Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Surgery Went Well for My Oldest Daughter Lauren

Good News from the hospital.  Plates and screws will fix the compound open fracture and dislocation of her left index finger.  Lauren called me an hour after the surgery, groggy but in good spirits.  Her mom sent me a text right after the surgery to say the procedure went well.  Lauren should get most of the range of motion back in her finger.

Her big concern was whether she could play this season.  She is a senior so it's her last year playing college soccer.  She thinks if the recovery goes well she will be able to play at the end of the season.  She was doing some aerobic training during the three days she was waiting for the surgery and plans to practice as much as possible as she recovers (without using her left hand of course).

She asked the doctor if she could work out while she waited for the surgery.  The doctor said, "Yes Miss Type A. . ." and told her the exercises she was allowed to do.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Two Great Saves Become a Broken and Dislocated Finger in Pre-Season

Three days ago my oldest daughter Lauren made a spectacular save in a pre-season game.  She is a senior and plays goalkeeper for Juniata College.  She made the diving save with her left hand hitting the ball away just before she hit the ground, left hand first.  Lauren felt  a momentary sharp pain in the first finger of her left hand.  Her training overrode her feelings.  She snapped to her feet knowing that a loose ball of the net meant another shot.  She made another save.

When the ball was clear of the goal she yelled to the coach that her first finger was out of her glove.  She took the glove off then yelled to the coach that she needed a substitute.  Part of the first bone of her first finger was sticking through the skin.  At that point the game stopped and she walked off the field to get ice, ibuprofen and a ride to the hospital.

Lauren called me on the way to the hospital telling me what happened.  She was clearly on the edge of tears, but being brave.  she said she hoped for pins instead of plates and screws because she could play sooner.  It turned out she needs plates and screws and will have the surgery on Tuesday.  Later that evening after she had the X-rays she said, "It's two breaks.  My broken bone count is Seven."

I am very proud of her.  If there is any way she can play at the end of the season, I am sure she will.

The drawbacks of Army life and having a family are obvious, but on the other side of the ledger, my kids grew up (and are growing up) with Army stories as part of their lives.  They all lived with my deployment last year.  They want to be brave like their Dad and like all the soldiers I tell them about. CS Lewis said what you pretend to be, you will eventually become.

Lewis is right.

Friday, August 27, 2010

K-Oz Gets a Home!!

While i was in Boston on a business trip, Annalisa found a dog at the Humane League.  The newest member of our family is 6-year-old K-Oz (My wife studies Chaos aka Dynamical Systems in math).  He is a very sweet tempered German Shepherd.
K-Oz is helping Jacari wash his face!!!

Nigel with K-Oz.  K-Oz is happy but needs a nap.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

From My Day Job--Book Review Published on booksandculture.com

My friend John Wilson just posted this review on his Web site at www.booksandculture.com.  Good book.  Congratulations to John on the 15th anniversary of his magazine:  Books and Culture.

The following article is located at: http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/webexclusives/2010/august/disappearingspoon.html

