Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year!

Hope everyone has a Happy New Year!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Charlie Brown would be proud

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

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

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

One of those traditions is this ornament

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

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

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

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Christmas Eve in 1968.

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

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

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

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

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

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Christmas Eve

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

What would Christmas be without NORAD tracking Santa?

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

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

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

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Shared Sacrifice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Grades are Done!

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

A hat tip to Rachel for this video,

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

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

As for Dr. Pion's semester:

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

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

Additional time wasting material:

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

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

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

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Full Moon

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

It was definitely time to get out the camera.

Click image for larger view. Details below the fold.

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

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

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

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Space news

Two news stories today:

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

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

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Saturday, December 6, 2008

Quote of the Day

From the BBC European News Desk ....

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

- Deputy Mayor Lodewijk Asscher of Amsterdam

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

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

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