21 December 2006

Ancora Imparo

Anyone who's gone out to dinner with me in the last few months has probably encountered my new favorite question: what are three things you learned today? Here is a random assortment of things I've learned in the last few weeks, in no particular order.

1) You do not know better than the cookie dough package how long the cookies should stay in the oven. Take the cookies out as instructed, even if they are still square on the top.

2) Teensy tiny pieces of glass, though small, still have teensy tiny razor-sharp edges capable of slicing your thumb open.

3) Many hardware stores do not carry black grout - call ahead.

4) When making a mirror mosaic, mask off the mirror early in the process so your worklight does not shine in your face and give you a headache.

5) "Thray" is not a word, though "echard" is.

6) It's eggnog season! Eggnog is good when mixed with chai.

7) US currency is printed on paper that is 75-80% recycled blue jeans (waste cotton) and 20-25% waste flax.

8) There is a sunken WWII sub in Norway containing 70 tons of mercury, as well as other heavy metals. Debates rage about whether to try to remove it or entomb it in sand and concrete. (Why not leave the sub there and pump the mercury to the surface? Anyone know?)

9) The seventh and final Harry Potter book will be called "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows".

10) When the freeway is flooded, walking under the overpass is extremely treacherous, as large amounts of cold sudden water tend to fall on you.

11) Except for water, we use more concrete (by volume) than any other substance in the world. Concrete made from volcanic ash will harden and cure underwater (thank you, Roman Empire).

12) Discount Builders Supply is perhaps the best hardware store in San Francisco (and it does have a big parking lot).

13) It is easy to find reasons to not mow the lawn.

What are three things you learned today?

Curvacious Glass

I've evolved in the past four months; I'm no longer feeling limited to projects that only use straight cuts!

14 December 2006

Math and Love

So glad I found this - I thought I was the only one who tried these analytic methods on everything.

I just took a three hour chemistry final. When my brain unfries, I will post some entries with a little more substance than I have of late. I am relishing a whole month of doing calculations without having to think about sigfigs!

07 December 2006

When Bunnies Go Bad

(With apologies to Ranger Bunny and Nicole.)

05 December 2006

More Cool Art

For those of you who are ready to move on after making a few snowflakes, behold the amazing art of Peter Calleson! His works, including incredibly detailed papercuts like this one, can be found at his website here.

28 November 2006

Purple Doorknobs

A few weeks ago I found a box of old doorknobs in the basement. Among them was a pair of purple glass doorknobs. "Those wacky Victorians," I thought, "making different colors of doorknobs just to dress the house up." I learned, however, that the doorknobs weren't supposed to be purple - they started out colorless. (Thanks to Dad and my friend Nicole the Museum Conservator for enlightening me.)

Glass is made from silicon dioxide (sand) heated to high temperatures. Most glass contains traces of iron, which gives the glass a greenish tint. An additive called a decolorizer offsets the greenish hue. Before 1915, manganese dioxide was a common decolorizer. It acts as an oxidizer for the iron, converting the iron into an iron oxide that produces a yellowish, much less intense tint. (I learned this from the ever-helpful Corning Glass company.) An unexpected result, however, is that manganese will turn pinkish or purplish if exposed to ultraviolet radiation like sunlight. My doorknobs are an example of this "purpling." Most glass that purples naturally was produced between 1880 and WWI. In Beacon Hill (Boston) there are old brownstones, famous for their fine architecture and purple windows which have deepened in hue over time.

This effect became popular among antiques collectors in the 1970's, and many dealers artificially purpled their glass by exposing it to sunlight or UV radiation, ruining the value of many pieces. Collectors of glass insulators are also cautioned that many shades of glass available for sale have been unnaturally tinted by similar processes.

Info about how glass is produced in different colors here

16 November 2006

More recycling on a large scale

I absolutely love old buildings. We live in a Victorian house built in 1889, and I often spend my weekends removing decades of paint layers to restore things like escutcheons and broken window locks. ("Escutcheon" is a word I learned from Babble over a year ago, and now I can use it in a sentence without cracking up!)

Given my love of historic architecture, you can imagine I was thrilled to learn that the Pillar House, a famous and fancy restaurant from my youth, has been given a new lease on life as a residence once again. The Pillar House was built in 1828 as a private residence on an empty spread of farmland, and was converted to a restaurant in 1952. The restaurant was known for its formality, its high standards (smoking and cell phone bans and a dress code), and its tradition of giving long-stem roses to female diners. (I remember getting one when I was about ten!) The restaurant closed in 2001, and the property, which had been hemmed in by freeways over the years, was seized by eminent domain.

This is the fun part of the story: the Pillar House was bought by a family who are reconstructing it as a residence on their farmland in Lincoln, Massachusetts. They're doing it right, too, consulting with the Newton Historical Society and spending effort on details like finding crown glass consistent with the era. When I visited my parents in October we drove by to take a peek, and the building looks just terrific tucked away in a peaceful setting much like its first spot in 1828.

Another example of this type of recycling is the famous London Bridge, which was built in 1831. In 1967, the bridge was determined to be structurally unsound, sinking into the Thames after so many years in the swift river current. It was purchased at auction in 1968 by an American, Robert McCulloch, who was developing the new town of Lake Havasu City, Arizona. The price paid was $2,460,000. The bridge was disassembled, with each stone numbered before it was shipped, and reassembled in Arizona over the next three years. It is now the second most popular tourist attraction in the state, after the Grand Canyon, and holds the title of Largest Antique Ever Sold in the Guinness Book of World Records.

For more great stories of building reuse, check out Conde Nast's list of hotels which used to be something else (article comes to me courtesy of C24).

08 November 2006

Reuse, Recycle, Recreate

I grew up with a healthy appreciation for the possibilities of scrap - my dad's workshop in the basement always had the perfect piece of wood for a project, my mom's fabric bin had just the piece to inspire. I'm still at it, currently working to incorporate salvaged windows into my glass art, and making a clock out of miscellaneous cabinet and faucet knobs. I recently came across two funky residences, created out of salvaged building materials. Aside from that, they couldn't be more different!

