Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Don't Let the Bedbugs Bite

Our little corner of BC has been okay. But I am told North America is again plagued with bedbugs. Ironically, the worst places are often the most expensive addresses: New York, San Francisco and even Toronto are large cosmopolitan cities with strong environmental sensibilities. They attract people from all over the world, some of whom carry bedbugs in their luggage and they abhor the idea of effective pesticides (like DDT).
Those times may be over. Researchers at SFU may have found the magic formula that will attract bedbugs and thus allow them to be trapped. Their weakness is that they like to cluster together.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Mankind Leaps Again

https://twitter.com/ESA_Rosetta/status/532565327721545728/photo/1In mankind's journey into the universe beyond the planet, the greatest leap was the moon walk. Not only has there been no progress that size since, there have been few feats that were equal, or even comparable. (OK, driving a car on the moon wins). Huge events, nonetheless, include Sputnik, the re-usable space vehicle, private satellite launch and robots on Mars. This week has seen another milestone for the history book: landing a robot on a comet.
It had some problems, but what's cutting edge if it doesn't occasionally bleed? Maybe for the next mission, they'll reconsider the wisdom of solar power in the far solar system.
(Update Nov18/14) They were looking for organic molecules on the surface and they found them. We'll have to wait until the sunlight gets better before we get any more detailed analysis.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Building a House on the Moon

Europe (ESA) has a plan:
(May'15) More on the European plan (with infographic and nerdfan discussion.) ...of course, it's a stepping stone to this:

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Frankenstein Used to be Science Fiction

Researchers in Switzerland have taken a paralyzed rat, implanted electrodes and made it walk upright.

Swiss Chocolate is involved.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Fusion Heats Up

Lockheed Martin has caused a buzz this week by announcing* a nuclear fusion project.

Nuclear fusion is, of course the ultimate energy source: clean, safe and inexhaustible. It produces no carbon dioxide or pollution. It can't explode and produces no nuclear bomb making materials. There are about a thousand trillion tons of fuel, deuterium aka heavy hydrogen, available in the ocean.

Nuclear fusion looks like a sure thing at the multi-billion dollar ITER project. Unfortunately it won't happen until 2030+ and will cost $15+ billion. The LM project promises to be smaller, cheaper and sooner. The thing is: LM's project looks less feasible than General Fusion's. Their big advantage, as far as I see it is that Lockheed Martin can guarantee the funds to make the project happen while General Fusion has to beg for venture capital money. Making big announcements can be a strategy to dry up the other guy's funding.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Satellites are Expensive


What do you think about  your "communications satellite" being replaced by a hundred or so "communications weather balloons.".

(Oct'15) (Google's Parent company) Alphabet is calling these "loon balloons" and plans to deploy them over Indonesia next year.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Our 60 Year Experiment in Moral Education

 Thinking about the two cardinal innovations in teaching morality that began in the 60's,
No one speaks more authoritatively about the Socratic method than Plato, and Plato maintained that it was to be reserved for mature men over the age of thirty. "One great precaution," said Plato, "is not to let them [students] taste of arguments while they are young" — the danger being that they would develop a taste for arguments rather than a taste for truth. Young minds, like young puppies, said Plato, would only "pull and tear at arguments."

