Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Aren't We Special?

Divided Over Evolution

Extracted from The New York Times: Divided Over Evolution

42% of us are content to discount everything science has told us about evolution and assume that we have always been what we are, how we are, because ... well, of course, we're special. I don't have as much of a problem with that 18% who feel we evolved over time with the guidance of God - heck, I can't disprove that and if it otherwise takes into account the reality of the fossil record and there indeed having been an evolving of the species, well then they're as much in line with reality as I would hope for a God believing person to be. Myself, I don't think God had much to do with it, but other than that on the major sticking points we can agree and that's fine. But 42% honest-to-God believe we just popped up here as we are, I guess that would be starting with Adam & Eve, and things have just gone forward, or wherever in their minds, from there.

I guess it's easy to pick on the 42%, and rightfully so really, but that 10% have no clue doesn't lend any comfort, and that 4% haven't made up their minds, well I have to conclude from this that it wouldn't be too hard to see that 42% jump to 50%. The article that this chart comes with, Teaching of Creationism Is Endorsed in New Survey says that 64% of the respondents say that creationism should be taught along with evolution, and 38% felt that evolution should be replaced by creationism. That we manage to get "teaching the controversy" up to 64% does fit the spread between those who believe we've always been what we are and those who don't know about who life evolved or otherwise don't know much at all, though that does suggest that a few from the "...evolved over time" camp jumped into the 64% group.

Do that many Americans see themselves as THAT special that they're above the throes of biology, or are we really that fouled up in our educating people in the sciences in this country? Not sure what the reason for this is, but whatever it is is definitely disconcerting.

Monday, August 29, 2005

"Hey buddy, can ya spare an F-18?"

In this evening's online NY Times I found Weapons Sales Worldwide Rise to Highest Level Since 2000 - once again the U.S. tops out the list as the foremost arms dealer on the planet. We racked up some $6.9 billion in arms deliveries to various nations, many of whom, such as India and Pakistan, are developing nations that should really have other priorities besides investing billions of dollars in limited riches in high-performance jet aircraft and the like. It's bad enough here when we can't provide decent healthcare to the average Jane or Joe on the street, some of whom are reduced to pulling out their own teeth in lieu of seeing a dentist that they can't afford, but these other nations have citizens by the millions who'd give up a mouthful of teeth to live the life of our Jane and Joe if only they were given the chance.

I'm not trying to make sense of it, nor do I intend to get on a soapbox about it much past what I've already done. It just makes no sense to me, though after 22 years in the Navy, with the last four in the Pentagon, I have to admit that in a perverse way I understand what sort of sense it makes and it ranks right up there with wanting to have the latest brand of sneakers or thinking that P. Diddy, or Puff Daddy, or Sean Combs, or whatever the heck he's calling himself these days, is someone important because he convinces us he is. There's a general lack of depth and a sense of what's important in life that spans all levels of a nation's citizenry, and indeed is truly international in nature.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

A Practical Chemistry Curriculum

I've reflected and written quite a bit here, here, and here about what chemistry teachers do and why, and how it seems that the profession is out of synch with where it should be going. In my view teaching a large body of students a subject like chemistry, in the vein it's taught in college, on the whole is a waste of student time and effort for those in high school who first will indeed go onto college, and second who will actually have a need for a college chemistry course, and that doesn't represent the majority of students in a high school chemistry class - for sure we're wasting the time of the overall majority. On the whole college instructors only want students who have basic math skills, have basic familiarity with the language and nomenclature of the subject, honed study habits, and the ability to work hard when it's required - it also happens that this pretty much agrees with what employers are looking for as well (see my What Should We Be Teaching in High School Chemistry?)

Let me break this down a bit more: Teaching chemistry as an introductory discipline is a waste of time for the simple reason that maybe 2 or 4 out of 25 students will actually have anything to do with the subject in any depth when they’re in college (let’s assume that 20 out of 25 will go onto college.) What I mean by “any depth” is that they’ll major in some aspect of chemistry, be it a chemistry degree or a biochemistry degree, with the latter usually being a prelude to medical school. Even if we were to make the assumption that more than 10% of the students were going into the discipline high school chemistry's still out of synch with what college instructors want them to know when they get there (see reference above), indeed there's little at all that a high school chemistry student won't get all over again when they get into a 101 and 102 college level chemistry course. Between that and what the students are naturally inclined to just plain old forget anyway (studies say about 70% or more of what they learn they flush), it’s any wonder we spend as much time on the subject, in the way we do, as we do.

So what’s the purpose of chemistry? Is it to prepare students to go into the discipline in college? Well we’re failing that inasmuch as our expectations and requirements are out of synch with the post-secondary instructors, and the fact is that most of the students won’t take chemistry in any depth in college so why all the effort? Somewhere along the way it was just likely simply considered a good thing to do, and that was at a time when far fewer students completed a secondary level education and college wasn’t nearly the presumed option that it is today. What’s expected by the students, their parents, and post-secondary level educators has evolved but it really doesn't seem that secondary level education itself has.

I agree that we need to engage, to capture, and to stimulate kids regarding the subject, but not so much for chemistry specifically as science in general and in some of the tools that go with the overall discipline, which are used extensively in chemistry. Part of what’s required for that is to convince them that what comes with chemistry is indeed important to them, and that’s not that an acid plus a base yields water and a salt, but analytical thinking, practical mathematical application, and the simple practice of properly framing a problem and being able to solve it are all essential, in fact mandatory skills for anyone going into a workforce that’s highly competitive and less and less inclined to hire you simply for the muscle you can put to a job.

One or two kids may suddenly have a eureka moment ala Archimedes as they witness a demo or do a lab, but what’s more important, I believe, is to engage a larger majority of students by convincing them that this isn’t simply an academic exercise that they need to go through enroute to a diploma which they need before they can go on to whatever else is next in their lives. No, this discipline is carried by, is useless without, and interfaces with our world through a line of thinking that is essential for them to appreciate, on some level understand, and for them to be able to employ in their own cause. This thinking makes the difference between getting the job or not, getting the promotion or not, establishing themselves in whatever pursuit they chose to engage with some modicum of success, understanding the realities of the world around them, and in general having some measure of appreciation for what’s required to get them through the world.

Included in all of this is a practical application of mathematics (yes, chemistry teachers should be math teachers), a requirement to give oral presentations on science (oral presentations and communication skills are an area where students have been identified as weak in the study cited in an earlier post), and writing about science, possibly book reports and/or research papers. These practical skills mean far more than chemistry per se, but the fact is that chemistry teachers as a whole all too often see their subject as being special, somehow sacrosanct from the pedestrian and far more important reinforcements which should drive what they do. Most kids will not long remember or have a great deal of use for a redox reaction, but if in the course of it all we help to teach them how to think, apply math, and imbue a different perspective on the world through the lens of science I believe we make a far more lasting and significant mark on students.

Re-jiggering of the chemistry curriculum likely doesn’t seem like it would hold up well before the glare of No Child Left Behind Act requirements, where the objective is to teach to specific standards and then later be able to measure what's been taught. Even in the context of NCLB something such as I propose could be made to work so long as the overall class requirements were designed to incorporate those aspects of the learning experience that stretch beyond simply knowing the ideal gas law. Meeting science NCLB requirements isn't a lost cause with a re-focused curriculum, but focusing the curriculum to support the basics should reinforce
and help increase the scores in those areas that have generated the most concern regarding NCLB, specifically math and English language skills.

As it stands now in high school we’re far too focused on making chemistry courses "Mini-Me" college courses, and in the process doing students and their instructors a disservice. Yes, there’s much about chemistry that should instill wide-eye wonder in a student, but there’s not enough to take you through the depth of all that’s there. Frankly there’s little reason for why anyone should think much of it is important to students in high school who we should be getting ready for life in general, and the skills required there require reinforcement and high school chemistry does so only in the most tangential of ways.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Poor Patient Walkin'

Last week I diverted into a general reflection on how our society doesn't quite seem to be what we'd like for it to be, and one of the things that starkly jumps at you that fits into this category is healthcare. In this week's The New Yorker you'll find an article by Malcolm Caldwell entitled
The Moral-Hazard Myth. For those of you with little time I want to take out a chunk of the article and post it for you here:

Several years ago, two Harvard researchers, Susan Starr Sered and Rushika Fernandopulle, set out to interview people without health-care coverage for a book they were writing, “Uninsured in America.” They talked to as many kinds of
people as they could find, collecting stories of untreated depression and struggling single mothers and chronically injured laborers—and the most common complaint they heard was about teeth. Gina, a hairdresser in Idaho, whose husband worked as a freight manager at a chain store, had “a peculiar mannerism of keeping her mouth closed even when speaking.” It turned out that she hadn’t been able to afford dental care for three years, and one of her front teeth was rotting. Daniel, a construction worker, pulled out his bad teeth with pliers.

