Archive for the ‘Ranting’ Category


Soup deniers must be confronted

January 2, 2013

Perhaps I’m just grouchy due to grant-writing pressure and a cold, but today I got very upset at the fact that Nissin’s slogan for its Cup Noodles is: “MUCH MORE THAN A SOUP.”

A cup of Cup Noodles contains lots of ramen noodles and a few peas, kernels of corn, bits of meat, etc. floating in a salty broth. It is, in a word, soup. It so perfectly embodies the concept of soup that no word other than “soup” really applies.

I recognize that making Cup Noodles sound exciting is a significant marketing challenge. But why use a slogan that is the exact opposite of the truth?

Please, Nissin — it’s time to bring your years of denial to a close. Your product is indisputably a soup, a whole soup, and nothing but a soup. The sooner you can swallow that, the better.

[Related: Much more than a soup! by VicimusGegan]


Caution: statements of the obvious ahead

December 2, 2012

In the spirit of The most ridiculous caution signs ever, here’s one we saw tonight in the Fred Meyer parking lot while the rain poured down.

Fred is all wet


Fred Meyer’s ever-increasing generosity

September 15, 2012

a bargain at Fred Meyer

An automatic but imperceptible price reduction. Maybe the savings are in the third decimal place?


Pet peeve: teachers who ask you, on behalf of their fictitious students, to add links to your website

September 13, 2012

Every few months I get an email like this one regarding my faculty website.

Good morning Greg!

My name is [name] and I am a [teacher/tutor/aide] at [school district] in [state]. My students have been using your webpage, __________________, and brought to my attention how helpful it has been for their [related topic] project!

One of the girls, [name of student], suggested another resource, as a thank you: [link to slightly related web page, often hosted by a domain with no obvious connection to the topic]

Would you mind adding it to your page? I think it would be a great help to your visitors! I researched the article and it is very educational which is why I agreed to write to you when she asked me yesterday.

We would like to thank you again for the wonderful resources and hope that you add our newly discovered resource to your page! Let me know if you add it, as I would love to show her the suggestion up…it would be a great motivator for her peers to see too!

Have a wonderful day!

[email address from an education-related domain, but not affiliated with a specific school district]

Perhaps a similarly generic response is in order.

Dear [name],

I know as well as you that websites are ranked by search engines according to their credibility, which is measured in part by the number of other websites that link to them. I know that certain people get hired to promote the addition of links to certain businesses’ sites. And I know that you are one of them. Shame on you.

Perhaps, [name], you ease your conscience by rationalizing that there’s no harm in politely suggesting a link for someone’s website. I agree with that. However, when you write that your students were using my web page, and found it useful, and one of them suggested a link that you are now forwarding to me, YOU ARE LYING. I don’t know whether or not you’re an educator, [name], or whether or not you have a student named [name of student], but that student, if she exists, did not suggest the link. You did. And you’re not forwarding it “as a thank you” but because you’re getting paid to do so.

Please cease this dishonest activity immediately.

Greg Crowther

A lot of people out there are getting these emails, and some of them are getting fooled. Just do a Google search for “Would you mind adding it to your page?” or “it would be a great motivator for her peers” or one of the other telltale phrases.


Summary of “Bluebeard’s Castle” by Bela Bartok, as performed by the Seattle Symphony

May 18, 2012

[Bluebeard has just married his fourth wife, Judith, and they have arrived at his castle, which includes seven locked chambers.]

Opened_Rooms = 0.

WHILE (Opened_Rooms < 7) DO


Judith: “Let’s open this door.”

Bluebeard: “I don’t think it should be opened. Why don’t you just kiss me instead? You are beautiful!”

Judith: “Bluebeard, I love you, but we must open the door and let the light in. Give me the key.”

Bluebeard: “Are you sure you want the key?”

Judith: “Let me have the key. Wait — what’s that scary whistling sound?”

Bluebeard: “It’s the wind.”

Judith: “Oh. I’m kind of fearful now, but I still want the key.”

Bluebeard: “Well, I suppose you can have this key. Just this one.”

Judith [opens door to reveal a glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly]: “This is beautiful! Your castle is beautiful! I love you! … Hey, why is there blood on the floor of the chamber? Whose blood is that?”

Opened_Rooms = Opened_Rooms +1.



Arguing about education via anecdote

December 8, 2011

A post from three days ago — When an adult took standardized tests forced on kids — has been generating a lot of buzz. I’m not sure it’s for the right reasons, though.

In brief, a school board member in Orange County, Florida took the standardized math and reading tests given to 10th-grade students in his district, scored poorly, and concluded that the tests are deeply flawed.

