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Monday, August 26, 2019

Dear Bagger

As a person who cares about the environment, I'd like to make an open letter to every supermarket bagger out there.

But before I get to that, I would like to point out that in recent years, when you are getting groceries, they've just started assuming you want plastic.  Paper is still available and it is better for the environment (at least, if you live in an area with methane collectors on its landfills, which is in an increasing number of areas).  Paper bags also don't break as easily, can be reused, and hold more groceries. Many have handles now.  They're more sanitary than reusable cloth bags, too.  (I'm not saying don't use cloth bags - I do - just know the danger.  I personally like using collapsible crates.)

Now onto the letter.

Dear bagger,

Why did you put my grapes, which are in a plastic bag with a handle, alone in another plastic bag with a handle?  Seriously, I could have carried the bag of grapes.  Are you afraid someone is going to see me leaving the store with grapes and get terrible ideas of what I am going to do with those things?

When I told you not to use the bag you just put a single box of cake mix into because I wanted to carry it, why did you take the box out and then crumple up and throw away the bag?  Has it been sullied?

Do I want my single gallon of milk in a bag?  No.  I never want it in a bag.  It has a handle and it's pretty obvious I'll be wheeling the entire cart of groceries to the car, so it's not like my hand will get cold in the 10 seconds I'll be touching the thing.

In what world will a 3 lb. bag of apples be so heavy that you must double bag it? Those things can carry 17 pounds before they start to break.  So please, a bag of flour?  One bag is enough.

In short, plastic bags, which often can't be recycled, should be used a bit more sparingly.


Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Green Screen

Disclaimer - I am not a scientist.  I am a researcher.  And all research is susceptible to errors.  If I have made a statement in error, leave a comment and cite a source and I will gladly correct myself.  I will not, however, debate.

If you've ever been both concerned about health and concerned about getting sunburns, you've discovered that there are pretty much no healthy sunscreens on the market.

The problem starts with the very nature of sunscreen.  To be effective, it has to cover your skin and not come off immediately.  So, sunscreens typically include "penetration enhancers" to help them absorb into the skin, but this also means that the other ingredients tend to penetrate into parts of the body (like the blood stream or breast milk) where they weren't meant to be. Methylisothiazolinone (say that five times fast) is an allergen that was banned in Europe because it's unsafe, yet it is still allowed, and frequently-used, in the US. Thanks, FDA. 
The most common sunscreens use chemical filters that imitate hormones.  In 2018, 65% of non-mineral sunscreens out there used oxybenzone, an estrogen that has anti-androgenic effects.  It can also affect birth weights and gestational periods.  The CDC has found oxybenzone in 96% of the population of the United States (though, to be fair, it is used in cosmetics as well).  In fact, most of the ingredients in sunscreen have not even been evaluated, thanks to being grandfathered in by the FDA in the 1970s.  In many cases, the FDA simply lets industries police themselves - a foolish stance.  In 2015, the Danish EPA found that 16 out of the 19 ingredients most commonly used in sunscreen have no information on their safety or possible carcinogenic effects.
That's right, carcinogenic.
Imagine putting something on that causes cancer in order to prevent cancer.  We may very well be doing just that.  If we don't have research on something, why are we smearing it on our skin?
Other ingredients can inhibit hormones.  Octinoxate, another common ingredient, lowers sperm counts, causes sperm quality to drop, and delays puberty.  In fact, several ingredients found in sunscreen have the same results.

It is also hard to find sunscreens that are environmentally-friendly. "Green" sunscreens are few and far-between.

Sunscreen use has been on the rise, meaning more of it is being washed off into waterways and oceans. But the chemicals found in sunscreens don't disappear once it washes off your skin.  A 2019 study found oxybenzone, octinoxate, and many other UV filters can be seen in almost every water source we have, and they aren't things treatment plants are designed to (or able to) filter.  Oxybenzone has been identified as a major coral reef bleaching agent.  Fish world-wide have been found with elevated levels of these chemicals inside of them, which means they are now a part of the food chain. No wonder 96% of the population has been exposed to oxybenzone.  Even organic sunscreens have negative impacts on the environment.

So what options are there that are environmentally friendly AND health-conscious?

