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Monday, 3 September 2012

Thank You, Heinz!

From the top of a carton of microwaveable spaghetti hoops:

Microwave 850W

Peel back film.

30 sec (full power). Stir

30 sec (full power). Stir


At last I understand the purpose of the microwave! All those years of confusion and unexplained burns over at last. Thank you, lawyers at Heinz and the whole Culture of Liability that made this advice necessary.

A Question of Soap

Bored with the usual hand soap we get, last week instead I purchased a carton of what I shall refer to for legal reasons as "X & Y" hand wash. The design is a clever piece of marketing in itself: the font used for "X & Y" harks back to the early years of the 20th century, underneath the manufacturers name it just says "England", and the top of the bottle is made to look metallic (though still plastic). All in all it seems to hearken back to a more elegant age, and looks like the sort of hand soap you find in a posh hotel.

Apart from this cunningly wrought aura of opulence, what caught my eye was its claim that it contains vitamins A, B and C. So what? Can the body really absorb vitamins through the skin? Lots of soaps and gels inform you of the vitamins and minerals that they contain, but I don't think any ever make health claims based on this, which you'd think they would if they were able. Rather than potentially ruin this blog post, I won't do any immediate research to find out. However, a thought experiment says that if I can lie in a bath full of bath salts for half an hour, without any risk of becoming salty, then chances are that my skin is also opaque to vitamins. Also, I've never had to worry about what I might absorb from sun block, and yet I'm pretty sure that's not supposed to be taken internally.

I may be doing Messrs X & Y a grave injustice here, but I'm starting to think that the real reason they mention these vitamins is to create a mental association between health-giving substances and their product.

They are not the only ones to use this technique. One popular brand makes a virtue of being pH neutral. But other soaps will point out that they contain zesty citrus fruits, while still others talk about their milkiness. So there we have three possibilities: acidic, alkaline, and neutral. Are they all good for the skin? Or is there maybe a range of values between highly acidic and highly alkaline in which the skin doesn't really care? Each one though conjures up a mental image of healthiness through its choice of ingredients.

So is adding these ingredients to soap completely pointless? (I'm now wondering how nicotine patches work.) I shall keep a lookout for soaps that have their nutritional value printed on the packaging. Or perhaps fruit-scented shower gel that counts as one of my "five a day".

[Should X & Y's lawyers be able to identify their clients from this post, I hasten to add that the soap feels and smells wonderful—well worth that little bit extra.]

Learning to Read Resistors

I decided recently to make an effort to learn a bit of electronics, using a kindly donated Arduino Uno and a few electronics components that we had around the house. The choice of resistors this gave me was seriously limited, so I popped over to Maplins and bought a pack of twenty different resistor types. To my dismay, when I got them home, I realised that the only indications of their strength were the colour bar codes painted on their sides.

No doubt if I continue with my current interest I will grow to be able to read these codes as if they were English text. At the moment though it's rather harder to decipher them. A quick bit of googling found sites like this one that provide handy converters; however, to use these tools you have to be able to read the colours off the resistors in the first place, and there are a couple of issues here that I would like to raise.

Firstly, it is by no means obvious in which direction to read the bars. Supposedly there should be a bigger gap between the last bar and its immediate neighbour than between the first bar and the second. In my experience so far this difference is usually not noticeable, and possibly non-existent. Secondly, the choice of colours, while naturally restricted to what the limits of human eyesight have provided, does allow for an incy-wincy bit of ambiguity. Telling the difference between white, grey and silver, when only one of them is present on the resistor, is no laughing matter. Gold and orange are another two colours that some might think are rather similar.

These codes have been around for a long time, so I'm probably going to look back on this post with amusement at some point (oh, please, please be sooner rather than later), but for now I find the best way of decoding them is to measure the resistance roughly using my multimeter (had one for years, absolutely no recollection of why I needed it), and then matching that value with the colours (bright light and a magnifying glass very useful at this point).

It took a while, but this is my list of resistor strengths from Maplin's "Lucky Bag" of resistors:

5.62Ω, 24Ω, 43Ω, 78.9Ω, 113Ω, 287Ω, 309Ω, 422Ω, 1.18KΩ, 1.62KΩ, 3.6KΩ, 5.6KΩ, 10KΩ, 15.4KΩ, 33KΩ, 97.6KΩ, 115KΩ, 261KΩ, 619KΩ, and 2.4MΩ.

There aren't many values there that I would have expected. Whether there's a reason for such obscure numbers, or whether that's why it's called a 'lucky' bag is currently an open issue as far as I'm concerned, and clearly further research is called for.

Working out the last few values was considerably simpler than the first ones I did, as I started to remember which colour matches which digit. There are acronyms to help, and googling "resistor colour code acronyms" throws up several. I was appalled to see how many (including the top result) involve sexual violence towards women, with a couple of people mentioning that that was the acronym they were taught at school!

A few decades ago, in a male-dominated field, this might have been acceptable (though still very wrong), but surely in the 21st century people would think twice before posting this crap onto the web as a learning aid?

For the record, the one I picked to learn is

Bad Beer Rots Our Young Guts But Vodka Goes Well

which also incorporates some health advice. Not sure about the vodka message though.