Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Benzene Ring

The chemist, Friedrich August Kekule (b. Sept. 7, 1829, Darmstadt, Hesse -- d. July 13, 1896, Bonn) laid the groundwork for the modern structural theory in organic chemistry. Intending to be an architect, he entered the University of Giessen but came under the influence of Justus von Liebig and switched to chemistry.

After receiving his doctorate (1852) he studied at Paris, where he met Charles-Frédéric Gerhardt, from whose type theory of organic structure Kekule developed his own ideas. He became a lecturer at the University of Heidelberg (1856) and professor of chemistry at Ghent, Belg. (1858). He moved to Bonn in 1865.

His early training in architecture may have helped him conceive his structural theories. In 1858 he showed that carbon is tetravalent and that its atoms can link together to form long chains. This idea, which opened the way to an understanding of aliphatic compounds, was announced almost simultaneously, but independently, by Archibald Scott Couper.

One night in 1865 Kekule dreamed of the benzene molecule as a snake biting its tail while in whirling motion. From that vision his concept of the six-carbon benzene ring was born, and the facts of organic chemistry known up to that time fell into place.

He also carried out valuable work on mercury fulminate, unsaturated acids, and thio acids and wrote a four-volume textbook of organic chemistry. When he was ennobled he added "von Stradonitz" to his name.

-- Encyclopedia Britannica On-Line, April, 1997

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Monday, September 23, 2013

The Computer Bug

In computer science, an error in software or hardware. In software, a bug is an error in coding or logic that causes a program to malfunction or to produce incorrect results. Minor bugs—for example, a cursor that does not behave as expected—can be inconvenient or frustrating, but not damaging to information. More severe bugs can cause a program to "hang" (stop responding to commands) and might leave the user with no alternative but to restart the program, losing whatever previous work had not been saved. In either case, the programmer must find and correct the error by the process known as debugging. Because of the potential risk to important data, commercial application programs are tested and debugged as completely as possible before release. Minor bugs found after the program becomes available are corrected in the next update; more severe bugs can sometimes be fixed with special software, called patches, that circumvents the problem or otherwise alleviates its effects. In hardware, a bug is a recurring physical problem that prevents a system or set of components from working together properly. The origin of the term reputedly goes back to the early days of computing, when a hardware problem in an electromechanical computer at Harvard University was traced to a moth caught between the contacts of a relay in the machine.

(Entomologists will undoubtedly be quick to note that a moth is not really a bug.)

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Benefits of a Computer Virus

In the wake of the Melissa virus, an increasing number of warnings are being made about the dark side of our technological revolution. Because of the widespread use of the Internet we are becoming uniquely vulnerable to these mysterious threats.

Nevertheless, computer viruses are pretty much as old as the computing networks that make them communicable and can teach us valuable lessons as well as threaten us with calamity.

Returning to the birthplace of the field -- Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, the legendary Xerox PARC gave us not only the first personal computer, the first graphical user interface and the first laser printer, but the first virus. John Shoch, inventor of this new form of programming, created the dynamic, roaming program known as the "worm" that was designed not to destroy or damage computer systems but enhance them. Nevertheless, in 1978, Shoch's worm got loose in PARC's internal network, setting him and his colleagues on the first desperate virus chase.

Shoch was a PARC engineer working on his Stanford doctorate when he created the first worm. The program took its name from the "tapeworm," a program that appeared in John Brunner's "The Shockwave Rider," a popular science-fiction novel of the time, in which it is used by the hero to destroy a sinister computer network.

The PARC worm's purpose was at first to save Shoch hours of tedious scut work. Shoch's doctoral research was an analysis of the traffic patterns of PARC's Ethernet that linked 200 of its "Altos," personal computers invented in 1973. His idea was to arrange for about 100 of the machines to spew bits into the Ethernet simultaneously, then measure the ensuing electronic gridlock. Rather than loading the same program individually into every machine, he devised the worm to do the loading automatically by seeking out idle Altos computers and transmitting the test program by wire to those that signaled they were available.

The test proved successful and soon he turned his thoughts from communicating directly with each machine to instructing them to talk among themselves. What if, rather than loading the same program onto 100 machines from one central point, he gave each machine the ability to seek out others, and pass the program on from one to another? Shoch's brainstorm hinted at a method of compounding processor power that would one day find wide application in the field of supercomputers.

