Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Sustainable corn.

Image from Iowa State University to Science Daily

An interesting article came up in my RSS feeds recently.  According to work done at Iowa State University, corn production might just become a little more sustainable.  Mind you, I feel that there is a little more to this story than what you might (or might not) read about in the papers.

Poa pretensis alongside corn seedlings.  Source.
This work experimented with the planting of perennial cover crops (something to keep soil in place when the land is not producing cash or food crops) between rows of corn in a study that lasted three years.  The work revealed that Kentucky bluegrass (aka poa pretensis) was the best fit for the job.  This may be the case for several reasons.  I have no doubt that the plant itself fits well.  It has a low profile compared to corn, meaning it will provide little to no competition for sunlight, but farmers are also familiar with the plant and how to manage it.  The grass is found in lawns across North America, and it would seem that in this case familiarity has not bred contempt.

The foremost conclusion of this study, however, was that crop yields would not suffer should it be grown among rows of bluegrass.  This is important to the story, because farmers would refuse to utilise a method which would somehow cripple crop yields.  Luckily, the yields were the same when compared to a control crop (one grown using conventional methods nearby).  However, there are other reasons to be excited for these results.  I ask that you refrain from sipping brandy before the next paragraph, and hang onto your monocles.

Corn is a notoriously hungry and thirsty plant.  As I have previously discussed, corn requires comparatively high fertiliser inputs.  The benefits of a perennial cover crop have a lot to do with the stabilisation of the soil.  There is less exposed ground to bake in the sun, so water requirements become lower.  Further, with less soil exposed to wind and rain, the erosion of soil and the leaching of fertilisers are also retarded.  It is also worth noting that the study included two years which farmers described as "funny".  Flooding was commonplace in 2008, and 2009 saw the coolest July on record.  Both situations would doubtless challenge crops, but the corn managed to survive.

For the record, soil erosion may become more important in time.  Though I cannot lend credence to the claims as I have not researched them, I have heard rumblings that the price of top soil may rise in years to come as we deplete our conventional sources of the stuff.  Soil is created over millions of years by the wearing down of rocks, and humans have yet to develop a synthetic route for its synthesis.

Bearing what I have said in mind, it would seem that the benefits of this sort of agricultural method might become more and more obvious in years to come.  Perhaps in drought years the grass will allow for more efficient water use.  Further, it may also prove that farmers in the future will require less fertiliser and additional topsoil to replace that which was lost in wind and rain.  This would all lower the costs (both thermodynamic and financial) of growing corn, and thus feeding humanity.  I am pleased to see this work, and wonder if it could be extended to other crops as well.


Sunday, July 24, 2011


Courtesy Wikipedia under GNU Licence Agreement


An issue currently facing the scientific community is that of carbon capture and storage, CCS.  It is essentially trying to reverse what has been done over the course of a hundred-or-so years of burning fossil fuels.  Realistically speaking, storage is the easy part of CCS, in that there have been various proposals for very reasonable places to put captured carbon, including abandoned mines and the seafloor.  As an interesting aside, if one were to pump carbon dioxide to the bottom of the ocean, the pressure is so great that water molecules will align to form a "clathrate", a cage which will hold gases there indefinitely.  Carbon capture, however, has proven to be incredibly difficult and a challenge to the greatest minds of today.  Though I do not rank with those greatest minds, the subject of my honour's thesis was a theoretical study of carbon capture mechanisms using metal organic frameworks.  In case you were wondering, I studied copper II benzenetricarboxylate.  For now, these frameworks show great potential.  Unless some improvement is found, though, they will remain a terrible, terrible idea.  The problem here is that carbon dioxide is a very stable molecule, and is not all that easy to trap.

I hope to have at least conveyed that CCS is by no means a trivial problem.  That being said, I feel that a good solution may have been "discovered" recently.  I use parentheses because the technology is by no means new.  In fact many of you, while not adjusting your monocles and top hats, may have handled this technology.  You see, outside of the scientific world, this technology is known as "charcoal".  Biochar simply refers to charcoal when used for CCS and related purposes.  Please do not ask me why they couldn't call it charcoal.  Bioscientists go all goofy when they have the opportunity to name things.

