A letter to the post office

Note:  This letter was sent by me to the post office on the evening of March 28, 2017, following the latest of many missed package pickups by my postal carrier.

To the Postmaster General of the United States of America

I signed up to have my package picked up at my home today and it was not picked up. This is not the first time this has happened, though I had placed a sign on the mailbox that pointed toward the package, which sat five feet away from it next to my front door.

I’ve been wondering if there’s anything I should do in the future to remind our letter carrier to pick up my package (in addition to filling out a form on your website and putting a sign on my mailbox pointing directly to it). I’ve come up with a few ideas, and would like your input about which is most likely to work:

1) I will hide in the bushes all day until the letter carrier comes by, and then using “Priority Mail” tape, stick it to her feet so she can’t walk away without taking it.

2) Build an automated package-firing mechanism that will fire my package directly into the mail truck when she opens the door. She usually parks halfway down the street, so I may have to contact DARPA for some kind of guidance package to make this happen.

3) Build a trap door/waterslide on my front walkway that she’ll fall into, taking her on a magical voyage into a room under my home. In this room will be my package on a golden altar, with a sign saying “Please pick up this package.” When she picks it up, an elevator will lift her back to my front porch, package in hand.

4) Threaten to make her listen to 44 minutes of hold music from your website. I’ve been doing that this evening and feel that she will go to great lengths to avoid it.

If you have any other ideas, I would be more than willing to listen to them in the hope that my letter carrier will one day pick up packages for which I schedule pick ups.

Thank you for your time. I’d write more, but I have to go build a giant robotic puppy that will make cute little barking noises as it carries my package to the letter carrier tomorrow.

Your buddy,

Ian Guch


We Must Learn To Embrace The Suck

I screw things up all the time.  I’ve written a number of books and some of them were entirely ignored.  My first version of my website was so bad that it literally made people dizzy to look at it.  I sneeze when I see people getting married on the beach and I once farted so loud at a restaurant that a little kid across the room pointed and said “That man tooted.”

Fortunately for me, you screw up all the time, too.  And so does your mother.  And so does your great uncle.  If there’s one thing that all of us have hopefully learned, it’s that we are continually making mistakes and there’s nothing we can do about it.

According to this article in Scientific American, this is one of the main reasons that people don’t go into science.  Young kids may enjoy looking at Bill Nye videos and look forward to the latest technological marvel from Elon Musk and Apple Computer, but once they get into school, they frequently learn to despise science.  How?  By failing at it.

This problem is understandable when you go back to the italicized idea above.  Nobody wants to waste their time doing things the wrong way.  Nobody likes to feel confused and bewildered by the things around them.  Nobody wants to feel stupid.  Unfortunately, science is one of those areas in life where you’re almost guaranteed to make gigantic mistakes on a regular basis.

So, given that people continually screw things up and that nobody likes to feel stupid, how can we get people to go into science?  The answer:  Embrace the suck.

For some reason, our students have gotten the idea that anything less than perfection is terrible and that making mistakes is a crime.  As science teachers, it’s our job to show them that this isn’t the case.  Not only is it not stupid to make mistakes, but it’s how we figure out what we’re doing.  The entire scientific method is built around the idea that we’ll make bad guesses about the world and slowly but surely make them better.  Rather than feeling bad about our mistakes, we should embrace them as part of the learning process.

How do we teach our students how to screw up?  By making them screw up, of course.  We need to give our students lab activities that are challenging enough that they sometimes won’t be able to come up with the right answer.  And when our students miss the point of what they’re doing, we need to tell them that it’s fine to make mistakes and that they’re not idiots for having done so.

I give a lecture each year that I call the “You are an idiot” talk.  I don’t do this because I actually think my students are idiots, or because I want them to feel dumb.  Instead, the message is just what I’ve written here:  That scientists screw up all the time and that’s it’s totally OK to make mistakes.  For a scientists, making mistakes is not a big deal.  Failure to learn from mistakes, on the other hand, is.

Teaching our students to screw up is one of the best things we can do.  If we can get our students to understand that making mistakes is inevitable and that nobody can avoid it, they’ll stop feeling bad when they make mistakes.  And when they stop feeling bad about making mistakes, they’ll be better able to move on from them.


My Screenplay

As you may or may not know, I’ve been long-term subbing for a TV Production class at the local high school.  This, despite the fact that I’ve never owned a video camera and just got my first smartphone three months ago.  Fortunately, I like learning new stuff and pick things up quickly, so in the last few months have learned Adobe Premier, Kdenlive (which is the equivalent for Linux), and Adobe Story.  (I’ve also got a YouTube channel, which you can check out here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCiJfqwwuQHG_Fks1j41fTRw).

