Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Boy, I feel old...

Check out this funny BBC News Magazine article. Makes me feel old... A 13-year-old boy exchanges his iPod for a Sony Walkman portable cassette player for a week. Here are some choice quotes:
  • My dad had told me it was the iPod of its day.
  • When I wore it walking down the street or going into shops, I got strange looks, a mixture of surprise and curiosity, that made me a little embarrassed.
  • It took me three days to figure out that there was another side to the tape. That was not the only naive mistake that I made; I mistook the metal/normal switch on the Walkman for a genre-specific equaliser, but later I discovered that it was in fact used to switch between two different types of cassette.
  • Another notable feature that the iPod has and the Walkman doesn't is "shuffle", where the player selects random tracks to play. Its a function that, on the face of it, the Walkman lacks. But I managed to create an impromptu shuffle feature simply by holding down "rewind" and releasing it randomly - effective, if a little laboured.
I had a Walkman back in the day. But I'm not that old!!! I wonder what Jessie will think of all of today's cool high tech stuff when she grows up?

Monday, June 29, 2009

Chemtastic Designs: Recycle Failed Experiments

I just posted a new design at Chemtastic Designs, my chemistry geek-themed store, featuring nerdy T-shirts, onesies, and more. This one is called "Recycle Failed Experiments" because... you never know -- you might make some interesting discoveries from your failures. It's a good idea to revisit failed experiments, unless you're sure you've made pure crap.

I've been rather annoyed by the recent changes at Cafepress.com, where my store is hosted. It seems like they've found a way to take away significant profits from the storekeepers while simultaneously increasing their own. Surprise, surprise. Apparently, I'm not the only one who's noticed. Read this blog post. It covers everything I want to say about the changes at Cafepress. Hello, Zazzle.com!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Tap Water -- A Matter of Taste

I've always wondered about the quality of our tap water. People say our city's is pretty good even though it tastes awful. When we first moved here, we drank bottled water exclusively, but then decided it was more environmentally friendly to drink filtered tap water. Besides, there's no good regulation over the quality of bottled water...

Earlier this spring, I noticed that our tap water had suddenly acquired a kind of musty taste and odor to it. It stayed that way for a couple of weeks, and even though we filtered our water with a Brita carbon filter, the taste remained even after filtering with a brand new filter cartridge. After doing some research, I found out that our city gets its water from a nearby lake, and apparently, algal blooms can cause this type of taste/odor in the water. Though the algae can be removed from drinking water, the chemical compounds they produce cannot be removed completely. Two of these compounds are geosmin and 2-methylisoborneol which both have strong odors. Unfortunately, our senses of taste and smell are extremely sensitive to these compounds, and we can detect them at concentrations as low as 5 ppt. Too bad for me, I have a pretty sensitive nose (and taste buds) -- in the lab, I used to be like the canary in a coal mine. :)

Thankfully, the nasty taste and smell are gone now. It might be neat to go check out the lake sometime.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Synthetic Trees for Carbon Sequestration

I came across a cool article about carbon sequestration. Geophysics professor Klaus Lackner from Columbia University has developed a synthetic tree that can capture carbon 1,000 faster than an actual tree -- that's 1 ton of carbon dioxide per day. That's equivalent to the emissions produced by 20 cars. Unfortunately, these trees cost $30,000 to make, and according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, in order to offset the emissions from the 135,932,930 cars on the road in the U.S., we would need 6.8 million of these trees! Undaunted, Lackner says he will have a prototype ready in 3 years.

How does it work? Well, it doesn't need sunlight or water, it simply collects carbon dioxide on a sorbent material, and then cleans and compresses the gas into liquid form, which can then be used to produce fuels and fertilizers.

So far, this is the best carbon sequestration solution I've come across... Let's hope it happens.

I Buy Organic...But Only for Jessie

If money were no object, I would probably buy (mostly) organic. Unfortunately, organic food choices around here are somewhat limited and expensive. I really wish they would open a Whole Foods or something. Anyway, the only person in the family who gets to eat organic is our lucky little girl. Even then, I'm selective about what I buy that's organic. My main reason to buy organic is to reduce exposure to pesticides and growth hormones. Not everything is highly contaminated. It's worth paying attention to the "Dirty Dozen" list of foods to buy organic though. Fruits and vegetables that typically contain higher levels of pesticide residues include: apples, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, raspberries, strawberries, bell peppers, celery, potatoes, spinach. It's probably also a good idea to buy organic milk, chicken, and beef. Produce that doesn't contain significant pesticide levels include: bananas, kiwi, mangoes, papaya, pineapples, asparagus, avocado, broccoli, cauliflower, corn, onions, peas. Here's a full list of produce that have been ranked according to their pesticide content. As a general rule, it's a good idea to eat a varied diet and to buy what's in season.

I've also wondered how sustainable organic farming is... By sustainable, I mean, is it possible to feed the entire planet's population -- there are still starving populations around the world -- if all our food were grown organically. Here's an interesting Mother Jones article about sustainable agriculture.

One last thing. Some people have told me that organic food tastes better than conventionally grown food. I have tasted some of the organic stuff I've bought for Jessie, and yes, I definitely taste a difference, but I'm not sure I'd say that the taste is better. :)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

What's in Your Bread?

I've been looking more carefully at the ingredients in the products I buy... A while ago, I discovered that they use things like "azodicarbonamide" in bread, especially at fast food chains, and generally in cheaper bread. I've even seen bread that was marketed as "Natural" but that had azodicarbonamide listed as one of the ingredients. Huh?! You can make wonderful bread with just flour, yeast, water, and salt. I can understand adding things like calcium propionate as a preservative to give bread a longer shelf-life, but the use of azodicarbonamide seems unnecessary and unhealthy.

Read the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for azodicarbonamide here. According to the MSDS, the chemical can cause an allergic respiratory reaction. Apparently, azodicarbonamide is used as a substitute for potassium bromate (toxic!! potential carcinogen) to improve the quality of flour. It bleaches flour by oxidizing carotene and increases flour strength by oxidizing cysteine to promote gas retention in the dough (fluffy bread?) and improve the elasticity of bakery products. Theoretically, once it has reacted with flour, it is converted to biurea, which is stable under baking conditions, and there shouldn't be any azodicarbonamide left in the bread after baking. My question is, if it's not in the bread anymore, why is it listed as an ingredient?? What's somewhat disturbing is that the chemical is banned as a food additive in Australia and Europe...which means there's probably a good reason to avoid bread that is baked using it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Curious Toddler and Adhesives

Jessie, aged 14 months, is a curious little monkey. Looking at things isn't good enough. She has to touch them too. Even before she discovered the kitchen cabinets, we had put locks on most of them, but there were some that had no good way of being locked. Enter the Safety 1st Adjustable Multi-Purpose Strap. Now, it's a good idea in theory, and I was excited to have found a way to secure the cabinet doors, but I was a bit skeptical about how well the straps would hold up -- since they were secured with adhesives. Well, I was right, they don't hold up. Grrr. Now I'm considering using Gorilla Glue or some other strong glue to keep them from coming off. Ironically, it's the side that sticks to the plastic lock piece that's delaminating and not the side that sticks to our wooden cabinet doors. The company should seriously think about improving their crap product.

TIP: Have you ever had to deal with stickers that just won't come off cleanly from beautiful things that you just bought at the store? Try using Vaseline (petroleum jelly) to dissolve the adhesive and then wipe it off with a paper towel. It might take a couple of tries, but the adhesive does eventually come off. Adhesives are often low molecular weight polymers that should dissolve in petroleum jelly, which is composed of a mixture of saturated hydrocarbons.