Recycling Stalled

Recycling is an important part of the strategy for keeping planet Earth livable for future generations—not to mention making lives more enjoyable today. After all, no one wants to end up neck deep in garbage. Most recycling revolves around paper, metal, plastic, and glass. However, recycling efforts are starting to stall in America and other countries for various reasons. A common theme is that recycling doesn’t generate enough money to make it practical as a for profit effort. The companies tasked with obtaining, recycling, and selling the materials don’t make enough money to remain viable.

Of course, theories abound as to why this problem occurs, but the bottom line is that recycling must increase. Most countries recycle less than 50 percent of the waste that people generate (34 percent in America according to a number of sources), which means that the landfills still fill at a prodigious rate. I know that some people point to ancient civilizations that survived just fine without recycling, but the earth’s population also continues to grow and we will end up neck deep in garbage sooner than later at the current rate of use. A few people have embraced a radically new idea of simply moving to another planet once this one is used up, but barring some major advance in space travel, I don’t think that particular idea will work.

A major problem is that some companies have a hard time finding profitable venues for selling the recycled goods they make. You can find sites online that discuss all the innovative uses for recycled materials, but the fact is that the companies actually doing the work still say that profits are low and customers continually get more picky about the materials they’ll accept. In order to make sorting the materials easier and to ensure customers will actually buy the recycled materials, it’s up to individuals to ensure they do their part. For example, rather than stick an entire packing carton in the big blue bin, make sure you separate the materials to remove the materials that a company can’t recycle (such as Styrofoam) from those that it can. Sloppy consumer habits have actually resulted in the disappearance of some public recycling bins, such as those in shopping centers like Walmart.

Keeping some materials out of the garbage can in the first place can help you as well as the company responsible for performing the recycling. For example, composting materials (such as food) to create soil for items you can grow yourself saves money in the long run and makes it a lot easier to recycle the glass and other materials that currently end up creating a huge mess at the recycling company. In addition, ensuring you actually sort the materials according to the conventions for your local community will help.

The point is that recycling will continue to stall until everyone does their part. Ultimately, this effort may require that governments step in and provide financial incentives to keep recycling going (although, it would be better if they didn’t have to). Let me know your thoughts on why you feel recycling is stalling at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Creating the Useful Sidebar

There are many styles of writing employed for technical writing. Each style has specific benefits and today’s blog post won’t delve into them. However, many of these styles rely on the sidebar to add interest to the writing.

A problem occurs when an author seeks to present only facts as part of any written piece. Readers can find facts on the Internet. What readers can’t easily find is the specific viewpoint that an author presents, which includes supplementary materials in the form of sidebars. A sidebar adds interest to the writing, but more importantly, it provides background material that augments the topic at hand. For example, when discussing smartphone hardware, a sidebar that provides a brief overview of the communication technologies employed by that hardware can prove useful to the reader. The radio frequency transmission isn’t part of the main topic and some would argue that discussing it doesn’t belong at all in a pure hardware discussion, but the addition of that supplementary material is essential to the piece as a whole. It helps present a particular view of the technology that the reader wouldn’t otherwise receive.

Sidebars shouldn’t become a main topic. A good sidebar is at least one long paragraph, but more commonly two or three paragraphs. Never allow a sidebar to consume more than a page of text. For example, a two or three paragraph overview of the history of a technology is useful—a discourse that spans multiple pages is overkill unless the author is trying to make a particular point (in which case, the discussion should appear in the topic proper).

Depending on the sidebar content, you can include bulleted lists and numbered steps. A sidebar should never include graphics unless the book style accommodates such an addition (which is rare). The idea is not to detract from the piece as a whole, but rather augment it in a specific way—to help direct the reader’s attention in a specific manner. Using visual styles and white space correctly help make the sidebar attractive.

Many authors forget the need to evoke an emotional response in any sort of writing, including technical writing. In making a point, the author needs to express the idea fully by making an emotional appeal. A sidebar can perform this task nicely without creating distractions in the overall writing flow. For example, a piece about implementing accessibility features in an application can include a sidebar that contains a case study about the effects of such an implementation on a specific person or within a real world environment. The point is to help the reader understand the implications of a technology and make its use imperative.

