Random fact of the day

Yesterday an optometrist told me that the brain uses up as much energy processing visual images throughout the day as it takes to keep the heart pumping and our blood flowing. This was in the context of getting me to wear my glasses more, since it requires a lot more energy to make sense out of visual images that are unclear or jumbled than it does sharp ones. Filing this one in the category of “you learn something new every day…”


Sci-fi musings on a ketchup packet

cr-ketchup18-on.jpg The other day, someone told me it takes 30 gallons of water to make a single ketchup packet. Of course, I had to wonder if that’s true. On the other hand, knowing how much water it takes just to make a pound of beef, anything seems possible. If this is indeed true, I wonder if it is the ketchup or the plastic that uses all the water?

That led me to thinking (always dangerous)… what if we lived in a futuristic Blade-Runner type world, where access to information and databases was built into little chips in our eyes, with a heads-up kind of display that could identify the water, energy, petroleum, and greenhouse gas usage required to make any food item or other product just as we were considering buying it. How would this change people’s purchasing habits?

Judging by present-day Americans, lots of people just wouldn’t bother to worry about it. For those who did care, I could see it going two ways. Either the wasteful products would be shunned, causing manufacturers to clean up their act (most likely saving production costs in the process), or the wasteful products would be seen as signs of luxury and a way of flaunting one’s wealth, in which case their prices might increase. This would be especially likely if these items were taxed according to the true energy and resource use required to make them, which would become possible with the information available.

With the way the world is going, I can imagine that someday we may need to ration water, petroleum use, and emissions of greenhouse gas. In another grim sci-fi scenario, each citizen might have allotments of these environmental goods that they could spend on various products. Markets for trading of these allotments might develop, and a family might save up to splurge on something special, like a plane trip (or a steak dinner).

Though it sounds restrictive, something like this would almost be required to break us of our consumption overload and return the world to a more sustainable lifestyle. Let’s just hope people come to their senses (and information comes to the rescue) before it’s forced upon us…

Conferences and connections

Just spent the weekend at Fort Worden in Port Townsend – a vacation spot in early April it was not (frickin’ cold, actually), but rather the gathering place of our local chapter of the Society for Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. There’s something about working at home that makes these conferences and even project meetings a lot more fun than they would otherwise be – a chance to reconnect with my colleagues and be social, as well as the work benefits they provide.

I like our local chapter meetings – there’s something about them that’s very different from the national conferences. Aside from being small and knowing 2/3 of the people there, the work being reported on seems much more relevant to what I need to know and much more generally synergistic among presenters and researchers.

Then there’s the casual factor – people feel comfortable saying what they really think, even it if goes against the mainstream – and admitting they have no idea yet what their data mean but knowing that people at the conference are interested enough in it to work on it and think about it with them. Not to mention the barbecues on the beach, drinking wine someone’s making on the side, dancing to someone’s after-hours band, and the tipsy half-science, half-philosophy conversations late into the night. :)

This year I had the great honor of being dragged over to a group of students by a professor I’ve always admired and being introduced as the person who changed his way of teaching by the types of questions I was always asking :D And I found myself spending a lot more time talking to students this year than usual, which was quite enjoyable.

Lastly there’s the undeniable work benefits it provides – the networking among contractors and clients, the chance to do budget and project planning at odd moments, communicate with people that are usually in other states – and even once in a while, as happened this year, meet someone new and interesting – personally and professionally.

All in all, a good weekend. Now, back to work…

Arrogance and defoliants

I’ll have to think of something upbeat to write after this post ;) But I was so depressed and quietly outraged by this that I just had to say something (you can skip it if you want to!).

I was reading an article in Science last night about Agent Orange, and medical studies they’re doing to evaluate the effects of dioxins on GIs and Vietnamese populations that were exposed, along with their children and grandchildren. This is something we’re all familiar with, but as I was reading the article something else really struck me. At the time, of course, they didn’t know that Agent Orange contained dioxins, so none of this was foreseeable. But… then I realized what exactly we were doing with it. It was some statistics reported in the article that really drew my attention to the things that no-one ever talks about.


We sprayed 10% of another country with a defoliant. Ten percent! Just so we could see our enemies better. This is a country where the vast majority of the population depends on agriculture to survive. 20,000 villages were directly sprayed, along with their fields and water supplies. With an herbicide. That’s 5 million people, directly sprayed, living in those villages. What did they live on after that, when everything around them withered away? What could they eat or drink, that wouldn’t be poisoned? What were we thinking?

The arrogance and inhumanity of this is breathtaking. No amount of soldiers saved from enemy fire could be worth that much disruption of native farming and village life. Just as we’ve seen in Iraq, the number of innocent people killed and affected in the countries we invade just doesn’t count compared to our own soldiers, in the eyes of the military and American people.

And there’s also some inner part of me that is just outraged about the forests, jungle, and river systems destroyed, defoliated, poisoned. All the birds, fish, plants, that special life killed in the name of war. It makes me wonder what these ecosystems look like now. Have they recovered? Will they ever recover? How did the birds and animals fare, when sprayed by herbicides and dioxins? Does anyone care? I’ve never, ever seen this even mentioned.

It makes me wonder if we would do this today. Almost immediately some inner voice pipes up and says, of course we would. Look at Iraq – absolutely trashed. Sure it’s not all our doing, but enough of it is. How long did it take before the Iraqi casualties began to be reported and debated alongside our own? How much infrastructure is nonfunctional, how many irreplaceable archaeological sites destroyed, how many millions lost their homes? How can anyone think this is worth it?

