Have you hugged a chemist this year?

In case you were unaware, 2011 is the International Year of Chemistry. It has a fancy logo and everything.

No word yet as to whether the IYC has successfully lobbied to change the atomic number of carbon to 2011.

According to the IYC website, the purpose of the year is to have “a worldwide celebration of the achievements of chemistry and its contributions to the well-being of humankind.” That makes what I do sound vaguely important.

It was conceived by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. IUPAC is famous for coming up with all the horrible nomenclature rules you may have had to learn to label chemicals if you have ever taken chemistry. They are also famous for their fancy logo, which is WAY cooler than the IYC logo.

I see some globe type things, a balance, a flask, and something that looks like a cannon. I sort of looks like a face, and the guy has a moustache. Or maybe a pipe. Or perhaps it’s supposed to be testicles. It sort of looks like that too. Someone should tell testicles that they shouldn’t be smoking a pipe. Anyway, IUPAC wanted chemistry to have a little party, but they wanted it to last a whole year and wanted to make sure that EVERYONE nerdy was going to come. So they invited UNESCO to come along. UNESCO likes cake, so the IYC was born.

I’m not entirely sure where I was planning on going with this. You see, I donated blood tonight, and my head is a tad fuzzy at the moment. I feel like I have the attention span of a grapefruit.

Yep. This is a grapefruit.

Or maybe some ADHD kid trying to eat a grapefruit, but maybe wants to be eating cupcakes or paste or something instead. Or whatever.

Why the hell was this ever embroidered on something?

Hey look, here’s what news contains grapefruit today:

The suspense is killing me. Will he? Won't he? Even if he know's he'll strike out? What is a Florida Governor Rick Scott to do?

Anyway, I think what triggered this was a friend sharing this video, wherein an animated character suddenly has an existential crisis because chemistry stops being a thing.

It turns out that the American Chemical Society makes a ton of other videos, all equally entertaining for young and old, including this one that ruins magic.

If you want to delve further into IYC and the massive black hole of fun that is chemistry, there are other activities you could do to participate, like:

The excitement just never ends.

So, bow down to mighty chemistry, or it will smite ye good. And each time you see a chemist in 2011, give him or her a big hug. Don’t tell them why. They’ll know.

Grapefruit again: I’m still not sure where I was going with this. I actually think chemistry is somewhat cool, but I think I’ve just managed to be slightly sarcastic about this. I also don’t know how to end this. Perhaps I should plan this sort of thing out better if I’m going to post semi-regularly. Or just not post after donating blood.

Here, I drew you a shitty picture of chemistry to make up for it:

Erlenmeyer flask, bitches.

Posted in Uncategorized, Vaguely Sciencey | 4 Comments

Snowstorm: The Musical: Live!

If you are Canadian, unless you actively avoid the news, you have probably heard about today’s snowstorm. It’s been reported in national news since Sunday:

It’s somewhat understandable that it makes national news, given that a large portion of Canada’s population lives in the path of the storm, and that a good number of flights go through Pearson Airport. The lead-up to the storm was a little much, but I guess it was a slow news week. Except for that Egypt thing, maybe.

Last time there was a big winter storm in the GTA, I believe the media referred to it as “snowmageddon,” and Toronto got maybe 6 inches of snow.

It sounds at least reasonably bad out there. Toronto Star is covering it… live!.

And the main page link makes it sound like a musical.

Snowstorm... LIVE!

Note the use of the bike in the photo. This speaks to me. It says, “Hey look, this guy bikes in the storm of the century, but you are too wimpy to bike when there are flurries.”

Anyway, that’s not negligible damage they are reporting, my friends; no businessmen will be drinking wine en route to nearby cities via Porter this morning, which is tragic. Pearson has 300 cancelled flights, so far. And Environment Canada says it’s “pretty bad.” The Toronto District School Board has cancelled classes, and several campuses have cancelled classes, although so far, not mine.

I'd feel pretty good about staying in bed and slowly morphing into Jabba the Hut today, U of T. And I'd feel a lot better about doing so if I knew that it was dangerous enough to get to campus that you'd cancel classes for lowly undergrads. Thanks for NOTHING.

But you may have other questions, and less selfish ones than “What the hell am I supposed to do with my kid NOW?” Such as, “How might this storm affect the common man?” “What would Snowstorm: The Musical sound like when not reported on by the liberal elite?” “But can we still move really expensive research equipment in this weather?”

