Monday, January 26, 2015

OMG! Expanded Polystyrene Foam Food Containers!

A McDonald's in the 1980s would proudly serve you a Quarter Pounder in an expanded polystyrene foam container.  We, the lay people of the general public, would call this container styrofoam whenever we were asked what it was made of.  We were technically incorrect, but no one cared.

StyrofoamTM is a registered trademark of Dow Chemical.  Yes, the Dow with all the trademarks but not the Dow that tracks Wall Street. It found a primary use among new home construction, being a really good insulation product.  You may have seen homes built this way and damaged sections of Styrofoam brand insulation flying around in the air at a construction site.  Yes, Styrofoam is brittle and lightweight.  New homes that I see every now and then appear wrapped in Tyvek.  I guess move over Dow and make way for Dupont.

Styrofoam has a boring technical name called extruded polystyrene foam.  Extruded and expanded sure sound similar to me, the general public, but it's important to note they are different.  Extruded polystyrene foam is also the kind of Styrofoam used for crafts.  If you put extruded (XPS) and expanded (EPS) polystyrene foams next to each other, you would notice some differences.

OK, so that's Styrofoam.  What about the other stuff.  Expanded Polystyrene Foam lacks a fun name, which is probably why we all call it Styrofoam (but it's not).  EPS is the foam used for takeout food containers, coffee cups at Dunkin Donuts, and the little trays that you buy meat on at the grocery store (sometimes).  And this is the product that small cities and towns all over the country are deciding to ban in an effort to reduce landfill usage and make us healthier.

I recently encountered this ban in Somerville, Massachusetts.  Somerville is a very small slice of a city wedged in between Cambridge, Medford, Everett, Boston, and maybe some other places maybe.  I don't know.  It lacks any discernable shape, lacks adequate transit coverage, and has the world's worst parking regulations in metro Boston.  On top of all that, they have decided to ban food containers that actually work.  Thanks!

Why the ban?  In an effort to protect us from ourselves, Somerville has decided that it will shield us from the evils of expanded polystyrene foam.  It's evil because it's dangerous for your body and it can't be recycled.  It just goes in to landfills or storm drains and chokes fish and ducks.  That happens while you suffer unknown effects on your health.  It's really the worst stuff around.

Really?

The health claim is a bit of an overreaction, much like the BPA thing in plastic containers was.  It should come as no surprise to anyone that microwaving food in one of these containers will deform the container.  Probably some of that ends up in your hot and sour soup.  This is why they tell you to not use it in a microwave oven.  More importantly, expanded polystyrene foam should not be consumed.  So don't eat it.  Both of these acts will let expanded polystyrene foam wreck your system.

There are claims that scary chemicals from EPS will leak in to your food.  This is probably true to some degree, which is also why the containers are single use.  Don't save them and use them over and over again.  For a takeout container or cup of coffee, the product works really well at keeping heat in and not adding much weight at all.  Dunkin Donuts has used EPS cups for a very long time because it actually keeps the coffee warm and you can still hold the cup.  It's so much a part of Dunkin Donuts that the EPS cup is in their logo!

BUT THEY CAN'T BE RECYCLED!

If they are single use containers, aren't we just filling up a landfill somewhere?  If you throw them away, yes.  But guess what, EPS can be recycled.  A lot of grocery stores collect foam meat trays (same material in some cases) for recycling.  They can do this because they just batch them all up and send them back to the manufacturer.  Single stream curbside recycling has not caught up to EPS packaging, but I have hope that it will one day.  Remember at one point we all had to take recycling to special centers.  There is not an easy way right now to sort EPS in a single stream system.

So how is it recycled?  Five minutes on Google will turn up a lot of results, but one that I found interesting is a company based here in Massachusetts called ReFoamIt.  This company takes EPS packaging, cleans it, compresses it, and sends it to a company in Rhode Island that then turns it in to very small plastic pellets that are used in the manufacturing of injection molded plastic products.  It's hard to get more recycley than that.