The Disappearing Spoon

Tales of chemistry, from the heroic to the absurd.
If you have never balanced a chemical equation, if you think chemical bonds are long-term investments in a maker of turpentine or Teflon®, then you may have missed the flurry of books based on the periodic table published in the last several years. You could be excused for thinking Sam Kean has chosen an arcane subject—the map of the chemical elements—for his 400-page book.
The title and cover art are suitably retro. In fact, the old-style title and subtitle—The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements—have almost as many letters (106) as the periodic table has named elements (112 and counting).
For those of us inside the world of chemistry, the first reaction to Kean's book (if you'll pardon the pun) is "another one?" But this young, gifted storyteller has written a book that shares only a chemical icon with other recent volumes on this theme. Kean presents the stories of the elements in all their human drama. The result is a delightful book of interwoven tales that will give even the most highly trained chemist some of the real breadth, history, and drama of the "Central Science." It is also a book that can be read on Southwest Flight 469 from Las Vegas to Baltimore to help pass five hours in an aluminum (Element 13) cylinder with 141 other carbon-based (Element 6) life forms.
Kean weaves together the lives and times of notable savants and scoundrels of chemistry to tell the stories of elements. Chapter 8 opens with fifteen scientists on the cover of Time magazine—the "Men of the Year" for 1960. In the first four decades of the 20th century, Americans earned 20 Nobel prizes in science. In the 1940s and '50s, more than twice that number, 42, earned the coveted prize in half the time.
Then Kean dives into the search for Technetium, the 43rd element and the most difficult to discover of the 92 elements that exist outside nuclear reactors. In the decade before World War II, a couple who were German scientists and Nazi sympathizers, Walter and Ida Noddack, claimed to have discovered Element 43 but were proved wrong. Others tried and failed. Then Emilio Segre, an Italian Jew who escaped the Holocaust by emigrating to America, pinned down the elusive element. Two decades later Segre was on the cover of Time.
After lauding Segre and recounting some of the details of his escape from the fate of Jews under Mussolini, Kean takes Segre down a peg. Explaining how the impetuous chemist missed discovering another element, Kean ties that mistake to the great blunder that led the great American chemist Linus Pauling to miss the structure of DNA. Pauling went on to become the only recipient of two individual Nobel prizes—for Chemistry and Peace—but James Watson and Francis Crick beat Pauling to the discovery of the structure of DNA. In a delightful (and disgusting) aside, Kean says DNA was first discovered almost a century earlier, in 1869, by a Swiss chemist who "poured alcohol and the stomach juice of pigs onto pus-soaked bandages until only a sticky, goopy grayish substance remained." The goop leads to stories about Phosphorus (Element 15) and on through the periodic table. Writing about Pauling, Kean says:
He was the Leonardo of chemistry—the one who, as Leonardo did drawing humans, got the anatomical details right for the first time. And since chemistry is basically the study of the forming and breaking of bonds, Pauling single-handedly modernized the sleepy field. He absolutely deserved one of the greatest scientific compliments ever paid, when a colleague said Pauling proved "that chemistry could be understood rather than being memorized" (emphasis added).
Kean merits the same compliment. The Disappearing Spoon shows that chemistry can be understood in all its rich history of competition, discovery, achievement, and tragedy. In an ideal world where science was central to high school and college learning for all students, Kean's book would be required reading before all the dreary daily details create a lasting, dull impression of chemistry.
And if this delightful book leaves you wanting to know more about how the periodic table works, pick up a copy of The Periodic Kingdom by Peter Atkins. The two books complement each other very well.
Neil Gussman is communications manager at the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Party at Work--September 30 Simulcast of Ig Nobel Prizes at CHF

I had lunch in near Harvard Square today at Rafiki Bistro with Marc Abrahams, creator and host of the annual Ig Nobel Prizes.  Great hamburger.  And a lot of fun talking to Marc about life in Iraq, and back home.  But the real subject of our lunch conversation was the 20th Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony on September 30 which will be simulcast at Chemical Heritage Foundation where I work.  We are hoping to have a big crowd and several special guests in Philadelphia.

Tickets are almost sold out for the 1200 seats of Harvard's Sanders Theater, where the Ig ceremony is held every year, so Philadelphia may be the best place to eccentric published science get the recognition it deserves.

After leaving Harvard Square, I got stuck in traffic jams on Mass. Ave., Mystic Parkway, and five miles of Route 93 including the Big Dig.  In the rain.  It's nice to be home.

Numbers Update

Early this morning my blog got visit number 75,000.

A few hours later, somewhere in Medford, Mass., I went over 5,000 miles on my bike for the year.
I rode those miles and the last 10 miles of this morning's 30-mile ride in cold rain.  The weather has been bad in Boston for this whole trip.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Looking Up--My View of Sling Load Training

Six huge rotor blades whipped the humid August air, lifting and holding the Chinook helicopter just a few feet off the ground.  Inside the cargo-carrying giant, the pilots waited for the signal to move forward. 

