October 2007

What do Islamofacism, methamphetamine production, tort lawyers, and homemade fireworks have in common? The answer is that they are all part of the seemingly inevitable process of destroying the childhood Chemistry Set. A.C. Gilbert, in 1918 was titled the “Man who Saved Christmas” with his innovative ideas of packaging a few glass tubes and some common chemicals into starter kits that enabled a generation to learn the joy of experimentation, and the basis for the scientific method of thought.

Chemcraft Set Gilbert Set
Chemcraft Chemistry Set Gilbert Chemistry Set

Some of Gilbert’s original sets included such items as sodium cyanide, radioactive samples (complete with a Geiger counter), and glass blowing kits. I will freely admit that one of the first things I did with my chemistry set was to attempt to make an explosive. I remember mixing up chemicals that evolved free chlorine gas and having to evacuate the house. I remember mixing potassium nitrate and sugar to make rocket engines and quickly evolving to higher specific impulse fuels. I remember the joy of finally obtaining some nitric acid which allowed me to nitrate basically everything in the house (cotton for gun cotton, glycerine and alcohol for nitroglycerine). So yes, I have to admit that there is a risk involved. But this is how people learn. Sometimes knowledge comes with pain — one-shot induction.

Today however, the Chemistry Set is toast. Current instantiations are embarrassing. There are no chemicals except those which react at low energy to produce color changes. No glass tubes or beakers, certainly no Bunsen burners or alcohol burners (remember the clear blue flames when the alcohol spilled out over the table). Today’s sets cover perfume mixing and creation of luminol (the ‘CSI effect’ I suppose).

In some States, you need a FBI criminal background check to purchase chemicals. Some metals, like lithium, red phosphorus, sodium and potassium, are almost impossible to purchase in elemental form. This is thanks to their use in manufacturing methamphetamine. Sulphur and potassium nitrate, both useful chemicals, are being classified as class C fireworks (here is a good precursor link). Mail order suppliers of science products are raided. Many over-the-counter compounds now require what is essentially a (poor) background check. Even fertilizer (ammonium nitrate) is under intense scrutiny. Where does this trend end? Ten years from now, will the list include table salt, seawater and natural gas — precursors to many industrical chemicals?

Then there is the liability issue. Of course some people buy into the lets be safe at any cost and assert that much chemistry can be done without explosions and stinky fumes. If a ladder manufacturer is under a constant barrage of liability suits, imagine the torrent of litigation directed to those giving a child a set of potentially dangerous chemicals. Its a CHILD, for God’s sake. [Oh, I’m sorry, for a minute there I was waxing Democrat.]

Yet there is still a little hope. Although Thames and Kosmos can’t ship their sets with the full range of chemicals needed to perform their listed experiments, at least they provide a list of sources from which to acquire them (assuming the appropriate permits, licenses, fees, FEES, background checks, and did I mention fees.) What is at stake here is no less than the future of America’s competitiveness and the innovation the make the United States the magnet for international entrepreneurs and scientists. Without the chemistry set, will we have scientists and innovators, or just a country of rock stars, political commentators and movie idols.

[Author’s Note: This article is primarily a result of my frustration in trying to acquire a few hundred grams of potassium carbonate for an electrolyte solution.]

Update: See also Sightings in the Wild on this blog.


Jindal Photo
In the first of several political rants that this next year will inspire, I hereby grant Bobby Jindal the highest honor that I bestow upon politicians — provisional entry onto the “Roll of Folks Who Might Not Be Sleezeballs.” While listing on the Roll only requires a fairly low level of decency, the total length of the Roll remains quite short indeed. Bobby becomes the first entry this season.

Bobby is the new Governor-elect of Louisiana, having won 52% of the popular vote in a 12 person race. He’s running on the reform platform, and hopefully he’ll ensure that the next governor-elect doesn’t win on the same platform.

Mr. Jindal is a fresh face to politics, and has been biding his time in the U.S. Congress until he could take another swing at his real goal. This is reminiscent of other new faces in politics these days, with the only difference being that Bobby has succeeded where others will fail miserably and be beaten by a girl.

The primary result of his two gubernatorial campaigns (other than allowing me to use the word ‘gubernatorial’) has been to establish than Indian-colored Americans are not protected under the Liberal Convention on Politically-Correct Attitudes, as his ‘progressive’ challengers routinely tried to stir up racist sentiments against him in a feeble attempt to hide their impotence on actual issues.

