Spring Cleaning, car care edition

Every Spring the sun comes out and I notice how filthy my car is.  This year it was especially bad because I'd damaged the poor thing.  So in addition to the usual wax-and-vacuum, I decided to touch up the paint and headlights.  I bought two kits, both of which basically involved polishing the surfaces.  I know a lot about polishing from my days as a metallurgist, so read on.

Field Test 1:  "Clay Bar"
Body shops and detailers swear by clay bar, which seems to magically erase dullness and tar flecks off of the outsides of cars.  It's better than soap but it's not paint - it can't fix scratches that go down into your car's paint job.  In my case, I had a huge smear of beige paint on my front passenger corner (more on that later) which looked ridiculous and could be seen from a mile away, so I figured I'd try it.

I am pleased to report that Clay Bar really works.  The clay bar itself is like a sticky putty. It's full of a very fine abrasive. The kit I bought (Meguiar's) came with a spray bottle of lubricant (mostly water). You work the clay bar until it's pliable, spray the lube on the car, and rub the bar wherever you're trying to clean something off. It very slowly removes everything on top of the clearcoat, basically by a polishing action. The clay bar doesn't seem to get used up, you just stretch and fold it to expose a clean area.  
(How does it work, technically?  The clay conforms to the surface, which reduces the pressure on the smooth clearcoat you don't want to damage.  But anything sticking up, like a fleck of tar, gets pressed into the clay.  It is, in wear science terms, an asperity.  The higher pressure between the abrasives in the clay and the asperity causes the asperity to wear down faster - eventually leaving nothing but the clearcoat.)
For me, it worked flawlessly. I went from having a huge ugly damage spot to like-new. It took about an hour. Unfortunately the temperature was in the mid-30s, and you have to work with your bare hands, so I had to go inside and run hot water over my hands a couple times to keep from getting frostbite. But it was totally worth it.
(How did I get that smear of beige on my car? I ran into my own garage. I had just been fitted for contact lenses for the first time in 20 years, and they wrecked my depth perception off-center. I just grazed the wood, so the body panels didn't get pushed in enough to be dented. There were just a few fine scratches at the high points of the panels where the clearcoat was damaged.)
Verdict:  awesome.  When it gets warmer, I'm going to go around my whole car with it.

Field Test 2:  Headlight lens restorer
I didn't know there was such a thing, but I'd noticed my 2004 car's headlights were pretty cloudy.  Like a fish that's been laying on the ice too long.  So when I saw a kit made by Turtle Wax next to the clay bar, I picked it up.  It was not an unalloyed success. 

The kit is a five-step process.  The instructions say to try Step 1, a fine polishing paste, and if it works for you, stop there.  When I rubbed on the paste using an old T-shirt, I could see a lot of brownish junk accumulating on the white cloth.  After one or two applications, the shirt stayed clean - and my headlights looked a lot clearer.  The general haze was gone, though there was still a blotchy mottled look on the part where the lights shine through.  The other four steps are basically sandpaper - you start with coarse grit and work your way down through the finer sandpapers.
(How do you polish a rough surface?  This process is familiar to any metallurgist; it's used to examine the internal structure of processed metals in a microscope.  You start with coarse grit and with each successive grit you rub at a right angle to the last, so you can tell when the finer scratches have removed all the deeper ones.  In metallurgy, the finest sandpaper is followed by slurries of even finer grit particles suspended in water to produce a mirror finish.)
This works great, except, of course, when everything is covered with a milky haze of ground-off plastic debris.  I can't tell you how many hours I spent in grad school polishing bits of metal, and I still screwed this up.  For the layman, there's a strong chance that it would actually make the headlights worse.  Hell, I didn't even manage to sand off the blotches I was trying to get rid of.

I was so alarmed by the way the first headlight looked after I'd gone through all the sandpapers that I only used the paste on the second headlight.  The final step is a cloth saturated with some kind of plastic-coating liquid.  You wipe this cloth on the headlights and it fills in the fine scratches and seals it with a smooth surface.  This was a huge improvement; it made the scratched headlight look clear again. 