The school board member is to be commended for undergoing these tests firsthand, and the experience may have afforded him good insight into the tests’ limitations. But I’m not ready to simply swallow the reasoning that can be paraphrased as, “I’m a successful person in the real world, and I did badly on the tests; therefore the tests are lousy indicators of how well our schools are preparing students for the real world.” That is one plausible interpretation, but here are some others.

• “Like some other students, I am not good at standardized tests. I tend to score poorly even on fair tests that are aligned to well-reviewed standards. I am a successful educator due in large part to strengths that cannot easily be measured by mass-administered tests. Therefore my poor test performance is neither surprising nor a cause for great concern, but simply a reminder that no brief standardized test can perfectly predict real-world performance on complex tasks.”

• “I have been out of high school for decades, during which time I have forgotten almost all of what I learned back then, save the content that remains relevant to my work as an adult. Also, the curriculum has changed since I was in school. My poor performance on the test simply reflects that, as a highly specialized professional who graduated a long time ago, I do not remotely resemble the test’s target audience of young, not-yet-specialized students.”

[Other insighful comments on this topic can be found at Cassandra’s Tears, Scientific American, and Uncertain Principles.]


Plagiarism: you’re all guilty!

June 14, 2011

My friend Jeremy sent me this link yesterday: U of Alberta dean stole speech.

It’s easy to laugh at Dr. Philip Baker, who apparently thought he could get away with reusing a published speech by Atul Gawande, one of America’s most famous surgeons. But the fact is that many, many college faculty are guilty of plagiarism — i.e., the use of others’ work without proper attribution — even though they don’t think of it as such.

When I go to an academic talk, there’s at least a 25% chance that the speaker’s slides will include one or more images (clip art, cartoons, photos, etc.) that weren’t generated by his/her research group, but whose original source is not listed anywhere in the slide deck or mentioned orally.

It’s not a sin equal to Dr. Baker’s, but it’s still plagiarism.


Is a waste of taxpayer money?

May 26, 2011

Sen. Tom Coburn, M.D. of Oklahoma has released a 73-page critique of the National Science Foundation titled Under the Microscope. It includes descriptions of about 50 NSF-funded projects that Sen Coburn considers “questionable.” Among these is an undergraduate biology education project, known online as, led by Wendy Silk of UC-Davis and me.

The report states:

…Using these funds, Drs. Silk and Crowther have produced and/or highlighted an entire database of online videos featuring songs about science. Dr. Crowther has personally wrote [sic], recorded, and uploaded dozens of songs, including the “Money 4 Drugz” rap video, a song more about getting funding than about science itself…. Other songs composed by Dr. Crowther found on the website include “Glucose, Glucose,” set to the tune of “Sugar, Sugar,” and “Myofibrils” sung to the beat of “My Sharona.” In total, Dr. Crowther has recorded more than 20 videos found on the website, which proudly proclaims it is funded by the National Science Foundation.

This section of the report concludes, “NSF should stick to science and leave music and rap to the recording industry.”

I feel compelled to address two distinct aspects of the report. First, its summary of our project is highly misleading. It states that (1) we have received NSF funding and (2) we have made a bunch of science song videos. These points are true, but the implication that the funding has primarily been used to create the songs and videos is false. In fact, upon awarding this grant, NSF specifically asked us not to focus on creating songs, and we have honored the request. Instead, Wendy and I have worked to build a network of interested educators, scientists, and musicians, and to develop online tools to support their activities. The merits of these efforts can be debated, but the dozens of emails I’ve received from K-16 teachers complimenting me on our online database suggest that we are doing something right.

(Also, to nitpick a bit, “Glucose, Glucose” and “Myofibrils” were written and recorded in 2004, six years before the start of the NSF grant, and I have uploaded a total of six science song videos, not more than 20, and these are hosted by YouTube, not But I digress.)

What’s most important here, however, is not the senator’s misconceptions about our particular project but rather his broader implication that music has no place in the realm of science. I emphatically disagree.

Sen. Coburn opens his report with a letter to taxpayers in which he says, “We are all concerned about America falling behind the rest of the world in math and science. ” This concern is completely appropriate. So what can we do to make America more scientifically literate? As a graduate of medical school and a practicing physician, Sen. Coburn presumably finds science both understandable and interesting. Sadly, this is not true of a majority of Americans. How can we engage these not-scientifically-inclined students and adults? How can we show them that a solid understanding of science is both within their reach and enriching to their lives?

There is no simple answer, but we’d be foolish not to consider music as a potential way of reaching these reluctant learners of science. Beyond its vital role in helping people memorize foundational facts, music can remove many barriers to learning, as detailed by Merryl Goldberg in her book “Arts integration: teaching subject matter through the arts in multicultural settings,” now in its 4th edition. In my own classroom teaching, I’ve received anonymous student comments such as, “The fact that you would do live performances personally showed me your dedication and enthusiasm for the class, which also helped encourage mine.” Songs won’t help EVERY student learn more science, but why not make them available to those who can benefit?

