Thursday, September 22, 2011

Brand Recognition

A few years ago, my wife and I read an article about how many brand logos a typical 3 year old is able to recognize.  A simple search for "Child Brand Recognition" will get you there.  Suitably sickened, we decided that we'd at least casually try to avoid over-exposing our kids to marketer brainwashing.

I tend to think we've done pretty well generally, but once in a while it's easy to forget.  At the end of a recent doctor appointment, the kids were able to pick out some knick-knacks to bring home (Spiderman and Dora stickers, etc.).  They opted for some rubber band bracelets from a pharmaceutical company.  It's a wide yellow bracelet with "Axert" featured in blue.

It had been over a week, and Colin was of course still wearing his "cool" bracelet.  It wasn't until last night that we realized what had happened:  

"Yeesh! Y'know, he's been a walking drug company ad for a week!"
"Terrible!  Kids should not be used to advertise drugs!"
"We should at least be aware of what this Axert stuff is..."
"Google to the rescue!"

15 seconds later....

Axert: Migraine Treatment Medication

Well, that seems appropriate.  Nevermind.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

What's that smear in the window?

I've posted before about how awesome I think the EyeClops microscope is. This is another opportunity to show it off.

Teri noticed something strange on the screen of our dining room window the other morning. Bird poop maybe? Something strange from the forest?

Much grosser.  It looks like something (a moth?) came by in the night and squeezed it's ovipositor all over our screen.

I tried to take a picture of the screen with a regular camera, but I'm an auto-focus kind of guy, and the camera just wanted to shoot my backyard through the screen.  Imagine a bird poop spread in a 2 inch diameter on your screen.

Anyhow, this was a job for the EyeClops!

100x - the metal weave is the window screen

The scientist in me really wanted to scrape a few off into a mason jar to see how they progressed  That idea of course competed with "Eww, get them off the screen before they find a way to crawl into our house while the window's open."

Since all I have are pictures of the eggs, I do not know what kind of creature this may have become.

If anyone has stronger google-fu than me, or by some luck an entomologist reads this, I'd love to know what they are.
200x - shiny!

400x - I wonder what Stephen Wolfram would think of the pattern

400x - Mmm caviar

Monday, July 11, 2011

Emerald Ash Borer

The carnage has begun.  Last year I mentioned to friends that we noticed the canopy on our beautiful ash tree was a little sparser than usual.

This year, we took the plunge, and spent about $650 to get it injected with some sort of magic elixir that will inoculate it for 2 years.  That's a lot of green (a pun!).  Apparently prices in Canada are so high because many of the alternative pesticides have not yet been approved.  By the time they are, it may be too late.  In any event, here's what it looked like right after it was injected.  The plugs have since been removed.

We love our treed neighbourhood, so we were trying to dull the sharp wallet pain by thinking about how we were doing our part to preserve the look of our street, our property value, etc. etc.

Then we witnessed the destruction in action.  An ash tree a few houses down from us got attacked, and showed its rapid decline this weekend.

I suspect that one is beyond saving now.  Considering the appeal of a mature tree, and that removing one of that size can cost a few thousand dollars, I feel a little better about the cost of saving ours now.

I wonder if in a few years all the borers will be gone after the last un-protected ash goes, and we can return to normal?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Generic vs Name Brand - the case for Zithromax

Our little one year old dude has been sick with some kind of lung infection/pneumonia.

We took him to the doctor, who prescribed Azithromycin.  Good enough.  What's nice about that particular antibiotic is that it only has to be taken once a day, and then only for 5 days.  Some of the other antibiotics can be 3 times a day for 10 days.  Not too shabby right?

Well, the first dose is a biggie, then it tapers off for other four.  We thought we'd be clever and go with two half-doses at the start, since we've learned with our gag-prone daughter not to push our luck, lest you get a big spit-up and run out of medicine.

So we tried the half-dose. Gag.  Followed by barf.  Darn it.  We waited a little while, then tried again.  Gag, then spit-up (at least no bits of food this time!)

