All Now Mysterious...

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Reflections upon Frozen II

It's hard to believe, with the movie in question being in the theater for almost two months now, but we finally saw Frozen II. A few random thoughts:

  • It was surprising to me at first that Kristen Bell was listed first in the credits rather than Idina Menzel. But the more I think about it, the more sense it makes. This really is Anna's story more than it is Elsa's. Elsa is the catalyst, but this is really about how Anna makes it through the valley of her deepest sorrow and demonstrates the will to triumph nonetheless. Anna evenhad the best song (see below). People talked about how empowering, especially to young girls, Frozen was back in the day. This movie takes that message up to eleven.
  • It's hard to think of this movie as a sequel to Frozen. The tone is just so different. This ain't no typical Disney princess movie. It feels more...I don't know, more grown up, maybe. Higher stakes, both for Anna and Elsa and for everyone around them. More emotionally jarring. More intense in its action and emotional impact. Much darker in its implications. Even with Olaf's occasional funny bits, this isn't a comedy. It's a full-on drama.
  • The fact that "Into the Unknown" won the Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for best original song proves to me that the people who make these decisions aren't paying attention. "The Next Right Thing" and "Show Yourself" are both much more worthy candidates. As one internet commenter said about "The Next Right Thing", "I know everyone is freaking out about Elsa but this song here, this song is going to save lives." Heck, for my money, even "Lost In the Woods" is a better song. Which is not to disparage "Into the Unknown"; it's a solid musical offering. There are just two or three songs that are even better.
  • Speaking of "Lost In the Woods", the Weezer pop cover during the end credits was good. But if I'd been in charge, I would've gone for broke and tried to get Peter Cetera to sing it. Or failing him, the current lead singer of Chicago (Neil Donell). That would've been awesome.
  • And speaking of "The Next Right Thing", this song has a beautiful and powerful message. We all hit rock bottom sometimes. We all wonder sometimes how we can go on when all seems lost. This song is a powerful affirmation that there is life and hope and light and meaning. Whatever has been lost, there is always the freedom to choose. To make one decision. To do that next right thing, small and inconsequential though it may seem. We can't do everything. Sometimes, we feel like we can't do anything. But we can always do something--the next right thing.
  • This doesn't happen to me very often, but as soon as the idea of the Fifth Spirit came up, I knew how it was going to work out. I couldn't really figure out the mechanism, but I saw the outcome. That's pretty impressive for me.
  • My nonverbal ten-year-old daughter LOVED this movie. She bounced and giggled and laughed through the entire thing. My precocious six-year-old son didn't like it as much. In fact, Mom had to take him out for a few minutes at one point because he was scared. That's understandable; as mentioned above, the movie was pretty intense in places. But he liked the ending, because he knew that Elsa was going to a party with her family.

All in all, I enjoyed this movie quite a lot. It's definitely not the same as the original...and that's not a bad thing.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

To Facebook, or Not to Facebook?

I've been on a self-imposed exile from Facebook for a couple of weeks. I'd had a frustrating experience with a student and posted a brief (and nonspecific) comment about it. Someone I know read it, took offense, and apparently decided to educate me on the matter. 

The individual in question apparently said that I was a very opinionated person who was always posting things without thinking. They condescended to explain to me how little I understood about the issue in question--because having been an educator for over a decade and having two kids of my own in public schools doesn't give me any insight into the issue, I guess. They apparently expressed frustration over how little compassion I had for students in difficult situations.

I keep saying 'apparently' because I never actually read the comment in question. The aforementioned individual apparently decided to react their comment (after several other people besides me had seen it) and decided just to block me instead.

Which is fine. Do what you gotta do. Heaven knows you're not the first.

So I decided at that time it was probably in my best interest to get away from Facebook for a while. And now, a couple of weeks later, I'm trying to decide if I really want to go back.

There are a lot of good things about Facebook. There are some special interest groups I'm a member of, and they frequently have posts that are enlightening, or at least entertaining. There's Dave's daily music game, which honestly I have missed. And Facebook is a good way to keep up with family and friends in faraway places.

