terriko: (Pi)
So, I was catching up on the news from home when I saw this article on the 10 worst household products for greenwashing. As it happens, I know something about #1 here, because the landlords arranged to have a similar product used around our house and we were curious. Here's what marketplace says:

1. Raid EarthBlends Multi-bug Killer

With an insecticide derived from the chrysanthemum flower, Raid EarthBlends Multi-bug Killer touts itself as an alternative insect control solution. Despite its naturally derived component, the label warns users to avoid contact with skin and clothes, and not to inhale the mist when spraying it.

"A lot of things in nature are actually dangerous and toxic," said Vasil. "Not all natural things are good for you. And this is a perfect example."

The product states it can be used for bed bugs, despite that in many parts of Canada, homeowners are banned from using such pesticides on their lawns. "Banned from your backyard, but OK for your bed?" questioned Vasil.

In a statement, the maker, SC Johnson, said it is "committed to using sustainable ingredients in our products" and the products are "safe and effective when used as directed."

"Banned from your backyard, but OK for your bed?" DOOOOOOOOM.

If the CBC marketplace folk had done their research, they could have *easily* found out that the active ingredient here is, as promised, not known to be dangerous to mammals. It is an insecticide, so obviously it's bad for insects. But why can't it be used outside? It's also very bad for aquatic life, so the concern is that if used outside, it will get washed away in rain and end up in our waterways. This would be a Bad Thing. And that's why you're not allowed to use it in your backyard.

But unless you're Aquaman, or plan to bring your goldfish to bed, it is indeed pretty safe to use on bedding.

One website I found noted that after being fed high doses of pyrethrums for 2 years, rats were mostly fine with some minor liver damage (as one might expect for many intentional overdoses of anything). When forced to inhale the stuff for 30 minutes a day, there was some very minor lung irritation. Basically, don't try to kill yourself with it and you'll probably be fine. Heck, even if you try to kill yourself with it you'll probably be mostly fine.

This whole "banned from your backyard/ok for bed" doom and gloom implication is utterly misleading and uninformed. And this ignorance is really embarrassing: I found most of my information about Pyrethrums (the class of chemicals involved) using a couple of google searches and then confirmed with my sister who happens to be an expert in the field, but she pointed out that I can get all the same information via Health Canada's website. These should be very easy for the CBC Marketplace research team to find and read.

I don't know anything about the other products being discussed, but I'd take what they say with a pretty healthy dose of skepticism.
terriko: (Default)
From the CU-WISE newsletter:

Back by Popular Demand: Chemistry Magic Show

After having over 1,300 visitors to our Magic Show in February, the Chemistry Department is pleased to announce that they will be having another Chemistry Magic Show on Saturday, May 7.

The free, one-hour show features substances that explode at the touch of a feather, spontaneous combustion, magical spoons that disappear before your eyes, amazing colour changes, things that glow in the dark, and exciting new tricks.

Check out the hands-on activity room where you can make your own Olympic medals, create ice cream using liquid nitrogen, make your own slime and learn how your nose can tell if a molecule is left- or right-handed.

When: Saturday, May 7
Two shows: 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.
The activity room will be open from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m., noon to 2:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Shows: Theatre B, Southam Hall, Carleton University
Activity Room: The Superlab, Room 204, Steacie Building, Carleton University.

The event is free, although attendees are asked to donate a non-perishable food item for the food bank.
Registration is required as seating is limited to 300 people per show. Additional seating will be provided to watch the show via screens.
For information and tickets, please visit: http://http-server.carleton.ca/~jmanthor/Chemistry_Magic_Show.html.

If you can't make it to Carleton for the live show, you can watch it in the Ottawa area on Rogers digital cable channel 243 or online from anywhere in the world via Carleton University online at: http://www1.carleton.ca/cuol/access-your-courses/ .

