Thursday, November 18, 2010

More Shadow Scholar

A few days ago I posted a link to a popular article in the Chronicle called the Shadow Scholar. One of my friends sent it around an email list, which prompted an inquisitive colleague of mine ("Garret") to solicit their services, just as an experiment.

In his own words:
I went online and found several sites that write papers for students - even Ph.D. dissertations!. I was intrigued, so I wrote in asking to see if they could write a term paper for me on the topic that one of my Ph.D. students (name deleted) is looking at "use of energy functions to evaluate structural integrity of ancestral proteins estimated under Likelihood using IID models"

They just replied this morning. :-0)
Their reply:
Dear Customer,
Thank you for placing an inquiry with our company.
We have reviewed the preliminary information available from your inquiry and are glad to inform you that we have several writers who specialize in your field of study. 
Nevertheless, we will need more detailed instructions for your assignment in order to find the most suitable writer.
Please make sure to send your paper requirements in a note to admin, upload them in the Files section of your personal order page or send them to our email. 
It would be also appreciated if you specify your final deadline for the order. To provide us with more instructions and proceed with the payment, please click here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Recently I went on my annual pilgrimage to the Society of Rheology meeting in Santa Fe. A colleague (Alexei Likhtman at Reading) talked briefly about a nifty piece of software that he and Jorge Ramirez had put together called Reptate (Rheology of Entangled Polymers: Toolkit for Analysis of Theory & Experiment).

For somebody who works with entangled polymers, it is a great resource (for both theorists and experimentalists), since it obviates the need to code up different theories, worry about visualization, do time-temperature superposition etc.

It is free, works on Windows, and has some very nice tutorials.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Shadow Scholar

Interesting article in the Chronicle called the Shadow Scholar - the man who writes your students' papers tells his story.

I liked this part:
From my experience, three demographic groups seek out my services: the English-as-second-language student; the hopelessly deficient student; and the lazy rich kid.

For the last, colleges are a perfect launching ground—they are built to reward the rich and to forgive them their laziness. Let's be honest: The successful among us are not always the best and the brightest, and certainly not the most ethical. My favorite customers are those with an unlimited supply of money and no shortage of instructions on how they would like to see their work executed. While the deficient student will generally not know how to ask for what he wants until he doesn't get it, the lazy rich student will know exactly what he wants. He is poised for a life of paying others and telling them what to do. Indeed, he is acquiring all the skills he needs to stay on top.
I also found this line strangely reassuring :).
As long as it doesn't require me to do any math or video-documented animal husbandry, I will write anything.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Why are there so many chemicals in our food?

I recently ate some great Fuji apples from Sam's Club.

Shiny red, extremely crunchy, with just the right hint of sourness to lift the underlying sweetness.

My curiosity drove me to the label (they came boxed). There, hidden in fine print (our farmers have learned from our bankers!), were the following items:
Treated to maintain freshness with one or more of the following: diphenylamine, thiabendazole, o-phenylphenol, ethoxyquin, 1-methylcyclopropene.
Coated with food grade vegetable and/or shellac based wax.
So I thought I'd structure my regular stroll through WikipediaLand, on a fine Saturday morning, by trying to learn more about these chemicals, and their adverse effects, if any.

Diphenylamine is used as a pre- or postharvest scald inhibitor for apples. Scald, or storage scald, are irregular brown patches of dead skin that start appearing within a week after warming fruit that has previously been preserved cold. Diphenylamine prevents oxidation, which is the principal cause of scald, and hence minimizes storage scald.

The MSDS sheet has the following to say regarding toxicity: "Toxic. Possible mutagen. Possible teratogen. Harmful in contact with skin, and if swallowed or inhaled. Irritant."

Next I turned to Thiabendazole, which apparently is used to control mold, blight, and other fungally-caused diseases. It appears to be relatively innocuous, with slight toxicity in higher doses. There seems to be no evidence for mutagenic or carcinogenic effects.

Similarly, ortho-phenylphenol is also a fungicide, and is apparently found in low concentrations in some household products including spray disinfectants and aerosol or spray underarm deodorants. Its toxicity seems to be controversial, with suppliers insisting that it is safe, while watch-groups suggest otherwise.

Ethoxyquin is another antioxidant, and apparently has been shown to cause mortality in fish. It does seem to present some toxicity concerns.

1-Methylcyclopropene (1-MCP) is an interesting one. From the wikipedia entry:
It is structurally related to the natural plant hormone ethylene and it is used commercially to slow down the ripening of fruit and to help maintain the freshness of cut flowers. The use of 1-MCP in agricultural products including apples, kiwifruit, tomatoes, bananas, plums, persimmons, avacados and melons has been approved and accepted for use in more than 34 countries including the European Union and the United States. Although there are benefits to the consumer including fresher produce and lower cost, there is some concern that consumers may be purchasing fruit that is older than expected.
Based on studies with laboratory animals, no adverse effects are expected to humans who are exposed to end products that contain 1-MCP, although eye irritation may occur if a user does not follow label directions. 1-MCP as a gas is not toxic to test animals.
Moral of the story: Never, ever forget to wash.

And yeah, the title of the post is misleading.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

More Untrained Minds

I recently posted some of my thoughts on untrained minds. They constantly impress me.

I found out another interesting instance on a recent post at Tanya Khovanova's blog. She was teaching one-way functions (functions which are easy to compute but hard to invert - like the product of two large prime numbers), which are useful in cryptography, to eighth-graders.

Her simple "phone-book" example of encoding something like "sun" would be to find last names in a given phonebook that started with the letters "s", "u" and "n", and concatenating the corresponding phone numbers. Putting them together is easy, but inverting is non-trivial.

Here's what happened in her own words:
And one of my 8th graders said, “If I were Bob, I would just call all the phone numbers and ask their last names.”

Friday, November 5, 2010

Lecture on Bottled v/s Tap Water

In this nearly hour long video lecture, delivered at the California Academy of Sciences, the speaker talks about how bottled water is really not as safe as we think it is.

Consumption of bottled water in the US has grown nearly exponentially since the 1970s. Interestingly consumption over the last couple of years seems to have abruptly declined (not merely a decrease in the rate of growth).

Check it out, although you may not learn anything that you didn't already know or suspect.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Is academic research a good investment?

The recent financial crisis has seen increasing pressure on research universities to justify the cost/benefit ratio for the "goods" they deliver, as seen through numerous "viral" articles such as this WSJ story from Texas A&M (see a response, H/T nanopolitan).

Last week, our college dean emailed us another article (pdf) from a conservative Texas think tank called Texas Public Policy Foundation. The article is not new (circa 2008), but given the wave of austerity measures hitting Europe, and a likely round of further spending cuts in the US, it is timely.

To summarize, the article thinks academic research is an extraordinary waste of tax-payer money, and it comes up with some recommendations.
  1. emphasize teaching
  2. separate useful and esoteric research
  3. review the PhD "glut"
While the article oversimplifies complicated issues, like a toy model of a complex physical phenomenon, the oversimplified model still provides some lessons.

Personally, I do think higher education needs some fixing. Some of the issues mentioned in the article are issues that have bothered me before. I hope academia takes a good hard look at itself, and really tries to institute reform from within (instead of publishing it as a paper!).

For if we don't change it from the inside-out, then it may be destroyed from the outside-in.