A Big Bright Plastic Shot, for Kids with Diabetes

Can a plastic really make medicine more fun for kids?

Yes, it can (with a little help from temporary tattoos). Here’s how.

Many of us, grown-up though we may be, get a little queasy at the sight of a needle. But for kids with diabetes, who have to give themselves insulin injections (and have to do it, and do it right), it’s way harder.

Renata Souza Luque saw that firsthand, watching her 6-year-old nephew, Thomás, struggle with his injections, with holding the needle, with having to remember where he’d injected himself last time. So she made a better way: “Thomy”.

Photo from the James Dyson Award (Thomy was National Runner Up, 2017)

Thomy is made especially  for kids.  It comes in a bright orange plastic case – the needle (an insulin pen) is hidden inside a bright blue plastic holder, with a big handle sized for a kid’s hand (instead of the same syringe that even we don’t like to see) – it’s got a plastic dial that changes color when it’s time to take the needle out (instead of having to count to ten, a kid keeps his hand on it, and when the color changes, he’s done!).

Watch:  A day with THOMY

Oh, and the tattoos?  Thomy comes with temporary tattoos that a kid can put on herself – that tell her where to inject the insulin, and remind her where she injected before (each tattoo has a pattern that covers about three days of injections, then it washes off – and you put on a new one).

Nothing high tech.  No plugs or batteries.  A kid-friendly solution to a medical condition that isn’t so easy for kids (and there are 193,000 kids in the U.S., meaning under age 20, diagnosed with diabetes).

All made possible by plastics made from petrochemicals – inexpensive, durable, easy to make, easy to make colorful, and (with a little thermochromic plastic) easy to make change color as the temperature changes.  Well, made possible by plastics, and tattoos.

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Much video, wow.

Rocket landing is complicated

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Two out of three

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Why Are My Glasses Made Of…

Why do we drive on a parkway and park in a driveway?

Why do inflammable and flammable mean the same thing?

And why are eyeglasses made of – plastic?

Ok, we have an answer for that last one.  And some history too.

The history starts with the Second World War.  Natural materials, like metal and rubber, were in short supply – so the search for substitutes was a high priority.

One of those “searches”, was in the labs of the Columbia Southern Chemical Company, and on their 39th try, the chemists there created a plastic resin – strong, easy to shape and simple to combine with other reinforcing materials.  They called it CR-39 and it was made from a reaction of three chemicals derived from ethylene and propylene, two fundamental petrochemical building blocks.

During the war, CR-39 was reinforced with glass fibers to make fuel tanks for bombers.  That made the planes lighter, which meant they could fly longer and farther.  And they used CR-39 to replace glass fuel lines on those planes (safer, since when the glass lines got hit, they shattered, and leaked fuel.)

But when the war ended, the company had a rail car filled with 38,000 pounds of expensive CR-39 – but no need now for new bombers and fuel tanks.  So, it was back to the lab – and eventually the discovery that some of the same qualities that made CR-39 a good choice for fuel tanks – made it a good choice for eyeglass lenses.

Like those glass fuel lines, if your glass lenses shattered – that was dangerous for your eyes.  Plastic lenses were safer – and definitely lighter and thinner.  (There’s a reason they used to call them “Coke-bottle glasses”, back in the day.)

Today, plastic lenses today are made from a variety of materials (like polycarbonate made from propylene and benzene) not just CR-39 – though 50 years later, that’s still in use too.

Oh, and If you’re wearing contacts instead of glasses, those are plastic lenses too now (in fact, there wouldn’t even be soft contacts without plastic).

And happily for all of us who wear contacts or glasses – plastic lenses make excellent lenses – so we can have our cake and see it too.

Good Mileage (Doesn’t Mean a Bad Car)

If you like the sound of 40 miles (or more) per gallon, you’ll like the latest from Car and Driver.

They put the EPA’s mpg numbers to a real-world test (see the explanation below), and found plenty to choose from:  13 cars and trucks, with regular gas (or diesel) engines, that you can fill up at your corner gas stations.

Now it might not surprise you to know that today’s internal combustion engines get better and better at using gas efficiently and powerfully – but, you might not have expected the range of today’s cars and trucks on that list.

Yes, there are the small and mid-size sedans on the list, from Ford and Kia, Honda and Toyota.  But you’ll also find some eight-speed rides from Jaguar and BMW – along with an SUV from Chevy (the first time a crossover vehicle broke the 40 mpg mark in Car & Driver testing).

