Engineer & Entertain

Ideas I grapple with

Archive for the category “Education”

A Class Cut Up

My goal in life, aside from being better than sliced bread, is to engineer and entertain.  I want to make things and entertain people. Roy Underhill does this effortlessly. The main instructor of the Woodwright’s School and personality of The Woodwright’s Shop also enlightens, engages, and educates like a fish swims.

The school is in downtown Pittsboro, NC. It is a quaint town that has not forgotten its 1785 establishment. While waiting for Roy to open the school, I chatted with my classmates. Most of them were from North Carolina and the rest were from the East Coast. Out of no where, Roy turns the corner carrying a 10 foot board of tulip poplar with a box of donuts balancing on it. Clad in a gray vest, a flat cap, and a smile, I was surprised when “Kildare’s Fancy” was not playing.

Our benches were decorated with models of the joints we would soon be learning and cutting. Mr. Underhill quipped we could just take those home and go to the bar now rather than learn the skill.

Guess whose bench this was?

Roy warmly greeted all of us and asked us about our experience levels in woodworking and creating dovetails and mortise & tenons by hand.  There were people with no experience all the way to more experienced than St. Roy. If you think you are not good enough to take a class taught by Roy, you are wrong.

Roy demonstrated the through dovetail and along the way shared hilarious anecdotes and delightful feghoots. He then set us to task and we created our own dovetails. At one point in time I was having difficulty paring. Rather than removing thin curls with my chisel, I was pulling off chips. I called the Master over and he performed the same task with the same results. He blamed the chisel and I was relieved that he used that excuse as well.

He set out to sharpen the chisel and this came to a tangent on sharpening tools. What is typically a 4 minute shop task became a 40 minute discourse on grinding and honing.

With no tools to blame, I finished my through dovetail. There are many dovetails, some better and some worse, but these dovetails are mine.

Shake your dovetail feathers.

After lunch at a soda shoppe next door, we made half-blind dovetails. Half-blind dovetails are like through dovetails, but the tails are shorted and sit in a socket.

Half-blind dovetail wears an eye patch

The method Roy taught us to make half-blind dovetails could easily be used to make through dovetails and vice versa. There are many ways to the tree, Grasshopper.

We then moved on to making a mortise and tenon joint. Mortise and tenons are frequently used in making tables. Roy imparted some great wisdom about making tables, “How long do you table legs need to be? They must reach the ground!”

The joint is very simple in that we are cutting a peg to put into a chiseled hole. That said, I still managed to err the layout of my mortise and tenon. Roy shrugged it off and said I am just creating a new school of art.

What you see on The Woodwright’s Shop is exactly what you get when you take a class from Roy. He is a warm and entertaining teacher. Not only does he teach you a skill, but he teaches its application to bigger projects. With practice, I will be making neater and tighter joints. And in no time, I will be applying them to making tables, drawers, keepsake boxes, blanket chests, and plenty of other items my family will hate to receive for Christmas and gift-giving occasions.

Yes, I am holding a 4 foot dovetail saw.

He signed my lab notebook. “Thank you, Benji. May the grain be with you! Roy Underhill 2013”


He’d helium or barium

In this article, Dr. Paul Plotz describes his frequent childhood experiments and how he believes it lead him to his career as a scientist and physician.  His patients like that he is a chemical physician because they know he’d helium or barium.  I am always curious how & why people are drawn to the fields they are in.  I can say I had a similar experience to Dr. Plotz in that I was allowed to experiment and play with chemicals and items found in the hardware store.  I believe it is because of these experiences that I never considered a field outside of science until recently.  How did you come to your field of study & profession?

I am a physician and scientist, 74 years old, and have been studying and working in those professions every day since entering medical school nearly 54 years ago. I would like to convey an accurate account of how that happened.

Shortly before my eighth birthday, the A-bombing of Japan and then the end of the war became our era’s sputnik in schools, though I was too young to notice. They also ignited a huge interest in Lisa Meitner, Otto Hahn, Einstein, Fermi, Oppenheimer, and the squash courts beneath the stands at Soldier’s Field in Chicago. My parents—father, a practicing physician who clung to Osler’s prescription to read an hour a day outside of medicine; and mother, a well-read woman with an astonishing knowledge of poetry—heartily approved of comic books since they made you read. They also brought into the house Mr. Tompkins Explores the Atom; One, Two, Three, Infinity; Mathematics for the Million; You and Heredity; Microbe Hunters; and Crucibles but didn’t force-feed them to us.