Wing Castle, located in the Hudson River Valley, was built by Peter and Toni Ann Wing. In 1969 they started collecting building material from churches, a railroad bridge, and demolished sidewalks and buildings. "Finishing" their home took the greater part of three decades, though Peter Wing continues to work on new projects and appears to be developing a B&B part of the property. The castle incorporates odds and ends like a ship's bow, the bottom dome of a water tower, and an antique bird feeder. Awesome photos here and here and an article by Peter Wing himself here.

Anyone who's ever tried to get away from Logan Airport in the last twenty years has encountered the Big Dig, Boston's huge construction fiasco. Paul Pedini, an engineer on the project, salvaged 600,000 pounds of concrete and steel (used to construct temporary structures like freeways ramps and support posts for the Zakim Bridge) and built a 4300-square-foot, six-level house in Lexington, Massachusetts. Though the lot and the building costs came to about $1,000,000, Pedini got the materials for free and saved his company about $20,000 in disposal costs. The house features 27-foot ceilings, a rooftop Japanese garden, and (my favorite part) a cable-stayed bridge connecting two interior levels. Pedini is looking for other projects to incorporate used construction materials and support sustainable growth. Article (with photos) about his house here.

03 November 2006

Revisiting September 11th

I am slowly working my way through all the two-hour specials about 9/11 that I recorded a few months ago. I am carefully alternating them with TV shows that cheer me up, like Junk Brothers, and other healthy things like getting out of the house and eating leftover Halloween chocolate.

I started my work as a psychiatric social worker on September 12th, 2001. I spent my first shift on an urban mental health crisis team going around to fire stations, talking to firefighters who didn't want to talk to us, and handing out materials describing how to talk to your kids about the fact that you have a dangerous, possibly lethal job. It seemed trivial in the wake of what had happened, and my sense of helplessness was overwhelming. It took years to turn off social-worker mode and let the emotions of that day finally flow.

The Blue Man Group have created a powerful tribute video (though I am relieved to find that it is less powerful for me than it was three years ago - time does heal).

Exhibit 13 (better resolution, smaller screen)

Exhibit 13 (bigger screen, grainier)

And, in case you haven't saved up episodes of Junk Brothers to cheer you up:
here's something that might, filmed right here in San Francisco earlier this year.

26 October 2006

Quilting in Glass

These are Glass Projects #4 and #5, the first pieces I made at home in my very own kiln. They are blocks of a traditional quilt pattern called "Crazy Amish Star". They are translucent but unfortunately I have not yet figured out how to photograph this kind of work successfully...

25 October 2006

59 Five-vowel words

Here is a list of words that have all five vowels in them, compiled in the last year by my students and the good people at Babble:

eunoia <--shortest with only 6 letters
facetiously <-- has all vowels in alphabetical order
ultrarevolutionaries <-- has each vowel exactly twice

more geekiness like this

23 October 2006

Colonial Gravestones

Today J and I spent the day exploring Concord, Massachusetts with my parents. I was especially drawn to the old cemetery next to St. Bernard's church, where my grandmother and I used to go when we were early for Mass. Today the oldest grave we found marks a death in 1690. (Concord was settled in 1635.)

The artwork is beautiful, and I wished I had done a little research ahead of time to see if rubbings were allowed, and how to do gravestone rubbings without causing damage. Two helpful sources for advice of this nature are the Connecticut Gravestone Network and the Association for Gravestone Studies.

I learned new uses of words: a "consort" is a woman who predeceases her husband ("Sarah, consort of Josiah Wheeler") and a "relict" is a woman who is widowed by her husband. "Relict" can also refer to a child whose father has died.

There were some gravestones which were weathered to the point where they could not be read at all. I learned that sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide from pollution (notably from burning coal) contribute to the weathering and destruction of headstones. Flat memorial stones are also damaged by sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides in acid rain.

Our second stop was the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, also in Concord, where my grandmother is buried. Sleep Hollow Cemetery is a tourist destination because of "Author's Ridge", where Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, Henry Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson are buried. (Today those four famous graves were marked with little pumpkins in honor of the season.)

The stories we pieced together were compelling - Revolutionary War Veterans, frequent remarrying due to untimely deaths, confusing intermarrying between families with familiar historical names, and tragedies such as the family who lost their three little girls, aged 5, 4, and 2, all within a week of each other.

I seem to be fascinated by things that people say I should find morbid.

17 October 2006

The Limerick Game

My friend C24 invented a fun game in which we write limericks by passing them back and forth between us, writing only one line at a time. We've come up with some terrible ones, which I won't share - but here are some of my favorites.

Written 19 January, 2006:

A man with a gimpy-legged shuffle
was killed by a poisonous truffle
"Alas, I am smote!”
were the last words he wrote
with a quill on the edge of his ruffle.

Written 22-29 January:
A painter who wore a beret
Heard a devious art dealer say,
"Just pretend that you're French
And dress like a wench;
I'll sell more of your paintings that way."

Written 14-15 March:
A boy with a shiny new bike
Had just traded in his old trike
"With two wheels, not three
I can ride fast and free
Since the front and the back are alike."

Written 18 June - 28 August:
I’ll never forget me first nanny
For she’d whack me quite hard on the fanny.
I wouldn’t have minded
Except that I’d finded
She caused pain in me least favorite cranny.

Written 17 October:
The boys at the long wooden table
Make fun of the horse in the stable.
Ah, if only they knew
What that horse likes to do
When he sneaks in the house to watch cable.

One we didn't write, in honor of the math geeks in my life:
A mathematician named Bath
Let x equal half that he hath.
He gave away y
Then sat down to pi
And choked. What a sad aftermath.

And finally, a wonderful example contributed by my Mom:
An erotic neurotic named Sid
Got his ego mixed up with his id.
His errant libido
Was like a torpedo
And that's why he done what he did!

09 October 2006

Lady Edisons

This weekend's TV theme at our house is Inventors and Inventions, and I've loads to tell about female inventors and their roles in our daily lives.

