Thursday, April 24, 2014

Toothpick tripod: microwaving butter without melting it

toothpick tripod method butter microwave without melting puddling Josef Spalenka
The Toothpick Tripod Method of Microwaving Butter

Have you ever wondered how to soften butter in the microwave without it melting?

Softening refrigerated butter in a microwave to make it instantly spreadable has been a challenge to humanity for more than half a century. The inherent difficulty of microwaving butter is so well known that it was recently illustrated in a popular webcomic by The Oatmeal. Microwaving butter resting directly on a plate results in partial melting and puddling. Additionally, the time window between spreadably soft butter and mostly liquid butter is very narrow, and is highly variable depending on the microwave oven used, the size of the butter pat, and the material composition of the plate.

I am pleased to announce that this butter softening challenge has finally been solved.

I recently noticed that the initial puddling phenomenon always starts at the bottom of the butter pat where it contacts the plate, but the plate itself does not necessarily get hot and cause the melting. Even starting with a refrigerated plate results in melting from the bottom of the butter pat first. My idea was to elevate the butter pat above the plate, using toothpicks as shown in the above image, to avoid contact with the plate and hopefully achieve even heating without melting. I call this "The Toothpick Tripod Method" of microwave butter softening.

A tripod was chosen because it is the most efficient method to form a stable elevated support, with minimal surface area contact to the butter, and it is suitable for a butter pat of any shape. A bonus byproduct of this method, is that it also solves the problem of variable heating between different microwave ovens. Using the toothpick tripod method, you can simply set the microwave for any sufficiently long length of time, and then carefully watch the microwave until the buttery tripod softens and falls down under its own weight. The result is perfectly spreadable butter with no melted liquid, every time.

Try it for yourself!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Science Cats! Volume 2

This is a continuation of the Science Cats! theme I started last month. If you enjoy these, feel free to share them with friends and family, and make suggestions or requests in the comments.

Rutherford scattering experiment 1911 Science Cats! Chloe cat Josef Spalenka
Illustration of the classic Rutherford scattering experiment in which alpha particles (helium nuclei) elastically scatter from the nuclei of gold atoms (elastic scattering means the lighter α particles bounce off of the heavy Au atoms like billiard balls without losing their speed). In 1911, Ernest Rutherford used this experiment to prove that most of the mass of an atom is tightly concentrated in a tiny core nucleus in the atom, falsifying the previous "plum pudding model" of the atom in which the electrons are dispersed throughout a smeared-out positive spherical volume like blueberries in a muffin. The Rutherford Model for the atom was later updated in 1913 by the Bohr Model, which begins to hint at the first quantum mechanical picture of the atom. In this incarnation of the Rutherford scattering experiment, Chloe serves as the source of α particles.

Nicolaus Copernicus science cats heliocentric heliocentrism Jan Matejko Josef Spalenka
Polish astronomer and mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus formulated and published the heliocentric model in the first half of the 16th century, forever changing how humanity viewed its relationship to the Cosmos. The awe and majesty of this newly expanded cosmic perspective was beautifully captured in this 1873 oil painting by artist Jan Matejko (also Polish). In the foreground of the painting, Chloe plays with a rope and a random wooden pulley thing, completely oblivious to beauty and grandeur of the rest of the universe.

Antoine Lavoisier Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze chemistry Chloe science cats Josef Spalenka
Chloe disrupts a tender moment between Antoine Lavoisier and his wife (and scientific collaborator) Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze. Lavoisier is widely considered to be the founder of modern quantitative chemistry. He recognized and named the elements oxygen and hydrogen, predicted the existence of silicon, debunked the widely-held but incorrect phlogiston theory of combustion and oxidation, and played a major role in constructing the metric system. In spite of his incredible and far-reaching contributions to humanity, he was summarily guillotined in the aftermath of the French Revolution and overshadowed by politicians and war heroes in the history textbooks. So it goes.

Science cats Chloe Robert Goddard rockets rocketry liquid-fueled Josef Spalenka
"Professor Goddard does not know the relation between action and reaction and the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react. He seems to lack the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high schools." -New York Times editorial from January 13, 1920, which was famously retracted in 1969 after the Apollo moon landing. Robert Goddard was ridiculed by the unimaginative fools in the press throughout his career and as a result kept much of his groundbreaking work private. His liquid-fueled multistage rockets were major milestones in the development of rocketry and the advance of space exploration.

If you liked these, be sure to check out Science Cats Volume 1!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Science Cats! Volume 1

Isaac Newton white light spectrum optics cat chloe Cosmos Josef Spalenka
Sir Isaac Newton and assistants explore the visible light spectrum, refraction, and optics in 1666.

