Monday, July 28, 2014

Music Monday: Picking on 13-Year-Old Kids For Science is Tacky

How Our Story on a Child's Science Experiment Sparked Controversy (NPR)

The story about Laura Arrington's school fair project about lionfish (an invasive species in Florida) has been making the rounds because we all love a story that can be translated into an attention-grabbing headline, and young people doing science is (fortunately!) an attention-grabber. Like these stories:

Middle schooler suggests using Garamond to save ink, money.

Which is it, CNN? $234 million or $400 million?

High schooler develops early detection test for pancreatic cancer.

Laura Arrington's study on lionfish and their salinity tolerance has sparked something of a controversy because a former colleague of one of her father's colleagues has also done research on the invasive lionfish and is bummed that it's not his name all over the headlines. Because doing science is all about getting the credit and becoming famous.

The point of a middle school science fair isn't to publish original results:* it's to teach kids the methodology of science in a self-directed, hands-on manner. I'm surprised that none of the top comments on the NPR story are making this point; rather, they're all trying to (de)legitimize Arrington's middle school science project. Um, hello? Did we all miss the part where it's a grown-ass adult coming after a freaking middle schooler? Who neither asked for nor expected this kind of media blow-up around her science fair project? Arrington even cites Jud in her sources, so it's not like she's getting away with plagiarism. Jud's complaint basically breaks down to "I wanna be interviewed by NPR, too."

It's not surprising, though, considering the climate surrounding professional science. The "publish or perish" mindset has created an obsession with publishing as much as possible (leading to the phenomenon of "least publishable units," or generating multiple papers from one study) as well as rabid defense of ownership of ideas (thanks, capitalism!). That has blinded people to the point of science: to learn about our world and to make it better. For every Elon Musk or Jonas Salk, you have a megacorporation like Monsanto that doesn't care about contributing to humanity's knowledge base or betterment. In an environment of cooperation, not competition, would Jud be so protective of his work and so intent on getting credit—even the unofficial credit of news story headline? 

*That said, there is the Journal for Emerging Investigators, with all the peer review and rigor of any respectable science journal, but targeted at "any middle school or high school student" working with  "a middle school teacher, high school teacher, or college/university professor" as senior author. It's run by graduate students at Harvard's School of Arts and Sciences. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Trek Thursday: A Piece of the Action

#61: A Piece of the Action

In case you forgot: The Enterprise is sent to do some Prime Directive damage control on a planet  where Chicagoland mob rule is the word of the day.

I feel bad hating this episode so much, because at its heart it really is just naively goofy and the costumes are a welcome change of pace. But try as I might, I just can't ignore poorly implemented parallel Earths in stories. Which is a shame, because the idea of an "action"-crazy ultra capitalist alien society could have been a great story. But making it literally Prohibition era Chicago gangsters? Nope.

Still, Fizzbit.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Music Monday: We Are Here

I lived in Korea for two years and change (in case you didn't know, now you do) and still follow a few Korea-related blogs. This is another song I picked up from Indieful ROK. I'm digging both the music and the music video.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Trek Thursday: Miri

#62: Miri

In case you forgot: The Enterprise responds to a radio distress call from an identical Earth!! A powerful disease born out of medical attempts at ultra-longevity has wiped out all of the adults and infected the children, who contract it and die upon puberty. The landing party has to find a cure in a week, or they'll die too.

The good news is that Gene Roddenberry thought this episode was crap, too. Adrian Spies never wrote for TOS again—not just because the story was weak, but apparently because he didn't really have a solid grasp of the teleplay format either.

But there is just so much still wrong in this episode: Kirk putting the moves on a confirmed underage girl (even though the actress playing her was obviously significantly older, still....eugh), the Power Trio and company being outwitted by a bunch of prepubescents, the terrible writing for the kids ("BONK! BONK!").

The kids are the worst. It's not their acting, either, even if child acting is legendary. They are just written so poorly. The episode lets us know that these "kid" are hundreds of years old, at the youngest. And yet being alive for hundreds (in some cases thousands) of years and watching friends and family succumb to the virus has not given them the kind of otherworldly "wise beyond their apparent years" aura one would expect. They are basically stuck in an awful arrested development scenario, a permanent prepubescence that has no bearing on the awful things they've endured.

The special ick in this episode is, of course, Kirk putting the moves on Miri. Not at all comfortable to watch.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Word Crimes Wednesday

Usually I like to reserve Wednesday posts for books that I'm reading, or have read, but I am in a slump right now so the only thing I've been reading about the past three days are prototypes of new cores to be used in electricity transformers. This particular paper has been a rough slog (not that I want to whine about it!), so Weird Al released this new music video at the perfect time for me.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Birthstones: Ruby (July)

The glowing ruby shall adorn,
Those who in July are born;
Then they'll be exempt and free
From love's doubts and anxiety. 