The US Patent Act of 1790 changed the rules and allowed women to hold patents if they were single or widowed. Since married women of the time were not allowed to own property in most states, and patents are intellectual property, most women could not hold patents despite the Patent Act. The first woman to hold a patent was Mary Dixon Kies, who lived in Connecticut, where law did not prevent married women from owning property independently. Her patent, issued 15 May 1809, was for a method of weaving straw and silk together to make hats. At the time, the United States had an embargo in effect on European goods (blame Napoleon) and the economy in the New England states, which had been heavily supported by imports, was suffering. Kies' method made it possible to produce hats quickly and efficiently, bolstering the local economy. (I looked for Kies' original patent document - it was apparently destroyed by a fire at the Patent Office in 1836.)

Margaret Knight absorbed her education of mechanics while working in paper and textile mills as a preteen and teenager. In 1868 she was working at a paper bag company in Massachusetts when she developed a machine that would automate the production of square-bottomed paper bags. (At the time, most paper bags had envelope-style bottoms; square-bottomed bags were handmade and prohibitively expensive for mass production.) She built a wood model of her machine and brought it to a machinist, since the patent office required an iron model. While the machinist was working on the job, a man saw Knight's machine and stole her patent. She brought a patent interference lawsuit against him, and won her patent in 1871. Her opponent's main defense in court was that a woman could not have possibly created such a mechanical invention. During this time, newspapers patronizingly referred to Knight as "Lady Edison". Over the course of her lifetime, Margaret Knight held many patents for machines relating mostly to textile and fashion industries.

Mary Engle Pennington was a chemist who specialized in bateriology. She researched safe handling of milk and dairy products, eventually convincing dairy farmers and street ice cream vendors to change some of their procedures to make their products safer. In 1905 she applied for a job with the USDA under the name "M. E. Pennington". Apparently the government did not realize she was female until after she received a promotion in 1906. Mary Engle Pennington designed refrigerated railroad cars, which allowed perishables to be shipped safely all over the country, and also improved the shipping of eggs with a new design for egg cartons.

One unlikely inventor is Hedy Markey, better known as Hedy Lamarr, who, together with pianist and composer George Antheil, developed a method of encoding radio signals called frequency hopping, an example of spread spectrum. Their method, which they patented in 1942, was based on the idea that radio transmissions could be hidden if they switched frequencies in a pattern that would be difficult for an eavesdropper to trace but easy to follow for someone with the appropriate key (in this case, a piano roll from a player piano). The government turned down the opportunity to buy a license for their method during WWII, but spread spectrum is used today in radio and cell phone technologies to make transmissions less prone to interference and eavesdropping.

And kevlar! Stephanie Kwolek first created kevlar fibers while working as a research chemist at DuPont in 1971. And Liquid Paper, which was invented by Betty Nesmith, a typist who enjoyed painting as a hobby, and mixed her own version of a white paint that would enable her to better correct mistakes. It goes on and on - windshield wipers, signal flares, no-wrinkle cotton - tons of stories about women inventing stuff. More good info here. I'm off to go tinker in the basement.

07 October 2006

Matrimonial Pearl of Wisdom and Poems

October is a month of many weddings for us, with three weekends in a row committed. Today's wedding gave us this pearl of wisdom, courtesy of Ogden Nash via cousin Molly:

To keep your marriage brimming
With love in the loving cup:
Whenever you're wrong, admit it;
Whenever you're right, shut up.

One of my favorite wedding poems is another Ogden Nash, Tin Wedding Whistle. My favoritest favorite, though, is The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear.

05 October 2006

A Secret of Alcatraz

Alcatraz Island is a popular destination for tourists and locals in the San Francisco Bay Area. The US military decided in the 1850's that Alcatraz (so named by a Spanish explorer in 1775, after the local pelicans - alcatraces) was well situated to be a fort, although it was never needed to defend the San Francisco Bay. Alcatraz housed prisoners from the Civil War onwards. In 1934 it was released by the military to the US Department of Justice, who converted the island into a federal penitentiary. Isolated and surrounded by swift chilly currents, Alcatraz was an ideal location for a prison. For the next 30 years, Alcatraz housed some of the most infamous criminals in the country.

So far, all of this is info you can get from the audio tour. The secret part I learned this past weekend, when J convinced me to volunteer with him for the Alcatraz Historic Garden Project. Initially, Alcatraz was mostly bare rock - the soil now on the island was brought over from nearby Angel Island, and all the vegetation was placed there over the last 160 years. Over time there were many gardens on Alcatraz, either planted by officer's wives or planted and maintained by the inmates themselves.

We worked in an area where three Victorians used to stand. Between the houses were terraced gardens, and when the houses were torn down in the 1940's, the foundations were used to plant vegetables and flowers for cutting. Landscape duties were highly valued among the inmates, and some brought flowers back to their cells. The gardens had been neglected for the last forty years, until 2003 when the Historic Garden Project started to rehabilitate the gardens on the island.

One group was given recipes of chicken manure and other yucky smelling dirt type stuff to rehabilitate the soil in the house foundations. Our group was assigned the more fun task of cutting back a huge overgrowth of ivy that was covering the path along the bottom of the house foundations. The photo above shows what it looked like when we were done - when we started, the view and the path were both completely obscured with ivy six feet tall. Those flagstones had not seen sunlight for forty years! The gardens will be replanted this fall, the concrete railing that was torn apart by the ivy will be replaced, and eventually the gardens will be open for docent tours.

I worked alongside one girl who enjoyed breaking rusty rebar with her bare hands, and had a knack for finding unusual objects as we worked. Among her finds: a shard of porcelain (probably from a plumbing fixture) and a penny (date obscured). J found a large pile of bones, mostly chicken, which were probably dropped there by trash-picking seagulls. Our team also found a manhole cover leading to the sewer, which had been long forgotten.

Despite the early and foggy morning and the smelly boat ride with the stacks of chicken manure, volunteering in the garden was extremely satisfying. We even got a behind-the-scenes tour of Alcatraz! If you are interested in volunteering, check out the info here about the Conservancy's work.

03 October 2006

Glass Class Project #1

Today I got home from my second glass fusing class, and I am loving it! Here's the project I made last week.

25 September 2006

Innovations in Pavement

I must admit, I don't really pay a lot of attention to the surface beneath my feet unless I'm roller-skating (which I do rarely, and poorly). But I read about some nifty pavement-related inventions, and I have a new-found respect.

