You Don’t Have to Do This


Shop for a new smartphone and the choice of operating system appears limited to Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android. The choice of wireless carrier network for the new smartphone is limited to five or six companies, and while there are more than a dozen smaller carriers, they all lease their networks from the larger carriers. Mergers of technology companies and globalization of supply chains have made it difficult for consumers to entertain enough options to simultaneously suit their desires for reasonable prices, efficient service, and in the best case scenario, ethical marketplace behavior.


To be a large player in the technology industry, as in many other industries, it seems engaging in horrible practices is simply a necessary cost of doing business. It’s as if economies of scale and ethical behavior are mutually exclusive. Apple iPhones are manufactured under terrible labor conditions in China, and the cobalt required for manufacture of those iPhones is mined using child labor in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Google, Facebook, and Twitter all sell their users’ information to advertisers while double-dipping by generating enormous ad revenues from the wide use of their services. That’s the cost of “free” to the users. As an online retailer, Amazon’s reputation for egregious labor practices is as bad or worse than that of its major brick and mortar competitor, Walmart.

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U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) speaking in December 2018 to about 200 workers protesting conditions at an Amazon workplace in Shakopee, Minnesota. Photo by Fibonacci Blue. Protests by workers in this country against unfair labor practices by giant companies like Amazon would get a slingshot-like boost if lawmakers would repeal the anti-union legislation passed in the last 50 years at the behest of corporations.

That is by no means a comprehensive list of all the technology companies with reputations for treating customers, workers, suppliers, or the environment badly. Just as Americans are becoming more concerned with what is in their food and how it’s produced, they can devote some time and attention to how their technology products are produced and how companies are using the personal information they hand over in the course of using their services. It may seem like there are few to no alternatives to some technology products and services, but there are alternatives, and it may require effort put into research to find out about them, and then some sacrifices as it turns out they don’t offer absolutely everything consumers are used to getting from Microsoft’s Windows operating system, for instance, or Facebook’s one-stop social media and news sharing platform.

Some people simply won’t care, of course, and will remain interested only in what’s easiest and most convenient for them. This is not for them. Others who are concerned about voting with their dollars, however, should know there are ways to find alternatives to signing on with the big technology companies, and that informing themselves doesn’t have to suck up an inordinate amount of their time and energy. Currently there is almost no labeling on technology products and services such as there is on food for sale in supermarkets, informing consumers of organic and non-GMO options, and of nutritional content. There should be similarly easily apparent labels for technology, listing ratings from an impartial source, if such is possible, on a company’s treatment of workers, suppliers, and the environment. The companies are now required by law to enumerate the ways they use customer information, but that is for the most part buried in fine print legalese that few consumers bother to read.

In episode #1938, “Theresa Syndrome”, from the radio show Car Talk, the portion of the show relevant to this post starts at the 10:45 mark with a call from Brian in Harrisonville, Kentucky. Questions of ethics come up every day in everyone’s lives, and in this case as in many others, arguments of efficiency that mask motives of self-interest are all too common.

Until the technology industry catches up with at least the halting steps the food industry has taken to inform consumers about what they are buying and what kind of ethical or unethical behavior they in turn support with their purchases, it will remain up to individual consumers to inform themselves. Globalization has made it easy to hide the ugly details of technology manufacturing halfway around the world. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s not as if things were far better 100 years ago, though, because at that time for most Americans a sweatshop on New York City’s Lower East Side was as much on the other side of the world as a sweatshop in Bangladesh is today. Speed of travel and communications have changed the seeming size of the world, but sadly not the willingness of businesses and governments to exploit the less fortunate, and of the more fortunate to turn a blind eye.
— Techly

Editor’s note: Bonus points to readers who note advertising on this site for the products of one of the companies criticized in this post. It’s hard, maybe impossible, to exist in the modern world without some compromises, and like everybody else, writers have to eat. With a little effort and attentiveness, people do what they can to make the world a better place, but no one is without faults, and as Joe E. Brown said at the end of the movie Some Like It Hot, “Well, nobody’s perfect.”



Sour Grapes


Legal judgments in lawsuits against the makers of Roundup herbicide continue accumulating in the plaintiffs’ favor, with the latest one entailing an award of $2.05 billion to a married couple who alleged that they each contracted non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) from years of using the herbicide in their home garden. As in many lawsuits, high dollar amounts are likely to come down a great deal in the final settlement, and most of the money will end up in the hands of lawyers, not the plaintiffs.


Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup and similar generic herbicides, and it is glyphosate which the plaintiffs in thousands of lawsuits around the country are alleging is linked to their cancer. Meanwhile, glyphosate continues to be readily available without label warnings to home gardeners as well as professional landscapers and farmers since the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not ruled it is a carcinogen. European environmental and health organizations have ruled glyphosate is a probable carcinogen, differing from their American counterparts because they reviewed independent scientific studies instead of regulatory studies, many of them funded by agribusiness.

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Welted thistle (Carduus crispus) possesses some fine qualities, including pretty flowers as seen here, but most people consider it a weed. Photo by dae jeung kim.

While United States government agencies continue to tilt the scales in favor of agribusiness, the courts appear to have no such bias. Consumers in that case have little recourse other than to seek compensation through the courts for their pain and suffering, which they allege were caused by the makers of Roundup (first Monsanto, and currently Bayer) and other purveyors of glyphosate herbicides. Consumers who are still healthy and use herbicides might want to exercise caution by looking for other options, though the only way they would know that is through their own research or by word of mouth, since there continue to be no cautionary statements about the risk of cancer on the label of glyphosate products the way there are for instance on cigarette packs.

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Bottles of vinegar at a supermarket. Safer to use than horticultural vinegar, this more easily available common household vinegar may be a better option for casual users who do not require a heavy duty herbicide. Photo by Ms angie gray.


A safer herbicide option is vinegar. Ancient cultures derived vinegar from soured grape wine, but since it can be made from anything that produces ethanol, today most of it is sourced from corn, a cheap source. Unlike glyphosate, which migrates to the roots of affected plants, vinegar only burns the tops, meaning gardeners will have to reapply it when the weed sprouts new growth. Also unlike glyphosate, vinegar does not damage soil fertility with long term use. Damage to soil fertility is another effect of glyphosate that the manufacturers dispute even though some scientific researchers have upheld the observations of the effect by attentive farmers and gardeners.

Gardeners will be disappointed in the weak effect of using the vinegar commonly sold in grocery or home improvement stores, and that is because it is only a 5 to 7 percent solution of acetic acid in water meant for pickling food or cleaning surfaces, not killing weeds. For home gardeners, the most effective vinegar for killing weeds that is appropriately labeled as such, with accompanying safety warnings, is 20 to 30 percent acetic acid. Probably by reason of the low popularity of strong vinegar and the danger for casual users in believing it is relatively harmless, it appears to be available online only, not in stores. Vinegar that strong, while still mostly water, is potently acrid stuff which can burn a user’s mucous membranes, eyes, and skin, and may corrode hard surfaces and harm any small animals, such as toads, living in a garden. Test a small area first if there’s a chance overspray could affect something like bricks in a walkway. The best that can be said is it’s a good thing weeds are outside in the open air. Spraying strong vinegar in the garden may be unpleasant for the applicator and those in the vicinity and should be done with caution, but unlike using glyphosate, there’s less risk of serious damage to the gardener and the garden.
— Izzy



Nearly as Good as New


The past thirty years have been a golden age of film restoration, starting with the 1989 restoration of the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. Robert Harris led that work, and he has had a hand in restoring many films since then, including Vertigo (1958) and My Fair Lady (1964). It’s a shame that great movies need restoration at all, a state of affairs principally due to neglect by the very studios that made them, often at a cost of millions of dollars. Hollywood studios were far less concerned about art or historical preservation than they were about business, and movies retained little value for the studios after their initial theatrical release.

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Publicity still of Gregory Peck from the 1956 film Moby Dick. Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers.


Indeed that was the situation for movies until home video opened a new and lucrative avenue for the studios in the 1970s and 1980s. Until then, to the extent the movie studios kept original film elements at all, they kept them in slipshod conditions which allowed the films to deteriorate to one degree or another. By the time demand returned for some of the better movies, restoration was necessary to have a salable product. VHS (Video Home System) tapes could skate by with no restoration because of the low resolution of the format, but laser disc was several steps above VHS in quality and created the first push to restore old films.

Laser disc never caught on the way VHS did, however, and its appeal was limited to cinema buffs. The biggest nudge toward film restoration came in the 1990s with the popularity of DVD (Digital Video Disc), an improvement in quality over VHS at about the same price for content and playback equipment. With that change in the market, movie studios saw the value in packaging their backlog of films in the new format, creating a greater need to restore at least some of those in highest demand. Since the turn of the century, high definition televisions and further improvements in home video resolution have brought the home theater experience into the mainstream, and the demand for quality restorations of old films is at a peak and will probably stay on a plateau hereafter.

There is a limit to how much detail the human eye can discern in the limited space of the typical home theater. DVD was a huge improvement over VHS, and Blu-ray was almost as big an improvement over DVD. 4K resolution is not quite as great an improvement over Blu-ray as numbers alone would suggest, simply because the law of diminishing returns starts to take effect. In the confines of a home theater, even using the best equipment, viewers are less able to discern the finer detail there on the screen. 8K resolution is overkill for all but the most dedicated home video enthusiasts with deep pockets.

Another reason for home video improvements driving film restorations less in the future is the switch by consumers from owning content on physical media, such as a Blu-ray disc, and streaming content in a rental agreement over the internet. Already the rollout of 4K discs has slowed to the point that many good old movies may never be remastered for the format. The potential sales aren’t high enough to interest the major movie studios. As to streaming 4K content, that is subject to the vagaries of the consumer’s internet connection. Some of the 4K content may not be as advertised because of the huge bandwidth requirements, and streaming true 8K content would probably require a 5G internet connection and an actual unlimited data plan from a viewer’s Internet Service Provider (ISP).

In any event, these are good times for fans of old movies. Some classic films, like director John Huston’s 1956 version of Moby Dick, which have long deserved restoration but were nonetheless neglected for whatever reason by the major studios, have been restored by smaller distributors of home video content who have determined it would be worth their time and effort. The movie studio Paramount last year restored It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and remastered it in 4K, though in a sign of the times they have released the new version only for streaming and have not pressed discs of it. Another classic film, Life with Father (1947), awaits true restoration, and viewers should meanwhile beware the versions for sale which trumpet digital remastering or restoration.

Life with Father (1947)
Screenshot from Life with Father (1947), with Irene Dunne and William Powell. Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers.

Like It’s a Wonderful Life, Life with Father had also fallen into the public domain; unlike It’s a Wonderful Life, Life with Father has not attracted anew the attention of the major studios. While Paramount has lavished care on restoring It’s a Wonderful Life, slapdash outfits have been appropriating Life with Father for the sales catalog, offering horrendously bad versions of it and relying on the phrases “digitally remastered” and “restored” to dupe the ignorant. They hope naive consumers will infer that “digitally remastered” means “improved”. It means no such thing; it means only that the film has been scanned to a digital format, a necessary step in making analog movie film available for home viewing on a DVD, Blu-ray, or 4K player. “Restored” is a relative term and can mean the absolute minimum amount of work was put into it, as is usually the case with the shadier outfits.

Robert Harris worked on this 2014 restoration and remastering of the 1964 film My Fair Lady, starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison.

Check reviews online, preferably not on Amazon because the reviewers there rarely get to the nitty gritty about the quality of the transfer, and instead prefer to bloviate about the movie itself, seeing it as their chance to be an authoritative movie reviewer like Roger Ebert. Better are the reviews on news sites or websites specializing in film industry or home theater matters because they generally do mention the quality of the transfer, though consumers still have to take some of those reviews with a grain of salt when they include affiliate links to sites selling copies of the movie. Be wary during research and you’ll have less chance to regret a purchase and better enjoyment of a great old movie given the attention it deserves.
— Techly



Meatless Mondays Are Painless


Vegetarian or vegan substitutes for meat are not necessarily aimed at people who don’t eat meat, but rather at those who do, because by getting those people to eat less meat the environment will benefit, the animals being raised for meat will certainly benefit, and the meat eaters themselves will be healthier. The problem has been in developing a suitable substitute for meat at a reasonable cost and without creating a Frankenmeat with all sorts of nightmarish unintended consequences. Reading the reviews coming from the latest Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, it appears the company founded by Stanford University biochemistry professor Patrick O. Brown, Impossible Foods Inc., has gotten the formula right with the latest iteration of their Impossible Burger.


Other meat substitutes, such as the Boca Burger, have been geared toward vegetarians who wanted to retain some of the meat eating experience, and they were and are pathetic imitations. Attending a backyard cookout where everyone else was eating real beef burgers and then making do oneself with a Boca Burger or equivalent was an experience similar to being relegated to the kids’ table, with miniature versions of the adults’ dinnerware. Why bother? There are a multitude of vegetarian and vegan recipes available for real dishes, making it unnecessary to have to settle for dry, grasping imitations of what the grown-ups are eating.

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The vegan Amy Burger at Amy’s Drive-Thru in Rohnert Park, California. Photo by Tony Webster. Amy’s Kitchen started in 1987 making organic and vegetarian frozen and convenience foods for sale in supermarkets around the country, and in 2105 opened the Rohnert Park restaurant, their first.

The point of the Impossible Burger is not to satisfy vegetarians or vegans who miss eating meat, but to replace meat in the much larger percentage of the population who are committed carnivores. Those people might have tried one of the previous meat substitutes out of curiosity, and they were right to scorn them as alternatives they could never embrace and still satisfy their nutritional and taste requirements for meat as well as a more nebulous, deep psychological need satisfied by eating meat. Professor Brown and his Impossible Foods colleagues intend their meat substitute to fulfill all those needs, and apparently they are well on their way to succeeding.

Replacing meat in the diet of the world’s people is enormously important, and probably the biggest single step toward ameliorating climate change other than reducing fossil fuel use, which would incidentally also be a byproduct of reducing livestock farming. Animal suffering would also be greatly relieved, because the situation now is horrific and getting worse as Americans and other Western peoples eat meat at least once a day, and in some places for every meal, and hundreds of millions people more in China and India aspire to the same relatively affluent lifestyles of Westerners. Factory farming of animals will become a larger industry still as the demand for meat goes up worldwide.

A scene from the 2002 film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, directed by Joel Zwick and written by Nia Vardalos, who also portrays the bride, with John Corbett as the groom. Eating meat is such an ingrained part of personal identity and social custom that most people give it little thought. Anyone who has ever been vegetarian or vegan, however, soon becomes aware of how others react to that news with bafflement or acceptance or, oddly, hostility, because refusal to eat meat is to such people a repudiation of their hospitality and identity, and possibly an indictment of their morality if the chief reason for not eating meat is because of animal suffering or the environment. It’s interesting that often the best way to smooth the ruffled feathers of meat eaters upset over learning of a vegetarian or vegan in their midst is to tout the health benefits of giving up meat, a reason that will usually gain their understanding and assent.

Consumers want more meat even though it’s not healthy for them. People will also eat more sugar than is good for them if they have the money and the opportunity. These are desires hard wired into human beings, and while some people can overcome them through will power however gained, most cannot, or even have a desire to try. For those people, the majority, give them a meat substitute at a comparable price to real meat, and satisfy their other needs for taste and nutrition and the most difficult need of all, but probably the most crucial, the carnivorous kernel in the brain that is the cause of all the social customs around eating meat or not eating meat, give those people that and the climate and the environment will be better for it, the animals all around the earth will be better for it, and those meat eaters themselves will be better for it, whether they understand and acknowledge it or not.
— Izzy



Consumer or Citizen


The Keynesian economic model which held sway in Western capitalist societies in the middle of the twentieth century has long since given way to neoliberalism, a policy and a philosophy which is a reworking of the laissez faire economies of the early industrial revolution. No wonder that we live in a new Gilded Age, the culmination of increasing economic inequality and degradation of publicly subsidized social services for everyone but the rich. Neoliberalism, a term which has meant many things in theory over the last one hundred years, has come to mean in fact laissez faire economics for the poor and middle class, and corporate welfare for the wealthy.


The result has been the takeover of the economy by short-sighted financial interests among the largest banks, and the takeover of politics and public policy making by those same banks and international corporations which owe allegiance to their executives and their shareholders instead of to any one national or local community. Consumers bear a great deal of the responsibility for this state of affairs, while citizens can change it.

American corporate flag
A protester at the second presidential inauguration of George W. Bush in Washington, D.C., in January 2005 holds up Adbusters’ Corporate American Flag. Photo by Jonathan McIntosh.

Consumers are passive; citizens are active. Consumers are inattentive to politics; citizens pay attention to what’s going on in government. Consumers struggle to get by and blame themselves when they cannot; citizens understand larger forces are arrayed against their interests and demand an equal place at the table. Consumers look at the wealthy and see people who helped themselves; citizens know how wealth creates wealth and privilege looks out for its own. Consumers feel helpless to change the course of society; citizens band together because they realize their power is in their numbers.

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A sign at the January 2018 Women’s March in Missoula, Montana. Photo by Montanasuffragettes.


The neoliberal philosophy of the past forty years has stripped people of their view of themselves as citizens with rights, duties, and responsibilities in society and replaced it with the lumpish, passive recognition of themselves as consumers, replaceable parts in the economic machine. Meanwhile, neoliberals have sold the consuming masses on the idea that unions and publicly funded healthcare and education are bad policies, but tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations are good because of some nebulous trickling down that’s supposed to happen. Mission accomplished!

Taking action to change neoliberal policies on the environment, on economic inequality, and on the accountability of corporations, banks, and politicians is going to have start with a change in attitude among the populace from consumers to citizens. It starts with getting the money out of politics, and that starts with overturning the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which equated money with speech. What greater symbol for the neoliberal outlook can there be than “money talks”? The second most important step toward change would diminish the power of the big banks by reinstating the Depression era Glass-Steagall Act, separating commercial and investment banking. The third step would end government subsidies for the fossil fuel industry and divest from it entirely. All easier said than done, of course, and only the first few of many steps to curtail the undue influence of the rich and powerful over society, but once consumers get up off their couches and walk down as citizens to their voting places they will be taking the steps necessary to change a system that works only for a privileged few, and not for them.
— Vita



All Bottled Up


The great engineering writer Henry Petroski, who has explored subjects as mundane as pencils and as sweeping as American infrastructure, always brings out the human element in both the design and the use of engineered products, and it is that aspect of his work which makes it fascinating instead of dryly technical. Mr. Petroski reminds us that the products of engineers and designers are wrought by fallible humans for the use of other fallible humans, and since humans have not changed greatly over the past 300 years or 3,000 years, then ultimately engineering and design are always processes of back and forth and of trial and error, even after a university education has instilled thousands of years of experience into its practitioners. Things can and do still go wrong, largely because of human error and human desires.


Take the humble bottle cap, or “crown” as it is known in the trade, and twist it off. Can’t do it? Then it’s a pry off cap, or crown, and requires an implement for dislodging it. Why the different designs? Isn’t there a best practice, and if so why don’t all makers of products put into bottles adhere to it? Specifically, bottlers of beer, some of whom use twist off caps, while others use pry off caps. Isn’t beer beer, no matter how it’s bottled? According to craft beer makers, no. William Painter, an American mechanical engineer, invented the pry off cap in 1892, and it remained the standard means of capping bottled beers and sodas until the 1960s, when twist off caps with good sealing capacity came on the market.

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The prop genie bottle, with stopper, from the 1960s television show I Dream of Jeannie. Photo taken in June 2011 by Eva Rinaldi.

Major bottlers soon replaced their pry off caps with twist off, and customers were satisfied since the beers and sodas they bought were not flat due to carbon dioxide leaks going out of the liquid inside the bottles. There may have been slight leaks of oxygen into the bottles, but not enough that the average drinker of major brand American beers would notice. When craft beer makers first came onto the market in a big way in the 1980s and 1990s, many of them decided to eschew twist off caps in favor of pry off caps for several reasons. The machinery for pry off caps was cheaper than for twist off caps, which suited small scale brewers operating on tight margins. Then there was the slight difference in the tightness of the seal between pry off and twist off, which was more of a factor thirty years ago than it remains today after improvements in twist off cap seals. Lastly there was the impression that twist off caps were for cheap, indifferent domestic lagers, while most European imports still came with old fashioned crowns or stoppers, and an impression of higher quality along with their higher prices, an impression which lingers to this day.

It is perhaps the last reason, the purely psychological one, that retains a foundation for using pry off caps, and of course it amounts to pure snobbery. The snobbery over twist off caps is even worse when it comes to consumer perceptions about wine. The craft brewers contradict themselves, too, when they plump for selling their beers in cans instead of bottles. They claim, with good reason, that because of improved linings for aluminum cans there is no longer any reason for consumers to be prejudiced against buying beer in cans. Fair enough, but just as with twist off caps for bottled beer, there remains the perception among consumers that beer in cans is inferior not merely because of possible taint from the container, but because for years beer in cans was the cheap, low quality preference of working class people.

Chubby Checker had a big hit in 1961 with “Let’s Twist Again”, the follow up to his 1960 hit “The Twist”. Some folks may feel the follow up is the better song, but it doesn’t matter much in the end and comes down to personal preference.

Let’s stop pretending then and admit the main reason to crown a beer bottle with a pry off cap is to send a signal to the consumer that what’s inside the bottle is quality stuff. It may well be, but snobbery around rituals should not be the determining factor. That’s as bad as wine snobs who get upset over twist off caps even though vintners and wine aficionados alike claim twist off caps are an improvement to the quality of wines not meant to be aged extensively but drunk within a few years of bottling. And as to craft sodas in bottles with pry off caps, that is merely an excuse to charge a premium for a product of dubious value. At least beer and wine producers can lay claim to some health benefits for their nectars, despite their consumption by mere mortals who allow their preconceived notions to get in the way of enjoying a good drink.
— Techly



The Limits of Unlimited


Wireless carriers like to offer “unlimited” data plans to customers, and as they currently configure their plans they truly are unlimited, but a wary customer would be wise to check the fine print anyway. The typical wireless data plan for a monthly billing cycle offers a little over 20 GigaBytes (GB) at the fastest speed available, and thereafter throttles the customer down to slower speeds. The customer still has access to wireless data for the remainder of the billing cycle, though at a reduced speed that can sometimes make using the internet frustrating, or practically impossible at the worst. That satisfies the letter of an “unlimited” offering, if not the spirit.


A buffet lunch at a conference in November 2017. Photo by Raysonho.

Characterizing a wireless unlimited data plan as an “all you can eat” buffet misses the mark because most people can and do find ways to use more data as the carriers offer more, while their capacity for gorging on more pasta or Chinese food really does have limits. Wireless data, and broadband service generally, is more like the road system in that with greater capacity comes greater traffic. Build it and they will come, as it were.

The next generation of wireless data will be 5G, available in some areas of the country starting in 2019. The speed and capacity of the 5G network is supposed to be ten to a hundred times greater than the current standard of 4G. Supposedly it will be competitive with wired broadband service. That’s a good thing, and it’s likely that carriers may be able to offer “unlimited” data plans that will be closer to the true meaning of the word, as in “without limits”. There’s reason for skepticism, however, if we recall the highway model for wireless broadband service rather than the buffet model.


In the buffet model, 5G service would expand the size of the restaurant, increasing the seating capacity, and the servers would never allow any of the foods at the buffet to be completely depleted without quickly replenishing them. That doesn’t mean that the average customer will magically be able to eat more in this roomier restaurant with lightning quick service. In the highway model, 5G service will amount to more and wider lanes that will allow traffic to move faster, at least until the improved highway fills up and the increased traffic slows everyone down again because people use the increased capacity to drive more.

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Bumper to bumper traffic in Las Vegas, Nevada, in May 2008. Photo by Erum Patel.

Like a city with a highly developed road network, a 5G wireless network will attract manufacturers who will make things for people to use in taking advantage of the excellent new service. For 5G that means expanding use of Internet of Things (IoT) devices and, eventually, self-driving vehicles. Those expanded uses will fill the capacity of the new network, making any carrier’s offer of unlimited data plans to consumers again a proposition that will likely be restrained in the fine print. The carriers like using the word “unlimited” in attracting customers, however, since they know customers can no more resist the fantasy of unlimited data than they can resist an “all you can eat” buffet, regardless of the reality of limited capacity.
— Techly



The Ginger Kick


There are some cocktails gaining popularity the past few years which get a kick from ginger beer, among them the vodka-based Moscow Mule and the rum-based Dark ‘n’ Stormy. Ginger beer doesn’t deliver its kick by way of alcohol, since nearly all ginger beer available commercially now is non-alcoholic, but from the spiciness of ginger, which is more pronounced in ginger beer than in its tamer cousin, ginger ale. People almost never confuse ginger ale with any kind of alcoholic brew, probably because of their long familiarity with the product. They know it’s just soda pop, the one they often drink to settle their stomach when they’re not well.

"Mush-Fakers" and Ginger-Beer Makers (6795271398)
From Volume 1 of Street Life in London, published in 1877, with photographs by John Thomson and articles by Adolphe Smith. The man on the left is a street vendor peddling ginger beer, among other items. The man on the right is a “mush faker”, or umbrella mender.


