Monday, February 28, 2011


Excellent lecture by Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, a Cornell University engineering professor, on fracking (hydraulic fracturing).  Dr. Ingraffea's research concentrates on computer simulation and physical testing of complex fracturing processes.

It's almost 2 hours long but well worth watching if you're interested in this controversial method that companies want to use to recover natural gas from the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and New York.  It's a very engaging lecture and you'll learn a lot.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Snow fleas!

My ten-year-old daughter, who's an observant naturalist, came in and told me that the snow fleas were out and about today.  If you live in an area with snow still on the ground, go outside on a sunny day and look for specks of black sprinkling the snow.  Watch them for a few minutes and you'll see them hopping about.  Snow fleas!  (Don't worry - they're not real fleas, don't bite, and are quite harmless).

I tried taking a picture of them but taking a close-up picture of snow on a bright, sunny day was too much for the autofocus in my digital camera.  I did grab a clump of snow and bring it to my shady deck where I snapped the following.

The black spots are the snow fleas.  Here's a cropped close-up:

A little fuzzy.  Here's an image I grabbed off the web from someone with a much better camera setup than I have available:

Cofrin Arboretum Center for Biodiversity, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay

I dropped some of the snow fleas in rubbing alcohol so we could look at them under the microscope and see the furcula, the forked structure they fold under their abdomen which allows them to spring up into the air (hence their common name of springtails).

Snow fleas are springtails or Collembola (their taxonomic order).  Remember basic biology - Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species.  The mnemonic I give my college students is Kinky People Come Over For Good Sex (much more memorable than those ones about King Philip coming over).

Springtails obviously belong to belong to kingdom animalia.  Their next level of classification is phylum arthropoda - animals with an exoskeleton, a segmented body, and jointed appendages.  They include all the insects, spiders, crustaceans (e.g. lobsters, shrimp, crabs), and extinct organisms like the trilobites (among many other things).  Arthropods are the most abundant animals on Earth (because of the insects).

They also belong to the hexapoda - some refer to this as a subphylum, others as a superorder - which are the arthropods with three pairs of legs attached to their thorax.  This includes all the insects (as well as a few other things).  Springtails are placed into class entognatha rather than class insecta because they have internal mouthparts (that's what entognatha means - "internal jaws") unlike the true insects.

Springtails belong to order colembolla which is what they're often called by entomologists.  The snow fleas we see in our backyard are likely family Hypogastruridae and belong to the species Hypogastrura nivicola.

The most notable characteristic of springtails is the furcula I've aleady mentioned.  It's a forked "tail" they can tuck it under their abdomen and when it's released it catapults them into the air.  They typically live in soil and leaf litter in untold numbers and eat plant matter, fungi, algae, bacteria, roundworms and other little critters, and tree sap.  In turn, they're eaten by beetles, mites, centipedes, ants, spiders, and other predatory insects.

About the only time most people see springtails is in the early spring when they come out onto the snow on warm, sunny days to feed and mate.  My backyard, evidently prime snow flea habitat, has billions of them speckling the snow.

How can these "insects" (not using the term in the taxonomic sense but simply to denote little six-legged critters) survive on snow?  It's not like there are other bugs out and about this time of year.  Turns out they have an antifreeze-like protein in their little bodies that keep them from freezing up.  Research into this protein may make better ice cream as well as enabling better storage of transplant organs.

Most people have never noticed snow fleas and some even think you're pulling their leg when they first hear of them ("Fleas on snow, yeah right!").  If I teach nothing else to my homeschooled kids, having them be observant and intellectually curious is one of my main goals.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

How far away is the Moon?

Here's a neat YouTube video illustrating the scale of the Earth and Moon.  The Moon is much, much further from the Earth than most people think.

Is this accurate?  It's actually easy to check - here's the math (I used Google to get equatorial diameters of the Earth and Moon diameters and regulation sizes for the balls):

   Diameter of the Earth = 12,756 km
   Diameter of the Moon = 3,476 km
   Ratio of Earth/Moon = 3.7

   Diameter of Basketball = 9.4 in
   Diameter of Tennis Ball = 2.6 in
   Ratio of Basketball/Tennis Ball = 3.6

Not exact, but close enough and a useful comparison because everyone can visualize the sizes of a tennis ball and a basketball.

