We’ve got COOL, now let’s get … TAMS?

As of today, the new COOL (Country-of-Origin Labeling) law goes into effect.  Basically this means that any fresh produce sold in the US must have a label declaring what country it’s from.  The government is giving growers until spring before beginning to fine them, but you should at least begin to see the new labels at stores.  More details about the law and its implementation can be found here.

And that’s great.  I think it will promote consumer awareness and help alleviate some of the worries of food scares and give us a little more information about where our products come from.  But I want more.  I was thinking that I want to know when my organic radishes are from the farmer two miles away and when they’re from Texas.  I want to know where my veggies have been shipped before they came to me, and where they might have stopped in transit, and how long it took them to come.  Ripeness is an issue.  Health is an issue.  Environmental impact is an issue.  I want to track that.

I propose the Tracking and Management System.  I want to know where my stuff went, where it came from – including a little blurb about the farmer – and how long it took to get there.  I want to know details of its shipment, including how far it travelled and at what environmental cost.  Lastly, I want to know the conditions of its transport – was it sent in a refrigerated box?  Was it overheated?  Unintentionally frozen?  I know they’re doing this sort of tracking now with wine, and I know for more commodity items, it’s probably less fiscally feasible.  But still, I want it – and I think it’s something other consumers, even at a more speciality store level which would provide this kind of information, would want it.

Amazing, miraculous discoveries!

Ok, so the little Phoenix lander, which is now on Mars, it turning up some pretty interesting stuff.  First off, while there’s been past contention of water on the planet, proof has been scarce.  Now we have confirmed ice, confirmed previous groundwater, and confirmed snow.  I’m not sure exactly about the ‘groundwater’ comment, there were just remarks about calcium carbonate and sheet silicate in the soil, which evidently are ‘known to be formed in liquid water’.  To me that says groundwater, but I’m no scientist.  Regardless, snow actually falling on Mars is pretty cool, especially considering the dry, dusty image I have of the place.  Not quite winter wonderland.

Of course, science is quick to deny any proof of anything.  Some examples:

Soil experiments revealed the presence of two minerals known to be formed in liquid water. Scientists identified the minerals as calcium carbonate, found in limestone and chalk, and sheet silicate.  But exactly how that happened remains a mystery.  “It’s really kind of all up in the air,” said William Boynton, a mission scientist at the University of Arizona at Tucson.

Hm.  I still say groundwater.  Or maybe wild hail formed around a rock, melted, and making all sorts of chemicals, before it hits the ground again.

Or this one:

A laser aboard the Phoenix recently detected snow falling from clouds more than two miles above its home in the northern arctic plains. The snow disappeared before reaching the ground.

Really?  The snow dissappeared?!?!?! That’s freaky.  Seriously.  No snow, ya know?  In this ‘frigid and dry’ environment, what could’ve happened to it, since it never hit the ground?  Hm….

I remain convinced of the coolness of these potential discoveries.  Almost as good as new test ovens.  Yum.

‘We really like puzzling’? That’s puzzling.

I’m not opposed to the occasional jigsaw or even three dimensional puzzle.  I like mind games, and seeing how all the tiny pieces of something fit together is, in and of itself, interesting.  Ravensburger (a major puzzle brand name) is a name well-known to me.  I even like the puzzles with 1000+ pieces,  which are often quite time consuming.  However, I don’t necessarily think a bigger puzzle is better.

Ravensbuger evidently does.  In order to celebrate their 125th anniversary of operation in that town, they’ve created the biggest puzzle in the world in the town square.  The puzzle is 1,141,800 pieces big and nearly covers the square, and was created in five hours from an assemblage of smaller (252-piece) pre-assembled puzzles. About 15,000 people contributed and participated.  Great publicity stunt, and probably a fun thing to participate in.  Still, I wish there was more.

Why did the thing have to be made out of smaller puzzles?  What’s wrong with a town square-sized giant puzzle with one pattern?  Sure, it would take considerably longer to assemble, but so what?  Think of what an awesome public park installation that would be – giant puzzle.  Hey, you may have to carry this tiny piece over a yard-square area to find where it fits, but so what?  Think of it as both mind and body exercise.

Now I just have to figure out logistically how to make this thing and where to put it…

User maat Re, Setep en Re

The title of this post is the throne name of Ramses II, variously known as Ramses the Great, Ozymandius, and the ‘Great Ancestor’.  He was one of the most powerful and well-known pharaohs to ever have lived, both today and during his own time.  The throne name itself is cited by Wikipedia as meaning “The justice of Re is powerful, chosen of Re”, but there’s something a little funky in the translation there.  I couldn’t find a better on online, but I think it’s closer to ‘Ra’s powerful law (as in the strong arm of the law), beloved of Ra’.

So why is this mummy man still important?  Well, there is his undeniable on our own culture.  There’s Shelley’s poem.  There’s the fact that this may or may not have been the Pharaoh of Exodus.  There’s his deliberate defacement of the monuments and records of the Amarna period, when women ruled as king (Hatshepsut) and monotheism threatened to dominate the country (Akhenaten and Nefertiti).  He’s the one who built a large number of the monuments that characterize our knowledge of his own day, as well as the chronologies and events of Ancient Egypt.  He re-expended the boundaries of Egypt in a number of decisive battles, and may or may not have won against the Hittites.  Even today, we are uncovering remains of what he built.