OK. Time to start googling for "how to get azithromycin into your kid."  I usually consider my google-fu pretty strong, but I came up with nothing.  We tried another half-dose 12 hours later or so.  Gag.  Vomit.

Medicine 3 : Parents 0

I managed to get a little on my fingers, so I gave it a taste.  If you ever had that nail polish as a kid that was supposed to keep you from biting your fingernails, you know *exactly* what this stuff tastes like.  Only with a hint of medicine-y alco-cherry.

We tried one or two more times with no luck.  Masking it with yogurt/pudding didn't do the trick either.
My father-in-law is a doctor, so we asked him for some ideas.  He suggested trying the name-brand stuff - Zythromax.  I'm usually not one to buy into that whole name-brand thing, but it was all we had.  So we called the doctor back with our story, and the suggestion.

She agreed it was worth a shot, and wrote a new specific prescription.  Funny aside - Shoppers Drug Mart wouldn't/couldn't fill it because they are in some kind of spat over generics vs name-brands with the government.  Just as well, we like to support our little shop local pharmacist anyhow.

Got home, and tried the zythromax.  Full dose.  Success!  No gag, no vomit.  Rest of the doses - no sweat.

So there you have it, the answer for how to get azithromycin into your kid: get the name-brand Zithromax kind.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Shower Pod!

Another rainy-day, another project!

This week I was explaining to a colleague that these days most of my best thinking happens in the shower.  It's fun to open a conversation with "So while I was in the shower this morning...."

The idea du jour was particularly "meta." Typically when I have an idea, I jot it down on the nearest gadget or piece of paper around for later.  I wouldn't want to forget all that gold!  Unfortunately, in the shower, none of my usual options are very practical.

What I needed was a water-resistant voice-recorder.  Maybe someone already makes a water-resistant voice-recorder for the rain or something.  Maybe there's a case doohickey to water-proof a voice recorder like they have for cameras.  It would be a pain to have to take that in and out of the shower though, so how cool would it be if it were wifi-enabled!

Sadly, I didn't build a water-proof-wifi-enabled-voice-recorder.  The train of thought did give me another idea though.  Enter the iPod Touch.

I love my iPod Touch (is it supposed to be capitalized like that?).  More specifically, I love podcasts on my ipod touch (that's better).  I thought it might be cool to be able to listen to podcasts in the shower.

OK MacGyver, what have you got to work with?
1 ipod touch
1 water-resistant radio
1 iPod FM transmitter
1 universal AC adapter.

A little background info if you'll bear with me.  The radio was a stocking stuffer my Mom got me one Christmas.  Unfortunately, I get no reception in the shower, so I've never really used it.  The transmitter is a Belkin model we got from my brother in law (also for Christmas) back in a time before ubiquitous ipod/aux jacks in car stereos.  Unfortunately, it is a piece of crap.  It's near-impossible to find an empty FM channel around here.  Even if you do, if you're on a trip, the stations change enough that what was once empty, is no longer.  Finally, just when you think you're good, the reception in the car was never that reliable anyhow.  In this case, I thought "since there's no reception in the shower, I should have my pick of empty channels!"

Since the transmitter is for a car, it uses a cigarette-lighter plug for power.  I figured I could just wire it directly up to as AC adapter.  That was the only real "work" to do.

Long story short - I created this monster:

From left to right:  AC Adapter wired to the lighter plug of the transmitter, plugged into the ipod, broadcasting to the radio above.

I plugged it in, tuned in a station, started up an Age of Persuasion, and... Success!  I even got to hear the cringe-worthy Sarah Palin quote they use in the intro: "We are not afraid to get mavericky in there..."

Now to go try it in the shower. Epic Fail.  It sorta worked, but the radio pretty much has to be right next to the transmitter to get a decent signal, and the whole point was to keep the water-phobic parts free and clear.  No wonder the Belkin sucked in the car, it barely works at all.

As always, there is a silver-lining - podcasts are my excuse to go for evening walks, which I rather enjoy.  More importantly, if podcasts were effective entertainment in the shower, where would I do my thinking?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Maple Syrup

I'm fortunate enough to live next to a greenbelt of forest.  We've got some nice big trees, and enough wildlife to keep things interesting.

We also have some friends nearby with all the necessary equipment for collecting sap.   We thought it would be pretty cool to try making syrup from the maple trees "in the backyard."

Trekking out to the woods with buckets and taps in hand, we found three nice-sized maple trees.  This was not as easy as you might think.  If you're a noob like me, it's pretty easy to convince yourself you've just tapped an oak.  We drilled the holes, the kids helped tap in the spouts, and we hung the buckets up.

Here's a picture of the woods.  You can see one of the three buckets near the center.

That was last week, and despite checking every day, there was no sap.  I figured it must still be too cold (or they really were oaks!) ...  Well, today it was nice and sunny, and when I went out early in the afternoon, we actually had quite a bit of sap in the buckets.  I grabbed a bucket, and went to collect what I could - I got one pitcher's worth.

Thomas inspecting a pitcher of sap!

The next step was to take the sap, put it through a coffee filter, and boil it down into syrup

40:1 reduction. Boiled for just under an hour.

There's some sort of fancy "refractometer" that you can use to see how close you're getting.  It looks like a little jeweler monocle thingy.  Well, we didn't have one of those, so we were just eye-balling it.  Of course, I messed it up, and let it go just a little too long.

Woops.  Smells awesome though!

Instead of syrup, we got 3 little Maple-Toffee candies

The sap was running well today - just before dinner, we were able to collect a second pitcher.  We boiled it with more care this time, and voila! - syrup.  Awesome!  

The candy and syrup taste amazing,  but of course that was only one reward...

For the kiddies, we revealed yet another "it comes from a store" mystery.  They participated in the whole process to see how syrup is made.  Explaining why and how sap runs up a tree is a really neat lesson in biology to share, not to mention how excited for spring we are now.

It was a perfect excuse to get outside and spend some time in the woods each day.  Like having a backyard vegetable garden, it feels really good to produce something yourself; getting syrup from something that is just "happening" out in the woods is even cooler.

Most of all though, (and at the risk of sounding hokey), experiencing the life of the forest and the feelings that come with being alongside nature was really powerful.  Somehow between the act of ingestion and the knowledge that we were "eating a tree" was deeply satisfying and decidedly spiritual.

Finally, I can never eat enough pancakes.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Build your own DTV Antenna

The weatherman said it was supposed to be a rainy weekend, so  I figured we needed a project to work on.  I recently saw a variety of blog posts about building an antenna to pick up HD signals over the air.  I thought that would be nifty, since I don't subscribe to cable or satellite.  I'm also a big fan of salvaging junk from around the house, and trying to build something with it.  (My buddies and I once managed to build a brick-launching trebuchet with scrap from my friend's barn).

I don't remember where I originally saw the idea for building a Digital TV antenna out of coat hangers, but when I went to go searching for it, I found the Make TV video and accompanying PDF Instructions. That was neat, since I'm a Make magazine subscriber.

I scrounged around for a slab of wood, a bunch of hangers, screws and washers, some electrical tape, and the required tools (drill, sandpaper, screwdriver, wire snips).  I had everything but the 75Ohm-300Ohm F-connector transformer.  I swear I have one lying around who-knows-where, but my search was fruitless, and the local hardware store was able to bail me out for $5.  Remember your old wood-paneled TV with the two screws on the back for an antenna, and you needed a fancy adapter to connect it to your "cable box" with coaxial cable?  That's the one.

Anyhow, it all went pretty smoothly.  Here it is in 3d glory!  (a couple prongs needed some swivel-love)

I stuck it up on the roof (remember that rain forecast?), and tried running the auto-scan on my TV.


I only got 4-5 analog stations, and no digital stations.

As a control, I tried running the channel scan on the TV with nothing attached, and with just the coax cable that goes up to the roof.  I managed to only get CTV and French CBC (Radio Canada) (I'm slightly annoyed that the highest quality station I can receive is French, which I would estimate is watched by about 4 people in this city).