How about distances?  Well, the orbit's an ellipse so we can can only specify an average distance which is about 384,403 km.  Let's scale this distance to the average of the scale we have for the Earth and the basketball (we could also have used the Moon and the tennis ball).  Here are the ratios:

   (Scaled Earth-Moon distance in inches / 384,403 km) = (9.4 in / 12,756 km)
   Scaled Earth-Moon distance = [(9.4 in) (384,403 km) / 12,756 km]
   Scaled Earth-Moon distance = 283 in (rounded off) = 23.5 ft

As the video showed, that's a lot further than most people would have estimated!

How big would the Sun be on this same scale?  The diameter of the Sun is 1,392,000 km.  Once again, we'll set up a ratio scaling to the same ratio as the Earth and basketball.

   (Scaled diameter of Sun in inches / 1,392,000 km) = (9.4 in / 12,756 km)
   Scaled diameter of Sun = (9.4 in) (1,392,000 km) / 12,756 km
   Scaled diameter of Sun = 1026 in (rounded off) = 85.5 ft

If the Earth were the size of a basketball, the Sun would be the size of two school buses parked end-to-end!  The size of a very large house.

How far away would it be?  As with the Moon orbiting the Earth, the Earth orbits the Sun in an ellipse so we'll use the average distance of 149,597,871 km:

   (Scaled Earth-Sun distance in inches / 149,597,871 km) = (9.4 in / 12,756 km)
   Scaled Earth-Moon distance = [(9.4 in) (149,597,871 km) / 12,756 km]
   Scaled Earth-Moon distance = 110,240 in (rounded off) = 9,187 ft = 1.7 miles

So, if the Earth were the size of a basketball, the Sun would be 1.7 miles away!

How far away would the nearest star be?  Proxima Centauri is 3.97 x 10^13 km away.

   (Scaled Earth-Proxima Centauri distance in inches / 3.97 x 10^13 km) = (9.4 in / 12,756 km)
   Scaled Earth-Moon distance = [(9.4 in) (3.97 x 10^13 km) / 12,756 km]
   Scaled Earth-Moon distance = 29,255,252,430 in (rounded off) = 461,730 mi

That's almost twice the distance from the Earth to the Moon!  So, if the Earth were the size of a basketball, the nearest star would be twice as far away from it than the real Moon is from the Earth.

And these are just our closest neighbors.  Everything else is orders of magnitude further away.  The universe is a very, very big place.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Between the Folds

If you have Netflix (or can request videos from your local library), do yourself a favor and watch Between the Folds.  It's a documentary on origami.

It's an extremely well-done film and totally absorbing.  The things people can do with one square of paper, no gluing and no cutting, are absolutely amazing.  The film also effectively shows how origami bridges the boundaries between art, mathematics, and science.

What's the best way to fold an airbag or a mylar structure that is launched into orbit and then unfolds?  Ask someone who does origami.  How can we understand the folding of proteins?  Ask a MacArthur grant genius, homeschooled (yay!), origami-affecianado, MIT math professor.

I've found that Dr. Demaine has freely-available video lectures from classes like Geometric Folding Algorithms: Linkages, Origami, Polyhedra.  Looks interesting.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Spelunker or caver?

This discussion came up recently on an email list I read.  What do you call people who like to recreationally explore caves?  Most people believe they're called spelunkers.  Using that term for a serious caver, however, is considered a grave insult.

Spelunker is a perfectly reputable term coming from the Greek σπήλαιον and Latin spelunca (meaning cave or grotto).  Speleology is the scientific study of caves and those interested in the field typically belong to the NSS - National Speleological Society.

The term spelunker was routinely used to describe cave explorers until a few decades ago when it began to take on negative connotations and came to applied sarcastically to unprepared and inexperienced yahoos who decide to explore a cave.  They typically are wearing sneakers, cotton clothing (an invitation to hypothermia), and carry a single flashlight.  If the cave has a pit, they'll slide down a piece of clothsline with no thought of how they're going to climb back out.  Sometimes a group enters a cave because they think it's a neat place to party.  They often need to be rescued from a cave (or worse yet, their bodies need to be recovered).

