You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Oddities’ category.

Being a devotee of the HBO series True Detective I became intrigued with the purported allusions to the 1895 book of short stories The King in Yellow by Richard W. Chambers. I received my copy from Amazon yesterday and read the first three stories.

I have never ventured into the horror genre so this is refreshing. Chambers was reportedly influenced by Ambrose Bierce. His prose is considerably less dense than Bierce’s- closer to a 20th century cadence and vocabulary. H.P. Lovecraft took notice of Chambers as well. Lovecraft and Bierce are next on my reading list.

As with the story line of True Detective, The King in Yellow (or Yellow King) is not really centered on the fictional play of the same name. Rather, it is a kind of story telling device that motivates and launches characters along the arc of another story. It’s an interesting device.

Some interesting links on Th’ Gaussling’s Favorites List-

Many moons ago, as a 9th grader, I built an atomic cloud chamber. I fabricated a galvanized sheet metal reservoir for dry ice and methanol and attached a chamber on the top made from the top of a metal Folgers coffee can. The can had a plexiglass viewing window and three curved plexiglass windows on the side for illumination. The plans were from C.L. Stong’s column “The Amateur Scientist” in Scientific American.

Going into 10th grade I managed to borrow a Polonium-210 source from the physics teacher. It was just a needle with a small spot of radioisotope on one side and a cork on the other. I never did see any activity from the source, but I did see a few stray vapor trails from background radiation. Turns out that the source had a short half life and was long dead.

One of the more interesting websites is United Nuclear.  They sell various nuclear related items, ball mills, as well as NdFeB super magnets. Most notably, they sell a cloud chamber that looks quite well designed. They also sell sources.

The best place to buy electronic cables is MonoPrice.  A USB cord selling for $30 at Best Buy will go for just a  few dollars at MonoPrice.  Same story with HDMI cables.

If you love to listen to speakers talk about exciting ideas and technology, then TED is the place to go.

The MetaFilter community weblog is a treasure trove of unusual links dredged up by many contributors. The site is updated continuously.

Patently-O is a consistently well produced weblog on patent law and worth visiting now and then. 

An excellent aggregator of earth science related news is They are reasonably good at finding rare earth element related news.

If you’re wandering the country on I-90, say to or from Sturgis, SD, a stop at the Devil’s Tower north of Sundance, WY, is very worthwhile.

Devils Tower

The identity of this geological oddity is the subject of some disagreement. Three theories of its origin are in play: 1) an igneous stock, 2) a volcanic neck, and 3) the remnants of a laccolith. Whatever the case, it is plain that the sedimentary rock surrounding it has long since eroded away to reveal the more weather resistant igneous rock. 

Climber on Devils Tower

Close up, the columnar structure of the formation is evident. This feature speaks to a slow cooling process, one made possible for a magmatic body deep underground insulated by the surrounding formation.

Devils Tower, Wyoming, June 2010.

Here is a link to a great review of Anthony Bourdains latest book, Medium Raw. If you have the chance, read Kitchen Confidential.

The University of California system is pushing back on price increases by publishers of periodicals. Let’s hope they have some success. Why do researchers just hand over copyright of their work, anyway? The public finances the work and then the public has to pay to read the results.

Think the internet is giving you a short attention span? Steven Pinker doesn’t think so.

Why are the British so rude? Are they naughty by nature? I have my own views on that, thank you.

Looking to upgrade your collection of Soviet Posters?

Diethyl ether seems to be in short supply in North America these days. Suppliers have customers under allocation constraints.  Yes Virginia, people still use Et2O in certain kinds of chemical processing. Sometimes Et2O is prized for its solvent effects and sometimes for its volatility. Sometimes the only way to solubilize some  inorganic compounds is as the metal etherate.  Solvent residues in fine chemicals are often a problem and volatile process solvents can be a big help in ameliorating that issue.  You can purchase 5,000 gallon tanker loads of Et2O if the supplier has qualified you. Another reason not to swerve in front of trucks on the highway. 

Part of the problem with Et2O availability is the considerable reduced demand for it these days.  Many companies have banned the use of Et2O on their site for any purpose. It is easy to understand why. The insane vapor pressure and low autodecomposition temperature are problematic for plant safety. The low boiling point of Et2O means that plant utilities can heat a vessel of ethereal soln rapidly and blow a rupture disk at reasonably low pot temps.  Naturally, the safetly department gets surly about this kind of thing.

Tetrahydrofuran is not always a suitable process stand-in for Et2O. Reactivity behaviors may be quite different from Et2O solns.  THF’s sensitivity to butyllithium, for instance, forces one to keep the processing conditions at low temp with a chiller. Lower pot temperatures increase the thermal margin of safety, but may have a deleterious effect on activation of a transformation once BuLi has done its job. 

I have studied the decomposition of methyl tetrahydrofuran with BuLi and have determined that it decomposes in the low 30’s °C range, somewhat higher than THF. MeTHF is not an exact stand-in for THF or Et2O either.  But it is definitely worth having in the stockroom for development work. It will surprise you in regard to how different it can be from THF.

While MeTHF is touted for its ability to phase separate with water, it will hold appreciable amounts of water.

I was standing in a light rain this afternoon watching a hip hop dancing exhibition. A lawyer friend standing next to me commented that it was so cold he had to keep his hands in his own pockets. I thought that was funny.

Since the kid has been studying hip hop dancing, I’ve been to one hip hop concert and a few dancing exhibitions. I have to say that I rather like it. 

I’ve noticed something over the years at school functions where parents gather to watch their kids. Strangely, the parents are almost universally uncomfortable around the parents of other kids. When they (we) walk into the school they automatically become shy. Their social skills seem to be left outside. Even the elementary quantum unit of civility, an introduction and a handshake, is offered only after awkward minutes elapse and it becomes apparent that anonymity cannot be maintained. The notion that the parents of your kids friends are also your friends is not an axiom.

In fact, this whole business of adult friendship is a puzzlement to me. I can’t tell you how many times a discussion with another adult escalates into “that’s bullshit, this is how ya do it …” or terminates as “well, we don’t do that…”.  Many adults I know are seemingly unable to enter into a discussion where ideas are tossed around and back and forth analysis ocurs with mutual curiosity and interest.

So many people I know will take any given comment as an invitation to render approval or disapproval. There is rarely any interest to build on a concept or flesh out possibilities. One coworker is unable to discuss any topic I bring up. The reply to my sentence is invariably to throw out onto the table the activity or thing they do in a superior way than implied by my comment. There is never any back and forth- their participation is just a series of reflections off a mirror back to themselves.  Some of these folks are very brittle emotionally and intellectually.

Then there are the people who only participate in a discussion when they can dominate it. If they cannot dominate the proceedings, they leave. I have taken to the bad habit of preempting them by leaving when they arrive to dominate the discussion. Who is the bigger fool? I am not sure.

Somebody (William James?) once said that for most people, thinking consists in the rearranging of their prejudices. There is a lot of truth in this.

VP Joe Biden was in the building next door today. He handed a large stimulus check to a company that will make power trains for electric vehicles.  Secret Service guys in dark suits and dark glasses have been standing around all day. Local constables of all descriptions had a piece of the security action as well. The motorcade and attending security circus was interesting to watch. There were two identical armored limos, at least a dozen motorcycle coppers with flashing red/blue lights, and an ambulance. I think it would be more sporting if the motorcycle coppers each had a red fez with tassles. It would amuse the child in each of us.

Imagine that you and a companion are out for an evening stroll after a big dinner, say in a park somewhere. You hear a curious whining sound and look up to see an alien spaceship on a landing approach to the park. The craft lands and the crew scuttles off to perform some tedious abduction or organ harvest in the neighborhood.

Your companion exclaims “Golly! There is something you don’t see every day!”. But you’re unmoved by your companions incisive commentary. Because you see this as a long sought opportunity to examine an alien craft up close.

What would you look at? The propulsion system? Or perhaps the weapons array or guidance system? Pffft.

I would look at something much more mundane. I think it would be very enlightening to see what kind of fasteners they use. That’s right. Fasteners. Nuts, bolts, latches, bungees, straps, nails, hinges, hooks & loops, and rivets. How do these confounded exo-buggers hold things together? What’s the deal?

Fasteners are mechanical contrivances used to restrain objects into a desired configuration, often by the application and fixing of tension or compression through some structural element.  Think of all of the fasteners we encounter before we set foot out the door every morning.

Elastic articles of clothing perform a fastening function through the application of tension about numerous body parts through the miracle of Spandex/Lycra.  Shoe laces are fastening devices that apply and hold tension on opposing shoe upper elements wrapped over the arch of the foot.

Moving upwards, the zipper is a fastener that works in concert with a trouser/skirt button or snap fastener.  The belt and buckle are a fastener ensemble that together apply and hold tension about the circumference of the waist to keep ones trousers from succumbing to the pull of gravity.

Other fasteners include shirt buttons, brassiere connectors (damn those things!), earring wires, eyeglass frames (they connect to your face), cell phone belt attachments, the deadbolt on the front door, all manner of electrical connectors, and the list goes on and on. Electrical connectors are  especially interesting because they combine the functions of electrical continuity and fastener. All are a compromise between the competing interests of biomechanics, convenience, safety, regulatory standards, and custom.

So, back to the space ship. How would space faring beings approach the problem of fastening materials and components. Would they use individual components fastened together or would they use integrated component assemblies that support multiple functions? Perhaps the mechanical fastener question is moot because components would be cast, glued, or welded.

Integrated components have a certain appeal, but, by their integrated  nature could serve as a node from which to initiate failure propagation to multiple systems. For instance, if a battery was built to serve as a structural element for the craft, could a battery failure of some sort serve to initiate a structural failure mode? At what point is it foolish to integrate systems rather than leave them distributed? As always, it depends.

I think an alien spacecraft would have at least a few kinds of obvious fasteners. Surely alien technologies are subject to component failures and would require occasional repair.  Of interest would be the concessions to alien biomechanics.

Humans occasionally use wingnuts to fasten objects that need not be permanently affixed. The wingnut is simply a style of threaded nut that has two modest protuberances that allow for torsion and compression to be applied by the fingers and wrist. The wingnut is not functional for beings who lack the sort of articulated digits that we have. Perhaps an alien being would have a latch or other contrivance to accommodate its appendages.

Of course, all of this alien talk is just a device with which to cast the matter of fasteners into a more interesting light. Fasteners are part of our collective technological heritage and are rather under-appreciated. But, if you are unfortunate enough to be abducted by aliens, I suspect that the matter of alien fasteners might be of immediate interest.

During the Kennedy years, our modest farm in central Iowa was visited by a chinchilla salesman. I was a young child then and was intrigued by the topic of discussion at the kitchen table. The smooth talking slickster from the city made a presentation to my parents about the ever expanding fur coat market and how farmers could hitch their wagons to this opportunity.

I do not recall what kind of deal was reached, but I do know that soon thereafter we had a dozen south American rodents chinchillas in cages in our basement.  These fluffy creatures were not friendly in the manner of a cat or a dog. They were silent, skittish, and capable of sinking their teeth into you.  Of course kids are irresistably attracted to animals, especially those of the unusual and mysterious variety, and we were no exception.

The chinchillas (chinchillae? chinchillacea?) were constantly rolling in dust and gnawing at stones placed in their cages. We would watch this activity, captivated by the thick furred critters.  Eventually we were allowed to pet them a bit, but always with the admonition that they were going to be made into fur coats. Except for horses, my father was rarely sentimental about animals. They were raised for just one purpose- to fatten and take to market. Cats and dogs were just a form of inedible and unmarketable livestock. To pull a 4-bottom plow, you needed maybe 1000 cats- a real nightmare if ever there was one.

The chinchillas eventually disappeared the following spring. Turns out that the traveling salesman fibbed to us. The lucrative market for chinchilla fur didn’t develop at the right time in the life cycle of our herd of chinchillas. Or ever, for that matter. The real opportunity in chinchilla farming was in selling animals and equipment to the unwary. I have no doubt that they were unceremoniously dispatched out in the field with the very Ruger .22 cal Single Six revolver that I inherited from my father. Caveat emptor.

About that same time, around the same kitchen table, a family friend sat and told us about the sailing boat he bought after selling his farm. He was going to spend his time sailing out of Jamaica, fishing and enjoying the lifestyle. We never heard from him again, but years later we eventually heard about him. He disappeared. The authorities concluded that he was the victim of pirates. Ex-pat Iowegian killed at sea and his boat taken. Caveat emptor.

Recently I went to a local outfitter of camping gear to look for Coleman Lantern Mantles. As I was scanning the shelves a cherubic faced clerk came up to me and asked if I needed help. I said I was looking for lantern mantles.

When we arrived to the endcap where they were hanging, I asked him if they were still making radioactive mantles. He looked at me as though I were a bit of a loon. When I pressed the question, he balked and summoned his manager.

The manager, another youngster who was much more of an alpha male, scoffed at my question and tried to assure me that such a thing was absurd. Why in the world would mantles be radioactive? I tried to assure the youngster that, yes indeed, mantles were radioactive at one time because they contained thorium. At this point the manager was becoming visibly annoyed at his time lost addressing the questions of an obvious crackpot.

I recognized the patronizing tone he took and turned and left the store. As a child of cold war science, I have witnessed mantles sitting in a cloud chamber with ionized cloud streamers zipping every whichway from the innocent looking woven bag. Today, schools are terrified of chemicals and radiation science. Mr Manager missed out on a real experience by being born into the post-cold war world of bland science education.

So, my GM counter sits in my office clicking from the occasional background radiation piercing the GM tube. Eventually I’ll find a source to give it something more interesting to detect.


Blog Stats

  • 550,652 hits