I fondly remember going to chemistry magic shows as a kid. Back then they were still run by a professor my mother knew who, if I recall correctly, was known for his many yellow ties that inevitably met their end in liquid nitrogen. Lots of explosions and science. :) I highly recommend this to those of you who have kids!
terriko: (Default)
My sister is the proud owner of the complete Star Trek: The Next Generation, and we've been re-watching first season while we eat dinner/do mending/make crafts/etc. It's much better than it has any right to be, actually, with surprisingly strong performances and decent writing. Apparently that first season cost a million per episode, and we're assuming a lot of that went into the special effects budget since they were done by ILM and they can't be cheap. (Although sadly, some of the effects are showing their age more than the actors' performances are...)

I can't remember which episode it was, but one of them contained some technobabble that I found fun because it was just a simple description of checksum bits within data. "That's not futuristic!" I joked, "We have those right now." I point vaguely in the direction of a library book. "Bet the barcode on that has a check bit."

Anyhow, in a case of "once something comes up, it starts coming up again and again" that I can't remember the term for (although there is one, and I think it's some german band name or something equally esoteric -- anyone know?) ... err. where was I? Oh, yeah. So, I just saw this graphic and it amused me because I actually think checksum bits are awesome because I'm that kind of mathematician *and* they'd just come up in the Star Trek technobabble (and I guess I'm also that kind of mathematician).

[Edit: Jay helpfully reminds me that the term I'm looking for is Baader-Meinhof. See Rob's comments on the gang it was named after, which was not a band. We should come up with a new name that's shorter, more etymologically related, and easier to remember!]

I've spent all week writing erudite paragraphs for my paper and I think I used up all my literary skill... okay, so I'm just tired and a bit lazy. But look! Math and codes!

Image via Mint.com
terriko: (Default)
Some fun recent stuff:

And then some more sad stuff in the form of a round-up of the links I've seen lately about women leaving academia. Poignant for me given that I've got a contract that'll take me away from academia... although I'm actually leaving mostly for the "work that has impact" reason and not so much for the others.

And then one thing that I didn't write (but I wish I had):

Let's say that fighting sexism is like a chorus of people singing a continuous tone. If enough people sing, the tone will be continuous even though each of the singers will be stopping singing to take a breath every now and then. The way to change things is for more people to sing rather than for the same small group of people to try to sing louder and never breathe.

Isn't that just the way of it? Thanks Mary for sharing that one.
terriko: (Default)
It's the time of year where people evaluate their lives and look back over the previous year, and with that in mind, I'm going to bring you a not-about-new-years post about gaming and science to mess up your reflective blog feeds. If it helps, it's a reflective post about gaming and science.

But they were pretty good at figuring out how to defeat the bosses. One day she found out why. A group of them were building Excel spreadsheets into which they'd dump all the information they'd gathered about how each boss behaved: What potions affected it, what attacks it would use, with what damage, and when. Then they'd develop a mathematical model to explain how the boss worked -- and to predict how to beat it.

Often, the first model wouldn't work very well, so the group would argue about how to strengthen it. Some would offer up new data they'd collected, and suggest tweaks to the model. "They'd be sitting around arguing about what model was the best, which was most predictive," Steinkuehler recalls.

That's when it hit her: The kids were practicing science.

You can read the rest here: "How Videogames Blind Us With Science"

My gut reaction to this article (which is actually several years old, but new to me) is "well, duh." When we neighbourhood kids got interested in a new game, we might have skipped the spreadsheets, but we definitely would resort to exploring in a structured manner if we got stuck. We'd compare notes, share ways to beat challenges, and sometimes try to improve upon the techniques (only sometimes because many games weren't really flexible enough to have multiple solutions).

I guess I'm missing some of that collaborative effort nowadays in that I can always just look up game faqs if I got stuck... but because I like people and because my brother and I grew up with a community of friends to ask for help rather than a community of internet FAQs and wikis, sometimes I ask people instead of the internet because it's more fun. And goodness knows, my sister and I have been comparing Super Scribblenauts solutions all week. ("You solved that with a mosquito? Why didn't I think of that? I made an undead blood-sucking harpy!")