I was recently introduced to this idea by a former environmental issues professor (he has a blog here).  Biochar has the potential to be an elegant solution to the problem of CCS.  Capture, the hardest part of CCS, is accomplished simply by growing woody or cellulosic biomass (trees, grass, what have you).  Storage is then rather easy, biochar may come in chunks, briquettes, full bricks, or even as a powder, but all that need be done is to bury it.  This scheme gives several advantages over other proposed methods.  For one, burying solids is very easy, especially when juxtaposed with methods proposing pumping carbon dioxide into abandoned mineshafts.  Other solids have been proposed, such as calcium carbonate.  The problem here is that while calcium carbonate (you know it as chalk and Tums' active ingredient), is a solid and very easy to deal with, simply burying it would affect soil pH, and widespread leaching could  be devastating.  Another benefit is that one would be burying carbon only, and not sacrificing an oxygen molecule for each carbon atom that must be stored, as would be the case with both carbonate or carbon dioxide storage.

In case you have furrowed your brow, wondering what the ecological effects of burying biochar would be, I believe I have an answer.  While I am by no means an expert, it is my opinion that no environmental harm would be done by burying this material.  My reason for this thinking is terra preta.  This term, which in Portugese means "black earth", refers to the enrichment of soil with biochar.  It would seem that infertile soil may be made fertile with the addition of biochar.  This effect may be noted to a depth of roughly two meters and is stable for timescales on the order of thousands of years.  It is an effect similar to that which switchgrass accomplishes with its extensive root system, but far more quick and direct.

A further benefit is that biochar is not difficult to produce.  It is the same process as charcoal, in fact, though perhaps with lower-grade feedstocks.  Plant matter is heated, causing it to give off water and syngas (carbon monoxide and hydrogen gas), the latter of which could be useful to heat subsequent batches of biochar.  The result is carbon (and potentially mineral) rich biochar.  I must admit, after learning of this, I became a little upset that my parents have been using a propane barbecue for years when charcoal is a far more sustainable technology.

Looking at this problem from a student's perspective, it all seems so simple and obvious a solution.  Biochar could be an excellent CCS solution, one which does not require teams of undergrads toiling away on computers, dreaming up theoretical mechanisms for accomplishing the same thing.  I suppose in an ideal world, switchgrass could be used not only for our heating and biofuel needs, but surplus could be set aside as biochar, which could sustainably reverse anthropogenic climate change.  Could the biochar even be redirected to fertilise our food crops?  The possibilities sure do seem endless.

Until such a time as biochar seems like a terrible idea, I shall continue to hope and dream that it will be widely adopted.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Tag No. 5 is No. 1

A picture of Tag's label, appearing on their website.  Maverick Distilleries does not endorse this blog, and I sincerely hope they don't sue me.

Yesterday I found myself wandering the shelves of the LCBO, and wondering if I should pick up some delicious spirit.  I looked through the vodka section and found myself wishing there was Tag on the shelves.  I took it upon myself to go out into the fresh air and walk to a much bigger LCBO nearby.  It would surely have Tag on the shelves.

I was correct in my assumption, and I soon left said establishment $25 poorer, but one bottle of Tag richer (a fair exchange, in my mind).  I then stopped by the apartment of a friend to toast his health on his birthday.  While sipping the spirit I realised I had forgotten the smoothness, the clarity and cleanliness of this fine vodka.  I wondered, could it test better than the ($47.95) Belvedere I still had on hand in my apartment?

That evening I decided that I would find out.  My room mate served me two shots blind.  I followed my now standard tasting methods.  Smell, sip from the top, shoot.  I took the following notes (edited for clarity to the reader):

Glass 1:
Smell: Fragrant, hint of a medicinal smell
Sip: Sweet and clean with a slight warmth to the finish.
Shot: A clean start gives way to a slightly rough warmth which continues to the finish.  Aside from the warmth, very clean in terms of flavour.

Glass 2:
Smell: Clean, very little.
Sip: Very clean, slight sweetness
Shot: Perfectly clear, slight bitterness to finish.

I selected Glass 2 as my preference, which turned out to be Tag vodka.  This preference over Belvedere makes Tag my new favourite.  It is exceptionally clear, and according to the website, routinely bests Belvedere and Grey Goose by third party tasting.  The "third party" bit is important, most companies have funded their own taste tests in which (surprise) their own vodka has tested best.  It is also made from sweet corn, which is a comparative oddity in the vodka world.  It is quadruple distilled and then "polished" (filtered through a custom charcoal) five times.  It all makes for a wonderful experience, and apparently a gold medal from the 2011 San Francisco Spirits Competition.  I am truly glad that I may enjoy it.

