Thursday, January 31, 2008

50 years ago today

Today marks an important anniversary: my vaguest memory of America's journey into space, the launch of Explorer I. All I remember for sure is the sense of relief that we were in the game, that the threat posed by the Soviet launch could be dealt with, picked up between the lines when my Dad read the evening paper to me the next day.

Yeah, my Dad read the paper to me every night. That is probably why I must read the morning paper before my day can start, and certainly a big part of getting a head start on school and all of that critical thinking and reading stuff that we make such a big deal about today.

Back to the main topic:

Those memories are vague, and might not be the earliest ones. I think it is possible that I saw the explosive failure of Vanguard in December of the previous year, since we would all troop down to the gymnasium in my elementary school to watch US rocket launches live on TV, and that very important one was during a school day. If not at school, then certainly on the evening news because we had a TV by then. However, my clear memories of watching launches at school start a few years later (including, of course, every one of the manned space missions), so I figure that was seen on the news rather than "live".

The first vivid memory I have of the space program is that of watching Echo I orbit overhead in 1960. This was a huge mylar balloon that functioned as a passive telecommunications satellite. (The signals were just bounced off of it, like off of a mirror.) It was brilliantly bright in the sky, easily seen with the naked eye while standing in the front yard. It was awesome.

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sunday Breakfast

Grape jelly is
beak smacking good on a cold winter morning!

Not the best picture, since the ISO was pushed to the max to get enough speed in the morning light. (Shot hand-held by Mrs. Pion with a 300 mm lens on the Nikon D70.) Half the pixels were discarded to resize it for use here.

We think this same oriole has been visiting our yard every winter for the past three years. It first showed up two years ago in February, snacking on our hummingbird feeders. (We usually get some rufous hummers in winter, but not this year.) It has been showing up in January the last few years, which is still a bit late for this area.

We got the oriole feeder you see in this picture after the first sighting, but it still visits the hummer feeder that hangs directly in front of the kitchen window. We take the bee guards off in the winter. The hummers don't care and the oriole just pulls them off.

Mrs. Pion took this one (also cropped and resized by 50%) from about 10 feet while sitting on the kitchen floor. The oriole is only about 6 inches from the window.

If you have a hummingbird feeder and find the base lying on the ground, you might have an oriole visiting your yard. I have had to reinforce the mounting plate inside the hummingbird feeder with epoxy because the oriole is too heavy for the original design.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Colbert Classic!

The first main segment of The ColberT ReporT tonight (Thursday, 17 January) was a tour de force of Colbert at his best.

He did a book interview with Lou Dobbs of CNN (famously anti immigration) entirely in Spanish while staying in character as a sleazy spanish-language talk show host who wants to win the war on the middle class.

He must have spent hours working on that gum-chewing look, and hours more getting the grease out of his hair afterwards.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Today started out cold with gray skies and a light drizzle.

About one third of the wannabe engineers in my first semester physics class were absent.

Should have taken attendance to see how this particular measure of motivation relates to overall success in the course.

"I want a good job, but not badly enough to go to class when the sun isn't shining."

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You read it here first.

In passing, I was rather peeved that Big Media did not notice that Ron Paul soundly defeated Giuliani in Michigan. Paul got more than twice as many votes as Giuliani, almost more than Thompson and Giuliani combined. And I don't buy the excuse that Giuliani didn't campaign there. Are we to believe that people in Michigan have never heard of Mr Nine Eleven?

And I'll elaborate below on why they are ignoring the delegate story by simply looking at the "winner".

Anyway, over six months ago I predicted that the primaries were very unlikely to play out like they did in the past with a simple cascade of wins and dropouts so the race would be decided by February 6. (The idea actually goes back even further but I was not blogging back then.)