Then, there was Loretta, who worked nights at a university research center in
Mississippi, and was missing most of her teeth. “They’ll break off after a while, and then you just grab a hold of them, and they work their way out,” she explained to Sered and Fernandopulle. “It hurts so bad, because the tooth aches.
Then it’s a relief just to get it out of there. The hole closes up itself anyway. So it’s so much better.”

People without health insurance have bad teeth because, if you’re paying for everything out of your own pocket, going to the dentist for a checkup seems like a luxury. It isn’t, of course. The loss of teeth makes eating fresh fruits and vegetables difficult, and a diet heavy in soft, processed foods exacerbates more serious health problems, like diabetes. The pain of tooth decay leads many people to use alcohol as a salve. And those struggling to get ahead in the job market quickly find that the unsightliness of bad teeth, and the self-consciousness that results, can become a major barrier. If your teeth are bad, you’re not going to get a job as a receptionist, say, or a cashier. You’re going to be put in the back somewhere, far from the public eye. What Loretta, Gina, and Daniel understand, the two authors tell us, is that bad teeth have come to be seen as a marker of “poor parenting, low educational achievement and slow or faulty intellectual development.” They are an outward marker of caste. “Almost every time we asked interviewees what their first priority would be if the president established universal health coverage tomorrow,” Sered and Fernandopulle write, “the immediate answer was ‘my teeth.’ ”

This rang a bell. I was surprised to learn about how some of the post-docs we know did not have dental insurance - the university charged as much as $80/month for the coverage and that was too dear for the people in question, so they went without. The problem here is that dentistry, while not often quite as expensive as most medical adventures ( dentistry tends to be a one or two shot deal if you have a problem, whereas medial problems are a minimum of two visits and go onward and upward from there, with often more than one doctor) one would pay for without insurance coverage, is definitely in a zone of expense that makes you consider whether you really want to get that crown or not, or whether you want to bother with the periodontist. Is that toothache REALLY so bad that you'll pay $100 to have it looked at and fixed? Many times people will live with the pain over going to a dentist.

In the last year a friend of mine had two CAT scans, an endoscopy, two blood tests and a urine test, and a fair number of doctor's visits to address a problem. All tolled that came to about $35 out of his pocket. Had the visits and diagnostics been outside the health plan he was covered under it would have cost more, but everything that needed to be done was right there, under one roof in a manner of speaking, and so his out-of-pocket expense for the actual medical care was less than what he paid for gas and parking.

This same friend learned that he was going to need two crowns. Crowns aren't a necessity, though on the whole they "tend" to anticipate the inevitable, which in this case means a cracked tooth at an inopportune and potentially painful moment. His dental plan covered only 50% of the procedure, which meant he'd be out nearly $900 to install brand spanking new ceramic crowns. He can afford it without having to stretch a credit card, but how many do we know who'd otherwise play dental Russian roulette the next time they bit into an ice cube or a piece of hard candy, not because they wanted to but because they can't afford to do anything different? Hell, I know PhDs in this category who are actually employed in their profession and not out driving a cab.

The article addresses the concept of the "moral hazard", which essentially comes down to the idea that if we give people the right to universal healthcare they'll abuse it because they don't have to pay for it. This line of thinking results in people who may actually need healthcare spending much less, while those, like my friend above, because he has a decent healthcare
policy, spends much more. Mind you, my friend needed these tests, he didn't go into the doctor and say, "Wow, it'd be awfully cool to have a couple of CAT scans done on me, and while we're at it can we get someone to snake a fiber optic cable through my nose and down into my lungs, maybe scrape a bit of lung tissue [Blogger's note: fortunately lung tissue has no nerves, so the scraping off of some tissue isn't quite as bad as the rest of what goes on here] off for a biopsy. And oh, since I'm here, let's take some blood and urine and do a full battery of tests on it." The problem my friend was dealing with wasn't life threatening nor impinging significantly on his quality of life much beyond being a bit irritating. Fundamentally the problem was just puzzling and he wanted to get some answers. As it turns out the problem doesn't seen to be a real problem, really more a mystery to all concerned than anything else. While in this case he didn't get any answers it's possible he might have at the end of the visits and the tests, but had he to have paid for all of what was done or any part of it out of pocket there's a great chance he wouldn't have been able to afford to do so. Uninsured people rarely go in to see a doctor for this sort of thing, and if they finally do they tend to be in medical extremis, which is to say there at a point when it's then imperative for them to go on with the tests and procedures, and then treatment at their own expense. Of course they then quickly find themselves going into
debt - we learn from the article that unpaid medical bills are the leading reason for bankruptcy in this country.

What it boils down to is that this sense of moral hazard, which is a concept adhered to by and large only in this country (the righteousness of the phrase moral hazard does indeed seem to fit how I personally perceive our country of late), prevents those who need healthcare from receiving it, while those who can afford it because they either have the money or the right job with the right coverage pretty much can break the bank. Essentially practioners of "moral hazard" economics therefore aid and abet, indeed flat out perpetuate a moral outrage.

How a country such as this, which spends nearly half a trillion dollars a year on a military defense against what specifically we're not entirely sure, billions on adventures in Iraq, and God only knows how much on pork barrel silliness, turns its back or washes its hands of a group of hardworking citizens (that's the real stickler here, these people aren't sitting on their tails somewhere collecting welfare, they're holding down jobs with long hours, and sometimes more than one job) who are reduced to letting their teeth rot in their mouths and then having to yank them out for relief, while letting the resulting holes left behind close on their own. If there's any call for pointing to an example of a pure and simple disgrace, well no matter how you look at it for darned sure you have it in the practice and perpetuation of moral hazard over simply taking care of those in need.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

I'm mildly pleased with myself, or something like that, and this time it has nothing to do with our future progeny. No, I made the cut for The Education Wonks: The Carnival Of Education: Week 29: Thoughts And Ideas Freely Exchanged and for the Tangled Bank. Good stuff in both meta-blogs, well worth your time to check them out without having to give a scintilla of thought to anything I have there.

Baby Pictures

Chaneeca at 11 weeks and 6 days

Ok, I promise to not get sickening with this baby picture thing, but this is just so unique for me and I just want to share. Moreover this blog will more likely than not be a record for Chaneeca so one day she/he will get to see their father's off habits. And no, the baby won't really be named Chaneeca, it's just the name I put on him/her until we know his/her sex, which we won't be able to do for another four weeks or so - if Chaneeca turns out to be a boy I'll be appropriately contrite for 10 or so weeks of mis-identifying his sex.

This ultrasound shows you the baby, with its body to the far right with the head laying against Feri, and its body extending to the left. You can also see a little arm floating up there. The baby's heart rate was recorded at 163 beats per minute, which as I understand it is pretty good.

This ultrasound was a precautionary one, specifically to help to determine if the baby may suffer from Down's syndrome or hydrocephalus. It turns out that they're able to do things with ultrasound that wasn't possible just a few years ago. First, using ultrasound isn't a definitive test, it merely helps to guide you in going for additional tests. Moreover this isn't an ultrasound by itself, Feri had to give blood this time and she'll have to do that again in about three weeks. With the ultrasound, though, you can roughly determine two things which give you some clue as to any potential problems the baby may have with the conditions I alluded to. Doing this procedure applies to a fetus somewhere between 11 and 13 1/2 weeks per the ultrasound tech. What you're looking for when you do this are:

1. An appropriately developed nose. Apparently fetuses with Down's syndrome are missing a part of their nose and this can be seen in the scan.

2. Fluid in the area of the brain develops with all fetuses, but for babies with a higher propensity for hydrocephalus there's a larger quantity of fluid build up and this extra fluid will cause an expansion near the brain that can be measured. If the expansion is past a certain point you fall into a category where the chances are far greater than you're dealing with a child with the condition and from there additional tests are recommended.

Ok, for all of that at this point we're doing well. The baby seems to be well within the right parameters and in three weeks Feri will give blood again and we'll be able to tie in the biochemical part of this with what the ultrasound seems to be telling us. At this point the baby has a very strong heartbeat and seems to be developing as anyone would hope for it to, and we get to watch the miracle of this unfold - well, actually Feri gets to put up with a lot more, I'm sorry to say, with nausea (though sans vomiting, thank God) being the most pressing issue.