Fifty feet in front of the hovering helicopter sat a Humvee with thick cables attached to its frame at the front and rear.  A soldier crouched on top of the Humvee at either end, holding a four-foot long metal rod with a circular eyelet at the end—looking like the loop end of a huge sewing needle.  The eye is made to fit hooks attached to the belly of Chinook helicopters.

With a thumbs up signal from the flight engineer working with the ground teams, the Chinook tips its plexiglass nose slightly down and rose to 20 feet of altitude as it flew toward the Humvee.  As the big bird approached, the soldiers holding the big cabled hooks begin to get blown around by the front rotor.  A flight engineer, hanging his head and shoulders out of the “Hell Hole” in the belly of the Chinook between the cargo hooks, guides the aircraft slowly down to a hover six feet above the Humvee.

Like rodeo cowboys trying to lasso a longhorn in a hurricane, the soldiers on the Humvee stood up in the swirling air under the Chinook and swung their metal “lassos” toward the hooks on the belly of the Chinook.  When the hook set, the ground crew jumped down from the Humvee and ran 100 meters away through the full Chinook wind blast. As they ran, the pilots slowly lifted the aircraft until the cables are stretched tight.  When the flight engineer signaled that the load was set, the Chinook flew up and away with the 3-ton Humvee swinging gently beneath. 

At that point, the Humvee circled the airfield underneath the Chinook, or the pilots simply went up 50 feet then lowered their cargo back to the ground.  The up and down flight is known among air crews as an elevator drill.  As soon as the cables were slack underneath the Chinook, the crew released the electric hooks.  The cables dropped to the ground as the Chinook flew away.  The air blast from the rotors is so loud that the hooks and cables fall without a sound.

Depending on the preference of the aircrew, the pilots made a slow circle back to their hover point, or they slid the 16-ton aircraft sideways 20 feet above the ground and flew backward before spinning the olive-drab behemoth in its own length, like a Smart car making a u-turn on a narrow street, making it look like some a mythic creature let loose in the middle of Pennsylvania.

The air crews and ground instructors for the all-day exercise were from Bravo Company, 2-104th General Support Aviation Battalion which returned from a one-year deployment to Iraq in January of 2010.  They trained more than 100 soldiers from 2-28th Combat (Heavy) Support Battalion.

On Vacation

For the past week I was on vacation in Utah with my family.  I have a lot more pictures to post from the sling load.  But in the meantime, I have 1,000 pictures on a public FLICKR page here.

I plan to transfer most of the photos from Iraq to this page eventually.

Today through Wednesday I am at a chemistry conference in Boston.  It is raining and will be raining through Wednesday.  I rode in the rain yesterday to see my best friend from High School, but will be in meetings all day today.

I'll try to post more pictures in the next few days.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Two of My Favorite People Get Promoted

At first formation on Saturday morning two of the best soldiers in Echo Company got promoted.  Sgt. Jeremy Houck got promoted to Staff Sgt. and Spc. Daniel Lake to Sgt.  In Iraq, Houck was one of leaders on the team that re-built and rewired many buildings all over Tallil Ali Air Base.  We were sent at the last minute to a base that was not ready for a Combat Aviation Brigade and Houck helped to change that--in a big hurry.  Lake is a smart experienced mechanic who spent a very long year doing whatever was required on maintenance teams. He had a sergeant's responsibilities during most of the tour.  His promotion was slowed by several paperwork hassles and long overdue.

Because they are in Echo Company, the ceremony ended with a splash!!!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Chinook Sling Load Training

Today I got a call at 11 am from our Command Sgt. Maj. saying I needed to get to the south side of the airstrip as soon as possible.  Our Bravo Company set up sling load training for the 2-28th Brigade Support Battalion, the soldiers who support the 55th (Heavy) Combat Brigade.

Sling loads are anything that can be carried underneath a Chinook helicopter by hooking heavy cables and lifting.  In the morning, it was a Humvee.  In the afternoon pallets so large they could not fit inside the Chinook.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


Yesterday I watched Restrepo, the movie about the worst corner of the war in Afghanistan.

