Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year!

Hope everyone has a Happy New Year!

We will soon be heading out to an annual New Year's Eve party, where our hope is that the host will once again avoid being arrested for putting on an awesome fireworks show at midnight that starts off with the firing of a cannon. Cover your ears!

Should be geeky fun. Word is that there will be a new Wii game featuring mind exercises for the elderly (Brain Academy). Maybe tomorrow I will post a video of a related challenge to your brain's ability to pay attention, but today I will comment on the past year and an observation posted yesterday by Profgrrrl as part of a meme:

38. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2008.

Much of happiness is a choice. Actually, I think I already knew that but saw it many times over in my life and when observing other people. Perhaps more of what I learned this year was to embrace the moment and the situation. And just live.

I could not agree more. I have worked around some unhappy people, veritable nabobs of negativism, and I have worked around happy people. The only difference appears to be that the happy people choose to be happy. It may be personality in some cases, but it is also contagious. Every day at work is a fun day because of the people I work with. I owe them many thanks for making the best job I have ever had into an even better one.

Finally, below the fold, a video about one of the people we lost this year, and some comments about ones that I lost.

I lost an uncle who had lived a long and successful life, but the loss was particularly touching because he was the very special older brother to my Mom.

And I lost a colleague who "died in harness". He never got to give a 'last lecture' like you see discussed below, but he was a solid, very committed teacher who lived every day to the fullest. I'm sure he was gloriously happy right up to the last seconds of his life.

I only knew about Randy Pausch because of his "instant celebrity", but I wish I had known him in real life:

I know several people who have died of pancreatic cancer. It appears to be the least treatable fatal disease out there. The numbers are not as high as other diseases, but it seems to get little attention given how dangerous it is and the way it seems to strike people in the prime of life. Is it increasing (as seems to be the case since I never heard about it all until recently)? Why?

But regardless of the answer to those questions, my answer is that we should all live our lives so we can face the end the way he did - with dignity.

Read Entire Article......

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Charlie Brown would be proud

So I put off buying a tree until Saturday. That made shopping really easy (and cheap) since I only had to sort through about a dozen trees (only a few of which were the species I wanted) to pick the "best" one.

You should have seen it before it was decorated. The reason for the "hole" without many lights or decorations near the middle is that there aren't any branches there! However, I have added a few more ornaments in that area since that photo was taken and made the flaw particularly obvious. (At that time, I'd only opened the box containing the key ones that make the tree special.) But who cares?

The tree, imperfect as it is, serves its purpose - which is to connect pagan Solstice worship to Christianity and the modern era by ending up in a brush pile for the yard critters to use for shelter - while serving as centerpiece for family traditions.

One of those traditions is this ornament

which my Grandparents once owned. Might have even been on their first tree. I wish I knew when they got it, but it is over 80 years old. One whose age I do know, because it was a gift on my very first Christmas from a Great Aunt, is down at the center bottom (where it is always hung). Another decoration only showed up recently

although I made it (rather badly, with a coping saw) quite a few decades ago. Even the paint job is totally lame, but my parents saved it anyway - and packed it up as a "present" when they cleaned out their house to move to a wonderful retirement community. Those are supposed to be reindeer in front.

Another tradition is using the old incandescent lights that my wife had (from her parents) when we got married. The beads, seen in one photo, are also from her side of the family. It is a "blended" tree, just as our marriage blends our two personalities. I hope my niece, newly engaged this holiday season, has as much fun developing a set of traditions with her husband as we have had with ours. The starting point for us was the star on top, which my wife made for our very first tree. That makes it the most special ornament of all of them.

Read Entire Article......

Christmas Eve in 1968.

This is the 40th anniversary of Apollo 8 putting men in orbit around the moon for the first time - and sending back images of Earthrise.

I suppose everyone has seen the color photo they took, but today's BBC article about the event includes the FIRST photograph taken of Earthrise by humans:

My version has been cropped from the 2411x2448 original available from NASA on the flight journal page describing this observation. The picture is in black and white because that is the film they had in the camera at the time, and is oriented the way NASA says Bill Anders said it looked to him from orbit. They were taking geology-oriented images of the moon, where color was not relevant. The iconic color photo was taken shortly after. A transcript of the hunt for color film and large versions of the two color photos are also on that NASA web page.

The BBC article also includes a low-def version of an HD video of Earthrise shot recently by a Japanese satellite and the first photo of the earth taken from lunar orbit.

Finally, one thing that is forever memorable: Live TV from the moon. The actual broadcast was a boring black and white image. What you might have seen later is that audio synced with the color film that was shot from orbit (see this video, for example) but only seen after they returned to earth.

Read Entire Article......

Christmas Eve

I've got some catching up to do, with a few articles back in the queue, but first:

What would Christmas be without NORAD tracking Santa?

The "live cam" coverage of Santa's visits around the globe has already started. Go to to see all of them via YouTube. also includes ways to follow him on Google Earth. According to a BBC article today, they also have a live twitter feed (@noradsanta) so kids know when to expect his visit.

For any film buffs out there, I also stumbled on this clip from an 1898 film called "Santa Claus". The special effects are impressive, but it is also interesting to see Santa portrayed before the Coca Cola version provided a common version for American culture. Even as Snopes debunks this story, they confirm it. Their text from 1927 (four years before the Coke ad appeared) clearly says the standard Santa wore a hood. Notice the hoodie on Santa in that 1898 film? But the Santa in the first Coke ads wore a hat and all Santas wear a hat today. (Read the Coca Cola company version of this history here.)

In other news, a priest is in trouble in Italy for telling children that Santa is not real. What was that guy thinking? Well, he said what he was thinking: that kids should only believe that Jesus is real. Odd way to treat a patron Saint of the Church, but he clearly does not appreciate the role of mythology in human culture. (I once heard a fascinating sermon drawing a parallel between the two, concerning belief in the unseen based on hearsay evidence that might be centuries old.) Of course, plenty of evangelical churches try to do away with the mythology of Halloween (the eve of All Saints Day), so maybe they will take on the commercial mythology of Santa next. Not. Santa serves too many purposes to do that.

Read Entire Article......

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Shared Sacrifice

Triggered by comments posted by Dean Dad (at a CC of unknown size) about a discussion between Tenured Radical (at "Zenith", aka Wesleyan, a SLAC) and Dr. Crazy (at a 4-year regional state university) concerning faculty involvement in budget cuts at their institution. [See also a followup article from Dr. Crazy and the links she includes to comments from others, particularly these two.] Rather than hijack any of those threads, I figured I'd write my own thoughts here. [Note: Although drafted soon after reading those articles, this isn't actually being posted until late on Christmas Eve. Too much time preparing for my overload next semester and doing all of the errands and such that cannot be done during an overly busy semester, not to mention getting ready for Christmas.]

This issue is nothing new to us at Ishkabibble CC, where budget issues have been dealt with rather unevenly. At times the process appeared very open, at times it appeared dictatorial. The truth is that we were probably never actually involved in making any of the key decisions; the difference was the degree to which the options under discussion were communicated to and discussed with the faculty prior to the decision being made. I'll give the context here followed by my comments.

Our situation is not unlike those described in those two blogs. We have not had a salary increase. We have been told (not asked) to carry a significant extra load compared to the past, much as Dr. Crazy put it in her item 4:

Course releases seem to have gone the way of the dodo, for in these tough fiscal times we should find a way to do all of the extra things on top of everything else. Sleep be damned!
However, our college has "eaten" the health cost increases (her item #3), which do not require contributions from our salaries. Further, all layoffs, so far, have been of vacant positions. Since "vacant positions" includes faculty lines previously held by some of our best teaching faculty, there have been more adjuncts teaching than in the past and they do not replace what has been lost. (We are in a location where it is hard to hire good adjuncts because of our salary structure compared to that at nearby Wannabe Flagship.)