I grew up in a household with two scientist parents, so not only was experimentation a daily fact of life, but the word "hypothesis" came into our lexicons fairly early on. I've grown up looking through life through a very scientific lens as a result (also a very biology-oriented filter, which accounts for my very ecologically-oriented view of computer security, but that's another story). My parents were constantly frustrated with my early science education, and I'll bet they'll find this next paragraph pretty familiar:

One of the reasons kids get bored by science is that too many teachers present it as a fusty collection of facts for memorization. This is precisely wrong. Science isn't about facts. It's about the quest for facts -- the scientific method, the process by which we hash through confusing thickets of ignorance. It's dynamic, argumentative, collaborative, competitive, filled with flashes of crazy excitement and hours of drudgework, and driven by ego: Our desire to be the one who figures it out, at least for now. It's dramatic and nutty and fun.

I actually didn't go into proper experimental science because I'm terrible at drudgework... easily bored, and not very good at the rigour required, and used to be prone to spending more time avoiding a boring task than doing it (at least until I learned perl and other automation tools). (My sister became the scientist, since as she likes to put it "I excel at boring tasks" -- but it's really that she's organized, precise, and takes a lot of joy in implementing a consistent system. I went into security because I like breaking things; she does regulatory work because she likes making things consistent. Sometimes, we have noticeable overlap in our skills and jobs, other times not so much.) I went into non-experimental computer science, though, because I love the collaboration and the competition and the ideas and the learning. But I hadn't really thought about my unsuitability for experimental science as being related to the reason I don't go into massively multiplayer online games hoping to be the first on the server to down some big raid boss.

But I do science with every new game I play, as do my friends. When we picked up Dominion (a card game which includes a variety of types of cards, and you chose some subset of them to use for any given ame), we'd play a few rounds and argue strategies and then try to implement them in different ways to see how they played against each other, or changed the groupings of cards to see how it changed the strategy. I guess maybe some people play these things closer to their chests and won't share with their friends, but we toss in a few new cards and suggest to play off each other because that's part of what makes it fun for us.

So now I'm thinking... what to games do to make sure they stay in that fun exploratory part of science and avoid the drudgework? And the answer of course is that they don't really avoid the drudgework. Earlier games had you wandering around "grinding" to get your character high enough level to take on the big boss... Let me tell you, playing final fantasy III on my DS was at times significantly less fun than "grinding" courses for my PhD has been. But they've done a lot to provide fun while you do that. One relatively modern invention has been letting players level their guild (I first saw this in Dungeons and Dragons online, but I expect the idea's been around longer... it's only recently gone into World of Warcraft) and we were shocked to discover that doing the same darned quest for the 4th time wasn't nearly as bad when there was a chance that we'd get to guild level 2 that night. Achievements, leaderboards, crafting, even ridiculous pets... there's a lot of stuff tangential to the end game that makes getting there more fun.

How do we put that joy back into science education? I'm not talking about gamification in the modern sense; I'm talking about those great teachers we managed to get. My chemistry teacher (and many others) did it through fun demo science: he'd do experiments we weren't ready to do on our own and had us all on the edge of our seats waiting for the final explosion... or sometimes the final terrible pun. Even his "you have to be careful in the science lab" talk at the beginning of the year included opening a book that promptly burst into flame. Each lecture was filled with discovery, even when it was tangential to the point. (The lecture on molar concentrations involved terrible puns involving moles and mole-asses.) And of course there's actually *doing* the hands-on experiments ourselves, which can be incredibly fun when they're well-chosen and interesting.

I guess in hindsight, we put the joy into science by enhancing the opportunities to learn and discover and accomplish... very similarly to the way we put the joy back into gaming.

Perhaps it's not really that surprising that there are a large number of scientist-types who also enjoy gaming, and that gamers will employ some science to tackle the challenges within a game.

And finally, I'll leave you with the last lines of the article, which made me smile:

At one point, Steinkuehler met up with one of the kids who'd built the Excel model to crack the boss. "Do you realize that what you're doing is the essence of science?" she asked.

He smiled at her. "Dude, I'm not doing science," he replied. "I'm just cheating the game!"
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