What would have been nice to see Somerville do if they are committed to protecting us from IKEA and scary food containers, is a partnership with a company like ReFoamIt to ensure containers collected in the city are recycled.  Offer incentives to businesses who choose to use alternative products, but let the business continue to choose the product they feel is best for them.

Maybe I am just bitter that Somerville is why I have to drive 30 miles to get to IKEA, but damn it, I would like my Dunkin coffee in the traditional EPS cup please.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Water Alarms

On January 2, 2015 we had an unfortunate incident with our oil burner.  Late that night the pressure relief valve failed and water started leaking out of the system.  The system continued working, choosing to just refill itself as water continued to leak out.  Due to the slope of the floor, all of the water headed in the opposite direction of our sump pump.  In the morning I went down to the basement for whatever reason and stepped on to soaking wet carpet.  Awesome.

On January 3, I was able to get our plumber/electrician there quickly to shut off the relief valve.  He also angled the drain pipe in such a way so I could cram a bucket under it in case it leaked again.  He had to go to another emergency call and sent another one of his guys over a few hours later to fix things up.  We got a new relief valve installed and a pipe extension and elbow joint so it's easier to keep an emergency relief bucket in place under the emergency relief valve.

Over the course of the next week, I had RestorePro work on the damage repair.  The drywall was wet and baseboard ruined and carpet soaked.  RestorePro did a great job removing water and setting up everything to dry out.  About a week after everything dried out, they came back to install new baseboard and fix up the flooring and stuff (patch holes and so on).  It looks like it did before the flood, which is nice.

We have not even been in this house a year and we've had two floods in the basement.  A suggestion from RestorePro and my plumber was to get a few water alarms and install them in various places in the basement.  Water alarm?

It's similar to a smoke alarm or a carbon monoxide alarm, except the warning is for unexpected or unwanted water.  The device is really simple.  There are two sensors and when water makes contact with both, the alarm sounds.  These devices come in various shapes and sizes.  I found these:


From Glentronics. The Basement Watchdog has sort of a silly name, but it does the trick. The alarm is very loud, so if you have it in your basement and you sleep two floors above that, you can hopefully hear it if it goes off.

I bought three Basement Watchdog alarms, but I also bought two LeakFrog alarms.  These are much quieter and a good option for under sinks or behind a washing machine.  The LeakFrog feels like a less reliable or quality product, but from a decorative standpoint it is not as utilitarian as the Basement Watchdog.  I put the LeakFrog alarms under sinks.

I think combined I spent about $50 on water alarms.  What does this get me?  My objective is early detection of water leaks.  A Basement Watchdog next to the relief valve of the oil burner should give me enough time to get down to the basement and shut off the system before the bucket fills up (oh, I also put a bucket there just in case).  The alarms do not protect you from damage, but they alert you to take action before too much damage occurs.  $50 is a very small price to pay for this piece of mind.  Considering I just spent $2256 and change to repair water damage in the basement and another $856 to fix the damaged walls and baseboard and flooring, I think this is a reasonable addition to our early warning system at home.

Now, an important thing to note about the water alarms.  You need to put the sensor where water will collect or pass under it early in the leak.  For our recent incident, I know the direction the water travels.  For the sinks, I was just guessing.  There are other types of alarms that include a long wire you can cover a large area with and if water hits it anywhere, the alarm goes off.  I have not used this type of alarm.

Both the Basement Watchdog and the LeakFrog run on batteries.  The Basement Watchdog uses a single 9V and the LeakFrog uses 3 AA batteries.  The alarms should be tested annually and batteries changed annually.  Use new high quality batteries.  IKEA batteries do not last that long.  You have been warned.

But what if the alarm goes off and I'm not at home?

