Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Don’t Take a Scientist to Lunch

Agreeing to accompany a scientist to lunch out at a restaurant, or any meal for that matter, is just not a very smart idea.  Everyone knows that scientists have poor social skills to begin with and then all they want to talk about is their work.

I was reminded of these unassailable facts a month or so ago at a business function when, in a weak moment, I agreed to accompany three food safety scientists out for a meal.  Can you even imagine what food scientists talk about when they’re not “on duty?”  That’s the problem – they are never not on duty!  E. Coli this, and salmonella that!   And those are just discussions about that night’s appetizers. There’s norovirus  outbreaks to be discussed over the main course, plus debates over dessert concerning the hidden filth in kitchen cutting boards and the fine art of sanitary hand-washing techniques.  I sat there in silence, wishing I hadn’t ordered anything that is, you know, edible.  And I’m hoping my poker face doesn’t scream out to my colleagues, “I confess, I leave the butter out on the counter! Guilty as charged!”  Of course my grandmother never put her butter away either and she and my grandfather lived well in to their nineties. But you can’t use those kind of true-to-life arguments with food scientists. They just give you that “You nutcase!” scowl. You can’t win.  So it’s better to just stare downwards at your cream of broccoli soup and wonder if swimming E. Coli are actually visible to the naked eye.  A fun lot these food safety folks, to be sure.

But don’t think about going to lunch with a marine biologist either. I had a business partner once who was a fisheries biologist by training and just as you were biting into your haddock fillet he would share with you the life cycle of parasites in supposedly clean ocean fish.  It’s certainly kept me away from most sushi these many years.

Basically, it might be best all around if scientists just ate every meal by themselves, sitting at their lab benches, reading the latest copy of “Science People” magazine and leave this socialization stuff to dynamic and vivacious folks – like accountants.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Winter Cape

Cape Cod in February. Solitute. Beach cabins waiting the season's turn. Polished sand. Bits of colored beach glass. Lady Skinnylegs walking her dog. Surf sounds. Winter light.


Outer Beach

Friday, February 24, 2012

Coolest Truck Ever Made

Divco was a brand name of popular delivery trucks made in the United States. Divco is an acronym for the Detroit Industrial Vehicles Company. Founded in 1926, Divco was well-known for its pioneering delivery vehicles, especially the home delivery milk trucks, but these versatile little trucks were used as ice cream trucks, laundry delivery and other uses as well. From 1926 until 1986, Divco produced multi-stop delivery trucks unlike any others. Only the VW Beetle stayed in production with the same basic model for a longer period of time. To me the front snout of the original VW Bug looks a lot like the Divco snout.

Divco trucks have become very popular among collectors and restorers of classical trucks. Full restored Divcos are pricy and ones in restorable condition are hard to find. My Divco, if I had one, would be the hit of the 4th of July Amherst parade each year.

Money That is Too Good to Be True

An interesting Time Magazine story here about the North Koreans producing very high quality $100 bills – that’s United States' $100 bills mind you. Their country may seem third-worldish, but as counterfeiters the North Koreans are second to none. They have purchased some of the very same model printing presses that the U.S. government owns and they mimic our engraving techniques very well.

A number of years ago I performed some environmental management consulting assignments for the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP).  Most people don’t realize that our paper currency is printed at just two locations – the original downtown Washington DC facility and the newer Ft. Worth, TX facility. They get the printing facilities confused with the (relatively) more common mints where our coins are designed and produced.

Even though I’ve never done much work for the Department of Defense or had a Top Secret clearance, I had been used to security checks and clearance procedures since I’ve worked for a number of the civilian agencies that manage sensitive facilities or operations – the laboratories at National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and on Native American school property for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. My neighbors were interviewed by U.S. agents asking about my character, gambling habits, and how often I beat my kids - all the usual stuff.  Funny, after that my neighbors stopped asking to borrow even my hedge trimmer and would avert their eyes whenever I would wave at them from across our fence.  But anyway, nothing quite prepared me for walking within arms’ reach of pallets of neatly stacked $100 bills at the BEP, all shrink wrapped.  It even smelled good.  The BEP employees have heard all the lame jokes about “free samples,” by the way.  They don’t laugh, or even crack a smile, so save your breath.