Sidebars are an essential tool in the creation of a usable piece of writing that helps a reader understand a topic in ways that many factual Internet pieces can’t. Using sidebars effectively makes your writing better and more appealing. More importantly, a sidebar presents a unique view that the reader identifies with you as an author and sets your style of writing apart from that of other authors. Let me know your thoughts about sidebars at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

 

3D Printing – Fad or Practical Tool?

For a while, it seemed as if 3D printing would take the world by storm and that we’d all have 3D printers in our homes pumping out anything we needed. However, since my last article on the topic, 3D Printing Done Faster and Better, the number of articles about 3D technology have decreased noticeably. In fact, the trade press has been a lot quieter on the topic, which makes some people wonder whether 3D printing is actually a fad. The problem with much of the new technology that becomes available is that people initially think there are all sorts of uses for it, but then discover that those uses aren’t practical or that they’re too expensive, and they end up dropping the technology (rather than revise their vision).

You can still find some fanciful uses for 3D printers. For example, the Washington Post recently ran an article recently ran an article on how 3D printers can change the presentation of food. The idea is that you really can have the food presented in a manner that is both pleasing and unique. The idea is to make food in unusual shapes, sizes, and colors, so that it appeals to a larger group of people. However, the original vision was to combine ingredients to actually make the food—this application scales the idea down to a more practical level.

It also looks like 3D printing will see practical use for various higher end needs that aren’t quite professional, but are out of reach of the home owner. Think of printers like the da Vinci 1.0 Pro 3D as a middle ground for experimenters (see the ComputerWorld review). The price is out of reach for the general consumer, but definitely within the range for experimenters and early adapters. Again, the vision is scaled down, more practical, and infinitely more usable.

The military is also using 3D printers to perform practical tasks. Having been a sailor myself, I can tell you without reservation that I would have loved to have been able to print some of the items I needed. Waiting to get back to port before I could even order parts meant serious delays and downed equipment. Imagine having the ability to print a new drone or other needed items while out to sea, rather than waiting for a supply ship or in port visit.

Of course, the medical and other high end uses for 3D printing continue to evolve. For example, 3D printed hands are becoming ever more usable. Expect to see all sorts of new medical uses for 3D printing evolve because humans are notoriously difficult to fit. I envision a day when it becomes possible to print just about any body part needed in the right size, color, shape, and characteristics. New printing strategies may even make the use of organ replacement drugs a thing of the past.

The point is that 3D printing is expanding, growing better, becoming more practical, and still evolving. Yes, you might eventually have one in your own, but don’t expect it to happen anytime soon. Practical uses for 3D printing are becoming more common. Until 3D printing becomes a must have technology for industry, science, military, medical, and other industries, the price won’t come down enough for the home user. To answer my initial question, 3D printing is becoming more practical tool than an interesting new technology, which is why you hear a lot less about it today. Let me know your thoughts about 3D printing at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Advantages of Making Your Own Extracts and Tinctures

It might be easy to initially dismiss someone who makes their own extracts and tinctures, but knowing how to make your own is an important skill. I commonly make many of my own extracts and tinctures because the products I create offer these benefits:

  • Cost: Even though you can get fake vanilla at a low cost, the flavor just isn’t the same as the real thing and buying the real thing is incredibly expensive. For example, buying the beans and making your own vanilla is significantly less expensive than buying it from someone else.
  • Customization: I don’t just make vanilla with vodka or some other relatively pure alcohol. Vanilla made with a moderately priced brandy or rum has a unique taste that is fuller than anything you could ever buy in the store. Sometimes adding vanilla to flavored alcohol, such as Grand Marnier, produces some amazing results.
  • Strength: It’s possible to make your extract or tincture to any strength desired. This feature means that your recipes end up tasting as you expect them to, rather than lack the pizzazz that you’d get with a store purchased product.
  • Characteristics: Many of the tinctures and extracts that you obtain from the store, even when pure, rely on the least expensive source of flavor. However, when making your own product, you can choose ingredients with specific characteristics. For example, the three kinds of vanilla bean you can commonly obtain are: Madagascar (traditional), Tahitian (a fruity flavor), and African/Ugandan (bold smoky flavor). Other sources are likewise robust. For example, a mint extract can combine the best characteristics of several kinds of mints.

