Is it Safe?

I was in a restaurant the other day when I caught a whiff of ammonia as one of the employees was spraying Windex liberally on tables and other surfaces to clean them after diners left. The whole place smelled of ammonia, and the fumes irritated my eyes and my throat. I mentioned it to a friend who told me it wasn’t such a big deal, and they needed to disinfect the tables after people ate there. I reminded my friend that you can disinfect using distilled vinegar. He said he didn’t like the smell. Okay, but the “smell” is not a toxic compound produced the chemical giants like P&G or Dow. White or distilled vinegar, among other varieties, are not only nontoxic, but you can actually ingest them in small quantities without any harmful reaction. The fact is, I make glass cleaner from an ingredient I could use in salad dressing. And it has been shown to be an effective disinfectant. Plus, it’s cheaper.

Chlorine is also widely used in restaurants as a cheap disinfectant. I admit it is quite effective in preventing the spread of bacteria like salmonella. For the kitchen and restrooms this is perfectly acceptable in protecting the public from harmful pathogens, and restaurant staff should take such measures after the establishment is closed for the night. Exposing patrons to ammonia or chlorine is potentially problematic, but if these chemicals are combined, the results can be quite toxic, and the combination should be avoided in all circumstances. I think it’s fine to mop the kitchen and dining room with a bleach water solution after closing time. A little chlorine goes a long way. Ammonia as a glass cleaner is not absolutely necessary. See this California Childcare Health Program article for more information.

I routinely clean my house with non-toxic solutions. I make a glass and surface cleaner from a mixture of distilled vinegar, water, and a drop or two of mild dish soap. This is surprisingly effective in cleaning dirt and residue from surfaces. I use other less-toxic solutions for disinfecting, and I use chlorine-based cleaners for sanitizing the bathroom fixtures and the kitchen sink. I’m kind of a stickler about what can be called “clean”. I eat off dishes that I consider clean, and I generally do not use bleach to get to that level of cleanliness. But if I were to eat mac & cheese off my kitchen floor, you’d better believe I’m going to scrub that son of a bitch down. Is it largely psychological, the fact that my dishes are not nearly as clean as my floor, and yet I find it repugnant to eat off the floor? Yes, I’m sure of it. I will not be dining dal pavimento anytime soon.

In the meantime, I’m comfortable cleaning with my vinegar solution. Ammonia is overkill, and it makes my eyes and throat sting. Oh, did I mention that my wife has multiple chemical sensitivity? Some people don’t believe this is real, but besides any doubt many people have, there is no denying that chemicals are used in increasing quantities and concentrations. The unfortunate side effect to the public is becoming desensitized to these harmful agents, except for the growing number who for unexplained reasons become more sensitive to them. Living in a toxin-free environment (or as close to one as I can be in the 21st century) has made me more aware of the onslaught of chemicals encountered in the supermarket. I think I was not aware how noxious the detergent aisle was until recently. Meanwhile, vinegar doesn’t bother me at all.

Some of my ancestors lived beyond 105 years. And that was before anyone knew about microorganisms. They did not have modern cleaning products in the 18th century, and yet they lived ostensibly healthy lives. Of course this is not to say that people in the 18th century didn’t contract illnesses due to bacterial infections. But maybe people had higher resistance to germs because they didn’t use hand sanitizer every fifteen minutes. I think we are so afraid of getting sick, we are in danger of making ourselves more guarded against the bug. Perhaps we can embrace it. Just don’t get too complacent.

So for the time-being, I hope restaurants would at least stop exposing people who are trying to eat to harmful chemicals. You can still douse the tables and booths with super-concentrated Clorox after everyone has left. Just use the buddy system in case you get a little too much of a good thing. Or better yet, think of alternative cleaning methods.



I’m fortunate that I am the recipient of a liberal arts education. This might seem like a contradiction in terms, since I did not receive specific job training from my university studies, aside from the credentials to teach literature, or having seemingly scattered reference points on the map of human history. Part of my career was in pursuit of the natural sciences, specifically human biology, at which I excelled. Ironically, I work in the field of information technology, which I came into purely by happy accident. So I am particularly blessed that I have a good job in spite of my area of study.

