Name That Chemical!

Betcha you didn’t know you had signed up for a foreign language. We need to (at least) look at classifying and naming this humongous mess of stuff we call matter. Again, we’re looking at an almost infinite number of items.

To begin with, chemicals are either organic or inorganic. Generally, chemical compounds containing carbon are organic, all others are classified as inorganic. Unfortunately, this is not universal (Sounds like French? Told you this is not easy!). Let’s start with simple stuff: Binary (just two elements): Something like, oh, table salt. Sodium and chlorine. The first listed, the so-called metal, (sodium) is listed first, as is. The second (nonmetal), chlorine, has its second syllable changed to -ide. Chloride. Thus: Sodium chloride. Formula: NaCl. Thought sodium began with “S”? Well, the element symbol is derived from the latin name Natrium. So are a lot of the others (told you this wasn’t easy…………..).

To look at another common binary compound, how about one consisting of hydrogen and oxygen, Hydrogen is to the left of oxygen on the Table, so it’s listed first. Oxygen undergoes a name change to oxide. Hydrogen oxide. Since these two can form more than one compound, this needs to be addressed. H2O is thus dihydrogen oxide. NOBODY calls it that! We know it as Water. Hydrogen and oxygen can form another compound where 2 atoms of hydrogen combine with 2 atoms of oxygen. This is called hydrogen peroxide.

Back in high school, or freshman chemistry, you probably were told that this illustrated the Law of Multiple Proportions. Then again, they shot another principle at you called the Law of Definite Proportions. Seem like an oxymoron? Simply, whole atoms form compounds with different numbers of whole atoms, depending on conditions.

The subject of nomenclature is further complicated by a large variety of common chemicals called by “trivial” names. Like water, you have a scientific, systematic name that nobody uses. A compound containing an atom of nitrogen bonded with 3 atoms of hydrogen would be nitrogen trihydride. The rest of civilization calls it ammonia. Just like a language!

Names follow from formulas, so we need to look at this. In its simplest form, a formula tells which atoms are present, and in what ratios. For instance, CO2 is a compound containing an atom of carbon bonded to two oxygens. CO, carbon monoxide.

is one containing equal numbers of carbon and oxygen. Note the prefixes of oxygen: mono (1) and di (2). Tri means 3; tetra 4, penta 5, hexa 6, ad nauseum.

Consider the compound with the formula KNO3. K is the symbol for potassium (Latin name, Kalium). As you can see, the stuff also contains nitrogen and oxygen. “NO3” Turns out this is part of a group of compounds known as “acids”, in this case, nitric acid, formula HNO3. Acids dissolve in water to produce hydrogen ion and the rest of the molecule, an anion, with the name “nitrate”. KNO3 is thus dubbed potassium nitrate. Sorry you asked yet?

I could go on, but as you can see, eyes tend to glaze over. When I was an undergraduate at CCNY, I took elementary physics with an old frenchman who taught with a French accent in a whispered monotone. If you asked too many questions, you were invited to “drop de course”. After a few weeks, I took him up on the offer.

Electrons. Chemistry Where It’s At

In a previous post, we took a peek at the structure of the atom. We looked at how atoms (elements) build up in weight, most of which consists of positively charged protons and uncharged neutrons, roughly equal in mass to each other. The atomic number of each element is equal to its number of protons. In each of them are a number of electrons equal to protons; since you don’t get a shock when you, say, handle aluminum foil, the charges (plus and minus) obviously must be equal.

Electrons lie in regions of (probablistic) space outside of the core (nucleus) of atoms. These are known as orbitals (suggesting the model of the solar system I told you not to take too seriously). Just a reminder -these are tiny, really really tiny. When confronted with stuff or entities too small to visualize, scientists sort of construct models. Models are very useful, if you don’t take them literally. Often, as new information is discovered, models are modified, or discarded outright. Chemists pigeonhole electrons into orbitals designated “s”, “p”, “d” and “f”. I won’t bore you with what these things look like (remember, these are just models); suffice to say electrons are found in them.

