Thursday, December 18, 2014

Nuclear Lake

Believe it or not, there's a lake off Route 55 near Pawling in eastern Dutchess County with the rather unusual name of Nuclear Lake.

How on earth did it get that name?  It's certainly not something the local Chamber of Commerce would choose.  Well, it apparently was named when a former hunting preserve around the lake was purchased in 1955 by an outfit called Nuclear Development Associates.

New York Times - February 18, 1955

The federal Atomic Energy Commission sponsored work there from 1958 through 1972 by a research facility owned by the United Nuclear Corporation.  They were working on the development of plutonium fuel for breeder reactors.

Why did they stop in 1972?  Turns out there there was a little accident.  A chemical explosion in the laboratory blew out two windows on the north side of the building spraying out an unknown amount of plutonium.  After a two-year, three million dollar cleanup, the federal government bought the property for $900,000 in 1979 and declared it fit for unrestricted use.

Today, the Appalachian Trail runs right next to the lake.

The following, from Hike the Hudson Valley, has an amusing take on it all...

I know what you’re thinking.  Why would I ever want to visit a place called Nuclear Lake?  Well, let me set your mind at ease.  The only reason it’s even called Nuclear Lake (you’re going to think this is so funny when you hear it), is that in 1972, a chemical explosion blew out two windows in the experimental nuclear research lab that used to sit on the shore of the lake, blasting an unspecified amount of bomb-grade plutonium across the lake and surrounding woods.

See?  I bet you thought it was something bad.

Okay, so maybe it doesn't sound that fantastic.  But the trails around the lake were extensively tested, cleaned and declared safe many years ago, and who am I to argue with all those Geiger counters?  I’m sure they dumped plenty of kitty litter and sawdust on top of that plutonium.  To visit the place, you’d never know anything untoward had happened at all.
To make it even more irresistible, the website also states that Nuclear Lake is the most beautiful lake on the entire 2,200 miles Appalachian Trail - high praise indeed.

How can you resist that? So today I went for a hike there.  From Route 55, it's a relatively easy walk of a little over 4 miles round trip with a little up and down but, no real challenges.  The Hike the Hudson Valley web site has a great (and accurate) trail description for the loop around the lake.

The walk in was nice, typical terrain for the Hudson Highlands with outcrops of gneiss rock (get the geology pun?) and not much in the way of interesting plant or animal life this time of year (mid-December) other than a few ducks on the lake and squirrels in the woods.

Banded gneiss

Not so green wintergreen underfoot

Arriving at the lake, one sees a fence guarding a berm on the south end (look at the Google map image above and you can see the straight line).  The fence is just to keep vehicles off the berm, it's easy to walk around it.

There's also a cleared area next to the lake which looks to be the site of the old research facility.  Nothing there anymore.

At the east end of the berm is a small stream draining the lake.  But across the lake's outlet is a boom.

So here's my question... If the site was cleaned up 40 years ago, and declared OK for unrestricted use, and nothing exists around the lake anymore, why the hell is there a boom here?  What is it supposed to be catching off this "pristine" lake in the woods?  Strange.

It gets even stranger here.  No, not this growing tree, although it was odd too.  Just wait.

The lake, as advertised, is quite beautiful with a very nice trail looping around it.  I definitely want to return in summer when everything is green (although not sure if I'd swim in this lake).

 View from the south end of the lake

View from the north end of the lake

The best thing about the lake is that it's a mile walk in from the road so that keeps out much of the riff raff.  I had the entire place to myself - not a soul in sight.  I'm sure summer would be a different story, however.

Now for some more strangeness.  At the north end of the lake, there are a bunch of stone walls in the woods.  Not normal stone walls like I'm familiar with - the straight walls that once lined farmer's fields but now lie in the woods as some hardscrabble farms were abandoned a century ago.  No, these stone walls ran up and down hills in curved paths.  Not marking farmer's fields either since no one could farm anything on the steep, stony hillsides around this part of the lake.

A curvy stone wall running to the lakeshore

Another zig-zagging wall

Who the hell builds a rock wall that zig-zags up the hill?  It's certainly not marking anyone's property line.  Another ran parallel the shoreline.  Why do that?

Is there a point to this?

One area had a wall encircling an artificial hill of stone.  It looked like a ritual space to me.

Wall went around this mound

Another wall enclosed a rectangular area but was too sloppy to be a building foundation.

Not a foundation - Again, what's the point?

Very strange.  Who built all of these stone walls (there were a lot of them!) that are running willy-nilly all over the place and why?

