Sunday, September 30, 2012

C/2012 S1 (ISON)

Mark your calendar.

A new comet was discovered last week by Russian Astronomers with the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON).  It's currently around 6.6 AU (990 million km) from the Sun which puts it between the orbits of Jupiter (5.2 AU) and Saturn (9.5 AU).

Judging by the comet's size and calculated orbit, a little over a year from now, in November of 2013, this comet may be brighter than the full Moon in our night sky!  How awesome would that be!

And no, this isn't a harbinger of doomsday even though some morons on the Internet will certainly start their crazy ass speculations (if they haven't already).  The orbit for this comet is already fairly well worked out and it will miss Earth by about 60 million kilometers.

Predicting the brightness of a comet (especially a year in advance) is always tricky business, but this one looks pretty good.  Just keep in mind an apropos quote often attributed to astronomer David Levy (co-discoverer of Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9) is "Comets are like cats; they have tails and do whatever they want to do."

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Butt chugging

Yes, it may come as a surprise to many who read this, but I drank in college (although I was ahead of the curve on the drinking age and it was legal when I was 18 - of course I had my first beer at age 16).  I have even imbibed to excess at times (I still don't care for certain mixed drinks I once liked).  I have never, however, even in my most depraved younger days, ever, thought of shoving a rubber hose up my ass (or asking a male friend to shove a rubber hose up my ass) to obtain my alcohol rectally.

Turns out the fine young men at the University of Tennessee's Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity have different views on such activities (Tennesse Fraternity Suspended After Alcohol Enemas).  Butt chugging (I understand that's the street term for this activity) is apparently popular in some circles  (circles I don't want to join).  The UT boys used cheap box wine since you can take the bag out and hang it as an enema bag. Probably stole the rubber tubing from their chem lab.

Why?  Perfectly sensible question.  Well, first, because they're fucking morons but, secondly, because your rectum will absorb the alcohol direclty into your bloodstream faster and more efficiently than your stomach will.  Want a near-fatal 0.40 BAC with just a few ounces of booze in a few minutes?  This is your method.  (By the way, in doing the "research" for this post, I learned that women will sometimes insert alcohol-soaked tampons into their you-know-what for the same reason - Isn't the Internet a wonderful tool for knowledge?).

Call me old fashioned, but I much prefer just sitting around with my friends, asshole not exposed,  and ingesting my alcohol orally.  When doing shots, I don't think I'll ever use the phrase "bottoms up!" again without disturbing images and young men and enemas popping unbidden into my head.  Cheers!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Not ready for college? You don't say!

Two reports issued recently:

  The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2012 [ACT]

The SAT (originally an acronym for Scholastic Aptitude Test) and ACT (originally an acronym for American College Testing) are the two competing standardized exams required for admission to most four-year colleges and universities (here's a New York Times opinion piece on the differences).

So what does the most recent scoring of these exams reveal about the high school class of 2012?

For the SAT, only 43% of the test takers reached the 1550 benchmark score which statistically indicates a 65% chance of earning a B- or higher GPA in their first year at a four-year college or university.  In other words, 57% of SAT examinees are apparently not college ready.   Here it is broken down by subject area:

For the ACT, only 40% of the test takers are seen as being fully college ready.  Here are the 2012 percentages meeting college-readiness benchmarks by subject:

Both the SAT and ACT reports indicate an increasing pool of diverse students taking the exams as well as an increase in low-income students (as measured by fee waiver requests).  It's hard to say why students are not doing well on these exams (I have a lot of ideas, but no data).

So, I teach at a community college.  Guess where the low-scoring ACT/SAT students go?  They come here since we're open admission and they're definitely not college-ready.  This is not news to us, we offer remedial courses in reading, writing, and mathematics.  We struggle in the classroom every day trying to balance academic rigor with student retention.

Not enough students are being retained.  Not enough students are graduating.  Students take too long to graduate.  All semester long, the faculty are inundated with "What can we do to change all of this?"  Pressure comes from the college administration.  Pressure comes from the state and federal governments.  Why are we failing these students?

Then I think about why students do badly in my classes.  They generally do poorly because:

  1.  They have no interest in the subject or material (and are not shy about admitting it)
  2.  They don't read.  Not the textbook.  Not any books about anything.
  3.  They're underprepared for college.  They don't understand arithmetic, let along algebra.
  4.  They're underprepared for college.  They can't write a coherent paragraph.
  5.  They don't turn in all of the assignments and labs and get zeros.
  6.  They attempt to cheat, copy other's work, or plagiarize.
  7.  I see them texting or not paying attention when I'm lecturing.

Not all students are like this, of course, since we also have some great students but the ones we lose and who never graduate definitely share these characteristics.  Call me cynical, but I can't believe these particular students haven't had these attitudes and problems thoughout high school and even earlier (which is why they're not college ready).

What the fuck do you want me to do?  I teach to the best of my ability but the students have to meet me half way.  I often compare college to a gym membership.  Just buying a membership won't get you in shape.  Showing up and not working out won't get you in shape.  You have to commit to go regularly and work out.  It's not easy and the harder you work, the better your results.  Everyone deserves a chance, but no one deserves a free ride.  I can't take a lazy, slacker 18-year-old and turn him into a scholar.  I concentrate my energy on the good students who want to learn and if the slacker fails and drops out, it really shouldn't be my problem.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Daring & Dangerous Club

So my wife, who homeschools our two children, came up with an idea to form a "Daring & Dangerous Club" for homeschooled kids (inspired by my two enjoying The Daring Book for Girls and The Dangerous Book for Boys).  The idea is to do things with them that kids don't do much anymore in today's over-protective world.