Creating your own extract or tincture isn’t hard. The goal is to use some sort of solvent, normally an alcohol product, to extract the essential oils from an herb or spice. To create the extract or tincture, place the product you want to use, such as vanilla, into a glass jar. Fill the jar with the solvent, such as vodka, place the covered jar in a cool, dark place, and then wait. Just in case you’re wondering about the difference between an extract and a tincture:

  • Extract: A solvent containing the essential oils of an herb or spice. The solvents can include glycerine, vinegar, alcohol, and water. The product can be heated to induce more rapid extraction of the oils from the herb or spice (with some subsequent loss of strength). The herb or spice isn’t normally macerated. You can use some extracts the same day you start them (such as when steaming mint to make mint jelly).
  • Tincture: An extract that is always made with alcohol and no other solvent. The extracted item is normally macerated for maximum penetration. Tinctures are typically stronger than extracts and require more time to make.

Making your own extracts and tinctures is a lot of fun and experimenting with different formulations can produce surprising results. Most importantly, you know precisely what your extract or tincture contains, unlike the products you obtain from the store. Let me know your thoughts on making extracts and tinctures at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Wi-Fi Access Point Privacy Issues

One of the issues with using any wireless technology is that any expectation of privacy is akin to screaming at the top of your voice in a mall and expecting no one to hear you. You can’t hear radio signals with your ears, but wireless transmits them in all directions and all it takes is an antenna to receive them. The radio signal doesn’t discriminate between the intended recipient and someone lurking in the background. Few people seem to understand this concept because they can’t actually hear the radio signal or see just how far it transmits.

Unless the communication is properly secured, assuming that you can safely send sensitive data using wireless technology is also a delusion. In fact, the lack of physical security makes wireless connectivity a risky choice anyway. Anyone can create a man-in-the-middle attack to place themselves between you and the access point you think you’re using. In addition, just hearing your supposedly secret conversation can give the hacker access to the data. Network Computing recently ran an article, The 9 Worst WiFi Security Mistakes, that outlines some of the serious consequences of not using Wi-Fi and other wireless connectivity with security in mind.

Wi-Fi endangers both security and privacy in a big way (even though the former issue seems to receive the most coverage). A recent article, Wi-Fi access point scans can betray a person’s location, points out that using Wi-Fi really is quite risky from a privacy perspective. Location data can help hackers guess user activities in some cases. The risk isn’t hypothetical or in the laboratory—it’s a real risk that exists right now. The fact that people don’t seem to want to pay attention to it makes the situation worse because hackers and others of ill intent could employ the techniques discussed in the article for a variety of purposes (none of them good). Even though the article focuses on consumer tracking, it isn’t hard to imagine using it for business purposes as well.

Wireless access actually amplifies security issues that are a problem for consumers and businesses alike anyway. A recent article, Don’t count on websites to hide your account info, discusses web site security issues. When you combine a lack of web site security, with wireless privacy and security issues, it becomes nearly impossible to ensure that the connection will remain secure enough to perform any task of a sensitive nature. When the network and endpoint are both suspect, you need to devise a robust app development and usage strategy (as described in Security for Web Developers). That is, unless you really do want everyone to hear you screaming from the rooftop.

Many high-end routers provide you with advanced configuration features (something I discuss to some extent in Build Your Own PC on a Budget). For example, you can choose to use only WPA2 security. According to a number of sources, such as PCWorld, WPA2 is the best solution to wireless security right now. Of course, you still need to use good passwords and employ other router features such as port filtering, IP packet filtering, URL keyword filtering, and MAC address filtering. Make sure you set up a guest account with a real password and change that password after your guest is done using your router. Limit guest access to only those areas a guest actually needs.