Here's another strange thing I've never seen before.  On the trail by the stone walls was an eviscerated bird - headless and gutless (not sure what the bird was, but I assume killed by a raptor).

But wait, if you like strange, it gets even better.  Nuclear Lake also happens to be the site of several Bigfoot/Sasquatch sightings over the years!  Some have claimed that if you take a stick and bang on a tree, you can call a squatch (those in the know call them "squatches").

So, of course, being the type of person I am, at the furthest end of the lake, the place with the odd stone walls and eviscerated bird, I picked up a dead stick and struck a fallen log three times - thump, thump, thump.  Nothing.  No squatches in the area, or so I think.  But 10 minutes later, when I was sitting down on a flat rock on the shore of the lake (hand over my heart and swear to god), I distinctly heard two thumps.  Then two thumps again.  Then, a few minutes later, a weird yowling scream (it kind of sounded like a domestic tom cat but there are no houses within a few miles of this lake).  The ducks in the lake didn't like it either since they started up a loud quacking in response.  Here I am sitting all alone in the woods, not quite helpless but feeling pretty exposed, two miles from the road, feeling chills up my spine.  Cue spooky music.

No, I don't believe in sasquatch, but I have no idea where the thumps came from (sounded like something banging a log just as I did - another squatch caller?).  The yowl may have been a coyote or maybe a bobcat, I have no idea but it was real and spooky.

All in all, an excellent hike (but bring a hiking buddy if you're easily spooked!).

Thursday, December 4, 2014

How much does a millstone weigh?

Not far from the college where I teach is an old millstone laying decoratively on the ground.

I've been doing some research on millstones lately so I was wondering how much a typical millstone like this would weigh.  Measuring it gives the following dimensions:

   Diameter = 53 in
   Thickness = 8 in
   Hole = 13 in square

This millstone happens to be made of Shawangunk conglomerate which is composed almost entirely of quartz.  All geologists know the density of quartz which is 2.7 g/cm3.  I want to keep everything in more familiar units so that corresponds to about 0.1 lb/in3.

The volume (V) of the millstone would be:

   V = π (d/2)2 t

where d is the diameter of the millstone and t is the thickness.

   V = 3.14 (53 in / 2)2 (8 in)
   V =  17,641 in3

We have to subtract out the volume of the square hole in the middle (13 in * 13 in * 8 in = 1,352 in3)

   V = 17,641 in3 - 1,352 in3
   V = 16,289 in3

Now we can multiply this by the density of quartz to get the weight of the millstone.

   Weight = 16,289 in3 * 0.1 lb/in3 = 1,629 lb

Over 3/4 ton!  Imagine moving this many miles, over rough terrain, with man power, a wagon, and maybe a mule or two.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Turtle Rock in Warwick

A while ago, I saw a reference somewhere (I don't ever remember where now) to a stone turtle "effigy" in Warwick, Orange County, NY.  A little Googling led me to a Facebook page called Mysterious Hudson Valley Stone Sites with some more information.  The implication is that this was artificially carved or shaped.

Having an interest in both geology and local Native American culture, I decided to check it out a couple of weeks ago.  It was relatively easy to find (see below) but not something a casual stroll would necessarily stumble across.

Behold Turtle Rock.

See it?  The protrusion on the left is the head.  Here's a closer view.

Here's a view from the front.

After looking at the rock, I don't believe this was made by Native Americans but actually by good old Mother Nature.  Let's look closer at the "head".

If it was artificially-shaped, it's not very well done and pretty asymmetrical.  The head is clearly defined by several natural fractures in the rock.  See the crack on the right.  The top and left side of the head also follow fractures running through the rock.  There are no obvious tool marks either.

Looking under the "head".

See how the rock is spalling off?  This is a common form of weathering called exfoliation.  Perfectly natural resulting in rounded edges.

Looking at Turtle Rock from the rear.

It looks like any other flat slab of rock.  There are no markings on the top of the rock to delineate a possible shell (which I would expect if it was a carved turtle effigy).  And, looking around, one sees many similar rocks strewn about this hillside.

Pieces of weathered out bedrock and glacial erratics.  Nothing special and seen throughout the woodlands of the Hudson Valley.

Now I can't rule out that this rock wasn't seen as a naturally-formed turtle effigy by the Lenape people who once roamed these woods, but there's no evidence I've found to support that.  To this geologist, it simply appears to be a rock that coincidentally looks a bit like a turtle.  Kind of cool but nothing overly unusual.

If you'd like to visit yourself, here are the directions:

About a mile east of Warwick, on State Route 17A, is Warwick County Park.  Follow the park road to the back parking lot next to the baseball field.  There are two ways to go from here.  The easiest, but slightly longer way is to walk back down the road, down the hill, to where it splits.  On your right will be a trail that leads up the hill.  Follow it uphill and it will soon make a hairpin switchback.  A short distance later is the top of a hill.  Look to the left off the path for the turtle.  A slightly shorter, but perhaps harder to find way is to start at the same parking lot but walk between the baseball field and the tree line on the left past a couple of fields until you find a path into the woods on your left (in immediately goes down and up across a ditch-like drainage).  Bear left to follow the path to the above-mentioned switchback and then up the hill.

From the Google Maps satellite view of the park, you can see the parking lot (P) at the end of the road by the baseball field.  The blue line is the longer path and the red is the shorter path (approximated, of course).  The green arrow is the approximate location of the feature.  I'd guess barely 1/4 mile each way on the blue path.

The GPS coordinates given on the Facebook page mentioned above worked pretty well for me: 41.239157, -74.328471 (that's 41 degrees, 14 minutes, and 20.9 seconds north, 74 degrees, 19 minutes, 42.5 seconds west). The feature is only about 75 feet off the trail at the top of the knoll and obvious.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Really Chancellor Zimpher?

News out of Albany is that Nancy Zimpher, the Chancellor of the State University of New York (SUNY) system, may be up for a little raise.  After all, she has to scrape by on a measly base salary of $490,000 a year - her total compensation package, by the way, is $657,953 a year and includes things like a housing allowance (she doesn't even have to pay rent out of that salary!) and a car and driver.
According to other news reports, she also collects over $75,000 a year in retirement payments from the Ohio's teachers pension fund (higher than my base salary!).

How much of a raise will she potentially receive?  The Albany Times Union thinks her salary could rise by a few hundred thousand dollars a year!  Holy shit!

As a professor in the SUNY system, I received, over the past four years, salary increases of 0%, 0%, 1.6%, and 1.6%.  This did not keep up with the cost of living meaning I effectively lost money from my modest base salary (which is less than 10% of her compensation package).

In addition, State aid to community colleges is currently 9% below the funding we had in 2009/10 (the State is "mandated" to pay 33.3% of our operating budget - they don't).  Our college struggles on a shoestring budget, students can't afford tuition and fees, our infrastructure is crumbling, we can't hire the new full-time faculty to replace ones we lost, and our chancellor lives on champagne and caviar with the other fat cats in Albany.

Have you no shame Chancellor?  Do you really think you're worth a million bucks a year for what you do for SUNY while State community colleges are struggling to exist?  I don't.


So I haven't posted for quite a while now (since mid-June) and I miss it.  I became totally burned out the last academic year - my last masochistic year as department chair at the college - something from which I'm still recovering.  The beauty of this blog, however, is that it's totally mine - while people sometimes suggest topics for me to write about, I'm free to take it or leave it as I see fit (even though I end up feeling guilty when I don't post anything for a while).

Bottom line, the blog is not dead - not yet.  I'm working on a few posts and will get back to it again (maybe not as prolific as I've been at times in the past, but I still have things to say).

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A good article on community colleges...

Many times, pundits and politicians betray a complete lack of understanding of community colleges when writing about educational policy.  Why is this important?  Because there are well over 1,000 two-year accredited colleges in the U.S. and 44% of all undergraduates are in a community college!

Here are a great couple of articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Rob Jenkins at Georgia Perimeter College on "The Good that Community Colleges Do":

   Part I
   Part II

Highly recommended reading.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Magical Online Courses in Hawaii

Evidently, online courses at the University of Hawai'i (UH) are magically self-teaching - no faculty required!

Meet the new interim president of UH - David Lassner.  Formerly Vice President for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer at UH, he's described as tech-savvy (obviously) and seems to be a nice enough guy (he loves hiking which is always a plus in my book).

In a recent fluff-piece profile on Hawaiian TV (video here), he's quoted as saying the following about building on the 1,000 online courses already offered at UH (starting around 1:20):

"It's how, um, one of the ways we can take on more students without having to increase our faculty at a linear pace." 

So who's developing and teaching these courses, Dr. Lassner, elves?

I've been teaching several online courses each academic year for well over a decade now, all developed from scratch.  I think I do a good job.  The courses are well-designed and a hell of a lot of work to teach (I would argue that they are MORE work to teach than face-to-face courses if you're doing it right).  At our community college, enrollment in online course sections is capped at 19 students - comparable to our smaller classroom sizes (we don't have many huge lecture hall style classes at our institution).  I maintain a presence in my online courses and I'm able to do so because each section has a manageable number of students.  Even with striving to make the online course as good as a face-to-face section, I know it's inferior (even though I teach some courses online, because I have to, you simply can't reproduce the classroom experience in the online environment).