Here's the trailer:

Both the movie and the book War both by Sebastian Junger, are about a year in Afghanistan with an infantry company assigned to the Korengal Valley.  Although based on the same year, the book and movie are very different, even focusing on different soldiers.

The movie is a documentary, but faster.  It doesn't explain, but shows what life is like.  And the soldiers on camera are more candid than I ever would have expected.  The commander of the unit busts on his predecessor so much I hope those two are never assigned to the same unit in the future.

I watch so few movies--this is my first in 2010--that I can't compare Restrepo to other films.  But I can tell you that I find many war movies silly or funny or both.  I wasn't laughing during Restrepo.  I was leaned forward in my theater seat and stayed all the way through the final credits.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

More from Jim Dao, NY Times about Afghanistan

Jim Dao of the NY Times is following a combat unit on their entire deployment to Afghanistan from pre-deployment through the getting back home.  Here's the latest installment.

There's some funny stuff about all the things that go wrong with a  new unit on its first mission.  It's front-page of the print edition today for those who read the old fashioned way.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Talking About Dante Again

Followers of this blog know I had a "Dead Poets Society" book group in Iraq beginning last July.  The first book we read was Inferno by Dante Aligheri, translated by Tony Esolen.  Yesterday I was talking to the editor of the magazine at my day job about science education and Dante came up.  Our magazine is Chemical Heritage.

We were talking about the construction and location of Hell--Inferno is a guided tour of Hell down to the center of the earth and out the other side.

By the way, for any of you who had a bad education or read Thomas Friedman, Dante wrote 200 years before Columbus sailed and knew the size of the earth within about 10% of its actual size--as did everyone in the Church at the time Columbus sailed.   All that Flat Earth stuff connected to Columbus is bullsh#t.

The whole conversation was fun, but the most interesting thing to me was the vote at the end of the reading Inferno.  The group decided by a small majority to reading Aeneid next, not Purgatorio, the second volume in Dante's trilogy of eternity.  The group came to admire Virgil and wanted to know why he was Dante's guide through Hell.  Several of the soldiers were also upset with Dante for sending Virgil back to Hell when he (Dante) went to Heaven.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Unfriending on Facebook

Unfriending is an ugly word.  But in the virtual world it is very easy to make a friend you know very little about.  Most of the friends I have on Facebook are people I know in real life.  By category most are

  • Riding buddies
  • Army buddies
  • High school classmates
  • College friends
But there are some people whom I have never actually met.  Some of them follow my blog, some were on online discussion groups I participated in.

Last week, I unfriended a guy I have never met in person, but we have traded opinions for a few years.  He is a very smart guy who fires back hard whenever he thinks he is right or the other person is wrong--which is mostly all the time in my experience.  His Facebook comments can go to hundreds of words.  Anyway, I never minded his dismissive comments because I asked for them by being equally dismissive of him.  But last week I posted something that got positive comments from two "live" friends and scorn from the other guy.  Rather than confine his scorn to me, he lit into my college friend and my former co-worker.  

At that point all the protective instincts in me said this is wrong.  I should not allow my facebook page to be a WWE event.  I also sent my former Facebook friend a message saying why I hit the unfriend button.

There are many things I like about the virtual world.  But if a man is on your turf and insults your friends, it is clear that the relationship is in serious trouble.  In the virtual world, physical presence cannot put a brake on bad manners.  

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Back to Riding for the Team

Today was a small but important milestone on my road back to racing.  And I am not talking about contending for wins.  At its best, my ability to sprint is about equal to the acceleration of a fully loaded tanker truck going uphill. 

But bicycling really is a team sport and my place on the BiKyle/Mazur Coaching Main Line Cycling team is helping the riders who can climb/sprint to win races.  Today’s race for the 55+ riders was 20 laps of a one-mile serpentine loop at the Rodale Fitness Park in Trexlertown PA.  The twisting circle is wide, smooth and has a flat, straight run to the finish.  Perfect for sprinters.

