Saturday, May 31, 2008

US Negotiates with Terrorists

Will McCain attack Bush and Rice for negotiating with terrorists?

News reports indicate that the US State Department, under Dr. Condi Rice, has been talking to Libya to try to negotiate away a US court verdict that the Libyans don't want to pay and get them to finish payments for the Pan Am Flight 103 victims.

Will the right wing bloggers and Fox News pundits go ballistic over this? Not so far. All Fox did was report it from the wire story. Imagine what would have happened if a Democrat had suggested doing this? Yet all remain silent as Bush and Rice make a deal with a terror state.

Note added on 1 June:
Not to be outdone, we see that Israel is negotiating with Hezbollah. Clearly they did not take Bush's speech to the Knesset very seriously.

Elsewhere, we see yet another example of political mendacity, as CNN gets spun by the McCain spinners. After Obama attacked McCain for yet another major error, the assertion that there are now fewer US troops in Iraq than before the surge, CNN blandly reported a false statement by the McCain spokesman.

The McCain camp fired back with a statement from spokesman Tucker Bounds. "Barack Obama is ignoring facts," Bounds wrote.

That, as a response to Obama's statement that "We don't need more leaders who can't admit they've made a mistake, even about something as fundamental as how many Americans are serving in harm's way.", is a flat out lie from the McCain camp. The facts are that there are still more troops in Iraq than before the surge. The only facts cited by this spokesman (who history suggests would become the next Scott McClellan or Ari Fleischer if McCain is elected) concerned whether "American troops have surged toward significant gains in Iraq", not how many troops are actually there. (And that statement also tries to spin the fact that those "gains" have not resulted in the political change that was the actual purpose of the surge, only fewer deaths of our troops in the last month.) Yep, McCain offers four more years of Bushisms.

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Ice on Mars? !

I was wondering, one week ago, just how momentous the landing of Phoenix on Mars might turn out to be.

The news today suggests that it could be better than anyone hoped.

Could there really be a layer of ice, basically a frozen lake, directly under the lander? That picture is simply amazing. (The JPL new release about it can be read here.) It not only looks like dirt was blown off of the ice by the lander engines, the one area off to the back right, also seen in an earlier image, almost looks like it might be meltwater running off from the exposed area.

By the way, use this link to the JPL picture archive to keep up on the images released to the press. In addition, Astroprof has had several good articles about Mars and the landing in the past week. Check them out.

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Never Lost but Found

While looking for something of great value (a picture of a former professor in a rather embarrassing costume, for his retirement party) I found two other things. The first, a sample of Trinitite, is below the fold with an explanation. The second was a set of notes scribbled in the back of a program for the inauguration of a university president circa 1980. [I was part of the pomp and circumstance, in full academic regalia, for a ceremony that was a hundred times better than the president turned out to be.]

Academic humor:

One of the speakers (my notes don't say who) listed the primary concerns of the three constituencies of any university:

  • Alumni: football tickets
  • Students: sex
  • Faculty: parking places
The entire audience went wild, howling with laughter.

Nearly 30 years later, with an entirely new generation of students, faculty, and alumni, I don't think that has changed one bit. I also suspect that it was true 30 years earlier.

Trinitite is a quasi-man-made mineral.

It is dirt (mostly sand in this case) that was converted to a greenish glass by the explosion of a nuclear weapon, in this case the "gadget" detonated out on the Journado del Muerto near Alamagordo NM in July 1945.

This particular item was a gift from a fellow grad student, who picked it up in a store in Los Alamos during a visit there. I have no idea how or when it was collected by the people who packaged it, but the site is now open to the public every year. However, since it is a National Monument, removing anything would be illegal today. I'm guessing it was collected by someone working at or near the site when other samples were collected for scientific study.

When I got it, the first thing I did was check the claim that it had "lost" its radioactivity. It hadn't, but the levels were quite low. (Now that I have found it, I will check it again with a meter we have at work.) I never did put it in front of a high quality gamma spectrometer and try to figure out what isotopes were present.

Obviously this item was taken through an airport (actually, several airports) long before anyone was looking for radioactive materials in your luggage!

And a third item. Oh. My. God.

I also found a photocopy of something I thought was gone forever: A detailed breakdown of the grade distributions, by college, at Enormous State U for one particular school year. This was part of the data included in a massive notebook (at least 3" thick) I was given when I was a member of a major academic policy committee as a grad student. [That was the reason I was in full regalia at the inauguration described at the top of this posting.] It also has the passing rates for the math and english placement tests given every freshman, again broken down by college, and historical data on the university-wide GPA from the 50s, showing a phase transition (physics lingo) after the Vietnam protest years.

I anticipate some writing on this subject. Now if I could only get the same data for the current year. That would be interesting.

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Friday, May 30, 2008

Exam Design and Grading

Matt posted a partial solution to a basic conservation of energy problem that is part of a set of bogus solutions that has made the rounds over the years. My comment focused on the digression into whether the sample solution really deserved a zero, and some other things about grading an exam, but Matt's reply to another comment made me realize something more was involved than just how to assign partial credit.

Rather than run on at length there, I figured I should blog it here. I should also back-link to an earlier article of mine on assembly-line grading, since a similar approach was advocated by another comment in that thread. (A comment from someone who blogs about Mandelstam variables! Gotta add that in my blogroll right now. IMHO, "s" rules.)

The observation that made me realize more needs to be said was the following:

For this particular problem, either from memory or from a (probably large) formula sheet the student did manage to pick the two right equations and only those two. ... It is likely that my 5/10 is too generous, but either way it’s probably still a D at best.

I would be concerned that 5/15 for this problem, although an F for this particular problem in isolation, might accumulate into a score that does not reflect the physics knowledge of this student. (Of course, it is highly probable that even liberal partial credit will result in a score of 35 or 40% for the entire test for this student.)

What they brought with them:

I don't allow formula sheets or the functional equivalent (a calculator with formula sheets stored in it). If I did, there would be zero partial credit for this problem because the student did not have to pull U = mgh out of his or her head and, more importantly, because the student did not pull the ONE right equation (Ef = Ei + W) off of that sheet. Without one, I might give one point for knowing to calculate the potential energy but not knowing what units it has.

Exam Design:

Problem grading also has to be considered in the context of how you write the exam in the first place. You can write an exam consisting of fairly easy problems that are either right or wrong (this is often done in large classes with m.c. exams) and get a reasonable grade distribution if the students don't study very well or don't know how to use their calculator properly. But if the students are prepared, such an exam will not have a normal distribution. [My first exam in Physics 1 is such an exam, and the predictable result can be seen in a blog article linked below.] Worse, those kinds of tests don't require any critical thinking.

This particular problem is an extremely elementary problem. If (actually, when) I put it on an exam, it is part of the C-levels part of the test. I use a straight scale with no tolerance on the 70 line for a C, so the exams are matched to that objective while taking my historic partial credit policies into account. This is a problem where I would expect a C student should get all 15 points, losing at most three points for leaving off units or making a computational error that would have to be made up elsewhere on the test (by getting somewhere on an A or B problem) to pass the test. I'd probably also take off 3 points for leaving off the Ef = Ei + W (or just Ef = Ei) starting point on part a. Someone who does not know they need to conserve energy deserves to lose all of those 15 points.

Note added for clarity:
The basic idea behind this exam design is to ensure that a student who deserves to pass can get about 70 on the test. That might mean 60 points of "C" problems, with most of the rest being "B+" problems. A C student is expected to get some partial credit from the B problems, and a B student is expected to miss some points on the B problems. I usually include one "A" problem, with significant critical thinking required, but limit it to 5% of the exam totals on average. This means that a perfectly prepared student can get an A without being able to do the sort of challenging problems they would see at Harvey Mudd, but that has proven more than good enough for the Wannabe Flagship U they mostly attend.

Partial credit is for harder problems, where the student might figure out what kind of problem it is but make a major error in setting it up and get nowhere as a result. Problems with a significant critical thinking component coupled to a complicated calculation. However, my own design decisions tend to decouple a problem with a complicated set up (say a vector integral for the electric field from a charge distribution) from its actual solution. The whole thing might be in the homework, but an exam question will stop with setup of the integral.