The first idea that caught my attention is the use of titanium dioxide as a coating for pavement and roof tiles. Titanium dioxide is sensitive to light, and in the presence of light and water vapor, turns nitrogen oxide (one of the emissions that causes smog) into harmless vapors. Pavement with titanium dioxide has been in use for several years in Japan and is now being tested in England and Italy.

Another interesting pavement innovation: porous pavement. Pervious Pavement is a type of concrete that has the same capacity as regular pavement material but can drain water at a rate of 8-12 gallons per square foot per minute. This eliminates the needs for storm drains, minimizes the risk of flooding in urban areas, and helps to prevent erosion.

New kinds of concrete are made from recycled materials, which is always a good thing. Sulfur concrete is made from sulfur (a byproduct of refining petroleum) and coal ash (a byproduct of, um, burning coal). Other types of concrete being studied are made from blast furnace slag, sludge from paper mills, agricultural waste such as rice husks, used rubber tires, and recycled soda bottles.

22 September 2006

Airplane Boarding Procedure

How many times have you gotten stuck in the aisle or the jetway while waiting to board a plane, thinking "there must be a better way to do this"? Sometime in the last few years, I was traveling an airline that was participating in an experiment to test a boarding procedure called Wilma (boarding Window first, then Middle, then Aisle). I don't remember feeling that the boarding process went any more smoothly than usual, but I was relieved to think that someone was putting some thought into these things.

Turns out, people have put lots of thought into this very issue. I found an article that analyzes current boarding procedures using Lorentzian geometry and computer simulations. I didn't dedicate a lot of energy to understanding all the math, but I do remember that Lorentz is typically associated with chaos theory, and the general theme of chaos theory is that some systems have too many variables and are too dynamic to be predicted, let alone tamed.

So it seems with airplane boarding. Even if the back-to-front system were perfectly implemented so people were ordered by individual row, rather than by sections of rows, people would still be waiting in the aisles. This is because the rows are spaced closer together than one row's worth of passengers - row 38 can't board quickly because row 39 passengers block row 38, and they are standing in the aisle while row 40 is boarding.

One of the factors which delay boarding is that people who are seated in aisle seats get up and block the aisle to allow window and middle seat passengers to get to their seats. Wilma would eliminate this problem, if implemented well. Evidence from airlines, however, suggests that the Wilma fails because of our own resistance to being regulated by boarding procedures at all. Wilma also becomes less efficient when people with window seats arrive at the gate after boarding has begun. Shuttle by United tried to adopt Wilma ten years ago, but abandoned the attempt because of passengers' reactions.

Another factor in boarding delay is aisles being blocked by people trying to stow luggage in overhead bins. With new security regulations limiting what passengers can bring in carry-on, it is possible that more luggage is being checked, and as a result there is less delay caused by stowage problems. All the articles I found agree that enforcing carry-on luggage restrictions is one way airlines can improve boarding procedures.

Other procedures have been tried: Southwest's solution is to abandon assigned seating altogether, essentially creating a totally random boarding process which seems generally acceptable to passengers. Passengers are likely to be positively influenced about their experience if they are given more sense of control. AirTran implemented a new system last year, which boards the back four rows, then the front four rows, working towards the middle of the plane. It seems this system would work well, provided people with rear seats who arrive late are held until the next wave of rear-seat boarding.

Keith Devlin points out that airlines are also making decisions based on customer satisfaction, which means that certain passengers will always be given preferential boarding, whether or not science supports this practice.

15 September 2006

Motorcycle, Art and Illusion

This work, Lunch With a Helmut On, was created in 1987 by the sculptor Shigeo Fukuda. It is made entirely from knives, forks and spoons welded together.

11 September 2006

Crop Circles and Geometry Lessons

So, it’s been done before, but I was going to write a bit about crop circles – I spent the weekend sick in bed and indulged in two television shows about them. When I started looking online, I got bogged down in all the theories; I’m not going to recount them here – there’s so many – but I found a website that really spins my top. Zef Damen has created a site with step-by-step recipes for making many of the crop circles that have appeared in the last decade. (He also has instructions for making a working clock out of Legos.)

Damen has not included my very favorite crop circle design, but I found a very helpful report to get me started on my own recipe. This crop circle appeared in West Stowell, Wiltshire County UK on 14-15 July 2000. It was 280 feet in diameter.

Not so much my inclination, but Andrew Glassner has created an algorithmic language for making crop circle-like designs, and has tested them out using a pressure washer in parking lots.

When I get back to teaching, my geometry students are going to get a photo of a crop circle, a compass and straightedge, and an hour to write a game plan. Then we’ll head for the soccer field!

(For the record: I think some crop circles are human-made, but some are not. I believe that even the experts can't really tell the difference, except for obvious hoaxes. I don't believe in aliens, UFOs, or the channeling of psychic energy. I tend to lean towards the electro-magnetic/plasma vortex family of theories. And I hope this mystery gets figured out in my lifetime!)

06 September 2006

Dorm Life and Suicide

I've worked as a psychiatric social worker and a counselor in a city whose culture is dominated by the local university. One of my most wrenching cases was that of a student who killed himself by jumping off a ninth floor balcony. Suicide is unfortunately common among college students; figures suggest that suicides occur at a rate of three per day on college campuses.

I've been horrified to read over the last few weeks about cases of universities enforcing policies to evict or suspend students who are seeking treatment for depression and suicidal behavior. Fortunately, it seems that these policies aren't holding up against the civil rights of the students:

Hunter College
A female student attempted to take her life by ODing on Tylenol, then called 911. Upon her release from the hospital, she discovered that she had been locked out of her dorm room. She was allowed to collect her things while escorted by a security guard. Hunter's policy was that a student who attempted to commit suicide could not live in campus housing and was required to take a full semester off. The student's lawsuit agains the university was based on Fair Housing Act, the ADA, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. She received a monetary settlement and the college dropped its suicide policy, which had been in effect for three years.

