Jan 062011
home-made Christmas tree ornaments

Our Christmas tree was a small live sapling in a pot, and we hope to be able to use it again next year.

In our in our house we’ve decided to start a tradition of leaving Christmas decorations up till January 5, which means that we can continue to enjoy them throughout the “12 days of Christmas” (yes, the traditional period of “Christmastide” only begins on December 25).  Appreciating this duration in our season of Christmas might even help avoid the commercial and materialistic extremes of what Bill Bailey has called the “primary gifting period”.

This all means that we took down our tree last night, which is the reason for writing about Christmas ornaments now even though its too late.  Things like this could work really well for Easter too, so publishing it now gives you all time to have a go yourself. Continue reading »

Jan 042011

I’m sure you’ve experienced the frustration of trying to extract a small gadget from it’s plastic clamshell packaging.  If not, then you have avoided one of the great curses of our high-tech culture.  These tough plastic cases are fused together in a factory, in an apparent attempt to prevent any purchaser from actually being able to access their new toy.  Trying to open such packets invariably leads to a furious anger which, I was delighted to learn, is known as “wrap rage”.

This large clamshell package with two cardboard inserts was simply to hold a 1 metre audio cable until I had it at home!

Beyond being almost impossible to open, this sort of packaging leads to a deeper fury about resource management.  Hard plastic clamshells add weight to products while they are transported, so their distribution costs more energy.  If they are ever actually pried open, they are immediately rubbish.  Hopefully they will be recycled, which still requires further energy, but too often the refined transparent plastic is just sent to landfill.

A while ago I was on a holiday and decided to play a video off my laptop.  I was able to connect the computer to the large television display, but my gadget travel-bag didn’t include the required audio cable.  Since my laptop speaker is poor, I went and bought a short wire to do the job.

The cable was only 1 metre long and would have fit in a small paper bag, but instead it was housed in a typically enormous clamshell package.  Being on holiday meant that I was not suitably armed to penetrate such a sturdy exoskeleton, and much wrap rage ensued.

I had seriously entertained the idea of asking the shop assistant to open the plastic and deal with the rubbish in-store, and I think I will make that my policy from now on.

Recycled cardboard packaging, with natural string and paper loops holding cable in place.

Buying an HDMI cable recently threatened to be a similar experience, but became an epiphany when I saw a cardboard box gleaming out from between the garish plastic clamshells.  Not only was the box recycled and recyclable, but the cable was made from “components which comply with the Regulation of Hazardous Substances directive” in a factory that has an “Environment Management System certified under the international standard ISO14001”.

They even donate $1.50 from each pack sold to Landcare Australia, who empower volunteers to “breathe new life into waterways”, “bring back trees”, and “restore wildlife habitats”.  Even if only half of these claims are true, this  is an exciting future for wrapping gadgets.

Oct 062010

As I began looking at what goes into food I was surprised by the ingredients in packets of chips.  It turns out that different flavours vary wildly in terms of ingredients and additives, and there are general patterns that apply across many brands.  Perhaps the most surprising thing of all is that good old plain salty chips are remarkably simple and natural! Continue reading »

Sep 202010

I have not written much here about food.  In fact, the only post that would come close was a report on the success of our verandah-garden some time ago.  Recently I’ve been doing a bit of thinking about food and what goes into it, which all started with some research into those little numbers that typically appear in the “ingredients” list on the side of food packets.  I was sure that lots of those numbers stood for fairly ordinary food items, but I had a suspicion that some of them were hiding nasty un-foody chemicals.

It is fairly easy to identify the numbers which are simply shorthand for regular ingredients, as their names are familiar.  Number 330, for instance, is nothing more mysterious than citric acid.  Trying to sort out the more unpleasant additives is a much more difficult challenge.  Chemicals must be approved before they are allowed to be used in food, but there are some officially approved additives which can be linked to health problems.  The difficult part is that most of these cases are only documented anecdotally, and it is easy to find conspiracy theorists who massively over-react to the more sensible data.

The best discussion of harmful additives, exploring the science as well as many personal anecdotes, is the Food Intolerance Network website.  They have a handy summary of additives to try and avoid, which I have printed off and placed in my wallet.  I’m not claiming this list to be the definitive judgement on food additives, but it is a good enough starting point for me to perform an experiment every time I go shopping for groceries.  I’m trying to find out how easy it is to live without eating “bad numbers”.

bread loaf on cooling rack

Making food from scratch is the best way to be sure of what goes into it.

I  have to admit that I’ve been surprised by the ubiquity of unpleasant additives.  Preservatives are especially widespread, and can be found even in many “health” foods.  There are some particularly interesting “results” of my experiment that I will be writing up and sharing here over the next little while.

Perhaps it isn’t obvious why I’ve chosen to write about food in this “Changing the World” category.  However, I believe that global health and personal health are related.  It seems apparent that sustainable interaction with our natural environment will maintain the most abundant way of living.  There’s little sense aiming for a planet that will support life to the full, if we’re eating ourselves to death or depression or distraction.