It also seems that Maverick distilleries (the makers of Tag from Oakville), are committed to offering this vodka for a fair price.  It appears from the available literature that rather than spending money on celebrity endorsements (which would drive up the price of the product), they would rather you save your $20 and spread the word.  So to you, my monocled, non-spambot followers, I say this: I have never tasted a vodka so clean as Tag.  In fact, I recall becoming inebriated by accident the first time I bought it.  It was so smooth, and went down so easily that I was not at all concerned with how much I had consumed.  Truly a wonderful beverage.

If you have not yet tried Tag, I would highly recommend doing so.  Further, please do not spend money on the swill that is Grey Goose.  Leave it for the unenlightened, those celebrities paid to endorse it, and those who are dazzled by bottle-based artwork.


Tuesday, July 19, 2011



I mentioned in my Biofuels post that I had a preferred feedstock for production of biofuels.  After a fair chunk of research on the topic (it has been a topic I've followed for ~3 years), I firmly believe that switchgrass should be the primary feedstock for biofuel production in Canada and the United States.  In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that the reading I have done has not been based solely on peer-reviewed literature, though said reading has supported the facts I have read from non-scholarly sources.  I will also say that the Wikipedia article on switchgrass is an excellent starting point for learning more on the subject.

Switchgrass is native to North America, and can be found east of the Rockies, west of Nova Scotia and south of the Territories.  It is a primary constituent of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem.  This ecosystem is present where there is enough water to support more than a short grassland, but periodically sees all above-ground biomass destroyed.  Reasons for destruction usually include buffalo and fires.  As an interesting note, the indigenous peoples would often start fires for increased fruit production of berry plants, which in turn allowed for the tallgrass prairie to thrive.  This ecosystem has since been repressed by human activities.  We, as a civilisation tend to suppress wildfires and turn tallgrass prairie into farmland (it makes for excellent soil).  Virgin Ontario tallgrass prarie, or what is left of it, tends to be located on rocky or sloped lands which could not be tilled or built upon.

The reason switchgrass does well with periodic above-ground destruction is its biomass distribution.  Just over half of the biomass of a switchgrass plant is below-ground.  It is worth noting that growing switchgrass may be viewed as not only carbon neutral, but also a carbon sink.  Since more than half of the plant biomass is below ground, it may sequester and store the carbon dioxide released from the burning of fossil fuels.  One season of growing sees the switchgrass send up stalks and grow seed in the warm season (as of this post, most switchgrass I have seen has begun seed production).  In the cool season, the plant focuses on building up its root system.  Switchgrass can be mowed twice a growing season and still maintain a healthy root system.  The plant is also perennial, meaning it will return every spring indefinitely.  Experimental plots of switchgrass that were planted in the mid to late 1980s still exist today after one planting.

It is for this reason, among others, that the Resource Efficient Agriculture Program (REAP), advocates for switchgrass as a biofuel.  Recent success by REAP has been to advocate for grass pellets as opposed to wood pellets for stoves.  Though grass pellets do not burn as cleanly as wood pellets do (stoves must be modified for this), they are a more reliable source as wood pellets are made from industrial waste and are thus subject to economic forces.  REAP also outlines how to efficiently harvest switchgrass in Ontario and Quebec.  After a full growing season, the grass may be mowed and gathered into windrows to winter in the field.  This allows for snow melt to wash most of the nutrients back into the soil, decreasing fertilisation requirements.  This is largely the only input of resources required for a stand (or plot) of switchgrass, making it incredibly efficient.

Even with these low inputs, switchgrass may still thrive.  While first generation ethanol production requires corn, which in turn requires good agricultural land, switchgrass may be grown upon what is known as marginal cropland.  This means that the soil, for whatever reason, has become degraded and will not allow for food crop production, mitigating a food vs fuel economy.  Not only will it grow there, but the land eventually benefits from the presence of switchgrass.  Some individual stalks and their roots will eventually die, which means said roots will decompose underground.  This increases the organic content of the soil, which makes it higher quality.  It is for this reason that switchgrass has been used previously in soil conservation efforts, and why there is a large base of scholarly knowledge on the plant.