Verdict:  Do the headlights look better?  Yes.  Good enough for me?  Yes.  Perfect?  No.  Would I do it again?  Probably not.

The Flaming Cheeseburger Incident

Here's another attempt at short fiction.  Actually, it is not all fiction.  More about that later.

The lab had its share of accidents - moreso than the one down the hall, with the robots handling plutonium behind lead glass.  Those guys really had to dot their i's and cross their t's, but nobody cared too much about us diddling around with fuel injectors.  Well, not nobody.  See, in silhouette, the fuel injectors look a lot like rifle shells.  One of my Middle Eastern colleagues had a tiresome discussion with the TSA when he forgot to take them out of his bag before he went to the airport.

The fuel injectors did have a sinister look to them.  They were a glossy, featureless smoky near-black color - if I could get a car painted that color, well, that would be gangsta.  And you couldn't scratch these fuel injectors with anything.  That miracle coating was what we were all working on.

The thing we used to make the coating was basically a radio transmitter inside a fat drum up on a table.  The lab administrator came by one day (Lord knows why; he's a physicist, he must have been slumming to check out what us engineers were doing) and missed an important call on his cell phone.  He told us the call was about his car getting stolen, but my theory is that his wife had called him home for a nooner and that was why he was so pissed off.  Anyway, that was the "a-ha" moment when we realized why we all complained about our cell phones at work - the coater was trashing all reception for a half a mile around.

It was picturesque.  Even the administrator was impressed by the purple glow of the plasma inside the drum, which you could see through a glass porthole.  We'd pump out all the air, pump in a chemical called silane, then fire up the radio antenna.  It was so powerful in there, it lit the silane into a plasma which then condensed onto our fuel injectors.  Cormac (the "rogue with the brogue" we called him, privately) ran the thing most of the time, and one day he decided to roll a chair into the crowded little lab and read his hometown newspaper.  For weeks afterwards his pallid complexion was set off by a deep tan on one side of his face.  Sort of like a human half moon.  Apparently there was some ultraviolet coming along for a ride with that radiant violet.

Then there was the time the firemen came.  Silane, you see, is pyrophoric.  The gas burns on contact with air.  Remember how I said we pumped all the air out of the drum before we filled it with silane?  Well, one time we didn't.  It wasn't Cormac on duty that day, but whoever it was, they should have seen the flames through the porthole.  The air in the drum must have been used up pretty quickly, but eventually enough silane was pushed in that the pressure was higher than the air pressure in the lab.  And the silane began to leak out.  Fingers of orange flame shot outwards in every direction from between the two big beige steel pucks.  The fire alarm went off.  Cormac skidded into the room and all he could say was "CHAYSBAIRGER?"

The firemen knew what to do in the event of a nuclear robot running amok, but the flaming cheeseburger wasn't covered in their standard operating procedures.  They opened the drum.

They were commended for it, later, as were we all.  Not for valor though - as we were picking through the rubble, somebody noticed that the cieling tiles had an odd sparkle along with their shiny smoky near-black glaze.  The place had been built in the days when asbestos was considered a wonder material and it was put everywhere, so maybe that mineral catalyzed the formation of the new compound.  I don't know how it happened, but it was basically diamonds.  We all got rich for burning the lab down.  Especially the firemen.

Don't rush for the microscope, son.

In grad school, when I'd get some new sample to look at, I was always excited to analyze it with the coolest new toys I'd been learning to use.  But my advisor would tell me, "don't rush for the electron microscope."  You might miss the forest if you're focused on the, you know, amoebae.

His very concrete and sensible suggestion was to start by looking at a new thing with your bare eyes.  Learn what you can - what color is it?  Is it heavy?  Then put it in the miroscope--the optical microscope, at minimum magnification.  Turn up the mag step by step.  Then maybe the scanning electron microscope.  Then, and only then, the transmission electron microscope.  The atoms can wait, they'll still be there.

When you're handed a task at work, do you just carry out your job description, or do you check for inconsistencies to make sure your time wouldn't be wasted?

