Monday, August 31, 2009

Trumpets descended from trombones

Some parents in Sedalia, Missouri, are upset at a band t-shirt designed to promote the Smith-Cotton High School marching band's show, "Brass Evolutions 2009."

The school administrators decided to pull the shirts off the backs of their students, leading the local paper, the Sedalia Democrat, to post an editorial:

"School administrators overreacted to the pressure from some parents who obviously saw the image as promoting the theory of evolution and a threat to their own Christian beliefs."

The editors go on to say:
"We find nothing wrong with the T-shirts and believe the students should be able to continue wearing them if they choose to."

It is easy to bash the superstitious, the irrational, and even, at times, the religious, and "learned" folks do it all the time. That the editor's last name is Satnan only adds to the fun. I, for one, want to thank the parents who objected.

Do I think the parents were right? Nope.
Do I think evolution is a lousy theory? Nope again.

So what's my problem?

We did not evolve from monkeys!

We share a common ancestor. That's a huge difference.

That so few folks busy shoving the Constitution up the nostrils of their fundamentalist neighbors understand the theory of evolution themselves makes me want to pray for our country's future.

The photo is from the Sedalia Democrat here.
A thumbs up to BL Rag for picking up the story.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Walt Kelly and August light

August is a silly month--we gorge on the harvest while the sun swings wildly to the south in its death dance. Few of us notice.

Tonight Leslie and I feasted on eggplants from the garden, cooked over charcoals coaxed to flames by olive oil from Italy, a country I pretend to know something about, though I've only been in its airport in Rome. The flames were fueled by sunlight almost half a world away

Leslie and I spend half our lives near the Delaware Bay, Jersey side. We can watch the sun set on the water on the beach a few blocks away. In June we look to our right--now we look slightly to our left.

I was invited to three wakes this week, I went to two. I was older than the person in the casket in all three.

Our economy, our culture, depends on the illusion of immortality. If it did not, who would spend a Saturday afternoon watching golf on television?

I make melomel, honey fermented with fruit. It's the closest I come to playing God. I throw honey sent by a friend in Michigan in with water from Cape May with blueberries from northwest New Jersey. I add yeast, though I do not know its source. I stress the yeasties enough for them to make ethanol. (Happy yeast, dancing in oxygen, do not make alcohol.)

I just had a bottle from 2008. The blueberry bushes that provided the fruit are likely still alive, the yeast are not. The vintner who gave me the yeast nutrients still breathes.

I lost both my parents in Augusts past. I lost my sister in November a few years ago. The fading sun makes me nervous. No way to know who will be around when August rolls around again.

As you know, I teach biology.

As you know, we live in a linear culture. More. Brighter. Bigger. Better.

The dominant culture is wrong, of course. We live and we die, so others may live and die. The sun fades, the sun returns. We reap what we sow. I plant seeds in March so I can feast in August. As mysterious as it is, it is not overwhelmingly complex. (OK, the particulars are overwhelmingly complex, but the big picture of cycles is not.)

I was rock hopping on my jetty this afternoon--it was high tide.

The tide rise and falls here twice a day. The water rises and falls about four feet, an incomprehensibly large amount of water. The state wants the child to be able to tell important strangers that the reason the tide rises and fall is because of the moon, because of the sun. And that much is true.

But I ask--how much can a child who has never seen a beach know of the tides ?

This was supposed to be a post about Walt Kelly, the creator of Pogo. I got permission from Carolyn Kelly, Walt Kelly's daughter, to use a personal favorite panel of Pogo here.

On a good day, maybe 100 people take a peek at my blog. I write for an audience of one (Leslie), and am flattered by the attention of a few dozen other souls.

I sought permission from Ms. Kelly to use her father's cartoon. She granted it. This may be the highlight of my blogging efforts. My post on Pogo may be my last.

I teach. I have taught over a hundred souls a day in my classes. Most are there because the state of New Jersey deemed that they were required to take a science course in order to get a diploma. A few, a very few, choose to take science out of joy, out of love.

September is coming, and my energies will be focused on them for a long while.

I'll continue to write, of course. I've been writing in journals for years, and I have the joy of living with a woman who's a real writer who was foolish enough to fall in love with me. I'll probably continue to throw my thoughts out here, but the tone may change.

Stay tuned for Pogo.
"Don't take life so serious, son . . . it ain't no how permanent." - Porky Pine

Friday, August 28, 2009

Seeing the never before seen

On the same day I saw the never before visualized haustra of my large gut, Science magazine shows a photo of a single molecule.

Just posting because it's soooo cool! (My colon was cool, too, no sinister characters seen. And my gut looks a lot like the pentacene molecule above. Just sayin'.))

Photo via BBC News here.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

On ice

Between my last post on politics and drinking 2 liters of Halflytely, I've exposed enough poop for one day, and I want to get back to science.

I have an ice maker I have been afraid to use--the refrigerator line is hooked up to a 1/2" copper pipe in the basement via a saddle valve, and all you need to know about saddle valves is that sooner or later they leak. No, gentle reader, this will not be a treatise on plumbing (though that would be a wonderful way to explain voltage and amperage).

While snooping around plumbing sites on how best to bypass the saddle valve, I stumbled upon a wonderful debate in the ice maker universe--should you attach the ice maker to the cold or hot water pipe?

On first blush, the answer seems obvious--put it on the cold line, why waste energy cooling down hot water. Leaving aside the Mpemba effect, in which hot water can freeze faster than cold water under some circumstances, turns out that by the time the water gets into the freezer, it will be at ambient temperature.

Still, some old-timers will insist that you tap your ice line into the hot water pipe, and they have a good reason.*

Boil some water, then put it in an ice cube tray. (If you're a young'un whose never seen an ice tray, just use a paper cup.) Pour the same amount of cold water from the tap into a similar receptacle.

Put them both in the freezer under the same conditions, yadda yadda. Wait a few hours, then take them out.

The ice made from the previously boiled water will be much clearer than the ice from the cold tap water. Plumbers know this, and most could probably tell you why, too, if you bothered to ask.

Can you figure it out (without using Google)?

There's an elegant, uncomplicated lab exercise at the Teachers' Lounge website that gives a huge hint--don't peek until you've given this some thought.

*A lot of folks worry about lead and other particles coming out of the hot water heater, and do not want their ice coming from there--I am not enough of a plumber to know how much a concern this is. Do not take plumbing advice from strangers on the internet.....

The ice delivery photograph is from the National Achives, taken in 1918.

Arne, meet Jack Jennings

August is the silly season, and while The Al and Newt Show promises to be entertaining, that Arne even proposed it does not bode well for his leadership. He may be the Secretary, but he's got plenty of competition for Chief of Silly.

Today I nominate John F. Jennings.

Jack Jennings is the President and CEO of the Center on Education Policy (CEP), "a national, independent advocate for public education and for more effective public schools."

The CEP is funded by several foundations, including The George Gund Foundation (whose "focus is on the transformation of public education in Cleveland in order to equip children from early childhood onward with the skills they ultimately will need to meet the demands of college"), the Joyce Foundation (part of whose mission is "promoting innovations such as charter schools"), and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I leave it to you, gentle reader, to judge how independent the CEP truly is.

Despite the Act-Arne-No-Longer-Calls-NCLB, the WSJ reported yesterday that recently released SAT scores fell a tiny bit for the class of 2009, and racial gaps widened.

Jack Jennings was quoted in yesterday's Wall Street Journal:

"The bottom line is the country is changing dramatically. Unless minority kids are educated better, we are going to be in trouble because pretty soon they are going to be the majority."

Jack Jennings

President & CEO, Center on Education Policy

Let's dissect this.

"We" are not in trouble yet, because "we" are the majority. It's not a problem until "they" become the majority.

If Mr. Jennings was quoted correctly, he should resign.

I don't need a libel suit to add to my joys of imminently pending colonoscopy and gum scrapings, so I won't speculate what he might have meant, though I do invite the CEP to offer their interpretation.

Don't be fooled by the suits, the smiles, the touching condescension--a few very powerful people with more money than sense want to use public education for their private gain. Every now and then they expose their ends (so to speak).

(Oh, here's a photo of Jack--in case you were wondering....)

Al and Newt photo by Alex Wong, Getty Images, via USA Today.
The portrait of Mr. Jennings was lifted from the Tuscon Citizen.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The big bang as mythology

For all the noise about Darwin's descent with modification, a deep understanding of evolution provides a delightful way to hold together just about everything we know in biology without referring to supernatural concepts.

(In my best sotto voce I will happily admit that evolution does not help us at all in grasping how life came to be, and that the cell theory's weakness is that it cannot explain the original cell.)

You don't need to "believe in it"--there's no leap of faith needed--it works well, and unless some as yet fantastic empirical data gets revealed, it's not going to need major tweaking.

(Again in my sotto voce, I gleefully admit such unimaginably fantastic observations may indeed arise, which is why science is so much fun!)

Meanwhile, kids get drilled on the Big Bang Theory with little complaint in these parts, a model which purports to explain the origins of our universe (or at least everything since after the first 30 seconds, when the universe got to be a few millimeters in diameter, which, of course, makes no sense without a reference).

Look in a textbook and read about it--about 14 billion years ago or so (give or take a billion here or there), the universe was a singularity, a point. Something happened--and space started to expand, to exist.

Too many times I have seen this pictured as an explosion--the event is being viewed from the outside by the illustrator. The textbook I've used the past three years has a picture of an explosion among the stars:

The big bang theory says that 12 to 15 billion years ago, an event called the big bang sent matter in all directions. This matter eventually formed the galaxies and planets.
(Holt Science and Technology: Physical Science, 2006, p. 21)

Big problem--there was no outside, there were no directions-- at least according to the model. So who is looking at the "explosion"? God?

The model too often gets oversimplified, taught by folks with insufficient understanding (and I put myself in that category), and as a result we create myths instead of a scientific model.

When viewed this way, the Big Bang model becomes a religious one. Yes, I know the picture is just to help students imagine the event, and yes, I know that the textbooks are not pushing the God thing, but the result is the same. It's bad science.

What do I do? I hedge.

If we accept that the universe is expanding (and we do little in class to show this is so), then it makes sense to think that the universe was "smaller" or "more dense" in the past.

And that's as far as I can take it with "low level" freshmen, without getting into religious (by my understanding) grounds. My kids may leave 9th grade knowing a little less about the common scientific myths we thrust on 14 year old children in our schools, but I think they might have a better grasp on what science means.

I am a science teacher--I teach science.

The artwork is from NASA.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Public water and charter schools

Do you drink from public water fountains?

I'm guessing that Arne Duncan does not drink from public water fountains. I do (when I can find a working one). And that may be the fundamental difference between Arne and me.

Public fountains are disappearing because the concept of public is disappearing.

Public water fountains are not dangerous (unless cooties are real). Tap water is safe, and the spigots are designed to prevent contamination.

The rise of bottled water here in the States shows how a public institution can be demonized and replaced by a much more expensive privatized solution.

If you can put down the alcohol wipes to look at the numbers, though, you'll learn that tap water is safe, and that the government standards for tap water are higher than the standards required for the commercial stuff.

Charter schools are like bottled water--they're believed to be superior, and their standards are less stringent that their more public counterparts. (Yes, I know that charter schools are part of the public school systems, but they are not public in the sense that they equally accept all students. This difference matters.)

A new report issued today by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes
(CREDO) at Stanford University found that there is a wide variance in the quality of the nation’s several thousand charter schools with, in the aggregate, students in charter schools not faring as well as students in traditional public schools.

Arne called himself a CEO when he oversaw the Chicago Schools; I think he's doing the best he can with his God-given tools (or genome, take your picks), but basketball may be his strongest suit, and even there he was not NBA class. In polite company I'd say he lacks gravitas.

We don't want the CEO of Nestle's running our public water supply for obvious reasons; we should not have to put up with a former "CEO" trying to run our public schools.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Why I don't believe in evolution

It's not my job, nor my inclination, to convince children that descent with modification (evolution) serves as the linchpin of biology. It is my job, though, to present it competently, and I have faith that my students will (eventually) start to see how completely evolution explains what we know in biology.

If I present it as the truth, though, I'm going to lose my few students vehemently opposed to the idea. Most students, however, don't seem agitated one way or the other, and find my enthusiasm mildly entertaining, and hey, look only 11 minutes left before we go to art class.

There is no place for truth in science; there is no place for dogma. Humans observe the natural world, often indirectly, and create models to help grasp what they see. It is a wonderful way of thinking, and results in lots of useful predictions, and will continue to do so as long as the natural world continues to consistently follow laws.


I have a small blueberry bush just outside my front door, laden with fruit. The deep blue excites my eyes, the sugary, blueberry flavor excites my my tongue. The plant creates desire, and I succumb to it. I get calories and joy, the blueberry bush wraps its seeds in my shite, we both increase our chances of passing our alleles ("genes") to the next generation.

My desire is real, and I know that the blueberry bush created the fruit for me (and other mammals) to eat. The bush is not conscious of this, nor need it be, for evolution to work.

The bush created the fruit for me
misleads the student--if I have a strong desire (and I do) to eat the berries, and the bush has a good reason to encourage me to eat it, I've created a semblance of mutual desires. The thinking child may reason that if the bush is not conscious, then something must be helping the bush figure out what I want, and so we create a being from nothingness, a god, or rather, God.

If the child sees this line of reasoning (and this is a huge leap), then, paradoxically, that child has a chance to develop a deep understanding of evolution. No consciousness is needed to see how a particular set of characteristics in a particular environment might lead to a better chance of reproducing.

So long as there is variation between organisms that causes differential reproduction, and so long as some of these variations are inherited, no consciousness is needed. None.

This upsets people, as it should. Most of us are irrational some of the time.

Too many students come to my class "believing" in evolution, and tell me so, perhaps thinking that will impress me. It does not.

I don't believe in evolution, I accept it as a powerful and useful explanation for the explosion of the variety of life on our planet.

I do believe in things supernatural, but these matter not in my classroom. I could believe in יהוה, in Thor, in Lugh, or in 天児屋命; I could believe in elves and faeries; I could believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. I need none of them to explain what we know in biology, nor does my belief in any or all of them affect my ability to teach descent with modification.

(And it's going to take a lot more than science to get me to give up my Easter Bunny.)
The photo has been released to the public.

Dollars and sense

"The best thing we ca
n do is educate our way to a better economy."

"Consumer spending accounts for about 70% of all demand in the U.S. economy."

Our last economic boom was fueled by greed and ignorance, as our next one will be, but should we truly educate our children to focus on what matters, on what makes a good life, to critically analyze their choices, well, there's going to be a lot less "consuming" going on.

A deep understanding of "the economy" requires knowing some biology and a lot of agriculture. You can only get so many turnips out of an acre of ground, and we can live the way we have lived, borrowing and borrowing, for only so long. Biologists recognize limiting factors to growth.

If by the economy, Duncan means a grasp of how we obtain and allocate the things we need to live, recognizing our limits, factoring in the cost of our wastes, then yes, he is right--we can educate our way to a better economy.

If, however, Duncan means The Economy, the abstract world of huge numbers flickering in the CPU for milliseconds, wheat futures based on an unpredictable climate, and the myth that the new economy keeps us immune from Malthusian catastrophe, well, then our Secretary Education shows that even a Harvard education can go terribly wrong.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Public spaces

Yesterday I left the Bloomfield Public Library as the sun was setting, and ambled across the street to the Bloomfield Green. I sat on a public bench with my books, half reading, half dozing. A child no older than 12 months or so waddled up to me with an impossibly wide grin, no doubt impressed by her new walking legs, her mom and dad and "big" brother just a few feet behind her.

A young woman was camped on a blanket under a large oak tree, reading in the dappled shadows--she looked up to watch the errant cherub who had wandered in her direction.

A rumpled gentleman later passed by, talking at the sun. Apparently the sun talked back.

The Green is a public space, has been since militia trained there to fight in the Revolutionary War. The town bought the deed in 1797, a bargain at $200, and it has remained public since then.

A parade ends here every Memorial Day--Scouts and Kiwanis and Elks and fire companies and school bands and politicians and Brownies and veterans march down Broad Street. The usual collection of colorful townfolk show up, including the Cat Man, whose cat costume stopped fitting about 15 years and 40 pounds ago. Shop Rite sends a tractor trailer to join the parade. The local Shop Rite hires a lot of handicapped locals and contributes to the food bank--it has earned the right to be in our public parade.

Every fall we have the Harvest Fest with a carnival and lots of folks selling trinkets.

Three years ago Raymond died while sleeping on a bench on a very cold night, a local man known to the police as "a big drinker," an empty vodka bottle next to him. Folks had passed him earlier on their way to the churches bordering the Green, thinking he was just sleeping, if they thought about it at all.

The police knew Raymond had been hanging around the Green, but is is, after all, a public space. Public drunkenness is no longer a crime in the United States.


We are losing our concept of public.

The word comes from Latin publicus, derived from populus: people. People. All kinds qualify, as long as they're people. Toddlers, drunkards, plumbers, CEOs, teachers, cops and criminals--all people.

You can meet most anybody on the Green. You won't, however, meet Bill Gates or Arne Duncan or Michael Bloomberg or George Bush, all who consider themselves leaders in education. And they may be. If you can't find them on the Green, though, they should not be leading public education.

And that's a bloody inconvenience for the mighty in our culture.

(If the Duncans and the Gates of the world foisted their views on their ilk, in their private spaces, so be it--they have money and power, and can do what they will with it. When they come preaching to the town square, we need to remind them what public means.)

My salary is paid by my neighbors; they support the public schools even though our town is not particularly wealthy and is largely working class. Many of my students are first generation.

Very few of them want their children to move to Seattle to work for Bill.

So what do they want from public school?

They want their kids to learn how to read, how to write, how to think. They want football and proms and Key Clubs and star parties. They want a public space for local events and local clubs. They want volley ball and driver's ed and classes that teach life skills. They want their children to be useful and productive and happy in this experiment call America.

Public places can be quiet, can be rowdy. They can be festive and at times dangerous. Public spaces are where everyone in town can run into anybody else from town on equal footing.

The Declaration of Independence continues to be read on town squares across our country every Fourth of July. Truths are not so self-evident anymore. If we are going to recapture what it means to be America, it's going to happen in our public spaces.

(If the Duncans and the Gates of the world foisted their views on their ilk, in their private spaces, so be it--they have money and power, and can do what they will with it. When they come preaching to the town square, we need to remind them what public means.)

The first picture was lifted from The Bloomfield Life, one of two local papers;
the second is from the First Baptist Church,right here in Bloomfield,

Monday, August 17, 2009

My daughter's blog

Yep, a plug.

Both of my kids did the public school thing. Both are loving, decent human beings who get what citizenship is about.

What else could a Dad ask for?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Communion on the Delaware Bay

Yesterday I sliced my big toe down to near the bone--the flesh splayed open, as it will, and I bled a lot.

I happened to be on the edge of the Delaware Bay at the time, which happens to have oyster shells honed to razor sharp by the tides coming in, going out.

I was looking for a lure I had lost at high tide. I found it. The cost of the subsequent bandages, tape, and (likely) tetanus shot outweighs the cost of the lure, but that was not the point. Jesus had his lambs, I have my lures.

The blood poured into the Delaware, now long since consumed by various organisms. Iron, protein, and given my breakfast, maybe even some carbohydrates and lipids for the critters that ate my cells.

Communion with transubstantiation pushes human imagination, but the reality makes the myths pale. Blood cells made from plants I ate now feeding creatures I could not begin to describe.

Last week Leslie and I wandered along the edge of the same bay after dark, which we like to do, for a variety of reasons.

At the edge of the sea, I saw a glow--an eerie bluish glow, about the size of a lemon. I wasn't sure I saw it, because my mind is too rational, or western, or educated to accept things that do not fit in the human symphony.
"Did you see that?" she asked.
Yes, I did.

In a moment, the light became obvious--something was lighting the surf like a giant lightning bug.

I hope that my blood feeds a creature similar to it, a creature every bit as evolved as you and me, a creature with a common ancestor millions of years ago.

There is alive, there is dead, and there is never alive. We belong to the first two categories forever.


My cells are now dying faster than they are being replaced. This is not news, but it defies a culture that thrives on linear progress. For all our advances the past 50, 100, 1000 years, we remain human and mortal.

I teach biology. I teach sophomores. I may be the last person for the next 4 or 5 decades that tells them that things are mortal, that life works in cycles, that we really don't have a clue about the why's, and we barely grasp the how's.

I frightened a child last year when I discussed the Large Hadron Collider, enough that guidance and administration got involved.

I mollified the parents, I mollified administration, and I may have even mollified the child, but I am not sure I did. He is extremely bright, brighter than the others give him credit. Part of me hopes that I retreated enough to let him sleep well. Another part hopes he works through the truth far enough to find peace on the other side.

I think I am a decent teacher. I will not lie to my students. The two may be related.

Align Right

The comb jelly is via NOAA, so I think is fair game--the photographer's name is embedded in the image.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The propaganda of Bill Gates

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has partnered with Viacom to take over several youth-oriented channels on September 8th. The Gates couple has a message they want to send about their newest 5 year initiative to manipulate education to their advantage ("Get Schooled").

The brief video on the Get Schooled website opens with "Your teachers can't teach you."

During the video blurb, a male voice edging on harpy--no doubt selected after hours of test audiences-- ends by announcing "The one thing you'll never learn in school is how important school is."

This is, of course, horse hockey.

The program is funded by the foundation created by a man who did not complete college.

Kelly Clarkson and LeBron James host the program. Both are successful in their respective worlds, both have oodles of fame and money. Neither went to college. Both had full scholarship offers, Kelly for her voice, Lebron for his basketball skills.

I'm not of the school that everyone needs or should go to college, but I find it ironic hypocritical that Bill, Kelly, and LeBron feel qualified to spout that very message.

From the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation:
Get Schooled is a national platform that connects, inspires and mobilizes people - from policymakers and corporate leaders to communities and kids - to find effective solutions to the problems facing our education system.

I guess Mr. Gates would argue that the show is not hypocritical, because it's not about Kelly or LeBron--it's about their support personnel. Maybe the message is that if you want to touch the mighty, get a degree.

The opening attack on teachers, however, is unconscionable.

Go look at the video. Ask yourself how much is good information, how much is propaganda.

I'm not busting my butt to produce careerists. I am not busting my butt to produce a generation of children who define success by how much they make, or how far they rise in a corporate structure.

I am busting my butt to help produce a thoughtful citizenry that can see beyond the dangerous dogma promoted by Bill Gates and others with far more power than sense.

School's Matter, where I first learned about the above, also reports that the same foundation is gaming the "Race to the Top" grants.
I could have compared Bill Gates to Joseph Goebbels, but that would have been a cheap shot.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Tech advice, anyone?

School's rumbling closer, and I've a decision to make.
Decision made, see below.

We have MS Word 2003 in school, MS Word 2007 and OpenOffice (OOo) at home. I have more problems bouncing between the two versions of Word than I do going from OOo to any platform.

My desktop runs on linux/Ubuntu. I just got a cheap laptop with Vista, and may switch over to linux on that one as well.

Is it worth partitioning the drive to keep Vista on the laptop, then drop $75 to buy the MS Office Home and Student version? Does partitioning the drive affect performance at all?

(I also lose access to EasyGrade Pro with linux, but after last year's disaster with EGP, I'm a bit wary of that program as well. I am playing with Tom Hoffman's SchoolTool, also open source, and may use that instead.)

Any and all thoughts welcome.

(Two days ago a U.S. District Court judge ruled Microsoft has 60 days to pull MS Word off the shelves because of patent infringement. Money and lawyers and tweaks will fix this, of course, but still...

...And today Mr. Bill has done it once again:
"Get Schooled: You Have the Right formally kicks off "Get Schooled," a five-year national initiative co-developed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Viacom that creates a platform for corporate and community stakeholders to address the challenges facing America's public schools")

Enough. I'm tired of sending money to a corporation whose leader wants public education to advance careers above citizenry, and who is openly manipulating public discourse with his money.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Coquina stew

Look closely at the action.

Clams. Coquinas. On the prowl.

In August you can find them on Cape May beaches, thousands upon thousands of them.

Get enough of them you can boil them up, strain out the shells, add some potatoes, onions, and cream to taste, and have a tasty tiny clam feast! It sounds delicious, and in February I dream of making it--last week I had the chance.

And I did not.

I have enough trouble thinking about my sessile quahogs as I toss them into the boiling water. To kill thousands of their smaller active cousins, though, was too much for me last week.

It may not matter much to an individual coquina that it has been plucked from the edge of the surf, only to end up in boiling water. I have no way to tell, and they certainly don't squawk too much when I pick them up.

Does the scale of the slaughter matter when dealing with mollusks?

(Or did I just need an excuse to show a live action shot of coquinas....?)

Video by Chris Griffiths, used with permission.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Leslie and the Perseids

Tonight the Perseids meteor shower peaks. You can't beat looking for meteors in August. The Leonids may be more spectacular some years, but I prefer warm, buggy nights to having my breath fog up my view.

Summertime meteor showers require little more than a blanket, maybe some bug spray, and a pair of eyes.

You don't need a star map, you just need to keep looking up.
You don't need a telescope, you just need to keep looking up.
You don't need binoculars, you just need to keep looking up.


Leslie and I have seen a lot of night sky together. I wrote something 5 years ago about something else that happened over 30 years ago. I like it, and I have used it several times in the past few years.

Hey, it's my blog--I'm using it again.

We'll drink cheap wine and watch for shooting stars

Cheap wine requires yeast.

No yeast, no wine. See the fuzzy stuff on grapes still hanging on the vine? The blush of yeast. Alive. Ubiquitous. Cheap.

To make a fancy wine, the yeast on the grapes must be killed. Millions of the critters are poisoned by sulfite. A particular strain of yeast is then introduced. A truly fancy wine has elite grapes and cultivated yeast. To be fair, the tongue appreciates the effort.

A cheap homemade wine can be made by just leaving squashed grapes in a barrel. No sulfites. No killing. Worst that happens is you end up with a decent vinegar
A shooting star lights up the midnight sky. A child makes a wish. A woman not sure of the man she's with sees a sign of love, a mistake rectified in court 12 years later. An older gentleman dying of prostate cancer marvels at the glow.

On any given clear night, I can see a shooting star graze the sky.One magical morning I saw hundreds sparkle over me with my youngest at my side.

Still as magical as it was, should I collect a few grams of shooting star dust and sprinkle it into grape juice, nothing happens. The grape juice still tastes like grape juice. It's not that difficult to collect shooting star dust*; collecting yeast, however, is easier. The stuff is everywhere. Most Americans spend more money buying drugs to eliminate yeast than buying yeast itself.

Every day a grape vine outside my window converts water and CO2 to grapes; a year or two later, yeast converts the same grapes into wine.

I have lived with the same woman for more than a quarter century. Years before she cradled my daughter in her womb, we watched a summer shower of shooting stars in the Catskills. We marveled at the eerie midnight streaks. Still, stardust and water make only mud.
If you collect rainwater in a bucket, let it set a bit, then drag a magnet through it, you will capture some micrometeorites. If you look at them under a microscope, you can see the pits of their journey inscribed in the particles.

If you spent any time outside today, you may well have a particle or two in your hair, descended from the heavens. 40,000 tons of cosmic dust settle on our planet in a year. A few micrometeorites settled on the roof above you while you slept last night. Comet dust, cosmic spherules, shattered asteroids, moon and Mars dust.

Leslie and I lay on a grassy hill in the mountains, before our children had names. If we drank any wine that night, we could not have told you much about it beyond its color.

We have since seen hundreds of meteors, perhaps one for every streak of gray hair we share. Still we smile at the unexpected midnight flash. We have become sophisticated enough to know premier grand cru classé from the screwcap pink stuff.
Seeing Leslie after just a few hours apart still startles me like a shooting star. An unexpected, undeserved pleasure.

This world rewards those who pay attention. I have wasted warm, clear nights staring at this monitor; bunches and bunches of grapes fall unharvested at the end of every summer.

Still, as we grow older, the sky and the grapes return over and over again. Good, cheap wine needs more time than energy, and I am still young enough to have both.

When things go bad (and all things that breathe eventually rot), things become difficult. My father lies trapped in a body only partially his now. My mother died a grotesque death, her moth-eaten brain reducing her gracefulness to that of an awkward marionette. Our turn awaits.

Still, as our bodies fail, we'll drink cheap wine and watch for shooting stars. It was enough when we started, more than enough now.

Monday, August 10, 2009

On Why Sarah Fine Left Teaching

The Washington Post, a newspaper with a fine history now supported by Kaplan, the testing folks, gave Ms. Sarah Fine, another young star leaving my profession, coveted space in its pages.

I've been holding my tongue on Sarah Fine's Op-Ed. Go read it here. She's young (not a fault, but a factor), and she's part of a cohort expected to do huge things,

Says Sarah:
Teaching is a grueling job, and without the kind of social recognition that accompanies professions such as medicine and law, it is even harder for ambitious young people like me to stick with it.

I've done both teaching and medicine--medicine pays ridiculously well for some, and here in the States that may be enough to give a profession gravitas, esteem, whatever you want to call it.

Docs take a fair amount of jovial abuse here, as do lawyers. Any profession does--if you "profess," expect to be challenged, especially by your peers.

Teaching is hard work--so are a lot (I'd daresay most) jobs, professions, whatever you want to call work. I work with a lot of people who left other fields--professional chemists, business folks, a photographer, a lawyer--and while we're aware that a lot of folks see teachers as those that can't do, we're also aware that, despite the tremendous amount of work required, it's not harder than the professions we left.

So why does anyone teach here in the States? You'll get a lot of answers--love of students, time off, good benefits--but for those of us who happily stay, it's because we believe teaching matters. The financial compensation is reasonable if not spectacular, but that's not why we teach.

(This was originally a reply to Tracy Rosen's blog, Leading From The Heart,
one of my favorites, but my reply got hung up in cyberspace,
I'm not blessed with patience, so here it is here.)

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Nagasaki, 1945



Yosuke Yamahata, A Japanese army photographer, took this picture the day after the Fat Man fell over Nagasaki.

More of Mr. Yamahata's photography can be seen here.

The photo and the quote are from © The Exploratorium,

Friday, August 7, 2009

"Beliefs" by xkcd

Nuclear weaponry (and its use) hardly make for light reading.

It's August--last night I witnessed a bio-luminescent comb jelly lighting up the beach as it was tossed about in the waves. Today I saw an ibis mucking about a mudflat at low tide. Life remains wondrously awesome, despite the behavior of H. sapiens.

So we're mortal; we screw up.

When things get tough, the tough turn to xkcd, a comic strip by Randall Munroe, a physicist who gets sidetracked by life, and puts it in comics.

(If you click on the comic, you should get a clean image.)

Makes me think maybe we're a step above wasps.

Randall Munroe lets folks use xkcd for noncommercial purposes, as long as it's attributed and not overdone. Thanks, Randall!

"Now, I am become death...."

This morning I saw a wasp dragging paralyzed cricket along the edge of the driveway. The wasp was not much bigger than the cricket, and the wasp struggled. At one point she let go, stepped back a few inches, stroked her head a few times (much like a human facing a big task), and eventually dragged it down a hole by the driveway garden. The cricket was still alive, but paralyzed.

I did not intervene.

The wasp will lay her eggs in the cricket, and they will hatch in the cricket, still alive, and the cricket will, of course, suffer.

I did not intervene.

The larva wasp will use the the cricket, still alive, for food.Photo by Bruce Holderbaum

I knew this. I did not intervene.

Leslie and I kayaked again today, which is what we do.

While drifting past the Harborview, a nice bar sitting on the Cape May harbor (which I guess you've already figured), I found a piling with several purple sea urchins on it. Why they picked this piling, I do not know. It's been a couple of years since I've seen purple sea urchins around.

A long, long time ago, when my hair was still black, a professor explained to me that I was to inject a sea urchin with a hormone, to induce the urchin to lay eggs. I did.

I was then instructed to split the dividing embryo, which I more or less did, but with much less enthusiasm.

I grew up with a microscope and an imagination. Splitting the developing embryo under the scope, willfully, in order to observe something that had a predictable outcome, knotted my stomach.

I knew nothing about the GI nervous system when I was 18, but I knew enough to trust it.

I quit the course.

I learned a lot about botany as a result.

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, "Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." I suppose we all thought that one way or another.

-J. Robert Oppenheimer..

Ken Allan is a blogger on the other side of the Earth. ( Kia ora e Ken.) He, like me, is no spring chicken, and he, like me, occasionally changes his mind on topics. He's quirky, bright, thoughtful, and well worth reading.

He sent me the this video:

Now, before I completely embarrass myself, let me state right out front that I am no Oppenheimer. Few of us are.

Still, back in 1977, a few people had enough faith in me that I got a lot of strangers' money to attend the University of Michigan. The biology department was rockin' then and may well be now, I don't know, I don't pay much attention to these things.

Still, I was a hotshot. Until the sea urchin. Looking at Oppenheimer in this video, I am glad that I got out of the hot edge of biochemstry. He made a mistake, and suffered because he realized that he made a mistake.

And now I teach science to (very) young adults. I have a responsibility to them, to the state, to myself.

Harry S. Truman called the bombing of Hiroshima "the greatest achievement of organized science." If that does not give you pause, you should not be teaching science.

You should not be teaching anything at all.

The photo is by Bruce Holderbaum and can be found here--used with permission.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Hiroshima, 1945


Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese army base. That bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of TNT. ... It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. . . . What has been done is the greatest achievement of organized science in history. . . .

It happened on this date, this "greatest achievement."

New technology used to "solve" an old problem. We cannot help ourselves.

Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute, suggested "we ought to stay out of the nuclei." Until we have a clue what we want, sounds like good advice.

You cannot separate tools from the critters who use them. Teaching science as some compartmentalized thought process without cultural context is a dangerous game.

What is our responsibility as teachers of science?
As citizens of the United States?
As human beings?

(Yes, this is an older post, and a timeless one.)

For God, Family, Country, and the Global Economy.

N.Y. Times, January 12, 1892, Wednesday

2008 saw the Great Hop Panic--a warehouse fire, increased demand in China, a poor European crop all led to speculation in hops futures.

While I still brew my own ale on occasion, I stopped harvesting my hops a couple of years ago--my plants had fallen to downy mildew, and I often forgot about the flower heads while drying in the attic.

Despite my neglect, the bines thrive today:

They grow even though I no longer use them for my ale. Hops do not grow for me, or for my ale, or for any particular reason at all beyond life, which seems reason enough.

Whatever their open market value, the monetary value of my hops this year, should I choose to harvest them, is an artificial conceit.

You can make money buying low and selling high--but you're kidding yourself if you think you've done anything productive by doing that.


I read the Business Section of the Times, particularly the agricultural futures, not because I invest but because I am fascinated by the disconnect. Capitalism as practiced here requires expanding markets; agriculture is ultimately limited by the energy given to us freely by the sun. (Nitrogen used to be the limiting factor, but Fritz Haber, the father of chemical warfare, took over where the bacteria left off.)

A bushel of wheat settled at about $5.70 in the futures yesterday. A bushel of wheat weighs 60 pounds.

That's less than a dime a pound.

Wheat is dirt cheap because petroleum is dirt cheap, because we are graced with decent land and sun and water, because it's easy to store, and (mostly) because there's enough for all of us.

While we bandy about economic acronyms--LIBOR, GATT, DJIA--and while many people get paid handsomely to juggle jiggle numbers, all economics eventually gets down to grace--what the Earth provides.

My hops may or may not end up in my overly hopped IPA this fall, but they remind me of grace daily.

(If you look carefully, there's a green bottle fly clinging to the flower, Lucilia sericata. They, too, have economic value--their larva are used in maggot therapy to clean festering wounds.)

Arne Duncan seems sincere, and maybe he is. He's earnest, but I suspect not too bright. He made a lot of money playing basketball, and he has a lot of power as Secretary of Education, but a few of my students will quietly produce far more in their lifetimes than Arne will in his.

Being productive and contributing to the GDP are not synonymous. If a child does not understand your job title, you're likely more useful to the GDP than you are to the child (unless that child happens to be from your loins--blood buys privilege).


I started under the trinity of God, family, and country. Captain C.W. Doyle resigned from Marines because of Viet Nam, the family exploded, and now I find God nursing flies on a hops flower.

He grew up in a time,
When a third-grade education,
Was all the school you needed,
To work the family farm.
He'd take time off on Sunday,
Him and all his family,
warm a pew,
And give thanks to the Lord.

--Craig Morgan

Go ahead, wipe away the tear--*

Arne's trumped all three:
[T]here's a fund that we're calling a "Race to the Top" fund, which is really trying to encourage states and school districts to think about how we compete, not just with students down the block, but how we better compete with children in India and China, 'cause we're really in a global economy today.

Do it for the economy.

"The economy," like the word "God," is too nebulous to be useful anymore. Do I believe in God? In capitalism? In country? Tell me what you mean by each of those words, and I will tell you what I think.

I did not raise my kids to fix the global economy, and do not plan on sacrificing any child on the altar of the WTO. Yes, those are emotionally laden words and, yes, not terribly useful in a debate, and that's the point.

Ask Arne and President Obama why education matters, and they tell you it's to save our economic soul.

What does "global economy" mean, Arne?

I've got a friend nurturing a few hundred apple trees, and every morning when he gets up, he's surrounded by an orchard now 5 or 6 generations old. A lot of his apples are old school--Jonathans and Northern Spies, Idareds and Spigolds---but they cannot compete globally with the shiny, sexy, easy to transport Red Delicious (which only holds up to half of its name).

So why do his apples still sell? Because they are delicious and complex, and because there are enough people within driving distance that come to his farms to buy what they cannot get in the supermarket.

My local school district is mostly funded by my neighbors. Each home contributes thousands of dollars yearly to our efforts to educate our children.

Arne, what about the "local economy"?

Should Arne ever come knocking on my door, I'll share a bottle of home-made ale and a loaf of fresh baked bread from freshly ground flour, made from wheat grown in Montana. We'll order a pizza from Jerry down the street, and if it's fall, maybe I'll even bake him an apple pie using Northern Spies.

Once we're sated (if a man like Arne can be sated), I'll introduce him to James, a sophomore who lives just up the street, who runs an informal (and very local) lawn care business, a child who may well lack the ability to grasp calculus.

Then I will show him the hops flowers thriving in the backyard, and ask him what he thinks they're worth.

*Um, about the video--no, I do not think we should limit ourselves to a 3rd grade education and idealize a time that never existed, when everything was black and white. I do think, though, that we ought to examine the value of what we do. Doing something for the great Global Economy is like doing something for any other ill-defined concept--the heart flutters while the brain goes blank.

I'm a science teacher--it's in my best interests to keep brains alive.

The newspaper column is from the NY Times archives,
the hops flower from our garden,
and the video from YouTube.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Teacher in wonderland

Barring last-minute changes (why not add death and taxes to the list?), I get my own room this year. I wandered around the room earlier today, checking out different vantage points.Yes, I have an Ingmar Bergman complex...

It's a lab room with lots of windows and lots of space--multiple white boards, an interactive Smartboard, 2 bulletin boards, 6 lab tables, a fume hood & shower, and multiple eye wash stations. (I'd call it a biology teacher's wet dream, but I'm having enough issues with my PSA as it is.)

So here's my fantasy list of things I want to do with the room--I'm trusting more experience teachers reading this to steer me clear of potential disasters:


The head starts falling ever so slowly--a jerk, a nod, another jerk. His head ends up on the desk, a string of drool from his lip to the growing pond on his notebook.

In high school you rarely have time to ask what the problem is--maybe your class sucks, maybe his grandmother is ill, maybe the child was up playing WoW--but if it's only one or two kids in a week, it might not be you.

We have a lot of "discussions," usually a bit one-sided, and we have a lot of labs. The kids are trained to look for what is supposed to happen--they've been trained to do this since they first trucked off to school lugging their SpongeBob lunch boxes.

What we don't have is a whole lot of science going on day to day.

I plan to have a rotating display at one of the lab tables, something to stimulate thinking. It might be a Jacob's ladder one week, a prism the next, maybe then a Newton's cradle. I could share my Drinky Bird and the "boiling" pen. I could put out a stereoscope and a beetle, or maybe a hand-cranked generator, or just a bowl of water. A stethoscope, a fossilized orthoceras, a karimba, marbles, a jar of slugs, a bag of shells.There are literally hundreds of simple demos used since Socrates showed Plato how to start a fire with a magnifying glass, things a lot of my kids have never seen.

I'd have to make it informal enough to be attractive, yet formal enough to keep it focused--maybe I'll just leave a notebook there for students to write down observations and thoughts.

Here's the kicker: they can go up one at a time, whenever, and play for as long as 10 minutes. (I may need a small hourglass, which itself can be interesting.)

Sun dial

I have windows. I have a sundial. In September I'll have tenure. What's the risk in drilling a small platform on the 3rd floor ledge?

Maybe I'll keep a composition book by the window and appoint a Minister of Time.

An analog clock

Yep, I got a big, old-fashioned school clock that was almost tossed last year. I kept it in my big box of junk, wrestled out the old battery, scraped off years of battery crud, and now hope to use it in class.

It has a second hand--you can watch your seconds spin away.The minute hand perceptibly moves. "Quarter of" makes sense looking at a handsome clock like this one.

I may hang an abacus next to it.

The Declaration of Independence

I'm betting at least one kid complains--"Hey, that doesn't belong in here, this is science class."

Look at the opening line:

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
Declaration of Independece, the italics, obviously mine

See, children? You can't be diving into the Declaration without knowing a little something about the laws of nature.

A garden

I've done this every year in just about every class, and owe a huge thanks for all the teachers who put up with it in their classrooms. If you teach in an urban district you owe it to your children to have them plant something, anything.

For me, the raw Goya beans work best--the kids are convinced they won't grow because they come from the grocery store. They grow like weeds. Peas work well, too, and have lovely flowers.

One of my best moments ever in a class was eating a bean from a bean plant grown in class. I explained that the stuff that made up the plant came from the carbon dioxide from our breath. (A collective yech!)

Wheat grows well, too, and can be used to make some flour come harvest time.

The (un)usual menagerie

This is, after all, biology class.

I have been charged with setting up a saltwater tank--if successful, I hope to capture a critter or two from our Jersey shores--the Newark Bay is only a few miles away.

The Drinking Bird photo is from "Best cubicle toys for programmers"here.
The Goya beans from their website.
I figure the Declaration and Alice are public domain.