Idea a Day #2

People tend to put a bunch of stuff in their refrigerator that doesn't belong there and vise versa. Bananas turn black when left in the fridge, apples get too cold and get mushy if left to warm once taken out, etc. Eating well can be difficult as is so I'm always looking for ways to help myself make better decisions without requiring additional use of willpower (known as nudging). Hence, the need for a fruit fridge the main attributes of which would be:
  • Contents are visible from the outside and lighting is flattering to said objects. Hence a glass front. A triple glazed argon or krypton gas filled window would do the trick. The function of this is to make the contents more appealing. Presentation of both the contents and the interior of the fridge should have significant influence on your likelihood to eat fruit.
  • The temperature of this refrigerator would most likely be higher than your standard fridge which are usually set at about 34 degrees. Luckily this has been researched heavily. Humidity should be studied too.
  • Maybe there are separate sealed compartments for different fruits and there's an ethylene gas filter that keeps fruit from ripening - or the reverse. Say you want avocados to ripen quicker so you put them with ripe apples (and this is all figured out in an algorithm that you merely have to press a button to get near ideal settings) in one compartment.
It'd be interesting to design a few dozen prototypes then run a double blind study and see if it did in fact effect participants consumption of fruit. You could take what you learned and tweak the design to try to maximize the influence it had.

I'm aware this would add yet another device to the kitchen. As an alternative maybe this could just be a shallow compartment within the door of a standard fridge. An operable window to the outside could serve much of the function as what was mentioned above.

Making Mead - Batch #1

I'm jumping the gun a bit here since I haven't posted photos of how Vija and I harvested honey from our beehive, but none the less.

About two weeks ago I picked up a book called The Complete Meadmaker along with some additional brew equipment since my friend Chris had given me some as a gift. Just to clarify, mead is basically honey wine. It was the preferred drink of the vikings and is thought to be one of if not the oldest fermented beverage on earth. People have been making it for at least 9,000 years.

I decided on two 1-gallon batches of traditional sweet mead. I opted for a method that involves no heating. It can be risky in that wild yeast could take over the fermentation, but 80% of brewing beer/mead is sterilizing everything, so it shouldn't be a problem.

The ingredients are:
3 or 2.2 pounds of honey - in this case south side of Chicago unpasteurized wildflower
1/2 pouch of Wyeast Sweet Mead yeast
1/2 gram of Wyeast yeast nutrient
Filtered water to fill up the rest of the 1 gallon carboy

The only equipment needed was a few 1 gallon glass carboys; a hydrometer; a hydrometer beaker; some airlocks and rubber stoppers, and eventually I'll need a siphon hose; capper/corker; caps/corks; etc.

Obviously I'm running it as a bit of an experiment. The IV is the amount of honey added. One batch got 3 pounds of honey while the other got 2.2 pounds. The idea is that, according to the book, every 0.2 lbs. honey/gal of must (that's the honey water mixture that ferments into mean) you get roughly 1% ABV (alcohol by volume).

The water honey mix.

Mixing and aeration is supposedly key to the initial steps of fermentation.

A hydrometer tells you how dense your must is. 1.000 is water. If something has a specific gravity (SG) of 1.11 as in this case then it is 11% heavier than water. Water being 8.33 lbs/gallon that makes this about 9.25 lbs/gallon. When it's done fermenting it should have a SG reading of around 1.0 again. They should finish in the 10-15% ABV range; I'm not very experienced so we'll see. Sweet meads tend to be less alcoholic

This is the fermenting must two weeks in. The one on the left is the 3 lbs and the right is the 2.2 lbs. The fermentation took about 48 hours to really pick up and the airlocks on top have been busy ever since giving off CO2.


Denmark, Germany, and Europe in general is betting on a more pedestrian centric city by making it harder more expensive to own cars. It's a little hard to imagine if you haven't been there but the US is going the opposite direction which I think over time will prove to be the wrong decision.

