Tag Archives: physics

Dark-coloured buildings and cars are silly

Many buildings in Australia, especially new developments, are black, dark grey or brown, or at least the roof is. Many cars are black (other dark colours are less prevalent). The dark colouring increases both cooling and heating costs, because it absorbs and emits solar and infrared radiation faster. In addition, the dark buildings are depressing and ugly. Dark-coloured cars are more difficult to notice, especially in low-visibility conditions, thus have more accidents. White or yellow vehicles are the safest (Lardelli-Claret et al. 2002, Solomon and King 1995).

For cars, the choice of black colour is probably caused by the owner’s desire to seem wealthy by making the car look expensive – limousines in films and popular culture are often black. For buildings, the association in people’s minds between colour and price is weak. If anything, light-coloured houses, reminiscent of Mediterranean villas and the White House, may slightly raise the owner’s status. The reason for dark-coloured roofs may be the cost – tar paper is a cheap material, easy to install. Windows may appear dark due to the one-way glass used. However, for walls, the cheapest material is usually bare concrete, as shown by its choice for purely functional structures (warehouses, barriers, piers, military buildings). For private dwellings, wood or brick may be the cheapest. Neither concrete, wood nor brick is particularly dark in colour, so the choice to build black or brown houses is puzzling. Maybe it is an architectural fad – fashions often trump practicality.

Bending polycarbonate glasses

Polycarbonate glasses (sunglasses, safety goggles) can be bent to better fit one’s head by heating the thermoplastic polymer with a lighter, gas stove or other heat source. Example photos are below. Polycarbonate is not flammable and tolerates repeated heating and cooling. The only problem is that the paint discolours when heated and the plastic buckles and wrinkles when bent, so the lenses should not be heated, lest they become unusable. However, for the handles, a better fit outweighs cosmetic appearance in many applications.

Blind testing of clothes

Inspired by blind taste testing, manufacturers’ claims about clothes could be tested by subjects blinded to what they are wearing. The test would work as follows. People put clothes on by feel with their eyes closed or in a pitch dark room and wear other clothes on top of the item to be tested. Thus the subjects cannot see what they are wearing. They then rate the comfort, warmth, weight, softness and other physical aspects of the garment. This would help consumers select the most practical clothing and keep advertising somewhat more honest than heretofore. For example, many socks are advertised as warm, but based on my experience, many of them do not live up to the hype. I would be willing to pay a small amount for data about past wearers’ experience. Online reviews are notoriously emotional and biased.

Some aspects of clothes can also be measured objectively – warmth is one of these, measured by heat flow through the garment per unit of area. Such data is unfortunately rarely reported. The physical measurements to conduct on clothes require some thought, to make these correspond to the wearing experience. For example, if clothes are thicker in some parts, then their insulation should be measured in multiple places. Some parts of the garment may usually be worn with more layers under or over it than others, which may affect the required warmth of different areas of the clothing item differently. Sweat may change the insulation properties dramatically, e.g. for cotton. Windproofness matters for whether windchill can be felt. All this needs taking into account when converting physical measurements to how the clothes feel.

Food calories are not directly related to obesity

It seems that the change in bodyweight should be a strictly increasing function of calories eaten minus calories spent. The first caveat to this claim is that calories in the food eaten do not equal the calories absorbed, which is what matters for weight gain. People differ in the efficiency of their digestion – that is what bariatric surgery relies on. Also, food labels use calories measured by the burn method (dry the food, burn it, measure the heat output), which ignores for example that coarsely chewed food chunks pass through the digestive tract relatively unchanged, thus contribute few nutrients to the organism. An extreme example is wholegrain flax (linseeds) that remain undigested due to a waxy coating. In nature, seed dispersal by birds relies on the indigestibility of the seeds.

