January 2008

Take the test.

sam brown, explodingdog

Wednesday was the day that it would all begin again…cycling.  On Tuesday evening I got a phone call from a fellow cyclist; “shall we start the school run again?”  All that was needed was a close eye on the weather.  Would the cold keep us back?  No.  Rain? No.  Wind?  YES!

So it turned out not to be windy, but very cold.  Usually I endure the suffering of bitter cold for the first few miles until my body warms up.  However, of the three of us who were cycling in, one had tyre problems.  This involved a lot of stopping and no warming up.

It got to the stage (when tubes were being changed) that I had to leave them to it.  I ditched the team.  We were already running late and I had to be in school early.  I did not feel great about that.  I put my foot down feet round and round all my energy into the last half in the hope of warming myself up.  A few miles from school I thought my fingers were quite numb.  It turns out I was wrong.  When I got into school I some of my fingers had gone beyond what I thought was numb into real numbness.  Then the pain came.  The lovely Sharon often talks about this pain when we are in the mountains.  I thought I knew what she meant.  Now I really know.  Ahhhhhhhhh! my hands?

But it was worth it in the end.

Years ago, the lovely Sharon and I used to be regular fans of CSI. It was very entertaining and occasionally scientifically educational. There were many geek cringe moments, like when they used to use CCTV security camera footage and zoom in to read details off name badges. Have they never herd of information theory and the limit of signal to noise, blah blah, blah…

So, after a long period of not watching it I decided to have another look at CSI. Specifically CSI New York. I was ready for the zooming in on the licence plates, but I was not ready for the really bad science. It seems that the show must have some poor science writers who use the science to move the story along and don’t worry so much about it linking up smoothly.

The case I am thinking of is that of a diver’s body. The diver was discovered, a few days after death, with a tank 90% full (in the show they quoted the tank as 90% full of oxygen, we can forgive that one), and the diver had eye balls which showed signs of asphyxiation. The puzzle was; how can a diver asphyxiate (lack of oxygen) with a nearly full tank of oxygen air?

Later it is discovered that he died of cyanide poisoning. But the eye ball symptoms are left unexplained. I thought the symptoms of cyanide poisoning would be quite different. Geeky bit… Cyanide would bind to a chemical in cells (myoglobin) that takes oxygen from your blood. Your cells can’t take the oxygen from the blood and your blood ends up packed with oxygen that has nowhere to go. this leaves your blood a very cherry red colour.

How did the cyanide get into the diver? How was he murdered? In an ingenious bit of very simple bicycle mechanic engineering the CSI team held the diver’s equipment under a pool of water to see a stream of bubbles leaking from the line from the tank. Aha! this was the injection point for a hypodermic needle of cyanide.


How can the tank be 90% full it had been leaking all this time, possibly for days? And if it was 90% full, why did they think to test for leaks? Are CSI investigators writers not taught critical thinking skills?

Am I being too geeky? If your passion was English literature would you be happy watching an adaptation which included huge mistakes in the story? Could you cope with Mr Darcy being 5ft 4, bald and covered in boils?

Seems we may have an extra terrestrial visitor over the next month or so. Apparently it will be visible passing over northern ireland at 6.30 tomorrow morning. And it is passing over cork as I type this.

The new little cat, Tallie, went missing for a while yesterday. We need to train her as an outside cat so she is out as much as possible. But, yesterday morning she failed to turn up after being out all night. There was no sign of her until after lunch time when I spotted her at the other side of the stream, scared and confused. A half hour lesson in river crossing followed. She was tired and slept for hours. Last night she was out again and we were keen to get her to use her cat kennel. This involved another lesson in going through a cat flap. Learning intentions were no good here, we simply forced her through the flap headfirst and waited for her to find her own way out. This process was repeated several times.

This morning Tillie (the original one) was at the door as usual (food makes her always come back). Just as the lovely Sharon was opening the door, Tallie’s little kennel opened up and she wandered out. We were so proud. Apart from Tillie, who obviously did not know she was in there. She had a “what the hell! Where did she come from?” expression on her face.

On fridays, the lovely sharon gets up very early and leaves the house before I am up out of bed. And I am up very early every morning. On Fridays, the lovely sharon merges with the busyness that is St George’s market. She buys fresh vegetables that are tastier and fresher than any of our local megacompanies. She buys fish from a very friendly market were all the staff keep asking her if she is a model. Predictably this makes her flutter her eye lids and she buys more fish.

This morning turned into a disaster of comic proportions. The lovely Sharon arrived at her car and could not find the keys. She searched everywhere. Then, once she had emptied the entire contents of her handbag on the car park floor, the car park attendent began to suspect that something was up. So she handed over all her shopping into his care* and headed back over to the market to begin the search. *everything but her cup of tea. The lovely sharon is very paranoid about leaving any beverage in the care of a stranger in case they spike it with something. As if some evil car park attendant is waiting for that day when somebody askes them to look after their tea.

Back at the market , the lovely sharon recruits the vegetable stall staff to begin the search to help this damsel in distress. Then the deli stall. Then the fish stall. Then the cafe (the origin of the tea). Once all the stalls were exhausted, she approached the office. At this point the reality of her situation was hitting her, she was stranded and going to be very late for work. As they began to make calls for the keys over the speaker system, the lovely sharon continued to repeat the ritual of checking her hand bag as she had done over 100 times already. As if the keys would magically appear in a bag which has been emptied of all contents several times. But, what is this! She felt a ‘keys’ shaped object somewhere in the lining.

It is the nature of women’s handbags that they do not reflect functionality. They either have no pockets at all or they have so many that the geek within me would create a database to keep track of the contents. It was deep within the bowels of a multi pocketed bag that the lovely sharon discovered the source of the ‘keys’ shaped object. Girly gigglyness and embarrassment ensued.