I cannot reveal exactly how the U.S. tells our legit $100 bills from those printed in North Korea without worrying about a visit from gray-suited, clean-cut stern men with ear pieces, but let’s just say the North Korean bills are a bit “too good.”


Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” 
–Groucho Marx (1890-1977)

I enjoy a wide range of comedy types and styles. I like slap-stick on one end of the spectrum and subtle, droll humor on the other. But there are comedy genres, highly popular ones in fact, that absolutely turn me off – those that are crude, off-colored or over-the-top politically. I may be the only person in America who has never seen a complete episode of The Simpsons (yes, I know they just had their 500th episode – my head is not in the sand) or the much celebrated South Park.  For the record, I am also totally bored by shock-jocks like Howard Stern. So write me up for the Guinness Book of World Records.

I think what characterizes most of the genres and individuals that I dislike are the in-your-face attitude of those performers, or in the case of shows, their creators.  When you hear these folks interviewed by the entertainment media or by NPR you virtually always hear “the attitude.”  “With my style of humor, I’m trying hard to stick it to the man!”  “I’m stretching the boundaries of what’s acceptable.” “It’s my job to make people feel uncomfortable.”  “I’m pushing the envelope!”  Really?  When did “pushing the envelope” become elevated to an Olympic sport?  I must have missed that one, you brave envelope-pushing hero you.

George Carlin gave such an NPR interview just a few years before his passing.  And while I can acknowledge the wit and talent of an individual like Carlin, his attitude and his “work product” leave me unimpressed. Totally unimpressed.  Like I’m yawning at an annoying junior high school kid here. “Georgie, go stand in the corner please until you can talk civil in front of your mother.”

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Maple Syrup - The Sticky Tale

My friend and work colleague, Mark, lives out in the New Hampshire countryside where people have elbow room (and a bit of a commute into work).  Mark is a genuine Yankee, having been born and raised in Bethel, Maine, a pretty little town on the Androscoggin River (prettier now that its water quality is much improved from the 1960s and 1970s).  Mark has a wealth of maple trees on his property and like any good Yankee, “waste not, want not,” so he taps them in the Spring and boils the sap into a fine maple syrup, which he sells by the quart jug.

Side story.  I love Bob Newhart’s humor and the characters he’s created over the years.  In his fist sitcom series (the Chicago psychologist), he had actor Tom Poston on several times in quest spots as his former college roommate, “The Peeper” from Vermont.  Stereotypically, The Peeper loved maple syrup on everything and therefore traveled with his own supply at the ready to pour over steak, vegetables, whatever.  The Peeper arrives at Newhart’s Chicago apartment with his stash and Newhart remarks that they’ll have to make pancakes while The Peeper is there.  Poston, playing the Yankee to the hilt, looks pensive and responds something to the effect, “Pancakes? Huh, never thought of putting maple syrup on those.”

In chatting with Mark at work today we got talking about the unusually mild winter this year and how that has caused concern about the maple trees and the production of sap.  Generally, it’s accepted that you need mild to warm days and cold nights to really develop the best sap volume-wise and quality- wise.  But when winter starts to end early, as in this year, the maple tappers out there, both amateur and commercial, are of different minds regarding the “proper” time to start tapping the sap.

Now my friend Mark has this theory that early in the season (i.e., late winter), the maple sap is mostly starch that has not yet turned into sugar. So the later you can wait, the better because the sugar content of the collected sap will be higher and therefore you don’t have as much water to boil off to product the liquid gold of maple syrup.  He claims he’s tested early sap at 1% sugar content and late sap (say, first part of March) at as much as 5% sugar.  That’s a huge difference.

So, I’m totally buying into Mark’s theory, but then ask him what he is going to do as far as the timing of starting his taps this year.  “Oh, he says with a wide Yankee grin, I’m not tapping this year. I have enough finished syrup left over from last year’s effort and besides, I hear it’s best if you rest your maple trees every other year.”  “Rest the trees?” I say.  “I don’t think I’d believe that one unless I read it in the Old Farmer’s Almanac.”  Then it's good as gospel.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

See You in Mid-November

I'm maxed out on debates, political sound bites and babbling reporters.  My family and I will come out when it's safe again - mid November should do it.