Even if calories absorbed could be accurately measured, the type of food eaten would still matter for weight gain due to imperfect willpower. Some foods are more addictive than others, notably those rich in refined carbohydrates – an easy example is drinks that are essentially sugar-water. Consuming a given amount of calories from high-glycaemic-load sucrose makes people eat more sooner on average than ingesting the same calories from slowly digested whole grains or unsaturated fat. Similarly, ignoring willpower limitations is why abstinence-based programs to prevent sexually transmitted infections, which naively might be expected to be 100% effective, are in fact ineffective (Underhill et al 2007, doi:10.1136/bmj.39245.446586.BE).

There are various tricks to circumvent limited willpower to win the game against one’s future tempted self. To reduce temptation, food should be out of sight outside mealtimes (in cupboards, drawers, fridge) and unhealthy snacks should not be bought at all. Even seeing dishes and cutlery may trigger cravings, in which case these too should be placed out of sight when not in use.

Avoiding grocery shopping while hungry is an old piece of advice, which may be taken further by having someone else buy your food. Two people can even agree to grocery-shop for each other according to shopping lists exchanged beforehand. Online ordering may be a solution, but of course the merchants want customers to buy more, so advertise tempting foods with photos on their website. These ads can be blocked with some effort. A more sophisticated solution is to have one’s own user interface (front end) interact with the merchant’s website – scrape the data on inventory and prices, send commands to buy.

Chair material should be breathable

Strangely enough, fancy office chairs are often upholstered in leather or other non-breathable material. After an hour or so, sitting in them gets uncomfortable because the moisture does not evaporate from the skin that is separated from the chair only by some cloth. However, people usually sit in office chairs for hours at a time, and I doubt that the chairs are designed to deliberately provide some discomfort to encourage users to occasionally stand up for health reasons. Especially in a hot climate when the air conditioning may break down or just be too weak, a breathable chair would make much more sense. Making a mesh chair is simple: stretch a breathable fabric on the chair frame. The small holes in the fabric let moisture evaporate from the surface. A mesh chair is probably cheaper to manufacture than a leather-upholstered one.

A reason for using leather may be to signal wealth by using a material associated with expensiveness.

Modern synthetic meshes are as durable as leather for practical purposes, because sitting in a chair is not a high-wear use.

Slippery sidewalk paving

In Singapore, the streets are well planned and maintained, smooth and clean like everything else. However, the sidewalks have one illogical aspect: the pavement is smooth stone, which gets very slippery when wet. Singapore is tropical and humid, with frequent rain. When initially paving the sidewalks, it would be easy and probably cheaper to use rougher covering (asphalt for example) that would not get slippery in the rain. After the smooth pavement has been laid down, changing it is of course costly, and if the locals have adjusted to the slipperiness, then switching the sidewalk cover may not be worth it.

The University of Queensland has a similar problem with the sidewalk in front of its main building. The sidewalk is coarse, like yellow asphalt with 1 cm stones in it instead of sand. One would expect such a coarse surface to provide good grip in all conditions, but unfortunately the looks are deceiving. When that sidewalk gets wet, it becomes slippery like polished glass. Again, it would be cheaper and more practical to pave that sidewalk with asphalt.

A broader point generalising the above observations is that things should be field-tested in realistic conditions before putting them to widespread use. For example, the sidewalk stones should be walked and biked on under all local weather conditions before paving a street with them.

Perhaps the smooth stones in Singapore are meant to make street cleaning easier. Still, there are materials that do not become slippery when wet and are smooth enough for mechanised cleaning and cheap enough to use as pavement.

Ventilation switch that detects odours

Many homes in the US have a switch to turn on the ventilation in a toilet or bathroom. Also, all kitchen range hoods and laboratory fume hoods I have seen must be manually switched on and off. Of course the ventilation could be run continuously, but this would be noisy, waste electricity and remove warm air (or cool air-conditioned air in hot weather) from the building. For toilets, bathrooms and kitchens, the main reason to ventilate the room is only temporary – removing odour or humidity.

An untapped business opportunity is to produce a switch that detects odours or humidity and turns on the ventilation just long enough to remove these. Humidity detection is easiest – just connect a hygrometer to the switch. Detecting smelly gases such as grease vapour in the kitchen, hydrogen sulfide, methanethiol and dimethyl sulfide in the toilet may require spectrometry or a chemical reaction. Laboratory gases are probably the most difficult to automatically detect due to their variety.