Why don’t we look at Public Enemy #1, aka methane. The chemical formula for this bad boy greenhouse gas is CH4 , meaning that the moleculeconsists of a carbon atom chemically bonded to four hydrogen atoms. What happens is that carbon, with 4 valence electrons shares four electrons with hydrogen. Not an outright donation, as I described in my previous post, but a sharing. Relatively simple compounds often follow something called the Octet Rule – whereby they enter arrangements which provide 8 electrons, like the fat-dumb-and-happy “noble gases”.

The two basic types of chemical bond are ionic (where electrons are given/taken outright) and covalent, where they are shared. Ionic compounds, such as sodium chloride, aka table salt, when dissolved in water conduct electricity. This results from the water molecule being capable of separating electric charges (also known as ions). In the case of salt, the negative chloride ion (chlorine containing an extra valence electron) exists along with sodium ion (short a valence electron, charged positive) results in a solution which conducts electricity.

Most ionic bonding occurs with elements in Columns 1 and 2 forming compounds with those in Columns 16 and 17. More typically, we can look at a (seemingly) well understood compound, H2O. The formula tells us that each of two hydrogen atoms is bonded chemically with a single oxygen. Water doesn’t conduct electricity, in its pure form. No ions are present to do this. The bonding between the oxygen and hydrogens is covalent in nature.

The vast majority of chemical compounds exhibit covalent bonding. Even in large, complex molecules, the driving force forming compounds is to provide a pseudo noble gas configuration for each element. Exception is hydrogen, where a helium configuration (2 electrons) does the trick.

Carbon is found in the vast majority of compounds. It is part of just about every drug we take, along with most stuff we burn (combine with oxygen) to produce electricity or just stay warm. Unfortunately, most of the byproducts of burning are sent into the atmosphere. Many of them are greenhouse gases.

Next time, we’ll take a plunge into naming some of these chemicals (the stuff you probably hated in college or high school). We’ll try to make it stress-free (after all, no grades or any other such nonsense…..)

Ain’t Science Wonderful

One of the singular accomplishments in science was the assembling of chemical elements into what is known today as the Periodical Table. This was done before computers and many of the other measurement devices we take for granted nowadays. Dmitri Mendeleev, a 19th century Russian professor of chemistry, did much of the heavy lifting toward the placement of the known elements, 63 at that time. Currently, the Table lists 118.

Chemistry, the branch of science concerned with the stuff comprising the universe (matter) classifies it in two groups: elements and compounds. Elements (atoms) are the basic building blocks of matter, so to speak. Compounds are chemically bonded combinations of two or more elements. Whereas elements number in the low hundreds, there are nearly an infinite number of compounds. Examples: Dihydrogen monoxide (the familiar H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), sodium chloride (NaCl), chlorine (Cl2), sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3), etc, etc.

Elements, themselves, are comprised of three “subatomic” particles: protons, electrons and neutrons (full disclosure: there are numerous other particles out there, but for simplicity, we’ll just consider these three). Protons and neutrons are the “load bearing” particles, each having about 1,800 times the mass (weight) of electrons. Protons also carry an electric charge of +1, while electrons (despite their light weight) carry a single negative charge. Plus is attracted to minus, while like charges repel. Sort of like a magnet. Elements and compounds are neutral, overall, so the number of protons and electrons must be equal to each other. Neutrons have no charge.

By the mid 19th century, chemists were able to weigh elements. Mendeleev ranked them in order of weight, starting with hydrogen. He found that the elements, if placed in order, had similar chemical behaviors in repeating columns of eight. For example, lithium (#3) seemed to behave chemically in the same manner as sodium (#11). Both elements reacted with water almost violently. By contrast, helium (#2), and neon (#10) seemed totally unreactive. Fluorine (#9) and chlorine (#17) were nearly identical. A serious break in the pattern occurred with argon, the 18th , an unreactive gas like helium and neon, and potassium, the nineteenth, which behaved like lithium and sodium. The other load bearing particle, the neutron, had not been identified at the time Mendeleev first assembled the table. Turns out that argon has a greater number of neutrons than potassium, making it heavier. The two elements switched places in Mendeleev’s scheme.

