Posts Tagged ‘work’

Radioactive decay of teaspoons in the workplace

// January 30th, 2011 // 22 Comments » // Just for Fun, Recent Research, The Realm of Bizzare

missing teaspoonsHave you ever noticed a mysterious loss of teaspoons at your workplace? Maybe it’s not teaspoons, but some other cutlery item. At my old work it was forks, which dwindled even when I bought new replacement ones. At the Australian National University neither spoon nor fork were safe, causing some students to eat salad with two knives as chopsticks.

The same thing was happening at the Burnett Institute in Australia. Teaspoons were critically low, no matter how many new ones bought. Clearly it was time for science.

“Exasperated by our consequent inability to stir in our sugar and to accurately dispense instant coffee, we decided to respond in time honoured epidemiologists’ fashion and measure the phenomenon,” they said in the paper.

They numbered 70 teaspoons and placed them in tearooms around the institute. Lo and behold, they started to disappear. Every week they counted the remaining teaspoons, probably with a lot of suppressed giggling and delight.

After five months, 56 out of 70 teaspoons disappeared, that’s 80%. The half life of the teaspoons was 81 days.

Teaspoons in communal tearooms disappeared faster than those in tearooms specifically for certain projects. Expensive teaspoons disappeared no faster than cheap ones.

According to the study, “at this rate, an estimated 250 teaspoons would need to be purchased annually to maintain a practical institute-wide population of 70 teaspoons.” The cost? About $100. Extrapolate that to the workforce of Melbourne, some 2.4 million people, and you’re looking at quite a wad of cash.

Stapler sugarAnd it’s not just economic loss, it’s also workplace satisfaction. “Teaspoon displacement and loss leads to the use of forks, knives, and staplers to measure out coffee and sugar,” the study suggested. Staplers? You know it’s a bad day in the office when you’re measuring sugar with a stapler. Indeed, nobody in the office said they were “highly satisfied” with the number of teaspoons in a survey they conducted at the end of the study. Yes, they even did a survey.

But why are teaspoons such hot property?

The study gives a few possible theories. Perhaps there are so many teaspoons, people don’t think it will matter if they take one home. Over time the small acts of thievery add up until there are no teaspoons left.

Alternatively, and I can say this no better than the authors, “Somewhere in the cosmos, along with all the planets inhabited by humanoids, reptiloids, walking treeoids, and superintelligent shades of the colour blue, a planet is entirely given over to spoon life-forms. Unattended spoons make their way to this planet, slipping away through space to a world where they enjoy a uniquely spoonoid lifestyle, responding to highly spoon oriented stimuli, and generally leading the spoon equivalent of the good life.”

Their final theory is les choses sont contre nous “things are against us.” “Resistentialism is the belief that inanimate objects have a natural antipathy towards humans, and therefore it is not people who control things but things that increasingly control people,” says the study. Think of all the time you spend cleaning, buying, repairing, using and selling things. Do items really control our lives, sending us on some materialistic goose chase for reasons we cannot yet understand? I can only assume Yes.

I want to hear from anyone who has experienced this phenomenon, be it spoons, forks or knives. What goes missing in your workplace, and why do they constantly disappear. And what is the spoon equivalent of the good life?

ResearchBlogging.orgLim, M. (2005). The case of the disappearing teaspoons: longitudinal cohort study of the displacement of teaspoons in an Australian research institute BMJ, 331 (7531), 1498-1500 DOI: 10.1136/bmj.331.7531.1498

Massive hat tip to James at Disease Prone, who said my posts had slowed down and suggested this paper.

Science of electronic cigarettes, as seen on the Tourist

// January 2nd, 2011 // 1 Comment » // How Things Work, Science in the Movies

Happy New Year! On the first of January, I went to see The Tourist. It promised to be an excessively attractive movie starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, the two best heartthrobs on screen. I won’t spoil the plot, but I will say that one cool gadget graces the scene. The electronic cigarette.

As described in the movie, the electronic cigarette does not emit smoke, just vapour. The one in the move was shaped like a cigarette, complete with a red LED light on the end for a burning ember. He tapped the end to put it out, but I don’t think that’s necessary. The automatic versions just turn on when you breathe in, a sensor recognizes the airflow, and I’d say it turns off afterward.

Electronic cigarettes, designed by Chinese company Ruyan “to resemble smoking”, come in a variety of designs. From classic cigarettes to cigars to pipes. Even a ballpoint pen, so you can look like you’re intelligently thinking witty thoughts while taking a sneaky huff.

All the designs have the same basic features. A cylindrical battery, a heating element, and a mouthpiece. When the sensor picks up air flow, it switches on the battery which heats up the element, vapourising the nicotine mixture absorbed on material in the mouthpiece. Manual versions lack a sensor, and you have to press a button to get them started. The nicotine can be replenished by dripping fluid refills onto the absorbant material, or buying a new prefilled mouthpiece.

An electonic cigarette

An electonic cigarette

But it’s the mixture itself that’s really cool. It comes in a variety of nicotine levels and a variety of FLAVOURS. Some are designed to taste like certain brands (such as Malboro), some taste like regular ciggies, some are menthol, and others come in tastes of caramel, coffee or vanilla. One recipe listed on Wikipedia contains hardly any nicotine, but 8% alcohol. That’s a 16 proof cigarette delivered straight to your lungs! Wow. Seems dangerous.

What I wanted to know was how do electronic ciggies compare to the real thing when it comes to health. It seems like we’re still unsure. Electronic cigarettes only hit the market in 2004, so they’re pretty new still. Most countries are taking a conservative stance. In England they can be bought in pubs and smoked indoors. In New Zealand they are only available in pharmacies. In Australia it is illegal to sell them, but they can be purchased over the internet for personal use, and I believe there are no laws against it. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

The debate seems to center around the fact that these electronic cigarettes are KIND OF tobacco products and KIND OF smoking cessation aids… but kind of not. No studies have been done to show that they could help people quit smoking and become nicotine free. To me it seems more like you would quit smoking cigarettes, and start smoking the electronic version instead.

And what’s the harm in that? Most of the damage caused by smoking is not due to nicotine itself. It’s all the other crazy chemicals that come with it which cause the cancer and lung damage and so forth. Nicotine is just the stuff that keeps people coming back. It’s highly addictive, working on the reward system of the brain and our favourite neurotransmitter, dopamine. Smokeless cigarettes are a way to enjoy nicotine without getting a hefty dose of dangerous chemical cocktails. Plus the secondhand smoke is safer. So it’s an example of harm reduction. Plus your teeth would get whiter.

Of course, nicotine is not exactly a friendly chemical. It might not cause cancer, but it IS highly toxic. 60 mg can be toxic to an adult. Nicotine is made by the tobacco plant as an insecticide, need I say more? In fact, it’s also made by other members of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, such as tomatoes. That explains why my basil plant is getting torn to pieces by insects while the tomato plant right next to it is still intact. So maybe we don’t want to encourage people to smoke anything.

But gun to my head, I think the electronic cigarette is a good thing. I don’t think young kids are going to be swayed by sexy marketing into becoming the next generation of smokers. I don’t think we’d allow such sexy marketing in the first place. I don’t even know why the government allows cigarettes to be sold at all; the health problems must cost the economy millions every year. But what do you think? Do you think electronic cigarettes would be the lesser of two evils, or a new evil all on its own, ready to pounce on hapless youths and struggling smokers and catch them forever with nicotine claws.






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