Non-mineral sunscreens, which typically use either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, don't have as much impact on our health, particularly zinc oxide, which - although it is insoluble in water - is safe to eat.  Of course, safe for humans does not mean safe for everything.  Titanium dioxide, on the other hand, does not absorb into the skin, but can still be harmful.  It has not been studied well, but we do know that when inhaled, it is classified as "possibly carcinogenic to humans."  Titanium dioxide dust is common in its manufacturing process, and sunscreens use "nano-particles" of it, which are more dangerous.  All in all, it requires further study (something you'd think we'd do before making it ubiquitous).  And you have to be careful looking at the ingredients; titanium dioxide is usually used in tandem with oxybenzone and octinoxate, so simply seeing it as an ingredient doesn't make it safe.

But there *are* options out there, things that we are just now starting to realize are viable alternatives.
Nature makes sunscreen.

Hippos have been known to "sweat blood," while in reality they secrete two compounds, hipposudoric acid and norhipposudoric acid which act as sunscreen and antimicrobial agent for the hippo.  They're just red and orange, making it look like the hippo is reenacting the Passion of Christ.  This natural sunscreen, though unstable, has been successfully synthesized in labs... back in 2006.  But, in my research, I have been unable to find any commercially-available sunscreen that uses either of those chemicals.

Hippos aren't the only ones.  Mushroom Coral in the Great Barrier Reef makes its own sunscreen as well.  In 2011, King's College in London found that certain algae make a chemical that the coral turns into sunscreen, based on observations made by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS).  AIMS has worked for years researching this, and got together with The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO - a scientific and independent agent of the Australian government) to develop sunscreen using this chemical.  However, as far as I can tell it is only available in Australia.

Many beetles produce a special wax that protect them from sun and heat, particularly Darkling Beetles, which live in the Namibian Desert, but it is found in North American beetles as well.  However, again, we don't seem to have any of this on the market.

Plants are always exposed to sunlight and yet show very little damage from it.  In fact, plants are highly resilient to any form of radiation.  How is this?  They have photoreceptors called UVR8 that activate when there is too much sunlight and cause the plant to produce enzymes - enzymes which not only protect it from UV-B damage, but also repair damage.  This is found in almost every plant, and yet we are only discovering all this since the turn of the century.  I'm sure that with some research, we can isolate these enzymes and learn to emulate them, synthesize them, produce them.

Finally, fish, birds, reptiles, and other animals produce a substance known as gadusol which protects them from sunburn - usually.  Gadusol can be synthesized, and in fact Gadusol Labs is a start-up company doing just that.  It is dedicated to making sunscreens that are environmentally-friendly, sustainable, and non-hazardous using gadusol.  They've only been around for a couple of years, though.

So there is hope.  My only question is, why has it taken us THIS long to realize that nature has better solutions for us?

Monday, April 1, 2019

The Mailbox

Allow me, dear friends, to paint a drama that unfolded over the course of many years.  It started as a tale of vengeance, but ended as a tale of perseverance and humanity.  Perhaps with a bit of comedy.
And the entirety of this drama is played out on my weekly drive to church.  I can only imagine the true story behind what was observed.  So, of course, as a writer, I did just that.  But first, you, dear reader, should see what we saw.

Five years ago, when we moved in, we found a house like all the others on its block but with one change.  Its mailbox was not on a normal mailbox post, but rather something larger and reinforced. It was interesting, but we passed by and thought nothing of it. A few weeks later, that mailbox was down on its side, having been struck down by some ne'er-do-well. The following week, the box itself was all that remained, sitting on a concrete slab.

A few weeks later, we noticed that the owner of the mailbox had put in a new one, a metal pole, buried in the concrete. We figured this must have happened to him before, and he was tired of it, so he took a few precautions.
Lo and behold! Within a month that mailbox, too, was downed by a driver who could not stay on the road. Was it the same person? Do they know each other? Is there history there?  Here lies the story, that I shall leave unto your imaginations.

