Tuesday, January 31, 2012

State funding of higher education

Did you read my post Obama clueless about community colleges?

Just saw the following figure in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  This is only one year of cuts.  New York, and many other states, have had several years of these types of cuts.

Sunday, January 29, 2012


When I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois, I was a teaching assistant for a class called History of Life - a class I liked so much I developed it for the community college where I teach now.  It's an overview of the origin and evolution of life on Earth.  Why is this taught by a geologist rather than a biologist?  Because much of what we know about the origin and evolution of life is preserved in the sedimentary rock record and paleontology, the study of ancient life, is typically housed in geology departments (although there's obviously much overlap with fields like molecular biology).

At the University of Illinois, the course had a lab while at our community college it doesn't (although we do incorporate lab-like exercises into class time including the examination and classification of common marine invertebrate fossils). One of the lab exercises at the U of I had to do with the classification of caminalcules.

What are caminalcules, you may ask?   They are imaginary "life forms" invented by the late Joseph Camin, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Kansas, and used to illustrate concepts in systematics (evolutionary relationships and classification).

After Camin's death, biologist Robert Sokal, a cofounder of the field of numerical taxonomy, published four detailed papers on caminalcules for the journal Systematic Zoology (now called Systematic Biology).  See the references below but fair warning, I have these papers - don't bother getting them unless you're an academic, they will be unreadable.

The concept involved is actually easy to understand (even for children as we'll see in a minute).  What Camin did was invent 29 recent "species" and 48 fossil "species" of caminalcules (most people use a dataset today of 14 living and 57 fossil specimens).  The earliest fossil caminalcule was seen as the ancestor of all subsequent forms which evolved through a multi-branched evolutionary tree (with some lineages becoming extinct, etc.).  At left is an animated gif illustrating one sequence of 13 evolving caminalcules (from Caminalcules, Snouters and Other Unusual Creatures).

There is an official "correct" version of the caminalcule phylogenetic tree showing the evolutionary relationships between the fossil and recent species.  I would suggest ignoring it, however, since the purpose of the exercise isn't necessarily to get a correct answer but to think about the process (students absolutely hate it when I tell them for some exercises there's no "correct" answer, just a well-reasoned and supported answer).

So what exactly do you do with caminalcules?  First you get the images of living and fossil caminalcules (here and here are good sources) and then cut them all out.  Then you get some paper - preferably a roll of brown paper you can pick up at any office supply store - and roll out a couple of feet.

Note that the caminalcules are all numbered, this is so individual specimens can be referred to, but the fossil specimens also have a number in parentheses.  This is the age of the fossil in millions of years ago.  So specimen 74, for example, has the number 18 in parentheses so we can assume specimen 74 represents a fossil that was living some 18 million years ago.

On your long sheet of paper, draw 20 evenly spaced horizontal lines and label them 0-19.  These represent time lines from 0 (present day) to 19 Ma (oldest fossil caminalcule).  Then arrange your fossil caminalcules on the various time lines according to their ages.

By the way, geologists use the abbreviation Ma to denote millions of years ago (mega annum).

Now comes the fun part.  Figure out the evolutionary relationships between the various species.  The assumption, of course, in this hypothetical exercise, is that all caminalcules can trace their descent back to the original 19 Ma form.  Caminalcules evolve (and perhaps lose) various anatomical traits as they evolve.  Some become more specialized (or maybe more generalized).  Some lineages become extinct.  Some split into many branches.  Some don't.  Some persist through time as "living fossils".  It's up to you to figure it out.  When you believe you have a good phylogenetic tree, tape or glue down the caminalcules and draw lines indicating the relationships.

As I've mentioned before in this blog, my wife and I homeschool our two children.  They recently did this exercise (along with a couple of other homeschooled kids) and below is my ten-year-old son's finished product (can't see the faint pencil lines, but they're drawn in as well).

It's pretty cool that the same exercise can be used in homeschooled 5th graders as well as freshman college students (it can even be used for graduate students in conjunction with Sokal's papers listed below).  My wife reported that my 10-year-old son told her, after he did this exercise, that "This is like all life on Earth, only all of life would be more complicated."  Warms my heart to hear that.


Gendron, Robert P. 2000. The Classification and Evolution of Caminalcules. The American Biology Teacher 62 (8): 570–576.

On the Cutting Edge: Professional Development for Geoscience Faculty. Caminalcule Phylogenetic Exercise.   Teaching Paleontology in the 21st Century.

Sokal, R.R. 1983. A phylogenetic analysis of the Caminalcules. I. The data base. Systematic Zoology 32 (2): 159–184.

Sokal, R.R. 1983. A phylogenetic analysis of the Caminalcules. II. Estimating the true cladogram. Systematic Zoology 32 (2): 185–201.

Sokal, R.R. 1983. A phylogenetic analysis of the Caminalcules. III. Fossils and Classification. Systematic Zoology 32 (3): 248–258.

Sokal, R.R. 1983). A phylogenetic analysis of the Caminalcules. IV. Congruence and Character Stability. Systematic Zoology 32 (3): 259–275.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Obama clueless about community colleges

So Friday I heard that President Obama said the following at a speech at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

You can’t assume you’ll just jack up tuition every single year.  If you can’t stop tuition going up, your funding from taxpayers will go down. We should push colleges to do better; we should hold them accountable if they don’t.”

As a New York State community college professor, all I can say, with all due respect, is "Fuck you, Mr. President!"

Let me edumacate you...

We've ALREADY had our funding go down asshole!  Over the past few years, public education funding has gone down by double-digit percentages!  That's why tuition has increased.  No wonder our economy is in shambles since the supposed leader of the free world fails to understand this simple fact.

This is from the New York State Faculty Council of Community Colleges Resolution #G1-2011-12 that our faculty recently vote unanimously to support.