"In the middle of the night, such a program could mobilize hundreds of machines in one building," he wrote later. Before morning, as users arrived to reclaim their machines, the worm would retreat. After hibernating in a machine or two during the day, it would reemerge the next evening -- an image that led one of Shoch's colleagues to liken it less to a worm than to a vampire.

Shoch eventually was able to invest his worm with the ability to seek out idle Altos, boot up a host machine through the network and replicate by sending copies of itself from machine to machine, remaining in communication with its dispersed offspring.

Still, he was also well aware that a program capable of commandeering idle computers in their owners' absence would have to be stringently controlled. It was, for example, forbidden to access any Alto's disk drive -- a necessary precaution lest it inadvertently overwrite someone's work, which he knew would be viewed as "a profoundly antisocial act."

One night, however, something unexpectedly went wrong. Shoch and two colleagues had set a small worm loose in the PARC Ethernet to test a control function. Confident that their program was suitably innocuous, they left it running and went home.

At some point -- they never figured out exactly when and why -- the program became corrupted so badly it crashed its host computer. Sensing it had lost a segment, the control worm sent out a tendril to another idle Alto. That host crashed, and the next, and the next. For hours, the silent carnage spread through the building until scores of machines were disabled.

When morning came, dozens of PARC researchers arrived for work to discover their machines had crashed. At first this did not cause any alarm -- in those early years Altos frequently crashed for no reason. Soon, however, it became obvious that this was no random occurrence. For one thing, whenever anyone stepped away from an Alto for even a few minutes, it crashed again, seized by the still-insatiable worm.

Summoned to the lab, Shoch and his colleagues began pursuing the program through the network like exterminators chasing rats through a sewer. Eventually they had no choice but to eradicate it with a sort of software bomb -- a self-destruct command Shoch had preloaded as insurance against some unpredictable disaster.

To his relief, all worm activity ceased. That was the good news. The bad news was that the entire PARC Ethernet had been figuratively reduced to a smoking ruin. Scattered around the building were 100 dead Altos. The lesson to computer and network designers today is that rather than treating the worm as a menace, PARC learned from its experience and continued to develop the concept of a roving, self-executing program. The principle survives today -- "spiders," "bots" and all sorts of other programs designed to rove the Internet, collecting information on behalf of their users.

Author Unknown

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Copyright on the Net

Here are some questions you have to ask before re-using materials that have been sent to you by e-mail:
  1. Is the message being sent to you as a personal message? If so, you will in any case have to ask the sender's permission to use it elsewhere, since it is as protected by copyright as a personal letter.
  2. If it is a personal message, you need to consider the issue of privacy - you might be violating the sender's right to privacy. Another reason to ask permission.
  3. If you are receiving the information on a list, your position may be safer, since the work has already been "broadcast" or "communicated to the public" (most list archives are searchable on the Internet), but I would still make the effort formally to clear the rights before republishing the work in a commercial publication of any kind.
  4. Has the sender asserted that the contents of the message (joke, article, etc.) are his/her own work? If not, just because someone else has done the original "borrowing" of copyright material does not save you from the charge of abetting the offence by disseminating it further.
  5. If the sender is simply re-sending material picked up elsewhere, you should be very careful. The materials may have been sent to you as a part of a personal communication, but it is quite a different thing if you, in turn, send it further to a list, or onto a website or re-publish it elsewhere. You have no certainty that the sender has cleared the rights for such use, and you should therefore either try to clear them yourself, or ask the sender to secure the clearance.
There is actually quite a body of law that applies to the Internet. Don't believe that you are immune out there or that "it is still vague".

Thanks to Christopher Zielinski of the UK for these comments.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Mr. Banks

In Vancouver, the weather was particularly nasty one day. A bit of rain and very high winds were blowing the people all over the place as they walked on the sidewalks. Almost everyone was having trouble holding onto their umbrellas.

I walked into my local credit union, folded up my battered umbrella and made my way up to the front teller. I opened with, "Good Mary Poppins weather, eh?"

The teller immediately smiled and said that the movie was his all-time favorite.