My father’s office was in the house. I passed through it every time I went out to play, and in the evenings, some or all of us would gather in his consulting room to do homework while my mother would help my father keep up his medical reading notes. He would be talking on the phone to his patients and to the doctors who had sent him patients or to the doctors to whom he sent patients. Without consciously listening to him, by the time I got to medical school, my part in such conversations seemed to come naturally.

Two other features of my home life stand out as more formative than anything I’ve mentioned so far. First, my father hired Miss Eichel, who had just graduated from Brooklyn College, as his lab technician, and he converted an unused room in the basement to a lab with a centrifuge and microscope and chemicals. Miss Eichel taught me the tasks of her trade and let me help her do them. And when she wasn’t there, I could do what I liked, such as taking note of the various chemicals, including concentrated sulfuric acid.

Second, a chemistry set came into my hands—probably a birthday present from my parents. Chemistry sets were common in those days. My wife Judith, also a doctor’s child, tells me that she had one, too. The chemicals all came in stout little wooden cylinders, and there was a booklet describing all sorts of experiments, which my friends and I rapidly ran through, I’m sure. Not just turning wine into water and water into wine but also some genuine chemistry. I was particularly drawn to the blue lumps of copper sulfate. They led to the first failure of my experimental career. I tried to copperplate a small bracelet of my mother’s using a solution of copper sulfate and a battery hooked up overnight. Maybe I got cation and anion confused—I still do—and hooked things up wrong. After the tears subsided, someone, possibly the young physician working as a junior partner in my father’s office, set it up so that it worked. The emotion surrounding the failure and the succeeding relief of the success still vibrate around within me from time to time.

But that was just the beginning. When we were in our early teens, a couple of my friends, Warren and Paul—both were doctor’s sons and became doctors themselves—and I discovered somehow the ingredients of gunpowder. We had charcoal and sulfur, but not potassium nitrate. One of us found out about a place that would sell chemicals to any warm body that walked in the door. Also magnesium tape for a fuse. We took the subway to a seedy place in downtown Manhattan and bought—no questions asked—what we needed. Back in the basement lab, we did all sorts of things involving gunpowder—sometimes just on the floor, sometimes in a small crucible from the lab, sometimes noisy, sometimes smelly, sometimes smoky, often in combination. Eventually we graduated ourselves into buying potassium permanganate and using the concentrated H2SO4 and other things we found in various ways, leading to outcomes we had not anticipated. We didn’t know anything about lab coats, gloves, or goggles (nor about bicycle helmets or seat belts) in those days. The moment I have never forgotten was igniting something or other in the crucible and causing a great smell and noise, and a whoosh of smoke shooting up to the ceiling, leaving a black smear, which was still there when I cleared the house after my mother died half a century later.

The point of this story is that through all of this, my parents and my friends’ parents, perhaps sensing that we were not psychopathic or silly, left us alone. They didn’t hover (as I did over my sons when they were playing with their chemistry sets, which may explain in part why they turned to words for a living) or ask where we were going, or what we had bought, or what we were doing anyway. In addition to being curious and to being skeptical, we were free and we were trusted. On reflection, that seems to have been central, and had to have been deeply formative. I became a scientist.

I majored in physics, but despite my love for it, it seemed natural for me to yield to years of my father’s gentle nudging, spend a summer being stuffed with organic chemistry, and become a physician. My school and college exposure to science was also helpful in reinforcing an already developed interest. In the small private elementary school and then in the huge public New York City high school I attended, great math and science teachers were in abundance, such as the justly famous biology teacher, Mr. Thomas Lawrence, a wonderful and inspiring spats-wearing Southern gentleman whose students were two of the 40 national Westinghouse finalists my senior year (not me) as well as fistfuls of honorable mentions. In college, great science teachers were also in abundance: for example, Leonard Nash, E.M. Purcell, and William Moffitt. But in high school and college, and even in medical school, the didactic laboratory experiments of the classroom always seemed artificial and boring.