"The State's base aid rate per FTE at the start of the 2009 - 2010 was $2675 and now currently stands at $2122, representing a 21% decrease in the State's support of community colleges, and ... this decrease places the State's contribution below what it was in 2009 - 2010 so that it now represents only 26.5% of operating costs, far short of the State's 40% statutory obligation..."

In other words, the State of New York is supposedly required, by LAW to provide 40% of our operating costs (the resolution, by the way, is an attempt to get the State to meet its funding obligations).  It actually provides 26.5%.  Where does the rest of our funding come from?  It comes from the County and student tuition.  County funding for New York State's community colleges have either decreased or remained flat.  Ulster County, where I reside, is flat broke and doesn't meet its statutory funding obligations either.

So what does that leave?  Tuition.  If the citizens of New York want community colleges to exist, they have to realize that student tuition HAS TO GO UP because State and County funding has GONE DOWN SIGNIFICANTLY.  We can't magically summon money from thin air (if you learn that trick, let me know!).

Wait, you may argue, can't community colleges cut costs?  Of course costs can be cut.  And they have been cut.  Year and year of funding cuts have resulted in significant and deep cost cuts at our institution (call our Dean of Administration - I'm sure he'd be happy to give you a list).  But, at some point, the cost cuts have real negative effects.  Maintenance is deferred.  Libraries don't buy books.  Computer equipment is not updated.  Labs work with out-of-date decrepit equipment.  Full-time faculty retire and they're not replaced.  That has happened in my department.  We have to staff the classes with part-time (adjunct) instructors who are paid per course with no benefits.  Over two-thirds of our faculty members are adjunct instructors.

If your child is at our community college, odds are that most of their classes are taught by part-time adjunct instructors.  We're not unique.

What's the problem with adjunct instructors?  We do try to get qualified people with appropriate degrees and experience after all.  There are drawbacks, however.  Ever try to get someone with the appropriate background to teach, for example, a lecture section on General Chemistry from 11 am - 12 pm on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for four months for $2,175 - $2,460 (our adjunct salary pay range before taxes)?  While it's 45 hours of contact time (3 hours/week for 15 weeks), keep in mind that the instructor also has to prepare about 40 hour-long lectures (for non-teachers reading this, imagine putting together ONE hour-long lecture on a topic you're familiar with and then multiply that prep time by 40).  Doesn't include writing quizzes, homework problems, and exams.  Doesn't include time GRADING quizzes, homework problems, and exams.  Doesn't include time coordinating with whomever is teaching the chemistry lab sections to make sure lecture and lab relate to each other.  Doesn't include time meeting with students who "don't get it".

Adjunct instructors come in, teach a class, and leave.  In the middle of the day, when a student wanders into our department office looking for their teacher, we often have to tell them their instructor is only on campus Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10:30 - 1:00.  Send them an email.  Is that good for the student and their success in that particular course?

Adjunct instructors are not necessarily committed to the mission of the college.  Many of them teach at numerous other colleges - they're only allowed to teach up to 3 classes at our school and that earns them less than $7500 a semester (before taxes).  To make ends meet, many of them teach far more classes than they would as a full-time faculty member and also spend many hours in a car driving from one place to another throughout the day.  How committed can you be to any one of those classes and institutions?

Adjunct instructors have no protections and can be non-renewed without any reasons given.  How likely are they to enforce academic standards in their classroom when they live in fear of not being renewed.  The temptation is to make your students all happy so no one complains and you get good student evaluations.  The temptation is to have a high "success" rate where everyone passes with a good grade.  A good department chair sees through that (but we're overloaded with work too and simply don't have time to keep a close eye on things most of the time) but it does happen and it's bad for the institution.

Adjunct instructors do not take part in administrative tasks necessary to run a college.  Full-time faculty serve on numerous committees (some essential to the operation of the college, some a waste of time); periodically review and revise course syllabi (we're currently revising 70 different course syllabi in our department right now); assess student learning in classes (the latest MANDATE from our accrediting agency!); periodically review and revise programs; meet with and advise students; register students for classes; periodically evaluate adjunct and full-time faculty; provide endless bits of information to financial aide, the registrar's office, the dean's office, and others; maintain classrooms and labs; order lab equipment and supplies; develop class schedules (even though it's January, we're currently working on developing the fall course schedule); meet with reps and select textbooks; write common final exams; grade placement tests; oversee programs in local high schools; recruit students and participate in open houses; engage in professional development trainings, webinars, and conferences; do research; write papers; etc. etc. etc.

When the ratio of adjunct to full-time faculty goes up, all of those tasks are spread out among fewer and fewer faculty.  In other words, we get to do FAR more work with no increase in compensation.  How's that for morale?

By the way, at our institution, there have been NO salary increases for two years now (we don't even have a contract in place).  I certainly don't see an increase next September either.  Cost of living keeps rising dramatically here in the mid-Hudson Valley as well (my school and property taxes have both gone up, fuel costs are up, grocery costs are up - I have effectively been given a significant pay CUT these past few years).  Our faculty make tens of thousands of dollars less than less-well educated teachers at the local high schools.

Community colleges are THE best value in education and we're getting fucked by county, state, and federal funding cuts.  Community colleges contribute far, far more to the community than they cost in public funding.  If you support the mission of community colleges, a chance for everyone to be educated, share your concerns with the president, your senators and congressional representative, your governor, and state and local elected officials.

If any one of those "public servants" wants to come and visit our community college, not just for a photo op with the college president and board of trustees, I'd be happy to show them around, introduce them to department chairs, full-time faculty, adjuncts, staff members, maintenance workers, and students.  I dare you to ask them how things are going.  Never happen, though, they prefer to legislate from a position of ignorance.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Random Friday Comments

Sometime yesterday, I had my 100,000th unique visitor to this blog according to StatCounter which I installed on the first day I set this up a couple of years ago.  I started with only a few unique hits a day and now I have 500-600. I find that pleasantly surprising.

