Sunday, July 31, 2005

Oshkosh air show

The youngest son and I went to the Oshkosh air show Saturday. We'd heard that Space Ship 1 was going to be there, and I'd never been before. The family visited the museum itself, but the air show is another matter.

I was impressed by how many volunteers they had. The parking alone must have kept at least 40 people hard at work. We wound up in the red lot, and saw the Warbirds section first. I had to insist to youngest son that this was not a time for inventions, but for listening and learning.

So we looked at old planes, looked into an F16, climbed into a Blackhawk, talked with Border Patrol folks and watched a girl try out a whirligig contraption at the Special Ops booths. (Two axes of rotation, both in lively motion. Her hair dragged on the ground from time to time.) The Air Force had a huge section on women in flight, and a wall devoted to the Tuskeegee airmen.

Yes, we brought our own food and drink. So sue me.

I won't detail the exhibits we saw--one was Morgan's rather innovative lift system, using four propellers mounted horizontally in the wings. We didn't try out the video games--there were lots of them. Best Buy had a truck with X-box stations. Did you want books and memorabilia? Or instruments? Or headphones? Or miscellaneous engine parts?

Space Ship 1 was there--I hope the pictures turn out OK. So was the Voyager. I'd no appreciation for how huge that thing was--the wingspan is truly impressive. A man who'd seen it land said it was beautiful--and I can believe something that has to be flying so long is also going to be graceful.

We took an old yellow school bus to the museum. I was going to point out to youngest son that I'd ridden in buses like this before--but then I looked at the details up front. There were switches for left rear heater, and such things--it was rather fancier than the beasts I used to ride in.

The museum has a new section devoted to non-human flight--birds, insects, pterosaurs. The movie was from BBC's "Walking with Dinosaurs" series; a description of the last journey of a Ornithocheirus. Lots of speculation presented as solid fact, but very well filmed.

The KidVenture section is now much more complete. The old scale model Falcon is still there, and the observation deck with binoculars; but they now have a hang glider flight simulator and a hot-air balloon flight simulator.

The museum kindly announced that Space Ship 1 and Voyager were going to fly at 4:30, so we skedadled back to the main airstrip. (Yoyager had already left, it turned out).

In the sky were WW-II planes doing formation flying.

They started with an air show of WW-II vintage planes, carrying out simulated bombing runs. Oops. They simulated the bombs with what looked like detonated oil vapors, and youngest son melted down. Eventually it ended, with a formation to remind everyone how often planes and pilots never came home. The last bang generated a huge smoke ring. (Youngest son really liked the jump jet, though. It was mighty noisy, but fascinating.

The SS-1 took off, and made a few passes fast and slow. I couldn't make out all the announcer's words, so I'm not sure what he was saying about afterburners on Ss-1. When it landed again, it seemed like most of the crowd went home--thousands and thousands. The announcer kept pleading that the show hadn't started yet--and it hadn't. We stuck around for some of the aerobatics, went back to the museum for a while, then back to the parking lot and search around for a while in an almost-empty lot until youngest son spotted the car.

I know, I'm not a real afficianado. I could tell the breeze was cool and steady, but not how fast or from which direction. The sky was clear, with only high clouds--is that observant enough?


We had a little discussion last night about whether one could have a "hardy appetite," as well as a "hearty" one. We concluded that an appetite that could survive boiled eyeballs in garum sauce, or "Lime Jello, Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise" was a "hardy appetite."

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The pause that refreshes

The BBC tells us that a thief stole a bottle of melted Antarctic ice from an art exhibit in south Devon. Estimated value: £42,500.

Its value was worked out by the artist from the damage worldwide of the entire ice sheet melting - he estimates between £6 trillion and £9 trillion - and the relative amount of damage from two litres of water.

Let's see: the ice sheet has about 30 million cubic kilometers of ice, which would be about 3 E20 liters, or 1.5E20 2-liter bottles worth. Call it 1.4 E20, and be generous about the air bubbles and density change on melting. I dunno if he's using the American trillion (1E12) or the British (1E18). I'll be conservative and assume he means £9 E18. Divide that by the number of 2-liter bottles worth of water, and I get £0.06, which is considerably cheaper than most bottled water. If he means the American trillion, it looks a lot cheaper than tap water.