Wireless connectivity is a fact of life today—you can’t really get around it because wireless connectivity offers too many benefits to ignore. However, it’s important to remember that wireless lacks the physical security of a wired network connection, which means that you need to be extremely careful when using it or face the consequences. Let me know your thoughts about wireless connectivity security and privacy concerns at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Python for Data Science for Dummies Errata on Page 221

The downloadable source for Python for Data Science for Dummies contains a problem that doesn’t actually appear in the book. If you look at page 221, the code block in the middle of the page contains a line saying import numpy as np. This line is essential because the code won’t run without it. The downloadable source for Chapter 12 is missing this line so the example doesn’t run. This P4DS4D; 12; Stretching Pythons Capabilities link provides you with a .ZIP file that contains the replacement source code. Simple remove the P4DS4D; 12; Stretching Pythons Capabilities.ipynb file from the archive and use it in place of your existing file.

Luca and I always want you to have a great experience with our book, so keep those emails coming. Please let me know if you have any questions about source code file update at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com. I’m sorry about any errors that appear in the downloadable source and appreciate the readers who have pointed them out.

 

Python for Data Science for Dummies Errata on Page 145

Python for Data Science for Dummies contains two errors on page 145. The first error appears in the second paragraph on that page. You can safely disregard the sentence that reads, “The use_idf controls the use of inverse-document-frequency reweighting, which is turned off in this case.” The code doesn’t contain a reference to the use_idf parameter. However, you can read about it on the Scikit-Learn site. This parameter defaults to being turned on, which is how it’s used for the example.

The second error is also in the second paragraph. The discussion references the tf_transformer.transform() method call. The actual method call is tfidf.transform(), which does appear in the sample code. The discussion about how the method works is correct, just the name of the object is wrong.

Please let me know if you have any questions about either of these changes at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com. I’m sorry about any errors that appear in the book and appreciate the readers who have pointed them out.

 

Adding Vinegar to the Chicken Water

It’s winter in Wisconsin and the chicken coop isn’t heated. In fact, the chicken coop lacks an electrical connection as well, so except for taking pots of heated water in on the coldest days, trying to heat the coop must come from other sources. The slant of the roof and placement of the window ensure that the coop receives maximum winter heat. The tree that normally shields the coop from the sun during the summer months is bare, letting the sun come through. Even with all these measures, the coop is cold enough to let the chicken’s water freeze.

My goals for various activities on my small farm include doing things in a manner that makes my carbon footprint small and keeps costs low. Consequently, I always look for solutions that don’t involve much in the way of high technology, such as obtaining heated chicken waterers. I did seriously look at a solar powered unit for a while, but decided that the chickens would probably destroy it in short order. The better solution turned out to be adding vinegar to the chicken water.

It turns out that vinegar has both a lower freezing temperature and higher boiling point than water. The freezing temperature of vinegar is 28 degrees, but that level increases when you add more water. I tried various levels of vinegar in the chicken water and found that ½ cup per gallon seems to keep the water from freezing for about an hour longer when the outside temperature is in the 15 to 30 degree range. Above 30 degrees, it kept the water from freezing at all.

Adding vinegar to the water also keeps anything from growing inside the waterer, which means that the water is better for the chickens longer. This feature of adding vinegar is especially important during the summer, when all kinds of green gunk grows inside the waterer and is quite hard to keep out.

If you look on other websites, you find that other people attribute all sorts of other benefits to using vinegar. Other websites warn against using vinegar. I haven’t personally tested any of these claims, so I’m not here to tell you that the chickens derive any benefit whatsoever from the vinegar in the water. However, I did try a simple experiment this past summer and found that given two buckets, precisely the same size, color, and make, one with vinegar and one without, the chickens always drank the vinegar water first. My feeling is that they seem to like it. So even if the chickens don’t gain any solid benefits from the vinegar, you can view it as a treat that helps keep the water from freezing longer and keeps their waterer cleaner. Let me know your thoughts on adding vinegar to the chicken water at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Time to Check the Larder

The seed catalogs begin to arrive in the mail and you look upon them as a bit of pure heaven—the announcement that spring is on the way. Your eyes nearly pop out as you see the multicolored carrots, juicy tomatoes, and fragrant herbs. The new kinds of fruit trees immediately attract your attention, and what about that amazing new berry bush that will pack your freezer with sumptuous berries? You go into a mix of information and appetite overload and you consider just how those new offerings will satiate your cravings for all things fresh. However, before you go into a swoon over the latest delights, consider the fact that you probably don’t need them all. Your larder is craving things too! The items you’ve used up have created gaps in the deliciousness that your larder can provide during the winter months when fresh simply isn’t an option.