Only 18 riders started our race and three of them were in the 65+ category.  Three members of my team, Dave Nesler, David Frankford and I, were on the start line.  Nesler is a good sprinter, but there were a few very good sprinters in the so Dave would need to go before a pack sprint and stay away to win the race. 

The race started off slow with a few attacks that raised the pace.  When the speed dropped below 23mph, someone would occasionally attack.  Above 23mph the pack stayed in a line and rode wheel of the guy out front.  Riding out front of a pack means working about 30% harder than everyone else.  The guy out front is giving up energy.  The sweet spot is to be in the middle of the pack, surrounded by other riders who block the wind.

With six laps to go, I rode from the back (where I was resting from the last attack) and asked Dave if he would be better off with the pack going faster or slower.  He said slower.  Less than a minute later, Barry Free took off at the front and I followed him.  Once I was on his wheel Barry sat up and the pack was on us in a few seconds.  Rather than drop back, I stayed on the front of the pack, keeping my average speed as close to 23mph as I could--fast enough that no one wanted to raise the pace.

About 1/4 of the way around the final lap, the pack went around me to the left.  I started to swing to the right to get out of the way, but Dave decided to attack down the right.  He yelled, I inched left and he took off.

His move didn't last the whole way around.  I did not see the end of the race, because as soon as the pack went around me, I rode at half speed for the rest of the final lap.

Dave didn't win, Chip Berezny sprinted to the take top prize.  But at least I am back enough to contribute to the team.   

Friday, August 6, 2010

Piss Bottles

In writing about daily life in Iraq, I neglected to write about Gatorade bottles.  Specifically, empty Gatorade bottles.  I never went anywhere without one.  I never had to use the one I kept in my backpack whenever I boarded a helicopter flight, but I always had one.

Neither Blackhawks nor Chinooks have latrines.  And as some of their crew like to say, "We can stay up for hours."  In any case, I made sure to hit the latrine before boarding every flight and had that bottle just in case the Blackhawk had to stay up longer than I could wait.

In all the convoy training we did at Fort Sill and in Kuwait, I had that same empty bottle just in case that convoy kept moving.

And I kept an empty bottle in my CHU, just in case. . .

My commander once announced that he only relieves himself three times a day.  Any more than that is a waste of time.  I agreed with him in principle, but in actual fact, I am 57 years old and that kind of schedule is a long way in my past.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Writing for the blog Periodic Tabloid: gravity and Pseudoscience

Recently the lead article in the Science Times profiled a string theorist who claims gravity does not exist.  
Instead, physicist Erik Verlinde says “gravity is a consequence of the venerable laws of thermodynamics, which describe the behavior of heat and gases.” Verlinde is not denying the phenomenon nor expecting pigs to fly, he just wants to describe why gravity keeps us firmly on Earth.

Theories do have a history of falling out of favor. In the late 1600s, both Christiaan Huygens and Isaac Newton developed useful and mutually exclusive theories of how light travels. For Huygens, light was waves. For Newton, particles. Huygens got a big boost from Augustin-Jean Fresnel in the early 1800s when the French scientist described light as waves in the omnipresent ether.

Almost a century later, the ether theory was found to be false. And in the 20th century both the wave and particle theories of light turned out to be true at the same time.

As a history of science organization, CHF follows the fortunes of theories from their inception through their ascendance and acceptance, and on to their demise. We may one day see the demise of the theory of universal gravitation. Theories, as a rule, rise slowly and fitfully and fall like a rock tossed off a building—gravity accepted as true for now. In all science, minority positions like Verlinde’s are part of every discipline. But sometimes these minority positions leave science and go another way.

As such CHF also tracks the history of pseudoscience. For us, the rise of a theory that never gains scientific acceptance is as interesting as one that wins acceptance as a way of understanding material reality. For example, why did creation science evolve and thrive in the United States, just as this country became the world leader in science? In the middle of a country that boasts Caltech, MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Apple, Intel, and Genentech sits the Creation Museum near Louisville, Kentucky. Inside Cain and Abel play with pet dinosaurs and the speed of light is considered variable.