I'm not a big fan of articles about how college is or is not worth the cost and time. It clearly is with some caveats. This article from the NYT does a great job of breaking it down. To put things into perspective:
[C]ollege tuition in recent decades has delivered an inflation-adjusted annual return of more than 15 percent. For stocks, the historical return is 7 percent. For real estate, it’s less than 1 percent.
Someone finally puts solar panels into window assemblies. (Hat tip: Hass)

Food label 1 & 2 design seems to be getting a lot of press lately. Problem - if I walked around the street right now and asked people very basic but entirely relevant questions about food labels/general nutritional knowledge most people, as in 80-90%, would utterly fail. Until people can somehow understand that there are three major sources of nutrition (carbohydrates/sugars/saccharides, fat/lipids, protein/amino acids) what does it matter if you show how many grams of fiber are in something? Conversely, when I visited Google in Palo Alto they have a simple and effective system. Everything gets a color: red is unhealthy, yellow is in between, and green in healthy. In a society where people think that lower taxes decreases debt levels I think that's more the level we need to be shooting for.

Visit a Tomato Farm in Florida

During the winter holidays I visited the tomato farm where my uncle works. It's in southern Florida near Naples/Ave Maria. If I remember right it's roughly 10 square miles of land.

The plants are grown in very sandy and level fields surrounded by drainage canals. Some fields are drip irrigated and others are flooded.The soil is ploughed into raised beds and fertilized at the same time. Then they're covered in a plastic wrap to keep the fertilizer in and so they don't erode. Stakes are driven in and string is strung between them for the vines to grow on. Finally seedlings are placed and take about 2-3 months before they bear fruit. Each plant can be picked three times but each successive picking yields lower quality tomatoes.

When the alligators in the surrounding canals get to about 6'-7', such as this one is, they're "harvested." They were surprisingly skittish.

This reflective film is supposed to keep away bugs. The view literally went on for miles.

All the farm heads keep a private garden on the outskirts that are planted with cabbage, peppers, bell peppers, cilantro, etc. Everything grows at a greatly accelerated rate here because it's essentially a semi-hydroponic system powered by Florida sun.

This station filters and adds nutrients to the water. A computer does all the work and keeps tabs on everything. They know down to the penny how much of each fertilizer they're putting in every acre. Every aspect of the site is like a long term experiment.

There's also an uneasily fanatic drive towards cleanliness. Every day all the buckets are rinsed in a mild chlorine solution. Any plant that a bird defecates on is marked and anything within a 5' radius cannot be picked... it's some sort of regulation. I wonder if the scared public/lawmakers realizes that bird poo is fertilizer?

This is my uncle's solar powered shipping container tool shed/man cave.

Workers use a pneumatic air gun to press wooden stakes into the raised beds - all day long.

I felt kind of weird pointing my camera at people that I didn't even talk to. This machine is ploughing the raised beds and adding (I believe) the P value of the fertilizer (which always consists of a N-P-K mix).

The beds have to be covered quickly with plastic because the fertilizer is gaseous.

Drip irrigation costs more but yields are higher per acre as compared to flooding which requires big drainage canals every so often. Again, they can quote the cost of all this stuff per acre down to pennies and give you a back of the napkin cost benefit of plant variety, season, area of the farm, and what course of action should be taken - it's fascinating in the way that watching anyone who's good at what they do is always interesting.

Sand hill cranes. They're huge! Those are people size.

They allow a bee keeper to keep hives on their land even though tomatoes don't need pollination. There were over 20 hives.

They grow rounds, ugly (their own variety), and plum tomatoes. Here workers are picking plums and being paid by the basket; I forget how much they get paid, somewhere around 25 to 50 cents per basket and each one takes about 2 or 3 minutes to pick and haul. The foreman (the guy who's pouring the basket into the truck) gives them a token for each basket picked and the workers usually jog back to their picking spot. Every few minutes the trucks move down the isles to keep pace with the workers. They pick them green so they don't bruise prior to being sold.

Again with the hygiene - here's a mobile hand washing station.

The laborers are actually contracted out and run by someone else. The foreman owns the buses and sets the wages. The farm pays by weight picked so there's an interesting exchange there where if the yield is bad the workers may not get on the bus and essentially work harder for less, or of course the opposite can be true.

Bourdain on Choosing a Career

I read a lot - really disparate stuff. I have no idea how much of it I retain, but every now and then an article or book keeps reappearing in my ideas. This is one of them. It's Anthony Bourdain giving advice on whether or not someone should choose a career as a chef.

It's incredibly applicable to anything that requires real work and effort and a high probability of failure. I looked at architecture through the prism of my paintball experience knowing the years of crap I'll have to deal with and the requisite luck to get to a point where I can actually have some degree of freedom over what I want to do. Should be worth the price of admission.