When I got to medical school, a physician uncle suggested that I call his friend Bernie if I wanted to work in a lab. Bernie had just joined the microbiology department. I did, was thrown into Bernie’s lab the next day, and began (badly, I might add) to experiment. These were the first real experiments I had done since coming up from the basement at home in my early teens. All through medical school and during a year off supported by a Post-Sophomore Fellowship of the United States Public Health Service, I worked in Bernie’s lab at the school or at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Except for a pause of a couple of years during internship and residency, I continued doing research at the National Institutes of Health for the next 45 years, until I retired in 2011. That marvelous institution has its home base and its great research hospital, the Clinical Center, in Bethesda, Md., with outposts in other parts of the country, but almost 90 percent of its budget takes the form of grants and contracts to support biomedical and clinical research at universities and research institutes in the United States and abroad. Its mission is “to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce the burdens of illness and disability.” The research supported by NIH, by the National Science Foundation, by the Veterans Administration, by the Department of Defense, and by a number of other parts of government is responsible for a great deal of the basic knowledge that underpins the development of new therapies. Furthermore, it supports the education of vast numbers of scientists from other parts of the world who come here to train and then return to their home countries or remain here in our scientific and medical communities.

The idea that our still unstudiable genetically determined temperaments shape life choices underlies my own reflections on “me and science” and “me and medicine.” But what I really know or at least remember about my family, upbringing, household, schooling, and the world of the 1940s and ’50s still makes a pretty good case for environment. What it doesn’t explain is why my older sister (librarian), younger sister (artist), and brother (lawyer) were not similarly drawn to science or medicine, but my siblings have taught me well enough about their lives for me to know deeply that no two children in a family have the same parents even though they share genes drawn from the same set and live in the same household.

Dr. Paul Plotz
Dr. Paul PlotzPhotograph by Rhoda Baer.

Finally, I do not know how to translate my own life experiences—fortunate and happy—into a prescription except to draw on the observation that I was set on the path to becoming a scientist and a physician early in life by direct opportunities to experiment and to observe afforded to me by the good fortune of my tolerant and nurturing family and later the welcoming support of schools and institutions—in my case almost all government institutions—designed to foster a career.

I will close by telling of a recent encounter with fourth-graders at a science fair in a local public school. A couple of projects struck me as outstanding—one on the unlikely subject of whether a soccer player’s preferred kicking foot is on the same side as the preferred writing hand. It was based on a sensibly designed plan with a group of soccer players on the teams in the experimenters’ league. The project took less than half a day to execute and not much longer to analyze. The design was excellent, and the two kids who had done it pointed out to me (the judge) every obvious way it could have been improved. I told the teacher privately that these kids did a terrific job and that they should think about becoming scientists. She leapt up, fetched the kids back to the gym from out of their classes so that I could tell them what I had said to her—which I did, with the suggestion that they think about a life in science. When they had left, the teacher told me that the lower grades had lost their science teacher for next year and that most of her fellow classroom teachers did not like to teach even the little science they knew and said why not drop science entirely since money is short. My own experience strongly suggests the benefits of having interesting real science experiences for children when they are young, supported by useful math skills and scientific thinking all though their education, taught by enthusiastic and good teachers.


I’d love a Feynman-like Career

There is really no doubt that XKCD has had an impact on peoples’ lives.  100% of the reason I have a chess board with pieces glued to it is because of XKCD.  I can only imagine how my career would have turned out if I read Randall Munroe’s recent post about every major being terrible.

Several people have put the comic to music.

Here is a Modern Major General version

And just for fun Tom Lehrer singing about the periodic table of elements

Shades of Grey

Sasha Grey, a former pornographer, read to children in a California school.  Some parents were outraged.  I imagine the parents found out about her when a dad said, “She’s a porn star. So, I’ve heard . . . from a church group”.

While Grey is very intellectual and a proponent for reading, I do wonder why she was selected because it seems pretty obvious there would be calamity.  My presumption is that all the firefighters who would read to children were busy making a booster calendar

I'd like to read to kids, but I have a kitten to rescue and January to spice up


That said, the logic is faulty behind not wanting Grey to read to children.  She has had sex, sometimes on camera and sometimes with multiple people, which I would argue most of the staff of the school has done as well.  There are worse people to read to her, like the firefighters above; they’re not wearing their personal protective equipment properly.

Swearing Cures Insomnia

I have fond memories of my dad reading stories from Childcraft Encyclopedias before I went to bed.  I am not sure it helped me sleep, but it did cement my love for reading encyclopedias.  I likely would have slept better if there was more swearing like in Adam Mansbach’s book, Go The F**K To Sleep.

If you are too lazy to read it to your child, you can always have Samuel L. Jackson read it to them.  The only way to improve this book is to have Morgan Freeman read it. The audio book is available for free from Audible.  It can also be viewed on YouTube.

Jack Of All Trades

Mike Rowe, of Dirty Jobs and various QVC sales pitches, told Congress that America needs to produce more tradesmen and encourage learning how things work.  If there is one thing I learned in economics, it is that butter and guns can be plotted on a graph.  If there are two things I learned, it’s that having an active workforce, blue & white collar, are imperative.

While I see a very obvious need for skilled labor (robots cannot do everything), I would push the task of teaching how things work.  Rowe mentioned to Congress that as a young boy he spent a day with his family to repair a pipe after a volcanic episode with his toilet.  The repair was not complicated, but how many people have the knowledge of how to repair it?  Granted there are some caveats with DIY.  A task may be too great or too dangerous and truly require a professional.  But for many tasks a simple visit to Wikipedia, HowStuffWorks, or YouTube will explain the principles of a device and how to repair it.

Python Now, Asp Kicking Later

I have two goals in life:

  1. Be better than sliced bread
  2. Know everything

I am not sure how to do the former and I am woefully behind on the latter.  To combat my lack of knowledge I have been picking an area of knowledge I am deficient in and I learn as much as I can about it.  Areas in which I have notable aptitude include obscure trivia from the space race and performing cheap tricks better than David Blaine.  My next foray is learning computer programming.  MIT’s Open Course Ware is allowing me to take 6.00 Introduction to Computer Science and Programming to satiate my thirst for operants and operands.

Lecture 1 focused on the syllabus, course mechanics, and introduced students to terms and concepts which will be used through out the course.  Points of interest include:

  • Memorization: The professor stated the ability to memorize was not nearly as helpful as the ability to think.  This is a point I believe all educators should try and get across.  It does not matter if you memorize “The Raven” or know all the knowable Mersenne primes if you cannot consider the impact of what it means.
  • Plagiarism: Plagiarism is relatively tolerated in programming.  The instructor encouraged us to look at other codes to see how they solved similar problems.  He did suggest we try working on the code rather than search for it, copy, and paste and call it our own.
  • Work: The instructor also commented that students do well if they attend class twice weekly, attend recitation (which is sadly not broadcast), and perform homework.  While this is an obvious statement for those who excelled in college, all too often I observe students who do not see the correlation between practicing what you learned in class.

Problem Set 0: Write a program that does the following in order: 1.  Asks the user to enter his last name.  2.  Asks the user to enter his first name.  3.  Prints out the user’s first and last names in that order.

Consideration: I encountered a road block immediately as I did not know how to query for input.  After discussing it with Corrie, who is also taking this course, I learned about raw_input.  I also learned there is a Wiki* workbook for Python to which MIT specifically refers.

Solution: The solution is remarkably simple and many with any form of coding experience will scoff it took me more than two minutes to do this.  When coders decide to learn first aid, I will scoff at them for taking a pulse with their thumbs**.

>>>lastname=raw_input(‘Enter last name’); firstname=raw_input(‘Enter first name’); print firstname, lastname

*There are many wikis for python, but the specific one listed by MIT provides decent examples.
**There is a palpable pulse in your thumb.  You may feel your pulse in place of the pulse of the victim.

Big Bang – Stop making that noise!

A scientist, let’s call him Smalbert Smeinstein, put forth the hypothesis that the universe is not expanding from the Big Bang, but rather space and time convert back and forth in an endless cycle.  Also proposed is that mass and length can be converted back and forth.  The conversion factors, in case you are wondering, are the speed of light and the gravitational constant.

As dictated by the scientific method, there is more to test and there are a variety of issues with hypothesis (e.g. the speed of light not being constant), none the less, it is an interesting notion.  On an unrelated note, $20 says Creationists will use this to suggest there is no Big Bang which created the universe.  On a semi-related note, the Big Bang theme song by the Bare Naked Ladies.

There Was Pop Up “News Radio” Too

I crave useless information like an obese person with no self esteem craves Oreos.  There are over 31,000 McDonalds in the world so obese people can always eat their feelings, but before there was Wikipedia, Mental_Floss, and Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader, retrieving useless information in more than Snapple cap sized portions was difficult.

Thankfully, VH1 recognized the need for more substantial bits of information and created Pop Up Video in 1996.  Not only can you watch recorded episodes on YouTube, but one of the production companies, Spin The Bottle, also hosts a decent playlist on their website.

The one issue I have with Pop Up Video is that I cannot find how to cite it in APA format.

Chemical Love

This song works on many levels.  The levels I appreciate the most are the catchy-yet-scientifically sound lyrics and the ukulele.  Why isn’t there ukulele hero?

Parkinson’s Disease is related to insufficient amount of, and lack of action from, dopamine.

Norepinephrine works with epinephrine (adrenaline) during the fight or flight response.

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