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Saturday, November 21, 2015

Entropy : or why is my house a mess?

   Physics is basically a bunch of descriptions (called "laws", "theories", "postulates", etc.) that allow us to predict how energy and matter (something that can be touched by other matter -- like a chair or oxygen or water) will be affected by other matter or energy that is applied to the original system. Note that, with special relativity (the old famous Einstein equation of E = mc**2) it is recognized that energy can be converted into matter and matter can release energy if broken into less complex units. (As usual, it is easier to break something down than to put it together.)

   One concept is called entropy. This is a measurement of disorder. It applies to the melting of an ice cube. It applies to the complexity of atoms -- with entropy increasing when fission occurs breaking a uranium atom into smaller atoms. It can also be used for everyday things -- such as a tidy room becoming messy. In each case, the situation of order moving towards disorder is called entropy.

   Local entropy can be reorganized. This often requires putting in energy -- but not always. The free flowing molecules of liquid water are less organized than that of ice which has a static configuration and form. In order to create ice from water, it is necessary to remove heat (energy). Because there are different ways that order is created from disorder (or disorder from order), there are considered to be different types of entropy.

   Notice that I say local entropy. According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the overall process of entropy cannot be reversed. If you leave something alone, it will eventually break down. In a house, everything will get covered in dust. A moving part will wear and break. Radioactive particles will continue to convert into non-radioactive masses.

   So, whether one believes in creationism or the big bang theory, everything started in chaos, order was imposed, and everything keeps trying to make its way back to chaos. We can clean the dishes but they'll get dirty again (even if we don't use them, dust will settle).

  Next time you look into your house and say "didn't I just clean this up the other day?" just tell yourself -- "Oh yes, entropy".

Saturday, October 3, 2015

What is Critical about Mass: having enough to sustain a process

    There is a phrase used from time to time -- "critical mass". This phrase was initially used in regards to the manufacture of nuclear weapons. In order for a nuclear device to be able to start a fission (splitting atoms) reaction, there must be enough material that each splitting of an atom creates enough energy to allow for the splitting of additional (at least one more) atoms. So, the critical mass is enough radioactive material to allow for the process to continue once it is started.

   This concept is central to the creation of weapons because a bomb is created such that two, or more, amounts that are less than critical mass are kept close together -- when it is desired to detonate, the smaller amounts are pushed together to create the critical mass and the reaction can take place. A bomb is "clean" if it has the opportunity to split most of its radioactive material before spreading apart and "dirty" if it ends up spreading the radioactive material (not fissioned) into the surrounding area.

   This concept is also important with the design of nuclear power plants -- rather what NOT to do when designing a plant. A properly designed plant will maintain control of how much radioactive material is allowed to be near each other (with the addition of materials called "damping" rods which absorb excess energy). This is important not only for safety but also for the economic operation of the plant. If a plant is not designed this way then it is just a one-time-use bomb. Thus, nuclear power plants (though there may be other dangers) are almost impossible to cause nuclear explosions.

   One more term that is very important to this topic is the "tipping point". This is the very small range that exists between NOT having a critical mass and the amount reaching a critical mass. Just a bit more and it becomes critical. Remove just a bit and it becomes inoperative. Before the tipping point is reached, the process requires continued external energy to maintain progress towards the critical mass.

   All that is just a preamble to this blog [smile]. The concept of critical mass enters into many areas of our society -- political, economic, sociological, and so forth.

   One area of present interest and, which is entering the region of the tipping point, is that of electric cars. Electric cars have been around for quite a while (according to the Net, 1834). However, we do not see electric cars everywhere -- it is mostly internal combustion (gas or diesel) engine cars. Cars, by definition, are used for movement. This means that the source of their energy must be carried along with them. In the case of gasoline engine cars, this means tanks of gas. In the case of electric cars (actually, electric engine powered cars), this means batteries (or an awfully long electrical cord [smile]).

   Batteries have traditionally not been very powerful or very efficient. This continues to change and, although not specifically a critical mass, they are now reaching the point of efficiency to be able to be used more practically. (Note that the same idea is involved with the efficiency of solar cells for solar power.)