So I figure the thief owes the 5 cent deposit on the bottle (or whatever the British equivalent is). And maybe somebody should have a close look at the artist to see if he's indulging in a little insurance fraud.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by JK Rowling

Harry has grown up a bit more, finds himself and his friends getting confused by love and dating, and has shed his suicidal habit of failing to confide problems to friends and allies. He's now quite clearly not a superwizard--he has a few solid talents, but is all too willing to cut corners and accept help from the mysterious "Half-Blood Prince."

And, for a change, Dumbledore is starting to give Harry some serious background on what's been going on.

The reader who knows that there's going to be a seventh and last book, and knows a bit about how dramatic tension has to evolve, will marvel at Harry's idee fixe about Malfoy, and not be terribly surprised at the form of the ending. Some mysteries begin to resolve, and the direction of the end of the series is in sight.

All in all, the book is compentently done. I will not dwell on the occasional inconsistency or stretch (the students are still unbelievably effective against the Death Eaters)--if you liked the earlier books, you'll like this one. I did.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The Moon

The moon landing may have been scheduled for the afternoon in the US, but I was in Liberia.

We crowded into Dad's office straining to make out the voices on the shortwave radio. If I concentrated I could make out 3/4 of the words through the hiss and squeal. The alien delay was a blessing, giving me time to puzzle out what was just said. We were holding our breath too, trying to be as quiet as we could until Armstrong told us "The Eagle has landed."

After the smiles came a little disappointment--the wait between the landing and stepping out. Our parents sat in the kitchen awhile, and then went to bed, but I sat by the shortwave staring at nothing as I listened and waited. Then came excitement again as their checklist was done and Neil climbed down the ladder. His "One small step" didn't make sense, but I knew what he meant. Our dream had come to life. I listened through the hiss for a few more minutes, and then went outside and stared at the moon between the clouds in the cool tropical night until I was too sleepy to stand.

Sunday, July 17, 2005


Do killer whales sing like other whales? Could you drop a speaker in amonst a pod of them and coordinate/conduct them in an orca-stra?

Friday, July 15, 2005

So Little Done by Theodore Dalrymple

The subtitle is The Testament of a Serial Killer. The novel is a scorcher. It is written in the form of an essay by convicted serial killer Graham Underwood, in which Underwood attempts to justify his murders. He challenges the morality of society as a whole using the currently popular equivalences (benefiting from a capitalist economy is the same as ordering the deaths of slave workers, and so on) and sophistry, and then goes on to explain why his work was actually a benefit to society since he was ridding it of worthless scum. He describes the British underclass in horrifying (and all too accurate) terms, well enough that the reader almost sympathizes with his anger.

The book reduces to absurdity the popular social philosophy idiocies and attacks the horrible effects these have had on people, using a sort of backwards approach perhaps better known in The Screwtape Letters. Unfortunately, it isn't a pleasant book to read, despite Dalrymple's notable skill with the language.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Richard Dawkins

Speak for yourself. I reject the notion that "each species . . . has a different reality." Maybe you make up your own stories about the universe, but I and those around me try to figure out what it actually says. Although maybe your attitude explains a few things about the tenor of your body of work . . .

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Women and Friends

The Wisconsin State Journal carried an article about women and friendship Sunday. The gist of it was that "Women experience friendship differently and more deeply than men -- and when it ends, they experience the loss more deeply, too."

Does that mean that the dreaded "I think of you as a friend" isn't meant to be as thorough a rejection as men understand it to be?

Pirates of Penzance

Eldest Son and I ushered for the Sunday matinee performance. Aside from the orchestra curtain coming loose (we safety-pinned it back), there were no problems. Great singing, staging, creative new verse for "I am the very model of a modern major-general" (and that's not easy to do)--I'm glad they worked in an extra Thursday performance.

And it seems there's always something I see that I'd missed before:

When Frederic was a little lad
he proved so brave and daring,
His father thought he'd 'prentice him
to some career seafaring.

I was, alas! his nurs'rymaid,
and so it fell to my lot
To take and bind the promising boy
apprentice to a pilot --
But a pilot is the fellow who guides ships into harbor: a job for a good cautious fellow, not "brave and daring." I'd not noticed that before.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Fossil Hunting

but first . . .

The AUsome social group was going to go fossil hunting Saturday. Eldest Son wanted to go to Batman, Youngest Daughter wasn't feeling well, so it was going to be just me and Youngest Son. Someone was monopolizing the printer, so I wrote down some quick notes about how to get there. Meeting place Kwik Trip at 7583 Mineral Point Road at 2. Check. Go to something Camel something where the quarry firm lets groups look for fossils (of which there are aplenty). Without the printer, I yahoo'ed for the map--Mineral Point, Madison. Hmm. East of the Beltline? OK.

