Friday, April 2 2021

titration, algebra, and upgrading a server



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Dear Journal,

Good morning, everyone. Happy Friday. This morning, I give you a two part pat on the back: one for making it through the whole work week, and another for making it through April fools. I’m sorry if I gave you a scare yesterday pretending that I was done writing. If it’s any consolation, I too fell for a few pranks yesterday. When I logged into work, I saw a proposal from our architect team to use quantum computing in a new solution. “We believe that we can leverage the quantum principles of superposition and entanglement to tackle one of the hardest problems we have here at Zendesk.” Just for background, quantum computing is a real thing, and Amazon is already starting to capitalize on some of it. So to my shame, I missed this very obvious April fools joke. My first impulse was outrage.

“This is ridiculous!” I wrote privately to a teammate. “This is clearly just an excuse to play with something new in Amazon. The use case for this is so flimsy and there’s barely any detail.”

I took the bait. I swallowed the hook. I went full chump. Sometimes I’m amazed at how gullible I can be.

Sip. So how are you feeling today? How did your week go? And here’s a question I bet you don’t get asked a lot - when was the last time you got to titrate something? Earlier this week I got to help Marissa with a really good fish tank test. It was on Wednesday night. I had just finished riding the bike, and I stopped by my laptop to look at some code on the way back from grabbing a beer.

“Do you want to help me with something science-y?” asked Marissa. “I need to do a titration.”

There was a moment of silence while I finished typing, then I turned away from my laptop to face her. “A titration?” I laughed.

I stared at the test kit on the table. There were a few syringes, some bottles of liquid, a tiny plastic clamp, and some capsules. I had my doubts we were dealing with a real titration.

“Are you sure this is a titration? That’s like when you get the big long stem and you drip a liquid into something that changes colors,” I said.

“That what it says on the kit,” said Marissa. “Feel like figuring it out?”

The instructions had us move some fish tank water into a capsule. We added a squirt of solution A to the sample, and the water immediately turned bright pink.

2021 04 02 titration 1

“Ah, that must be the indicator,” I said. “You know, the thing that changes color when we add… solution B?”

The instructions had us fill a small syringe with solution B and fasten it to the plastic clamp. To our amazement, the clamp screwed onto the capsule.

“Why would we need to do that?” Marissa wondered aloud. A light bulb went off in my had.

“That must be so you can swirl the solution in between adding drops of B,” I said proudly. “We want to know exactly how much of B is needed to turn your tank water, plus A, a different color.”

2021 04 02 titration 2

We were both amazed at how small and efficient the test kit was. There may not have been a long glass tube with a stopcock, a flask with a magnetic stirrer, or a metal mounting frame, but it absolutely was a real titration. And the levels were in the perfect range, which made the experiment even more fun.

To help wash this braggadocious chemistry story down, I’ll give you a nice fail from last night. Marissa was trying to decide on how to price her Zoom art classes. She had a going rate for individual lessons and she settled on a price for larger 10 person classes, and she was trying to fill in the prices in-between just for a few reference points. Little did I know that she was just looking for a simple gut check, something like “yeah, that sounds fair, I think I would pay for that.” But I mistook the question for a math problem.

“Let me get a piece of paper,” I said, reaching over her at the computer. Marissa looked confused. I sat in silence over some scratch paper waiting for an epiphany, but nothing happened. I had only written y-equals-m-x-plus-b in a few different forms, then I drew a blank.

That was a low moment. I was probably still high off the fumes of helping Marissa with a real world titration the other night. I got greedy and I wanted another science moment. I hold myself this standard: if you’re going to be the guy that brings paper and pencil math into a conversation, you had better have a plan. I felt like a real tool.

But yesterday, aside from the algebra equivalent of being caught with my pants down, was a pretty good day. I had a quiet work day. Only one meeting, so I was able to spend all day thinking, writing, and planning the next phase of the intern project. Later in the afternoon, I saw an SOS in our team’s slack channel. Dakota and Fong were trying to upgrade a very old server in an obscure, internal environment. I was feeling extroverted, so I suggested a Zoom room.

“I was just going to terminate it and wait for it to come back,” said Dakota.

“Oh don’t do that,” I laughed. “It won’t come back. This one is not very fancy - we’re going to have to log into it.”

“We have to log into the server?” asked Dakota in disbelief.

“That’s right,” I nodded proudly. “Just like how you might manage your weird uncle’s Wordpress site. This is gonna be pretty old school.”

We had a great time stumbling through the upgrade together. The combination of working in a low stakes environment and watching terminal output from Fong’s computer left plenty of space for jokes and chit chat, and that was nice after such a quiet day. Fong rebooted the server a final time, then she logged in to check that all the services were running. We breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Thanks for stopping by today. Have a great Friday, everyone.