Monthly Archives: August 2009


27 Aug

Afraid of Your Food?

Posted by on August 27, 2009 at 9:26 pm

It’s hard not to dwell on food safety these days. Salmonella and E. coli have made numerous appearances in strange foods such as pistachios, spinach, peanut butter, and cookies as of late. Many Americans have lost confidence in the safety of their food supply as a result of these seemingly unusual outbreaks. But before you join the ranks of suspicious consumers let me give you a few things to consider.

Concerns about food safety are certainly nothing new. In fact, thousands of years ago Roman law prohibited the sale of adulterated food and punished offenders with mine duty or exile. Even in the unrefined atmosphere of the 13th century trade guilds for butchers and bakers had authority to monitor and confiscated unwholesome goods. These guilds were not necessarily looking out for the public’s wellbeing; rather they were looking out for their own best interests. The guildsmen knew that there was a direct correlation between product quality and marketplace profits. They understood that when customers have confidence in the safety of their food supply business booms.

Here's yet another visualization courtesy of Jason.

Here's yet another awesome visualization courtesy of Jason. Does he look terrified of that peanut butter wannabee?

It would seem logical to assume that as human knowledge has increased over the centuries that food safety has inevitably improved as well. Unfortunately that is not the case. Spidey’s Uncle had it right when he said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” During the last half of the nineteenth century significant advances in chemistry made possible an abundance of new food additives and colorants – countless novel ways to adulterate and basically poison food. It took some time, and many unfortunate events, for food regulations to catch up to science. Here are some of the stranger things you may not know about food’s shadier recent past.

Since food regulations were lagging behind scientific progress near the turn of the century, citizens starting taking matters into their own hands. In 1883 a man named Dr. Harvey Wiley, the head chemist at the U.S. Bureau of Chemistry, started documenting the extensiveness of food adulteration in the United States. He formed a “poison squad” made up individuals who willingly consumed suspicious food additives that were commonly used at the time, such as formaldehyde, and documented the ill effects on their health. Yes, just like lab rats. The atrocious symptoms of these volunteers helped fuel public outrage and awareness. But, despite growing public concern, questionable preservatives and colorants continued to make their way into food without any evidence of their safety. Regulatory change was on the way however; the last straw was the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which vividly depicted the unsanitary conditions in the meat-packing industry. Having read this book myself I can attest to the disgusting images it conveys. (Workers accidentally falling into vats = extra lard.) The Pure Food and Drug Act soon followed in 1906: the beginnings of modern federal food regulation.

Is that where our story ends? Was everything happy ever after? Ah…no. The Pure Food and Drug Act was crude by today’s standards and certainly not all encompassing, so more tragedy naturally followed.

In 1937 a drug company decided to make sulfanilamide, a new drug used to treat strep throat, more appealing to children by mixing it with diethylene glycol, a sweet tasting liquid. The drug company performed no safety testing on their new mixture. Within weeks of this product, Elixir of Sulfanilamide, hitting the market over a hundred deaths were reported to the FDA. But these weren’t just any fatalities; most of the unfortunate victims were children who died excruciatingly. The public was incensed. As a result of this horrible affair, in 1938 the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act was passed. Not surprisingly, this new law required drugs to undergo premarketing safety testing.

But that’s the end of it, right? After 1938 all foods were safe and wholesome? Not so. Despite the potential danger of food colorants, the Color Additive Amendment to the FD&C Act was not passed into law until 1960. This amendment finally required safety testing on color additives. In 1973 a large number of botulism outbreaks from canned foods resulted in low-acid food processing regulations. In 1982, after cyanide placed in Tylenol capsules caused multiple deaths, tamper-resistant packaging regulations emerged. And lastly, in 1990 the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act was passed and those nutrition labels we all depend on came into being; yes, those lovely things that have made it possible for me to determine that if I consume more than 0.0034% of a scoop of Haagen-Dazs ice cream I will morph into something that resembles the Stay Puffed marshmallow man.

What I hope you gleamed from this brief history is that the safety of our food supply has increased enormously over the last century. You don’t have to worry about the dye from your lollypop turning you into a tumor reservoir or getting served a slice of tubercular beef – both legitimate concerns for consumers a hundred years ago.