While I cannot remember the math that goes into this, various sources note that the energy requirements of the average Canadian home for one year can be provided by the production of a single acre of switchgrass in a season.  A hectare of land, 2.47 acres, will produce about 18.8 oven-dried tonnes of plant material in said season.  Since the switchgrass is only planted once over the lifetime of the stand and requires minimal energy inputs (fertilizers and such), the energy payoff is quite substantial.  If the switchgrass yielded is burned directly, it is estimated that the crop yields a 20:1 energy payoff, where first generation biofuels will break even only under the best of circumstances.  Conversion to second generation liquid biofuel will (theoretically) return a 5:1 energy payoff.  This figure is theoretical, as no one is yet certain what the predominant second generation production method will be.

Unfortunately, switchgrass does require some special treatment as a crop.  The crop requires three years to establish, and fertilizers must be avoided during this time (it encourages competition from weeds).  A stand must also be burned every 3-5 years in order to discourage competition from other plant life.  Remember, tallgrass prarie only thrived under periodic destruction, especially in the eastern half of North America.  It has also been noted that any monoculture is ecologically undesirable.  Honestly, these are legitimate problems, but I feel they are more than made up for by the benefits of the plant.  It is also worth noting that the monoculture may be mitigated by including other grasses from the tallgrass prairie ecosystem, particularly big bluestem.  However, it is a less robust plant.  Switchgrass is tolerant to floods, drought, and comparatively high salinity [salt concentration in soil].

I could go on about this, but the post as it stands is fairly cluttered.  I may return to this topic, and probably will should I run out of other talking points.  Be it known that I feel switchgrass would be an excellent feedstock for biofuel production.


P.S.  The picture which begins this post was taken after I received a tip on the location of an experimental stand of switchgrass.  It seems the response of switchgrass is being measured against amounts of fertiliser used, which may explain the stripes of different colours.  I wonder what the results will be!

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Debt Ceiling in the United States.


I am deeply concerned about the general goings on in Washington, D.C.  Many of my fellow Canadians are oblivious to a truly troubling situation.  It seems that the national debt of the U.S. has reached a legal "ceiling", an upper limit prescribed by lawmakers of years past.  My understanding is that legally, the debt may not surpass this limit, and the United States would default on their debts.  Should this ceiling be reached, the government may no longer spend money.  I cannot fathom the ramifications of such an event.  It is also my understanding that while President Obama has tried to pass legislation to avoid such a catastrophe, the Republican who leads the House of Representatives has blocked any such action.

It is truly upsetting that the political situation has come to this.  The Republicans refuse to take ownership of a failing economy, because their primary objective is to stop Obama from winning a second term.  While I realised that the GOP (colloquial name for the Republican party, short for "Grand Ol' Party", I believe) was needlessly partisan, I had no idea that it would come to this.  I had even seen the results of the GOP's attitudes in Canadian politics.  The Conservative Party of Canada (a.k.a. "Tories") took notes while watching the success of the GOP.  They too have become needlessly partisan in their legislation and public dealings.  Even where legislation would be beneficial and for the greater good, they refuse to play nicely with the other political parties.  However, I never thought that partisan conservatism would come to this.  Where the global economy hangs in the balance, the GOP will refuse compromise if it means that Obama might receive a second term.  On that note, I do not think I am being overzealous in stating that a failure of the United States would lead to a global economic downturn.  Trading and financial relationships such as they are make for a truly spectacular domino effect.  I also feel that I am not being needlessly sensationalist (a behaviour I find irksome).  Obama has publicly admitted that social security cheques may not go out for August if a solution is not found.

It is my opinion that this behaviour could be foreseen, as well.  The GOP has been spouting partisan rhetoric for quite some time, now.  I have also heard of the conservative strategy known as "Bleeding the Beast", which I find quite disturbing.  It is a conservative strategy whereby a conservative executive appoints like-minded and arguably incompetent heads of bureaucratic organisations.  Once in a while, the executive will swing by, give a pat on the back and note what a wonderful job is being done.  The natural course of action, of course, is to cut funding to the organization and watch as it fails spectacularly in attempting to do its job.  The conservative executive may then point to this event as clear, un-refutable evidence that the public service is bloated, wasteful and inefficent, and that the private sector should be more heavily relied upon.  While I am not sure that this is actually happening, it seems entirely plausible and is rather disconcerting.  That a political organisation would sabotage a government to further its political objectives is sickening.

I believe the saddest thing about this is that it could have been avoided.  We have all seen the evolution of needless partisan politics.  While I as an individual have attempted to vote against this trend, the vast majority of us did not.  We as North Americans stood by and let it happen.  We did not observe what was happening around us, we did not think critically about it, and I, we, did nothing to stop it.