I don't want to be more specific since the course is currently in progress, but the other day, a student in my class asked the meaning of a term they came across on an online homework assignment.  It's a term I wouldn't necessarily expect a student to know (although I did define it in class) but it denotes a very simple thing.  After politely answering the question, the first thing that popped into my mind was "Ever hear of a dictionary?" (hell, it was an online assignment, the term could have been Googled too).  But, then again, anything to get a student to actually have an interaction with me to see that I don't bite is a good thing.

In another class, a student missed lab and one of two classes this week.  When he finally showed, without once contacting me regarding missed material (you know, things like 3-hour lab assignments, daily quizzes I've been giving on the geologic time scale, etc.), he spent much of my lecture looking down at his lap where his hands were resting.  He was either playing with himself or texting - I'll assume the latter since I don't want to think about the former.  Second week of classes and I already know who's likely to withdraw or fail - it's like I'm fucking Kreskin.

So I go to the gym three times a week to work out.  At the gym, they provide little spray bottles of disinfectant and paper towels to clean off the machines you use.  One thing I've noticed is while most men, like myself, clean machines after we're done using them (because we're usually disgustingly wet from sweat), a number of people, especially women, clean the machines BEFORE they use them (and not after).  Seems rude to me.

So I was at the dentist yesterday for a cleaning and the hygienist, after probing my gums with a steel pick, said "Your gums are bleeding."  Yeah, no kidding, Dr. Mengele, I have a feeling if you poke any part of my body with your pointy-tipped pick it would bleed.  I bet dental hygienists are into BDSM (as sadists).  Then they charged me $45 (without asking me first) for an "Irrigation with chlorhexidine."  Yeah, I can buy a gallon of that shit for $10 and they charge me $45 for a shot glass worth of rinse.

So, since I spend a couple of hours at the dentist, I ended up going back to work until 8 pm to catch up.  This is how my days feel lately...

Writing about a shot glass in the paragraph above reminds me that it's Friday.  I will imbibe later (I bet ethanol is just as good as chlorhexidine in cleaning bacteria out of your mouth).

Thursday, January 26, 2012

El Hierro

El Hierro is the westernmost of the Canary Islands - an "Autonomous Community" (Comunidad Autónoma) of Spain located off the coast of northwestern Africa.

One interesting fact about El Hierro is that it was once known as the Meridian Island (Isla del Meridiano) because it was considered by some to be the westernmost part of the Old World and thus a logical place for the Prime Meridian (longitude 0°).

The British of course, disagreed placing the Prime Meridian at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, the location we use today.

The westernmost end of El Hierro
The western edge of the world prior to the 1400s.

The Canary Islands (Islas Canarias), by the way, have nothing to do with canaries.  The name derives from the Latin Insula Canaria meaning "Island of the Dogs" due to either to numerous dogs on the islands or, some believe, seals (canis marinus or "sea dog" in Latin).

The islands had an indigenous population, since at least neolithic times, apparently related to the Berbers of North Africa.  Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaganians, and Arabs all visited at various times.  Starting around 1400, the islands came under the influence of Spain and ships later bound for the New World found it a convenient place to stop before catching the northwest tradewinds for the Caribbean.

The Canaries are volcanic islands which formed, like the Hawaiian Islands of the Pacific, by the passage of the African Plate over the Canary Hotspot - a deep plume of hot material in the mantle which apparently formed around 60 million years ago.

One of the volcanic islands, El Hierro, is currently active.  With a triangular-shape, and rising 1,500 meters from the ocean surface, the island is pockmarked with hundreds of craters from volcanic activity.  The island has also been affected by at least 3 massive landslides.  The largest of these was the El Golfo landslide which shaped the nothern shore of the island around 15,000 years ago and dumped hundreds of cubic kilometers of debris into the ocean (almost certainly causing a tsunami).  You can clearly see the scar of this event in the image of the island below.

Radiocarbon dating places the last large eruption on El Hierro at around 550 BCE.  Last summer, however, thousands of tremors signalled the movement of magma in the subsurface.  This led to the formation of a fissure on the seafloor 1 km south of the island with continuing volcanic activity.

Pretty cool.  What we're basically seeing is the slow formation of a new island, or the growth of El Hierro into a larger island, in the Canary chain.  The gases and lava erupted on the seafloor are killing fish ad causing some disruption in the lives of the islanders, but that's the price you pay for living around volcanoes.

Will it get worse?  There's always the possibility things will ratchet up a bit there (the islanders are apparently packed and ready to evacuate if need arises).  Earthquake swarms are still occurring indicating the movement of magma but relatively small amounts and deep (about 12 km).

It's certainly a place to watch and will likely remain active for years to come.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Class warfare

I'm not an Obama supporter.  Neither am I a supporter of the current crop of GOP candidates running for president.  I think they're all assholes, if truth be told.  I'm just a middle-class guy trying to support a family of four on my community college teaching salary (and having trouble paying my current property tax bill which I'll end up paying with my income tax refund.  Sigh).

So after Obama's State of the Union address, the Republicans immediately came out with the predictable cries of "Class Warfare" because he had the temerity to suggest that tax rates should be a bit higher for people who earn more in one day than the yearly median household income in the United States.

Am I exaggerating?  Not at all.  The Romney's earned 21.7 million in 2010 (source), mostly from capital gains and dividends.  That's an average income of ($21,700,000/365) = $59,452 per DAY.  The real median household income in the United States in 2010 was $49,445 per year, $10,000 less than the Romney's earn in one day, according to the Census Bureau (source).  The Census Bureau also reports that the nation's official poverty rate in 2010 was 15.1 percent, up from 14.3 percent in 2009, and the number of people without health insurance coverage rose from 49.0 million in 2009 to 49.9 million in 2010 (things have gotten worse, not better, for many Americans).