You can see them all for yourself at Car and Driver.

And if you want to know how the magazine put these cars to the test, here’s their explanation:

“Take the EPA’s highway fuel-economy estimates…wherein the average rate of speed is 48.3 mph… Seeking a more realistic mpg number, we devised a test that more closely approximates the way many people drive (read: fast).  Each car is sent on a 200-mile out-and-back loop down Michigan’s I-94…during which we strive to maintain a GPS-verified 75 mph, using cruise control as much as possible to mimic the way real drivers behave during long trips.”

Life in the Bubble (Hotel)

Like the outdoors – but the bugs and dirt, not so much?  Maybe you’re a “glamper”.*  Or maybe you like rolling out a sleeping bag under a tree and calling it a night.

Either way – this is a glamping experience anybody might like:  a BUBBLE hotel.

Your “hotel room” is a plastic bubble – set outdoors in some scenic spot – and at night you are in your room, looking out like an astronaut at the night sky.

(And with the telescope in your bubble, you might see all that.)

Your “room” really is a clear plastic bubble, sometimes with an opaque bubble attached (if you’re getting an in-bubble bathroom, say).  A fan (quietly) keeps the bubble inflated and the air fresh.  Your bubble is waterproof.  You can have lights in it.  You can put a heater in it.  And it fits a bed, a real bed (of course, you can bunk down in a sleeping bag next to the bed, if that’s more your style).

You can even glamp up your own camping experience by getting your own bubble tent.  They are, apparently, not difficult to bring along and set up (so you never have to leave your bubble!).  You can even take certain models to the beach (just remember to check for the high-water mark before you set up camp).

Plastic, as it turns out, makes for an excellent window into the world, the terrestrial world and the world up above.  And the plastic which makes that excellent window, is PVC, transparent polyvinyl chloride—which in turn, is made from the petrochemical ethylene (the starting point for that, is petroleum or natural gas).

If you’d like to see what the bubbles are all about, here’s a quick bubble tour around the world.

*Glamping:  glamorous, or luxury, camping.

Have you heard the one about our decaying infrastructure? Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Want to empty the room at a party?  Start talking about “our nation’s infrastructure.”

So don’t do it that way – do it this way:

Ask your friends if they’ve heard the one about the big chunks of concrete falling from a bridge onto commuter rail tracks in Boston.

Or about those 100+ bridges finally closed now in Mississippi, because they haven’t been safe for years.

Or that bridge in Minnesota that wasn’t just in need of repair, it collapsed, and 13 people died.

Then tell them that they might have driven over a bridge, just like those bridges, just this morning – because those “infrastructure” problems show up in every one of the 50 states.  And it isn’t just bridges.  Infrastructure also includes roads and tunnels, trains and airports, the schools our kids go to, our energy grid and more.  And none of it is in good shape.

The American Society of Civil Engineers writes up a report card on the condition of the country’s infrastructure (and they are the ones who work on these things, so they should know).   Our grade last year?   D+.

(You can read it here.  You can also look up the condition of bridges, roads, and all the rest in your own state.  Just brace yourself first.)

And this is a good time to do it, because this week is National Infrastructure Week.

Now why have we got something to say about this?

Well, we ARE part of the solution.  From petroleum, comes asphalt – and from asphalt comes roads that get us where we want to go, instead of roads that beat up our cars.

More than that though, infrastructure might seem invisible day to day – but it’s the glue that holds everything together, for all of us.  And like glue, when it doesn’t work – the consequences sure aren’t invisible, to all of us.

To make that asphalt, and get it where it needs to go – to make gasoline and diesel and jet fuel – to make the petrochemicals that go into the plastics that go into every aspect of our everyday lives – that also depends on roads and bridges, train tracks and airports, and most of the rest of that infrastructure.  All those things we all depend on, depend on infrastructure.

So take a moment during National Infrastructure Week, to think about the state of our infrastructure.  Serious?  Yes.  Fixable?  Also yes.  In fact, one section of that Civil Engineers’ report card is all about solutions.  And you can find that good news here.

“Shields up!” (but maybe not much longer)

Parents!  Have you heard the news about fluorinated polyurethane (FP for short)?

Ok, no, of course you haven’t – unless your day job is in a chemistry lab.  But this news IS big news – because “FP” is an essential part of a new coating that is spill-proof and stain-proof. Which is to say, it’s kid-proof!

