31 July 2012


It isn't often that the teaching of evolution is celebrated in headlines.  Usually the 150-year-old scientific explanation for how species come into being is associated with controversy, and with illogical rejection by religious fundamentalists who sit on school boards.  So it was a pleasant surprise to discover that in Texas (of all states) evolution supporters have gained a stunning victory.  As reported by the National Center for Science Education, "The Texas Board of Education has unanimously come down on the side of evolution.  In a 14-0 vote, the board approved scientifically accurate high school biology textbook supplements from established mainstream publishers ~ and did not approve the creationist-backed supplements from International Databases, LLC .... Dr. Eugenie Scott, NCSE's Executive Director, is celebrating the decision.  'These supplements reflect the overwhelming scientific consensus that evolution is the core of modern biology, and is a central and vital concept in any biology class.' "

In almost comic contrast, in Tennessee, the ancestral home of self-embarrassment since the 1925 Scopes trial, the state senate took a giant leap backward by introducing a law which would ban the exclusive teaching of gravity.  The article which describes the rationale behind the anti-gravity bill reads like a script written to poke fun at those who refuse to trust science ~ yet the quotes are directly from legislators themselves, and more frighteningly still, from purported science teachers.  Consider ~ "I have long felt uncomfortable teaching gra...gra...this theory.  It is clearly a dangerous idea to teach our children.  Newton 'discovered' gravity by an apple falling on his head.  Adam and Eve fell from the garden of Eden for eating one.  Then Newton calls gravity an 'attractive force between all objects' ~ such a mentality is clearly a gateway for temptation and sexual promiscuity'. "

Really?  We're now going to equate real apples with metaphorical ones, not to mention give equal credence to scientific fact and folk myth?  You're telling me that gravity is optional?  Really?  I truly hope that this episode is a hoax. I can find no mention of it at Snopes.  If it is true (and far stranger things have happened), it is proof positive that we need more scientists (and fewer lawyers) in government.  We certainly need intelligent, educated adults who understand the distinction in science between a hypothesis, a theory, and a law.

Perhaps the Tennessee legislature should consider a fact-finding trip to, say, Texas.

30 July 2012


Just for grins, here is a list of resources which you can send to your desktop for easy access.

  • State of the Vote ~ updated daily.  If the presidential election were held now, would Barack Obama or Mitt Romney have more electoral votes?  Includes a map showing the breakdown by state.  Also includes a tab showing senatorial races.
  • Distance Calculator ~ input the names of two cities, and learn how many road miles separate them.  Includes driving time and a route map.
  • Language Translator ~ find the equivalent words or phrases between any two of 53 languages.  Swahili to Irish?  No problem.
  • Height-Weight Chart ~ learn the healthy weight range for your gender and height.  Being lower within your weight range is better than being higher.
  • World Population and You ~ input the day, month, and year of your birth, and find out the world population on that day, your rank order among all humans who have lived, and much more.
  • Wind Chill Index ~ when it's cold outside, adding wind doesn't actually lower the ambient temperature, but it feels as if it does.  Cross-reference various temperatures and wind speeds and learn exactly what that perceived colder temperature is.
  • The Shakespeare Insult Kit ~ priceless.
  • Dictionary ~ yes, a dictionary.  What a concept.
  • Contact Elected Officials ~ phone numbers, email and snail mail addresses for the U.S. president, senators, representatives, plus state governors and legislators.  Use them!
  • Thesaurus ~ find that perfect, elusive synonym or antonym.
  • Snopes ~ "the definitive Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation."  The go-to place to check whether a rumor, news article, or factoid is real.
  • 12 Most ~ an eclectic (and highly subjective) collection, ranging from the 12 Most Enjoyable Blogs by Women, to the 12 Most Annoying Things My Dad Does.
  • World Population Clock ~ real-time number of humans on planet Earth.  Includes number of births and deaths, today and this year.  Am I alone in finding it depressing that there are 7 billiion 056 million 761 thousand 381 of us?  Oops.  382.  383.  Never mind.
  • IMDb ~ the Internet Movie Database.  Includes info on current movies, plus you can search by movie name, actor name, director name, character name, and have a merry time following the links.
  • Measuring the U.S. Melting Pot ~ an interactive map showing the distribution of people from assorted heritages ~ English, French, German, Irish, Italian, Mexican Norwegian, and 'other'.
  • CNET ~ thinking of buying a new cell phone, desktop or laptop computer, digital camera, television, printer, tablet, home audio system, security software, or other device?  CNET posts reviews and comparisons with similar models.
  • White Pages ~ an online national phone directory.  Fill in the name and location of the person you're seeking, and contact information (phone number and address) will appear if it is available.  Caveat ~ for 'advanced searches' you pay a fee.
  • Clock/Calendar ~ a precise virtual reference which you can set to your time zone.
  • Craigslist ~ classified ads for cities around the nation, around the world.
  • EarthCam ~ live streaming webcam feeds from just about everywhere.
  • Wikipedia ~ over 4 million encyclopedia entries.
  • xkcd ~ "a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language."  Just because.
  • Google Images ~ insert just about any word or phrase, and within a heartbeat you'll be presented with scores of photos and other images related to that theme.

29 July 2012


Nearly everyone who pays attention to pop music believes that the music which was current during their youth is the best ever produced ~ and that the music preceding or following the favored slice of time is lacking in flavor, originality, or relevance.  I could fairly be accused of subscribing to this belief, but only to the extent that I stopped paying attention somewhere in the late 1970s.  Yes, it's true that few modern groups possess the sheer inventiveness and musical range of, say, the Beatles or Simon and Garfunkle.  If your music influences the music of other performers, or if your music never grows stale in the minds of your fans, or if your popularity remains high for more than the attention span of a gnat, then probably you created something worthy.  To how many performers can we apply those standards, and have them remain true?

Here's the thing ~ like it or not, believe it or not, popular music has not changed that much since the advent of rock and roll.  It's true that hip hop has branched off during the interim, and that world music has claimed some attention.  But musically speaking, there has been very little evolution, much less revolution, over the past half century.  If anything, the lines that once distinguished rock from country from blues have blurred, so that each resembles the other.

A peer-reviewed study in Scientific Reports confirms my assertion.  As reported at the website io9, the researchers found that "pop songs have become 'intrinsically louder' and have come to rely more on more of the same chords, melodies, and sound palettes."  Which would be like all artists using the same narrow variety of colors, or all writers using the same restricted vocabulary.  There's a word for the situation ~ stagnation.

Further, the study "obtained numerical indicators that the diversity of transitions between note combinations ~ roughly speaking, chords plus melodies ~ has consistently diminished in the last 50 years."  

When you take a mental step back to regard music through history, you notice that the music people listened to is heavily correlated to the instruments being used, in addition to the creativity of composers.  From the symphony orchestras of classical music, in the 1920s and 1930s we shifted to the smaller, sassier big band sound.  Then in the 1950s and 1960s came the shift to rock and roll, shrinking the instrumentation even further, typically to three guitars and a drum set (with occasional variants like keyboards thrown in).  The advent of synthesizers and digital music did little to change the limited tonality of the music being sold to us.

Perhaps money is part of the story.  It's cheaper to front the costs of supplying instruments to a rock band, than it is to furnish a full 100-member orchestra.  Similarly, an individual need not devote as much time to learning to play a limited range on a guitar, as she/he would to mastering the violin, French horn, or cello.  Over time both performers and listeners have learned to take short cuts, and we are aesthetically the poorer for it.