I sincerely hope that Reason will rule the day, and that this mess may be averted.  I also hope that I live to see an end to such ruthless politics.  It is only by this, Reason, perhaps the grace of God, and maybe even the Noodly Appendage that we may live to see our cups [of tomato sauce] runneth over again.


Thursday, July 14, 2011



Biofuels have been in the news lately.  I feel as though a lot of people have strong opinions on the subject without a strong understanding of the subject matter.  It is my hope that some may stumble upon this post, don monocles and top hats, and be able to have informed opinions.

In this post, I will choose to focus upon the issues surrounding ethanol, as it is the most prevalent technology at the moment.  I realise there exists a plethora of other options, but they are not as well developed.  The reason that ethanol has been selected as a biofuel is that is comparatively non-toxic and as a liquid phase organic molecule, it blends well with gasoline.  It is also fairly easy to make, as we humans are no strangers to ethanol (go to your local liquor or beer store to see all the things we can do with it).  The first generation of biofuels was made primarily from corn.  The conversion takes three steps.  First, the starch from the corn is broken down into simple sugars either by thermal processes or enzymatic breakdown.  Second, the sugars are converted into ethanol by using yeast or some similar bacterium.  The third step, as I understand, is the most energetically demanding step of the three.  The ethanol must be distilled from the mix, which costs large amounts of energy.  Water is comparatively very difficult to boil, which must be done to extract the ethanol.

This would be fine if not for a few looming problems. The first is that corn is comparatively energy-intensive to grow, requiring a large amount of fertilizer.  The second is that corn requires good quality soil, and displaces farmland which could be used to grow food for humans (known commonly as the food vs. fuel economy).  This lowers the available land for growing food crops, and increases food costs.  Another major issue is the distillation step for processing, which requires very large amounts of energy.  In a class on applied chemistry, we were advised that industry will avoid distillation wherever possible because of the energy (and thus monetary) costs involved.  As a result of high fertilisation and energy costs, the energy input required for one unit of ethanol is often equal to the chemical potential energy stored in the ethanol, if not greater.  Put simply, that means that burning the gasoline directly would have been a better idea.  There would be no food vs. fuel economy and the energy would not have been wasted.  I must specify however, that this is the case with most corn ethanol, particularly in Canada and most of the United States.  Brazil can use this sort of method with sugarcane because of the warm climate.  The more temperate climates cannot accomplish these feats with corn or sugarcane, unfortunately.

There is a [not so-]simple tweak that would boost the efficiency of this process.  If the entire corn plant was used rather than just the kernels, the yield of ethanol would be greatly increased.  Cellulose is the woody material that makes up the majority of plant biomass.  Like starch, it is a long chain of sugar molecules. Unlike starch, cellulose is bonded in a way that makes it more difficult to break down without specialised processes.  You have experienced this personally, dietary fiber is mostly cellulosic material, and cannot be digested.

Ethanol derived from cellulose has been dubbed "cellulosic ethanol", and is described by federal governments as "second generation biofuels", with the first being ethanol derived from corn kernels.  A benefit from this technology is that the feedstock needn't be corn.  Rather, any number of agricultural products could be evaluated.  Ideally, it would not require large energy inputs, and would not displace croplands used for food.  I have my own ideas about what this feedstock would be, but that is another post in itself.    Ultimately, cellulosic ethanol could prove to be a sustainable technology for biofuel production.

In my opinion, cellulosic ethanol is not the ideal solution, but it is a good start.  I will freely admit that I am not an expert in the field, but I would like to offer my ideas without any solicitation whatsoever.  I feel that distillation is prohibitively expensive energetically speaking.  I also feel that the time required for fermentation of sugars should be a deterrent.  Rather, I would like to see a thermochemical (heat energy which begets chemical change) solution employed.  You see, cellulose can be thermally broken down into "syngas", short for synthesis gas.  The name of syngas was coined due to its original purpose, which was to make methanol.  Methanol, like ethanol, is a combustible, liquid alcohol.  Unlike ethanol, it is not suitable for human consumption.  Most sources prefer ethanol for this reason, but I would counter that no one wishes to drink gasoline.  Take that as you will.  In any case, syngas may be directly (and catalytically) converted to methanol with little to no energy inputs.  This means that, in theory, feedstocks could be converted to biofuels quickly and more efficiently than with distillation and fermentation.  While I cannot remember the exact source, but I saw a story on a chemical plant in the southern United States which was employing a similar solution.  The plant was thermochemical, but I believe it produced ethanol.  This is slightly more complicated than making methanol and will have lower energy yields, but in my opinion it is a better idea.  The most attractive aspect of this process in my opinion is the time required.  Rather than fermentation which could take weeks, a truckload of fuel can be ready in roughly ten seconds via thermochemical methods.