College may not be for everyone. There are many good-paying careers that do not require a college degree, not in the traditional sense. Electricians, plumbers, and welders, to name a few, while perhaps benefiting from study of a foreign language and some advanced maths, can find work after a one or two year course of study. Culinary arts and other fields promise the same results, with another year of study, possibly. But the traditional four year degree may not be necessary or economically feasible.

When I was an undergraduate back in the 1980’s, attending a school in the state university system, my tuition per semester amounted to about 8 weeks salary, based on minimum wage (then, $3.35 an hour) at 20 hours a week. Of course there was room and board, books, meals, and sundries. But I’m just talking about tuition. Here in 2017, that same state college tuition, based on minimum wage today of $7.25 an hour, will take you at least 60 weeks to pay off. It’s not unheard of for a college grad to be in hock for $100,000 or more in student debt. And if you are the parent of one of these students, you would pray that they have some career lined up, so they can start repaying their debt as soon as possible.

So I was fortunate. I did have to take out student loans, but not for too much. But I would gladly pay it all over again (provided I was paying 1980’s dollars). But reliving those years would offer no guarantee that things would work out the way they had. (Of course, things might have been better.) But was it worth it? Who benefited? (Cui Bono?) What did I really get with my degree? It didn’t provide any training germain to my current career. In fact, client-server software development didn’t really exist as we know it, not that anyone truly understands it now. (Incidentally, I met my wife at college). The skills needed to work in today’s IT world can be obtained from a local community college certificate program. But many companies still look for at least a bachelor’s degree (or equivalent work experience) from their candidates. Equivalent work experience? Abraham Lincoln was self-educated, and many people in their fields are self-taught.

But I would recommend the university experience for some. That experience is unique, and the memories last a lifetime. You may never apply your knowledge gained in that one semester of poli-sci, or remember the French you studied. But you will have benefitted from it. Will that experience be worth the thousands of dollars you will eventually have to pay? That may depend on what happens in the future. As I said, looking back, it seems worthwhile to me. But that was a different time, I suppose. It seems that colleges and universities are not what they used to be, academically speaking. Students may not wish to study literature, and they may see no value in analyzing Othello for hidden meaning.

It’s too bad you can’t simply certify yourself as self-taught. It worked for Lincoln. Why can’t a person study law and attempt the bar exam? What about medicine? Well, some areas of study really need to be at the university level. In the future, a four year degree might cost more than a house. I think we’re starting to see that now. It’s shocking how much tuition has increased over the years. As I mentioned above, calculated in terms of weeks worth of salary, it’s gone up by more than 7 times in 30 years. Is the answer in increasing the minimum wage? Should tuition be regulated? Is Bernie Sanders’ plan feasible? Could the US pay for anyone who wants a college education to receive one? In the meantime, certain skills are hard to come by. Even someone with a masters degree is not automatically qualified. On the other hand, I have a friend who has never set foot on a college campus and excels in the field of technology. But even then, education is the key. Education takes many forms. It can be through diligent observation of the world around us. It can be through books, extension of the great minds of the past. It may be through experience. Education is crucial.

And for you lawyers out there, cui bono does have a specific legal definition, but I am thinking of the broader meaning. Thanks for noticing.

Going International

If you ever wish to feel completely isolated and shunned by society, try promoting the Metric System in the USA. It is an exercise in frustration, and you will be astounded by how much resistance there is to something that makes so much sense. The truth is that we already use metric units in a lot of areas of our lives, and it is standard in science and medicine, for the most part. On my recent doctor visit, as I stepped on the scale, the nurse interviewing me asked if I knew my height. I responded, “170 centimeters”. After some silence, I looked at her and rephrased, “1.7 meters, then.” Ultimately I acquiesced and said I was around five feet seven inches.

This moment notwithstanding, many of us are already using metric units, as I mentioned, whether we realize it or not. For instance, most Americans know how far five kilometers is. Many of us have actually managed to run that distance in under an hour. We can all recognize a 2-liter bottle, and we know how much 500 mg of Tylenol look like, and we know a little about Celsius. So, I think we can handle it. We underestimate our own capacity for adaptation. I think we should see converting to the metric system as a challenge worthy of accepting.

But I often feel utterly alone, inasmuch as I have most of the rest of the world on my side. You see, the United States is one of only three nations that have failed to adopt the metric system formally. The other two, Liberia and Myanmar, may have a pretty good excuse, having been locked in civil war and oppressive military rule, respectively, for more than a decade. What’s our excuse? But as I said earlier, we have already started the process, so a few more steps shouldn’t be to difficult to make.