I am making a series of pictures celebrating the history of science and technology by inserting our cat, Chloe, into photoshopped science-themed images. They mostly represent themes in the new episodes of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. I will periodically add more pictures to this gallery as new episodes of Cosmos air on television, and as I think of new ideas (or get any interesting requests). Enjoy the science cats!

Watson and Crick DNA double helix model 1953 Chloe cat science Josef Spalenka
Chloe, Watson, and Crick demonstrated the first correct model for DNA in 1953. Francis Crick points at the double helix model while James Watson and Chloe look on. Rosalind Franklin (not pictured) provided crucial X-ray diffraction evidence, but sadly was not awarded a share of the 1962 Nobel Prize with the pictured scientists.

Chloe cat Cosmos Albert Einstein pipe smoke Josef Spalenka
Chloe and Albert have a contemplative smoke break together and think about the theoretical implications of curved space-time.

transistor electronics 1948 William Shockley John Bardeen Walter Brattain Bell Labs Chloe Cat Josef Spalenka
The September 1948 cover of Electronics Magazine showing the inventors of the first transistor in their workshop at Bell Labs: John Bardeen (background with glasses), Walter Brattain (right with mustache), and William Shockley (seated pretending to work). The three men would later share the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics. The development of the semiconductor transistor ignited the computer revolution and directly led to the domination of cat pictures on the internet. Shockley later founded Shockley Semiconductor in Mountain View, CA, effectively establishing Silicon Valley.

Marie Curie radioactivity radium polonium Chloe cat science cosmos Josef Spalenka
Marie Curie discovered the radioactive elements radium and polonium in 1898, the latter of which was named after her native homeland of Poland. She shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics with her husband, Pierre Curie, the French physicist Henri Becquerel, and their mischievous lab cat Chloe.

Tiktaalik chloe cat science evolution Neil Shubin Cosmos Josef Spalenka
*boop* Chloe travels 375 Million years back in time and encounters Tiktaalik, an excellent example of a transitional fossil which has mixed characteristics of both fish and tetrapods. As Chloe learned in the excellent book, Your Inner Fish (written by Tiktaalik discoverer Neil Shubin), the anatomy and physiology of both cats and humans shares much in common with their fishy ancestors.

gravitational lensing effect cat galaxies Hubble Chloe Josef Spalenka
A pair of distant cat's eye galaxies are magnified and distorted by the gravitational lensing effect of the Large Red Galaxy (LRG 3-757) in the foreground.

cation cat Chloe carbonate Cosmos "dichloe carbonate" Josef Spalenka
Artist's depiction of dichloe carbonate ions in solution. Originally made for Cosmos episode 2: "Some of the Things That Molecules Do."

Chloe cat Cosmos Helix Nebula space FOX Purrrfect Josef Spalenka
Chloe the cat in front of the Helix Nebula, which is used in the Cosmos logo.
Originally made as a cheesy ad for Cosmos episode 1: "Standing Up in the Milky Way."

Chloe cat science cats! cardboard space shuttle Atlantis costume Halloween Josef Spalenka
The photograph that inspired this series. Chloe inside my cardboard Space Shuttle Atlantis costume from Halloween 2011 in Madison, Wisconsin.

I hope you enjoyed these images of our cat, Chloe, reveling in the wonders of science and exploring the Cosmos! Let me know in the comments if you have any ideas or requests for future "Science Cats!" images, and I can add them to Science Cats Volume 2. And feel free to copy, link, and share with your friends, family, and coworkers!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Save the Rainforest with Genetic Engineering

rainforest genetic engineering exotic wood marquetry plantation agriculture by Josef Spalenka

Everyone wants to "Save the Rainforest," but how can it be done most effectively? The current method of protecting ecologically and biologically diverse areas of the tropical rainforest is basically to convince governments to draw an imaginary fence around them, and protect what's inside the fence with a police force and the court system. Since the rainforest is still so vast, and the resources for policing its destruction are comparatively small, it is nearly impossible to protect all of the world's remaining rainforest from the constant nibbling of unlawful clearing by what are essentially small bands of rainforest "tree poachers."

Rather than using threat of criminal punishment, or campaigns of global shame and opprobrium, it is much more effective to change the economic incentives that drive the clearing of the rainforest. The first thing to realize is that people don't clear rainforest because they are stupid or evil or ignorant of its beauty (or because they have a blood feud with toucans). People clear rainforest because there are personal economic incentives to do so.

What are the main economic drivers for clearing the rainforest? One primary driver (particularly in Brazil) is to claim new land area for grazing cattle and raising agricultural crops, and the second primary driver is the harvesting of exotic wood species such as mahogany and teak for luxury export.

Much has been written on how to change the economic incentives for claiming forested land for cattle grazing and agriculture, such as convincing people globally to eat less beef, changing the tariffs on imports and exports to dis-incentivize the production of Brazilian beef and other agricultural products grown on former rainforest soil, and using technology to dramatically improve the efficiency of food production elsewhere so that it is impossible profitably produce food on the lower fertility soils of cleared rainforest. These are all important economic ideas, but I want to focus instead on alternatives to harvesting exotic trees for timber.

Supplying the luxury wood market with a cheaper alternative that fills the same essential need is the best way to reduce demand pressure on "the real thing."

Currently, valuable exotic wood grows sparsely and inaccessibly sprinkled throughout remote locations the forest, rather than in dense accessible clusters of the most valuable and prized trees. The most efficient way right now to select the few valuable logs from the rest of the lower-value surrounding greenery is to slash down all of it, and pick up the wheat from the chaff. I suggest that new exotic tree farming practices situated in less remote locations, combined with genetically modified exotic tree-stock that can grow well in regions that are not considered critical rainforest habitat, could meet the demand for the exotic wood market without threatening ecologically diverse protected areas.

Harvesting exotic wood species from untouched old-growth rainforest is extremely economically inefficient, and almost any alternative source would be cheaper. Exotic wood species did not evolve to grow as fast as biologically possible, because natural trees must always "hedge their bets" against temporary resource scarcity and devote nutrients towards defense mechanisms against competing species. There is no clear reason that the woods prized for bar-tops and luxurious conference room tables can only grow only in the poor soils of a rainforest, decorated and bejeweled with exotic parrots and iridescent insects. They could be cultivated and nurtured in a separately managed tree farm with a minimal number of symbiotic animal and insect species required for them to thrive. It seems reasonable to believe that a fast-growing, densely clustered "artificial" exotic tree crop could be engineered to have essentially the same hardness, color, and grain structure as the "natural" exotic wood it mimics.

Compared to our ancient experience with cultivating domesticated grain and vegetable crops, humans are currently just at the dawn of cultivating forest products for the purposes of renewable paper production and construction lumber. The spread of these practices from the abundant and well-known wood species of North America to the obscure and exotic wood species of the rainforests in South America, Africa, and Indonesia seems like a natural extension. Commercial teak plantations, for example, already exist in a few tropical regions and hopefully more exotic wood plantations are soon to follow.

Historic Georgetown, Colorado denuded of trees for use as fuel (top).
And Georgetown today with much of the local forest restored (bottom).

Some readers may be skeptical that such wicked things as big business and the machinations of the global industrial economy can actually prevent the destruction of sensitive ecological habitat, rather than being its primary cause. However, there is historical precedent for this. Many people don't realize, for example, that the forests of North America and Europe are on average thicker and denser today than they were a century ago. This was not primarily because of new regulations and new breakthroughs in arboreal police enforcement. It was because wood is no longer so useful as a fuel, and it has been largely replaced by more efficient and cheaper alternatives. The 20th century addiction to cheap and energy dense fossil fuels, far from accelerating the overall destruction of forests worldwide, has to a large degree saved and restored them.

Interestingly, the people who are most concerned about the loss of the rainforest and loss of biodiversity are often the same people who are most worried and fearful about genetic engineering and intensive farming. I hope we can eventually advance the global conversation and come to some agreement that there are ways in which responsible genetic engineering and widespread industrial tree cultivation could be a potential savior of natural biodiversity in the wild.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

What Annoying Radio Commercials Teach About Life



When local radio commercials have the audacity to interrupt my music listening experience, my usual response is to immediately change the station. But today, quite accidentally, I thought about them just a little differently.

I realized that instead of treating radio commercials as a pesky and unwelcome intrusion...it is more fun to think of them as a minor anthropological safari: If you listen closely and with the right frame of mind, you can interpret radio ads as a window into your neighbors' fears and hopes and worries and dreams. They might even be a reflection of some of your own greatest fears and hopes and worries. That is exactly what the marketer desires, of course. They desperately hope that you have a big hole in your life, and that their product or service is just the thing that will fix the hole for you. All you have to do is Act Now! while the offer lasts. (Because supplies are limited)

As an illustration of this radio listening mindset, I have applied a little analytical elbow grease to three radio commercials that I heard in my car just today: (1) The Miracle Weight Loss Program, (2) The Senior Living Center Adventureland, and (3) Flipping Houses to Prosperity.

Miracle weight loss program

We have all heard thousands of commercials purporting a miracle weight loss cure. And we already know that obesity is a big problem in the United States...this is not a very insightful new revelation to be gleaned from the radio. However, a particular commercial I heard today caught my attention like a thunderclap because it didn't just talk about how quickly its weight loss program achieves results, how cheap it is, or whether it requires herbs or surgeries. Instead, this commercial provided testimony from a satisfied customer, and she described exactly how achieving her weight loss goal had tangibly changed her life:

"After participating in the miracle weight loss program, I was extremely happy with the results. I've never felt better. I even noticed that people actually listen to me at work now!"

Did you catch that?

This woman lost a tremendous amount of weight in a short time, by whatever method, and then directly reported what the primary benefit was to her life. She didn't say that the weight loss allowed her to play with her kids in the park without getting tired. She didn't say she felt sexier or looked better in a bra and panties. She didn't say that that it was easier to find clothes her size, or express any elation that a lower BMI might extend her life expectancy by a decade or two.

She said that it changed the way people listened to her at work.

Holy hell that is an unexpected answer!

This woman revealed that the biggest change in transforming from a critically overweight body to a healthier body was not the marked improvement in her own health and wellness, and it wasn't more opportunities for sexual attention.

She thought that her coworkers ignored her opinions more when she was obese.

Paradoxically, the physically widest people in the United States are the ones who feel the most invisible. I never actually knew that before today, because I have been genetically and geographically lucky enough to never be seriously obese. I didn't learn that obese people feel small and ignored from a book or from a movie or in a classroom...I learned it instead from a local radio commercial.

Senior living center adventureland

Why haven't you already checked your elderly loved ones into an assisted living center? What are you waiting for? I don't know what's holding you back from acting now, but contrary to popular belief some retirement homes are actually an AdventureLand Paradise. According to a local radio commercial I heard today, that is most definitely the case.

"My father is having more adventures now that he lives in the senior center than he ever had before! He goes bowling almost every day. All of his old friends from the neighborhood wish they could be having as much fun as Dad is having right now!"

Many people worry—desperately—that moving their elderly parents or grandparents to an assisted living center is like locking them away in a mental institution or something and throwing away the key. Some of the elderly person's freedoms may be severely reduced and nobody feels very good about that. Sending Grandpa or Grandma to the nursing home may even feel on some level like kicking dirty laundry under the bed so you don't have the burden of seeing it and dealing with it every day. Under the bed, the laundry is safely out of sight, and out of mind. That's not how the transition to a nursing home really is, but that can be what it feels like to frustrated and tired younger family members.

If you could be convinced (say, by a radio commercial) that there is actually a raucous dirty laundry party happening under the bed, wouldn't that make the decision so much easier? In that case, you are practically depriving your underpants from the party of the century by continuing to let them roam freely and unassisted, strewn recklessly across your bedroom carpet! Kick those underpants under the bed right quick!

It is absolutely necessary for elderly people to move into an assisted living center at some point in their lives, because eventually they do need extra medical and personal care that can't be adequately provided by family and friends. The really, really, really hard question is "when?"

The comforting falsehood provided over the radio waves is that the move to the nursing home will be a grander adventure than what the older person had even when they were younger and still living freely on their own. If that were truly the case, then young people would be clamoring to move into assisted living centers, too...so they could get a piece of all of this wonderful adventuring action. If it was only a matter of cost, then the privileged, rich, young people would be eagerly in line at the door of the AdventureLand Nursing Home. The wretched young people with no money would be stuck in the wide world outside the nursing home, with no great adventures to be had.

I completely understand the worry and the guilt that the radio advertisement is trying to assuage. The truth is it's simply not going to be a grander adventure inside the nursing home, but it can at least be a comfortable and dignified way to live out the rest of your life. Unfortunately, a promise of a more comfortable, convenient, and dignified living arrangement in a senior center doesn't sell as well as promises of endless adventures. Plain truthful speaking about what life will really be like in the sunset of our lives doesn't get so many people to Act Now! while there's still unfilled space at the local nursing home.

Flipping Houses to Prosperity

Seminars promising riches for "flipping houses" are ubiquitous, with the recent availability of many foreclosed properties in the wake of the 2008 housing crisis. The insta-wealth promised from flipping houses has a lot in common with other get-rich-quick-and-easy schemes.

The underlying premise is that prosperity comes from (1) gaining some secret knowledge in a brief seminar, (2) acting fast because the opportunity is extremely limited, and (3) you don't have to personally risk anything financially.

All of these premises reinforce the idea that only a small minority of people can prosper at the expense of others by leveraging a small amount of secret knowledge, that they can be winners by acting faster than everyone else, and that it's not at all financially risky (You could even risk other people's money!).

All of these premises are extremely flawed.

One of the hardest things to learn about life is that many of the best and most important achievements come from acting slowly and deliberately over a long period of time, and from acting wisely on knowledge that is anything but secret. In fact the most important knowledge to learn is criminally, painfully widespread...it is even completely free for the taking on Wikipedia!

For example, here is the Wikipedia page for compound interest. If you don't understand exponential growth and compound interest very well in this world, it will eventually bite you in the ass. Being able to understand this one crucial concept is the key to almost everything one has to know about credit cards, mortgages, car financing, retirement investing, and student loans. A failure to understand the perils of compound interest (along with a little reckless spending) is the source of most personal debt crises. A successful mastery of compound interest (along with a little self-discipline) is a proven road to prosperity. It doesn't take a super-secret seminar or any fast-acting on a special limited-time offer. All it takes a little common mathematical know-how and a dash of something much harder to acquire than that: the ability to delay gratification.

You just can't make a lot of money without ever risking any money and delaying gratification. Risk and reward are intrinsically tied together. Stocks typically are more financially rewarding in the long term than bonds, because they are also significantly riskier than bonds. One of the absolute riskiest things you can possibly do financially is to plow all of your life savings into starting a new business venture. It's also one of the most financially rewarding things you can possibly do...if you happen to have built the right business at the right time.

For an excellent and accessible introductory book on smart long-term investing, I recommend The Investor's Manifesto by William Bernstein. If every student had to read and understand something like that in high school, we would be a lot better off than we are now. The Investor's Manifesto most definitely does not recommend flipping houses, while magically using other people's money.

"Act now!" the radio commercials tell us.

Perhaps someday they will also tell us to act wisely.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Paddle Your Own Canoe



Yesterday I started listening to the Audiobook Paddle Your Own Canoe, "One Man's Fundamentals for Delicious Living." It is both written and narrated by Nick Offerman, best known on television as Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation. It's because of works like these that audiobooks are a valuable format and can sometimes surpass the experience of reading the book they are based on. There is something really special about an audiobook that is read by its own author, when it's done really, really well. And Offerman surely does it well. The only other author I can think of who can regularly pull off this feat is Neil Gaiman.

I don't have any more cogent thoughts than that for now. Perhaps once I've finished the audiobook, I will update this stubby article with some important thoughts about the philosophy of eating barbecued red meat and how to make your own way as a nonconformist man in modern America.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Why is 3D Binaural Sound So Damn Relaxing?


Sometimes when I'm having trouble sleeping, I listen to 3D binaural sound (also known as holophonic sound) to help clear my mind of racing thoughts and finally fall asleep. Binaural sound is a special type of audio recording that uses two microphones embedded in the locations of the ears in a dummy head. When listening to this holophonic recording through a pair of earbuds or headphones, the result is a compelling illusion that the recorded sounds are located in 3D space around your own head. Listening to the recording without earphones doesn't work and ruins the auditory illusion. These types of audio recordings elicit an ASMR response in many people: a pleasant tingling sensation in the scalp and neck. After listening to many of these recordings of rain storms, of a virtual barbershop, of a woman crumpling pieces of paper, and most recently of a guy slowly opening a box containing bubble wrap and a bag of sand...I wondered. Why is lying in the dark with my eyes closed, listening to a guy slowly opening a cardboard box, such an utterly relaxing experience? Why does it help me sleep and clear my mind?

Am I a crazy person?



 Binaural recording of a cardboard box being slowly unwrapped


I think the reason listening to these binaural recordings is so relaxing is because it closely approximates the practice of mindfulness meditation. As I understand it, mindfulness is essentially training your mind to let your present sensory experience wash over you, without judging it or interrogating it with chattering thoughts. One of the payoffs of this attentiveness to the present moment is that it allows you to escape, if only for a short while, from your anxiety about past mistakes, and from your worries about the uncertain future. It is very difficult to be envious of your neighbor, to be angry at your spouse, to be stressed about your job, or to agonize about money while lying in a dark and silent room just listening to a guy...slowly and carefully unwrap a cardboard box.


As I was recently reminded by an astoundingly clear-sighted lecture by Sam Harris, most of us spend our whole lives thinking mostly about the future and about the past, without ever truly connecting with the present moment. We get expensive University degrees, and get jobs to earn lots of money, and invest money over decades into a retirement account in the anticipation that we will achieve happiness at some distant point in the future. I guess listening to a binaural recording in the quiet secret spaces of the night is a tiny way to set all of that aside, and to be contented with the present moment for just long enough to be taken by the sweet embrace of sleep.


A poetic excerpt from the Sam Harris lecture "Death and the Present Moment"