Unfortunately, there are also a lot of, silly people on Facebook. There are spammers and multi-level marketers and newfangled snake-oil salesmen. There are disciples of Maslow's Law, convinced that their one-size-fits-all personal pet project (the Keto diet, essential oils, daily Bible verses, etc.) can be the solution to all your problems. There's the Dunning-Kruger brigade, speaking/writing with profound passion and presumed authority about things they clearly don't understand even a little bit. There are people who think the world revolves around the Kardashians, or Harry and Meghan, or Sean Hannity, or whoever, and flood everyone's news feed with minutiae that in reality only they care about. 

And there are people who post and/or repeat things that are demonstrably false--vaccines cause autism, the Earth is flat, climate change is a hoax, that kind of thing. This has become ever more prevalent in a country it is now largely post-factual, where the truth of what is said is not as important as whether the person who said it has an (R) or a (D) beside their name.

But even worse than any of these are the idiots who have to prove that they're right--or that the other person is wrong. They can't just leave well enough alone. If somebody says something that is inaccurate, or misunderstood, or insulting to themselves or their tribe, they simply have to respond and let everybody know that they're right and that the other person is wrong.

And the very worst thing about this particular kind of idiot is that I appear to have become one of them.

I don't know where or when or how I became so reactionary. But I hate it. My kids are both huge fans of the movie Frozen, as am I. But in the last few years, I have found myself increasingly unable simply to let it go.

I once allowed myself to get into a protracted argument with a stranger on Facebook.* After quite a bit of back-and-forth, the other person flat-out said, "You're never going to change my mind on this." To which I responded, "I'm not saying any of this for your benefit. You're beyond help. I'm saying this for the benefit of the random reader who might stumble upon your post and mistakenly conclude that you have any idea what you're talking about." It wasn't received well, as you might imagine.

So this is my big conundrum. Can I go back to that environment, where I could potentially be facing, in the words of Motormouth Maybelle, "a whole lotta ugly comin' at [me] from a neverending parade of stupid"? And if I do, can I temper my responses so as not to make things worse? Or do I just not respond at all?

I can't do anything about what other people say.** What I can control is my own reactions. I need to work on restraint, and humility, and considering things from a different perspective. I sometimes fall into the trap of believing that my own way is the best way.*** And maybe it is. But I can't just assume that, I suppose. Actually, given my track record, it's probably a bad idea to assume that. I've been wrong a lot in my life.

I guess the real question is this: Is the fun I have on Facebook worth the aggravation I know I might face if I go back? Have I missed my Facebook experience more than I have not missed it? And am I in a position right now to make it more fun than aggravating?

I don't know the answer to that question right now. And maybe that's my answer. Maybe I need to give it another couple of weeks.

* There is an old saying among my people: "Never Wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty, and the pig likes it." On the other hand, there's this: "When someone does a foolish thing, you should tell them it is a foolish thing. They may still continue to do it, but at least the truth is where it needs to be." As much as I recognize the validity of the second statement, the pragmatic part of me is beginning to gravitate more toward the first.

** Okay, technically that's not true, I can block them if they're being egregiously unpleasant. Heaven knows it wouldn't be the first time.

*** "Of course I think my way is the best way," I will say. "If I thought there was a better way, I'd do it that way instead."

Sunday, December 29, 2019

The Book of Mormon and Me in 2020

I was reminded the other day of President Ezra Taft Benson's magnum opus, The Book of Mormon Is the Word of God. There was something he said in that address that kept coming back to me. So I looked it up--it's found in the January 1988 Ensign, among other places--and read the talk again. Here's the part that stuck out to me:
The Book of Mormon brings men to Christ through two basic means. First, it tells in a plain manner of Christ and His gospel. It testifies of His divinity and of the necessity for a Redeemer and the need of our putting trust in Him. It bears witness of the Fall and the Atonement and the first principles of the gospel, including our need of a broken heart and a contrite spirit and a spiritual rebirth. It proclaims we must endure to the end in righteousness and live the moral life of a Saint.
Second, the Book of Mormon exposes the enemies of Christ. It confounds false doctrines and lays down contention. It fortifies the humble followers of Christ against the evil designs, strategies, and doctrines of the devil in our day. The type of apostates in the Book of Mormon are similar to the type we have today. God, with his infinite foreknowledge, so molded the Book of Mormon that we might see the error and know how to combat false educational, political, religious, and philosophical concepts of our time.

