Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Wall Street Transparency and Accountability Act of 2010

"We have to educate our
way to a better economy."

There's seems to be a very basic confusion here, the kind of confusion that separates the wrench from the rhetoric crowd.

If Arne means the extractive economy, where access to dollars and power leads to more dollars, more power, well, the clever will win, as they have, as they will. We have as much a distribution as a production problem here in the States, and even if a degree from the Katharine Gibbs College held the gravitas of sheepskin from Yale, not all of us can run our own mutual fund company.

I agree our kids need a dose of financial literacy. I'd start by bringing in a bowl of dollar bills, buttered, salted, and fried to a nice crispiness, then ask my students to snack on them.
Dr. D, you're weird....

What do you need?

Oxygen. Water. Food. Shelter. Warmth.

Money helps fit you into the distribution system--everything listed above costs you something except oxygen, and some day that will be marketed as well.

A college degree will help you gain access to the money world--you do not need to know a blessed thing about how life works to join the fray. I got a tiny jolt of comfort learning that the Wall Street reform bill starts in the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

If Wall Street can be held accountable to anything, it will be the laws of nature. I'm not holding my breath--that'd be unnatural--but if the Senate cannot fix this, the limits of biomass production will.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Apropos nothing....

Yes, I know I'm going to Hell in a purple basket
'Least I'll be in another world while you're pissing on my casket...

Leslie likes this, and now I do, too. I woke up with it in my head.

Take all your fears, pretend they're all true
Take all your plans, pretend they fell through
But that's what it's like...
That's what it's like for most people in this world.

Not sure if it's Casablanca's Johnny Cash voice, his bubblegum pop riffs, or the Oirish (and universal) themes of death and redemption (sort of), but it captures the madness of light and love.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Training wheels

"Your shower shoes have fungus on them. You'll never make it to the bigs with fungus on your shower shoes. Think classy, you'll be classy. If you win 20 in the show, you can let the fungus grow back and the press'll think you're colorful. Until you win 20 in the show, however, it means you are a slob."

Crash Davis to Nuke, in Bull Durham

Teaching in a public school system is, for me anyway, a shot at the show.

I used to practice medicine. I was pretty good at it, but it consumed pretty much every waking moment, and as the years went by, docs lost quite a bit of their autonomy. I also reached a point where I wasn't going to get much better.

I love to stargaze. A fellow stargazer, a walking star atlas who could pinpoint any deep sky object anyone could name, reminisced about when he began, back when he still got lost looking for the moon. There is joy in the process of mastery, in emerging through the fog of failure into competence.

I practice teaching now, and while I'm not yet half the teacher I was the doc, I'm getting better. It's fun, and I doubt I'll master the classroom in the years I have left. If I do, well, I always wanted to try plumbing.
Most of my fellow teachers work hard, very hard, and love what they do.

Some teachers complain very publicly about lack of respect, about the need to be recognized as professionals.

First, understand the backlash. We have jobs. We're paid decently, we have good benefits, and we have a lot of days off.

Teachers with a decade or two under their belts make far more per hour than I did as a pediatrician. Most do not have 6 figure debt at graduation, and their apprenticeship was a mere 17 weeks, not several years.

I went into pediatrics because I enjoyed working with kids, and I worked in the projects because that was where I was needed.

I presume you teach because you enjoy working with kids, and I hope you feel like you're doing something useful.

A profession is a calling. I'm not sure where teaching lies--for some it's a profession, for some it's a wonderful job, but still just a job, and for a few miserable folks, it's a trap baited by a pension a lifetime away.

If you're going to complain about not being treated as a professional, toss the shower shoes. The public does not define professionalism, our behavior does. If teaching is not a vocation, literally "a calling," then it's just a job.

And that's OK, too--so long as you keep working to improve.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Yep, clams again....

Today I dug up a couple dozen quahogs, half of which ended up on the table tonight. I also found a gold ring while raking for the clams. Which is worth more?

Aside from the nominal $10 fee I pay New Jersey, for the privilege of printing out of piece of paper that keeps me from paying more, the clams cost me nothing but a little exercise.


The ring cost someone some dollars. It has initials on it. I found it about 6" deep. I could sell it and get me some dollars for it. Someone was paid money to get it from the ground, someone else was paid money to put the monogram on it. I think maybe I'll just toss it back.

One of the clams had a deep purple patch on the inside, the kind of purple you see just before dusk ends. Purple is the last color we can see of the visual spectrum. Beyond purple, ultraviolet, then X-rays, then gamma rays. Purple is as much EMR excitement as we can safely tolerate.

Gold falls somewhere in the middle.