My first comment about what Tenured Radical wrote is that I personally have no resentment over my flat salary, although I do find it irritating that "shared sacrifice" does not include the President's performance bonus or his non-salary benefits like a housing and car allowance. Seriously. He makes more than anyone and he needs help with his house payment? If summer teaching requests are any measure, and I think they are a great measure, our new faculty desperately need help with their house payments. I think they are getting screwed. I resent hearing people complain who are making 25 or 30 grand more than those faculty.

A major issue for us is that the starting salary for new faculty has not been adjusted for several years. Combined with no pay raise this year (but good ones in the past few years), there has been a sort of anti-compression going on. We don't have special promotion pay raises, and, personally, I think the long-term promise of tenure is a significant pay raise. We have been treated really well in the recent past, but those increases don't help the new faculty. Of course, those people might have trouble because they don't watch Suze Orman (we are huge fans) and have never lived through a recession before. Maybe they were not as conservative as we were when we bought our house and have a huge student loan, credit card, and automobile debt. Not many people live on cash the way we do.

Shared sacrifice? Only if it is shared. As Tenured Radical put it rather well:
Agreeing to a salary freeze, when it is explained as part of a well-reasoned plan is sticking out your hand and playing your role as a partner in the enterprise.
Quite so, with emphasis on "well-reasoned plan". The strong point of our President has been coming up with a well-reasoned plan, one that has anticipated cuts (thereby reducing their impact) and put most (but not enough) emphasis on the classroom. But the partnership has only gone one way, and at times the decisions were made without any knowledge at all of what goes on in the classroom. None, since the President knows little about the classroom. (To his credit, he has attended my class - and learned something about momentum and safety belts in car crashes as a result - but that is not the same as teaching in one.) They wasted money on new computers for our lab, computers that did not work as well as the ones they replaced! No one, and I mean no one, asked if that was needed.

A major part of the problem at our CC was that a significant round of cuts were worked on during the summer, in near isolation. As near as I can tell, only one faculty member (the chair of the Major Committee that I serve on) was consulted in any way about what they implemented this fall. No one else on the committee, or any of the other advisory panels, was involved at all despite the fact that many of us were on campus teaching during the summer and most of us read e-mail regularly. A previous round of cuts was done in the same way, but had minor effects. I suspect the President interpreted our reaction then as support for his unilateral decisions.

The result of the President's idea for fall has the effect of devaluing our work, the same point Dr. Crazy made in her final comments. This has been a common concern of our faculty. Like her institution, we are at the bottom of the funding barrel and our President does nothing, absolutely nothing, to speak Truth to Power (the legislature) about how little we get from the state for each class of freshman comp (not to mention physics) compared to what they get at Wannabe Flagship - and what our students get (excellence without money) compared to theirs when you consider the SAT scores they start out with. Particularly when you consider that our faculty are more qualified than the adjuncts they use to teach those freshmen. Would that university get those tons of money if they were appropriated for research (which is what they mostly go for at a 1/1 institution with adjuncts teaching the intro classes) rather than instruction? Would they be held to a different account if the legislature actually knew it was not being spent in the classroom?

Side comment:
A friend of a colleague is a professor who lectures to a really large class at Wannabe Flagship. The prof generates over $750,000 for the university each semester in tuition and state "instructional" funds. Talk about profit! Where does it go?

Our President's decisions devalue our work in the classroom. When you simply add extra seats to a room, eliminating aisles so it is impossible to walk around the room and do "active learning" exercises, are you really putting the classroom first? Granted, Wannabe Flagship uses all of that extra money to put even more students in a giant lecture hall and stuff almost as many students as I have in one lecture into their "recitation" section, while dumbing down their physics curriculum to a shocking degree, but that does not make it right. Like Dr. Crazy, I enjoy teaching here because my students work hard to be better than their competition. I've blogged about that before. Many of their decisions seem to reflect an assumption that anyone can do our job, and that we can do it just as well regardless of the number of papers we have to grade. That might be true when you only give multiple choice exams, as some of our faculty do, but our students deserve - and used to get - more than that. I don't bring to this what Dr. Crazy does, but I take it just as seriously.

When we get cut by X%, we lose less money per student than Wannabe Flagship does, but what we lose has a much bigger impact in the classroom - because all of our money goes to the classroom. Our President needs to make that case. I don't think our CC's administration, despite giving it lip service in pursuit of grant money or marketing the college, takes our role in the community as seriously as the faculty do.

Read Entire Article......

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Grades are Done!

Time to celebrate the end of the semester! (See end of blog for one reason.)

A hat tip to Rachel for this video,

not to mention for her inspired way of dealing with a cheater during her chem final, because ... trust me, the instructors would much prefer that the student freak out and fail the exam on her own than have to push through the paperwork in a vain hope that a committee will back them up on the charge of academic dishonesty. There are many places where each Snowflake is held to be precious in its own way.

By the way, I might not be the most eagle-eyed of proctors I have worked with, but furtive looks and (in particular) reaching for ANYTHING anywhere gets my immediate attention. Sounds to me like the proctors did a rather poor job of keeping out of view (watching from a back corner is spectacularly effective) and/or bracketing the room. I always make sure I have an observation point that is close to where the kids like to hide in the back of a room and spend a lot of time there. Much better to be standing still than moving slowly around, particularly if there is a second person who can be moving around.

As for Dr. Pion's semester:

On a more positive note, it looks like EVERY student who went into the final exam with a plausible grade has managed to pass my classes. The exceptions had exam averages around 50% at midterm and way too much optimism about either (A) their chance of improving their performance or (B) the effect of messages about how important this class is to getting into their career of choice.

Sorry, but if some college thinks passing my class is important for a particular major, all the more reason to hold you to a standard where outliers get the failing grade they earned.

Additional time wasting material:

Oh, yes, and if that video is not enough, we have

Nothing says the end of the semester like people applauding a cat playing a piano. Particularly when someone is taking piano lessons on the other piano ... Ah, the miracle of YouTube. These four videos have over 10 million, 4 million, 11 million, and 3 million views, respectively.

Eleven million views of a cat playing a piano? Wonder where Van Cliburn would rank. Answer: none much over 200 thousand views. Sigh.

Read Entire Article......

Friday, December 12, 2008

Full Moon

The moon has been very bright lately, rivaling a nearby streetlight even when not full. (I could read the labels on our recycling bin by moonlight last week.) I learned one of the reasons today: Tonight's brilliant full moon coincides with the moon's closest approach to the earth in its elliptical orbit around the earth, making it 14% bigger and 30% brighter than usual.

It was definitely time to get out the camera.

Click image for larger view. Details below the fold.

Photo taken with a Nikon D70 using a 70-300 lens at full zoom (300 mm), shot at f5.6 at 1/2000 of a second exposure with sensitivity set to 800 ISO. Only edit was to crop to 500x500 and convert to greyscale, although I did not see any color artifacts (probably because the sensors were not being pushed anywhere near their limit at that exposure).

I can't get over the detail for a photo with a fairly modest lens, particularly the mountains visible along the upper right edge. It took a lot of experiments with the camera set to shutter priority to figure out what appeared to give the best image. The ones shot at 1/8000 didn't have enough brightness in the ejecta, while slower ones brought out the halo (the sky is actually fairly hazy with humidity) while losing all of the detail on the surface.

OK, enough of a diversion. Time to get back to grading exams.

Read Entire Article......

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Space news

Two news stories today:

The first is not really new news, but the second one is interesting. The planet involved is not suitable for life, but the discovery increases the odds that the conditions for life might exist in other solar systems.