Here's a series of shows by Bourdain that I really enjoy about Ferran Adria:

Brain Vomit

This is just a mild recap of my past few weeks. Where to begin...

As I was leaving for NC I got off my elevator (it was roughly 1 AM) and saw all the food collection boxes for donation to the needy. I peered over the edges and saw a bunch of free canned and boxed food. I have no idea how I restrained myself. Grad school is a bummer like that.

Speaking of which. There's a professor at my school from Germany named Werner Sobek. He first got PhD in structural engineering... in Germany none the less. So what happens when you have a PhD in structural engineering, are German, and hold the title of Mies van der Rohe professor at IIT? Well you're a bad ass, and you design a vacation home for yourself called R 128 that is entirely recyclable (the design uses mortise-and-tenon joints), all the building elements utilized are standard lengths so there is absolutely no wasted materials, because of this the materials are simply shipped to the site and assembled (further aided by mortise-and-tenon), the building produces all its own energy, and is totally off grid. O, did I mention that every item in the house is computer controlled? Here it is on Sobek's website, which is really worth looking at.

On the way to NC we (my mum, dad, and I) got stuck about 20 miles from our exit due to a blizzard. It was the worst they've had in a decade. Even if they did have plows no one knows how to drive in the snow there so they just kept getting stuck and running into one another, so we sat for about 10-12 hours. Luckily we had grapes and Evan's home brewed beer.

The cabin at night.

Night sledding!

I've been making several versions of this recently. It's an open faced sandwich on wheat bread topped with giadiniera (which literally translates to "female gardener" in Italian) covered by pepper jack cheese and onions, broiled, then covered with oregano and tomatoes.

My basil garden (this is right after I trimmed it) has become a bonsai garden of sorts. They're almost a year old and never get much over 18" tall. As a result of all the trimming their main stems are practically wood.

This was this weeks harvest.

This was the resulting pesto. For some reason you have to let it sit for a few days before it gets really good.

Required Reading

Color-blind monkeys get gene therapy and are cured. That's insane. They did it by injecting a type of virus carrying a gene that essentially activates a protein that the monkeys are lacking in their cone cells. Wired and MIT.

Interesting video on tangible statistics. So fascinating...

More interesting food research by Brian Wansink. Short

More on high speed rail. It's so cool but just not cost effective for the most part. More on this later when I eventually talk about sunk cost fallacy.

Great article on entrepreneurs in Africa. Must read.

Cameras in London and cops driving around in cars in America are really expensive and both don't do ANYTHING to deter crime... (sarcasm) shocking (/sarcasm)!

Buzz Aldrin gives a Q&A on Freakonomics.

Well written piece about the future of cars, or rather; electric cars are taking over.

New Scientist puts out a list of 13 things in science that can't be explained. Here's round two.

Contact lenses that can monitor your bodily functions. They actually have a working model too.

Penn and Teller's show, Bullshit, covers The Bible. It's good but I wish they'd scream less and be a bit more objective. Then again, it's a show called bullshit.

Some college professors are giving money back to their students that they receive in royalties for required texts that they authored.

Some 9/11 Bush hate pieces. One by Barry Ritholtz of The Big Picture and excerpt of an article in The Atlantic (long) commented on by Chris Blattman (short), a professor of economics and political science at Yale who runs this insightful blog.

Finally, an explanation of why people who don't necessarily agree with Republican candidates vote Republican; they prefer their moral values and views on personal wealth. The strongest indicator? "Whether candidates view themselves as 'better than normal' human beings because of their wealth."

Think the Tevatron (ever notice that just about everything cool was either invented in Chicago [skyscraper] or resides near Chicago?) or Large Hadron Collider is huge? The US was planning one back in the 90's that was over twice as big as the LHC and actually started construction. Here's a photo gallery and story about what remains - yeah I'd totally live there. Here's a piece from Wired about how Fermi Lab's Tevatron is working around the clock to churn out ground breaking research before the LHC comes online.

A company has found a way to detect autism in children much earlier - 2 years old instead of the usual 5 to 6.

A university professor lands in jail for sharing research with Chinese graduate students... really? And apparently The State Department classifies satellites as munitions so that some cutting edge research done on them is considered classified. Short.

A 48 pound genetically engineered rainbow trout was caught in Canada. Just go look at the photo.

The highest resolution photo of Andromeda ever taken can be seen here. Andromeda is 2.5 million light years away and is the closest galaxy to our own Milky Way Galaxy.