Scientists at University of Michigan (a team led by a scientist who is also a parent), have developed a clear, smooth coating that can protect walls and windows, countertops and tables (computer and tablet and cellphone screens too) from smears and schmears.

So let’s say one of the kids knocks over a glass of juice on the counter – or writes her name in jam on the window – or maybe you’re in the midst of a slice of bacon when you reach over to check your phone.  Oil, water, alcohol – doesn’t matter.  Things just don’t stick to it.

(True, you can’t spray your kids with it – but whatever sticks to your kids, or you, won’t stick to anything coated in “it”.)

In this case, “it” is a mix of fluorinated polyurethane (and if you are a regular reader, you will recognize polyurethane as a common, and inexpensive product made using either benzene or toluene as the petrochemical building block), and F-POSS (if you want the full moniker, it’s fluorodecyl polyhedral oligomeric silsesquioxane – and now maybe, you’re sorry you asked). The fluorinated polyurethane forms the base for the coating (because it is one of the few substances that will partially mix with the F-POSS), and keeps the F-POSS from wandering off, while F-POSS does the work of repelling – well, everything.

So how soon would be too soon for that?  Hmmm, how about now – would now work?  Well, as it turns out, no, it wouldn’t.  But the Michigan team does think we could see this on the shelves (and our tables and countertops and screens) in a couple of years.

Meantime, you’ll have to keep those sponges and wipes handy.  Sorry.

3 Reasons to Consider a Roth IRA Conversion


MAY 11, 2018

Does it ever make sense to pay taxes on retirement savings sooner rather than later? When it comes to a Roth Individual Retirement Account (IRA), the answer could be yes.

That’s because, although a Roth IRA is funded with after-tax dollars, qualified withdrawals are entirely tax-free.1 What’s more, Roth IRAs aren’t subject to the required minimum distributions (RMDs) the IRS mandates you take from most other retirement accounts once you reach age 70½, giving you greater control over your taxable income in retirement.

The hitch is that you can’t contribute to a Roth IRA in 2018 if your income equals or exceeds certain limits ($135,000 for single filers and $199,000 for married couples filing jointly). But there’s a workaround: A Roth IRA conversion allows anyone, regardless of income level, to convert existing IRA funds to a Roth IRA.

Should you convert to a Roth?

You must pay income taxes on any converted funds in the year of the conversion, but there are three scenarios in which that might be to your advantage:

1. You believe your tax bracket will be higher in retirement: In this scenario, paying taxes at your current tax rate is preferential to paying a higher rate after you’ve stopped working. This may sound far-fetched, but it isn’t particularly difficult to do, especially if you haven’t yet hit your peak earning years or you’ve accumulated significant savings in your retirement accounts.

2. You want to maximize your estate for your heirs: If you don’t need to tap your IRA funds during your lifetime, converting to a Roth allows your savings to grow undiminished by RMDs, potentially leaving more for your heirs-who will also benefit from tax-free withdrawals during their lifetimes.

That said, the decision to convert to a Roth IRA doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You may find dividing your savings among Roth and traditional IRA and/or a Roth and traditional 401(k) is the optimal solution.

How do you convert to a Roth IRA?

If you do decide a Roth IRA conversion is right for you, you’ll need to determine two things:

1. When to execute the conversion: If you have a significant balance in your traditional IRA, you may want to carry out multiple Roth IRA conversions over several years. For example, you might convert just enough to keep yourself from being catapulted into the next tax bracket. If done properly, a multiyear approach could allow you to convert a large portion of your savings to a Roth while limiting the tax impact. Early in retirement-when your earned income drops but before RMDs kick in-can be an especially good time to implement this strategy.

2. How you’ll pay the resulting tax bill: Ideally, you’d have cash on hand outside your IRA to pay the income tax on any converted funds—for several reasons:

  • Any IRA money used to pay taxes won’t be accumulating gains tax-free for retirement, undermining the very purpose of a Roth IRA conversion.
  • If you sell appreciated assets to pay the conversion tax, capital-gains taxes could further undermine the benefits of a conversion. Plus, if you’re under 591/2 and withdraw money from a tax-deferred account, you’ll incur a 10% federal penalty (state penalties may also apply).

In short, converting to a Roth IRA can give you the potential to cut your tax bill in retirement, but be sure to consult a qualified tax advisor and financial planner before making the move.

1 Qualified distributions are those that occur at least five years after the account is established. At least one of the following conditions must also be met: the account holder is 59½ or older at the time of withdrawal; the account holder is permanently disabled; distributed assets (up to $10,000) are used toward the purchase or rebuilding of a first home for the account holder or a qualified family member; or withdrawals are made by the account beneficiary after the holder’s death.

Important Disclosures

This information is not intended to be a substitute for specific individualized tax, legal or investment-planning advice. Where specific advice is necessary or appropriate, Schwab recommends that you consult with a qualified tax advisor, CPA, financial planner or investment manager.

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered an individualized recommendation or personalized investment advice. The investment strategies mentioned here may not be suitable for everyone. Each investor needs to review an investment strategy for his or her own particular situation before making any investment decision.

All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market conditions. Data contained herein from third-party providers are obtained from what are considered reliable sources. However, their accuracy, completeness and reliability cannot be guaranteed.

The Schwab Center for Financial Research is a division of Charles Schwab & Co., Inc.


That’s a Wrap!

All of us have probably left something in the fridge a little too long.  Ok, maybe a lot too long.  But you might be surprised to know just how much food we throw out.

Add up what we throw at home, with what restaurants and grocery stores chuck, and – ready? about FORTY PERCENT of everything we are supposed to be eating, we wind up throwing out instead.

Picture it this way, you bring home two bags of groceries from the store – and you take one of those bags and dump most of it straight into the trash (or the compost bin if you’re a Californian).  That much.

“We” by the way – is those of us here in the U.S., but we have plenty of company.  Worldwide, wasted food runs to about a third of everything.

And that – makes food waste a BIG problem.  Now there’s no one solution for it – but a little plastic wouldn’t hurt.  That’s plastic as in, plastic wrap.  Here’s a little science on the subject:

“Ultrathin plastic film helps block transmission of oxygen, increasing shelf life of fresh meats to 21 days or more, and plastic vacuum packaging prevents discoloration of meats and extends shelf life 10 times longer than store-wrapped meat, resulting in 75 percent less food waste.”1

Or, if you like to see for yourself (and see something a little gross) – the folks at ExxonMobil (taking a break from their 9 to 5 jobs), posted a time-lapse video of two weeks in the life of a cucumber in the refrigerator – half of it wrapped in plastic, and the other half just sitting on a plate.  Spoiler alert:  one of the two pieces – really does spoil.

Conclusion?  Plastic wrap (made in a process that starts with petrochemicals) keeps food fresher, and makes food last longer – in our home refrigerators and in the grocery store too.  Cue some wrap music.

And bonus use:  if you’re using a dry rub to prep something before cooking, put the marinatee (yeah, we made that up) – double wrap the thing you’re marinating in plastic wrap.  The marinade gets absorbed faster that way.  (Want extra credit?  Why is it “marinade” but “marinating”?)

  1. https://www.plasticsmakeitpossible.com/plastics-at-home/food/prep-storage/professor-plastics-i-hate-wasted-food-thats-one-reason-i-love-plastic-packaging/

Saving a Sea Turtle

When this young sea turtle was rescued on the New Jersey coast, she weighed under 75 pounds.  Now that might not sound bad, but when you’re supposed to end up around 250 pounds as a grown-up, that’s not good.

Also not good – her rear flippers were paralyzed, she had curvature of the spine, and her shell was broken, cracked with one piece missing altogether.  That not only left her vulnerable out in the wild, but meant that as she grew, her shell would become deformed, which could eventually be just as dangerous.

So when this juvenile (the technical term) Loggerhead Sea Turtle (the technical name) ended up at the Birch Aquarium in San Diego – she needed a lot of TLC.  And with that care, she thrived – growing (almost tripling her weight), swimming, eating, doing all the things sea turtles do (well, ok, maybe swimming and eating is just about all sea turtles do).

But as she grew, and her shell grew – that broken shell needed more than just TLC.

The solution?  Not unlike a lot of growing teenagers, it turned out she needed braces.  Well, actually, just a brace. For her shell.

And when the aquatic experts at the aquarium got together with the digital media experts (yes, that makes sense.  Stick with us a moment) at UC San Diego – a brace for a turtle turned out to be a job for 3D printing (that’s how the digital media folks got involved).