Having actual data on this is relevant to estimates made based on the so-called Drake Equation (for details, look here). Most of the values in that estimate were, basically, wild guesses. The most critical one is the chance that a planet can support life. Data on the odds of finding water available are, therefore, interesting to the SETI community.

Read Entire Article......

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Quote of the Day

From the BBC European News Desk ....

"We can still have sex and drugs but in a way that shows the city is in control."

- Deputy Mayor Lodewijk Asscher of Amsterdam

Apparently they were shocked, SHOCKED, to learn that brothels, along with marijuana shops, peep shows, sex shows, mini-supermarkets, phone, and souvenir shops might provide a cover for organized crime and contribute to urban decay.

Rudy Giuliani could have told them that. Even if there were no broken windows.

Read Entire Article......

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Stuffing or Dressing?


So which is it at your house? Vote in the comments.

I make Stuffing ... using (as a jumping off point) a recipe labeled "Dressing".

That means, of course, that I am a Damn Yankee.

My recipe starts from a (stale) bread based stuffing with lots of sage. Among the undocumented features are using rosemary (added to the butter / onion / celery mix as it cooks) and adding apples, raisins, and other things that might be handy (such as dried cherries, pecans, or walnuts) for extra flavors.

Cooking hint:
Make plenty of stuffing and cook the rest in a casserole dish using turkey bouillon (from Better than Bouillon) for added moisture. Then add turkey drippings and mix with the actual stuffing to have plenty of leftovers.

Read Entire Article......

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Saving the Past

Triggered by a BBC article about plans to demolish a landmark Kabuki theater, a rare piece of pre-war architecture that survived the fire-bombing of Tokyo.

The most stunning thing in the article was a lack of any "historic" designation for buildings other than temples. That is sad, because architecture can be part of the soul of a society. Creative people can find a way to integrate the new in with the old, like buying that piece of crap building in the background and using it's site for the desired complex, connected to the old building to provide the needed amenities for a modern audience. (More toilets.) Right. They need to tear it down so they can have more toilets.

There is another threatened area, called "Omoide Yokocho" or "Memory Lane", that they want to tear down - but plan to keep in a sanitized version in a museum. Probably will be a cross between Henry Ford's "Greenfield Village" and Walt Disney's "Epcot Center". That's like replacing hot dog vendors on the streets of NYC with a single robotic one in a museum. Not. The. Same. Thing. The name of that place, along with the observation that "Japanese culture does treasure nostalgia: a yearning for things lost - childhood, school friends, a way of life - is a frequently voiced emotion. But the quest for modernity arguably runs deeper." triggered a quick search for a movie with that word in its Japanese title.

"Omohide poro poro" (titled "Only Yesterday" in English) is a feature-length anime by Isao Takahata. I saw it once, late at night on TCM, in Japanese with subtitles. If you look at the TCM info about this movie, you will see it is #12 on their list of "movies not yet on DVD". It is at the top of my list. It is an amazingly well-told story of a young woman looking back at memories of her childhood, and all of the events that put her where she is today - which is on a train heading from the city into the countryside for a vacation.

I was hooked as much by the background as by the story. The fragments of home and school life provide an interesting insight into Japanese life and culture. It also conveys a nostalgia for a simpler life, away from the hectic life of a modern city.

Read Entire Article......

Rate Your Student's Parent

Oh, this is classic stuff.

Rate Your Students posted a letter from a parent complaining about how some mean professor made her kid go to class on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, followed up by a collection of a dozen rants from various professors responding to this parent. Go read them yourself. They are worth every minute.

UPDATE: There are even more replies in a final ? collection.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Milo takes on the student as customer argument. About the only thing he left out was a concern for the OTHER customers in the classroom. I can never figure out why they don't get mentioned.

They really make my day because it reminds me of how well off I am. I had 80% attendance* in my WEDNESDAY afternoon class ... the class day after I gave an exam! I actually have students in my classes who want to learn! No attendance policy, no attendance grade, no extra credit, just physics. Even my "C" students make me proud to have them in my class. Gotta remember to tell them that on Monday. Anyway, back to our little College Drama.

The Parent is "mighty pissed" that Offspring's professor will penalize students for skipping class, and can't imagine why Out of State University wouldn't want to keep the Parental $$$$ Source happy ... by not educating the Student?

Actually, my guess is that the professor either (a) has an attendance penalty every day and Student can't afford to incur any more of them at this point in the semester or (b) is actually offering extra credit for showing up, extra credit that Student desperately needs to have a tiny chance of passing the class, but Student is not about to tell Checkbook Parent the real reason even if there are hints that Parent suspects Offspring is not like my students.

But go read it for yourself, then come back for my answers to the Parent's Meme:

  • Do you ever think about the folks who essentially pay your salaries?
I think all the time about the citizens of my state, doing my best to avoid graduating any 'students' who would make incompetent engineers whose bridges would fall down. (One way of looking at the economics of a state-funded CC is to say that the state appropriation pays the full-time tenured faculty whose salaries are a recurring cost, while tuition pays for the part-time faculty and other staff that would be eliminated if our enrollment were to fall suddenly. However, our state appropriation also depends on enrollment, so it is not that simple.) As for the students who pay their way, or their parents, I certainly want them to get their money's worth from my class. To me, that happens to mean teaching a great class the day before Thanksgiving rather than shortchanging them by cutting class myself. (And it was a great class. I think I set just the right tone for the key material we get to in the last week of class. We'll see on Monday, but I expect to see them ready to rock when they get back.)
  • Do you have any feelings for your "employers" and their offspring (besides contempt ?)
You Betcha! I've gladly posed for graduation pictures with former students, and enjoy hearing from them after they transfer to Engineering school. I rarely complain about the ones who come to class. I even feel sorry for those Parents whose slacker Snowflakes sign up for my class and never bother to attend.
  • I mean, do you like being a College Professor ? (I admit it, I read just some of the blog...)
I can see why you might get the wrong impression from "Rate Your Students" or other stories you see on some of my favorite blogs. Those faculty are venting their displeasure with the small (and, sometimes, not so small) group of students that enroll in classes but are not Students. Fooled by an 89 average in HS, because they don't know that an 89 is actually below average among their fellow HS grads planning to go to college, they think showing up will guarantee a B, or at least a C. They never hear my orientation warning to new students. We genuinely like most of our students, although we can do without their Helicopter Parents. You can also see what I really think of my students at many places in my blog, but particularly in this old article. I will agree that some faculty, particularly untenured professors at a research university, think undergrad students just get in the way of doing their main job, which is winning research grants and publishing papers. But you can hardly blame them, since they get paid to do that, not teach.
  • Can you honestly tell me that we are getting our money's worth, or do you teach to support your_______________ habit ?
I work for my Health Insurance habit. But seriously, I can honestly tell you that some Parents are not getting their money's worth. I see their Offspring show up in a basket on my classroom doorstep after they drink and party their way out of Wannabe Flagship, only to cut my class and fail to learn either physics or the lesson they should have learned the first time they flunked out. But it's not my fault their Offspring don't want to learn. It's their kid's fault. I can't make them attend class, nor can you, which means you are not getting your money's worth out of your kid.

Parent closed with "Here's hoping you get that well deserved rest you need over the Thanksgiving break...", to which I reply that I will still be grading exams and lab reports, just like I do on most weekends. My work really starts when my student's work ends.

* Percentage measured relative to the number of students who took the exam during the previous class meeting, not the number originally enrolled. My retention is pretty good this year, not that good!

Read Entire Article......