It is Adobe Story that is the focus of this post.  This program is used for writing plays and screenplays, so before I could teach it to my students I had to make sure that I understood how it worked.  In doing so, I’ve written a screenplay that I believe will sweep the Oscars one day, if anybody ever decides to make it.  I call it The Heroic Doctor:



Two people are eating burritos.

GUY #1

This is a good burrito.

GUY #2

Mine is good too.  Could use guacamole.

The sound of an airplane is heard.

GUY #1

Do you hear an airplane?

GUY #2

I’m eating my burrito.

The plane  crashes on them.  A tanker truck full of gasoline jackknives into the wreckage, setting off an even bigger explosion.  The fire quickly jumps across to a dynamite factory, which also explodes.


GUY #1  is sitting on a bed.  Electrodes are attached to the exposed brain and hooked up to a stereo speaker.


What… happened?


You were in a plane crash.


I wasn’t in a plane.


It crashed on you.


I wish I could have finished my burrito

GUY #1’S BODY slumps slightly, showing that it’s having  a flashback…


GUY #1

Do you hear an airplane?

Airplane crashes, blood and gore, etc.


Close up of the brain covered in electrodes.


That was a good burrito.  I wonder what happened to it.


(Under his breath)

Oh, you’ll find out my friend.  You’ll find out.


The BURRITO lies in pieces, with a speaker cable coming out of the largest.


Can you tell me anything about the plane crash?

The BURRITO remains silent.


(To DOCTOR #2)

I believe this burrito is still unconscious.


I believe this burrito isn’t speaking because it’s still a burrito.


A large desk is surrounded by doctors, all of which are wearing white lab coats and stethoscopes.


(With great emotion)

After interviewing both subjects, I have concluded that Guy #1 is brain-dead while the burrito can still be saved.



I have concluded the opposite.  Guy #1 has actually spoken to us, while the burrito just sat there.


(With great sarcasm)

First of all, “doctor”, Guy #1 never actually spoke.  It was just random nerve impulses.  Additionally, it is my conclusion that the burrito is just shy.

DOCTOR #2 looks at DOCTOR #1 as if he’s the biggest idiot in the world.  The HEAD DOCTOR looks thoughtful…


Why do we keep referring to the patient as Guy #1?


That’s his given name, sir.


After giving this next to no thought, I have concluded that Doctor #1 is correct.  We must transplant the burrito into Guy #1’s head.


The operating room contains two beds.  The first contains the struggling body of GUY #1, while the second contains the inert burrito.  As we watch, DOCTOR #1 takes out the brain of GUY #1 and transplants the BURRITO into his now empty head.


All we can do now is wait.

The NURSE looks at DOCTOR #1 with open awe.


You’re heroic.  Let’s have sex.



Camera pans over to the storage closet and fades to black.


The inert body of GUY #1 is lying on a bed with a shaved head and stitches around his skull.


We’ve done all we can.  Only time… and God… can fix him now.


(Musing quietly)

It’s a burrito in a guy’s head.  Even God can’t help him.

BURRITO MAN suddenly sits up.  Both doctors jump back.


With the help of time and God, I have recovered.  While I was passed out I realized my true ambition in life.  I will be a race car driver.

DOCTOR #1 beams with pride.  DOCTOR #2 rubs his eyes to ensure that the BURRITO MAN is real.


Doctor #1, to reward you for your work, you will be the head of my pit crew.

DOCTOR #2 perks up, anxious to hear what his reward will be.


Doctor #2, you’re a dick.  Hang your head in shame.

Figuring that he’s better do what BURRITO MAN says, DOCTOR #2 hangs his head in shame.


DOCTOR #1 is wearing his familiar doctor’s coat, except that now it has sponsors’ patches all over it.


I’m so proud!  My work has led to the creation of the best race car driver in the world!

As he looks on, the race car crashes into a wall, flipping over into the crowd and exploding.  People start to panic, and all four of the cars’ tires fly into the air and hit separate news helicopters.  In turn, each helicopter crashes into a different race car and the cycle continues.  As the last car explodes, bringing down the four last news helicopters, we see that the pit area is untouched, leaving DOCTOR #1 staring in amazement at the carnage.


I guess I’d better find another burrito.

Roll Credits.



Guns in schools? Absolutely!

Yes, you read it right.  Both me and Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, believe that local school systems should have the right to determine whether guns are allowed in schools.

Though you may have the mistaken belief that guns are used to shoot people, me and Ms. DeVos both understand that grizzly bears are a constant threat in schools and only a well-armed populace can keep our kids safe.

Seriously.  You don’t believe me?  Check this out:  CNN article about grizzly bears and guns in schools.

I don’t know what I’m doing

As some of you know, I’m currently not teaching chemistry.  Though I do a lot of chemistry writing (Check out “Chemistry:  The Awesomest Science” and “Physical Science:  A Smorgasbord of Knowledge”), I stopped teaching for a while to take care of my son. Circumstances change, however, and I’ve started a long-term sub job.  Teaching TV production.