The second part is what really got my attention. It's no secret that we live in a time of conflict and confusion and loud voices of every kind. The authors and compilers of the Book of Mormon knew this--they foresaw our day. As President Benson mentioned, the people of the Book of Mormon--the Nephites, the Lamanites, and the Jaredites--never had the book themselves. It wasn't written for them. It was written for us.

But I see a lot of parallels between their times and ours--which I suppose is the point. What brought down these ancient peoples? Ultimately, each destroyed themselves with a devastating civil war. And what caused the war? Class distinctions, persecution, tribal loyalties, hatred, anger, revenge, and an explicit rejection of the teachings of Jesus Christ. And behind it all, the Adversary's greatest and most potent weapon, pride.

Sounds to me like an average day on the Internet.

Now, it's all well and good to talk about nations and societies and civilizations. But nations and societies and civilizations are made up of people. People like me. So the real question is this: What can I do to avoid the fate of the Nephite and Jaredite peoples? How do I avoid personal destruction?

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, our Gospel study program includes a four year rotation: Old Testament, New Testament, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine and Covenants/Pearl of Great Price. In the United States, where the headquarters of the Church is located, our major elections--Presidential, Congressional, and most State and local elections--take place during the years that we study the Book of Mormon.

I suppose that could be a coincidence.

Following the reign of King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon, the Nephites were governed by a system of judges that administered the laws "according to the voice of the people"--some form of representative democracy, it appears. With this form of government, however, came a warning:
Therefore, choose you by the voice of this people, judges, that ye may be judged according to the laws which have been given you by our fathers, which are correct, and which were given them by the hand of the Lord. 
Now it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right; but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right; therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law—to do your business by the voice of the people. 
And if the time comes that the voice of the people doth choose iniquity, then is the time that the judgments of God will come upon you; yea, then is the time he will visit you with great destruction even as he has hitherto visited this land. (Mosiah 29:25–27)

I can't do much about what others might say and do, but my own voice has to be a voice for good. More than that, I have to express myself as a true follower of Christ would, as delineated by the Prophet Joseph Smith: only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge (Doctrine and Covenants 121:41-42).

So as I study the Book of Mormon this year, I'm going to focus on President Benson's two basic means. I'm going to search for the Book's testimony of Christ and His role as Redeemer, Healer, and Savior. I'm going to try to identify and emulate the characteristics and attributes of His faithful followers. I'm also going to examine the arguments, practices, and deceptions of the enemies of Christ as portrayed in the Book of Mormon. I will try to identify where and how they are being applied in the world today, and how I can avoid and/or overcome them.

The Book of Mormon was written, compiled, preserved, and translated to help our generation to survive and thrive in the dark times that are coming. It's time for me to start using it that way.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Equal Pay for USWNT?

The gauntlet has been thrown down, the question has been asked. In the wake of their World Cup victory last Sunday, should the members of the United States Women's National Soccer Team be paid the same as their male counterparts?

My unequivocal answer: No.

They should be paid more.

This is sports, right? And in sports, winning matters. All the USWNT does is win. They went 7-0 in the World Cup, allowing only three goals and defeating three of the world's best women's teams (Sweden, England, and France) along the way.

They US women opened the tournament by beating Thailand 13-0. That's not a bad score in football, but in soccer it's an absolute blowout. One sportswriter pointed out that the US women scored more goals in their opening game than the US men have scored in the World Cup in nine years.

Of course, that should be taken with a grain of salt. The US men's team didn't score any goals in the 2018 World Cup...because they weren't even there. When it came right down to it, all the US men had to do to qualify for the World Cup was to beat Panama...and they couldn't do it.