Grade distributions on tests:

Most of my exams are bi-modal. A non-representative sample for a pair of tests was shown in an article about the relationship between doing homework and doing well on exams that I wrote some months ago.

Concerning Matt's critique of the no-partial credit philosophy "No partial credit! You engineer, you make mistake, bridge fall down, people die!!" posted in the comments, which was
"I understand his reasoning, but also a working engineer is also able to consult references, double check math with computers, and discuss with a team.", I have three observations:

A working engineer has to pass a licensing exam where this particular problem would need to be answered correctly in about 30 seconds, to allow more than two minutes to solve a symmetric step ladder problem. That is not enough time to look up a formula for a trivial physics relationship.

The computer program can be wrong. GIGO can take several forms, including bad data tables hidden in the code.

If you rely on the team to catch your mistakes, who will catch theirs? The most recent example is the I-35 bridge collapse in Minnesota, which was the ultimate consequence of an elementary error made when the bridge was designed 40 years before. It is not yet known (and may never be known) where that error was made, but even if it was made by a draftsman there were multiple places where it should have been caught in a properly run professional organization.

I give partial credit, but that is coupled to an exam design where that credit is primarily for minor computational or algebra errors and should not allow someone to pass who has too much elementary physics left to be taught by their engineering professors. They have enough to do to teach the next level of physics and calculus encountered in actual engineering problems.

Link back:
Noticed this interesting discussion, Grading Policy, Sir! about teaching at the Navy nuclear power school in Orlando. I really like the use of a special grading shorthand described there!

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Decoration Day

May 30th is Decoration Day, the holiday that gave rise to Memorial Day.

[This happens to be one topic where the Wiki "talk" is full of nonsense despite definitive reports in US government documents and plenty of actual history. The US Civil War, also known as the War Between the States, the War of Rebellion, "that late unpleasantness", and the War of Northern Agression (despite being started by southerners firing on US military forces), is still a sensitive enough point to many that controversy erupts where you would least expect it. My take is at the end of this article.]

Decoration Day was a day to decorate the graves of men who had been killed in the US Civil War. Today we also honor men who fought and survived, but have since passed on. I will say a few words about a great-whatever uncle who fought in that war.

One of my distant relatives was in the 5th Michigan Cavalry that was under the overall command of General George Custer. He enlisted in 1863 and saw his first combat in the last skirmish of the battle of Gettysburg, in July of that year. The rest of his service reads like a history book. Long before I tore through Georgia on I-75, he rode through it as part of Sherman's march to the sea. He was even at the surrender at Appomattox, and marched in the victory parade in Washington DC. I simply cannot imagine the scope of what he saw, which include some of the most significant moments in American history that US college students are completely ignorant of. One of the things he did after the war was build a one-room schoolhouse on part of their farm. Maybe teaching runs in my blood.

Why is Decoration Day so controversial?

I think it is because this day of rememberance originated in the post-conflict conflict of Reconstruction. Those who had rebelled were not supposed to be honored, but their widows and family did so anyway, putting flowers on graves in military cemetaries on the anniversary of the loss of the war. (Some states still celebrate Confederate Memorial Day around the end of April.) Decoration Day became a holiday in Union (northern) states, set on May 30, at the instigation of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans organization. Southern states celebrated on a different day, just as they celebrated Robert E Lee's birthday rather than Lincoln's birthday, and just as ex-slaves celebrated Juneteenth (or its equivalent) when they learned they were free. I'm guessing they are still pissed off that the Union holiday got converted into the national Memorial Day holiday (to honor the dead from all wars) after WW I.

Armistice Day (November 11), a day to celebrate surviving WW I, evolved into Veteran's Day after WW II. I'll write about 11/11/1918 later this year.

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Physics errors in Indiana Jones 4

This article is driven by the discussion stimulated by an article by Matt in "Built on Facts". There were minor spoilers in his discussion, and a few more in mine.

That discussion was centered on Newton's First Law (which I will repeat here with some links), but a reply from Matt included a side remark about nuclear physics. I posted one comment on his blog but saved a more specific bit of physics for here.

Newton's First Law:

The biggest joke in the entire movie was when they were riding the jet powered sled and stayed right where they were sitting after it came to an abrupt stop as a result of hitting a water tank braking zone. This is clearly modeled after the rocket sled used by Col John Stapp in the late 1940s to explore the limits of safe deceleration of a human wearing a seat belt. According to wiki, his record was about 45 times that of gravity.

(For reference, since the braking distance was no more than 14 m, he would have to go from 111 m/s to zero to have a constant acceleration of 45 g over that distance. A speed of 111 m/s, more than a football field in one second, is about 250 mph. This corresponds to a 250 mph race car stopping in 0.25 seconds while covering a distance of 14 m, about 45 feet.)

The only way you are going to stay in one place on that sled when it goes from 250 mph to zero in a quarter of a second is if you are belted in place. Otherwise, all that happens is that the sled stops and you keep on going at 250 mph. This event in the movie is totally bogus.

(We will leave out the continuity error of this happening at Area 51 in Nevada, allegedly within walking distance of an active part of the Nevada Test Site, whereas the rocket sled was at Edwards Air Force Base in California.)

On the flip side, the lead lined refrigerator he hides in apparently has almost no inertia. Despite being the densest object around, the blast wave tosses it much more easily than it does the lighter materials around, such as the house and its contents. The physics here is that of drag forces (which depend on the area and shape of an object) overcoming the inertia of the mass of an object. The basic rule is that the force of the wind will have a bigger effect on a whiffle ball than on a baseball, because the baseball has more mass while the wind forces will be similar.

Nuclear Weapon Physics:

I mentioned in passing that I was disappointed in the rendering of the mushroom cloud from the nuclear explosion. They actually got most of this physics quite correct, which is not surprising given all of the film and photos of these various tests, as well as books like Glasstone's "The Effects of Nuclear Weapons", published by the US Department of Defense. (You can find much of the relevant information in the Nuclear Weapon Archive or in books such as Richard Rhodes' "The Making of the Atomic Bomb".)

Of course, it would not be the 21st century if you could not see the film from the 1955 civil defense test on YouTube. I want to call your attention to the "after" pictures of the frame house at 3:23 in the film, since I will come back to it, and how well a first floor reinforced bathroom shelter (3:43) stood up to this blast, given the tornado damage we have seen recently. You might also notice that this was done in 1955, two years before it happens in the movie!

The important effect they get right in the Indiana Jones movie can be seen around 2:20 in the movie. The light, heat, and gamma radiation all travel at the speed of light. They get there first, and burn the paint off of the building and the skin off of people. The blast wave travels at the speed of sound (actually a bit faster due to the overpressure, as I recall) and arrives much later. Notice that it does two things: it knocks down the building, but it also blows out the fire. (The house you see at 3:23 did not burn down. It is not the case that a firestorm is a necessary result of a nuclear blast.)

The part they could have done a better job on concerns the colors seen in and around the fireball and mushroom cloud. See, for example, the witness statement in a paragraph at the bottom of page 673 in "The Making of the Atomic Bomb": "Then, as a climax, which was exceedingly impressive in spite of the fact that the blinding brightness had subsided, the top of the slender column seemed to mushroom out into a thick parasol of a rather bright but spectral blue..." from one report, and "When the red glow faded out ... a most remarkable effect made its appearance. The whole surface of the ball was covered by a purple luminescence, like that produced by the electrical excitation of the air, and caused undoubtedly by the radioactivity of the material in the ball" from another.

There is a picture of the Ranger/Fox test from 1951 in Nevada that gives a hint of what colors can be present around the fireball, but most color pictures do not capture this effect. I suspect it might be seen more easily by eye than by a photograph.

The spectra of ionized nitrogen gas is a beautiful violet color. (This is why pictures of lightning bolts have a violet hue around them.) What is happening is that the intense radiation from the results of the explosion is ionizing the air and making it glow. You can also get Cherenkov light (typically a light blue) when particles travel faster than the speed of light in a medium, such as water or air. It would have been very cool if they had included this as the fireball cooled, although I have no idea if it is visible in a daylight explosion.