Yeah, that could happen.  Unfortunately, there's nothing you can do if you are not home.  But the same is true if your smoke alarm or carbon monoxide detector goes off.  If you are regularly dealing with floods and water leaks, consider a water dialer.  Here is one from Home Depot.  This is a step up from the type of alarm that just makes a loud sound.  If it detects water, it makes a phone call.  If you are going out of town, I'd advise setting this to a number of someone who can get to your house quickly.  Otherwise the water dialer would just let the house keep calling you to tell you it's flooding.

I prefer the simple approach.  There are a lot of things that could go wrong with a water dialer.  If you use one, I think I'd also keep a Basement Watchdog installed too.  And a much cheaper solution may be to get a friend to housesit or at least come over daily to check for water.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

How Much Do Sites Know About Me?

Information about you on the Internet is extremely valuable to companies.  They want to know everything about what you do online and how they might exploit that for money.  I do not really have a problem with this because companies have been doing this forever.  It's really the nature of how business works.  Learn what potential customers want, then try to get them to buy it from you.  With the Internet, we just make it easier for businesses to learn about us.

Last night I had two things that happened that were either a coincidence or clever systems that are tied deeply in to my online life.

First, I visited the Jordan's Furniture site to look up the address of one of their stores.  About 30 minutes later, my phone vibrated to indicate a new email had just arrived.  It was a message from Jordan's Furniture.  Some special offer if I spend a certain amount of money in the next week.  Hmmm....  Now, we have bought from Jordan's before and from time to time we get email advertisements, but the timing on this one made me a little curious.

Second, a few hours later I was looking up store locations from EMS on their web site.  Also, I was looking at snowshoes.  About an hour after that I got am email from EMS offering 20% off Techwick.  Now come on.  This can't just be a coincidence.

Private browsing and things like Tor can help keep you slightly more anonymous online.  It's something I need to dig in to a bit more.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Know Your Fireplace!

We used our fireplace for the first time last night.  I've never lived in a place with a usable fireplace except the house where I grew up.  Our new house has a fireplace, which we were both looking forward to using.

Our fireplace is exactly that, a place for fire.  We do not have natural gas service or propane at the house, so there are no gas logs or a gas starter.  I did find out that we have an ash dump.  It goes to the basement where there's a covered up door that we could, in theory, open and remove ash.  I'm not sure I want to do that and get ash all over the finished basement.  I will stick with the shovel and bucket.


Be sure to know the parts of your fireplace.  The mantle is the shelf above the fireplace.  Do not build a fire on the mantle.  This is where you put your Aim n' Flame or matches (but probably shouldn't).  The hearth is the brick that extends out in to the room from the fireplace.  It has a stupid name.  The firebox is the unnecessary name given to the area where you actually build the fire.  The damper is the name of the door that opens up in to the flue that no one can remember the name of.  It's how you "open the chimney."  The flue is how smoke gets out.  Honestly I don't know why we have both the words chimney and flue, but whatever.  Smoke shelf and smoke chamber are unnecessary terms that you can ignore...that's all part of the flue.  Anything that's inside the chimney that's above the damper is the flue.

Now, before building a fire make sure you have a fireplace grate.  They're great.  Get a good quality one, not some piece of junk at Home Depot for $9.  Google around for various techniques on stacking wood and starting it.  But don't start it yet.  You should prime your chimney first.

What, now?  The air in the chimney is cold, unless you are in Florida, in which case why do you have a fireplace anyway?  Cold air will prevent smoke from getting out so it'll enter the room where the fireplace is.  And no one wants that.  So grab some paper (junk mail, whatever) and make a large comically sized ice cream cone looking thing with the paper.  Smash the end tightly together so you can hold it with the paper above your hand haphazardly fanning out.  Open the damper all the way.  Light the paper while holding it and then hold it up in the firebox near the damper.  You can watch the smoke fall and then as the air warms up, it'll start to go up in to the chimney.  Let the paper burn until you can't hold it anymore and you're done.

