Today, we are all French

Posted in Uncategorized on 13 November 2015 by Jerry

Fourteen years ago, when the US was reeling from horrific attacks on our soil, politicians and newspapers the world over echoed this sentiment: we are all Americans.  Le Monde offered up this editorial two days after the terror attacks, with that statement as the headline.

Today, nous sommes tous Français.  My heart aches for those whose lives were brutally snatched away today, as it does for those who are left behind to mourn.  Whoever committed this atrocity targeted people who were in the midst of enjoying an evening out: eating at a restaurant, watching a soccer match, going to a rock concert.  In a gesture of solidarity, President Obama said, “This is an attack not just on Paris, not just on the people on France, but an attack on all humanity and the universal values we share.”  It makes it sound as if over one hundred people were murdered by some kind of bogeyman or monster.  But this was done by human beings – real, breathing people who carry with them a warped ideology of hatred and destruction.

Violence begets violence.  Hatred begets hatred.  If we allow this event to harden our hearts and turn us away from people in need, terror will have won.  There are millions of refugees, desperate for a safe haven, who will likely face additional stigma and persecution as a result of this.  Already, there are voices proclaiming loudly that Islam is the enemy.  These voices add to the hate and terror.  No religion is the enemy.

Obviously, these infamous deeds should not go without consequence.  Those responsible for planning and carrying out these heinous acts must be brought to justice.  But we must walk the path to justice without falling prey to blind vengeance, and we must not turn wrath upon the innocent.  We must not turn groups of people into the “other”, treated with suspicion, mistrust, and fear.  We must put to rest the tired and contrafactual narrative that Islam and Christianity are inherently at war with one another, the lie that the Arab world and the Western world can never coexist without violence.  We must work to heal the rifts that already exist between us, rather than entrenching and digging those rifts ever deeper.

This has been difficult to write.  The images and events are still raw.  There are still more questions than answers.  If you are given to prayer, pray for compassion.  Pray for understanding.  Pray for peace.  Take a moment to look inside yourself and confront your prejudices, your anger, and your fear.  Good night, and God bless.


The Science of Fireworks: Where do They get Those Colors?

Posted in science with tags , , , , , on 5 July 2015 by Jerry

In honor of the holiday we just celebrated in the States, I thought it would be fitting to delve a little bit into how fireworks are made and work.  In particular, I’ll be explaining how those brilliant reds, whites, blues, and other hues are produced.

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Orion: 1 – Esperanza

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on 28 June 2015 by Jerry

[Note: Orion will be a biweekly feature here.  As more chapters are added, a table of contents will be provided on the main site, and each chapter will have links to previous and subsequent chapters.]

For most of her life, Esperanza Mendoza wondered if her parents meant for her name to be a cruel joke. In her sixteen years, there hadn’t been much room for hope. So when she came home from school and saw her Tía Maria sitting with some official-looking men in dark suits, she assumed the worst.

“I didn’t do nothing!” she yelled. “Who called you? Was it Chelo? She is such a -”

¡Cállate!” Tía Maria commanded. She turned back to the suits, and gave them a nervous smile. “You have to forgive my niece. She’s not really that comfortable around authority figures.”

One of the men, who Esperanza guessed was in charge, nodded. “We understand.”

Another one handed her a manila folder. “We are here because of some of your unique skills.”

Esperanza sat down hard in the rickety wooden chair her Tía had pulled out for her. She knew exactly what they meant by “unique skills.” And the last time she caught the government’s eye with those skills, they stormed in with guns and body armor.

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What you don’t know is in your food will KILL YOU (Food Babe Parody)

Posted in science with tags , , , on 21 June 2015 by Jerry

[Poe’s Law Disclaimer: The following statements are a piece of satire.  They do not reflect the author’s views.]

Do you like to eat leafy greens?  It might change your mind if you realize that with every bite of kale you’re eating  Magnesium [methyl (3S,4S,21R)-14-ethyl-4,8,13,18-tetramethyl-20-oxo-3-(3-oxo-3-{[(2E,7R,11R)-3,7,11,15-tetramethyl-2-hexadecen-1-yl]oxy}propyl)-9-vinyl-21-phorbinecarboxylatato(2-)-κ2N,N’].  Just look at how long that name is.  I don’t even know how many syllables that name has!  And it contains vinyl.  That’s right, when you bite into a nice Caesar Salad, you are munching on records.  Don’t think that “organic” produce is immune from this blight, either!  There is no limit set by the FDA for how much of this compound your food could contain.

