to look like a telescope in the eyes of your friends and family members.

I’m happy keeping myself at level I here. I need to know what’s up there, but if I’m getting time on one of the big scopes, I’m in the way of someone else who much more deserves and needs the time.

I might qualify for level II for having donated a significant quantity of processor time to the Seti @ Home project, which analyzes signals from a radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. But I didn’t schedule that time and I’m not publishing anything about observations that have been made or conclusions drawn from the data that’s already been analyzed. Maybe later. If so, maybe I’ll claim the badge then.

Statistical linear regression“Statistical linear regression”

You have some data points that relate two variables. Like, maybe, environmental temperature and how quickly a chemical reaction goes to completion. Or altitude of hemline and the length of time someone stares at the subject wearing the skirt. Anything. What you do is, you vary the one (adjust the thermostat, re-hem the skirt) and take measurements of the other (get out your stopwatch), and you collect measurements. Plot the points on graph paper. Does it look like there might be a linear relation of some kind? A straight line? A parabola? Some sort of logarithmic curve?

Make a guess of what kind of curve to try. Do some math using all the data you’ve collected. When it’s over, you’ll have an idealized line that hopefully runs near all the points you plotted and a value that tells you how well the resulting line fits the data.

That math is “statistical linear regression” and takes maybe a weekend to learn, or less if you buy the right kind of calculator (which may take more than a weekend to learn how to use). But when you’re done, you can go get your damn badge.

I've set fire to stuff I“I’ve set fire to stuff I”

More multi-level badges that it’s probably obvious by now that I’d wear. Level I is, basically, I’ve burned things. To see what would happen. Will it melt? Will it continue burning in the absence of holding a match to it? Will the smell of it burning empty a room? Will the sheriff drive by, lean out his car window, and ask me if I know anything about that fireball people called him about, and, incidentally, am I actually old enough to be smoking?

Yeah, I’ve set a few things on fire.

By the way, an old can of Aquanet®—one of the old ones with the crimped seam around the bottom—well, even when that can is pretty much empty, that seam can pop free and rocket the can to somewhere around a hundred feet up, and, incidentally, consume enough oxygen to completely put out your pathetic little campfire, and, incidentally, scatter a large quantity of hot cinders. And, yeah, there might be a fireball at the top of the arc.

I've set fire to stuff II“I’ve set fire to stuff II”

Level II: has set fire to stuff with full knowledge of the principles of combustion involved.

These principles are previously noted somewhere: heat, fuel, oxidizer. Apply the first to the second in an environment of the third. Seems pretty straightforward. The evidence is the ability to stop and restart the fire by judicious removal and restoration of each of the elements in turn. Throwing water on a fire removes heat by using the heat in the system to heat the water and turn it into steam (unless the fire is hot enough to break apart the hydrogen and oxygen and use the latter for further oxidation). Removing fuel is usually just turning a valve somewhere, if you’re lucky, and removing the oxidizing agent is frequently as simple as smothering the fire with sand or using a snuffer, or further afield, by stomping on it vigorously in hopes you can put it out before the smoke draws the attention of people with trucks and badges who might have had better things to do with their evenings.

The difference between level I and level II is whether you have a bucket of water and/or a bucket of sand on hand and have some idea of why you should.

I've set fire to stuff III“I’ve set fire to stuff III”

…with full knowledge of all thermodynamic principles involved.

If you know how much of which ingredients you have on hand and have some idea of the purities, etc, you can actually do a small amount of math beforehand and get a ballpark idea of how much energy is going to be released, what volume of gas will be produced, to what volume said volume of gas is going to try to expand to given the energy in it, etc.. This is a really good idea if you want to put that energy to some predictable use rather than just make a bang or a whoosh or set fire to the scenery and the occasional pet or bystander. This is also a good idea if you want to be able to reuse some of your materials. Well, not the flammables, of course, but the containers. This is otherwise known as “how much powder do you think we need to use in order to put this tennis ball into low-earth orbit without destroying our pipe?” Quite frequently the answer is … “um, we need a stronger pipe. And more powder. And a way to ignite it all at once. And a sturdier and less flammable ball than a tennis ball—preferably one that doesn’t have a hollow cavity filled with air that’s being heated.” Which is why potatoes are better. They’re too damp to ignite and you can cut them to fit.

