What Is News: Science Certainly Is

June 6th, 2012 by Potato

The CBC recently ran an editorial titled “Cool science, but is it news?

I was prepared to rant and rave and dump all over it for pages and pages, but I suspect that it’s meant to manufacture controversy.

So instead I’ll just make a few rebuttal points. The big question underlying the question in the headline is what is news? I think scientific progress definitely fits most any definition of news: it can have big (or small) impacts on society, health, and business, in addition to the esoteric impact on our understanding of the universe around us. Sports on the other hand, doesn’t: locked in a continual, meaningless struggle that will be repeated anew next monday/year/whatever. I am continually baffled by professional sports in general, but at least have some inkling of the entertainment value of watching it. Reading about it the next day seems like abnormal behaviour that should maybe get looked at by a specialist — if it weren’t for the fact that so many people do it.

On the CBC’s news website, they have one screen with a varying selection of top stories, then towards the bottom 10 boxes with different categories (business, world, Canada, politics, etc). Two of those categories are different boxes for sports. Two are ostensibly science-related: technology & health, but both tend to have much less scientific stories than what is being discussed in the editorial (the latest happenings on twitter, scandals of minors doing things that may hurt them, or the tech specs of the flashiest gadget are hardly cool science). On the mobile site, fully one third of the screen space is dedicated to sports, and even then sports stories crawl into the other two panels in the default view. Science is nowhere to be found.

Science certainly isn’t being treated as news, though in my opinion it most certainly is.

Moving past that quibble, the article goes on to lament the way science stories are reported. And I have plenty of things to gripe about there. On the first day of J-school it must be drilled into journalists’ heads that they must — must! — attempt to relate science stories to some every-day impact. “This will (eventually) lead to a cure for cancer…” “Can warp drive be far behind?” “Climate doom awaits us all!” “Bacteria found in space rocks: Can invasion be far behind?” On top of that, stories have to be written for a very lay audience: often below the high-school level. So the stories don’t get to convey much, and waste a lot of column-inches on trying to catch the reader up on basic background information. Some of that should be changed, if for no other reason than Wikipedia exists. Hyperlink the big words, and accept that a certain portion of the readership will either tune out (they probably are anyway), or, after reading enough, will have managed to refresh their memories of grade 11 and caught up to a slightly higher scientific reading level.

After all, that’s the way the other sections work. The business stories just plow on through terminology like basis points, index, or leverage, and don’t even attempt to define acronyms like CEO or EBITDA. Everyone would think the sports section dull and boring if in the midst of describing something they had to break and ensure the entire audience understood, and had to lead off with a slow insertion from some random generality:

Every year thousands of Canadian youth enrol in hockey programs to get fit, make friends, and lose teeth. These programs are supported by billions of taxpayer dollars in the form of subsidies for arenas, tax credits for kids’ programs, and direct funding of government salaried referees. It may not look like an activity that would lead to preparing our kids to become productive members of society, but these kids are in it for a different reason: to gain one of the coveted spots as a ‘professional’ hockey player.

One such professional team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, played a second team composed of paid players from Ottawa, known colloquially as the “Senators” (though there is no relation to the Senate). Vladimir passed the puck — a hard black rubber disc that is the focus of the players in hockey — to Jacques, another member of the Toronto Maple Leafs team (though peculiarly enough, neither one is actually from Toronto). Jacques then skated, which is like running but on the icy surface of the hockey rink, towards the net that was defended by the goalie from the Senators. However, before he could attempt to score a goal, an unforseen result was found in the data: the referee determined that he was offside with a confidence of 95%, 19 times out of 20.

“Offside” is a state of being that makes no sense in our conventional world, but hockey experts assure us that the implications could be far-reaching, including the beginning of a whole new hockey “trial” from the face-off area. Despite this two-steps-forward, one-step-back outcome, head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs is excited about the work done so far. “I’m really pleased with the progress we’ve made on moving the black, rubber object across the slippery surface; or as we call it, ice. This really speaks to the dedication of the team, and the value our work has for society as a whole. It’s really just one piece of the puzzle, but it’s like that corner piece that really helps orient your worldview and re-define the problem. Now instead of trying to put the puck in the net, we’ll be working to make sure the Senators don’t get the puck out of the little circle.”