This is definitely a very odd experience, and a wonderful one to go through - I wonder what Chaneeca will think of it when she/he's able to finally read this?

Monday, August 22, 2005

Let Us Entertain You

New chemistry teachers, learning how to tap dance.

The first part of my reflections on teaching high school chemistry focused on the differences between what we do in the classroom and what seems to be expected in academia. From there
I went into asking how it is that we can justify doing certain types of in-class demos, specifically demos dealing with group 1 elements. So I arrive at this point, and to me it's in a real sense a large part of the real problem with science education at the secondary level in general, but certainly in chemistry. These days we seem to be far more focused on entertaining students than in imbuing them with the skills that are a natural part of a science curriculum, and that moreover are a necessity for them to be successful in the world that they're about to step into. Today science teachers not only have to be members of their local teacher's union, but card carrying members of the local entertainment local as well.

Learning indeed should be fun, and on some level it should be entertaining as well, but a consistent cry that I hear in high school education is that we science teachers have to grab their attention, we need to "make" them interested. In the case of chemistry this is thought best to be facilitated through demonstrations. This seems to represent something of a pedagogical shift in learning from my days in high school chemistry where, for the life of me, I can't recall a single demo. I recall a lot of hard work in class, a lot of labs where we got our hands dirty, but nary a demo. Maybe in my school we were different, but then I know that throughout my four years of high school education I never had the sense that I was there to be entertained by my teachers. No, my recollection was that I was there to learn, and I wasn't always going to enjoy the experience and sure enough I didn't. The problem isn't simply a matter of personal nostalgic dissonance, but rather that entertaining students doesn't really seem to work.

In Feb of this year released a survey that it commissioned titled "How Prepared Are Public School Graduates?" [Blogger's note: if you click on the Achieve hyperlink a PowerPoint presentation for the study can be obtained to the right of the home page.] This survey included four groups, graduates of high school that went to college, graduates that went onto work after high school, college instructors at the freshmen level, and employers of high school graduates. The report covers a broader range of concerns than what I want to address here, which is primarily focused on the sciences. With that in mind, this is what we can glean from the report:

I. High school graduates felt there was a gap in their science and math training:
College students: 44% and 42%; non-college students: 51% and 41%

II. College instructors and employers felt there were gaps in the following areas for recent
high school graduates: Science: 36%/24%; Math: 52%/32%; Thinking analytically: 66% /42%; Work and study habits: 65% /50%; Applying what's learned in school to solving problems: 55% & 39%

The NY Times in Students Say High Schools Let Them Down informs us that the Achieve results are consistent with other studies showing similar gaps between what students are learning in high school and what they actually need to know to function in a post-secondary world.

To add fuel to the fire, this past week the Times ran Many Going to College Are Not Ready, Report Says , which addressed the performance problems seen with students taking the ACT. For those not in the know, per the ACT web site:

The ACT is America's most widely accepted college entrance exam. It assesses
high school students' general educational development and their ability to complete college-level work.

  • The multiple-choice tests cover four skill areas: English, mathematics,
    reading, and science.
  • The Writing Test, which is optional, measures skill in planning and
    writing a short essay.

We learn from the article that out of the 2005 participants in the ACT only 26% of test takers in science and 41% of them in math were able to meet the established benchmarks for those areas of study.

It seems that no matter how you look at it we're sending high school students out into a world ill-prepared for either college or the work force. Moreover, as per the observations of college professors and employers, these students have insufficiently honed their thinking abilities, nor have they acquired the necessary work habits to tackle and easily fit into the environments high schools are ostensibly intended to ready them for. Is it any wonder why a gimlet perspective might bring into question an emphasis on demos and entertainment when the results seem so under spectacular? Entertainment is certainly not the main culprit here, but it's part of the stink of the problem and a skewed perspective that seems to put a greater emphasis on entertainment and grabbing student attention with fire, smoke, and explosions, vice with the warning that if you don't get this now, if you don't make the effort, if you don't take this seriously and invest in it some serious work, you'll be at a loss when you leave here and you'll be trying to make up for this at a time when you have the least amount of time and opportunity to do so.

It does seem that getting back to the basics is in order. This doesn't necessarily obviate demos in chemistry, but rather it should set a standard for demos that include clear cut pedagogical goals and cost justifications for special handling and storage, which together would likely eliminate many demos, or maybe not; it'd all depend on how a teacher went about this and how creative he or she was their justifications and student expectations. However you cut it, though, demos solely for entertainment purposes is a no-go, and somehow, and frankly this is the great question and problem, we need to figure out how to re-install the vigor and rigor in our science curriculums such that we help to turn out thinkers who are well-prepared for the world that greets them and which is not at all otherwise to be friendly to the slow of foot or dim of mind.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Is This How We Should See Ourselves?

For whatever reason I didn't get around to reading Europe vs. America by Tony Judt in the Feb 2005 New York Review of Books. It wasn't that I didn't see it sitting there amongst the other articles that I had collected to eventually read, it was just that for some reason it didn't pull me in, I wasn't interested. Well I guilted myself into printing it out a few days ago, effectively forcing me to read it - wow, some thought provoking stuff there. Let me share some of the tidbits that caused me to nod my head and wonder:

Back in 1980 the average American chief executive earned forty times the average manufacturing employee. For the top tier of American CEOs, the ratio is now 475:1 and would be vastly greater if assets, not income, were taken into account. By way of comparison, the ratio in Britain is 24:1, in France 15:1, in Sweden 13:1.

Really, how is that someone who made it through business or law school (sometimes, though rarely it seems anymore, it may be an engineering grad) is entitled to such exorbitant compensation for doing what the rest of us do for so much less? How does this make sense? I mean 475 times MORE? Are they actually doing that much more work? Do they really bring THAT much more value to what they do? I sort of understand it for someone who founded the
company and now wants to reap the riches of his or her hard work and sacrifice, but that's by and large not what we're talking about here. What's really crazy are the number of people walking around out there who think that they, too, can make that kind of money if only they just work hard enough - yes, and they're just as likely to be drafted by the Lakers.

A privileged minority has access to the best medical treatment in the world. But 45 million Americans have no health insurance at all (of the world's developed countries only the US and South Africa offer no universal medical coverage). According to the World Health Organization the United States is number one in health spending per capitaand thirty-seventh in the quality of its service [Underlining and italics are blogger's emphasis .]

How in God's name can we possibly excuse this? We spend more than anyone else but we're 37th in quality of service - where did this train fall off the track and down into a ravine? I don't get it, but that's not the throat grabber, no that follows:

... Americans live shorter lives than West Europeans. Their children are more likely to die in infancy: the US ranks twenty-sixth among industrial nations in infant mortality, with a rate double that of Sweden, higher than Slovenia's, and only just ahead of Lithuania's—and this despite spending 15 percent of US gross domestic product on "health care" (much of it siphoned off in the administrative costs of for-profit private networks). Sweden, by contrast, devotes just 8 percent of its GDP to health.

So if your kid is living in Slovenia she/he would get better healthcare, and they'd only be doing slightly better than the kid from Lithuania. Wow, I mean if you aren't startled by this, if you aren't stunned really, then stop reading as you'll think I'm a raving lunatic who needs to chill out if you keep with this. Now mind you the statistics here are not as clearcut as they would seem to be as my guess is that on the whole those who are better off in this country do far better than anyone in Slovenia, and the same can be said for their progeny. Here we factor in all the people who don't have healthcare coverage, who don't get to a doctor until they're in medical extremis, and there are far more of them than there should be and it's them, the bastards, who skew the number for the rest of us, embarrass us by making us look worse than Slovenia!!! They should be shot!!! Whooooa ... hold on, I think I lost perspective here, these factoids are throwing off my analytical and sense-of-fairness processing centers.

The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights promises the "right to parental leave following the birth or adoption of a child" and every West European country provides salary support during that leave. In Sweden women get sixty-four weeks off and two thirds of their wages. Even Portugal guarantees maternity leave for three months on 100 percent salary. The US federal government guarantees nothing. In the words of Valgard Haugland, Norway's Christian Democratic minister for children and family: "Americans like to talk about family values. We have decided to do more than talk; we use our tax revenues to pay for family values."