Now, no disrespect to Panama, but come on. We have 320 million people in this country, and we can't find eleven men who can play soccer better than Panama's best eleven men? That's ridiculous.

To qualify for the World Cup, the US men just had to be one of the three best teams in North America (including Central America) and the Caribbean. With the exception of Mexico (and maybe Canada, but they care about soccer even less than we do, what with ice hockey and the defending NBA champions and such), there's nobody who should consistently finish ahead of the USA in that group. Nobody.

So what happened for the 2018 World Cup qualifier? The US finished fifth, and watched the World Cup from their couches--the same place the women were watching it from.  Under no circumstances do members of the US Men's National Soccer Team deserve to be making more money than the women.

In fact, at this point I have to wonder why the men are getting paid at all. The women just won their fourth World Cup, and on that same day the guys got shut out by Mexico in the CONCACAF Gold Cup finals. Win a tournament, any tournament, and we can talk about your paychecks, gentlemen. Otherwise, I feel like the men should have to live on what they make from their regular professional contracts--which are almost certainly more than what the women are making in similar circumstances.

Be paid the same as the men? Pshaw. The women deserve so much better.

In short: Pay the ladies. They've earned it.

Monday, July 01, 2019

If A Tree Falls In Liberty Park (Part III)

“You know, Thomas Edison tried and failed nearly 2000 times to develop the carbonized cotton filament for the incandescent lightbulb ...And when asked about it he said, ‘I didn't fail. I found out 2000 ways how not to make a light bulb,’ but he only needed to find one way to make it work.”
-National Treasure

Today, I’m going to start to tell you about some of the many, many ways not to test for lead in organic samples...and how we discovered one way that will work (probably).

To review: The goal here is to analyze samples of an old tree from Liberty Park in downtown Salt Lake City to determine whether there was an increase in groundwater lead contamination due to the use of lead additives in gasoline in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Since tree rings can be dated pretty easily, all we have to do is take wood samples from different rings corresponding to different time periods and compare the amounts of lead in them. If we see more lead in a ring from, say, 1980 than we do in a ring from, let’s say, 1940, that should tell us something--especially if we get consistent results from subsequent comparisons. The more such samples we can analyze, the better idea we will have of what really happened over time.

When we think about analytical chemistry, we often think about how we’re going to test the sample. We can use a number of different techniques: gravimetric analysis, titration, or in this case, mass spectrometry. What we may not think about is this: How are we going to get the sample into a form that we can test? You can’t just stick a chunk of wood from a tree into a mass spectrometer. You have to process it to get it into a form that the instrument can use--and you have to process it in such a way that minimizes possible contamination of the sample from the environment.

For inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS), it’s great if you can process your sample into an acidified solution. Dissolve the sample in acid so that the minerals you’re interested in come out into the solution. One way to do this is called chemical digestion. I talked about this a little in Part I.  Put your sample into a solution of concentrated nitric acid and concentrated hydrogen peroxide and microwave it for half an hour or more. This breaks down all the organic stuff into water, carbon dioxide, and other gases, and leaves the minerals you care about dissolved in solution. Sadly, this only works with very small samples, half a gram or less. The preliminary tests showed that samples of a gram or more would be needed to get out enough lead to do anything useful with it. Chemical digestion usually works quite well for isolating metal content (like strontium) in living tissue, but in this specific case, it’s not effective.  So chemical digestion is out.

Another technique for eliminating the organic material is called ashing. It involves placing the sample in a crucible and heating it in a muffle furnace to 550°C (~1125°F). This burns off all the organic material and leaves an ash (hence the name) of mineral material. The mineral residue is then recovered and diluted as necessary for analysis in the ICP-MS. Again, there are two steps to the process: ashing, and recovery. Introduction of lead contaminants in either case would be a bad thing.

One hypothesis for the comparatively high levels of lead observed in the chemical digestion tests is that the process was leaching lead out of the digestion apparatus during processing. So the first job was to determine whether the proposed process would leach lead out of the crucibles as well.