Lucky for you, I decided to live blog this event for you at no extra charge. I’ll update sporadically throughout the day, so you can wait by your browser and impulsively hit the refresh button like a crack-addicted lab rat pumps his cocaine lever. Here is some theme music for day:

(Yes, I think someone actually made that.)

To make this easier, I will name the snowstorm. I am going to call him Larry. Hi, Larry!

This is what the Larry looks like from my living room, as seen with my super-high-quality camera phone:

This is what Larry looks like from my living room, but from a different window that is next to my computer desk:

Larry looks fluffy and soft. Like a kitten.

And that is all I have for now.

UPDATE (9:09 AM): Just for the record, I am well aware that no one will actually sit in front of my blog and hit refresh like some sort of crack rat.

UPDATE (9:20 AM): Outside. Disappointed that I am not awash in a sea of ice. I was sort of hoping that visibilty would be so low that I couldn’t see my phone well enough to type. Also that it would be cold enough for hands to fall off.


Oops, that was Edmonton from a couple of weeks ago.

This is much more anti-climactic.

UPDATE (9:26 AM): I only pray that if I fall on the way to the subway that someone finds me in all this snow.

This was about the pinnacle of Larry, depth-wise, that I encountered.

UPDATE (9:44 AM): Good news: Larry did not interrupt Coke delivery this morning.

UPDATE (9:46 AM): Also, I’m typing this on an iPhone as I walk, so as you can imagine, the snow must be of epic proportions.

Thank goodness some kind soul has offered me this small reprieve from the relentless snow.

UPDATE (9:50 AM): Something interesting to report: I just saw a pink co-op taxi.

UPDATE (10:25 AM): Phone changed my title again. And I’m missing a post. The gist of it: “Seriously, Larry? Not even a TTC delay? Honestly.” Blargh! Fortunately I am safe indoors from Larry’s frightening grasp and on my laptop.

Also, photos now!

Another exciting development is that a friend has informed me that CityTV has a Storm Centre, which should meet all your winter storm needs.

Apparently they had a feature on Larry for a full 20 minutes on Monday and how he was planning on ravaging Toronto. And they didn’t bring up the meteorology of winter storms even once. That’s not vaguely sciencey at ALL, CityTV. I disapprove.

UPDATE (11:03 AM): Toronto Star has not yet admitted in their LIVE! coverage that there isn’t much of an issue with the snow:

Be careful, though: there are still a few more centimetres to come. And visibility is only half a kilometre at the moment, which according to Google Earth, is roughly the distance between Dundas and Queen along Spadina Avenue, and roughly two orders of magnitude larger than the average distance between moving cars in the GTA.

UPDATE (11:11 AM): Now the main page of the Star looks like this:

And now the musical is: “Live From Egypt: Unrest and Violence!” Coverage is complete with these duelling photo features:

I love Toronto.

UPDATE (11:20 AM): I was so busy making screencaps that I neglected to notice that our friend, Larry, is dead:

Godspeed you on your way, sweet Larry.

I suggest you celebrate surviving the great storm of ’11 by feeding your inner dagron with today’s Groupon; what better way is there to commemorate this shared experience than with shared consumerism?

UPDATE (11:49 AM): Since everyone else is posting it…

I’m off to go move an expensive analytical instrument now. I imagine I will be more or less completely unimpeded by the warpath left by Larry.

UPDATE (12:28 PM): Somewhere, a cyclist says, “But they haven’t cleared the bike lanes yet.”

UPDATE (3:48 PM): So it appears campus movers closed today, based on the observations that they aren’t answering their phones and they never showed up to move my equipment, which wasted 4 hours of my day.

And so, in closing, screw you, Larry.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

One-sentence Wednesdays: childhood trauma edition

Once, when I went to a hypnotist show in middle school, the people on stage had to think everyone in the audience was a celebrity during the intermission, and someone came up to me and asked for Rick Moranis’ autograph.

I was reminded of this experience thanks to Hyperbole and a Half, from which I read many posts instead of doing work this weekend.

Posted in One-Sentence Wednesdays | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Fat people should, like, stop being fat, you know?

Last post, I wrote about how threatening to decapitate obese people is, apparently, not an ideal way of getting them stop being so damn obese all the time.

