Saturday, January 28, 2012

Playing with fire - again

Burning an old bird house
We partly heat our home with wood for reasons including having a fireplace, being given a large quantity of well seasoned firewood and taking down a tree down on our lot. Ours is an actual fireplace (not a wood stove), that is only a chimney modification away from an ancient fire pit – meaning that if we aren't careful our house fills with smoke, which I consider a negative point. On the plus side, having a fireplace means there is always kindling around making me ready for a vampire attack.

The sound and smell of wood fires are nostalgic for me. A whiff of wood smoke transports me back to the house I grew up in and the wood stove that heated it (funny, I don't immediately recall carrying all that wood into the house – yet I did lots of that too). We aren't alone with our fireplace as 20% of Canadians partly heat with wood.

In general, wood is a much better heating source than fossil fuels. For example, natural gas emits 15 times more carbon dioxide per kilogram than wood. Is a wood fire better for the environment than using electric heat (our other option)? The type of wood burned matters in two ways. First, the energy content of wood depends on the variety of tree it came from. Secondly, how dry the wood is. Moisture content determines how firewood burns and how much heat is released. Dry wood produces more heat than green wood of the same species.

Here is a good explanation of why wood might be okay (from here):

Only a relatively small percentage of electricity is from renewables like hydroelectric dams, and even then there are environmental problems due to flooding large areas. Wind turbines will never produce enough electricity to be used widely for home heating.

Firewood, on the other hand, can be produced with slight environmental impact because it needs little processing and most of it is used close to where the trees grew. Wood is the most economical and accessible of all renewable energy resources for many households and it has value beyond the displacement of fossil fuels and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. It is practiced on a small scale and the householders that use it gain a better understanding of their impacts on the environment than users of other energy sources. Families who heat their homes with wood responsibly should be recognized for their contribution to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a sustainable energy future.

In a modern context, and knowing what we now know about the environmental impacts of all energy use, wood can be thought of as a ‘new’ energy resource, provided it comes from sustainable sources and is burned in advanced combustion appliances.

The article goes on to make it clear that wood heating isn't for everyone and how it's done is critically important.

An interesting side point – if a truck load of wood spills, it can just be picked up again the only cost is a bit of labour. If a truck load of oil spills it's a whole different problem. Plus, where I live wood can come from near by, while fossil fuels come from far away.

Monday, January 23, 2012

a bit about a beach sceine

Willow's Beach at high tide
I've expanded on my Friday night beach sceine from a few months back. The article can be found here. Take a look.

As a tangent, this came out of my Christmas cracker this year:

What do you get when you cross a snowman and a vampire?

- Frostbite (terrible, I know)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

How to be an algivore

powdered chlorella on a spoon
To start my investigation of algae, I cracked open an old textbook of my husband’s titled: ‘Introduction to Phycology'. According to the textbook, “algae is ubiquitous, occurring in practically every habitable environment on earth.” I agree as I don't have to look far to find algae. My aquarium hosts all sorts of algae types resulting in periodic algal blooms, some less desirable than others. Walking into my bathroom, I can often find a pink alga growing on my shower curtain which would take over my shower if I didn’t regularly beat it back with bleach. Further afield, algae can be found thriving under Arctic ice and in deserts. I doubt there’s a more a resilient plant out there.

Plenty of critters thrive on an algae diet. Back to my aquarium, a farlowella (a stick-like fish with a suction-cup-like mouth) thrives on the green alga growing on the glass. My ever-expanding population of snails also dine on this alga. Out in the wild, frog and toad tadpoles live on algae. In fact, algivores reside all over this planet. Plenty of humans include algae in their diets - and have been doing so for eons. Apparently, ancient Aztecs considered spirilina (a freshwater microalga) a staple. Many coastal communities harvest seaweeds (a type of algae) all over the world and have done so for centuries.

