Wednesday, January 28, 2015
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Nashua;14.0;;2015-01-28 09:08:17

At a 13-1 ratio of water equivalence, no wonder the snow was so fluffy

I ended up with 14.5 inches of new snow in my yard - I am west of the heaviest snow - which melts down to 1.16 inches of water - a roughly 13-1 ratio, which is very, very light. As a rule of thumb, 10-1 is normal and 5-1 is heavy.

This is why the whiteout was so bad yesterday, as shown in the photo on this post; the snow wasn't just falling fast but was blowing around like crazy. That's also why there were so few power outages - it wasn't a bring-down-the-tree-limbs wet snow.

Science pub on Thursday: "What to make of all those food studies?" 

Dartmouth isn't getting all that much snow from this storm, which is very coastal-centric, so they're already thinking about future events. On Thursday comes the monthly Science Pub in Lebanon, overseen by Dartmouth University, with an interesting event titled "What to Make of All Those Food Studies?"

Eating an apple a day has been linked with lower levels of “bad” cholesterol and lower risk of stroke. But wait – what about recent studies showing that some brands of apple juice contain arsenic, a known poison? If you switched to brown rice years ago, because whole grains are more nutritious, what do you make of the news that brown rice may be a significant source of arsenic? Fish eaters who pay attention to the latest news stories about eating fish also have decisions to weigh: which fish contain the oils linked to better cardiovascular health – and which ones are high in mercury, which poses a risk to our health? What do scientists say about those food stories in the news? How do you make decisions on food choices?

Starts at 6 p.m. in the Salt Hill Pub, 2 W. Park St. in Lebanon. Free, of course. Sounds interesting.

This is how bad the white-out is (embarrassing self-reported error follows)

Driving to work (the news never sleeps!), I was thinking "wow, the white-out is pretty bad - it's hard to tell what's going on" .... then I realized I was driving on the wrong side of a divided highway that is normally crammed with 25,000 cars a day (Daniel Webster Highway, for you locals).

The only reason I realized my mistake is that I saw the stoplights were backwards.

Chat at the Alan Turing movie has been postponed a week by the storm

New Hampshire is shutting its state liquor stores tomorrow because of the storm - egad!!!! - do you know it's going to be big. That's why Red River Theaters in Concord has postponed Tuesday's discussion following a showing of "The Imitation Game", the movie about Alan Turing. It's now going to be held the following Tuesday, Feb. 2.

I'm going to moderate a discussion about it with Terry Wardrop, who is the St. Paul's School teacher of Computer Science, Artificial Intelligence, and Robotics, and an expert on Turing. It'll be sort of like a Science Cafe, exept with a movie beforehand - questions and answers will rule the day.

A little nostalgia (but not too much) for BBS systems

OK, if I say "B-B-S" what sound do you hear? The beeps and boops, rasp and hiss of an old modem?

Then you might want to read my column in The Telegraph today, which reminisces a bit about Greater Nashua bulletin board systems - those pre-Web connections that were peer-to-peer quite literally, since your modem had to dial his modem each time you wanted to connect. You can read it here.

The column was prompted by somebody finding a 1993 clipping of mine that included numbers of a half-dozen BBSes. I called them ...

None of the boards were active, not surprisingly, and all the numbers were disconnected except for a couple. Only one was answered, by a woman who had no idea what I was talking about. She said had lived there a decade but never received weird calls from people looking for a BBS, so obviously it died long ago.

If you know nothing about BBS, the wikipedia article is, as you might expect, a fount (or is it "font"?) of information.

Federal law would made municipal broadband harder to block  

Three U.S. senators have proposed a law that would prevent states or cities from blocking municipal broadband networks. Such blocking is usually political rather than technical, based on the idea that governments should not compete with private companies.

FierceTelecom reports (read the whole story all here):

This proposed legislation emerges after President Barack Obama sent a letter to the FCC to help it overturn 19 existing laws that make it challenging for municipalities to offer competitive Internet services even if the local incumbent telco and cable operator won't offer higher speed services themselves.

"No statute, regulation, or other legal requirement of a State or local government may prohibit, or have the effect of prohibiting or substantially inhibiting, any public provider from providing telecommunications service or advanced telecommunications capability or services to any person or any public or private entity," the bill says.

Hanover tried to build a municipal broadband network a number of years ago but it faltered. I don't remember exactly why, but I think that opposition prodded by telecomes and cable firms was part of it.

After the new Alan Turing movie, a discussion about him, Engima Project, computers - Tuesday in Concord

If you're old enough to remember when the biography "Alan Turing: The Enigma" came out in 1983, you'll remember how startling it was. At the time, the public knew nothing about The Enigma project to decode Nazi codes, which was still secret, and virtually nothing about Turing; I had heard of the Turing Test, but that's about it. The book came out of the blue.

Nowadays, of course, interest in Turing is a minor industry - big enough that deciding how to turn Bletchley Park into a museum created a gigantic fight, and his obscure journals are auctioned off for big money.

The latest example is "The Imitation Game," a fictional biographical film about him starring the BBC Sherlock actor with the weird name. It's supposed to be quite good; I'll be seeing it Tuesday in Concord, and you can, too.

On that day (Jan. 27) Red River Theater in Concord will be holding a special showing of the movie and afterwards I'm going to moderate a discussion about it with Terry Wardrop, who is the St. Paul's School teacher of Computer Science, Artificial Intelligence, and Robotics, and an expert on Turing. It'll be sort of like a Science Cafe, exept with a movie beforehand - questions and answers will rule the day. Plus, they have beer!

They've got a Facebook page about it here, and you can buy tickets here (it's the 6 p.m. show on Tuesday, Jan. 27). Tickets cost $12, and in case you're wondering I don't get any of it. I'm there because I like to babble in front of crowds.

Study: Uber drivers make a lot more than taxi drivers (but have more costs)

An article in the Washington Post (read it here) discusses a study that says Uber drivers make about $6/hour more than taxi drivers in 20 different markets, which is impressive. But since Uber drivers use their own vehicles, they also have a lot more costs, which isn't calculated in the study.

80 percent were working full or part-time shortly before joining Uber. Just 8 percent said they were unemployed prior to driving for the service, suggesting that Uber hasn't been flooded by would-be workers who could find no other employment. Nearly a quarter of drivers said Uber was their sole source of income; 38 percent said they viewed it as a supplement to earnings but not a significant source of them.

Uber is being debated in three cities in NH: Manchester (latest U-L story), Portsmouth (Herald story here) and Nashua (my latest story here). The company has been tight-lipped about details of staffing and money, so it's nice to have at least some real information as decisions are made.

It's a good day when you learn a new unit of measure: The ton (no, not that ton)

Packed house for last night's Science Cafe NH on geothermal energy; at least 65 crammed into the room alongside Killarney's Pub to hear from drillers, installers and geoscientists about how you can take heat out of cold underground water.

My favorite part? I learned a new unit of measure: The ton.

In HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) terms, that's the amount of energy needed to melt a ton of ice in 24 hours - about 12,000 BTUs. (Or to re-freeze water into a ton of ice in 24 hours.) It's used to estimate the size and power of heating and air conditioning installations. Most homes around here are 3- to 6-ton buildings.

At one ponit the discussion turned to commercial buildings, one of which was 16 tons. I found myself humming Tennessee Ernie Ford.

No pigs were harmed to make that bacon-scented lottery ticket

Prodded by the bacon-scented ticket from NH Lottery Commission, I penned this sidebar for The Telegraph:

What is it about bacon that smells so good, and how do they get that smell trapped on a lottery card?

In a word: Chemistry. It’s got nothing to do with pigs.

A 2004 study in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture reported what researchers found when they fried bacon and then analyzed the resulting scent with gas chromatography and a mass spectrometer. Turns out, a whopping 150 different volatile organic compounds – “volatile” meaning they are easily released to float around in the air, and “organic” meaning they include carbon atoms – were released by the frying bacon. Researchers particularly noted the presence of nitrogen-containing compounds with names like 2-ethyl-3,5-dimethylpyrazine, plus other compounds called furans that are part of the general smell of cooked meat.

Individually, none of these smelled like bacon, but when combined together they created the rich scent that drives our olfactory receptors wild. Exactly why they drive us so wild is unclear, although the scent signal that cooked fat and salt are nearby is sure to trigger evolutionary desires.

Here’s the key point: Once you’ve identified the chemical compounds that underlie a smell, you can recreate that smell and it doesn’t matter where those compounds came from.

For example, you can order 2-ethyl-3,5-dimethylpyrazine over the Internet from a company called Sigma-Aldrich, which sells thousands of different chemicals for industrial and other applications. A four-pack sample that meets federal food-grade standards, guaranteed to be detectable by taste buds even when diluted to 5 parts per million, costs $40.

It’s not clear how the chemical was made but it certainly didn’t come from bacon: Sigma-Aldrich says it meets kosher and halal food specifications – both of which, of course, forbid the eating of pigs.

These days, scientists can create an huge variety of scents and tastes from a bewildering mix of natural and synthetic compounds. Many compounds are made from natural sources such as flowers, herbs and animal products, but many are made synthetically, often as a derivative of petroleum, which contains plenty of carbon atoms and can be reshaped in many ways.

This chemical revolution is the reason we’re seeing so many unusually flavored foods like Lays’ “chicken and waffle” chips or Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Jelly Beans for the Harry Potter fan, as well as weird-smelling products. You can be sure that no corn is popped to make popcorn-scented candles.

Scratch-and-sniff technology encapsulates the chemicals into tiny gelatin or plastic spheres, which are on the order of a few millionths of a meter in diameter. Some spheres get broken when fingernails rub over the surface, releasing chemicals that float up to your nose; when the resulting signals hit your brain, it searches for correlations. In the case of the new lottery ticket, if the chemists have done their work well that correlation will be sizzling strips of bacon.

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About this blog

David Brooks has written a science column for the Nashua (N.H.) Telegraph since 1991 - yes, that long - and has overseen this blog since 2006.

He chats weekly with New Hampshire Public Radio about GraniteGeek topics, around 5:50 p.m. on Tuesdays. You can listen to old sessions here.

Contact:   E-mail or call 603-594-6531.


Free, informal get-togethers at a bar that feature discussion among the audience (everybody is welcome) and experts in various fields. Check the website here.

NEXT CAFE: Wednesday, Feb. 18

TOPIC: The science of sugar

Location: Killarney's Irish Pub, 9 Northeastern Boulevard (Holiday Inn, just west of Exit 4 on the turnpike).



January: Geothermal energy.


November: Medical screening; how much is too much? October: Flexible and printed electronics. September: The science of marijuana. June: Fluoridation in public water. May: Organic gardening. April: Tele-medicine, or doctoring from afar. March: Bitcoin - what is it? February: The science of allergies. January: Electric cars.

Multiple sclerosis. October: Genetically modified organisms. September: Aquaponics. June: Flying robots (drones!) May: PTSD and brain tauma in veterans. April: Cats vs. wildlife in NH. March: Mosquito-borne disease. February: The science of brewing. January: 3-D printing, with MakeIt Labs.

"Dark skies and light pollution" with Discovery Center. October: "The science of concussion." September: "The science of pain management." June: "Arsenic in our environment." May: "Invasive species in New Hampshire" April: "Nanotechnology in business and the lab". March: "Lyme disease in NH". Feb: "Seasonal Affective Disorder." Jan: "Biomass energy"

Nov.: "Science of Polling." Oct.: "Digital Privacy." Sept: "Vaccinations." June: "Future of Food." May 2011: "Climate Change"


Alternative power map

Click here to see my alternative-power Google map showing large-scale solar, wind, hydro and nuclear plants in N.H., plus intriguing alternative-power items.

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