Over the next several years, this became a thing. Bigger and better mailboxes, in all shapes and sizes, all defeated, until the owner took out all the stops. He laid, by hand, a brick fortress, no less than a 4 foot cube, covering all but the very front of that mailbox. It was a beautiful piece of craftsmanship. The only thing it was missing were gargoyles to ward off its foes. It also took him a month to complete and it stood there for at least two

Then, a few months ago, on our drive to church, we noticed that the foul villain, whoever it may be, had demolished the mailbox. There were deep tire tracks leading up from the curb into the lawn. Mortar dust and brick shrapnel were all that could be seen of the poor mailbox. It was like that for weeks, a shameful wreck of what it had been. It seemed that this was it, that our evildoer had finally broken the spirit of the mailbox owner, and not simply his mailbox.

Until a couple of weeks ago. As we were driving by, I noticed the mailbox was once more standing erect, defiant, like a giant middle-finger towards its foe, albeit a skinny one. It was basically taped to a broomstick handle stuck in the yard.

I suppose this is a cheaper, easier alternative than replacing the thing every time.  But still, it is a testament to a spirit that did not break, but learned how to bend.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Dragon Prince

I have been watching some kids' shows (which is something that I get to do quite often given my occupation).  I thought I would give some of them some reviews.  My qualifications?  I'm a writer.  And as such, I will judge them on their writing, and possibly a bit on their acting.  And perhaps my poor opinion on their art.

So here it goes.

Netflix's The Dragon Prince
(with very mild spoilers)

I was pleasantly surprised.  You might look at this and see its animation as modern-day rotoscoping, but to be honest it works.  And as such, I expected it at first to be nothing more than a simply fantasy with dragons and elves.

But it is so much more.

First, the writing is truly exemplary.  The villains are good people in their own eyes, as they should be, and it is more than possible to see their points of view.  Some are even capable of heroic acts.  But they are capable to truly villainous acts that you wouldn't normally see in a kids' show.  The heroes are also flawed, but in very human ways.  However, it's the ways in which the characters are strong, and represented, that make this show extraordinary.

Like Avatar: The Last Airbender, and The Legend of Korra, The Dragon Prince pushes the boundaries of what is allowed in childrens' programming.  We start out with an interracial royal family, nothing too major... only to fid that the king's sister-in-law is deaf.  Yet, despite being deaf, she is strong.  She's a general who takes on foes even when she is at a disadvantage, because it is the right thing to do.  We have Queen Sarai, the closest advisor to her husband and a warrior like her sister, but who stands up against her husband when it is the right thing to do - and then supports him even when she disagrees with him.  Then, there are the two queens of the neighboring kingdom who are in love and even share a kiss on-screen.

The show deals with some heavy issues as well.  Sacrifice, the loss of loved ones, betrayal and redemption, trust, loyalty, truth, broken families, love.  Actions have real consequences, something rarely seen in a show for kids.  Halfway through Season 2, one of the characters gets paralyzed.  The characters almost all have to deal with real grief, and they do it in realistic ways.

Beyond that, the writing deals with the fae in ways that you usually only hear about when reading stories as an adult.  I am truly impressed at the research and ingenuity.  Magic is not just something that you do - there is sacrifice.  I do not wish to go into details, as I do not wish to post any real spoilers, but I am simply in love with how they write the elves. Especially Aaravos.  And I really like Rayla.  She's the sort of hero that is perfect for the story and for today.

It also is funny, not just to kids but to adults.  It makes modern references for the sake of jokes, but not enough to bring you out of the story.  It can make fun of itself, as well as you, the audience, without being insulting.  The epitome of this is "human Rayla" where she pretends to be a human and in doing so points out all the ridiculous things that we do.  As Ezran puts it, I am a big fan of human Rayla.

A little on the animation and acting.  They really are both good.  The animation is different, but it's not bad.  The characters have incredible expressions.  The magic is awesome.  The character design is wonderful.  And the voice acting is wonderful.

So, in short, I highly recommend watching this show, even if you don't have kids.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Age after Age

Yes yes, I'm still alive and all that jazz.
And I'm sure I've lost all my readership.

I've been trying to write, but it has been a slow thing.  I don't want to make excuses.  Suffice it to say, getting overwhelmed with work is a vicious circle.
I plan on getting back into the grind of things this week.

So I thought I would make this post today to bring to light some news on one of the passions my wife and I share - the environment.
Call me a tree hugger if that's what floats your boat, but in this day and age, it would be remiss of you to ignore the overwhelming evidence that the environment is changing, and we are the cause.

But this post isn't about trying to convince you that the environment is changing.  If you want to argue it, I point you to this resource.  Just look up whatever argument you have, and see how it has been thoroughly and completely debunked by actual science.

No, the point of this post is actually names.  In particularly, the name of the age.
Some of you might know that Mesozoic Era, that of the dinosaurs (another subject I am very passionate about), consisted of the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous Periods (which are also split into numerous stages).  A few of you might know that after the Mesozoic came the Cenozoic, the current era, and that we are currently in the Quaternary Period.  But, as I said earlier, these periods are broken into small stages, or "epochs."  A very select few of you may say that we are currently in the Holocene Epoch, or even the smaller subdivision of the Meghalayan Age (did I mention I'm a nerd?). If you are one of those people, I commend you!

But you might be wrong.

The scientific community is currently debating on the first change of epochs since, well, science.  From what I can tell, the only thing stopping them is determining the exact year of the change, which is currently likely to be somewhere between 1945 and 1964.  That means a good portion of you may have been born in a different age and epoch, as we may now be in the Anthropocene Epoch and the Homogenocene Age (though I may be wrong about that second one).

Why this change?  Anthropos is Greek for "man."  This is the Epoch where man has changed the environment to the point where every part of it has been influenced by our actions.  Since the mid-twentieth century, more than half of all wildlife on the planet has died, and 90% of all large fish have died.  The cause?  Pollution, climate change, and over-hunting.  We, humans, have affected the Earth so much that we now have an Epoch.  Most of these epochs are marked by extinctions, and this one is no different.  We are, indeed, in the middle of the 6th major extinction-event of the planet, and we are the cause of it.  If we aren't careful, we'll be marking the end of the Cenozoic as well, but let's hope it doesn't get that bad.

Which leads me to a final point.  There is another "age" we are in, supposedly.  We live in the "Information Age."  This is a 20th and 21st century historic age defined by a rapid shift from an economy based on industry to one based on information (computers and the like).  At this point, I'm sure I've bored you and you've moved on, so now I can get to the real point of this blog post - a secret letter to my wife.

The macarons are good.  Take some with you to work.

Now, back to the blog post, just in case someone really was paying attention.

I propose that we have left the Information Age, as of 2016.  I propose that we are entering the Misinformation Age - an age where truth has become harder and harder to determine, where news is formed by lies and social media, where governments make entire entities dedicated to influencing people through fake news and propaganda (such as the Russian-based Internet Research Agency).
There is a new Artificial Intelligence software that has been implemented to write simple news stories with language that makes it indistinguishable from human writing.  I worry about this because I am trying to make it as a writer, and I don't want some computer muscling me out of the market.  Experts worry about this, because it could be used to flood the internet, and even news shows, with entirely made up news that would be almost indistinguishable from real news - lies that you couldn't tell were lies.  This could topple governments.  For now they are trying to keep this AI under guard.

The problem is, history tells us that attempts to prevent progress always fail.  It will happen.  Combine this with the increasing levels of complexity in photo- and video-manipulation, with the computer programs that can put any words you like into anyone else's mouth (yes, these are real), and I fear for the future.  We know there are agents out there whose sole purpose is to sew discord, to fan the fires on both sides of any argument they can.  This sort of thing should scare all of us.  And it both follows the model of Orwell's classic 1984 as well as puts it to shame.

The victor may write history, but the anarchist writes the future.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

One more day

My wife has been out of town for 3 of the last 4 weeks.  She gets back tonight.

Today, as I'm sitting down to look at a recipe for dinner, my daughter comes in carrying a *mostly* empty pouch of berry applesauce.

"Dad, I'm sorry, I did this," she says and waves the pouch around in a large arc, "and made a mess."
As the pouch is waved in an arc, physics takes over and drops of red, staining sauce spray all over the white carpet I just spent hours cleaning a couple of days before.

5 hours, 42 minutes, 37 seconds to go....

Friday, April 27, 2018

A night in the life...

