Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The widening gyre

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

W.B. Yeats, from "The Second Coming"

The dark days. Again.

My imagination fails me, as it will, surrounded by human light, human sounds, human smells. I cannot remember the smell of honeysuckle or the soft glow of lightning bugs or the warmth that wrapped around me in early summer.

I keep a small jar of rich soil dug from my compost pile on my desk in school. Now and then, in the middle of class, I take a whiff. The children see my joy I get from the earthy aroma.

My lambs know by December that I want them to have happy, useful lives. They know I want this for every one of them.

Why else bother teaching?

Thomas Jefferson got the tone just right when he penned "the pursuit of happiness." It is not an idle phrase, though it does sound a bit embarrassing in context of the modern classroom, the modern office, the modern mall.

Jefferson lived before we learned how to distract ourselves with twisted visions of immortality. We have become our own gods. Mortal illness comes as a surprise, dismissed as an inconvenience. Our cultural psychosis belittles those among us who dare to expose our mortality--if they only believed hard enough, they would be cured.

Ironically, the generation closest to achieving immortality is least equipped to deal with it. Time spent on-line chasing zombies or aliens or a Nazi nation long since quelled hardly seems worth all the fuss.

We no longer seek a life worth living. We'd just rather avoid death.

Death is inevitable. Pursuing happiness is not.


I sound sanctimonious. Would I drink from the Fountain of Youth? Of course, and for the wrong reasons.

I want to see what happens next, I want to breathe the air of a thousand Junes, I want, I want, and I want some more, and I miss the moment, this moment, the only moment that has ever existed. My fear of what awaits robs me of the joy of the present.

Yesterday one of my students came running up to me with a pot of tiny basil plants she had sowed a few weeks before.
"Smell it! Smell it!"

I did. And I glowed. Growing a plant in a classroom fits in the curriculum. A child sharing her joy at its sensuousness is not.

The seed, no larger than the head of a pin, darker than a cloudy December night, grew in a pot of peat. Shiny green leaves erupted from the seeds, now effusively shedding aromatic molecules that made me grin in December.

Something from nothing, at least nothing we could see. The poets have something to say, but so do the biologists. The aroma released from the leafs was made of carbon captured from the breaths of the same student clutching the pot.

If you've never sown a seed before, this is a big deal. If you've sown seeds for much of your life, it's still a big deal.

A hundred years from now, the human world may be very different, but seeds will still grow when planted.

None of us know what this world is all about. A few among us will tell you to live a certain way in order to reach worlds that no one has seen. A few among us will tell our children to live a certain way to strengthen abstract concepts like country, or economy, or success.

Success is a slippery word, but happiness is not. You know when you're happy, even when you're not sure how you got there.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness--how many of these fit into your district's curriculum? How many fit in your classroom?

If we continue to raise our kids for a better economy, a better nation, a better world while neglecting their inalienable right to their pursuit of happiness, we risk the "blood-dimmed tide" Yeats spoke of.

Happiness is not happenstance, nor is it trivial.
Mortality is not happenstance, nor is it trivial.

Why did you walk into your classroom today? Did you give your lambs at least as good as reason?

Photos are mine, and yours (CC, yadda yadda)....

Monday, November 29, 2010

What ales us

"Because when you’re set in your ways, you stay true to yourself."

I'll give the wealthy Coors family this much. They've managed to sum up the crisis in education, in our culture, and in our experiment in democracy in a succinct piece of propaganda.

And they managed to do this by selling mediocre beer at a premium price.

We don't need no stinkin' schoolin'--we revel in our ignorance.

(And we wonder why less than half of Americans accept evolution, the cornerstone of biology.)

Photo by Steven Rhodes , used under CC, of Joe Rees' neon sculpture.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Bleeding on the outside

I tossed an Ava lure into a 20 knot wind this morning, hoping to land a striped bass.

I wasn't sure how I cut myself, but I had. A tiny trickle of flame bled into the ocean, millions of red blood cells, thousands of white cells, now feeding the innumerable creatures I'll never see. My hands were numb from the stiff November sea breeze. Time to go home.

We talk of bleeding on the inside, and some of us do. Bleeding ulcers, hemorrhagic strokes, and broken hearts are all very human traits.

I prefer bleeding outside. We are part of a wild world, a world that exceeds any Heaven any of us can imagine, any Hell used to manipulate us. Every time I spill blood on a beach I am giving back to the sea that feeds me.

Our blood bathes us like the sea water of our origins. We rinse our sins and our wounds with water, washing away invisible (but real) threats.


Any one of our white blood cells carries a whole genome, enough to make you you or me me (excepting for the mitochondria, intracellular aliens on whom we depend, another story for another day).

Our most common white cell, the neutrophil slithers through our vessels, and can slide in and out of a vein as needed, to attack foreign invaders.

The neutrophil can wrap itself around critters tinier than we can imagine, critters that consume us. The neutrophils do this every moment we are alive, sacrificing themselves, separate from us because they act as independent agents, part of us because they are us.

Incomprehensible, really.

If you swallowed a long enough piece of dental floss, maybe attaching a small indigestible weight at its head, you could, I imagine, end up with ends extruding from both your mouth and your anus. I suppose you could floss your gut, but a healthy dose of oatmeal will serve the same purpose.

We're really huge toroids, doughnuts with four limbs. We eat to grab energy from bonds formed by plants using the sun's energy. We eat to grab complex molecules we cannot form ourselves. Our gut is wide open to the world. It keeps the neutrophils busy.


It's late November. If we had any sense, we'd toss out the incandescent lamps, the fluorescent hum, the glow of plasma screens and sleep, as our ancestors did, when the sun goes down.

Because we don't, our neutrophils, ourselves, spend a lot of time and energy fighting demons we create. Coronary artery disease, peptic ulcers, even breast cancer are mostly modern inventions.

I spent a lovely day tossing a piece of metal at the gods, my feet bathed by their sweet saline, my face bathed by their sweet dying light.

How can I teach children about phospholipid bilayers and nucleic acids when I spend late November believing in little except the small grace gained by fishing in the dying light of a dying year?

How can I teach children what "year" means when we attempted to change it because the constant revisions disrupted our satellite communication. (The sun keeps shedding mass--turns out depending on our orbit in relation to the sun fluctuates.)


Children should not bleed on the inside nor the outside, but if my children had to do either, I'd pick the latter. We read of ancient rites, of blood poured, and we shudder, as we should.

What of the rites we put our children through, trading curiosity and creativity for a life groomed for bettering the economy, for protecting our "homeland"?

Last fall my own children saw the arc of a bluefish's blood stain my sweatshirt as I cut its gill arches. I had rendered the fish unconscious moments before with a club to its head. Its heart still beat, its neutrophils emanating from the blood vessels, seeking to fight an enemy they could not fathom.

The blood soaked the sand, feeding the critters underneath, and the flesh fed us hours later.

There are a lot of ways to die. If I exsanguinate, please let it be on the outside, God, please let it be on the outside.

Yes, I know, that's a bluefish, caught by my firstborn.
She does not like to kill. Neither do I. We both enjoyed eating the blue.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Veni, tweeti, vacate

"Twitter is without a doubt the best way to share and discover what is happening right now."
Twitter's own words

  • Twitter is a wonderful way to send blips of information to lots of people.
  • Twitter is a fabulous way to share tips on teaching, on brewing, and even on clamming.
  • Twitter is a spectacular way to feel like your part of something important, even as you sit alone on your living room while the tide rises less than a mile away.

The downside?
  • You have to edit you "tweets" down to 140 characters or less, a problem for those of us with logorrhea.
  • We are mortal, and the tide cares for life in general, not for you in particular.
  • The universe is a bucketload more interesting than humans alone.

I'm a bigger twit than I gave myself credit for. Life's too short. I'm done tweeting.

More "New Jersey World Class Standards"

By the end of Grade 2:
Identify common objects as solids, liquids, or gases.

Throw plasma in there, the most common state of matter known in the universe. You have common examples in the classroom, the incessant hum of fluorescent lights above. You have great examples outside, the sun and the stars. Some students may have plasma televisions at home.

How many teachers have been tripped up by this "simple" question: what is the sun made of?

If you want to keep a state of matter up your sleeve, save the Bose-Einstein condensate for high school.

By the end of Grade 4:
Objects and substances have properties, such as weight and volume, that can be measured using appropriate tools.

I spent weeks teasing apart weight and mass in a freshman science class. Mass is, at this level anyway, the amount of matter (call it "stuff") in something.

Weight is a measure of the force of gravity on the stuff you are measuring. It depends on where all the other objects in the universe happen to be at that moment, since everything is pulling on everything else.

The closest huge ball of stuff is the Earth, so weight and mass seem synonymous.

They're not--your mass does not change on the moon, but your weight does--but you knew this already. Even 2nd graders know this. You can show them astronauts jumping around the moon and ask them why they can jump so high. They'll parrot the standard answer ("less gravity").

I suspect most of us are afraid to touch gravity because we just plain don't get it.

I would love to start the year with a class full of young adults who get that we don't get it.
That's how science starts.


The states of matter graphic comes from Chem4Kids.com.
The moon clip from YouTube, uploaded by Amontai Yagala

Thursday, November 25, 2010

It gets worse...

More "science" from the NJ Core Curriculum Content Standards:

5.3B: Matter and energy transformation: Food is required for energy and building cellular materials. Organisms in an ecosystem have different ways of obtaining food, and some organisms obtain their food directly from other organisms. [So far so, good...]
By the end of Grade 4


Almost all energy (food) and matter can be traced to the Sun.
No, it can't.

The sun is hydrogen busy fusing into helium. Maybe the committee meant "Almost all food (energy and matter) can be traced to the sun." Still not quite correct, but not blatantly wrong.

The sun is not massive enough to go supernova. It's not going to meld protons into carbon or oxygen or any number of other elements essential to life. It will make lots of helium, which is good for birthday parties, funny voices, and the Large Hadron Collider, but it's unlikely we'll ever get it, unless Earth getting eaten up by a red giant counts.

We are made of elements produced by unimaginably energetic events, exploding stars much more massive than our local sun.

Anybody in Trenton paying attention?

The photo shows the remnants of a supernova, a composite photo made using a 48" telescope,
found here at NASA's "Astronomy Photo of the Day"

Michael Heinz and Lisa Solmose have worked hard to improve things here in New Jersey.
I've met them both, and they both are bright and personable, faced with a daunting task.

Un-teaching "science"

I am a high school un-teacher. I spend more time un-teaching than I do teaching.

I cannot hope to get kids to think if they walk around life believing much of the nonsense they learned during their impressionable years.

The idea of teaching a room full of children who still have reason (at least economic) to trust the tooth fairy makes my eyeballs quiver. Good Lord, somebody has to do it, and I respect anyone possessing the gadolinium gonads needed to teach larval humans. If you're going to dabble in science, though, please put away the textbooks. and get it right.

Children are sent to school earlier and earlier ("please wipe your feet, hang up your coat, and dry your umbilical stump") and expected to perform more and more. A child reciting a list of organelles before he's sprouted an axillary hair is about as learned as an Irish dancing monkey but not nearly as entertaining. My lambs come to high school spewing content without understanding, and have been rewarded for this. How can this be?*

I've complained about this long enough to get myself attached to a committee, and we're looking at science into the early grades, which means perusing the state standards. Uh-oh.


Language matters. I am trying to parse the state standards. The first one below applies to children before they finish second grade. We're talking about 7 years olds. A lot of them will be bored hanging around the old folks weekend. Go chat with one.

The Sun is a star that can only be seen during the day.
True, I suppose, but tautological. It says nothing. A young child never asks why we can see the sun during the day. The interesting question is why can't we see the other stars.

Worry not--we'll jam some science in the young'uns:

Determine a set of general rules describing when the Sun and Moon are visible based on actual sky observations.

Asking second graders to do "actual" sun observations can lead to "actual" blindness.

Part of me loves this idea. Let the kids find patterns. Let them observe periodicity in nature. Don't expect them, however, to come up with a set of general rules. Really. Go talk to one. Even one who does the Irish monkey thing well. (She's the one with the report card on the refrigerator.)

Here's one for the Pre-K crowd:

Experiments and explorations provide opportunities for young learners to use science vocabulary and scientific terms.

No, no, no, no, no, no, no!!!

Children are magical thinkers--words have tremendous power. Telling a child that things "fall" because of gravity is catechism, not science. We have enough of that already.

Instead, focus on the word "fall"--what does it mean to fall? If a child asks why things always fall "down", work on the word down. If you have an ambitiously curious child, tell them that stuff is attracted to other stuff and no one knows why. Do not use a science vocabulary term until the child has a chance to discover what it means.

I'd rather ban the word gravity in elementary school than "provide opportunities for young learners to use science vocabulary." They got plenty of other things to grasp before throwing talismans at them.

I look forward to the committee meetings.

*Turns out our state standards are designed by "educators and experts
recognized for their content area expertise.
[italics mine]" Gulp.

The Einstein acceptance speech wordle was found at Ptak Science Books here.

The cartoon is from, of course, Toothpaste For Dinner....

Sunday, November 21, 2010

"Meaningful careers" or meaningful lives, Arne?

This year New Jersey requires incoming freshman to pass an end of course biology exam before receiving a diploma. In theory, this is a wonderful idea. As an added bonus, it protects my position.

The state has decided that competency in biology matters more than cooking, than music, than art, than shop. It matters more than learning a second language, more than theater, more than auto maintenance or civics.

This made sense back in the 19th century, when a family could be trusted to teach children how to get along in the world. How to slaughter chickens, how to grow grain, how to shod a horse or darn a sock.

This made sense back in the 20th century when a family could be trusted to teach children how to change a tire, replace a faucet, find the faulty tube in the television, sew a hem, or scramble eggs for breakfast.

For many of my students, maybe most, holding them to a minimum standard of competency in biology is no big deal. It is possible to pass a biology course without grasping much, and you do not need to be an Einstein a Pasteur to meet the state standards.

Still, when we live in a time when many children would go hungry even if given a sack of fresh flour and a cup of yeast, we need to think carefully how we want children to spend their time in compulsory and public education.

Yes, families have an obligation to teach their children.
Yes, more children are in cities now than on farms.
Yes, an educated citizenry is vital for sustaining certain industries.

No, you do not need a college education to be useful, nor does higher education guarantee better government. We need literacy, we need numeracy, we need a sense of place, and we need a sense of time. Instead, this is the proclaimed aim:

A high school should be a place where all students are prepared with the knowledge and skills necessary to enter postsecondary education and pursue meaningful careers.

The neo-tech priests (bless me, Father Gates, for I have sinned....) confound capitalism with democracy, and colleges with competency. Our teaching/business/technology classes have been served well by higher education.

That it is possible to be charged with educating generation after generation of children without ever having set foot outside a classroom, without ever working a factory line, without ever picking up a shovel or a wrench or a clam rake, without ever having earned a living beyond the classroom walls has skewed our view of what education means.

No, you do not need to be a stevedore before you teach in public education, but it doesn't hurt.

What does hurt, though, is a generation of education specialists who literally grew up in classrooms, earning praise and grades for pursuing specialized knowledge chunked into particular subjects divvied up back in the 1890s.

How about this, Mr. Duncan?
A high school should be a place where all students are prepared with the knowledge and skills necessary to pursue meaningful lives as citizens of Bloomfield, New Jersey, and the United States.

I've worked on the docks, in hospitals, in barges and on boats, in a retail store, in shelters, and in a bottling factory. Now I work in a school building.

The scary part?

Just about everyone I've ever worked with outside of a school building had little positive to say about schooling, beyond the social aspects. A few did say they they wished they had stayed in school longer, doomed as they are now in a troubled economy, but an advanced education is not the panacea for employment that the policymakers believe (or say, anyway).

Highly educated is not synonymous with well educated. Just about anybody I know outside of education gets this. Many in education get this, too, but not enough of us, not nearly enough.

Yep, the inimitable (but emminently copyable) toothpaste for dinner

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Why AP Bio may become great

I have mixed feelings about teaching AP Biology. See the last post...

I love teaching, I love science, and I prefer to keep the two together in my classroom. Alas, my hands have been tied a bit by the AP auditing process, but I get the reasons.

If my high school wants an official AP stamp on the school transcripts, I have to deliver the product promised by the College Board. That in itself is not the problem. That the course has become a bit of a bear, though, has become a problem, and the College Board said last year it planned to fix this.

Yesterday, I got to see a video in a poll on some of the specifics of their new plan--I am ecstatic!

The College Board has created a course that puts inquiry first. The focus will be on science, not minutiae.

Kim Foglia teaches AP biology, and she does it extremely well. She has done it for years, and she shares her ever evolving resources at her Explore Biology website.

For me, Kim's biggest strength has been her unflagging dedication to teaching science. I kept a folded letter she sent out to new AP teachers struggling to march through the AP curriculum, reminding us to teach to the joy of science, to teach biology, not a curriculum.

Ironically, her students consistently nailed the AP test.

Guess who's on the committee revising the course?

This is going to be GREAT!

Why AP grates...

Part 1--Part II has the good news!

AP Biology
January 2009
(…more like a death march, than a parade, but it’s Biology! Yay! ☺)

The above is taken from an assignment given at a selective private Catholic girls high school. I recognize the gallows humors, even use it, as I drag my lambs through a similar course. I have to. It's audited by the College Board, and students, parents, administrators, board of education members, and Superintendents will walk through fire to get the coveted AP® Course Audit stamp on a transcript.

I am part of this lunacy. First, the bad news....

I teach AP Biology, or at least try to, to seniors, many who are taking far too many AP courses. There are many good reasons to take AP courses, but no good reasons to take too many. Students feel the pressure of the admissions wars. If both Punch and Judy want a shot at Elite U, and Punch takes an AP science because "it looks good on his transcript," well, Judy thinks she needs to do the same. I get two uninterested seniors for the price of one.

Our school administration encourages children to take AP, as many do, in the escalating war of school rankings. If New Jersey Monthly, a regional rag clearly read by folks with a higher opinion of themselves than I have of myself (just ask them) judges schools by the "number of AP tests offered compared to the total number of juniors and seniors (a calculation designed to avoid penalizing smaller schools)," and your local school board worries as much about property values (as it should), then there will be subtle pressure to push kids into the AP classes.

If you are Gaspar Caperton, President and CEO of the College Board, earning making over $800,000 in compensation a year (about $95/hour for every hour he breathes), you are under a bit of pressure to push your product. And he does. The College Board sells test prep materials for its own tests, materials some of my students cannot afford. The College Board lobbies politicians.

If you are the President of Elite U, and want to keep up your US News and World Report rankings, you need to sell your school to children who have no shot at getting in. Part of your rating is based on the rejection rate of first time college applicants. The more you reject, the higher your score. You're kind of stuck with the numerator, the number of slots you have open, so you best boost the denominator, how many applied. You are under pressure to sell dreams to the impressionable.

Result? We have a generation of public school seniors compromising their health in a battle mutually assured destruction as they struggle to get into colleges that pretend they have a shot.

The CEO of the College Board, the President of Elite U, the editors at NJ Monthly and US News and World Report make good coin, high school administrators keep the board and parents at bay, and the students, literally, break down and cry.

I see the tears. The children are in an impossible place. They live at the pinnacle of human civilization, they have food on the table, roofs over their heads, and youth in their veins, and they are crying.

It's easy to say they're just spoiled, or weak, or lazy, and many of those shepherding them say just that. But when I hear that a student toils away in a mall selling shoes so that she can afford to pay for a series of tests to measure how much she "knows" in subjects she only took out of fear, well, I think of the $16,000 compensation Mr. Caperton pulls down each week.

The College Board logo and the US News and World Report photo are from their respective sites.
And now for the good news.....

Montclair High School will be screening Race to Nowhere on November 30th, at 7:30 PM.
You can register here.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Diffuson confusion

I used to be able to "teach" the concept of diffusion in less than two periods. I threw in the sucrose solution in dialysis tubing demo, its slowly increasing turgidity eliciting giggles from my larval humans. I even tossed in fart jokes.

Now it takes me a week, or longer.

And for some of my lambs, even two weeks would be too quick.

I may or may not be getting better at teaching, but I am getting better at recognizing ignorance, and it's put a huge dent in my schedule. Life was easier when I thought an exam truly measured understanding.


To understand diffusion, you have to know a tad about statistics, a little about kinetics, a thing or two about randomness, a smidgen about molecules, and a lot about energy. You also need a dollop of faith in the laws of thermodynamics.

I am a molecule, I cannot stop moving.

Molecules move. If two molecules are randomly moving across this page, they will mostly be far apart, with an occasional pass close enough to wave hello. If they bump into something (including the other molecule), they change directions.

Why do they move? Ask the cosmologists....they'll sputter some nonsense about singularities and expanding universes. Sometimes a shrug makes as much sense as anything.

I am a molecule, I cannot stop moving.

Molecules drift from a high concentration to a lower concentration. This is a purely statistical, random event. Molecules have no desires, no wants. They just keep bouncing around, have been for about 14 billion years, give or take.

It's why "whoever smelt it, dealt it." It's why chocolate syrup dissolving in milk fascinates me. It's why you don't drown in your own carbon dioxide.

I am a molecule, I cannot stop moving.

Unlike previous years, I did not do the dialysis tubing demo this year. I set out 1 M sucrose solution, beakers, and dialysis tubing, then asked the students to figure out the four possible scenarios using one or the other solution in the tubing and in the beaker.

I explained that the tubing acts like a net--its holes were big enough to let water molecules slip past, but not the much larger sucrose molecules. I reminded them that "sucrose water" held two separate types of molecules--this is not obvious to children who take biology before learning chemistry.

The students then picked one of these scenarios, predicted what would happen, and ran the experiment. A few of the students were angry that I would not tell them specifically what to do. (I did advise a bit--tie the tubing like a balloon, don't fill the tubing all the way to the top, don't punch your partner, the usual.)

After setting up the experiment, I asked the students to tell me which way the water molecules go. (Since they are bouncing around in both pure water and in sucrose solution, water molecules are entering and leaving the dialysis tubing simultaneously, just not at the same rates.)

The result? About 30% of my kids got it--some of them with yelps and huge smiles. I know they got it because I listened as they explained it to other students.

Getting 30% of a class to grasp how diffusion works after almost a week setting up the various facets needed to grasp the concept may seem like an incredible waste of instructional time, and perhaps it is.

Still, 30% getting it after 4 days trumps nobody getting it after two. And those who got it are now ready to tackle membrane physiology.

Stimpy fart pic from A Cartoon Christmas.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Adam Smith and me

I can't believe I once worried about this:
Am I just a brain sitting in a vat of saline somewhere, controlled by a classroom of advanced post-doctoral students amusing themselves with my epiphenomenal world?

No matter anymore. Seems the whole world chooses to live vicariously now through chips and code written by young'uns high on pizza and caffeine.

Many of my lambs believe the world will end in 2012, that no man ever walked on the moon, and that mere belief in their dreams will get them to the promised land.

It's November, and I'm as cranky as the bees.

I teach science. I'm under a bit of pressure.

Arne Duncan says that "Science, Technology, Engineering and Math are at the forefront of our global economic future." He should know, he's a sociologist, and parlayed a mediocre basketball career into the White House.

Al Gore says that "in today's increasingly global economy, America cannot afford to continue to fall behind the world in the very subjects that are going to drive economic growth and development in the coming decades." He should know, he's a retired politician, majored in government, and earned a D in a sophomore science course.

The state of New Jersey expects my students to know this, and that, and some more of this for good measure. New Jersey pays good money to develop tests to make sure I've done my job.

I must confess, however, that I have ulterior motives.


Our economy is not based on information, or technology, or engineering, or math.

Our economy is ultimately based on what the Earth produces, on how much we can sustainably extract from the living organisms around us.

A nifty math degree might help me get a higher portion of what we extract than my neighbor who did not finish college. I might earn more money with an engineering degree. The sheepskin on my wall sitting in my attic somewhere might put a jaunt in my step.

To be fair, science has gone a long way to increasing crop yields, to enabling us to get metals from the ground, protein from our seas, but so long as we remain dependent on the sun for our daily bread, we cannot do much better in the long term, say seven or eight generations, than those seven or eight generations ago.

Our greatest resources here are not our minds. (The Chinese alone outnumber us almost 5 to 1--their top 20% in intelligence rival the entire population of the United States.)

Our greatest resource here is not our spirit. Parochialism is cherished everywhere.

Our greatest asset is the incredible land base we have. We can grow lots and lots of wheat and lots and lots of corn. We have ore and trees, we have coastline, we have abundant rainfall.

A degree in economics doesn't make you a better farmer; it just makes you better at glomming what the farmer makes.

We need plumbers and farmers and nurses and masons; we need electricians and framers and clammers and machinists.

If you are making a living extracting money from the economy without thought to the consequences of your actions, with no connection to the land base, contributing little to the general welfare of the community, you are not particularly useful, no matter how much you make.

The last couple of decades have seen an increasing inequality on the distribution of the financial wealth in the United States.

Producing more scientists will not fix the rising inequity in wealth distribution--it might even aggravate it.

So why do I teach science?

I have a copy of the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence on my classroom wall. I remain a happy skeptic, convinced that thinking Americans can keep our Great Experiment alive.

Democracy cannot survive ignorance.

Every day I go to school with two goals--to show the children the world that they are missing when they are immersed in the human universe of iPods and monitors, and to show them how to think on their own.

If a handful of them go on to become scientists and mention my name along the way, cool beans. I'd be proud, but it wouldn't matter much beyond that.

If, however, children who pass through my classroom learn to love the world around them, and to critically assess how our actions affect the world they love, well, I've done something worthwhile.

Should I just be fooling myself, and I may be, I have a few million yeast bubbling away in 5 gallons of wort in the kitchen, a few Brussels sprout stalks still stealing energy from sunlight a few feet from my front door, and a clam rake I'm getting pretty good at using.

Not sure I'm contributing much to the GDP, but I've become part of the local economy, the one that respects entropy and life, the one that makes me happy. The invisible hand of the market pales next to the grace of the hand of nature.

The title is unfair--Adam Smith's work is like the Bible: widely quoted, rarely read, mostly misunderstood.
Photo from The Brain That Wouldn't Die, 1962, via classic-horror
The "Declaration of Independence" image from the US Library of Congress.

Monday, November 15, 2010

I like bees

Nectar's tough to find in November, but the bees are still at it.
We're still at it, too, whatever this "at it" thing is.

I'll get back to Arne, and teaching science, and all that other nonsense when the bees decide to give it a rest for the winter. I'll get back to the important stuff.

Buzz, buzz, buzz--they won't sting me unless I do something stupid, like step on one.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Perpetual motion machine

I've been having fun with an idea for a perpetual motion machine that popped into my head at 4 AM. I dreamed it, woke up, remembered it, and now I'm playing with it.

Yes, I know it's impossible, but I've yet to crack the error--yes, I know I'm missing something--but until I figure out the mistake, I'm keeping (mostly) quiet.

Just in case.

Addendum: here it is. The green represents 1 M sucrose solution, the blue pure water. The hatched lines represent semipermeable membranes.

The water has bulk flow into the sucrose solution, then exits via the membrane at the top of the left tube.

Shoot, wrong again....just figured out why.
I will post up my egregious attempt to defy the gods later, after I've tossed it around class.
Yes, of course we're going to try it anyway--this is SCIENCE!

The first image was drawn by the Robert Boyle; I'm proud to say my idea was similar, as you will see.

Toothpaste For Dinner is, well, Toothpaste For Dinner--don't miss it.


Another ridiculously beautiful November day.

I chewed on a chilly almost ripe tomato off the vine today, nibbled on the last leathery purple bean, and ate the last few leaves off dying basil plants.

We're doing OK. The Brussels sprouts have no idea that plants usually swoon in November, the kale are showing off their royal purple cloaks, and Leslie has put enough food by to get through the winter.

Last night we had our last batch of fresh pesto for the season, complemented with the first batch of Brussels sprouts. No striped bass, not yet, maybe later this month.

We saw a monarch floop lazily by as we walked near the ferry jetty. Most of the monarchs are south now, and it is unlikely that this one will make it.

I think this distressed us more than the flutterby. Flooping has a price, but on a day like today, not sure the price is too steep.

I'm getting to like November, the cranky bees, the elegant dying plants.
I'll have time for sleep soon enough.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Thoughts on seeing Andromeda on the anniversary of my sister's death

How much do I have left of the loyalty to earth,
which humans shame, and dislike of our own lives,
and others' deaths that take part of us with them,
wear out of us, as we go toward that moment
when we find out how we die: clinging and pleading,
or secretly relieved that it is all over,
or despising ourselves, knowing that death
is a punishment we deserve, or like an old dog,
off his feed, who is suddenly ravenous,
and eats the bowl clean, and the next day is a carcass.

Galway Kinnell
from "The Striped Snake and the Goldfinch"

This post is for me, again. November is a tough time.

Mary Beth, my sister and my soul, was killed by an errant Christian missionary a few years ago. Not sure his being Christian matters, but his views that God somehow had something to do with all this soured me on this whole Christian thing. (Something about God's will and my sister's liver being bench pressed by a tow bar left a distaste in my mouth....)

Soon after her death, Toledo Hospitals asked me what I though about her care there. She died, usually a minus, and they got her confused with some other Jane Doe the night she died, so my opinion of her hospital care did not garner the kind of support hospitals yearn for. (Goodness, they even got the date of her death wrong....if the CEO is reading this, and disagrees, chat with me...)

She's still dead, and the hospital still exists, so my answers on their quality assurance questionnaire really made no difference, though it did get me a nifty letter from their CEO.

In one of the saner moves in my life, I shredded both the missionary's and the CEO's letter regarding her death. I care not for the hospital's profit margin, and even less for errant Christian minister's views of entropy.

Life is life, and here we are.


Last night I saw the Andromeda Galaxy. Light that left there about 2 million years ago lit up a rod on the back of my retina.

About 2 million years ago, Homo habilus roamed the African plains, over a million years before H. sapiens developed. A few photons left a star or two from Andromeda, and headed our way.

Last night they lit up my brain.

Mary Beth was a descendant of H. habilus, as are you and me. I would have liked her to remain alive long enough to share photons from Andromeda last night, but that was not to be. God's will, according to the person directly responsible for her death, but I can hardly blame Her for the piss poor driving of one of Her agents.

And so (as Vonnegut said) it goes.

I am getting older.

That I can still see Andromeda naked eye is no small feat.

Those photons traveled a long way to get to me. I was ready for them. I lay on the grass, my back wet from the dew, and I absorbed the photons. I feel a little bit guilty that I did not stay all night. A whole lot of photons traveled a long, long way just to hit the imprint of my back on a lawn that defines entropy.

The more try I to teach, the more I realize that teaching is, well, impossible, unless you're propagandizing.

This is not good.

Professional astronomers made a huge announcement this week, one that went mostly unnoticed.

Huge gamma ray "bubbles" are emanating from the center of the Milky Way, our galaxy. Vast amounts of energy (a term few of us understand, and I certainly don't) are flowing off the galaxy.

This is a big deal.

I like science. I also like theology, even if some scientists believe our beliefs are genetically programmed. (I suspect happiness erupts whenever we pursue our genetics, and I may be the happiest fool on the planet.)

I think we discovered heaven. And I think maybe Mary Beth's presence there bumped up the gamma ray production up a magnitude or two.

I teach a lot of nonsense. Right now I am teaching about functional groups to children who have no grasp of chemistry. This is like teaching color to a blind woman.

I am an agent of the state. Not sure that's a good enough justification for what I do, but the benefits are good.

The darkest 12 weeks of the year start now. That my sister got killed right when the sun fails us is not her fault, but messes me up just the same.

The love of her life grows apples. Apples. And bees.

I love apples, and I love bees. And I love Dave, a man who grows both apples and bees, and who keeps the few solid parts of Mary Beth left on his land.

Enough said.

I saw a few bees today. They're frantic.

How do I know? I watched them.

If you (unfortunately) believe in a mechanistic view of the universe, you would expect bees to be ponderous today, moving slowly, governed by the laws of kinetics and thermal energy.

Turns out the bees in mid-November have more energy than Richard Simmons on Red Bull.

Despite the low temperatures, despite the lack of nectar (or maybe because of the lack) in local flowers, doomed as they are as the sunlight fails, the bees are zinging along like they're mainlining amphetamines.

How do I know.
I watched them.

I could read about it, I suppose, or watch a YouTube, or maybe dive into Wikipedia, but I have the intelligence of at least an ant, and I trust my senses. Do you trust yours?

I am old enough to (finally) realize I am going to die. This is shocking news to me.

If I do nothing else this year, I hope to instill in each of my students that they will die, too, that everything eventually falls apart, that they should pursue things that matter. They are surrounded by voices that pretend humans are immortal.

One voice reminding them otherwise won't hurt, and it might, just might, push a child to pursue a path she would not have, because her father said she should be a nurse, because his father said he should become an

If I do that much, they will not have wasted their time in Room B362.

When they're my age, or even decades younger, knowing that a carboxyl group makes a molecule more acidic will not matter a whit.

I saw Andromeda last night, naked eye.
I saw a 40" striped bass rotting on the beach today.
I saw bees struggle to grab some nectar from cosmos flowers in November.
I am alive when my younger sister, my brilliant sister, my loving sister, is not.
I made a batch of beer today.

All of this is related. I'll name this ale Entropy.

We know nothing.

Gamma rays, death, rotting striped bass carcasses on the beach, it's all the same.
Something happened 15 billion years ago. I hope it happens again.

In the meantime I'll brew, sing, bake, rake, and dance.

I don't get it, but I'm glad I'm part of it. How about you?

The brightest man I know never finished high school. But he can grow apples, raise bees, play slide guitar, and think.
The most loving woman I know got killed by a Christian missionary.
The farthest thing I can see, Andromeda, I can still see.

The Andromeda photo is by Boris Štromar

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"Think like kidneygartners...."

I have been reduced to stacking up chairs on desks, then knocking them down.

I'm up on the third floor--the whole science wing reverberates when I knock down the furniture.
I stack up the desks--energy in.
I break the bonds with a shove--activation energy.
The desks cascade down, unleashing noise and heat and movement and chaos--ΔG.
Over and over and over again, I implore my sophomores to think like "kidneygartners." I don't want fancy words. I don't want "right" answers. I don't want to hear that energy is "the ability to do work."

Some laugh, now and then one is near tears.
I'm confused!
Good! Now we're getting somewhere.


Occasionally I have story time. It's always the same story.

I sit in the middle of the pods. (The students form their own pods of desks at the start of every period. 30 seconds of chaos saves me hours of headaches--I do not have Ann Landers' talents, and larval humans show a remarkable political ability to arrange themselves in minimally disruptive arrangements. I could use some old tennis balls, though....sliding desks make a lot of noise.)

I walk along the class timeline. Humans (just a blip, really)--dinosaurs--plants--bacteria--water--Earth's formation--10 billion more years--Big Bang.

The Big Bang, of course, makes no sense. None. The students get that we have evidence that the universe is expanding. They get that galaxies are farther apart this week than they were back before Hallowe'en. And they grasp why some physicists came up with the model.

But it's only a model, a mythology, and an incomprehensible one at that.

I tell the story over and over again. I emphasize that it is, indeed, a story, told under certain constraints.

And then I topple the desks again.


We exist because the sun decays.
(Second Law of Thermodynamics)
We exist because the sun decays.
(Laws are what we observe, consistently, persistently--no explanation needed.)
We exist because the sun decays.
(No worries, the good news is we'll all be dead before the sun gasps its way into a red giant.)
We exist because the sun decays.
(No, I can't answer that--that's a religious question....)


Have you spent much time talking to 5 year old children? They'll believe anything but they'll question everything.

My sophomores won't believe everything, but they believe the world will end in 2012, mostly out of convenience.

They won't, however, question much, at least not in school. And that's our fault.


(Yes, I really say "kidneygarteners"--I am lousy at German....)

Children like their myths written in stone. We all do. It's why science can suck big time when we pay attention.

Less than 100 years ago, Edwin Hubble made a pretty convincing story that Andromeda is not part of our galaxy, that stuff existed beyond our own Milky Way.

This was (and remains) a big deal.

And yet we teach the Big Bang like we teach The Great Gatsby, which, coincidentally, was published the same year Hubble made his move.

According to the Big Bang model (or myth or theory), something happened about 14 billion years ago.

The state of New Jersey states that I must teach that "according to the Big Bang theory, the universe has been expanding since its beginning, explaining the apparent movement of galaxies away from one another."

Read that again.

It's religion. I say as much in class. And I'm done with it.

That we even pretend to separate biology from physics from chemistry at the adolescent level just shows how confused we are.

Most of my kids have no idea how to generate electricity. This week I will bring in a hand-cranked generator, and the boys will shock themselves as the girls wonder how humans ever reproduced at all.

I'm not supposed to do this. I am supposed to teach biology. I can't teach biology if the kids have no idea about the First and Second Laws of thermodynamics. If cranking a magnet in a coil of wire hard enough to transform kinetic energy into the electrical sort strong enough to make sophomore boys squeal makes no impression, no sense pretending we can teach science.

But it will make an impression. It always has. Not for everyone, not all the time, but for most.

Because we're human, and innately curious.

And so long as we remain human and innately curious, I will enjoy teaching, at least until the 2nd Law does me in, as it will.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Backyard Astronomer

I dabble with words; Leslie writes.
Go read "Backyard Astronomer"--you'll be glad you did!

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Another post for me--if I slap it down here, I won't lose it....

This is a reminder that November can be a marvelous time of year, despite the waning light.

A few of us wandered over to a mudflat to dig up some clams. The new moon did its job, rewarding us with a spectacularly low tide. Despite a couple of minor setbacks (broken rake, and an abandoned beer), we came home with 30 quahogs, about a half dozen for each blister.

The sky would have made El Greco blush. A flock of brants kept us company, their blue gray bodies competing with the light show above.

The water still holds summer's heat. The clams have not yet sunk deep for the winter. It was a good day to be on the water.

Back home we had tomatoes grown a couple of miles away, and squash from our garden. We had a batch of pesto made from our basil, which is still hanging on. We planned on having squash soup, tomato salad, and two pasta dishes, one with pesto, one with clams.

And then we got the call--fresh striper, caught less than a tide ago, already cleaned. Do we want any?

And here's the whole point of the post--to remind me what we did with the striper, so we can do it again. We lifted a recipe from Chef Emeril--here's our version:

Grab several sprigs of rosemary from the bush outside--scrape off the leaves, and chop fine enough to slurry, mix with wine, sliced garlic, a few chopped basil leaves, and a little lemon juice and salt.

Paint most the slurry on the bottom of a grill pan lined with foil, then throw a few slices of onion over the slurry so the fish is not swimming in it. Lay the fish on top of the onions, drizzle the fillets with what's left of the rosemary slurry, toss on a few slices of fresh tomato, and garnish with a few sprigs of rosemary.

Throw the whole shebang uncovered on the grill, off direct flame. I have no idea what temperature, I still use charcoal, but I tossed it on while the the charcoal was still spitting fire.
The bass was an unexpected gift, so time was an issue.... I left the grill cover on most of the time, occasionally pulling it off a bit to let some of the juices thicken a bit.

It was done when it was done (forget the rules, you just got to pay attention), and it was delicious.
Local waters, direct to the plate: quahogs and a striped bass
Our garden: basil, rosemary, squash, and tomatoes
Local farm, less than a couple of miles away: more tomatoes.

Can't much more local than that....good food and great company make the coming dark days tolerable.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

NJCSA attacks the messenger

Another heads up from Tom Hoffman at Tuttle SVC--he's
the John Stewart of the education news world....

I like numbers. A lot.

I like numbers enough to have developed a healthy relationship with them. No one night stands. No extraordinary demands. We respect each other, stay open, and work to grasp each other's nuances.

I have long maintained a monogamous relationship with the decimal system. (OK, I once philandered with hexadecimals, and I toyed with binary when I was still a lad, but I've matured.)

I have been accused of seeing numbers better than the average bear. I maintain that most humans (if not bears) can see numbers as well as I can once they get past the torrid relationships from back in high school.

Data, on the other hand, are like spam--somewhere along the line numbers get processed.

Data is wonderful if you have a healthy relationship with numbers, and refuse to abuse them, no matter what glory or riches may tempt you.

If you love numbers, run over to Bruce Baker's School Finance 101 blog.


Dr. Baker loves numbers, too. He makes them friendly. He's also very, very smart. He could take data and mash it to his whims.

But he doesn't.

Dr. Baker plays with numbers with respect; he also respects his audience. He doesn't treat his readers as dummies, yet takes time to clearly explain his reasoning.

The New Jersey Charter Schools Association got upset with Dr. Baker's blog recently. His offense? He ran some numbers, and drew some conclusions:

[E]ven if we found that these schools produced greater gains for their students than similar students would have achieved in the traditional public schools, we could not sort out whether that effect came from school quality differences or from peer group differences (which doesn’t matter from the parent perspective, but does from the policy perspective).

Through a twisted piece of logic, the NJCSA insinuated that Dr. Baker gets money for shilling against charter schools.
Rutgers University Professor Bruce Baker is closely aligned with teachers unions, which have been vocal opponents of charter schools and have a vested financial interest in their ultimate failure.

I love teaching.
I might work in a charter school some day; I've even dreamed of establishing one (the Margaret Donaldson School for Children--you heard it here first). I hope that the schools represented by the NJCSA have more respect for numbers and for truth than the shows NJCSA in its tirade.

The CEO Carlos Pérez flew in from Chicago to take over the reins here in Jersey back in June. He comes from the same town that produced Arne, a man with a flimsy relationship with truth data.

(See how the game is played?)

The comic is, of course, from Toothpaste For Dinner.

Friday, November 5, 2010

November harvest

The sun may be dying, but its energy rests in the bonds around us, enough to keep most of us alive until the sun returns.

We are almost a week past Samhain. The bonfires have been lit, the dead done wandering. In the olden days, each clan took flame home from a shared bonfire to carry them through the winter. Animals were slaughtered for the coming winter.

Time to hunker down.

Here near the coast, the air tempered by the warmth of the sea, we get to stretch summer a few more days.

Today we harvested tomatoes and basil from the garden, and clams from the mud. The water is still warm enough for me to walk through the ripples, looking for keyholes that betray the quahogs below.

Tomorrow we may cull the kale and the Brussels sprouts. I may nibble on the few leathery beans hanging from the near dead vines--a reminder of what's past, and hope for the future.

Tomorrow I will gather dead flowers, harvesting seeds.

I will bring some of the seeds to class. A student has asked for a clam shell, one from a creature I have eaten.

Seed by seed, I hope to show my kids what lies outside the windows.

Photos ours, taken today.

On balance

Theology alert--feel free to jump in....
This was inspired by Father Sean and Brother John and Reverend Scott.


We need balance in our lives. Overwhelmed? Seek balance.

An innocuous philosophy--who could possibly be against balance?

A madman in the back wildy waves hand--and (again) I get sent out of the classroom.


The light is failing. Local carbon dioxide levels will rise until late May now, when resurrected plants start reconstructing the molecules back into something we can use again next winter. CO2 and H2O, carefully bonded back together into strawberries in June, peaches in July, corn in August, wheat in the September...little left now but the kale and the Brussels sprouts.

Breathe on your hand--you can feel the moisture, the breeze of molecules brushing your hand.

If God can be found, She will be found in the chloroplast, Her heart made of rubisco, the enzyme that puts us together, the most common protein in our known universe. She carefully holds a tiny molecule of carbon dioxide, three atoms of nothing, and glues them to life.
Heart of God?

She takes her life, her energy from the sun. Three times a second, another molecule of CO2 pressed together to a molecule of life, over and over and over again.

Rubisco is everywhere, in every green leaf, and as the leaves of summer fade into fall's glory, She leaves us. We start to drown in our own CO2, waiting for Her return, as She has, as She will. (That's called faith.)

You cannot balance a lifetime. You can dance, jump for joy, cringe in fear, curl up, scream, love or hate. There is no balance for love, for fear.

A well lived life is not one where you've balanced your fears with your joys, your love with your hate.

A "well lived" life makes no sense. You cannot "lived"--you can only live, now, this moment. Either the amygdala or the cortex rules a moment. We pretend we can string together moments, we hold on to memories, to words, to pictures, to myths of eternity, and we miss the obvious.

The here and now.

And we wonder why it's hard to teach children in a classroom....


A couple of soldier flies erupted from our class terrarium last week. Unexpected. Large critters crawled out of the thin litter layering the glass bottom. The yellow bar splashed on their legs with their waspish wings and fluttering antennae screamed danger. My cortex knows they're harmless, my amygdala makes my fingers stutter when I pick one up.

The last few days a half dozen more came from the same dirt.

When I opened the top to feed my sowbugs yesterday, two flew out and headed for the window. They only live a day or two as adults, and they had been trapped for hours in the terrarium. They flew fiercely, full of desire, and crashed right into the glass.

Instinct, true. Fixed action patterns with proximate and ultimate causes. Memorize this, children, pay $87, and earn your AP Biology credit.

We never speak of desire in other creatures. Of wants. Of needs.

The soldier fly carcasses will sit on the sill until my students return on Monday. I will ask them how they got there. Then I will ask why.

We all need what rubisco gets us--we all feel desire. It's why we burn our energy even though we know December's coming.

וייצר יהוה אלהים את האדם עפר מן האדמה ויפח באפיו נשמת חיים ויהי האדם לנפש חיה׃
And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground,
and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life;
and man became a living soul.

We think we're sophisticated and learned and (the worst conceit of the three) immortal. We gorge on the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and forget that we are closer to the soldier flies than we are to rubisco.

I do not know who wrote the Hebrew Bible, and I do not know which of the 47 men chosen by King James translated Genesis 2:7, but there's been a huge misinterpretation of "soul" in the last few hundred years.

The soul, at least according to the Words allegedly governing the actions of the dangerously powerful here in the States, is not separate from the dirt. Our "stuff," the polymers of proteins, our layers of lipids, our DNA, our essence, is our soul.

We are mortal and finite. We are living souls, dependent on rubisco, dependent on unimaginable events in the heart of the sun, hydrogen to fusion, mass to light.

You want your children ready for the world of humans, raise them under artificial light. Keep them planted in front of monitors. Feed them impossibly perfect fruit. Keep them shod. Pump them full of music made by machines. Surround them with images of the "perfect" human, and demand they become one.

Don't talk to me about balance.

We are training our children to avoid the window pane, to stay safe, to gaze at the world outside, to create stronger panes. We don't want to see them hurt. We cannot imagine their last agonal breaths.

Me? I want my children to crash into the glass, and if they're bloodied lying on the sill, to get up and crash into it again. Again and again and again.

3 billion years of desire got us to here; a few hundred years of playing God has reduced us chasing photons on screens, practicing religion disconnected from the wiser elders who wrote texts we refuse to read, to believing we are in control.

I may be unhinged, but I am not as unbalanced as anyone who believes in balance.

The sun that sustains me has been dropping lower into the sky day by day, the plants that feed me have lost their leaves, the bees I adore have gone. I am a man of science, I have a good idea why this is so.

I am also a man of faith--faith that the sunlight will return, and that rubisco will return with it come spring.

Photos are mine and Leslie's.
The rubisco model is from Wikipedia, and is in the public domain.