Category Archives: Ranting

Be Careful What You Measure

Johns Hopkins has an excellent graduate program in science writing. For thirty years it’s taught people how to write about science, covering both researching interesting science and turning it into prose that sings. Now Johns Hopkins is closing the program.

Writing for a living, especially about science, has never been easy. It’s become harder over the last decade as newspapers have withered, magazines have closed, and the ranks of people interested in being science writers has swelled. Columbia University’s program in environmental journalism closed to new applicants in 2009 precisely because of the weak job market. But that’s not why Johns Hopkins is ending its MA in science writing. It’s closing the program because it has too few applicants. Not too few to make a good class, mind you. It’s that fewer applicants means a higher percentage of acceptance into the program. That makes Johns Hopkins appear less selective. And that can hurt their rankings among colleges and decrease their prestige.

They’re closing the program because of an arbitrary number.

College selectivity, the ratio of accepted students to applicants, is a status symbol. US News and World Reports factors it into their college rankings. Colleges tout their selectivity to attract top professors and help extract money from alumni.

As selectivity has become a more prevalent measure of a school, colleges have done what you’d expect and worked to become more selective. They’ve mainly attacked the problem in the most direct fashion: raise the number of applicants. They’ve marketed aggressively to prospective students to increase applications. They’ve also been aided by the rise of the common application, a single college application that’s now accepted by nearly 500 schools, making it far easier to apply to more schools at once. And it’s worked. College selectivity is on the rise, buoyed by increased applications, and colleges are happily touting how each year’s new crop of freshmen is better than the last. It’s like the Flynn effect and Lake Wobegon combined, where this year’s new students are more above average than last year’s.

Increasing applicants increases the selectivity ratio’s denominator. The numerator is roughly fixed, since colleges depend on a certain student body size to keep tuition income steady and classes filled. So the only other thing you can do to improve your selectivity is to drop programs that detract from that selectivity. That’s what Johns Hopkins did, as Katherine Newman, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins, told Science Careers.

When you measure something, the act of measurement changes what you’re measuring. It’s true in physics, where the observer effect means, at the quantum level, that we can’t observe a physical process without changing it. It’s just as true in the social world. When you start measuring something, people will change what they’re doing to maximize the value of what you’re measuring. We’ve seen it on Wall Street, where status is measured in dollars and traders maximized their returns at the expense of the entire economic system. It’s human nature to game systems. That makes it vital to be careful when you choose to measure and report something. Choose the right measurement and you improve the system.

Pick the wrong thing and you might kill off an excellent science writing program.

Week 9 of Making Something Every day

Day 57: Mixing it up a bit! Playing with yarn.
day 57
This yarn winding session turned into a full scale stash reorganization. I loved it! It also made me want to ditch the art stuff and play with yarn exclusively for a while.

Day 58: Started a set of rainbow inchies. Yes, that’s a technical artist term.
day 58
Day 59: Sadly my photo treatment of these little guys is better than the actual work. They’re headed to the trash.
day 59
Sometimes things just don’t work out. These little guys made me think I need remedial stamping classes because I mangled it so badly. Truly, the best thing about them are the photos I took. Oh well, moving on.

Day 60: Quick ATC tonight and I am off to take my own advice!
day 60
I had no idea how this would turn out. The paper is silver reflective. I stamped it and then painted it. It was short and sweet to make. Exactly what I needed after the long day I had.

Day 61: Too much likes previous day? Maybe I need new colors?
day 61
Day 62: This is why you tape the watercolor paper down. Back of the blue paper.
day 62
Day 63: Making a book out of the green/blue page. I’ll entertain suggestions as to what to put in it.
day 63
I like making books out of this watercolor paper. We’ll see what it turns into next week!

Thoughts from the week:
I’ve been thinking a lot about the artist community that has sprung up around me as I work on this year long project. I’ve mentioned Mary here before. While she and I don’t practice the same sort of art (she’s a musician) I find my chats with her on creativity and the process of creativity line up nicely regardless of which art we are discussing. I did some design work for her last fall and she introduced me to Starr Weems. Starr did the amazing artwork for Mary’s last album. And I have a bit of working artist crush on her at the moment. The three of us met for lunch one day and formed the Vague Coffee Wavers. I’m pretty sure that’s the name of the artist commune we will start if we ever get around to it. I also have Renée, who is working on a project quite similar to mine in scope but she’s abstaining from the Twitter/Facebook/blog attention seeking that I seem to be engaging in at present. It’s a nice group of women that I enjoy checking in with to see what they are working on. It reminds me a bit of college and my studio classes. I loved being able to come together as a group and work on our individual pieces and then take a step back and talk about what everyone was doing and then offer suggestions. The brainstorming was so valuable to me! It helped me learn to creatively visually problem solve.