The brace itself is a piece of hard plastic.  Not much to look at, but precisely printed to fit the gap in her shell.  There are some other parts to help hold the brace in place (more plastic, and synthetic rubber), in turn held in place with a special epoxy for use in water.  (And all of those, are materials using petrochemicals.)

Now her shell is solid and complete again (though as she keeps growing, at some point she will need another, bigger brace) which has made for a happy, active turtle.  And as Jennifer Frohlich, a UC San Diego vet, told the San Diego Union-Tribune, “Loggerheads are very charismatic, very friendly … They’re the Labrador dog of sea turtles.  She…knows when people are in front of the tank, and she hams it up.”

If you’re in San Diego, you can get a taste of Loggerhead charisma for yourself, in the Hall of Fishes at Birch Aquarium.  No need to rush though—loggerheads usually live at least 50 years, so the Birch’s sea turtle should have another 40 or more years ahead of her.

And if you can’t get to San Diego, here’s a peek.

We do have one improvement to suggest though.  How about a name, something a bit more personal than “Loggerhead Sea Turtle”?  Like “Shelley”!  Think you could do better?  Send us your suggestions.

Start Your Summer Gardening Now — Indoors

If you live in a part of the country where the calendar says spring, but the weather outside says otherwise – here’s a chance to turn your thoughts, at least, to warmer times ahead.

It may be too cold or too wet to start planting a garden outdoors, but it’s the perfect time to start some seeds growing indoors.  To do that, you need a little greenhouse.  And for that, you just need these simple directions, provided by the science guys at Valero – and about a half-dozen items, all of them easy to find (and some of them, yes, made possible by the transformation of petrochemicals).

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Empty plastic water bottles (with caps)
  • A plastic tray
  • A sheet of clear plastic or vinyl (to cover your greenhouse)
  • A small grow light (nurseries have these)
  • An electric heating mat (drugstores have these)
  • A pair of scissors or knife (you have that)
  • And the plant stuff: seeds and potting soil.
  • After you’ve put it all together, you’ll want a spray bottle and some water.

Here’s what you do:

  • Now, cut the bottles in half and poke some holes in the bottom half (save those caps, we’ll get to them).
  • Put potting soil in those bottle bottoms (and, if you’re doing this in the house, you might want to spread some out newspaper, in case you spill a bit. Hey, it happens.)
  • Put the seeds in the soil, and push ‘em down a bit.
  • Put the bottles in your plastic tray, put the tray on the heating mat, and spritz some water on the soil.
  • Now, on the caps, write down the names of what you’ve planted, and stick the caps (like a stop sign) next to those bottles.
  • Put your plastic top (that plastic or vinyl sheet) on top of the tray.
  • Stand your grow light over the tray (it’s a light on a stand) and turn it on.
  • Keep your seeds moist (not soaked), be watchful and be patient. It won’t be long before summer is growing, right inside your house.

And, if you’d rather see it rather than read it, here are the step-by-step video instructions:


This plastic stethoscope isn’t playing around

If you’re of a certain age, you might remember little plastic doctor’s bags for kids (and they’re still around today).

And inside the plastic bag, would be a plastic stethoscope.

– which was about as useful as the container of candy pills that also came inside.

But now, there is a polymer (aka plastic) stethoscope, that probably costs less than the whole doctor’s bag for kids and – this one actually works.

And if anything does happen to it, you can just make another – because these plastic stethoscopes are made on a 3D printer.  The cost?  Less than 3 bucks (compared to $100, $200 and more for a traditional one).

That may make medical students happy – one less pricey item to buy.  But in many parts of the world, a $200 stethoscope isn’t a strain on the budget, it’s just unaffordable or unavailable, period.  So an extremely inexpensive, model – that can be printed as needed (and potentially customized as well) – that could be truly life-saving.

Because two hundred years after its invention, stethoscopes are still a simple, useful way to take a quick look inside us – to hear our breathing and blood flow and more.  Not to mention, that wearing one around the neck, is as basic to the look of a doctor or nurse as a set of hospital scrubs.

The “Gila model” as it’s called, was developed by a group led by a Canadian doctor.  The key ingredient is ABS plastic – inexpensive, easy to work with – though it IS hard to spell out.  ABS stands for “acrylonitrile butadiene styrene”.

So just call it another plastic made from petrochemicals.  And we can also call it just another way petrochemicals make everyday life (a visit to the doctor, in this case) possible.