I’ve been working with a NMR a lot lately. It generates a reality all its own. Working with it during the past couple of days has taught me a few lessons:

  • You left something down a flight of stairs in the other lab. Figure out what it is.
  • Murphy’s law says as soon as a professor says this needs to be done today, another student will show up with the same urgency, whose sample should take much less time than yours. In theory. His sample is bigger on the inside.
  • After you insert a sample, you will realize that you forgot to remove your metal watch,  which might have messed up the magnetism of the NMR or your watch. No joke, my watch is losing time, though that might be the battery.

    Poor Watch

  • If you’re counting on getting “done” within a set amount of time, you won’t, because…
  • Shimming a sample never works the same way twice!
  • It may be necessary to pray for the equipment to get it to shim properly.
  • If labels can fall off, they will. Color code the caps of NMR tubes in sequences to make things simpler. (I use green-white-blue for incrementally more concentrated solutions.)
  • Make too much solution. Even if you use a volumetric flask, the elves will steal a few tenths of a milliliter.
  • There isn’t enough time to do homework between samples. Well, maybe like one question.
  • Do the dishes. The dish tray is a queue, not a dishwasher.
  • Things often don’t work out as planned. Keep going. 🙂

The Way to Wal*mart

Siri tried to assassinate me last weekend. Perhaps it wasn’t Siri; perhaps it was Miri, her evil and conniving older sister, who haunts the depths of GPS systems with a District of Columbia street map, and a list of all the one-way streets in America.

My family recently got our first GPS system. Naturally, we packed it into the trunk. At some point, driving from Richmond to Atlanta, my father decided that he had a desperate need of lunch meat and chips. Since we were in the middle of nowhere and hadn’t seen a Wal*mart sign for the last fifteen minutes, we brought the GPS out, and searched for Wal*mart. There was one 5.6 miles away. (See, we were really in the middle of nowhere.) My brother selected it. “Calculating….” Miri mused. “Turn right NOW!” Passing an exit, my mother screeched to a halt, bounced over the dividing reflectors and onto the exit ramp. “Where now?” “Turn right in 0.2 miles.” Miri said sweetly. She proceeded to guide us to another highway, down several back roads, and after a half hour finally found a Wal*mart

But first we had to get into Wal*mart. “Turn right, now.” said Miri. “What, where?” asked Mom. “Turn right, now.” reminded Miri. “NOW!” she insisted with enthusiasm worthy of a Wal*mart publicist. “That’s where it is!” my mother exclaimed as she passed the turnoff. “Recalculating….” Miri sulked. My mother finally turned. “Turn right in 0.1 miles” said Miri. “I’m not sure we need instructions for getting into the parking lot.” “You never know,” replied Dad.

We were lucky to find our chips. Miri had delivered us to the central chip-buying location in South Carolina at the height of the Superbowl madness. “If you ever wondered what Wal*mart would look like after a crazed mob went through it,” my brother said, “This is it.” “I’m not sure the mob has left yet,” I replied.

After Miri realized that we were not bound to follow any of her directions, and that Wal*mart had not killed us she sulkily directed us back to the highway. This time it took us a mere five minutes to arrive on the highway. While I am grateful that Miri deigned to show us the way back from Wal*mart that we could not have otherwise found, I am conscious that on our own, we could not possibly found such a circuitous way to Wal*mart.

Tupperware: A Phantom Menace

A new menace to the world order has come to my attention. Even in the most ordered democracies, the presence of just one of these agents introduces entropy and initiates a swift downfall into chaos. Even now, it lurks unsuspected in our homes. This phantom menace? Tupperware.

Like most people, I find Tupperware to be a convenient way to store and transport leftovers. Few people consider that it both contributes to obesity, propagates waste, and encourages people the likes of Martha Stewart.

  • The ability to transport food encourages people to do so to ridiculous extremes. It is true that these people could buy vending machine chips for lunch instead of bringing a sandwich with them, but then, lunch is an unsustainable added expense, a privilege, and the vending machine economy is stimulated. So I say, support your local vendors especially if you live on a campus almost entirely supported by restaurant and vending machine revenue.
  • The availability of storage encourages people to make too much food. But we all know what happens to leftovers in the back of the refrigerator. They evolve and make evil plans against the nostrils of all mankind until someone notices and squelches the revolution with a trash bag.
  • All those partial matched sets of Tupperware came from somewhere. The chief culprits are people the likes of Martha Stewart and Rachel Ray, who endorse the containers after they have been designed and manufactured. I sincerely doubt Betty Crocker personally examined your sandwich box. Will you trust your BLT to someone who sells their opinions on sandwich boxes so freely? I thought not.
Then there are the practical disadvantages of Tupperware. These include their inability to actually stack like normal dishes, to actually store food, and to reduce dirty dishes.
  • No matter how many times you buy a matched set of Tupperware and throw out the rest, in a few weeks you will always find that the containers no longer fit into that neat little box and have spread throughout the entire cupboard–especially if you let someone else do the dishes. (Why are there so many different shapes of containers?) Only half of the original set will still be there; and the only lids left will belong to the lost containers. In addition, someone will have the brilliant idea that they can reuse a cottage cheese container. Moreover, someone else will have found another piece in the car that you haven’t seen since you left college, and then there will be that other piece someone left at a potluck and moved away….


