Archive for the 'Personal Anecdotes' Category


Dirty Laundry

You don’t really need to find out what’s going on
You don’t really want to know just how far it’s gone
Just leave well enough alone, keep your dirty laundry
‘Dirty Laundry’ – Don Henley

Many readers have followed the dramatic events of Joplin, Missouri on May 22, 2011. You have read many accounts of incredible perseverance, bravery, and resourcefulness. Even those Joplinites who were undamaged, or like me, barely on the fringes of the storm, have been affected deeply and indelibly. The community showed an immediate cohesiveness that was matched by the generosity and efforts of thousands of volunteers from across America. This tragedy has been Joplin’s finest moment.

A moment seems now to be too accurate a term.

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Rep. Eric Cantor‘s assertion that disaster relief funds should be withheld without offsetting funding cuts was not universally condemned in Joplin. Senator Roy Blunt, the essence of Conservative propriety, had already promised swift funding for relief. That did not deter a number of political xerox machines from parroting Cantor. Joplinites were reduced to explaining to their thoughtless neighbors that Joplin had incurred a deficit – a deficit which could not be deferred until our grandchildren were safe from that other deficit.

The next phase in vanishing civility came with gloating. Some of the same thoughtless people, and a few more, bragged about how ‘Joplin had most streets passable almost immediately’ with chainsaws appearing instantly from locations that had not been crushed. And then they ‘went there‘ : saying that people in Joplin didn’t wait for someone to come help them – they got to work and helped themselves, unlike those lazy people in New Orleans after Katrina. Facts proved to be, as usual, irrelevant to such folks. It was frustrating and unproductive to point out that 90% of the New Orleans population was already gone, that the people who were left were in 15 feet of water, that the fungus growth after months of drainage & drying mandated cleanup & rebuilding while wearing suits & respirators.

Our family knows a two or thing about folks, including relatives, in Louisiana. Lazy they are not, not any more so than the lazy element which all our cities have. They proved it after the Joplin tornado. Within days, a group from New Orleans had arrived with food – Great Food ! – not emergency food. Many more Lousiana folks have helped Joplin in these difficult weeks. In a few days, Peace Lutheran Church of Slidell will work for a day cleaning the site of Peace Lutheran Church of Joplin. Our church, with a lovely pipe organ which my Little Red-haired Girl played every Sunday, two blocks from Joplin ‘HOPE’ High School, was utterly destroyed. These ‘lazy’ Louisiana folks will help us to regain something of what was lost.

Tonight presented a different phase in incivility. Rush Limbaugh brought his ‘Two If By Tea‘ truck to Joplin’s 4th of July celebration in Landreth Park. His donation of iced tea would have been nice. There was a catch. Limbaugh spoke as an official part of the City’s program. This was not the same as other charitable commercial promotions in Joplin. Tide brought the ‘Loads of Hope‘ truck, and cleaned lotsa stuff for many very dirty, very needy people.

Tide had not preceded its arrival with a history of divisive speech and an overtly-politicized statement. Limbaugh did both. He stated, on his radio program,

I’m gonna tell you something else is gonna happen at Landreth Park in Joplin on Monday night: We’re gonna grow the Republican Party.

Some City official or officials approved this. They did not explicitly publicize that Limbaugh would have a status substantially different than other vendors during the event. A City official whom I spoke with stated that Limbaugh had promised to ‘keep it light’ – as if that excused his rank and self-serving politicization of his appearance.

There were no immediate inquiries, during the next evening’s City Council meeting, into how the decision was made to grant Joplin’s imprimatur to Limbaugh.

That is Joplin’s dirty laundry. It’s time for Loads of Hope to come back.


Values Are For Hard Times

The motivation for a blog is often obvious to my readers. This time, I offer to you the impetus behind this edition. A Joplin Globe guest columnist, whom I will not name to preserve his shame for other forums, offered some pretty words about ‘values’. He then reverted to the frequently-used technique of parroting a politician’s pandering. He restated Rep. Eric Cantor‘s demand: “I, for one, call for no federal deficit spending to rebuild Joplin.” His fellow Joplinites, many of whom suffered damage which he avoided, are left to wonder whose side Joplin’s ‘Tin Man‘ is on.