First, it is not uncommon for street and highway signs to be replaced, and yes it costs taxpayers to replace them, but these costs are always part of state and county budgets, and that’s what taxes are for! Therefore, when speed limit signs are replaced, why not print miles per hour and kilometers per hour (km-h is preferred to kph). The result would be that next time we’re driving on the highway, we might see a sign that reads both “70 mph” and “113 km-h”. After some time, the mph can be removed entirely. That way, when you see a sign that reads “50 km-h” you know you will need to slow down because you’re in a residential zone. A school zone should be about 32 kilometers per hour. It’s a simple matter of learning the new scale. No calculation is necessary.

The same may be said for learning Celsius. In Fahrenheit, we know that water freezes at 32 degrees and it boils at 212º. Celsius is a bit easier to manage with freezing at zero and boiling occurring at 100º. Americans get very confused about where our comfort zone is within this scale. I tell people it’s really pretty easy. We know that zero is the freezing point, so we’ll say you need a coat and gloves, that is we in Texas would agree with this because, well, this is Texas. Anything between zero and 10º is still pretty cold (again, this is Texas), but once you get up to 20º C, you might be okay with no jacket at all. When the temperature hits 30º, it’s warm enough to go swimming (my friends in Norway would go swimming at 14º, but okay). Between 30º and 36º is about where we live in Texas, and it gets above 37º at the peak of summer. 40 degrees is very hot, about Jacuzzi temperature. After that, you’re in some serious heat. Then there’s 50º, which is about the highest temperature in Death Valley or the Iraqi desert. (Actually, I think the world record is nearly 60º.)

Death Valley
Death Valley

I tend to lose people here. But today when I offered to go for a walk with a co-worker, she asked if she needed a jacket. I told her is was 16º and no jacket was needed. After a couple laps around the campus, it was clear that it was warm enough, especially in the sun. I hope she remembers that reference point, and she might be inspired to think metric in the future. But even my wife resists learning the metric system, even though I have a compelling argument, about how it’s based on tens, and a cubic centimeter of water is one mililiter, and it is very close to one gram in mass, depending on temperature. That’s the simplicity of it all. You can divide a meter or a kilogram or a liter by any multiple of ten. Meanwhile, in the States, a foot is one third of a yard, and it is divided into twelve inches. A mile is – whatever! Just use the metric system!

So, I continue on my quixotic mission to get the US on the metric system. One way to immerse yourself is to tell your smartphone to use metric units. At first it will be challenging when your phone tells you, “in 800 meters, turn right…” or when you ask what the temperature is and Siri responds, “it’s 28 degrees C…hot!”. (Okay, Siri. Remember? I live in Texas.)

Eventually we will be on the International System, as it’s called. The internet has exposed Americans to the metric system better and faster than our 4th grade teachers ever could. (I sometimes forget how old I am, and that most of you don’t remember when President Carter tried converting the US back in the 1970’s). Well, we’re ready now, and I think we can switch at long last. Like I said, it’s already started. And I smile as I look at the label on the plastic water bottle next to me, as it reads “500 ml”.

Your Honor, I rest my case.


Myth of Blue

Season 10, Episode 13 of Radio Lab discussed the inconceivable idea that the color blue doesn’t really exist. Strange, I know. Homer, in writing the Iliad and the Odyssey, while using a slew of colors to describe everything from sea monsters to the blood on the sand during the Trojan War, did not once use the word “blue”. As it turns out, many ancient texts never mention the color blue. In the original Hebrew, there is no mention of the color blue in the Bible. Was it that ancient people could not see blue? Is that possible? I mean, what color was the sky 5000 years ago?

ThatRadioLab story really got my attention. In fact, I listened to it repeatedly, again and again. It’s the final segment that gets my attention. It got me thinking to the extent that I wonder now about how our universe exists in our perception, and maybe we don’t have the words to describe it. The ancient world could not describe the color blue because they could not produce the color? If this is true, then we may not be able to perceive the universe as it is, not yet. Looking further in our future, I can conceive that humans may be able to overcome obstacles like self-doubt, regret, hubris, and other roadblocks to our progress. Once hurdled, I believe we could and will solve our biggest problems, like violence, greed, hunger, racism, and the list goes on.