    Can no one stack them right?

  • Tupperware lids are tricky things. Nine times out of ten, they don’t fit on the containers they’re actually supposed to fit on, unless that is, you have ten strong men and a trained monkey. The other ten percent of the time, they are obviously too loose, and you can throw them out. But the lids leak. They don’t always leak, or else that could be discovered while washing dishes. They leak the day one packs chili and has a major essay in one’s bag. Devious things.
  • I’m not sure whether Tupperware was actually meant to reduce dirty dishes, or just make the fridge easier to pack. Considering that dirty containers are created every time one uses Tupperware, I tend to doubt the first. Considering that once the food is in the Tupperware, it becomes invisible, either because of the cloaking field surrounding all normal Tupperware, or because one only opens it because one thought that the re-purposed margarine container actually had margarine in it, I also doubt that it’s worth it to put these things in the refrigerator in the first place.
So I ask you, fair readers: Is it worth it? One must ask whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous food storage. Or to take arms against a sea of lids, and by opposing boycott them. And speaking of slings and arrows, I should finish preparing for my physics test. Adieu.

The Nightmares of Planning a Backpacking Trip

Having just planned and completed a thirty mile backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail, I am rather tanned, and still getting some grief about my planning process from some of my participants. Here is a summary of lessons learned. Or unlearned. I still feel rather self-righteous.

Start Early. I started a little over two months early. It apparently was not
enough time. All plans change according to the number of people coming.Many times participants do not confirm in time. Set a deadline. I re-planned the route of our trip a week before going after discovering that we only had one car going, and thus needed to hike a loop. Nonetheless, the earlier you start, the more time you have to deal with unexpected problems and get permits–but the more devastating cancellations are.

Get a good map. Detailed maps are imperative. The best online map of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia was not detailed enough for me to use my compass. To wit, the best use of my compass the entire trip was as a weight for the end of the line for hanging the bear bag. If you can buy one, an official map or guidebook is a good thing to have. (My local outfitter was sold out.) Elevation profiles and detailed descriptions are helpful, to a point. (The mileage to the privies on side trails in the detailed description is actually the mileage of the trails to the shelters.) It is important to realize, however, that a mile in mountainous country will feel like five because of the vertical distance covered.

Double-check your best source. For the reasons mentioned before, and
because many points on one description are often not mentioned in another–and vice-versus. Research many different sources and kinds of maps. Topo maps are good resources, as long as one has a standard of comparison. Exactly how high is six hundred feet? And how hard is it to climb that high in two-thirds of a mile? The surface of the trail also makes a big difference. It is easier to climb both purely rock and purely dirt trails, than it is to climb trails of dirt and rock, mostly because rock comes loose under the feet, wasting half of the effort one puts into hiking.

Know where to find water and shelter. Ideally, each camping spot should have water within a quarter-mile. Running down Blood Mountain in twilight to replenish our water supplies is not one of my fondest memories. Not all camp sites or streams are on the map. Many streams are seasonal, so know where the reliable ones are, know the mileage between them and pack enough bottles for an all-day dry hike if one looks likely.

Have a contingency plan. Especially on the weekend, camping spots fill up quickly. Note alternate camping spots and sources of water in case of changes in plan, and remember, in mountainous country, these spots are generally not as near as the mileage would suggest. Leave a copy of your route with someone, and note highway crossings, approach trails, and takeout points in case of emergency. If one is really organized, one may plan an entire alternate trip for if the weather turns sour, fewer participants show up than expected, or fewer cars are available than planned.

Test your equipment. Borrowed equipment is especially prone to malfunction. Even if someone demonstrates a water purifier for you, take it home, play with it, remove the batteries and replace them, and see if you can making the tool work yourself, with your eyes closed. Trying to purify water at twilight with a temperamental Steri-pen was not fun. Neither is drinking water with chlorine tablets in it–test the tablets too, and find something to temper the taste. The same goes for backpacks. Load new backpacks down, put them on, and adjust them. If any weight sits on the shoulders, than you are doing it wrong. Readjust. Get a new backpack if it is not possible to make the backpack feel like a glorified fanny pack. That is what it is. The straps are only there to keep the backpack on, not to carry weight. The same rule goes for new boots. Test them until they are no longer new.

Insist on a shakedown. Have everyone unpack their packs one by one, and leave anything that is not essential. The backpack should only be a quarter of its wearer’s weight at most when fully loaded, including water. (A gallon of water is eight and a third pounds, not including the weight of the bottle/bladder.) No one is too experienced to get a shakedown, and anyone who insists on bringing more than a pound of excess stuff is better off staying at home than saddling others with their junk or slowing everyone down, as they inevitably will. Shakedown hikes are also a good idea. When someone has to hike up Stone Mountain with a loaded pack, they will both get used to their equipment, and voluntarily shed equipment, at least in theory.

