The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments

“I’ve spent years living safely to secure a longer life, and look where that’s gotten me. I’m at the finish line but I never ran the race.”

― Adam Silvera, They Both Die at the End

Banned Book

Today, I received an internet ad from a rare book site. I usually ignore these completely and easily, but this one caught my eye. It was for a copy of the “Rare” book – The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments – accompanied by a photo of the cover. I instantly recognized that cover, because my parents had bought me a copy (which I eventually completely wore out until if fell apart) when I was in… third grade or so.

In a week, I’m going to retire, which will be the end of a forty-five plus year career as a chemist. I’ve worked in a mine, cleaning up toxic waste sites, responding to chemical spills and accidents, running an analytical lab, working in arguably the biggest  paint factory in the world, and supporting a sophisticated microelectronics and semiconductor manufacturing factory. All of this, for good or for bad, pretty much began with that book (along with a chemistry set)  when I was in third grade.

I spent untold hours trying out all of the experiments that the book held that I could assemble the raw materials and equipment for… and more untold hours poring over the experiments and demonstrations that I couldn’t find the equipment for. My chemistry set – it came in a double folding metal cabinet – chemicals in plastic bottles on one side – laboratory glassware, including an alcohol burner, on the other. I remember spilling my precious phenolphthalein powder and thinking, “I’ll never see any of that cool stuff again!” – I had no idea (I have done more acid/base titrations in my life that an human should be forced to do).

I especially enjoyed setting up an apparatus for the electrolytic separation of water into oxygen and hydrogen. For someone that young – hydrogen explosions are cool.

This “rare” book appearing in a random email ad brought back so many memories – piled one upon the other – back from decades and decades ago.

But the question is, why is that book “rare.” Thousands of parents must have bought that book for their kids like mine did – I’m sure every school library had a copy.

The problem is, a few years after I had my grubby paws on my copy – someone realized that there was some dangerous stuff in the book. It tells how to make chlorine (though not, in my opinion, dangerous quantities) and talks about several reagents that have since been identified as potential carcinogens (but what hasn’t, really). So the book was banned, removed from library shelves, and destroyed as a menace to society. Chemistry sets too, like the one I had, are not available anymore. It is not considered safe to have third graders in the basement melting sulfur with an alcohol burner – no matter how much fun, how educational, and how bad-smelling that is.

It didn’t help that the book inspired one kid to try and build his own atomic breeder reactor. From Wikipedia:

The book was also believed to be a source of inspiration to David Hahn, nicknamed “the Radioactive Boy Scout” by the media, who attempted to construct a nuclear reactor in his mother’s shed,[2] although the book does not include any nuclear reactions.

It’s a shame. Danger is overrated. Risk is not understood – not balanced against the possible reward. How many future chemists ended up studying “Blank” Studies in college, instead of something useful. Useful and dangerous – in my mind the two words are synonymous.

I see that the PDF of The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments is available as a free download. If my kids were still small – I’d download it, print it out, and see if they are interested.

On the Nose

“Then love knew it was called love.
And when I lifted my eyes to your name,
suddenly your heart showed me my way”
― Pablo Neruda, Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada; Cien sonetos de amor

Strip center outside of my work

I was waiting for my ride in the triple digits on the busy road that skirts the high tech manufacturing campus where I work. Over ten thousand folks work at that location – though most use the exits on the other side. I stared at a couple of the businesses settled in – a coffee shop named Kaffeine and a bar named Drinks.

A little too much on the nose… don’t you think? But I guess when you are stumbling on the way to work, trying to wake up and face the day – you don’t want to sift through cute coffeehouse names like The Roasted Bean, Espresso Express, or HuggaMug Cafe. All you need is the stimulant – therefore Kaffeine.

Same thing on the way home. All you want is to kill those same overstimulated nerves – all you need is a Drink… or two… or three…..

The Hole

“The train bore me away, through the monstrous scenery of slag-heaps, chimneys, piled scrap-iron, foul canals, paths of cindery mud criss-crossed by the prints of clogs. This was March, but the weather had been horribly cold and everywhere there were mounds of blackened snow. As we moved slowly through the outskirts of the town we passed row after row of little grey slum houses running at right angles to the embankment. At the back of one of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose was blocked. I had time to see everything about her—her sacking apron, her clumsy clogs, her arms reddened by the cold. She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye. She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever-seen. It struck me then that we are mistaken when we say that ‘It isn’t the same for them as it would be for us,’ and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her—understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.”

― George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

The Hole

I’ve been getting up early every day, even on the weekends, to go on a bike ride at dawn – to beat the heat. On weekends, that means I have my daily exercise out of the way by 8 AM. Which is weird for me, because it leaves so much of the rest of the day free.

So I had some of that most precious of possessions – a little bit of free time – and decided to pick a movie from The Criterion Channel to watch. After a bit of bouncing around I found a selection from Taiwan, The Hole. Directed by Tsai Ming-liang, Starring Yang Kuei-Mei and Lee Kang-sheng. It was blurbbed as: Set just prior to the start of the twenty-first century, this apocalyptic tale of pandemic alienation follows two residents of a crumbling Taipei building who refuse to leave their homes despite a virus that has forced the evacuation of the area. As rain pours down relentlessly, a single man (Lee Kang-sheng) is stuck with an unfinished plumbing job and a hole in his floor. This results in a very odd relationship with the woman (Yang Kuei-mei) who lives below him. Combining deadpan humor with an austere view of loneliness and surreal musical numbers, Tsai Ming-liang crafted one of the most haunting and original films of the 1990s.

The film seemed so much to be about the Coronavirus…  a viral pandemic of unknown origin, a Chinese apartment building locked down, mysterious men spraying disinfectant, empty stores, coughing and then death…. It was hard to believe the movie was made almost a quarter-century ago – long before Covid.

The biggest difference is that this virus was spread by cockroaches and, after an initial flu-like stage, caused the victims to crawl around afraid of the light, like a roach. Pretty horrible.

The movie is slow and follows a man in an apartment – he has a food store nearby but no customers during the pandemic – and the woman in the apartment below him. The pipes are leaking and a plumber beats a hole in the floor of the man’s place which opens up in the ceiling of the woman’s. The two are then set at odds over the hole, the plumbing, and trying to get on with their lives. In addition to the disease it never stops raining, which adds an extra layer of depression to the tableau. The woman’s place is always wet – from the rain and the leaking sewer above – and she tries to get by with cases of paper towels as her wallpaper peels off all around her. This drab and depressing world is punctuated by colorful musical numbers lip-synced to old Grace Chen showtunes. No – this makes no sense… none at all.

The surprising thing is that all this depression and hopelessness actually has an upbeat… almost romantic ending. I’m not sure if what we see actually happens or is just another fantasy – but it is nice to watch, nice to think about.

Sunday Snippet, Flash Fiction, Disease Vector by Bill Chance

“Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity? Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?”

― Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Sears Spaceliner Vintage Bicycle

Disease Vector

“Craig, there’s a bunch of kids with bikes on the front lawn calling for you.”

“Ok, Mom. I’ll go out the garage door.”

“I don’t know why they don’t come in. Why do they just stand there and yell. Now, don’t stay out too late, I’m cooking dinner.”

“Yes, Mom. OK, Mom.”

Craig went out through the kitchen and the door to the garage. He lifted up the heavy door and pushed his Sears Spaceliner bicycle out through the opening onto the apron, then turned and pulled the door down behind him.

“Hurry up slowpokes!” Bill Bradbury yelled out. “Let’s get going. They’re spraying for mosquitoes!” Spread out below him along the street were a half-dozen kids on bicycles, waiting for him. They all had spider bikes in a rainbow of colors with tiny wheels and big curved banana seats. The best bike was Bill Bradbury’s – a bright purple spider with sparkly metallic flakes embedded in the plastic of the seat and, best of all, a round car-style steering wheel instead of the usual high rise bars.