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Prof. Snowflake, and Friends

Hat tip to RYS for this gem, although I think I saw an allusion to the Chronicle article somewhere in reference to the "imposter syndrome" comment by one of the professors of Teaching and Learning (I kid you not) complaining about their jobs as 2nd year professors. This trio was so excited about becoming new t-t faculty members that they took a year off to bask in the glow? Didn't anyone tell them that ditching one of the six years they have to make a case for tenure is a bad idea? Particularly in a field like "teaching and learning" where you need IRB approval to work with human subjects?

But nothing I can write can match what the bloggers at RYS wrote about those poor sweet bunnies, particular with the additional perspective of being an adjunct in this followup comment.

OK, maybe I can try, but I would emphasize the material summarized in my blog about jobs, where I put the focus on keeping that tenure-track job after you get it.

Now standards in physics at an R1 (the context of my article) are probably a lot higher than in the Department of Teaching and Learning in the College of Education at a Directional State University (probably second tier, although all I know about them is that they play football well enough to be fodder for Div 1 predators), but they are not non-existent. I wonder if they even know about the third year review? No mention of it in that column. Bless their hearts. Gotta watch for more news from them over the next year or four.

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Saturday, November 22, 2008


The mind is funny. Does it still know what time it was?

I just remembered what day it is, without any prompting from news stories or blogs, and it is almost exactly the time when I learned of the Kennedy assassination a mere 45 years ago. And I can still see our old kitchen in they yellow light of a fall afternoon (not unlike the light across my yard right this instant) at the moment when I came in the back yard and heard the news from my mother.

No, I will never forget that.

I will never forget how moved she was, since my parents did not vote for JFK or support some of his policies. But he was our President, and we mourned with the rest of the country that day ... and that entire weekend.

The TV was hardly ever off that entire weekend, a detail my students can't really appreciate. I still remember seeing Oswald killed, live on TV, a detail my students find almost unbelievable. What was just an interlude during the funeral coverage became a part of the story and endless conspiracy theories.

And I remember the sound - the distinctive pattern of the drum beat used during the entire funeral procession. That was all we heard for what seemed like hours. There was no commentary (another detail my students find unbelievable). What is it about our aural memory that retains that rhythm, right down to the dramatic pause before it repeats?

We all identified with Jackie and her children, who were just a bit younger than we were. It has been 45 years since there were young children in the White House. (Caroline was just 3 or 4 when JFK was elected.) I don't have to imagine what kids will be thinking about the Obama family and their new dog, since we lived it for 3 years. I just hope the Obama presidency ends on a better note.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Copernicus' grave identified

The news reports that the remains of Nicolaus Copernicus have been identified. The AP story contains additional details, but the BBC has the best picture of the computer reconstruction made as part of the study of the remains found a few years ago. Compare it to the portraits included in the Wiki article about him.

It looks like we could almost trust the artists back then as much as we trust the DNA evidence today.

I'm particularly entertained by the detail that it was the DNA in some hairs found in an old book of his that was used to confirm the identity of the body. So something good can come from losing your hair!

By the way, this will be quite timely if Copernicus happens to be near the top of Matt's list of the top ten greatest physicists, but I'm not optimistic because Matt didn't even recognize Galileo's work as "physics" just because it was called "natural philosophy" back then. (Will he also ditch Newton because his greatest work was about the mathematical principles of natural philosophy? Time will tell.) Besides, he still has not used Einstein or Newton, and there are only two places left.

Sad, really, because Copernicus' work was easily the most revolutionary advancement in physics in history. Significant enough that it was the title of his book, "De revolutionibus orbium coelestium", that gave new meaning to a word that had just meant "going around in a circle" up until that time. His work set the standard for the sort of radical paradigm shift that will put Newton and Einstein at the top of Matt's list along with Maxwell. (Odd, however, that Weinberg and Salaam don't get an honorable mention up there with Maxwell's unification work.)

Read Entire Article......

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Prediction and Data

The results of the Presidential election appear to have been finalized,with Obama picking up one final electoral vote from the Omaha, Nebraska, congressional district along with North Carolina, while McCain took Missouri. That makes the final (but still provisional) tally at 365 for Obama and 173 for McCain. I've added those points, along with the last few days of polls, to the graph I posted earlier.

I also included a dashed line to help compare that value to the statistical fluctuations in the polls over the last several weeks of the campaign. Obama somewhat overperformed, but not by much compared to the 'noise' you can see in the data. After all, only a fraction of a percent in the popular vote in two states (Indiana with 11 electoral votes and North Carolina with 15) -- well within the margin of error for the predictions -- was responsible for all of the 16 point gain over the prediction at By the way, visit his site and compare the prediction map with the actual map. Pretty stunning.

In addition, in case you need to decompress, I bring you a somewhat bogus TV News Report from "The Onion":

Obama Win Causes Obsessive Supporters To Realize How Empty Their Lives Are

I found it hysterical. With a hint of truth. Making it even more hysterical.

Read Entire Article......

Monday, November 10, 2008

RIP - Phoenix Lander and Miriam Makeba

Two obituaries today: Miriam Makeba, who brought "world music" to the west along with her arguments against apartheid, before either was particularly fashionable (indeed, while it was still illegal for blacks and whites to marry in many states in the US), and the Phoenix Lander that has brought us an amazing vision of Mars.

I'll put the inanimate Phoenix below the fold and start with Miriam Makeba singing "When I've Passed On" (circa 1966), which seems eerily suitable for today:

You should click through and look at some of the related videos ("The Click Song" and "Pata Pata" are her famous ones) if you are not familiar with her African music. Along with Hugh Masekela, she brought South African music to the US (and the world) in the mid 60s. It amazed me when I read that she still performing at 76. This video is one of a set recorded in Stockholm. She is backed by musicians from St. Thomas, the US, and Brazil. (Obligatory Wiki link is here. Bonus question at the bottom for any young folks who know who her husband, Stokely Carmichael, was.)

The Phoenix Lander on Mars

I written about Phoenix before, and have been meaning to come back to it to point out some of the amazing things it has seen since it slipped off of the national media spotlight. (Between the election and the attention span of the US media, even seeing weather on Mars never had a chance.)

There is a wonderful collection of images and related stories (along with lots of other information) on the Phoenix Lander web site. I'll select a few ? of my favorites here:

It was supposed to be a 90-day mission, ending on August 25th. Apparently they got regular reports until the end of October when low power caused the lander to go into a hibernation mode and have had only minimal communications through November 2.

You can read today's wrap-up news release here.

Not bad for a government project ...

Special bonus question:
Compare and contrast the apparent re-election of Sen. Ted Stevens to the election of Adam Clayton Powell to fill the seat vacated when he was thrown out of the House of Representatives for corruption. There is a pair for you!

Read Entire Article......

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Generation Then and Now

First, a must-read from the the "on-line only" New Yorker:

on election day. Just for reference, Ayers is 63 and is not a "baby boomer". He was born in 1944, and is part of a generation often confused with Boomers because they were so active in the 1960s. He offers a pretty amusing insight into the vortex that was one part this year's Presidential campaign.

Second, the "Generation WE" video that Mrs. Pion pointed out to me:

Comments below the fold.

Where to begin.

Probably with the hypocrisy of complaining about federal deficits and closing with a call for a multi-billion dollar government handout to fund innovative solutions to our over-depenence on fossil fuels. Most entertaining. Why not Just Do It, like some entrepreneurs have done when it was time to create cell phones or hybrid cars? (Yes, I know why not, and I support that goal and that mechanism. What I reject is the sales pitch that does not expose the hard choices to be made.)

Along that same line, maybe I should start with the throw-away line in the video about health care for all. If you are ignorant of what it costs now, and ignorant of how it is funded now, you will never survive the battle to replace hidden taxes with public ones, or hidden socialism (via surcharges on insurance-paid care) for open socialism, and might even buy into the fantasy that a $5000 deduction will allow every American to get full health insurance coverage.

