All About Soap

It constantly amazes me the number and amount of things we take for granted on a day to day basis. Personally, I like to think I’m rather smart. For all of my modern day “knowledge” if I was thrown in the wilderness, I likely wouldn’t live past a season. Think for an instant about everything you use without thinking about it – electricity, microwave ovens, natural gas heating, internal combustion engines. Part of this blog was attempting to understand such things, and what better place than something people have taken for granted in our society for decades – soap.

Now, I haven’t read the book “Fight Club”, but I don’t think it’s without reason that a major component was soap. Given that (hopefully) everyone uses it on a regular basis, you’d think people in general would know where it came from. As I discovered on attempting to make soap for myself, you’d be wrong. People don’t.

When I announced my intent to a few people to find out how soap was made, I ran into multiple misconceptions on a repeated basis. The biggest, and most substantial, also demonstrated the common level of knowledge –

“Lye soap, doesn’t that suck?”

I believe this is the unholy combination of marketing and history. Home made soaps where often made by combining potash with animal fat. After burning a hardwood, water run through the ashes of the wood will pick up Potassium Hydroxide (POH). This water could then be added to animal fat to create a surfactant which we call “soap”. A surfactant is simply a substance that lets oil and water mix.

Obtaining, and burning, hardwood, then leaching out the required compounds is something of an involved and time consuming task. So, I, like many others, took a short cut and purchased what I needed, in the form of “100% Lye”.

Now, at some point the term “lye” stopped referring to “Potassium Hydroxide” and instead started referring to a very similar “Sodium Hydroxide”. Sodium hydroxide however, can be manufactured from a simple chemical process involving water, electricity, and table salt. While lye is somewhat dangerous to deal with, it’s been sold as years as drain cleaner, and is also used in other janitorial applications. Go figure Fin would know something about dealing with it before I even brought it home.

In fact, I quickly discovered “cold process soap making” is something of a popular hobby across the states. A multitude of websites, how to guides, and instructions are out there. Many of the “soapers” will say they make “old fashioned lye soap”, and many will sell their soap online or at places like Whole Foods. For a nice premium you can find “organic vegan soap”. Others will tell you about the many evils of store bought soaps, all the while advertising their own “all natural soap made with saponified oils”.

One quality local vendor is Indigo Wild – manufacturers of “Zum Soap” that you’ll find at a multitude of locations. At the store, you’ll find it a lot more expensive than other soaps. Now, I think Zum soap is in general a high quality product, Fin and I have been using it a while now. We both have very sensitive skin, and Zum tends to work better than any other brand we’ve tried. Talking to a Whole Foods hippy about Indigo Wild products versus what you’d buy at the supermarket, would likely make Zum soap sound completely different than any of your discount soaps. While I might agree on quality, the same argument doesn’t jump into “what the soap is”.

Looking at your standard store purchased soaps (we’ll ignore those anti-bacterial for now as well as body washes), you’d likely see the following ingredient list:


Allow me to simply all that for you: Saponified animal fat and vegetable fats, salt, and Tetrasodium edta

Now, the Vegan had one small point – if you’re vegetarian and/or animal killing is high on your “do not” list, store bought soaps tend to have animal fat in them. More than likely, a part of your soap is coming from rendered animal fats. Also note, I didn’t include any added glycerin in there – that’s part of what you get saponifying fats.

The only real additive worth noting in the majority of non-premo-organic soaps is Tetrasodium EDTA. Now, there is some valid concern over the chemical, it’s effects, and it’s safety. There are a couple different websites out there making it seem completely safe, and a cancer inducing death toxin. In general, it’s purpose in soap is to make it less reactive. The vast majority of your “natural soaps”, will not contain it.

After a weekend of effort, I managed to produce my own soap, comparable in quality to those of premium soap manufacturers. And while, Fin and I will be making soap for our own reasons, we could just as easily go the store and purchase a similar product without being confused by the “Natural” on the logo. Some of the natural soaps might be better quality, but some aren’t anything more than repackaged bargain bin discount soap.

In summary, the assumptions we make on something we use on a daily basis can lead to surprising results when pulling back the covers and taking a look at how things really work.

As I continue making soap, I hope to post a bit about it here, what and how I did, how well it worked, and so on.

The Fear Continues

On Friday, the science project of an 11 year old resulted in the evacuation of a middle school. A 2 liter bottle with “wires sticking out”? It must be a bomb! Hackaday (a nerd blog) has a great editorial on the misgivings of people seeing home made electronics.