My Mother and Dad were Great Depression fiscal conservatives, who practiced that fundamental tenant of not buying luxuries with borrowed money. A few of you may even remember Del & Ben Stone – they gave me my introduction to Joplin when Dad was Postmaster from 1968-1970. They also understood the wisdom of paying for necessities, with some financial hardship, rather than to fail to support important priorities. They supported committments to projects which required investment before receiving a cost-effective return. These were some of their values – values which they applied to neighbors as well as to themselves.

My parents’ values are values that many Joplinites are exercising as they recover from the tornado disaster. Many people who have lost much are giving generously to their neighbors. Churches, synagogues, and mosques have been providing impressive amounts of aid. Groups and individuals across America have sent help to us. My daughter, Mariam, gathered donations and brought a truck and trailer from Indianapolis! As tremendous as these friends have been, the task of recovery is vast and difficult to overcome.

That task is important far beyond Joplin. Our citizens who were not directly affected have been disadvantaged by the general and widespread destruction. Neighboring communities have lost valuable resources that Joplin provided. Corporations in Joplin have customers across America and internationally who need their important products and services. These people understand that they incurred a deficit on May 22nd. That is the deficit which must be remedied.

Our nation has a substantial habit of accepting deficits to pay for important assets. Since the fall of the Soviet Empire, and the decay of its formerly-formidable military, we have maintained a large and vigorous U.S. military. We currently maintain a fleet of 18 Ohio-class fleet ballistic missile submarines. We have deemed it suitable to spend about $50 million each year to maintain each of these vessels – $900 million each year, for many years. This cost, alone, is more than half of the current annual federal deficit. We also deploy nuclear fast-attack submarines, additional Navy surface vessels and aircraft, ground forces, and an incomparable Air Force. Some folks have debated the suitable proportions of such expenditures.

That is the only suitable debate about rebuilding Joplin: what is the appropriate magnitude of public resources to invest? It is probably less than $900 million – total. That such investment must be made is beyond reasonable debate. We value both what we have lost and what will replace that which is replaceable.

We will rebuild Joplin based on values. Let us assure our neighbors that those values recognize the value of lives, jobs, businesses, and property as worthy of the temporary sacrifices which will lead us to a better future.

When President Barack Obama assured us, “Your country will be with you every single step of the way”, he may have been thinking of Matthew 25:40“Whatever you did for the least of these, you also did for Me.” May it be that, in the President’s words, “It’s what Joplin has taught the world”.


I Am Thankful This Christmas

I am thankful this Christmas that science and humanitarians have allied to improve the lives of countless people.

I hadn’t recently read of the Carter Center‘s progress in combatting guinea worm, and this article was a welcome reminder of the important accomplishments of President Jimmy Carter. There is precedent for the eradication of a human pathogen – smallpox was eradicated under the direction of the United NationsWorld Health Organization.

Smallpox was a perennial scourge throughout the world. Every American of my age carries the vaccination scar received in childhood to control the disease in the U.S.. Millions elsewhere died from this terrible disease – a disease so vicious that it had also been implemented by militaries as a germ warfare agent. Today, no Kindergartener or First Grader is subjected to a treatment which remains in my memory, 54 years hence.

Eradication of the guinea worm may be the next thriumph of mankind over nature. It is the more remarkable for being largely the responsibility of a non-governmental organization (NGO).

The list of diseases which have been alleviated, controlled, or cured by science (often with the active support of governments) is too long for a mere blog to list. Most readers of this blog know someone who has been aided, during the course of a serious illness, by modern medicine.

We must be vigilant against the forces of ignorance and fear which obstruct progress against disease. In Africa, AIDS denial has even led to government officials’ active obstruction of anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs. Even in America, superstitious and ignorant people have employed propaganda to obstruct vaccinations important to public health.

I have faith that, next Christmas, we will have witnessed additional progress against suffering. That progress depends upon our sincere support and active opposition to dangerous voices in our midst.

Peace be upon you and your families.