   Even with more efficient batteries, they still must be charged on a regular basis and the means to charge them must be close enough together (driving range) such that an electric car can go from one charging station to another. Additionally, the time needed to charge the battery must be relatively short or timed such that the charging can reliably be done at "non-use" times (such as night).

   So, the technology needed to have practical electrical cars on the roads requires three things: sufficiently efficient batteries to provide workable range, charging stations within that range, and technology sufficient to compete with other alternatives. This is now beginning to happen. We are close to the tipping point. The external energy causing us to reach this point has come from the dedication of various people who want the end result. Note that the same process happened to make the internal combustion car practical in the early 1900s.

   Another area of critical mass is concerned with political, or social, matters. Let us take the matter of the ability to vote, within the United States, for women. Within the democratic process, one group cannot grant themselves additional authority, privileges, or rights. They must be granted such by the people who already have that power. This means a process of change of thoughts and attitudes. The energy to achieve that came from dedicated people who worked towards that goal. They achieved critical mass when enough of the existing authorized voters were convinced that women should be granted the right to vote.

   There are many areas where the ideas of a tipping point, and critical mass, are important. They are both involved in areas of change. The change may be a chemical, or physical, process. The change may be a social process. The change may be a political process. But they each have stages and move from one to another by approaching the tipping point, reaching critical mass, and effecting the change.

    What areas of critical mass do you see approaching and which ones do you see from the past?

Saturday, August 29, 2015

A body for all diets

   The human body is a marvelous set of systems. Eating and processing food seems relatively simple but, as seen in previous blogs about nutrition and inner bacterial colonies, it is not really that straight-forward. Nevertheless, our bodies can definitely be considered omnivorous -- able to eat anything that is not poisonous (and a limited amount of some foods, such as alcohol, that are poisonous).

   Our bodies need certain "building blocks". These include calories (for basic energy), amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and basic nutritional blocks (such as fats/oils, carbohydrates, general proteins, and so forth). Since I have already spent a number of blogs on this subject, it does not make sense to go into further detail at the time. The point is, these building blocks are required for a healthy body -- but the form in which we take these building blocks in can vary a lot.

   For the sake of argument and categorization, let's say that there are four types of diets available. The first is carnivorous -- eating only meat. The second is omnivorous -- eating foods that come from other animals as well as plants and items that are difficult to classify. The third is vegetarian -- eating only foods that do not require animals to be killed. The fourth is vegan -- eating only foods that are considered to come from the plant side of biology.

   As mentioned earlier, our bodies are designed to be omnivorous. Thus, this can be thought to be the "easiest" type of diet. Eating a mixture of meats, plants, and animal-derived foods gives the easiest access to our nutritional building blocks. This does not mean that it immediately gives rise to a healthy diet. For all diets, it is still needed to make sure that quantities of calories and the balancing of other building blocks is kept in mind. Most people in the world are omnivores.

   One of my sons calls himself a "carnivore" -- but he still eats pasta (and cheesecake) and other items from the rest of the planet's living matter. A true carnivore eats only meat (some large carnivores eat a small amount of grasses for fiber and minerals but not for calories). For humans, this only occurs naturally when living in an area where plant food is very scarce -- such as the Arctic regions. The Inuit eat an almost exclusively carnivorous diet and, in general, stay quite healthy. Upon study, it has been found that this relies on two things. In order to get a full set of nutritional building blocks, they must eat most of the animals including bones (or bone marrow), internal organs, and other parts that many humans avoid. It is also important that some of the animal bodies be eaten without cooking as cooking can destroy many vitamins and amino acids.

   I always thought that vegetarian meant eating only non-animal-based food. It turns out that the original definition of vegetarian meant to eat a well-rounded diet -- to curb the excesses of the diets that were eaten by those who had access to many types of foods. However, in the modern era, vegetarian is considered to be not eating animal tissue. Animal-derived foods, such as eggs and dairy products, are also allowed. A vegetarian diet can be very healthy -- especially if animal-derived foods are kept to a minimum -- but it is very important to watch the needed building blocks carefully.

   Finally, there are vegans. The word vegan was derived from the beginning and end of the word VEGetariAN. No animal-derived products are allowed. Since this means eating exclusively from the bottom of the food pyramid, it is difficult to find an overweight vegan. It is also relatively easy to become unhealthy if the diet is not watched carefully. Traditional vegetarian cultures and religions work with this and adopt a cuisine and menu that naturally balances out the needs of the body. A self-imposed vegetarian must devise this for themselves. Luckily, it is much easier to do that with an abundance of literature and products in our global economy.

   Which diet is "best"? Telling an Inuit to become a vegetarian would be telling them to starve. If the entire world's population decided to become strictly carnivorous, then probably 90% (or more) of the world would starve as there is not enough animal substance to feed everyone in the world. There are also hybrid eating philosophies such as "vegetarian with fish". Being vegan is the easiest burden on the planet since it uses foods from the lowest levels of the food pyramid. However, this is also not possible for all people, without a global economy, because some areas of the world do not have enough human-edible plant-based food on which to survive (but other animals CAN eat those plants and provide a higher-level food for humans).

   In a global economy, we have choices. Foods can be grown in one place and eaten in another although this places a burden on transportation, fuel, and storage costs onto the planet. Locally produced foods are a lighter burden but is not possible everywhere. Many people choose vegetarian (or vegan) diets based on their individual morals that determine that unnecessarily eating animals is wrong. Vegetarian/vegan eating is also less expensive but requires time for balancing and preparation.

   Our bodies may allow us many choices in diets but the choices are still individual for people. What choices have you made and why?

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Processed Foods: The good, the bad, and the ugly

   The first step in processing foods is the act of harvesting. So, saying that a person doesn't like processed foods is a bit on the silly side. Picking an apple off of a tree or shucking an ear of corn is processing the food.

   The next stage of processing involves changing the food physically. Food is cut up. It is ground. It is juiced. It is shredded. If it doesn't look the same as when it was harvested, then it has been changed physically.

   Now we come to the part that involves chemical change. This isn't always what people consider to be chemical change. Drying something in the sun will involve chemical (and physical) changes. Fermenting a juice into an altered liquid that contains alcohol is a chemical change. Applying heat and cooking a food is a chemical change. Putting something in a different substance (even water) will often -- but not always -- initiate a chemical change.

   Processing food makes it easier to eat -- or more interesting to eat -- or makes it easier to store for longer periods of time. These are not bad goals. So, what is the big deal about processed foods? Why would anyone object to processed foods.

   As usual, the problems arise out of the details -- the hows, whats, and whys. Harvesting isn't usually considered a big problem -- unless it is done in a way that has "side-effects". For example, some foods are most easily harvested by starting a big fire and sifting through the remains. Other foods might be harvested by killing the main plant when only a small part is going to be used for food. Finally, there is the background issue (not to be discussed at length here) of production which is necessary for harvesting to occur.

   Physical processing takes energy. If physically preparing food is part of the daily routine then it is a closed system -- energy given by eating the foods is used in the preparation of those same foods. However, when we buy something already processed then we are also requiring energy to be used for the preparation as well as transport. That energy is likely to include non-renewable energy sources.

   Now comes the most controversial part of processed foods -- chemical changes. The previously mentioned changes would usually be considered "natural" (although they are not all likely to occur without some intervention by some other living entity). When "artificial" processing (as mentioned in another blog, these terms don't have as distinct of a difference as people often seem to think) is involved, the food will change in ways that cannot always be predicted.

   Edible items (we'll continue to call them foods) can be produced from inorganic (not originally alive) components. During the processing of foods, additives can be included that change flavors (this can include spices and herbs -- but also inorganic chemicals) or make the food last longer (usually called preservatives), or become more addictive (added sugars, salt, certain chemical substances) to increase marketing and sales. These types of processing can make the food less healthy -- and this is the big deal about processed foods. Commercially prepared processed foods are often less healthy than fresh or personally processed foods.

   So, why do people buy processed foods -- and why are people buying a larger and larger percentage of their food in the form of processed foods? I would categorize that in the regions of time, convenience, marketing susceptibility, and (for many items) monetary savings. Using processed foods saves time -- it reduces the time to prepare, the time to consider the recipe, and usually time to cook or put on the table.

   In the case of processed fresh fruits and vegetables, you will probably be paying quite a bit extra to have someone process them for you -- but you may save, if you are single, because you are only buying the amount that you will eat. This is a cost trade-off.

   In the case of stored (frozen, refrigerated, canned, or packaged) processed foods, it is often true that it will cost you less to buy processed food from the store. This is because the food processing company pays less for the ingredients because they buy in huge quantities and because the energy costs in labor and machinery are less than what it would take for you to prepare. The actual costs of the food may amount to 1/4 of what you would have to spend to prepare it personally. With the markups of transportation, storage, and profits at different stages, the final price is still often less than what you could realistically prepare. So, it ends up being a choice concerning time and quality.

   Marketing susceptibility is a huge topic (and one on which I have briefly discussed in other blogs). This is buying products that you KNOW are not good for you and which may not even taste as good as healthier alternatives -- but if convinced that it is the popular thing to eat (in the popular quantities) then you may choose to buy and consume it.

   The "ugliest" part of commercially processed foods is the addictive parts. Processed sugar (including High Fructose Corn Syrup) is an addictive and unhealthy substance. It can be found in many processed foods including canned vegetables. Check the ingredient list! Salt is a flavor enhancer but, for some people, it can be hard on the body in excessive amounts. Governmental control agencies have stopped the addition of such substances as cocaine, coca leaves, and other known addictive chemicals (yes, they did use such at one time) into foods but there isn't enough oversight to make sure that other newer chemicals do not have addictive or destructive effects.

   The bottom line is that processing food is a long, and reasonable, thing. Local processing is probably always healthier than commercial processing but there are reasons why people choose to buy commercially processed foods -- and why they take more and more shelf space in the supermarkets and grocery stores.

   Do you make use of processed foods? What kinds do you purchase? Do you check the ingredient lists when you make choices? Does it matter to you if you are preparing for one or two versus preparing for a large family gathering?

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Water Distribution : A Climate Change problem that needs to be addressed soon

   Climate change is just that -- a shift of weather patterns. It doesn't actually matter whether patterns change because of human activities or because of changes in solar flares or shifts in the magnetic core of the planet. It is thoroughly documented that the global ocean temperature is rising and photographs indicate an increasing loss of glaciers in polar regions as well as high mountain ranges.

   Humans have survived over the years because they are great at adapting to different living conditions. Humans can adapt to the current climate change if necessary. The problem with the current shift is that (in geologic terms) it seems to be happening so quickly. Effects are being noticed within a single lifetime rather than after generations. One serious problem that is arising is that of water distribution.

   Water distribution is very important for crop growth, animal husbandry, and basic survival. Politicians may hold snowballs for dramatic effect but, for every snowstorm, there is also a new heat wave and drought. It is likely that crops that have required a certain mixture of days of sunshine and amount of water will no longer have the conditions they require in that same region. So, shifts in climate brings along a need to change crop management and decisions as to what to plant.

   Problems of water distribution can be classified into five categories:

  1. Storage. Much of our fresh water is stored in snowpacks and glaciers. During the spring, summer, and fall, they melt and provide new water supplies when rain is not present. As the glaciers of the Himalayas, Sierras, polar regions, and other ranges disappear, they will not be able to continue to provide fresh water supplies. Alternate means of storage are necessary. Huge reservoirs will be needed to take the place of the snowpacks and glaciers.
  2. Rising Sea Levels. The amount of rising sea levels is unknown. If all of the snowpacks melt (including all of Antarctica) then a rise of over 200 feet is possible. This will drastically change our coastlines and many of our most populous cities are near the coastline. People will not just lose their beachfront properties but entire states and islands could vanish beneath the sea. These people will need to be relocated.
  3. Redistribution. There may be as much total precipitation as ever. However, the locations where it comes down (as rain or snow) will change -- weather patterns and local climates will change. As mentioned above, this will require shifts in crop plantings (note that some areas will receive more rain while others receive less) as well as general harvesting and crop planning. Denser areas of human population will also be affected with needs of water transport and storage.
  4. Aquifers. Much water is stored within layers of soil called aquifers. As droughts occur, or human population increases, water is removed from aquifers. This works fine as long as the amount removed is the same as that which filters back into the aquifers. In prolonged drought conditions, the levels of aquifers lower and lower. Wells run dry, deep rooted plants die, and the ability to bring the water levels back up start entering spans of decades. Aquifers are renewable but require management and continued rainfall.
  5. Waste. In many areas of the world, fresh water is in abundance. In other areas, it has always been scarce. These areas will change and waste of water in formerly abundant areas will need to be greatly reduced. Three to five minute showers will be needed. Ground cover that survive with existing moisture will be needed.

   There is time to start planning for these needs and some may not be needed for decades but it is good to start the planning sooner rather than later.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Our Bodies are Houses with many Rooms

   When we think of our bodies, we think of all of the various parts that built up from that original egg and sperm that started the process of dividing, growing, and specializing. From that beginning, we end up with a set of systems which allows us to stand, move, breathe, eat, and do the other functions of everyday living. These systems work together to make it possible for us to live and reproduce.

   But, our bodies are NOT just composed of the cells that were created as part of growing and life. Our bodies provide an environment for many other living organisms -- some hostile but many of great benefit to our everyday lives. For many years, medical researchers have just noted the facts of their existence (and, sometimes, blindly tried to eliminate them) and had no real idea of just how they interact with the rest of our bodily functions. This is now changing and active research is being done. Note that this research is still young in experience and knowledge and many interactions and functions are still unknown.

   An organism can exist anywhere within our body but we will focus on four areas that are of specific interest. These include the interior cell, the skin, the mouth, and the digestive tract. Within the interior cells exists organisms called the mitochondria (one of such is called a mitochondrion). While these "organelles" are an important mechanism to supply energy to the human cell (and, thus, to the human body), they also have many other functions within the body.

   The mitochondrion reproduces independently from the other cells of the human body. It exists only within the egg (and not the sperm) and thus, inheritance of the mitochondria within a body is based on maternal lineage (mother to child). The separation between egg and sperm and its independent reproduction gives it a likelihood of being considered an endosymbiont. In other words, at some point in the past the mitochondria took up residence within human (and other animals) cells and act as cooperative parts of the cell.

   On the surface of the skin (even the very "cleanest" of skin), exists a wonderland of tiny animals, bacteria, and other living creatures. The exact interplay between these creatures and their environment (the skin) is still to be fully understood but it is recognized that they do play a part in keeping the body from being invaded by unwelcome visitors. Of course, within this dermal ecosystem is the possibility of undesirable inhabitants -- such as fungus that creates "athlete's foot".

   There is a large difference between the mitochondria living peacefully within the cell and the exposed environment of the skin -- a large, direct, interaction with the exterior world. Showers, baths, perfume, makeup, dirt, and so forth will affect the living environment on the skin. How does it affect it? We don't really know but two people (let's say they are identical twins to make this simpler) who have different exterior living environments, diets, and exterior habits will have different sets of creatures (or, at least, different proportions) on the skin -- which is likely to affect some aspect of health and protection from exterior invasion.

   Our mouths harbor a large collection of bacteria and other living matter. This environment can be altered by both external and internal processes. Cleaning teeth and gums can reduce the amount of bacteria and their by-products. Blood sugar levels (especially relevant to those with diabetes) can alter the number and type of bacteria living in the mouth. (Note that brushing, diet, gum health, and blood sugar levels can all change the smell of your breath.) Many oral bacteria have potentially bad effects -- but controllable -- and, presently, few beneficial effects are known.