Allegheny College
A student with a 2-3 year history of depression and suicidal ideation hanged himself in an off-campus fraternity house in 2002. He had been actively involved in treatment, including medication, counseling with university clinicians, and a brief hospitalization. He refused hospitalization several times. His parents sued Allegheny and the clinicians who worked with their son, citing the school's failure to act on clear signs that he was an immediate danger to himself. The school's legal defense involves the student's right to privacy and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which limits the medical information universities may share about their students. The case was settled in favor of Allegheny in 2005.

MIT has the unfortunate reputation of having an elevated suicide rate compared to other colleges and universities. In the last few years, the school has settled two cases out of court. In one case, a student died in a fire in her dorm room, after expressing thoughts of killing herself that day to two other students. It is not clear whether the fire was an accident or an act of self-immolation. In a second case, a student drank cyanide and died in 2001. It appears that her suicide was due in part to the stress of being stalked by a male student, and her parents brought suit against MIT based on their inadequate handling of the stalker. As part of the settlement, MIT expanded their mental health services and provided training for non-clinical staff.

George Washington University
The most heavy-handed case I researched is that of a student at George Washington University, who sought emergency treatment for depression after the suicide of a friend. While hospitalized, he received written communication from the university stating that he had violated the school's code of conduct, was suspended, was evicted from his dorm. He was threatened with arrest if he returned to campus. He is using Fair Housing Act, ADA, Rehabilitation Act, and the DC Human Rights Act to sue the university for discrimination. It appears that the case is still unresolved, and the student is completing his education at another school.

Clinicians have expressed concern that mandatory leave policies will discourage students from seeking support for depression and suicidal ideation. Colleges and universities are working with people who are in a difficult gray area, clinicially speaking. College students are typically 18-22, grappling with many of the issues of adolescence while legally adults. College is also a transition period for families, since students are living away from home for the first time and taking on more responsibility while parents are adjusting to being less involved in the day-to-day lives of their children.

More on this from Inside Higher Education

02 September 2006

The Root of Root Beer

Inspired by a recent trip to In-n-Out Burger, I started wondering: what roots are used to make root beer? My guess at the time was sarsaparilla, and in part I was right. A little research reveals that root beer has been made from a wide variety of plants, including (not just roots, but also berries and herbs from) sassafras, sarsaparilla, vanilla, juniper, wintergreen, cherry tree bark, birch bark, licorice, anise, cinnamon, dandelion, ginger, yucca, and a bunch of other things I can't spell. The recipe we have come to know and love was invented and marketed by a pharmacist, Charles Hires, in the 1860's. The beverage gained popularity after he introduced it (as a powdered drink mix) at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial exposition. He and his family began selling bottled root beer in the 1890's.

Although root beer is usually associated with North America, the British have experimented with root teas since the 18th century, starting with colonial American recipes. Alcoholic versions of fermented root beer were brewed, though non-alcoholic recipes were far more common and gained especial popularity during the temperance movements of Britain and the United States.

In 1960, the FDA banned the use of sassafras because of emerging research suggesting that safrole, the oil of the sassafras plant, is mildly carcinogenic. Sassafras bark was banned in 1976. The root beer industry probably would have died without the advances in chemistry to allow for the creation of artificial sassafras flavors. Modern recipes for root beer use artificial flavorings, or use young sassafras shoots, bark, and leaves, which do not contain safrole. Safrole can also be extracted from sassafras root so the root can be used safely.

In 2005, a Canadian high school student researched the medicinal potential of sarsaparilla, another key ingredient in traditional root beer, and determined that it may have great potential as a cancer-fighting medicine. Sarsaparilla grows wild and abundant in certain parts of Saskatchewan.

(An aside about In-n-Out Burger: after reading Fast Food Nation five years ago, I quit fast food entirely, with In-n-Out Burger being the sole exception that didn't totally gross me out by the end of the book. If you are lucky enough to live near an In-n-Out Burger, make sure you go armed with the secret menu.)

23 August 2006

Book Report: The Design of Everyday Things

This book is for anyone who has ever pushed the pull door. One of my favorite reads in recent years, Donald Norman's The Design of Everyday Things is an entertaining analysis of why and how we are conquered by our things - alarm clocks we can't turn off, for instance, and VCRs that blink 12:00. When you turn on the wrong burner on the stove, do you (like me) call yourself a blockhead, or do you blame the design of the stove?

Norman has advanced degrees in both engineering and psychology, and he uses his expertise in these fields to describe and advocate human-centered design. He proposes that every thing can be designed so its use is intuitive and natural to our brains. If it needs a sign or a label, it is compensating. Our things should accommodate us, not the other way around. "Idiot-proofing" is just good design.

Good design incorporates error-proofing. One example of this is your computer's "are you sure?" message when you try to quit without saving. Norman describes some of the brain slips we tend to make:

capture error - when an action is captured by another familiar process
example: driving to work when you intended to go to the grocery store

description error
- when an action is not defined specifically enough
example: pressing the car key remote button to open the front door of the house (I do this about once a week)

data-driven error
- when data intrudes on a process
example: punching your therapist's door code into the phone to call her

associative activation error
- when associations between internal thoughts generate an inappropriate action
example: calling your 4th grade teacher "Mom"

loss-of-activation error - forgetting the action at hand
example: walking to the basement and wondering what you needed from there

After reading this book, I began to notice things like door handles. Are they obvious about their push/pull status, or are they setting me up for failure? Why doesn't every state's highway system use a distinctive lane stripe for "exit-only" lanes? Why am I so attached to my Mini Cooper? The Design of Everyday Things is an eye-opener - it has caused me to hold the physical world around me to a higher standard.

16 August 2006

Frederick Mosteller: Statistician, Stylometrist, Red Sox fan

The mathematician Frederick Mosteller died last month after a long and rich career. On the faculty at Harvard for forty years, he chaired four different departments and was one of the founders of the school's statistics department. And he put himself through college playing poker!

One of the reasons Mosteller's work is near and dear to my heart is because he was a lifelong Red Sox fan. One of his earlier published works discussed the statistical forces at play in baseball, concluding that the outcome of a game involves so many chance events that the winning team is not always the better team. Hey, Red Sox fans have known that for decades, but Mosteller was the first guy to back it up with science.