Suddenly everyone is talking about the race continuing well past Super Tuesday with a chance that it might only be decided on the floor of the convention. In my not-so-humble opinion, the Democratic nomination might even be decided by an old fashioned credentials fight over whether to seat delegates from Michigan and Florida. One wonders just how uncommitted those Michigan delegates actually are. It could be very interesting. I hope there is an Arthur Schlesinger somewhere inside waiting to write a history of what takes place behind closed doors at those conventions.

My new observation is that everyone seems surprised by Romney's big lead in delegates. Well, duh, they wouldn't be if they read their own news reports about how delegates are split up. Romney was ahead of Huckabee by 24-18 (and 24-10 over McCain) before he won Michigan. Solid second place finishes can produce more delegates than a win and a bunch of weak third-place finishes, but the horse-race fans on cable news shows seem unaware of the delegate counts. You need to go somewhere like to see those data. These are not winner-take-all primaries.

On the Democratic side, Edwards trails with 18 delegates to 24 and 25 held by the two leaders ... and there are over 4000 delegates at the convention! They don't exactly have an insurmountable lead over him. He is only in trouble due to perception and money, not his place in the race. If he had money like Romney, he might be able to keep it a 3-way race until he got to a state where a win would put him in the spotlight.

OK, some of my June predictions were far from perfect. I also predicted that McCain might be screwed over when Bush starts pulling troops out of Iraq, just as he did after each previous surge. However, it is starting to look like McCain might be able to spin that to his advantage, but only if the insurgents don't suddenly attack next summer during the conventions. They have shown a pattern of lying low at times that correlate to US elections.

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Followup on Prerequisites

First, an update:

The student whose transcript was described in last week's post on prerequisites dropped (or maybe got dropped by our system) before the semester started so that is one less hassle to face. The karmic balance will be described at the bottom.

One of the comments to that article (by Patrick Lam aka Plam) observed that "It seems that the students at my institution now basically get 0 choices in courses (the wonders of engineering degrees), so I guess that this problem doesn't show up." Well, they have essentially zero choices at Nearby University (NU), but that is not enforced.

Since I never met her, I'll just have to speculate that her major is Biochemistry. That fits with all of the classes she has taken. Your first two years are taken up with 2 semesters of biology, 4 semesters of chemistry, 2 of physics, and 2 of calculus plus maybe a choice or two for the required history and humanities general education classes. That did not keep this student from not starting in chemistry as required by the prerequisites.

My other example, the student who showed up in my Physics II class despite having failed all four semesters of calculus, was an engineering major (OK, a wannabe engineering major) at NU! If there is no administrative system in place, many students will just treat prerequisites as an annoyance and fail to achieve their career goals as a result. (My thoughts on orientation for students fresh out of HS and on what is needed to be ready for college were blogged about last spring.) Fortunately, our college does it automatically and another nearby school (Wannabe Flagship) also does a good job. Only NU, where they appear to get no guidance on this, is a problem for me.

My first post was prompted by Becky Hirta's hassle with manually enforcing the prerequisites for the Calculus Circus. I can't imagine that. A minor snafu in our system let students without a math prerequisite into chemistry, and manual checks showed that something like 20% ignored what was in the catalog. Now I, myself, exploited my rights as an Honors undergrad to ignore anything if I could talk my adviser into it, but what works for Patrick and me does not work for most students.

I think one of my great teaching successes is that I manage (with the help of former students) to convince my students that they need to learn (actually remember) physics to make their life in engineering school go more smoothly.

Small world shout out!
Patrick is at Waterloo. I still have (somewhere) a button given to me by a Waterloo CS student at a July 1 party celebrating Dominion Day along with a pre-July-Fourth party in western Michigan, back in a previous century. [The button said something about beware of trojan horses.] Awesomely crazy kids; I hope you have lots more like them. And I have a cousin working at the MIT AI lab, although I suspect he went there after Patrick left.

Karmic balance:
A student added my Physics I class with the glorious record of two F grades in Physics I from another institution. Of course, said student has not done any of the homework this semester. Must think our CC classes will be easier than those at a large university where no one cares if students learn. Bad guess.