Have you stopped being obese yet? No? Damn.

I decided that in the spirit of self-flagellation, it might be fun to look at some of the online comments on this article. Here is one:

I felt there were a number of notable things about this comment.

  1. The Globe and Mail comment system has something they call a score. Anything that makes the internet more like a competition automatically makes it 73% more awesome. I was hoping there was some sort of magical algorithm that calculates the score based on content (e.g.: +4 points for using the phrase “smiling dolphin,” -2 points for “fiscal responsibility,” +3 points for “ravenous thunderclaw,” etc.), but alas, it is simply a super-boring method of “Votes Up” – “Votes Down.” At the time of the screencap, PoliSciMajor has 41 points, and therefore, wins the game of commenting and must have the best comment. I wasn’t able to come up with an objective way of judging this, and I am forever indebted to the Globe and Mail for crowdsourcing this highly distressing process for me.
  2. Since PoliSciMajor is, presumably, a poli sci major, clearly she is already overqualified to speak on matters of obesity.
  3. She doesn’t seem to like her roommate that much.

It’s also representative of a good chunk of comments. There are some reasonable people on there, for sure, but most of the high score (THUNDERCLAW!) comments may be summed up reasonably well by “I’m not fat but I think fat people are lazy and eat too much except for the fat people who have clear medical issues that cause them to be fat in the first place in which case I’m okay with them being fat but obviously there are only about 5 people who are actually fat because they are like that so I don’t like fat people because they are whiny and lazy and fat.” This stock comment can be adjusted for desired level of vitriol, spelling, and grammar.

Well, one goal I had with this blog was to try to start writing about some sciencey stuff, because, well, I’m a scientist.

A dramatization

Occasionally, scientists like to do ground breaking research that not only could help humanity, but also allow people the world over understand each other better, fostering respect and creating utopia for all.

However, scientists don’t necessarily communicate their research well to the general public. Or, more accurately, the message is so diluted by the time it hits the media, little science is actually left:

(I had to use this article as an example, seeing as I saw it on Bike Snob NYC, and it turned up in my search for air pollution news, AND I totally wear that outfit every time I’m on a bike. It was too serendipitous to pass up.)

Anyway, this article goes on to tell you that some pollutants cause (gasp!) certain effects on the lungs. And that sometimes it might not happen! If you present the information in this kind of way, you will often get one of two reactions:

  1. I’m not sure if this is saying anything, so I’ll just continue doing what I’m doing.

Granted, a lot of people are pretty low in the spectrum that is scientific literacy, so it’s hard to tell people what this is really saying, which is sometimes you find a statistically significant effect of air pollution on a given health effect (or an endpoint, as it is often called in this medical/epidemiological studies); sometimes, you don’t. One of the reasons we know air pollution is a health problem is that Harvard found a high correlation between particulate matter and dead people. You probably can’t read this article unless you are affiliated with some sort of university library, but I’ll poorly summarise it here:

However, some “endpoints” more subtle than dead people are harder to prove. Epidemiology is kind of fickle this way. I think of this branch of science as having three distinct charms:

  1. Studies cost a lot of money;
  2. They take a really long time; and
  3. They often end up not proving anything.

All these reasons incidentally, are why I’m glad I’m a chemist and not an epidemiologist.

Anyway, the major result is that you end up getting a big divide between which science and what the general public knows about the subject at hand. Returning to the original topic of obesity, for example:


General public

Trenta, of course, is the new stomach-sized beverage volume that you can get at Starbucks, and is exactly the type of beverage that those fatty-fat-fats like to consume.

Note that you can obtain the same effect by ordering a Venti and a Tall, consuming both, and letting 29 mL of your beverage slowly leak out of you mouth. This effectiveness of this alternate method is maximised if you are a male with facial hair.

Originally, I thought I might look for a review paper that went over the current state of knowledge about obesity. A review article, for any non-scientist readers, is a peer-reviewed article (i.e., an article that has received a gold star of approval from other scientists) in which a scientist talks about the work that a bunch of other scientists have done so that lazy people like me only have to read one paper instead of fifty to get the information they need. I’m not an obesity scientist by any stretch of the imagination (I study air pollution), but I think I could at least get a reasonably decent counter-argument by reading a review paper. Right?

It was very shortly thereafter I discovered that there is an entire goddamn journal dedicated to review articles on obesity research.

Unfortunately for the International Association for the Study of Obesity, they neglected to read online comment boards and realise that solving obesity is simply a matter of eating less, exercise more, and generally doing fewer things that make you a Fat-Ass. They would also have saved themselves the trouble of having to edit three other journals, publishing so much unnecessary research.

The moral of this long-winded story is that if several people are actually doing research on something, chances are we don’t fully understand the issue, and chances are that your conclusions on the subject are horribly misguided. I think the world would be a happier place if we could all just accept this, and then we’d have more time to play outside. (Which is what solves obesity, silly!)

And then, all we would have to worry about is air pollution again:

Playing outside is generally A-OK if the pollution you are exposed to is mostly made up of the number 2.

Running while breathing in pollution comprised mostly of the number 7 will likely cause you stop and question the meaning of your existence.

Posted in Vaguely Sciencey | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Screw bike lanes, let them eat cupcakes!

On yesterday’s post, a reader (well, okay… my sister. But I say “a reader,” it creates the illusion that I have a readership out there) suggested that cyclists could just wear cute and cuddly animal costumes. Who would care if they got hit by a panda? Pandas are cute as hell.

Screw you, fancy-pants Amsterdam winter cyclists. Ima wear me some panda suit.

It seems that Karen Stintz’s plan the “get those damn young people dirty hippie cyclists off my lawn the sidewalk” strategy is at least shifting some of the focus away from the TTC cutback issues, as the Toronto Star ran this today:

Yep. That's also a bike.

The province decided two years ago that electric bikes should be governed by the same rules as regular bicycles. That decision changed the implications of at least one bylaw. Bicycles with a wheel diameter of more than 61 centimetres cannot go on Toronto sidewalks, but smaller ones can.

Since Vespa-style electric bikes or scooters are built with smaller wheels, the outdated bylaw allows some e-bikers to legally use sidewalks.

“So we have these people whipping along the sidewalks at 32 km/h on a vehicle that can weigh a couple hundred pounds, with a rider,” Smith said. “This is what’s causing us concern.”

As it stands, bicycles are legally obligated to stay off the sidewalk. E-bikes, on the other hand, are not only allowed to occupy large amounts of space in a bike lane and then proceed to travel slower than an actual bicycle, have free rein to stealthily roam the sidewalks as they see fit, taking out nuns and dog-walkers as they see fit.

That's supposed to be a spear, if you couldn't tell.

Actually, I’m not sure if those wheels are less than 61 cm in diameter. But if they were, watch out.

Now, seeing as getting drivers in Toronto to stop being crazy so cyclists don’t have to dear dying while riding on the street (which, as we all know, is way less of an issue than pedestrians being killed by bikes, or cars, for that matter) is clearly not an option, I foolished suggested beheading cyclists with razor wire. However, The Globe and Mail pointed out that cutting the heads off obese people does not, in fact, help combat obesity:

The Globe and Mail learns that it takes more than a photograph to cure health problems.

“The headless stomach” is how Rebecca Puhl, the director of research at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., describes the phenomenon.

There is no doubt that the media portrayal of people who are obese – it ranges from sneering to pitying in everything from TV sitcoms to daily newspapers – is quite negative.

The implicit message in the cutting-off-the-heads approach is that obesity is shameful. So too is the condescending language, such as that used above (deliberately) like “big butts.”

I, for one, was not terribly surprised that taunting and maligning someone for their appearance does not goad them into becoming thin. Perhaps, however, writers at the Globe have taken a basic sensitivity training session recently and found out that they learned a lot about themselves. Soon, I hope to see the following article pop up:

Instead, like how we half-heartedly encourage cyclists to get off the @$%^#$@ sidewalk (we’ll give you a few separated bike lanes, and in return you’ll continue to let us run you down with a Lincoln Navigator. We cool? We cool), we can insensitively lure the morbidly obese onto bikes the same we do with women: cupcakes!

I don't like cupcakes, but she DOES make this look appealing...