Radiation from a Nuclear Weapon:

The alert spectator will notice the sticker that says the refrigerator Indy hides in is Lead lined. This would protect him from x-ray and gamma-ray radiation, just as it would make it unlikely that the refrigerator would travel very far from the blast, but it would not protect him from neutrons. Heavy elements shield you from photons like gamma rays, but you need light elements to protect you from neutrons. That is why concrete and dirt are used to shield a shelter.

The biggest unexpected effect of a nuclear explosion turned out to be radiation from neutrons released in the explosion. These could have affected him even if he was inside that lead-lined refrigerator, and the damage would not wash off.

Semi-funny story. Jet aircraft were used to collect samples of radioactive material from within the mushroom cloud of the first thermonuclear test, Ivy Mike, in November 1952. I had the privilege of talking with a number of "Atomic Veterans" at one of their reunions, some of whom witnessed this test and one of the problems of neutron radiation. (Thermonuclear weapons, the H bomb, produce even more neutrons.) They knew how to decontaminate aircraft from practice runs during fission weapon tests. However, as much as they tried, they could not wash off the contamination from the planes used for Ivy Mike. My guess is that the aircraft materials had been "neutron activated", that is, the elements transmuted to a radioactive isotope as a result of neutron capture. One guy said the planes were still sitting at the end of a runway on Kwajalein a decade later, while another said he thought some had been pushed off of an aircraft carrier into the ocean.

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Improving Community Colleges

Several interesting articles in Inside Higher Ed lately, mostly driven by presentations at NISOD being covered by their reporter.

The last paper described in this last article, a reasoned critique of the "6 year graduation rate" with a proposed alternative, might be of much interest given discussions I have been involved in over at Dean Dad's place.

Of course, graduating does not always equal learning. I was again disappointed by not seeing a discussion of what measure constitutes success. Is it passing or learning? Is it graduating or getting and keeping a job? Is it the AA degree, or passing your classes after you transfer?

That item on employing data to improve the college is of great interest to me. You can't fix problems if you hide them behind the marketing facade of the college, especially if that means keeping them from the faculty, and you can't tell if a "fix" has changed things if you don't look at the data critically. Our college faculty learned a great deal during the reaffirmation process (aka re-accreditation) when we saw some rather disturbing data about how our students move through the college and how they do after they leave. However, these data get muddled up because such a small fraction of our students fit in the FTIC cohort that gets tracked for federal reporting rules.

One thing that bugs me is the difficulty of getting baseline data about the college (current information is not archived in any way that I can find it at our institution) and the challenge in running any kind of control when every group of students is different and affect the details of what happens in class on any give day.

Yeah, a physicist looking at social science research methods is not a pretty sight.

Ditto for a physicist involved in academic governance, and trying to find out how we are doing towards our goals for improving the college. All I know is that we are failing at some of them, but not by how much! (Or why! !!!) Are we close? Have we moved the wrong way? Have we made it half way? Will "increased focus" mean doing more of what already failed? Has that one objective failing shown any correlation at all with the other success measures that it is supposed to help fix?

One idea in those articles that really hit me as interesting is the one about starting the math remediation process in high school. As I have written before, many of our weakest students were lied to in high school about the level of the math classes they are taking. As a result, they don't take our remediation classes seriously. We also see the pattern mentioned in one of the articles, where students persist in "prep" english but bail out of "prep" math. A combination of data, professional development for adjuncts, and developing support groups within the student body may all have to be put to work in that area.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Spinners Unspun

Like everything that has come out of the Bush White House, you have to read what they don't say to realize what they are really saying. Not a single one of them said that anything Scott McClellan has written is not a true description of what he witnessed and how he helped, possibly unwittingly (if he was "out of the loop" regarding actual decisions such as those made by Cheney and Libby), to manipulate public opinion.

The best they could do is try to create the impression that they were denying the accuracy of what he has written by saying they were "puzzled" that he was telling the truth, and that such honesty was "not the Scott we knew".

Consider the following from various media sources:

From the BBC:
In response, a White House spokeswoman said Mr McClellan was "disgruntled". [Which might explain his honesty, as she thinks one needs an excuse to be honest, but does not deny what he wrote is true.] Dana Perino added: "For those of us who fully supported him, before, during and after he was press secretary, we are puzzled. [Because she had never seen him tell the truth when given a choice being truth and propaganda?] It is sad - this is not the Scott we knew." [Clearly she is hoping you will think she actually said that the Scott she knew only spoke about things he knew to be true and is not saying things that are not true, but she never said that. She is just hoping you will jump to a conclusion, just like so many people did during the lead-up to the war or in the Plame case.]

From FOX News:
"(Bush) is puzzled, and he doesn't recognize this as the Scott McClellan that he hired and confided in and worked with for so many years, [Confirming, rather than refuting, McClellan's claim to have inside knowledge of Bush's thinking on many matters, including why he wanted to invade Iraq.] and disappointed that if he had these concerns and these thoughts he never came to him or anyone else on the staff," Perino told reporters aboard Air Force One. [So the President is disappointed that McClellan told the American people the truth, but perhaps not realizing that McClellan may not have understood he had been used like a tool until after he left the White House and reflected on the Libby-Rove-Cheney attack on Plame, not to mention looking back at his notes about what Bush had told him about Iraq and comparing it to what he had been told to say to the press.]

The White House responded angrily Wednesday to McClellan's confessional memoir, calling it self-serving sour grapes. [It might be self serving for him to tell the truth, as I pointed out yesterday, and he might be telling the truth because of the sour feeling he was left with when he learned that Rove and Cheney had used him to obstruct public understanding of their role in outing Valerie Plame, but otherwise this is just an example of a playground ploy used by bullies who don't have the facts on their side.]

From the Chicago Tribune:
The Bush White House, long accused by outside critics of misrepresenting the facts to make the case for war in Iraq and other matters, has launched a personal counterattack against harsh accusations of "deception" from a longtime insider who worked closely with the president. [An accurate analysis from the "World's Greatest Newspaper". Just as they did with Joe Wilson, the White House chooses to attack the person rather than what he said.] "For him to do this now strikes me as self-serving, disingenuous and unprofessional," Fran Townsend, former head of the White House-based counterterrorism office, told CNN. [Every word of this could be true and still be consistent with every word about the Bush administration being true. After all, it is quite unprofessional for a PR flack to admit being a flack, and I don't think McClellan has been completely candid about why he decided to tell the truth at this late date.]

Maybe we will learn more tomorrow as he makes the rounds on NBC Today and MSNBC Countdown with Keith Olberman. [Comment on my own comment: That combo is too strange. What is next, Colbert's show or Rove's?]

Also from FOX News:
Rove, now a FOX News contributor, denied allegations he and Libby kept information from McClellan about Plame, [Which would be interesting if that is what was alleged, but McClellan is alleging that Rove and Libby gave information to McClellan about their relationship with the leak of Plame's identity, and that what he was given was mendacious.] adding what was reported on Politico doesn't sound like the McClellan he has known for years. Instead, Rove told FOX News' "Hannity & Colmes" it sounded more like "a liberal blogger." [Rove is hoping that his fans on FOX will think this means he is calling McClellan a liar.]

This is truly classic "Turd Blossom" behavior, attacking a straw man to create the illusion that he is contradicting what McClellan wrote.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

McClellan admits Mendacity

Tonight's breaking news from is that Scott McClellan's forthcoming memoir will be a scathing indictment of an administration that relied on a propaganda campaign to sell the war and was not beneath using him to spread falsehoods in the media.

His view now? “What I do know is that war should only be waged when necessary, and the Iraq war was not necessary.”

I think he has figured out that his book has no chance of selling many copies to Republicans, so he decided to tell the truth in hopes of selling it to Democrats.

Combine that with other insider information, most significantly that of the former Treasury Secretary who said that Bush wanted to go to war with Iraq even before 9/11 came along to provide a cover of fear that could be exploited, and we have quite a picture of how we got waist deep in this sand pit.

The other detail, that he still admires President Bush, almost makes it sound as if the government was run by Bush's advisers rather than by the President.

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Monday, May 26, 2008


The success of the Phoenix Mars Lander so far is extremely exciting. I guess it will be a week or so before they get the results of the first soil sample, so we just need to be patient.

FYI, there is an excellent article about the first pictures that includes a composite look out toward the horizon and explains (with an example) why the pattern on the surface is indicative of permafrost. Much better than anything I ran across on the news coverage over the weekend, which was pretty thin. Thanks to a comment added to Chad's article for a pointer to Jeff Marlow's observations.

Maybe the coverage was kind of thin because the press were expecting to see snow drifts.

Of course, maybe we will be lucky and the craft will last long enough for us to see the arrival of Martian winter! We can dream, can't we?

For now, my amateur comment is that it is exciting just to see differences in geology at the fine scale possible only in photographs. It is one thing to see color coded maps, and quite another to see a picture. The absence of craters and other striking "space" features is the clearest evidence of all that there are forces (such as freeze-thaw cycles involving water) at work on the surface of Mars.

I was also impressed with how well the systems worked. I was mentally estimating the velocity as they made altitude calls, just like when I "watched" the first moon landing, and I was elated when it was clear that it was going to work. I was also no longer wondering about site contamination by the rocket landing after a bit of a brush-up on the chemistry of hydrazine as used as here: a monopropellant with only ammonia (NH3), nitrogen, and hydrogen gas as the products. Ditto when the hydrazine was vented after landing. Nothing there that will leave any water behind.

Some other nice info is in a pair of articles by Astroprof. The first one includes a picture, "So Few Rocks", that was the winner in a contest to speculate on what will be seen. It is remarkably close to what was actually seen!

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Second Century

Blogger says this is my 200th posting. I'll use it to catch up on a few items that showed up recently as birthday "gifts". (Scare quotes used because this had been boxed away for decades in my parents' basement with other keepsakes like my baby book. These have all been rediscovered as Mom and Dad downsized. The mundane things were shipped; the cool stuff is being doled out as gifts, all nicely wrapped.)

This one is my first material possession. Explanation below the fold.

This toy was one of two gifts that my mom's best friend and Maid of Honor sent from Japan as a zeroth birthday present. (The other was a mobile that hung over my crib. I got that as a Christmas "gift" last year.) It is a windup kitten that chases a butterfly; the butterfly is on a piece of spring wire so it bounces as the kitten chases it. The kitten moves very slowly for a few steps, then takes a few quick ones to try to get the butterfly. I didn't remember it all that well until I saw it how it moved. "Oh, yeah!"

The picture below was taken while I was staying with my grandparents for a day or so when The Thomas came along to disrupt and enliven our lives. I was barely toddling, but clearly the visit was enough of an event to warrant a photograph. The dog had been my mother's, and here I am learning that I could amuse myself endlessly in the future by getting this dog to sit up just by pretending to have something in my hand.

I am pretty sure that the plants you can see on the far left side of this picture are one of the Rose of Sharon bushes that could be the source of the one shown yesterday.

Finally, on the theme of "century", is a wooden jigsaw puzzle from the 1933 Century of Progress exhibition / World's Fair in Chicago. It was a souvenir of my father's. (His father was deeply involved in managing the construction of a number of the structures that were part of the fair.)

If you know Chicago, you will recognize the Adler Planetarium on the far left side, the Shedd Aquarium at lower left, the Field Museum at center bottom (partly missing as one piece is missing its paper surface), and Soldier Field on the mid right. The bridge over to the planetarium is now a causeway, while the bridge under the Sky Ride has been removed along with all (?) of the temporary structures.

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Memorial Day

This is not the only bloom in the garden (Daylilies are rocking along and the first Gardenia of the season appeared a few days ago), but this one is appropriate to the holiday we observe today in the US.

This Rose of Sharon is one of several in our yard that are "heritage" plants. It came from my parents garden, but that plant came from my grandparents garden after (I think) being transplanted from my great grandmother's garden. I can't think of anything more appropriate to this holiday than a plant that comes complete with family memories.

This particular plant has some characteristics (an otherwise white flower combined with the red throat normally seen in the variety with a pink flower, the one in a Wiki picture) that suggest it might have resulted from one of the crosses that my grandfather did for his gardening amusement.

On a day when we remember the veterans of past wars, this is particularly appropriate. The grandfather who probably tended to this very plant served in the Great War, first as a combat engineer, then as an ambulance driver after a "touch" (his words) of Mustard Gas knocked him off the front lines. (Look here for related historical references.) I always think of him when I see this particular plant.

I always think it is rather remarkable that these plants (we have several clumps in different parts of the yard) have done so well in such different climates. It is many "zones" away from where it started, going from winters where the ground freezes solid to ones where the ground never freezes, from summers where 80 degree days are rare to ones where that temperature is common but the summer days are quite a bit shorter. The plant has been divided, transplanted, and divided and/or transplanted several times. It has traveled further than some of my students, and some of them could be older than I am!

PS - What this means is that this plant, or its relative, might have been in a picture that I plan to post real soon now.

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Friday, May 23, 2008

Live Events Sunday

Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix in Monte Carlo (roll off at 8:00 AM EDT, no matter what, rain or shine) live on SPEED TV.

Indy 500 in (well, adjacent to) Indianapolis (start engines scheduled for 1:03 pm EDT, weather permitting) live on ABC TV.

NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte (race start around 6pm? EDT ... they are not nearly as punctual as F1, and also are are afraid of rain) live on FOX

and last, but not least

Phoenix Mars Lander on the surface near the north pole of Mars (about 7:53 pm EDT "earth receive time") live on NASA TV starting about 6 PM EDT (available on the web), with first images possible circa 10 pm EDT that would be shown at a press conference scheduled for midnight EDT.

One of these could very well be a unique event in the history of mankind.

OK, it could be Danica Patrick winning the Indy 500, but we can hope that it will be a confirmation of the presence of frozen water on the arctic plain near the north pole of Mars. (Some info is on the NASA web site, and I am expecting astroprof and others to provide lots of info as it becomes available.)

Why "earth receive time"? It takes over 15 minutes for a radio signal to travel (at the speed of light) from Mars to the Earth. Since events like entry into the atmosphere and landing will be logged when the radio signals reach Earth, it only makes sense to use the time when we know it happened rather that the "Mars Standard Time" when it actually happened.

This distinction is one of the important results of the 'Theory' of Special Relativity as regards the seemingly simple question of when two things happen "at the same time". See the physics FAQ for lots of good stuff.

PS -
For something that happened a long time ago, but is just now being watched in real time, check out the article about observations of a Type 1b supernova that I picked out of Chad's daily list-o-links. (It is so nice to have someone else pick through a massive RSS feed and select a few tasty morsels that might be worth looking at.

[Personal highlight of that article: a reminder that astronomers still use the tiny, deprecated, cgs "erg" rather than the bigger, SI standard, "joule" for energies on a galactic scale. Instead of 1051 erg, why not 1044 J or, better yet, 1020 YJ. After all, there were a lotta Yotta joules in that explosion!]

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Thursday, May 22, 2008


I found this in Chad's list-o-links today.

I'd seen something about this on TV (Oddball?), but none of the details. The ball was only going 50 mph? Sheesh.

To make up for that, some real science: Chladni patterns.

If you click to go to YouTube, you will see the Rubens' Tube demo done by the Mythbusters guys listed in the side bar. (Or just wait for it to come up on the "related" links after the video finishes.)

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Snark in the Classroom

I've been meaning to post this, which really belongs in some sort of "learning curves" category since it reminded me at the time of the sorts of student nonsense Becky Hirta deals with during the Calculus Circus. I'm teaching a bit of the physics circus this summer (a gen-ed class), so I have a much wider mix of students than when the place is full of future engineers and scientists.

We have all had to deal with cell phones going off or bored students texting quietly in the back row or listening on their Borg(tm) earpiece. (I'll put my worst case at the bottom.) This one amused the heck out of me, and the class.

We are not talking about the most committed student. The guy has missed about 1/3 of the classes, including the first exam. About half of the rest of the time he sits with his head down, texting. He is really quiet, so it doesn't bother me any if he wants to fail the class.

Anyway, this is very much a hands-on, demo-driven "circus" of a class. I make sure they actually see examples of the phenomena we are studying. In this case, it is sublimation, where a solid turns directly into a gas without going through the liquid state. The most familiar example is "dry ice" (solid CO2), but we have a sealed tube of Iodine. Pure iodine is a lustrous grey solid (it looks more like a semi-metal than a non-metal) with a hint of purple, but it sublimes to a beautiful (really beautiful) violet gas when heated. (It also stinks, hence the sealed tube.)