Scientific theories are some of the most ingenious products of the human mind when based in fact. But even when they are not, the history of science in all of its forms is fascinating.
Published here.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Visiting Pittsburgh--Nigel's First Foster Family

Today we got up at 3:45 am to drive to Pittsburgh for a math conference where my wife is a presenter.  Our girls are working, traveling and otherwise occupied so only Nigel and Jacari came on the trip.  Annalisa had meetings from 10am till 230pm then she and the boys drove to Dormont, 9 miles south of Pittsburgh to visit Nigel's first foster family.  I rode there and got a chance to ride over Pittsburgh's Mount Washington, while they drove through the same mountain in the Liberty Tunnel.

The Sharbaugh family cared for Nigel for the first six weeks of his life--from when he left the hospital the day after he was born until six weeks later when we picked Nigel up and brought him to our home from their home.

The Sharbaughs cared for Nigel and 11 other newborn children in the first weeks of their lives, then turned them over to other families.  Wow!

I admire them very much in the same way I admire running backs who can smash though hulking linemen or hockey players who can speed skate and shoot a blazing slap shot all in one motion.  The Sharbaughs, the running back and the hockey player all can do something I can't do.

Imagine taking care of a newborn for weeks and weeks and then handing that little baby over to strangers--not once, but a dozen times.  I can't.  They are one amazing family.  I'm glad we had a chance to visit them and get reacquainted ten years after they cared for baby Nigel.

[In case you were wondering, we are Nigel's second foster family.  It was almost a year before all the paperwork was approved for the adoption.]

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Some of my Favorite Quotes from Women in Iraq

"The biggest stress for me is calling home"--female soldier in Iraq whose family expressed their fear & anger to her, not to her Sergeant brother.

"I wanna light some mutha fu*ka's up"--20-year-old woman I served with disappointed when we did not pull convoy security.

"This place is all drama and no action."--SFC Melanie McCracken, Chinook Maintenance Platoon Sergeant, Tallil Ali Air Base, Iraq.

And the one that applies to every place from the beginning of time:

Stupid Should Hurt!
SFC Pam Bleuel, Drill Sergeant and convoy training NCOIC

Monday, August 2, 2010

Quote for Today

In times of war, you often hear leaders--Christian, Jewish, and Muslim--saying, "God is on our side."  But that isn't true.  In war, God is on the side of refugees, widows, and orphans.

Greg Mortenson, as quoted in "Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time", Penguin Books (2007) p. 239

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Porthos Dies in the Night

When Annalisa and I were married 13 years ago yesterday, she had three cats--Athos, Porthos and Aramis.  They are the Three Musketeers if you ready old books or watch bad movies.  Of course the main Musketeer is D'Artagnan, and that is one criticism of the story for most of the past two centuries.

Actually, Aramis, who spent way too much time sitting in the middle of streets, died just before we were married.  Athos, the more adventurous of the two remaining brothers, lived several years longer, but also succumbed to injuries from spending just that extra moment in the road.

Porthos lived a fairly long life for a cat.  He and his brother Athos were excellent hunters.  They left the remains of mice and baby bunnies near the back door so we could see how proficient they were in small furry animal population control.  After the demise of Athos, Porthos was less inclined to hunt and, like many older carnivores, put on a lot of weight.  At his weight peak, his hind feet would disappear under his fat when he sat down.

But like some obese people, he managed to remain healthy despite a sedentary lifestyle.  In the last year he rapidly lost weight.  Last night when I switched the laundry at midnight, Porthos was asleep on a small rug.  He didn't move when I turned the light on, but I thought I saw him breathing.  The next morning he had not moved.  I checked.  He was not breathing.

Porthos is buried in the flower garden near our garage between Athos and our dog Lucky.

We will be getting a dog in September after we return from vacation.  We had been planning to get a dog for a while and now we won't have to worry that a new and energetic dog will torment our geriatric feline.

Field Guide to Flying Death: Cruise Missiles

A British Tornado fighter plane carrying four  Storm Shadow Cruise Missiles   Cruise missiles are actually a pilotless jet plane th...