Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Tagging this as "music" is a bit of a stretch, but ...

... this morning the folks on Squawk Box on MSNBC used a mashup of the now legendary Animal Orchesra with "We're All Water" by the Plastic Ono Band to lead in their "stocks to watch" segment at 7:55 AM today.

It was done so the Animal Orchestra clip led into Yoko Ono screaming. This was genius, because it was quite clear that a trio of beluga whales accompanied by a pair of walruses playing horns was more melodious than Yoko's truly avant-garde sound.

Read Entire Article......

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Today is the Autumnal (fall) Equinox, one of two days when you can tell for sure if a street you drive in the morning or evening runs due East or West! The sun is aligned with the equator today, so it truly rises in the East and sets in the West. From now on the sun will be heading south for the winter.

The equinox also has another little appreciated property: it marks the end of the day at the North pole and the dawn of a new (year-long) day at the south pole. The sun only rises and sets once a year at the poles.

It is also a day when it is easy to tell just how far off your current time (daylight savings here) is off from local "sun" time. The day is exactly 12 hours long, so sunrise and sunset should be at 6 AM and 6 PM (plus or minus some minor corrections because the Earth's orbit is elliptical rather than circular, causing the sun to appear to run fast or slow at various times of the year). If they aren't (and ours isn't even close), you can see how far your daylight has been shifted by the offset of most time zones plus daylight "savings" time.

In other news, today was also the first time I heard a Christmas Tune in a TV ad. The offender was Royal Caribbean. Definitely a sign of hard times if they are pushing holiday tours right now. On the other hand, I have seen two major signs of commercial improvement: the return of catalogs in the mail (although none of them are of the Christmas or Holiday variety), and the return of multiple pages of ads between the cover of The New Yorker and the table of contents. That mag was getting to be as thin as a local newspaper.

Read Entire Article......

Friday, September 11, 2009

Reflections on Eight Years Ago

Looking back at 11 September 2001.

What stands out in my mind was the first anomaly that hinted that something was going on. We had not had the TV on, so I had no idea anything had happened as I headed into campus just before 9 (between the two attacks on the World Trade Center). As usual, I turned on the computer ... but it simply would not boot up properly. It was taking forever to load various shared applications off of a network server. Forever, meaning something like 15 minutes to do something that normally took less than 1 minute.

Was something wrong with the network? Yeah, people all over campus (and one just down the hall) were hammering it trying to get an update from CNN, or other news sites. When I saw what an office neighbor was trying to understand better, I also went to CNN once my machine was up.


Just before I had to leave to teach my 10:00 class, I got lucky. I killed a page load to shortcut its failed attempts to load all the advertising crap from akamai, and managed to 2nd click to just load a single news image. Its name actually said all I needed to know: "second plane". You know what it showed.

We were under attack.

So I went and taught my morning class, which was probably a lecture about electrostatic potentials and fields. I don't recall anything about that part of the day, except that most of the students had no idea that anything had happened. (And the studies of 9-11 indicate the government was in a similar state at 10 AM.) When I got back to my office, it was clear we were likely at war. In truth, of course, we had been at war with Al Qaeda for almost a decade but only Al Qaeda was taking it seriously until that day.

The indecision on campus was amazing to see. Are classes cancelled? No. OK. And it was soon time to teach my afternoon class on classical mechanics. That was the hardest class I ever taught. But before getting down to doing physics, I told the class what was on my mind:

That I had a much better idea of how my parents felt when they learned about Pearl Harbor.

And I told them that saying that made me wonder if we would learn the same things about this attack that we now knew about Pearl Harbor -- that we had plenty of evidence that it was coming, and missing it was a failure of intelligence rather than of Intelligence. (I knew all of the details of our code breaking and what had been done with it in late 1942, how our code breakers knew the Japanese were breaking off negotiations before their diplomats did, but that information was so secret that the military could not be told about imminent war and be put on alert.)
Wow, did that turn out to be insightful! But it was just a good guess based on the odds that we had too much excellent data to be able recognize a totally novel method of attack as a real possibility. Novel military tactics have a long history of working really well the first time.