I love that last line, I mean it's totally precious. We love to talk about family values, we're just not willing to pay for them - yep, that sounds about right. We won't hesitate to guilt you for not being able to pay for your own family values, and if you're hard off and can't afford those family values we might send you to a faith-based non-profit who'll help you help yourself to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, and in the process bring you closer to Jesus (why isn't it ever Buddha, or Vishnu, or Mohammad, or ... well, you get the idea.) We routinely don't give sufficient leave to parents to take care of new born children, and in companies like WalMart and Sam's the healthcare coverage is so expensive that it dissuades the rank and file worker from even applying for it, they're too quickly using up their salary to pay for putting food on the table and clothes on the backs of themselves and their kids. Yep, you and your family are valuable in this country, for sure.

I'm not saying this applies to everyone, most certainly it doesn't. It doesn't apply to me or my family, we like it here on the whole, we're treated well, and I have time to do things like blog. But the reality is that there are many people in this country who are indeed treated this way, and most of us know someone like this or at one point in their lives were such a someone. Frankly in a country such as this we shouldn't be falling to second place in the health of any of our children to any country, much less one that most people can't even find on a map.

To a great degree we seem to be kidding ourselves about how well we're doing in this country and how much better it is than all the many others. The fact is that people in first world countries, and based on what we see in Slovenia some not first world countries, are treated far better by their society's than we are here. Here we have a sense of taking care of ourselves and ours and, on the whole, screw the other guy, he or she was either too lazy, too stupid, or too something to get what many of us take for granted and that's not our problem. The fact is that there should be things that are just a given in any first world society, universal and adequate healthcare, universal and standardized education, and a safety net to catch people who hit a road bump in their travels through life - I'm not talking about subsidizing someone for the rest of their lives, just till they are able to get on their feet and we make sure that their kids are adequately taken care of regardless. A new child should be given time with its parents, and family values should be something more than a catch phrase to bludgeon single mothers with. This can be a better country than it is, far more user-friendly surely, but too many of us are caught up in ourselves, or something that maybe I'm not quite putting my finger on, and it results in a place that affords many opportunities for the denizens who started there and
those who came along at some other point in their lives, but in addition exacts a very dear price that makes the landscape to this society far harsher and mean than it should be.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Why Can't We Get it Right in Education?

College Readiness
Source: Many Going to College Are Not Ready, Report Says - New York Times



If you've not made a trip to PostSecret you're depriving yourself of some very, very interesting, not to mention thought provoking postcards. The cards are sent in anonymously to the address provided, and scanned in by the person running the site. In a way it's a blogosphere version of a Catholic confessional. Some of what you find there is just SO weird or strange, but then at the same time so much of it makes you think, "Wow, and I thought I was weird." For myself, when that happens, I often find myself trying to re-define what weird is, and you realize you have no way of knowing how to go about doing that - on some level, to varying degrees, we're all weird. If that doesn't make your day interesting I don't know what will.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Justifying What We Teach in HS Chemistrysodiuminwater.jpg

Elemental sodium burning in water

This topic was one I dove into on the National Science Teacher Association's (NSTA) chemistry listserv. I think I honed my appreciation for how most discussions are best not had on a listserv, as well as my need to be more diplomatic when I address writers who I perceive as either patronizing or poor thinkers - well, let's say possibly good thinkers with poor writing skills. Actually more likely than not I shouldn't even bother being more diplomatic but rather just keep my thoughts to myself and turn to the blog for airing whatever's on my mind. Unfortunately after all was said and done I didn't really come to any definitive answer to the question that presents itself in the title to this blog, i.e. how do we justify what we teach in the high school chemistry classroom?

Ok, so what brings me to this topic? The issue that started the discussion on the NSTA chemistry listserv dealt with whether group 1 metals (the "group" refers to the element's place on the periodic table, with group 1 elements occupying the first column) should be used in high school chemistry class demonstrations. The specific group 1 metals used for these demos are most often sodium and potassium (you're possibly saying to yourself that these aren't metals, they don't look anything like metals, but based on how you chemically define metals these are quintessential metals), with sodium being the most frequently used element.

Group 1 elements are very reactive, they'll all easily react with water and to varying degrees with air. Sodium is highly reactive and to give you some idea of what it takes to just store sodium we can go to the Flinn Scientific Company's (Flinn is easily one of the most used scientific supply companies in the U.S., used by science instructors to meet a broad range of needs in every scientific discipline; their catalog is ubiquitous in science departments) recommendation for this:

Sodium metal is best stored in a glass container covered in dry mineral oil. The bottle should be labeled appropriately. The bottle should then be placed in a heavy-duty plastic bag and sealed with a twist-tie. Should the container be broken, the sodium metal will still be contained in the plastic bag. The container and bag should be placed into a metal paint can, surrounded by kitty litter and sealed. The outside of the metal can should also be labeled appropriately.

So clearly the metal itself is dangerous to work with and more so to store. The latter consideration, i.e. storage, is most important. This site and its accompanying movie, Sodium in water, gives you an excellent idea of the hazards of sodium (note: clicking on this link takes you to a write-up describing how to do a sodium in water demo; reading this gives you an idea of what is involved in such a demonstration. Click on the "movie" hyperlink in the upper left hand corner of the page and you'll be taken to a movie which shows you the sodium in water demo. You'll have to click on the play button to move through the slide presentation to get through to the movie.)

Doing the demo, if it's done correctly, is not especially hazardous, but the metal itself is dangerously explosive, will react with just about anything with no stimulus (i.e. no fire, electrical spark, nothing other than being exposed to the ambient environment), and if stored improperly it lends itself to pilferage (students LOVE anything that explodes, one of the reasons often given for such demos) or being inadvertently exposed to something which would cause the metal to explode or combust. While all high school chemical storage rooms have potentially dangerous chemicals in them, few if any are as spontaneously combustible such as sodium is. Stories abound, both documented and apocryphal, concerning mis-used or accidentally reacted sodium.

So why should high school teachers be allowed to have such chemicals in their possession? In some states and school districts they're not allowed to. But why at all anywhere? Keep in mind that any high school chemistry teacher can get these metals, but there is absolutely no guarantee that a teacher is trained to do a demo using them or is trained, or supervised in
anyway, with regard to how to properly store them. Is having the metals in storage and doing an in-person demo (clearly a movie demonstrating the reaction is easy to access) worth the potential risks?

The answer to this question seems to come down to the following two things:

1. A sodium demo clearly shows how reactive this family of elements are in a dramatic way that makes an impression on students, thereby helping them to understand better appreciate the principles behind such reactivity.

2. It's entertaining to the students. Blogger's comment: Every high school teacher alive will tell you that there are two things that students live for in a chemistry class, anything that explodes, followed by anything that burns in a spectacular fashion.

So on the one hand we have something with inherent learning potential which many insist is best done in person, i.e. a movie just doesn't have the same impact. On the other hand there's possible learning potential (in fact there's no reason to think that reasons 1 and 2 are or should be exclusive of one another), but the focus is more on grabbing the students' attention, and possibly doing something that entertains the instructor as well. In the latter case a sodium demo becomes the chemistry teacher's equivalent of the English teacher showing Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, with the girls entertained by lovely young people rebelling against authority for love, and the boys putting up with it all to ogle Olivia Hussey's well-developed, but alas not quite bared, bosom.

Flinn, the same company referenced above, sells kits (for $24.95, pre-shipping - Flinn also sells a video showing sodium reactivity for about $35; while it may seem that I am, I am NOT shilling for Flinn, honest) which are designed to minimize the risks associated with a group 1 demo. Given that the company is certainly to be sensitive to the possibility of being sued it goes to great lengths to ensure that the quantity of sodium sent out is small and that what's sent is going to be used in the demo safely if the instructor follows the demo instructions. This sort of convenience and focus on safety comes at a price, and most chemistry teachers who've any experience with handling chemicals know that they can normally get something much cheaper than what they'd have to pay a company like Flinn if they're willing to go out and buy the stuff individually and design their own demos. Be assured, there are teachers out there right now who are doing this.

The question came down to what's already stated, "Why should chemistry teachers be allowed to do this? Who's saying that the inherent risks with doing such a demo is outweighed by any learning objective, which ostensibly can be met by a movie? If such demonstrations are indeed sound from a learning perspective, and that learning outweighs the risk, should all chemistry teachers be expected to use something akin to the Flinn demo packs which minimizes possible risks?"

This question leads to a much larger one, one that I indirectly addressed in an earlier post,
What Should We Be Teaching In HS Chemistry? What specific guidelines should we be using to establish what's taught in the high school chemistry classroom? It's clear that high school teachers are out of synch with college teachers, and a similar case can be made for being out of
synch with employers as well, but why, and how do we justify it? I'll try to address this in part II.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Manners Training Making a Comeback?