As I did my banking task, we spoke about the actors and the characters in the film; Dick van Dyke, Julie Andrews, the kids, and the parents. I asked if he could recall what the father did for an occupation, and we chuckled there at the front counter since almost everyone knows that the father was a British banker. Not only that, but his name was Mr. Banks.


Saturday, June 16, 2012

Fitness Centers

The other day, I was thinking about all the fitness centers popping up all over the place, and the large numbers of cycling machines, treadmills, rowing machines, etc. Why hasn’t some green-conscious, techo-entrepreneur figured out a way to hook them up to generate electricity for the lights and heat? Most of the machines already have a built-in generator that shows the kw/hour being produced by the user.

Glen Wheeler

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Job Interview

Have you ever had a really bad interview? The following incidents really happened during interviews (reported by Robert Half of Robert Half International).

The Job Candidate...
  • Dozed off and started snoring during the interview.

  • Wore a Walkman and said she could listen to the interview and the music at the same time.

  • Challenged the interviewer to an arm-wrestle.

  • Said if he were hired, he would demonstrate his loyalty by having the corporate logo tattooed on his forearm.

  • Interrupted the interview to phone his therapist for advice on answering specific questions.

  • Brought her large dog to the interview.

  • Abruptly excused himself, then, returned to the office a few minutes later wearing a hairpiece.

  • Chewed gum and blew bubbles.

  • Stretched out on the floor to fill out the job application.

Back to Owl Editing

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Monday, February 21, 2011

Laws Concerning Food and Drink

Laws Concerning Food and Drink;
Household Principles;
Lamentations of the Father

by Ian Frazier

Part II.
Laws When at Table

And if you are seated in your high chair, or in a chair such as a greater person might use, keep your legs and feet below you as they were. Neither raise up your knees, nor place your feet upon the table, for that is an abomination to me. Yes, even when you have an interesting bandage to show, your feet upon the table are an abomination, and worthy of rebuke. Drink your milk as it is given you, neither use on it any utensils, nor fork, nor knife, nor spoon, for that is not what they are for; if you will dip your blocks in the milk, and lick it off, you will be sent away. When you have drunk, let the empty cup then remain upon the table, and do not bite it upon its edge and by your teeth hold it to your face in order to make noises in it sounding like a duck; for you will be sent away.

When you chew your food, keep your mouth closed until you have swallowed, and do not open it to show your brother or your sister what is within; I say to you, do not so, even if your brother or your sister has done the same to you. Eat your food only; do not eat that which is not food; neither seize the table between your jaws, nor use the raiment of the table to wipe your lips. I say again to you, do not touch it, but leave it as it is. And though your stick of carrot does indeed resemble a marker, draw not with it upon the table, even in pretend, for we do not do that, that is why. And though the pieces of broccoli are very like small trees, do not stand them upright to make a forest, because we do not do that, that is why. Sit just as I have told you, and do not lean to one side or the other, nor slide down until you are nearly slid away. Heed me; for if you sit like that, your hair will go into the syrup. And now behold, even as I have said, it has come to pass.

Atlantic Monthly

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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Kurt Vonnegut's Tips for Writing Fiction

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things -- reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them -- in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Vonnegut qualifies the list by adding that Flannery O'Connor broke all these rules except the first, and that great writers tend to do that.

From his book Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction

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Sunday, December 05, 2010

A Poem for Computer Users Over 40

A computer was something on TV
From a science fiction show of note
A window was something you hated to lean
And ram was the cousin of a goat.

Meg was the name of my girlfriend
And gig was a job for the nights
Now they all mean different things
And that really mega bytes.

An application was for employment
A program was a TV show
A cursor used profanity
A keyboard was a piano.

Memory was something that you lost with age
A CD was a bank account
And if you had a 3-in. floppy
You hoped nobody found out.

Compress was something you did to the garbage
Not something you did to a file
And if you unzipped anything in public
You'd be in jail for a while.

Log on was adding wood to the fire
Hard drive was a long trip on the road
A mouse pad was where a mouse lived
And a backup happened to your commode.

Cut you did with a pocket knife
Paste you did with glue
A web was a spider's home
And a virus was the flu.