Dietary Help

I'm writing this as a reference stub so I can send people here where they ask me one of the same three questions that all of my friends ask me at some point:

"I want a bike kinda like yours but that costs around $200-$300, show me how to use a camera, and make me a diet."

1 - Cheap single speed bikes just don't really exist. If I had the capital I would go to China and build a quality stainless and chromoly (I just remembered I want to learn more about metallurgy) single speed bike and sell them in the US for $200-$300. But I don't have that kind of money so a good and somewhat cheap place to buy from called Bikes Direct.

2 - Taking/making photos is half physics half composition. Ansel Adams was the master at the physics portion and if you read and understand this book you'll be well on your way.

3 - And now the real reason for this post - diet. Here's the golden rule that a good portion of people I tell this to refuse to accept. Anyone can lose weight. I don't care what glandular problem you have or how slow your metabolism. If you burn more calories than you eat, you will lose weight. It's just math. At the risk of bringing up a terrible yet poignant event in history - have you ever seen what the Nazi concentration camp victims looked like? That's what happens when you burn more energy than you consume.

Here are some common truths I find to be helpful if a bit facile:

Consuming less calories while still remaining full seems to be the main goal. One of the easiest ways of doing this dietarily is to eat more fiber. Fiber is the part of a plant that your body can't fully digest. It sort of cleans you out and fills you up. It's worth mentioning that about 1/5 of your bodies energy is dedicated to digesting food. Since fiber doesn't release any energy into your body you end up burning more energy in digestion when you eat foods high in fiber. This is the main difference between white and whole grain rice, bread, etc. Foods high in fiber are vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, flax seed, some cereals, etc.

There is no such thing as a "bad" food. Some just have more calories than others. The point here being portion. This may be the most important concept in dieting/changing your lifestyle. Eat more slowly, stop eating when you're full, don't eat because it's free... just think. A large part of portion control is being cognisant of what you're eating. Sometimes we go on autopilot and just stuff our faces. Sometimes it takes creativity or shear will power to overcome that one.

It's nearly impossible to be overweight if you eat nothing but vegetables and fruit. Seriously, minus salad dressing there are hardly any calories in a salad. Think about those rare occasions when you want a snack and you eat an apple. Think of how much that fills you up. That's something like 80 calories. One regular size snickers bar is 270 calories. How much does that fill you up? Now imagine eating 3 and a half apples. The energy content is that same but now you're much more full. This is the same argument as my one about fiber. Vegetables are essentially like a vitamin pill with fiber. The amount of calories in them is nearly negligible.

Oh, and drink more water. People often confuse being thirsty with being hungry. The price is right too. Assuming you're not above tap water. Similarly, stop drinking soda. It provides no substantive benefit to just about anyone's diet.

Vitamins and supplements: the evidence is confusing and all over the place. There's just so many variables that any experimental design is difficult. I personally don't take any.

Also, when you cook for yourself you begin to understand what goes into your food. You can start to omit parts of recipes that aren't contributing to a healthy diet. For example I rarely add the full amount or any of salt recommended in a recipe. Once you stop using it you stop missing it pretty quickly. Then when you do taste salt it's amazing.

And now to be a hypocrite; here are some foods that I consider amazing for one reason or another:

Ground flax seed - Tons of fiber. I add it to cereal.

Garlic (put in a garlic press) - Adds flavor without calories, there's also a ton of studies saying it has a myriad of other health benefits. Who cares, it's delicious.

Olive oil - Fat in general takes longer to digest and thus keeps you full longer. Olive oil has the added benefit of suppressing your appetite. Apples supposedly do a similar thing. If you have to heat it beyond 400 degrees don't use olive oil. Use grape seed oil or another oil that has a higher smoke point.

Tofu - You can buy a block of it from Whole Foods for $1.75 and its roughly equal to a few chicken breasts. Learn how to cook it in a Teflon pan. Filling, good for you, and sucks up the flavor of whatever you cook it with.

Egg whites - The best form of protein you can possibly get.

Broccoli or really just any vegetable - Filling, almost no calories, great for you.

Avocado - Great substitute for cheese on a sandwich. It's just better fat (monounsaturated) by which I mean that it's easy for your body to break down.

Goat cheese - Better nutrition profile than regular cheese and tastier.

Whole grain anything - Same calories as their white counterparts but lots more filling, don't spike your blood sugar, and they have more vitamins and minerals.