They’ll still explode if you heat the water in them to the boiling point all at once. (Or from the inside out, which is what happens when you blow one up in a microwave.)

Experimental determination/confirmation of some of these values, in a laboratory environment, uses something called a calorimeter. It’s a bucket with a thermometer stuck in it. There are variant to these devices referred to as bomb calorimeters, and they’re for measuring the energy release of quick and vigorous chemical reactions. And there’s a reason their first name is “bomb”. And that reason is the same reason that building with labs in them that are authorized for the use of bomb calorimeters are typically on the top floor, and that’s to minimize the cost of reconstructing portions of your building when one lives up to its name. Bomb calorimeters have maximum ratings for the amount of energy they can be expected to contain without living up to their name, but sometimes that math is very hard to do in advance. Or you measure something wrong. Or there’s an unexpected contaminant.

I remember at least two, maybe three incidents during my years at GA Tech. None involved fatalities, but at least two people I knew of earned this badge from bomb calorimeter incidents. The closest I came to ever earning that badge was a quick trip to the restroom to get out of my clothes and rinse them in the sink.

Works with Acid“Works with Acid”

On the surface this seems like a fairly lame badge, almost as easy to earn as the “I know what a tadpole is” badge. This is an “I’ve been known to cook with lemon juice” badge, or “I made a vinegar-and-baking-soda volcano as a child” badge, or “I’ve used Coke or Pepsi as a marinade/meat-tenderizer” badge. Maybe even a “I put aspirin in vases to keep my cut flowers fresh” badge. It makes me wonder where the “baking soda” and “bleach” badges are. Or the “I put too much salt in my food” badge is.

However, as I have been repeatedly trusted to hold and pour from a bottle that said “12-Molar” on the label and don’t run screaming into the woods when I hear the word “titration”, I’ll wear this one with pride. Also, this is one of the more grim danger symbols in common use today, often used to denote peril from any acidic or caustic or corrosive material.

Perhaps this badge should be supplemented with an “I’ve synthesized acid” badge or “I’ve performed science under the influence of acid” badge.

And that’s a wrap. So far, anyway.


February 24, 2007 · Posted in Everything Else  

I’m one of the slowest writers on earth.

I say this as someone who actually completed a NaNoWriMo project a few years back and did a good enough job that it ended up in print.

I know a good number of you guys bought it. I don’t know how long it’s been since you read it, but I wouldn’t mind getting some feedback from readers. (I have heard from a couple of you, however. I remember the bruises on my shins.)

I think my wordcount record (for something publishable, anyway) for any 24-hour period is around 6,500 words. I average around 300 words per hour–about a page an hour–for something a little bit better than first-draft quality, but not quite completely polished. That sort of thing is quite rare, though.

I’m pretty proud that last night I sat down and banged out nearly two thousand words in maybe three hours, about as polished as I can make them. Might even see print, as it was a pseudo-commissioned piece.

About zombies. I’ll take what I can get.

In other news I just applied for membership in the Order of the Science Scouts of Exceptional Repute and Above Average Physique. I’m already entitled to at least twenty-five patches. See below.

Order of the Science Scouts of Exceptional Repute and Above Average PhysiqueOrder of the Science Scouts of Exemplary Repute and Above Average Physique
Talking Science
“Talking Science”
I've been rejected by the New Yorker
“I’ve been rejected by the New Yorker”
I blog about science
“I blog about science”
Arts and Crafts
“Arts and Crafts”
I'm pretty confident around an open flame
“I’m pretty confident around an open flame”
Inappropriate nocturnal use of lab equipment in the name of alternative science experimentation / communication
“Inappropriate nocturnal use of lab equipment in the name of alternative science experimentation / communication”
Destroyer of Quackery
“Destroyer of Quackery”
I may look like a scientist but I'm actually also a ninja
“I may look like a scientist but I’m actually also a ninja”
Sexing up Science
“Sexing up Science”
My degree inadvertantly makes me competent in fixing household appliances
“My degree (or degree equivalent) inadvertantly makes me competent in fixing household appliances”
I can be a prick when it comes to science
“I can be a prick when it comes to science”
I left the respectable sciences to pursue humanistic studies of the sciences
“I left the respectable sciences to pursue humanistic studies of the sciences”
Will glady kick sexual harasser's ass
“Will glady kick sexual harasser’s ass”
Has frozen stuff just to see what happens I
“Has frozen stuff just to see what happens I”
Has frozen stuff just to see what happens II
“Has frozen stuff just to see what happens II”
Has frozen stuff just to see what happens III
“Has frozen stuff just to see what happens III”
Dodger of Monkey Shit
“Dodger of Monkey Shit”
I will crush you with my math prowess
“I will crush you with my math prowess”
Inordinately fond of invertebrates
“Inordinately fond of invertebrates”
Pharma Shill
“Pharma Shill”
I know what a tadpole is
“I know what a tadpole is”
Experienced with electrical shock I
“Experienced with electrical shock I”
Experienced with electrical shock II
“Experienced with electrical shock II”
Experienced with electrical shock III
“Experienced with electrical shock III”