In our future, we may have a word for the thing we don’t know exists. We might let go of our security blanket. We will have answers for all the questions we have today. But I am confident that we will have more answers. And it is my hope that we will never stop searching for the truth. Until then, I believe there is time enough for the things that matter: art, poetry, science, teaching, field trips, exploration, and daydreaming.

Work, the daily grind, will never be celebrated. No one will remember what we toiled at, only that we had our noses to the grindstone. To what point? Work is gratifying sometimes. But creating things, art, architecture, landmarks, and our achievements, these are things that inspire us.

“Earthrise” – Apollo 8 crew

I was just now listening to an interview with Buzz Aldrin, who was talking about his experiences as he walked on the surface of the moon. He and other astronauts were overwhelmed by the magnitude of their achievement, and his subsequent speeches and writings would testify to his feelings of awe in the presence of such a magnificent spectacle of seeing earth from a distance, not to mention walking on another celestial body. For his part, he inspired countless people to follow after him, taking up the banner of reaching further heights than anyone before.

Before people saw earth from the moon, there was no word “earthrise”; at least it was not a common word. There was no word for it because no one had ever seen it, the partially-shaded disc of the earth appearing over the horizon of the moon. It took humanity a million years to get there. I like to imagine, or try to imagine, the strange and beautiful, the bizarre and inconceivable that we will encounter in the future. But we will not get there if we are unable to let go of our superstitions and fears.

WHy is the sky blue? Well, it’s not, really. It’s black and pink and fuzzy and tingly, and it smells like cotton candy. And that’s without mind-altering chemicals.

Now I just need more time to absorb all this. Keep on dreaming, people.


Anything You Ever Wanted to Know

Here in North Texas, on our local public radio station, KERA, there is a weekly call-in show called “Anything You Ever Wanted to Know“, which attempts to answer questions posed by the audience, either via phone or email or Twitter. I am borrowing the title today to explore this notion, that here in the 21st century, we have at our disposal all the knowledge so far gathered about this world and the space beyond it. What have you always wanted to know? Do we believe the answers are out there somewhere? The typical call usually involves someone wanting to know where to find a product or service, or advice on how to get rid of fire ants, or practically anything one could find by using Google or any other search engine (does anyone use Yahoo? Bing?, really?)

How much information is out there is practically unknowable. The wealth of human knowledge is virtually infinite, because it keeps multiplying, and we will never reach the horizon. I can google (see, it’s in our lexicon) anything, and I’ll probably get pages of results. It’s rare – almost unheard of – to get just a few results back, usually by enclosing your search terms in quotes, prompting an exact match requirement. But with so much information out there – videos showing how to separate eggs, circuit board layouts, specifications for building a motorcycle, the complete works of Edgar Allen Poe – you would think that we would be a more literate and enlightened society. There it is. Everything you want to know within a few keystrokes or a mouse-click. And yet, many of us remain in the dark.

Naturally, there are things we may never know, like who was really behind the Kennedy assassination or whether Shakespeare was truly solely responsible for all the works attributed to him. But the great thing about the internet is that all theories have a voice. That’s also one of the worst things about it. But information is valuable, even if it’s wrong. Really. If we only received 100% accurate data, how would we know if it were factual? People in the DPRK (North Korea) receive a certain “truth”, but they are not better off for it.

In my day job, people come to me many times each day with requests for information – information they could gather if they looked for it. I’d like to tell them, “you will find this the same way I would: by looking it up.” The truth is, I have the answers, usually, and I tell them what I know. But my point is, it’s no secret. Anyone can find the answers. They only need to look.

We ought to all be the most informed generation the world has ever seen. We possess all the knowledge from all generations that came before us. Why do we know so little? Why is it more important for us to follow “American Idol” contestants than to learn about the history of the Roman Empire or how to solve math problems? I appreciate that entertainment is an important part of our culture, but maybe we have had our fill. Looking at waistlines, you can understand how Americans approach things. (Sorry, people, but you know I’m right.)

Anyway, I don’t mean to pontificate. I’m as guilty as anyone else for indulging in the inane. One of my favorite guilty pleasures is dash-cam videos from Russia. So, yeah. I realize I should be watching Veritasium, but come on. It’s like I know what foods are good for me, and yet I still like fries. That is another subject, actually, because it goes to evolutionary predisposition. I’ve covered it before, but there’s room for more thought on it, and I’ll more than likely write about it in the near future. We humans tend to desire pleasure more than growth. Growth is painful. Muscles are pulled and stretched in order to be built up. We all know this process to be undesirable, but we like the results, after the soreness vanishes. Expanding one’s mind also requires some exercise. But it will be beneficial in the long run.

