Sustainability Topics: LEED Certification

Companies looking for ways to show they are being more sustainable often turn to certifications for their buildings. Buildings use up a lot of energy, during the construction phase and especially during daily use, so being able to show that companies are using less energy and are thinking about sustainability is a big deal. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be describing some of these certification programs in more detail, starting with LEED:


LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) is a certification program for all building projects, not just new construction. It is overseen by the US Green Building Council (USGBC). Projects satisfy prerequisites for their type, and earn points within the program to achieve different certification levels.

Depending on the project type, five different rating systems can be used: Building Design and Construction, for new construction or major renovation; Interior Design and Construction, for interior renovation; Operations and Maintenance, for existing buildings undergoing improvement work with little or no construction; Neighborhood Development, for land development projects involving multiple buildings; or Homes, for single or multi-family, low- to mid-rise homes. The points available for a project depend on the rating system being used.

There are different credit categories in which projects can pursue different types of credits to earn points. Categories include Location and Transportation, Water Efficiency, Sustainable Sites, and Innovation. The categories have prerequisites that must be satisfied, and then more points can be earned on top of the baseline.

The number of points a project earns determines its certification level: 40 points is enough for basic certification. LEED Silver, Gold, and Platinum require 50, 60, and 80 points, respectively.

People can also be LEED certified, by taking the LEED credential exams. This shows you have expertise in the area of certification. The first level is Green Associate; after that, you can take LEED AP and specialize in a specific project type.


So, at the start this looks like a great program. It’s easy to follow and see how many points you’re earning, the prices are reasonable for obtaining certification, and the program is very popular – in Washington D.C., all new public buildings must achieve LEED certification. However, it is not without controversy. Critics say the system is too easy to manipulate, by earning easy points and not making actual substantive change. In addition, there’s no requirement for energy use models to line up with actual usage, and there is some debate about whether LEED buildings actually use less energy than similar non-LEED buildings. Also, there is little emphasis on using the building sustainably: having lights that turn off automatically when no one is in the building doesn’t help if people stay there working through the night. Finally, the USGBC has no way to take certification away if the project doesn’t live up to its models. Once a building has been certified, it is always certified, even if it’s using more energy than it should be.

LEED was the first green building design program to become really popular, though that doesn’t mean it should stay popular if there are better programs. I’ll be exploring some of these alternatives over the next few weeks. It is important that LEED paved the way for green building design to become a standard in the industry, and we should be looking for ways to improve these programs to enforce better standards for construction.


Let me know what you think – is LEED still a helpful program? What’s your favorite standard for green design?


  • H





New Word Wednesday: ravel vs unravel

Happy Wednesday! Here are your new words for the week:


ravel verb

  • untangle something

I finally finished raveling this yarn.

  • confuse or complicate (a question or situation)

I don’t want him to help. He’ll only ravel things further.

  • unravel; fray
    (as adjective ravelleda shirt with a raveled hem


unravel verb

  • undo (twisted, knitted, or woven threads)

If you pull that thread, it will unravel the whole sweater.

  • investigate and solve or explain (something complicated or puzzling)

They attempted to unravel the timeline of the evening.

  • become undone
    Part of the hem had unraveled.
    All his work setting up the event quickly unraveled.


Right. Well that couldn’t be much more confusing. Let’s try to unravel this situation!

  1. When you’re talking about an object, you first have to ravel the tangled yarn, then you can knit the sweater, being careful not to unravel the whole thing.

  2. When you’re talking about a complicated situation, raveling will make it worse, while unraveling will solve it.

  3. If you’re talking about a shirt hem or other piece of fabric, the two words pretty much mean the same thing. Either way, it’s frayed.

So how can these two words mean both the same and opposite things? The words came from the Dutch ravelen “to tangle, fray”, rafelen “to unweave”, and from rafel “frayed thread”. The word has roots in weaving and sewing: as threads become unwoven from the final product, they get tangled. So you can unravel a sweater and get a tangled ball of yarn, which you would then have to ravel.

The many languages English has borrowed from can make unraveling word origins a confusing exercise!


Enjoy your new words!





Blood Types

I can always remember my blood type, for a very silly reason: I’m A+, and in school that’s the grade I always aimed for. Today, I want to learn about what all these labels mean – what makes our blood different?


At core, everyone’s red blood cells are the same. What is different is the molecules attached to the surface of these blood cells: antigens and proteins. A person can have either A- or B-type antigens, or both, and which type a person has is determined by genetics. A certain gene can code for production of type A, type B, or no antigens. And, since a person has two copies of the gene (one received from each parent), they could have one copy coding for type A and the other copy coding for type B. This is what determines your blood type, as shown in this picture:

blood type inheritance

So, my red blood cells have type A antigens. This means the genes I got from my parents coded for A and A, or A and O.

The + or – next to a person’s blood type is determined by the presence or absence of the Rh protein on the red blood cells. A “+” means the person does have that protein, while a “-” means they do not. So, I am type A+: I have the type A antigen and the Rh protein on my cells.


This gets tricky when we talk about donating and receiving blood. A person will have antibodies in their plasma determined by whichever antigens are not on their cells. The antibodies are designed to detect and attack any foreign molecules that may have entered the body from outside: for example, blood with different antigens on it. I can accept blood from someone with type A antigens and Rh proteins, but not from someone who has type B antigens: my body would detect it and start an immune response.

So, someone with blood type AB+ can accept blood from anyone: they don’t have any of those antibodies in their plasma, so their body will recognize any blood as their own. They can only give blood to other AB+ people, though. On the other hand, someone with blood type O- can give blood to anyone, because their blood has none of the antigens or proteins that could trigger an immune response. They can only accept blood from other O- people, though, since their own plasma contains every relevant antibody. The chart below shows who can donate to and receive from whom:



So, it’s simpler than it looks. Two different antigens, and one protein, can code for eight different blood types. In the US, type O is the most common, while AB is the least common.

This gets me all excited about genetics again! My favorite part of that class was charting inheritance across generations. There’s something very satisfying about figuring out the likelihood of the different combinations…

So, what’s your blood type?

– Hannah




I’ve been working for various large corporations since 2009. Fairly early on, I noticed the tendency for corporate employees to use (often mangled) cliched or downright nonsensical phrases in their meetings. I heard so many that I started collecting them, and called them “corporatisms”. The list has become quite long over the years…here is the current version. I didn’t include acronyms, though…then my list would become a book!

Keep on keepin’ on
Kick the can down the road
Deep dive
Low hanging fruit
The well’s not dry
Kid in a candy store
Rob Peter to pay Paul
On board
Touch base
“there’s been a lot going on and a lot happening”
Action items
It is what it is
“SOP Development SOP” (the Standard Operating Procedure for developing Standard Operating Procedures)
“The big fish on the line”
Do what we say, say what we do
Get the right parties around the table
We have two plans: we have a plan A, and a plan B in this scenario.
Keep pushing
Dead in the water
Turn a blind eye
Feet to the fire
Heads up
Out the door
Breathing room
Winging it
Correct me if I’m wrong
Pieces and parts
This project is a go
Jump on it
Carve out some time
Out the door
Business as usual
Head above water
Let’s discuss this offline
Paint us into a corner
Table it
Shelve it
Sidebar that question
Escalate it
Correct me if I’m wrong
Buy off
“once we consense” (as in consensus), also “we’ve consensed”
Get it off top dead center (ah, car people)
Task force
When we were trying to skin the cat
Water over the dam
The target is still the target
Another feather in the cap (used as “straw that broke the camel’s back”)
Just to compare things apples to apples and side by side
It’s 9 of one, 6 or half dozen of another
No skin off our neck
Stab yourself in the foot
Cross the I, dot the t
“Root cause” used as a verb
The juice isn’t worth the squeeze
They want the fig leaf


Heard any good corporatisms lately?


  • H

New Word Wednesday: müde, and mnemonics!

Happy Wednesday! Here’s your new word for the week, along with some language learning tips:


müde adjective, German

  • tired, weary


Since German is the first language I’ve started to learn from scratch since middle school, I’ve been figuring out the techniques that work best for me for language learning. One method that works really well is coming up with mnemonics for new words. A mnemonic is a pattern, story, or other aid to help in learning something: for example, ROYGBIV for the colors of the rainbow. Often these are very individualized: what works well for one person might be totally useless for someone else.

In this case, I use mnemonics to help remember words. For müde, it sounds similar to “moody”, and when I’m tired, I get moody. Easy enough, I can remember that! So when I need the word for “tired”, I can remember being “moody” and get to the German word. Similarly, if I see müde, I remember that it sounds like “moody” and know it means “tired”.

Of course, it’s easy enough with a word like this. For others, like “unterschiedlich” (“different”), it gets a bit more tricky! Some mnemonics involve making up longer stories that can bring the word to mind. I saw a mnemonic someone had created for unterschiedlich which involved a picture of a woman holding a man’s arm up and licking his armpit. The caption said “under she’d lick…that’s different”. Oddly enough, it worked really well and I haven’t forgotten that word! Usually the more bizarre and unique you can make your mnemonics, the easier they are to remember.

Making mnemonics is definitely a skill that takes practice. The more you do it, the more quickly you can come up with a memory aid. At first it can take several minutes per word, but the benefits quickly get realized in quicker recall and longer retention than through rote memorization. It’s well worth the extra effort!


So, enjoy your new word and have fun learning lots of new ones!


  • H



Cooking Adventures: Chili

Usually when I cook, I make big portions. This leaves plenty for leftovers for the next few days, which means I don’t have to cook every day. With my schedule, that’s really important – if I had to cook every day, I’d either spend all my time doing that, or I would be eating fast food a lot more often…

One of my favorite recipes is chili. It’s a big recipe, and very tasty, and it reheats well in the microwave. Here it is:



Brown 2 lb ground beef and add to the pot (you’ll need a big one – I usually use a soup pot).

While the ground beef is cooking, chop up a medium onion and 2 cloves of garlic (or really, as little or as much garlic as you want. I’m biased. I really like garlic) and add to the pot.

Add 1 pint (or one can) of beef broth, one can of stewed tomatoes, and one can of pinto beans to the pot.

Add 1 hot pepper and bring to a boil. When the boil starts, add 1 tbsp chili powder.

Cover pot, reduce heat to simmer for 1 hour. Remove the pepper and crush the juice into the pot.

2 1/2 tbsp chili powder
2 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp white pepper
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 cube beef bouillon
1/2 cube chicken bouillon
1/2 tsp brown sugar

Continue simmering with lid on for 30 minutes.

2 tsp chili powder
1 tsp cumin
Salt to taste

Simmer covered for 15 minutes more, then serve.


This is my favorite recipe. I pulled it from a website many years ago and have been making little modifications since then (the original used garlic and onion powder, and no beans). I’m one of those people who is completely happy eating the same meal several days in a row, so I’ll gladly make a pot of this and feed myself all week.

¡Buen provecho!

  • H


Source: well I got it from a site called, but it seems that domain has expired in the past, oh, 6 years. Good thing I kept a printout!

Engineering topics: Position, Velocity, Acceleration

I got my bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, and graduated in 2011. Since then, I haven’t had the chance to do much actual engineering (an odd side effect of having “engineering” positions is that they don’t involve using any of the technical knowledge I gained in school!), but I still enjoy learning and talking about the topic. One of my favorite classes in engineering was phyics – specifically, calculus-based physics of mechanics and motion. It always made a lot of sense to me, intuitively, and I had fun tutoring my classmates in these topics as well. I rather miss the teaching part of being in school, actually: I found it helped me learn the subjects a lot more thoroughly as well.

One of the first concepts we learn about in physics is the idea of position, velocity, and acceleration. Here are the basics:


Position – where an object is with respect to time: x(t). “t” is time, “x” is position. When using this notation, you need to set a point in space as position “0”, your start point. It doesn’t actually matter where you set this point, as long as you stay consistent throughout the calculation. For example, here’s a graph of the position of an object thrown straight up in the air. It goes up, achieves a maximum height, then falls back down. In this case it’s only traveling vertically, so we can use one graph for position since its horizontal position doesn’t change.


Velocity – not quite an object’s speed! Speed and velocity are two different terms, scientifically speaking. Speed denotes how quickly an object’s position is changing with respect to time, while velocity denotes both the object’s speed and its direction. So, velocity can be negative. As with position, denoting velocity as v(t) requires you to set one direction as positive and the other direction as negative. We’re assuming the object is traveling in one dimension here – in this case, the object is going either straight up or straight down. So, we can set “up” as positive velocity, and “down” as negative velocity. Here’s the graph of the thrown object’s velocity as it is thrown. Notice that while the graph of position formed a curved line heading up and down, this graph forms two straight lines.


This is because velocity is the derivative, or slope, of position. Looking at the graph of position, one can see that the slope of the curve starts out high, then decreases to zero as the object hits its maximum height, then starts increasing again as the object falls, but now it’s a negative number. It’s a straight line from a positive number to the equivalent negative number. Velocity can be found directly from position.

Acceleration – how quickly an object’s velocity is changing over time: a(t). It’s the force that pushes you back in your seat in a fast car: the faster a car accelerates, the more quickly its speed can go from 0 to 60 mph. Positive acceleration means an object’s velocity is increasing, while negative acceleration means its velocity is decreasing. Notice that velocity can decrease and go negative! In the case of the object thrown straight up, this means the object is heading downward and speeding up. Here’s the graph of the object’s acceleration with respect to time:


Here’s something interesting. Again, acceleration is found as the slope of velocity. Since the graph of velocity was a straight line, its slope is actually constant: -9.8 m/s², the acceleration due to gravity. When the object is thrown, gravity is the only force acting on it, constantly pulling it back to earth. So as it travels upward, it slows down, stops briefly at the top of its arc, and then speeds up as it heads back down again.


These are the basics of motion in physics. The topic can be made more complicated: continuing to take the slope of acceleration can give a term known as jerk, which is how quickly acceleration is changing. In the case of the thrown object, acceleration isn’t changing, so jerk would be 0. The term can be used in other situations, such as when measuring discomfort to passengers in a vehicle. High jerk causes discomfort, so this measurement can be tracked and limited.

After that it gets a bit weird. Proposed measurements for measuring subsequent slopes have been called snap (rate of change of jerk), crackle (rate of change of snap), and pop (rate of change of crackle)! These aren’t widely accepted measurements, however, and examples like this show that every once in a while scientists do actually exhibit a sense of humor…

So, am I alone in having a favorite physics topic? Feel free to send suggestions on what to talk about!


  • H



New Word Wednesday: über

Happy Wednesday! Here’s your new word for the week:


über preposition, German

  • about, over, via, above, across, beyond, up above. Indicating a state or action involving increased elevation or quantity in the physical sense, or superiority or excess in the abstract

Examples: überdacht, roof-covered, roofed (“dach” means “roof”)
über 100 Meter, more than 100 meters


über prefix, English

  • denoting an outstanding or supreme example of a particular kind of person or thing. Or, to a great or extreme degree.

Example: that guy is übercool


Interesting side note: the national anthem of Germany, the Deutschlandlied, originally had several more stanzas. Since World War II the first stanza, which begins “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, Über alles in der Welt” (Germany, Germany above all, above all in the world) has had a poor reputation, and a meaning applied to it quite different from the one the composer originally meant for it to have. The lyrics were written in 1841, to a tune written by Haydn, by the poet August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben. It was not meant to imply that Germany was the greatest country in the world; indeed, at the time the song was written, “Germany” did not exist as the unified country we know, but as a number of German-speaking states each ruled by a monarch. Hoffmann wanted to emphasize to those monarchs the importance of having a unified German nation, even above their desire for individual independence.


Enjoy your new word!





Lifelong Learning Sources

I graduated college in fall of 2011, but I haven’t stopped learning since then. Since that point, I’ve: gained fluency in one language and am well on my way to a second; learned to sword fight; continued improving my skills in Excel and VBA; learned how to sharpen a knife; learned to tie a lot of useful knots; learned how to make sauerkraut, cheesecake, Thai chicken soup, and pulled pork; and many more skills. That’s the point of this blog, after all: to highlight all the interesting things I learn and share them.

Some of these topics I learned about on my own, through self-study. Others were taught to me by peers with subject matter expertise. But one huge area of learning that I’ve only recently started exploring is MOOCs: massive open online courses. These are websites such as Coursera or EdX which offer free, university-style courses online on just about any topic imaginable: I’ve seen offerings in the field of languages, computer science, business, engineering, history, sustainability, law, and lots of others.

These courses are (usually) not offered for college credit, but instead present you with a certificate of accomplishment. I recently completed a course through Coursera on systems engineering, offered through the University of New South Wales. It consisted of a series of video lectures, accompanied by weekly quizzes and homework assignments, a midterm exam, and a final exam. Students were free to participate to the level they wanted, with discussion forums and more involved assignments available to those who were interested. For me, it was nice to feel like I was back in school again, because I miss it quite a bit (though I’ll admit, nostalgia makes it easier to forget all the late nights and stressful exams!). This way, I can continue my career and still get a chance to learn new things.

MOOCs are available through lots of different sources. So far the only one I’ve tried personally has been Coursera, but MOOC List points to lots of sites. Others I’ve heard good things about include CodeAcademy, MIT, and Stanford.

I may go back at some point for a formal degree program, but for now I’m happy getting my continuing education from alternarive sources. There’s so much to learn, I’ve no fear of running out of things to keep me busy…

So, discuss! See any courses you’re interested in? One of the great things about MOOCs is the emphasis on community participation, despite geographical limitations. So go out and learn something new!

  • H

Adventures Abroad: Olives in Spain

It’s hard to avoid olive trees in Spain. As soon as you leave the cities and get into the hills, they are everywhere: any vaguely horizontal patch of land has a tree, almost the only things on the landscape for hundreds of miles. I’m used to seeing apple orchards and corn fields like that, but knew nothing about this particular plant. Time to fix that!


The olive tree, Olea europaea, is an evergreen tree native to the Mediterranean, Asia, and Africa. It is an ancient plant: it’s been cultivated for at least 5000-6000 years, first in Syria, Israel, and Crete. In addition, the trees themselves live for centuries, and some have been shown to live even 2000 years, producing fruit the whole time if they’re well cared for. They’re very vulnerable to cold, but if the tree itself is damaged, the rootstock can survive and produce new shoots, effectively regenerating itself.

Olive trees like hot weather with no shade, and well-drained soil, and they don’t mind dealing with drought. It’s no surprise, then, that Spain is the world’s top producer of olives. Out of the close to 20 million tons of olives produced worldwide, almost 8 million tons are produced in Spain. The next largest producers are Italy, Greece, and Turkey. All this production takes a lot of land: in 2011 9.6 million hectares were planted with olive trees. That’s more than twice the amount of land devoted to apples or bananas; only coconut trees and oil palms take up more space.

Part of the reason olive cultivation takes up so much land is that the trees are traditionally planted very far apart – up to 30 feet away – to allow each tree to get the water it needs. Approximately 40 trees per acre can be planted this way, which means farmers need a lot of land. However, new planting systems are being tested called high-density orchard systems, which can fit between 600-700 trees in an acre. The objective of this new method is to reduce the cost of harvesting the trees, which with traditional methods can be up to half the total production cost.


Olive trees require little in the way of water or other maintenance, except for regular pruning. Proper pruning is essential to keep the trees producing fruit regularly, and to keep the height reasonable for harvesting. Since the branches need to be exposed to light in order to fruit, pruning reduces the density of the foliage, so light can filter through. Finally, olive trees bear fruit on wood grown the year before, which means they tend to produce alternating heavy and light crops. Pruning can help even out the variation in crop sizes.

Pruning is a big deal amongst olive growers – one might think they were talking about the creation of bonsai. For example, one farmer muses:

The production of olive oil is a mystery. Unlike vines where teams of pickers or large machines bring in the vintage, the picking of olives is an inconspicuous operation. Pruning is the same. Vines are transformed from a tangled mass of twigs to neat pared rows of almost identical vines. One rarely sees the olive pruner at work. Perhaps there is a ladder propped against a tree and one sees some prunings on the ground before they are burnt or mulched. It would be a mistake to be fooled into believing that this is a nighttime operation carried out by elves. In fact the classic olive grove is the result of care and attention over many years. The olive trees in Umbria and Tuscany are not by any stretch of the imagination a natural landscape. The untended olive is an untidy bush and it is only through pruning that it has form. Source

Various methods exist to tell you how much to prune. Folklore states that the tree should be open enough for a bird to fly through it, though that isn’t a very precise measurement. On the other hand, apparently scientists have studied this too, and state that the optimal density is such that the leaf area index should be three or four. Leaf area index is the ratio of the area of the leaves on the tree, compared to the area of ground covered by the tree. Again, this isn’t very practical advice, and if you spend all your time counting leaves, you’ll never get your trees pruned. Perhaps it is best to learn from the experts.


Olives are harvested in autumn or winter, depending on the desired end product. Green olives come from fruits harvested early in their ripening period, before they have matured. Black olives are harvested later, after they have matured and the fruit has oxidized and darkened. To harvest the fruit, the boughs of the trees – or the whole tree – can be shaken. However, olives harvested this way result in poor quality oil, and can’t be used as table olives at all, since the fruit is damaged when it hits the ground. Nets can be wrapped around the trunk and opened up to form a catcher for the falling fruit, cushioning it as it lands. Or, in areas where the terrain is too mountainous for machines, the harvest has to be performed by hand, which presumably requires farmers to recruit the entire population of nearby towns to help…


After the fruit is harvested, it has to be processed quickly to prevent it spoiling. Almost all olives are very bitter when fresh, and they have to be cured and fermented before they can be eaten. This process removes oleuropein and other phenolic compounds from the olive and makes them edible (and tasty!). Green olives are first soaked in lye to remove the bitter taste, then washed and lactic acid fermented in brine. Black olives are immediately packed in brine. Some modern methods only use lye to cure the olives, and the process only takes a few days, whereas brine fermentation takes several months. The benefit of the lactic acid fermentation, which uses the natural microflora on the fruit, is that lactic acid is a natural preservative. It lowers the pH of the olives to make the final product more stable against microbe growth and enabling the olives to be stored without refrigeration. Oilves produced by other methods need to be acid-corrected to make them shelf stable.


Making olive oil does not require fermentation: the olives are washed and ground to a paste, with the pits still inside. Next the paste is stirred slowly in a warmed tank, to combine the oil droplets into larger drops. Next, the solids and fruit water are separated from the fruit oil. The traditional method involved squeezing the mass through stacks of grass mats, while modern methods use centrifuges. Finally, the liquid is kept in a settling tank to allow the oil and water to separate, and the oil is bottled. The longevity of the oil depends on the polyphenol (antioxidant) content. The earlier the harvest, the higher the polyphenol content. On the other hand, an early harvest means a lower yield of oil, so there is a tradeoff to be made.


There’s a lot of history behind this delicious fruit (side note: intelligence is knowing an olive is a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad)! It was impossible to avoid olives when we were wandering around Spain – several times we ordered them on accident! I’m happy to know more about where they come from. So: did I miss anything? What else would you like to know about olives? Do tell!


  • H


P.S. Fun fact! The Spanish word for olive oil (aceite) came from the Arabic al-zat, or “olive juice”.