Mendeleev’s work illustrates what is often referred to as the scientific method. One does something like assembling known elements working with what is known at the time. As new info becomes available, one modifies the “hypothesis”, or working model, to explain anomalies, or draw more accurate conclusions. A similar process is at work in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Atoms are extremely small.. They take up only a tiny amount of space (room).

Protons and neutrons are concentrated, cheek-to-jowl within the center of the atom, aka the nucleus. Electrons are found in regions surrounding the nucleus (think of planets orbiting the sun, but don’t take this too seriously). The electron regions, so to speak, comprise the vast majority of the space the atoms occupy. If one pictures all those positive charges jammed into the tiny space (nucleus), how the hades does the thing not fly apart? ( remember, like charges repel each other). Might the electrically neutral neutrons sort of keep the pieces together? (This is why we need physicists…..)

Meanwhile, electrons form the chemical “bonds” to make compounds, But only the outermost electrons. We call them “valence” electrons. Consider the 11 electrons in the sodium atom, Only one of these is a valence electron, and capable of entering into a chemical bond. On the other hand, chlorine has 17 electrons, 7 of which are valence. Turns out that if sodium donates an electron to chlorine, a compound called sodium chloride is formed. Voila! Table salt! Moreover, the resultant chlorine now has 18 electrons, same as (chemically inactive) argon. If sodium loses an electron, its structure sort of becomes neon, also a fat-dumb-and-happy camper.

Where am I going with this? Science is the thought process humans have used since the beginning of time to figure out the world around us. The reality is that “truth” is dynamic and constantly changing, as we learn new stuff. This goes far toward understanding why the covid pandemic nature and facts seem to change constantly. As new stuff is learned, the “plan” needs to be changed. A popular musical a few decades back featured a song called “Stop the world, I want to get off”. A lot of us, I’m sure, feel this way at times.

We’ll talk more soon. We need to consider chemical bonding, where it’s really at.

Peer Review

The term “Peer Review” is often used in a scientific context. It describes a process whereby a scientific paper is reviewed by other scientists. The process is designed to point out errors, non sequitors and other pitfalls. Scientists and other writers have a perfectly human weakness (and perhaps defensivness) toward criticism, even so-called “constructive” criticism. It is always good to have a second pair of eyes, so to speak (I am reminded of the aphorism that God gave us two eyes and two ears, but only one mouth. You usually learn considerably more from listening than talking).

Way, way back in the day, I was enrolled in 90-day wonder school, aka Naval Officer Candidate School. There, we were to learn seamanship, navigation, engineering and gunnery (and be ready to lead men in these pursuits aboard ship – you gotta be kidding…). Even more important was to master people (leadership) skills. One of the tools for this occurred near the end of the course – an exercise in “peer review”. As I recall, we were instructed to rate the five best, and five worst, officer candidates in our 40-man company.

I was rated the worst of the worst. I well remember several of my classmates telling me I wasn’t all that bad, but somebody had to be worst. The company was comprised of a typical cross section of college educated young men from all parts of the USA. I was counseled by the company officer, a regular Navy lieutenant, who pretty much told me that being from New York City, I “came on too strong”, probably because I had the New York trait of talking too loudly and interrupting people. One of his more helpful suggestions: “back off”.

I don’t know if this is still part of the OCS course, but in retrospect, it was an epiphany. A very useful lesson in management, among the many things I learned during my Naval service. I served my country, but got much more back on a personal level.

At the end, I was comissioned Ensign, USNR. I’ll always remember the Chief Petty Officer assigned as Assistant Company Officer telling me that I had been assigned as a Deck Division Officer to the USS Aeolus, hull number ARC-3. After a pause, he looked at me and said. “What the hell is an ARC”? Turned out this was a cable layer, one of only four in the entire fleet.