While I have no personal desire to be a pharaoh myself, or to burden the future with my own skewed version of the past, or to get upwards of a hundred children, still there is something appealing about the man.  Perhaps only as a product of his culture, he was ruthless.  But also as a product of that culture, he was a patron.  He built more buildings in Egypt (temples, palaces, monuments) than any other pharaoh.  In the sheer length of his life (he lived to be about 90), he was a living legend – Egyptians, almost all of which had been born during his reign, thought the world would end without him.  I wish my life could also inspire that sense of living magic, that monumental outpouring of culture.

Leave it at work.

When you wake up early on a Saturday morning because a mobile device from your work is going off, you work too much.  If you think that checking a work email eveneings and weekends is ‘normal’ or ‘a part of your job’, you work too much.  If your work cell phone rings when you’re on vacation in the middle of the Sahara, you work too much.

The internet is a wonderful tool.  Blackberrys are wonderful tools.  Remote access to the workplace is a wonderful tool.  All of these great tools make us more effective at doing our jobs.  They give us ease, and speed, which is as it should be.  They should not become excuses for allowing your job to take over your life.

In a recent survey, almost half the respondents said mobile technologies make it harder to disconnect from work when they are supposed to be off.  46% said they increase the amount of time they are expected to work.  That’s unacceptable.  If a company requires someone to be available day and night, you hire multiple shifts of workers.  If there’s an situation that requires someone to be in touch in addition to typical work hours, the word is ‘overtime’.  You don’t expect mobile technologies to raise the amount of hours someone works, whether inside or outside the office.

In an emergency, a company might need to contact an individual during vacation or when they are off the clock.  But when that contact becomes habit, and occurs daily or even weekly, that’s a breech of the employment agreement.  We have labor laws for a reason.  If you’re off the clock, either stay off the clock or demand from your employer what you legally deserve.

Let’s just give people money…

Ok, Google is pretty cool.  And, they have a sense of humor (unlike Kia).  But the recently announced Project 10^100th is beyond awesome.  Have a good idea?  Lack the technical expertise to implement it?  We’ll give you money to get the job done and hook you up with the appropriate know-how (we are, after all, a search engine).

I, for one, have about a thousand ideas I need to dust off, spruce up, and submit.  I’m not going to list them all here, because then you’d steal them and win the prizes for yourself.  But, that being said, the spirit of this whole competition is about doing good stuff for the world.  So, if you have your own ideas, please submit them here.  The due date for project submission is October 20th, so get cracking.  And if you do end up working on a project of ultimate coolness as a result, remember the humble blogger who sent you on your way to funding.  Heck, I’d even volunteer for a project of ultimate coolness…

The narrow-gauge shotgun house.

Back in the day, when industry was becoming big in this country, the shotgun house was one type of dwelling erected to provide housing in the city for a great influx of workers no longer tied to the land.  There are several theories about where the name came from, the most popular being that by opening all the doors you could fire clean through the house without hitting any walls.  The homes were narrow and long, with any divided rooms opening off in a single direction from the main portion of the house.  As wealth increased, such houses were modified, either upwards or sideways, to reflect that increase.

Today, especially in rapidly developing areas where business expansion is outpacing home building and ownership, there is a new need for such a house type.  One possible solution is being put forward by PFNC Global Communities, which is using traditional shipping containers as the structural basis for its housing.  Since the containers themselves are built to be stacked, the resulting units are highly modular, but are also customizable enough to allow for non-stacking configurations.  In addition, these modular homes are meant to be a stepping-stone for those who use them from insecure makeshift dwellings, to the new shotgun, to something more spacious and private, which I think sounds great.

So what makes these new units different from older shotgun-style housing?

Width: Traditional shotgun housing is about 12 feet wide.  These newer models are only 8 feet in width, or about 3/4 the size.

Mobility: The newer housing is highly transportable, unlike more traditional shotgun houses which are built to remain on site.

Open Plan: Traditional shotgun houses were divided into separate rooms moving from public to private, usually in the form of a living room, bedroom, and kitchen at the back.  This inevitably leads to people traipsing through the private bedroom space if they come to visit.  The newer models have walls only surrounding the bathroom.  The kitchen/living area has been combined into a single space without dividing walls, unifying all public space towards the front of the house.  The ‘master’ bedroom is on the other side of the bathroom to give some privacy.  In certain configurations the front public area can also accomadate bunk beds for children.

Fenestration: In the new modular units, only the front and back walls can give window or door access for those units in the middle of a ‘block’.  This has the negative impact of not allowing cross breezes to enter and cool those units, but some heat protection should be given by the buffer of surround units.  More traditional shotgun houses were detached or semi-detached, allowing for windows in all four walls.

It’s an interesting idea, and very modern, to convert already existing manufactured items into something new.  Let’s hope it works across a diverse population.