Why might I look this up today? Well, the folks over at bikingtoronto.com (the website for that is bikingtoronto.com) posted this on their twitter page today:

Now, I’m not a big fan of cupcakes. For one thing, icing is pretty gross. Also, I sort of saw cupcake joints as a bit of a weird hipster fad, along with burritos, tiny bars with weird names, indie coffee shops and local food (all of which I totally get behind, lest the hipster police come and revoke my hipster card, which I have a rather tenuous grasp on already). For god’s sake, just eat a slice of a whole cake. But, as it turns out, I was wrong:

Now, every good scientist knows that absolute numbers aren’t necessarily the best metric to use. I mean, no hipster would ever admit to being a hipster, after all, so those numbers are naturally going to be low. So, proportions are the way to go here.

This highly scientific study shows us that while 12% of hipsters like cupcakes, a full 72% of cyclists like cupcakes! Really, I’m in danger of losing my cyclist card. And how am I ever going to learn how to love cupcakes if I can’t get invited on these ladies-only cupcake bike tours? I mean, based on my other exhaustive research, there are clearly a lot of men who like to ride their bikes and eat their pink-frosted miniature cake products, too.

I also don’t think my suggestion for a name will work out. But at least I’m trying.

Posted in BikeTO | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Bikes skulk city streets, prey on nuns

So, I’m a day late on this. But I’m slow on the uptake.

Anyway, as others have already pointed out, Toronto City Councillor Karen Stintz of Ward 16 (Eglinton-Lawrence) wants to get rid of cyclists on sidewalks in the city.

You may know Ms. Stintz as the TTC chair at the moment, since council is in the midst of mercilessly slashing transit service providing enhanced customer service and smaller government, in line with the new government’s priorities. You may also remember Ms. Stintz from her earlier days as a shrill councillor (note to self: $3875 for French lessons = gravy train; $4500 for public speaking lessons = Rob Ford in tights).

Much has been said so far of the rather convenient timing of the issue given that Stintz is currently trying to placate a number of angry bus riders (no more than 250 000 of them, though), including a number of kick-ass roller derby chicks:

Seriously... why fight women involved in roller derby? You can't fight them armed only with good diction.

Also, much has been made that realistically, a recent count found that maybe 5% of cyclists actually rode on the sidewalk:

Real women use rollerskates to commute.

However, this count was done downtown, and not in the sidewalk-cycling hotbed of Scarborough-Agincourt, where Ward 39 councillor Mike Del Grande was hit twice while walking his dog:

No word yet on whether city council will warn dog walkers of the imminent danger they face.

It’s a little unclear what, exactly, Stintz wants to do about cyclists on the sidewalk. According to the Toronto Sun, the approach is “come up with a new approach.” According to CBC, she wants to enforce the bylaw banning cyclists from sidewalks (no word, however, on whether or not they plan to enforce the bylaw via some sort of stern warning keeping cars out of bike lanes, but judging on the parking enforcement van there, I wouldn’t get my hopes up).

One side of the story the Toronto cycling community (cyclommunity?) hasn’t addressed, though, is that these sidewalk menaces are preying on nuns!

Sister Mary Sibbald, a Toronto nun, likes the idea of cracking down.

“They are a menace sometimes on the sidewalk,” she said of sidewalk cyclists. “They come behind you so quietly and so surreptitiously.”

Surreptitiously, for those who may not possess the vocabulary imparted to those in the convent, implies that the cyclists are keeping this on the hush-hush, for dear that their nun-hunting ways would not be approved by general society. Can you blame them though? Nuns are clearly the most beloved segment of our society. Sure, they may have some questionable history, but how can cyclists sleep at night with all these terrified nuns, too frightened to once again roam their natural habitat of the streets of Toronto? This is something we just can’t tolerate.

My personal vote is for invisible razor wire to be strategically placed on all sidewalks, which can only be seen by special goggles worn by pedestrians, leading to the beheading of those rogue sidewalk bikers and their child-sized mountain bikes.

In all seriousness, if you ride your bike on the sidewalk at a speed much faster than a walk when there are people around, you are a bit of a jerk. But, realistically, Scarborough isn’t exactly known for its bike-friendly streets. As is always said, enforcement should only be strict if you are planning on putting in the appropriate infrastructure for those cyclists you are kicking off the sidewalk to ride safely on the road. I’m pretty comfortable on city roads, and I’ve been hit by cars three times; twice from cars pulling into bike lanes without looking, and one door prize.

By all means, cyclists should be on the roads and off the sidewalks as much as is humanly possible, but the responsibility to evoke that change belongs to more than just cyclists and law enforcement.

Posted in BikeTO | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments