May 2012

In a little under 12 hours, I will have sold my house. I bought a different house last year at the end of July, so in many ways it’s about damn time that I unload the old house, but as the deadline nears, I’m having “feeling”. It was the first house that I bought, and I bought it at the same time I started my first “real” job. It was and still is a nice house, maybe not anything spectacularly special or unique, but it was home for longer than any other place was home since I’ve been an adult. In the 8+ years that I lived there, there were certainly some changes in the neighborhood, and that was part of the reason for my move. I made some improvements to my home, but nothing extreme and usually nothing that wasn’t necessary.

My new house has taught me a lot of things. The first is that having a huge garage is awesome. The second is that little home repairs can be done in bits and pieces, and those bits and pieces can add up to significant progress over the course of a couple weeks. There are SO many little things that need some attention at the new house, but overall it was a good step up.

Before closing the sale of my old home, there were a few little repairs that needed to be done. In a few of these cases, I thought to myself, “Hey idiot, why didn’t you fix this when you actually LIVED here so you could enjoy it? This was a 2-hour, $50 repair that you could have done 6 years ago!!” As I look around my new house, I already see things that I’ve been putting off for months because they weren’t really that urgent and I’d quickly grown accustomed to living with the status quo. I’ll try to stop doing that.

As with all good relationships and experiences, I am leaving my old home a little wiser than when we met. I hope the new owners enjoy the house, it’s got a lot of life left in it and will be the source of many new memories. For now, it’s just time to say good bye to a house, to my home, to the domicile that grew up with me as I went from being a mere adult to a grown up. Hmm, that was a little sappy. It’s just a house…


The saga continues…

After stirring in acetone overnight to dehydrate, I decanted off the acetone and left it to evaporate just in case something dissolved.  The little white nugget was dried under vacuum for 2 hours, then crushed to get a small sample for IR.

Dried Mystery Goo

Mystery Goo drying under vacuum after dehydrating in acetone overnight

Evaporation of the acetone supernatant left no noticeable residue.  A bit of the white solid was ground with KBr and then pressed into a pellet.

Mystery Goo KBr pellet

Not my best KBr pellet, but better than some I’ve tried to make.

The FTIR spectrum looked relatively clean with the typical CH and/or NH peaks and enough going on below 2000cm-1 to be consistent with a polyacrylamide.


FTIR expanded

Expanded view of the 2000-400cm-1 region of the Mystery Goo FTIR spectrum

Is this definitive?  Not at all.  Is it “consistent with” polyacrylamide?  Sure.  I might try a few more things, but not right now, other duties call…

A local news station called today and said they had a mysterious substance that they’d like some help identifying.  After a recent rain, a woman found some of this material on her patio.  It’s clear, colorless, “squishy” and doesn’t burn.  {Yeah, “squishy” might not be a super sciencey word, but it puts the right idea in your head.}  She was wondering if it came from the sky during the rain.  The news people brought a sample to campus and first ran into a biologist who confirmed that it wasn’t biological.  {An early guess over the phone was maybe snail eggs.}  Enter the chemists!

Mystery goo from the sky

Mystery goo sample in a glass vial

The gelatinous solid had no odor, and because I was quite confident that it wasn’t exceptionally hazardous, I picked up a piece.  It wasn’t oily, just wet and gooey.  No notable residue was left behind on my hand.  I was sorely tempted to taste it, but I didn’t.  I guessed that it was a hydrogel of some sort.  The reporter mentioned a garden and some potted plants, so I thought it must be a soil additive used for moisture retention.  {Similar to}  I asked for a small sample to further analyze, my intention was  to put it in a vacuum dessicator overnight to dry it out and then maybe run a quick FTIR.

Before I put it in the dessicator, I thought I’d give in a wash with acetone.  After a few moments, the “goo” became slightly opaque and it began to shrink.  The acetone was pulling the water out of it quite nicely, so I left it to stir.  After about 20 minutes, it was pretty dehydrateded.

Mystery goo dehydrated

Acetone removed the water from the Mystery Goo, shrinking it and making it opaque.

I left it gently stirring overnight, I’ll finish the analysis tomorrow.