There are many quick summaries of Bobby’s recent past (some of them more artfully composed than others) and I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about his tenure in office. His entry onto the Roll is provisional, and it will be revoked and disavowed if he turns out to be a normal politician. If he does succeed in draining the corruption from Louisiana — the very stuff that keeps that state above sea level — he will have to make the choice between staying in Baton Rouge or listening to the crowd pushing for him to return to Washington. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who took note that he’s a non-naturalized citizen, and therefore eligible for the Big Time.

Valve, following on their awesome success with Half Life 2, has recently released Team Fortress 2 to rave reviews. But not everyone is a fan. German censorship required Team Fortress 2 to heavily modify the game to avoid strict anti-gore laws. So when someone is hurt or killed, they apparently explode into a cloud of rubber ducks, unicycles, springs, etc. Give Valve major props for dealing with German idiocy in a clever way which complies with the law while giving it the big virtual finger.

But perhaps it’s unfair to label the German approach idiotic. After all, aren’t we regularly informed that video game violence is the natural precursor to real violence? Since the last time the Germans got interested in real violence, lots of people died, perhaps we can forgive them for worrying about the simulated stuff.

But should they?

  • Do violent video games lead to violent people?
  • Is video game violence anything like real violence, or is it harmless fun like cartoon violence?
  • Wait, is cartoon violence harmless?
  • Just when do anti-violence laws cross the line from overzealous into downright stupid?
  • What about “zero tolerance” laws in schools? Should a kid face suspension (or, many times, expulsion) for bringing a plastic knife, a Swiss army knife, etc. to school?
  • For that matter, given “zero tolerance” shouldn’t the whole Physics class be expelled after pulling that Van De Graff “experiment” where they shock random kids in the hall?

As always, discuss amongst yourselves.

The late Sam Kinison had a routine during the Ethiopian famine of the early to mid ’80s, with the famous punch line:


While I recall the skit being quite funny at the time, Kinison was wrong in two ways:

First of all, and most unjustly, while the Ethiopians he was talking about did live in the desert, for the most part they did not do so willingly. They’d been transported there by the dictatorial government of Ethiopia, led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, who now lives it up in Zimbabwe under the protection of another fine African despot, Robert Mugabe, after being tossed out of Ethiopia in 1991 when his Soviet backers’ support withered and died. Mengistu was attempting to relieve overcrowding in the traditionally populated highland areas that were free of malaria and sleeping sickness by relocating people to the lowlands. Like many other such Third World Marxist schemes based on a combination of bribery and guns—think the low-budget version of the Great Leap Forward—it didn’t work. And of course, Mengistu’s government took the opportunity to transport people they didn’t like to places they were unlikely to return from… ever.

Second of all, a heck of a lot of Americans do live in deserts, among others big areas of Southern California, Arizona, Nevada, Eastern Washington and Oregon, etc. Unlike Ethiopians, who aren’t stupid enough to do so willingly, we choose to live in deserts, and we’re dealing with the consequences of that right now:

  • Regular wildfires in the west, such as what’s going on in Los Angeles right now, as desert foliage—evolved to burn regularly but allowed to overgrow by the intervention of man—burns off. In fact, the Native Americans who lived in the Los Angeles basin before the Spanish referred to it as “Valley of the Smokes” so the problem is far from new;
  • Regular mudslides in the same areas, because the soils cannot handle the drainage when rain does occur;
  • A nearly dry Colorado River, Rio Grande and southeast;
  • Crazy water rights regimes in California and other areas that price agricultural water so low that many farmers let it evaporate in their antiquated irrigation technology
  • Salinated soils

The list goes on. As the planet warms (for whatever reason you wish to ascribe) and fresh water gets more dear, this is only going to become a bigger and costlier problem, unless some big technological breakthroughs, like cheap, i.e., energy-efficient, desalinization, happen.


Ah, the Internet, free domain of opinion, fact, discussion, education, and (of course) porn. What would the Net be without the freewheeling anonymity that makes it so, ah, special (in every sense of that word)?

Well, what would it be? A dreary domain of corporate conformity and groupthink? A blessed utopia of kind considerate discourse and shining happy people that just get along? What would the blogosphere be if every blog author and commentator had a traceable, verifiable, certifiable real identity posted with every statement? Would this be the best of all worlds, the worst of all worlds, or petty much just another world?

Or, to turn the question back around again, just how beneficial is Net Anonymity to valuable discourse on the Internet? Would whistleblowers and gadflies disappear if they had to out themselves to make their comments? Would shrill political activists actually be deterred by the thought that their victims might show up at their doorstep to chat about their recent online remarks? Would any of us Angry Men actually dare to write on this blog?

One thing is clear: anonymity is ugly. It brings out the worst in us all to often, and encourages the worst sort of gossip and slander. But is it just an evil, or a necessary evil—an important foundation of the anything-goes freedom of the Internet that annoys us sometimes, bemuses us frequently, but, ultimately, makes our life better.