An interesting article in the Times on Saturday, A Minder to Mind Your Manners, which segues nicely with my missive on courtesy last week, specifically with regard to cell phone use. It seems that those in the etiquette business are finding more and more call for their services these days. People are coming into this for different reasons, some are interested in doing better on dates:

J. R. GOWAN, a 36-year-old screenwriter, said he had never thought of taking lessons in etiquette. It was his sister's idea.It came to Cameron Gowan after she had dated one too many men who forgot to open doors for her, who were rude to waiters or - and this was the deal breaker for her - who didn't care enough about personal grooming to spare her the sight of eyebrows sprouting "two hairs that are a foot long."

Foot long eyebrow hair? Yuck.

Or there's those who are interested in exuding an air of confidence that apparently comes with mastering the rules of etiquette:

Then there are those who see mastery of etiquette as another step in a tireless quest for self-improvement. One 35-year-old assistant movie producer, who took private etiquette lessons in March to help advance her career, said the move had already paid off. Rather than sitting in the car while her boss holds court over lunch in the Beverly Hills Hotel, she says she now joins the business meetings with the self-assurance of a Donald Trump.

While I have a hard time believing that Donald Trump would be anyone's model for good etiquette, I think we get the general idea.

Or there's the parent who's concerned with the creeping "grunge" influence exhibited in a child's dressing and attitude:

Some parents resort to etiquette instructors to coach their children through important periods of their lives. Donni Gray, 36, said she turned to a Los Angeles etiquette instructor, Amanda Wycoff, a year and a half ago when her daughter was 11 and had just switched schools. She was in a "grunge stage" and did not care much about her appearance, Ms. Gray said, but somehow Ms. Wycoff made her start combing her hair, building a circle of friends and volunteering to help teachers.

My guess is that Ms. Gray will have wished she had gone the "anonymous" route after sharing her and, more importantly, her daughter's experience in etiquette training, but hey, it's the NY Times, right? I wonder if it's good manners to expose your kid's etiquette training to the world at large? Well, I'll just assume either Ms. Gray had a daughter release agreement or otherwise had consulted with the manners minder in her service at the time.

Does the need stretch beyond just properly impressing your date and child rearing? You bet it does, as we learn:

Judging from the research, Americans can surely use the remedial training.
National surveys routinely find that a majority of respondents view Americans as
ever more unpolished and impolite. Loud cellphone conversations, sloppy grammar in e-mail and annoyingly indifferent store clerks are just some of what draws complaints.

"You'd be surprised how many times at a banquet someone is drinking your water," said Kimberly Anderson, an etiquette trainer in Orange County, Calif.

Finally, the mystery to where my water's been going at banquets is solved! - I can't begin to tell you how long this has been bugging me. That aside, sloppy grammar and spelling, indifferent store clerks (though to be honest this is MUCH more of a problem in Europe than here - in Germany I swear they think they're doing you a favor anytime you walk into their store), and loud cellphone conversations definitely hit a button.

The article shares an input from Peggy Post, the great-granddaughter of the deceased etiquette doyenne Emily Post and spokeswoman for the Emily Post Institute, who tells us that parents are leading such rushed lives these days that they don't have the time to properly train
their children in the art of good etiquette. Another expert from the Protocol School of Washington (located in Maine apparently, I'm very confused) tells us that kids are spending too much time in front of computers, thereby seriously impeding their ability to engage in small talk and, apparently, good manners in general. All this had me head scratching - you don't have the time to teach your kid good manners, then what do you have the time for? Teaching good manners should be a matter of spending time with your child and observing them, and correcting them when they do something out of line or inappropriate. Parents don't have the time for this? And are parents really giving over that much of their kids' lives to computers such that they're raising social retards? Maybe more the problem is that the parents themselves don't know good manners and thereby aren't in any position themselves to be teaching anyone etiquette. Well, as a pending new parent this is definitely giving me food for thought.

Well, there it is. It's nice to know that etiquette minders are out there trying to correct the ill-manners of many members of our society. Alas, my guess is that the ones we really need to worry about are not the ones naturally inclined to pick up a book on etiquette or seek out an manners minder, though it is nice to know that people do seem to care more than subjective
evidence would otherwise seem to indicate ... well, maybe not, but one can hope.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Blog Spam

Today I had an experience with blog spam that's causing me to wonder what's going on. I had this happen one time before, and I deleted what was posted and that was that. This morning I had three different instances of spam posted to my early entry today. I deleted the first one and about ten mins later a new one, different subject being spammed, shows up. I delete that and again roughly ten mins later a new spam, again a different subject, shows up in the comments section. While my first experience with this left me thinking I was merely the victim of a random blog reader who went in and posted their spam, today's experience leaves me with the thought that maybe this is in someway automated.

Does anyone know anything about this that might shed some light on it? Is there anything that one can use to stop this, assuming it's in fact automated?

Addendum: I asked this question and found my own answer at Wikipedia . This form of spam is otherwise referred to as link spam, and I'm going to have to figure out how blocking this works. It turns out that the rationale behind link spamming is to increase the hits that the spammer gets by posting their link on your blog, thereby increasing the likelihood that Google will up the place of their link in searches related to that link, i.e. just like Google bombing as I indulged it myself for Goggle Bombing for Darwin; ya gotta love it.

States Opposing Plan to Shutter Air Guard Bases


F-16's in formation

The Times ran States Opposing Plan to Shutter Air Guard Bases in yesterday's online edition. This is all part of the ongoing controversy over the Pentagon's plan (otherwise know as BRAC, Base Re-alignment and Closure) to close bases throughout the country. What attracted my attention more than anything else was how clearly this is working out to be a jobs program threat more than it is a national threat, but listen to some of these people talk and you'd swear that Osama bin-Laden himself was going to threaten the state if they lost their F-16 fighters.

The Governor of Illinois shares the following with us:

"These are the wrong recommendations, at the wrong time and for the wrong
reasons, and, on top of all that, they are illegal," said Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois, a Democrat, adding that the Pentagon's plan to relocate an F-16 fighter unit in Springfield could imperil the safety of the state's 11 nuclear power plants and 28 locks and dams.

Aren't you now concerned yourself that 11 nuclear power plants and 28 locks and dams are threatened by a lack of F-16's? Well, you shouldn't be. The threats from the air, which is the only thing an F-16 or F-15 is good for in this case, fall roughly into two categories:

1. An airliner ala 9/11. The easiest and cheapest way of dealing with this is already being done, i.e. you reinforce cockpit doors so an intruder can't just walk in and take over the plane, and you increase the security awareness of those checking people boarding planes, and that's being
done in spades as it is.

2. You load a smaller plane, one which would otherwise bounce off a nuclear power plant containment vessel of a dam, with high explosives and fly it into the target. Getting that much explosive may not be that hard, though these days if it's really that easy that does beg the question why, and then finding a place where one could clandestinely load a plane with explosives isn't that easy. On top of this it'd take a lot of explosives to damage, much less destroy either of the targets the Governor mentions.

In each case, assuming an airliner and a small plane were in fact hijacked and used to attack these targets, if there were experienced pilots flying these planes all they'd have to do is take them down to about 1,000 feet off the ground and they'd be invisible to air traffic control radar throughout the country, hence there'd be no way to vector the F-16/15 to them to take them down.

Here's the deal: F-15's/16's/18's are impressive aircraft, and they're very well-designed to destroy other fighter aircraft or bombers, but they were never intended to be used in the national airspace of our country and there's no system in place that easily facilitates such use. In short, there's no reason why most of the states in this country need fighter aircraft on hand
as there's a near zero chance that they'd ever be called on to engage a threat to anything in the state (to include the great state of Illinois) and if they were it's not a given that they'd actually be able to do anything about the threat, which is why it's so important to do all the things we need to do to stop the threat before it ever takes to the air. When simple security measures like reinforcing cockpits and increased vigilance at airports can do the job, why in the world do you need a squadron of figher planes which were never designed to do (shooting down civlian aircraft over out national airspace) what you claim you need them to do? Of course the Pentagon planners responsible for these recommendations know this, and they're not interested in being caught with their pants down in the way they were for 9/11, so it does tend to cause one to wonder why they'd be putting themselves out there with, in the view of Governor Blagojevich, such a risky recommendation as eliminating many of those fighter squadrons or otherwise relocating them. In point of fact it's not nearly the risk the Governor would like to make it, but it does risk the state losing jobs and that's the crux of this matter, not national or state defense.