I reported for duty in March 1963, while the ship was undergoing a “yard overhaul” at the Boston Navy Yard. The ship’s mission was to lay acoustic cable on the ocean floor, to track movements of Soviet submarines. Part of the function was carried out by civilian engineers of Western Electric, who had developed the technology. Ship’s company’s part was a highly intricate laying of the cable, itself. As the deck division officer, I “supervised” the process.

So, here I was, a wet-behind-the ears ensign, telling a group of talented, senior enlisted men how to do their jobs! As it happened, the guy I had replaced coped with this by pulling an all-nighter and studying the process, When his shift started, he proceeded to issue direct orders to the sailors. The chief and first class boatswain mates simply gave the man enough rope to hang himself (Aye, Aye Sir), and he had to be relieved to straighten out the ensuing confusion. The captain contacted the Bureau of Personnel and told them to make him go away (don’t go away mad, just go away…..).

Knowing this at the time, I pretty much told my two senior underlings, in effect, you take care of me, I’ll take care of you (in the current idiom, I’ll have your backs). Worked like a charm. Much of my focus as division officer was to do what I could to make sure they got whatever they could out of Uncle Sam. Important: Develop your people, clear as many obstacles as you can as they do their thing, the rest will take care of itself.

Perhaps my peers were right. I never considered myself as admiral material. I would not have been in the Navy at all if there had been no draft. Looking back, I would have missed out on a priceless learning experience, and so much more. In many ways, it’s a shame we don’t provide this opportunity to our youth the way we used to.


I am not a lawyer. My career as a forensic chemist, however, placed me within the environment of the criminal justice system. For most of that stretch, I had the title of forensic chemist. The job involved identification of controlled substances (illegal drugs). Drug law enforcement is classified as a “victimless crime”, which is to say that, rarely if ever does a subject complain to law enforcement, “arrest that person! He sold me heroin!”. To prove that a crime took place, one needs testimony that the substance changing hands is, in fact, what is alleged. (Often, the buyer hasn’t a clue as to what was actually sold – Caveat Emptor).

An “expert witness” is someone who posesses knowledge or experience relevant to the matter at hand which is not likely to be posessed by the triers of fact (jurors or judges). Experts do not need advanced degrees or, for that matter, degrees at all, just knowledge of some matter under litigation. The judge qualifies the expert in each case. A good expert can teach and reach ordinary folks without boring them to death, or, worse, talking down to them. One of the most entertaining examples I have ever seen was the part in the movie “My Cousin Vinny”, in which the character played by Marisa Tomei rebutted testimony of an FBI expert. She was a mechanic who worked in a garage. Probably no education beyond high school. The “feeb” tossed around jargon and totally failed to connect with jurors.

For several years, I taught rookie chemists from state and local labs who attended a weeklong seminar in DEA’s Special Testing and Research Laboratory. One of the major issues these people confronted was fear of the courtroom. My message to them was that they held an advantage in knowing chemistry far better than the lawyers. Unlike “fact” witnesses, experts are allowed to explain findings well beyond yes or no.

In my own experiences, I discovered some anomalies. Although evidence of the identity of a substance had to be introduced, many experienced defense attorneys did not want expert testimony; they would ”stipulate” (admit to) lab findings. Much of trial proceedings involve drawn out, tedious, sleep inducing arguments over arcane issues. If an expert is introduced, a lot of stuff is clarified. Jurors are graphically reminded that we are dealing with a bad guy, a distributor of (say) heroin. In one of my first cases, I was cross examined at great length by an attorney who, it turned out, was court appointed. He was trying to assess the new kid on the block! I’m not sure he would have done this for a paying customer. (The judge asked me whether I was able to tell heroin apart from every substance in the world? Witness :Yes,your honor. Judge: He’s qualified). Another tactic, particularly if interstate travel was involved, was to require you to show up to testify, and stipulate, once you show up. Who knows, one might get lucky, the plane crashes….