Fortune Lost

The Misses and I were cleaning out some more of our long term storage bins in our basement when we came across this Beatles fan magazine from her teeny-bopper years. It’s in darn good shape (in spite of my wife’s lipstick marks on the cover) and it’s 1964 Issue No. 1.  Wow!  I’m thinking, “Hello Caribbean vacation AND retirement fund!”  So I rush to e-Bay hoping to confirm that I'm holding a $100,000 treasure.  Well, the sad story is there’s already plenty of copies of that issue for sale with starting prices as low as $12.95.  Goodbye pot of gold.  That’s why I don’t but lottery tickets or believe in the latest hot stock tips. I'm just not destined to find that gem in the rough.

The Misses still loves the Beatles – and begrudgingly, I guess I do too.  But not enough to kiss a $12.95 magazine cover.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Poetry of Science

Even though my lab days are far behind me, I sometimes wish I was still a white coated, pocket protector wielding instrument jockey. Rev up that AA, IR, MS and GC and drop the green flag. Race on!

There is still one lab instrument that to me sounds like it should be a fine Italian sports car, a Lamborghini perhaps. And that is an Inductively Coupled Plasma (ICP). Doesn't that just roll off of your tongue? "Inductively Coupled Plasma." Like perfection; the analytical laboratory version of a sleek, hand-crafted race car. All it needs is a shiny hood ornament and a Le Mans pit crew.

Contrast that with the words and phrases we're forced to put up with in our coarse, everyday lives: "Lady Ga Ga", "tax-deferred annuities", and the dreaded, "paradigm shift." Ugh. Crude. Shallow.

Inductively Coupled Plasma. Vroom.

Best Use of Pollution Ever

Our state environmental protection agency profiled a success story in their most recent newsletter - the clean up of the once polluted Nashua River which used to run various colors from textile and paper mill dyes. But look at the before and after photos. Isn't it obvious how they solved the river's pollution problem?  They sprayed the river onto the porous brick buildings.  Ingenious!  This is the kind of solution you'd see played out in a comic book.


Monday, February 20, 2012

Big Lungs

This past Sunday in church the young girl’s choir sang.  I enjoy listening to little kids sing, even more so watching them sing. They’re often distracted, looking to spot their parents in the pews, or looking up at the lights, etc. But one thing that characterizes most very young girls and even teenage girls is typically a weak or thin voice, probable due to a combination of lack of professional training and nervousness.  I’m not being critical; heaven knows, I’m not the one to sing in front of a group.  I can’t even sing in the shower.

But it reminded me of how much we gravitate to female singers with big voices (“big lungs” as I like to say). In another era it was Bessie Smith and Ethel Merman; then Bette Miller, Linda Ronstadt, and Dolly Parton’s turn, followed by Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston and now the reigning queen of the lungs, Adele. Each one could belt out the volume, and that's part of their formula for popularity and commercial success. Not a wimpy voice among them.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

My Sustainability Is Special, Don't Cha Know?

You know how all parents think THEIR child is above average and should be in the AP class?  And the U.S. Congress as a body gets terrible approval ratings but everyone thinks not MY Congresswoman – she’s not the problem – she’s one of the good ones!

Call out the CDC because the same affliction has infected the world of corporate sustainability.  A survey was taken of 1,200 manufacturers of consumer products in the U.S., Germany, China and India, across industries in high tech, food, building materials, and household chemicals. 90% rated themselves ahead of the curve in delivering safety, reliability and sustainability.

Surprisingly (not), 1,200 consumers were asked about these companies and three quarters of them stated the companies have not done enough regarding sustainability initiatives. Not ready for AP classes yet. 

Bimbo Bakeries

I think most people take pride in the company they work for. Or at least they’d like to take pride in their employer.  I came across this posting on a professional employment website this week:

“Regional Environmental Sustainability Engineer at Bimbo Bakeries USA.”   Yes, of course it’s in California, did you have to ask?

The ad goes on a full page listing all the duties and requirements.  It sounds like a fun place to work, for sure, but I don’t know about having Bimbo Bakeries on my resume when I go to apply for the next job, at say IBM, Price Waterhouse Coopers, or Coca-Cola.  Maybe you’d be a shoe-in at Hooters corporate headquarter though?