The other point raised in the article has to do with emergency aircraft. There may be some legitimacy to that, but here too I'm inclined to be doubtful. When the BRAC recommendations came out people went to the wall over national defense when it came to cuts in their states, but what this boils down to more than anything else is saving jobs that frankly we don't need. We have too much infrastructure and it costs us too much to keep it up and running. The Governor of Illinois says that the proposed elimination of his F-16 squadron is illegal and I suppose that's going to have to be worked out in the courts, but I don't think it's illegal for the federal government to say it wants to eliminate something it believes it no longer needs which is otherwise costing the taxpayer billions of dollars to sustain.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

On My Way In - Part IV

OCS Pensacola

Moving on from my last entry, regardless of what area of specialization I decided to make a go of, the next step along the way was to finish the paperwork and square away (Navy jargon for taking care of anything that needs to get done) anything that was out of the ordinary on the entrance physical. There indeed was something out of the ordinary, though it wasn't much of a surprise: my vision was not 20/20. I'm not sure when that changed as in my younger days my
vision certainly did test to 20/20, but now it was clear that I was nearsighted and in need of
correction for the slight blurriness I encountered when trying to make things out at a distance. So it was some time in the summer of 1980, at the ripe old age of 23, that I began to wear glasses.

Next stop was to Newport, RI, where at the time the Navy's Officer Candidate School (OCS) was located. OCS is now found in the much more pleasant climes of Pensacola, FL --- well, more pleasant anyway when there aren't hurricanes howling their way in from the Gulf. I was going to be starting OCS in Newport beginning in mid-October. I'm pretty sure the program was 12 weeks in length, and given Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years thrown into the mix, I wouldn't graduate until sometime in early February. Really, who could ask for anything more than to be in Newport, RI, in the dead of winter, right there along the shores of the Atlantic, with the wind howling in from under and over the Newport Bridge?

My parents drove me up to Newport in October of 1980, which in retrospect seems sort of odd to me. They'd been divorced for about nine years at that point, and my father re-married. They got along well enough, in fact they were very civil with each other, and my mother, who raised me and my siblings, never had anything bad to say about my father. Their coming together I
think reflected how important my taking this next stage in my life was to them. In another sense they were also there to offer me up to the God(s) of the Navy, in addition to just seeing me off. Either way it was odd to have both of them in the car like that as I had very distinctly different relationships with both parents and this was one of the few times since the divorce that I had to deal with them at the same time, in the same space, especially for a life changing event such as was before me.

After saying my goodbyes to my parents I was left in front of King Hall, where I found myself in the company of many others who were standing about in civilian clothes as I was, all of us unsure as to what to do. We were told to wait by someone dressed in a black (later I learned this is the Navy's version of blue) uniform, looking something like an officer but with collar devices that made no sense, i.e. I couldn't determine a rank. I don't remember how long it was we stood there, but eventually we were gathered into groups and broken down into individual companies - I was in Kilo company and my group, henceforth known as Kilos, was taken to our wing of King Hall where we'd be staying for the next 12 weeks. I was paired up with a guy by the name of Chris Curran (it's funny I should remember his name that easily after all these years as we didn't stay in touch after OCS - Chris was going to be a diver and we went off on different paths after OCS) and we shared a room together for the duration of our time in Newport.

I remember the beds were small, the closets not very spacious, the rooms equally non-spacious and smelling oddly antiseptic, the bathroom and shower were communal, and my not taking a liking to any of this very quickly, note: I never lived in a college dorm nor ever did much time at a sleep away camp. I could see that life had changed dramatically, how much so remained to be seen, and I was pretty sure that I wasn't going to like this adventure I set myself up for. We were told that the first week was a gimmee, if you didn't like it you were able to pull the plug on the whole thing. In reality you had that option at any time during your 12 weeks prior to being actually commissioned, but the first week was the only one that was emphasized by the staff. Needless to say I laid me down to sleep that night, with a coarse woolen blanket the likes of which I hadn't seen since sleep away camp, with decidedly mixed feelings regarding where all of this was going to take me.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Panther


His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold anything else.
It seems to him there are a thousand bars;
and behind the bars, no world.
As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.
Only at times, the curtain of the pupils lifts, quietly.
An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.

Rainer Maria Rilke
Translation by Stephen Mitchell

Tuesday, August 09, 2005


I went shopping at Staples yesterday to pick up things I'll be needing for the new job, and whatever else met a need that I wasn't aware I had before I walked in the store (those can be the most expensive purchases, alas ...) As I browsed the aisles I noticed a section where the store had the sort of signs you hang up next to the checkout counter in a store, like "We accept
all major credit cards", except the sign that caught my eye was "Please turn off your cell phone." Talk about evolving, right? I mean ten years ago you'd never see a sign like that, but not because we were necessarily more courteous rather more because cell phones then were not cheap and were the size of a shoebox, so lugging them around and using them was not so easy to do.

This reminded me of a recent visit to a shoe repair place a few weeks ago. I had come to pick up shoes that I had dropped off for my wife a month earlier. I had forgotten about picking them up on their "repair" date. I wasn't feeling too guilty about forgetting and having to be called to come get the shoes inasmuch as I had already paid for the repair, so it wasn't that the cobbler (wow, does that word still work these days for someone who repairs shoes? Interesting, I hadn't thought of that before) was put out for not getting paid, he just wanted to get the shoes out of his bin. So I came in and he was in the middle of something. He was a guy about my age and size, a bit stronger than me in the arms, and a no-nonsense look on his face, though he was a pleasant enough guy to talk to. As I waited I noticed a handmade sign which was a variation on the Staples sign, his saying "Please don't use cells phones at the counter." I asked him if cell phone use was a really that much of a problem and for as much as a guy like this would ever roll his eyes he proceeded to, and said, "You wouldn't believe it. They come in here and expect you to stand there waiting on them while they finish whatever it is they have to say on their phones. I've had it, especially after some guy did it to me and I made a point of saying something to him and he looked at me and said, 'I'm a doctor, my time is valuable and I need to multi-task.' What, his time is valuable and mine isn't?"

Ok, who'd argue that a cobbler's time is indeed not as valuable as a doctor's? I wouldn't, I mean really, doctors are out there saving lives, relieving pain and suffering, spearheading new medical research, talking to their brokers, and making golf dates with God knows who. Moreover anyone knows that on a per hour basis a doctor makes FAR more than a cobbler. But the rub is that the doctor's not in HIS office, he's in someone else's office and by virtue of that he doesn't have ownership of the time where he stands as it's not his to use as he sees fit. The doctor figures he's multitasking, as do apparently many others given Staples selling signs about cell phone use, but his multitasking was coming at the cost of being discourteous to someone else. Apparently we're seeing an epidemic here given Staples selling signs and the number of handmade signs I've been noticing at checkout counters lately.

It seems that this is indicative of a general trend in discourteousness. Nowadays we go to the movies and invariably one of the shorts inflicted on us has something to do with reminding you of your manners - don't talk while watching the movie, don't smoke in the theater, turn off your cell phone, don't litter, try not engage in blatant or too smelly flatulence - you've all seen them, and if I have to see the one with Charlie Sheen and company one more time I think I'm going to scream. Why is this necessary? Because many of us are out of touch with good manners, or more fundamentally how to be courteous to others, and we need silly reminders from movie chains to remind us what any good citizen and well-mannered and considerate person should just know.

This isn't just people "multi-tasking", it's people who've lost sense of their place and appropriateness. People on cells phones while they drive present an extra danger to themselves and anyone they're driving with and around, but that's no never mind to them. People in restaurants who feel a need to whip out that cell phone are what, lonely? In need of a second opinion about the entree? Or are they just so caught up in their sense of self-importance that it wouldn't occur to them to not take that call which will invariably present a disturbance to their guest(s) (well, maybe, often THEY have cell phones, too) and most certainly to those sitting around them and without a doubt the waiter/waitress standing there ready to take their order?

I don't know that people are more rude now than they were 100 years ago, though I'm inclined to doubt it. My general sense is that people are pretty much the same from century to century. The problem today is that they've more tools with which to be rude with, and damn if they're not taking advantage of that for all it's worth. Common courtesy and good manners are something to be honed and cherished, but it does seem that many of us have some skewed sense that this is even remotely important. That we have gone so far astray with this as to have to be reminded of good manners before enjoying a movie by, of all people, Charlie Sheen via a public service announcement does tend to rise my level of concern a bit. That said, it's a sad thing when we lose sight of courtesy, and basically treating others with a measure of respect and consideration; like the bumper sticker sort of says, "Practice random acts of kindness and consideration, and be surprised when someone does the same for you."