Sign me… baffled.


I was just reading in the paper about how we have become much more severe procrastinators than we used to be. This certainly fits with my sense of how big a problem it has gotten to be in my life. But it’s not just a general sense – several large studies in the US and Europe have documented how much worse the problem has gotten in the last 10 or 20 years. By far the biggest contributor is the much greater prevalence of distractions in our lives.

It seems that collectively, we have little will power. The best way to avoid procrastination is to avoid distractions that would allow us to procrastinate. Unfortunately, not only are more distractions available, many of them are required tools provided at work to make us more productive (!) – computers, hand-helds, cell phones, faxes, instant messaging, not to mention the other stuff – televisions, latte stands, gameboys, etc.

Some of the study authors estimated that if people just turned off the little bell that announces e-mail messages in our in-box, we’d save hours per day. We’re like little Pavlovian dogs that just can’t help seeing what new e-mail has arrived – which may lead us to check something out on the Internet, make a phone call, type a response, look something up – anything but do what we were originally doing. Oh, and maybe we’ll check out the… erm, blog entries… that have come in in the meantime, just because.

I admit I use it as a kind of reward. I’m reading or writing something for work, and I’ll finish a chapter, then read whatever e-mail has come in and lead wherever it goes if I feel like it. Then it’s back to my work and the next chapter. Of course, I’d get a lot more done if I’d take my laptop downstairs (with the e-mail off) and do it there. Somehow if you save an hour for e-mail before work and an hour after work, it goes a lot faster. Wonder what’s up with that? Probably because you’re not trying to (consciously or unconsciously) avoid work by spending more time on whatever else comes in.

It gets really bad when this habit is so ingrained that even removing ourselves from the e-mail, turning off the blackberry, etc. doesn’t do the trick. I go downstairs with my laptop and I still need that reward between chapters. Well look – there’s games on my desktop!! How convenient – just a hand or two of Hearts, that’ll do the trick. The study authors saved their particular ire for Minesweeper, which has probably caused decades of man-years to be lost from work.

Hmm… and here I am, blogging away instead of writing the latest chapter of my new book. !!!

Talking while Eating

I’ve never been able to manage talking and eating at the same time… I don’t mean talking with your mouth full, but just the basics of holding a conversation over a nice meal. I often find myself unexpectedly choking on my food, to the point where both I and my friends who know me well enough start laughing, rather than the possibly more appropriate concerned response. I’ve often wondered if I have some strange problem, like the little valve at the back doesn’t close right, or something.

Today I was reading an interesting article about the evolution of speech from chimps (who are vocal to some extent) to humans. It turns out there are three parts to this – physical changes to the mouth, expansion of the brain to hold more vocabulary, and development of the ability to put the words you know together in an infinite variety of ways. Concerning the first of these, the article states, “Changes to the position and shape of our tongue have enhanced our vocal communication by enabling us to generate more distinct vocal sounds that reduce ambiguity… Because these changes also increase the risk of choking on our food, the communicative advantages must outweigh the potential costs.” Aha! So I’m just a product of evolution in action :) Science 314:926.

Another interesting tidbit from the article, “One obvious benefit [of faster human speech] is that rapid communication reduces the demands on working memory – preventing us from forgetting the beginning of a sentence before hearing its end.” I don’t think I even need to comment on that one :D

Books of the week

I love books… I’m usually reading several a week, so I though it might occasionally be fun to review what’s been on the bedside table this week :)

feynman.jpg Perfectly Reasonable Deviations (From the Beaten Track) – This is another one of those books about Richard Feynman that I can’t seem to get enough of. He was a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist who was also one of my professors at Caltech. I think I enjoy reading these books so much because he was such an interesting man, with a creative, sexy, and engaging mind, and when I was there he was in his last few years and was already suffering from intestinal cancer. Nevertheless, I was able to get to know him a little, enjoy a few of his lectures, and performed in at least one musical with him (playing the bongo drums, of course). This book compiles his letters over the years, and he was such a character that his personality and force shines through the letters. It’s a bit long, but quite a fascinating account of the world and its changes throughout the era when he was working on the atomic bomb, teaching at various institutions, winning the Nobel Prize, protesting cold war politics as it affected science particularly, and serving on the Challenger review committee. A+ (if you enjoy such things).

marriage.jpg The Marriage Diaries – This one I read in an afternoon when I was starved for some time to just read. The story revolves around a married couple who have more or less lost the thread that binds them and are beginning to realize it. For various reasons, they both begin to journal, and the book is entirely composed of journal entries. For a while, the wife is reading the husband’s journal on their computer network, and realizes he’s close to having an affair – though she never gets to find out if he actually does it, as he changes operating systems and passwords just at the crucial moment. She ends up having a brief affair more or less pre-emptively, and comes to regret it. I won’t say what happens in the end, except that it involves mermaids :D B – entertaining for an afternoon.

candy.jpg Strange Candy – This is a book of short stories by Laurell K. Hamilton. I’m pretty into her Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series :) so I thought this would be interesting to pick up. She writes possibly the most erotic fiction I’ve ever encountered in print, and has an interesting noir take on a world where vampires, shapeshifters, and necromancers are legally protected classes but only just barely tolerated in society. The short stories include a few set in that world, but also some excellent fantasy work set in worlds from her earlier days of writing. I am only half-way through the book, so who knows what interesting new facets will reveal themselves. Strange candy indeed – reads like dark chocolate with a hint of espresso and orange peel. A for originality and a fine writing technique.