10:30 pm

My wife is out of town.  She's been out of town for days.  Most of the month, in fact.  I am home alone with the kids and somehow have managed to feed them and clean up a bit. But I am not getting enough sleep, so I decide to go to bed early (for me).  No writing this time.

11:30 pm

There is a loud thump that sounds suspiciously-but-not-quite like someone opening the door to our deck. It is followed ten seconds later by another.

I am frozen.  Sleep is replaced by fear.  I become a statue, silent, listening for any sound.  Is that a footstep or a cat?  One of the cats is busy eating a few feet from me so I cannot really listen all that well.

Ten minutes pass before I grab my flashlight and turn on the outside lights.

Ten more minutes pass before I actually get the courage to crawl out of bed and have a look-see.

Ten MORE minutes are spent searching with flashlight/nightstick in one hand and the other trying to keep the phone from sleeping so I can dial that last "1" in "9-1-1-" and press send at a moment's notice.

Eventually the culprit is discovered.  The neighborhood stray has been tormenting one of my cats (by simply existing within eyeshot of her) and said cat had decided to jump up and down against the window in an effort to mutilate her rival.

Ugh.  By the time I get back upstairs, lights off, adrenaline gone, it is 12:45.

6:30 am

Alarm goes off. I reluctantly get out of bed. Almost 6 hours of sleep three nights in a row is taking its toll.  I sneak to Sam's room to shut the door so Addy doesn't wake him.

6:32 am

Sam is awake.  I have to go to the bathroom, I can't deal with him crying right now so I cave and give him a pacifier - hopefully for the last time ever.  I make it to the bathroom only to discover that it was not a simple stomach ache; something I ate did not agree with me at all.  Hmmm... could it be the mac and cheese? Or the baked fish...

6:42 am

Addy's alarm goes off.

6:50 am

Addy is going to the bathroom, which is right outside Sam's room.  She decided to have a good, loud laugh with him.

7:00 am

Addy checks in on me, still on the toilet.

7:05 am

I am finally done, but now I don't have time to make Addy lunch.  She'll have to buy again.  Somehow, miraculously, I manage to get her stuff signed, get her breakfast, not wake Sam for the third time, and get her out the door by

7:20 am

Now I get to try to figure out if less than 6 hours of sleep is enough to function on.

stupid cat.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

How not to be distracted

Wife sits down after putting the little one to bed and gets out her laptop to work on something important.

I turn off The Office so as not to distract her.

Several minutes pass.  "Dear," wife says, "let's put something on.  We don't have to sit in silence."

"Alright," say I.  I proceed to turn on Netflix's newest sci-fi, Lost in Space.  Wife does not like sci-fis. I figure we are safe.

We are not safe.

Netflix did a good job and wife is watching Lost in Space.

"Dear," wife says, "this is too distracting.  Put something less distracting on."

"Alright," say I.  I turn off Lost in Space and start scrolling through the vast library of things Netflix has to offer.  My list.  Action.  Comedy.  Action.  Action.  Comedy.  Intriguing Documentary.  Action.  Action comedy.  Time to look elsewhere.

"Dear," wife says.  "Why not try a nature documentary?"

"Alright," say I.  Perfect idea.  A dry British man droning on about fish.  Even when you're watching it you're not really watching it.  I go to nature documentaries and pick the first one.  Round Planet.  I figure we are safe.

We are not safe.

"The mother Polar Bear gives her cubs a taste of what nature has to offer by repeatedly biting them on the bum...  You just want to cuddle them don't you?  But you better not, or their mother will tear you open and spread your innards over the snow like water paints..."

What the hell did I turn on?

"Dear," my wife laughs.  She cannot say anything else over the giggles.

Alright," say I and quickly turn to something with David Attenborough.  We are finally safe.

British documentaries.  You never know.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Spencer's Money-Saving Tips for New Parents

So, you are thinking of having a kid.  In THIS economy!?  Then here are some money-saving tips from a stay-at-home dad that can make having kids affordable no matter your income!

1) When you order things, do it in bulk.  But make it count.  Don't just buy 100 diapers.  Buy 10,000!  This saves money and time.  Plus, if you do it online, you'll be left with boxes that can be used later!