Instrumentation and ensemble size aside, there's this to consider ~ in western popular music, the impetus for creative change has most often come from oppressed groups ~ in the case of the U.S., black musicians.  Blacks invented jazz, swing, blues, and early rock and roll.  White musicians knew a good thing when they heard it, and picked up the sound.  Ask any white virtuoso musician about his/her influences, and chances are you'll be referred back to those old school black singers and instrumentalists, back in the day.

These days, even the pop music of my teen years sounds tinny to my ears.  I'm drawn more to the expressive lyrics and music of my parents' generation ~ the standards of the 1930s and 1940s ~ and drawn even more to the rich and nuanced timelessness of classical music.  My cats agree with me.

28 July 2012


The PBS series Frontline is uniformly one of the finest, most informative, and most impartial examples of public affairs and investigative journalism to be found on television.  Earlier this week I happened to catch an episode titled Alaska Gold ~ about the high stakes battle being waged over the proposed Pebble Mine in southeast Alaska (see the potential mine site above, click to enlarge).  If approved by Alaska officials and the EPA, it would become the largest open-pit mines ever dug, two miles wide and thousands of feet deep, in search of copper, gold, and molybdenum.  The approval process is fraught with controversy, since the proposed site rests at the headwaters of several watersheds which drain into Bristol Bay, home of the world's last great wild sockeye salmon fishery.

Mine owners claim that the mammoth project would have no impact on the fishery, but native peoples and commercial fishermen believe otherwise.  Open-pit mines in general (Montana and Arizona come to mind), and those operated by Anglo-American PLC in particular (in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Mali, Ireland, and the U.S.), have a long history of catastrophic degradation of the environment ~ not just the ugly scar of the mines and tailings, but also the leaching of toxic chemicals into the water table, polluting streams, lakes, and the ocean.

Further, the proposed site rests within an active geologic fault system.  The 1964 Alaska earthquake, at 9.2 on the Richter scale, was the second most powerful quake ever recorded, orders of magnitude more destructive than the 2011 Fukushima earthquake which led to a nuclear disaster at a facility which purportedly was built to withstand earthquakes.  If open-pit mines have demonstrated problems with habitat destruction and toxic waste seepage under normal conditions, Is it even possible to guarantee the integrity and safety of operations in the event of a massive earthquake?

The salmon fishery is the last remaining pristine salmon run in North America.  The reason for its existence is simple ~ the streams and lakes which host the salmon spawning runs have never been disturbed by human industry.  The Pebble Mine owners would like to change that, and Alaskans are deeply divided over the prospect.  Statewide, in 2006 28% of Alaskans favored Pebble, while 53% opposed it.  In the Bristol Bay region, 20% of residents favored the mine, while 71% opposed it.  As is commonly true when an outside agent wants to extract the natural resources (or limit the management of game species) of a sparsely-populated state, some residents see only the promise of jobs and wages, while others see it as an invasion of their home turf.  The mining company in question is controlled by Canadian, British, Australian and Japanese interests, not by U.S. interests.  

I urge, I implore you to view the entire 54-minute episode.  The images of Alaska's magnificent landscape and its wildlife are superb, and the discussion of the implications for both humans and for nature is intelligent and absorbing.  You will see parallels with other "development" controversies, e.g. the Keystone Pipeline.  And you may be faced with questions that have no easy answers ~ though for me the resolution is clear and unambiguous.  When in doubt, protect wilderness and wildlife.  We have too little left, and more disappears daily.

27 July 2012


It has been a year and a half since the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that "the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by corporations and unions".  This was the infamous Citizens United case, and in overturning portions of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (known familiarly as the McCain-Feingold Act), the Court opened the floodgates for special interests and their lobbyists, enabling them to bypass campaign reform law by funneling mountains of cash through superPACs to influence the legislators of their choice.  The case which enabled the formation of superPACS was decided just a few weeks after Citizens United.  Unlike traditional Political Action Committees (PACs), superPACs "may not make contributions to candidate campaigns or parties, but may engage in unlimited political spending independent of the campaigns.  Also unlike traditional PACs, they can raise funds from corporations, unions and other groups, and from individuals, without legal limits."

The ripples of consequence have been in the news for the entire presidential campaign spanning the past year.  This has been the dirtiest election since Richard Nixon's presidency, and it is only going to get worse, given the ideological polarization which has paralyzed Washington since President Obama took office ~ a paralysis which is coldly calculated and deliberate on the part of Republicans.  Legislation which they themselves supported before Obama's election, has become anathema in the Republican caucus in both the House and Senate.  The advent of unlimited financing whose sources are not revealed, i.e. dark money, has freed many legislators from the normal strictures which bind their behavior to the wishes of the voters.

In a Mother Jones article, How to Sweep the Dark Money out of Politics, the authors summarize the situation nicely ~  "The majority opinion in Citizens United takes up 57 pages, but it's pretty efficiently boiled down as follows ~ (1) Money is speech;  (2) corporations are people;  (3) therefore, under the First Amendment, the government can't stop corporations from spending money on politics pretty much however they choose.

"[Justice John Paul] Stevens penned an impassioned 90-page dissent lambasting the 'glittering generality' of this construction.  'Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it,' he wrote.  'Our lawmakers have a compelling constitutional basis, if not also a democratic duty, to take measures designed to guard against the potentially deleterious effects of corporate spending in local and national races.'

"Stevens wasn't the only one appalled.  Citizens United set off a torrent of outrage, culminating in the high drama of the president (a constitutional law professor, lest we forget) condemning the court in the State of the Union for opening 'the floodgates for special interests ~ including foreign corporations ~ to spend without limit in our elections.'  Anger spanned the political spectrum (80 percent were opposed shortly after the ruling, 65 percent 'strongly') and helped spark the Occupy movement."

The authors suggest four options for putting elections back into the hands of the voters.  You can click on the article link for details ~ here is the list.

  • A constitutional amendment (passed by two-thirds majorities in both houses and ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures) clarifying that corporations are not the same as people and money is not the same as speech.  A long shot.
  • SCOTUS deathwatch ~ waiting for a conservative Supreme Court justice or two to die, and replace them with more moderate justices, while retaining Democratic control of the House and Senate.  A long shot.
  • Through legislation or the courts, introduce financial transparency, disclosing the sources of all campaign contributions.  Possible.
  • Taxpayer-financed campaigns ~ public financing is most influential in local and state elections.  But today's state senator is tomorrow's U.S. legislator.
Bad law is not without redress ~ if voters shame their elected representatives into declining the big money of Wall Street (or vote them out of office in the next election).  It is not news that we have been shifting from a democratic republic into an oligarchy for years.  Citizens United hastened that shift.  The Occupy movement and other voters and consumers groups resist it.  We are living squarely within the ancient Chinese curse ~ "May you live in interesting times".

26 July 2012


I have two half-Siamese cats, brother and sister.  The larger, white male is named Chiaro, short for chiaroscuro, the term in art for the interplay of light and shadow, a reflection of his black markings.  His face and body have the distinctive, exotic Siamese structure more than his sister.  The smaller, calico/tabby female is named Mao, simply the Chinese word for cat.  You'd have to look up her family history to know there's Siamese in her.  Her appearance is that of most slightly-built house cats.  They've been my companions for six years, since I adopted them as kittens from the Humane Society shelter.

I'll never forget the first time I saw them.  I was touring the facility, meeting all the cats who were up for adoption.  Some lived in cages, others had the freedom of small rooms with windows facing both the corridor and outdoors.  When I came to one such room, there were four litter mates inside, two white and two calico.  They were all healthy and full of energy, and I fell in love (something that easily happens between cats and me).  I spent time playing with them, then left with the intent of returning the next day to adopt two ~ which two, I couldn't decide.