Now you, my monocled, brandy swirling, non-spambot audience know what I think about the current state of biofuels.  I believe my next post shall regard what I believe is the ideal feedstock.  I knew it would come, my obsession with it has yielded a large body of informal and scholarly sources of information on the subject, and I tend to gab to anyone willing to listen.  I can only assume you wait with bated breath for my next post.

Also, for the record, I think biofuels are a great idea.  Oil won't last forever.


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Vodka tasting and Grey Goose


A while ago I wrote a note on Facebook about my thoughts on Grey Goose.  It largely consisted of two large blocks of text from a New Yorker article on wine and a Wikipedia entry on Grey Goose.  I will include the text blocks, and then give my two cents.

"Studies suggest that the experience of smelling and tasting wine is extremely susceptible to interference from the cognitive parts of the brain. Several years ago, Frédéric Brochet, a Ph.D. student in oenology at the University of Bordeaux, did a study in which he served fifty-seven participants a midrange red Bordeaux from a bottle with a label indicating that it was a modest vin de table. A week later, he served the same wine to the same subjects but this time poured from a bottle indicating that the wine was a grand cru. Whereas the tasters found the wine from the first bottle “simple,” “unbalanced,” and “weak,” they found the wine from the second “complex,” “balanced,” and “full.” Brochet argues that our “perceptive expectation” arising from the label often governs our experience of a wine, overriding our actual sensory response to whatever is in the bottle.
Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/09/03/070903fa_fact_keefe?currentPage=all#ixzz0dpJFSClM"

"Grey Goose was designed for the American market in 1997 by Sidney Frank, a self-made billionaire. His concept was to create a premium vodka for Americans. He took the idea from the notion of French manufacturing having an inherent link with high perceived quality, quickly dispatching a team to Europe. Grey Goose was created as a result."

The article on wine is supported by what I have learned in further readings and a psychology class I took.  It is simply a matter of perception overriding your actual sensory inputs.  Grey Goose certainly exploits that, as many people will swear by the brand but will drink the product in cocktails or on the rocks, masking the flavour either way.  I prefer to drink spirits neat and chilled.  Not freezing, but chilled.  That is the method by which you may appreciate the subtleties presented.  My vodkas of choice are Belvedere when I am flush with cash, and Russian Standard or Tag when I am not.

As an aside, I do not distinguish between Russian Standard and Tag because I do not feel I am capable of fully comparing them currently.  Belvedere and Russian Standard were selected by me after a blind taste test of the five vodkas we had in the house.  The methodology is one that I have heard is standard, one starts by sipping the very top of the shot and inhaling through the nose as you swallow.  This allows for what I would describe as a flourish of the flavours present.  One then takes the rest of the shot.  In the case of taste testing, I tried to take notes as rigorously and quickly as possible.  In the interest of full disclosure, this was not the first method I tried.  I started by sipping the vodkas and taking notes, but I noticed that subsequent sips were always rated as worse than previous ones.  In this test, I sampled Belvedere, Finlandia, Russian Standard, Smirnoff and one other.  It rated higher than Smirnoff, but was not worth buying (or remembering the name, apparently).  Smirnoff, for the record, was dead last.  I shuddered after taking that shot, but no others.  I disliked the un-named vodka, but did not shudder.  Alas, Tag is a favourite vodka of mine, but I did not possess any at the time.  I would be elated should it, a cheaper vodka, test better than Belvedere and Russian Standard, but for now I save my pennies and wait until the three are available to me.

I have had Grey Goose twice, once at a party, and once at the insistence of a barmaid.  I had them neat, as I always* do.  I found that when doing this, my mouth would become numb in fairly short order, with pins and needles as the feeling subsided.  Perhaps this is something unique to me, but Grey Goose remains in my bad books as a result.  It is my feeling that most would prefer Belvedere, Tag, or Russian Standard to Grey Goose but for a few factors.  One, Grey Goose is better than Smirnoff in the form of shots.  With Smirnoff being the well-known standard that it is, the first taste of a Grey Goose is somewhat of an epiphany, seeing that not all vodka is terrible.  Second, Grey Goose is often poured into cocktails or onto "the rocks" (ice, for those unfamiliar).  I can attest to the fact that rocks will destroy any subtlety to a vodka in fairly short order, as it is how I have Smirnoff when it is the only available drink.