We went back and forth along that rather busy street 5 times, and got out and walked around looking for 7583. Hiked through a mini-mall looking for someone who had a phone book. (I didn't bring the cell phone.) The computer shop had one, and the owner was helpful.

I gave up and decided to go look for the quarry--it was going on 2:45 by now. (The quarry wasn't in the phone book, of course.) Westward ho!

And into farmland almost immediately. After a couple of miles, I spotted a Kwik Trip. We were now in Middleton. I stopped--it was 7583 Mineral Point Road, Middleton. (Can I please do something disastrous to the Middleton fatheads who renumbered the road? Please?) Nobody there knew anything about the group or the quarry, so on into the West again. I spotted a couple of stone trucks. The empty one turned north! Follow that truck!

A couple of miles later, the truck went into a factory area. Oops. But on the other side of the road was a quarry! Up the road we go to a loading area, where signs all around warned of the requirement for hard hats, and a lone man was washing his truck. I waited a while, and when he was done he said he'd never heard of fossil hunting in quarries, but that Camel Hill quarry was west on Mineral Point road.

Back to Mineral Point road (it is now 3:15), and west again. Big hill with big industrial road, check. A little farther on we speed past a sign that looks sort of like "Cxxx Hill." Success? Turn around, go up Camel Hill Road. Houses only, but at least we're in the right area. Back to that industrial road--and it leads to a quarry. Take the low road, and there's the gang!

There's only 30 minutes left in the field trip, but Youngest Son and I find more fossils than he can carry. His favorite part was trying to chisel open rocks to see if there were fossils inside.

But a half an hour was long enough to go hunting, and we found clams and mollusk tunnels and cephalopods and a good time.

Ice cream and smoothies at the mall with the group afterwards, then home with the haul; where Youngest Son decided to test a fossil-free section of the rock with vinegar to make sure it was limestone. It was. Now we just have to figure out how to file the rocks . . .

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

"If you don't know what something is, poke it with a stick"

Hurray for Deep Impact!

Of course, we have that Russian astrologer suing NASA (didn't she forsee this?) and a goofball grousing about how vulgar it is to crash instead of landing and drilling, and the usual suspects complaining that the money wasn't spent on things dearer to their hearts.

I'm still waiting for the spectrographic analysis, but the video alone from the impacter is heartwarming. What a weird-looking place! And what a lovely bang!

Monday, July 04, 2005

Inside American Education

by Thomas Sowell

Sowell sees quite a number of problems in American education. The end product is, in his estimation, a group of young adults who on the whole lack basic information and basic thinking skills: adults who are more apt to act on the basis of how they "feel" about something rather than any sort of reasoned judgement.

This is undeniably true.

The question is: is this the way things have always been? There are risks in arguing on the basis of test scores from years gone by, but we can compare Americans with other nationalities. Unfortunately Sowell doesn't have a terribly firm grasp of how to analytically use statistics himself, or else he decided to leave the math out. The critical comparison is between the top US students and the top Korean (or other) students. You need to correct for the dropout rates. But using the uncorrected rates, he says the top American students are doing worse than they used to.

But I don't have to rely on test scores. I can look at college acceptance rates and compare with the total populations of countries. Americans lose.

I can look at the textbooks I used, and the ones my kids are afflicted with. I found a copy of my old high school geometry textbook, and I compared it with the one used in high school now. Mine was proof-oriented and stressed careful reasoning--classical style. The current one is twice as heavy, very colorful, with lots of problem-solving and elementary algebra tie-ins--but not much to do with proofs or careful reasoning. Some, but not very much. A racially integrated team of characters have adventures that introduce each section's theme--at least for the first third of the book.

Geometry was dumbed down.

When I talk with high school kids, I find huge gaps in their cultural background. You don't need to be Christian or Jewish to know the story of David and Goliath--do you? Not very many kids seem to have the slightest notion what the title "Eyeless in Gaza" might refer to. I was always interested in history, and learned more from other books than my high school texts--I don't remember the textbooks at all--so I haven't tried to compare them. But certainly pop culture is utterly ignorant of any but the most superficial history.

I will stipulate that Sowell is correct to claim that American students are, on the whole, very badly educated.