If any of us truly do not want to know anything, I feel sorry for them. It’s my primary motivator, beyond the basic element of food and water, to be informed. I want to know stuff. I like knowing about the Tudors or the Etruscans. I love where history and technology intersect. I like listening to all kinds of music. I love haiku. And I want to try new things – things I haven’t dared to try. How to sew a coat, how to make cheesecake from scratch, how to take better photographs. These are all things I’ve challenged myself to accomplish, and I made many mistakes along the way, but that’s part of learning. Anything you ever wanted to know is out there, waiting for you to discover and explore. And if you can’t find the answer, maybe you can become the expert. And next time you are listening to that radio show, you might feel the need to add your input. Jeff Whittington would thank you.

Moon Shadow

Less than two years from now, a total eclipse of the sun will be visible across 11 states in the US. In places like Salem, OR, Idaho Falls, ID, Jackson Hole, WY, St. Louis, MO, and Nashville, TN, people will see day turn into night for as much as 2 minutes and 40 seconds, the maximum shadow duration near Carbondale, IL.

Solar Eclipse Aug 21 2017

Some of my friends have said I am a little obsessive, and why would anyone plan something years in advance. The fact is, nothing on this planet has the power to stop an eclipse. It will happen, no question. In case you don’t know what a solar eclipse is, it is simply when the moon moves into a position between the earth and the sun in such a way as to partially or completely obscure the sun, casting a shadow on the earth. A total eclipse results in darkness, 100% of the sun’s light blocked. There are varying degrees of partial eclipse, including something called an annular eclipse, where the moon covers the center of the sun’s disc.

Solar eclipses occur two or three times per year, but they are not always visible from land. The 20 March 2015 eclipse was only visible from the Arctic Ocean. The last time a total eclipse was visible anywhere in the Americas was 1 August 2008, the moon’s shadow traveling from Nunavut, the Arctic region, to Russia. A total eclipse has not occurred visible within the US since 26 February 1979.

On 21 August 2017, thousands of people are likely to travel to places within the path of the shadow. The whole thing will last only a few minutes in any one location. Astronomers will be sure to have their claims staked out for best viewing. Scientists will certainly take the opportunity to study the sun while the moon is blocking its light. For most people, it will be a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Seven years later, another total eclipse will occur on 8 April 2024. It will also be visible from Carbondale, IL. The faculty at Southern Illinois University have already been preparing for this.

I wonder what the world will be like in nine years.

How to Count to Infinity

Things to Make and do in the Fourth Dimension should be my next read. If you don’t want to watch the video – and who could blame you, it’s a mind-bending trip – you might consider my take on countable infinity:

Imagine you wanted to shake hands with every human on the planet. You would walk down the street, knocking on doors and shaking people’s hands. If you could do this, and you didn’t have to wait for people to come to the door, assuming they would be home, you could cover a city population of 300,000 in 55 days, that is, if everyone lived within ten meters of one another. You could cover the entire population of Norway in…

150 years!

Countably infinite means it is beyond our ability to rationally arrive at the “end” of the line. You would never be able to shake everyone’s hand, much less have an encounter with each one, before another generation arrived to take their place. And you could not live long enough to realize the goal. (Don’t feel bad. Just try to meet the people on your street. That’s better than nothing.)

Infinity is not an imaginary or unrealistic number. But we humans cannot count high enough to conceptualize the Googol (10100). It’s often said that the universe is infinite. It’s hard to imagine, but it is a reality. The distant star’s light reaching our planet started its journey perhaps 300,000 years ago, and by now, any planets in that solar system are now lifeless and the star vanished from the heavens. New stars are being born right now, and their light deceives us because they could be flourishing suns in the skies of distant worlds, but we will never see it. If we ever reach the stars, we might be able to see what became of the lights in our night sky. But we might also witness the births of unimaginable civilizations. History in the making.

My favorite thought of the day: Infinity + 1 = infinity, therefore, 1 + 1 = 1

Take that, [insert middle school math teacher’s name]!