Ironically, the ingredients in ginger that people count on for settling their stomach, the gingerols, are present in the most popular ginger ales only in vanishingly small homeopathic quantities. Stronger flavored ginger ales, and especially ginger beers, are more likely to have gingerols in quantities sufficient for an effective dose. Whatever people are gaining by drinking most ginger ales medicinally, they are getting it from some factor other than the amount of actual ginger in the drink. This is a turnabout from where things stood between ginger ale and ginger beer over on hundred years ago.

Up until the late nineteenth century, there was only ginger beer, all of it alcoholic to some extent, and especially popular for centuries in England after that country had secured supplies of ginger, a subtropical plant. When pharmacists started producing soft drinks in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ostensibly for the medicinal benefits, one of the first flavors they produced was ginger ale, a toned down version of ginger beer. Ginger ale really took off in popularity during Prohibition, when people naturally drank quite a lot of spirits and they discovered what a wonderful mixer ginger ale made. In the United States at least, ginger beer was all but forgotten.

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A 1948 advertisement for Canada Dry Ginger Ale in The Ladies’ Home Journal. The nightclub scene depicted in the inset emphasizes the popular use of the product as a mixer for cocktails.

Consumers have rediscovered ginger beer in the last ten to twenty years as they have also opened themselves up to alternatives to other mass produced products like the sodas and beers of multi-national corporations. Ginger has also generated interest as an anti-inflammatory home remedy, for treating arthritis and, again, for digestive complaints. The difference now is that many consumers recognize the amount of ginger in the typical mass market ginger ale is not enough to be medicinally worthwhile, homeopaths excepted. This has driven some consumers to the niche market of ginger beers, with their higher amounts of actual ginger, sometimes mixed with other spices, and consequently stronger flavors. Along the way, the drinkers of alcohol among them, unmoved by the lack of alcohol in their newly discovered ginger drink of choice, have found that mixing it in cocktails and punches which would normally call for ginger ale can deliver a more flavorful kick than ginger ale, and maybe a healthier benefit, which if negligible when mixed with alcohol, could perhaps come into play the next day if the drinker is out of sorts.
— Izzy



One Man’s Trash Is Everybody’s Problem


This summer, archaeologists from The Public Archaeology Facility of Binghamton University in New York State are digging up the site of the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair near Bethel, New York. They hope to uncover an accurate and comprehensive scheme of the place as it was originally laid out for that enormous event nearly 50 years ago, and then turn over their findings to the museum on the site in time for the 50th anniversary in August 2019. Besides broken glass and other relics from the event, the archaeologists dug up numerous pop tops from aluminum beverage cans.


Unlike the stay-tab which replaced it in the late 1970s, the pop top tabs from the late 1960s and early 1970s were meant to be pulled entirely off the top of the can by the consumer. The consumer then had a piece of waste in addition to the waste the can itself would become after emptying, and many consumers simply dropped the pop tops on the ground, where they not only littered the environment but on account of their sharp edges became a safety hazard for anyone in bare or lightly shod feet, as Jimmy Buffett noted in his song “Margaritaville”. Some people dropped the pop tops into the can either while they were drinking from it or afterward, and then some of those people were unfortunate enough to swallow the pop top or otherwise injure themselves when it resurfaced during their drinking.

Litter trap
A litter trap on the Yarra River in the vicinity of Melbourne, Australia. Photo by Biatch3.


When a Reynolds Metals engineer named Daniel F. Cudzik invented the stay-on-tab, or Sta-Tab, in 1975, he solved the littering and safety problems of pop tops. Some inconsiderate people still tossed the cans wherever they liked when they were done with them, and unfortunately it appears a certain percentage of people like that will always be among us, but the problems originating from improperly disposed cans have lessened since the 1960s with the adoption of better designs and recycling programs. Since then, and particularly after bottled water took off in popularity in the 1990s, plastic beverage containers have taken over from aluminum cans as a major littering and safety problem.

Engineers and designers have created biodegradable water bottles in the past several years, but so far the bottled water industry has not embraced their inventions, and may never do so without consumers pushing themselves and the industry in that direction. Part of the reason for delay is the relatively abstract nature of the problem for many consumers. Yes, empty plastic water bottles may litter roadsides, where they are unsightly, but they don’t really pose a physical danger to people, unlike aluminum pop tops and cans with their sometimes sharp edges. The physical danger from plastics all seems to happen to animals, many of them far away and out of sight, such as the ones who live in the oceans, where all that plastic garbage ends up and lingers for decades. It was only recently that scientists discovered we, like our animal cousins, are also ingesting plastics, though in our cases we are more dainty in our discernment in that we choose only to take in micro-plastics, meaning those we cannot see. What goes around, comes around, and there’s no escaping it.