I also hope my synopsis has led to the realization that outbreaks of food borne illness are regrettably nothing new. You don’t have to glimpse far into the past to grasp this. What we have been experiencing lately is not that out of the norm. But don’t let that discourage you. Science is always progressing and regulations are always changing as they adapt to the current concerns of society. We learn. Perhaps you have concluded, in view of recent events, that food producers in general don’t take safety concerns seriously. That is definitely not the case. Food producers aren’t dumb, with a few exceptions, and just like the guildsmen of the 13th century they know that it is to their advantage to keep the food supply safe. Outbreaks and recalls are expensive and often have long-term economic consequences for companies. So they look out for your interests because it’s in their best interest – let the warm fuzzies begin.

I have worked for several food companies and all of them have been very diligent about insuring only safe and wholesome food is released into the marketplace. So don’t let the rare instance of an imbecilic CEO knowingly distributing tainted food alter your opinion of the food supply in general. Although change may be on the horizon and reform may be needed to make our food regulatory system less cumbersome and more capable of impeding the few morons out there, you don’t need to be afraid of your food.

18 Aug

SCC Secretary

Posted by on August 18, 2009 at 10:07 pm

I was recently asked to serve as the secretary of my chapter of the SCC. So what is the SCC? Society for Claustrophobic Clowns? No, it’s the Society of Cosmetic Chemists. I know that name sounds nearly as fictitious, but the SCC is a legitimate scientific organization.

The Society of Cosmetic Chemists is composed of professionals that formulate cosmetics, sell ingredients with which to formulate cosmetics, or are involved in the processing of cosmetics. We aren’t nerds, we are just eccentric scientists – and no, the two aren’t synonymous.

The society meets every month or two for lunch and a lecture. You might hear some of these comedic gems at one of our get-togethers:

Why did the bear dissolve when he jumped into the water? He was a polar bear.

What weapon can you make from the elements potassium, iron, and nickel? A KNiFe.

Why does hamburger have lower energy than steak? Because it’s in the ground state.

I know at least a few of you out there are tempted to laugh right now. It’s okay, go ahead. And yes, that does mean that you are a geek – just accept it.

This is me and my friend Thao. She was on the photo crew with me.

This is me and my fellow chemist Thao. She was on the photo brigade with me, which unfortunately meant that she had to tolerate my inability to drive a golf cart. We had a great time laughing together though.

Every August the SCC has a golf outing. I usually skip this event because I have absolutely no golf skills. (Sorry Dad, I know you tried.) However, since I am now a SCC officer, and needed to assist in the preparations for this gathering, this year I came as a non-participant. I was more than happy to perform random tasks rather than golf. Amongst other things, my secretarial duties included driving a golf cart around to take pictures of all the teams. Sounds grueling doesn’t it? It turns out that my golf cart driving skills are a little subpar. (Pun intended.) But the sunshine was divine and I didn’t run anyone over – the day was a success!

Will being the SCC secretary promote my nerdyness to the next energy level? One can certainly dream.

And my wise advice to all you non-geeks? Remember the SCC next time you hear about some bizarre sounding group. Don’t simply dismiss them as fantasy. If we exist, they probably do too.

12 Aug

The Dirt on My Dirt

Posted by on August 12, 2009 at 9:20 pm

Tada! Our yard is finished! At least in the planting, rock rearranging, and trench digging sense. I think it is safe to say that we will never be done weeding or up keeping our fine landscape.

Although our little plot of land is precisely that – little, I love it! It’s hard to explain the serenity I feel while sitting out on our patio surrounded by all the lovely growing things that I planted with my own two hands. Our backyard has become one of my favorite places to read, eat, or chill – if I could live out there I would. Did I mention that I love it? Our tiny plot didn’t become a peaceful spot overnight though. We moved into our house almost exactly two years ago and have been working relentlessly on perfecting our yard ever since.

Every spring, summer, and fall we’ve made noticeable yard enhancements. This summer our outdoor projects have included: installing a garden box and planting veggies in that box, laying down flagstone in the area around our garden, and filling the few remaining barren regions of our yard with an abundance of plants.

Many of you, our friends, have expressed curiosity about the current state of our yard. So, now that our “putting in the yard” work is officially done, here is my show and tell. It’s probably more show than tell but I hope it faithfully illustrates how our yard has progressed over the last couple years.

This is how our backyard looked when we moved in. Thrilling isn't it? Our endless work started before we even planted sod.

This is how our backyard looked when we moved in. Sad isn't it? Planting grass may seem logically like what came next but before laying sod we had to: remove wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of rocks, install sprinklers, and amend our soil by tilling in more than a whole dump truck full of compost.

Our stamped concrete patio was one of last summer's projects. Jason's

A stamped concrete patio was one of our projects last summer. Jason's cousin, Scott, was the mastermind behind this affair. We tore out the small cement pad that came with our house and turned into a beautiful functioning patio.

This is what our patio looks like now.

This is what our patio looks like now.

This is what one of our back corners looked like a few months ago. We hadn't finished the last piece of the fence on that side yet.

This is what one of our back corners looked like a few months ago. We hadn't finished that section of our fence yet.

This is that same corner now. We planted some Ivory Halo Dogwoods and a Purple Fountain Beech tree. They are still adjusting to their new home but I'm sure by next year they will be thriving.

This is that same corner now. We planted some Ivory Halo Dogwoods and a Purple Fountain Beech tree. They are still adjusting to their new home but by next year I'm sure they will be thriving.

This is how our garden box started.

This is how our garden box started earlier this summer.

After our box was installed the next step was filling it with dirt. We choice a soil special blend from the nursery; our plants love it!

After our box was installed the next step was filling it with dirt. We chose a special soil blend from a nursery; our plants love it!

After our dirt, veggie plants, and driplines were all in place we moved on to installing our flagstone. This was a lot like playing a really hard, long game of tetris.

After our dirt, veggie plants, and drip lines were all in place we moved on to installing our flagstone. This was a lot like playing a really hard, long, boring game of Tetris. It took what seemed like forever to get all the stones to piece together right.

This is our garden area now. It's lovely!

This is our garden area now. It turned out fabulously! Our plants are extremely happy, especially our tomatoes. We had to cut them back, they were becoming huge! We called them the "tomato jungle". Trying to find the ripe tomatoes was like going on an expedition.

These are my Hybrid Pixie Lilies. Aren't they lovely?

These are my Hybrid Pink Pixie Lilies. Aren't they lovely?

These darling little guys are Violas. They are only supposed to bloom in early spring but mine kept blooming until mid-July.

These darling little guys are Violas. They are only supposed to bloom in early spring but mine kept blooming until mid-July.

This is the north back corner of our yard. In the spring this corner is filled with tulips and daffadils. We planted a flowering pear tree, fountain grass, St. John's Wort, Sandwort, Linaria, Royal Candles, Gold Tide Forsythia, Harebell, Waterperry Blue Veronica, and Royal Candles.

This is the north back corner of our yard. In the spring this corner is filled with tulips and daffodils. We planted a Flowering Pear tree, Fountain Grass, St. John' Wort, Linaria, Sandwort, Royal Candles, Harebell, Waterperry Blue Veronica, and Gold Tide Forsythia.

This beauty is a Clematis.

This beauty is a Clematis.

These are my Hostas and Japanese Maple. The Hostas my mother-in-law,Sue, kindly gave me as transplants. The Japanese Maple I lovingly named "The Little Guy".

These are my Hostas and Japanese Maple tree. The Hostas my mother-in-law, Sue, kindly gave me as transplants. The Japanese Maple I've lovingly named "The Little Guy". The black border is a new addition this year. We decided to put them around all our flowerbeds. You can see the grass hasn't quite grown back yet where it was ripped out for the trenching.

This is one of my favorite plants in our yard. It's a

This is one of my favorite plants in our yard. It's a Sweet Almond bush. It's covered with these gorgeous blooms in the spring.

This beaut is a Weeping Mulberry.

This elegant tree is a Weeping Mulberry.

I love these cheery flowers! They are called Tickseed. They are extremely hardy; great for the harsh Utah weather.

I love these cheery flowers! They're called Tickseed. They are extremely hardy; great for our harsh Utah weather.

Our backyard: my haven.

Our backyard: my haven. We planted Lilacs, Daisies, Corsican Violets, Goldflame Spiraea, Dwarf Columbine, Gold Spot Euonymous, Midnight Wine Weigela, Queen Victoria Lobelia, Gaillardia, and my favorite, a dappled Willow. The dappled Willow looks so graceful when it's wispy branches sway in the wind; it's mesmerizing to watch. Our grass looks a little dry in this picture, due to it being an arid August. But don't let that fool you. It's extremely healthy and in the spring it's a beautiful lush green.

And who said women are hard to please? I’m not picky. Just give me some dirt I can call my own, plenty of flora I can foster, and a sprawling piece of sky over my head; then I will be one extremely content woman. *
*Disclaimer: Happiness based off the specified parameters is not guaranteed.

4 Aug

The Dorks of DefCon

Posted by on August 4, 2009 at 9:22 pm

Jason and I went to Las Vegas last weekend to geek it up at DefCon. For those of you who aren’t nerdy enough to understand the significance of DefCon, let me enlighten you. DefCon is the largest hackers’ convention in the world. It takes place every summer in Las Vegas. Now I know what all of you are thinking because it’s exactly the same thing I was thinking when I first heard of DefCon. “Really? There’s a convention for hackers? To teach them how to hack better? Really? Is that legal?” The answer to all of those questions is yes.

Me trying to mimic the DefCon poster. Am I doing a good job of looking menacing?

Me trying to mimic the DefCon poster. Am I doing a good job at looking menacing?

Yes, every summer over seven thousand of the nerdiest people you’ll ever meet converge on Vegas in 111 degree weather to learn how to improve their computer hacking and lock picking skills. Yes, really. The conference isn’t attended by just hacking bad guys or “black hats” though; geeks like Jason go to keep up on hacking trends in order to maintain their status as network security superstars.

They had a display at DefCon of ridiculously old computers. This one was the biggest.

They had a display at DefCon of ridiculously old computers. This monstrosity was the biggest.

Despite the caliber of geeks this conference attracts, not all DefCon goers look noticeably nerdy. There are plenty of guys there that look completely ordinary. But, there are also a considerable number that do not. These not-so-normal attendees I like to call “feral geeks”. These are the guys with long greasy hair that pick their noses unabashedly and look like they’re wearing twenty-year-old leftovers from high school that probably weren’t even fashionable back then. These are the guys that probably still live in their mamma’s basement and consider showering optional.

Though those of the female persuasion are usually highly outnumbered at DefCon, I decided to brave it and be among them. I know this acknowledgement will expose me as the geek I am, but admittedly I did not just attend this conference to humor my husband. I also went because I am a curious person. I like to know how everything works and am eager to learn, even geeky hacking knowledge falls under my umbrella of curiosity. I actually enjoyed most of the presentations I listened to – I know, I know, that makes me an even bigger nerd. I happily learned about computer crime law, malware mess-ups, and cyber warfare. Surprisingly, only one presenter baffled me with his technical details, the others I didn’t have any difficulties understanding. Yes, yes… I am a geek.

While DefCon isn’t much different from other scientific seminars in many ways, there are a few things about it that are a bit on the peculiar side. For one, the presenters can often be seen guzzling bottles of beer during their lectures, instead of water. And anytime they spout profanities, which happens frequently, the crowd inevitably cheers.

Even the DefCon badges are designed with microchips to render them hackable. Check out this link to view the awesome nerdery: http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2009/08/hacking-the-defcon-17-badges/

Even the DefCon badges are designed with microchips to render them hackable. Check out this link to view the awesome nerdery: http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2009/08/hacking-the-defcon-17-badges/

Beyond just the idiosyncrasies of the presentations, the atmosphere at DefCon is unusual. There’s a lock picking village where you can improve your ability to break and enter. Doesn’t seem legal does it? But strangely it is. Intelligent attendees absolutely avoid getting on the internet while at DefCon. Any laptop or phone linked into the DefCon network is hacked nearly instantaneously. Conference fees can only be paid for in cash; credit cards are not accepted. The organizers of this convention understand that if they allowed attendees to pay with credit cards, many of them would be fraudulent and all the card numbers, legit or otherwise, would probably be stolen from their system anyway, via hacking of course.

Brawndo: it's what plants crave.

Brawndo: it's what plants crave.

Another DefCon oddity is the presence of the feds. Agents from just about every federal organization come to DefCon. They come in part to spy and in part to recruit. They’ve realized that although some of these hackers use questionable means, many of them are exceptionally talented. The feds try to blend in at DefCon, go unnoticed for the most part. But it is not unusual to hear accusing shouts of “Fed, fed!” radiating randomly from an attendee if they believe they have spotted an agent.

Although DefCon is immensely entertaining, Jason and I didn’t just geek it while in Vegas. We took some time to watch a Cirque du Soleil show, Mystére; it was beautifully done. We also squeezed in a little shopping and a bit of gambling. After all, Vegas is just a hot desert dustbin without those slots.

We met up with our friend Lee while in Vegas.

We met up with our friend Lee while in Vegas. Here we are being Star Trek geeks.

My DefCon analysis? Hot, foul, nerdy, interesting, peculiar, amusing. DefCon is an absolutely unique and bizarre experience. I definitely recommend that all you coding monkeys check it out.