So people who earn all that dough must pay a lot in taxes, right?  Don't be ridiculous!  Romney's 2010 effective tax rate was 13.9%.  Guess what?  If you're an average working stiff making more than $8,375 (single) or $16,750 (jointly filing with spouse), then your tax rate is 15% or more (source).  Yes, yes, there are lots of complications (because we have a tax code that reads like it was written by monkeys), but the bottom line is that when billionaires like Warren Buffet are embarassed about how little wealthy people pay in taxes (source), something's fucking wrong.

So, the way I see it, wealthy people have pulled out their gilded dicks and have been pissing on the heads of poor and working class people in this country for quite some time now.  When the poor and working class look up and say "Hey asshole, stop pissing on me!", the rich accuse us of fomenting class warfare.  I guess it's only class warfare when we fight back.

Back to science-related posts tomorrow...

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Beaten, Seared, and Sauced

I read a lot.  One of my favorite things to do is go to the local public library and just browse around until I find something interesting to read at the time.  The most recent book I've read has nothing to do with geology but I suppose is somewhat connected to education. 

Beaten, Seared, and Sauced: On Becoming a Chef at the Culinary Institute of America by Jonathan Dixon (2011, Clarkson Potter) is a recounting of a student's experience at the world-famous CIA here in the mid-Hudson Valley.  Dixon, an almost 40-year-old writer and adjunct instructor at the time, made a mid-life decision to become a chef.

It wasn't a great book, but I enjoyed reading it (I finished it in one night).  Dixon's a decent writer, as would be expected given his background, and I found the mentions of many places I know in the area interesting.  It did give some insight into the CIA as well and how they train their students.  (One part of me would love to be able to scream at some students the way chefs are allowed to do!).

Dixon's description of how he now views the produce quality at a local chain supermarket after taking a course on fruit and vegetables at the Culinary will make you realize how much we've settled for mediocrity over quality and will have you thinking of getting all your produce at the local farmer's market.  His description of chicken killing will have you agreeing with him that it's a sin to poorly cook one and waste it (no, it didn't cause me to consider vegetarianism - I like animal flesh!).

Be nice to have more time on Earth to do things.  I think I'd enjoy going to the CIA and learning how to cook well and a bit of the science behind it.  Wouldn't want to be a chef though - I've worked around kitchens in my younger days (dishwasher, busboy, and waiter at various places) and I know there's no glamour in busting your ass in a hot kitchen for 12 hours a day.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Chinese New Year

Happy New Year! Today, January 23, 2012 starts the year of the dragon in the traditional Chinese calendar.  There are twelve animals (including the mythological dragon) associated with the Chinese calendar - rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig.Like Western astrology, the ancient Chinese believed that the animal sign you were born under somehow influences your life. And, like Western astrology, some Chinese still believe it to be true even though it's complete nonsense (I've seen some news stories suggesting a lot of Chinese births this year because the dragon is an "auspicious" sign).

Any way, these animal "signs" are even more complicated (just as Western astrology is more complicated than the 12 Sun signs would suggest).  It's actually a 60 year cycle.  The first cycle is of the 5 "elements" - wood, fire, earth, metal, and water - from Chinese philosophy in their masculine (Yang) and feminine (Yin) forms.

As Wikipedia explains: "This combination creates the 60-year cycle due to the least amount of years (least common multiple) it would take to get from Yang Wood Rat to its next iteration, which always starts with Yang Wood Rat and ends with Yin Water Boar."

Two iterations of the 60-year cycle are shown below.  We are currently in the cycle which began in 1984.  Since the Chinese New Year always begins in late January / early February, it's not enough simply to know the year of your birth to determine your "sign". I wasn't just born in the year of the Ox, I'm a Yin Metal Ox, whatever the hell that means (according to this site, it means I'm confrontational and conceited - maybe there is something to this after all!).

Years (1924–1983)
Associated Element
Associated Animal
Years (1984–2043)
Feb 05 1924 – Jan 23 1925
Yang Wood
Feb 02 1984 – Feb 19 1985
Jan 24 1925 – Feb 12 1926
Yin Wood
Feb 20 1985 – Feb 08 1986
Feb 13 1926 – Feb 01 1927
Yang Fire
Feb 01 1986 – Jan 28 1987
Feb 02 1927 – Jan 22 1928
Yin Fire
Jan 29 1987 – Feb 16 1988
Jan 23 1928 – Feb 09 1929
Yang Earth
Feb 17 1988 – Feb 05 1989
Feb 10 1929 – Jan 29 1930
Yin Earth
Feb 06 1989 – Jan 26 1990
Jan 30 1930 – Feb 16 1931
Yang Metal
Jan 27 1990 – Feb 14 1991
Feb 17 1931 – Feb 05 1932
Yin Metal
Feb 15 1991 – Feb 03 1992
Feb 06 1932 – Jan 25 1933
Yang Water
Feb 04 1992 – Jan 22 1993
Jan 26 1933 – Feb 13 1934
Yin Water
Jan 23 1993 – Feb 09 1994
Feb 14 1934 – Feb 03 1935
Yang Wood
Feb 10 1994 – Jan 30 1995
Feb 04 1935 – Jan 23 1936
Yin Wood
Jan 31 1995 – Feb 18 1996
Jan 24 1936 – Feb 10 1937
Yang Fire
Feb 19 1996 – Feb 06 1997
Feb 11 1937 – Jan 30 1938
Yin Fire
Feb 07 1997 – Jan 27 1998
Jan 31 1938 – Feb 18 1939
Yang Earth
Jan 28 1998 – Feb 15 1999
Feb 19 1939 – Feb 07 1940
Yin Earth
Feb 16 1999 – Feb 04 2000
Feb 08 1940 – Jan 26 1941
Yang Metal
Feb 05 2000 – Jan 23 2001
Jan 27 1941 – Feb 14 1942
Yin Metal
Jan 24 2001 – Feb 11 2002
Feb 15 1942 – Feb 04 1943
Yang Water
Feb 12 2002 – Jan 31 2003
Feb 05 1943 – Jan 24 1944
Yin Water
Feb 01 2003 – Jan 21 2004
Jan 25 1944 – Feb 12 1945
Yang Wood
Jan 22 2004 – Feb 08 2005
Feb 13 1945 – Feb 01 1946
Yin Wood
Feb 09 2005 – Jan 28 2006
Feb 02 1946 – Jan 21 1947
Yang Fire
Jan 29 2006 – Feb 17 2007
Jan 22 1947 – Feb 09 1948
Yin Fire
Feb 18 2007 – Feb 06 2008
Feb 10 1948 – Jan 28 1949
Yang Earth
Feb 07 2008 – Jan 25 2009
Jan 29 1949 – Feb 16 1950
Yin Earth
Jan 26 2009 – Feb 13 2010
Feb 17 1950 – Feb 05 1951
Yang Metal
Feb 14 2010 – Feb 02 2011
Feb 06 1951 – Jan 26 1952
Yin Metal
Feb 03 2011 – Jan 22 2012
Jan 27 1952 – Feb 13 1953
Yang Water
Jan 23 2012 – Feb 09 2013
Feb 14 1953 – Feb 02 1954
Yin Water
Feb 10 2013 – Jan 30 2014
Feb 03 1954 – Jan 23 1955
Yang Wood
Jan 31 2014 – Feb 18 2015
Jan 24 1955 – Feb 11 1956
Yin Wood
Feb 19 2015 – Feb 07 2016
Feb 12 1956 – Jan 30 1957
Yang Fire
Feb 08 2016 – Jan 27 2017
Jan 31 1957 – Feb 17 1958
Yin Fire
Jan 28 2017 – Feb 18 2018
Feb 18 1958 – Feb 07 1959
Yang Earth
Feb 19 2018 – Feb 04 2019
Feb 08 1959 – Jan 27 1960
Yin Earth
Feb 05 2019 – Jan 24 2020
Jan 28 1960 – Feb 14 1961
Yang Metal
Jan 25 2020 – Feb. 11 2021
Feb 15 1961 – Feb 04 1962
Yin Metal
Feb 12 2021 – Jan 31 2022
Feb 05 1962 – Jan 24 1963
Yang Water
Feb 01 2022 – Jan 21 2023
Jan 25 1963 – Feb 12 1964
Yin Water
Jan 22 2023 – Feb 09 2024
Feb 13 1964 – Feb 01 1965
Yang Wood
Feb 10 2024 – Jan 28 2025
Feb 02 1965 – Jan 20 1966
Yin Wood
Jan 29 2025 – Feb 16 2026
Jan 21 1966 – Feb 08 1967
Yang Fire
Feb 17 2026 – Feb 05 2027
Feb 09 1967 – Jan 29 1968
Yin Fire
Feb 06 2027 – Jan 25 2028
Jan 30 1968 – Feb 16 1969
Yang Earth
Jan 26 2028 – Feb 12 2029
Feb 17 1969 – Feb 05 1970
Yin Earth
Feb 13 2029 – Feb 02 2030
Feb 06 1970 – Jan 26 1971
Yang Metal
Feb 03 2030 – Jan 22 2031
Jan 27 1971 – Feb 14 1972
Yin Metal
Jan 23 2031 – Feb 10 2032
Feb 15 1972 – Feb 02 1973
Yang Water
Feb 11 2032 – Jan 30 2033
Feb 03 1973 – Jan 22 1974
Yin Water
Jan 31 2033 – Feb 18 2034
Jan 23 1974 – Feb 10 1975
Yang Wood
Feb 19 2034 – Feb 07 2035
Feb 11 1975 – Jan 30 1976
Yin Wood
Feb 08 2035 – Jan 27 2036
Jan 31 1976 – Feb 17 1977
Yang Fire
Jan 28 2036 – Feb 14 2037
Feb 18 1977 – Feb 06 1978
Yin Fire
Feb 15 2037 – Feb 03 2038
Feb 07 1978 – Jan 27 1979
Yang Earth
Feb 04 2038 – Jan 23 2039
Jan 28 1979 – Feb 15 1980
Yin Earth
Jan 24 2039 – Feb 11 2040
Feb 16 1980 – Feb 04 1981
Yang Metal
Feb 12 2040 – Jan 31 2041
Feb 05 1981 – Jan 24 1982
Yin Metal
Feb 01 2041 – Jan 21 2042
Jan 25 1982 – Feb 12 1983
Yang Water
Jan 22 2042 – Feb 09 2043
Feb 13 1983 – Feb 01 1984
Yin Water
Feb 10 2043 – Jan 29 2044

Modified from Wikipedia's Chinese Astrology page

Why does the Chinese New Year start in January/February and why does it change each year?  You may have noticed that today also happens to be the astronomical New Moon (0739 UTC). Not surprisingly, this ancient 60-year cycle is based on a lunar calendar (all ancient cultures basically used lunar calendars).

Technically, it's based on a lunisolar calendar - a lunar calendar that periodically has an extra month inserted (intercalary month) to keep it in sync with the solar year.  Two basic rules of this calendar are that the first day of each month begins at midnight on the day of the full Moon and that a year normally has twelve lunar months.

As with all lunar calendars, this causes a problem because the synodic month, or cycle of lunar phases, is 29.53 days long while the tropical year, or time from solstice to solstice, is 365.24 days. Dividing one by the other gives (365.24 / 29.53) or 12.4 phases per year.  This means that every 2.5 years, your calendar will be off by one month.  This is where the intercalary month comes into play.  Every 2-3 years, you insert another month into the calendar.  Various rules (which we'll ignore) determine when to insert the extra month.

Generally, but not always for complicated reasons, the Chinese New Year will fall on the second new Moon after the Winter Solstice.   Anyway, as one of my former colleagues always used to say, "It's a poor day you don't learn something new!"

So, best wishes for a happy and prosperous Yang Water Dragon year!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Magic of Reality

I recently read (from the library) The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True by Richard Dawkins (2011, Free Press).  Dawkins, of course, is probably better known for his outspoken atheism and skepticism than he is for his scientific work as an evolutionary biologist and former professor at Oxford University.