Sadly, these responses don’t seem limited to just electronics anymore. Any number of backyard projects insight an odd mix of fear and anger – line drying of clothes, making your own soap or laundry detergent, home construction projects / DIY jobs, backyard gardens, the list goes on.

At what point did we as a society decide that it must be purchased at the store to be acceptable?

Sad, so very sad.

Fate's 2010 Resolutions

While it’s a bit late in January to post this, I still feel a need to continue my yearly ritual of posting the things I’m planning on accomplishing over the new year. This years resolutions are largely related to the purpose of this blog, so I’m going to post them here.

1. Reduce / Eliminate trash at the office
Together, Fin and I have reduced our monthly trash output (excepting the ongoing project of reducing our junk count) to roughly a single trash bag a month. However, at work, I’m still outputting a considerable amount of junk – mostly disposables associated with eating lunch. My new goal is to start using washable clothes, and silverware at work. It’s way too easy to get caught into the trap of using that stuff when it’s readily available, and everyone else at the office is.

2. Go camping / outdoors more often
Last year, Fin and I went on two trips where I was camping. This year, I hope to make regular weekends at a couple local lakes / camping grounds. By the end of the year, I’m hoping for a good 6 times this year out camping with Fin.

3. Pay off another debt
Last year, I set the goal of paying off some of my college debt. I succeeded, and am hoping again this year to nuke another portion of my college and post college stupidity.

4. Perfect a soap recipe / be able to make commercial quality soap
This will be a series of blog entries on its own, but I’m hoping to create some decent quality soap using cold process techniques. My first batch is currently cooking, and I’ll have a blog entry about this and my reasons for it soon.

5. Return to martial arts
Fin’s been encouraging me to do this, but the time and cost matrix hasn’t been favorable to it actually happening. Martial arts did a lot of good things for my health and mental state, so I’d really like to get back at it.

6. Post more useful stuff more often
Part of the original goal of this blog was to post useful information, and post that on a regular basis. However, life’s been in the way, and so, not much has happened in terms of useful content here. Now that things have calmed down a bit, some of that should start happening.

7. Grow and maintain a garden
Fin’s downright excited about the idea of having a garden this year, and I’m looking forward to helping. Really, this is more of her resolution, but it’s one that I’m also looking forward to helping with.

8. Release some software / finish a project
I’ve done so many hobby projects, but none of them have hit a point to call it done. The goal this year is to actually accomplish something in that. In either software, or writing, or art, I want to actually accomplish something this year.

9. Finish unpacking
This is really the same goal as last year. I want to be rid of the boxes of junk that have been trailing me around and growing for the past 3 to 4 years. At some point this year, I’d like to say, “hey look, I’m done unpacking”.

10. Grow in maintenance / carpentry / plumbing / etc… skills
Now that I find myself in the role of “homeowner”, I can’t call the apartment management company anymore to come fix stuff. My parents were very much the type were doing things around the house meant calling the right professional. I’m hoping to break the trend a bit, and be more self sustaining. So far, no major injuries or limbs lost.

Fate's 2009 Resolutions Wrap Up

2009 has been an extremely eventful year. If you told me at the start of last year, everything that would happen – I probably woulda thought you were joking. One of the things that I drive Fin crazy on, is that I tend to view plans more as guidelines, than actual plans. So, it isn’t really surprising how this years events are going to turn up in terms of ‘accomplished’ and ‘not’.

First, the accomplished:
Financial: Knock out one of my college debt accounts
Slight Win. I managed to pay off a couple credit cards, transfer some debt, and start making a dent in my loads of stupid.

Bucket List: Create new bucket list and accomplish at least 2 entries this year
Epic Win! Fireworks, BBQ, getting married, going camping, … I hit lots of entries on the new list and I’m looking forward to making a new list and doing more stuff.

Relationships: Do better than in ’08
EPIC WIN! I wake up every morning happy that I’m with a wonderful person, even if she is a bit of a nerd.

And now, the not:

Life: Figure out what I really want to be doing in 10 years.
Fail, but happy about it. This is a sorta weird one. I’m saying I didn’t figure it out, but I’m also thinking that’s a good thing. The best things in my life so far have been things I didn’t expect or know or have a clue about. It’s the things I overplanned that tended to blow up.

Personal Appearance: Move from “I buy clothes” to having a style
Fail, and not really caring anymore. I’ve decided that most all of men’s clothing = “I buy clothes”.

Personal Fitness: Run a 7 minute mile, continue advancement in martial arts.