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Tuesday, January 8, 2008

What My Students Think They Need

Funny Pictures
moar funny pictures

Thanks for pointing me to this one, Bro.

The link points to a quasi-demotivation poster, SMART, that reminds me a lot of Bucky in Get Fuzzy.

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Monday, January 7, 2008

Will this be a good semester?

I hate to be overly optimistic and then get let down, but the semester has gotten off to a good start. I log into my course management system (the anti-Bb, if you must know) to check enrollment updates and see that all was in order. And do my versions of the problems to be sure they all have the right answer.

What do I see?

One of my Physics 1 students had done the first homework set before the class had even met! That is initiative. Santa put a real serious student in my stocking.

And two of my Physics 2 students had also hacked through the first few problems in their first assignment! !! Even more impressive because one of those students was never known for doing his homework early. New Year's resolution, maybe?

They simply thought to log in and see if I had anything for them to do. Awesome. Now I have to be sure to live up to my part of the bargain tomorrow.

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Calming Music?

Profgrrrrl asked for some recommendations of calming music.

My all-time favorite is "If I Were a Bell" as performed by Miles Davis on the "Relaxin" album. (The 20-bit remastered version released by Prestige is a fantastic recording.) It exists on YouTube with a bizarre mix of photos of Davis and the musical "Guys and Dolls" that the song comes from.

The video-maker's choice of still photos is as strange as the section around 4:30, the piano in duet with a walking bass line, is sublime.

Other Davis albums from that era, such as "Kind of Blue" and "Birth of the Cool", are also worth a try.

While looking at what else might be on YouTube, I found two versions of "Take Five" by the Dave Brubeck quartet (from the album "Time Out"). Every piece on the album has a different time signature. This one, in 5/4 time, is fantastic but neither of these live performances is the same as the one on the album.

The drum solo in this first one is intense, while the second one (below) is fairly mellow in comparison.

[Addendum: The album version is unlike either of these in that it does not have a drum solo at all. Instead, there is a duet of sorts between drum and piano. The piano repeats the theme ad nauseum while the drummer works sparingly around it. A classic example of jazz where the silence between the notes is as significant as the notes themselves.]

Just for grins, you might contrast that very corporate looking group from 1961 to another from that same year, one where the sax gets a more serious workout: John Coltrane performing "My Favorite Things". This live version is (IMHO) quite inferior to the original recording in several respects. (The recording of the flute is awful, plus Eric Dolphy on flute is no Coltrane. The album version adds about another 3 minutes to the piece and does not have Dolphy in the band. It is all Coltrane, plus McCoy Tyner.) Anyway, the piece goes from mellow to extremely (extremely) complex and back again in its full form. The first and last minutes might mix into what PG is looking for.

That song is also one of my all-time favorite recordings, but does not fall in the realm of calming music! It does, however, have that effect for me. Having heard it many times, the complexity is familiar and expected ... and all of it still has Julie Andrews singing in the background of my mind.

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Saturday, January 5, 2008


I really enjoy reading the Learning Curves blog, written under one of the great pseuds I have ever seen, Rudbeckia Hirta. But I digress. Her job is coordinating the Calculus Circus at a large research university, leading to a lot of the same kinds of problems I have to deal with (albeit on a larger scale).

Reading about her problems can be a bit therapeutic at times, and quite helpful at others. One can always use new ideas. But she has one problem that I do not encounter very often, because her university does not have any automated mechanism for enforcing prerequisites.

One of our nearby institutions has no policy on prerequisites, so I have seen the consequences of letting students loose in that environment. Her observation "It's like they spin a wheel to pick their classes" is right on the mark.

Fortunately, Prof. Hirta's university does have a policy that allows administrative drops of students who lack the required prerequisites, but that is a labor intensive process. She has brilliantly automated mailing the offenders to get them to change classes before they get manually dropped on the first day of class, but I wonder if any of them even read their e-mail!