Loons at LinkedIn

The algorithms on sites like Amazon that are used to suggest what products you might be interested in purchasing based on your current or past searches are pretty darn good.  But I think those folks over at LinkedIn need to invest in some programmers with a bit more talent.  The site must be trying to get by with some also-rans.  You know how they suggest (unsolicited) new contacts based on your profession, interests, college, etc.?  Well, the LinkedIn algorithm must have been off on a coffee break today because here’s one match it suggested for me:

A “Senior Dimensional Shift Facilitator” from an organization called “Quantum Paradigm,” an “industrial think tank” from somewhere in the Milky Way.  His interests are in “applied spiritual philosophy and synchronicity” and asking questions like, “How did we get here and where are we going? What's important? What's behind the curtain?”

Oh yeah, this is my soul brother alright. Yep.  I don’t think I’ll invest any money in LinkedIn just yet.  They appear to have just a few bugs to work out in their system.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

1980s Songs

The 80s weren’t my decade for music – I had reached the watershed ripe old age of 30 and wasn’t crazy about a lot of what was offered on FM radio.  But there were a number of songs from the early 80s that I’ve always liked – here are two. Both celebrate summer.

Echo Beach was a hit for the Canadian group, Martha and the Muffins in 1980. There were actually two Marthas in the group. The song is about a favorite lakeside beach near Toronto (Sunnyside) (But who knew Canada didn’t have frozen water year around?).

The other selection is Bananarama’s Cruel Summer. A classic of sorts from 1983 (UK), 1984 (US).

Friday, February 10, 2012

Grand Theft Frigid

OK, did you miss the story too?  I don’t think most networks carried it but thanks to the BBC we know that a Chilean glacier was robbed last month. Yes, robbed.  Officials in the town of Cochrane caught the guy cold handed with five tons of glacial ice in the back of his truck and ugly hack marks despoiling the face of the Jorge Montt Glacier in the Patagonia region of Chile.  Oh, the humanity.

But I guess to get serious, it was a crime and it’s good the thief was caught.  The glacier in question is not just some random snow field but a recognized glacier “living” within a national park.  And the guy was selling the glacial ice to bars where touristas pay a premium for vintage ice in their whisky.  His haul was actually worth a cool $6100 USD.  More than I would have guessed and it’s not like the goods were going to be used to quench the thirst of orphans or some other noble cause.

But you can’t have folks hauling stuff out of national parks or preserves – either for souvenirs or for profit.  If you’ve ever visited a U.S. national park you realize the heavily enforced edict of “leave nature where you find it so others can enjoy.”  Sure I would have liked a piece of fossil tree from my visit to Petrified Forest National Park last Fall or a near-perfect sphere of hard granite from Boulder Beach at Acadia the previous year. But mothers’ universal advice rings in our ears: Look but don’t touch.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Sustainable Advice from Lefty

I received some sound advice from my personal accountant, Lefty (his real name, honest) after publishing my second book on a technical topic. “Ditch these technical books; they’re dogs that don’t make any money. Write something spicy,” he said.

I’ve been thinking about Lefty’s advice hard and long. He’s right. Even the sustainability stuff I’ve been writing about these last few years is not sexy or exciting enough. So I’m launching a new web publication, The Sustainability Ragsheet made only from post-consumer gigabytes. Watch this digital space. Appearing soon will be articles along the lines of:

Confessions of an EMS Auditor
Eight Things ISO Registrars Won’t Tell You
Shockingly Simple Shortcuts to a Better EHS Program
Hidden Dangers of the Manic EHS Boss
Why Dilbert Comic Strips are Now Driving Corporate Sustainability Programs
Are Recycling Centers Biased in Favor of the 1%?
The Lavish Mansions of Former Sustainability Gurus
CFOs Claim Bloated CSR Programs Must Go!
Five Fun Facts About Carbon Disclosure
Three Big Mistakes Celebrities Make When Going Green
Is Donald Trump’s Hair Really 100% Recycled?
Secret Government Agency Created by Congress will Mandate Social Responsibility by 2015
EHS Tattoos – Dos and Don’ts
How Cloud Computing is Worsening the Acid Rain Problem and the Radical Remedy Proposed by Out-of-control Scientists
Movement to Ban All References to “Innovation” in the Workplace Gaining Support in Influential Circles
Did UFO Visitors Invent EHS Auditing as Some Historians Now Claim?
Lose Those Ugly LEEDs in Just 14 days!
Warren Buffet Reportedly Poised to Buy the Rights to “Sustainability” for $20B and move it to Omaha