I first ran across Mosteller's work reading The Language of Mathematics by Keith Devlin. Devlin describes Mosteller's work on the Federalist Papers - one of the most well-known uses of statistics in linguistic analysis, a field now called stylometry.

The Federalist Papers are a series of essays which appeared in New York newspapers in 1787 and 1788, designed to persuade citizens to ratify the US Constitution. They were authored by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, although they were published under a single pseudonym. Although both Hamilton and Madison wrote lists detailing who wrote what, the authorship of twelve of the essays is unclear.

Mosteller and his colleague David Wallace used word counts for thirty common words such as "by", "according", "there" and "enough". Analyzing the essays whose authorship was unquestioned, they were able to create a sort of linguistic fingerprint for each author. They compared these profiles to the word counts in the anonymous essays. Although any one word count alone would not yield conclusive results, the thirty words counts together established that Madison was most likely the author of the twelve disputed essays.

Mosteller's research interests were diverse. His career spanned sixty years of active research in a wide range of fields. As a biostatistician, he studied the placebo effect, analyzed the relative risk of the anaesthetic Halothane, and published a statistical risk/benefit analysis of surgery. More recently, he advised the Clinton administration on the impact of smaller classes on children's learning. He called for better use of statistical trials to test innovations in elementary education and in health care, and it's said that his work in sports statistics influenced Billy Beane's innovative management approach with the Oakland A's.

And he finally got to see his team take the World Series in 2004.

15 August 2006

Getting Creative With Motorcycles

I just finished watching a documentary about motorcycles, and learned about some fascinating bikes out there. The Y2K, which uses a recycled helicopter turbine (Jay Leno owns one), the four-wheeled V-10 Dodge Tomahawk, and the Britten V1000, of which only ten were made, are just a few examples of advanced technology and design turning out something totally new.

By far the most interesting to me is the Roadog (pictured above), a Frankenstein bike built out of aircraft tubing, the engine of a Chevy Nova and the brakes of a Corvette. The Roadog's creator, "Wild Bill" Gelbke, built only two. The Roadog weighs over 3200 pounds and has an amazing and impractical overall length of seventeen feet! The two bikes are in the hands of collectors now, on display because no one seems to be able to ride them except the late Mr. Gelbke himself. Wild Bill apparently used his Roadog for commuting around Chicago, and covered 20,000 miles in the first year after he built it.

Who knows what this aircraft engineer would have come up with next - he died in 1969, just a few years after he completed his second Roadog.

09 August 2006

Turkeys Are Smarter Than We Think

Over the last few years, I have been hearing more and more stories from my parents about the presence of wild turkeys in the suburbs of Boston. Recently, driving the interstate in Massachusetts, I sighted two wild turkeys standing in the breakdown lane, gobbling happily and confusing motorists.

When I told my father about this, he told me the story of Tim Hoban, a local postal carrier who was unable to deliver mail along his route because he was being attacked by a four-foot tall wild turkey.

Apparently Mr. Hoban tried to complete his route by varying the order in which he visited houses, and by trying to sneak to the back doors of the residences on his route. No matter how devious he got, the turkey was there waiting to fly at him and chase him into traffic. He seemed to be the only person who experienced turkey attacks. His supervisors, after seeing an altercation for themselves, finally suspended mail delivery on Hoban's route and called in a specialist from the Audubon society.

The bird expert observed the interactions between the turkey and the mail carrier, and submitted his recommendation: tell the neighborhood to stop feeding the turkey.

The residents of the neighborhood had been feeding the turkey for some time, and the huge bird, whom they called "George", spent his time going from house to house looking for treats. The only other creature who exhibited this behavior was, you guessed it, the postal carrier. George perceived poor Mr. Hoban as a threat to his food source, and mounted an effective defense.

(I did actually research this - it happened in March of 2001. Recent postings on blogs suggest that the turkey problem was brought under control in the winter/spring of this year by coyotes prowling the area. Apparently when they are not hunting turkeys, they like to hang out at the mall.)

02 August 2006


Lobster was always a big part of the rural Maine part of my upbringing. I don't eat 'em, but I used to enjoy playing with them on the porch before they met their steamy deaths in the big stockpot. I was tickled to learn something new today about lobsters: they come in all sorts of funky colors.

This week, two fishermen caught yellow lobsters in different parts of Maine. Yellow lobsters are extremely rare, about 1 in 30 million. One of the two fishermen plans to return his yellow lobster to the sea in a week or so, saying he'd like to give someone else the opportunity to make such an exciting catch.

Last month, a fisherman caught a two-toned lobster in Dyer Bay, near Bar Harbor. In this case it is a genetic mutation, though lobsters can have unusually colored shells (rather than the usual brown) due to diet.

Blue lobsters, still rare though more common than yellow or red (1 in one million), occur when the blue pigmentation in the carapace is overexpressed. Albino lobsters occur when all pigmentation is missing. Shades of red and yellow are due to underexpression of blue pigmentation. More pictures of colorful lobsters here.

All lobsters, regardless of their live color, turn red when they are cooked, because the heat releases the red pigmentation in the shell but not the other colors. Albino lobsters are the exception to this rule, since they have no red pigmentation to begin with - they stay the same color when they are cooked.

The annual five-day lobster festival in Rockland, Maine begins today.

28 July 2006

Archeology Part II

A few months ago I attended the Titanic exhibit at the San Francisco Metreon. (Highly recommended!) It included the "Big Piece", a 20' by 25' piece of the Titanic's hull. The piece was preserved by Conservation Solutions; their Titanic case file describes how the piece of hull was protected as it was brought to the surface.

The steel piece was desalinized by soaking in a pool of solution with aluminum/magnesium blocks. I tried to figure out why this works by comparing aluminum, magnesium, and iron (the main component of steel) in a reactivity series and confirmed that magnesium and aluminum are both more reactive than iron. These metals displaced the iron in reactions with sodium chlorides. Gradually the salts moved out of the hull piece to the alloy blocks. This process took almost two years. Then the piece was cleaned and coated with wax to protect it from new contaminants.

The Titanic exhibit explained that items that have been in salt water for so long are fragile when brought to the surface because molecules of the original item have been replaced by microorganisms and salts, and when a piece is cleaned and dried out, particles are removed which are now instrumental in the structural integrity of the item. The restored pieces are injected with wax to stabilize them.