We began with ceramic crucibles, because there are dozens of them in the lab. We found three brand new, unopened crucibles and designated them for testing. I cleaned them with MilliQ water (double distilled) and cleaned them using an ultrasound bath. Then, in a positive-pressure hood called a laminar flow hood, I placed a 7-8 mL sample of 5% hydrochloric acid (HCl) and allowed them to sit for five minutes. I transferred these samples into clean, labeled test tubes for analysis in the ICP-MS. I also set up three samples of HCl straight from the bottle for use as blanks (or ‘controls’, as they’re commonly called in high school discussions of the scientific method). I then set thee up for testing and analyzed the results the following morning. It turned out that the blanks had no detectable levels of lead, which was great news! The samples from the crucibles showed lead levels of around 0.3 ppb, which is better than what we saw in the microwave digestion tests, but still not as low as we’d like. Still, it gave us hope that ashing might work.

From here, we actually have to talk some chemistry to explain why we’re going to do (or not do) some things. I think I’ll hold off on that until next time.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

If A Tree Falls In Liberty Park.... (Part II)

Okay, so we’ve established what we want to do: We want to check the rings of a fallen tree for lead to see if the groundwater lead levels have changed significantly over time, specifically as a result of the use of lead additives in gasoline in the mid-20th century. And we have an instrument, the ICP-MS (inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer) that can detect the concentration of trace metals like lead to something like a few parts per trillion. That’s good.


The thing is, at that level of sensitivity, such an instrument can start picking up traces of lead that come from sources other than the sample. For example, the acid used to process the sample might have tiny (but detectable at this level) impurities of lead. The containers used to process the sample may have lead contamination from prior use. Even dust in the air might contain enough lead to be detectable. This is problematic because it can lead to a false result, showing more lead than is actually there.

First, a quick bit of terminology is in order. In instrumental analytical chemistry, the reading from the instrument that shows the true amount of the substance we care about in the sample is called the ‘signal’.  The reading for the amount of that same substance that comes from sources other than the sample--processing, contamination, the environment, etc.--is referred to as ‘noise’. To be confident of our results, we need to demonstrate that the reading we get from the instrument is primarily signal, with little or no noise--in other words, we want a strong signal-to-noise ratio.

What is a good signal-to-noise ratio? Depending on the test, you really don’t want more than 5% noise. 1%-2% would be even better, of course, but in many cases, you can live with 5%. Knowing that 95% of your reading is due to the sample and nothing else gives you a certain level of confidence, statistically speaking, that what you’re looking at is real. If the noise gets much higher than that, you begin to lose confidence in your results.

So, how do we know how much of the result is signal and how much is noise? We use a chemical blank. For example, I recently prepared three samples of what’s called a Standard Reference Material (or SRM, in this case, NIST SRM 1515, Apple Leaves) for analysis by placing each sample in a clean, dry crucible and baking it in a furnace overnight at temperatures up to 550°C (~1025°F). Once it cools down, I will take the residue and dissolve it in a mixture of hydrochloric acid and ammonia, and then analyze this solution for lead content. Now, as I prepared and processed these three samples, I also placed three empty crucibles into the furnace. I will also add the hydrochloric acid/ammonia mixture to them and then analyze those samples for lead content. In other words, the empty crucibles will undergo the same processing as the real samples. The empty crucibles are the chemical blank; they tell us (at least in theory) how much lead comes from the environment and not from the sample. They tell us the level of noise.

So when the preliminary samples were processed and tested months ago, a chemical blank was made and tested at the same time. And the results were very interesting. The bark of the tree showed extremely high levels of lead. Well, that’s not entirely unexpected. The bark can pick up lead from the air and soil around the tree as well as the groundwater. The interior rings in the tree showed lead concentrations ranging from around 11 parts per billion (remember, 1 ppb is roughly a paper clip in a swimming pool) to around 30 ppb. That’s not a lot. However, the chemical blank showed a lead concentration of around 2 ppb.

2 ppb of noise compared to 11 ppb of signal is around 18%. That’s way too high.