Unfortunately, my advice often falls on deaf ears.  Smirnoff drinkers firmly believe that vodka is a terrible beverage, and Grey Goose drinkers are fiercely loyal.  My cousin, who experienced my early days of taste testing and meticulous note taking, is my biggest advocate when I offer new vodkas to people.  Unfortunately, it is usually only myself doing the pitching, and one voice is much less convincing than two.

So, should you chance upon Belvedere, Tag, or Russian Standard, adjust your monocle and top hat, and have it chilled and neat.  Your taste buds will thank you.


*Except for my one weakness: vodka and mountain dew.  I refuse to mix Belvedere, but the others are fair game.  Particularly dangerous when one is accustomed to drinking spirits neat.

P.S.  Having said that, Bison Grass (it has a longer, more complicated name, but it is the bottle with the grass in it) offers an interesting taste sensation, but it is far less common.  It's not the standard vodka experience, but it's a little sweeter, and entirely lovely.

P.P.S.  The vodka I could not remember the name of was Sobieski.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The British Monarchy


Canada Day was about a week and a half ago.  Over breakfast, precipitated by the visit of those dubbed "Will and Kate" by the media, we began to discuss the Queen.  I quickly found myself on the unpopular side of the argument, but this was to be expected.

You see, I am quite happy having the Queen as the executive branch of the Government of Canada.  I see no problem in belonging to the Commonwealth of Nations.  Further, I think the United Kingdom should realise the veritable gold mine they sit on.

The most common argument I hear against Her Majesty is financial.  It is a fair point, she holds a lot of very expensive events, and it all happens on the taxpayers' dime.  There is also the oft-quoted lack of license plates on her vehicles.  However, this is not the full story.  The Queen does receive what is known as the "Civil List", money paid to her for her staff and various other sundries (around 8 million pounds).  At the same time, the Queen signs over her income to the Government of the UK.  This is not trivial either, the estate of the royal family is extensive, bringing in hundreds of millions of pounds every year.  The amount paid to the Government is somewhere north of 200 million pounds, and is currently increasing every year.  In fact, I believe it is Buckingham Palace that has needed repairs for years.  The Government was to pay for said repairs right when the financial crisis hit.  The Queen declined the money for the repairs, saying the Government needed it more.  As an aside, Canadians complain about the money spent when royalty visits, but is that not the price of good diplomatic relations?  Is that not done for elected heads of state who visit Canada?  "Of course it is!" you reply astutely, while swirling your brandy, and adjusting your monocle and top hat (I assume).

The next reason for my support of the Monarchy was a little less clear, but was articulated clearly and eloquently by Matt.  For this, we must ask why we have a monarchy.  It is a fair question, whereas various monarchies ruled the world in the past, they are now a rarity by comparison.  The reason, it seems to me, is that whenever the British Monarchy has been asked to give up power, it has.  The French Monarchy refused, and, well, that's how that went.  In a more recent example from Canada, we can consider the King-Byng affair.  When W. L. Mackenzie King was Prime Minister, I believe he had a Parliamentary vote which failed.  Rather than holding an election, Governor General Byng appointed the Opposition Conservatives as the governing party.  The new Government was quickly defeated, an election held, and (I believe) King was handed a majority government.  Soon afterwards, the Governor General, which had been Britain's representative in Canada, was stripped of all but it's symbolic power and the British High Commission became the diplomatic link to Canada.  In short, the representative of the Queen in Canada was asked to give up power, and it did so gracefully.  Sort of.  Ultimately, in the examples I have given, the Monarchy has given up power when asked.  This means that the Monarchy in its current state represents the will of the people, which is exactly what the executive branch of government should do.

Breakfast had ended, Matt decided the Monarchy was not so bad, and I was happy to have had a good exchange of ideas.  I admit there may be some disadvantages I am failing to consider.  However, I feel that if more people knew the whole story, maybe there would be less hate and disdain for the British Monarchy.


Monday, July 11, 2011

Patents in the IT world.