The subtitle "How We Know What's Really True" best expresses the aim of this book.  Dawkins begins the book with a discussion of the difference between reality and magic (the supernatural) and comes down, not surprisingly, on the side of naturalism - science is the only valid way to examine and learn about the natural world.  As such, it's a very good introduction to how science operates and works but will obviously trouble those who would argue that there's more to the physical world since he doesn't shy away from including mainstream religion with other false ideas.

Throughout the book, Dawkins introduces a scientific question - Where did people come from? Why are there seasons? How do rainbows form? What causes earthquakes? - and then gives some culture's mythological explanation for the phenomenon (sometimes, the mythological explanation he provides is from the Bible).  This is followed by the scientific explanation of the phenonomon showing, of course, how it's far more reasonable and useful than the myths.

While the book is described as for being of people of all ages, it's really written more like a book aimed for children. That's not to say adults would not get something from this book since most adults have no freaking idea why the Earth experiences seasons or how evolution works, but it does have the tone of a book for children.  Given the vocabulary used and concepts discussed, the ideal age group for this book would probably be bright tweens.  Assuming, of course, Dawkins saying stories about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden are myths on par with Quetzlcoatl, Zeus, and Ganesha doesn't offend you.

The thing I liked best about this book are the awesome illustrations on every page by Dave McKean. It would be worth getting the book just for these.  Here are some examples (grabbed from the Amazon page for the book) below:

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Geology Tattoos?

On this snowy Saturday morning (first significant snow here since last Halloween!), I was listening to an archived version of NPR's Science Friday from January 13.  They were interviewing Carl Zimmer about his Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed book.

Zimmer, a science writer, started collecting images of science-themed tattoos on his blog (The Loom).  This eventually led to a book (that's how to write a book, ask people to submit all the material you need).  Here are some examples.  They're interesting to look at some are pretty neat.

Anyway, I'm mentioning this because when the host Ira Flatow asked Zimmer what types of tattoos he needed more images of, Zimmer answered geology related tattoos!

It seems to me there are a lot of possibilities there...  Interesting extinct organisms like Anomalocaris.  You could tattoo a globe showing Pangaea.  A crystal form.  Maybe a simple rock hammer (Zimmer mentioned an archaeologist who tattooed a trowel on themselves).

I don't have any tattoos (I'm not a very trendy person), but who knows.  Maybe my current mid-life crisis will lead to a cool tattoo after a few beers some evening.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Teachers & SAT scores

I obtained the following information from the interesting EducationRealist blog.

Facts like the following are sometimes used to claim K-12 teachers aren't too bright, on average:

Students who indicated that education was their intended major earned a combined math and verbal score of 967, about 0.31 standard deviations below the average of 1,017, meaning the 38th percentile in a standard normal distribution.

Of course, not all education majors become teachers (and shouldn't become teachers!).  Less than half make it through to certification and landing a teaching job.

Here's something a little more telling - SAT verbal and math scores, compared to average scores, for different groups of actual teachers.

Teachers, on average, have pretty good verbal skills.  Not so great in math unless you're a math or science teacher (not surprising).  What is surprising is how poorly some groups score.  Physical education majors don't do so well reinforcing the stereotype of the dumb gym teacher.  Special education teachers don't do so well either.  I know very little about special education so I can't comment one way or another.

What is sad is the low scores shown by elementary education teachers.  These are the teachers that come into contact with every single kid in the school system when the children are at a very impressionable age and learning the fastest.  It's not just babysitting.  Too bad elementary education teachers aren't of a higher caliber.

Here's another tidbit from the Gene Expression blog expanding upon this data.

As a generalization, the SAT scores of whites who end up in K-12 teaching aren't much different from the larger population SAT scores of college-bound seniors.  With Asians, the best seniors definitely don't go into K-12 teaching.  With blacks, K-12 teachers are drawn from the highest-scoring seniors.  Definite cultural differences at play here.  No comments, just found it interesting.

Data's great.  Too bad educational "reformers" typically ignore it (peruse the EducationRealist blog for many examples).

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Blocked by SOPA/PIPA

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

My take on the Republican primaries

It's the same as the late George Carlin's...

And no, I'm not an Obama supporter either.  They all suck.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Odd winter weather 2

It's ironic that Friday, after I posted about how unseasonably warm it was, cold Canadian air was pulled down from the low pressure system that moved through our area with rain on Thursday and dropped the temperatures down for the holiday weekend.

Low pressure systems (red L over northern NY & VT) are
characterized by counterclockwise circulation of winds.
This brings cold Canadian air down into the Hudson Valley.

Just goes to illustrate the difference between weather and climate.  Weather is the day-to-day set of conditions in the atmosphere, climate is the average over time.  In other words, climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.

So, anyway, in Friday's post I talked about how it's been unseasonably warm in the Hudson Valley this winter (at least to date).  Today I want about this in more detail.

Turns out it's just not unseasonably warm here, in the first week of January, more than 1,000 temperature records were broken across the country.  There was also 19% snow cover in the U.S. versus a normal for early January of closer to 50% (see This Winter's Weirdly Warm Weather Explained).  Some meteorologists have dubbed these conditions "Marchuary".

So what's going on?  Well, to start, it's a La Niña year.  The El Niño/La Niña weather phenomenon deserves a post of its own but is basically an oscillation of high and low pressure systems across the tropical Pacific Ocean (it's also know as ENSO for El Niño Southern Oscillation).  During normal conditions, there's high pressure off the west coast of South America in our winter (their summer, since seasons are reversed south of the equator) and low pressure over by Indonesia and Australia (resulting in rains).

This high pressure drives the equatorial current westward across the tropical Pacific.  Cold water is pulled up from the Southern Ocean off the coast of Chile and Peru.  This cold current brings plankton rich waters and fishing is good.