Wendy and I are by no means the first people to have stumbled upon the idea of teaching science and math through music. There are hundreds of commercially available CDs designed for this specific purpose (see for examples), and thousands if not millions of parents, teachers and students use such CDs. Doesn’t it seem worthwhile to figure out how to use these songs most effectively?

Sen. Coburn asks readers of his report to consider three questions in evaluating NSF projects: “Is this research potentially transformative? Does it represent an important scientific idea? Is it an appropriate expenditure of federal funds at a time when our national debt is over $14 trillion?”

These are reasonable questions. Based on my own experiences, I would answer: Yes, this work is transformative; I’ve personally seen science students transformed from bored onlookers into enthusiastic participants. That makes it potentially important as well. And spending $50,000 on such activities as maintaining the world’s best free online database of science and math songs, so that teachers and students (and others) can find songs relevant to scientific material they are covering? Sounds like a bargain to me.

[Related links: Scientists Cry Foul Over Report Criticizing National Science Foundation; Funny Science Sparks Serious Spat]


Critiquing media coverage of science

November 9, 2010

One of cranky scientists’ favorite activities is to complain about how the news media cover scientific advances. I’ve been pretty cranky lately, so, as a follow-up to my criticism of a recent journal article, I decided to complain about everyone else’s coverage of this article. Here’s the link to my latest outburst:

Marathoning Is Hard; So Is Science Journalism

Thanks to editor Mark Remy for taking an interest in my ranting.


"Marathoning made easy"? Um, not really

October 23, 2010

PLoS Computational Biology just published a study by Benjamin I. Rapoport titled “Metabolic Factors Limiting Performance in Marathon Runners.” The article is already generating some buzz, as exemplified by the Science News summary “Marathoning made easy.” I myself consider the article useful as a synthesis of previously published information on fuel usage during distance running. However, in my opinion, the extent to which this paper offers new insights or useful advice is being vastly overestimated.

As stated in the Abstract, the essence of the paper is:

The analytic approach presented here is used to estimate the distance at which runners will exhaust their glycogen stores as a function of running intensity. In so doing it also provides a basis for guidelines ensuring the safety and optimizing the performance of endurance runners, both by setting personally appropriate paces and by prescribing midrace fueling requirements for avoiding ‘the wall.’

The first sentence above covers the aspects of the paper that I consider most worthwhile. The author explains how the distance one can travel before running out of glycogen depends on exercise intensity and the amount of glycogen stored in the liver and muscles. This is well-trodden territory in the world of exercise physiology, but Rapoport provides equations for all of the key relationships. Writing out the equations is useful as a way of more carefully defining relationships that are often described qualitatively.

From these equations, Rapoport generates several complicated graphs, such as Figure 2. The conceptual basis of this figure is: (A) the faster you go, the more you rely on carbohydrates (as opposed to fat); (B) fit people (with a high VO2max) will use less carbohydrate at a given pace than unfit people (with a low VO2max); (C) having larger leg muscles allows you to store more glycogen; (D) glycogen levels can be increased by carbo-loading. Again, these are not new ideas, but trying to capture them all quantitatively in a figure is commendable.

A key point about Figure 2 and the equations underlying it is that they describe the relationships of variables on average. Rapoport certainly understands this and devotes a subsection of the Methods section to “Identifying and Quantifying Sources of Error.” What he does not fully appreciate, in my view, is that the many sources of variability between and within individuals make it virtually impossible to derive individual recommendations from his equations and graphs.

Let’s consider an example from the paper:

For runners of typical builds with glycogen stores loaded according to ordinary training regimes, this aerobic capacity [60 mL O2 per kilogram of body mass per minute] is marginally insufficient to run a marathon at the pace (13.3 kilometers per hour, or 7:15 per mile) required to finish in 3 hours 10 minutes, the current principal male qualifying time for the Boston Marathon…. This situation can be inferred from Figure 2, in which the green curve corresponding to a VO2max of approximately 60 mL O2 per kg per min intersects the lower limit of the shared ‘Glycogen Loading to Supercompensation’ region at a pace slightly slower than 3:10… The typical male runner hoping to run a qualifying time for the Boston Marathon must therefore either achieve some degree of supranormal glycogen loading (through a glycogen supercompensation protocol prior to the race) or strategically refuel during the race.