Hobbies: Have Something to show for a writing project at the end of ’09
Hobbies: Release Self Hosting Microkernel
Fail, but I’m going to try again. The whole process of getting married and helping make a home killed the amount of free time required to do my hobby stuff.

Blog: Post more often
Fail. Funny, I just haven’t had as much to say, but that’s starting to change now.

General: Finish unpacking
EPIC FAIL! Dear God, it never ends…. And now, I’m convinced, I’ve accumulated EVEN MORE CRAP, not counting anything from Fin. How?!?! I don’t know…

So, to summarize, it looks like I’m 3 out of 10 on actually meeting my resolutions. I wonder how that compares to people in general.

Weddings, Inc.

Well, Fin and I have been off the air for a bit. Together, we went forth and managed to live through one of those goals couples have – getting married. And yes, I do mean “live through”. Being married to Fin, well, it’s an awesome thing. I could go on about how I feel, but it’d really sound like your standard gushy newlywed. And really, for everyone that’s seen us together, it’s pretty obvious we’re really happy with a relationship that’s worth the work it takes to keep it great.

So yeah, marriage is awesome. Getting married though – a wedding – sucks.

I was prepared for dealing with the multi-faith issues surrounding the wedding with my family coming. I don’t share their faith and was concerned over complications that would bring.

I was prepared for needing money to reserve a venue, and obtain a minister.

What I wasn’t prepared for? The long list of items of things that people expect.

In the US, your average wedding costs $20,398, and that doesn’t include the honeymoon. Despite the “Father of the Bride” traditions, it’s now typical that a large portion of this cost is shouldered by the bride and groom themselves. While I don’t want to give out the exact dollar figure for our wedding – I will say we did it for substantially less than twenty grand.

It wasn’t that we wanted our wedding to be cheap, although we did have a small budget. No, our wedding was low cost because we did what WE wanted to do. And what’s more – the family supported us doing what we wanted to do. When it comes down to it, I’m glad the family was so awesome about everything, because that made a huge difference.

What shocked me was the number of people, and prevalence of the various ideas of things we needed to buy or rent or have available. As we went through the process of the wedding, I decided to grab on the internet and find out what a “usual” wedding consisted of.

As I grew up, a wedding seemed little more than a specially decorated religious meeting, with a reception hall rental afterward. Cheap ceremonies – at least in comparison to the national average, we’re very much the norm.

Early on, I noticed an interesting trend. If I called a store to find out a price on a rental or specific item, I’d get a largely different number than if I called a store to find out the price of a rental or item for a wedding. The most dramatic example was in finding a pair of champagne glasses for the toast – “wedding toasting flutes” – started at double the price. Annoyingly, the more expensive wedding toasting flutes were also crap in comparison.

I sat and read article after article for a while, on what was “standard” for weddings. Only to find a dizzying array of things that we “had” to do – bachelor party, bachelorette party, rehearsal dinner, wedding favors, save the date cards, ceremony programs, wedding invitations, bridal shower, bridal shower announcement, engagement announcements, etc… etc…

The worst offender of the “have to” list of things? The engagement ring. There’s multiple places you can learn about the history of the engagement ring. I’ll save you giving details about how short the history of today’s engagement rings is. No, what bothers me is the advice on pricing. An engagement ring should cost double one months pre-tax salary. Ever notice they all look the same too?

It’s not about finding a gift for a potential bride. It’s not about searching for “just the right” thing for the girl. The question of cost doesn’t come to a question of compromise between what one can afford and what would make a perfectly sculpted ring. The engagement ring isn’t a symbol anymore, it’s a business transaction.

Despite all of the commercialization of a huge milestone, we expressed our own individuality. We decided what was important to us, what we wanted to make special. And in that are some of the best memories of all.

Charity for Dummies (Part 1)

Ask a conservative how the poor will eat without taxes, and they’ll be sure to point you to charities. They exist for just about every circumstance and cause out there – battered women, abused children, blood donation, breast cancer awareness, the list goes on. Volunteers offer their time for construction work and house repairs, disaster relief, passing out food, collecting money, … – again the list goes on.

On a personal level, I see charity as a good thing. Without personal charity, my journey to Kansas City would have been much different. But, someone was willing to lend me a hand when I needed help up. Examples of that sort of thing are fairly widespread. In the local area, 98.8 (among other radio stations), offers help to random people during Christmas season.

Unfortunately, I believe that charities are also being abused. My employer, as well as many others in the Kansas City area, encourages people to give to the United Way. And wouldn’t you know, it’s easy. All I have to do is fill out a form, and every paycheck I can donate any amount I’d like. Wow, isn’t that Great? Well, …

No, it isn’t.