Sep 062010
Shaving with a straight razor

Two years ago my quest for the most eco-friendly shave led me to the Straight Razor.  I bought a reconditioned 70 year old razor to give it a try, and was soon convinced of its supremacy.  Although they are sometimes called “cut-throats” by people who wish to denigrate their safety, there is no better way to shave.

Razor on shaving soap box.

My 70 year old reconditioned razor, with wooden soap box and shaving brush.

I wanted to share my findings and some of the useful information that helped get me started, but thought it best to wait until I was sure that I could actually use a straight razor day after day.  It didn’t take me long to decide that my straight razor was here to stay, but shaving with it became such a normal everyday activity that it hardly seemed newsworthy.

But then, on a weight-restricted cycle adventure, I temporarily switched back to disposable razors.

It was terrible.  The silly plastic handle felt all flimsy in my hand.  The shave was sloppy.  The pathetic little blades got all clogged up after every stroke.  The plastic safety frame made it difficult to trim edges, and didn’t stop the razor from cutting me regularly.  On top of all this, I had to throw it into landfill after just a few shaves.  The experience convinced me that straight razors certainly are worth writing about.

Continue reading »

Aug 162010

As Australia approaches a federal election with scarcely a decent option on the ballot paper, one of the issues that I wish would receive more attention is international aid.  Australia has committed to the Millennium Development Goals, which involve serious effort to eliminate extreme poverty by 2015.  That deadline is rapidly approaching, and will be upon us by the end of this next term of Australian government.

I sent the following letter 4 days ago in response to a Liberal Party announcement, to make sure that politicians are aware that this issue matters.

Dear Foreign Minister Smith and Prime Minister Gillard,

This afternoon Julie Bishop committed to appointing a Minister for International Development in an elected coalition government.

I am well aware of our globally privileged position in Australia, and am anxious to use this position of wealth to help those in our international community who are less fortunate.

A Minister for International Development may improve the effectiveness of our aid, but I see that you have a wonderful opportunity to surpass the Liberal party’s proposal.

Will you commit to policies that achieve the Millennium Development Goals by their 2015 deadline?

I don’t claim this to be the best possible letter, but I was trying to ask for more than just a matching announcement about appointing a new minister.  I was (and remain) concerned that such an appointment might end up being more about show and noise than about genuine commitment to action.  Thus I asked more generally for policies that achieve the MDGs.

I have just received the following response from the Australian Labor Party.  Continue reading »

May 102010

Although we are developing a healthy distaste for it, petrol remains a necessity for most of us.  This is unlikely to change until technologies like the GM-Volt become more available. Anyone trying to minimise their negative global impact must therefore seek the most socially responsible petrol from a set of fairly unpleasant options.  I posed the question to myself this way: “how can I buy the least evil petrol?”

In (mostly) free market economies we have a lot of power as consumers, as suppliers will follow demand.  By carefully selecting the goods and services that we consume, we can exercise our power of demand and literally alter the behaviour of much larger entities such as multi-national corporations.  This is why it is important to seek socially responsible petrol. Continue reading »

Aug 282009

About a fortnight ago Clansi drew my attention to a Sydney Morning Herald article about volunteer computing with BOINC. The Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) allows research teams to set up projects where anyone can get their computer to help with number-crunching. One of the most famous projects is SETI@Home (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence).

The BOINC client gets computational jobs to do from the project server, and works on them when it notices that you are not using your computer. Participants all over the world create an giant distributed “super-computer”, and idle computers do something useful.

I decided to try it out, and installed the client on my laptop about a week ago. I’ve been very impressed with the way that it does its stuff in the background, and have not had it interfere with any of my computer usage. It’s even smart enough to know not to run when I’m operating on battery power!

I’m participating in the Spinhenge@home project, which is researching “nano-magnetic molecules”. This field is somewhat related to my own research.

Here is a snapshot of my statistics so far:

My BOINC statistics

Mar 042009

Last night I attended the most recent of the public lectures in the Australian Academy of Science’s series “Australia’s Renewable Energy Future”. Dr Steve Schuck, Manager of Bioenergy Australia, spoke about biomass as a renewable energy source. His presentation slides are available, and are worth looking at if you want more details.

Bioenergy is chemical energy stored in biological systems. an obvious example is wood, which can be burned for heat (for example). Burning biomass like this does release carbon into the atmosphere, but it is carbon which has only recenly been captured from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. This is fundamentally different from fossil fuels, which release carbon that has been out of circulation in the biosphere for a long time.

Bioenergy makes up about 11% of the global energy consumption. Systems range from internal wood combusting fireplaces used for heating individual homes, all the way to massive powerstations that supply electricity and heat to cities. One of the largest biomass-capable powerstations in the world is the Avedøre-2 power plant in Copenhagen, which is able to “supply district heat to about 180,000 homes and provide electricity consumption for 800,000 households.” Continue reading »