Well, which is it? Discuss.

The time has come and gone when humor is the best approach to the current Illinois Budget Fiasco. The previous page in this epic tome of unreality had the State Legislature passing a budget (Senate and House) and forwarding it to Rod Blagojevich for signature. Rather than sign the budget bill, he held it for almost 60 days (after which it would have become law) before line-item vetoing expenses he didn’t like. Now he wants to use the funding he vetoed out for those programs he does want—like universal health care and loot for his union buddies. Various opinions as to the legality of this have been expressed, but this is a typical Blago approach to doing business. If you can’t get a consensus on your program, ignore the legislature and use executive powers to do what you want. Clearly, even the Democrats who run the State understand that the Governor’s position on new spending is a losing proposition.

The latest page continues to resolve around the House override of his veto, and Emil Jones, President of the Senate and one of Blago’s buddies, refusing to allow a floor vote on the override in the Senate. Veto stands. So what are the options for the people of Illinois with a run-away Governor?

1. Blagojevich could do the honorable thing and resign. Editorials should call for his resignation. Pat Quinn at least understands that Blagojevich has lost any moral imperative to lead the State of Illinois. At this point the Bush and US Congressional approval ratings look like Mt. Rainier on a clear day — Blagojevich might have a problem getting a 1% approval.

2. Lisa Madigan could concentrate on her job as Attorney General and indict Blagojevich, and in doing so seal her own run for the Governorship in the next election. This should be a rather easy job. With Blago in jail, (let the bond be determined by a panel which takes several months to settle the amount), Pat Quinn would be running things. Even though I am not a Democrat, Pat has got my vote with his comment to incorporate California style recall into Illinois law.

3. During the next election, a referendum could be established to incorporate gubernatorial recall into Illinois law. This would take a year (better start now), and after it went into effect, another two years to place a recall vote on the appropriate ballot, after which we could recall and replace the Governor. Sadly, this is three more years of Blagojevich spoiled brat rule and God knows what the Illinois deficit would be by then.

4. While I cannot advocate this, it seems likely that someone will decide to take the situation into their own hands and splatter Rod over the Chicago pavement. Look at some scenarios:

a. A State employee, doomed to be laid off in the recent round of cash-swaps and living month to month, is placed under severe financial strain and cracks deciding that, for the good of the State, Rod has got to go.

b. An unemployed State resident, not receiving his unemployment compensation, decides that he has nothing else to lose and decides Rod has got to go.

c. A State employee, on anti-depressant or anti-anxiety drugs, cannot make his co-pays because the pharmacy will not issue against a State account which is no longer paying, and goes off his medication causing erratic behavior which is focused on the cause: Rod’s idiocy, and decides to do something.

d. A State retiree, finding his pension (un)fund drained, and no pension payments forthcoming, decides that he has lived long enough and that Rod has got to go.

e. A dad with a son at the University of Illinois, after paying ever increasing tuition finds that, after the State declines to fund the operation of the University, and shuts it down for months, discovers that he has to fork out another seven grand for another semester because his son didn’t meet the degree requirements.

A lot of real people suffered real pain so that Rod Blagojevich could attempt to assert that he delivered universal healthcare and cradle to grave education to the people of Illinois — even though the fiscal facts from other States (California to name one) are proving that this is a chimera.

Come on Rod, do the right thing and resign.

It’s not often that an eminent and Nobel prize winning scientist is blacklisted. And even rarer when his work is not only non-controversial but a foundation of much of modern medicine and human genetics. But that’s just what’s happened to Dr. James Watson. The co-discoverer of DNA found himself disinvited from addressing London’s Science Museum after he stated in an interview that:

[he is] inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa [because] all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really

and, just in case someone mistook his meaning, went on to point out that:

people who have to deal with black employees find [equality of intellect to be] not true

As the interview above demonstrates, this isn’t the first time Dr. Watson has said controversial things. As New Scientist points out, he’s Master of the Scientific Gaffe.

All of which brings up some questions:

  • Should we expect experts in one narrow field to be competent outside the field?
  • Should we expect people with a history of stupid, insensitive comments to stop making them?
  • Why does Eugenics have such a hold on so many eminent biologists? Is this a case of Maslow’s Principle?
  • Is Dr. Watson really a genius, or “just” an effective and dedicated scientist who made a huge contribution through hard work?
  • Could poverty and social chaos be as much to blame for Africa’s woes as bad genes?
  • Could all of this have been avoided if Dr. Watson had been forced to watch “Trading Places” on an annual basis?

Discuss amongst yourselves.

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