Craig hated his bike and wanted one of those spiders so bad. His dad had taken him to the big Sears store downtown and insisted on the gigantic, heavy Spaceliner. After only a few months the chrome was starting to rust, the paint starting to peel and the plastic buttons on the big dashboard that controlled the horn and built-in lights were broken and hanging out. Worst of all, the bike was way too big for him.

“Let’s get one plenty big, so you can grow into it and it’ll last a while,” his dad had said.

He had to push it to get it going, at least rolling down the slope from the garage to the street helped. After the wheels were turning fast enough, Craig had to climb up the side of the bike like it was a fence or something and haul himself over the top bar and onto the seat. Even then, at the bottom of each pedal stroke, the big, heavy pedals disappeared from under his PF Flyers and he’d have to fish for them as they came around and back up.

The thing was a heavy steel beast and hard as hell to pump up a hill but at least once it got going it was hard to stop and he tore through the gang of kids who whipped around on their little, light bikes to get going and catch up to him.

“Come on!” yelled Bill Bradbury as he passed Craig, standing and pumping furiously, hands gripping tight on the steering wheel (the thing looked cool but was a bitch to control, Craig knew), “The sprayer is this way!”

After a couple of blocks they heard the distinctive putt-putt-putt of the bug sprayer and then, around a corner, there it was. The City handyman, Stan Pencil, was driving a little Ford tractor down the street pulling the sprayer in a trailer behind. There was a small diesel motor on the trailer and a big tank full of chemicals feeding into the hot exhaust – leaving a thick blue cloud of oily smoke pouring out backward. This cloud spread out and drifted across the yards and driveways where is, supposedly, killed off all the disease carrying mosquitoes that were starting to swarm in the summer evenings.
With a chorus of loud yells and whoops the kids swung into the street, riding right up behind the trailer into the thickest cloud of smoke.

“Dee Dee Tee Baby!” yelled Bill Bradbury as he stood on the pedals and sucked in as much as he could. “It smells so gooood!”

Craig couldn’t loop around like the others because of his huge bike, but he could keep up and ride in the smoke for a block or so before he’d have to peel off and come around again. He loved the smell of the smoke just like the others. Chasing after Stan Pencil, The Mosquito Man was the best thing in the summer evenings, especially after spending the day at the City Pool.

“Love this stuff!” Bill Bradbury was still yelling. “Breathe it deep enough and you’ll get drunk!”

“Hey! You kids! Get outta there! You’ll kill yourselves. Nobody can see you in all that smoke!”

Mrs. Cunningham was out on her front porch yelling. She was always out there yelling. Craig looked over at her red face above the handkerchief she held over her mouth. The kids all laughed.

“Listen to me! To hell with you! All of you!” Mrs. Cunningham was really working herself up into a lather this time. Craig thought about splitting off and riding home, but he knew he had a little time before dinner, so he kept going.

He made it home in time for dinner, but just barely. After he wheeled his bike back into the garage and washed his hands and face, his mother was peeling the foil off his dinner. He was happy, it was his favorite – two pieces of fried chicken in the big compartment, peas, carrots, and corn on one one side, mashed potatoes on the other and some apple cobbler at the bottom for dessert. His little sister had a smaller, kid’s dinner with spaghetti and meat balls and his Mother had turkey. His father held his fork over a bigger foil rectangle – one of the Hungry Man’s Dinners. It had two oval grayish Salisbury Steaks swimming in a dark brown sea of gravy.

Craig’s father attacked the steaks like he was starving. He always ate that way. He said it was because he grew up on a farm with lots of hands and if you didn’t eat fast, “You didn’t eat enough.” Craig was only half finished, with still a chicken leg, a couple spoonsfull of potatoes and his dessert to go when his father pushed the empty foil rectangle away, lit a cigarette, and started to tap the ashes off into the remains of his dinner after each satisfied puff. He burned the cigarette down to a butt without stopping and stabbed out the hot end into his dinner. Then he lit another.

