Yours truly in C&E News

Chemical & Engineering News is the American Chemical Society’s print organ, which is mailed to each of its 160,000-plus members weekly. Their back-page human interest column is called Newscripts. The most recent issue, dated November 21, 2011, features two chemistry-related projects from my grad-school years: my trick for using starch packing peanuts to build nil-cost molecular models, and my organic chemistry tutoring business card featuring a reversible cyclohexane chair drawing template. Always fun to see my name in actual, physical print! Thanks to C&EN staff writer Jyllian Kemsley for the ink.

The Case of the Rattling Awl

The first car I remember my parents owning was a 1977 Chevrolet station wagon—blue, with fake wood paneling on the sides. A few months after buying the car, Dad reports, something within the passenger-side rear compartment wall, near the spare tire stowage, began to rattle. Soon, the noise irritated him enough that he disassembled the interior paneling to find and silence it.

Which is where he discovered this tool, a hand awl, presumably lost or abandoned there by an upholstery installer on the assembly line. Dad, who has never been a big fan of organized labor, at least once advocated the latter theory, i.e. that the awl was abandoned in the car, on purpose, by a worker exploiting union regs to the effect that he or she could not be required to work unless provided with the correct tool. Being considerably more liberal, I am prepared to give that long-ago UAW member the benefit of the doubt and believe it was walled up by accident.

Dad put the awl in the top drawer of his toolbox and it’s lived there ever since, though the car it came in is now thirty years gone. It’s heavy, solid, and quite well made, with a turned aluminum handle and replaceable pommel- and tip-fittings. I used it just today.

Knowing where to drill is most of the bill

My Dad, who has been an electrical engineer for 40-odd years, likes to tell this apocryphal story about Charles Proteus Steinmetz, the famous German-American engineer who, in the early days of General Electric, was a pioneer in the development of alternating current technologies, specifically power transmission and A/C electric motors:

Late in Steinmetz’ life, he was called in to consult on a vibration problem in a newly-installed piece of large, rotating machinery at a major factory. Steinmetz—who was afflicted with dwarfism, hunchback, and hip dysplasia, and stood only 4’3″ tall—looked over the blueprints for the machinery, examined it, took measurements, scratched figures.

“Bring me a drill,” he said, eventually, “with a one-inch bit.”

So tooled, he climbed up on a large electric motor, located just the right spot, and drilled a single hole in the casing.

“That,” he said, “should fix it.”

And, of course, it did. The machinery turned smoothly, everyone shook the great man’s hand, and he departed.

Weeks later, the management received a bill for $10,000. Steinmetz died in 1923; using that year as a base and adjusting for inflation gives just over $125,000 in 2010 dollars—a princely sum for a few hours’ work. Chagrined, the company responded with a respectful request for an itemized invoice. To which, the story goes, they received the following reply:

Drilling hole in motor casing:      $2.00
Knowing where to drill hole: $9,998.00
TOTAL: $10,000.00

That thing that Joey read

I graduated from Richardson High School in 1994. Graduating with me that year was Joseph Belasco, who went by Joe or Joey, though I think he’d grown to dislike the latter by the time we were seniors. I remember him appearing at Westwood Junior High when we were in eighth grade, having moved or transferred from some distant place. From then until the Richardson Independent School District was done with us, Joe and I were peers. Not friends, but peers.

Senior year, ’94, we were both National Merit semifinalists. There were nine semifinalists, altogether, and though sharing that distinction did not overcome our natural, teenage cliqueishness, there was a bond. We shared many of the same advanced placement classes, notably Cindy Whitenight’s Literature and Creative Writing. In one of them—Creative Writing, I think—we were tasked to bring in a favorite piece of another writer’s prose to read aloud.

Joe chose a passage from Dennis Leary’s then-popular book No Cure For Cancer. This is it:

On my brother’s tenth birthday—I was six—we had a little birthday party. Just me, my brother, and my mom. And a chocolate cake. And little birthday hats. Singing the birthday song. “Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you!”

My dad was putting paneling in the living room during the ten minutes we weren’t in there. He was working with a circular saw. So this was the sound effect we heard come echoing down the hallway during the birthday song: “Happy birthday to you. Happy birth–”Zzzazow zzzazow zzzzzazazazow zzzzzazazow THA-THINK

And my dad comes waltzìng gingerly into the kitchen with his thumb hanging off at the bone. We’re sitting there in our paper hats with chocolate cake in front of us—our faces frozen in fear. I’m thinking, “Wow. Dad’s thumb is hanging off. Look at all that blood. Look at the bones. He’s probably gonna start crying any second now.”

And this is what my father says—his thumb is literally hanging by a thread of a bone, there’s blood everywhere, and he says—and I quote, “We got any tape around here? I need to tape this baby up.” My mother snapped. She starts screaming, “I’ll drive you to the hospital! Call the hospital! Tell them we’re coming! Ahhhh!” But he wouldn’t let my mother drive him to the hospital. That was too much of a threat to his masculinity—to be seen in a car driven by a woman. So he taped up his thumb with black electrical tape and drove himself—mínus one thumb—to the hospital. Never blinked an eye. He was humming as he taped it up in front of us.

We’re sitting at the table—paper hats, chocolate cake, blood, bits of bone. I looked at my brother and said, “Hey, pal. Forget about crying. Crying is over. We’re never going to be able to cry about anything ever, okay?” Our authority figure is a man who could sever his own head with a chainsaw, and he’d staple-gun it back on: PUN-CHIT! PUN-CHIT PUN-CHIT PUN-CHIT! “Fuckin’ head came off!”

Joe died at the end of 1996, around the time of my twenty-first birthday. Close friends reported an accident involving heroin. I don’t know as much as I should about him, either his life or his death, but I know that he read these words aloud to his friends, and his peers, sometime in the spring of 1994, and made all of us laugh together.

Letters to editors

Clippings from my files suggest an observable trend: The more miserable my life, the more likely I am to take it out on the local newspaper editors. These two date from the same year. I was just starting grad school, and probably should’ve been making black sludge into brown sludge on a flash chromatography column, somewhere, instead of inveighing against sexist language (above) and neoconservative foreign policy (below). But there’s no doubt which was more enjoyable.

My favorite spray bottle

I have had this clear blue, spherical, plastic misting bottle for twelve or thirteen years. I remember paying $8.99 for it at Target, I think, in 1998 or 1999. It was one of the first objects that ever made me pay attention to product design as an aesthetic activity. I went through a period thereafter where I was infatuated with expensive mid-century “modern” design and furniture, and bought some stuff in that vein. But all that snobby crap is gone, now. My $9 spray bottle remains.

I actually upgraded it, slightly, at some point, by replacing the “factory” rigid plastic suction tube with a piece of flexible vinyl R/C model fuel line with a brass R/C fuel filter at the end. This mod was a significant improvement, because the flexible, weighted line seeks the lowest point in the reservoir and so continues to draw water even when the sprayer is held at odd angles. Plus, the fuel filter helps keep grit and dust out of the sprayer mechanism, and hopefully prolongs its life.

I’ve recently discovered the brand name is “Tolco Mistaround.” They were manufactured in blue, red, green, and “smoke.” Though a bit hard to find, they are still for sale here and there on the web.

Duplicating flat steel parts on the cheap

This method gives good results with simple hand tools:

  1. The original part is affixed to a piece of blank stock of appropriate thickness. Double-sided “carpet tape” is very useful for this purpose. Excess tape can be trimmed away with a hobby knife.
  2. Any round holes in the original part are drilled through the blank with a hand drill, using the original as a guide/template.
  3. Close-fitting bolts are passed through these holes and fitted with nuts and or washers to clamp the original and the blank in close alignment.
  4. A hacksaw, a hand nibbler, and/or a file are used to trim the stock down to the original part profile on all sides. For hacksawing, it can be useful to secure the stacked blank and original part to a piece of scrap wood.

Shown here are two admittedly rather boring examples: A replacement hasp for my outside breaker box in stainless steel, and a duplicate strike-plate for a lockset on my rental property door. Both parts have performed flawlessly as replacements.

Homemade Toshiba TLP-671 video projector wall mount

The mounting plate itself is built from a piece of 1/2″ MDF. I traced around the bottom of the projector, cut it to shape using a sabre saw, drilled the holes, rounded the corners and edges with a file, and applied a couple coats of black spray paint. Four holes in the center of the plate are fit with T-nuts, on the underside, to receive flat-head bolts passing through the horizontal pipe flange. Two holes in the front corners of the plate allow attachment by machine screws into threaded hard-points in the bottom of the projector case (which is the top, in this configuration, because the projector is mounted upside-down).

The back edge of the projector is secured by small aluminum binding triangles, shown in a detail photograph in the gallery, below. Each triangle has three screws—two with “wood” threads that secure the triangle to the back edge of the mounting plate, and one with “machine” threads that mate with threaded hard-points in the back side of the projector case.

The mounting arm, obviously, is made from pipe fittings. I believe these are nominal 1.5″ diameter. The horizontal flange is connected to a 90-degree elbow by a short nipple. The elbow, from there, is connected to a longer nipple and then to a second, vertical pipe flange which is secured to a wall stud with wood screws. Power and video cables are would ’round the mounting arm for strain relief on the connectors before running off to the wall outlet and the video source.

The mounting operation consisted of 1) attaching the mounting plate to the video projector, 2) attaching the mounting arm to the wall, 3) attaching the mounting plate with projector to the mounting arm at the horizontal flange, and 4) attaching the running the cables. The only major drawback of this design is that it does not easily allow for adjustment of “pitch.” As can be seen, a pair of fender washers “shims” had to be interposed between the back edge of the horizontal pipe flange, and the mounting plate, to lower the back end of the projector and raise the image projected on the opposite wall. Otherwise, the mount has worked out just as I’d intended.

Concrete bowl with bottle glass aggregate

Last Spring I got it in my head to make a concrete bowl. Mom had a book—Concrete Crafts by Alan Wycheck, specifically—with a project for a bowl made by casting concrete with colored glass fill between two cheap stainless steel mixing bowls, and we decided to try it.

I had a bunch of blue and green glass bottles on-hand, and broke these up by submerging them in a big galvanized washtub and bashing them with a fence-post driver. The water works nicely to prevent flying shards. Once the glass was pounded down to about US quarter-size, on average, we dumped the washtub out onto an old bedsheet on the lawn, in the sun, and gathered up sheet and glass together when everything was dry. We didn’t bother to remove the labels, first, which proved to be a mistake, in the long run, because we were picking bits of paper out of the glass for most of the rest of the project. It was an annoyance, not a critical error, but in hindsight I’d recommend spending the time to take the labels off, first.

We mixed up the concrete per Wycheck’s recipe (2:1:1 glass:sand:Portland cement, by volume, plus water to “taste”), spritzed the inside of the large bowl and the outside of the small bowl with generic “mold release” from Hobby Lobby, and dolloped in a generous portion of the wet mixture before inserting the smaller bowl and compressing until concrete oozed out around the lip. We set the stacked bowls in a corner of the porch, covered them with a soaking-wet towel, covered that with a plastic garbage bag to hold in the moisture, and weighted everything down with a pair of cobblestones. Then we left it for week. (Concrete gets harder the longer it stays wet during curing.)

The following weekend, there were a few tense moments when it seemed like the mold would be impossible to open without destroying its contents. But repeatedly dropping the stack on a towel spread over a cement patio floor, from a height of a few inches, eventually worked both inner and outer molds loose and a cleanly-molded concrete bowl popped out.

The instructions in Wycheck’s book, at this point, advise the reader to “sand or grind the surface to expose the glass.” In practice, in my experience, those nine words entail about 95% of the time, and 99% of the physical effort, expended in the project. I spent about 20 hours, all told, over the course of several weeks, working over the outside of the bowl, using an auto-body grinder with a six-inch-diameter flexible rubber pad and a set of diamond-impregnated abrasive pads, to achieve the results shown here. I turned the bowl upside down and fit it over an old barstool so I could work on it standing up.

These diamond polishing pads were not available locally, and had to be ordered online. They came in a set of eight grit sizes ranging from 50 up to 6000 grits, attaching by Velcro to a hard rubber pad threaded for a standard grinder arbor. That hard pad very quickly overheated, the first time I tried to use it, causing the adhesive holding the Velcro on to melt and the Velcro layer to come loose from the pad. When I complained about this to the seller, fortunately, their response was really outstanding: They sent me a new, soft rubber pad, for free, explained how I could fix the broken one with rubber cement. I had no problems with the soft replacement pad throughout the remainder of the project and, indeed, the hard one was good as new after the recommended repair.

With my equipment problems resolved, I set to with the grinder. I spent about 10 hours at the largest (50) grit size, just grinding away the so-called “cream” to expose the glass, and then worked down to smaller and smaller grits, spending about two hours each on 100, 200, 400, and 800 grits. There was a really striking improvement in the step from 400 to 800, and for a day or two I fully intended to polish the whole bowl all the way out to 6000 grit. But then I lost patience and just applied a polymer sealant, specifically Arrow-Magnolia International’s Glo-crete (some of which was leftover from my condo renovation), inside and out. This provided a nice, shiny, “wet-look” gloss.

I’m quite pleased with the finished product, which I gave to Mom as a gift.  But damn. It was much, much, much more work than I’d planned on, and I feel like Wycheck’s book should’ve done a better job of preparing me for the time commitment, and of providing guidance about the specialized equipment that would be needed to get it done.

His and hers form break-up letters

It would’ve been sometime in 2005, I think, when a friend and I found this CD-R in the deep discount bin at Austin’s Discount Electronics. I don’t recall the exact figure, but I want to say we paid $2 for it. I think the box art actually advertised that it contained sample correspondence for “relationships,” and we could not resist our curiosity about what a model “Dear John/Jane” letter would look like. First, hers:


Thank you for the beautiful flowers; that was such a thoughtful gesture. Your note asked me to call when I got back in town, but I wanted to write instead to let you know where I am mentally and emotionally at this time in my life.

I’ve really enjoyed the times we’ve gone out together. You’re a great conversationalist, and I really notice those skills in others because my job requires me to sit in front of a computer all day and talk to myself!

However, right now I’m totally focused on my work; I’ve landed several key projects that can give me high visibility in the company if I’m successful with them. They’re going to require that I work some fairly long hours. And on the weekends, I feel I owe my attention to my ten-year-old, Dara, and her various activities.

So I’d love to run into you from time to time when our friends get together, but I don’t want to mislead you into thinking I’m open to a new relationship at the present. I’m really not, for all the above reasons. Thank you for understanding.


Not bad, really, assuming that she actually has both a job and a ten-year-old named Dara. I suppose since she has to edit the text, a bit, to insert the correct name of the dumpee, as well as her own real name (he might actually be seeing the real “Belinda” on the side, after all), it’s not really asking too much more that she also insert the correct name, age, and pronoun for her child. Assuming her womb has not been a stony, barren field, to date.

Here’s his response:


I’ve been meaning to return your calls, but my schedule has been so erratic lately. I decided instead to drop you a note and let you know what’s going on with me. You deserve a straightforward explanation.

You have been such a big part of my life for the past several months that I wanted to let you know personally rather than just dodging your calls and offering you insincere lines and excuses.

Call it a mid-life crisis. Call it a departure from reality. Call it a bout with doubt. The bottom-line is that I’ve met someone else.

I may be making a serious mistake to end our relationship at this point, but I have to follow my heart at the moment. I hope you find it in your heart to forgive me for hurting you. You are a wonderful person, and the guy that ultimately wins your love will be very fortunate.


Again, with the arguably-significant exception of the actual explanation, this is not a bad break-up letter, IMHO. But, you know, details like whether he’s A) having a mid-life crisis, B) having a psychotic episode, C) having a “bout with doubt” and/or D) having sex with another woman are important in this context. I mean, it gets the “I’m so through with you” point across, but, wow: “You deserve a straightforward explanation that is not an insincere line or an excuse. So, you know, pick one of these four common ones and assume it’s true.”

Oh, and in the special case of answer C: “Bout with doubt” in a breakup letter is only slightly less tacky than “date with fate” in a sympathy card.