In the alga eating spirit, I've decided to try eating (drinking actually) Chlorella vulgaris daily. Chlorella is a microscopic freshwater green algae. I bought a small tub of it in powdered form. Before I opened the tub, I expected chlorella to smell like pond scum, instead I got a pleasant surprise when the smell reminded me of a hayloft on a sunny day (still not a food smell). The powder is a dark forest green, so dark it's almost black, with the texture of a ground up pigment.

my farlowella kindly cleaning the glass for me
It is easy to find glowing reports about chlorella (which I keep wanting to pronounce as cholera) as a superfood. I'm sceptical whenever the declaration of a 'superfood' is made, especially if the superfood was considered a 'staple' of an ancient remote civilization – everyday food never seems to be declared a superfood. Instead of eating a blackberry from my backyard, am I supposed to rush out and buy acacia berries from South American jungles?

There are documented benefits to eating microalgae. First of all, they contain all sorts of nutrients and complete proteins. Additionally, chlorella can reproduce itself four times every twenty-four hours, making it the fastest growing plant on the planet. This productivity is an important factor in considering food sources for our seven billion plus population. As for the health claims, I just don't know. According to the internet, chlorella is apparently a cure-all, especially useful for 'people with poor vitality' (whatever that means). On the flip side, I've found web sites documenting digestive distress caused by consuming chlorella. I take the hype with a grain of salt.

Another well documented benefit to chlorella is how it improves air. Experiments have shown chlorella absorbs carbon dioxide and replenishes oxygen (important for long space voyages). If cultivated in tanks, eight metres squared of exposed surface is needed to keep one person breathing – which isn't much considering the cultivation tanks could be shallow and stacked. These experiments were conducted in soviet-era Russia (1970s) where they made no effort to eat the stuff. NASA took the next step and looked at chlorella as the sole food source for astronauts on long space voyages – apparently they would survive, but I bet they would be grumpy.

As a food, chlorella poses a bit of a problem. It's a single celled spherical alga with tough cell walls. These cell walls make it impossible to digest in its natural state. Processing of some form is required. Chlorella has a second problem – flavour. I've tried algae (in this case seaweeds) that have tasted fantastic, chlorella doesn't. It isn't that it tastes bad exactly, just unfamiliar. So far, I haven't found any reference on how to make it taste good – just advice on masking its flavour in smoothies, or taking it in pill form. I tried it in a chocolate-banana smoothie, the smoothie was fine but there was no hiding the fact that chlorella was in there.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

on a snowy day ...

Snow is falling on my island in the Pacific - and more snow is threatening to dump on us. The lyrics from Paul Simon's 'Slip Sliding Away' come to mind when I think about venturing out onto a snowy road. If I don't have to go anywhere, I don't mind the snow and enjoy the change to the landscape it brings. From my window or backyard, watching snow falling is fascinating. There's something about the silence when snow falls that I find quite compelling. If you have ever wondered about a snowflake's shape and how it relates to the temperature outside, check out this.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Apollo 18

Apollo 18 never happened – originally it was scheduled to land two people on the moon for a three day stay. Apollo 18 and future manned moon missions were cancelled due to budgetary reasons meaning, Apollo 17 was the last manned mission to the moon in December 1972.

I watched 'Apollo 18' last night as snow, and the threat of more snow, prevented our expected dinner guests from arriving. The movie became the alternate evening entertainment. 'Apollo 18' is from my favourite genre – space horror (zombie movies are my second favourite – I have some unsophisticated tastes). This morning I was still thinking about the movie and it isn't often that I keep thinking about movies after they are over. By the way, I might give away the ending here.

The movie is presented as a series of clips from the Apollo 18 mission to the moon. It's presentation is similar to 'The Blair Witch Project' – which made me motion sick when I saw it in the theatre. 'Apollo 18's' clips were better executed, thus easier to watch and they maintained a nice 70's vibe to the footage. I think real moon footage was included. The cast was small and centred around the one guy orbiting the moon in the command module and the two guys camping out in the lunar module.

Apollo 18 is a secret military mission to the south pole of the moon which is why the public was lead to believe it was cancelled. The lunar module ends up landing only 2km from an ill fated Soviet mission's lunar module and frozen cosmonaut remained (in reality the Soviet's never made a manned landing on the moon). The astronaut's mission goes downhill from this discovery.

There are aliens, which I thought were handled well. We never find out why they are there or what they really want. They aren't humanish, nor do they speak English. We don't even know if they really are evil, although that is implied. Also, the physics of space was handled well (I never expect it to be perfect) and air was a serious issue.

Over all I liked the movie even though a lot of the reviewers didn't. I was left with one big question at the end, how did they recover the film?