 Congratulations, July babies, your birthstone is the rarest in all the land!

Ruby is a variety of corundum, a crystalline form of aluminum oxide (illustrated above). It is one of the hardest things on Earth (9 on the Mohs scale), outdone only by diamonds and moissanite. This makes it incredibly useful industrially, in addition to the romance and respect afforded to it in the jewelry world. I mean, let's be real: who doesn't love rubies?

Corundum occurs in a variety of colors in nature, depending on mineral impurities. Ruby is the red variety (from the Latin ruber, meaning "red"), the pink-orange type is padparadscha, and anything else is known as "sapphire." Yes, this includes the sapphire, a stone we'll come to later. In my experience with gemstone names, blue is the default color for sapphire and anything else gets specified in the name ("green sapphire").

Corundum of any kind is relatively rare, as it by definition lacks silicate, one of the most common mineral varieties found in the Earth's crust. While we have some idea of how ruby formation works (magma, granite, marble, and metasomatism are involved), there's not yet a solid hypothesis regarding why marble is so ubiquitous but corundum (usually found within marble when it's found at all) is so rare.

(When I was little, I thought for a long time that "sapphire" referred to a red or yellow color, since it had "fire" right in the name. Considering that there are pink and yellow sapphires, I wasn't too far off....but maybe for the wrong reasons.)

The red in ruby comes from chromium replacing some of the aluminum, resulting in a red color.

But wait! Isn't chromium responsible for green coloring in other stones? How does that work?


No, actually: it's complicated. To say that only the replacement of one metal with another results in a color change is disingenuous. Forgive me. That metal has a relationship with the other elements in the crystal, and they both have a relationship with light.

Remember: a gemstone or a crystal doesn't inherently have any particular color. It's all about the reflection and refraction and energy absorbed/not absorbed by a stone in particular, as you might recall from the color shift in alexandrite. Chromium bonds with the silicates in beryl (aquamarine, emerald) differently than it bonds with oxides (corundum), so the light bounces differently and the colors the human eye see as a result are different. You can find a more in-depth explanation at professor Bassam Z. Shakhasiri's chemical of the week feature.

However, corundum isn't the only stone to be called a ruby when it's red-colored.

As I've written about earlier, many of the historical rubies would not be considered rubies today, but rather red spinels. Spinel is not corundum. On a chemical level, spinel looks like this:

while corundum looks like this:


Ruby, as in red corundum, has a number of industrial uses. It is sometimes used as an abrasive on metal alloys, in watches and clockwork, and in lasers. When it comes to abrasive, natural industrial-grade leftovers from the mining of gem-quality stones are used. As for time pieces and lasers, synthetic ruby is the stone of choice.

Ruby has a long and storied history in the realm of magic and occult. In Vedic astrology, ruby is associated with the Sun and thought to support one's overall health, vitality, career, wealth, and popularity. More than that, it was thought to render its wearer invulnerable and enable them to live in peace among their enemies, and to bring good fortune in all matters related to the heart. It was also thought to glow with its own inner fire, and to darken in the presence of danger. Small wonder, then, that the Sanskrit name for ruby (ratnaraj) means "king of precious stones." God created rubies first, so the story goes, and then created man to admire it.

Similar beliefs appeared in the West. The Greeks and Romans associated the stone with love, beauty, and affairs of the heart as well as with wealth and riches. By the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, ruby, with all of its associations with love and prosperity. was considered a stone for weddings and to be especially appropriate for wedding gifts.

Because it is such a luxury stone, there is a world of intrigue and misinformation surrounding the ruby. There are any number of synthetic rubies (that is to say, chemically identical but grown in a lab) out there; many of them would require an inspection by a gemologist to distinguish them from natural rubies. Personally, I'm not much of a snob about synthetic stones, since they're chemically identical, often of a higher quality, and not rife with the economic, environmental, and human rights mess that precious gemstones often are. Everyone has different preferences, though!

Besides synthetics, there are also imitation rubies: red-colored stones that are intended to look like ruby. As with other stones, the word "ruby" has gained so much prestige that other stones have acquired trade names like Balas Ruby (red spinel) or Rubellite (red tourmaline). There are even varieties of corundum that lack chromium but have been dyed red to achieve the same color.

It's always been my opinion that there is no point in natural versus synthetic or imitation snobbery; if it looks good, it looks good. Ironically enough, it is the snobbery and obsession with natural stones that leads to the fraud and deceit you see throughout the gemstones market. Don't let yourself get swindled into throwing down a lot of money for some colored glass!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Science of Amtrak Delays

Okay, so a lot of times it's just being stuck waiting for a mile-long cargo train to pass, but sometimes it's more interesting than that!