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Kvass: Old World Pop

I was exploring Toronto's St. Lawrence market this summer. Ambling past a Ukrainian deli, I came upon a bottle marked “KBAC”. Suspicious, I called over a Slavic friend who happened to be there and asked her to read it to me. “Kvass”, she said.
I've heard of that! in a book I once read about Mennonite foods. It was some fermented drink involving bread. It sounded weird (even weirder since I was confusing it with kefir, fermented milk.) Of course I bought it.
I've heard kvass described as low alcohol beer. I think it is more like pop. It has a distinctive flavor and yet reminds me of something familiar. I haven't yet put my finger on it, maybe plum.
Researching, I find that it comes in bread and beet varieties. It has been brewed for over a thousand years (though I wonder if the traditional recipes had sugar for the yeast.) Kvass is enjoying a resurgence in Russia and Ukraine lately. Coca-cola has developed a brand and a monastery near Moscow has started bottling its traditional recipe. Modern enthusiasts rave about its probiotics, which would have been important in the days before clean water.
You can make it yourself. It is basically rye toast tea. I have been trying a few batches at home based on Angelina's recipe. She flavors it with raisins. Others suggest lemon or mint. (Both inhibit bacteria growth.) I tried a batch with raisins, then with raisins and lemon (crushing the lemon and careful to capture the oils from the zest.) My current batch has raisin, mint and lemon.
Compared to Angelina, I make batches a quarter the size, only 2.5 liters. Remember, it is alive and will only last 2-5 days. Where Angelina emphasizes the need to burn your toast, I discovered that there is such a thing as too burnt. You want to see some blackening, but no charcoal. Mine has 2/3 the sugar. You can recover 20% of the liquid if  you put the bread in a colander after scooping it from the pot.
(Dec'14) I just tried Schweppes dark ginger ale. I wonder if it isn't kvass.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Mining Opportunities in the New Frontier

http://www.nss.org/settlement/calendar/2009/BryanVersteeg-asteroid_mining.htmWhether in South America, California, the Yukon or Fort MacMurray, Mining has always been a challenging and rewarding opportunity for ambitious youth.

Last week, the US congress decided that any material recovered from an asteroid belongs to the people that recovered it. In other words, asteroid mining is legal. Now, by all appearances, asteroid mining is real. (Sept'14)

Update (Oct'14): How mining might work 

(Nov'15): The senate passes a bill.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

If 20% of Your Students Drop Out...

...whose fault is that? the student's? the university's? the public's? some combination?
If the public invested $50,000 and the student (and parents) invested $50,000 in two wasted years, does anyone deserve a refund?
(In the US, the actual rate is ~40%, in Canada it is harder to find.)

Friday, September 12, 2014

How To Identify Life

...from a few light-years away.

 If we are looking for life on an exoplanet, What do we look for? Well, radio signals and TV broadcasts would be sure signs, but awfully unlikely. Seeing trees or animals moving on the surface is proof but far beyond the ability of any telescope we can build or imagine building*.

Instead, we hope to analyze light from the planet. From this light we can identify the chemicals in the atmosphere using spectral analysis. Oxygen (O2) would be a good sign. It reacts so well that most atmospheres would use it all to make CO2 or H2O unless there was life to release it. Computer models now show that it is actually possible for an atmosphere to have oxygen and even ozone without ever having life. So even though oxygen is still a good sign. It is not proof. For solid proof, you would need to find oxygen, ozone, carbon dioxide, and methane with no carbon monoxide.

(Oct'15) How Space Telescopes Will Find Earth 2.0: progress in seeing an exoplanet. *

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Pinewood Derby Tips

This video is design done right.
  • Identify all the factors you can think of. 
  • Do some testing to know what the effects are and how big they are. 
  • Keep it simple.

Grade Inflation: The Empire Strikes Back


Would you like me to grade easier? Are you sure?

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Strike and Resolution: 4 Views

There are three significant parties in BC. What are their positions on the teachers' strike?


The Liberal government's news releases are here, with strike messaging is here.
  • The minister says he is eager for a resolution but the union won't move enough.
  • They have issued an FAQ sheet.

The official opposition, the NDP, has news releases here.
  • They think we should do mediation and return to school in the meantime.
  • They say the government is "putting up roadblocks."
  • They have asked for education minister Fassbender to resign.
The Green party has called for arbitration, specifically including binding arbitration last Friday, shortly after the BCTF had requested it.

The Conservatives have surprisingly detailed policy ideas on the issue, especially on the government dropping the court case.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Titans of Society, Tremble


Hannah Wallen wargames gamer culture and discovers the source of their secret power.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

What if Memorization IS Teaching How to Learn?