Now light your fire.  I cheated and used a small firestarter log, but you could get creative with stacking the wood so it lights up differently.  Whatever works for you.  Make sure you have a screen in front of the firebox to keep hot embers from jumping out of the fire as well as to keep little ones from trying to touch the fire.

After you've had your fun, close the damper.  Wait for the ashes to cool down, then remove them with the small fireplace shovel.  Place them in a galvanized bucket.  Do not use plastic.  Even with cool ashes.  Don't be stupid.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Please Not Boston for the 2024 Olympics

In the news recently in Boston, Massachusetts we learned that the US Olympic Committee voted for Boston as the city to present to the IOC for the US bid to host the 2024 Olympics.  This is bad news all around.  Let me explain my position:

One thing that I have heard on some news segments as well as in some articles online is that these are the 2024 games.  That's so far away that we don't need to be worrying about it now.  But we do.  That's 9 years away, which is not very long.  This is exactly with the IOC is selecting a city to host it this year.  You need all that time to prepare.

Another thing I see a lot of complaining about is the transparency of the process.  I don't really care about that.  The US Olympic Committee is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.  The only way it can exist is through significant donations.  These organizations are not eligible for direct government funding.  Private donations and grants are the key to a non-profit organization's survival.

Because hosting the Olympics is a very expensive proposition, it makes sense that the proposals are on the order of billions of dollars and there are not many people that can do that.  So you need the backing with a lot of money to make a proposal to host.  Fine.  So how it usually works is developers (and I mean the term in the broadest definition here.....builders, producers, marketing people, salesmen.....really anything) collaborate to put together a proposal.  The US Olympic Committee then has a few rounds of voting and the short list is produced for a final vote.

The short list for the 2024 Olympics had Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington (DC).  Boston was selected.

The vast majority of things needed to host the Olympics would be paid for through private investors.  A concern I see in the news is that the tax payers will have to be writing checks to build stadiums.  It doesn't really work that way.  It's complicated, yes, but you won't be getting a bill for your part of a stadium construction cost.

There are infrastructure improvement projects that have to be taken in to account as well.  Transportation is always something that cities have to consider and that may mean more transit stops or widening of roads or things like that.  While the money to pay for it comes from complicated sources and directly from taxes, it does require the involvement of the government to oversee and coordinate the work, which takes away from other projects that might be scheduled or needed.

Basically, hosting the Olympics is like asking to cut in line with your giant infrastructure improvement projects.

That's just part of the problem to me.  The other problem is the disruption to everything it will cause for years and for years after.  I went through this for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.  Yes, everyone was very excited that Atlanta won the bid and a huge multiyear long set of constructions projects began.  And construction (and destruction) continues after the Olympics.  It's very annoying.

Which brings me to my list.  I've seen lots of lists posted about why Boston should not host the 2024 Olympics.  I agree, and here's my list:
  • It will cost the Greater Boston area a lot of money.  Money we don't need to spend for an event that takes place over a few weeks.  Businesses and governments will either directly or indirectly pay for hosting the Olympics and there will be no return on it except to say that Boston got to host the 2024 Olympics.  WOW!  COOL!  Can you tell me who hosted the 1988 games1?  Or the 1956 games2?  Maybe?  Who cares?  It's a pointless claim to fame.
  • It will build structures we don't need.  Stadiums that are used for the opening and closing ceremonies.  A velodrome?  An aquatics center?
  • No matter what Boston does to host the Olympics, the city will be the punchline of jokes for years to come.  It always happens.  Does Boston really want to sign up for that?  It gets old and tiring.  Do you think residents of Sochi still get amused at people asking if their hotels have working plumbing (when, in actuality, it was likely just a few reporters who got some shitty rooms)?
  • The Greater Boston transit infrastructure will be pushed to its limits and and it will fail.  The Green Line, especially.  Sorry, I love the Green Line and I think the MBTA does a great job keeping it running, but it will not be able to handle Olympic throughput.
  • Security costs.  The 1996 Olympics had a bombing and the Boston Marathon was bombed two years ago.  It follows that security for the Olympics would be above and beyond whatever is usually done for any existing Boston events.  And we will pay for that.
A common claim is that hosting the Olympics is good for a city or region's economy.  In Atlanta we were told that.  It didn't really help out like people thought.  There was some impact, but not nearly enough to recoup the cost of construction and inconvenience.  Here are the things I remember from the 1996 Olympic construction and what the current status is:

1996 Olympic VenueCurrent Status
Centennial Olympic StadiumImmediately altered after the games concluded, became the new home of the Atlanta Braves. The Atlanta Braves are in the process of constructing a new venue outside of the city of Atlanta. Plans for this venue are up in the air, but it will likely be demolished.
Georgia Tech Aquatic CenterBuilt next to the existing Student Athletic Complex, it became part of that after the Olympics. Underwent major renovation in 2001, then again in 2003, and continues to be part of the current Campus Recreation Center at Georgia Tech, though much less in its Olympic form.
The Omni ColiseumThis was not built for the Olympics. It was an old Atlanta venue and was where the Atlanta Hawks played. It hosted volleyball for the Olympics, but it really should have been demolished before the games. It was demolished in 1999 to build Phillips Arena where the Hawks and the Thrashers played (until the Thrashers moved to Canada).
Stone Mountain Tennis CenterTurned over to the Stone Mountain Park after the games and used for tennis by guests. Not maintained and basically started falling apart so they closed it in 2007. Plans to renovate it exists, though it hasn't happened yet.
Velodrome and Archery RangeBuilt at Stone Mountain Park, these were demolished in 2003 to turn it back in to a park.
Centennial Olympic ParkHosted all kinds of events and activities for visitors. Immediately vacated and returned to undesirable part of city after the games. Area changing in the past ten years. The Georgia Aquarium and The World of Coca Cola have moved to this area. Phillips Arena and the CNN Center are also here. And some hotels. You can buy a Coke on every corner.

And that's just the few I can remember.  The 1996 games were held all over.  Alabama, Florida, but not Tennessee (sorry, Tennessee).  I have no idea what happened with venues in those locations.  They also built a lot of stuff along the Ocoee River in North Georgia and some stuff at Lake Lanier for events held there, but I don't know what happened to any of it.

None of the things above had a lasting impact on the economy.  Maybe the stadium which became the new home for the Braves and perhaps boosted sales.  But the Braves were already doing better before the Olympics having had their "worst to first" years in the Atlanta-Fulton County Municipal Stadium.

Boston will end up with junk like this.  We don't need speciality venues.  I have read in some articles that the idea of temporary venues could be a possibility.  I'm not opposed to that, but I'm not sure how temporary a venue can be.  It's more like you're just planning to tear it down immediately after construction.

What about transporation overhaul?  Comparing to the 1996 Olympic games, Atlanta added 2000 buses just for the Olympics.  MARTA expanded the rail system with Buckhead, Medical Center, and Dunwoody stations creating their North Line.  That opened just before the Olympics (I think, it's been a long time).  They operated over 200 rail cars 24 hours a day for the entire Olympics.  That's pretty common for cities that host, but can the MBTA hold up to that.  Again, I'm thinking the Green Line.

I hope that Boston is ultimately passed over by the IOC.  The region does not need to host the Olympics.  It's a huge financial commitment and the money can be better spent on other things.

Hey, I found this:  www.nobostonolympics.org


1 Seoul, South Korea (which I did actually know because a friend in elementary school was from South Korea and they went back for the games and brought us back a gift)
2 Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Datsun, Really?

Been trying a few different commute options lately because the road work for the MA-2/MA-2A "Crosby's Corner" project has been causing the road to change between the morning and evening.  Seems like the risk for an accident is a little higher right now, plus it gets all clogged up as construction equipment and stupid people try to push their way through the mess.