Increasing the number of online course sections without increasing faculty means one of two things - outsourcing your online courses to for-profit organizations (which, in my opinion, are always far more interested in profit than in academic standards) or having massively-open online courses (MOOCs) which have a documented abysmal single-digit completion rate (since they're simply the hi-tech equivalent of 1950s style correspondence courses - just buy a textbook and learn calculus if you can teach yourself this way!).

If I could, I would task Dr. Lassner with one exercise.  Walk around the UH campus and find some seniors who've taken both online and face-to-face courses.  Ask them about the best course they ever took - the one that influenced them the most.  Ask them if it was a face-to-face course with an energetic, engaging professor or if it was an online course.

Administrators, especially those without much classroom experience, often naively view online courses as panaceas for declining budgets.  They're not - unless you're willing to compromise academic quality and no one wants to do that, right?

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Recognizing rocks

One of the skills that geology students learn in the field is how to recognize different rock formations.  Technically, "formations" are simply mappable units of rock.  In other words, a rock layer that has distinctive properties which allow it to be recognized and correlated over a region.  Formations are assigned formal names generally based on their location and lithology (rock type).

Some examples of formations include the Kaibab Limestone, Coconino Sandstone, and Bright Angel Shale in the Grand Canyon or the Manlius Limestone, Binnewater Sandstone, and Mount Marion Shale right here in Ulster County.  While most people just see them as gray rocks on the side of the road, there are over a dozen different limestone formations here in the Mid-Hudson Valley and locally-trained geologists (if they have any field experience) can recognize them on sight because they each have distinctive bedding, grain size, color, fossils, etc.

Contact (at quarter) between two different limestone formations

A few days ago I was with my family near the top of a well-known waterfall in the Catskills - Kaaterskill Falls.  A favorite subject of Hudson River School artists like Thomas Cole, it's protected State land today and a beautiful place to visit.

Kaaterskill Falls (1826) by Thomas Cole

We sat on the top of the falls for a bit and then wandered upstream (it's called Spruce Creek and is a tributary of Kaaterskill Creek further downstream).

My wife, posing in the middle of Spruce Creek above Kaaterskill Falls

As my wife and kid jumped and balanced their ways across the rocky stream, I noticed something interesting. A beautifully-sculpted, fist-sized cobble.

Isn't it pretty?  There's a crack running completely around the middle but it's well-cemented enough so that it doesn't come apart.  The neat thing about being a geologist is that I can appreciate this rock for more than only its natural beauty.  I immediately recognized it as a piece of the Manlius Limestone Formation.

Here's a close-up of the Manlius Limestone at a roadside outcrop on Route 199 in Kingston, NY.

It's characterized by being a light-gray, fine-grained (carbonate mud) limestone with brown clay-rich layers.  The cobble from Kaaterskill Creek is weathered piece of this limestone.

OK, so it's a piece of Manlius Limestone, so what?  Well it was found up in the Catskills at an elevation of around 2,000 feet.  The Manlius Limestone is not found up in the Catskills, it's found at lower elevations, down around 200 feet above sea level, near the Hudson River to the east.  It's present at Kaaterskill Falls, but 1,800 feet below the surface and nowhere exposed at the surface.

So, where did this weathered stream cobble come from?  Unless somewhat physically carried it up into the mountains and dumped it in the stream (unlikely), it had to have been carried here by glaciers - it's a glacial erratic.  Further north, west of Albany, the Manlius Limestone is well exposed along the cliffs at Thacher State Park.

Manlius Limestone at Thacher State Park

During the last ice age, glaciers picked up a piece of this rock, carried it as far south as the area west of Catskill, and then dumped it at the top of the mountains when the glaciers melted starting around 12,000 years ago.  At some point, this rock found its way into Spruce Creek where it tumbled and weathered into its present shape.  A few days ago, it caught the eye of a wandering geologist.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014


The latest issue of GSA Today (June 2014), a monthly publication of the Geological Society of America, has an interesting paper titled "An anthropogenic marker horizon in the future rock record" by Dr. Patricia Corcoran, et al.

Let me back up a minute first to explain the significance of this.  Geologists divide the four and a half billion years of time since the origin of the Earth into Eons, Eras, Periods, and Epochs of the geologic time scale.  We are currently in the Phanerozoic Eon, Cenozoic Era, Quaternary Period, and Holocene Epoch.