The Best Engineering Exam

It’s tough to examine a job applicant well. Human Resources (i.e, ‘Personnel’) Departments can usually only screen applicants for the relevant buzzwords on a resume. Even managers can have a tough time getting past the buzzwords and unverifiable claims of competence. It is especially unfortunate that a manager with hiring responsibility often does not have any significant expertise with the position being filled. Some folks talk a good game that they have never played well. Such applicants are high-value targets to detect – and avoid.

I worked for a company, Big C, that was a significant manufacturer of force measurement devices. For a while, they were offering a few select Engineers a shot at interviewing Engineering candidates. Maybe they just wanted a way to consume enough time so that the candidate would feel that a long trip had been met with a thorough examination. Whatever the rationale of Big C’s HR Manager, my office partner and I were among the select few.

My office partner and fellow Engineering Conspirator, Big R, is a clever fellow. If we don’t think of something almost simultaneously (see? I’m clever, too!), we will be on the same track rather quickly. Somehow, in a way that I no longer remember, we turned a toy into a test.

Our Toy really was special and unique. It was an electrolytic capacitor which had an interesting defect. Capacitors are the electronic equivalent of buckets: they hold electric charge. An electrolytic capacitor is an especially good bucket. Its electrodes are sheets of thin aluminum foil, chemically and electrically etched to have an immense surface area – about 100 times that of smooth foil. Electric charges are stored along the specially-treated surface, so electrolytic capacitors hold a lot of charge.

A capacitor’s electric charge can be almost completely removed by ‘shorting‘ it – connecting its two terminals together, allowing the charge to flow around and neutralize itself.

Electrolytic capacitors, like all real capacitors, also ‘leak’ a little. Leakage allows charge to dribble away, like water through a hole in a bucket. Electrolytic capacitors hold so much charge compared to their leakage that they can hold much of their charge for over an hour (at room temperature).

Leakage can be monitored by measuring the voltage of a capacitor’s stored charge. An occasional brief voltmeter measurement will track the leakage as the voltage falls to zero.

Our toy (similar to the topmost example in the photo) did not behave like a capacitor. After putting a charge into it, it could be shorted for a few seconds without losing charge. That is, a voltmeter measurement before and after shorting would indicate almost no charge loss. This became our Engineer Test.

We would pull the Toy out of a desk drawer (where it had stayed, undisturbed, since well before the candidate arrived) and give it, and a voltmeter, to the candidate. We instructed the candidate to measure the terminal voltage, short the Toy (although we were careful to refer to it as ‘capacitor’, if anything), then measure the terminal voltage again. The candidate was asked an utterly open-ended question: ‘Whaddaya think?‘.

This question was wonderful in its lack of specificity. Some candidates (including graduates of a well-known area Engineering college) were unaware that the Toy was special. These folks could be gently reminded how capacitors are ‘supposed’ to work, and allowed to try answering a subsequent query: ‘What’s happening?‘.

This question was wonderful for its ability to reveal a mind at work – or to reveal a mind that has sand in its gears. We did not expect a candidate, possibly suffering interview anxiety, to instantly divine the exact answer. We did expect a good Engineer to think under pressure. Their cogitation, expressed verbally, was a revelation of their real competence to do real Engineering.

The vast majority of candidates failed miserably. Few could offer thoughtful observations and suggestions. Eventually, the HR Manager quit sending candidates to us. We accepted so very few, and he felt obligated to at least hire a warm body for an open position.

How about you, my friend? Do you have something thoughtful to offer about Jim & Big R’s Engineer Test? If you absolutely know the answer to its strange behavior, save it for a while. But please! Do offer, in the meantime, some observations or additional meaningful tests.


Better (or Stranger) Refreshments With Zone Refining

Friends, I always manage to do this by accident. You, having psychological and gustatory urges which I can only imagine, may find that you will want to do this same thing intentionally. -This- is zone refining.

You may already know that, if water is chilled very slowly and uniformly, it may freeze uniformly, suddenly and thoroughly. The freezing point is very precise. It is also different for other substances. Mixtures of substances which freeze differently – such as water & sugar, or water & food coloring, or water & carbon dioxide – will not freeze uniformly. Such mixtures can *un-mix*.

The first time I saw this un-mixing was a delightful surprise. It was delightful because it was unexpected and because I recognized it immediately. The venerable Scientific American magazine had taught me about the phenomenon of zone refining.

I had been eager to chill a bottle of Manischewitz wine, one day during college. I put in in the hall freezer in the Alley 5 kitchenette of Ruddock House. Then I forgot about it.

No, I didn’t really forget about it. I merely remembered it later than I had intended to remember it. It was a stunning sight – a 3/4 full squarish bottle which now had a fairly clear chunk of ice perched over a much smaller amount of concentrated wine. My exclamations brought a few Trolls to the kitchenette doorway. They were happy for me. There was some discussion of the potential of the liquid to offer an enhanced drinking experience.

That discussion, as dorm discussions with random Trolls often do, diverged toward other subjects. ‘Stud‘ offered his opinion that “Three quarters of a lethal dose of anything is a great high.” My retort – that three quarters of a lethal dose of concrete would be really hard to keep lit for smoking – was met with Stud’s expert correction: “You don’t smoke concrete, dummy – you shoot it up.”

Most recently, I did it again with half a bottle of Pepsi. Vitamin P keeps me going, as it did during performances of Stone’s Throw Dinner TheaterOklahoma!‘. It needed some fast chilling one night, and a preoccupation with my role resulted in a chunk of ice and Pepsi syrup. Yum!

Freezing doesn’t strictly require a colder temperature than for liquid. Either (depending upon pressure) can exist at a phase-transition temperature. When a liquid mixture is cooled slowly, it will cool even more slowly at this phase transition. The movement of heat that is cooling serves to make liquid become solid, leaving no extra movement of heat to lower the temperature. Take a look at this phase diagram for water. The ‘mp‘ dot is the melting point (freezing point) that we usually think of – normal pressure, 1 atmosphere. ‘mp’ belongs to both liquid and solid.

Various substances have very different phase diagrams. Here’s Uranium Hexafluoride, the form of uranium that is convenient to use in processing nuclear reactor and weapons fuel. (I would offer a phase diagram for Pepsi syrup, but it doesn’t seem to be available.)

A liquid mixture will have its minute constituents freezing at their individual ‘mp’s. For Pepsi, water freezes at a higher temperature than (prior to) the syrup, which has sugar, flavoring, and coloring. The very transition of water from liquid to solid prevents (temporarily) the temperature from getting low enough to freeze the syrup.

This stuff has seemed understandable to me for over 40 years. I do wonder about one thing – can I circumvent laws regulating the distillation of alcohol by using zone refining (of Manischewitz wine, no less!) instead of differential vaporization (a ‘still’)? Do I need to alert regulators to this potential loophole?


Our Moslem Neighbors

It is a boast to describe America as a ‘Melting Pot‘. We have been a strong country for many reasons. Some are accidents of geology or history. A major reason, derived from the complexities of the flow of history, is that we are many. The fact that America is a composite of many cultures gives us unique qualities in the same way that glass fibers and epoxy, individually deficient for structures, form a composite – fiberglass – that is both strong and resilient.

Tomorrow marks a day of anguish for us. It will remain in our national consciousness in the same way that Pearl Harbor Day has. It will always be 9-11.

The events of that day, and subsequent events, have tested our American ideals. Many folks have not been confident enough, loving enough, and insistent enough to stand for American ideals and keep them as realities. Some folks have gone out of their way to fight enemies who are imagined, only existing in their anxieties.

Some of those imagined enemies are fellow Americans and neighbors who are not yet Americans. Some of them are otherwise accorded the deepest trust in their work for others as doctors, engineers, attorneys, and in a host of semi-professional and non-professional jobs. They are good and productive people who are worthy of our friendship. They are Muslims.

A while back, my friend Kasim (Craig) invited me to visit The Islamic Center of Joplin for a worship service. The Moslems in attendance that day were enthusiastic in their warmth and interest in Kasim’s friend. It has been too long since that day, so tomorrow is a good day to visit again. {Note ‘Prayer Times’ at the link.}

I invite you, fellow American, to embrace a neighbor in friendship on 9-11. I hope that some of you seek a Moslem neighbor to affirm that we are still the great Melting Pot.