During an El Niño year, however, these high and low pressure systems flip (hence the word "oscillation" in ENSO) and the equatorial current reverses direction.  The cold current off South America shuts down and the fish go away (causing economic hardships for fishermen in Peru and Chile).  In addition, now there's low air pressure off South America resulting in rains which cause flooding and mudslides in the Andes.  Over in Indonesia, they're not getting the rains and drought ensues.

Note also, in looking at the two images, how the El Niño event affects the subtropical and polar jet streams crossing North America.  Our winter weather is affected by the shifting of high and low pressure systems in the tropical Pacific Ocean.  These types of effects are called teleconnections by meteorologists.

That's El Niño, what then is La Niña?  La Niña is basically an intensification of normal conditions.  Higher high pressure off South America.  This allows the eastern Pacific (off the west coasts of North and South America) to get colder than normal.  This cold water evaporates less thus leading to drier atmospheric conditions.  As this drier air comes off the Pacific and is carried across North America, it drops less precipitation as snow.

When there's less snow on the ground, there's also less radiation from the Sun reflected back into space.  The Sun is more effectively able to warm the ground resulting in slightly higher temperatures.

That's not the whole story, however.  Last year we had La Niña conditions at it was very cold and snowy (remember the various "Snowmaggedon" stories?).  There are other pressure system oscillations not as well know as ENSO.  The Arctic Oscillation (AO) and the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) also play a role in how the polar jet stream moves across North America affecting our weather.

Last year the AO and NAO were both in their negative phases and this year they're positive.  This positive phase allows for a stronger, less "kinked" jet stream which is resulting in less precipitation and storms across the upper part of the country.

Bottom line is that our weather patterns are complex and interrelated.  While it's tempting to look at anomalously warm weather and say "It's that damn global warming!" or look at anomalously cold weather and say "See, I told you global warming was a crock of shit!", the reality is that you can't say ANYTHING about global climate change from a single storm (e.g. Hurricane Katrina or Irene) or a couple of days or weeks of warm or cold weather.  Climate is weather averaged over many years (and when you look at those records, it unquestionably supports a warming trend).

Friday, January 13, 2012

Odd winter weather 1

If you live here in the Hudson Valley of New York, I'm sure you've noticed that we haven't had typical winter weather this year (at least not yet!).

Let's look at some data.  Going to the National Weather Service's (NWS) list of Offices and Centers, we can get to the NWS Office in Albany, NY.  Scrolling down, you'll see a catagory for Climate with a link for Local climate information.

From there, I'll grab the Preliminary Monthly Climate Data reports for Poughkeepsie (a mid-Hudson Valley city) for November and December of 2011.

Here's what we can extract from that report:

      Average November temperature = 46.0° F
      Departure from normal = 4.4° F higher

     Average December temperature = 37.1° F
     Departure from normal = 6.0° F higher

We can also look at January, to date (Jan 13):

      Average monthly temperature = 33.7° F
      Departure from normal = 8.0° F higher

No doubt about it, it has been a very warm winter.  Since November, we've been 4° - 8° F higher in temperature than average (the "normal" temperatures these are compared to is a 30-year average calculated from data collected between 1981-2010).

If you're wondering, precipitation is about average in that same time span (we're only 0.3 inches lower this year since November 1).

It's been so warm that my family has been doing a lot of geocaching this winter (the subject of another post).  Last weekend when we were out, bushwacking through some brush, we picked up a bunch of deer ticks on our legs.  I've never had to worry about ticks in the middle of winter before!

So what's causing this mild winter?  Can we identify any reason?  Is it global warming?  I'll discuss this in tomorrow's post.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Amateur physics

Interesting, but completely bullshit article in Slate on Other Theories of Physics.  The subtitle says it all: "Amateurs around the world take on the priesthood of mainstream science." 

By the way, whenever someone talks about the "priesthood" of science, red flags should instantly pop up - it's a phrase almost exclusively used by cranks to support pseudoscientific ideas.

Anyway, the article talks about people who, without any background in mainstream science, develop alternative "theories" in physics.  One such person profiled is "Jim Carter, a trailer-park owner in Enumclaw, Wash." who developed his own "theory of everything" based on the idea that all matter is composed of little donut-shaped particles (shown at left) called "circlons" (another characteristic of cranks, by the way, is that they invent their own terminology).  His ideas are featured in a series of self-published books including The Other Theory of Physics (why yes, self-publishing is another sign of a crank).

So what's Carter's expertise?  He took one semester of college and thought "that what was being taught in physics departments was an offense to common sense."  Damn physicists with their fancy PhDs.  What do they know?

The author then claims we shouldn't treat these people like cranks and dump the crazy ass letters they write to physics professors in the trash.  Why? Well, one reason is that there's a lot of them and they have an organization - the Natural Philosophy Alliance, whose database lists more than 2,100 theorists, 5,800 papers, and more than 1,300 books worldwide.

Ahem... Couldn't we say the same about young-Earth creationists?  Organizations like Answers in Genesis have pretty websites with lots of members too but they're batshit crazy.

Then the author states:

"They are unanimous in the view that mainstream physics has been hijacked by a kind of priestly caste who speak a secret language—in other words, mathematics—that is incomprehensible to most human beings. They claim that the natural world speaks a language which all of us can, or should be able to, understand."

So let me understand this...  Just because most people can barely add two numbers together, and have no hope of understanding higher mathematics, physics is somewhow wrong.  It's un-American.  Un-democratic.  Elitist.  Like the scientific gibberish at left.

The article closed with:

While we may not agree with the answers outsiders give, none of us should be sanguine when some of the greatest fruits of science are unavailable to most of humankind.

I guess the author has never read Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene, Michio Kaku, and many other physicists who've written books attempting to translate concepts in physics into language accessible to average readers.

Here's a clue...  When some dude in a trailer park with barely a high school diploma claims to have a "theory of everyhing" that will overturn hundreds of years of physics, he's probably full of shit.

They both have ideas about how the universe formed

Monday, January 9, 2012

Guns & Testosterone

So some bloggers over at Discover Magazine put up a post titled NCBI ROFL: Study proves guns make you an a**hole.  They quote the abstract from a research paper in Psychological Science titled Guns, testosterone, and aggression: an experimental test of a mediational hypothesis:

"We tested whether interacting with a gun increased testosterone levels and later aggressive behavior. Thirty male college students provided a saliva sample (for testosterone assay), interacted with either a gun or a children’s toy for 15 min, and then provided another saliva sample. Next, subjects added as much hot sauce as they wanted to a cup of water they believed another subject would have to drink. Males who interacted with the gun showed significantly greater increases in testosterone and added more hot sauce to the water than did those who interacted with the children’s toy. Moreover, increases in testosterone partially mediated the effects of interacting with the gun on this aggressive behavior."

As the owner of a .40 caliber Glock 22, I have to take exception to this article.  As a man, I guess I fail to see how an increase in testosterone necessarily equates with making one an asshole. What not title the post "Study proves guns make you more manly"?

Of course the NCBI ROFL bloggers are women.  What a surprise.  Hey sweeties, testosterone does not automatically make you an asshole - there are plenty of metrosexual girlie men out there (example at right) who presumably have some testosterone running through their pretty little veins (or maybe not).  Some of us are just assholes by choice.

Hey, how about this post by the same bloggers:  NCBI ROFL: The presence of an attractive woman elevates testosterone and physical risk taking in young men.  Alternative title - "Women turn men into assholes."

I'm afraid Hudson Valley Geologist will just remain an unrepentant male asshole.  Don't ask me for water and hot sauce either.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Ghost in the Wires

Just finished Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World's Most Wanted Hacker by Kevin Mitnick (2011, Little, Brown and Company).

Kevin Mitnick is a well-known computer hacker, now making money as a computer security professional, who was once the subject of an intense manhunt from the FBI and US Marshals for his hacking activities against the phone ("phone phreaking") and computer companies.  He spent several years in prison for his felony crimes.

On one level, I found the book to be an interesting read.  I'm about the same age as Mitnick and if my parents had more money when I was growing up I probably would have made some forays into computer hacking myself.  I was an avid electronics hobbyist and remember lusting after the Altair 8800 when I saw it in Popular Electronics as a teenager but couldn't afford it.

It wasn't until I went to college that I started using computers.  I found myself hanging out with the computer geeks and learned the UNIX system (remember emacs?), C, and even did some simple hacking on the school's VAX/VMS system.  I could have gone to the dark side if I had gotten into all of that a decade earlier.

Anyway, I do understand the appeal of hacking.  The thrill of learning how to beat the system, snoop around where you shouldn't be, the adrenaline rush of risking getting caught.  Most people outgrow it and go on to do something useful in life.  Other people, however, seem to get addicted to it all and Mitnick was one of them.

While Mitnick undoubtedly had technical skills honed by hours on the computer, his real skill was what he called "social engineering" - something other people would call "lying" and "grifting".  He would research a company and then call some poor low-level employee with access to their computer system and say something like "This is Bill in engineering and I'm having trouble with the xxx system.  Can you help me by checking a few things on your machine?"  Then he'd have the poor sap employee  run a series of cryptic commands that would give Mitnick access to the system with administrative rights.

Most of Mitnick's virtual break-ins were the result of him conning people over the phone.  Since he started his "career" by hacking the phone company, he was able to get callbacks to his cell phone with a phone number that looked as if it was an internal phone number for the company he was hacking.

Mitnick was clearly an addict when it came to hacking.  He did it even knowing it hurt people close to him - he claimed to be close to his mother and grandmother but he was always calling and telling them the FBI was on to him, he had to run, or he had been arrested.  I felt sorry for them - he must have really broken their hearts.  He also persisted in his hacking even when he knew he was being investigated by multiple local and federal law enforcement agencies and even when he had to move from L.A. to Vegas to Denver to Rayleigh to try and keep one step ahead of them (even while on probation for hacking).

Mitnick also comes across in the book as being a complete sociopath.  Besides the harm he was constantly doing to his loved ones by his illegal activities, he also had no qualms about his computer hacking activities.  He claimed to just be doing it because he enjoyed the challenge.  Problem is that he caused real harm to real people.  He hacked phones to make thousands of hours of free calls that were then billed to random people.  Real people getting real bills who then had to spend hours dealing with the phone company to get straightened out.  He broke into companies and stole lists of credit card numbers which he thought was OK since he never used them for anything.  Still a crime dude!   Again, real people had their credit card numbers stolen and needed to go to their banks to get new cards, etc.  He lied to people and tricked them into giving him access into corporate computer systems.  No harm?  Ask the people who were then talked to, disciplined, or perhaps fired to allowing Mitnick to trick them into getting into the company's computers.  He broke into corporate computers and stole source code for operating systems for phones and computers.  Proprietary corporate source code that cost millions to develop and that allowed Mitnick to exploit any weaknesses to hack even more.  Then he wondered why they got so upset and got the Feds after him.  He was upset that the Feds were tapping his mom's phone, his friend's phones, etc. yet used his phone hacking skills to tap and listed to other people's conversations and read their private email.

After all his years of serious hacking, stealing services from phone and computer companies, breaking into corporate computer systems, conning people, stealing proprietary source code, tapping people's phones, reading people's private emails, etc. etc. etc., he's mystified as to why the Feds spent so much time and energy tracking him down and why they wanted him in prison with no access to computers or phones.  Quite frankly, if I had been the target of Mitnick's hacks, I'd probably want to beat the guy with a baseball bat.  He's completely clueless for a smart guy - something's obviously a bit off in his brain wiring.

In sum, while an interesting book, Mitnick comes across as a real asshole.  I would recommend this book not just to people interested in hacking but to any mental health professionals interested in addictive and sociopathic personalities.