Monday, August 08, 2005

Google Bombing For Darwin

I never heard of this before, but I ran into it at Skeptico's site and my inclination is to assume he knows what he's talking about. Here's the story per Skeptico:

Post something on "Intelligent Design" … which links to the authoritative statement by the National Center for Science Education, which I've linked to here by way of illustration. This way when those genuinely seeking information start Googling, they'll get to the
right place.

If you’ve never heard of this, the Google bomb is (in this case) an attempt to place the National Center for Science Education’s excellent "Intelligent Design" Not Accepted by Most Scientists page at the top of any Google searches for the phrase Intelligent Design”. If you have a blog or other web site, what you need to do is use the phrase “Intelligent Design” as a hyperlink to the NCSE’s paper the way I have. If enough people do this, because of the way its algorithms work, Google will return the NCSE’s paper at the top.

I think that says it all, and I've done my part. Yeah, it may seem a little bit silly, but sometimes it's the small things that mean the most.


"The first duty of society is to give each of its members the possibility of fulfilling his destiny. When it becomes incapable of performing this duty it must be transformed" Alexis Carrel

What got me thinking about homeschooling was a recent encounter through The Education Carnival for Week 26 with a blog in last week's Education Carnival, Cross Blogging that discussed legislation proposed in Rockford, IL that would require homeschooled students to meet the same truancy criteria that every other school age child is expected to meet. There were a few commenters at the blog very much against this legislation, and there was impassioned talk of governmental intrusion into parental freedom. This got me thinking about education and our responsibility to society at large, and to what extent we are expected to abrogate our freedom to accommodate what is for the better good of our society's ability to function. As near as I can determine it the responsibility for education isn't equally distributed, with homeschoolers and parents in general not expected to hold the bag much at all, though their taxes do help; alas, that's not where the responsibility should end.

I didn't see the truancy legislation as a problem, first because I don't think parents should have the freedom to be unaccountable for what their children are doing, especially when the kids are supposed to be absorbing an education, and second because a kid out shopping or hanging out in a mall during school hours is a legitimate issue, a societal issue, and I believe that they should be accounted for in some way. We as concerned citizens should be asking why a child is hanging out at the local video gallery during school hours and expect the authorities to get involved to pin down what's going on. I'm also sure that Rockford, IL truant officers, if the program ever gets itself off the floor, will be able to work out something with the local homeschooled parents to make sure that kids found in the park (unsupervised? Hmmmmm ...) doing science experiments won't be picked up for truancy.

I found this concern with impinging on parental freedom a curious one. Indeed, a lot of freedom comes with homeschooling. Last year I tutored two girls in science who were homeschooled. I wasn't expected to meet any state education standard and the girls were pretty much allowed to choose what they wanted to learn in science. While I have no question that we covered more than we would have in a standard classroom for the time we spent together, the fact is that we only met once a week for an hour. Their mom, a very conscientious and capable woman, only had to report that they did the following courses to meet the state requirement for graduation. I imagine if I had the freedom to teach my kids anything they, or I (let's remember that a large percentage of homeschoolers are fundamentalist Christians many of whom have a hard time with the science and much of the secular curriculums in our schools) were interested in, and let them learn anytime we wanted to, then the need to be accountable to state truancy laws would indeed be an obnoxious intrusion into one's daily routine. But then in my mind we can would hope, fruitlessly it seems, that truancy requirements aren't the only requirement homeschoolers should be striving to meet.

Before I get too far into this let me make it clear that I'm not against homeschooling. My experience with it, to include the girls I tutored and children who I've run into who were back in the mainstream after being homeschooled, has been positive. There's also evidence to show that kids who come from homeschooling environments often perform as well, or better, than their traditionally educated peers. So on the whole I have personal and anecdotal evidence that homeschooling can indeed work, but I also know that I'm only seeing a segment of this population and I really have no clue how representative that segment is of the entire population of homeschoolers, and as near as I can tell nor does anyone else.

This issue of education and freedom also got me thinking about what our responsibility as a society is for educating our children. As I see it there's at least two clear cut responsibilities that come into play here. First there's passive responsibility, the strongest example that I can point to for this is that we take money out of your pocket to enable education to occur. Whether you want to or not you're likely contributing something to the local school system. Then there's active responsibility, but we seem to be a bit more ambiguous about the role of the players here. We should be expected to call truancy authorities if we see kids in places they shouldn't be expected to be found during normal school hours, though I'd guess that this doesn't often happen unless the kids in question are committing crimes or otherwise presenting a problem. And of course parents are expected to be actively involved in their children's education, going to the school to confer with teachers, reacting to problems as they may occur, and overseeing that their kids are doing their assignments - alas, we as a society don't hold parents very accountable for missing the educational mark of their children, instead dumping much of the blame on schools and teachers.

We as a society expect children to be able to do some very basic things after they're through a K-12 experience. What the local school system considers important may not be what a parent does, which is where homeschooling tends to come in. But some basic things, like reading, writing, and how to do math, the basic things assessed in the initial implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), we expect kids to have a minimal level of proficiency with and I don't think there'd be much disagreement about this. But homeschoolers aren't expected to show that their kids have been left behind, or are far ahead, or anything at all (this may differ from state to state, but when the state of Massachusetts, which ranks fifth amongst all states in educational expenditures, doesn't expect much that's specific from homeschooled kids my guess is that this is a general national trend), which is another example of the government not expecting parents to be accountable for their children to society as a whole. School and teachers are expected to be held accountable for the educational failure of students, but not homeschooling parents.

I can buy into the philosophy that parents should be allowed the freedom to educate their children as they see fit, but I don't see why they shouldn't be expected to meet the same standard of accomplishment, at least with regard to some very basic areas of education, that everyone else involved in this endeavor is expected to meet. At a minimum we as a society should expect all of our children to read, write, and do basic math, and in the case of the standard state public school, through NCLB we've made these expectations a national requirement, yet homeschoolers are not expected to meet them. Of course I'm not even touching on the fact that homeschooling teachers are not expected to meet the qualification standards established by NCLB.

Homeschoolers who get into a frenzy over having to account for why their children are in a mall during school hours are likely bristling at this, but then maybe there'd be something in this for them. If we expected homeschooled students to attain similar levels of basic skill mastery as regularly educated children then the state should also be responsible for ensuring that the parents in question have the resources to do this (and yes, a slight bur pertinent tangent, this would apply to private schools and likely constitute something akin to vouchers, though only for basic education requirements which are deemed essential by society.) That's not to say that the state should pay for homeschooling, I don't advocate that at all, but rather some parts of homeschooling would be appropriately paid for as we as a society feel it's important that children meet basic levels of educational proficiency, and moreover that schools, or in the case of homeschoolers parents, are held accountable for this.

Being free to educate your children as you see fit is fine, but you should also be prepared and society should expect homeschoolers to be accountable for how well their children are doing. Other than intruding on some measure of "freedom" I should otherwise think that this would be welcome by the homeschooling advocates inasmuch as they're sure they're doing a better job of educating their children than the local school system. Surely this would give homeschooling advocates the opportunity to prove that very point, and moreover that they, as by and large unqualified teachers per NCLB, don't need to be qualified; it could open a whole new debate regarding parental responsibility and what the federal government, or any oversight entity, should be expecting of students, teachers, and school systems.

We don't give parents the freedom to do with their children what they want, which is why child abuse is finally getting the attention it deserve from all professionals who work with children. In the same vein parents shouldn't have the unrestricted freedom to not be accountable for the
educational proficiency of their children. Some would clearly see this as governmental intrusion into the lives of families, I see it as looking out for children and ensuring that they are obtaining the necessary tools to function productively in our collective society. Certain things, and education is one of them, should stretch beyond just parental responsibility.

Friday, August 05, 2005

If You Gotta Buy Gas, Go Conoco & Phillips 66

Just finished reading this editorial in the Times, Guns in the Parking Lot. Here's a piece of it:

With a sense of civics worthy of the O.K. Corral, the NRA announced a national campaign, replete with billboards, to urge gun lovers to bypass Conoco and Phillips 66 gasoline stations until the company drops its ban on employees' keeping firearms in company parking lots.