Or with the line about 1/3 getting diabetes, as if it is an unavoidable health risk rather than a result of a diet full of sugar -- from soft drinks to "energy drinks". Kid, if you are too fat to fit comfortably in a regular school desk (an increasing problem at my college), you are putting your own health at risk. Don't pretend that a reduced life expectancy is your parent's fault for taking you to the fast-food restaurant you begged to visit as a child.

Or maybe with those silly remarks about polluted water and an environmental disaster. Kids, wake up and smell the Cuyahoga. You can't? That is because it got cleaned up by those self-absorbed Boomers and their parents (after we nagged them into paying for it). You kids have no idea what polluted water looks like. Rivers rarely catch fire any more. And Pittsburgh? The buildings are white again, now that coal-burning plants only emit CO2 rather than soot and CO2.

Or maybe with links to a pair of articles in the Chronicle, on stupidity: part 1 and, in particular, part 2 that addresses teaching the "digital natives". The assumption that this particular generation is better informed and more tech savvy is brought into question by someone else who shares my criticism of a consumer culture on campus that has not considered it important to prepare this allegedly prepared generation for the digital world. Guess what, kids? We can find Wikipedia too, but we know enough that we can tell when what is there is crap. Our faculty know better than to interrupt class to send a text message, but apparently the kids paying to learn something have yet to learn to profit from what they are paying for.

I do agree with them about education. That generation did get screwed out of an education as good as the one I had, but it's not really the Boomer's fault that people weren't willing to pay a professional's wages for a teacher. A fair fraction of young Boomer women still saw teaching as a worthwhile profession, but many more found a wide range of professions open up to women as a result of the Women's Lib movement. The people who tolerated a massive decline in teacher quality were from the Greatest Generation. (At my alma mater, by the late 70s, teachers were drawn from the bottom of the entering freshman class. I have the data to prove it. I really need to blog about them, but put it off while trying to get a newer set of similar data.) It was the Greatest Generation that came up with the New Math and Look Say, producing poorly educated students who would end up being your teachers and parents. (No one seems to notice that the noted "terrorist pal" is a Professor of Education at a quality university.) Parents who put up with it when their kids went to school only made it worse, but how were they to know? And what could they do about it? Well, they could teach their kids the way mine did. I learned more at home than in school until some time about the middle of high school.

Yet nowhere in that video did I see a call for the top half of the graduating class to go into K-12 education. Or a call for discipline and structure in schools rather than acceptance of any and all behaviors. Nope, just the usual enabler nonsense that shifts the responsibility for learning away from the learner. Look kids, Obama didn't get where he is today by waiting for something to happen, by waiting for someone to teach him how to become President. Stop blaming older people the way my generation did for decades, and do something about improving yourselves. It is possible to learn things on your own. They are called books. You can even get them elecronically, via Kindle. (Mrs Pion loves her new Kindle.)

Or maybe with claims about political involvement. Yes, reports are that young voters turned out in record numbers (from a student newspaper), but only by increasing turnout from awful (48% in 2004) to merely bad (between 49 and 54%). The national average was about 61 to 64%, right up there with 1960 and 1964, but probably above 1968. Sorry, kids, but the older folks still beat you to the polls. We'll have to wait a few months for real demographic details, but not exactly the "unprecedented numbers" they push at the end of the video.

Or how about starting with the assertions about how bad the economy is. Worst ever? Try my parent's generation, from the trailing edge of the so-called Greatest Generation, born just a bit too late to fight in all but the last days of WW II, they were born just in time for the Great Depression. Just in time that they became teenagers at a time when you couldn't even buy tires for your car (seriously) and grease was recycled to be made into explosives. (There was a time when throwing away grease was practically an act of treason.)

Environmentalists? Drive by a college apartment complex after the Thursday to Monday weekend and tell me how much recycling you see. The dumpsters are overflowing. The families in my neighborhood recycle. The college kids usually don't, unless the garbage can gets too full.

Worried about war? Sorry kids, but none of you was ever at risk of getting drafted, and you were never asked to sacrifice anything (not even taxes) for either the war in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan. Worried about debt? The federal deficit during WW II was something like half of the GDP. They printed money, gave it to war workers and soldiers, then borrowed it back from them (because they had nothing to buy) and printed even more money. Ever hear about War Bonds?

Really worried about the Federal Deficit or tax increases for the wealthy? Use this here internet thingy to read some of the blog articles on CNBC. One guy argues, quite convincingly, that deficits are really good for people under 30 (because growth opens up new jobs in new industries, while recessions are bad for recent graduates, as I can also tell you from experience), and that higher taxes on top income brackets are good for young workers too (since those taxes might encourage highly paid Boomer employees to retire early, opening up lines of promotion for younger staff). Lest you doubt the author's (Wall) street cred, he writes for Jim Cramer. I suppose he could even add that his generation can always pass the debt on to their kids, just as the Greatest Generation (Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, and Bush I) passed it on to us, where a Boomer tried to pay it off (Clinton) only to have another one (Bush II) build it back up to pass on to an inter-generational President (Obama was born in 1961, at the end of the Boom, which ran from 1946 to 1964). Passing on the national debt is part of our traditional American Family Values.

Or maybe with the hubris of "control our nation". No, let's end there. Let's end with the fantasy of taking control just the way Boomers did between 1968 (when this video could have been made if anything cheaper than an AMPEX deck with 2" tape had existed) and 1992. Or the common cause shown by the politics of Bill Clinton and George W, or the world view shared by W and Gore. The reality is that there are just about as many right wing young voters as there are progressives. The big difference is that this generation is tolerant of some things that their parents rejected, such as racial integration, but that does not narrow the wide range of opinions about guns or gays or drilling within view of Spring Break at Panama City Beach. (I wonder if there will be a battle in 25 years between a candidate who enlisted in 2001 and served in Iraq and one who had "other priorities". Probably, unless the attack politics of 2000 and 2004 really did get killed off in 2008. Time will tell.) In the meantime, real change will only take place if the progressives of "Generation WE" join forces with the progressives of every other generation, as many of them did with the Boomer named Obama, and make that change happen.

Why not work together? If you are in Generation WE, that means you are, after all, a child of the Baby Boom generation. All you need to do is get your parents to work with you the same way we got our parents to do something about pollution and, eventually, Vietnam. Effective politics is about coalitions, not confrontations. Remember, Vietnam went on longer than it needed to because confrontations within the Democratic Party (in which Bill Ayers played an important role) put Nixon in power. Or didn't they (we) teach you that in school?

Read Entire Article......

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Tuesday was a gray day.

Not rainy, just overcast and gray.

Today the sky was clear and blue.

A good omen?

And I don't think it was my imagination that quite a few students had a spring in their step that one doesn't normally see at this point in the semester, a time when slogging through the last weeks of school seems to be the norm.

Read Entire Article......

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The President is ...

Based on this story among others ... What they will be saying tomorrow morning in West Virginia and some southern red states:

I first thought of this scene because of two stories posted on 538 about what people were telling campaign workers canvassing for Obama. I'll have to dig up the links later. (Here they are: canvassing in western PA and calling in VA.)

If I had anything to do with Saturday Night Live, I would SO be figuring out a way to do a skit recreating this scene in Grant Park tonight or Inauguration Day in January. Whatever.

But it is not just this scene that connects to the irony of present day. The central story in this movie is that the highly prejudiced townfolk come around to accepting a Black Sheriff because he is a competent and calm leader in a time of panic. Given a choice between losing their town and discarding their prejudices, they chose to save their town. To save their country. To ignore appeals to their baser instincts, appeals that used to get them to vote against their best interests. To look to the future of One America, working for a Better America.