Would you trade your ability to see purple for a ton of gold? Do you even consider doing the calculations?

My uncle got the first little neck today. First one of the year.

We were trying out a new tide flat today, and I was not sure how we'd do.

I am an experienced clammer, and while I raked up a bunch of steamers, I could not find a little neck. Once my uncle did, though, I found a bunch more. I could not find them until I believed they were there. Once I believed they were there, I could not believe I missed them before that.

A huge part of science is framing the question, framing your observations. Our ability to see things is proportional to our belief that those things exist. We are very good at not seeing things we do not want to believe exist.

My grip on reality is tenuous, but I suspect it is no more tenuous than most of us.

A few hours ago a little neck siphoned sea water, as it has for 5 or 6 years now. It stripped organic compounds from the water, and it grew. That same clam is now somewhere between my stomach and my large intestine. Words can only defile the relationship I have with the clam, with the plankton the clam filtered yesterday, with the sun's energy captured by the plankton two weeks ago while I fretted about the school budget cuts.

That I can even think such thoughts depends on my ability to convert the clam's clamminess into glucose, to feed my brain.

Gold can't do that.

This was my 500th post. I'm thinking of retiring soon....

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Look up!

Lyrids tonight.

Be there or be, or parallelogram.

(OK, here's how you do it. Get a blanket and a comfy lounge chair. Wait until dark. Go outside. Keep looking up. The Lyrids are, occasionally, spectacular. )

Hey, we're going through remnants of the tail of a comet at this moment....
If you spent any time outside today, you might have some comet dust in your hair.

Holy water

O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

W. B. Yeats
"Among School Children"

Earth Day. Again.

For a few generations, a small slice of humans on this planet got to pretend they rose above the wilderness, the wildness. We pretend we are immortal. We hide our dead and dying.

Wheat settled yesterday for $4.993/4 per bushel. A penny will get you 2000 individual wheat berries.

An acre in wheat will yield about 42 bushels, gross about $210 for the farmer. The farmer pays for fertilizer, for grain, and sometimes for water. The carbon dioxide and sunlight are free.

I grew wheat once on a 20 square foot plot. It yielded about a pint of wheat berries. Cost me nothing but a handful of grain.

It's Earth Day--go scatter some wheat.

We eat a lot of wheat. We chew bread, break down the complex sugars to smaller parts, tiny pieces of which finally enter our cells. In our cytoplasm, the bread is broken, and even smaller pieces wander over to mitochondria. Oxygen accepts the now spent electrons, electrons initially excited by sunlight on a Kansas plain, and we recreate the holy water that initially gave up the electrons on a sunlit wheat field.

Resurrection in a water drop. The water is broken on a farmer's field, resurrected in a cell deep within my body.

I can never claim to be a reborn Christian--that implies a singular event. I've been reborn enough times to qualify as an Hindu. I'll leave the Mysteries to the theologians, but I do like our Creation stories, even if they are internally inconsistent. Good stories focus on truths, not facts.

And in the Genesis I read, our soul is made of mud. Our soul is made of breath. We are living souls, acts of creation, and temporary acts at that. We are part of something larger.

Every breath in, oxygen. Every breath out, resurrection.


How do you teach this, this mystery of the mitochondria, of the wheat, of water that splits and combines, then splits again, using the sun's energy, so that we can go about singing and frowning and dancing and copulating and playing and growing and, yes, dying, one generation to the next?

How do we approach the mystery from the science end? How do we teach that we are just a tiny piece of consciousness in a long dance of life, and a longer dance of energy?

And if we should ever succeed in teaching this, how will we keep the children in the classroom on a lovely, lovely April afternoon?

The drawing was lifted from the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor--
there is an annual fundraiser there in my sister's name--go enjoy yourselves!

Ironically, my sister was killed by an errant self-identified Christian missionary.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

"Holy curiosity of inquiry"

It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.

Albert Einstein

One of the primary duties of any teacher, but particularly a science teacher, is to keep curiosity alive.

One of the primary duties of any public school teacher is to complete the state mandated curriculum in the limited amount of time given.

We teach science as we would teach wizardry, if magic existed. Memorize the spells, wave your beakers just so, and miracles happen. Magic does not exist, and we should stop teaching as though it does.

Einstein uses "holy" to describe curiosity. It is our curiosity, not our techniques, that drives thinking.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Ashes, ashes, we all fall down....

‘‘KLM 867 we have flame out all engines and we are descending now!’’

The airspace over northern Europe has been virtually shut down to commercial air traffic because of volcanic ash spewing from Iceland.

We get to practice real-time science now. How much do we know about volcanic ash?