Ask experienced backpackers for advice. In the first place, they will be a grave help in the shakedown. Secondly, if they have been in the area before, they will supply details that the map neglected to mention, such as how far
the next campsite is from a particular point and how far the next campsite feels. Someone who has been in the area before will also know whether a stream is a reliable source of water, as well as the surface composition of the trail. The Freeman Trail is a boulder field, littered with fallen trees. It looks like a whitewater riverbed that has been moved to the shoulder of a mountain. I did not discover that until I spoke with someone who had been on the trail before. A hiker who can mentally measure distances is an asset, even if he has never been in the area. All experienced backpackers, however, will probably be doomed to queries of, “Are we there yet?”

Plan for your participants. One lesson I could have learned before coming was to know what my hikers could do. This is where a shakedown hike would have come in handy. Nevertheless, it will lighten the load on the slowest person if you put them in front and make everyone go at their pace. The slow pace will hopefully help everyone go on for longer without as many rests. Hopefully, this will also help the slowest person to go at their own speed. Than again, it may make them feel that they are slowing everyone else down, and they may go to the back, where they worry about trying to keep up. At this point, everyone else might need to take a share of their load. I do not know how to set the pace to a comfortable level yet, and I am barely able to carry my share of the load, much less lighten someone else’s.

It is always the trip planner’s fault. Rest assured that any unforeseen difficulties on the trail, even those not mentioned in the best of sources will be blamed on the planner. There are three ways to deal with this. 1)Plan by committee–delegate. Less blame sits on any one person’s shoulders. Even if no one does what the planner asks them, the principle planner can shift the blame. 2)Do not come on any of the trips you plan. The advantage is that when the hikers feel like strangling you, you will be well out of reach. The disadvantage is that neither you nor anyone else will ever go hiking again if you are the only one willing to plan. 3)Do your best and roll with it.

No one is perfect. No trip is perfect. Do your best in the planning stage, and then take lots of  pictures.

If anyone knows a better map of the Georgia Appalachian Trail please feel free to link to it, or send me the ISBN. Please. Backpacking stories are also welcome.

Notes on Journaling

Journaling is one of those things at which I am really bad. This past week, however, I brought a notebook on our last biennial family reunion, because if there is one thing I am worse at than journaling, it is remembering specific events and ideas. I did not want to forget a thing. During the course of recording things in my notebook, I had some thoughts on writing about life in general. The words “journal” and “diary” signify very different things, at least in the sense that I use them.

A diary is a log of the most significant events of the day, and, perhaps, one’s feelings about them. I have never understood why some boys want to steal their sister’s diary besides the obvious purpose of tormenting her. Apart from that this theft is an over-popularized stereotype, the diary is actually very dangerous to one who reads it, because one might begin to agree with the writer once one has seen their point of view. (Experience prevented me from reading someone elses’ a diary more than once.) The diary, then, sometimes works like the point of view gun, which, incidentally, prevented the earth’s destruction. Diaries are dangerous. I do not diary since I tend to ramble, and also because my entries make me depressed when I read them later. I do, however, journal.

I see a journal as a scrapbook of newspaper-style columns, quotes, notes, addresses, and sketches. (Think Amelia’s Notebook.) It is a book of thoughts I

I did say "scrapbooking"

Pictures get journaled too.

would like to save. This blog is something of a public journal for me, although I generally do not research enough for my posts to qualify as “newspaper-style.” In my “formal” journal, I log a little; but when I do so, I am verbose, so I do not do log often. One of the most freeing things about journaling is that one can skip days. Granted, diaries allow skipping days in too, but since journals are oriented toward saving important thoughts not recording important days, it doesn’t matter how many important days one skips in a journal as long as there are no important thoughts happening. Anyway, one or two words can record important ideas, while details of important events need a few more. (Journals don’t tend to have as many embarrassing details in them, either.) Journaling eliminates the trying to-catch-up-and-failing syndrome. However, unlike a diary, one must have a journal on hand at all times, or else a good head for remembering things. If I was good at remembering things quickly, I wouldn’t be writing them down.

Finally, I like writing both journals and diaries for the same reason my sister cited some years ago: I can write what I feel and no one can read it or make me be quiet, but I have another detail to add: when I write, I can create a new world that I can understand and maneuver in the midst of one I cannot and, eventually, use that world to understand my own.

Update: This post by the Anchoress inspired my return to journaling last year and summarizes my definition of journaling.

Camping Stoves

As I adore camping and making stuff, It was only a matter of time before I made a camping stove. (Well, perhaps not, I’m a procrastinator.) After checking around, I put together a hodgepodge of instructions from these sites. (included for reference) wikihow, most useful site, and Zen stoves. Further, I decided to post how I made my still-untested beverage can stove. Here is how (I) made a stove. Continue reading