It’s fine to define a “typical” male (who in this case has a VO2max right at the 90th percentile before increasing it further through training) and estimate his carbohydrate needs, but who is really typical, and how do you know? This typical runner is not only assumed to have a very specific VO2max, but also a typical running economy (oxygen burned per distance traveled) and a fully glycogen-loaded liver (not true if he didn’t have a big breakfast after fasting overnight). The individual’s effective VO2max on race day may differ somewhat from his usual reading due to tapering or mild illness or whatever. In addition, the rate of glycogen use varies somewhat with factors such as time since the start of exercise, glycogen levels remaining, and body temperature.

If a runner hasn’t had his VO2max checked repeatedly by a reliable lab, estimates of glycogen use will be even less certain. As Rapoport explains, VO2max can be estimated from heart-rate data, but this introduces further uncertainty into the calculations.

Am I blowing the issue of inter- and intra-individual variability out of proportion? Consider, a web page created by Rapoport and “designed to enable endurance runners to determine safe, personalized racing paces over distances such as the marathon.” If I plug in the requested information — weight, age, resting heart rate, and target marathon time — I am told that a “Conservative Best Marathon Performance (Normal Glycogen Loading)” would be 3:20:07 and that an “Aggressive Best Marathon Performance (Maximal Glycogen Loading)” is 2:17:16. In other words, a bunch of intricate calculations based on typical parameters can predict the marathon time of an individual such as me … to within a one-hour window. Not very specific, is it?

This online calculator is in some ways a “worst-case scenario” because it estimates VO2max from resting heart rate, which in fact is a poor predictor of VO2max. But even with additional information, there will usually be a window of uncertainty that precludes personalized recommendations such as “Runner A needs to carbo-load, whereas Runner B does not.” The huge time ranges spit out by Rapoport’s website may be a tacit acknowledgment that truly exact pace prescriptions are not possible without a much more highly individualized analysis than what is provided by this study.

But there is an even more fundamental and important point here. Predicting whether runners need extra carbohydrates before or during a marathon is useful only if there are significant costs to ingesting these carbohydrates. That may be true in selected cases — some runners do overeat at pre-race pasta feeds to the point of discomfort, and others have finicky stomachs that don’t tolerate sports drinks well — but, in general, the problems associated with carbohydrate supplementation are minor. If ingesting extra carbohydrates before and during a marathon might help you avoid “hitting the wall,” why wouldn’t you do it? Especially after investing all of that time and effort in training, traveling to the race, etc.? Are runners really going to think, “This mathematical model tells me that, based on my physiological parameters, I should be able to run my goal pace for 27.7 miles with normal glycogen stores, so I’m not going to bother with carbo-loading?” Given the uncertainties associated with these calculations, wouldn’t it make sense to carbo-load (and grab Gatorade at aid stations) anyway, in case one’s actual rate of glycogen use is a bit higher than predicted?

Again, I believe Rapoport is at least somewhat cognizant of these uncertainty-related issues. However, his attempts to demonstrate the utility of his analysis leave me underwhelmed. He “validates” his model by comparing its predictions with experimental data published by Karlsson & Saltin (1971). He reports, that, on average, the actual glycogen use by the runners during a 30-kilometer race was about what was predicted, which is OK but provides no evidence that the predictions are accurate at an individual level. Moreover, given that exercise physiologists have been studying glycogen and endurance for over 40 years, comparison to a single study of a relatively homogeneous group (ten pretty fit physical education students) is not ideal.

Rapoport states that his paper “sheds physiologically principled light on … the qualifying times for the Boston Marathon.” What he actually shows is that there is a good chance that the typical male mentioned above will benefit from carbo-loading if aiming for a 3:10 (the standard for males 18 to 34), and that a benefit is slightly less likely for a female who has a VO2max of 52 and is aiming for a 3:40 (the standard for females (18 to 34). As far as I can tell, this observation has no real significance beyond suggesting that (A) it’s challenging for some people to qualify for Boston, (B) carbo-loading may help, and (C) the standards for males and females are not horribly misaligned. Didn’t we know that already?

Rapoport also makes a big deal of the fact that runners who have reported “hitting the wall” do so at about mile 21, on average. Figure 3 of his paper attempts to show that this is consistent with his equations for a wide range of runners. However, he assumes that the runners are operating at 80 to 95% of VO2max during their marathon, which is an overestimate for all but the fittest and most motivated athletes. Moreover, his curves show a broad range of distances at which the wall may be hit, consistent with anecdotal experience. The new analysis thus offers a rough confirmation of, but no particular insight beyond, the decades-old rule of thumb that people tend to hit the wall at mile 20 or so.

As I noted at the outset, there is merit in some aspects of this work. However, I suspect that the paper was reviewed by computational biologists with limited knowledge of exercise physiology. Reviewers with greater expertise in endurance exercise could have helped the author mold the paper into a more valuable contribution.