Next week I start a letterpress class at our local Printmaking Collective. Amy and I will be going the next three Thursdays to class, so those days will feature some prints! I’m absurdly excited about it. Here’s to finding more artists for the collective.

Have a Powerful Day!

Yesterday I tweeted a link to Rhett Allain’s fun article comparing name-brand batteries to dollar-store batteries. Rhett covers numerically approximating integrals, energy, energy density, and cost per joule of energy. As a bonus, his commenters taught me about eneloop batteries. My take-away from his article: if you’re going to use disposable batteries and you’re buying from a local store rather than Amazon, it’s worth buying the name-brand ones to minimize waste since all of the batteries he tested had roughly the same cost per joule1.

(Added later: it turns out Rhett was comparing name-brand alkaline batteries to dollar store “heavy duty” zinc chloride batteries. That doesn’t invalidate the results, but it doesn’t answer whether or not the dollar store alkalines would be better or worse than name brand ones.)

Shortly after I tweeted the link, I got a reply from the Rayovac twitter account.

[blackbirdpie url=”″]

This amused me to no end: I’d posted a link to a nice analysis of battery lifetimes, complete with data and plots, and the Rayovac twitter account’s reply claimed their batteries’ awesomeness (without any data) and linked to coupons. A friend of mine and I laughed about this spamming on Twitter. Big mistake: Rayovac wasn’t about to let that stand.

[blackbirdpie url=”″]

Well. I’ve learned my lesson. Links to coupons and unsubstantiated claims of battery lifetime in response to an article with actual battery lifetime data is absolutely not spam.

Also, “Have a Powerful day!” is how I’m going to say goodbye from now on.

1There are a number of possible refinements to Rhett’s quick-and-dirty Mythbusters-level analysis, including measuring a ton of batteries’ characteristics to get a better average measurement, that might alter the final result, but that’s just me being nit-picky. And physicists are never nit-picky.

This SOPA/PIPA Protest Thing is Way Overrated

If you paid attention to the internet at all yesterday, you probably saw people complaining about the proposed US bills SOPA and PIPA. The Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act are designed to help content creators fight piracy.

Oh, sure, there’s been a lot of whining from the usual suspects about how it will stifle free speech and be used as a club by the entertainment industry. Sure, the bills are worded so broadly that they could be used for all kinds of nasty things. And perhaps content creators from Hollywood editors to authors have said that SOPA and PIPA are like fighting piracy by burning all of your boats.

That’s all balderdash, as my Disasterpiece Theatre co-hosts and I are here to show you. While you were doing silly protests and calling congresspersons and writing letters, we recorded an episode that demonstrated how SOPA and PIPA have no effect on content creators.

So there.

In Which I Use Scientific Reasoning to Doubt the Thorium-Powered Car

While I was away at Dragon*Con, stories about a possible thorium-powered car popped up in the news. From the write-up at Txchnologist:

Charles Stevens, an inventor and entrepreneur, recently revealed that his Massachusetts-based R&D firm, Laser Power Systems (LPS), is working on a turbine/electric generator system that is powered by “an accelerator-driven thorium-based laser.” The thorium laser does not produce a beam of coherent light like conventional lasers, but instead merely heats up and gives off energy.

There’s a whole lot of science word salad in that paragraph — what does it even mean to have a laser that isn’t actually lasing and producing coherent light? So let’s detangle it and see if the proposed thorium-powered car makes sense.

The first thing to know is that there’s been a lot of work done on using thorium for fuel in a nuclear reactor. Thorium-232, the kind you dig up out of the ground, is only weakly radioactive and won’t undergo fission by itself. What you can do, however, is bombard it with slow neutrons from uranium or plutonium. That turns thorium into uranium-233, which is fissile and can be used in a nuclear power plant. That means you can use thorium as breeder fuel to produce the fissionable material you really want.

Thorium has several benefits over uranium-235, the usual nuclear reactor fuel. For one, thorium ore is about three or four times as prevalent in the Earth’s crust as uranium ore. For another, you can use all of the thorium you mine. Only 0.7% of uranium is 235U. The rest of it is 238U, which isn’t useful for nuclear reactors. That makes thorium far more abundant for nuclear power purposes.