The reasoning behind giving to United Way? “If it’s too hard to figure out a charity you want to give to, give to them and they’ll figure it out for you.” It rather reminds me of a science fiction classic, where people design robots to worship God for them. A charity like United Way isn’t charity to support a cause, a passion, or a belief, it is simply charity for the sake of charity. Or, as I like to call it, guilty giving.

Don’t get me wrong, the United Way does some really good work. They write grants to some great organizations! And occasionally they’ll even help out and do volunteer work or charitable work directly. When it comes right down to it though, they exist to collect money off of our collective guilt.

Guilt is a powerful thing – a basic human emotion that says something is wrong. And while there are circumstances where guilt is uncalled for but natural, I question the creation of organizations that seek to relieve us of our guilt by simple transfer of wealth.

The level of ease with which charitable giving now happens allows us to live like a drunk driver that goes to AA meetings. We give to charity, therefore our rape of the poor and down trodden is meaningless. We can fill free to litter the streets with our garbage, because we pay for prisoners to pick it up.

Paycheck donations to charity do not require us to examine lifestyle or put forth any effort to consider our value systems. You sign a form, and after a few months, the donation to charity becomes another line item on the paycheck, right beside Social Security tax deductions.

And then, when someone sees your behavior, notes that how privileged you are and that there exist others without the same opportunity? When they pull up the mirror and reveal and show that you have done nothing to benefit the society that has given you the gift of wealth? Why, THEN you can point to a forgotten line item on your paystub and say “Look, I give to charity”.

"The Dead Zone"

“Dead Zone”

The name sounds like it’s from bad science fiction. I remember hearing about Dead Zones in my high school biology and geography classes. One of the largest is located in the Gulf of Mexico and consists of an area roughly the size of New Jersey. At the mouth of the Mississippi river, a large amount of fresh water flows into the Ocean. But not only is fresh water coming in, but run off water from large farming operations in the midwest. The fertilizer rich water hits the Ocean and causes a food chain march which leads to hypoxia, a lack of oxygen in the water.

This year, the dead zone was predicted to grow to record levels of size. Recently released data showed the dead zone not as large as expected, but more severe. In the end, it covered only 3000 square miles.

At what point do we stop ignoring the cost of our way of life? Today, the Gulf of Mexico dead zone directly threatens $2.8 billion worth of US fishing industry. Put another way, 99 cent cheeseburgers threaten to destroy the option for a slightly more expensive, but much healthier, grilled fish sandwich.

Can we shutup about the f***ing faeries already?

Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?

— Douglas Adams
So a friend of mine forwarded me a video. Really, it’s pretty awesome. Basically, the universe is really big. Like, really.

It’s a video that Carl Sagan would have no doubt loved to see. The knowledge of what I’m looking at here is awe inspiring. The commentary about the video though, is not. Instead of a focus on the magnitude of what is, I hear countless people remarking “Awesome, look at this, clearly there is no God!!!!”

Really people? Can’t we just … move on. Believe me, I have plenty to complain about when it comes to religion. Plenty. I don’t however, spend all my time watching videos like this thinking, “wow they really were full of shit”. You know what amazes me?

“God fearing” people that see that video are probably enjoying it more than the skeptical societies.

See, they actually get to enjoy it. True, there enjoyment is going to take the “look how awesome God is to have created all that” form. But, it’s enjoyment and inspiration nonetheless. The atheist watching this as “ohhhh, proof the Goddies have it wrong”, well, not so much.

To this day, I am amazed by the fact that we have such vocal groups here shouting their views, that neither extremist side gets to sit down and realize: most of us just don’t give a damn. Sorry, it’s true.

So, to the “ohhhhhh, look this proves there is a God” people and to the “ohhhhhh, look this proves God is bullshit” people – please shut the F*** up about the faeries, and let the rest of us enjoy the Garden, faeries or no.

Anachronism: Line Drying Clothes

In much of the US, people EXPECT to do their laundry using a washer and dryer. Driving through most suburban neighborhoods, you wouldn’t see people out hanging clothes on a line to dry. In fact, many neighborhood home owners associations BAN line drying of clothes as an eye sore.