I guess I'll stick to my pad and paper
And the memory in my head
I hear nobody's been killed in a computer crash
But when it happens they wish they were dead.

~ Author unknown

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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Study Questions for the Nurses Board Exam

  1. You are assisting a primary nurse with charcoal administration down an orogastric tube. The room measures eight feet by twelve feet. The patient starts to retch before the tube is pulled. Knowing that charcoal can spew out of a tube in a five foot radius (even with a thumb over the opening) and the stretcher is two feet wide, how many feet per second do you have to back up to get less charcoal on you than the primary nurse?

  2. Doctor A picks up a chart out of the rack. S/he finds that it is a repeat patient with abdominal pain. Doctor A puts the chart back. Doctor B picks up the chart five minutes later and also returns it to the rack. Doctor A leaves the nurses' station heading south at three miles per hour. Doctor B leaves the nurses station for the doctors' lounge at five miles per hour. How long before the patient is at equal distance from Doctor A and Doctor B?

  3. You were assigned two large treatment rooms and the gynecologic room. By the end of the day you have cared for ten patients. Four patients were female over the age of 80, all complaining of weakness. Two patients were male, ages 72 and 50. The last four were female, between the ages of 24 and 40, all complaining of abdominal pain. It is 3:00 p.m. and time to restock the rooms. How many bedpans will you need?

  4. You are the primary nurse for an elderly patient with congestive heart failure. The IV stick was exceptionally difficult, but you are able to start an 18 gauge catheter on the second attempt. You leave the room to check on another patient. A relative thinks that the IV has stopped dripping and opens the clamp. How much IV fluid will infuse before you return?

  5. You are sent for your morning coffee break. You need to use the restroom but can't find one unoccupied and have to walk down to the lobby. The coffee pot is dry and you have to make more. When you get to the cafeteria, the line extends ten feet into the hallway. You can't remember exactly when your break began. How much time do you have left?

  6. You are the primary nurse taking care of a particularly shy female in the gynecology room. Her private physician arrives to see her, but you can see that he is not in a particularly good mood. After much coaxing, the patient agrees to a pelvic exam. How many people will open the door during the exam?

  7. An elderly man arrives in the Emergency Department by rescue squad. Twenty minutes later his wife arrives and registers him. She is shown the entrance to the department and slowly shuffles in. How many rooms will she walk into before she finds him?

  8. You are assigned to the EENT room. You have a patient to be checked for a peritonsillar abscess. The ENT physician has been paged and expects to arrive in 45 minutes. Three hours later, he arrives and is at the patient's side, asking for a flashlight. Lightly jogging at 22 miles per hour, how many rooms will you have to search before you find one?

  9. You have been asked to cover a coworker's rooms during her break. One of her patients is an elderly, confused male with an enlarged prostate. A catheter has been inserted and his physician is coming to see him. Somehow he manages to get off the stretcher. The drainage bag is firmly hooked to the side rail. Knowing that the catheter is 16 inches long and the drainage tubing is three feet long, will he be able to reach the door before pulling out the catheter?

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Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Breakfast Similarity

The Theory of Breakfast Similarity states that: "Although most people want variety in their midday and evening meals, for breakfast they are content to eat the same thing day after day after day after day after day."

From a survey conducted by mini-AIR, which asked:
Do you like to eat the same thing for breakfast day after day after day after day after day?

The result:

YES 52%
NO 47%

NOTE: 7% of "YES" respondents, and, oddly, the same percentage of "NO" respondents specified that their answer applies only to weekdays, and that for them the opposite answer applied to weekends.

Several individuals sent in insightful observations, and a few others sent in observational insights. Here are a few of each:

"Yes. Since without a breakfast most people have a limited ability to think (at least I have), it is too hard a challenge to think up some nice meal early in the morning. It is thus logical that most people rely on food that has proven itself in the morning as the best strategy to getting booted up quickly." - INVESTIGATOR FERDINAND PEPER
"Your question confuses what we like with what we do. Do I like to eat the same thing for breakfast day after day? No. Do I eat the same thing for breakfast day after day? Yes." - INVESTIGATOR MARC AUSLANDER
"Cooked rolled outs with dried fruit, nuts, bran and acidopholus yoghurt, topped with 'single malt' honey from the Leatherwood tree (endemic to Tasmania -- the worlds greatest honey) for 25 years and counting." - INVESTIGATOR SIMON BAKER
"I do not like to eat the same thing for breakfast day after day after day after day after day. But I do like to eat the same thing for breakfast day after day after day after day. (There are, after all, limits.)" - INVESTIGATOR LESLIE LAMPORT

mini-Annals of Improbable Research ("mini-AIR")
Issue Number 2003-10
October, 2003

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Monday, May 10, 2010

Bluebird by Charles Bukowski

there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I'm not going
to let anybody see

there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I pur whiskey on him and inhale
cigarette smoke
and the whores and the bartenders
and the grocery clerks
never know that
in there.
there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too tough for him,
I say,
stay down, do you want to mess
me up?
you want to screw up the
you want to blow my book sales in

there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too clever, I only let him out
at night sometimes
when everybody's asleep.
I say, I know that you're there,
so don't be
then I put him back,
but he's singing a little
in there, I haven't quite let him
and we sleep together like
with our
secret pact
and it's nice enough to
make a man
weep, but I don't
weep, do

This was published in Bukowski's book "The Last Night of the Earth Poems" circa 1992.

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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Einstein's Co-author: A Cautionary Tale for Science Editors

Among the many notable achievements of Einstein's work, was the discovery of his coworker in Berlin, S.B. Preuss, though it received little publicity.

A review article about cosmology stated: "The discovery ... of Hubble's law ... led Einstein to ... reject the notorious cosmological term (Einstein and Preuss, 1931)".

The curious reader who has followed Einstein's life story and knows of his collaborations with M. Grossman, J. Grommer and W. Mayer (to name a few), but who has never heard of Preuss, eagerly turns to the references given. It is: A. Einstein and Preuss, S.B. (1931), _Akad. Wiss._, 235. Surely the _Akad. Wiss._ must be the Berlin Academy? Happily enough for those without access to the originals, Einstein's reports to the Berlin Academy were reproduced on the occasion of celebrations of Einstein's 100th birthday in 1979. A glance at the appropriate page of the 1931 volume of the _Sitzungsberichte der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften_ (Reports of the meetings of the Prussian Academy of Science) reveals the workings of a creative mind. Let us look at the following sequence of references:

Einstein, A. (1931). _Sitzungsber. Preuss. Akad. Wiss._ ...
A. Einstein, 1931, _Sitzgsber. Preuss. Akad. Wiss._ ...
A. Einstein, _Sitzber. Preuss. Akad. Wiss._ ... (1931)
A. Einstein (1931) _Sber. preuss. Akad. Wiss._ ...
Einstein, A., 1931, S.B. Preuss. _Akad. Wiss._ ...
A. Einstein, S.B. Preuss, _Akad. Wiss._, 1931 ...
A. Einstein, S.B. Preuss, _Akad. Wiss._ (1931) ...
A. Einstein and Preuss, S.B. (1931) _Akad. Wiss._ ...

Thus, it turns out that the birth and death of S.B. Preuss occurred within such a very short time span that any scientific endeavors attempted could come to nothing. One hopes that this will be noticed by the people producing the citation index. Otherwise, in a generation or two, a young historian of science might apply for a grant to uncover more details from the brief, but not entirely joyless, life of S.B. Preuss.

Source: "Droll Science," an anthology compiled by Robert L. Weber

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Monday, January 25, 2010

The Burns Unit

Tony Blair is being shown round a hospital, and towards the end of his visit he is taken to a ward to meet some of the patients.
He approaches one man, who has no obvious signs of injury, and asks him how he feels. The man replies: `Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face, Great chieftain o' the pudding-race!'
Perplexed, the PM approaches the man in the next bed and asks him why he is in hospital. `Some hae meat, and canna eat, And some wad eat that want it, But we hae meat and we can eat, And sae the Lord be thankit,' says the man.
A third patient tells him: `Wee sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie, O, what a panic's in thy breastie...'
Embarrassed, Mr Blair turns to the doctor accompanying him and whispers: `What's the matter with them? Is this the psychiatric ward?'
`No,' replies the doctor. `It's the Burns unit.'


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