His mother was still eating, but when her husband lit his cigarette, so did she. She would puff, take a bite, then puff again. She used a little ceramic ashtray that Craig had made for her as a summer camp.

“Connie Cunningham called over here this evening,” she said and then looked at Craig with a raised eyebrow. He knew better than to answer, and stalled by putting a bit of cobbler into his mouth.

“She said all you boys were following the mosquito sprayer on your bikes again.”

Craig shrugged a shoulder.

“Don’t talk back to your mother!” his dad said, as he crushed his second cigarette and lit a third. Craig thought about retorting, “I didn’t talk back, I didn’t say anything!” but knew better.
“She says that you follow too close and that the cars can’t see you in the smoke. She was pretty upset.”

“Now, I don’t want you doing that any more, you hear me,” his father added.

Craig glared at his little sister who was smirking at him.

“Ok, Ok. Now can I be excused?”

“Yes, take out the trash, please, and then go up to do your homework.”

Out by the alley with the trash bags Craig had to swat a half-dozen mosquitoes off his arm.

“Damn thing doesn’t even work,” he said as he trudged back inside.

Grams

“In all my experience along the dirtiest ways of this dirty little world, I have never met with such a thing as a trifle yet.”
― Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone

Aeropress, from Williams Sonoma

I am such a hopeless loser – I even have a piece of paper with a list of things I need for some reason, that I know I have, but that I can’t find. Because these are on a list they stay in the back of my mind and usually I will stumble across something from the list when I’m looking for something else (this is what all of my life is like). Then I check it off.

I knew I had a tiny little battery-powered digital scale. I don’t know how I came to own it – I found it somewhere. I’m pretty sure it was abandoned after some drug deal went bad – that’s what tiny precise scales like this are good for. But I kept it around and would tare my fountain pens before I inked them – to figure out how much ink they hold.

But the thing disappeared. At least it disappeared in reality – existing only virtually on my list of things that I’ve lost that I know are around here somewhere (discussed above). Then, today, after having a dream about fountain pen ink last night I dug out an old box of obscure home mixes of ink I had given up on I found the scale.

One more checked off the list.

Why did I want the thing? Well, as I continue to fall down the endless rabbit-hole of coffee nerddom, I had a thought of being more precise about my beans-to-water-ratio. I’ve been digging out an approximate scoop and not paying much heed to the water. Here’s the king of the coffee nerds, James Hoffmann, on the subject:

So, I watched the video – did a little more research and thought it all out. I decided to go with 250 ml of coffee (a little less than I used to drink, but I’d make it a bit stronger) and a 75gm/liter coffee/water ratio – in my Aeropress. That works out to 19 gm of coffee beans ground up and 250 ml of water (heated in the microwave – for that small amount it works better than the kettle). I used my hand grinder rather than my electric Braun – that way I can select the beans for that individual cup – depending how I feel today.

And it was pretty damn good. Stronger than I am used to and with a hint of bitterness (which is not bad -just a hint). So I think I’ll keep going this way.

On down the rabbit hole.

What I learned this week, June 17, 2022

Downtown Square, McKinney, Texas

5 Questions the Most Interesting People Will Always Ask in Conversations

The point is to get beyond the dreaded small talk.


I wonder what this guy was thinking… “Wow, there are too many people here! I give up!” or, more likely, “Hey! Quit staring at my penis!”

Bad thinkers

Why do some people believe conspiracy theories? It’s not just who or what they know. It’s a matter of intellectual character


When you pick a mudbug up – he’ll spread his claws out and try to look as big and as mean as he can. He still looks delicious – no matter how hard he tries.

Cloned crayfish accidentally created in an aquarium are conquering the world

Today, the freshwater marbled crayfish populates various ecosystems across Asia, Europe, and Africa, and they all trace back to a single genetically identical individual born less than three decades ago.


The river and the Hwy 90 double bridge from the Crescent Park Bridge, New Orleans

The Power of the Bittersweet: Susan Cain on Longing as the Fulcrum of Creativity

In search of the most transcendent solution to “the problem of being alive in a deeply flawed yet stubbornly beautiful world.”