   The area of symbiosis of greatest present interest is the world of the digestive tract. Although it has long been known that interior bacteria can be directly involved with digestion -- for example, termites have special bacteria that allow them to digest cellulose (wood fiber) -- it was not known that the same was true with humans and other animals. It turns out that the composition of the neighborhoods of our digestive system can affect hormones, immune system, metabolism, allergies, blood sugar levels (not just insulin and sugar), mood, and other matters.

   Just how, and what, makes a difference is still unknown but the knowledge that it makes a difference is truly exciting -- in reality the addition of an entirely new bodily system. This infant study, of course, gives rise to much speculation and marketing of things believed to make a difference -- such as probiotics which are supposed to enhance positive groups of bacteria within the digestive system. Little is known for certain but it is an additional, important, area to understand for better health and activity.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Regulations create level playing fields for businesses

   It seems to be fairly "normal" for businesses to complain about, and fight, every new regulation that is proposed or enacted. This isn't unreasonable as it will be true that a new regulation will require different procedures (and probably additional paperwork). However, that is not the same as saying that regulations are bad for businesses -- but it can be a difficult balancing act within the global economy.

   Regulations are a way to tell businesses what practices are acceptable to the society in which they function. They fall into three general categories (actually, almost anything can be broken up into however many categories as are desired -- I am choosing three). These categories are economics, labor, and environment. There is also a fourth category which involves product regulations -- for the product quality and safety of the consumer but that does not directly apply to this blog.

   Economic regulations involve the way the products of a company become part of the general economy. This will involve taxes. Generally, businesses want to pay fewer taxes and the general population wants them to pay more taxes. It will also involve tariffs -- both import and export. Tariffs are special taxes that are involved with the movement of products and money across country borders. This is a part of the balancing act.

   Let us say that Country A, as part of the standards for their society, requires all businesses to ensure that any water used by the business to be cleaned to drinking standards before being released back to the environment. This requirement (or regulation) adds 5% to the cost of doing business in Country A. Country B does NOT have such a requirement and, thus, businesses can produce the same product for 5% less. This puts businesses in Country A at a price disadvantage. A tariff on products imported from country B gives the businesses a more equal competitive situation. (Note that the tariff does not help the environment in country B.)

   Regulations may also be in the category of labor use. Minimum wage laws (or "living wage" laws whenever they start being enacted) say that people cannot officially be employed without a certain level of pay. Restrictions on number of hours worked per day, or week, directly affect the number of people employed. "Child Labor laws" restrict the age of workers and the number of hours per day that they can work at what ages. Mandatory sick days allowed (paid or unpaid) create a situation where workers are not compelled to work even when sick (this also benefits the general population when the food industry is involved). Vacation days, holidays, and other types of paid, or unpaid, absences help the overall health of the people who work for a business.

   Environmental regulations are basically a matter of how businesses are allowed to affect the environment. Usually a person thinks of manufacturing companies for this. However, the requirement that a business have, and maintain, a parking garage would also be an example of an environmental regulation as it reduces the amount of land that cannot be used for vegetation. Another non-manufacturing law might be a requirement to turn off 70% of the lighting during non-working hours.

   Of course, environmental regulations apply more directly to manufacturing businesses. It is similar to teaching a child to "clean up their own mess". A business would, naturally, prefer other people to take care of their messes. Note that not having environmental regulations does NOT decrease the cost to clean up -- it moves it from the business to the general public. In fact, it probably costs less for the mess to be cleaned up at the site of creation of the mess than after it has dispersed and damaged other parts of the environment.

   It would be completely possible for a business to do everything well on their own initiative. They can treat their people well, be good to the environment, and be a good neighbor within their communities. There are many small businesses that strive hard to do such and other, larger, businesses that recognize that there are inherent benefits (lower turnover of staff, better public image, etc.) to do such. However, businesses that do NOT behave well can have financial advantages over their competitors -- and this does not help society as a whole.

   Regulations provide a framework that is acceptable to the local society that allows businesses to compete without having uneven costs of providing services.