April 2011

After posting my summary of our holiday, I found this by James Lileks. He expresses it much better than I do.

” I hated to let the day go. It’ll never be like this again. It might be similar; it might be better; it might just be different and interesting in a way I can’t predict. But everything that mattered was here for a while, in some fashion, and everything felt normal. It was a cloudy dank Saturday, but the weather didn’t matter. Nothing felt like goodbye. Everything felt like Hello.”


I’ve been trying to learn electrical engineering in my spare time.  It’s been going fairly well even though I have produced very little.

I was supposed to have learned some of this in college.  I was required to take an electronics class but it was a self-paced lab where we read from a book and built stuff on a breadboard and I learned almost nothing.  A self-paced lab with no instructor is fine for somebody with sufficient motivation but I lacked that motivational part.  The lab was in the afternoon when my friends were off throwing a Frisbee, I thought it was nerdy (ironic since I apparently did not think that my major of physics was nerdy), and several other things.  I passed it and promptly went on with life thinking that electronics was magic.

I understood it to be powered by magical smoke.  If you ever did anything that let the magic smoke out (which was obvious from the smell), the item never worked again and the magic was beyond understanding.

I got by with that for a long time.

Then I met a guy who told me that it was all really simple.  In my mind, this clanged like a box of cymbals in a monkey cage.  Electronics simple?  Impossible.   Then, over time, he set himself to proving it to me.  Just a little bit here and there. 

Then a perfect storm of circumstances occurred which made me revisit the whole thing.  First, I subscribed to Make Magazine which features lots of electronics projects.  Then there was my friend the guitar player who decided he wanted to learn how to create his own effects boxes.  That did it.

My EE friend has said one thing that rings true for me and that is:  the old days of wiring discrete components together are gone.  Using integrated circuits that do well-defined things has turned electronics into a lego set of functionality.  To a large extent this seems to be true.  I have built several things on the breadboard that produce sine waves, square waves, etc. 

It remains to be seen if I can design something myself that will work after being hard-wired together on a circuit board.  My tutor however has many examples from his own work of custom-made circuit boards that do wonderful things so he can usually prove things to me that I have trouble believing. It’s pretty empowering.

One thing that stands out to me more than anything else is how cheap it is.  My friend loaned me an old oscilloscope (he has two!) so that I can check things more easily and precisely.  Other than the ‘scope, everything else is ridiculously cheap.  The most expensive integrated circuit I’ve been able to find that applies to something I’m interested in is $10.  Everything else can literally be had for pennies.  Plus, it doesn’t take up much space.  These two things are in stark contrast to woodworking.  Perhaps this is why my Dad got into electronics tinkering as he got older.  When they had to move away from the sketchy neighborhood he lost his workshop and turned to electronics and perhaps this is why.

This Easter weekend was unique in several ways.  We spent it out of town, it rained continuously, and we went to someone else’s church.  It kept us on our toes.

This year, everybody was invited to Melissa’s brother’s place in Arkansas.  I always write that it is Fayetteville but in reality it is south of there near Winslow.  You turn one way to get to Devil’s Den State Park, the other way to get to his house.  Normally, if we stay the night, we sleep in one of his spare rooms but this time he was going to go out of town on business Monday so we chose to give him a break and stay in a hotel.

But first the rains came.  We have been in a drought for awhile and there have been many wildfires on the prairies all over Oklahoma but on Friday a weather system stalled right over us and started dumping rain in vast quantities.  This is all welcome of course but I guess we’d like to have spread it out a little – perhaps share some with the western half of the state.  And so we drove to Fayetteville in the rain to pick up Evan and have our Easter throw-down on Saturday.

Mel found an incredible bargain on Orbitz: $30 per night.   This was one of the extended stay places and Orbitz put us in there for one night.  Unfortunately, through some foul-up, no rooms were available.  This had apparently happened before so the manager sent us to a much nicer ‘normal’ hotel up the road where we happily stayed.  Same price too.  SCORE!