Years ago I used to commute north via I-93 out of Somerville then all the way up to I-495 and then south to Westford.  Westford is inconvenient to all desirable places people want to live, which is an accomplishment for a town.  Now living in Medford, I've decided to give that route a try again.  The evening commute is much improved and I attribute the entirety of that to being able to completely avoid Arlington.  The morning commute is still a little jammed up because the Market Basket trucks and merges for Boston-bound traffic (see, we have these highway interchanges that cause all directions of travel to feed through the same choke point....yay?).

Yesterday as the car made its way north on I-93, I heard a car approaching.  I could tell it was moving faster than traffic speed and it had a distinct sound to it.  Then it passed me on the left before then merging all the way over to the right to take the next exit.

It was a Datsun 280ZX.


This car in particular is baffling to me.  I have seen them my entire life in this same manner.  Every now and then one zooms past you on the road.  It was sold in the United States between 1979 and 1983.  The oldest ones are my age.

Yet these things are still going!  And the one I saw yesterday looked well maintained.  You would not expect it to be that age except the body styling clearly gives it away.

By this point they have to have really high odometer readings.  And I'm not sure if these cars had 5 or 6 digit odometers.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Paperless Billing Is Annoying

I'm a computer guy.  My career involves computers and software and a lot of sitting.  I've always been doing something with computers.  I adopt new technology quickly.  I used FTP before HTTP.  I like smartphones.  I like technology.

But I hate paperless billing.  At least right now.

Paper billing costs a lot of money.  Both for those sending bills and those sending payments.  But as paperless billing exists now, I don't find it convenient or time-saving.  Why?

For all of the billers I have had and currently have, paperless billing means discontinuing the paper bill and sending me an email telling my bill is ready to view.  There is nothing actually useful in that email.  Like maybe the amount due or the due date.  Nope, just a bunch of boilerplate text and a ridiculous URL that takes me to the biller's web site where I can log in and view my bill.  OK, so I've done this before and here's how it usually goes:
  • Link in the email doesn't work or there's a browser incompatibility.
  • I hit the main page and log in from there.
  • Forgot my password or find my password has been reset for "security reasons" because the last time I logged in was 30 days ago to view the previous bill.
  • Reset my password and log in again.
  • Poke around the site looking for my bill because the site looks different than 30 days ago.  They've had a month to redesign it.
  • Continually dodge the "would you like to take a survey" popups.
  • Finally find the bill, but it won't load.  It's a redirect from a CGI script or something server-side that is generating or otherwise making available a PDF file in the datastream and the browser can't deal with this.  Stumble around trying to figure out how to save this using curl(1) or some browser trickery.
  • Open the bill using a local PDF viewer.
Now once I have it opened, I have to pay it.  I use my bank's online bill pay for that.  So log in to another site and type in the amount I'm going to pay and click pay.

All of the above could have been eliminated by receiving a paper bill in the mail.  Which is what I do.  I get paper bills and then pay them online.  By receiving a paper bill, I don't have to juggle the clumsy logins of all of my biller's web sites.

Paperless billing to me would be useful if the actual bill came to my email inbox.  I want nothing to do with the biller's web site.  I don't want an account there.  I don't want to customize it.  I don't want to have anything to do with it.

I have mentioned this to billers before and they tell me they understand but that sending the complete useful bill via email would be risky for security reasons.  I mean, my email could be hacked.  Or I could have typed in an incorrect email address.  Or any of a number of other reasons.  If only we had a mechanism to secure email without disrupting what makes email so useful.  Hmmm, does anything like that exist?  Note that it's perfectly ok for a paper bill to be delivered by an unverified carrier to an unattended unlocked box at your house.

Oh well, maybe we'll get there one day.  Until then I'll keep opening paper bills and paying them online using my bank's service.

(Oh, and my bank does offer e-Bill services for certain billers.  So you can receive your bill electronically and view it through the bank's interface.  It's clumsy and not really reliable the few times I've tried it.  Maybe that will get better.)