Expect Delays: Why Trains Slow Down When It's Hot

Tl;dr: train tracks used to have expansion joints and could deal better with extreme temperatures, but the railroad industry found that meant they were harder to maintain and resulted in slower, more uncomfortable rides. Railroad companies got rid of expansion joints in favor of longer sections of track, and while for the most part this had made train travel more efficient and more profitable, it means that the metal rails (prone to expanding when they're hot) do some wacky stuff now that they have no wiggle room:

Trains need to slow down to traverse this bends safely (and presumably to keep from making them worse, since more speed = more friction = more heat).

This is relevant to me because I am planning a big cross-country Amtrak ramble in June of 2015, with a large bulk of it through the Southwest. I had always assumed Amtrak delays were because of other trains using the rails (since Amtrak does not own many of the rails it uses, only the trains). I never realized there were other issues inherent with the mode of transportation itself.

This isn't making me rethink my trip, however. I've made generous allowances for delays in my plans, and I look forward to traveling the country in way I haven't really experienced before!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Birthday Post!

Happy (belated) birthday to an integral part of Kokoba Jewelry, Lawyer Mom!

In addition to answering questions on IP and trademark issues when it comes to handmade goods, Lawyer Mom has often played the role of Shipping Elf while I've been outside the States. If you've ordered anything from me in the last nine months and it's arrived safe and sound and on time, it's because Lawyer Mom has taken the time to dig through my stash, package it up, and mail it to you. 

She is getting a belated gift from me, of course, but it's never too early to start thinking about next year! Like, Lawyer Mom is pretty crafty herself and has been a life-long hooker.

"Mexican Hamsters and Margaritas" hand-dyed sock yarn by EtherealFibers
I want to say that Ethereal Fibers have great names for their products. Many of them are taken from hilarious smartphone autocorrects. They're all pretty funny (and gorgeous!), though it took me a little digging to find one that would be mom-appropriate. Perfect for any of your knitting or hooking friends who have been known to laugh at the odd dirty joke or two.

But Lawyer Mom's number one passion in life is music. I consider myself incredibly blessed to have grown up in a family that valued music and encouraged me on whatever random musical venture I wanted to do next (by the end of high school, I'd had lessons in piano, violin, clarinet, alto and bari saxophone, and trombone). Listening to my mom play the piano, whether to practice for playing in church or just for fun, made me want to play, too.

Sterling Treble Clef Ring by keoops8

(Though, of course, you should never wear rings while playing the piano.)

But it wasn't ONLY Lawyer Mom's birthday yesterday! It was also the ninth birthday of my friend Jenny's oldest boy, Will! From what Jenny says, he's already a little Minecraft-obsessed and Lego-loving protoscientist/engineer and it's obvious that he's going to make his parents SO PROUD one day. Already he is definitely very special to both of them.

Plush Minecraft Diamond Sword by AtomicPlush

Wouldn't you know but there are SO MANY Minecraft items on Etsy. Not all of them are of a particularly high level of quality. This awesome plush sword is one of the few exceptions. What 9-year-old wouldn't love it? And it's plush, so it's not like anyone will get hurt playing with it. You can even cuddle up and sleep with it!

LEGO Minifig Patent Print by StevesPosterStore

I know art is kind of an unusual choice of gift for kids, but I love the look of patent figure art. It's very much like all those lovely illustrated "How Stuff Works" books, and who doesn't love those? A great way to have an idea of what's inside your minifigs without ruining any of them. ;)

In general, I get super-excited when people I know share birthdays. I know it's hardly rational or scientific, but it feels like they have some kind of special connection (I mean, beyond both knowing me, of course). Happy (belated) birthday, Will and Lawyer Mom!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Etsy Find: Offrandes

Isn't the worst thing about dresses (and, let's be real, most women's trousers, too) the fact that they don't have pockets? I think so. We can all relate to Jennifer Lawrence in this oft-repinned image:

Okay, maybe not about being in Catching Fire. But finding pockets!
Sure, you can always carry a bag, but sometimes a bag just won't do. And until that beautiful day when they start designing dresses with pockets, you can get some gorgeous utility belts from offrandes. I saw this one in my Etsy circles feed and it stopped me dead in my scrolling/clicking tracks:

"B2B.Br" Leather Utility Hip Belt by Offrandes
I clicked through to the shop and was surprised at the variety of designs and styles of "utility hip belts" they had, and how they all managed to look so much nicer than just an awkward leather fanny pack.