Another fascinating thing about the Titanic exhibit: each visitor is given a boarding pass with information about a passenger on the ship. The exhibit includes a passenger list so you can see whether your passenger made it or not. My ticket was for a French model traveling as the companion (presumably the mistress) of San Francisco filmmaker. She didn't survive the sinking. The body of her travel companion was recovered with her purse clutched in his hand.

Archeological Finds

Just in the last few days, nifty things have been found in the ground.

In Jamestowne, Virginia, excavation of a well has yielded artifacts believed to be among the oldest items of European origin found in North America. Settlers arrived in 1607; a halberd was found bearing the insignia of Lord Delaware, who arrived in Jamestowne in 1610.

Associated Press Story
More about the Jamestown finds

And in Dublin, Ireland, a backhoe operator working in a bog discovered a Book of Psalms believed to be about 1200 years old, dating back to times of Viking raids in Ireland. Vikings!

More info and good photo

Preservation of these artifacts, especially the book, is crucial once the items are removed from the environment which has preserved them for hundreds of years. An article about shoes found in Salem, Massachusetts describes the proper preservation of leather items:

Current conservation practice entails soaking the leather items in water until they are chemically neutral and then immersing them in ethanol (alcohol) until the water is displaced and all bacteria is removed.

More about artifact preservation in Part II!

Popeye Soup

I've had major blogging paralysis lately, but while I am pulling ideas together into something coherant, here's a pointer towards this wonderful recipe I've been obsessed with lately:
Yummy yummy spinach soup

(It is a fabulous shade of green!)

18 July 2006

Etymology Part III: Drinking from the firehose

J came home with this expression one day, and I immediately adopted it. Drinking from the firehose means you are overwhelmed in some way, involved in something intense in which it is hard to stay caught up.

I was surprised that I could find examples of this phrase in use, but no explanation of where it came from. Even the Urban Dictionary, which usually provides me with something amusing if not downright useful, came up blank.

I have been told that "drinking from the firehose" refers specifically to being inundated with information from the Internet. Indeed, some of the links I found using this expression are related to the explosion of data created by the proliferation of the web each year.

Another possible source of the term is its usage at MIT, where the expression is used to describe the experience of being a student there. Since MIT is, in fact, steeped in the developement of technology, it would not be difficult to imagine the phrase crossing over (from describing education to describing the Internet) at this point.

I also found evidence that the phrase is being used more generally. My rather perfunctory Google search turned up examples of the phrase used to describe an Italian language immersion program and a flight training program at United Airlines.

I submitted the phrase to the Urban Dictionary, and it was published today.

More About the Penny

Hey look, my interest in the one-cent piece is timely: apparently there is a bill being introduced that would make the penny obsolete. I read it in today's headlines.

I hadn't really thought about the fact that a nickel is actually mostly copper, and that particular states would benefit from eliminating the penny because of copper mining.

US five-cent nickel

composition: 75% copper, 25% nickel
mass: 5.000 grams
volume: .5609 cc
value of metal: $0.06669

So, as with the copper penny of pre-1982, the metal in a nickel appears to be worth more than the nickel itself. Does this mean it would be better for the economy to use five (post-1982) pennies instead of a nickel? Or does the production cost of making five pennies (as opposed to a single nickel) make this equally expensive?

The CNN article states that the total cost of producing a penny is $0.014. Using my calculation that a modern-day penny contains $0.00884 of metal, we can conclude that the cost of minting a coin is about $0.0052. Five pennies would cost 5 x $0.014 = $0.070. If we assume that minting a penny and minting a nickel cost the same, a nickel's total cost to the US Mint would be $0.06669 + $0.0052 = $0.072. Five cents in coin costs the US Mint about seven cents if you're using pennies, but it costs slightly more if you're using a nickel.

(If you're interested in this penny debate, check this out.)

16 July 2006

The Value of a Penny

My big project this month is studying chemistry; because all the entry-level chem classes at City College are already closed, and I don't get to register until August, my best bet for getting into a chemistry class this fall is to learn enough material to pass a placement test into a middle-level course. This means learning AP Chemistry in a month. (I could have saved myself a lot of work if I had embraced my inner geek in 10th grade rather than trying to write angst-ridden poetry.)

Today while I was reading my chem textbook I was distracted by a sidebar note about a 1982 change in metal composition of the penny. I did some more research, and here's what I found:

Until 1982, pennies, were, for the most part, 95% copper and 5% zinc or zinc/tin alloy. In 1982, rising prices of copper caused the US Mint to change the composition of the cent coin to 97.5% zinc and 2.5% copper. Curious, I decided to calculate the actual value of the metal in each type of coin. I also used density values of each metal to determine the volume of each coin (which should remain roughly the same, otherwise we'd notice the coin being a different size).

Pre-1982 US 1-cent coin:

mass: 3.11 grams
composition: 95% copper, 5% zinc
volume: 0.354 cc
value of metal: $0.0246

1982-present US 1-cent coin:
mass: 2.50 grams
composition: 97.5% zinc, 2.5% copper
volume: 0.353 cc
value of metal: $0.00884

Canadian 1-cent coin:
mass: 2.35 grams
composition: 94% steel, 1.5% nickel, 4.5% copper
volume: 0.291 cc
value of metal: $0.00328

(These calculations are based on the data I was able to cull from the web: copper is worth $0.00814/g, zinc is $0.003542/g, nickel is $0.02893/g, and steel is$0.000631/g.)

So, the metal in a US penny issued before 1982 is actually worth about 2.5 cents. A penny hoarder with a smelter could turn a profit by melting pennies down and selling the metal as scrap!

There has been public debate about whether the US one-cent coin is obsolete and should be removed from circulation. As we see above, the metal in the coin itself is worth almost $0.01 already, which means that the cost of making the coin probably means a loss for the US Mint. Pennies are popular, however, which is one reason why they are kept in circulation.