ConocoPhillips ran afoul of the NRA when it joined in a challenge to a law passed by the Oklahoma Legislature that would strip businesses of their gun-control rights on company property. The state gun lobby jumped on the issue after a dozen workers were fired at a paper mill for violating a ban on keeping guns in their cars parked in company lots.

So Conoco & Phillips 66 has managed to bring down the righteous wrath of the NRA. Why? Because those civic minded patriots at the NRA believe every good American should have a gun in their car wherever they are, be it on the streets or in the parking lot where you work. What kills me with this one is that while I was in the Navy standard naval base policy wherever you went was that no one was permitted to have a gun in their vehicle on the base, nor were you allowed to have a personal weapon in your possession while on a ship. I suppose that's something that dated back to the olden days and was intended to prevent mutinies or something like that, and I suppose the NRA is ok with that over stopping idiots with guns shooting at each other in the company parking lot - well, and really, how far would the NRA go in trying to boycott the U.S. Navy? But then why shouldn't high school students of legal age be allowed to bring their guns to school in their car - now there's something for the NRA to rally around!

I personally have an aversion to guns, in fact my understanding is that most Americans do as well, which makes the power and threat of the NRA such a puzzlement to me. The perniciousness of the NRA is in its perspective that guns are appropriate for just about any venue you can think of, and for their coming down on anyone who disagrees with this like a 600 lb gorilla. Well I forget why exactly we're supposed to be boycotting Exxon-Mobil (I'm sure they did something stupid, but again), but to make up for that I recommend that you consider buying your next tank of gas at a Conoco/Phillips 66 station where common sense thinking, like employees shouldn't be allowed to bring their personal weapons onto company property where they can then shoot up the co-worker or boss who pissed them off (like, wow, we've never seen THAT scenario before, right?), is to be encouraged.

Thursday, August 04, 2005


I shared this once before, but it just seemed so totally apropos now.


I caught this at Cosmic Variance, it just seemed too good to not steal and share.

Meet Snuppy the Puppy


Snuppy, for Seoul National University puppy, is the first dog clone. For more information the Times has a nice piece on it, South Korean Scientists Clone Man's Best Friend, a First. This isn't the first great cloning accomplishment on the part of the Koreans. In May of this year they managed to clone human embryos and to extract stem cells from them. The cloning of dogs would seem to be something made for the pet industry, but the Koreans have made the point that this work wasn't being done for pets but rather for the value such dogs have for research.

So the Koreans have cloned dogs, not a big deal right? I mean we've cloned pigs, horses, sheep, mice, and now a dog? I wasn't aware of this but it turns out that a dog's reproductive system is far more complicated than just about any other mammals, vastly increasing the difficulty for what it takes to clone the animal. One American expert (Dr. Mark E. Westhusin, a cloning expert at Texas A&M university who cloned the first cat) states in the Times article that he found the problems with dog cloning to be too intractable and quit trying. Then there's Genetic Savings & Clone of Sausalito, Calif [honestly, ONLY in the U.S. would you get a name like that], which has spent 7 years and some $19 million to try and do dog cloning commercially - there's BIG money to be had in cloning pets in this country apparently. To top it all off, the Koreans are the first to clone human embryos for stem cells, and all of this done in the space of the last year. Let's try to put this into perspective: the Koreans have a GDP that's less than 1/2 that of the United States, and since 1902 when the Nobel Prizes were first introduced have never produced a Nobel Prize recipient. I'm not trying to downplay the achievements of the Koreans, they have every reason to be justly proud of what they accomplished, but rather how is it that this country seems so far afield in this area?

All of this brings us back to our President and the religious right in this country, which he seems to more and more represent these days. Not only is he a recent supporter of teaching intelligent design, but he's also largely responsible for restricting the government funding that allows research into cloning and stem cells, and that's in addition to the fact that his commitment to funding scientific research in general in this country is given a lot of verbiage but a lot less money [don't believe me, ask any scientist who's dependent on government largess to continue working and they'll sure and heck tell you.] I don't begrudge the South Koreans their achievements, they've worked hard and made the necessary investments to attain accomplishments they should be justly proud of. But that this country, ostensibly the richest one on the planet, should be playing second fiddle scientifically to a country a fraction of its size and wealth, there's something very, very wrong there.

The issue of cloning is not a simple one, I appreciate that. But it's also no where near as complicated as Bush and his advisors, many driven by a religious agenda, make it out to be. Fetal tissue is not a human being. In all honesty I'm not sure when a fetus becomes "human", but when you're talking about harvesting the cells necessary for this sort of research you're nowhere near anything that could remotely be considered human other than in anything but the most extraordinarily hopeful sense. Embryos harvested for stem cell have the potential to become human, but we're not going to let it get that far and only ridiculous notions of when God imbues "humanity" into a clump of cells (why is God so concerned and involved with embryos and so seemingly little concerned with what they turn into? I'm so confused ...) get in the way of seeing this.

Cloning and stem cells and the potential curative powers they may have both need to be far better understood. Misguided and misplaced concerns about potential human beings shouldn't trump legitimate and very pressing concerns for humans who are suffering and who might benefit from this research. If we leave it to Bush and company this country will become a third world nation of science, especially in the area of this particular endeavor. Notions of
intelligent design and the innate sanctity of embryos are taking this country down the wrong path, and it's a path we can't afford to follow for too much longer.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Faith-based Educatshion and Scientz

"Mr. President, could you please explain Darwin's Theory to us?"


I don't normally get on a rant about the ridiculousness of intelligent design, largely due to the fact that so many others do it FAR better than I ever could, to wit: Pharyngula and The Panda's Thumb, to name but two. The last time I got into anything about ID was when the Smithsonian provided viewing space to the Discovery Institute for its ID flick, The Privileged Planet. I got a bit hot, sent off some letters, etc., and I had good company then. Well, the "I got a problem with ID" crowd is riled up again, and this time the stick stirring is coming from the very top, from our very own president.

There are many out there in the blogosphere who in fact have as much of a problem with ID as I do [alas, while I haven't gone looking for them, I'm also sure there are many out there in the blogosphere who have no problem with ID at all.] If you want some indication of some of who these are I'd recommend a quick trip to Pharyngula: Bush endorses Intelligent Design creationism to get a sense of how many people are riled up about our President's endorsement of "teaching the controversy", which is code for teaching intelligent design in our K - 12 schools.

We have so much else that's faith-based these days it should really come as no surprise at all that our president is pushing for faith-based education as well. It's not important to teach "real" science, to make students understand a true "theory" [note: Bush's own science advisor has come out and stated very clearly that ID is NOT a scientific theory, but why pay attention to
him when you speak to a "higher power"?] no, we should interject a modicum of faith, in at least biology anyway, to make sure that not only is no child left behind, but that no Christian right agenda to be foisted on the American student is without a chance to foul their brains.

What's irritating about this is that it's a controversy at the non-collegiate level. Mind you, it's not that college students are all ardent evolutionists, hardly, but the Christian right has not bothered to try and make their case at that level in education. I suppose that's a good thing for were this an issue there we'd likely really be in trouble. It's bad enough, and serious enough to merit the attention of anyone dedicated to true science, that we're having to deal with this in our k - 12 institutions, at an age that's ripe for the ID people, but also ripe to inculcate these students with true science, something we have a hard enough time doing as it is. When the president of the United States doesn't know enough to know how much he undermines science in this country, and makes us look foolish as a nation by spouting off about something he knows nothing about, well, what can you say? Should it come as a surprise? No, certainly not. Does it sting just the same? Damn right it does, and it pisses me off more than a bit. I think it's time to make a long overdue donation to the National Center for Science Education.

Cartoons to Ponder

It's turning into busy time around here, especially with my working on a web page for my classes (this will be interesting, I can feel it already). Anyway, was particularly entertained by three cartoons this morning and wanted to share, so here we go:


Or what if you're Hindu, Zoroastrian, Buddhist ... you get the idea. The fact is that you don't have to swear on a Bible in court (I'm assuming this is true in most states, but I have no clue really) so why it's necessary to drag a Bible in to begin with, much less any other religious book that may have no meaning to the person being asked to swear, I have no clue.


Maybe this is just a case of a president exercising what he feels is his prerogative. He wants Bolton as his ambassador to the U.N., he's gonna get Bolt, the hell with what anyone else thinks. Frankly I think he could have done much better than this, but then this is the Bush administration, after all.


Well, indeed, this does seem to say it all. With intelligent design in the classroom, a belief that abstinence is the only birth control worth telling kids about, and a plethora of "faith-based" initiatives, it really does seem like we're heading back to some Victorian age.