"Leaf" Leather Utility Belt by Offrandes

"6.One.Ô" Leather Utility Hip Belt by Offrandes
Offrandes markets mostly to the music festival crowd, but I look at them and I think "flying convenience" too. It's like a super-secret third carry-on bag! Okay, you couldn't fit much in it, but it's always a good idea to divide up your things between your bags so that if one gets lost or stolen, you're not out so much. Plus, you don't have to stow your belt in the overhead compartment or under the seat: you can have your phone, chapstick, and maybe a pocket sudoku and pens right on hand. And credit card, if you feel compelled to order something out of SkyMall. (Does anyone ever shop from that?)

If utility belts aren't your style, offrandes also offers full-on bags:

Leather Messenger Bag by Offrandes
Offrandes is a two-person design team from France. In addition to the belts and bags in their Etsy store, they offer jewelry and apparel for men, women, and infants on their website. They've also just found a new home on my favorites list. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

What I'm Reading: Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Since Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is a Haruki Murakami novel, I thought I'd open with this image of "Murakami Bingo:"

So far I've encountered "Mysterious Woman," "Feeling of Being Followed," "Unexpected Phone Call," "Supernatural Powers," "Secret Passageway," "Cooking," and (I think) "Parallel Words." And if I could add a square, it would be: "Missing Shadows."

This isn't to denigrate Murakami's novels. I've also read Kafka on the Shore, which I enjoyed even if I didn't really understand it. I'm also enjoying Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Even if the worlds Murakami creates are utterly bizarre, he has a knack for isolating and bringing to the fore enough details to make them seem real. He has a knack for specificity. For example, this description of the elevator at the beginning:

Every last thing about this elevator was worlds apart from the cheap die-cut job in my apartment building, scarcely one notch up the evolutionary scale from a well bucket.* You'd never believe the two pieces of machinery had the same name and the same purpose. The two were pushing the outer limits conceivable as elevators. 
First of all, consider the space. This elevator was so spacious it could have served as an office. Put in a desk, add a cabinet and a locker, throw in a kitchenette, and you'd have room to spare. You might even squeeze in three camels and a mid-range palm tree while you were at it. Second, there was the cleanliness. Antiseptic as a brand-new coffin. The walls and ceiling were absolutely spotless polished stainless steel, the floor immaculately carpeted in a handsome moss-green. Third, it was dead silent. There wasn't a sound—literally not one sound—from the moment I stepped inside and the doors slid shut. Deep rivers run quiet. 
Another thing, most of the gadgets an elevator is supposed to have were missing. Where, for example, was the panel with all the buttons and switches? No floor numbers to press, no door open and door close, no emergency stop. Nothing whatsoever. All of which made me feel utterly defenseless. And it wasn't just no buttons; it was no indication of advancing floor, no posted capacity or warning, not even a manufacturer's nameplate. Forget about trying to locate an emergency exit. Here I was, sealed in. No way this elevator could have gotten fire department approval. There are norms for elevators after all.
Themes (or should I say "motifs," since I learned in English class that a theme is always and only a whole sentence rather than a single word or idea) run strong in this book, and they're present right from the beginning: noise, silence, and evolution. Murakami handles them lightly; so lightly that I had totally forgotten that they had appeared as early as the first page. Wonderland seems so far more tightly bound to this sparse collection of motifs than Kafka, though I'd have to read the latter again (a third time!) to be sure.

I'm not far enough along to comment on how these motifs add or detract to the story; so far it gives everything a sense of connectedness. The story splits between one nameless male narrator who does some kind of futuristic wetware cryptography work (something like Johnny Mnemonic) and the story of another nameless male narrator who's arrived at The Town without his memory or his shadow. The worlds have their own separate logic but there are elements that tie them together—paperclips, skulls, "the end of the world."

I've heard good things about Wonderland; many of my friends agree that this one is Murakami's best work. So far it's not disappointing, but I can only hope that I'll better understand the ending of this one than Kafka on the Shore. In any case, reading Murakami's writng is a reward unto itself; you don't need to understand the story to really appreciate it.

A shout-out also goes to the English translator, Alfred Birnbaum. Reading novels or poetry translations from a foreign language means you're never reading just the world, but a translation of the work, and they can be good or bad. Birnbaum's is great, and the shift in tone between the two narrators is as much his work as Murakami's. Perhaps this speaks to my ignorance about the business side of the book world, but as Murakami has translated books from English to Japanese, (and I think I read something about him writing in English first and then translation to Japanese), wouldn't he translate his own novel?

Little matter, though, Birnbaum has done an admirable job here.

*I'm not counting this as a dried-up well for Murakami Bingo.