I will happily provide anecdotes supporting any of the earned patches upon request.


February 16, 2007 · Posted in Everything Else  

Read The Footnote (Dot Net!)The Footnote‘s latest update:

Ask Miss Biscuit    Laszlo Xalieri, Guest

    For reasons that may become clear to you, Laszlo is sitting in for Miss B. What’s he to do when confronted with a question about keeping a man in bed?

Beyond Book Club    Adam P. Knave’s Talking Heads

    A new occasional feature! Rather than go to all the trouble of reviewing books ourselves, we’ve recruited the late Ernest Hemmingway and Ayn Rand to do it for us.

Gently With a Chainsaw    Leigh Sholler

    Unsurprisingly, Leigh’s off on some adventure — this time she’s traveling for work, which means that she’s hitching a ride with the US Navy.

Just the Right Bullets    Adam P. Knave

    Adam comes dangerously close to breaking his non-disclosure agreement about what really goes on around the footnote headquarters.

Letters from Heck    Miss Biscuit, Guest

    She’s gone and landed herself in Heck, but what did Miss Biscuit do to get herself there?

Melancholy Dog    Matt Speer

    Melancholy’s at a bar with a co-worker, which is a great time to talk about the philosophies of evolution and waste disposal.

Pure Lard    D.J. Kirkbride

    Ohhh… behold the cautionary tale of Sparky Mumu! At least, the tale as D.J. remembers it.

The Truth of the Matter    Ryan Dilbert

    The intrepidly innocent Ryan makes another shocking discovery, which in turn leads to a bit of an urban dictionary to help you, the reader, understand rap.

It’s Story Time!    Shannon Bayleff

    Shannon spins a tale of some of the important moments in the life of Harold, a greeting card author.

Something is Rank    Members of the Staff

    Another occasional feature making its debut, Rank is the results of our contributors assembling as a panel for a discussion of “Top Five” lists.

Oh yes.


February 15, 2007 · Posted in Everything Else  

Why I love physics.

This early, very dense state has an energy density of 3-4 GeV/fm3 and the equivalent of a temperature of around 240 MeV. The conditions suppress the number of J-psis (charmonia), enhance strangeness, and begin to drive the expansion of the fireball.

Charmonia. Strangeness is a quantifiable value. And, as always, fireballs. What’s not to love?
BitesizeLook! Baby … umm … baby … something-or-other.

Never forget: CUTE = EVIL. Check out those claws. Evil, evil, evil. A later shot in the series shows it steering its host-human. Too grim to depict here.

Grow old along with me.Complete with Ultraman crotch shots.

Parodies of pop culture you’re too young to remember never looked so good. $150 to $250 is not too much to pay to have one on your livingroom wall. Scroll down toward the bottom of the page.

birdie in a cageFrom : Shots of the Folsom Street Fair

Some awesome black-and-white photography of some things you possibly don’t want to see, but fabulous images nonetheless.

Titanis walleri‘Terror birds’ never et humans.

I’m not sure I buy it. They’re reevaluating when this seven-foot duck was around by the concentrations of certain rare-earth elements in its bones, and that can be sketchy. Especially when it puts this flightless bird as invading the North American continent from South America before the land-bridge between the continents formed. I fucking well doubt they built a raft, as this article suggests.

Dear mother...Worst album covers of all time: #18

Remember back when music came in collections called “albums” rather than one track at a time from online music stores? One reason for going to CDs from LP records was to make images like this a quarter of the original size, and now you don’t have to see them at all in order to hear a track you might enjoy.But now you don’t necessarily get the visual warning that would tell you whether what you’re about to hear is absolute crap. Oh well. You take the good with the bad.