Read Entire Article......

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Future Career in Physics?

A correspondent asks the following lightly editted question:

I am located in [the midwest], and have just started attending [mid-tier Midwestern University]. My current major is Computer Science and Engineering (most likely computer programing), and I have also been extremely intrigued by Physics. I listen to Audio books about physics, Einstein, QM, etc.

My question is, how is the job outlook for Physics? I've been reading that the salary is very good, $50k - $100k, although it's a damper if you can't find those jobs! I am interested in possibly changing my major to Physics, although am unsure as to how hard it will be to find a job -- especially doing something I like rather then the only thing I can get.

What would your opinion be? I just have no real information that I can find about the long-term accessibility to Physics compared to Computer Programming. Thanks for your time in reading this message.

Thanks for the question, and thanks for the confidence in my side role as an Academic Advisor. I get questions like this quite often. I already gave a fairly specific answer by e-mail, but figured part of it also belonged here in the blog.

First, I wish everyone luck in finding their way to a job that they enjoy. I'm not sure I should recommend my approach, because it has had some elements of a random walk to it, not to mention what could only appear to be spectacular good luck at various key points along the way. But what can I say? We are all the product of a sequence of decisions. One decision I considered might have put me in on the ground floor of what became the computer animation industry, but I found it just as rewarding to have a (physics) student who ended up working there, not to mention others who have made real contributions to this nation. I love my job, even when it is tiring, hard work, and frustrating.

My (hopefully good) Advice:

If you are a fresh new freshman, as it sounds, it is too early to decide. Now is the time to take the core science classes for a computer engineering major and find out what you are good at. Those core classes are generally the same classes that a physics major would take. You don't really have to make a decision right now. The entire difference between one major and the other might be made up by as little as taking one extra class next fall.

[I looked at the major requirements for Midwestern University and they are quite similar to Wannabe Flagship, the school my students transfer to. Their computer engineering students take the same three calculus courses and the same two physics courses that physics majors take. Ditto for freshman chemistry. The only real difference is that physics has a freshman "what is cool about physics" class, while computer engineering has a "what is cool about EE" class and a programming class. This is true for many universities, not just his school and Wannabe Flagship. There are, however, significant exceptions where physics majors take a different physics sequence than engineers. There it might cost you a semester or even two if you didn't switch majors before starting physics.]

Take those calculus and physics classes, and the programming classes, and learn it for life. Are you good at problem solving? Do you like the lab? Are you good at programming? Is programming so much fun that you write your own games and sims, wasting enough time on that stuff that you forget about everything else? (Like my brother, who needed to retake physics because of the uber-cool sim code he wrote that semester?) Or do you really get into 3-D calculus and all of the sophisticate mathematics of partial differential equations that has to be second nature if you want to get into the physics of quantum mechanics? Or do you want to work on gadgets, making some tricky experiment work?

If you were my advisee, I'd suggest you rip into those classes and get back to me in May (or, more likely, next November) after you have three semesters of calculus, two of physics, and some programming behind you. Then we can really talk. Or we won't need to talk, since by then you might know exactly what you really want to do.

Getting Information:

First, you should have lots of information available to you. Most universities have some kind of career center for academic advising and/or job placement. They would have current statistics for placement of grads from your specific university in the specific majors you are considering. You can also find national statistics for physics from the AIP (American Institute of Physics) and for CS from the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery for the programming side) or IEEE (for the computer engineering side).

Side thought:
The updated national rankings of graduate programs from the National Academy should be out soon, along with the annual job info updates from the AIP. The former only comes out every decade, so it is a big deal. Need to go look for it.

The salaries you quote seem very high for a BS in physics, since they are high for median new-hire salaries for engineering degrees. That might be a reasonable range for a PhD in physics, but that is after some years of experience in graduate research. No one gets hired for $100,000 right out of college.

In any case, no one should pick a career based on the salary alone.

Stu: "I want to be a chemical engineer! They make lots more money than other engineers!"
Prof: "Did you know that they have to take a year of inorganic chemistry followed by another year of organic chemistry, in addition to the one year of physics and two years of calculus every other engineer takes?"
Stu: "Oh. No"
Prof: "And that all has to be done before the start of their junior year classes in chemical engineering."
Stu: "Never mind."

Stu: "I want to be a pediatrician. I love kids."
Prof: "Do you like kids when they are crying because they are sick or even dying?"
Stu: "Doctors have to treat sick children?"
Prof: "That is where the money is."
Stu: "Oh."

Engineering and physics and programming are all hard work. Hard work can be fun, or it can be a drag. Money can make up for it being a drag, but many students who are just in it for the money will struggle with motivation when faced with the years of hard work that must be put in before you get that first internship, let alone a job.

Job Outlook:

I would never trust anyone's guess on the job outlook for any major, certainly not mine. Even the professional placement officers have been wildly wrong at times. Like most of the time. The market was good when I started college. Four years later, when I got my BS, we were headed into a recession and jobs were tough to get in the areas that hired my undergrad major. I went to grad school, which paid a living wage, but there I learned the market for PhD faculty was nonexistent and would remain bad for a decade. And, I might add, many of the jobs in physics today concern application areas that literally did not exist when I got my degree. Cell phones? An iPod with more permanent storage than an entire weapon's lab computing center? You don't guess about the future, you create it. And, lately, many PhD physicists were working in the financial industry; many of them are soon going to be out of work, either living off of their profits or looking for a job somewhere else.

In the past, only exceedingly practical majors like civil engineering have been fairly recession proof. We build roads and bridges even during the Great Depression, so there was usually a way to get by if you could work in that area. Now, what will the market be like four years from now? Who knows. But if it is any good at all, it will be driven by the kinds of things we don't see much of right now. I can't say with alternative energy program will take off, but one of them will. There will be work in those areas as an engineer, applied physicist, or programmer if you are the best prepared person for the job and ready to work harder than the other girl or guy.

So my advice is to learn everything you can from your classes, find what you like, find what you are good at, and pursue a career that requires skills that you have and enjoy doing for 10 or so hours a day. All technical careers are hard work for the money, so you better like what you are doing.

Read Entire Article......

Palin prank call

This is just too funny.

I simply can't believe it isn't faked. Could it be that easy for professional con men (i.e. radio hosts) to get past the people screening calls for a future VP?

Among the positives would be that there is a CKOY (CKOI?) station near Montreal, but among the negatives would be the utter absence of any mention of this in a google search of the station's web site. A US station would promote the heck out of a coup like this if it was real. I think it more likely that the comedy group linked from the video did both sides of the call.

Only the mainstream media will know for sure ... so I will hold off publishing for now.

OK, they do. Saw this report from the BBC, so I'll publish this now. Note that there is an audio interview with the prankster at the bottom of the BBC article.

Read Entire Article......

Friday, October 31, 2008

Bouncy Bouncy

As a physicist, I can't resist the analytical approach of the work of baseball analyst Nate Silver at Below is a graph of data from his projections from mid July through Thursday, October 30, five days before the vote. Although this might pass as his "prediction" of the outcome, my interest today is in the dynamics of this function. We can all look at the last few days of polling and the final - actual - poll about a week from now.

The curves indicate the projected electoral vote count from his analysis (more on that below the fold) with a few key dates flagged on the graph. The red arrow near the middle is the day Sarah Palin was announced as McCain's VP choice. The green brackets on either side span the Democratic and Republican conventions, respectively, while the green band with red lines indicates when the four debates took place. The VP debate (2nd of the four) is shown with a longer line.

You can clearly see the "bounce" from some of those events, but it seems to be delayed by a week or two. I don't know how much of this is the time it takes to execute a poll, how much is due to the damping factors Nate has in his model, and how much is due to the time it takes human beings to process information.