As a tangent, I would be seriously on edge camped out on the moon even without strange things going on. Any creak or groan of the lander would put me on high alert as I'd be well aware that if something did go wrong there would be no one coming to save me. At least when I'm up in the Arctic, I know that if something went wrong rescuers would come - eventually.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Shiny Shoes

A look at my red shoe polish
Last week I went walking in the rain wearing my black leather shoes. Predictably, my shoes got wet. As they dried salt stains appeared, creating jagged white lines across the dull black leather. I’m not particularly fussy about my footwear, however, I want them to look well kept. So, I dug out my shoe polish tin and brush to return the shoes to their uniform black state.

As soon as I twist open the lid, the shoe polish smell takes me back to when I was in the military. Boots polished to a glossy shine was required back then - a feat that included a time-consuming regimen of spit and polish. I never really had the patience to keep my parade boots to the required shine as I always could think of better things to do. As a result, I suffered the consequence of not having shiny enough shoes more than once. I do however, have no problem brush shining my shoes to preserve the leather and keep them black.

The few moments it took to blacken my shoes started me to wondering: what is shoe polish anyway?

From wikipedia: Shoe polish is a waxy paste or cream to polish, waterproof, restore the appearance and extend the life of leather footwear. Originally concocted from wax and tallow, generally people made their own shoe polish. Tinned shoe polish took off during World War I as suddenly there were hordes of soldiers who needed to shine their shoes. Recipes for shoe polish have evolved by going into the realm of industrial chemistry. Now they are composed of a multitude of ingredients including naphtha, turpentine, dyes and gum arabic. Clearly modern shoe polish is flammable (I wonder if it would work as a fire starter in the event of an apocalypse as I have several cans in the house).

Again according to wikipedia, banana peels can be used to shine shoes - who knew? So banana peels can make my shoes shiny, what can make them black?

There is a recipe made from olive oil and lemon juice here, again lacking a blackening ingredient. A recipe more along what I would expect can be found here. These directions use: charcoal (what makes the polish black), hard soap, kerosene (still flammable), citric acid and liquid paraffin. More recipes can be found here. Since I have lots of shoe polish at the moment, I haven't tried any of these concoctions - yet.

As a tangent - I polish my black shoes with red polish (the tin calls it 'mahogany') from time to time as I like the rich colour the red adds. I always feel a little naughty doing it as I was only allowed to use black polish on my army boots.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The talking crow

A picture of a crow - but not the talking crow
“Wanna ball,” demanded a small metallic voice. I stopped peddling my bike to put a foot on the ground and look around. I was alone on the road, not even a car to be seen. It was near the end of summer in the early 80's. My precious blue bike had been bought for me at a garage sale for twenty-five cents – the kind I had to peddle backwards to brake. All summer long, I rode my bike to the corner store, the swimming hole and anywhere else I wanted to go. On this particular dusty hot day, the kind signaling the approaching summer's end, I was biking along Headquarters Road, a rural road lined with fields of yellowed grass circled in barbed wire fences.

On a wire nearby, perched a crow looking me in the eye. He fluffed up his glossy black feathers and tilted his head. “Wanna ball,” he stated, as though voicing a common crow need. I stared at him, which he took for encouragement to continue. “Wanna ball, wanna ball, wanna ball ...”

It was getting late; as curious as the crow was, I needed to get home. So I balanced my bike and started to peddle away. The crow took flight, landing on the fence a short distance ahead of me, continuing to make the same demand. As I picked up speed, he just flew beside me in silence. The crow followed me all the way home (I guess he thought I was hiding a ball somewhere). Once we reached my house, I told my mom about the bird. She didn't believe me, and I don't blame her based on my overactive imagination, until the crow demanded a ball from her. 

Thanks to G.Hanke for the crow picture (I didn't have a camera back then)

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Winter colour - or gratuitous ducks

I went out for a walk yesterday to a near by pond. The day was grey - the iridescence in these feathers provided the only natural colour around. All these ducks were hanging out hoping for food. Their wait paid off as many walkers (us included) brought duck snacks.
A wood duck (male)

A bufflehead (male)

A ringneck duck

A pair of American wigeons

A usual duck pond suspect - a male mallard

A duck-alanch (they thought we had food)