Time Perception

J and I typically have trouble finding parking in North Beach: if it weren't for the fact that two of our best friends live there, I doubt I'd ever go. Tonight, J was doing the driving, and hence, the search for a parking spot. After about ten minutes of circling, looking at spots that were just barely too small for my Mini Cooper, and getting beaten to spots by other parking predators, I looked up at the clock and noticed that actually, only two minutes had passed. Not ten.

I remembered reading a long time ago that feverish people have distorted perceptions of time, and I wondered whether this phenomenon applied to people who were anxious too. It seemed logical to me that stimulation of bodily systems might mess up our ability to judge the passage of time.

One of the original studies about fever and time perception was conducted by a psychologist named Hudson Hoagland. In 1933, his wife had a fever and sent him to the drugstore for medicine. When he returned twenty minutes later, she complained that he had taken over an hour to run the errand. Inspired by her insistence, he asked her to count to sixty at what she guessed were one-second intervals, and, sure enough, her perception of a minute ranged from 34 seconds to 52 seconds. The higher her temperature, the more distorted her perception of time.

Apparently, the cause of this has to do with fever speeding up metabolism, heart rate, reactions of enzymes, and other bodily functions that impact our perception of time. Stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system (the "fight or flight" response) will also have this effect.

I found an article by Hancock and Weaver about time distortion under stress. They discuss a set of interviews conducted with pilots who ejected from aircraft during combat. Many of these survivors confirmed the sensation of a slowing of time when recalling their stressful incidents. Hancock and Weaver also cited a sadistic study in which arachnophobes were exposed to a spider for 45 seconds. Afterwards, they estimated the time of exposure to be (average) 60 seconds. People with no fear of spiders were used as controls in the same task, and they estimated the time interval more accurately (average = 41 seconds).

So, there you have it - predatory parking in San Francisco stimulates my fight-or-flight response, which probably increases my heart rate and blood pressure, and causes me to perceive that time is running faster than it really is. Maybe I will take up yoga, after all.

Scholarly reference (no link, sadly):

Hoagland, H., The physiological control of judgements of duration: evidence for a chemical clock. J. General Psychology, 9:267-287, 1933.

01 July 2006

Perfect Pitch

Musicians, especially singers and string players, are trained to recognize and correct pitch in order to play within the Western 12-tone scale (when playing Western music, obviously). There are different types of pitch-training skills.

Relative pitch is what most of musicians are working with: given a reference note (tuning fork, pitch pipe, other parts of a composition), we can identify pitches relative to that reference note. We can tell when we are singing flat or sharp even when the rest of the a cappella group is singing different notes than we are. We can hear when the piano is out of tune because of how the tones relate to each other.

Absolute pitch, also called "perfect" pitch, is the ability to identify a note by name without any reference pitch being given. Some research suggests that this ability is universally inborn, but disappears in childhood without musical training. Other sources demonstrate that absolute pitch tends to run in familes and among siblings. Studies state that the incidence of absolute pitch in adults is anywhere from 1 in 35 to 1 in 10,000.

What I learned today, which I found utterly fascinating, is that native speakers of certain languages (Vietnamese and Mandarin, among others) have a higher incidence of absolute pitch. It is believed that this is because tonal languages, in which changing the pitch of a spoken word changes its meaning, develops the same ear for perfect pitch as musical training. In one study, native tonal language speakers (without musical training, for the most part) were asked to read a list of Vietnamese or Mandarin words. The subjects of the study all spoke these words at virtually the same pitch. Another study (uncited, unfortunately - from an article in August 2006 Psychology Today) finds that absolute pitch is much more prevalent (32% vs. 7%) in conservatory students who are native speakers of tonal languages.

More details here.
And links associated with the University of California Genetics of Absolute Pitch Study.

23 June 2006

Etymology Part II: Going Postal

"Going postal" is an American expression referring to mental instability and violence, particularly workplace-related violence. "Going postal" is a verb, and "postal" is used as an adjective (e.g. I'm telling you, she's totally postal!)

The first incident that spawned the image of the disgruntled murderous postal worker seems to be the case of Patrick Henry Sherrill, who shot 14 employees at a postal facility in Edmonton, Oklahoma, before shooting himself. This occurred on 20 August 1986. The USPS published an extensive research effort demonstrating that the postal work is actually safer than many other occupations. (According to their report, taxi drivers are most likely to encounter violence on the job, although these are usually incidents of violence from clients rather than co-workers.)

In 1995, the phrase was popularized in the movie Clueless, and the American Dialect Society elected the phrase "Most Original" in its annual New Words of the Year list. Michael Ames' 2005 book about workplace and school shootings is titled Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion: From Reagan's Workplaces to Clinton's Columbine and Beyond.

Etymology Part I: Knackered

I have some particular pet phrases, some of which I've been using for years without any indication that I'm using them correctly - time to find out! Being fond of K words, I'm starting with knackered.

"Knackered" is an expression (primarily British) meaning "tired" or "worn out". A knacker, I've learned, is a person who buys old horses that are too worn out to be used for work. A knackery is a horse slaughterhouse. Several online sources mention that the word is "probably of Scandanavian origin", though none offer a related Scandanavian word and the sites are probably all citing each other.

I learned a new definition too: knacker is a derogatory term in Ireland. It once referred to gypsies, and is now used to describe transient, uh, underachievers. Have not yet been able to determine where the word became attached to the gypsies - did they buy old horses? Sell knick-knacks? Steal stuff?

"Knack" (meaning trick or special skill), as it turns out, has a different root. Different source cite knakke from Middle English, cnacken from Middle Dutch, and knachen from German (the last two meaning "to crack"). A 1737 Dictionary of Thieving Slang lists a "knack-shop" as a shop where one can get tools for picking pockets.

Totally knackered by now - off to bed.

20 June 2006

What is the point?

After twelve years as a respectable member of the workforce, I am taking some time off to pursue all the interests that have built up over time. Having spent most of my life as a student, a teacher, and a tutor (and occasionally a baker and a psychiatric/medical social worker), I've been on both sides of a lot of learning throughout my life, and it's the most satisfying thing I can think to do with all this spare time. I've finally learned to embrace my inner geek!

So, I anticipate I'll find bits of joy in posting interesting material as I add it to my brain. And with any luck I'll learn HTML at the same time!