2) Kids grow out of clothes very fast.  So hit those thrift stores, consignment sales, and the trash bins behind department stores!  When your kid outgrows a pair, don't give it away or sell it.  Cut up the ones you don't like into strips and sew them onto the legs and arms of the clothing you do like.  Make those clothes last as long as possible!

3) One of the biggest expenses when it comes to children is diapers.  They also are not very environmentally friendly. It doesn't matter if you go cloth or disposable, either.  On the one hand, cloth diapers cost a lot up front and use a lot of water, while on the other hand, disposable diapers are a constant purchase and ends up rotting in a landfill.  So save both money and the environment by using packaging material from your bulk purchases!  Packing paper surrounded by bubble wrap works wonders!  And if that fails, use puppy pads!  They can be placed anywhere and cost a lot less than diapers.

4) Bubble wrap also doubles as helmets, knee pads, and pillows!

5) Not only do kids outgrow their clothing, but they also outgrow their beds.  Remember those bulk boxes?  cut a few holes in the sides and they can be used as cribs and play pens.

6) Car Seats are expensive.  Duct tape is not.

7) Instead of buying baby gates to keep your little ones out of places they're not allowed to be in, simply erect monstrous totems made of broken toys, homework assignments, vegetables, and your abandoned dreams.  Not only will these effigies keep baby from wandering too far, but it will crush baby's spirit for years to come!

8) Babysitters are entirely unnecessary.  Instead, just give your baby a copy of Monopoly and she'll entertain herself for hours!  If you simply must have someone watch your child, burn one of your totems to summon Babeometh, the dark god of watching.

9) Baby food is expensive.  You can simply put your own meal in the blender to make a baby-safe meal for your little one.  And if you want to save more money, go dumpster diving behind the grocery store.  Baby has to build up his immune system somehow!

10) Coupons!

I hope these money-saving tips serve you well, but the most important one is to use your common sense and don't actually follow any of these tips.
I mean, who has time for cutting coupons?

Friday, January 5, 2018


This is a piece I wrote to practice some thoughts on a novel I am writing.  I will be reading it at a local Write Night later this month.  It is based on a true story about my older sister who died of cancer when she was a child.  Warning, it is a sad tale.

            “Are you warm enough?” I asked Lilly as the gravel crunched under our feet.  Her soft, panting breath hung in the air like a fog.  It was colder than we were used to in southern California.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” she said.  I didn’t have a coat to give her to stop her shivering, so I made sure she wore lots of layers, including my old flannel shirt.  It still didn’t stop her shivering. 

“Do you want me to carry you?”

She glanced at me, but that pout she was so good at wasn’t there.  “I’m eight,” was all she said.

I kept walking, but her footsteps stopped.  “Lilly?  What’s wrong?”

She was holding her midsection, her head down.  Although bangs covered her face, I knew she was crying.

“I don’t… want to go in there.”

My blood froze solid where I stood.  I couldn’t move.  I couldn’t breathe.  I couldn’t think.  “I know it’s hard,” I eventually said.  “We can make an appointment for next week.”

“I DON’T WANT TO GO IN THERE!” she screamed with a strength I haven’t seen from her in years.  The last time she made a noise like that the doctors were pushing a needle into her spine for testing.  Then, as now, I turned white.

“Dear, it’s okay.  I won’t make you,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. I knelt down before her.  She was nearly as pale as I was.  “But we need to stay strong.  When we go back to the hospital, I’ll ask if there’s any new procedures or something less-“

“No daddy.”  She leaned into me, sobbing, arms around my neck.  “I’m done.”  I don’t know how long I just held her as she trembled against me.  When her sobbing finally settled down, I wiped away her tears.

“You know what this means?” I whispered.  Any more than a whisper and she would be able to hear my heart breaking.

She nodded to me.  I picked her up and carried her back to the car.  She was lighter than I remembered, but the burden I bore had never been greater.

That was the last time I saw Lilly cry.  To this day I don’t know if those tears were the last remnants of hope flowing out of her or if she had simply come to peace with her fate.  I left that flannel shirt folded up on her grave in case she needed it and because it only reminded me of the day I saw my daughter lose the fight.