Furthermore, it’s not just the concentration of lead that matters, it’s also the actual amount. Once we identify how much lead is in the sample, we also want to try to isolate it for further testing (specifically isotopic testing, which I’ll tell you about another time). To do that, we need a certain minimum mass of lead to work with. Now, going back to the definition: in a water solution, parts per billion effectively means means micrograms of the substance we care about (again, lead in this case) per liter of water, or nanograms (0.000 000 001 g) per milliliter of water. Since these samples are almost always 10 mL in volume (because the containers can only hold that much), that means that even the 30 ppb sample contained only 300 nanograms (0.000 000 300 g) of lead. We can run isotopic testing on samples that small, but only if they’re very pure--and remember, thanks to the chemical blank, we already have an uncertainty of 20 ng/300 ng, or about 6.7%, in our purity. That won’t give us results that mean anything useful.

So, what do we do about that? If the processing adds that much lead (and uncertainty) to our results, we’re going to need a different way to process the samples.  I’ll start telling you about that in Part III.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

If a Tree Falls In Liberty Park, Does It Reveal Anything About Lead Levels In the Groundwater? (Part I)

For those who are interested (if any), here’s a summary of my summer research project so far. Watch this space for further updates!

A hundred-year-old tree died in Liberty Park in downtown Salt Lake City a few years ago. As living organisms incorporate trace metals (like lead) from their environment, any change in the level of groundwater contamination by these trace metals should be reflected by the organisms that rely on that water. Since the growth and development of trees can be tracked by the ages of their rings, different rings should have different levels of these metals in different rings.

The specific question my project seeks to address is this: Did the use of leaded gasoline in the mid-20th century result in a significant increase in the level of lead in the groundwater in Salt Lake City?

It’s worth noting that the water here is already rich in minerals--it’s very hard water. All groundwater, especially here, has at least some lead in it anyway. It’s also true that mining in the late 19th and early 20th centuries resulted in increased levels of lead entering the local water system. The strategy, then, is to analyze wood samples from the tree from different time periods and see if there is a rise in the lead concentration that coincides with the use of lead additives in gasoline--and if so, how much.

This project was actually started by another researcher who used microwave digestion to process a small number of wood samples. What is microwave digestion? Well, you take a small sample (half a gram or less) and add it to a mixture of concentrated nitric acid and concentrated hydrogen peroxide. (The hydrogen peroxide used in this process is ten times as strong as what you buy at the drugstore.) Place this sample in a plastic container that releases gases at very high pressure, and cook it in an industrial-strength microwave oven for half an hour or so. This process converts all the organic matter--proteins, cellulose, etc.--into water and carbon dioxide. What remains is a solution with the minerals (like lead) dissolved in it.

Samples of this solution are then analyzed for the element in question. The lab I’m working in uses an instrument called an inductively-coupled plasma mass spectrometer (ICP-MS). It’s a big, complex, $400,000 instrument, but here’s the quick oversimplified version: The sample is injected into a stream of argon gas that travels through an ionized plasma at around 4000°C. This knocks an electron off an atom of the sample, giving it a charge. It then travels through an electromagnetic field that bends its path; only atoms with the right mass:charge ratio can get through. The particles that get through are then counted by a detector of some kind. This instrument can separate the particles we care about--lead atoms, in this case--from everything else in very, very small quantities.

How small? Well, you know what the word ‘percent’ means, right? It means one in a hundred--parts per hundred, you might say. One in a thousand, by the same reasoning, would be called parts per thousand. With this instrument, we routinely measure parts per trillion.

How much is one part per trillion? Consider an Olympic-size swimming pool. It holds approximately a million liters of water, with a mass of a million kilograms or a billion grams. How much is a gram? It’s about the mass of a paper clip. One paper clip in an Olympic swimming pool is one part per billion. So, what is one part per trillion? It’s one paper clip in a thousand Olympic swimming pools.

Yeah, the ICP-MS is that sensitive. That’s why we use it for this kind of research. Unfortunately, that’s also part of the problem.

More on this next time.