Opinions are conflicted as to the real-world benefits of last night’s hockey game, but there’s a sliver of hope that if this pattern continues in further games, there could be an increase in the supply of donor teeth to the local gummy homeless population.

And I’ll conclude by linking to a very good article that I didn’t find until after I had already finished my little rant. It tears apart the science journalism tropes even better: The Unwritten Rules of Journalism

Perpeptual Motion Machine

January 12th, 2012 by Potato

Another perpetual motion machine scheme has cropped up, this time stealing its name from a popular carnival ride, the gravitron. What made this one come to my attention was the fact that they are looking to hire a post-doc to run some calculations for them.

Now, I need a job, so I’m tempted to apply (though I have no desire to go to BC — perhaps I could work from home in Ontario?). If they’re going to waste their money to get someone to tell them precisely why their idea for a generator doesn’t obey the laws of physics, I suppose I’m as good a person as any to be the recipient of that money. On the other hand, perpetual motion machine pumpers tend to be flaky at best, and fraudulent at worst, so I’d have to negotiate for cash up front.

Their description of how it works is full of unit errors (using Watts for both power and energy, then comparing one to the other), and lots of dubious explanations. Rather than trying to work out where they’ve gone wrong on the physics (hey, they might hire me to do that!) let’s instead look at the economics. They say that it’s not a perpetual motion machine, because:

The Gravitron is not a perpetual motion machine, that is, it will not work indefinitely. The neodymium magnets that make up the magnet track will lose magnetic energy over time, and at some point will no longer have enough magnetic energy to lift the neodymium spherical magnets from the bottom to the top, at which point they will need to be replaced or remagnetized.

Ok, so let’s take that at face value: their not-a-perpetual-motion-physics-defying machine is just a really neat way to turn the energy in the magnetic field of a neodymium magnet into electricity. Well, obviously you can’t round-trip that or it’s again going to run into the perpetual motion problem, so the machine is going to extract less energy than it would take to re-magnetize the neodymium magnets when you’re done. The only way to work the machine then is to run it until you “drain” the neodymium magnets, throw those away, and buy brand new, fully-magnetized magnets to extract the energy from those anew. The question then becomes how much energy do you get, and how much does a replacement magnet cost?

Without spending too much time looking up the properties of neodymium and how to calculate the energy density of its magnetic field, Wikipedia provides this figure: an energy density of ~500 kJ/m3, or in electricity terms, 0.138 kWh per cubic meter of neodymium. A ballpark figure for the cost of electricity is 5 cents/kWh, so in order to be economical, they’d have to be able to source magnets at less than a penny per cubic meter. I don’t think so.

A former classmate says on facebook:

Here is some free advice to all inventors out there: if you have to include an explanation on your web site why your invention isn’t a perpetual motion machine, you’re probably trying to invent a perpetual motion machine.

When I told Wayfare I was thinking of applying, since hey, if nothing else I need to do some mock interviews to get some practice, she said: ‎”When I say you need to do a mock interview, I don’t mean an interview where you mock the interviewers.”

Not Because They Are Easy, But Because They Are Hard

May 25th, 2011 by Potato

Today is the 50th anniversary of JFK’s speech at Rice.

My favourite part of the speech — I’m sure the favourite of many — is in the title. There are many situations where those words apply, from choosing worthwhile courses over electives with easy marks, to bike routes for your daily work-out.

My second-favourite part:

We have had our failures, but so have others, even if they do not admit them.

Tater’s Takes – UBB, Copyright, and Nuclear Power

March 18th, 2011 by Potato

It’s been a tumultuous year so far, and the snow hasn’t even melted yet! The big news story has been the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, which has killed thousands of people and caused billions in dollars of damage. Oh, it also put some nuclear reactors into partial meltdown which added salt to the wounds by possibly making a few hundred more people sick, and releasing radiation into an area around the plants. But since it’s the ongoing story which will take weeks to fully play out, since people are afraid of the very word nuclear, and since fear-mongering sells papers, it’s been the headline story all week. Not that I am free of blame — I’ve re-read my radiation safety training materials and spent a lot of time brushing up on nuclear power generation this week, and have been soaking up the Fukushima stories.