So I walk it around the class in the solid state to show everyone (guy never raises his head), then heat it, and walk it around again. (Head still down.) So when I get to him, I say something about this being something he should take a look at so he can text his friend about it, to more than a few chuckles in the classroom. I had to practically stick it under his nose to get him to look. Amazingly, he was actually interested in it for about 5 seconds.

Needless to say, he didn't do all that well on the latest test. Sadly, he did well enough that I suspect he could do a really good job if he actually wanted to be a college student.

The other story?

Some wannabe engineer is in the back row of a lecture hall, evidently listening to a buddy on his Borg(tm) Bluetooth earpiece. He laughs out loud, very loudly. Must have been a good joke. I throw him out. I had to tell him a few times that he had to leave for the rest of the day, so he could carry on his conversation without disturbing the class, but at least I didn't have to call the cops.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Two Unrelated Items

Unrelated, but physics is everywhere.

1) What would you do if you were a sports photographer, and you happened to walk across the javelin throwing area trying to get a better picture of the discus being thrown? Why, take a picture of what happened to you, of course.

2) A new family of high temperature superconductors (link to Physics Today article via Chad's daily lists). The Tc is only 26 K, but this work clearly opens a completely new path for study, since these are quite unlike the YBCO-type materials discovered about 20 years ago.

*) Ooops, make that three: an IHE article on measuring 'college success' to think about later.

For more info on item 1, just google up "javelin through leg". He is sure lucky that the trajectory had it skip off of his shin.

The formula of the new material in item 2 is La O 1-x F x Fe As, with x=0.11 giving the highest transition temperature. (Side remark: Fluorine? Arsenic? Lots of nasty ingredients in this one!)

What is most striking is that there is evidence that phonons are NOT responsible for the formation of Cooper pairs! If this is truly nothing like a BCS material, the observation is stunning and might help understand what is going on in YBCO materials. It is also a Nobel Prize waiting to be won. Given the remarks about magnetic fluctuations playing a role, I predict this will suck all of the computer cycles away from Lattice QCD and back into spin models of magnetic materials.

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Presidential Ignorance of Basic Science and History

Some people wonder why we require general education classes in the sciences, but there was a perfect example in the news over the last few days, where the President repeated a statement that reflects the height of ignorance of what is secret and what is widely and publicly known about how to manufacture nuclear weapons.

The President "thinks" that the US can prevent Iran from learning how to enrich Uranium. This is silly, because the US told Iran and the rest of the world exactly how to enrich Uranium in a book published over 60 years ago. A book distributed widely by the US as part of the Atoms for Peace program.

Lets look at the statements that have been made. Quoting directly from the White House transcriipt of the interview, confirmed from the NBC video of the interview by Richard Engel, we see the following:

Q Repeatedly you've talked about Iran and that you don't want to see Iran develop a nuclear weapon. How far away do you think Iran is from developing a nuclear capability?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, Richard, I don't want to speculate -- and there's a lot of speculation. But one thing is for certain -- we need to prevent them from learning how to enrich uranium. And I have made it clear to the Iranians that there is a seat at the table for them if they would verifiably suspend their enrichment. And if not, we'll continue to rally the world to isolate them.

I don't know why the Attorney we taxpayers support to advise the President thought this needed to be broadcast so badly that he complained to NBC, since all it shows is that the President has no idea what he is talking about with respect to nuclear proliferation. (It also shows that the President never answered the question or gave one of several good reasons for not answering it.) This is not the first time he showed this level of ignorance of three basic facts:

1) Iran says it already knows how to enrich Uranium

2) We (the US government) told them at least two ways to do it

3) One of our allies in the War on Terror told them the details of another

Item number 2 is the most important of these, because it makes it quite clear that there has been no secret about how to enrich uranium since the Smyth report was published in 1945. This book was printed and widely distributed by the US government since 1945 and is still available in bookstores and on the web. The key elements of relevance here are also described in detail in various histories of the Manhattan Project, most notably the books by Richard Rhodes.

The President may not know how to enrich Uranium, but we told the entire world how to do it over sixty years ago, and in quite a lot of detail. (According to the histories based on KGB archive records, one of the facts sought by Soviet spies in the late 1940s was whether everything in that report was true. They assumed it had to be misinformation when it went into such detail about key processes such as gaseous diffusion. They could not believe we published that info and distributed it to them in book form.)

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Passing or Learning?

Dean Dad wrote about conflicting issues in his main blog and his IHE blog in the case of a professor denied tenure solely (it would seem) for failing too many students, as reported by Inside Higher Ed. There were also many comments within that IHE article (106 and counting when I started work on this Saturday), as well as a similar story in the Chronicle of Higher Education (40 comments and counting) that has this permalink.

I posted a comment on Dean Dad's blog about a particular usage of the term "greater level of success" to mean passing a class (returning to pay fees next semester) rather than learning the subject matter of the class, in a statement by the Dean at Norfolk State who overrode the tenure vote of the faculty who served on the department and college review committees. I decided to save my broader comments on the many conflicting issues of this tenure decision for later, on my own blog, where I could blather on as much as I wished.

Along the way, much additional information appeared in IHE comments by the professor involved, one of his students, and an Assoc Dean involved in the mentoring and firing process from the very beginning.

There are, indeed, many conflicting issues here. I'm not trying to present a single view here, because I don't have one. Instead, I'm going to interject some observations about some of the events documented here and what they should tell faculty who find themselves working in a "passing college" rather than a "learning college". Number one on that list would be communication of expectations.

My initial gut feeling was pretty much along the lines of what The Little Professor wrote, that the failure numbers are way too high to be explained simply by student quality issues at Norfolk State. There are indications of students being passed on to an important upper division biochem class without the key prerequisites in organic chemistry and biology, but there is also clear evidence of a huge level of mutual animus between the Dean and this professor and there are also indications of an astounding level of egotistic intransigence by the professor when faced with the failure of his approach to teaching low level classes. [Not all that astounding, actually, since I have unfortunately witnessed it at my own institution.]

But there was no evidence in the stories I read that the Dean actually investigated what other factors might be at work or that the professor had been told, in writing, before he was hired that tenure was contingent on achieving a particular passing rate in his classes regardless of student effort or performance on tests like those used by other professors in his department, in addition to research, teaching, and service. I think this goes double when it seems clear from the university's publicity materials that he was hired to advance the research level of NSU.

Factors to consider:

There could be self-selection at work, where the laziest students are last to register and all end up in the class that the more alert students know will require more work than the alternatives. (That would not be the case during his first semester in Fall 2002, but it could certainly apply to later years as he was shuffled into gen-ed chemistry and biology classes, particularly after the first attempt to deny him tenure a year ago was overturned after appeal to a university grievance panel.)

There could be an utter failure on the part of the department's faculty and the college and university administration to define the prerequisite skills to be assumed (especially if they are different from what is stated in the course catalog) and the level of skill expected of passing students. (I suspect that this might be the key issue based on something Dr. Aird wrote on IHE.) However, there comes a point where it becomes his responsibility to seek out that information (particularly after the first year when he was told to do so) even if it is not provided to him by his department colleagues.

Did they tell him, in writing (e-mail counts), that the college attendance policy must not be applied if it results in a high failure rate? (It is bizarre to fire someone if the failure rate resulted from simply carrying out an official policy of the university.) The vast majority of the non-passing students at my college have a terrible attendance record and there are wide fluctuations in "passing success" for the same instructor due to variables such as time of day and whether the section was created just a few days before the semester starts (and hence populated by students who registered very late).

Apparently they did tell him that the biology department had decided to change their common syllabus to adopt a lower percentage passing rate. His ballistic response to this surprises me, since it's not like a "terminal" freshman course such as gen-ed Biology Zero is going to affect the survival of the species. That goes double if they don't offer a freshman study skills class, and raised to the third power if they don't enforce a college-level reading and writing skill level prior to enrolling in a class such as Biology Zero or Chemistry Zero.