McNaughtThat comet you missed sure looked pretty.

Prince still seems to be alive. It must have taken Anna Nicole Smith instead.

HDR: Jackson Motel, Greektown, ChicagoHigh Dynamic Range photography

Successive portions of the image are rebalanced to maximize the amount of detail, reducing the amount of image that gets “blown out” in highlights or lost in shadow. The human eye does this automatically as you look at different parts of your field of view, with the pupil constricting and dilating to control the amount of light allowed to hit the retina. A print of a photograph pretty much picks one level of exposure and sticks with it unless you play with dodging and burning. Usually quite a bit more detail is captured on the negative that you get to see.Digitally speaking, though, what you see is what you get. Photoshop can help a bit, depending on the quality of the image-capture. However, if you take, say, five simultaneous (or nearly simultaneous) pictures at different exposure levels and merge them, you get all the detail you would have caught had you actually been there … plus a little.

I can’t imagine how expensive the camera would be that could do this on the fly. But I want one. Also, I want the movie camera that can do this. Oh. And the talent to be able to use it effectively.

Mobile home park on the moonMobile home park on the moon.

You finally move your double-wide out of Tornado Alley, and now you have to dodge meteorites.Remember that you won’t be able to get financing unless you take the wheels off and build a skirt around it to keep the Mooninites out from underneath. But frankly I’d worry more about Dumbassahedratron.

orange snowWatch out where the huskies go.

Oily yellow and orange snowflakes fell over an area of more than 1,500sq km (570sq miles) in the Omsk region on Wednesday, Russian officials said.

Chemical tests were under way to determine the cause, they said.

Residents have been advised not to use the snow for household tasks or let animals graze on it.

“So far we cannot explain the snow, which is oily to the touch and has a pronounced rotten smell,” said Omsk environmental prosecutor Anton German, quoted by the Russian news agency Itar-Tass on Thursday.

President Yahya Jammeh gets his hands dirty.What happened to the good old days of scrofula?

Sure, sure. Given a choice of healing scrofula or AIDS, it would be more useful if your typical state leader’s touch could cure the more deadly of the two.Not sure what GWB’s touch cures. Crippling tax burdens, I think. Only for those touched.

VistacularHey Vista: “Go Fuck Yourself!”

Here’s the scenario. Turn on microphone and activate voice commands. Receive e-mail with sound file or otherwise get tricked into clicking on sound file. Sound file contains voice commands to do heinous things. Speakers emit commands. Microphone receives commands. Vista does heinous things. The End.

Watch those pupils.Penis as a Boy

Convicted sex offender? Looking for fresh meat? It’s easy! Just go back to grade school. For two years.

University of Edinburgh summons Maxwell’s Demon

Scientists at the University of Edinburgh have created a tiny engine powered by light that can be made to sort molecules.

Its name is Rotaxane.Who would’ve guessed? I always thought it was Rumpelsomething.

Fundies Say the Darndest Things!

Very educational, this. But it’s definitely missing something. Like position statements and comments from ignoramuses that espouse religions other than Christianity, or, better yet, buffoons that believe in science as if it were a religion. Fair is fair.

miracle fruitMiracle Fruitcake

Strange, strange stuff. Coat your tongue with the glycoprotein in this berry, and, for the next half hour to an hour, sour and bitter cease to exist. It’s kind of a survival trait to be able to taste the pH of the substances you ingest, but, if you don’t care that your food might be killing you anyway, this might be worth the risk.After a dose of goofily-named “miraculin”, you can bite into a lime, right through the rind, and it’ll taste just like candy.

A pretty damn nifty review of the effects of miracle fruit can be found here.

'Subway'-style Interstate highway mapInterstate system as a “subway” map.

I won’t be happy until it’s actually a subway. But this is a step in the right direction.

frogstackMake mine batrachotoxin.

It’s been a while since I’ve licked a frog, but damn, if these things don’t look just like candy….Anyone wanna join me for a snack?

Um.Secret message for you-know-who.

Lobsters are strange creatures of the abyss that exist on Earth to spy on human behavior. They accomplish this by allowing themselves to be caught by the human scum, then be eaten by the human scum. Unbeknownst to the human scum, the lobster’s thrown away shell, fully cooked, transmits a photon signal from Earth back to their home plant, Crustacea (cruss-tay-shee-uh). The elite Crustese (cruss-teez) then take the transmitted information to learn of the human scums’ behavior and conversation, thus gaining access to secretive human scum brains.

Utilizing this information, the Crustese Lobsters will soon travel from their home world to Earth, plotting to take away every sorce of coffee and watermelons. Until then, all the human scums can do is sit, wait, and eat a fresh lobster.

One grand lobster recipe includes the following:

1 cup of butter
1 plate
1 plate for lobster shells
1 small bowl for butter
1 shell crusher thing
1 microwave
1 tall glass of icy water
2 gallons of water
1 deep pot
1 stovetop
1 live lobster
1 sink
1 roof

It’s a wiki, so if the recipe needs adjusting, feel free. Just remember it’s Holy Writ. Now I need to set up a wiki….

More reviews are in the works. Click here to make suggestions.

Missed some? Click here.


February 9, 2007 · Posted in Everything Else  

I’m a fan of labyrinths. I’ve walked through only a few of the more symbolic kind, but I like the idea that there could be a piece of geography deliberately designed for me to get lost in. I look forward to visiting several in my lifetime and, I hope, finding my way out again. I’m certainly well experienced with a number of unintentional labyrinths, such as the Hilton Rye Town, of Rye Brook, NY, and the streets of Atlanta, girdled by the circular dimensional rift that is I-285, around which it is possible to do laps (refueling two or three times even) in the assumption that you’re actually going somewhere.

Keep in mind that a true labyrinth is not just a maze. A labyrinth is a maze that is life-threatening. A labyrinth has a guardian monster, and it’s impossible to have a labyrinth that doesn’t also involve the motif of people being sacrificed to the monster inside. Without those things you merely have a walk in the park that lasts a little longer than you had originally intended.

(I-285 certainly counts. It’s life-threatening. In fact, everyone who uses it is aware that it takes lives on a weekly if not daily basis. Everyone also hopes that someone else is going to be the blood sacrifice to the dark gods that keep the system running.)

Pan’s labyrinth is a fictional labyrinth, a species of labyrinth of which I am particularly a connoisseur. I’m close, personal friends of Theseus and the Minotaur in many of their incarnations. I read and reread Jorge Luis Borges, who is constitutionally unable to write a story that doesn’t use either the word or the metaphor. I’ve read Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves more than twice. (For that book, it’s easy to lose count after two.) Certainly David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest counts, though he may not have had the concept of labyrinths in mind as he was writing. Ditto for a certain work from Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, and also a certain famous work from James Joyce. For visual media, there’s the movie Labyrinth from Jim Henson, and then a huge number less blatant that are too numerous to mention.

I should note that the name “Pan’s labyrinth” is a bit of a misnomer–but one I’ll continue using throughout the review just to avoid confusion. The title of the movie in which it features is El Laberinto del Fauno, or “The Labyrinth of the Faun”. There’s an association in Greek mythology between the horned nature god Pan and fauns and satyrs, but the faun featured is not any top-ranking god but an emissary of a fairy king. I’m guessing the name got tweaked because “stupid Americans” were thought more likely to recognize Pan as some guy with horns than “faun”, and the synonym “satyr”, while somewhat more recognizable to a US audience, conjures unsavory associations for an R-rated movie that features a prepubescent girl in the leading role.


Physical characteristics

As fictional labyrinths go it’s not as extensive as the one depicted in Jim Henson’s movie.

Pan’s labyrinth is constructed of stone, about ten feet high and maybe thirty or forty yards square. The stone is uniformly dark and coarse and crumbling a bit, another firm hint that it is a labyrinth of a certain age. The corridors in the maze are rectilinear and approximately ten feet wide, which is perfect for the typical Dungeons & Dragons® dungeon maps on the blue-lined grid paper that was ubiquitous back in grade school.

Pan’s labyrinth is spatially situated in the Spanish countryside and is temporally located a few years after the Spanish Civil War, in 1944. We are given the impression that the labyrinth is many hundreds of years older than that, but it is, after all, just a set in a movie.

It’s not giving anything away to say that the labyrinth is also located in a kind of fairy realm and seems to be the passage between there and the mundane world.