PS I have a kufi – a cap worn by Africans of all faiths – which is good headgear to wear to a Muslim service. To be extra neighborly, learn the Islamic greeting, “Assalaamu ‘alaykum“!

Note that men & women worship separately at the mosque. That’s why I was reared as a Southern Baptist instead of a Methodist. Dad insisted upon being with Mother for Sunday School!


Faith as a Grain of Mustard Seed

A friend, Lydia, told me an interesting story about teaching her young daughter. She explained Matthew 17:20 to Daughter, who was then very young:

I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.

The Daughter was impressed in that special way that we too often lose as adults. Daughter promptly asked Lydia to show her a mustard seed. Lydia actually had some whole mustard seed in her cooking supplies, and Daughter was treated to their tiny loveliness. That, unfortunately for Lydia, was not sufficient. Daughter asked if they could plant some and watch them grow.

Lydia went into Full Mom Mode.

‘I don’t think we can do that, dear.’ ‘Mustard seeds for cooking have probably been prepared and won’t grow.’ ‘We could grow some pretty flowers instead.’

The look on Daughter’s face overruled all of Lydia’s rationalisations and excuses. They planted some of the diminutive parcels of life.

The Diminutive became the Substantial, and then the Impressive. The plants were both lovely and much larger than the original germ.

How is is that we can be extolling the virtues of faith one moment, then hesitantly worrying that ‘it won’t even grow’ the next moment? Lydia is not special in this. I have done it, and I suspect that most of you, Dear Readers, have done it. It is not, as some Preachers might suggest, an obvious example of our faithlessness. I hope that we can understand ourselves, and whatever faith we have, by looking at Lydia’s experience another way.

Humans are both prey animal and predator. We have substantial control over our environment while also being subject to a number of vulnerabilities. We have always been a social creature, sharing both our resources and our dependencies with others. We have evolved emotional predispositions to be cautious, because an incautious action may hurt us and burden our family. Following tried-and-true maxims, even maxims that are ineffectual, is essential to a long and productive life. Trying new things, or doing old things in new ways, has the potential for disaster.

Parables and analogies are inherently limited and incomplete. They are often most useful when examined with that realization. Matthew 17:20 tells one thing, but it also omits other things. Many useless, noxious, and even poisonous plants grow from tiny seeds. Will our faith do anything to change their inherent nature? Has faith ever made dandelion seeds sprout petunias?

Those of us who have been reared in churches have been taught how we are ‘supposed’ to view analogies such as Matthew 17:20. We are not supposed to take perspectives other than that handed to us from the immediate context of Holy Writ. We are not supposed to actually try to move a mountain. Our religions are a bastion which protects and preserves our evolved basic -cautious- nature.

Lydia was not being ‘silly’ in her apparently contradictory behavior with Daughter. She was, as a person who has been thoroughly oriented to her church from a young age, not prepared to look at Matthew 17:20 as would an innocent who is not yet prepared to confront a dangerous world.

Lydia could have told Daughter, ‘Yes, we’ll try growing some of the mustard seeds from my kitchen. If they don’t sprout very well, we can buy a new pack of seeds that will grow well.’ Lydia didn’t do this, because she was not troubled with the probability of germination. She was troubled with Breaking A Rule – the rule that the teachings of our church are to be accepted without test or other examination.

Unfortunately, this predisposition has become counter-productive in our industrial and scientific society. We are no longer vulnerable prey animals except to charlatans, thieves, swindlers, and the lazily greedy. We have long repeated the same basic errors in judgement – evidenced by the latest giant swirl of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. We need new social institutions which will encourage critical thinking.

‘Full Mom Mode’ and ‘Full Dad Mode’ are, indeed, the same. I think.

♥ Help for Haiti ♥


Basic Understanding

A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.
- Edward R. Murrow

Intellectual Property Notice

All original material Copyright James R. Stone 2010, except where specifically noted. Some images licensed under Creative Commons, or GNU Free Documentation License, or unlicensed and public domain.

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