They say kids need to memorize their arithmetic. Other "they"s say kids need to learn how to figure things out on their own. Now they say memorization builds the brain that can figure things out.
(The "math wars" refers to a battle between math teachers that has been going on at least three decades now: to emphasize understanding or performance?)

50 years of pop wisdom is wrong


Aristotle was right.

People with self control are happier.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Scientific Approach to Good Luck


Talk of making luck always reminds me of Heinlein's quote about making luck on a national scale.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

High-School Crushes - Anylysed Mathematically!

John Paulos considers some statistics relevant to romantic crushes.
The second relevant statistical notion is Bayes’s theorem, a mathematical proposition that tells us how to update our estimates of people, events and situations in the light of new evidence.
http://www.allmusic.com/album/high-school-crush-mw0000811155 A mathematical example: Three coins are before you. They look identical, but one is weighted so it lands on heads just one-fourth of the time; the second is a normal coin, so heads come up half the time; and the third has heads on both sides.
Pick one of the coins at random. Since there are three coins, the probability that you chose the two-headed one is one-third. Now flip that coin three times. If it comes up heads all three times, you’ll very likely want to change your estimate of the probability that you chose the two-headed coin.
Bayes’s theorem tells you how to calculate the new odds; in this case it says the probability that you chose the two-headed coin is now 87.7 percent, up from the initial 33.3 percent.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Big Picture of the Summer Job

 It looks like summer jobs are harder to get than they used to be. It's not just the recession. That was 7 years ago.
So what explains the trend? Are kids today lazy? Do they feel unprepared? Is minimum wage pressure pushing the lowest skill workers off the bottom? Are students competing with China or adults (who are competing with China?) This is US data. Is it competition from low-skill immigration?

(Dec'14) Megan McArdle talks a little about the effect of raising the minimum wage and a lot about how to read a social science study.
The Curmudgeon (p.42-4,91-5) says you should look for a lousy summer job (that pays well), or at least a real one. Avoid internships or cushy jobs with impressive titles.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

This Summer's Assignment

School can be a good environment to learn academic skills like arithmetic, algebra, geology, grammar, history and essay construction. It is a lousy place to learn how to use your academic skills. That is an executive function.

Your education doesn't stop this summer. Develop those critical skills. Go play.

Monday, June 23, 2014

It's a Show...It's an Education...It's Dinner

http://democritusbound.blogspot.ca/2013/04/cooking-is-science.htmlIn keeping with my easily distracted interest in cooking, let me speak of the Culinary Training Studio.
It looks like a kitchen surrounded by a bar. It has been described as being part of your own cooking show. You might call it a cooking class where you don't have to work and get to eat the food. Or you might call it a six hour dinner, with entertainment in the form of food talk.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Global Warming From a Sunnier Globe

What if pollution makes the planet cooler? That's what made the most sense to me when I first thought about the issue. (I think it was grade 2 that I had noticed that clouds make it cooler and my teacher told me that pollution causes clouds.). You'd think someone would have looked into this earlier.

It turns out that pollution does block the sun. The planet's mid-century cooling (from the 50's to the 70's) is explained by the blockage of the sun. The late century rise in temperatures is explained by pollution reductions.

Plus, clarity from the comments:
"If i get this right, industrial pollution masked the natural warming from the Little Ice Age and the clean air initiatives caused the earth temperatures to rebound to normal levels." - Lawrence Todd

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Environment Leaping Forward, If...

The earth's natural environment keeps getting better at supporting life, especially human life.Thanks to new technology we are about to make major progress in carbon emissions, medical science and relief for the poor. The progress would be felt first on this continent. Then, once the technology is common and established, it will be practical for the third world as well.

The problem is that there is an entrenched group of influential and politically connected people who, fearing a loss in their current privilege, obstruct progress.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Life on Mars Confirmed!

Well, life on Mars very likely, anyway...but it is probably dead by now...and we brought it.

Meteor Shower Tonight

That is, just after midnight, Friday, May 23 (aka early morning May 24) There will be a meteor shower called Camelopardalids. Look north. The meteors will appear to originate from just north of Polaris (the North Star).

Friday, May 9, 2014

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Science of Color

Studies on color and tests of people's reactions have intriguing results:
For instance, the study into the psychological effects of pink, mentioned above, was carried out by Alexander Schauss in the Seventies. It showed that of 153 male prisoners put in cells painted pink, 98.7 per cent were weaker after being in the pink cells for only 15 minutes
Of course, there is the practical application, selling people stuff:
...a paper in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, ... White is “purity, cleanness, simplicity, hygiene, clarity and peace”; black is “sophistication, glamour, status, elegance, richness and dignity”. Purple is status, pink is femininity, and, of course, blue suggests competence while red is exciting.
and speculation on why we humans see color at all:
...developed the ability to detect the colour red because of a common characteristic: bare-skinned faces. Suddenly, we could “read” the all-important expressions of anger, dominance and sexual readiness on the faces of those around us.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Questions to Ask a University

Universities have a reputation as havens of expanded minds and stimulating thinking. They can be. They can also be among the most closed, fearful places in contemporary North America. If you are interested in your university getting these issues right, here are some questions to ask.
(Aug'15) Now that you about to go, tips from the Factual Feminist.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Making a Lush, Green Planet

Increased CO2 is helping plants grow around the planet. It seems that there are two effects at play. CO2 is good for plants, a type of fertilizer. CO2 also helps plants use water more efficiently. A third effect of CO2 is on rainfall. This one is so far unresolved: many models (and nearly all the press) predict that a hotter planet will be dry. Others (and the evidence so far) say that warmer means wetter. Beyond dispute, is that so far the increase in carbon has correlated to a greener planet.

Update (Nov23'14) Test are coming in improved photosynthesis mechanisms. Cyanobacteria are related to C4. I'm not sure about the High Yield Rice.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Friday, January 24, 2014

That's Not an Explosion...

There is a supernova happening in the neighborhood. Actually, it happened about 12 million years ago but we get to see it now, for a couple of weeks. It seems like a busy neighborhood.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Cheap Digital Microscope


Instructables.com has plans for a lens and stand that lets you use your smartphone as a digital microscope. They claim up to 175x magnification (with two lenses, up to 375x!) That is enough to look at onion cells. This is a maple seed pod at only 60x.

Project cost: $10

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Brown Dwarfs Detected


A brown dwarf is not like a white dwarf: on the death march of a real star. A brown dwarf is a star too small to kickstart full fusion, too small to emit light, but big enough to emit energy (as infrared) for billions of years and fantastic enough to have liquid iron falling from the sky as rain. A Canadian team is using the Spitzer IR Space Telescope to study them.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Video Analysis

If you can take a video, you can use that video to measure speeds and accelerations. The tool involved is called "video analysis software" and there are free versions that seem to work pretty well. After looking at a few, I have comments on a smaller few:

1. Tracker: My favorite so far. It is free, computer-based, open-source and looks transparent and powerful, for example:
  • Fixed or time-varying coordinate system scale, origin and tilt.
  • Multiple calibration options: tape, stick, calibration points and/or offset origin.
  • Switch easily to center of mass and other reference frames.
  • Protractors and tape measures provide easy distance and angle measurements.
  • Define custom variables for plotting and analysis.

2. Kinovea: a free, open-source sports analysis software with some good analysis tool including video magnification, slo-mo, data export to spreadsheets. The output looks beautiful

3. Vernier Physics: a $5 app for iPhone & iPad. Vernier is popular and looks convenient for people who already use iPhones. But it requires you to:
1. not move the camera and
2. mark each frame manually.
3. You can't export your info to a spreadsheet. 

Update(Jan'15)-Destin from Smarter Every Day shows how to analyse a grasshopper using Tracker. If that was a little fast, watch his tutorial. (Destin has linked all you need in the "show more" box of the first video.  When I tried repeating his work, the windows version of Tracker wouldn't work on every computer but the ".jar" file did. On some computers Destin's You-tube video (step #3) worked. On others, only Quicktime worked. Try stuff.