One of my favorite trap questions involves whether a book, scientific paper, etc., is authoritative. If you answer “yes” (even if it’s one you wrote), you own every word, sentence, paragraph, typo, etc etc, in the entire tome. The only correct answer: Just.Say.No. A lot of stuff can readily be taken way out of context.

Obviously, there’s a great deal more involved (probably entire courses in law school) but it would be wise for would-be experts to remember:

It’s a game

It’s the world of illusion

I care. But Not. Too. Much.

Demography is Destiny

This nation was founded on the novel notion that people should select the ones who govern us, rather than kings, queens or emporers, whose sole qualification was birth in the right family. The ability to vote was originally limited to white male property owners. It took over a century for women to be granted suffrage, and almost as long for people of color. The chief executive (president) was not to be elected directly by the people, but by a group of “electors” termed the Electoral College, chosen, indirectly, by the people. Can’t trust ordinary folks to do this. Unfortunately, we are still stuck with this system.

The situation is further complicated by other, more subtle, rules to hinder or prevent people from voting. Until the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, certain classes of voters had to demonstrate “literacy”, pay exhorbitant poll taxes, etc. In this century, the Supreme Court has basically gutted the Act. Newer, more creative means have been devised in the individual states to limit voting. For the most part, the Republican Party, which controls most state legislatures, is leading the way.

Formed in the 1850’s following the demise of the Whig Party, the Republicans were anti-slavery. In its second election, the Party won the presidency with a little known one term former congressman who became, arguably, the finest president we ever had. The Party dominated presidential politics well into the 20th Century. For the most part, it was heavily favored by corporate Chamber of Commerce types. Its rival, the Democratic Party, tended to favor working class people.

In reaction to the antislavery ethos of the Republicans, Democrats ruled what became known as the “solid south” until, beginning after the Lyndon Johnson administration, the former states of the Confederacy turned Republican. The Grand Old Party remains predominatly white male.

So much for history. The 2020 Census revealed what many of us already knew – the USA is rapidly becoming majority non-white. The GOP needs to reduce the number of people of color voting in elections. Their strategy is simple:

  1. Reduce early voting
  2. Reduce voting hours, and polling stations in minority areas
  3. Insist on tighter regulations for voter ID’s in absentee voting

Also, following the decennial census, adjust boundaries in congressional districts to reduce representation in Congress, a process known as “gerrymandering”. Although a majority of voters in congressional elections vote Democratic, by several percentage points, both parties are virtually equally represented in both Senate and House. (The U.S. Senate is permanently gerrymanded – California is equally represented with Wyoming, although its population is about fifty times greater).

The situation for the GOP borders on the desperate. Unless they can limit voting by poorer, browner, working class folks, they are destined to lose elections. Already, in this century, Democrats have won the popular vote in 5 of the last 6 presidential elections. An alternative would be to enhance popularity among these voters, similar to what was done following the debacle in 1964. Way too much trouble. This explains much of the intense manuvering currently underway in numerous state capitols. A major failing of the Democrats in the Obama years was a neglect of state level races.

One of the most egregious legislation being proposed (or passed) in states such as Texas, Georgia and Florida, among others, would permit the legislature to overturn elections on the mere assertion that “fraud” was involved. Power to the People??

We do badly need perspective. We are still the hope of the world. Despite our numerous problems, many of them existential in nature, relatively few want to leave us to live eleswhere. We can justifiably credit We the People for creating this.

The masses of voters are not asses, as our Founders seemed to believe, but rather apathetic. We have other stuff to worry about, but if they further erode majority rule (such as it is), our experiment in self rule is over. Our potential salvation, if we can take advantage of it: demography is destiny.