Your “Himalayan” salt?  60% of it, by weight, is chlorine.  You know, the stuff they clean pools with?  And guess what?  Chlorine is also the primary ingredient of chemical weapons used by the Germans in World War I.  Tell Big Salt to get Trench Gas out of your food!  Write to producers and demand they sell dechlorinated salt!

Do you like edamame?  Then you must enjoy eating POISON, because soy beans contain huge amounts of glutamic acid.  Never heard of it?  Have you heard of MSG?  This is the G part of it, the part that gives people the headache, tingling, and other horrifying symptoms that make up the MSG Symptom Complex.

Now for the serious part of this post.

There are a few basic was to spread fear about the content of our food.

1. Call something common by a scary-sounding name.  For example, rather than talk about chlorophyll, instead use Magnesium [methyl (3S,4S,21R)-14-ethyl-4,8,13,18-tetramethyl-20-oxo-3-(3-oxo-3-{[(2E,7R,11R)-3,7,11,15-tetramethyl-2-hexadecen-1-yl]oxy}propyl)-9-vinyl-21-phorbinecarboxylatato(2-)-κ2N,N’].  Forget having a third-grader pronounce the ingredients of your food; pretty much anything can be made to sound frightening by “sciencing up” its name.  Even the dead horse that is dihydrogen monoxide has a few more synonyms to frighten the credulous.  Why should you worry about fluoride in your water supply when it’s already laced with vast amounts of oxidane?  Or worse yet, hydroxic acid?

2. The spurious comparison, or the Yoga Mat Gambit.  Take a part of your target out of context, and find another, much scarier context to put it in.  Salt is (literally) a textbook example of chemical properties differing between pure elements and the compounds they form.  Sodium chloride is a nutrient we need.  Chlorine gas was used as a weapon in World War I.  By the by, make sure not to dissolve your dechlorinated salt in water.  Unless you have observed proper safety protocols first.

3. Something that’s bad for some is bad for all.  There is actual evidence that some people have adverse reactions to MSG.  This does not mean that the majority of people should avoid the substance.  This would be like declaring peanuts to be toxic because some people have peanut allergies.  Still more damaging, people jumping on this bandwagon can lead to the legitimate condition not being taken seriously.  There are places where “gluten free” options are prepared with the same utensils that were used to prepare full-gluten food.  This doesn’t affect the bandwagoners, but poses a serious risk to people who suffer from celiac disease.

How can you avoid getting swept up in food hysteria?  If you read something that looks like it’s meant to rile you up and scare you, take a closer look at what’s actually being said.  Look for the actual compounds in question.  Do some research.  Make sure you look for expert sources, not uninformed bloggers (NB: don’t take this blog as a source of expert scientific information.  I’m a layperson science enthusiast.  Fact check me as well!)  Also, make sure you go in armed with some basic information.

New and Improved Phlogiston!

Posted in Uncategorized on 14 June 2015 by Jerry


It has been a long, long time since this space has been used for anything.  In the time since I’ve last been here, a lot of things have happened, including:

  • A wedding (my own!)
  • A birth (my daughter’s!)
  • A change of jobs (still teaching, but in a different city!)
  • A change of residence (I’m now a homeowner!)

These various events conspired to throw any semblance of an update schedule straight to Hell.

But now, I am revamping and improving the phlogiston in here, and it will burn more brightly than before!

For the next x months, Applied Phlogiston will take on a weekly update schedule, with new content added every Sunday.  The type of content will follow a four-week rotation, as follows:

  1. The Science of…
  2. Super Secret Fiction Project
  3. Something Geeky (or Literary)
  4. Super Secret Fiction Project

So there you have it.  Every other week, you’ll get some dollops of fiction, and in the in-between weeks, science, geekery, or literature.

The (Pseudo)-Science of Food: Why GMO Labeling Laws are Anti-Consumer

Posted in science with tags , , , , , on 10 November 2013 by Jerry

The editors of Scientific American have said it quite elegantly, but this bears repeating: GMO labeling laws are a terrible idea.  They do not give useful information to consumers, they play on public fear, and they create a false equivalence between all applications of GM technology.