Thankfully, there’s not a home owners association to bitch at us, and so we have taken it upon ourselves to annoy the neighbors by going back in time to the very recent past. The funny thing is, not many people realize just how much energy drying their clothes uses. An average family can spend a good $100 to $200 a year according to the EPA using a clothes dryer instead of line drying clothes. At an energy cost of near 1000 kWh / year, switching to line drying clothes could power an average home for a month.
Yesterday, I helped Fin put up the clothes line, and she’s switched to that from the dryer this summer. Line dried clothes have so far, been an epic win in this house, if only for the fact that my shirts actually seem to loose that dude-funk when they’re left in the breeze for a while. The amount of time to do the laundry isn’t much changed, and the clothes get dryer much quicker than you’d expect.
It’s also nice to be outside spending some time with Fin doing something together. The downsides? Well, I guess people get to see your socks and undewear hanging out there:
Also, clothes dried by the sun do have a tendency to fade faster. Still, if your homeowners association allows it, I recommend the practice. If they don’t, well, maybe you should question them as to exactly why they consider it an eyesore. The idea that trying to save energy, help the environment, and reduce costs is an eyesore, well, it’s just sorta sad. This blog is about changing that before the rest of the world leaves us in our own wasteful dust.

One Reason Why Computers Suck

Fate’s theory on computers: there is no consumer computing device which actually works.

Everything you see at BestBuy, the lines of laptops from HP and Apple – all of them – are broken in some fundamental way. I don’t care how awesome your home PC is, give me five or ten minutes with it, and I’ll figure out something you “should” be able to do that causes it to spit up all over itself. Funny enough, there are a good number of people out there actually paid to do that. That certain talent, is the reason why I’m involved with the computing industry, and simultaneously also, technology incompatible.
Now, in my profession, I see a lot of computer equipment, and generally deal with it on a far more detailed level than most people. Floating in my head are a great number of random facts about how various pieces of computer hardware work. What amazes me though, is that when it comes right down to it, computers don’t.
If you’re reading this blog, you’ll likely know the difference between Hardware and Software. Driver software makes the hardware tick. An outsider might expect that driver software would be developed alongside with the hardware directly – when the hardware is done, so is the driver software. Looking at the problem in detail though, it’s obvious you’ve got something of a chicken and an egg here – how do you develop software for non-existent hardware? I’ll spare the gritty details of how that works, and jump straight to the results.
And that result, is generally with either you – the consumer – or the OEM (big box PC makers like HP and Apple.) On a modern Windows PC, you’ve probably noticed “Windows Update”, asking on a regular basis if you’d like to ruin…er…. update parts of the software on your computer. Depending on your level of technical sophistication / bravery / stupidity / intelligence, you may have chosen to install / ignore / install randomly these updates. For today, we’ll focus on the Driver updates.
Now, let’s say I’m an up and coming competitor to ATI and nVidia, and have developed the new wizz-bang awesome 3d video card which has 10 spanking new features, including the ability to render photorealistic boobies realtime. Gamers the world over drool (understandably) over this new piece of computing excellence. The announcement is made, and the new Wank-O-Matic 5000 video card hits shelves. Immediately, my competitors begin discussing how their next version of video card will render even better photorealistic boobies realtime in their next generation of cards. That, however, doesn’t stop Gamers from lining up overnight to purchase the Wank-O-Matic 5000.
On buying it however, they take it home, and discover that only 8 of the ten new features work well, and the other 2 don’t work well at all. Sad and dismayed, gamers announce it’s a good video card, but the major selling point is overrated. Not to be stopped, I now promise every gamer – but wait, it’ll be fixed in an update! As time goes on, the major issues with the new creation are fixed, and at long last, the Wank-O-Matic 5000 does everything as advertised. The only thing is, noone is using it anymore, it’s now been obseleted by the Wank-O-Matic 6000, and the new up and coming Wanktastic 8G.
Which brings me to the heart of the matter – all of the computer hardware in existence today, is not fully utilized. Indeed, any computer purchased within the last year or so will have a shiney new 64 bit chip in it – being used to run a 32 bit operating system. And, this isn’t something created recently. The first 32 bit processor was introduced in 1985. It wasn’t, however, until 10 years later, that consumers could take full advantage of that.
I know it’s difficult, but, at some point, I just have to start to wonder. The personal computing industry is now over 30 years old. At what point do we stop saying “computers are new” and start expecting everything to work as advertised when we buy it? When do we begin expecting hardware vendors to not simply say “fix it later” when the product can’t even be used anymore from being so out of date?
Thinking about it, the answer is obvious to me: people are happy with mediocre. Computers crash, things occasionally just don’t work. Part of me hopes, one day that will change – people will begin to expect that this sort of technology shouldn’t crash or be difficult to use. Another part of me though, I must admit, is happy we techies can half-ass solutions. Cause really, as long as it’s good enough, it works right?