How to Stop Sugar Cravings Once and For All

Plus, the best foods to try when you’re in the mood for something sweet.


Commanding Heights : Keynes on Inflation | on PBS

Progressives should fear inflation more than recession (substack.com)

Biden Can’t Fix Inflation If He Can’t Stop Lying About It – PJ Media


KURT SCHLICHTER: Them: ‘You Must Care!’ Us: ‘No.’


Some Thoughts on James Bond

“You only live twice:
Once when you are born
And once when you look death in the face”
― Ian Fleming, You Only Live Twice

Audubon Park, New Orleans

This weekend I found myself, wonder of wonders, with a little bit of time on my hands and deciding I wanted some free (or at least already paid for), mindless entertainment – I watched the newest installment in the James Bond franchise, No Time to Die, currently streaming on Netflix.

It was… OK, I guess. I still haven’t fully recovered from the experience of Everything, Everywhere, All at Once – so any other cinema will be a pale imitation of art… but it kept me mostly entertained for a while. I did like seeing Felix Leiter, Bond’s faithful longtime CIA sidekick, get some cred, even if it ends badly for him.

But I began thinking about No Time to Die being the 25th James Bond film. You see the franchise, with Dr. No coming out in 1962, when I was five, roughly parallels my life – or at least as much of it as I can remember. James Bond was always there – rebooted, changed, evolved… but always a cultural touchstone of some kind – always reflecting the times, distorted, like a funhouse mirror.

I remember seeing my first Bond Film, From Russia With Love – probably in 1964. My parents were huge bond fans and a little of that rubbed off on me – I was excited to go. At that age I didn’t really remember everything – but some scenes stick with me. There’s an assassination with a guy climbing out through a billboard, of course Rosa Klebb and her poisoned shoe. Most of all is the fight with the giant Red Grand on the train.

As an adult I was shocked when I realized that actor is Robert Shaw, who decades later played the grizzled old captain Quint in Jaws.

Then I saw Thunderball (for some reason I missed Goldfinger when it came out) – which was special to a kid that age – underwater fighting!

On and on over the years. Did you ever see the original Casino Royale? The comedy spoof with David Niven and Peter Sellers? Check it out. Some good looking women (including a very young Jacqueline Bisset) and a Tijuana Brass theme song.

Over my whole life a Bond film would pop up every few years… some good, some not-so – most just mindless entertainment. The worst were the gimmicky silly ones, especially with Roger Moore – I never liked his Bond – which was a shame I liked him on TV as Simon Templar in The Saint.

I’ve read a handful of the Ian Fleming novels. Not exactly my cup of tea but Bond on the page is a very interesting character. Daniel Craig is the closest… Literary Bond is not a very nice person.

So now we’re here. What’s next? I’m sure there will be something – that’s too much money to be left on the table – I’m pretty sure the franchise will outlive me. That’s pretty weird, now that I think about it.

Train Station

“It’s been a prevalent notion. Fallen sparks. Fragments of vessels broken at the Creation. And someday, somehow, before the end, a gathering back to home. A messenger from the Kingdom, arriving at the last moment. But I tell you there is no such message, no such home — only the millions of last moments . . . nothing more. Our history is an aggregate of last moments.”

― Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

Train Station, Dallas, Texas

Into the Triple Digits

“Louisiana in September was like an obscene phone call from nature. The air – moist, sultry, secretive, and far from fresh – felt as if it were being exhaled into one’s face. Sometimes it even sounded like heavy breathing.”

― Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume

My vintage Cannondale Commuter Bike

As I said last week (when I went to see the movie I’m still thinking about all the time) we are a car short and I am riding my bike to work (5 miles each way) partly out of necessity, partly out of the need for exercise.

And now the temperature has climbed into the triple digits (102 Fahrenheit today – in Centigrade that’s… too damn hot) making it a real challenge.