My usual problem is that students sign up for my class (calculus-based physics for engineers and the physical sciences) who really belong in a different class (trig-based physics for life science majors). They can do this, of course, because their majors generally require calculus. And some need to do it, because their goal includes a grad school that requires my course. But most do it because the other class is not taught in the spring semester, and have no clue that it might be, oh, five times harder than the alternative. E-mail never gets this across, mostly because they don't read their e-mail. (Maybe our new portal will improve that.) The next best thing seems to be to actually teach physics on the first day of class. That gets their attention.

My prerequisite problem is actually someone else's problem. A sister university does not have any mechanism at all for enforcing prerequisites. None. Not only does their registration system literally allow any student to register for any class (want to take 3rd semester calculus? sure!), they don't even allow faculty to drop students who do not meet the stated catalog requirements. They are truly "student centered".

My apologies if you don't believe me. I would not believe it if I had not seen the transcripts myself. Worst case ever had to be the student whose math grades were Calc I F, Calc II F, Calc III F and showed up in my 2nd semester physics class without having even passed physics 1 at his home institution. (OK, maybe the kid with a C in each of three calculus class and differential equations who could not take the derivative of x2 was worse.) And I've got another one this semester.

You see, our system makes it pretty easy to pull up your class roster and click a button next to the name of a student and see their transcript and advising information. (Great way to see where a new kid is coming from, or why some kid can't do enough algebra to get out of a paper bag.) So, one of the things I do between mundane pre-semester tasks is see what new faces have shown up in my second-semester physics class or the associated lab. Here is what I found this week:

The student passes Bio for majors I, but failed Bio for majors II the next semester. No surprise there, since the student had not yet taken any chemistry, which is required for these courses because of the biochemistry used. Krebs cycle and all that. (First example of where this "student centered" institution hurts a student who does not grasp the concept of prerequisites.) So what does she take in her third semester? Chem II. Amazingly, she passes. Maybe she had the person who gave a C to the kid who could not take a derivative. Who knows. Anyway, she fixes that problem by taking Chem I in her fourth semester, along with Physics II. (Second example, although she does have the math prerequisites for physics, just not the physics one.) That is where I come in. She manages to pass the lecture class, but fails the lab. (She also manages to fail the Chem I lab despite having passed the Chem II lab, so maybe she had an attendance problem.) In her fifth semester, she fails Bio II again, so maybe the chemistry was not her real problem. Or maybe it was, because she next fails Organic I along with Physics I.

So there she is in my lab. Her institution says she is qualified to take my lab, even though we require a grade of C in both lecture and lab for Physics I as a prerequisite for the second semester lab, so we have to take her. Our computer system ignores special students like her. And she might be OK. I've encouraged the Dean to let someone take Lab II with only a D in Lab I and repeat the D later, and she got a D in Lab II. She should have learned enough about proper use of significant figures in the chemistry lab she passed and the physics and chemistry labs she failed to handle the lab part, although she might have to relearn the physics she has forgotten since she passed Physics II. Did I mention that she passed Physics II seven years ago and failed Physics I two years ago? Yeah, she will have a lot of catching up to do.

PS - I don't actually have first-hand knowledge of their administrative drop policy, or lack thereof, but I have that info from two different people in two different departments who have also worked for us. I have seen way too many insane transcripts to wonder what SACS would say if they actually cared about this subject.

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Ready to Roll

In some sense I've been back to work for more than a week, since the major tasks I had to complete before the start of the semester required some of the days after Christmas while I was up in the Great White North spending the holiday with my brother and his family. That got done Friday, so everything I and another professor need when classes start on Monday is in place. I think.

Best of all, all the paperwork is done: I have all of the copies of the syllabus and other handouts for the classes I teach and the labs I oversee sitting in nice neat stacks in my office. That got done back around the 20th. Thank goodness for little miracles.

I think I am finally mastering the planning part of this job.