By the time that class was over, it was announced that the rest of that day's classes were canceled. No labs that afternoon. Time to adjust schedules and make it work for the rest of the semester. (One of several cases that tell me I could figure out how to accommodate the disruption of H1N1 if it only led to the closing of campus for a week.) But we were back to normal only in the most limited sense.

The class that started the first semester of physics that Fall of 2001 was different from any of the others I have had. It took quite a while for them to get back in focus, and quite a few lost focus and quit. But the ones that stuck it out were serious about being ready to win that fight as engineers. That was a hard working bunch of students that year.

Read Entire Article......

Monday, September 7, 2009


Ah, that was a nice vacation, getting recharged for the fall while limiting myself to commentary on other blogs. Now it is time to post this, my 400th article, before getting back to some old and new topics.

What I thought I should do is post links to some "feature" articles from the past that I think are fairly timeless in their relevance to the business and pleasure of teaching science (in my case physics) at the college level. Although I might be at a mere CC, the calculus-based physics class I teach to future engineering majors -- with a few physics majors and others wandering in at times -- is the same as it is anywhere except for some elite programs. (I use the level of the class at the top-quartile R1 where I grew up as my reference point, and that seems more than enough for the kids that transfer to Wannabe Flagship.) So here goes ...

  • Freshman Orientation where I argue for telling new college students some of the huge differences between high school and college. Some of these include the fact that teachers had to pass you in high school, so you were never taught at "your level". Teaching was directed at the bottom 20% that the principal insisted pass the class and the NCLB exit exam.

I didn't mention telling them that they had been lied to when they were told that they were graduating with a high school knowledge of math, a detail touched on in an article about math remediation, but I should have. I actually jumped for joy when Arne Duncan said this weekend (midway down page 6 of the pdf transcript from Sunday, Sept. 6) that "In too many places I think, Bob, we are, honestly, we're lying to children. ... If a child hears they're quote-unquote 'meeting the state standard', that child, that parent, the logical assumption is, they're going to be on track to be successful. But in way too many places around the country ... they are totally inadequately prepared to be successful in higher education. That has to change. We have to stop lying to children." Too bad that did not make the talking-points sound-bite list for newspaper headlines. It got swamped by "The Hinny" (H1N1) and people who don't want other folk's children to be told to study hard, or don't want their own kids to see that the President is Black.

  • Replace "prerequisite" with "basic", arguing for using a term that freshmen might understand. This followed a nice discussion of some alternatives. I've been trying this, here and there, and I like the results so far. I think it helps to tell a kid that trig is a "basic skill". Now I am waiting for an answer to the question about what basic math errors should be punished unmercifully in pre-calc.

  • Critical Reading That article is actually toward the end of my comments, but it links back to earlier ones. I continue to experiment with this skill and ways of teaching it (borrowed from the way Dr. Crazy does it in an English literature class) in conjunction with solving physics problems. Reading and readable textbooks were at the top of the list of some comments about college readiness from the viewpoint of someone teaching physics to future engineers.

  • Jobs, starting from a supply and demand history for physics, this series ends up looking at what it takes to get and keep an academic job. That link is to the lead article in an irregular series that all end up filed under the jobs label. That lead article and the graph is due for an update with more recent data about PhD production, as are some of the others. (The AIP updates its information on this subject annually.) I want to emphasize, for those who read this far, that the advice in Part 5 applies to any job search at a community college. The differences between subject areas is minor compared to research job hunts.

I'll also link to this article (because it points to a nice series by Unbalanced Reaction about taking a Visiting position) and this one (because it points to a great blog by Dr. Crazy about teaching intensive jobs from the 4-year regional university viewpoint).

  • Retention of learning and of students is probably a focus for the coming year or two. Outcomes assessment is clearly going to be more important in the near future, so we should think hard about what measures our actual goal. Is it the passing rate this year or the passing rate in the next class?

There is probably more I should mention, but that will do for post number 400. OK, maybe I should stick this here at the end:
  • Community! is starting in less that two weeks. Okay, that is not exactly a rocket science article, and blogging about it probably guarantees that it will turn out to be stereotypical junk, but that "start your life over" bit at the end gives it promise. At minimum, we can use it to laugh at ourselves and how others view us and our students as the week winds down with another episode of "30 Rock".

Read Entire Article......