{According to the MSDS at, their product is a polyacrylamide copolymer.  FTIR tomorrow should confirm.}

OK, maybe I’m being an asshole, but I just read a blog post in which the author is praising one of his former teachers for making him a writer.  Unfortunately, the blog post has some really sloppy errors that severely detract from the honor that this author is trying to bestow upon his former teacher.  I appreciate the intended sentiment of the blog post, but the carelessness of the prose is ridiculous, especially given that the author is a practicing, professional writer.

For my part, let me say congratulations to Mrs. Liechty for being a positive influence on a young student, and on many young students over your career, I hope you enjoy your retirement.

OK, back to the meat of my post.  I know, it’s blog post, people shouldn’t have to fully diagram every sentence that appears in a blog post to properly identify subject, predicate, objects, and antecedents.  If one truly practices proper writing, those things should all flow naturally.  Let me be clear, I’m not talking about dippy little typos (although those shouldn’t happen very often with the ubiquitous spellcheck that even WordPress uses put a red line under words that do not appear in its dictionary…), I’m talking about grammatical and editing errors that leave the reader thinking “What did that just say?” when finishing a sentence.

Just in case anyone is wondering, I didn’t miss one of the main points of the story.

I explained that I stunk at writing. I thought she would know that better than most given that she was the one who graded my papers. She noted there is a difference between grammar and syntax and storytelling. Grammar, spelling and syntax are very important, but they’re not the only parts of writing. There’s also creativity and imagination — the same muscles in my brain I used to draw the Hulk smashing tanks and spaceships.

Grammar and syntax are indeed only one aspect of writing, but that does not mean they should be ignored, any more than storytelling, creativity or imagination should be ignored.  That’s why good storytellers often have editors who can (hopefully) clean up the grammar and syntax.  Do blog authors have editors?  Probably not, but this author is a professional writer who is trying to pay homage to an influential teacher; I think he might be able to impose upon an editor friend to give his blog post a quick read.

There are some things that are grammatically questionable, but they can be understood as being stylistic flair.  I don’t mind stylistic flair.  Really.  Sometimes, those little bits of stylistic flair show up so often that they don’t seem like stylistic flair, they just seem like a complete disregard for sentence structure.  If every sentence begins with a conjunction, that bit of stylistic flair loses its punch and becomes cumbersome to the reader.  Especially when a paragraph starts with a conjunction. <facepalm>

As is often the case with blog posts, this one starts out well, but as the post continues, it seems like the author either got tired of writing, or got tired of proofreading.  Here are some of the problems in this post:

The teacher I hated who changed my life

“One day, Mrs. Liechty assigned us to write what we did this morning in our journals.”  This is a picky little bit of temporal agreement, since this is something that happened in the relatively distant past, it should be “what we did that morning”.

“I’ll wing it. I’ll make it up as I go.”  Again, temporal agreement.  Since this all happened in the past it’s not “I will…”, but “I would…”

“This was worse that fourth grade.”  Typo.  “than

“We wrote biographies, autobiographies, fiction, poetry and, of course, themes with a topic sentence, a minimum of supporting paragraphs in the body and the closing that was either a restatement of the thesis or final statement on the topic but never an introduction of a new idea.”  I love seeing this lovely structure being taught, but I think there’s an omission here that really scrambles up the meaning of the sentence.  As written, it sounds like there should be as few supporting paragraphs as possible in the theme.  Although brevity is appreciated, perhaps this should read “…a minimum number of supporting paragraphs in the body…” or “…a minimum required number of supporting paragraphs in the body…”.  Maybe not really wrong in this case, but maybe not especially clear either.

“And while I liked school for the general camaraderie and the break it gave me from worrying. But the lessons, however important, just failed captivate me.”  The “And…” makes this a dependent clause, but I’ll chalk that up to stylistic flair.  The problem here is that even without the “And”, this is a hanging dependent clause.  “…while I liked school…” is the introduction of a dependent clause.  It requires an independent clause upon which it can depend.  It looks like the intended dependent clause material is in the next sentence, but the inclusion of the “But…” makes that a dependent clause as well.  The simplest remedy would be “And while I liked school for the general camaraderie and the break it gave me from worrying, the lessons, however important, just failed captivate me.”  Some may not like the number of commas piling up in that sentence {actually, that complex dependent clause), so it might be better to rewrite.

“I filed the book, front and back.”  Typo?  “filled”?

“My fingers strum he way Pete Townsend attacks his guitar.”  Typo.  “the”

“Mrs. Liechty made our peace years later.”  Is that supposed to be “Mrs. Liechty and I”?

Are schools aren’t awful, they’re just not ideal. There’s work that needs done, that’s a certainty.”  Wow.  Spectacularly sloppy.  “Our schools…” and “needs to be done”

“I would be a lesser without her lessons.”  Is “lesser” supposed to be serving as a noun here?  It could be, but in the flow and context, it seems like it should be an adjective modifying a noun such as “…a lesser person…” or “…a lesser writer…”

“I was speaking at her class in Winterset.” Perhaps stylistic here, but “speaking to her class” seems a little smoother to me.

I hope the author doesn’t view this as a vicious personal attack because it’s really not.  I’m sure I have a couple typos and/or grammatical errors in the text that I’ve written in this post, so I shouldn’t be too vigorous in my finger-pointing.  The point is that with a little care and a little bit of proofreading, we can ALL make out writing better.  No one has to be the world’s foremost authority on sentence structure and diagramming to pay a little bit of attention to things like nouns and verb and prepositions and conjunctions, Schoolhouse Rock does a good job at hitting the high points.

Regarding the title of this post, that’s a reflection of my personality.  Although I appreciate being recognized for doing a good job, all the words of praise in the universe don’t mean a thing compared to seeing positive results.  I teach chemistry.  If every one of my students got together and organized a rally to tell the world that I was the best teacher they ever had, I’d be flattered (and incredibly uncomfortable!), but it would mean thousands of times more if every one of those students finished my class with a firm grasp of the material, even if they didn’t particularly like me.


There’s a certain linguistic foible that grates on me every time I hear or read it. It’s a little linguistic, it’s a little mathematical, and it shows up constantly. In generic terms, it’s when something is described as being “20 times smaller than” something else. I understand what’s being said, but it’s just sloppy when you really think about it. For a simple example, let’s think about some lengths. A kilometer is 1000 times longer than a meter. If I travel 1 meter 1000 times, I will have traveled 1 kilometer. OK, that makes sense. What about the other direction? Is a millimeter 1000 times shorter than a meter? Well, again, I’m sure you understand what I mean, so I have communicated information, but it just doesn’t make any sense. A millimeter is one thousandth as long as a meter, but is that the same as 1000 times smaller? Some examples:

Decimals: “As we move right, each position is 10 times smaller.” {}
Seahorses: “Pygmy seahorses, which are typically ten times smaller than non-pygmy relatives, were first discovered in the late 1960s” { }
Programming languages: “Python programs are typically 3-5 times shorter than equivalent Java programs.” { }
Military barriers: “on average 5 times lighter than gabions” { }

Mathematically, this becomes a distinction between multiplication and division, or maybe the distinction between multiplication by a number larger than 1 or multiplication by a number smaller than 1.  There seems to be a size threshold for these sloppy descriptions.  I don’t thing most people would describe something as being “2 times thinner than a human hair”, it would be described as “half the thickness of a human hair”.  What about “3 times thinner” vs. “one third the thickness”?

There is a growing problem domestically and worldwide with students having poor numeracy skills, perhaps we should take it upon ourselves to communicate in a mathematically clear and correct way.  One way to get around this is to rely on the reader to understand the direction of the comparison from the rest of the sentence and simply describe the factor of the comparison.  A kilometer is larger than a meter by a factor of 10.  A millimeter is smaller than a meter by a factor of 10.  To me, those are both very clear descriptions, and perhaps more importantly, they are both correct.  When in doubt, go with correct. {But that’s a topic for another post…}

As with almost all things linguistic, I have to ask myself if this is a fight worth fighting. And as with almost all things linguistic, my answer is “Yes!”. OK, I certainly won’t take to the streets and organize a grassroots protest, but whenever possible I will kindly and gently make corrections in the hope that a few people will see the light.

OK, I have to start with a disclaimer or two. 1) I am not in any way Mexican or hispanic, so I don’t claim that there’s anything authentic about these “tacos”; 2) related to the first disclaimer, these may be more properly called “tostadas” because if the torillas are cooked enough they will crisp up.

The thing I really like about these is that they’re super-fast to prepare and using the grill makes them great for summer. I typically make 4 or 6, they’re small and relatively light, and I’d like to think that they’re a relatively healthy meal. It’s also a spectacularly flexible meal, any leftover meat or produce can be added to mix things up. I’ll go with the basics here and list some specific substitutions after the recipe.

4-6 yellow corn tortillas
half a can of refried black beans
2-3oz of mexican-blend shredded cheese
Tapatio hot sauce
2-3 cups of shredded tri-color cabbage (cole slaw mix)
Lime juice

Light gas grill to pre-heat on high. While preheating, gather ingredients and a long-handled spatula. The grill does not have to pre-heat as much as it would for grilling meat, just enough to warm and clean the grates. Grill the tortillas on one side to warm them through and just barely begin to brown them. Remove the tortillas from the grill and spread 1-2 tablespoons of refried black beans on the grilled/browned side of the tortilla. Add a heavy pinch of shredded cheese (~half ounce?) on top of the beans and add a couple splashes of Tapatio. Return the assembled taco to the grill and grill until warmed through and the cheese melts. If the tortillas begin to brown too much, adjust the flame (or turn it off completely) or slide a piece of aluminum foil under the tacos. Remove the tacos from the grill, top with a generous pinch of shredded cabbage and a drizzle of lime juice. Fold and enjoy.

1. The Beans: I like black beans. Refried pintos would work just as well. Don’t like refried? Regular canned black beans work too.
2. The greenery: Tri-color cabbage mix includes carrots. Simple, boring, mono-color cabbage would also work. Why cabbage instead of lettuce? Personally, I like the slight tang of cabbage in this application, and cabbage is crunchier than lettuce so it brings nice texture. If you prefer lettuce, go for it.
3. Sauce/salsa: Any type of salsa or taco sauce will work here. In fact, during that magical few weeks of the year that I have fresh tomatoes, peppers and onions coming out of the garden, I prefer a fresh salsa. At other times, I adore Tapatio hot sauce. It has a very nice flavor as well as some heat.
4. Tortillas: Flour tortillas work, but they’re a bit more fragile and they tend to brown a little too quickly to heat the beans and melt the cheese. White corn tortillas are a little more sturdy, but they also brown and crisp up a little more than yellow corn tortillas. Flour or white corn tortillas might work better if these were being made on a cast-iron pan on the stovetop.
5. Meat: Lots of meats could be added between the beans and cheese. Shredded leftover rotisserie chicken would be nice, or a few strands of some shredded carnitas pork would be dreamy. Even a little browned ground beef with a little “taco seasoning” would be good here.
6. Toppers: Want to add sour cream? Go for it. A dollop of strained yogurt is another option. In any case, don’t skip the lime juice, it adds a tartness that really helps bring the flavors together.

I like a nice cold beer with a notable hop bitterness with these tacos. If you prefer a non-alcoholic beverage, I think a mineral water or iced tea would be a good match. For my taste, a sweet beverage wouldn’t be great here, I think the sweetness would fight with the tart/tangy/hot flavors of the tacos.


I was thinking about digging a hole all the way through the Earth. OK, forget the whole “molten core” problem, let’s just assume that the Earth is a big ball. If I could dig straight “down” from my house, I would emerge in the middle of the Indian Ocean. So I thought, “hmm, if the hole filled up with water, would it drain the oceans?” So let’s calculate it. I looked up a few important bits of info, wikipedia is good enough for the estimated volume of the oceans (1.3×109 km3) and the diameter of the Earth (12742km). Let’s assume that the hole has some generous shoulder room, make the diameter of the hole 2 meters. The volume of the hole would be:

(3.14)(0.000001 km)2(12745km) = 4.0×10-8km3

Hmm, that would barely put a dent in the volume of the ocean. Let’s see how wide the hole would have to be to fit the oceans…

(3.14)(x km)2(12745km) = 1.3×109km3

x = 180km

Yikes, that’s a big hole. I guess I didn’t appreciate just how much water was in the oceans.  And that’s the radius, so the diameter is 360km.  102000 square kilometers, all the way through the planet.  That’s just over half the size of North Dakota.  One third of New Mexico. One quarter of California.  Four Vermonts.  Thirty Rhode Islands.

Volume of the world’s oceans: 1.3 billion cubic kilometers (

Diameter of Earth: 12742km (

Moorhead: 46.9degN, 96.7degW (

Opposite side of Earth: 46.9degS, 83.3degE