Tree herders and Freckles

When I was a kid, I wanted to be hired to walk around in someone’s timber land all day, just like Freckles.  I grew up with Gene Stratton Porter’s books, and to this day, Girl of the Limberlost remains a comfort book for me.  I think about Limber’s ghost wandering the swamps, vague and misty and calling, every evening at twilight.  I think about old, creaking trees, moss-strewn and beautiful, and the wings of soft, furry moths hidden in grooves of bark.  I think about Ents, and the slowness of time, and the rushing tickle of tree sap in spring and fall.

It seems that the trees will soon begin to manage themselves, or at least be fitted out with the equipment to do so.  MIT is working on sensors that will be powered by the trees themselves, using the difference in charge between a tree’s sap and the soil as the sole energy source, slowly building charge at a tree’s natural pace.  There’s something almost magical about the idea, the soft flow of energy in a tree in the form of sap and, in turn, flowing outward to sensors that help protect those same trees from forest fires by detecting and reporting on them.  Eventually the sensors could be used to collect climate data or monitor ‘remote borders’, just like the old forest-walkers like Freckles did.  I would imagine the sensors and batteries could eventually be used in commercial forests and timber land as well, to track the age, health, and general characteristics of a tree to aid in logging.  Another few steps and the trees will just keel over and split into portable chunks at the appropriate time.

On a side note, I love that this tree technology is considered news by the BBC, but not by US news services, even though the tech is being developed here.  Go us.

Stonehenge and the hail cannon.

The word ‘lunatic’ comes from a Latin association with the word ‘luna’, which means moon.  There is some evidence that the word comes from early experience with those who had mental illnesses like bipolar disorder that moved in cycles, similar to the phases of the moon.  But in common usage today, a loony could be anyone outside the ‘normal’ order of things, often including those who make decisions outside of hard science.  Here I’m talking about all the advocates of alternative medicine, alternative farming practices, and even methods of changing the weather (think orgone).

I’m not saying that any particular practice or beleif is, in fact, crazy.  Personally I think many of these alternative practices has some basis in fact, though I reserve judgement on any particular practice until I can ‘see it for myself’.  After all, belief in a cure has been proven to change the course of a person’s illness.  Instead I am drawn to the idea that the popularity of such alternatives is itself cyclical in nature.

Take, for example, a farmer’s recent use of a ‘hail cannon‘, a device which he believes to break up hail through noise within a certain area.  Similar devices using a loud noise such as a cannon or bell to ‘disrupt’ hail formation have been in use at various times, but are currently seeing a marked resurgence.  Is this merely evidence of new weather patterns and more farmers taking drastic measures to avoid damages?  Or is it one of those things that must cycle in popularity?

Another example is seen in recent research into Stonehenge which reveals at least one purpose for the ancient site as a healing center.  Evidently one of the inner rings of stones is a rock called spotted dolomite, which the new study is saying was believed to have healing properties, making the site one of pilgrimage for those who were very ill.  The condition of those buried at Stonehenge seems to support this conclusion, though it remains unclear just exactly how the stones were thought to ‘heal’ the sick.  Currently, dolomite is sometimes used as a dietary supplement to improve health due to its high concentrations of both calcium and magnesium.  Since Stonehenge has been dated to at least 2500 BC in previous studies, making this one of the oldest resurgences in popular health belief that I know of.

So, what does this all mean?  Are these alternatives something we will eventually discard, once and for all, when medicine can treat all of our ailments?  Will we rely only on 100% proven methods to protect our crops and discourage inclement weather?  Will there always be something we can’t quite control, leaving a niche for alternative solutions?  I should hope so.  A new moon and a dark sky all the time does not appeal to me.

We don’t know what it is, but it sure is something.

I am extremely interested in the ways in which modern science cannot tell us about our past.  Take, for example, a recent boat wreck rediscovery off the coast of Alabama.  The wreck has so far been identified as either the Rachel (wrecked in 1933) or the Monticello (wrecked during the Civil War).  Of course, further study may reveal more possibilities for identification.  The wreck was originally half-buried in sand off the coast and was then (or this is my understanding from the poor wording ofthe article, but that’s another story) thrown further on shore by recent storm systems.

Now, both boats were schooners that did wreck in that general area at about the appropriate time.  So the shape of the ships themselves would probably be somewhat similar.  Still, there are small things that would probably lead to the identification of one boat or the other.  One expert mentions steel cables, which the wreck may or may not have, as possible only for the later ship.  Also there should be some apparent burning on the Civil-War era boat, which supposedly was burning as it ran aground.  Still, Museum of Mobile marine archaeologist Shea McLean says “You can never be 100 percent certain unless you find the bell with ‘Monticello’ on it, but this definitely fits.” Ok.  How about reasonably sure?  How about even more than half sure?  Do I hear 55%?

I can understand some hesitation on the part of the experts to make faulty claims when they have not yet had a real opportunity to understand and investigate the wreckage, so I’m perfectly hapy to wait for some real results.  I also agree that the wreck should be moved and protected as quickly as possible, especially after one strom flung it right up on shore from being half-buried.  Still, the idea of another storm sending the wreck flying “through those houses there like a bowling ball” amuses me.  But I’ll leave the current shipwreck flying jargon in the hands of the experts.

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