Still contrasting Pan’s labyrinth with David Bowie’s from the Henson film, Pan’s is certainly grimmer, appearing as it does in a movie that is not intended to be viewed by a juvenile audience. We only see it lit in fading greens and yellows or the starker black and white of a nighttime visit.

Also the labyrinth seems to generate its own heat, which I gathered from the fact that the old stone mill house that was being used as a residence nearby had fires going in the bedroom fireplaces, yet a young girl, soaking wet from rain, wasn’t shivering or otherwise apparently cold during repeated trips through the maze in the middle of the fucking night.

Market data

Access to this labyrinth seemed to be free of charge to residents at the old mill house and the attendant military company. I assume access would be denied to anyone not cleared by representatives of Francisco Franco’s military forces, making any curiosity about price of admission to non-residents pretty much moot.

So far I’ve been unable to research the costs of having a labyrinth like this made during the era it was supposedly constructed. A couple hundred thousand fairy slaves could probably get it done in a matter of an hour or two and you’d only have to pay them in pollen. I also have no data on purchasing the land (with the already constructed labyrinth) in 1944 pesetas. Presumably you could always have the land donated to the fascist cause by a loyal sympathizer or, with a company of military forces, take it from someone you declare to be a socialist or anarchist rebel, either of which would greatly reduce the amount to be paid.

Overall impact

My evaluation of labyrinths is based on two main factors: 1) How cool it would be to wander around in it (properly defended from the resident monster, of course) and 2) how useful it would be for disposing of my enemies by sentencing them to wander around in it until they get eaten.

If I had a bit of land to work with–something larger than my backyard, for instance–Pan’s labyrinth would be a wonderfully atmospheric addition. Decor-wise, it wins. Also, it is not so inconveniently large that I would need my own fairy kingdom to keep it in, as I’d opt to own just the portion that extends into the mundane world. Weighing in on both factors, the main guardian of the labyrinth seemed quite competent to do in any mortal of his choosing, while also being clever enough to negotiate with should the need arise–a big step up from the Minotaur. Or minotaur. Or minotaur. Depending on which edition of Danielewski’s book you ended up with.

Viewers of the movie also got a brief hint that the maze could be reconfigured at whim, which is a great defense against clever bastards with string or breadcrumbs. Another definite plus.

There is one definite minus, however. The labyrinth had no roof of any kind and the walls looked very climbable, a potential security hole that could allow a moderately agile cheater to bypass the thing entirely. I saw no evidence that there were any considerations to counter this problem. There may have been, granted, but without having seen any, I’m forced to assume the worst. And a labyrinth that was easily an A + drops to a firm middle-range B. Still quite worthwhile.

Also, the movie was really good.


PS: Your one-line bonus review

“Early adopters” are great for testing the water. I suggest you find yourself one.


February 5, 2007 · Posted in reviews  
tfn flag

Update: February 1, 2007

Anti-Thoughts by Dustin Grovemiller

Now that he’s old and married, isn’t it only natural that Dustin is wistful for the days of just “hanging out”? Read It

AWCOMIX by Anthony Woodward

A sopping wet tale of a trip to the grocery store. Read It

Behind the White Door by Trevor Whitecliff

It’s a new American Century; we speak now of the mystery of a book that went unread for 1,000 years. Read It

Just the Right Bullets by Adam P. Knave

Adam develops a debilitating fear after his father explains the plot of a movie that he’s watching on television. Just a walk in the park, Iceman. Read It

Letters from Heck by Laszlo Xalieri

Laszlo ponders the best way of dealing with the arrival of the next big consumption holiday. Read It

Reality Is What You Make It by John Belden

Awash with the latest in trendy viral infections, John seeks refuge and even some inspiration from his medication. Read It

The Truth of the Matter by Ryan Dilbert

A footnote tale of real Hollywood — our investigative journalist Ryan tracks down Popeye to see if he really was strong to the finish. Read It

“Workin’ Girl” by Krystal Thompson

(New Contributor!) Krystal introduces herself to the readership by giving you the rundown of a her typical day. Read It

Spoiler Warning Banter about movies.

Again, as the result of your enthusiastic voting, D.J. and Dustin get together to review Ghost World. Read It

Burn, Baby, Burn Notes on music.

D.J. reviews a groovy album by the California band Thrill Deluxe. Read It


February 1, 2007 · Posted in Everything Else