Nerd Nite: Water Talks

IMG_4078_2If you stop to think about it, its pretty amazing that you can walk over to a tap, turn the handle and fill a glass with drinking water.

Although sitting through a series of talks about water might not be everyone’s idea of a good time, water, particularly clean water is something we all need to survive, and it is something that I have been interested in for a while now.   So, my curiosity was naturally piqued at the extremely fortuitous scheduling of two Nerd Nite talks about water.  Co-hosted with the MIT Water Club the talks focused on two problems, water desalination and clay pot water filters as an in home water treatment solution.

The first speaker, Leo Banchik opened his talk, “Membrane Desalination: Past, Present, and Future,” with a question, “How much of the Colorado River reaches Mexico?” Alarmingly the answer was none.

Part of the show, a slide showing the smallest to largest things that are filtered out. (left to right)

Although it is not just physical scarcity that dictates whether or not a community has access to clean water Banchik explained that the people living in that area have a hard time getting enough water, particularly during the devastating drought that was happening at the time.

This left us to ponder, what would be a good way to provide people with more water in an area that is already water scarce? Desalination, which has been around for decades, is one option and it is already used effectively in countries all over the world.

“Desalination in part is a separation process,” Banchik said,  “You are basically just separating two things from each other. In this case, salt from water… the two conventional feeds for desalination, the ones you will find most often in the world, are either sea water or brackish water, which is river or ground water”

Considering how many times we’re told not to drink salt water it does seem counterintuitive to try and drink it.  But, not I guess, if it’s been through a desalination process.

All of his “slides” were very descriptive

Banchik explained that desalination happens when the water is put through reverse osmosis which, “involves pushing salty water from one side of a semi-permeable screen to a more diluted side and extracting the salt,” he said. “If you wanted to make this very very salty stream loose it’s water into a dilute side, what we have to do is just push on it… That’s what the piston is for.  We push water from the concentrate side into the dilute side.”

Banchik explained that although reverse osmosis is the best option for desalination and can help provide large quantities of drinkable water, there is a flaw.  Unfortunately, because it requires a lot of energy to power the reverse osmosis process, it is very effective but also very expensive to use.

As he brought his talk to an end he went on to explain more details about reverse osmosis plants and how they work.  His talk included diagrams and questions shouted out from the inquisitive audience, and he even went on to talk about the future of desalination systems and how improvements in technology can affect the efficiency of the process.

Although there are certainly other options for purification Banchik explained that desalination is the best with it’s major obstacle being the operation cost.

While the first talk leaned towards large scale solutions for water treatment the second talk, “Ceramic Water Filter Design for Developing Countries” by Amelia Servi took a more localized approach.

Water treatment in rural areas, is a particularly difficult problem to solve.  Servi explained that there are different factors that can affect whether or not water can be brought water in.  Piping water in can be difficult and expensive, boreholes and wells can be contaminated, and the ground can be hard to dig in.  This leaves in home treatment as the solution.  “Household water treatment is when you get whatever water into your household…,” Servi said, “then you have some type of treatment option in your household that you can use to treat it.”

With only two main ingredients, clay powder and rice husks, ceramic pot filters sounded pretty simple.  “It [the ceramic pot] sits inside a container and then you put water into the pot and it flows through the walls of the filter into the bottom of the container,” Servi said, “…this filter removes dirt, protozoa and bacteria, but it doesn’t remove viruses heavy metals, or salts…”

As with many things that seem simple, looks can be deceiving. ” Normal ceramic, when you fire it the ceramic sets and you get a pot.  But when you have rice husk mixed in, the rice husk combusts so you get little holes in the ceramic where the rice husk used to be,” Servi said. “So this is a very very inexpensive way of making porous ceramic that then can be used for water filtration… the only last step is to paint it with silver, and you might be thinking silver is a very expensive element, it is… but in very small quantities it’s a great biocide and it can add an extra level of protection against biological contaminants.”

There is a surprisingly large number of variables to understand for such a simple mechanism.

Invented in 1981 Ceramic Pot Filters have been around for a while.  “There’s an NGO called Potters for Peace which got real into them in 1998. and started promoting them all around the world,” said Servi,”…and it’s an open source design which means that anyone can start up a factory.”

Filters can range in size and composition depending on where they’re made and what is available to add to the clay mixture, which can change from day to day.  Servi explained that this can make consistency in filter production and therefore water output a problem.  She explained the areas of study focus on things like performance in the field, manufacturing variables and the internal structure of the filters themselves. This in turn helps them understand product appeal and how changes in design and materials can affect performance.

The talks were thought provoking and informative, and it was interesting to hear about two things that are being worked on to improve access to clean water in areas that don’t have it.  As the evening came to a close, I had more questions than answers.  Eventually, curiosity led me to the WHO website and the UN Water website both which had been mentioned in the talk as good resources.

Lack of access to clean water is probably one of the biggest problems facing the world today.  But, living in an area where we water our lawns and wash our cars, access, cost and quality aren’t really an issue and its easy to take it for granted.  Even if I wasn’t already kind of curious about our water situation or “poovolutions” and global post apocalyptic dystopias, it would be hard for me not to think about it.  As I continue to learn about how challenging it is to bring clean water to the areas and the people that need it, I think our complicated relationship with water, and it’s scarcity, will continue to fascinate me.


The Encyclopedia Show Somerville

The show opened with the Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library. Co-Hosts Aimee Rose Ranger and Kevin Spak joined the band on stage for an enthusiastic harmonica accompaniment.

It’s probably not all that often you get to use the words “Polio” and “poetry” in the same sentence.  Depending on who you are, it’s probably equally as infrequent that you get to go to a variety show.

I’ll be honest, live theatre isn’t really my “thing,” for that matter neither is poetry.  But, for whatever reason variety shows have always been a point of curiosity for me, and when I heard about The Encyclopedia Show it just sounded cool.  If that didn’t get me through the door of the Davis Square Theatre on February 10th, then the promise of a creative exploration of “Obsolete Diesases,” definitely did.

Heading into Davis Square for the February installment of The Encyclopedia Show Somerville, I really had no idea what to expect.  Most of what I knew about it came from what I read on it’s Facebook page and website, but it was still a little hard to gauge what I was in for. Continue reading

© Julia Swanson

Thank You, It’s A New Day!

Now that all the New Years celebrations are over and Four Letter Word’s sophomore year has finally come to a close.  I wanted to take a few minutes to say Thank You and share a short summary of last year.

So how did it go!?

In my opinion it went pretty well. Compared to 2012, I produced roughly the same number of posts and had a 4x the number of views.

As always Nerd Nite continued to be a source of inspiration with it’s offbeat and engaging lectures which, last year, covered everything from mosquitos to design.  In fact, some of my most popular posts in 2013 featured Nerd Nite talks such as,”Honest Sex Ed for Grown Ups,” “Gender and Nerd Culture: A Year in Review,” and one of my personal favourites “Start your own Poovolution.

But, that was just the tip of the iceberg and while Nerd Nite continued to be a source of friendship and an a wealth of ideas, one of my goals for 2013 was to branch out and try new things.

So, that is exactly what I did starting in March.  I began by writing about a growing interest in Korean dramas and streaming media in the United States.  Then in April I covered The Boston Film Project’s 10 Year Retrospective which I followed up with some coverage of the actual 48 hour film making marathon in May with “Can you Make a short Movie in 48 Hours!?

As summer rolled around it was too much to ask that I sit inside typing, so I decided to try some Nerd Nite inspired cartooning with “A Stick Figure Adventure in 10 Frames: How to create a blog Post.”  It was hard not to get caught up in the, “Post #Sharknado” Aftermath,” later in the summer. But, I still managed to make it to Boston’s South End a few times for both Martini’s and Masterpieces and the SoWa Art Market.  I even made it to Comic Con Boston, in August and stopped by one of my favourite galleries for, “Sightings: A Cryptozoology Themed Art Show,” in September.

So, what’s next!? Continue reading

Low tide. Nantasket Beach.  Hull, Ma

Mid-Winter Blahs

Now that we’re finally at the end of January and ringing in the Chinese New Year, I’m SO over winter.   Sure the snow is festive and pretty but past the holidays it does tend to drag on.  Walking around with two ton boots on, swaddled in layers and wrapped up like a burrito, or even worse stuck in doors! It’s easy to forget that summer ever happened… much less that it will happen again.  So it’s no wonder that we start to suffer from an occasional case of the mid winter Blahs, or even worse a touch of cabin fever.  While everyone is broadcasting their preferred ways to remedy this with suggestions like, take a brisk walk outside and make sure you get enough vitamins and sleep etc… With a more than a month left of winter (remember last year we had a snow storm in March) sometimes it just seems like its all for naught.  So, I’ve been thinking about the summer a lot lately and although I have been strategically omitting the parts about heatwaves it’s hard not to reminisce fondly about feeling the hot summer sun on your face as you stroll along a sandy beach.   While summer is still so cruelly far away that doesn’t mean we can’t look at pictures of Nantasket Beach to remind us of what the warmer weather will bring.


Empanada is the new Cupcake

There are few foods in this world as perfect as the Empanada.

Also known in some parts as a ‘hand pie,’ there are lots of different types of empanadas around the world.  They can be sweet or savory, baked or fried, filled with anything and made with different types of dough.   Although I have yet to eat my way around the world and try them all (one day…), I have certainly had my share.  If you’re still not sure what i’m talking about think of it like a Samosa, Calzone or an edible version of a Hot Pocket.

One of my all time favourites is the Chilean style Empanada de Pino.  Unfortunately in Boston it’s hard enough (almost impossible) to find a decent taco much less a specific type of empanada.   No matter, a few years ago I decided to try and make them for myself.  Although probably not perfect they were definitely pretty good.   While I could wax nostalgic about the food induced euphoria I experienced when I ate the lightly spiced ground beef sweetened with raisins, and topped off with an egg and olive for the first time in decades, I won’t, because this isn’t about those empanadas.  (Suffice it to say they are brought back every six months or so by popular demand.)

Since I had already “successfully” made a few types of empanadas that had gone over well, I wasn’t surprised that I was asked to make empanadas for a New Years Day party.   Since the party was Spanish themed with a focus on Tapas it was requested that I make Empanadillas de Atún, or Little Tuna Empanadas.

I found several recipes online that looked delicious but were too South American as opposed to Spanish, which is what I was looking for.  In the end I found what looked like it was going to be a great recipe for “Tuna and Green Olive Empanadas” in Food and Wine Magazine.

IMG_3714 Continue reading


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