Jun 18, 2008

Hey! There Are Cockroaches in my Chocolate Ice Cream! (Part 2/4)

No, there really are no cockroaches in chocolate ice cream, but as it turns out, Dr. Schwarcz often speaks on the radio and one of his listeners misunderstood a concept about a certain food dye (now a days people would believe anything).

Dr. Schwarcz has some fascinating insight into the public's perception of science. Though not to draw any similarities between him and Carl Saigon but he is also one of those scientists whose most commendable work doesn’t happen in the laboratory but in the public sphere. They distill science to a level where its just right for the consumption by the general populous.

Though unlike Carl Saigon, where the Cosmos was his subject of interest, Dr. Schwarcz has an interest in consumer goods ranging from nutrition, medications and cosmetics to pesticides. His highly visual and entertaining presentation examined some serious as well as some frivolous experiences in dealing with the public perception of these things. The presentation also emphasized the importance of fostering critical thinking.

Sitting in this lecture was more like watching an episode of myth busters, here are a few highlights from the lecture that I found interesting:

1- sales people make a remarkably surprising claim that water filter removes the chemicals from the water and makes it pure and drinkable. For this claim, electrodes were set up in a glass of regular drinking water. Passing electricity turns the water yellow, which was due to the presence of harmful chemicals. However, filtered water formed no residue. To disprove his theory, when common salt was added to the water, the yellow residue was back. The filter removed all the minerals present in the water, reducing its conductivity. The addition of salt helped water conduct electricity to react with the electrode made of iron. The residue formed was simply ferric hydroxide, a good supplement of iron for the body. The water filter did not, by any means, purify the water but it took away the minerals present in it.

2- One of the widely selling products through Internet, the footbath, claims to remove toxins from the body. These toxins are said to be responsible for problems, like arthritis, joint pains, kidney and liver function, circulatory disorder, fatigue and irritability. In veracity, when looking at the real picture, the footbath is following the principle of electrolysis. When plugged in, the colour of water changes to yellow, by ferric hydroxide reaction, due to presence of iron electrodes. The relationship between magic and chemistry was shown by a simple demonstration. An unknown chemical was engaged in a Styrofoam cup as water was added to it. The water solidified to become artificial snow. From this demonstration the presenter wanted to prove that people jump to conclusions before analyzing the facts, representing scientific illiteracy.

3- As mentioned above, Mr. Schwarcz used to come on radio, answering peoples misconceptions regarding science. Once, he received a question on Sodium Tripolyphosphate (STPP). A lady found this chemical in her dishwasher; it was marked as hazardous. She also found the same chemical in Kraft dinner, which was used to feed her son. In order to clear this misunderstanding, Mr. Schwarcz stated that the chemical, Sodium Tripolyphosphate has many tasks. STPP is used in many cleaning agents for better cleaning. In macaroni, it is used to increase water retention capacity. The biggest misconception among people is that chemicals in food are dangerous. The word chemical is mistaken by toxin in many cases.

4- Mr. Schwarcz reports that several advertisements by companies try to fool people through the use of illogical explanations of science. One of the famous commercial is about a type of underwear, claiming to have high absorption capacity. The claim is that the underwear does so, by dissociating the water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, due to the material of the cloth.

5- Another such illogical advertisement was about Lulu lemon designer clothing showroom. This claims that the clothes are made from seaweeds that release marine amino acids, minerals and vitamins into skin upon contact with moisture. When analysed in a laboratory, no trace of any such amino acids, vitamins and minerals were found.

6- Another example given by Dr. Schwarcz relates to a cosmetic, claiming to be “made by nature, not a chemist”. This statement creates misconception amongst people regarding chemistry. Dr. Schwarcz continuously repeated the statement that all chemicals are not hazardous. Advertising companies often make proclamations without supporting it. One such statement by Lulu lemon states that pops shall be known as the cigarettes of the future. Personally, I agree with the statement. Although the effects of pop are different from cigarettes, the fact that both of them are harmful cannot be ignored.

7- Another extremely ridiculous claim made by a pipes company states that the sudden right angle turn of water molecules, when gushing through straight pipes, changes the bond angle of the water. This change kills water molecules. Therefore, the water we drink and bathe in is actually dead water. The company proclaims that pipes made by that specific company revamps the changed bond angle of water, hence, supplying “pure” water. Although the whole idea is preposterous, the most absurd issue is that people actually claim a positive change in their lives, through the products use. They assert the feelings of betterment after bathing and drinking water from that specific pipe. Dr. Schwarcz Quotes Einstein in conclusion to this example. “Only two things are infinite: universe and human stupidity, and I am not sure about the former.” This quote blew the audience in hysterics.