Someone who might have some pride might have lied, or at least avoided the answers to the awkward questions. Not the lovely sharon. She proudly stomped through the market stall declaring, “I found my keys”, “they were in my handbag”. Has she no shame? Or is she simply cute?

Last 2 periods on a Friday. Teachers all the world over must dread this time of the week. All your energy and enthusiasm must be dragged up from some small ember of energy inside. You must entertain, educate and motivate at what must be the most distracting of lessons. The bell for the weekend is only just minutes away and you have to make them forget this. Make them think only of the hear and now. Then a thought drifts into your own head “The bell for the weekend is only just minutes away”.

This year I have my Y13 (lower 6th in old money) last 2 periods on a Friday. So I thought I would try something different as an experiment. I thought I would introduce coffee Friday. On coffee Friday we are in a maths room. We have a biscuit or two and a nice cup of coffee (real coffee). Tea is also provided for those not inclined to coffee, but never instant coffee. Never.

The original idea was that it would take a seminar style format. I imagined us doing mind bendingly fiendish calculations as the whiteboard filled with the undecipherable glyphs of A level chemistry. The room would be filled with animated scientific discussion.  It turns out that the experiment seems to be a success so far, but not in the exact way I imagined. It seems that on Friday afternoon all they want to do is sip coffee and listen. It has turned into a lecture class, a very civilised one. It may be my imagination, but it seems like a lot less hard work last 2 on a Friday. Maybe they respect being treated like adults. Maybe its the caffeine. Maybe its the biscuits.

This week I had something special planned for coffee Friday. As part of the weekly shop I got all the ingredients to make a rich chocolate brownie cake. I was supposed to cook it tonight. I forgot, they are off school tomorrow. No coffee Friday.

How do you train a cat to use a cat flap?


A colleague asked me if I had recorded a tv program about food (dispatches: the truth about food).  I hadn’t, or didn’t even know I had missed it.  She wanted to use it to show her Home Economics class.  This led me to investigate 4 on demand. How did I miss this?  It’s brilliant.  It turns out there are a load of programs, many of which are perfect for teaching.  It takes time for the programs to download, but it’s worth it as they are quite good quality.

I was intrigued to note that the whole process uses bittorrent technology.  This enables a very eficient and speedy way to download very large files.  This is the same system that hollywood hates and I thought that the tv companies hated it too.  One annoying feature is that the software runs in the background evey time the computer is switched on.  It is constantly letting other 40D users download programs that you have downloaded from 4od yourself.  I am not against this peer to peer system.  However, it is annoying that it assumes that I want it switched on all the time.  I will have to fix that.

As for the program…  The HE teacher wanted to show the class how misleading food labels can be as that is what the program is all about.  However, once the lovely sharon and I watched it we were shocked at how misleading the program was with it’s science.  The lovely sharon happens to be doing a food analysis project with some of her students.  They make fresh food and get cheap ready meals, then they do s thorough an analysis as they can.  They ended up getting similar results as the program.  I.E. the cheaper ready meals had LESS fat.  Does this mean they are more healthy like the program suggests?  NO!  Sharon’s students put it down to the qaulity and quantity of the meat ingredients.   There was also some other dodgy science I wont go into.

Sometimes I get problems with my stomach, most people do.  Yesterday I started to get a very strange taste in my mouth after eating.  Today it was worse, a lot worse.  It tastes DISGUSTING.  The taste lasts for about 15 minutes or so.  At first I thought…stomach acid.  This makes sense; I eat, this makes my stomach secrete more acid.  Maybe I am very stressed, or am fighting a bug.  Well I don’t feel particularly stressed but I do feel quite under the weather.  There is one major problem with this theory;  I know what stomach acid “feels” like and this is not stomach acid.  The truth is rather stranger.  Pine nuts.

A few days ago I started eating a packet of seeds (which included pine nuts)  and  finished the packet over two days.  It turns out that eating certain varieties of uncooked pine nuts gives rise to a sort of mild poisoning or allergic effect.  A very bitter and metallic taste is produced immediatly after eating.  This usually lasts between a few days and as much as a couple of weeks.

How random!


Those strange little moments occur when we make small discoveries.


One discovery was a little book I stumbled upon one day in the bookshop. The book was “cat getting out of bag”, it made me laugh and smile. When I went back to buy it I could not find it or remember the title. It was months later when I was lucky enough to find it again. It was a gentle humoured book based on the observation of cats. If you have never kept cats and got to know their little personalities then you would never understand the book. It’s for cat lovers.


Surfing the reading habits of another continent (amazon.com) I stumbled upon some amazing books.


Books truly for nerds. Chemical nerds. Napoleon’s buttons was a fantastic book. A book I could read again and again and again. It is a tour of 17 groups of chemicals that have had a major impact on history. I liked it so much that I ordered another copy in hardback. Now both copies are in the hands of my colleagues. It is a must read for science teachers. And.. People who read Napoleon’s buttons also read: Dr. Joseph A. Schwarcz. I ordered 4 of his books which took a while to cross the pond.

# Let Them Eat Flax: 70 All-New Commentaries on the Science of Everyday Food & Life

# The Fly in the Ointment: 70 Fascinating Commentaries on the Science of Everyday Life

# That’s the Way the Cookie Crumbles: 62 All-New Commentaries on the Fascinating Chemistry of Everyday Life

# The Genie in the Bottle: 68 All New Commentaries on the Fascinating Chemistry of Everyday Life

I am currently half way through one of them. It was worth the wait. These are the type of books that fill you with wonder. And witty chemical anecdotes.

This blog has moved