So, it was an improvement... we can now additionally get TVO, a really fuzzy CBC, and Global.  I'd probably have done as well with a pair of RadioShack (whatever they're called now) rabbit ears.  

TVOKids was on, so we settled in to watch Dino Dan.  That was good enough for the kids, and the reward was that they thought it was really cool that Dad's project meant they could see a new show.  Success enough for me.

They then went on to watch another 2 hours of TV.  Maybe it's a good thing it didn't work any better!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

How Technology Changed My Driving Habits

My wife and I recently purchased a brand spanking new Honda Odyssey minivan (we're searching for a "minivan" word substitute to avoid feeling suburban - "PeopleMover" just hasn't stuck).

One of the most interesting features is the Trip Display.   When used as the main dashboard HUD, it provides a whole bunch of interesting information.

Honda Odyssey Trip Display
Home on the Range

In the bottom right is the Range feature.  If you're like me, you tend to fill up when the fuel gauge warning light is on, anxiously hoping you have enough fumes to get the next gas station.  This ever-present section of the Trip Display HUD shows the approximate distance you can travel before you run out of gas.  This also dynamically updates.  Clearly, the van has a pretty good guess about your gas mileage in order to present that, and it's nice to know I've got enough to get home and I'll just fill it up tomorrow instead honey....
Enter the Real Time Fuel Economy Display

The most prominent piece of information on the Trip Display is a large number line that looks a little like a Progress Bar.  The axis is labeled " L / 100 kms " which if you didn't already know, is the typical way Canadians (and maybe others) publish fuel economy specifications.  Ultimately you want to use least amount of gas to go as far as you can, so a lower number is better.  What's super cool is that as you drive, the "progress bar" updates in real time to display what your current rate of fuel consumption is.  Jumping off the line as a light changes Green pushes you right to the end of the bar at 25 L/100kms.  Cruising down the highway sees the bar drop down to a nice, steady 6 to 9.  Bonus points if you've already started thinking about whether it's reasonable to to show idling as 0.

Maybe it is Easy Being Green

Being environmentally conscientious may be de rigueur, but who wouldn't want to know if they're spending more than they have to?  With gas at $1.14/l over the Christmas break, having this information stare me in the face is dramatically altering my driving habits.

I've read about similar technology in the Prius and Leaf.  In particular, a little green leaf that "fills in" depending on how economically you drive.  While the Odyssey doesn't have that, the interface is still "video game" like enough that the psychological reward for playing well is still there.

A really neat knock-on motivator comes from combining the fuel economy part with the Range display.  Driving "friendly" gives you a little bonus reward when you see your range decrease more slowly than the distance you've traveled.

Perhaps since Range represents remaining fuel, or maybe simply because it decreases, it feels like a kind of currency.  As it goes down, you know you're "spending" it on distance.  For example, when you first start the van, you may have 240km to go before you run out of gas.  As you drive, it will drop: 238, 235, etc.  However, if you manage to drive "friendlier" than your average (typically highway vs city), you may in fact travel 10 kilometers while the Range display only shows 5 kilometers spent.  That's like getting 5 free kilometers -Woohoo! (of course it's not, but it still feels like it, and motivates you to improve your average).

What I find even more exciting is that there's no prescription for driving economically.  That's up to you.  This is Dan Pink's Motivation 2.0 in action. It is social engineering I can subscribe to.  No guilt-trips, punishments, or social/political manipulation by vested interests about our dying planet.  I have a clear, dynamic, self-serving economic indicator that serves to induce a rational person to behave more responsibly.

I already find myself rolling off the line a little slower.  I leave a little more room in front so I can find a cruise control speed that doesn't require braking as often.  I'll go 110 instead of 120.  I don't bother punching it to pass as often.  I don't believe it will change my habits so much that we alter our trip plans, or reduce our amount of city driving, but I'm sure this is only the beginning - and every little bit helps!