While I do want to help everyone who’s going out of their minds keep perspective, I also don’t want to minimize the tragedy: the workers are being very brave while facing a terrifying situation, and are making personal sacrifices to try to minimize the damage to the rest of Japan. There have been fires, explosions, and meltdowns, leading to some radiation release (though whether the panicked mobs in Tokyo have anything to fear is an open question)…

Oh yeah, and there’s a civil war in Libya, demonstrations in Saudi Arabia, and crackdowns in Bahrain.

Joe Kelly over at Nerd Boys has a few posts on UBB up. He even tabulates the UBB fees by various ISPs.

Michael James reports that AT&T in the US has introduced UBB, which has sparked some outrage… at 1/10th the price of Canadian UBB.

Something I haven’t really drawn enough attention to is the very framework the CRTC laid out for making its decisions. They state that when congestion occurs, it should be corrected first by network infrastructure upgrades, then by economic incentives (i.e.: UBB), then by throttling and other traffic control measures. The thing is, there’s no structure to those guiding principles, leading to perverse incentives with UBB: an ISP can make more money by encouraging congestion, then charging UBB than it can by upgrading the network to stay ahead of traffic growth. Anyway, it was back in my 5-page submission if you read that, and if not, you probably want to focus on other things now.

Michael Geist, who has been debating Dan McTeague about proposed copyright reform, points out that despite calling for severe penalties for copyright infringers, Dan McTeague himself appears to fit the criteria for a repeat infringer. Zing!

Laser pulse pistol. Yes. The future is here.

On the profiteering side of the Japanese tragedy, Financial Uproar discusses investing in Tepco, which I was actually just talking about today with Netbug. I saw a lot of parallels with the BP situation there. Though there is an ADR, it trades on the pink sheets and is quite illiquid: TD Waterhouse wouldn’t let me put in a bid online, I had to call. I decided to sleep on it, but it’s now up ~20% in Tokyo tonight, so I may have missed my chance.

National Post: Language used to describe Japan’s atomic crisis borders on reckless hyperbole.

An old Scientific American article about how the emissions from coal plants are more radioactive than those from nuclear power plants. However, the mercury, particulate, and greenhouse gas emissions of the coal plants are far bigger concerns, not to mention mining issues.

And finally, I think my favourite link in the round-up: A post showing the deaths per TWh for different power generation methods. There’s lots of room to quibble about an order of magnitude here or there, but the end result is that coal is several orders of magnitude more deadly than nuclear. And coal never provided us with medical advances like radiotherapy or diagnostic nuclear medicine.

Radiological Accidents: Some History

March 16th, 2011 by Potato

There’s Chernobyl, everyone knows that one. Then a handful of other accidents involving nuclear power generation, with the most famous perhaps being Three Mile Island, though the impact of the non-Chernobyl accidents have been pretty minor.

In the early days of research, there were a fair number of accidents, especially with enriched fuel, and a bunch of military accidents.

But after Chernobyl, most of the worst civilian radiological accidents come from the medical side. As much as people rail against nuclear energy, I don’t hear a lot of people trying to ban nuclear medicine.

The biggest cause of accidents seems to be the escape of radiation sources, with the Goiania, Brazil accident being perhaps the best example. There, a medical clinic moved, and left behind a radiotherapy device. These guys came in to the abandoned, half-demolished structure, and stole the Cesium-137 source at the heart of the machine, to sell for scrap. In dismantling the source, they got a large dose of radiation, and then later did sell the core for scrap. The scrap dealer noticed this blue glow in the material, and — I kid you not — decided it was magic.

He invited his friends and family over to check it out, made jewellery and body paint out of it, and spread this stuff all over. People were putting it on their bodies to increase sexual potency, ingesting it, and selling it. It took over two weeks before it was realized that a disaster was unfolding. 4 people died, many others got sick, and something like the equivalent of 100 transport truck containers of contaminated waste were produced.

There are also a number of cases of accidental over-exposure from radiotherapy or imaging, though those seem to be more accepted as there is always some background medical mistake risk.