Do they have a mandatory study skills class and an intervention program to counsel freshmen who do not attend classes regularly? (Based on their web site, no. Our college is moving in that direction with limited success, but voluntary programs don't reach the at-risk students who cut class.) Did Dr. Aird make full use of the AIM/ACCESS referral program for students who were frequently tardy or had 3 or more absences? (Based on his detailed discussion of classroom management, the answer seems to be no. Not doing so, hence failing to get the administration to face this part of its job, was a huge error on his part if he wants tenure at NSU so bad that he plans to litigate to get it.)

Background information:

It is quite interesting that the School says The strategic mission of the School of Science and Technology is to transform NSU to a "Science and Technology Powerhouse.". That would certainly explain hiring someone with a strong research record but (based on Dr. Aird's professional information on his web site) no indication of any significant teaching experience in the 30 years between starting undergrad school and being hired at NSU.

The stated admission criteria at NSU are a 2.3 gpa in HS and an 800 (on a scale of 400 to 1600) on the SAT or comparable ACT scores. At my community college, students who meet this minimum standard would very likely end up taking several "college prep" classes in math, reading, and english grammar until they met our minimum standards for doing college level work. There is a huge attrition rate for such students, even when they take and pass a study skills class. NSU appears to have a voluntary program of study skills seminars, but no systematic curriculum to address a lack of preparedness among such students. Our college has specialists work on those skills, not the person teaching a sophomore (let alone a senior level) course.

There appears to be some inconsistency in the numbers being reported by various parties. The success rate of 10% cited for gen-ed classes seems to be what some places call the ABC rate: number of ABC grades divided by initial enrollment. This does not mean there is a 90% failure rate, because it also counts students who "failed to pass" because they chose to withdraw from the class. The prof says he had 40% pass (and 60% fail) if they did not withdraw. (That is a really high failure rate given such a high withdrawal rate, but sometimes the kids who never attend class are the ones who also never withdraw and thus earn an F.)

There is also an instance cited of a senior-level class where the success rate was 100% (5 ABC grades and 1 I for a class of 6 students). By 2008, the problem was primarily in freshmen classes, a detail not addressed in the article or discussion by administrators involved in the decisions that affected this professor.

A student view:

Down around comment 101 or 103 (yes, I counted twice) in the IHE story, we see a strong letter posted by "Natalie James, 2008 Biology Graduate at NSU, at 7:25 pm EDT on May 15, 2008" in support of Prof. Aird.

This would be an example of a student who succeeded by an outcomes-based "learning" measure rather than a "passing" measure. Note well that this student did not think much of the attendance habits of her fellow students.

There were numerous other student letters in support of this professor included in the official results of a tenure-related grievance from 2006. There is solid evidence that "student learning" was a priority for him, and that students appreciated his interest in their ultimate (rather than short term) success.

The professor's view:

Dr. Aird also posted a comment and link to a web site with much info from his side of the story (8:15 AM on 15 May), but one thing he said was particularly striking. He wrote "My courses are not really that hard, compared to many that I took", which would be a reference to his undergrad years at Montana State between 1970 and 1974 (where he was a zoology major). It is abundantly clear from the NSU web site that BIO100 and CHM100 (classes of relevance here) are not "majors" biology or chemistry (despite ignorant comments to the contrary in the IHE comments). This is an extremely important detail that suggests to me that he has no idea what level these general education courses are taught at. CHM100 is two levels below the standard introductory "majors" chemistry class Dr. Aird would have taken as an undergrad. This class should be trivial compared to what he took. At our college, its level is somewhere between an 8th- or 9th-grade physical science class and 10th- or 11th-grade chemistry at the worst high school in the state.

I think this raises serious questions about his understanding of the performance level expected in a general education biology class that is often taken by first-term freshmen. As with the chemistry class mentioned above, at my CC these classes are taught at a level somewhat below that of a good 9th- or 10th-grade BSSC biology class in a college-prep sequence at a suburban high school such as I attended. However, the study-guide approach he says he uses in his class is not so different from what is done in ours.

What makes this particularly telling is that he reports a good passing rate in an upper division class. Since I can recall some instances of excellent researchers who were spectacularly awful (words can't convey how awful) in the freshman classroom but tolerable in the senior classroom, some blame goes to the administration here. Why assign this guy to Biology Zero if he belongs in his NIH funded lab working with seniors and masters students?

Dr. Aird also put copies of a university memo and his response on a private web site. It is clear that he created a very bad atmosphere by his school-wide response to a Fall 2003 memo about his Fall 2002 CHM 431 class, taught during his first semester at NSU. [That the official memo refers to PHY 431 as a biochemistry class, when college curricula make it clear that CHM 431 is biochemistry I, shows an astounding lack of attention to detail by the Assoc. Dean.] In my humble opinion, he lost his tenure case right then and there. The time to hammer your theses to the door of the university is after you have been granted tenure, not just one year down that road.

It should have been 100% clear to him that this letter, and followup actions by the administration, meant that he would not get tenure without changing the passing rates in his classes even if it meant changing his standards. He should have started looking for a new job the next day. [Our CC got a really good professor from a university in Texas after they started pressuring faculty to change their grade curves. He saw the handwriting on the wall.] This goes double if he suspected this action was part of a plan to meet the goals of an NSF project without increasing learning by the students.

By the way, if he suspected a whistle needed to be blown about that NSF project, he should have simply changed his grading policies one semester and documented the response of the administration ... and forwarded it all to the relevant NSF office.

As for the letter from the Assoc. Dean, the place for "workshop chemistry" is in freshman chemistry for majors, not the senior biochem class required for admission to medical school. I don't think this administrator knows what he is talking about. Those biochem classes are generally taught in the lecture style of medical school to prepare kids for what is to come, and to ensure coverage of the vast amount of material they need to memorize for the MCAT.

The other faculty:

The article also paraphrased the general comments of other faculty members with the statement Professors said attendance rates are considerably lower than at many institutions — although most institutions serve students with better preparation. There is a major non-sequitur here. Preparation (meaning math and english and reading skills) has nothing to do with attendance rates. Attendance is mainly about self discipline, although it can be about the campus milieu.

Attendance is a problem even at universities where students are well prepared. (I might even go so far as to say it is a bigger problem there, since well-prepared students were never challenged in high school. See the links to Zucker's comments in my article about freshman orientation last year.) It is certainly a problem at our community college. We have the authority, as faculty, to withdraw students who do not attend class per a specific college policy. For those who use it, this makes it easy to separate failure to attend and failure by not taking the final exam or doing poorly on every exam in the class.

These comments from random faculty members do suggest a climate where "lack of preparation" is used as an excuse rather than a challenge to be addressed by the entire institution. In my opinion, the place to address attendance issues for "under prepared" students begins in their "prep" classes and a mandatory study skills class. That is where our college tries to attack it. Based on the sophomores that I get in my physics class, where I get 90% attendance on the day before Thanksgiving or Spring Break, it works pretty well by the time most of them get to me.

Administration's role:

Just as interesting were the remarks posted on IHE by the Associate Dean of Science and Technology, Dr. Mattix, who reports directly to the Dean who denied Dr. Aird tenure and who wrote a memo to Aird "faulting me for the high student failure rate in my senior level biochemistry course" that is shown on Aird's web site (see link above). Mattix basically calls one of his own professors, Dr. Hall (quoted in the IHE article), a liar for saying that faculty were encouraged to pass 70% of their students. His claim that faculty are not required to pass a certain percentage of their students is contradicted by what his own Dean wrote as well as by some of his own comments. When you will be denied tenure for not doing one specific thing, the word 'encouraged' needs scare quotes and a footnote to the dictionary definition of 'required'.

More interesting is Dr. Mattix's rhetorical question "do you really believe that all of those hundreds of students every year in Dr. Aird’s classes, ..., could not succeed." Not only does it lack a question mark, it begs the question. The question is not whether they could succeed, it is whether they did succeed in that particular class. It is also whether a student who fails to attend a class deserves a passing grade simply by virtue of being there more often than 30% or 40% of the rest of the class. And since the student's failure and lack of attendance was never in question, that requires one to ask whether the tone set by the administration contributes to an atmosphere where cutting class, and perhaps even contempt of the teaching faculty, is common.