It seems that the auction for Nortel's patent portfolio is over.  It appears that the patents were awarded to a consortium which comprises Apple, Microsoft, RIM and Sony among others with which I am not familiar. This has led to accusations that these companies worked together in order to keep the patents out of Google's hands, in order to cripple development of Android.

"But how?" I assume you demand, while adjusting your monocle, and almost spilling some fine spirits upon which you are surely sipping.  This is, I assume, how all non-spambots read my blog (you know, if there were any).  You see, innovation in the tech world is a peculiar beast.  Innovation works best by building upon the existing body of knowledge.  However, this is impossible to do legally when parts of the existing body are patented.  Now here's the catch: everyone does this.  All technology firms which innovate use patented ideas which they themselves do not own.  They do this by building large portfolios of existing patents, buying them from other companies.  This way, should one technology giant sue another for patent infringement, they would themselves face a large countersuit for patent infringement.  This allows for de facto free innovation.

Unfortunately, not everyone is playing nice.  Apple has been overly litigious in recent years, targeting relative upstarts like HTC.  This sort of action is particularly frustrating, especially when one considers that the very idea of a graphical user interface (GUI, or something that isn't a command line), is patented.  I believe it was first developed by Xerox.  In short, they are all stealing the ideas of others, and it is unfortunate that Apple would stunt development by targeting firms which do not yet have large reserves of patents for countersuits.  That being said, it appears all the major players are attempting to stunt Android by denying Nortel's patents to Google.

Speaking from a business standpoint, it makes good sense to block Google.  Android is an open-source project, making the use of the Android operating system essentially free of charge.  This means that rather than paying licensing fees for something like the mobile Windows operating system, technology firms and developers can use Android.  Economically speaking, this means that the Android market share should explode in fairly short order.  Of course, this could be curbed by denying Google a patent portfolio and stunting development of Android.

For the record, I am not against all patents.  It is my understanding that drug companies, in particular, need the patent system to recoup the years of research and development necessary to make a new drug.  Despite what you might hear on television (I remember a rant on an episode of House on the subject), drug companies run a precarious balancing act at times.  Merck-Frosst, a pharmaceutical giant, was almost bankrupt when Vioxx failed.  Now, Vioxx should not really have failed.  After Merck pulled Vioxx from the market due to patient deaths, it was revealed that the problem was due to said patients exceeding the recommended dosage of the drug.  However, the damage was done, and Merck had to absorb the costs of the R&D of Vioxx.  It almost didn't happen.  A pharmaceutical giant was almost destroyed by the inability of patients to follow instructions.

I suppose if it were up to me, a new system would be developed for IT patents which would allow for free innovation, but would protect companies from legitimate theft.  Mind you, I am sure I am not the first one to propose this, and I am certain greater minds have put their efforts forward, so it mustn't be easy.  I use Android, I like it and hope it succeeds.  I suppose I can also hope that the technology giants will play nicely.  It may be a long shot, but we can always hope.


Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The most logical man in the world.


I'm at this party a few months ago, right?  I'm writing my thesis, and I'm a little sick.  I've had a glass of gin (~1.5 standard drinks equivalent), and I am walking out of the kitchen with a glass of water.  A drunken gentleman demanded an explanation of me, that I would have the gall to be drinking a glass of water at such an important social occasion!

I told him that I had thought it out, but it was a bit of a long explanation, so he could either hear the reasoning or accept that I had thought it through.  He replied that he had nothing but time, so I explained to him my situation.  I was sick, functional, but sick.  I told him that I was suffering from a sore throat, and I knew that alcohol was a good treatment, so I had been drinking gin.  However, to drink so that my BAC would be in excess of about 0.05 would likely impair my body's ability to fight the infection.  Therefore, in an effort to balance out everything, I had decided to have roughly two drinks in my first hour at the party, then limit myself to one drink per hour afterwards.  However, I needed to ensure that I was drinking a glass of water between alcoholic beverages to keep my fluids up.  This, I felt, was the optimal solution.

He contemplated this for a moment, and told me that I was perfectly reasonable, and that it was the "perfect solution" to my problem.  I said that I usually tried to have a reason behind my actions, and to him, this meant that I must be the most logical man in the world.  This position was reinforced several times throughout the evening.  He would burst into the room, explain my position as the most logical man in the world, and leave quickly thereafter.

I sincerely doubt that I am the most logical man in the world, but this story brings a smile to my face when I think about it.  I hope that you might enjoy it, too.