Babel Revisited

The Old Testament story (Genesis 11: 1-9) recounts a myth about why there are so many languages out there. This is not my long suit by any means (although chemistry does have languages). As a consequence of our history and geography, we Americans are much less conversant, as it were, of languages other than American English (a form of the language which is different from the British version). We do make feeble attempts to educate ourselves, largely through foreign language requirements in schools and colleges. Most of us don’t need to know any other languages, since American English is, by far, the most important to be fluent in, due to our economic superpower status. We kind of force others to learn it, because we can.

I was born into an immigrant family (French) in Queens , NY. My parents, although fluent in English, spoke French in the house. When I came along, the language I heard (and subsequently learned) was French. In 1944, I started kindergarten. Shortly afterward, my mother went to Open School Night, and was confronted by the teacher, who suggested that my speaking German was inadvisable, since we were at war with Germany! This is illustrative of our collective tin ear for languages. To this day, I can’t imagine anyone confusing spoken French for spoken German. My parents took the hint, and began speaking English in the home. I quickly learned English, and pretty much forgot French.

Both in high school and college, I took the easy way out and selected French as my foreign language. To this day, I have never regained fluency, although I can read aloud from a prepared text and sound almost like a native speaker. One of my many functions as a forensic chemist at DEA was to translate “french connection” recipes for making heroin into English. I can also write English-to-French translation (with the heavy aid of a dictionary). What I cannot do, however, is watch a French movie without subtitles and follow what is going on.

George Bernard Shaw put it best: The United States and Britain are two nations separated by a common language. If you listen to a debate in Parliament, and then a speech or two in Congress, you get the idea.

As I struggled with French, it often vexed me with verbs. There are three major conjugations: those with the infinitive ending in -er, -ir and (I forget the other one- I think it’s -re). These account for, maybe, a third of verbs. Then there are the exceptions……..Then again, I have learned the difficulties with English as a second language. We often mock people new to this country who just don’t seem to get it. But when you stop to think about it, American English is loaded with traps. A few of them:

-two, too, to. Shouldn’t the first one be pronounced ”twoo”?

capital, capitol – Pronounced the same, but vastly different meanings

the suffix “ough”: Cough, though, tough, through, rough

the word “close” – in near proximity, or to unopen a door or window?

Different pronunciations (one, a verb,the other, an ajective)

“invalid” – A disabled individual, or a prohibited action, or interpretation. Again. different pronunciations

I could go on, but you get the idea. Learning English is not that easy. Back in the day, we made no allowances for immigrants. However, soon we might be linguistic immigrants in our own country. After all, we will be a majority Spanish speaking nation pretty soon, according to recently released 2020 census data.

I Just Don’t Get It

Why is there so much cruelty practiced by religious people who follow Jesus of Nazareth? The shorthand term for these folks in “Christians”. In the name of Jesus, the Son of God, one of the most (if not the most) gentle people who ever lived. Wars and many other forms of violence have been fought in His name. Would He have approved? One saying which was popular late in the last century went by initials: WWJD, standing for What Would Jesus Do. My personal beliefs notwithstanding, why are we so cruel to women seeking abortions? The Catholic bishops in this country seek to bar President Joe Biden (only the second Roman Catholic president) from the sacraments. Would Jesus approve?

Why are they so hostile to LGBTQ people? God made them, too, for reasons we don’t understand. Does the fact that they have sex upset some people? (living in sin, and all that), Do they have nothing better to do than ban trans people from restrooms?

Why do so many pro-life people seem indifferent to the children they “save” once they are born? We can afford tax cuts and breaks for (mostly white male) rich folks, but deny poorer parents family leave, affordable child care, and health insurance, among other things, because we can’t afford them? I realize that education is basically administrative overhead and doesn’t make any money, so we can only spend the bare minimum. And then wonder why children’s test scores are so low?

At the risk of sounding like a socialist, we reward the wrong behaviors and the (mostly) useless pursuits, such as rock stars, college basketball coaches, hedge fund managers, etc. , at the expense of productive endeavors such as first responders, nurses and teachers, among many others.