Recently, a number of scientists have proposed the idea that we're in a new Epoch - the Anthropocene (from anthropos which means "man" or "human" in Greek).  While not yet an official part of the geologic time scale, it is getting wide usage with people arguing about how to precisely define the start of such an Epoch.  All rational people, however, agree that humans have made an impact on our global environment that we can directly measure (one that will be preserved in the geologic record for future generations - if they still exist - to measure as well).

There is some disagreement, though, as to where to start the Anthropocene Epoch.  Some suggest measurable changes in soil composition which have occurred over the past few thousand years due to the advent of large-scale agricultural practices by human societies.  Others advocate a more recent date due to measurable changes from the Industrial Revolution (pollutants).  Yet others argue that it should start in the 1950s with the advent of plastics and presence of trace isotopes from atomic bomb testing.

Back to the paper - Corcoran and her colleagues noted the formation of what they called plastiglomerates forming on the Big Island of Hawaii.  While traditional conglomerates are sedimentary rocks formed by pebbles and sand chemically cemented together (lithified), plastiglomerates are described as "... an indurated multi-composite material made hard by agglutination of rock and molten plastic."  The molten plastic was not derived from hot lava flows, as one might suspect from the location, but rather from simple burning of plastic waste in campfires.

Corcoran, et al. 2014 GSA Today

Anthropogenically-derived rocks such as these plastiglomerates will survive in the geologic record recording the Anthropocene Epoch and the unfortunate human habit of shitting in our own nest.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Chair no more...

So for several years now, I've worked as both a professor and as a department chair of a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics) department at the community college where I've taught for the past 15 years now.  It involved the oversight of a dozen full-time and several dozen adjunct faculty, a couple of staff members, science labs, a relatively large budget, and lots of administrivia.

For a myriad of personal and professional reason, I decided this semester to go back to teaching full-time and leave the administrative bullshit to someone else effective June.  Well, it's now June.  I'm free of responsibility for a few weeks for the first time in years.  Will I relax in the sun?  Sleep in every day?  Get lots of yard work done?

No, most likely I'll spend some time in the field looking at local geology, hiking on nice days, revising my physical geology course running in the fall on rainy days (something I haven't had time to do for a few years), and writing (I have ideas for numerous books but have procrastinated writing for years).  I'm sure I'll be posting more on this blog as well.  What I won't be doing is dealing with other people's problems at work (the worst part of a chairperson's job!).

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Blood Moon Bullshit

There's a total lunar eclipse early Tuesday morning that will be visible across the United States.  Unfortunately, for those of us in the EDT time zone, totality won't occur until about 3:00 am (and I have an 8:40 am class that morning).  Also, and this is depressingly predictable for the Hudson Valley during interesting astronomical events, the weather forecast currently says "Showers likely" for Monday night and a 90% chance of showers for Tuesday.  Probably won't even set my alarm.

The NASA Eclipse web site has useful information if, against all odds, it happens to be clear where you are located in the Hudson Valley.

This is where the Moon will be around 3:30 am Tuesday morning in the Mid-Hudson Valley.  The red "star" to the right of the Moon will be the planet Mars.

One of the neat things about an eclipsed Moon is that it turns a beautiful reddish color.

Why is that?  Well let's first look at what causes lunar eclipses.  As shown in the diagram below (not in any way to scale), we see that an eclipse occurs when the Moon moves into the Earth's shadow - the umbra (there are penumbral eclipses, but they're too dim for most people to notice).  When the Moon is in this position, on the opposite side of the Earth from the Sun, it's at its full moon phase (the side of the Moon facing us is normally fully lit by the Sun).

So, why don't we have total lunar eclipses every month when the Moon is in that position?  To answer that, let's first look at the true scale of the Earth and the Moon (size and distance).

Now consider that the Moon does not orbit the Earth is the same plane as the ecliptic (the plane in which the Earth orbits the Sun).  The Moon's orbit is tilted by just over 5° from the ecliptic.  About half the time the Moon is below the ecliptic (and can't pass into the Earth's umbral shadow) and about half the time the Moon is above the ecliptic (and also can't pass into the Earth's umbral shadow).  Only when the Moon is passing through the ecliptic (points called the ascending or descending nodes) at the same time it happens to be a full moon, can we have a total lunar eclipse (you can also have partial and penumbral eclipses if things are quite exactly lined up).

For the 100 years from 2000 through 2099, there will be 85 total lunar eclipses (and 87 penumbral and 58 partial).