When I returned, I found the decision had been made for me.  Someone had already adopted one of the whites and one of the calicoes.  I wasted no time signing papers for the other two.  When I arrived at their room, Mao was sitting on a ledge, backlit by the sun, looking regal and sublime.  A natural cat.

During the months and years since, we three have learned each other's ways, and are very close.  Chiaro, being the larger older brother, sometimes gets carried away with rough play, and I (as alpha cat) have to remind him to tone it down.  He's much the braver of the two in meeting strangers,  Mao is more shy, easily startled, gentle.  But because they grew up together, she is not intimidated by her brother.  When they're play-wrestling, she'll leap at him with mock ferocity, forcing him onto his back, then dance away, only to come back for more.

We all enjoy certain daily routines.  After my morning shower, I groom each of them with a brush to keep their coats healthy and minimize shedding.  They love being groomed, and never turn down the chewy treat I offer as reward.  Later, when I'm at the computer, one or the other will curl up in my lap and fall asleep.  Anytime I travel out of town for more than a day trip, they accompany me.

Their internal clocks tell them down to the minute when mealtime is (morning and evening), and they aren't shy about reminding me.  I live in a small apartment, and they are strictly indoor cats (there's too much nearby traffic and risk of becoming lost).  I'd love to live in a larger house with lots of windows and a sun porch, where they would have more room to run around and watch birds at the feeders.  Someday.  For now, they're allowed anyplace inside the apartment, except where human food is prepared or served.  Sometimes their chases approach significant speeds, and I have to play traffic cop to prevent damage (like the time they knocked over and destroyed my flat screen TV ~ the replacement is securely fastened down).

I love that they seek me out, whether I'm exercising (they'll sit near the stereo speakers to listen to classical music), watching a DVD movie, or lying in bed reading.  Our mutual affection finds its perfect expression at bedtime.  When the lights go out, the cats will settle lying on my legs, or snuggled against my side.  When I awaken in the morning, they're still there.  And another day begins.

25 July 2012


Well, technically no, since fractal images are self-repeating patterns revealed by magnifying in or telescoping out on a static image ~ the details are always already present.  In the dynamic self-propagating hands above, the details are not present initially, but blossom into existence.  It's still a compelling GIF image.  Thanks to Bill for the link, whose source is cyriak's channel.

24 July 2012

"I'M MELTING .... "

This just in from NASA ~ Satellites See Unprecedented Greenland Ice Sheet Surface Melt.  It is becoming harder and harder to deny the existence of global warming, but some benighted souls persist.  This report adds to the overwhelming body of evidence for anthropogenic climate change.  When you click on the link, you'll see two images.  The left image was taken on July 8 and shows 40% of the ice sheet surface thawing.  Four days later, the right image shows 97% of the ice sheet surface thawing.  Such a rapid change over so short a time frame has never been recorded in the thirty years of satellite monitoring.  Coupled with similar melting taking place in the Arctic ice cap and Antartica, the implications are dire ~ disruption of the global ocean current pattern, lower salinity as fresh water is added, and yes, a rise in sea level. Those who live near the ocean should be making plans to mover permanently to higher ground, or figuring out how to grow interdigital webbing to help you swim.

Alternatively, lateral thinkers are producing serious designs for living on the ocean.  Here is a list of ten designs, complete with artists' concept images, ranging from artificial islands to floating homes (see image above, click to enlarge).  They look enticing in warm calm weather, but I'm not certain how well they would stand up to the increasing numbers and ferocity of hurricanes.

The world's glaciers and ice sheets aren't the only things melting these days.  As the financial crisis widens and our fears and insecurity increase, the stress can prove overwhelming for some.  Here you will find a map showing a breakdown by state of the number of deaths per 100,000 population by firearms.  Note that gun violence is higher in states with lower income and in states that vote Republican.  Gun violence is lower in states with more college graduates and stronger knowledge-based economies, and in states with stricter gun control laws.  Contrary to belief, there is little correlation between gun violence and drug abuse, or mental illness, or high levels of unemployment.

23 July 2012

SALLY RIDE 1951-2012

Today Dr. Sally Ride, physicist and first American woman in space, died at the age of 61.  She was an inspiration to an entire generation of children, and to their parents too.  Please click here for the comprehensive NYTimes summary of her life.  It is a sad day.

22 July 2012


" ~ to soothe the savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak."
~William Congreve

If that be so, my breast must be permanently soothed, and surrounded by limp rocks.  Music has been integral to my life since earliest memory ~ listening to 1940s and 50s radio, and playing the recorder in my first grade band.  Riding the bus home from school, I would sit behind the driver (Graden Green, rest his soul) and sing my little heart out until he would have to turn around and tell me to quiet down.  Which worked for about thirty seconds, then gradually my volume would increase again.  Poor man.

My early childhood repertoire included not only the pop and big band hits of that era, but also an early dose of classical music.  (Hint ~ 'The Lone Ranger' wasn't the only radio show to adopt a classical work as its theme music.)  Perhaps this explains my later love for classical music.  In junior high and high school, I played French horn ~ quite well, given that I had no formal lessons.  I also sang baritone.  During my senior year I played or sang in no fewer than 16 instrumental and vocal ensembles and solos, which (along with a passionate first love) may account for the sharp dip in my GPA, erasing my chances for a college scholarship.  The price I paid for my art.  

Throughout adulthood, I continued to learn music ~ classical guitar, dulcimer, keyboards, djembe, and singing with an adult community choir.  I don't perform anymore, but during my daily physical therapy workout, I play classical music on CD, which my cats love.  They relax near the speakers and soak it in.  I love that.

I'm convinced that early exposure not only to listening, but to performing music has cognitive benefits for children (particularly if they are exposed to classical music, which has stood the test of time in sophistication, nuance, and emotional expression).  It takes time and patience to become skilled, which not only develops character but becomes a source of deep personal pride.  I'm not alone in that assessment.  Studies have confirmed the benefits of learning to play music, the most recent of which reveals that "musicians with at least 10 years of instrumental training remain cognitively sharp into advanced age .... The study conforms that musical activity preserves cognition as we age.  A range of cognitive benefits, including memory, was sustained for musicians between the ages of 60-80 if they played for at least 10 years throughout their life, confirming that maintenance of advantages is not reliant on continued activity."  In other words, if you stop playing, you don't lose the benefit.  

The optimal age of acquisition (beginning to play) appears to be prior to age 9, for maximum enhanced cognition in advanced age.  This is consistent with early sensitive periods in brain development while acquiring other skills, such as learning a foreign language.  And if you didn't learn that young, do not despair.  It is literally never too late to become musically active, not merely for the brain function benefits, but for the sheer joy of it.

21 July 2012


My thanks to the ever-resourceful Andrea Kuszewski for the link to Richard Florida's insightful piece, The Psychology Behind Why Creative People Cluster.  Florida tracks several studies whose results coalesce ~ creative, open-to-experience personalities "significantly associated with a metro's share of the creative class and college grads, and even more so with concentrations of foreign-born people, gays and lesbians, and high-tech industry.

"  .... It is not just that people sort themselves into places where they can find work.  They seek out environments where they can pursue their personal interests as well.  Clusters of open-to-experience personalities are associated with innovation because the jobs at the center of innovation ~ such as design, engineering, science, painting, music, software development, writing, and acting ~ appeal to individuals who are curious, creative, intellectual, imaginative, inventive and resourceful.  These professions are primarily concerned with exploring, developing and communicating new ideas, methods, and products.  People who are high in openness are also adventurous.  They are likely to generate new perspectives on old issues and are comfortable with and adaptable to change.