Having a label of “genetically modified” would tell consumers one thing, and one thing only: that a gene was inserted into or removed from a plant.  What this does not tell consumers is what the gene codes for, whether it was added or removed, what the effect of the gene is, and so on.  The genetic makeup of an organism is important in that it carries the code for making proteins.  By changing the genetic makeup of a plant, producers of GM seeds are, in essence, giving the plant instructions for chemically treating itself.  The plant could be given the code to produce pesticides, a protein to resist herbicides, or precursors to vitamin A.  These are vastly different applications, and have vastly different effects on food quality, safety, and environmental impacts.  A GMO labeling law would treat all of these in the same manner.  This would be akin to requiring foods to be labeled “Contains crops that were sprayed from an airplane,” or, “This product was treated with chemicals from a hand sprayer”.  The method used to apply the treatment isn’t nearly as important as the nature of the treatment itself.

These laws, and the anti-GMO movement in general, play on fears in the public.  Genetically modified crops are referred to as “Franeknfoods” and dubious research linking GM foods to cancer in rats gain traction in headlines before gaining resounding criticism from the scientific community at large.  This kind of dishonest and intentionally misleading propaganda undermines scientific thought and rational policy discourse, and risks making the GM policy landscape as contentious and as untethered from reality as the climate change “debate”.   Furthermore, by working with visceral reactions rather than actual data, we run the distinct risk of missing the research that needs to be done to address legitimate concerns about GM crops.

The reality is that GM crops are a complicated field, needing continuing research and a nuanced policy approach.  GMO labeling laws oversimplify the complex issues, discourage work from being done with genetic modification, and dumb down the public discourse to visceral reactions.  To conclude: better oversight and more research are needed in the field of GMOs, but labeling laws provide neither.

TNG: Season 1 Highlights and Lowlights

Posted in geekery with tags , , , , , on 22 October 2011 by Jerry

When I started my journey through The Next Generation, I jotted down thoughts and impressions with each episode.  Not every episode was noteworthy, but here I present for your reading pleasure, the good, bad, and ugly moments of Season 1. [Note: I have the utmost respect for Wil Wheaton. Anything said here to disparage Wesley Crusher is aimed at the writers, not the actor]

Encounter at Farpoint:
This episode served to introduce the series to viewers. At this time, new episodes of Star Trek had not been broadcast on television for 18 years. And it starts with… the title sequence.

In a series known for establishing an episode’s tone with a teaser (notably when they destroyed the Enterprise before “Cause and Effect”) this is a jarringly bland opening.  Next, we have music underscoring the individual episode credits, and finally a pan across the Enterprise D.  I understand that this was meant to introduce viewers to the new ship, but the big reveal happened before the title of the series came up.  We’ve seen the ship already, thanks.  We can move on.

As Captain Picard enters the scene, we are treated to a great deal of forced and awkward exposition-speak.  Nothing actually happens in the episode until about the five minute mark.  And then Q appears.  Despite his initial use of Ye Olde Butchered English (such as “Go back whence thou camest”), his presence is the only thing that makes the episode tolerable.

Also notable in this episode are the following:

  • The first instance of saucer separation (which took way too much time to use effectively)
  • Truly poor selection of musical cues (saucer is separating, let’s play the theme from The Motion Picture)
  • Colm Meany as The-Character-Who-Will-Someday-Be-Known-As-Chief-O’Brien
  • Saucer re-connection, with Picard being a jerk to Riker, and post-maneuver smirks from everyone on the bridge
  • Q being done right (are you taking notes, Voyager?)
  • Picard telling Dr. Crusher to get Wesley the Hell off of the bridge (this is, of course, the proper reaction)
  • An all-too-brief cameo of Deforest Kelly

Where No One Has Gone Before:
I’m going to keep this one short, because the episode was so terribly dull that I fell asleep twice while watching it. I rewound to see what I had missed both times, and discovered that nothing of consequence had happened either time. This episode is notable for two things. First, it contains the Traveler, an alien who transcends dimensions (or something) and explains to Picard that Wesley is essentially the Chosen One. Second, it ends with Wesley’s promotion to “acting ensign”, which sets up all kinds of facepalm-inducingly bad fun plots where Wesley saves the ship and crew.

This episode gave a perfect excuse to kill Wesley Crusher, but Picard would rather violate the Prime Directive and defy a mechanical god than let that happen. But I digress. The crew of the Enterprise discover a utopian planet populated by people with terrible fashion sense.

Seriously. Look at these guys. (Image copyright Paramount Pictures)

After some description of how idyllic this planet is, Wesley manages to break one of their few laws by falling on some flowers.  I’m not even joking.  Much hemming and hawing about the Prime Directive ensues, and Picard eventually decides to just beam Wesley up.  It is at this point that the planet’s godinterferes, blocking the transporter beam.  The god turns out to be some kind of alien ship that is never fully explained, and Picard argues with it until it decides to let them leave with Wesley.  My thought is that it watched the previous episodes in the series and realized what it was getting into.

The Big Goodbye:
The first episode to feature the holodeck going haywire as a plot point, and one of the better best episodes of the first season.  This one let the characters and actors have quite a bit of fun (although the fun was short-lived for the characters).  Picard, to relax before a tense diplomatic meeting, uses the holodeck to enter the film noir world of Dixon Hill.  He brings along his friend, the ship’s historian, Dr. Whalen, who is important enough to have a name but not important enough to not get shot.  Dr. Crusher and Data also come along for the fun.

The situation turns ugly when a power surge causes a malfunction on the holodeck.  The safety settings are disabled (leading one to wonder why there is an “unsafe” setting in the first place), and the heroes can’t even interact with the computer to end the program.  Dr. Whalen takes a bullet to the gut, and the captain, the doctor, and the android must avoid a similar fate while waiting for rescue.  The program is successfully reset, the villains try to storm the ship, only to disappear when they leave the holodeck, and everyone goes home happy.  Oh, and they took Whalen to sickbay.  He probably got better or something.

The Arsenal of Freedom:
The other best episode of the season.  This episode has the crew searching for the Drake, commanded by a friend of Riker’s.  Soon, the ship and crew are under attack by what amounts to a sales pitch for a planetwide armaments system.  After a pre-recorded sales pitch featuring the deliciously ironic tagline, “peace through superior firepower”, the planet’s systems enter demo mode, where “demo” is a word that is used here to most closely mean “kill everything and everyone in sight”.  The away team first encounters a hologram of Riker’s friend that asks pressing questions about Riker’s ship’s armaments.  Riker, sensing something is very wrong, responds that his ship is the Lollipop, “a good ship”.  The hologram eventually gives up and reveals itself to be an aerial drone, which begins the attack.

Meanwhile, the Enterprise finds herself under attack by an invisible assailant.  A rare saucer separation is performed, and in an even rarer moment, it adds to the episode rather than detracts from it.  Increasingly desperate battles ensue, and Picard finally solves the problem by telling the automated sales person that they want to buy the weapons system and that they can end the demo.  The episode strikes a good balance of action, character development, and comedy.

Skin of Evil:
This episode is infamous as being “that episode where Tasha Yar dies”.  Other than the fact that it is the first episode to actually kill a main character, there is absolutely no reason to watch it.  It is a terrible episode, and not even in a “so bad it’s good” way.  They use the exact same shot of Armus, the oil-slick monster, rising up out of itself, over and over.

Lamest. Looking. Villain. Ever. (Image copyright Paramount Pictures)

The infamous death is abrupt and nonsensical.  Jonathan Frakes takes a bath in Metamucil and printer ink.  Actually, that last bit is kind of hilarious.

This episode was a follow-up to a plot thread introduced in “Coming of Age”. In that episode, the crew was under investigation, due to odd behavior and mysterious happenings in the upper echelons of Starfleet. When I saw that episode, I was intrigued, and also curious as to why I didn’t remember this plotline. It felt like something that would have been too important to miss, even in hearing people talk about the series. This episode explains why the plot was swept under the rug.

The episode begins rather well, with a secret meeting between captains of different ships on an isolated planet. It seems that Starfleet command is acting under the influence of some kind of hostile force. Minutes after leaving the rendezvous, the Enterprise discovers that one of the ships involved has been destroyed, losing all hands. This prompts Picard to turn the ship around and fly back to Earth to confront the admirals about this conspiracy. So far, this sounds like an engaging premise.

Well, to make a long story short, it turns out that the conspiracy is caused by parasitic aliens that aren’t Ceti eels, we swear. They have taken over most of Starfleet command, and they decide to taunt Picard before converting him by making him eat live grubs. Riker comes in, saves Picard, and they stun the infected admirals. They look for the source of the infestation, and then this happens (viewer discretion was advised during the original broadcast, and is still advised now).

And that is why that plot thread is as dead as the Hydralisk that popped out of Remick’s chest.


…and that’s about all I can stand to write about Season 1.  Tune in next time for Season 2: Riker has a Beard Now!