By the way, the now-infamous Katie Couric interviews started airing on September 24, just a few days before the first Presidential debate, so it really can't be separated from those other events.

What interests me is that large delay between what have been identified so far as 'critical' events and the response of the dynamical system. An engineer would probably say there is a lot of 'lash' in the system. If so, is there really any justification for all of the money spent on insta-polling right after a debate or a convention? Doesn't look like it to me.

The "bounce" that Obama got from his convention started before the convention (all that lead-up talk?) and continued on for at least two weeks, right through the Republican convention and beyond. The short-lived bounce that McCain got from his VP pick and his convention (one week going up and then one week going down) was also delayed by at least one and maybe two weeks. (For reference, the tick marks on my X axis are 14 days apart.)

You can certainly see that the electorate has settled in after the last debate, with only small statistical fluctuations over the last month. Of course, these are people, not a mechanical system, so only time will tell what they will actually do and what changes might occur between now an election day. However, it is also true that a lot of those people have already voted.

Nate Silver's analysis

Read his FAQ for details.

I've been following Nate's work with great interest. His Monte Carlo technique for simulating the results of an election are common in the world of physics, where they are used to simulate physical systems ranging from quark-gluon interactions to atoms in a lattice (such as a silicon chip) to the flow of radiation during the explosion of a nuclear weapon. His maps (see below for a sample) are based on the analysis of individual states, but his overall prediction of the electoral vote count summarized above comes from a simulation. He produces 10,000 "elections" by a Monte Carlo process, picking a possible result for each state based on the odds that it will vote for a particular candidate (as determined by his analysis of all polls in that state, their interaction with national polls, and a projection toward election day). This incorporates the inherent "fuzziness" of the poll numbers, which each come with a substantial sampling uncertainty.

This is a very powerful technique, since it replaces individual interpretation of those uncertainties on a state-by-state basis with the blind sledgehammer of massive statistical sampling. This method has proved extremely effective in experimental physics, particularly experimental high energy physics, for predicting what reactions will look like in a new detector and determining if the needle of a new particle can be found within the haystack of normal events.

The one caveat, of course, is GIGO. Nate is not a pollster, he is an analyst of polls. His results are only as good as the polls themselves, despite his attempts to have his model learn about and account for the individual characteristics of those polls. But how can he (or even a pollster) account for my decision this evening to blow off someone from the U of Iowa polling about my attitudes about the election because I didn't feel like giving them a quarter hour of my time? Must drive them nuts.

Techy detail update:

My quick guess is that his half life is responsible for some of the 'lash' in the response of his model to the driving force of various campaign effects, but that the rest is due to processing time by the electorate. Even with the trend-line adjustment of a given pollster's data, his model requires some some time to reflect sudden changes in the views of voters. Although this might hide last-minute changes, all of the raw poll data are shown for any given state along with his model's analysis of those data, so you can draw your own conclusions about, say, Pennsylvania.

Finally, for reference, the projected electoral map from Thursday is shown below.

This projection, and all of the data in the graph at the top, comes before his final fine-tuning of the model to include a 2-week half life.

Read Entire Article......

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Bless her Heart

Thanks to The Thomas for this one ...

In amongst a lot of political blather, 'Rachel' writes about her First Chemistry Exam Results. This is quite long, so it all goes below the fold.

Some may say a B is not bad, but it is bad when you should have had an A and the reason you don’t have an A is because you are a pathetic, ridiculous, quantum singularity of a dumbass.

Two of the three questions I missed? Want to know what they were? Do ya? Ready to lose every shred of respect you may possibly have had for me? SIGNIFICANT FIGURES. ....

But like I said, it’s all relative. They say this is a weed-out course and they ain’t kidding. Professor gave us the scoring breakdown, and dude. Kids. Put down the bong and hit the books.

Total number of students: 192.
Average test score: 61.2%.

There were 25 A’s, 31 B’s, 20 C’s, 37 D’s, and 79 F’s.

Observation 1: Sig figs.
If you get the significant figures wrong, the patient dies or the bridge falls down. However, if that is all you get wrong under test conditions, you'll probably get an A once the HW and other exams are all taken into consideration and do just fine in your eventual career.

Observation 2: Grade distribution.
That failure rate is a pretty familiar situation. [I think I've mentioned before that 30 to 40% of my students fail intro physics, mostly for the reasons related to study habits and basic math skills.] Their previous classes, either basic college courses or high school classes, did not require any independent study because they had lots of homework time in class plus extra credit opportunities and a curve. Much of this is due to the fact that HS teachers are simply not allowed to fail more than a few students, if that, so any kid smart enough to go to college has never been at risk of failure in HS. The standards in college are different, however, once you get past the HS courses we teach in college. See my blog about what needs to be said during Orientation.

Observation 3: Political intro.
Rachel carries on at length wondering, among other things, why David Letterman thought that a badly run campaign might be warning us of a badly run government: "is he actually comparing a campaign to the presidency?" Sure. A campaign is a lot easier than the Presidency. If your management skills can't handle that part (and managing their respective campaigns is the only major management experience either McCain or Obama have had), it is sort of like not being able to handle intro chemistry when you want to be a Physician. Weed them out, sooner rather than later. If Snowflake (see below) can only resort to attacking the other kids (say by spoiling their lab experiments, as sometimes happens) rather than improving her own performance, we really don't want her as our doctor. Or President.

More recently, 'Rachel' writes about the Second Chemistry Exam Results

That’s not a typo. MORE THAN HALF THE STUDENTS FAILED THE TEST. And yet a score of 88 is not an A. Boo!

I understand the concept of a weed-out course, I really do. I understand that if you curve it, people will stay in who maybe shouldn’t stay in. I get it. But for the pity of St. Pete! I still am annoyed! Mostly at self but whatever.

I still have an A in the course overall because each test is only 10% of the total grade, and I’m averaging high 90’s in homework and lab. So I’m kinda making chem my bitch. She’s coy, though. Elusive yet attainable.

But these kids in my class, good Lord, these kids. I pity whoever is paying their tuition. In lab Friday, they were all discussing the test scores. None of them got higher than a 70 on the test. One girl said she got a 49, and she was all kinds of distressed. I shit you not, here is an actual quote from this girl, which she said with a truly flabbergasted look on her face:

“I don’t understand it! I studied for four hours!!!! God, what does it take to get a passing grade?”

Oh, honey. You adorable little snowflake, try four solid days, 8 hours each. This isn’t high school, in case you haven’t noticed. I bet your Daddy noticed when he paid your tuition bill, and I bet he’ll be very excited when he sees your grades. What a sound investment you are.

Observation 0:
I also quickly learned that whenever I was annoyed at a particular class or instructor, I was really annoyed at myself.

Observation 1: Weed out course.
If you curve it, people will stay in who will end up standing over you in the Emergency Room wearing a name tag that says "MD" on it that only know half of what a doctor is supposed to know. Or you will end up driving over a bridge that was designed by someone who needed extra credit or curved grades to become an engineer. (Since the failure of the I-35 bridge in Minnesota was due to a design error, this last possibility might hit closer to home for some people.)

Observation 2: Studying for a week.
The correct approach is neither cramming for four hours [?!?!] the night before the test or 32 hours over a week, it is to study regularly and diligently for 1 to 2 hours every night, including weekends, every week for that 3 credit class. The key is retention of this prerequisite material, both for the long term (years) and so that you don't have to cram for three weeks for the final exam because you forgot everything from exam 1 and exam 2 in the meantime.