OK, back to the red Moon during an eclipse.  If the Earth had no atmosphere, the eclipsed Moon would be dark.  But because the Earth has an atmosphere and the gases in our atmosphere (78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen) scatter the shorter wavelength light at the blue end of the color spectrum, the longer wavelength reddish light makes it through.  This is why the sky looks blue on a sunny day (the blue light being scattered about) and why sunsets and sunrises look red (the longer wavelengths making it through the thick atmosphere on the horizon to our eyes).  As the reddish light passes through our atmosphere, it's also refracted (bent) and this allows it to faintly illuminate the Moon during a total eclipse.

This is called science, boys and girls.  Basic knowledge of eclipses goes back thousands of years to the ancient Babylonians and since then we've learned quite a bit about how it all works.  Using celestial mechanics, we can predict, with virtual 100% certainty, that there will be a total lunar eclipse on September 14, 2099 at 16:57:52 UTC visible in North America (mark your calendars).

OK, now here's where I'm going to piss some people off (and where the title of the post comes from).  Crazy Texas televangelist John Hagee from Cornerstone Church in San Antonio is preaching that this month's eclipse is the first of a series of four "blood moon" eclipses heralding the end of the world (the ever-popular apocalypse).

So, what is a blood moon?  According to CBN News (Pat Robertson's organization):

"A blood moon is when the Earth comes between the sun and the moon," Hagee explained. "And the sun is shining through the atmosphere of the Earth and casts up on the moon a red shadow. And so the moon appears to be red."

Um, OK, but that's what happens with virtually all total lunar eclipses.  Now all of a sudden the dumb ass lazy journalists writing for all these media outlets are calling the eclipse a "blood moon" (just Google the phrase to see)!  What the fuck?  There's nothing special at all about this particular eclipse.

But wait, Steve, you might say, Hagee is arguing that this is a special sequence of four eclipses.  Again, according to CBN News:

"Blood moons are set to appear in April 2014, on Passover, and then again in September 2014 during the Feast of Tabernacles, or Sukkot.

The timing is the same for 2015 -- a total of four blood moons, all appearing on Jewish feast days.

"The sun and the moon and the Earth are controlled by God almighty," Hagee said. "He is the one that is getting them in a direct alignment on a certain day at a certain time -- but each time, it's a Passover or Sukkot."

Well, if God's controlling the Sun and Moon, he's doing it in such a way that it's completely indistinguishable from perfectly natural physical processes (e.g. gravity).  Go to the NASA Eclipse page to view a 5,000 year calendar of lunar eclipses to see how perfectly predictable it all is.

Yes, there are total lunar eclipses on Passover and Sukkot in 2014 and 2015 (October 8, 2014, not September as the news article incorrectly states, but oh well).  Is there something special about this?  Well, think about the following.  Total lunar eclipses can only occur on the full moon.  The Jewish holidays of Passover and Sukkot are tied to the Jewish lunar calendar.  Passover starts on the night of the full moon after the vernal equinox and Sukkot also starts on a full moon six lunar months later.

Since these Jewish holidays start on the full moon, and lunar eclipses are on a full moon, it's certainly inevitable that they should line up sometimes.  Lunar eclipses also occur in cycles and tetrads (a group of 4 eclipses such as this) are not all that unusual.

As the following table from Universe Today shows, there are 8 of these tetrad eclipses in the 21st century:

Eclipse #1 Eclipse #2 Eclipse #3 Eclipse #4
May 16th, 2003 November 9th, 2003 May 4th , 2004 October 28th, 2004
April 15th, 2014*+ October 8th, 2014 April  4th, 2015*+ September 28th, 2015
April 25th, 2032 October 18th, 2032 April 14th, 2033*+ October 8th, 2033
March 25th, 2043* September 19th, 2043 March 13th, 2044 September 7th, 2044
May 6th, 2050 October 30th, 2050 April 26th, 2051 October 19th, 2051
April  4th, 2061*+ September 29th, 2061 March 25th, 2062* September  18th, 2062
March 4th, 2072 August 28th, 2072 February 22nd, 2073 August 17th, 2073
March 15th, 2090 September 8th, 2090 March 5th, 2091 August 29th, 2091
*Paschal Full Moon
+Eclipse coincides with Passover

No big deal.  If anyone's convinced that the end of the world is nigh because of these lunar eclipses, I'd be happy to take any extra money off your hand - won't need it after you're raptured anyway, right?

One final rant.  Science works!  Religion has never successfully predicted or explained a damn thing in the real world.  Yes, I'm cranky today.  Rant off.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Are Community Colleges Failures?

On March 3, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article titled “2-Year Colleges are Urged to Capitalize on their Time in the Spotlight” (sorry but the article is available only to subscribers). A few things in this article really annoyed me so I thought I'd comment.

The article is a report on the comments of Dr. Terry O'Banion, president emeritus of the League for Innovation in the Community College and chair of the graduate faculty at National American University (a for-profit college). Although the article doesn't explicitly state this, the comments were made at the League for Innovation Innovations 2014 conference from March 2-5 in Anaheim, California.

Terry O'Banion is a well-known in the educational reform community. His academic background is in Guidance and Counseling (M.S.) and Educational Administration (Ph.D.) - I'll be nice and refrain from saying what I think about Ph.D.s in educational administration. Despite this, Dr. O'Banion certainly has an impressive vita and has spent decades thinking about higher education. Some of the things he's quoted as saying, however, do rub me the wrong way. Keep in mind that I wasn't at the conference and am only going by what the author of this article in the Chronicle is quoting. Regarding community colleges:

 “… it’s time they stepped up their game by improving 'unforgiveable' program-completion numbers…”

While it is true that, on paper, program completion statistics for community colleges are low there are somewhat intractable reasons for this that we can't easily address. Here are two major problems with this statement (and I can only talk about my experiences at the community college where I teach):

First, these types of program-completion statistics typically have major flaws. We're required to report, for example, graduation rates as defined by IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System). These are defined as:

“… the number of students entering the institution as full-time, first-time, degree/certificate-seeking undergraduate students in a particular year (cohort), by race/ethnicity and gender; the number completing their program within 150 percent of normal time to completion…”

What does this mean? Basically, suppose we have 100 students entering in the fall semester and matriculating into a particular degree program. The graduation rate is the number of these students graduating from their declared programs within 3 years (2-year program, so 150% of normal time is 3 years). Sounds good, right? Think again.

We are an open-door institution. That means virtually anyone can be admitted. We routinely admit students who, after taking English and mathematics placement exams, are shown to be functionally innumerate and illiterate. We have a number of developmental reading (yes, reading), writing, and mathematics courses at the college. Such students are required to take these courses to get those skills up to college-level. This means that for a semester or two, the student is not making much progress toward their actual degree (but they are learning useful skills that will enable them to do so). Suppose it now takes them 3.5 years to complete. We should all be proud of those students for the incredible progress they made academically. They're a failure according to IPEDS.

Well, what if a student changes their major? That's actually very common since, not surprisingly, a lot of 18-year-olds don't really know what they want to do with the rest of their life. Changing a majors screws up the reporting (and also increases time to completion since they may have extra coursework to do). The student has now found their life's calling, they graduate, but they're a failure, according to IPEDS.

Suppose a student only attends for a year, but then successfully transfers to a four-year college or university before completing a degree at the community college. To everyone else, that student is successful. To IPEDS, they're a failure.

Suppose a student comes for a year, but then takes a year off to care for their sick mother. They come back the following year and eventually graduate. A failure according to IPEDS.

Suppose a student has trouble paying for college (very common at our institution). They go full time for a year, then drop down to part time and work full time. It takes them 4 years to get through college but they graduate.  Most of us would applaud their hard work. IPEDS considers them a failure.

All of these scenarios are very common at our institution. They all result in a lowering of our IPEDS graduation rate statistics. And, really, how dare they compare open door community college graduation rates with four-year college and university graduation rates where they have SELECTIVE admissions (they don't admit students unlikely to succeed - we do!).

How exactly do we “step up our game” to improve these statistics, Dr. O'Banion?

Second, as already mentioned, we're an open door institution. We have students who are barely literate and, not surprisingly, many of them don't succeed. It's not politically-correct to say this, but some people are not "college material" (where exactly did this faux ‘equality’ idea come from that we all have the same abilities in life?). They simply don't have the ability to earn even a two-year degree at a community college. How can you succeed in college when you can't read at even a high school level, can't write a coherent paragraph, and can't do simple middle-school level math? We have those students.

While we have a whole slew of remedial/developmental courses for such students to take, they don't always help. Some have learning disabilities. Some simply don't have the intellectual abilities necessary to succeed. Some don't have the interest or motivation to learn (I have students tell me that haven't read a book in years and nothing academic interests them).  If they don't succeed, how is that my fault as a faculty member or my college's fault?  We provided them with ample opportunity to succeed.

College is not a place you go to purchase a degree (despite what some students and parents expect). It requires (gasp) hard work and effort to earn a degree!  When college funding is tied to artificial (see above) graduation rates, then there will strong pressure to academically water down the curricula.  A college degree will then be as worthless as a public high school degree currently is (sorry, but we get ever increasing numbers of recent high school graduates who immediately place into remedial courses).

By being open door, we give EVERYONE the OPPORTUNITY to EARN a degree.  We do not GIVE everyone a degree.  There's a huge and very important difference here that national educational reformers and politicians never seem to address (or even understand, god help us).

No one's saying we can't improve.  I'm chair of a STEM department and we're constantly trying to improve our courses and programs, increase enrollments, improve retention rates, etc.  But we sure as bloody hell aren't going to do it by watering down the content and rigor of our courses to make it easier for marginal students to pass so we can inflate numbers.  Math and science courses are challenging.  They're supposed to be challenging.  We can make them easier to improve our statistics but guess what?  We'd be doing the students a disservice because they will then move into a more rigorous four-year program and flunk out since they'd be lacking the necessary foundations.  We can't pass the buck (that's what the high schools, damn those educrats in Albany, have done to us at the community college).

But what do I know, not being a well-known educational reformer...

Monday, March 17, 2014

Occultation of Regulus

If you live in the Hudson Valley, you have the opportunity (if the weather cooperates) to observe a very neat astronomical event - the occultation of the bright star Regulus by an asteroid.  This is truly a rare, once-in-a-lifetime event.  Regulus is the brightest star in the zodiacal constellation of Leo the lion and an occultation (from a Latin word meaning "hide") occurs when one object passes in front of another briefly blocking our view of it in the sky.

In this case, the star Regulus, which is almost 80 light years away from us, will be briefly blocked by a passing asteroid belt rock named 163 Erigone (pronounced eh-RIG-uh-nee) from our perspective here in selected parts of New York State (see map below).  Unfortunately, it will happen around 2:07 a.m. ± 2 minutes on the evening of Wednesday, March 19 / early morning of Thursday, March 20 which is way past my normal bedtime!

Path of the occultation.  Green line is the center of the shadow path, blue lines mark edge
of asteroid's shadow, and red lines mark limits of one sigma uncertainty for shadow edges.

Here's a close-up for the mid-Hudson Valley where I live.

I live relatively close to the blue line southwest of Kingston so I plan on driving down toward the center of the path for a better view - probably the west-facing overlooks on either Route 44/55 or Route 52 on the Shawangunk Ridge (assuming skies are clear).   Here's where to find Regulus in the southwester sky (to the right of the Moon) around 2 a.m. in the mid-Hudson Valley (see map below).  The front of the constellation of Leo the lion looks like a backwards question mark with Regulus shining brightly at the bottom.

Red circle marks Regulus

You don't need a telescope or even binoculars to view this.  While some amateur astronomers will be out with telescopes accurately timing this occultation, Regulus is a very bright star and quite easy to find.  If you're watching for it, the occultation should be obvious and will last about 14 seconds.

Why will some astronomers be timing this event?  Because combining observational data from different localities on an occultation allow us to better determine the asteroids shape and size, allow the detection of moons around an asteroid, and allows us to more accurately measure the diameter of the star Regulus among other things.

Visit the International Occultation Timing Association website for more information.

Of course, as is dishearteningly typical for the Hudson Valley on nights where neat stuff is forecast to occur in the sky, the weather forecast looks bad (cloudy with rain/snow).

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Winter Hikes

As I've mentioned before, in apologizing for posting so little this academic year, my job has been very demanding lately and it's been hard for me to find time to post (and, quite frankly, I haven't been very inspired these past few months - it's been a long, tough winter here in the Hudson Valley).

This week is my spring break and while I still have to work (it never ends), I do have a little more free time.  Also, it's not spring no matter what the calendar will say in a few days, we still have a fair amount of snow on the ground and the temperature for this fine Sunday afternoon is still in the 30s!

I have done some hiking in the past few months and had a chance to use my snowshoes a few times this winter which is atypical.  I had also bought some microspikes to strap on my boots which have been helpful as well given all the ice this year.

Here's what's been keeping me busy since the spring semester began in mid-January...

A mid-January hike around Lake Minnewaska on a gray and dreary day (it was snowing lightly).

An early February hike on a relatively warm (upper 30s) day from Spring Farm up to Cope's Lookout (one of my two favorite places on the Mohonk Preserve).

An early February excursion into an abandoned cement mine near Kingston to view some really neat ice spires that had formed (some over 6 feet high!).

Photos by Andy Milford

A mid-Feburary hike on a rare blue-sky day to mostly frozen Awosting Falls at Lake Minnewaska State Park.

An early March hike to Vernooy Kill Falls in the Catskills.


In late February, went to see the ice yachts sailing on the still frozen Hudson River.

And, just yesterday, a hike to Stony Kill Falls in the Shawangunks.

So, I've been busy even though not posting here!