Lifting weights a smaller distance may be more intense exercise

Somewhat counterintuitively, moving a part of the body a greater distance may be easier in some cases. For example, lying on your back and lifting straight legs off the floor, the muscles work harder when the legs are close to the floor than when they are close to vertical. Leg lifts lying on your back are easier when their amplitude is larger (90 degrees as opposed to 45 degrees off the ground).

In many exercises, lifting the limb to an easier position gives the muscles a rest, making the workout less intense (calories burned per unit of time) overall. Examples are biceps curls until the forearm is vertical, straight arm raises all the way overhead, deadlifts to a straight or even backward tilting posture, as opposed to stopping partway through. Slower movement may make an exercise more intense by spending more time in an effortful position, e.g. slow push-ups or squats.

Lifting a longer distance may also make an exercise easier by giving a greater opportunity to swing the limb and use inertia, which is usually bad technique. For example, standing leg lifts to the front take less effort when the leg starts from behind the body and is already moving when passing vertical, compared to starting from holding the leg slightly to the front of the body.

Saving ventilation cost by using the wind

Most large modern buildings have active ventilation built in, meaning that electric fans drive the air through the building. The airflow direction is usually fixed at construction time. However, if the wind happens to blow from the opposite direction to the ventilation flow, then the fans require extra energy to counter the wind. On the other hand, if the wind agrees with the airflow in the building, then the fans may not need to be run at all. To save electricity, a building could have a wind direction sensor (a weather vane) on the roof connected to a switch that reverses the ventilation fans, so that the fans always pump air in approximately the same direction as the wind. If the wind is strong enough, a wind speed sensor (a small windmill or windsock) on the roof could stop the ventilation fans altogether.
The tradeoff for this adaptive ventilation system is the initial fixed construction cost and the ongoing maintenance of the weather vane, windsock and controller of the fans. All the extra components of the system (relative to the current unidirectional ventilation) are cheap and robust, so the both the fixed cost and the maintenance should be negligible.
Current ventilation systems have differently shaped air inlets and outlets in the rooms, which suggests that the system requires a particular airflow direction. In this case, adaptive ventilation may be much more expensive than the current ones, because the ventilation shafts and air vents need to be doubled. To avoid the need to build twice as many shafts and vents, have just the air inlets and outlets of the whole building switch roles with the wind direction. The rest of the system can remain unidirectional when the valves from the building’s inlet and outlet to the rest of the system switch appropriately. The air inside the building can then move in the opposite direction of the wind some of the time. In this case, the electricity saving is only realised if the building is sufficiently airtight, which is the case for modern highrises that have unopenable windows. If the air is allowed to move through the building independently of the ventilation and the wind is opposite the airflow in the system, then the fans have to overcome the air pressure difference like in the current systems. This wastes electricity.

When to open windows to cool or warm a building

My uninsulated apartment building went from too cold to too hot in about a week, which is normal in Canberra. People have started to open the windows in the stairwell in addition to their apartment windows. The timing of the opening seems a bit misguided – people open the windows in the morning. During daytime, the air outside is warmer than the air inside the stairwell, but during the night the outside air is colder. To state the obvious: to cool down the building, open the windows for the night and close them for the day. Currently the opposite seems to happen, although I counter this trend by closing the windows in the morning when I notice them open.
In general, if you want the building cooler and the outside air is colder than the inside, then open the windows, but if the outside is warmer, then close them. If you want the building warmer and the outside air is colder than the inside, then close the windows, but if the outside is warmer, then open them. This could easily be automated with temperature sensors outside and inside the building connected to a thermostat and small electric motors opening and closing the windows. Such a system would save some of the heating and cooling costs of the building.
There may be non-temperature reasons to open and close the windows, for example to let smell out of the stairwell or to keep insects from coming in. The second reason is not relevant for my building, because all windows have bugscreens and the exterior doors have a gap an inch wide under them, which the insects can easily use to get in.