At first glance, this may seem like a problem.  Not only do I not watch TV, but I only got my first cell phone two months ago.  I’ve never owned a video camera and don’t even take regular pictures.  I know nothing at all about the art and technology of video production.

Fortunately, I’ve got a co-teacher who knows what she’s doing.  She’s worked a great deal with National Geographic making those cool critter-cam videos and she knows the ins and outs of all aspects of video production.  Because she’s German, she’s having problems becoming an official substitute teacher, which is why I’m needed in the room.

It’s a great experience for me to be the most clueless one in a classroom.  Though I haven’t the vaguest idea what the kids are doing, I can still find ways to make myself useful.  I don’t know how the editing software works, but I do know how to handle data management so nothing gets lost.  When our backup system went down, I was able to put something together.  When the kids have ideas, I help them to figure out whether or not they’re any good.  And when they need help getting the equipment together, I know enough to try and get what they need.  I make a lot of mistakes, but I’m learning.

The one skill that’s identical between chemistry and TV production is the ability to not bother the kids.  When students are working on their own and teaching themselves how to do things, my ability to leave them alone and let them work is invaluable.  I keep an eye on things to make sure that nobody goes too far off track, but mostly I just watch and listen.

Am I a good sub?  When it comes to teaching subject matter, my answer is an emphatic no. However, when it comes to leaving the kids alone to teach themselves, I think I do a pretty good job.  And when things go off track, there’s a film producer available to give the kids a hand.

For the next five months I’ll be subbing.  And mostly watching.  And learning.  And hopefully helping the kids learn, too.

How to write your own lab

I was a teaching assistant in grad school when I wrote my first lab.  We’d been given a lab notebook by the university to use with our students, but after the first couple of labs it became clear that my students weren’t understanding what it said.  The first lab I ever wrote was a restatement of one of these labs into understandable terms, with an intro section that simplified the topic.

As I recall, I got in trouble for using the phrase “the damn stopcocks don’t always work, so don’t be afraid to use some muscle to turn them.”  I’ll admit that perhaps I could have phrased it better.

My students liked these labs, so I started to make bigger changes.  By the time the semester was over, my students were finishing three hour labs in 90 minutes and aced the lab practical.  More importantly, they understood the science and had a good time in lab.

The next experience I had with writing my own labs came with my first high school teaching job.  I was given the task to teach 35 remedial students an entire year of high school chemistry in three weeks, in the basement of a church that had no lab and no budget.  It was here that I learned to really create my own labs, using materials that I had accessible to me and that I could safely work with in an ordinary classroom.  This did, as you can imagine, require some creativity.

At this point, I haven’t used any labs that I didn’t actually write for about 15 years.  I like controlling what my students learn and how they learn it.  I like knowing that the equipment and chemicals that my students need are easily accessible.  And most of all, I like posting my stuff online and sharing it.

This leads to the question at hand:  How can anybody write their own lab?  There’s no really good answer to this, but hopefully the suggestions below will help:

  1. Check to see if you actually need to write your own lab.  There are a lot of good labs out there on the internet (most of them on my site), so make sure you’re not reinventing the wheel.  If you teach at a school with very few resources, I recommend looking at homeschool websites because they are experts at making do with kitchen chemistry.
  2. Substitute lab equipment.  If you need to heat something, you don’t always need a Bunsen burner.  You can use a hot plate or steam bath as a heat source.  You can also use ovens, propane stoves, and alcohol burners for many things.  Figure out what you’ve got available and make it work.  In the same vein, coffee cups can take the place of crucibles, drinking glasses can take the place of beakers, and reagent bottles can be fashioned from bottles for subscription medicine or eye drops.
  3. Substitute chemicals.  If you’ve got no ability to deal with hazardous waste, you may find it useful to substitute something dangerous with something that’s less so.  If you’re dehydrating a salt, use Epsom salts instead of copper sulfate.  If you’re looking at combustion reactions, use something relatively safe like rubbing alcohol rather than more flammable liquids.  If you’re doing “like dissolves like”, plain old sugar and salt will teach the idea nicely.  I almost never buy chemicals because I can get away with using stuff from the grocery store, saving my school money and making my lab a safer place.
  4. Don’t be afraid to screw around.  If you think something might work, give it a shot. If you’ve got an honors class, have them invent a lab for you using whatever they can find.  If you play with the chemistry, you can’t go wrong!
  5. Safety first!  Never, ever skimp on safety measures.  Best safety practices are vital no matter what chemicals you’re working with, so even if you’ve done all of your shopping at the 7-11, make sure everybody wears goggles.

Anyhow, I hope this helps you to write your own labs in the future.  And remember to really put some muscle into those damn stopcocks.