Tonight, for our first meeting, I took a few kids (tween age mostly) to a local cave (Pompey's Cave).  The cave involved a trip down a 12 foot ladder and walking through a stream bed (with one 5 foot rock climb and a short belly crawl).  They did great.  We got wet and muddy and got to hike back to the cars in the dark.

Next month, I'll be teaching them gun safety and we'll be target shooting with BB gun rifles and pellet pistols (they're too young yet for regular pistol shooting but could probably handle a .22 rifle - we'll see how it goes).

Monday, September 24, 2012

Random thoughts

Well, I haven't been blogging much at all since returning from my month-long trip out West.  With the start of the fall semester, and all the personal and work-related stuff going on, blogging has taken a low priority.  It's not like I get paid for this (usually not even feedback that anyone even reads this crap).  I do it mostly for myself and an outlet for an urge to write stuff that I want to write about, not stuff other people want me to write (that's why I almost never respond to occasional requests from people to write about a certain topic).

The equinox was this past weekend.  Day and night are now around 12 hours each and you can really feel the onset of Autumn here in the Hudson Valley.  Birds are starting to migrate, squirrels are busy, leaves are starting to change, and the first frost will arrive soon.  Every year, around this time, I look back and wonder where the hell all the time went this past summer (winter seems so much longer to me!).  I need to get out and hike more!

I just counted, I currently have 25 books sitting on my nightstand.  These are all books I'm planning to read (one I am actively reading).  I've fallen a bit (a lot) behind.  This doesn't include the dozen or so e-books on my Kindle.  One of the reasons I haven't been blogging is that I feel like I'm running at full speed yet not getting anywhere.  At work, I have a double teaching load and, as department chair, am involved in a major program review for our Math/Science degree.  I've just been wanting to veg out in the evenings.

Went to the gym this morning which is a good thing.  Last fall I went every MWF morning and this semester, so far, it's been more episodic.  I always feel better when I do go, but it's hard to haul ass out of bed early in the morning (later I'll be scraping ice off my car), and driving 10 miles to the gym.  Both my children have head colds right now so I'm waiting for that to derail my good intentions (can't go to the gym if I'm sick).  You catch colds a lot more when you have kids in the house (even home-schooled ones).

Last weekend I went and shot hundreds of rounds of ammo for a pistol training course (I have a 0.40 caliber Glock 22).  If you've never tried it, shooting is actually very relaxing.  I really would like to get out there more but the price of ammo is too damn high (30-50 cents a round depending).  It doesn't take long to blow through a box of 50.

Well, I'll try to post something a bit more geological next time.  Hopefully soon.  In the meantime, go and read this cute comic which provides a nice metaphor of the difference between science and religion (click to make it bigger).

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The way to mediocracy

Haven't blogged for a couple of weeks now - just been too busy (overwhelmed is probably a better word) as the semester kicked off and I prepared for a double load of teaching in addition to being a department chair (adjunct supervision, faculty evaluations, course assessments, program reviews, etc.) plus the million other things going on in my professional and personal life.

It's a wonder I can stay sane (I hear my wife laughing at that statement).

Anyway, I was finally reading the June issue of Discover Magazine now that it's September, and something jumped out at me from the Editor's Note by Corey Powell at the beginning of the magazine:

"A half-century ago, people asked how we could afford to go to the moon while there were still problems here on Earth. In 1966 NASA’s budget peaked at 4.4 percent of total federal spending. This year it is 0.5 percent. For all intents and purposes, NASA has been zeroed out. Did we dispatch all those problems yet—or did we walk away from the kind of glory that inspires solutions?"

To quote Jesus (or at least the Gospel writers) out of context "The poor you will always have with you…”  (Matthew 26:11; Mark 14:7; John 12:8).  We've spent over 15 TRILLION dollars on welfare programs since Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" began in 1964 without any significant change in the poverty rate (reference).  How much more money do we piss down that rat hole?

NASA gets about 18 billion dollars in 2012.  Sounds like a lot.  Federal welfare spending in 2011, however, was around 668 billion.  NASA gets a couple of pennies for every dollar spent on welfare (that doesn't include State and local welfare spending).  That's dwarfed by military and homeland security spending.  Depending on what you include, that's arguably well over a trillion dollars a year.

Don't get me wrong.  I think government has an obligation to provide some social welfare programs (even though I think it's totally out of hand) and the provide for our safety and defense.  But, holy shit, imagine if we actually spent a trillion dollars on NASA.  Fuck putting people on Mars, that's a waste of money at this point (although I could be talked into the Moon).  We could, however, place robotic probes and landers on and around all the planets and interesting moons in our solar system (and robotically return samples).  We could launch new generations of space telescopes to discover habitable zone Earth-like planets.  This would provide a much higher payback to society in my opinion.

Problem is, no one ever listens to me!  Whenever the U.S. does return to the Moon, I wouldn't be surprised if the people already living there spoke Chinese.  Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that (unless they had 30 foot high Mao posters hanging on their moon bases), we're all one human race when it comes to expanding into space.