In Mike Nichols’s 1967 film The Graduate, Mr. McGuire, played by Walter Brooke, has some advice for Ben Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman. In a later scene, Hoffman’s character floats on a raft in the pool at his house and sips a beverage from a can which has two v shaped openings in its top, the marks of having been opened with a can opener, or church key, the most common way to open such a can before pop tops became widely available on beverage cans in the mid 1960s.

Most people can be coached to some degree to change their behavior, and once they are understand viscerally that a problem exists because of their past behavior, many of them can become open to change. They have to feel the problem personally, though, because an abstraction doesn’t always get through to them. A minority of others are hardheads, and little can be done to persuade them to change their ways beyond legal sanctions and public shaming. The mounting problem of plastic litter shares this model of personal and public behavior with the looming dangers of a warming climate. For too many people the problems remain abstractions because the effects can be distant, indirect, or slow moving. The rest of us can’t wait for those people to come around, because they may only do so when they are up to their necks in seawater while standing in their front yards, fighting off all the plastic junk bobbing in the water, and obstinately refusing to reconcile their beliefs with what they see and feel around them.
— Techly



The Right Tool


Attempting a do it yourself (DIY) repair of something around the house or of a vehicle is mostly regarded by onlookers as well as by the eager amateur repair person as virtuous, valiant, and frugal, though after much frustration the do it yourselfer may not mind foregoing the admiration of family and friends in exchange for a functional repair. People get in over their heads and underestimate the value of technical skills honed from years of experience that the professional possesses, as well as often expensive specialty tools. Too many times the amateur tackles a problem using a limited arsenal of tools, and perhaps more critically, limited knowledge and zero experience.

DIY Toilet in Nature
DIY Toilet in Nature. Photo by Formerchemistuow. Sometimes the right tool is a telephone for calling on the help of a professional.


What is the problem? It’s a simple enough question, but one which an amateur will often follow circuitously through trial and error, while the professional, having likely seen the problem before, will cut right to the core of the issue. One of the best tools an amateur can employ when confronted with a difficult repair is the judgment to know his or her limitations and when the time has come to call in a professional. Sometimes that judgment is taken away from the do it yourselfer by manufacturers, particularly of electronics. The demise of Radio Shack, once a resource for electronics hobbyists and people buying parts for repairing their equipment themselves, is as much a testament to the connivance of manufacturers in shutting out amateur repair efforts on their devices as it is to the incompetence of Radio Shack management. Consumers have also acquiesced in the past generation to the accelerated obsolescence of electronic devices, and are far more inclined than they were forty or more years ago to replace malfunctioning equipment rather than repair it, either by themselves or by hiring a professional.

A montage from The Andy Griffith Show 1964 episode “Bargain Day”, in which Sheriff Andy Taylor, played by Andy Griffith, continually exhorts Aunt Bee, played by Frances Bavier, to call the repair man to fix their broken freezer. Aunt Bee, in a penny wise and dollar foolish way, fusses and drags her feet about calling the repair man because of the expense, meanwhile risking the loss of an entire side of beef she had hoped to store in the freezer.

For do it yourselfers, quick diagnosis of the problem needing repair is key, because otherwise they are prone to waste time, energy, and expense in labor and materials casting about blindly in hopes of isolating the problem. The professional will likely save that trouble and expense. Not always, but most of the time. Where a sophisticated diagnosis is required, such as it can be with electronics, the professional is likely to possess the proper equipment. Not all amateurs have the wherewithal to run out and buy expensive diagnostic equipment for what may only be a one time use. More and more of the devices we bring into our houses require special knowledge and tools to fix, if indeed a fix is possible or economical, and unless the defects they develop can be recognized by us quickly we are probably better off leaving the repair to a professional. The alternative is to limit ourselves to mechanical and electronic devices that were available one hundred years ago, when a person with a standard set of household tools could still effect many needed repairs without undue aggravation. In the twenty-first century, the end of Radio Shack ought to signify for most of us where we stand in our willingness and ability to repair things ourselves.
— Techly


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