Jun 16, 2008

Hey! There Are Cockroaches in my Chocolate Ice Cream! (Part 1/4)

Its summer and school is over, even though there is still some time before the freshman year at U of T commences, me and my friends have decided to get a leg up on the rest of the class by attending lectures open to public at the St. George campus. I had known about this particular lecture for some time and when finally the day arrived, we all headed out to the venue using the all too convenient TTC.

University of Toronto St. George Campus offers not only one of the best education (if not the best) in Canada but it also has a rich architecture and history, not to mention its ideal location in downtown Toronto, visiting the campus is always fun, even if you are not a student here.

As the weather was dry and the leaves very colorful, the pictures we took actually came out pretty well, which is still a surprise to me. Anyway, in the auditorium we got front row balcony seats. I have always been fascinated with the theater sound system, no matter how you set up a home theater system, technology is still not good enough to miniaturize the grandeur of true theater sound.

Dr. Joseph A. Schwarcz spoke for about an hour and eight minutes on the topic of scientific illiteracy, amongst the general population; presenting well over a hundred slides (phew!).

The Dr. presented with quite a bit of humor, which made the lecture quite interesting (I would say down right entertaining). The lecture hall was pretty full, must have been the unusual title of the lecture. The name might lead one to believe that its something to do with food hygiene but as it turned out it wasn't, I guess people will pay attention if you tell them they have cockroaches in their chocolate ice cream.

To be continued...

Jun 9, 2008

finding a walkable neighborhood

its starting to get really hot here, rising mercury doesn't sit well with my already weak resolve for going out for a run around the neighborhood, the gym still seems like a much nicer place to sweat out, fuel at more them $4 a gallon is still not prohibitive for the trip to the gym, at least for those of us who have been crying wolf for sometime and have prepared for this carnage by sticking with fuel efficient vehicle like toyota prius.

Though its uncomfortably hot for a walk out in the sun, one can still enjoy a late evening stroll, but then even that might pose a few problems for those who live in the suburbs.

With memories of San Francisco still fresh in my mind, wouldn't it be great to have more safe and affordable walkable neighborhoods here in northern Virginia, the ones I know off (old Town Alexandria, Reston Town center) are still too expensive for anything even half decent, but then thats just me, there may be many hidden gems scattered around this area which are just that, but since they are more designed to be walkable (one of the things that make a neighborhood more walkable is less traffic) so I might have not come across them during my regular commute (which is often in a vehicle).

Now to address this issue of finding walkable neighborhoods somebody came up with a nice idea for a website (at least the idea is quite appealing), what it does is it gives every neighborhood a score on a scale of 1 to 100, if the area you punch in has a score less then 25 then its not a walkable neighborhood, the 'walkability' rises with the score.

you can check it out here.

Jun 3, 2008

near zero-energy house in northern virginia

its the worst of times for established home builders and the best of times for new and emerging construction companies.

My rational behind that statement? its the worst of times for established home builders as they sit on huge inventories of houses built the conventional way and the only way for them to move that inventory is to slash their prices (and hence their profits), its the best of time for new builders as they can buy land on the cheap and hop on the green building bandwagon. As long as they can deliver a product that is designed with all or some of the zero-energy mantras, they can fetch a premium for it, in many cases even if the house isn't in a desirable school district.

I have been interested in green building and zero energy houses for sometime now, a while back I came across a near zero energy house that has been built in Purcellville, Virginia. Thought about it again when I started looking for green houses (the zero-energy green) in northern Virginia, I didn't find many, Virginia legislature is in dire need to move swiftly on some green energy incentives for home builders, so that we can come shoulder to shoulder with other states that have advanced much further in that area (case in point California).

The house in Purcellville is still one of the very few well documented near zero energy houses even though it was built in 2001, its interesting because the Department of energy has also done a study on this house, you can access this report here.

The other great aspect about this project is the willingness of the owner, Alden Hathaway to share his own experience about the project which he funded himself (so he is under no obligation to share) you can checkout the Family's perspective (who lives in this house) in this youTube footage.

Department of energy finds it a good model though based on the energy usage recorded at the house, the report suggests the household would have been better off with an 8 KW solar system rather then the 6 KW system that they presently have due to their use of computers and other gadgets.

Alden Hathaway has also written a book titled "Building an Affordable Solar Home" you can download the entire book in pdf format here.