I was up before six this morning and ready to go at six-thirty, as the sun was barely rising. That was actually pretty nice – not too hot – not too much wind – not a lot of traffic – at that ungodly time of morning. I carry a change of clothes in a garment folder and change into my business attire once I’ve sat at my desk long enough to stop sweating.

The trip home was a beating. It wasn’t so much the heat – I was worn out – I’m too old for this – and the south wind was strong and hot. There was some unexpected construction along my route and that added another mile to the ride.

When I made it home I was exhausted. So I’ll leave all you fine folks and go off to sleep now.

Have to be on the road by six thirty, after all.

Sunday Snippet, Flash Fiction, The Illustrated Woman by Bill Chance

“From the outer edge of his life, looking back, there was only one remorse, and that was only that he wished to go on living.”

― Ray Bradbury, The Illustrated Man

Window sign, Tattoo Parlor, Deep Ellum, Dallas, Texas

The Illustrated Woman

After work Craig drove off to the club to work out.

He didn’t exercise as an excuse to watch other people. He was serious about improving his fitness, he was working hard. But the first part of his program was to do a half hour on the stepper. There wasn’t much to do for thirty minutes except look around at the other folks working out.

He tried to do the stepper right. He would stand as upright as possible, keeping his weight on his feet, using his hands only for balance. A couple machines down some guy was flopped over forwards, resting his chest on the control panel, his arms on the handles. His entire weight was supported there, his blue spandex-covered butt stuck up in the back. Craig knew he didn’t get any real exercise that way and it must be killing his back.

In front of the steppers, past the always-busy treadmills was a warm-up area, where people do their stretching. This club was a serious place, not a lot of socializing, and although there is a wide variety of customers, a lot of serious bodybuilders hung out there.

Craig couldn’t help but notice one woman on the mat bending herself around, stretching. Tall and thin, almost gaunt, wearing wire-rim glasses and medium length blonde hair pulled into a ponytail. She wore white shorts, a gray athletic bra-top, black workout shoes and weightlifting gloves. She must have had some Yoga training, those were serious stretches. She stood, feet far apart, and keeping her torso and legs straight and locked bent over and touched her cheek to the inside of each calf. Then she rolled around and tapped the back of her head on the padded floor between her feet.

What caught Craig’s eye wasn’t only her extraordinary flexibility, it was her tattoo. Not a small, ordinary tattoo, but a big design. She was illustrated. The illustration was a vine, he guessed a climbing wild rose. He could make out red blossoms and maybe even thorns among the thick green leaves. It started as a spiral tendril between her breasts and grew into an arc over her left shoulder. It continued down her back in undulating curves and finally ended… well,Craig couldn’t really tell exactly where it ended.

He was not a big fan of tattoos, but he liked this one. It looked like a real part of her, not some odd design picked out in a drunken haze and buzzed in on an ankle in a whim. Jeez, though, that must have hurt. A good two or three square feet of skin under that electric needle.

He finished his time on the stepper and walked some laps to cool down before he started working on the weight machines. Down on one end of the club was the free weight area where the serious bodybuilders worked. One woman was sitting, doing concentration curls with a dumbbell. The biceps on her arm literally popped out like a hank of thick cords, you could almost see every muscle strand. She was like a sculptor in flesh. The sculptor and the sculpture too. Slow carving with sweat and plates of steel.

For the most part, the men down there had unmarked skin. He had never noticed before that all the women had large complex tattoos. Abstract patterns across their bellies. One had a tiger looking out of its lair drawn across her shoulder blades.

He thought back to something he heard on TV as a child, during the Olympics, Craig thought about it and decided it was the 1968 games in Mexico City. The announcer was talking about the East German women’s swimming team. She said something like, “The Communist Bloc girls have a big advantage over the American women because they have a weight lifting program. American women won’t lift weights because they are afraid they will look too manly .”

Thirty years ago before then… over half a century has passed now. A lot of water under the bridge. It’s odd that he remembered that from so long ago; he had no idea why it made such an impression. Things have changed a bit since then, though, haven’t they?