Now all I need to do on Sunday is clean up some of the debris left from the fall, shake this silly cold/laryngitis thing I got for Christmas from a niece, and remember what it is I need to teach on Monday. It will be fun to see the returnees for the second semester, and see what Santa brings me for the first semester class.

More on that in the next blog entry. Not all the news is good.

Got a good start on the cleanup process at home, filing all of the class-specific notes and making neat piles of what can be be recycled and what has to be shredded. Nothing like some NFL wildcard games to deaden the mind for this sort of work. What I don't look forward to is the mess in my office. Its not as bad as it was last May, but it is getting there.

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Thursday, January 3, 2008

Christmas Catalog Count

Final update:
Below is a graph of the data collected during this exercise. Details are all below the fold. (Publication date shifted with each update. The initial version was published back in September.)

Graph of "holiday" catalogs (blue) and "winter sale" catalogs (pink) received through January 2.


3rd week - 1


1st week - 2
2nd week - 1
3rd week - 1

All of those arrived before the first day of Fall!

4th week - 1


1st week - 1
2nd week - 2
3rd week - 9
4th week - 5
5th week (to 11/3) - 6


1st week - 6
2nd week - 12
3rd week - 13

Peak day so far:
7 catalogs received on Wednesday, 21 November, the day before Thanksgiving! (And only 1 on the following Friday and Saturday.)

4th week - 11


1st week - 10
2nd week - 1 !!

They are not going to waste money once it is almost too late for delivery by Christmas.

3rd week - 0
4th week - 12 for winter sales

The last block includes mail that would have been delivered on 12/31 and 1/2 as well as the week that included Christmas Eve and Christmas, but later deliveries suggest it all came right after Christmas.

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Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Happy New Year!

Another year gone by. I think what amazes me the most about 2007 having passed by is that we are now 70% through the first decade of the millenium and 80% through the "oughts". Why so amazing? Because in October of 1962 (Cuban Missile Crisis) I had serious doubts I would make it to 2000, or even make it home from school between warning and total conflagration. [Later, we learned it was even closer than it seemed at the time, yet now we have a Presidential Press Secretary who is ignorant of the 10 days that brought us closer to nuclear war than at any time since Nagasaki. Sigh.]

It has been a good year, but I won't blog about those details right now because I have work to do to get ready for classes next week.

Next week!

That calls for ...

... a Mimosa (champagne and OJ) and a day of football.

Or, if there are others around, maybe Orange Blossom:

Two 12 oz cans frozen OJ
Three 6 oz cans frozen pink lemonade
Two liters of 7-Up
1 fifth gin

That recipe goes back to the 70s when you could buy a fifth rather than one of the metric sizes that alcohol is sold in today. [*] As the quantities suggest,it also goes back to when a lot of fellow grad students would come over to watch football. Lots of Vitamin C to cure whatever cold you might have picked up from the people at the party last night, or today.

An older one (circa 18th century) would be my reconstruction of Syllabub:

1 pint (2 C) of heavy whipping cream
1 C of wine
3/8 C of sugar
2-3 T lemon juice
1-2 t lemon rind

Premix the sugar and the wine, if convenient. (It is easiest to start with warm wine so the sugar dissolves easily, then refrigerate it until you are ready to make and serve this edible drink.) You can also include the lemon rind, but save the lemon juice for the final step. Starting about a half hour before you want to serve the Syllabub, whip the cream until it is, well, whipped cream. No pre-made shortcuts allowed! Fold in the other ingredients and chill for 10 or 15 minutes. Serve in parfait glasses (if you have those and servants preparing this for you) or plastic drink glasses (if not) with a bit of nutmeg ground on top.

Syllabub is like eating rich, alcoholic air. This would be served during a Christmas Eve or New Year's Eve party, but you could do it today if you wanted to.

[*] Alcohol converted to metric because they could sell 750 mL for the price of a fifth (757.08 mL) without anyone noticing. In contrast, soda converted to metric because they could market 2 L of what is basically water as a better deal than two quarts (1.8927 L) without really putting anything more of value in the bottle.

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