Even more striking is the naivete of this administrator, who views "teaching best practices, academic integrity, legal issues, grant writing, using Blackboard, ePortfolios, and others" as examples of new strategies to motivate millenials. Blackboard is a "new strategy"? Give me a break! Its an old strategy. (Next he is going to tell me they use e-mail, when the fact is that they use voice and text on their phones much more than they use e-mail. E-mail is old school. Skype is new school.) But this statement is particularly odd given that Aird apparently made all of his lectures available in electronic format on Blackboard, and he got fired. I'd love to see the discussion of academic integrity centered on one NSU student's comment (about being given an A for C and D work without even taking the final exam) as a jumping off point.

Another article on a similar dilemma:

A commenter pointed to an article that
Professor X wrote in the June 2008 Atlantic Monthly concerning "success" in the classroom.

This is closer to the issues raised in my comment on Dean Dad's blog but also has a lot of relevance to questions of adequate screening of students and remediation of their deficiencies in pre-college-level "prep" classes. These classes are not the solution to every problem, but they can address some of those problems. (See some comments I posted last year.) Although some of the problems described by Prof X still exist after those prep classes, they are reduced and the institution has a way of identifying places for improvement.

For example, our humanities classes require writing a paper, so they have a composition pre-req that is supposed to indicate a certain level of competence in college-level writing. It is a simple matter for a humanities professor to refer an example of horrid sub-standard writing to the Dean so the Dean can look into why this might have happened, in addition to referring the student to our writing improvement center for remediation. When I encounter an example of a student who can't seem to do enough algebra or trig to locate the right angles in a paper bag or find his way out, I do the same thing. Often the problem is that the pre-req was met ten years earlier or at another institution, but sometimes it indicates a lack of learning in our introductory math classes.

This does not explain all of the problems Prof X wrote about, some of which appear to be the fault of the professor. If the students are future cops, why not read Sherlock Holmes or something from 60s dopehead/existentialist literature (Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me) - not to mention Letter from a Birmingham Jail - that would get them reading and writing?

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Dust Mop Wins Agility Competition

A short break for something less serious

see more i has a hot dog pictures

A highlight of any dog show is when a dog like this is shown, on display for the 10 seconds of its life when it is actually clean.

Someone should make an effort to get Emmy in one of these, if it hasn't been done already.

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Pres. Bush attacks Pres. Bush

Rove may be gone, but spreading lies by false juxtaposition has not ended, Pres. Bush announced today in Israel. In a speech equating "talking" to an enemy with "appeasement", the President is now on the record as charging his own administration, not to mention that of President Reagan, with appeasement in the middle east. Along the way he attacked a fellow Republican, the late Sen. Borah of Idaho, and fellow preppie John Simpson McCain III.

It is well known that Reagan negotiated with the terrorists who took Americans hostage in Iran and helped arm Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Similarly, Bush had no qualms about negotiating with Iran to get their assistance when the time came to attack bin Laden in Afghanistan, just as he is now negotiating with North Korea. Interestingly, McCain implicitly attacked Bush for both of these actions while trying to jump on the Half-Lie Bandwagon once driven by Karl Rove. Or maybe McCain simply doesn't remember what Bush did in 2001, or more recently with Korea.

Obama was quick to counterattack, and even got support from wannabe VP Hillary Clinton, showing he doesn't plan to lie down and take it like candidates have in past elections. That forced the White House to state publicly that this attack was not directed at Obama and was not '08 politics ... so maybe the President was directing it at Condi Rice and others in his administration who want to engage Iran? If Bush wasn't trying to attack Obama, or create the misimpression that he was attacking Obama, then was he really just trying to deflect attention from how far he has gone to appease America's enemies in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

And anyone who has read the report of the 9-11 commission from cover to cover knows that it was the Bush administration that backed off on the pursuit of the people who attacked a US warship in 2000. Someone with that record should not be talking about appeasement of our enemies.

Updated 16 May 2008:
It didn't take people who own libraries of videotaped and audiotaped interviews to find that McCain was also attacking himself yesterday for proposing that the US talk to Hamas "because they're the government" that was democratically elected in Palestine. Given an opportunity to say "No, American diplomats should not work with Hamas because they are radicals", he did nothing of the sort. Two years later he calls his former position on Hamas "appeasement". Even today, the best his spin experts can come up with is a different interview where he made a conflicting policy statement, adopting the current Obama/Clinton position that it is OK to talk to Hamas if they accept Israel's right to exist. That gets around the "terrorist" part of the Bush-McCain attack, but not the "radical" part.

It was also interesting to see a commentary supporting my recollection that Rice supported talking to Iran, and adding Defense Secretary Gates to the list of "appeasers" ... and Khadafy in Libya to the list of "rerrorists and radicals" that Bush has negotiated with.

Meanwhile, the people who told the press (off the record) that Bush was referring to Obama continue to avoid answering the real question: If Bush wasn't talking about Secretary of State Rice or Senator Obama, who was he talking about? Name names. Whose actions did he think constituted appeasement, and why?

Read Entire Article......

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Aliens are My Brother?

No, not that brother. The generic Biblical one.

The title of this post is the same as the one written by a Vatican astronomer who claims that a search for life on Mars, or even SETI, is acceptable because G*d could have created life on other planets.

The short article raises a few semi-serious questions.

If life on other planets falls into the category of "brother", then do all other forms of life on earth fall into that protected category? That would move the Catholic Church deep into the territory of PETA and general tree-hugger environmentalism, which is wildly at odds with their implicit endorsement of neo-con Republicans by actively opposing environmentalist Democrats via single-issue politics.

Does this imply that sentient life on other planets would have souls, and that Christ would have had to be incarnated there to save those souls? If so, that would cause some complications for doctrinal opposition to the claims of Mormons ... unless its done on a one-visit-per-planet basis. OK, so no real problem there, and a good reason for the Church to build missionary rockets just to be sure.

The comment about the possibility that aliens might be free from original sin was especially interesting. My view has long been that Original Sin is code for the animal instincts that remain in our genetic wiring as a result of the way evolution works, what Freud called the Id. How could an alien not have to deal with a similar life history?

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Career Paths

There is a new Scientae Carnival about Career Paths that I want to promote in conjunction with the series of articles I started last year about the academic job market. You don't have to be a female academic to learn a lot from what has been collected there!

For example, the article by Twice Tenured, although mainly about her career trajectory, also illustrated the differences between two major types of institutions, the very visible SLACs and the seemingly invisible mid-tier Directional State Universities (such as Compass Heading U) that lack PhD programs.

One comment there was similar to one that showed up in part 3 of my series, where I blathered on about the types of academic jobs as a lead-in to a discussion of how to prepare to get and keep one of them.

Read Entire Article......

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Career Day - Mathematics

Rebecca, an applied mathematician blogs for advice about giving a talk on Math Careers at a local middle school.

This is a "been there, done that" for me in my past life (as a grad student helping give tours of our physics lab to elementary school kids and as a research scientist doing the same in an applied math shop or in schools), but I now have a very different perspective from what I see advising students entering our CC.

First, do your best to represent the category "PhD Mathematician". They don't know that you have done research and discovered something that, literally, no one else in the entire world knew until you did it and published it. You are not an actor playing a scientist, you are not a "teacher", you are a REAL Mathematician. You could be the first person they have met who has a PhD. Make sure you are introduced as "Dr. Rebecca".

Check out a recent press release on the "geeky" image of math and its effect on enrollment in that area in the UK. The same is probably true in the U.S.

Second, show them something cool. Visual. High tech. You work with computers that, again, are more amazing than anything made up for TV. Boggle their minds, and then share with them your own insecurity about being able to do anything back when you were in middle school. "I did it, you can do it." And make it clear that you enjoy what you are doing. You get paid to do things that you think are fun! How cool is that?

Third, be real clear that the "it" they can do does not have to be Real Math. You aren't there to sell this career to everyone, but you need to sell them on learning as much math as they can handle in high school if they want one of those famous "high paying jobs" like the business majors working for Donald Trump, or Dr. House, etc. Business majors need to take "business calculus" and pre-med, pre-dent, or pre-vet biology majors need to take "real calculus" and "real physics". Same for most pharmacy and architecture majors (whether they really need to know it or not). If they spend four years in high school slacking their way through "basic algebra" and "consumer math", just enough to get the credits required for graduation, they will face an uphill battle in college. We see it every day here at this CC, and I'm sure they also see it at universities.