There are downsides, of course. As the World Nuclear Associate fact page dryly puts it, “Despite the thorium fuel cycle having a number of attractive features, development has always run into difficulties.” There aren’t any commercial thorium reactors yet.

However, if you read carefully what Charles Stevens is saying, he’s not claiming to be using thorium in a nuclear reactor. The WardsAuto article on Stevens states, “Stevens agrees, emphasizing his system is ‘sub-critical,’ which means no self-sustaining nuclear reaction within the thorium creating significant amounts of radioactivity.” So what is he doing?

Unfortunately his two websites currently have very little information. To find out more we have to look at the 2009 version of his webpage and exerpts from that same page. Back then he talked about laser-driven cars in which a “Hybrid Solid state Free Electron laser” heats up thorium, which releases even more heat to turn water into steam and drive a turbine. Also an accelerator may be involved. And according to what he told WardsAuto, “1 gm of thorium equals the energy of 7,500 gallons (28,391 L) of gasoline Stevens says. So, using just 8 gm of thorium in a car should mean it would never need refueling.”

Right, let’s try and make sense of this, starting with one gram of thorium equaling the energy of 7,500 gallons of gas. This a question of energy density: how much energy can you extract from a given amount of fuel?

I have no clue what process Stevens is claiming to use that lets you bombard thorium with a laser and get energy out, especially since he said it’s sub-critical and thus not a nuclear fission reaction. Instead I’ll pretend he is doing nuclear fission, since that’s one of the more energy-productive reactions we can do and will set a good estimated upper bound on how much energy Stevens could extract from thorium. I’ll also assume 235U fission, since we don’t have a thorium reactor yet.

Uranium in a reactor produces about 20 terajoules of energy per kilogram. For comparison, gasoline gives you about 48 megajoules per kilogram. That means uranium gives us about 425,000 more power per kilogram than gas. Let’s assume thorium will give us roughly the same ratio. That means one gram of thorium would be like 425 kg of gas. Gas has a density of about 2.7 kg per US gallon, so that 425 kg of gas is equivalent to 156 gallons.

That’s way short of Stevens’s claim of 1 gm of thorium being equivalent to 7,500 gallons of gas. For that to be true, his laser-induced power output has to be fifty times more energy efficient than nuclear fission. That is an extraordinary claim, to put it mildly, and he’s offered no proof and precious few details.

Looking through his other claims, it sounds as if he glued together actual science together as if making a collage for kindergarten, regardless of whether the results made sense or not. You could in theory make an actual thorium laser, though that’s not what he’s doing. You can use a particle accelerator to drive a nuclear reaction by knocking neutrons out of other particles, though again that’s not what Stevens is doing despite him adding “accelerator-driven” to the description of his process. You can even induce nuclear reactions using super-powerful lasers, but Stevens says he’s not inducing fission.

So to sum up: Stevens isn’t claiming to have made a nuclear-powered car. He’s claiming to have made a steam-powered car where the steam is heated up when he shines a laser on thorium. I don’t know of any physical process that would let you get more heat energy out of the thorium than you’d spend on making the laser go. For his process to be so awesome that it would power a car for some 200,000 miles on a single gram of thorium, he’d have had to come up with something that’s fifty times more powerful than a nuclear reactor. And he hasn’t released any papers, only press releases. That’s 3 out of 3 red flags for the research not being real.

Sorry, world. If we’re going to have a laser-powered car, it sounds like this isn’t it.

Bad Analogies Can Be as Addictive as Chocolate

Did you know that reading romance novels can be as addictive as pornography? And that reading romance novels can destroy marriages?

That utter silliness is being peddled in an article by Kimberly Sayer-Giles. The article prominently quotes Dr. Juli Slattery, the Family Psychologist for Focus on the Family. Focus on the Family is James Dobson’s organization fighting for “traditional marriages,” which evidently are under attack not only from gays but also from romance novels.

The romance novel weblog SBTB has a good takedown of the article as a whole, but I was fascinated by the article’s use of science.

“There is a neurochemical element with men and visual porn, but an emotional element with women and these novels,” [Dr. Slattery] wrote.

Men are very visual, and viewing pornography produces a euphoric drug in the body. This drug is the reason pornography becomes addictive. When the natural high wears off, a man will crash and feel depressed (as happens with any drug) and crave another hit.

Women are more stimulated by romance than sex, so when they read romantic stories (and they don’t have to be explicit to work) they can experience the same addicting chemical release as men do…..

Pornography addiction counselor Vickie Burress said reading romance novels or viewing pornography may eventually lead to an affair for some women.

“Women involved in pornography have a hard time keeping their family together,” she said.

That’s a whole bunch of bad logic spackled over with a thin, cracking patina of terrible science. This is like equating sex and chocolate. Having sex releases endorphins, a euphoric drug in the body. Eating chocolate can also release endorphins. People who have affairs, some of whom eat chocolate, may ruin their marriage. The implication is clear: eating chocolate will make it hard to keep your marriage together.

I eagerly await the next article from Kimberly Sayer-Giles equating romance novels and snuff films.

What These Adventure Games Need is a Jonathan Blow

Jonathan Blow’s new game The Witness is going to modernize adventure games. The creator of the hit indie platformer Braid claims that his new game will avoid what killed off adventure games in the 1990s.

As you might imagine, his comments have raised hackles in the adventure game community. Some of that is a reaction to a perceived outsider riding in and saying, “I know what you lot have been doing wrong all of these years!” as if he were starring in Dances With Adventure Games. My negative reaction, though, comes from Jonathan’s apparent lack of information about what’s happened to adventure games since the 1990s.

He starts out promisingly enough, talking about how video game design has gotten better as time has passed.

If you go to conferences, designers are always talking about how they’re doing things and how to make games more fun. And that’s true, it’s pretty obvious. If you go back, get an emulator and play some games from the eighties on home computers, they’re kinda unplayable. You know, people say, “Games were just as good then as they are now.” It’s just not true. Things are way better design-wise.

Where he goes off the rails is when he then turns his eye to adventure games.

[Streamlining gameplay] happened to all the genres, but it never quite happened in adventure games. The core gameplay of a racing game, for example, has been refined. It’s way more interesting than Pole Position was in the arcade, you know. Much more sophisticated. A first person shooter is a lot about knowing what’s happening on the map. Especially if it’s multiplayer, like, who is where? And all this stuff. It’s been iterated and refined.

Adventure games are still what they used to be. And what the core gameplay actually is, is very different from what the designer intends. The designer wants it to be, “It’s going to be cool puzzle solving. There’s going to be a story and stuff.” But really what’s actually going through the players head in adventure games is, “I don’t know if I should be clicking on this thing” or “I don’t know if this is a puzzle” or “I don’t know if I need an item to solve this that I don’t have yet, or if I’m just not thinking.”

Adventure games are all confusion. If it’s text, it’s “Why doesn’t the parser understand me still?” So the core gameplay of adventure games is actually fumbling through something, right? And that’s true with modern [versions]. All the episodic stuff that’s coming out. And there’s a whole community that makes modern interactive fiction games and all this stuff. And it’s true for all these games.

Gameplay in adventure games can certainly be improved, but it’s not all confusion. Adventures aren’t what they were in the 1990s. Jonathan claims passing familiarity with the modern interactive fiction community, and yet has missed how it’s been addressing this confusion. Games like Blue Lacuna and Aotearoa use keyword highlighting to make it more obvious what you can interact with. Ones like Lost Pig and Violet respond to a tremendous number of commands to make it less likely that a player will type commands that the game doesn’t understand. We’ve got better help for learning the command pattern a parser expects, Emily Short and others deconstructing the parser and whether or not it’s necessary for interactive fiction, and Aaron Reed researching how to make the parser more user-friendly.

These are not obscure, hard-to-find developments. Blue Lacuna has shown up on everything from G4 TV to Gamasutra. Violet and Lost Pig were on JayIsGames and PlayThisThing and are often cited as games newcomers should play. Aotearoa won this year’s Interactive Fiction Competition. Emily Short is one of the two best-known names in all of interactive fiction.

Meanwhile, in graphic adventure games, you’ve got Telltale Games refining what can be done with episodic graphic adventures and Dave Gilbert at Wadjet Eye Games exploring what can be done with adventures intended for casual game players.

But what gets Jonathan excited? Riffing on Myst, especially the idea of a player with amnesia.

PC Gamer: That’s presumably why Myst is an inspiration?

Jonathan Blow: It’s a classic video game trope. I mean, you start the game. You don’t exactly know who you are –

PC Gamer: Or you’ve got amnesia.

Jonathan Blow: Yeah, or you have amnesia or whatever! And then through the course of the game you find out who you are. Like, BioShock did that. Tons of games do that. This game does it but in a very self-conscious, self-referential kind of way.

So the most over-used adventure game trope, the one so prevalent that it’s the name of a 1986 text adventure written by someone who wasn’t familiar with adventure games, is what gets Jonathan excited?

When I entered physics graduate school, I had big plans. I was going to learn a little physics, but not too much, because that way I could see clearly what others had missed about physics and then perform world-changing research. Later I realized how cutely naive I’d been. Outsiders to a field can make original contributions, but more often they end up going over old ground and repeating past mistakes.

Look: you don’t have to be full to the brim with adventure game knowledge to want to design one, or to take elements of their gameplay and use them in other games. But if you’re going to claim to be fixing what’s broken with the genre, it’s best to know what the genre’s been up to since you solved Myst.

A Quick Business Presentation Tip

Let’s say that you’re making a PowerPoint presentation on improving businesses.

Let’s further say that you want to illustrate how the members of your business’s management team must work together. You decide to use a picture of gears to show how the team interlocks and turns as one.

You go to iStockPhoto and grab this picture:

Interlocking machine gears that won't turn

If you then show this presentation to a bunch of scientists and engineers, don’t be surprised if they point out that these gears won’t turn.

iStockPhoto has a lot of other gears that you can choose from. Please don’t pick the photo that looks like it belongs on There, I Fixed It.

White House Fashion

Yesterday, Marketplace ran a fascinating report talking to author Kate Betts about how the White House is influencing fashion.

Ryssdal: [Y]ou call it “approachable” at one point in this book. And I’m going to quote a friend of yours, you got an exchange from her at one point. Mr. Obama had been seen in a sort of informal jacket or something, and this friend of yours wrote to you and said, “You know what, I don’t want my Presidents to be approachable.”

Betts: Well, that’s interesting because the President has such an historic place, obviously, in this country….

Ryssdal: Do you see that being reflected in fashion trends and in style trends?

Betts: Oh absolutely. His use of color, the way he wears such beautiful colors so easily. Designers for spring have completely embraced that idea and you see color all over the runways….

Ryssdal: There are those that will listen to this interview and hear that it’s about style and fashion and clothes and kind of dismiss it as not substantive.

Betts: For some reason in this country there is this notion that style and substance should occupy two separate planets, really. And I think that actually Barack Obama is proof — living proof — that you can be stylish and substantive and you don’t have to make excuses for one or the other.

Oh, silly me, I got that wrong — the entire interview was about Michelle Obama. I should have realized, given how much discussion of First Ladies revolves around their sartorial choices. Next time I’ll remember that articles about Presidents are about what they’re doing and articles about First Ladies are about what they’re wearing.

Sometimes It Is Science All the Time Around Here

I’m often amused by the things science evidently can’t explain. The Chick Tract Big Daddy, nominally about evolution, claims that science can’t explain why an atom’s nucleus holds together even though it’s packed full of positively-charged particles.

In the tract Big Daddy, Jack Chick claims the strong nuclear force doesn't existIn the Chick Tract Big Daddy, atoms are held together by Jesus

In the version I read long ago, gluons weren’t even mentioned — the tract merely claimed that no one knew why atoms held together. At the time I murmured, “the strong nuclear force?” At some point Chick updated it to refute quantum chromodynamics, the theory that describes the strong nuclear force that holds atoms’ nucleii together, by saying “Nuh uh!”

That’s semi-defensible: QCD is a deep subject, an area of physics that you really only run into if you specialize in physics in school. More puzzling is that Bill O’Reilly doesn’t know how tides work.

O’REILLY: I’ll tell you why [religion’s] not a scam, in my opinion: tide goes in, tide goes out. Never a miscommunication. You can’t explain that. You can explain why the tide goes in —

SILVERMAN: Tide goes in, tide goes out?

O’REILLY: See, the water — the tide comes in and it goes out, Mr. Silverman. It always comes in, and always goes out. You can’t explain that.

In sixth grade my science class focused on Earth science. One of the topics was tides, where I learned that the Moon and Sun’s gravity pulled our oceans around, causing tides. I also learned that the Moon is tidally locked to the Earth, meaning that the same side of the moon always faces the earth. That should give a hint that things orbiting around each other has something to do with tides.

Let me present some new information to counterbalance ignorance: did you know that eventually the Earth will be tidally locked to the Moon? Just like the Earth now stays at a fixed location relative to the Moon, the Moon will stay at a fixed location above the Earth. As a side effect, the Earth’s rotation relative to the Sun will slow, and the Moon will move further away from the Earth. As an exercise for the reader, can you explain why this is happening? Bonus points if you can predict how long a day on Earth will then be.

Oh, and here’s the full video featuring Bill O’Reilly: