Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

Mama Joules and Itinerant Cryptographer want to wish you and yours a very Happy Thanksgiving! We're spending the rest of the week with family, so we'll catch up with you again next week. :-)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thinking of those in need ...

In honor of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S., I thought I'd post a couple of links to benefit those less fortunate ( says both are legit!):

The Hunger Site gives free food daily if you click a button on their website. Mercy Corps and Feeding America distribute the food to those in need.

Free Rice gives 20 grains of rice through the UN World Food Program for every question that you answer correctly on topics ranging from vocabulary to math, geography, and chemistry. (I liked playing the games on this site; I donated 1,460 grains of rice!)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Edward Burtynsky and Urban Landscapes

I stumbled upon an interesting blog post the other day at The Vigorous North about Edward Burtynsky and his photography of urban landscapes. Burtynsky describes the focus of his work as "nature transformed through industry." Christian McNeil, of the Vigorous North, further lauds him as "an Ansel Adams for 21st-century environmentalism," in part because of his "stunning, large-format photographs that are beautiful and can induce a sense of vertigo from their epic scale."

And exactly what is Burtynsky photographing in such breathtaking detail? Slices of the very scenes that make environmentalists wince: quarries, factories, mines, dumps, and urban sprawl. Burtynsky's work is so compelling -- often entwining scenes so beautiful and so tragic -- that it was made into a documentary entitled Manufactured Landscapes by Jennifer Baichwal.

Years ago, as part of my job investigating potential hazardous waste sites, I surveyed and photographed abandoned urban industrial areas. My natural default is to think of these places as hopelessly damaged or degraded from their once pristine state. Burtynsky's work and McNeil's comments showed me another way to view this part of life. Burtynsky's photography is vibrant and exciting. I find his pictures fascinating because what he sees through his photographer's lens is so different than what I saw through mine.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Website of the Week: Geography Action! 2008

In honor of Geography Awareness Week, this week's website is Geography Action! 2008 from National Geographic. Geography Action! promotes geographic literacy for children in U.S. and Canadian schools. Lesson plans are presented for grades K - 12 on topics like Oceans, Cultures, Habitats, and places like Africa and Asia.

These lesson plans are detailed and cross-link to other websites and activities, so be sure to give yourself plenty of time to explore! And before you log off, stop by the National Geographic MapMachine Student Edition to print a free map to remember your "journey."

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

It's GIS Day!

Today is the 10th anniversary of GIS Day, celebrating how geographic information systems are making a difference in our world. This global event is celebrated in more than 80 countries, including Saudi Arabia, Denmark, and Switzerland. (I had no idea!)

I tend to think of GIS as a digital mapping tool, but's Guide to Geographic Information Systems goes into much greater depth about this powerful information system and its applications. The GIS Day website has links to lessons and activities for children from kindergarten on up through high school (and beyond), as well as GIS materials and other information.

GIS Day is just one part of Geography Awareness Week, celebrated in the U.S. during the third week of November.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Fake snot & real mucus

Well, it's cold and flu season again where I live. I can't quite shake this congestion in my sinuses, which has got me thinking about mucus. When referring to the secretions of the nose, mucus is just a fancy word for snot.

According to the article What's a Booger? at KidsHealth, "your nose and sinuses make about a quart of snot every day." This viscous (slippery) fluid coats the inside of your nose and helps to trap dirt and other foreign items -- like pollen, cat fur, and dust -- before they can reach and irritate your lungs.

Snot is a morbidly fascinating topic. Just thinking about it makes me squirm in my chair. And then I found this page from Glencoe that describes how some bacteria like to eat our snot. Eew. I never thought of a bacterial infection in that way before.

And if your own snot just isn't enough, ThinkQuest has a recipe for making fake snot. You can even add your own dirt to create dried up "boogers". Dr. Anne Marie Helmenstine, of's Chemistry section, also has a recipe on How To Make Fake Snot. She writes that this green goo is "...great for Halloween and other occasions requiring snot."

Believe it or not, scientists also make fake snot! A research team from University of Warwick and Leicester University found that adding artificial snot to electronic noses helped the devices to detect more odors. Electronic noses can be used for things like quality control in a food processing plant. After adding the fake snot, the artificial nose in this study could detect the difference between the smell of milk and the odor of banana, something it couldn't do before. You can read about it in Warwick's article, Artificial Snot Enhances Electronic Nose.

Other scientists prefer real, old-fashioned snot. Check out this recent article, entitled Thar she blows: Snot offers clues to whale health from Catherine Brahic of New Scientist. Apparently, it's hard to get a blood sample from whales, so researchers have settled for the next-best thing: flying toy helicopters through exhaled "whale snot" to collect samples when these large animals surface and blow. Studying the "whale snot" gives researchers clues as to the overall health of the animals.

Yuck. I think I'm going to go and wash my hands now!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Tomorrow is America Recycles Day!

America Recycles Day

The National Recycling Coalition hosts America Recycles Day, which is held each year on November 15th. You can learn about the basics in Recycling 101, read about the DOs and DON'Ts of Recycling, take the Recycling Pledge and find Events Near You.

For example, you can attend the Recycle and Shred-A-Thon and meet Can Guy if you live in Raleigh, NC. Are you closer to Waukesha, WI? Attend the Family Open House at the Materials Recycling Facility. The Colorado Association for Recycling is even selling a 2009 America Recycles Day Calendar.

Want to learn how recycling makes a difference? Try out NRC's interactive Conversionator and learn interesting tidbits about recycling like this one: "The average person has the opportunity to recycle more than 25,000 cans in a lifetime." (I wonder if that's an average person in the U.S., or an average person across the globe? I suspect this refers to those of us in can-happy America.)

However you choose to honor the day, take heart. If you recycle, you're not alone. According to the NRC, "the U.S. recycles 33% of its waste, a rate that has almost doubled during the past 15 years."

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Thoughts on Synesthesia

The other night, my 3-year-old crawled into bed with me after a fit of tears. Looking at the interesting reflection of the lamp on the ceiling, he said, "Look at the shape my crying made." His comment made me think of a fascinating book that I read once called The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Richard E. Cytowic.

This book describes synesthesia, a condition in which certain sensory perceptions are combined. People who are affected with this involuntary condition perceive sensory input a little differently than most. You might see jagged red lines when you hear a siren. You might taste shapes in certain foods. Or maybe colors have a smell. Any combination of senses is possible, but the most common variant is to perceive letters, words, or numbers as having color. These associations are consistent for the individual -- if the word shoes is associated with the color green, it always appears green.

In his book, Cytowic describes attending a dinner party where the host complained that he had ruined the chicken -- it wasn't pointy enough. Cytowic thought it interesting that this man's house lacked walls; the rooms were open and flowed into each other. He pointed out that you can think of synesthesia in the same way. The usual walls between sensory input -- sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch -- are blurred or absent.

I think synesthesia is a fascinating condition. After I read the book, I kept wondering if I had ever experienced it. The closest I've come is when I'm almost asleep. Sometimes I see jagged black lines when I hear a sudden loud noise. But that's it. How about you?

CNN's Ann Kellan writes that if you are curious about this condition, synesthetes suggest that you rent "Walt Disney's 'Fantasia', an animated film that attempts to visualize music."

Friday, November 7, 2008

Website of the Week: CryptoKids™

Do you like codes and ciphers? Do you write your friends notes in "invisible" ink? Do you ever wonder whether the E-mail you send to your friends is really safe from prying eyes? Today's website, CryptoKids™ from the National Security Agency/Central Security Service, is for you.

Join Crypto Cat™, Decipher Dog™, and all of their friends to learn about cryptology, the science of making and breaking codes. (Itinerant Cryptographer is especially good at a subset of cryptology known as cryptanalysis, which is trying to break into codes without knowing the special "key" behind how they were made.)

Learn to create codes, make ciphers, and solve some brainteasers, cryptograms, and something I'd never heard of before called a Yardleygram.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


Global Exchange and Green America partnered to create greenfestival™, the "world's largest sustainable living event." Upcoming Green Fests include the DC and San Francisco events listed below, along with 2009 festivals in Seattle (March 28-29), Denver (May 2-3), and Chicago (May 16-17). Attend one of these events to meet over 300 eco-friendly businesses, listen to environmental speakers, hear great music, watch green films, and enjoy kids' activities (like making a Green Kids Earth Badge or a sock puppet).

greenfestival™ is committed to having a small environmental footprint. They claim to recover 97% of all show waste, using techniques such as providing biodegradable plates & utensils, composting food waste, providing recycling containers, off-setting electricity emissions, and banning plastic water bottles in favor of jugs of water.

Want to volunteer? Work at least 4.5 hours and you'll receive free admission each day, a free T-shirt ("limited edition, organic and sweatshop-free"), and more!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

OT: Celebrate Election Day!

If you're in the United States and you're a registered voter, get out there and make sure your voice is heard! And take advantage of these great offers:

* Ben & Jerry's is offering free scoops of ice cream at participating stores from 5 pm until 8 pm.

* Krispy Kreme is offering free star-shaped doughnuts today at select stores if you have an "I voted" sticker.

* Starbucks Coffee is reportedly giving away free 12-ounce cups of coffee to voters today (but I couldn't find confirmation of this on the Starbucks' website; apparently rewarding voters and not everyone may violate federal election laws).

Monday, November 3, 2008

Come visit the Nicholas School!

The Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University (my alma mater!) invites you to attend an Open House in Washington, DC on Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2008 from 6 – 9 p.m. This event -- perfect for anyone considering an advanced degree in environmental studies -- will be held in the Resources for the Future Conference Center at 1616 P St. NW (about four blocks from the Dupont Circle Metro stop on the red line).

The Nicholas School, located in Durham, North Carolina, has a number of degree tracks including those for undergraduates, graduate students, professional graduate students, and distance learners. Environmental topics covered are as varied and diverse as the students who study them with offerings covering environmental education, marine biology, forestry, environmental policy, toxicology, and more.

From Joe Scarfo, Associate Director for Enrollment Services: "[Prospective students] will be able to meet the Nicholas School Dean, faculty, career services representatives, enrollment services staff, current students and Nicholas School alums. This will be their opportunity to get all of their questions answered and to learn why the Nicholas School is considered one of the best Environmental programs in the nation."

-- Mama Joules, MEM '03, Water & Air Resources

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Beautiful Science

If you live in or near San Marino, California, stop by the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens to see their new permanent exhibit -- opening today! -- entitled "Beautiful Science: Ideas that Changed the World". This exhibit examines how scientific knowledge has advanced over time -- sometimes with great leaps of insight -- by focusing on four areas of scientific study: astronomy, natural history, medicine, and light. Look for manuscripts, letters, and books highlighting great achievements by Ptolemy, Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein. There is also a companion educational program available for middle and high school students. Key features of this exhibit are neatly described in Dibner Highlights (this is a .pdf file).

For more information about the Huntington, you can visit Admission, Hours, and General Information or contact: publicinformation [at] huntington [dot] org.

Happy Birthday, Mama Joules!

Exactly one year and 164 posts ago, I started this blog with the hope that I could teach people not to be scared of science, maybe even to enjoy themselves and have a little fun while learning. It's been one wild and crazy ride since then. I've accumulated some unusual knowledge along the way. For example, I now know that there are 2,000 species of edible bugs in the world, that there is a museum dedicated to carrots, and that a vug isn't just a figment of Dr. Suess' imagination.

Thanks to you, my readers, for making this trip worthwhile. I'm enjoying learning new things and I hope that you're having fun along the way, too. :)