Example from my Dorm Days:
My freshman roommate was a biology major. From all appearances, he was a pretty good biology student. He had taken everything his (small town) high school had to offer, then done independent study projects (including decent science fair projects). He knew all sorts of hard-to-memorize facts and botanical names, etc etc. But he knew squat about math, and flunked out of college in the two years it took for him to fail calculus twice after needing multiple tries to pass college algebra and trig. Sadly, a big part of this were "student centered" teachers and counselors. He was good at biology and didn't like math, so they let him take extra biology instead of math during his last two years. That made him real happy ... until he got to college and learned that biology majors take calculus.

If he had started at our CC, he would have worked through a slower sequence of math classes and might have had a chance to improve his skills enough to pass calculus. The university course pretty much assumed you had taken a solid class in algebra 2 and trig, but simply forgot most of it. Maybe he did go back home to a local CC and manage to succeed in his career goals, but he was a fish out of water at the university.

Example of a typical CC business student:
The ones with good SAT scores are (mostly) at the university, so we get the ones who passed high school and did OK on the "high stakes" exit exam but can't get into a university. That usually translates into "weak math". The typical student has to start out in a course that is the equivalent of the Algebra 1 class we took in 9th grade. That student is looking at two full years of math (that remedial class, then college algebra, then business calc, then statistics) plus two accounting courses. One standard deviation up and we have the kid who starts in college algebra. One standard deviation down and we have the kid who starts in a basic (7th grade?) algebra class (the one where the kids are afraid of letters). Those kids are looking at two and a half years of math IF they manage to pass each class on the first attempt, which is rare. (Having been lied to about how good they are at math, they usually don't take the class very seriously and fail it the first time they take it.)

The weakest ones almost always wasted two years in high school on some variant of "liberal arts" or "consumer" math. The ones who struggled through an algebra 2 class instead will usually make it, although they have to start in algebra 1.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Another sign of the end times ...

Birthday card from Brother arrives before Birthday!

And a very charming card it was, at that. Thanks, Bro!

Now all you have to do is remember your wedding anniversary ...

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Physics - Biology link

Interesting article in the BBC news feed today:

That is, using microwaves to eliminate invasive species in ship's ballast.

I just saw this, so not time to digest it, but will add some comments if I get a chance to locate the paper or a better press release at LSU.

My first observation is that the paper comes from the LSU Agriculture Center, so this is a classic example of a Land Grant university at work applying physics to solve an ecological problem created by using physics to engineer large ships that transport species in ways that Darwin could barely imagine.

Additional links
They used a 5 kW industrial microwave at 915 MHz, and showed success running at a rate of 1 to 2 L per minute.

This is quite far from being ready for commercial use, either in capacity or cost, but that last remark assumes that shippers will continue to get free access to the public good we call the water in a harbor.

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Saturday, May 10, 2008


OK, the top item on the "to blog list" is something about what I learned in a year on the colleges most important faculty governance committee, but that has to wait for a few others. However, you will see that this topic is not entirely unrelated to being on the major governance committee (where we don't get any release time).

Dean Dad had a great column this week about the "silly season", the last week or so of the semester when the entire campus (from students to administrators) go insane because of all of the things that must get done. (I tend to disagree with his premise, but more about that where you see the word "Christmas" in bold face down below.) My answer to his question about how to stay sane was a rather simple one:


Oh, yes, and a little bit of the "Grumpy Old Road Foreman" technique of keeping the rules the same from start to end.

But just saying "planning" is a bit of an oversimplification. The real answer is to maintain an even strain, the same advice I give my students about using weekends and "off" weeks to advantage, and avoiding the trap where cramming for one class creates the need to cram for another. But the only way to keep the workload steady is to plan ahead. It doesn't happen with wishful thinking or procrastination. Or even by making planning an end in itself. You can't have a recursive "to do" list that has "work on previous to-do list" as the fifth item from the top.

I can't take credit for this. I am an inveterate procrastinator who often thrives on the energy that flows when a job needs to get done. I've had to resort to false deadlines in the past to have an excuse to get started early enough to get some larger tasks completed.

I have to credit Mr. Algebra for being the wind beneath my wings on this one.

I remember my first semester. I'm in the mail room getting ready to send my syllabus to the central print shop, cutting it rather close to have it back by the first day of class, and he's collecting his first two hour exams. You read that right: He had printed the exams for the first month or so of the semester even before fall registration had ended.

Impossible. Even the other senior faculty thought what he did was nuts.

But is it really impossible? Now there are always some problems I come up with at the last minute based on something I decide to emphasize in class (or that the students decide to emphasize by struggling with a particular problem type on a previous exam to the point where I promise them they will see something like it on the midterm or final), but others are dictated by my "no repeat" rule that assumes last year's tests are public record.

More importantly, its not like I don't know what class I am going to be teaching. Heck, I even know the room and hour assignments for next spring! (Our college does a pretty good job of planning as well, a task shared by the administration and the faculty.) So why not put off until August the job of planning my course calendar for Fall? OK, other than the fact that this is the way I always did it, mostly because my earlier experience had been in a department where you sometimes didn't know what you were teaching until the day before you walked into the classroom.

And you know, Mr. Algebra always seemed so relaxed during the semester.

Maybe this is something to think about. What can I get done during the summer? Can I get the entire course calendar planned out, fine tuning it based on my "as built" notes of what I actually did each day last semester (and ideas on what I might change the next time)? Schedule the exams so there is plenty of time to grade one before I have to do the next one? Prepare the web materials? Update and copy what will be needed by the TAs in the lab I run, particularly things that rarely change? And if I have that done, then I can use August to think about the exams, and so on, paying it forward, as it were.

What got me started down this path was Christmas a few years ago. I see the winter "break" as the worst season of all, but then I don't have to go to any alumni dinners or other Dean-ish level duties that are timed to graduation. December is a nightmare. Not only do you have all of the final grading from the fall semester, you also have to prepare everything for the spring semester and go Christmas shopping and maybe even travel across the country to spend a week with relatives. A week where you can't possibly get much work done. And that year, we had a particularly tight window between finals and the start of the spring semester. There would only be a few days between getting back from the trip north and stepping into the classroom. My solution was to pull together the Spring schedules (and even the web pages, stuffed away in their own little stocking) in August while I did the ones for fall.

It worked better than expected. I had less to do than the year before, even with the travel. A solution exists. And just in time, since this past year I not only had to plan for a Christmas trip, I had to keep mental time free for what turned out to be an "interesting" year in the college governance business.

Now a lot of faculty at my CC teach a heavy summer schedule, particularly some of the younger ones who have student loan debt and maybe a new sub-prime mortgage to deal with. Some of the older ones teach extra classes to pay for a trip or prepare for retirement. I take a light load so I can clear my mind for another serious year of spending 16 hours a week (18 this coming fall) in a physics classroom. But that means I am going to work every day with only about half of a day's work to do.

So I am working, very gradually, on my plans for fall ... and spring. Right now the only hassle is that the college hasn't published the final exam schedule for fall, but that is only one entry in the calendar and the syllabus. (I think the admins are busy dealing with budget hassles.) I plan to spend a few weeks on the different calendars I need to develop, then do a rough cut on the web materials so I just have to fine tune them if I change something somewhere else.

And some extra time to blog, which translates into extra time to think about such things as what works (and doesn't work) when it comes to our labs and whether I can make more use of "active learning" methods this semester. My extra teaching load actually comes with smaller classes. Can I do something with that?

Finally, I'll interject here that I noticed Profgrrrrl mentioned doing pretty much the same thing last Tuesday (in "rethinking the course" if you want to read it while it is still available). She was planning all of the projects (in detail) and other assignments in conjunction with the choice of a new textbook while putting together the syllabus for her summer class. Now admittedly she appears to be doing this all in the last week before classes start, but she had her final assessments (and when they are due) in her plan from the beginning and was also thinking about how she might continue to evolve the course in the fall. That is driving the course, rather than letting the course drive you. Definitely a sign of experience, which means it is something that needs to be added to a list of things that should be passed on when mentoring new faculty.

I wonder if our formal system includes anything like this? It should.

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