Most of you have watched tapes of the events at the Capitol on January 6. I know we can’t believe our lyin’ eyes all the time, but was this really typical, harmless tourist activity? If the President at the time really did egg then on, is this treason? Sure seems like it to me. Why is he still walking around free? Since my formal education was in chemistry, rather than political science, there’s a lot I really don’t understand. Who financed all this stuff? Yes, we need an investigation. What is the Grand Old Party so afraid of?

Why not let the people vote? Is it really about election fraud? Does one of our major parties truly sense an existential threat? Maybe some of our founders were right- the masses are asses (or maybe just the colored…). The notion that the People should decide who rules, and how they are governed, rather than some “royals” who qualify merely by birth was a truly revolutionary idea. Why don’t we bring it back?

Again, I’m not qualified to be an expert in government (see formal education, above), but isn’t the Senate somewhat unbalanced? Wyoming, with a population of fewer than 600K people, has the same number of senators as California, whose population is around thirty million. The world’s greatest deliberative body. Does this mean it does nothing? Do we need a filibuster? Or, for that natter, do we need a senate?

Many of us are looking the proverbial gift horse in the mouth. I refer to folks who haven’t gotten around to being vaccinated. Vaccines developed in record time that are shutting down the virus so effectively are virtually miraculous gifts from God, or science, depending on your poini of view. I am a child of the Fifties who well remembers how the scourge of polio was just about eliminated through the Salk and Sabin vaccines. Today, we worry about the virus coming back through variants, when we have the means to end the whole business. Why is it that “red” states with low vaccination rates are experiencing a resurgence? Does anybody understand cause-and-effect?

I’m sure that people and entities with lots of money are pulling strings to maintain the sttatus quo. What about the rest of us? Are we really a democracy? Were we ever?

The P.S. 102 Playlist

Back in the day (1949-1952) the New York City public school I attended taught Music Appreciation in Grades 5-8. Probably about 12 or so pieces were taught per year. The teachers would play a few minutes of the selection (probably on 78 RPM records, remember them?) and we were required to learn the titles.

For the uninitiated perhaps puzzled by the title, New York City, then as now, operated so many public elementary schools that it was inconvenient to name them all. Instead, they were given numbers. Moreover, since there were (are) 5 boroughs in the city, the schools were designated , for example, Public School #102 Queens (there were probably at least 100 schools in each of the boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens; much fewer in Staten Island). You get the picture. To the best of my recollection, here are some of the selections:

J.S. Bach, Air on a G String; (arranged by Charles Grounod), Ave Maria

Beethoven, Minuet in G

Brahms, Lullaby

Chopin, Minute Waltz; Waltz in Csharp Minor

Schubert, Flight of the Bumble Bee; Ave Maria

Rossini, William Tell Overture

Liszt, Lieberstraum

Dvorak, Humoresque; 9th Symphony (New World)

Bizet, Carmen Overture

Saint Saens, Danse Macabre

Rachmoninoff, Prelude in C Sharp Minor

Tchaikovsky, Marche Slav

Mendelssohn, Spring Song

Grainger, Country Gardens, Shepherd’s Hey

Von Weber, Invitation to the Dance

Major omissions to the Dead White Europeans listed above: Joseph Haydn, W.A. Mozart. And, a point was made by a teacher that Dmitri Shostakovich would have been included, but “he’s a red” (this was, after all, the beginning of the Cold War and McCarthyism).

A couple of Americans made the list:

MacDowell, To a Wild Rose, and varoius songs of Steven Foster. Numerous omissions: George Gershwin, Aaron Copeland, Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington. Couldn’t include everybody!

Some of the selections claimed a niche in popular culture. Danse Macabre was a fixture in Halloween rituals (and still is). The Finale from the William Tell Overture was part of the theme music for the radio program “The Lone Ranger (remember that?). Then, as now, the Largo movement from Antonin Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony almost seems like a second National Anthem. (Musically, it would be a considerable upgrade to “The Star Spangled Banner”, based as it is on an (at best) vocalist challenging English drinking song).

If the aim of all this was to instill a love of “classical” music, it certainly worked with me, although I was raised in a musical family, where I was exposed to this type of stuff from infancy. To this day, whenever I hear one of these pieces, I still recall it was from the P.S.102 Playlist seven decades ago.


Cars. It is a guy thing, although women love ’em too. I have owned quite a few of them, since I got my licence in 1960, on my fifth try ( in those days, you had to parallel park). My first was a 1953 Mercury, bought from a friend. I have since purchased new ones: 1964 Ford Galaxy, 1970 Ford station wagon, 1984 Ford Granada, 1990 Ford station wagon, 1994 Ford (I forget the type) and a 1987 Ford Ranger. Get the picture? Fix or Repair Daily. I always preached Buy American to my kids. After the Turn of the Century, we bought a Honda Accord (my son assured me I had paid my dues). Two hundred thousand miles later, I got a 2009 Accord.

The Fords ran well, until they didn’t. Things would break down, such as A/C, heater or some other ancillary function, which usually cost an arm-and-leg to get repaired. My two Hondas just keep on running, and (I hope the universe doesn’t get me for saying this) never need repairs, or so it seems. The best longevity I ever got from my Fords was maybe 100K .

Lots of interesting things happened along the way. For example, I performed long distance maintenance on my Ranger. My daughter had it at Old Dominion University, when she was a student there. ODU is located in Norfolk, VA, I was working at a DEA lab in Washington, DC, about 200 miles away. Got a call from her one morning at work. Dad, the heater’s not working, but the engine seems to be running hot. OK, Jen. Can you pop the hood? You see what looks like a milk container? OK, is there any fluid in it? It’s dry? OK, you need to get some water in is as soon as you can. Then start the car. Let it run for a minute. Getting some heat? Good. Now you need to buy some antifreeze, and pour it into there before you go anywhere……..All this before there were cellphones!

Since we were a two worker family (working about 5 jobs between us) we had to have at least two cars. The second car was generally a clunker. Some of these rides provided some thrills and chills:

3-Wheel Buick

Bet you never knew that some Buicks only had three wheels. I was driving a 1970 V-8 (which was given to my by a friend). I was moonlighting as an adjunct chemistry professor at Prince George’s Comminity College at the time (1993). I left campus after teaching to drive home. I got on the Capitol Beltway, accellerated to 65, and moved into the left lane. Suddenly I felt like I had run into the mother of potholes, and the car dipped momentarily. A split second later, it did it again. I slowed down glanced out my side view mirror and saw a shower of sparks astern. I stopped on the shoulder, got out and saw only three wheels. I never saw the fourth wheel again.

Non-Electric Granada

We have, as a society, become accustomed to (at least the concept of) electric cars. I once drove the diametric opposite, sort of. One evening, I left my day job to go teach some chemistry at PGCC, about a half hour drive from New York Ave in the District (not a nice neighborhood). Since the car was old and decripit, I didn’t bother locking it. Class was at 6PM. When I went to start the car, it was dead. Battery? Upon lifting the hood, it was apparentt that I didn’t have one, dead or alive. Midnite Auto Supply strikes again! I went back to the lab , borrowed a car from a coworker, drove to an auto supply store, bought a battery, dropped it in the car and made it to campus on time (only had to cancel office hours).

VW Rabbit Diesel Non-starter

I bought it used. Car soon developed a compression problem; it wouldn’t start. Fortunately, it was a stick shift. You just had to get it rolling and pop the clutch, and it would start. I learned to park on inclines so it would roll, or sometimes, the kids on my street would push. An engine job would have cost too much (had two in college at the time). One of the pusher kids was a senior in high school. They told me that when she received an acceptance to college, she wondered what I would do when she left town. Who would push Mr.Canaff? Cheryl, where ever you are, thank you so very much……

As the song put it so well, thanks for the memories!