"They are also more likely to move to pursue their interests and follow their dreams.  It's not that they do this by design, the process occurs gradually and in an ad hoc way over time.  But over time they seek out and find other similar personalities and begin to cluster in particular communities.  These communities then take on a certain level of openness which draws in more open people and enhances its openness to new people and ideas, and ability to harness creativity and generate innovations.  Openness comes to be imprinted on their psychological and cultural DNA."

Among the nation's major metro areas, the following cities contain the highest proportion of open-to-experience people (in descending order) ~

  • San Francisco
  • Los Angeles
  • Austin
  • New York
  • San Diego
  • San Antonio
  • Nashville
  • Las Vegas
  • Tampa
  • Denver
In case you're wondering, here are the cities with the lowest proportion of open-to-experience people ~
  • Detroit
  • Minneapolis
  • Cleveland
  • Columbus
  • Pittsburgh
  • Indianapolis
  • Kansas City
  • St. Louis
  • Memphis
  • Cincinnati
So what are the implications for urban economic development?  Whatever a city's traditions, industries, or way of life, if it wants to attract highly skilled, educated, or talented people, it would do well to nurture its own cultural diversity, and to nurture a welcoming environment for the kinds of jobs which attract creative, open-to-experience people.  "The type of skills economists are interested in implies something that can be acquired with proper training, talent, motivation, and resources .... openness influences people's ability to acquire new skills relatively quickly."  In short, model your community's culture on that of San Francisco over Detroit.

20 July 2012


In the NYTimes earlier this week, Richard Perez-Pena wrote ~ "In a major development on Tuesday, a dozen highly ranked universities said they had signed on with Coursera, a new ventuere offering free classes online.  They still must overcome some skepticism about the quality of online education and the prospects for having the courses cover the costs of producing them, but their enthusiasm is undimmed.

" .... Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, let colleges reach vast audiences at relatively low cost, but they have not yet made money from them.  And if it becomes possible in years to come to get a complete college education from an elite institution online, free or at relatively low cost, experts wonder whether some colleges will find it harder to attract students willing to pay $20,000, $40,000 or even $60,000 a year for the traditional on-campus experience.

"Online classes have been around for years, with technology evolving to include multimedia features and interaction among students and faculty.  What is new is the way top colleges are jumping in with free courses ~ in effect, throwing open the doors digitally.

"So far, most people signing up live in foreign countries.  But MOOCs will become more appealing to domestic students when they give course credits toward a degree, something the elite universities have not yet done.  The University of Washington says it plans to do so, and it may be just a matter of time before earning credits becomes standard.

" .... Residential colleges already attract far less than half of the higher education market.  Most enrollment and nearly all growth in higher education is in less costly options that let students balance classes with work and family ~ commuter colleges, night schools, online universities.

"Most experts say there will always be students who want to live on campus, interacting with professors and fellow students, particularly at prestigious universities.  But as a share of the college market, that is likely to be a shrinking niche."

Coincidentally, my Chicago friend Bill sent me an email with a link to Coursera, echoing the news that a number of heavy-hitter universities are now offering free online courses at the website.  You can click on the link to view the list of 16 schools (see image above, click to enlarge), and the list of 111 courses in 16 academic categories.  The numbers of schools, courses and categories seems likely to expand if this method of taking classes proves popular ~ and it surely will, particularly if classes are offered for degree credit.

I've traveled down most avenues of traditional higher education ~ two residential universities, a community college, and adult evening classes.  I've never taken an online course, so I cannot offer an opinion on whether the experience measures up to the give-and-take of being physically in a classroom with other students and a professor ~ especially when the class involves labs or field trips, as most of my Ecology & Evolutionary Biology classes did, at the University of Arizona.  But perhaps it would be a false comparison.  It's likely that each method has its pros and cons.  I do anticipate taking one or more Coursera classes, and will report back when I have a definitive impression.  

I must admit, there is definite cachet to being able to say, "Oh yes, I studied at Duke University (or Princeton, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, the University of Edinburgh, or any of the other schools now associated with Coursera)."

19 July 2012


On this day in 1848, the Seneca Falls Convention met ~ marking the beginning of the first wave of feminism in the United States.  The convention was organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  The event was seen by some participants as "a single step in the continuing effort by women to gain themselves a greater portion of social, civil, and moral rights", and was viewed by others as "a revolutionary beginning to the struggle by women for complete equality with men".  In addition to Mott and Stanton, other prominent feminist activists of the time included Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, Victoria Woodhull, Carrie Chapman Catt, Alice Paul, Sojourner Truth, Margaret Sanger, and the sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimke.

The issues of the late 19th and early 20th century were quite different from those faced by the second wave of feminism, which began in the early 1960s.  In those early days, women's rights advocates were active in seeking the abolition of slavery, as well as reform of laws under which women were little more than chattel (possessions), subject without legal recourse to marital mistreatment and violence, and not even having the right to vote.  It is no coincidence that during both waves, mutual support existed between feminists and the black civil rights movement.  Both movements sought equal rights with the white male establishment.  One of the earliest male supporters of the feminist cause was the black orator, social reformer and statesman Frederick Douglas.

Although I didn't realize it at the time, I was introduced to some of the first wave's ideas during the time the second wave was forming.  During my senior year in high school, I recall visiting my girlfriend's locker in the hall between classes, and her proudly showing me a copy of The Subjection of Women by British philosopher John Stuart Mill, an early white male supporter of the rights of women.  Naive lad that I was, I'd always just assumed gender equality, and had no inkling of the courageous struggles that had occurred (and which continue to this day) to secure equal treatment under the law.  Thank you, Nancie.

Another fifteen years would pass before I decided to immerse myself in women's issues.  I'd returned to college at the University of Arizona, and chose a minor in Women's Studies, an interdisciplinary department under the able direction of Myra Dinnerstein.  She and the course professors were very encouraging toward male students, who made up about 10% of a given class.  As a white male, finding myself in such a minority gave me a glimmer of insight into the experience of minorities who don't happen to be born into relative social power ~ including attitudes ranging from tolerance to outright hostility from my women classmates.

The classes themselves were excellent and varied ~ Women in Literature (both as writers and as protagonists), Women in American History, Women in Philosophy.  I don't recall a course offering for Women in Science at the time ~ that would have been excellent.  I learned much, participated actively, aced every course, and made a few wonderful friendships along the way.  During those years I was privileged to attend a talk by one of my personal heroes, activist and journalist Gloria Steinem.

It is an experience every man should seek out (just as every white person should go out of his/her way to learn about the lives of blacks, Latinos, Asians, and other oppressed groups).  The more we learn, the more our lives are enriched .... and the less willing we are to tolerate prejudice in any form.  Today much has been achieved in our country, though there are still far too few women in positions of leadership ~ lawmakers and CEOs ~ and women still are paid less than men in many fields.  Even more challenging, in third world nations, especially Muslim nations, women are facing the struggles which first-wave feminists in the U.S. faced 164 years ago.  We humans can be slow learners.

18 July 2012


I've always admired swimmers, gymnasts, and dancers ~ athletes whose craft demands a trim, supple, pleasing physique.  I never had the opportunity to develop as a gymnast, but in college I did become a fairly proficient swimmer (and later a lifeguard).  Later in life I turned to dance, and took adult classes in modern dance, jazz dance, and group improv.  It was a ton of fun, and a huge challenge to translate visually-demonstrated choreography to muscle memory.  That transition often didn't come easily, especially in long, complex series of movements.  

It's been years since I partnered up and took to the dance floor.  I miss it, but I also know I'm so rusty that I'd probably embarrass myself.  Still, one of my life's ambitions (probably never to be realized, but we all need to dream) is to learn to tango.