Observation 3: Lots more politics.
But then Rachel tries to assign motives to these rich kids who don't have to work their way through school, or even work to pay for their car or phone, as if the majority of parents/voters from wealthy suburbs are all liberal Democrats - and misquoting Sen. Obama along the way.

I told her I’m the youngest of four and my parents started with nothing themselves and that I never expected them to pay for my education or anything else once I turned 18, and she gazed at me like I was speaking Chinese.

What the hell? Have 18-year-olds these days never heard of “a job”? Or of “taking night classes for 10 years”? Or of “going into assloads of debt because no one’s holding your hand but it’s worth it because then you are the boss of your own self which is pretty awesome”?

Gah. Honestly, it just boggles my mind, how much people take it for granted that someone else is going to take care of the hard stuff for you, not to mention why you’d want them to. I’ve been on my own since the day I graduated from high school and frankly, this is the main reason I get so magnificently resentful of shit like what Obama said about “spreading the wealth”, and about how so many liberals think that anyone who’s against spreading the wealth is just a greedy fucker who wants to hold on to the things he or she was “given”.

First, Obama was talking about cutting your taxes, Rachel, so you would have more money to spend (spread around) on things like your education. You should read what he actually said, which is quite different from what various prevaricators and spin-meisters have implied that he said. [You can read it at the bottom of this article.] Less in taxes from working families means more money in the consumption part of the economy, so more money that can flow into the hands of self-employed small business owners like yourself. The argument is not about whether there should be a tax cut, it is about whether the tax cut should go to millionaires or to the middle class. The argument is not about whether government should redistribute wealth, it is about whether it should transfer it from poor to rich (as has been the case recently) or from rich to poor - or from future taxpayers to today's taxpayers. It is about whether "supporting the troops" means buying a yellow magnetic ribbon while borrowing money from your grandkids, or paying taxes to pay for their well-earned benefits.

Second, the entitlement mentality you write about is, in my experience, most common among wealthy students from the (mostly) Republican suburbs. They are the ones who talk about supporting our troops but scream if someone asks them to pay even one more dollar in taxes to actually support those troops, and then call it Socialism when you "give" those veterans a bigger GI Bill package to "spread the wealth". I never see it among the working class students at my CC. They are too busy working and studying to get ahead to whine like Ms. Snowflake. Too much to even figure out if FICA plus income plus sales plus property taxes adds up to a larger fraction of their income than it does for Donald Trump.

You see a very different picture at a community college, with a mix of suburbanites and working students and returning students, than at a university where they teach chemistry to 200 students at a time. It might seem odd, but the guy who works a full time job before coming to my class is always wide awake, prepared, and fully engaged. The guy who can't quite get out of bed for a class at noon, coming in a half-hour late and sometimes falling asleep in his afternoon class, isn't working nights. No, he lives at home in Exclusive Suburb and doesn't have a job.

Finally, read what Obama actually said rather than the sentence fragment that made it into the news:

The correct, complete quotation from Obama regarding "share the wealth" is

"But what’s happened is that we end up – we’ve cut taxes a lot for folks like me who make a lot more than 250. We haven’t given a break to folks who make less, and as a consequence, the average wage and income for ordinary folks, the vast majority of Americans, has actually gone down over the last eight years. .... I just want you to be clear – it’s not that I want to punish your success – I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you – that they’ve got a chance at success too.”

... snippage ...

“And I do believe for folks like me who have worked hard, but frankly also been lucky, I don’t mind paying just a little bit more than the waitress that I just met over there who’s things are slow and she can barely make the rent."

Obama said, "My attitude is that if the economy’s good for folks from the bottom up, it’s gonna be good for everybody. If you’ve got a plumbing business, you’re gonna be better off if you’re gonna be better off if you’ve got a whole bunch of customers who can afford to hire you, and right now everybody’s so pinched that business is bad for everybody and I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody."

Emphasis added. Notice that he is saying that giving an N billion dollar tax cut to 5% of Americans is unlikely to generate as much business for someone like Joe the Unlicensed Plumber as giving that N billion dollar tax cut to 95% of Americans. More money for small business owners rather than more money for a few CEOs.

Anyone who thinks the few persons whose business profit (not revenue, not the value of the business, profit) exceeds a quarter million dollars a year are fellow members of the working class is getting conned, big time.

Read Entire Article......

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Holiday Catalogs!

Monday, Oct 21, marked the arrival of the first Holiday Catalog of the season ... that I noticed.

Today, three more arrived. I sense a trend.

Remember last year?

Should I repeat the exercise this year?

I'm worried that I missed some earlier this fall, messing up the data collection process, but it could be that they held off because of (a) the massive election mailings or (b) the economy or (c) I did not notice the first ones because of the massive election mailings.

Read Entire Article......

Monday, October 20, 2008

But the Answer was Right!

The cry of the Lucky Equation Grabber.

Not a relevant issue when the solution was wrong.

I grade the solution, not the answer.

This is a physics class, not a lucky guess class.

You can imagine the wailing and gnashing of teeth, but (as I wrote in the comments in a related thread over at Becky Hirta's) if you wanted to take the class from someone who doesn't care if you learn the physics, you went to the wrong place.

You need to be over at Wannabe Flagship where they give multiple choice tests and let kids use a crib sheet for F=ma and the other 100 equations you can derive from it, one for each possible problem on the exam.

They also don't notice that two algebra errors resulting in a correct answer equals two errors, not zero errors. I do.

Read Entire Article......

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Paying for College - An Anecdote

Dr. Crazy wrote a fantastic article Friday on Paying for College. Her comments on a NYTimes article about some poor family struggling to put two kids through private schools after losing a big part of their 100 k$ income. [At least that is what the article implied; it could be that was their post-layoff income.] I'm sure it is a strain on them, but if their two kids actually got a quarter million dollar's worth of education, I'm sure they will pay those extra loans off in no time. Maybe.

But I don't think any of my students would be particularly sympathetic to someone who chooses to pay $32,000 and $29,500, respectively, for each year of college. One, in particular, probably finds these folks to be whiny elitists. Compare the following:

One child is attending a college with only 1000 students, total. Fewer than lived in one dorm where I went to college and got a degree of outstanding qualtiy. Fewer than we admit each year as FTIC freshman college students at Ishkabibble CC. Yet, despite the serious financial load, the article made no mention at all of the kids helping out by working.

Another child is attending my CC. He has a problem, too. He is assigned to me for advising for next semester (his second in college, a critical point in his education) and contacted me about an appointment. I proposed one convenient slot, in the hour before one of his classes meets, but he can't make that one because he works from 6 AM to 2 PM every day, getting off work just before heading to his afternoon class. Yeah, that makes it pretty tight. Fortunately, there is one day when we can get together between his afternoon classes and his evening classes.

I hope the first kid appreciates what he is getting. The second one can only take 9 hours of a classes because of his work schedule, so he doesn't even qualify as a full-time student for financial aid (or as one of our FTIC statistics.)

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Clue for sale

So I teach two main classes: first semester physics and second semester physics. Rather obviously, passing first semester is required before you can take the second semester. Right?

Early registration is starting for the spring semester, and the second semester classes are filling up. So what do I see?

Several students who have registered for the second semester who have yet to pass (even with a D) an exam in the first semester course.


Your wonderful optimism is messing with our planning process.

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Thursday, October 9, 2008

Quantum Crypto

Nice little article from the BBC today about a practical realization of quantum cryptography.

I particularly liked the line where they conclude that maybe God does play dice!

I don't have the time to write much more, but I will add one thing. Over many years, the most amazing thing about quantum mechanics has been the way it has passed experimental tests of the most arcane predictions. I say that not only because these tests confirm some rather odd physics, but because simply doing them at all has taken truly outstanding skill on the part of experimental physicists.

Read Entire Article......