We picked up Evan and took a short detour so he could show us the townhouse that he and his buddies will be living in this summer and for their senior year.  We then headed down south to Winslow – again in the rain.  These things are always fun and so we spent many hours there talking, eating, watching the newest children, etc.  One cousin has recently had a baby and so there was a six-week old infant to fawn over. Meanwhile the downpour continued; at one point adding in some hail.  We turned on the TV to the weather radar channel and saw a big red and purple splotch on top of us with a little rotating symbol on it.  Mel’s brother Steve said, “Oh that’s at least a mile away!” so we ignored it.  Probably wasn’t a real tornado anyway. There was no ignoring the hail though.

We dropped Evan off at his dorm afterwards and went back to the hotel to bed.  On Easter morning we had agreed to go to Evan’s church where lots of college students go.  (At least those college students who go to church at all which is a small minority of them).  We got lucky – the hotel had a breakfast bar!

We picked him up and went to the early service.  It meets in the Boys and Girls club gym since they haven’t actually built a building yet.  They had the usual rock band which I suppose is cheaper to put together regardless of whether you like rock music or not.  I like it but I did sort of miss the pipe organ turned up to 11 and the huge congregation of my own church singing “Christ The Lord is Risen Today!” but this was plenty worshipful.  We enjoyed it. 

We also got to meet the girl that Evan has been dating recently which was pretty exciting.  We had brought Evan an Easter basket full of candy and had also brought her one but we gave it to Evan to give to her later.  We didn’t want to make too big a deal out of this whole thing.  We invited her to lunch but she had been one of several to organize a potluck for the college students who stayed in town and so was tied up.  Melissa’s mom for years made a cake shaped like a bunny for Easter and Melissa took up that task years ago.  We brought one for the big family thing and a lot of it was left over so we left that for the college student’s potluck.  We took Evan to lunch.

We had a bit of trouble finding a place for lunch since it appears that even though it’s a college town, a large number of restaurants close on Easter Sunday (or perhaps Sundays in general).  We weren’t picky; picky people go through life constantly disappointed with things.  We found a place that suited and had a good time.  It’s all about being together anyway.    Erin had gotten word late in the night via text message that she had won yet another scholarship so that was a topic of conversation.  It was all good.

Meanwhile the rain came down continuously. Runoff rain water was making little waterfalls and rivers all over town.  We dropped him off and drove home in this.  Driving in a downpour is pleasant but gets stressful at times when semi-trucks pass you and throw up mist that you can’t see through.  Occasional hail makes you worry about the sanctity of your paint job.  As a result, I got home and took a brief nap.

We should be back there in a week or two.  Evan’s finals are coming up and after that, he moves out of the dorm for good and into the townhouse.  I have a truck all lined up for this little party.  I expect we’ll be there many times this summer.  He has lined up an engineering internship for the summer and will be living there by himself since his roommates will be working elsewhere.  He’s never lived alone before so I expect some visits will be in order.  Mel will not be working so she’ll be free to take stuff over there that he has forgotten.

Life is playing out more or less as expected.  The girlfriend seems very nice; too bad we didn’t get a chance to talk longer.

Last night was Erin’s senior prom and we’re all still recovering.

She began at about 9:00 am with manicure and pedicure.  Mel went with her and sat in.  After that it was a meetup with her friend Jana at the hair place.  They both got a fancy do and came back to our house to finish the prep work.

After a long session with the makeup, Jana’s sister showed up to see the dress before she returned to college.  Then they both got their dresses on.  By this time it was 4:30 and various parents began to arrive to make some photos.  Then the dates showed up (and their parents) and more photos were made of the pinning on of the flowers.  Finally after all this, we all saddled up and headed off to Woodward Park where the azaleas are in full bloom this time of year.

As usual, everybody else in Tulsa County had the same idea and so there was a bit of a panic over parking spaces but everyone found a place for their cars (because nobody thought it was a good idea to carpool; unlike several other groups that actually rented tour busses and streetcars.  We saw them there.).  We took hundreds of photos it seems and then Mel and I followed them to the Mayo Hotel downtown where they were all going for dinner.  By this time the other parents had  had enough.  We took a few more photos and then finally left them to it.

I stayed up until Erin got home although she was only just changing out of the dress and into regular clothes.  She and her date went on to Annie’s house to sleep over.  A few guys went too but the parents assured us that girls were upstairs and boys were downstairs.  I believe it; that mom is one of the youth directors for her church.

Erin arrived home at around 9:00 am this morning and only answered a few questions before returning to bed.  Mel followed soon after and now the house is quiet.  It will be interesting to see all the other kids’ photos when they finally all wake up and start posting them to Facebook.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to explain the dangers of radioactivity and I just read something that I think is a totally misleading description of what radiation is.  The non-scientist writing about science described the dangerous stuff in a reactor as fundamentally the same as sunlight or heat.  I guess that might be true at some level but it’s not helpful in understanding radioactivity.

Back in the 1950s we had the same problem and the misunderstanding that so many people suffered from manifested itself as Godzilla and gigantic mutated ants in the movies.  The scientists didn’t explain things in an understandable way and people filled in the gaps with monsters. I thought I’d try to explain some of it here.

While in grad school I worked in the accelerator lab and learned a good bit from my professor who was the university’s radiation safety officer.  We operated a particle accelerator; when the particles hit something, the sudden deceleration causes energy to be radiated so I always wore a film badge.  We had to learn a little about this stuff to get to work there and this is what I learned, more or less.

First, the term ‘radiation’ is misused often.  Radiation means any energy that is radiated; that is, it travels from its source by radiating into space.  Heat is the best example of this.  Light is another good example.  You feel the warmth of the campfire when you stand next to it; you read a book by standing next to a light.  Both these things radiate energy from their sources to you.  That’s why the thing in old houses was called a ‘radiator’. But when we start talking about ‘radiation’ in the nuclear reactor sense, we are usually talking about radioactivity which is a very similar word.  This is an unfortunate mashing together of two different usages although it is true than when anything starts at some point and travels out in all direction it is said to ‘radiate’ so what I’m about to write about is certainly ‘radiation’ but I think it’s best to separate the two usages.

So what is radioactivity? It’s when a large atom (one with a large number of protons and neutrons) is too large to stay that way and it splits into two or more pieces.  I don’t remember the details of why a large atom would become unstable but I do remember that with both the nucleus and with the cloud of electrons there is nice neat arrangement of things that occurs naturally. If you get above a certain size (or stick in an extra neutron or two) then things get unstable and tend to fall apart. Usually there are other things besides the two new atoms that are produced too – like X-rays and/or gamma rays. In addition, usually the fragments of such an event are themselves unstable in some way and they will also split into fragments creating more X-rays, gamma rays, and such.  Lots of these X-rays and gamma rays are absorbed by other atoms nearby and this ultimately manifests itself as heat which is why radioactive compounds are often hot.  But lots of X-rays and gamma rays get out.  These are the problem.

There are other fragments.  There are beta particles; this is nothing more than extra electrons.  The same thing that makes up electricity.  Then there are alpha particles; this is the nucleus of a helium atom.  In other words two protons and two neutrons floating freely.  If you could force them into the same general vicinity as the beta particles, they would combine and make a helium atom and you’d have no trouble.  These aren’t very much trouble anyway; they don’t penetrate very far into anything.  Enough of them will cause first degree burns to the skin but little else.  They are sometimes called beta rays and alpha rays but this is just a misnomer left over from the earliest days of nuclear physics before the particles were completely understood.  The other things: X-rays and gamma rays, I’ll discuss later. There can also be extra neutrons floating around.  These tend to get lodged in the nuclei of other atoms and contribute to more instability and more decaying atoms.  Some materials like Boron are neutron absorbers – I don’t know how they get absorbed or where they go when they’re absorbed.  I suspect that some atoms have nuclei that can take on another neutron and still be nice and stable.  Others can’t.  This stability is probably easiest to visualize by thinking of Jenga blocks.  They stand up pretty well when everything is arranged just right but if you knock out one in just the right place, the whole stack falls apart.

We used the term ‘ionizing radiation’ in the lab. That is kind of a catch-all phrase that describes anything coming out of an atom or molecule that will cause damage.  There are many mechanisms for such damage but one stands out.  Basically, if an X-ray or gamma ray collides with an atom or molecule, it will knock off an electron which creates an ion.

So what?

If you ionize an atom, its chemical properties change.  Biological processes are so complex that if you ionize one of the atoms in one of the molecules, you’ll usually screw up the whole chain of events.  If this happens enough (if you have enough X-rays for example) you can cause an entire organ to stop functioning.  Furthermore, if you ionize one of the molecules in a chromosome, then the next time that chromosome is duplicated during cell division, the process might get screwed up depending on what that particular damaged gene does in the human genome.  Usually the process just fails to complete and that cell dies.  If not, the change might do nothing (that we are aware of so far) or it might control something important.  If it happens to be a switch that controls cell division then cellular division might continue without stopping which is what cancer is.

Or whatever chemical chain of events that makes an organ function might stop and that organ would cease to perform its function.  Sometimes all this stuff: the X-rays, beta particles, alpha particles, and gamma rays all together will cause enough damage to look like a first degree burn.  This is sometimes called ‘beta burn’ or ‘gamma burns’.  Usually you see this when someone inadvertently carries a radioactive material in their hands or pockets or some such accidental exposure.

Some of this damage happens all the time. The human body is set up to deal with a few events of random molecular damage but if you get too much of this ionizing radiation, the body can’t deal with it.  This cumulative ionization affects the body in many strange ways but usually manifests itself as cancer or organ shutdown.  In extreme cases, this tissue damage will show up as hemorrhaging, diarrhea, or vomiting because so many of the cells have died. This usually happens because you get a radioactive compound on you through some accident (or oversight).

This is complicated further by the fact that the body needs several elements in trace amounts.  Iodine for example is one of the atoms in a hormone produced in the thyroid gland.  Iodine has an isotope (that is, a nucleus that has an extra neutron which makes it unstable) that is radioactive and it’s a by-product of nuclear reactors that produce power.  The thyroid will absorb whatever iodine it encounters, radioactive or not, and if it gets flooded with the radioactive kind, the damage cause by X-rays ionizing everything will cause the thyroid to stop working.  It may even die.  This is why they give iodine tablets to people who have been exposed to radioactive material; they flood the thyroid with normal iodine so that it won’t absorb any of the radioactive stuff.  This only works if you take the iodine tablets before you’re exposed to the radioactive stuff.  And by the way, the table salt that we all buy in the grocery store has iodine in it already as a nutritional supplement so iodine tablets aren’t really necessary for most people.  If a reactor melts down in Japan, you don’t need to start taking iodine tablets.  This radioactive Iodine has a very short lifetime anyway.  In a few days it’s all gone.

Another example is calcium.  The body needs calcium to build bones with.  One of the byproducts of a reactor is Strontium-90 which is an isotope that is chemically very similar to calcium, in fact, the body likes to build bones with this more than calcium.  So the body will absorb Strontium-90 and incorporate into its bones.  But Strontium-90 is radioactive with a very long half life.  Your body itself then becomes radioactive and the resultant onslaught of X-rays (from the radioactive splitting) causes damage over time. Even worse, if your body stores the Strontium-90 in your bones then it tends to damage the bone marrow and cause cancer of the bone marrow; or leukemia.

So there you have both the immediate effects and the long term effects.  If there isn’t too much exposure to radioactivity, your body can deal with it and heal although because of the few random chromosomes damaged here and there, you always have an elevated risk of cancer from that point on. As far as I know, there haven’t been many cases of this chromosomal damage resulting in a genetic mutation that was obvious in children of victims.  Monstrosities are pretty much limited to the movies. Cases of people with extra fingers and freaky stuff like that do exist but as far as I know those aren’t due to radioactivity; more from inbreeding or simply randomness I think.

Back to the atoms again, radioactive elements exist in nature – in fact that’s where we get them.  Uranium and Plutonium are two elements that are just at that special sweet spot in the periodic table.  They have a definite number of protons in their nuclei but can have a few extra neutrons on occasion.  Those extra neutrons make them unstable and prone to falling apart; in other words, prone to radioactive decay.  This is why we use them for nuclear reactor fuel (and bombs).  We can make this decay process go faster by concentrating the number of radioactive atoms together and when there are enough and they are close enough then the fireworks start.  (You’ve probably seen the demonstration of a chain reaction with a roomful of mousetraps.)  This is done by separating the radioactive uranium atoms from the non-radioactive ones. This gives you the concentrated radioactive stuff that you need for the power plants  but the process is never perfect and so the stuff that should be totally non-radioactive (what is called ‘depleted uranium’) is never pure and always has some radioactive atoms in it. This isn’t good for much but has been used in armor-piercing bullets and in counterweights due to its extreme density. (It’s denser than lead but is harder. It’s also about the same color as lead although most metals are about the same color no matter what they are.)  It also has the curious property that when mixed with other chemicals can impart an intense orange color and so at one time was used in Fiestaware dishware back in the 1950s.  The water pitchers were noticeably radioactive; my professor had one such pitcher around for demonstrations and I once put a Geiger counter down into it and it clicked like crazy.  I should point out that the dishware was not all that radioactive; only barely detectable above what occurs in nature but we had a sensitive detector and with the pitcher, you could completely surround the Geiger tube by putting in inside the pitcher and so the effect was more pronounced.

So that’s kind of what happens.  I could be wrong; I could be remembering what I learned in a distorted way or I could have not learned it right to begin with.  But I’m mostly right I think.  The world is much more complicated than this but this is about all I could put down without getting overly complicated.

My friend Andy, whom I met while living in Fort Worth has died of liver cancer.

This is the first person my age that has died of anything. It’s really strange.   Surreal.

And it sucks.

I bought Erin’s laptop for college Saturday.  And managed to plant some flowers.

Erin has been ready to leave for college since about October of last year.  She’s been asking about the laptop for the same period.  She started politicking long ago for a nice one rather than the $500 entry-level ones that I shop from.  Evan has a long history of complaining about his laptop as being inadequate to his tasks although that comes mostly from the fact that laptops improve so dramatically from one year to the next.  Erin responded to the overheard complaints by wanting a nicer one and volunteered to pay the difference.  In the end, I agreed to this.

As it turned out, when we went shopping, the landscape has changed a bit.  First, I had stumbled upon an article about reliability and so we just chose the most reliable brand (Toshiba) and didn’t look at the rest.  But we also found out that the price only varied between about $500 and $800.  A few years back you could easily top $1300 if you weren’t careful.  Plus, the $500 ones are as good as the $1000 ones used to be.

In the end, I only spent approximately another $55 than I did on Evan and she’s thrilled with it.  And another nice thing is that it did not come larded with all sorts of crapware that I had to uninstall.  In fact, I had no uninstallation to do at all.

This left me time to go buy the spring flowers that I always put out on either side of our mailbox.  This year, I also had a new bed in the back yard to plant.  We’ve always had an awkward northeast-facing corner that gets no (or very little) sun and so last fall I grubbed it all up and attempted to plant some things there.  They were plants from the end-of-season sale at Home Depot.  They were Gardenias which are totally the wrong thing and are not suited to survive the winter but I studiously kept them covered all winter whenever the temperature went below freezing and uncovered them when it was sunny.  So they’re looking pretty bad but still alive. 

I went to the nursery and bought some shade-loving plants (hostas and impatiens) and got some of them planted before the in-laws came over to discuss their search for a new house. 

The weather was glorious for this sort of work and so it was a pleasant weekend.  I got the rest of them in on Sunday.  So here’s hoping they all thrive.  I hired another lawn service to do the mowing and although we’re in an unfortunate drought, my grass seems to be coming up anyway.  I’ll be glad when the mowers show up. 

My house unfortunately sits on a bed of almost pure clay.  When I dig down an inch or two I encounter something that I think potters would love to have.  I’ve even thought of trying to find some people who like to throw pots and seeing if they would come dig up some of mine.  That could be a win-win where they get free clay and I end up with space to bring in topsoil.  But that’s just dreaming.  Potters probably want special stuff – not just any old crap.

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