Of course, everyone loves to experiment. After all, that’s how I found kabocha squash this past summer—that delectable mix of sweet and savory that will likely find its way into a pie this upcoming fall. Had I known then what I know now, I would have planted more and canned the extra as an alternative to using pumpkin for pies. Lesson learned, more kabocha squash will find their way into the mix this year, alongside the butternut and acorn squash I love so well.

Back to the larder though. You probably don’t have any idea of where the holes are right now and you really do need to find out. That’s why you need to perform an inventory of your larder. The inventory will tell you about the items you need most. This year I’ve decided to try canning three bean salad, which means growing green, yellow wax, and kidney beans. However, I already have enough green beans in quarts in the larder, so I won’t make a big planting of green beans.

Your larder inventory should include more than a simple accounting. As you go through your larder, you should also perform these tasks:

  • Ensure all of the canned goods are still sealed
  • Wipe the jars down to remove the dust
  • Verify all of the oldest products are in the front
  • Make a list of products that are more than five years old so you can use them up
  • Place all the empty jars in one area
  • Sort the jars by type (both size and the kind of lid used)

Taking these extra steps will help you get a better handle on your larder. You should have a good idea of what your larder contains at all times and the only way to achieve that goal is to actually look at the containers. Let me know your thoughts about larder management at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Using Jupyter with Anaconda (Updated)

A few readers have recently written to me regarding the use of Jupyter with the downloadable source for Python for Data Science for Dummies. The version of Anaconda recommended for the book, 2.1.0, doesn’t rely on Jupyter, which is why the book doesn’t mention Jupyter. The book relies on IPython Notebook, which is what you should use to obtain the best reading experience. You can obtain the proper version from the Continuum archive. However, if you choose to download the current version of Anaconda, then using Jupyter becomes a possibility; although, many of the procedures found in the book will require tweaking and the screenshots won’t match precisely.

In order to use Jupyter, you must still import the downloaded files into your repository. The source code comes in an archive file that you extract to a location on your hard drive. The archive contains a list of .ipynb (IPython Notebook) files containing the source code for this book (see the Introduction for details on downloading the source code). The following steps tell how to import these files into your repository:

  1. Click Upload at the top of the page. What you see depends on your browser. In most cases, you see some type of File Upload dialog box that provides access to the files on your hard drive.
  2. Navigate to the directory containing the files you want to import into Notebook.
  3. Highlight one or more files to import and click the Open (or other, similar) button to begin the upload process. You see the file added to an upload list, as shown here. The file isn’t part of the repository yet—you’ve simply selected it for upload.

    Click Upload when you want to upload files to the repository.
    Upload Source Files to the Repository
  4. Click Upload. Notebook places the file in the repository so that you can begin using it.

It’s important to both Luca and me that you have the best possible learning experience with our book. This means using the right version of Anaconda for most people. Using the latest version shouldn’t cause problems, but we’d like to know if it does. Please feel free contact me at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com with your book-specific questions.


Update

It has come to our attention since this post first published that using the latest version of Anaconda with Python for Data Science for Dummies is problematic. Some of the examples won’t work without rewriting because the Pandas Categorical class has changed. This is the only change we’ve confirmed so far, but there are no doubt other changes. In order to get the proper results from the examples in the book, you must use the correct version of Anaconda, version 2.1.0.

Please do keep those questions coming. It’s because a reader took time to write that Luca and I became aware of this problem. We truly do want you to have a great learning experience, so these questions are important!