We can tell what's in it. (Iceland has initiated a huge involuntary fluoridation program.)

We can look at past anecdotal evidence at what has happened when commercial jets fly into ash. In 1989 a Boeing 747 flew into an ash cloud over Alaska, and temporarily lost all 4 engines. KLM is still using that particular aircraft, so there's at least one plane we know should avoid the ash.

We know that the Eyjafjallajokull volcano has spewed ash for over a year in the past, way back in 1821.

We're still new at this predicting business, and even newer at this flying business. If nothing else, Eyjafjallajokull reminds us how little we know, and how little we can control.

I bet I'm not the only science teacher tickled that the world still pokes holes into our hubris.

The photo by the Associated Press.

Update: various airlines are taking practice runs at different altitudes to assess the damage to their aircraft.
Science in action!

Non sequitur

This is what we did before folks spent more time in their heads than out.

Not saying it's better, but it sure was different. Well, except maybe for the hat--I wore striped knit caps then, and I wear the same now. Call it Peter Tork Mike Nesmith syndrome.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Ghosts in the classroom

Science in a classroom stops the moment you tell an imaginative child she did not see what she thought she just saw. If a child sees a ghost, it is not enough to tell her that ghosts do not exist. She still will fear the ghost she sees.

For children paying attention, with highly tuned senses but little background understanding of how grownups view the world today, just about everything is miraculous--singular events that rock their worlds.

Post-Newtonian physics has closets full of ghosts, spirits in impossible worlds conjured by mathematics. If a 3rd grader spouts off a question a physicist may reasonably ask ("Ms. Santanella, can today happen again?"), that child's question will be dismissed with a cursory "Of course not!"

So what do you say? You can offer alternate explanations that fit the data and a larger worldview (which is what scientists, do, no?). You could ask her to continue her observations. You might even help her set up a way to test her hypothesis that her ghost exists.

What you shouldn't do, though, is just dismiss it. Even if the bell is about to ring and the state-mandated testing is 3 weeks away.

My 1960's public schooling tried to squeeze a mechanistic view of the universe into my skull--I was stubborn enough to know I saw enough at the edge of a pond to dismiss what passed for science in school.

I didn't know enough to challenge my teachers, but I knew enough to know they didn't quite have the whole story.

We never have; we never will. That's what makes science so much fun....

Multiverse drawing from Nature, 443

Thursday, April 8, 2010

New Jersey Environmental Federation

Miners die for our sins. That they get paid reasonably well to do this does not disconnect us from our responsibility to them. Miners' lives are cheap, so coal can remain cheap. Cheap as in dollars. Cheap as in life.

We mostly lead cheap lives. If we thought about what we do moment to moment, thought about the consequences to our neighbors, to our babies, to our babies' babies, most of us would stop. The few that wouldn't would go to jail.

Most of us don't think. Most of us. Yesterday I got to meet a hive of activists who know a bit about water and they think about what they know. Even more important, they do something vastly more useful than wringing their hands. They ring doorbells instead.


Yesterday I got to talk to a group of aware young adults, canvassers for the New Jersey Environmental Federation--Clean Water Action. I talked to them about clamming, which is dependent on decent water, and while clamming is one of my passions, it's not something most 20somethings spend a lot of time contemplating, but they were polite, and nobody fell asleep.

They work for us and the Earth. They are passionate, knowledgeable, and obviously happy to do the work they do. They do important work, work that matters, and they do it well.

They are not Pollyannas. They make connections. They can see where current cultural practices will lead us. And despite this, they seem, well, happy.

If someone who know a bit about water rings your doorbell, listen to them. Handing them a check for their work keeps them employed, but if you really want to see them glow, listen to what they have to say. They're passionate and knowledgeable, and they believe they can change the world.

And if we pay attention, they will.

Yep, my son is in the picture.

Hello Bonjour

I don’t need a passport to walk on this earth
Anywhere I go ’cause I was made of this earth
I'm born of this earth, I breathe of this earth
And even with the pain I believe in this earth....

'cause every bit of land is a holy land
and every drop of water is a holy water
and every single child is a son or a daughter
of the one earth mama and the one earth papa

Michael Franti, Hello Bonjour below

I got to watch a carpenter bee for a bit this afternoon.

He was patrolling his patch of Earth--he'd hover in one spot, occasionally changing the direction he faced with a curt shift. He has inspected me enough to know I am not a problem. He no longer bumps into me when I wander too close to his post.

(While the males do not sting, it is still unnerving to have an insect bounce off your forehead.)

As other flying critters entered his territory, he would chase them off. Except the lady bug. Lady bugs, at least this one, did not appreciate the ferocity of the big bumble, and went about its business.

I grew up hearing various reasons why other beings exist. Bees exist to give us honey. Spiders exist to eat the mosquitoes that plague us. Bacteria exist to help us digest food.


Not once did I hear a teacher say beings exist because, well, just because. Who knows? I grew up learning about a mechanistic universe that exists to serve humans. What I learned in school did not jive with what I learned outside. If children no longer go outside, how will they come to realize the lies we tell them?

I want to play this for biology class--obviously I cannot, but if anyone can recommend a song with a similar sentiment safe for the classroom, let me know. (The sentiment might not be safe in any guise....)

I killed an oyster yesterday. It was on a stone jetty, already half buried in the sand, doomed, as we all are. I wanted to use it for bait, but I knew better. Oysters are too fragile to sit on hooks. Whatever possessed the mariner to slay his albatross possessed me.

Last night I dreamed I was given a big oyster. A huge oyster. 2 feet wide, 4 feet tall. I wandered around town looking for someone to tell me what to do with my oyster, but nobody had a good answer. I woke up before I could return it to the sea.

I killed an oyster yesterday. It was probably several years old. It survived the winter storms. I thought about eating it. I did not.

This is an interesting world, but not a safe one, at least not for individual oysters or individual humans or individual carpenter bees.

It has proven remarkably safe, though, for life. Over 3 billion years worth of lives have survived here, through comets and earthquakes and volcanoes, through cosmic rays and solar flares, through ice ages and past global warmings.

That I get to be even a tiny part of it makes me grin like the Cheshire Cat....

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

At least someone from Chicago had a clue....

I should say that no subject in itself has a distinct pedagogical value. The value of any subject is in relation to all other subjects.

Colonel Francis W. Parker

Principal of the Cook County Normal School
Report of the Committee of fifteen (1895)

For a variety of good reasons, we are, as a faculty, designing a new environmental science course, integrating traditional divisions into one course. It's exciting designing a course from scratch.

We get to blend our disciplines--biology, physics, chemistry, geoscience--into a year's worth of science aimed at freshmen who do not (yet) plan to nab a Nobel Prize in science.

Specialization in high school science may have made sense in 1895, when the Committee of fifteen developed the class divisions we still use today, before specialization got so, well, specialized.

While it's cute to watch videos of children spout off scientific language, it becomes dangerous when ignorant folks confuse this with knowledge.

Charlie's Playhouse was founded by a Dr. Kate Miller, a scientist who now stays at home to be with her kids. I'm sure her heart's in the right place, and her science is sound. She's not just another huckster exploiting children to sell something.

Still, the video of children sanctimoniously spouting off mostly bad science (with the exception of one child's succinct description of natural selection) illustrates how science evolves into dogma. Using cute kids and bouncy music to sell ideas, even good ones, saddens me.

If we taught science as a discipline, as a way of looking at the world, instead of the fragmented approach we take today, I bet Charlie's Playhouse would thrive without the marketing gurus on their advisory board.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Testing, testing, 1...2...3

What's the point of a microscope if a child does not know that every drop of water in the small pond behind the middle school holds hundreds of critters?

What's the point of looking at pictures beamed from the Hubble Telescope if a child has never gazed at her own stars above a dark meadow on a moonless night?

What's the point of financial literacy if a child does not know that everything essential for life comes from from the grace of an ultimately unknowable universe?

What's the point of education?

Not everything worth knowing is testable, and a lot of testable items are, frankly, not worth knowing. I'm not convinced Mr. Duncan, a graduate of Harvard, grasps this.


You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird... So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing -- that's what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.
Richard Feynman

The dolphins are back in the Delaware Bay.

They are wild, they are big. You can hear them chirping and clicking if you stick your head in the water, a bit dicey in early spring.

Critters three times my size are swimming just off the beach, that left the land to return to the sea.

How do you teach about the dolphin? How do you describe the swirl of water as a young one dives under your kayak? How do you capture the sound you hear in late August as you bob underwater listening for their chatter?

How can I do better than just point and say look! Look!?

And if I teach a child to look, to learn, to know something by observing, how can that be tested?

It does not matter if a child knows the name Tursiops truncatus. It does not matter if a child can tell me the average weight of an adult male, or how many pound of fish it eats, or where it spends its winter. All of that means nothing, nothing, until the child sees the beast slap its magnificent tail 40 yards off the beach, this wild grinning beast that chose to return to the sea.

That's a RAP

“ I am an Ariel Student. That means that I AM THE BEST. The way that I show that I am the best is through: Good schoolwork, good behavior, good manners, and by being a good friend. That’s what it takes to be an Ariel Student.”

I left medicine so I could teach public high school.

Arne Duncan left professional basketball so that he could run the Ariel Education Initiative, the philanthropy efforts of a private corporation founded by John. W. Rogers, Jr., that makes money by manipulating money.

Mr. Rogers got stock certificates for Christmas and birthdays. He went to school at the same school as Arne, University of Chicago Lab School. He founded Ariel Investments at age 26.

Ms. Jewel Lafontant, a trustee of the Howard University who sat on the Board of Directors for both Mobil and Revlon, was one of the original investors. She had a lot of friends, friends who invested in Ariel.

Ms. Lafontant was John's mother.

John Rogers, Jr., comes from privilege. Arne Duncan comes from privilege. Their educational philosophy reflects this. Kids from privilege do better, on average, than those who do not.

The obvious, data-driven message? We need more rich and powerful (RAP) mothers. To this end, Arne Duncan and John Rogers are expected to announce the RAP Initiative by the end of this month:

Sitting in the basement
At my mother's knee
I learned to spell success as

Start a new fund
Forget equality
Education starts
With mommy's equity.

Arne and John:
Gotta be prepared
For the new century
Education's creed
In a word: usury

If you want to play, kids
And outcompete each other
Forget about the books, and
Get a RAP mother!

The video on the Ariel Education Initiative's home page focuses exclusively on investing in stocks.
Kids with ties and white shirts speak Wallstreetese. Cute!

John Rogers, Jr., image from Life.

Monday, April 5, 2010

With much nashing of teeth....

I tossed some words up at nashworld--he's busy playing in the sea, so I'm minding the cucumbers this week.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Let it bee....

If you have never stuck your nose completely into a cherry blossom, a blossom that burst open only a few hours ago, you cannot know the intensity of joy possible by bees, by us.

We cannot know what bees know, but we close our minds, our universe, when we presume mechanistic explanations for all animals not human. If I had to choose between words and the inexplicable joy felt when I buried my face in a fresh patch of cherry blossoms, well, I'm throwing away my keyboard and running away with the bees.

After giving myself to the first tree, I imagined blending honey and cherries and yeast to make this year's melomel. I saw a young child, no more than 8, pick up her even younger sister, about 2--she was carrying her to the cherry tree, to sniff the flowers. I suspect she saw me doing the same a moment earlier.

The father, smoking a cigarette, barked at her: "There may be bees in those flowers--get away!"

She slinked away, now fearful of bees, and cherry blossoms. Just as well, I suppose--a child in love with flowers and bugs does not work well in cubicles.

Not all things are possible, but these things are:

You can eat bread, real bread, made from flour you ground with your own hands.
You can drink honey wine, made by the yeast you put in a carboy mixed with fruit and honey.
You can watch the tide fall, then rise again.
You can see Orion tonight if the sky is clear.
You can eat pesto made from basil grown in a classroom, fed by light from the sun and the breath of you and your students.
You can bury your face in early April cherry blossoms.
You can rake clams, take their lives, and eat them, no matter what sins you have committed.

What do you tell an 8 year old child holding her very young sister whose just been told by her father that bees are to be feared?

Do you tell her of the honey bee waggle dance? That bees will find her tree, and tell other bees, and that they will all be so intoxicated with the smell of the cherry blossom that she will not be noticed?

Or do you let her Dad stand silently against the tree, puffing on his cigarette, tend to his own children, his own myths, his own ignorance?


My Dad is dead. He loved bees.
My Mom is dead. She loved bees.
My sister is dead. She loved bees.
I will someday be dead. I love bees.

Maybe it's the bees that are killing us. Maybe it's not. But if it is, I'd still love the bees.

Occasionally I will stumble upon an exhausted bee, dying on a flower. Too tired to move, but still alive enough to thrust her tongue into the nectar. I leave those bees well enough alone. Should I be gasping my last breaths with my nose buried in a blossom, I trust the bees will return the favor.

The last sound I heard my mother make was laughter--she died two days later, while I held her hand.
The last few hours of my Dad's life, he laughed. I heard it, and I held his hand as he died.
I did not hold my sister's hand--she was killed by an errant missionary--but I bet she laughed a few minutes before she died. I know she sang. She always sang. Always. Like a bee humming she sang, sang, sang.

It's spring.

The flowers are back. The bees are back. The mystery, too, is back.

We can spend our Januaries pondering the mystery of life, the misery of death, while our brethren sleep through the dark days.

But now it's spring--humans with their electric lights and propane heaters no longer dictate the terms.

Get outside. Breathe. Live.