Just for fun, today I'd like to share an entirely different kind of dance ~ Choreography for Plastic Army Men.  The music pulses with salsa and jazz influences, and those macho little dudes are pretty hilarious as they release their inner Bob Fosse.  Enjoy.

17 July 2012


Like tropical rain forests, oceanic coral reefs (see image above, click to enlarge) host the greatest biodiversity to be found on our planet.  Each day brings the discovery of previously unknown species, insights into how complex systems function, and the possibility of deriving life-saving medicines.  Along with sea plankton, rain forests and coral reefs also produce a significant portion of the oxygen in our atmosphere.  And like tropical rain forests, coral reefs (which serve as nurseries for myriad fish species) are fast disappearing, victims of the depredations and pollution produced by humans.

What to do?  One aspect of science in general and biology in particular, is a range of opinions expressed in open, often energetic debate.  The difference between scientific debate and, say, political debate is that opinions must be based on sound evidence, provided by research and analysis.

Recently a NYTimes editorial, A World Without Coral Reefs, made the following assertions ~ "It's past time to tell the truth about the state of the world's coral reefs, the nurseries of tropical coastal fish stocks.  They have become zombie ecosystems, neither dead nor truly alive in any functional sense, and on a trajectory to collapse within a human generation.  There will be remnants here and there, but the global coral reef ecosystem ~ with its storehouse of biodiversity and fisheries supporting millions of the world's poor ~ will cease to be.

"Overfishing, ocean acidification and pollution are pushing coral reefs into oblivion.  Each of these forces alone is fully capable of causing the global collapse of coral reefs.  Together, they assure it.  The scientific evidence for this is compelling and unequivocal, but there seems to be a collective reluctance to accept the logical conclusion ~ that there is no hope of saving the global coral reef ecosystem.

" .... Overfishing, ocean acidification and pollution have two features in common.  First, they are accelerating.  They are growing broadly in line with global economic growth, so they can double in size every couple of decades.  Second, they have extreme inertia ~ there is no real prospect of changing their trajectories in less than 20 to 50 years.  In short, these forces are unstoppable and irreversible.  And it is these two features ~ acceleration and inertia ~ that have blindsided us."

The author, Australian ecologist Roger Bradbury, insists that rather than devoting time and financial resources to protecting and restoring coral reefs, we should be using those funds to study what to do after the reefs are gone ~ to divine what sorts of systems (if any) will replace coral reefs, to transfer the genetic resources of coral reefs to non-reef systems, and to prepare the human communities which rely on reef fisheries for subsistence to transition to alternative sources of food and income.

Perhaps Bradbury is being sensibly pragmatic.  My reading is that his opinion on how to address the reef crisis (give up) is fatalistic and ignores the real strides being made by those who are involved in regenerating reefs.  Moreover, Bradbury's bias is economic, regarding reefs as human resources rather than communities which we have an ecological and a moral obligation to try to save, however daunting the obstacles.  We created the crisis, it is up to us to solve it.  Shrugging our responsibility aside by insisting that we were somehow "blindsided" by the acceleration and inertia of overfishing, ocean acidification and pollution is nonsense.  The world community of ecologists and environmentalists has been having this discussion for three decades or more.

Contrast, then, the above NYTimes article with this one, When Coral Reefs Recover.  Energy and environmental blogger Melissa Gaskill, reporting on an international symposium on coral reefs, discovered a very different and more optimistic response to the crisis, based on human efforts to establish and protect coral reef reserves and marine parks.  "Ocean acidification, warming water temperatures, pollution and overfishing pose dire threats to coral reefs worldwide.  On the plus side, reducing these threats locally can improve reef conditions.  The bad news is that coral reefs bounce back more slowly than other marine ecosytems like estuaries.  So the sooner action is taken, the better.

" .... After the establishment of the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park ~ and more than 10 years of local enforcement of no-take inside its boundaries ~ the Scripps Institution of Oceanography found that the amount of fish biomass in the protected area had increased more than fivefold, and shark biomass, tenfold.  That's the largest absolute increase in fish biomass ever measured in a marine reserve anywhere in the world.

"What is more, the benefits of this kind of protection extend beyond the boundaries of a protected area .... marine reserves help restore depleted populations on neighboring reefs .... Networks of reserves could therefore contribute substantially to the long-term sustainability of coral reef fisheries .... Other studies have shown that strict enforcement of marine reserves not only helps marine life but can reduce local poverty [by training local residents to offer eco-tourism services built around the area's natural assets]."

So in listening to a scientific debate, whom does one believe?  No one, initially.  First each of us must become informed on the issue, and familiar with not only points of view, but how those points of view have shifted over time, and what biases may inform them.  It's not as daunting as it sounds.  All it requires is paying attention, something we all should be doing anyway.  Curiosity is a mark of human intellect.  Apathy is a mark of human indifference.  There is no room for indifference when our own actions are creating deleterious global effects which our children and grandchildren will have to remedy.

As already noted, healthy debate is a hallmark of scientific discussion.  Based on the evidence, one could make a case for either article's point of view.  It all depends on whether you're willing to give up without a fight.  I'm not willing to do that.  No action, or action now?  There's no middle ground.

16 July 2012


It isn't often that I allow my inner curmudgeon out in public.  The poor grumbling fellow is kept in reluctant confinement, released only when in the company of fellow curmudgeons, or when extreme circumstances warrant unleashing him on some unsuspecting moron who is just begging to be set straight.

Today is feast day ~ a rant against an entire class of human beings whose intrusive self-indulgence irritates me almost to homicide.  Here's the setup ~ when I pay the exorbitant admission fee at a movie theater, I do so with the expectation of cinematic drama, spectacle, or whimsy.  In my lexicon, a "movie" is entertainment for the masses, the lowest common denominator.  A "film" is a work of art, and should be absorbed with respect for the craft, regardless of how many stars you may assign to it afterward.  In either case, the intent is entertainment, and hopefully enlightenment.

Increasingly over the past 30 or 40 years (keeping pace with our nation's entry into obesity), for many people going to the movies now includes a ritual of gluttony.  People line up at the snack bar in the lobby (which is the real financial ripoff for movie-goers), pay through the nose for junk food laden with salt and fat and empty calories, with no redeeming nutritional value, load up an entire tray with half a dozen containers of drek, and then proceed to find a seat in the theater (usually the seat next to me or immediately behind me) .... where they proceed to stuff their faces as noisily as possible, crinkling wrappers, rummaging through popcorn, and sucking on soda straws.

And this is before the movie even begins, during the commercials and film previews.  It isn't uncommon for people to make a second trip to the snack bar, just minutes into the actual movie.  Visions of someone tripping in the darkness and spilling a carbonated beverage down my back, dance in my head.  The gustatory orgy goes on for up to an hour into the film.

Arriving early to pick a seat away from likely-looking porkers sometimes works, but not always. Many junk food junkies think nothing of arriving at the last moment, then sitting ~ you guessed it, right next to my ear.  The ritual of eating to excess in theaters genuinely puzzles me.  Could these people not have eaten a real meal before leaving home?  What is it about noisily grazing on greasy popcorn or sugary snacks that requires being in a movie theater?  It's surely not a social event, like a meal where people dine while talking to each other.  These swine (and I refer only to noisy eaters, not to quiet ones) are staring at the screen, their hands on automatic pilot ferrying food from container to mouth.  Where's the real pleasure?

If I owned a theater (one of my fantasies, since I would book quality films that the public doesn't normally get to see), there would be spacious and comfortable seating, but there would be no snack bar.  Anyone caught sneaking in food or drink would be escorted outside by hulking jack-booted bouncers, no refunds, you're welcome.  (Well, maybe not jack-booted.)  You're here for the movie, the film, and for the repartee among the audience beforehand and afterward.  Think about it.

I do give affectionate credit to one art house for its approach to mixing food with film ~ the rather exotic Baghdad Theater & Pub in southeast Portland, Oregon, has a street-level pub and restaurant, as well as a snack counter for movie-goers.  Here's what's interesting ~ both the theater main level and the balcony have actual tables and chairs, rather than Spartan rows of seats (see image above, click to enlarge).  There patrons can enjoy a pizza and a glass of ale while they watch the presentation.  Spacing seating rows apart from each other is a nice touch, and minimizes noisy intrusion between neighbors.  Pretty cool.  The last time I was there was in the late 1990s, so I don't know if that arrangement still exists.  I rather hope so. If you're ever in Portland (and everyone should experience the city at least once), check it out.

14 July 2012


A distinction was clarified for me in a NYTimes editorial written by Milos Forman, the Czechoslovakian film director who immigrated to the U.S. in 1968, during the Warsaw Pact invasion of his homeland.  Forman points out that socialism takes many forms ~ economic, political, social, philosophical ~ but that most people in the U.S. have no real understanding of the differences.  Rather, we tend to lump them all together and equate them with our old cold war foe, communism.  Doing so is false and misleading, it turns out, a result of lazy thinking.

Foreman should know.  Born in 1932, he grew up under the vicious oppression of Nazi Germany (both his parents died in concentration camps) and of communism.  He writes ~ "Now, years later, I hear the word 'socialist' being tossed around by the likes of Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and others.  President Obama, they warn, is a socialist.  The critics cry, 'Obamacare is socialism!'  They falsely equate Western European-style socialism, with its government provision of social insurance and health care, with Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism [my emphasis].  It offends me, and cheapens the experience of millions who lived, and continue to live, under brutal forms of socialism.

" Whatever his faults, I don't see much of a socialist in Mr. Obama or, thankfully, signs of that system in this great nation.  Mr. Obama is accused of trying to expand the reach of government ~ into health care, financial regulation, the auto industry, and so on. It's fair to question whether the federal government should have expanded powers.  America, to its credit, has debated this since its birth.  But let's be clear about how frightening socialism actually could be.

"Marx believed that we could wipe out social inequities and Lenin tested those ideas on the Soviet Union.  It was his dream to create a classless society.  But reality set in, as it always does.  And the results were devasting.  Blood flowed through Russia's streets.  The Soviet elite usurped all privileges, sycophants were allowed some and the plebes none.  The entire Eastern bloc, including Czechoslovakia, followed miserably.

"I'm not sure Americans today appreciate quite how predatory socialism was.  It was not ~ as Mr. Obama's detractors suggest ~ merely a government so centralized and bloated that it hobbled private enterprise.  It was a spoils system that killed off everything, all in the name of 'social justice'.

"What we need is not to strive for a perfect social justice ~ which never existed and never will ~ but for social harmony.  Harmony in music is, by its nature, exhilarating and soothing.  In an orchestra, the different players and instruments perform together, in support of an overall melody.

" .... I am not asking Mr. Obama and the Republican leaders to stop playing instruments of their choosing.  All I am asking is that every player keep in mind the noble melody of our country.  Otherwise the noisy dissonance might become loud enough to wake another Marx, or even worse."

The distinction between Western European-style socialism, with its governmental provision of social insurance and health care, and Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism cannot be overstated.  How many times over the years has the conservative political/medical establishment resisted health care reform by labeling it "socialized medicine" ~ as though that were a bad thing.  Different nations have tried different forms of universal health care, and the citizens of Canada, the UK, Sweden, France, Israel, Finland, and other nations swear by their excellent health care systems.

Government oversight is inherently neither good nor bad ~ it all depends on what is being overseen, and how, and why.  When certain industries (healthcare, banking, and oil come to mind) prove themselves incapable of social conscience or self-restraint, then it rightfully becomes government's role to regulate their activities to protect American consumers.  That is what the Founders had in mind.  We pay taxes for services rendered ~ schools, roads, national defense, postal service, and yes, regulation to assure clean air and clean water, fair financial practices, equal access to education, and affordable healthcare, among other realms of protection.

The Founders would not condone the predatory, soulless form which capitalism has evolved into.  When a privileged few control nearly all the nation's wealth (and wield a disproportionate share of political influence), the scales need to be brought back into balance.  Any true patriot, not to mention anyone with an ounce of common sense, disregards the venomous nonsense of the far right, complete with baseless accusations of socialism (which kind?  do you even know?).  When a system is broken, don't blame the repairman who shows up to fix it.

The noble melody of our country ~ justice, equal rights, education, free speech, tolerance for diversity ~ has always been a work in progress.  Perfect social justice may not exist in the world, but as an ideal it is the only goal worth striving toward.

13 July 2012


In homage to one of my favorite writers, here is an exerpt from Don Winslow's 2010 novel, Savages, published by Simon & Schuster, now a major motion picture.  It is an adventure story, a love story, a story about the SoCal drug wars ~

.... Chon and Ben hit the shooting range.

Chon goes to the range all the time not because he's preparing for the revolution or the Reconquista, not because he has phallic wet dreams about protecting home and hearth from burglars or home invasion.  You gotta love "home invasions" ~ we thought it would be Mexicans, turns out it was mortgage companies.

He likes the feel of metal in his hands, the kick, the blowback, the precision of chemistry, physics, and engineering mixed with hand-eye coordination.  Not to mention power ~ shooting a gun projects your personal will across time and space in a flash.  I want to hit that and that is hit.  Straight from your mind to the physical world.  Talk about your PowerPoint presentations.

You can spend fifty thousand years practicing meditation, or you can buy a gun.

On the shooting range you create a neat, tiny hole in a piece of paper ~ the crisp entry but not the sloppy exit wound ~ and it's deeply satisfying.  Anyway, Chon likes firearms, they are the


of his trade.

(The distinction, anthropologically speaking, between a "tool" and a "weapon" is that the former is used on inanimate objects and the latter on animate objects, if you can get with the concept of animate "objects".)

Not so much Ben, who has been taught to loathe guns

and gun owners.

Who were, in his liberal home, the object of derision.  Atavistic redneck goobers and right-wing crazies.  His parents would shake their heads and chuckle sadly at the old bumper sticker You'll take my gun when you pry it out of my cold dead hands.  How sad, how sad, how backward.  Guns don't kill people, people kill people.  (Guns do kill people, Chon says ~ that's what they're fucking for.)  Yes, people with guns, Ben's father would opine.

Anyway, Ben is nonviolent by nature.

"Impossible," Chon argued with him one time.  "We're violent by nature, nonviolent by training."

"Other way around," Ben countered.  "We're socially conditioned to be violent."

"Look at chimps."

"What about them?"

"We share ninety-seven percent of our DNA with chimps," Chon said, "and they're violent little fuckers who kill each other.  You can't tell me they're socially conditioned for that."

"Are you saying we're chimps?"

"Are you saying we're not?"

We're chimps with guns.

.... Chon takes Ben to the firing range.

Which is filled today as usual with police types, military types, and women, a few of whom are police or military types.

OC women love shooting those guns, man.  Maybe Freud was right, whatever, but they're in there with their earrings (off for the headsets) and jewelry and makeup and perfume blasting away at potential burglars, home invaders, rapists, and actual (okay, not actual) husbands, ex-husbands, boyfriends, lovers, fathers, step-fathers, male bosses, male employees who gave them shit ....

It's a truth-worn joke that women at firing ranges aim not for the head but the groin, that they're shooting not for the bull's eye but for the snake's eye until the instructors just give up and teach them to aim at the knees because that pistol is going to throw high so they'll catch boyfriend/hubby/daddy/ex-boyfriend/ex-hubby square in the junk.

Take O, for instance.

Chon took her to the range one day for giggles and shits.

The girl could shoot.

A natural.

(We mentioned that O likes power tools, right?)

She squeezed off six shots ~ two at a time, like Chon told her ~ and smacked each of them into fatal spots on the target.  Lowered the pistol and said, "I think I came a little."

Now Chon hands Ben a pistol.

"Just point and shoot," Chon tells him.  "Don't overthink it."

Because Ben overanalyzes everything.  Chon is surprised the boy can piss without succumbing to mental paralysis.  (Would it be better to take my dick out with my right hand or my left hand?  Would the choice of left hand have a subconscious connection to concepts of "sinister," as opposed to my right hand feeling "dexterous," and why is urine running down my leg?)

And truly, Ben is looking at the target silhouette and wondering if there are African-American shooting ranges where the target is a white figure on a field of black, a menacing KKKer coming out of the Mississippi night.  Probably not.  Not in the OC (which zealously guards its Second Amendment rights), anyway, where they should just put a sombrero on the targets and get it over with.

Take that, Pancho.  And that, and that.

Ben hates this, how totally out of place he feels in this very weird, neofascist sandbox, looking at the black, albeit deracialized, silhouette staring menacingly at him as Chon is saying something about ~

"Point and shoot twice."


Chon nods.  "Your hand-eye coordination automatically corrects for the second shot."

"What should I aim at?" he asks Chon.

"Just hit the damn thing," Chon answers.  At the range they're probably thinking about, it won't matter, and anyway, hydrostatic shock is going to do the job.  The bullet hits, creating a wall of blood that hits the heart like a tsunami wave ~ side out.

Ben points and shoots.


Bam bam.

Misses the whole silhouette.


So much for self-correction.

"You're going to have to get better at this," Chon says.

Recalling what his SEAL instructors said ~

The more sweat on the training ground ....
.... the less blood on the battleground.

12 July 2012


Links to other lives.  Let's pretend for a moment that reincarnation exists.  Let's pretend further that in your prior existence, you were a person, not an insect or a rodent.  Lastly, let's assume that at death, one's 'soul' immediately transfers to a fetus or newborn infant.  So how might one decipher who one was before this lifetime?

One way to narrow the field of possibilities is to Google the phrase "died month date year", inserting the specifics of your birthdate.  Voila, you will have before you pages of the names of people, famous or otherwise, who died on the day you were born ~ each the possible preincarnation of your own sweet self.  Alas, such a Google search is probably limited to the country in which you live, and we can't assume you didn't spend your prior life elsewhere.  But it's a start.

A similar curiosity is to learn the names of famous individuals (living or dead) who share the date of your birth.  Here is one resource for learning just that.  The link takes you to today's date ~ simply use the calendar at upper left to cycle to the month and date of your own birth.  The same caveat applies regarding a limited sampling based on your nationality and culture.  But it's all in fun.  My co-birthers happen to include Reese Witherspoon, Lena Olin, William Shatner, Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Weber, Bob Costas, and Orrin Hatch ~ a definite mixed bag.  BTW, happy birthday, Michelle Rodriguez!

Eyesight.  The website xkcd ("a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math and language") yesterday posted this excellent image of how our eyes work.  Click on the image to enlarge.

Swimming through the forest.  Imagine an alpine valley which is a dry park in the winter, and partially submerged beneath snowmelt to form a surreal lake in summer ~ surreal because the underwater landscape looks like any other fresh-air forest or park, with trees, footpaths, park benches, and shrubbery, just .... underwater (see image above).  Austria's Green Lake is precisely that.  Click on the link for astonishing photos and a video.  I'd love to go diving there someday.

Relativistic baseball.  Thanks to friend Bill for the link to this Q&A ~ "What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90% of the speed of light?"  The physics contained in the answer are easy to grasp, illustrated, and still shocking.

11 July 2012


No blog post today.  I'm unable to sit at my computer for long, due to pain from a lower back injury.  I hope to be back in the pilot's seat tomorrow.  Cheers.

10 July 2012


Years ago, while still an undergrad at the University of Arizona, I took an elective class which I thought might enhance my studies in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology.  The class was called Scientific Illustration, and was presented in two parts ~ a semester of photography (using a variety of studio and field cameras, and developing our own film in the adjoining darkroom), and a semester of less technological art ~ drawing with pencil and charcoal, painting with oil and acrylic.  The intent of the course was to train students to illustrate scientific papers ~ their own or someone else's.

Most of us are familiar with the notion that depriving someone of one sense, say eyesight, tends to heighten that person's acuity in the other senses.  Similarly, if one removes from consideration any of the elements of formal art analysis ~ color, space, line, volume, mass, or composition ~ the effect is to dramatize the remaining elements.  For example, all of our photographs were taken on black and white film, not on color film.  The effect was to focus our perception of composition and visual contrast while shooting.

Consider for a moment the photograph above (click to enlarge), taken by Arturo Rivera.  If you were seeing it in color, it would be visually compelling in the manner of many skyscapes.  But seeing it in black and white strengthens the impression of dark weight in the clouds, the feeling of majestic surging motion frozen in time, and the contrasting luminescence of the full moon.  It becomes a work of art.  The eye moves from mass to mass, always returning to the lunar focus.

Color will always arrest our attention, and many images achieve their greatest power in color.  Black and white images have unfortunately fallen out of fashion, hastened along by the ease of digital photography.  Too bad.  If you'd like to immerse yourself in the landscapes of the American West in a different manner, browse through a book of photos by Ansel Adams.  You will find yourself viewing your own world through different eyes.

09 July 2012


This is dedicated to all my fellow writers, past, present and future.  If you've ever faced a writing deadline ~ for a class paper, a journalism article, a book chapter, a computer programming project, or just that thank you note to your mother ~ you'll either smile or laugh out loud at News Cat GIFs (cats reacting to news situations because ... ).  A GIF is an image format that supports brief, repeating bits of animation.  I love cats, I love satire, and I love animation.  Enjoy!

08 July 2012


When I was a young boy starting school, everyone seemed old.  And any adult over 30 seemed ancient.  In my innocence, I speculated whether I would live to see the momentous year 2000.  To do so, I would have to survive to age 53.  Wow, that sounded really old, but maybe luck would be with me (not stopping to recall that all my grandparents were already well past the august age of 53).

In the angst of my 20s, having lived through the Vietnam War and surrounded by the social upheaval of the 1970s, I felt prematurely old.  Looking back, I can only smile.  I married (the first time) at age 24, but I think it wasn't until my son was born on my 30th birthday that I internally crossed the threshold into committed adulthood.  Some of us are late bloomers ~ or perhaps slow learners.

During my 30s I returned to college to earn my bachelor's degree in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology.  During those years I was a full-time student, a full-time single parent, and held a part-time job as a genetics lab tech.  Successfully navigating that passage is one of my proudest accomplishments ~ right up there with helping my son to become the fine man he is today.  Other accomplishments followed, as did two other marriages and a diverse series of lovers (the number of whom is none of your business), accompanied by a colorful and varied work life.

While in my 40s and 50s I determinedly thought of myself as young-to-middle-aged.  The year 2000 came and went without the appearance of the Grim Reaper.  Just this year I turned 65, and while I mentally still feel young, certain physical changes force me to accept that I'm aging.  And that's a good thing.  

Some dream of having their 20- or 30-year-old body back, while retaining the experience and wisdom they've accumulated during their lifetimes.  That might be fun, but such wishful thinking is useful only as a thought experiment, nothing to dwell upon.  Because it turns out that we seniors have not only earned our wings, we've achieved abilities that young people can barely conceive of.  Being older rocks!

Don't believe me?  Check out Helen Fields' thoughts in her Smithsonian piece, What Is So Good About Growing Old.  Notice the lack of a question mark ~ Fields isn't asking, she's telling.  Specifically, research shows that even as certain skills may decline with age, others become sharper to compensate.  For instance ~
  • Older people in complex jobs are expert at juggling multiple, often conflicting tasks.
  • Older people deal with social conflicts more effectively, excelling at imagining different points of view, thinking of multiple resolutions, and suggesting compromises.
  • Older people manage their emotions better, with less extreme highs and lows, and less gratuitous risk-taking.  As a result, older people report that they feel less stress, less anger, and more happiness with age, compared with the drama of youth.
We have the life experience and perspective to know a con job when we see it, and to appreciate the arts, science, and the cultural and natural worlds in all their richness.  And while it is true that our bodies may become less physically resilient and more prone to certain illnesses or infirmities (often the direct result of the excesses of our youth), it is also true that physical decline is not inevitable.  As do many people my age, I exercise daily, eat healthy foods, and pay attention to the relationships in my life.  "60 is the new 40" has become a cliche, but there is truth to it.  The stereotype of a decaying elder in a rocking chair no longer applies.

I have the benefit of self-awareness, good genes (my grandparents lived into their 80s, and my parents are still going strong in their 80s), and being a baby boomer.  Mock all you want, but we BB-ers have improved the world (and ourselves) in ways too numerous to count ~ including learning how to help each other through the stages of life.  Rather than glumly accepting the ravages of aging, we remain mentally and physically active, and celebrate life.  Like fine wine, we improve with age.  That can only be a good thing.


07 July 2012


Following up on yesterday's post on science phobia ~ science and math are intimately intertwined (math being the language of science).  So it is understandable (and regrettable) that a poor understanding of one field implies the probability of a poor understanding of the other.  This has been confirmed emphatically in recent years, as American students' science and math performance has fallen, while the performance of students from other developed and developing nations has risen to overtake us.  I fully support young people and adults of all nations becoming literate in science and math.  I do not support American young people and adults falling by the wayside, as others pass us by.  We have too much to contribute.

One reason for this downhill slide may be the very technology which our prosperity provides.  When I was young, our tools were a pencil, a piece of paper, and our minds.  We practiced until (a) we had the multiplication tables memorized, (b) we began to grasp the abstract concepts behind each operation, and (c) many of us could perform the math in our heads.  The closest we came to having technological tools were a compass, ruler, and protractor in geometry, and a slide rule in trigonometry (state of the art in those days, used by engineers in the space program).

Those days are gone.  Today schools allow students to rely on sophisticated hand-held calculators.  Punch in the numbers, and up pops the result.  What's wrong with that?  Just this ~ in a learning setting, students need to understand HOW math works in order to grasp fundamental concepts, and in order to have a foundation for asking intelligent questions.  In the classroom, a calculator is a crutch which discourages real learning.

When I was a teacher (math, algebra, biology, environmental studies), no calculators were allowed.  Further, I required my students to show their work on paper, not just write down an answer.  I had to know that they understood the process by which they arrived at that answer.  Otherwise it could be just a lucky guess, or cheating.  That's how I learned math, that's how I taught math.

Some of the best math teachers in the nation are returning to this very approach to learning, according to Konstantin Kakaes in a Slate article called Why Johnny Can't Add Without a Calculator.  One such teacher, Vern Williams, "doesn't just prefer his old chalkboard to the high-tech version.  His kids learn from textbooks that are decades old ~ not because they can't afford new ones, but because Williams and an handful of his like-minded colleagues know the old ones are better .... His preferred algebra book, he says, is 'in-your-face algebra.  They give amazing outstanding examples.  They teach the lessons.'  The modern textbooks, he says, contain hundreds of extraneous, confusing and often outright wrong examples, instead of presenting mathematical ideas in a coherent way.  The examples bloat the books to thousands of pages and disrupt the logical flow of ideas."

What about tech tools like calculators?  "According to an October 2011 report, 89 percent of high school math teachers think their students are ready for college-level mathematics.  But only 26 percent of post-secondary [university] teachers think the students are ready once they get there.  This shortfall in mathematical preparation for college-bound students has existed for a long time, but it is being exacerbated by the increasing use of technology.  College-level math classes almost never use graphing calculators (see image above), while high school classes invariably do.  College professors want their students to understand abstract concepts.  Technology advocates claim their products help teach students such abstractions, but in practice they simply don't."

And here's a point I stressed in yesterday's post ~ "Math and science can be hard to learn, and that's OK.  The proper job of a teacher is not to make it easy, but to guide students through the difficulty by getting them to practice and persevere.  'Some of the best basketball players on Earth will stand at that foul line and shoot foul shots for hours and be bored out of their minds,' says Williams.  Math students, too, need to practice foul shots ~ adding fractions, factoring polynomials.  And whether or not the students are bright, ' once they buy into the idea that hard work leads to cool results,' Williams says, 'you can work with them.'

"Educational researchers often present a false dichotomy between fluency and conceptual reasoning.  But as in basketball, where shooting foul shots helps you learn how to take a fancier shot, computational fluency is the path to conceptual understanding.  There is no way around it."

Note ~ the best reading and mathematics learning software packages have no measurable effect on test scores.  Sloppy studies commissioned by the purveyors of such software, folks who have a financial stake in the outcome, are unfortunately taken at face value by many teachers and administrators around the country.  No rigorous study has found technology to be effective in enhancing students' learning of math.  Just the opposite is true ~ math software is limited, narrow, and does not allow for questions or for alternative, equally valid paths to a solution.

"Computer technology, while great for many things, is just not much good for teaching, yet.  Paradoxically, using technology can inhibit understanding how it works.  If you learn how to multiply 37 by 41 using a calculator, you only understand the black box.  [You don't understand the process of multiplication.]  Maybe one day software will be smart enough to be useful, but that day won't be any time soon, for two reasons.  The first is that education, especially of children, is as much an emotional process as an imparting of knowledge ~ there is no technological substitute for a teacher who cares.  The second is that education is poorly structured.  Technology is bad at dealing with poorly structured concepts.  One question leads to another leads to another, and the rigid structure of computer software has no way of dealing with this.  Software is especially bad for smart kids, who are held back by its flexibility.

"The real shortfall in math and science education can be solved not by software or gadgets but by better teachers .... The new technology makes it easier than ever for teachers to avoid learning the subject .... A teacher who plans his own lecture is forced toward mastery of the material, but one who downloads a PowerPoint presentation doesn't have to know anything beyond how to download the presentation. It is a miracle of efficiency ~ empty calories."

When I taught remedial summer math classes, the first task was the students' taking a placement test.  If their results showed a gap in understanding first-year algebra, or long division, or fractions, that's where that individual's summer work began.  As predictable as the sunrise was the inevitable complaint, "But I already TOOK that."  I had to explain that the student may have been exposed to it at some point, but they didn't learn it.  And without the foundation, they would not have the tools for more advanced work.  So, we practiced.  And practiced.  And with luck and perseverance, at some point comes the reward which makes every true teacher's heart leap ~ that moment when you can actually see a light go on over the student's head, when they really, really get it, inside their own brains.  No calculator needed.