To distinguish themselves from these morons, experienced cave explorers call themselves cavers.  They form clubs called grottos and generally remain relatively secretive about cave locations in the area (although they generally welcome new members into their clubs with open arms - as long as they're willing to be educated into proper "cave etiquette").

So, if you ever run into someone who is serious about caving, don't call them a spelunker - odds are they're driving around with a popular bumper sticker in the caver community - "Cavers rescue spelunkers!"

My family of "spelunkers" underground a few years ago (not as bad
as it looks, it's Ape Cave, a lava tube near Mt St Helens in Washington
State and a relatively safe and tame underground environment).

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

New Zealand Quake

A couple of days ago (February 21 at 23:51 UTC or February 22 at 12:51 pm NZDT), the city of Christchurch, on the South Island of New Zealand, experienced a large 6.3 magnitude earthquake.  It was particularly damaging because it was quite shallow at only 5 km of depth (by comparison, there was a 6.4 magnitude earthquake the same day south of the Fiji Islands at 562 km of depth!).  The official death toll at the moment is 76 but well over 200 people are missing and the death toll will certainly rise.  The images coming out of NZ are sad to see.

This latest earthquake is actually considered to be an aftershock from the September 3, 2010 magnitude 7.1 earthquake which struck near Darfield, NZ (35 km west of Christchurch).  Since this main quake, there have been a half-dozen earthquakes greater than magnitude 5 in the Christchurch region.

Why does New Zealand have large earthquakes?  Simple answer is that it lies on a tectonic plate boundary.

See New Zealand - east of Australia right on the boundary between the Pacific and Australian plates?  Here's a plot showing 10 years of shallow (depth < 40 km) earthquakes in New Zealand:

They're not uncommon!  The Pacific Plate is constantly pushing into and sliding under the Australian Plate deforming the island nation.  It's a fact of life that they're periodically get hit with big ones.  I could write more about convergent plate boundaries and such but it's late and I've been working since 8:00 am so I'll save it for another time.  I will leave with a neat image from Christchurch showing the power of earthquakes - a rail line deformed by the quake.  Steel tracks bent like taffy.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Pondshiners & Eaglenesters

Spent the past weekend at an old farmhouse (at a retreat with some friends) with no TV, phone, internet, or computer.  Missed the computer the most.  Typical later winter/early spring weather too, went from walking outside in shirtsleeves on Friday (mid-60s) to bitterly cold and windy on Saturday (single-digit windchill when I went for a walk where I was staying).  Only four weeks to the vernal equinox!

One interesting thing I learned this past weekend was that there have been isolated communities of people in the Hudson Valley that I had never heard of before.  The old farmhouse where I was staying was loaded with an eclectic collection of dusty books and a couple of us there found a fascinating picture book called Great river of the mountains: The Hudson; by Crosswell Bowen and published in 1941.  It had some great pictures of the area from the early 20th century but also some stories about people still living in very isolated communities.

One group of people were called the "Pondshiners" and they lived in the hills around what's now Lake Taghkanic State Park over in Columbia County.  The supported themselves by hunting, subsistence farming, and basketmaking.  They were regarded with scorn by those in the nearby towns - a State Police sargent once stated: "After all they’re just animals. They’ve slipped so far you couldn’t bring them back. Better if the Flu had wiped them out.” (their community was hit hard by the influenza epidemic of 1918).

Here's an interesting article about the Pondshiners.

One of the things I found interesting about them is that everyone who wrote about them in the past mentioned their lack of religion and practice of "superstition".  Many of their "superstitions" seem akin to traditional Wiccan-type practices.  The picture below shows Fran Ingals, circa 1941, a Pondshiner "witch" who reportedly could sour the neighbor's milk and send pitchforks flying through the air toward her enemies.

Another group of people mentioned were the Jackson Whites, a perjorative term applied to mountain people in the Ramapo area of New York/New Jersey.  They often had Dutch surnames but were racially mixed with Native American and Black ancestors.  Read more about them here.

Then there were the Eaglenesters.  They were described as living west of Kingston and, like the Jackson Whites, a reclusive mixed-race mountain community with Dutch surnames like Hasbrouck.  Supposedly their ancestors were pre-Revolutionary Dutch settlers, Native Americans, and blacks (slaves?) brought up from the South to work on the Delaware and Hudson canal.

I do know there's an Eagle's Nest Road off Hurley Mountain Road west of Kingston, but I have no idea if that's related to the Eaglenesters.  Anyone know anything about them?  Here's a book I plan to pick up at the local library which talks about Eagle Nester legends: Old Eagle Nester: The Lost Legends of the Catskills.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Why Earth Science?

Nice video.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Seashell on the Mountaintop

Been reading a lot lately and just finished off another book that's been on my to-read list for some time.  The Seashell on the Mountaintop: A Story of Science, Sainthood, and the Humble Genius Who Discovered a New History of the Earth by Alan Cutler (2003) is the story of Nicolaus Steno (1638-1686) a figure familiar to every geologist.

Steno was a bona fide genius, a Danish anatomist noted throughout Europe for his dissection skills.  His real genius was in the fact that he didn't trust what "experts" said or had written about something, he investigated everything himself.  He was invited to join the Accademia del Cimento (Academy of Experiment) in Florence, Italy where he spent a number of years working with other Italian scientists.

While there, he had the opportunity to dissect the head of a huge shark caught by fishermen in nearby Livorno on the coast and noticed that the shark's teeth looked exactly like glossopetrae or "tongue stones" found preserved in rocks.  To us today, it's an obvious conclusion that glossopetrae were fossil shark teeth but, in the 17th century, the concept that fossils are the remains of once-living organisms was highly controversial.  Many still believed the ancient claims that fossils were objects which "grew" in the rocks and any resemblance to once-living things was simply coincidence.

Steno's new-found interest in fossils led him to study sedimentary rocks in the surrounding countryside which resulted in the writing of De solido intra solidum naturaliter contento dissertationis prodromus or Preliminary discourse to a dissertation on a solid body naturally contained within a solid in 1669.  He developed a number of concepts as a result of this study which sound quite simple but actually have profound consequences by allowing us to work out the relative ages of rock strata.  These principles are:

1.  Original horizontality - the idea that sedimentary strata are originally deposited in horizontal layers.  If they are no longer horizontal, something later has disturbed them (e.g. folding during mountain building).

2.  Superposition - the idea that in a sequence of layered sedimentary rocks, the oldest rocks are found near the bottom of the sequence and the youngest near the top.

3.  Lateral continuity - the idea that sedimentary rocks extend laterally as a unit.  This allows us, for example, to match up rock units from one side of a valley to the other by assuming they were once laterally continuous.

4.  Cross-cutting relationships - the idea that if a rock unit is cut by something (e.g. an igneous intrusion, a faulty, etc.), the structure cutting through is younger than the object doing the cutting.

Steno's principles would allow you to say that A, B, C, D, E, and F formed in that order in the hypothetical area shown above.  Steno is sometimes known as the father of stratigraphy for this work (stratigraphy is the branch of geology dealing with layered sedimentary rocks).

Steno remembered by mineralogists as well for developing the law of constancy of interfacial angles - the idea that the angles between crystal faces for a given mineral, like quartz, are always constant.

One interesting thing about Steno's life is that he had a religious experience and converted from Protestantism to Catholocism while in Italy.  He was ordained as a priest and soon became a bishop and gave up his scientific investigations (a real loss to science).  He became a bit of an ascetic, didn't dress well, fasted frequently, and died an early death from some type of stomach ailment at age 48.  A sad end to a brilliant life.

This book should be read by anyone interested in geology.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Department Chair business

I haven't posted as much lately since I've been busy.  Besides being a professor, I'm also department chair and one of my job duties is overseeing the scheduling all of the physical science and mathematics classes at our college.  Even though it's only February, we're putting together the fall 2011 schedule of classes and making sure we have faculty coverage (which is complicated by the fact that most of our class sections are taught by adjunct instructors).

In addition to scheduling classes, we're also working on the departmental budget for the 2011-2012 academic year and we've been asked to cut.  Problem is we cut last year also.  It's getting grim and to the point where instruction will suffer since we won't be able to provide the equipment and technology we need to teach up-to-date courses in physics, chemistry, and Earth sciences.  Our college has no real plan in place to sustain our computer technology and, as you all know, computers and software age fast and need periodic replacement.

Wednesday is also our department meeting where we get to all discuss fun things like budget, course assessment, and strategic planning.  Most faculty could find other ways to spend a Wednesday afternoon than locked in a room with me!

Oh yeah, I also took on an online course starting today we couldn't easily find an adjunct instructor to teach.  I was already teaching overload (contact hours beyond what I'm required to teach) but now it's even more.  You might think I'd get a lot more money for working extra but we get paid adjunct rates for overload which is LESS money than my normal hourly rate.  In other words, in academia, you get paid less for working overtime instead of more (time and a half) like you do in the private sector.

That's why I've been busy and not posting as much these past few days.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

American Buffalo

Recently picked up American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon by Steven Rinella (Spiegel & Grau, 2009) at a discount bookstore.  While the word buffalo is taxonomically incorrect, they're not related to the true buffalo of Africa and Asia, the word has stuck even though sticklers insist on bison (Bison bison) - there is a European bison, by the way, called the wisent (Bison bonasus).

I love bison, have read a fair bit about them, and there's something special about seeing a herd of bison grazing on the western prairie.  The book, however, was very different from what I expected.  Rinella's wrote a hunting story centered around his winning a lottery to hunt a bison along the Chetaslina River in the Wrangell-St. Elias Wilderness Area of Alaska (bison were reintroduced into Alaska in the early 20th century).

The story of Rinella's hunt is woven through the book with a very graphic description of his butchering the kill (not for those squeamish about such things).  Interspersed between is information about the natural history of bison, the history of bison hunting and their near extinction, and stories of the Native American's relationships with bison.

The book works.  Rinella is a correspondent for Outside magazine and he writes a compelling story.  While those morally opposed to killing animals, even for consumption, will not like this book, I rather enjoyed reading it (I also eat meat and have no qualms against hunting for food). 

I also saw that Rinella wrote a book called The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine which looked interesting after reading the Amazon reviews (click on the link above).  I plan on reading that one as well.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Math: Facing an American Phobia

Recently read Math: Facing an American Phobia by Marilyn Burns (Math Solutions, 1998).  The book's over a decade old but I picked it up out of the library since I have an interest in math teaching.  While I am a geologist, I'm also department chair of a math/science department as well as homeschooling two children in math.  Math phobia is a huge issue at our community college and a common problem among the American public.  I also don't want my children to develop a fear of math - just the opposite, I'd like them to enjoy playing around with it as I do (even though I'm no mathematician).

Burns is described as  an "award-winning educator and author of many math storybooks for children grades two to eight."  Unfortunately, education is one of those fields that is rife with a lot of unsubstantiated nonsense and those of us who teach know that educational fads come and go with the regularity of clockwork.  Like many who seek to "solve" problems in education, Burns relies heavily on anecdotal evidence and her claims lack the support of peer-reviewed research.  I remain skeptical of a number of her claims.

Much of her book I agree with.  Many, if not most people, will claim to dislike math and some even claim to be paralyzed with fear at the thought of working with an equation (I've had students like that in my classes).  Some claim it's even a disability and students have tried to be excused from math because of it (full disclosure here, I do have to admit to not having much patience with emotionally-disturbed people with phobias - that's why I studied rocks and didn't become a social worker - I'd be like Gunney Ermey in the Geico commercial).

I also recognize that math education in this country is lousy (although I could say the same about English, history, science, etc.).  Most students coming into our community college take placement exams that put them into math courses which essentially cover high school math material all over again.  When you think something sucks you typically don't invest much effort into learning it (unless, apparently, you have an Asian mother!).

Recognizing that not everyone needs high-level math skills, what should students learn?  We wrestle with this issue at the community college where I teach.  What course should humanity and some social science majors be required to take as a terminal math course?  (We're part of the State University of New York system which requires everyone to have a general education course in mathematics).  We currently have an algebra-light type of course filling that role but many, including myself, thinks we need to develop more of a math-literacy type course covering basic algebra as well as topics in statistics, practical things like understanding compounding interest, and maybe even some math appreciation (history of mathematical ideas, topics in number theory, famous unsolved problems, etc).

Burns argues that practical applications of math should be stressed and students should be able to "play around" with math and work in groups to "discover" things.  While I do think this can work with a skilled teacher and a good class of kids, I think it's impossible for an overworked teacher in a crowded classroom with a handful of disruptive students (in other words, a typical American urban classroom).  The problem is also that while you may be teaching practical math applications to students needed them for getting by in life, other students who may want to go on in math and science may be disadvantaged by not having the basic math concepts and skills in place when taking higher level courses (ask any college math teacher if they think basic algebraic skills are important in calculus class!).  I actually think the real solution is to get rid of the crazy notion that all high school students should go to college and different tracks for different students - some students will make far more money and have more job satisfaction from being an electrician, for example, than they would struggling through college for a relatively useless liberal arts degree in communications (sorry all you communications majors our there).

One issue where I think Burns is completely mistaken is in the early use of calculators and the negative attitude toward rote learning and memorization.  She believes calculators should be introduced early and rote learning and memorization avoided in favor of .  She did give one example that horrified me as much as it did her - an elementary-school student once told her something like "Going fishin', got no bait, six times eight is forty eight."  Her reply to the student was "Very good.  Do you know six times nine?" and the student said "No, we haven't learned that rhyme yet."  At first I thought that this was an aberration, no teacher would teach kids the multiplication table by coming up with 144 rhymes (which would be awfully easy to confuse as well, why not "six times eight is thirty eight"?).  This kind of technique presents math as something mysterious and arbitrary which the multiplication table certainly is not.  Then I found out from my wife that at least some math teachers do use this method in our local elementary schools.  No wonder most of our incoming college students are clueless about math.

For homeschooling our children, my wife and I use Saxon Math since they have an integrated curriculum from Kindergarten through Calculus.  Saxon is known for being rigorous and relying heavily on repetition.  I'm insisting that my kids memorize the multiplication tables up through 12.  It's not exciting and sometimes they don't want to do math.  As their math skills increase, however, I'm trying to introduce them to higher level concepts that I think are interesting (we've talked about pi and where it comes from and measured circular things around the house, discussed Fibonacci numbers, and played around with balancing chemical equations).  My wife and I are always trying to point out the practical applications of math as well - making change, calculating how much paint we need to buy for the bedroom, and how much to leave for a tip).  As they get older, I'll be introducing more and more topics.  By the time they go away to college, they may or may not like math, but they shouldn't be afraid of it!

The problem with introducing calculators early into a child's math education is that they fail to develop a "number sense."  I have students who need a calculator to multiply 7.6 x 10 (seriously, I've seen it with my own eyes in a geology lab), students who multiply instead of divide when doing a conversion for calculating a distance on a topographic map and tell me some feature is 3,442,230 km across (when it's really something like 3.4 km across) without thinking about how ridiculous that answer is, and students who think a respectable answer for the width of a feature on the topographic map is 3.442230244521 km because that's what the calculator displayed.  These students are completely lost without a calculator.

Anyway, my review of this book is mixed.  Some good ideas interspersed with some ideas I completely disagree with.  I also feel justified in remaining skeptical about things like the early use of calculators because many of Burn's arguments are based on stories and touchy-feely attitudes I don't share.  It is worth reading and thinking about if you're interested in math education.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Adults with college degrees by county

There's an interesting interactive map at the Chronicle of Higher Education allowing you to interactively view census data on Bachelor's degrees attained by adults broken down by county.

What's the data for Ulster County, where I live?

We're slightly higher (28.83%) than the national average (27.53%) although a bit lower than the New York State average (31.84%) since the the New York City metropolitan area is significantly higher than the national average.

More women (30.64%) than men (26.95%) receive a degree.

Blacks (11.13%) and Hispanics (15.24%) lag way behind Whites (30.00%) in obtaining degrees.  Asians (50.03%), on the other hand, blow everyone else away.

This indicates to me that our community college should be doing more outreach and academic support to minorities in our community as we have to deal with lower enrollments in the future due to declining population in our county as seen in local public school numbers (see Top Ten States People are Fleeing).

It's interesting to look at the patterns in the national map as well.  The large metropolitan areas have high percentages of college graduates - places like the Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C., Dallas, San Francisco, and Seattle. There are some blue blocks in what look like surprising places at first until you realize that they're college towns - places like Urbana-Champaign, IL, Boulder, CO, and Ames, IA.  Then there are those places where lots of rich people live - Blaine County, ID (Sun Valley), Teton County, WY (Jackson Hole), and Santa Fe County, NM.  Others are probably statistical anomalies.  Roberts County, TX has a high percentage but there's nothing there but a population of 913 people and cattle ranches.  They're well-educated ranchers.

I love looking at graphic representations of data like this.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Devonian fossil photos

I received an email about a week ago advertising the work of a local artist, Art Murphy, who takes beautiful digital images of Devonian fossils (among other things).  Check out his website section on Devonian Fossils of New York.  There's also a short writeup at aCurator.

While the images are attractive as artistic images, I can't help, as a geology professor, to try to identify each of the different brachiopods, anthozoans (corals), bryozoans etc. as specifically as possible (one of the brachiopods looks like Leptaena, for example).  It's the right brain/left brain thing, I can't just turn off that analytical side.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Weekend Hiatus

I didn't post anything over the weekend - partly because I was busy and partly because I was lazy.

On Saturday, our college hosted the regional Science Olympiad.  Science Olympiad is a series of competitions between high school students where they compete in various events such as astronomy, fossils, forensics, ornithology, chemistry, disease detectives, dynamic Earth, sumo bots, mousetrap vehicle, etc.

In the event I supervised, fossils, there were 20 stations with each station having one or more fossil specimens and several multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank questions about them.  Students were allowed a three-ring binder of material and a field guide.  The hard part about the competition was that teams only had 2 minutes per station which is not enough time to simply look things up.

The overall scores don't really matter, what matters is how the teams rank against each other.  Anyway, it's something our college has hosted for quite a few years now (I've done it for over 10 years myself) and it's nice to see bright, young, high-school students who are enthused about science.  Unfortunately, most of these kids aren't coming to our community college!

One problem I always have with Science Olympiad is that it's on the first Saturday in February and my kids were born on February 5 (I have boy and girl twins hence they have the same birthdate).  So the rest of the weekend was taken up with 10th birthday party events.

Busy weekend.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Community College Funding in New York

I teach at a community college in New York State.  Our new governor, Andrew Cuomo, has recommended a cut of 10% in community college funding for 2011-2012.  This is in addition to cuts last year and would mean a total cut over these two years of 24% in our State aid.  By law, one-third of our funding comes from the State, one-third from the County (also broke), and one-third from student tuition.

Our college stands to lose 1.5 million dollars, a significant portion of our operating budget with no way to make that up.  People will lose jobs.  Programs will disappear.  Every department and administrative office on Campus is already down by one or two full-time staff or faculty members from where we were a couple of years ago (due to attrition and non-replacement).  Two-thirds of our college faculty are part-time adjuncts teaching one or two classes with minimal pay and no benefits.  This proportion will increase to the detriment of the institution and student learning.

Someone who teaches one class has no incentive to be invested in the academic quality of our courses or programs - they teach a class and leave.  They don't serve on the committees that run our campus, they don't advise and register students, they don't do course evaluations as we're mandated to do by SUNY (the State University of New York in Albany), they don't do program reviews as we're mandated to do by SUNY, they aren't involved in curriculum development, etc., etc., etc.  Full-time faculty are currently working without a contract and  no promotions or inceases in salary last year (even though food, fuel, electric, etc. all cost more this year than they did last year).  More and more is being done by less and less people and morale is in the toilet.

Next time the governor gives a speech and claims to value education in New York, remember that he's full of shit.  For small community college, these reductions are deep and will have long-lasting negative impacts on the communities they serve.  Community colleges are open-door admissions.  We give everyone a chance to better themselves through education - from the 16-year-old homeschooled kid, to the traditional high-school graduate, to the laid-off guy retraining for a new job, to the mom returning to school after her kids are older, to the older retired person interested in life-long learning. We can't just raise tuition to cover these cuts.

New York has been run into the ground over the years by those morons up in Albany.  As taxes go up, and educational and employment opportunities decrease, people are leaving the State in droves (New York is #1 in something - see Top 10 States People Are Fleeing).  I'm polishing up my curriculum vitae, reading the Chronicle of Higher Education classified ads looking for geology teaching positions at community colleges, and will be sorely tempted to apply for any opening up in fiscally-stable states.  As it is, I barely make enough in my present job to adequately support my family here in the mid-Hudson Valley of New York (a couple of years ago now, the local paper had a story stating that you needed to make something like $56,000 / year to live in the mid-Hudson Valley - many of our community college faculty members don't even make that).  Meanwhile, multi-millionaire hedge fund traders in Manhattan pay lower tax rates than most working people in the State (see The Tax Rate Fallacy).

None of this should be unexpected, however, as our society clearly does not value education.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Happy Imbolc

We are now halfway between the Winter Solstice (December 21) and the Vernal or Spring Equinox (March 20).  It's called a cross-quarter day and is known as Imbolc (or some variation of that spelling) in the Celtic world  It's also a modern Neopagan celebration and part of the Wheel of the Year.

Imbolc is most commonly celebrated on February 2 (same as Groundhog Day and Candlemas on the Christian calendar) but it actually occurs, according to the position of the Sun on the ecliptic, at 11:20 pm EST on Thursday, February 3 this year.

This cross-quarter day has been known since antiquity - a 5,000 year-old Neolithic passage tomb at the Hill of Tara in County Meath, Ireland has an alignment with sunrise on Imbolc.  The word Imbolc comes from the Celtic i mbolg or "in the belly" referring to pregnant ewes who soon give birth to spring lambs.  It was viewed as the start of spring (even though snow may yet be on the ground), a time for weather prognostication, and to watch for animals emerging from their winter dens (sound familiar?  Groundhog Day has its roots in similar Germanic pagan beliefs).

One traditional Irish legend regarding Imbolc is about the Cailleach, the old hag.  If the Cailleach knows winter will last for a while yet, she will make sure the weather on Imbolc is bright and sunny so she can gather plenty of firewood.  If Imbolc is a day of foul weather it means the Cailleach is asleep and winter is almost over.  Very similar to the groundhog and his shadow!  The weather was pretty nasty so I guess spring will arrive soon!

Imbolc is sacred to Brigid (also with many alternate spellings), a Celtic goddess.  She's associated with fire, fertility, poetry, healing, and smithcraft.  She's typically honored on Imbolc with offerings, requests for blessings, and the lighting of sacred fires.  Imbolc is traditionally a time to reflect on where your life is going as we move into the next part of the year.

Crafts for Imbolc include making corn dollies and weaving a Brigid's cross from rushes. When Ireland was Christianized in the 5th century, the goddess Brigid morphed into St. Brigid of Kildare and Imbolc is now often called St. Brigid's Day although many of the old pagan practices persist.

The Christian holiday of Candlemas is celebrated at the same time and is believed to be the time when Mary presented Jesus to God at the Temple in Jerusalem after observing the traditional 40-day period of purification for new mothers (Luke 2:32).  Many of the traditions of Candlemas have a similarity to pagan Imbolc practices perhaps implying an effort to superimpose Christianity on ancient pagan beliefs.

After this latest winter storm, I am certainly looking forward to the onset of spring as the days lengthen with each passing week.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Massive Storm

Amazing satellite image from the GOES East weather satellite at 1545Z (10:45 am EST) on Tuesday, February 1.  It was a big freaking storm.  Click image to enlarge to full 3440x3276 resolution.

Carnival of Evolution

Hey, I'm linked to from the Carnival of Evolution 32 hosted at Denim and Tweed - a blog by biology graduate student Jeremy Yoder.  The link "thoughts upon the origins of species" links back to Monday's Teaching Evolution in a Biology Class... post.  Cool.

Blog carnivals are hosted by bloggers (usually otated among different bloggers) where submissions are sought for a variety of blog posts on a specific topic which are then collected into a single posting called a carnival.  Here's a site that lists all of the ongoing and upcoming blog carnivals.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Snow Day

Snow day today and likely tomorrow as a complex storm system moves across the country.  Here's a picture of me and my dog Simon hiking in the Shawangunks.

I can't wait for spring!