Archive for July, 2006

Is something always better than nothing?

In last week’s Parade magazine column, Marilyn vos Savant fields a question from a fellow whose friend invests effort into anything at all that provides the tiniest advantage.* Marilyn sums things up nicely with her observation that “Too many people spend time and money pursuing lots of goals just a little.” I see this happening from time to time to clients of Stat-Ease who pore over the statistical analyses of their experiments and get hung up on tiny, but potentially signicant effects. The advent of robotic chemistry with systems such as Sagian AAO make it ever more likely that significant effects of no practical importance will be uncovered via well-designed experiments. The problem is that by focusing attention on these trivial things one loses sight of the really important opportunities that merit a full investment of their time and money. The question then is one of statistical significance versus practical importance.

*Ask Marilyn

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Toad in the hole


My wife Karen mentioned yesterday that she might cook an egg bake for an upcoming family get-together. I asked her what this was and she said “it is a food made out of eggs that is baked and eaten.” That leaves me still in the dark. I do know how to make a toad in the hole: Butter a piece of bread, tear out the a circle in the middle and fry an egg in it. Coincidentally, Karen alerted me to a strange-looking bird peering out of the little house we have mounted on a tree off our back porch. Can you identify it?

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Polyester leisure suits making a comeback?

As a newly-minted chemical-engineering graduate of University of Minnesota in 1975, I took a job at Union 76 research in glamorous southern California. Knowing that a hick like me from the midwest USA needed to impress the Hollywood types, I bought the latest fashion — a polyester leisure suit (click this link to see the jacket I bought — pastel blue). What brought this to mind was seeing in this morning’s newspaper an article about Ingeo — a new fiber made from genetically engineered corn. According to the producer, NatureWorks (a unit of Minnesota-based Cargill Inc.) “It has all the attributes of polyester.” Some folks fear the possible health problems from genetically engineered products, but that doesn’t worry me. My concern is that this Ingeo material may lead to a comeback of leisure suits. I am still smarting from the ridicule of the Southern Californians when I paraded around in the mid-70’s in my new blue polyester outfit. A comic came on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight” television show in 1976 and claimed that a researcher dressed up thousands of mice in leisure suits and found that they got cancer — a satirical comment on why this polyester garb so quickly disappeared from the fashion scene. Why are engineers from the midwest always the last to realize things like this?

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Why no one wants to monkey around with how things have always been done

I came across this story in an e-zine from a technical society. It appears elsewhere on the internet with no documented source so I feel free to pass it along.

Three monkeys are locked into a room that contains a banana suspended from a rope. The dominant monkey grabs the banana, which triggers an icy shower. The other monkeys make the attempt with similar results. Finally all three of them give up on eating the banana. Then one of monkeys leaves and another comes in to replace it. The new arrival immediately makes a move for the banana. Naturally the other two monkeys react violently to prevent this. The new monkey soon learns not to try eating the banana. Another of the original monkeys departs and a replacement arrives. It too is made forcefully aware of the no-banana rule. Finally, the last of the original monkeys departs. The new monkey who arrives is quickly convinced to comply with the rule that no matter how tasty the banana looks, and how easy it could be grabbed, it must not be touched. None of the remaining monkeys know what will happen if they try to eat their favorite food, but the prevailing culture prohibits it even being considered.

Does this story not provide some food for thought about experimenting on how things have always been done? Be careful though, you might earn a cold shower (or worse) for the attempt! Worse yet, you will very likely discover that the banana can be plucked, but those in power will get to eat it. Make sure you at least get a taste for being the one who questions the status quo.

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Experi-Mentos

A few weeks ago I was in England chatting with an engineering client over afternoon tea and he blurted out “Is it true that Mentos candy and Extreme Diet Coke react to create a geyser?” I had no idea what he was talking about until this morning when I happened across this video: . James Mack, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Cincinnati, theorizes that emulsifiers in Mentos break the surface tension of the water around the carbon dioxide bubbles in the soda. The candy tablets also provide nucleation sites on the surface – microscopic nooks and crannies that help carbon dioxide bubbles form and escape explosively. Although this phenomenom has been known for years, it seems to be coming to a head (pun intended!) just in time for USA’s Independence Day celebration this year. It may make a nice fire extinguisher for the grass fires ignited by the firework embers and cast-off sparklers.

*(Source: “Mentos, Diet Coke put the pop in experiment” by Lauren Bishop, Cincinnati Enquirer, July 1, 2006.)

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