When you contemplate a new cell phone, it might behoove you to ask first not how fast its processor runs, but rather, "would it get signal in my house?"

Who are these grainy people and what do they mean to me?

I was quite touched by this image.  One of my professional specialties is the interaction of X-rays with matter, so the 20th century's advances in physics and math became matters of great practical importance to me.  I can hardly imagine putting more names from my education into one photograph.  Click for big.
In 1927, the leading lights of physics gathered in Brussels for a conference, and this photo was taken.  Wilhelm Roentgen, the discoverer of X-rays and recipient of the first Nobel Prize in physics, would have rounded it out nicely had he not passed away four years prior.  1927 was the year the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics was being worked out.  They were chaotic times:  in 1924 de Broglie (right of center) had put forth his theory that matter could be described as either waves or particles; his doctoral committee felt that the only person on Earth capable of judging whether it had merit was Albert Einstein.  Here they are together.
  • Schroedinger - the wavefunction.
  • Pauli - the exclusion principle.
  • Heisenberg - quantum uncertainty.
  • Brillouin - propagation of electron waves in a crystal lattice.
  • Debye - the effect of temperature on X-ray diffraction patterns.
  • Bragg - the original crystallographer - discoverer of the laws of X-ray diffraction.
  • Dirac - for me, the "Dirac delta", an infinitely short and infinitely intense pulse.
  • Compton - inelastic scattering of X-rays.
  • de Broglie - wave-particle duality.
  • Born - the probability density function.
  • Bohr - the structure of atoms.
  • Langmuir - plasma probes.
  • Planck - the blackbody spectrum.
  • Curie - radiation, and probably the first death thereby, in 1934.
  • Einstein - yeah, him.
The image I've posted is a composite of a high-resolution photo, which I found at wikimedia commons, and its seating chart, which I found elsewhere at low resolution.

The truth about writing

This article in The Truth About Cars is full of truth about writing.  Writing nonfiction for blogs, for newspapers, for trade journals, you name it.  Read it and understand authority, understand getting paid for criticism.  (Or at least how not to.)

The backstory is this:  On Thursday, the Detroit News published a negative review of the Chrysler 200.  Yeah, the car in that Super Bowl commercial.  A Chrysler dealer called the paper to complain.  They watered down the online version of the story.  The writer, the paper's auto critic, resigned in an unplanned fashion.  Jalopnik broke the story.

TTAC's wrapup talks about why the newspaperman wrote what he wrote.  Along the way, they touch on some of my favorite tropes:  why hipsters suck (car critics who heap disdain on all new cars are not credible because they're predictable), why shills suck (car critics who heap praise etc etc predictable), and why Jeremy Clarkson is so popular.

It's tough to be neither a hipster nor a shill if you're not Jeremy Clarkson.  You know who he is, right?  I found out on a vacation to London, where during an afternoon siesta with (ahem) a bottle of champagne in our hotel room, we turned on the TV and watched, of all things, the entirety of a car show.  It was Top Gear, and it was informative, hilarious, and even penetrating.  Jeremy Clarkson is one of the hosts of Top Gear.  He is arrogant, occasionally obnoxious, and enthusiastic with both praise and scorn.  His expectations are high, and when he's delighted, he lets you know.  But Jeremy Clarkson gets to drive Ferraris--hell, he gets to own Ferraris--side by side with Smart cars and other city-only vehicles that are one short step of mechanical sophistication above a golf cart.  That, and he's utterly bent.  That's why he's popular.

Anyway, read the TTAC piece.  Nod, and say 'aaahhhh, yes'.

I fucking love data

It's true.  Of all the things I look forward to at work, teasing meaning out of numbers is one of my favorites.  I can totally get lost in it - I achieve flow when I'm deep into an analysis.  Data is like earth that must be tilled and fertilized and seeded and weeded and harvested to produce a crop of bona fide answers.  I live for this shit.

Some people are good at working with other people to get things done.   Some people are good at working with designs to make the world look and act the way it does, and the way it will tomorrow.  I am lucky enough to understand exactly what I'm good at, and to have fallen into a career where I can do it.