The bulk of his book attempts to illustrate why this should be so. Most of the problems boil down to a lack of accountability, but I'm not convinced that accountability would solve all the problems. Demagogic politicians have a vested interest in maintaining victimhood in the regular world as well as the college campus, and I don't see these sorts trying to dispose of the bilingual education disasters, for example.

Who says that racial sensitivity courses help? The people who get paid to teach them. There are no solid studies to show that they help, and in fact experience has been the exact contrary: universities that bought into them developed professional victim-finders and developed racial tensions that they didn't have before.

Bilingual education is by now known as a notorious (and damaging) boondoggle--known, that is, to all except those with a vested interest in it or a vested interest in racial identity politics.

Does a course of study have to have obvious relevance to the students? That's a good question, but the simplistic answer "not if it has no bearing on things in the student's life" is just plain stupid. Some studies are abstract in the beginning, and only show relevance later. I really don't care that you've lived all your life in the desert, and have never seen a lake. You need to know what an ocean is. And in the name of relevance children are given rather startling amounts of political indoctrination.

He gives examples of schools where (possibly with good intentions) children are encouraged to take direction from their peers rather than their parents. "Values clarification" started to ring too many alarms, so it has been given new names--but the programs are still out there. In Oregon "school administrators were reluctant to acquaint parents and the general citizenry with their district's use of MACOS [Man: A Course Of Study], either prior to or following its installation."

Drug prevention programs haven't reduced drug abuse rates (the Isthmus reported on the DARE program several years ago). Sex education courses coincided with a reversal in the decline in teen pregnancy rates--they started rising, and likewise teen abortion rates rose.

"Self esteem" we all know is an utter joke, and the pros are starting to take notice. But it is going to be years before this filters down to the practices in the elementary schools. You don't get better work out of kids by giving them "self esteem;" they get the self esteem from doing well in things they find important.

If you enjoy what you are doing, you are more likely to work harder at it. But the goal is accomplishment, not feeling good about things. Schools work hard at making students feel good about themselves and their work; sometimes to the detriment of accomplishment.

Cultural "sensitivity" seems to trump everything, including honest judgement. Just as airport security is not allowed to notice that Baptists are under-represented among terrorists, so teachers and students are not supposed to notice that "ghetto culture" has some horrible aspects. Except that students are supposed to notice real and imagined failings of Western culture--these are sometimes on the test. There is no symmetry in sensitivity and respect--Western culture is denigrated whenever possible.

And who gets to be a teacher? You have to be credentialed, and in most states take regular education courses. The problem is that the education courses are far and away the least scholarly, least challenging, and most jargon-filled in a university. "The crucial importance of these courses, and the irreparable damage they do, is not because of what they teach or do not teach. It is because they are the filter through which the flow of teachers must pass. Mediocrity and incompetence flow freely through these filters, but they filter out many high-ability people, who refuse to subject themselves to the inanity of education course, which are the laughing stock of many universities." On average, education students are almost the dumbest, excepting of course the big sports athletes.

And then we go to college.

For Sowell the love of tenure is the root of all sorts of evils. He holds out as his examples the fear of tenured faculty to express unpopular opinions, and the "fearlessness" of think tank scholars. The latter example isn't terribly germane--there aren't very many of these folks compared to the number of college faculty. But it is perfectly obvious that the high pressure publish or perish scramble for tenure prevents young professors from actually working hard on teaching. Some universities call "teacher of the year" awards the kiss of death, because naive young professors who work hard at teaching discover that they don't have enough publication record, and are terminated.

And in college you have biased admissions. Favorite types of minorities are admitted--no, sought after--at colleges where their test scores alone would make them ineligible. You can argue that they have useful life experiences, but the unpleasant fact remains that your success in the academic life of a college is pretty well predicted by your test scores. So top colleges rope in students to fail, who would be successful in less pressured environments. The middle rank colleges rope in the lower tier students, who also are more likely to fail. You can argue that college is more than academic work. That may be true, but academic scholarship is central to the college's mission.

Sowell detests the effect research has on teaching. Professors spend more time on research than on teaching (and if they have to raise grant money to support staff and students, they wind up having to spend a lot of time on paperwork as well--though Sowell doesn't mention this). So undergraduate students spend more time with grad students or short term teachers, and less with the professors who are supposed to be the expert scholars.

I am a researcher and not tenured. Every year I find out if our group will have enough money to keep me around.

Political correctness in universities is so well known that I won't bother summarizing his descriptions of it. Mickey Mouse programs such as feminist studies or black studies are so stupid that even those who agitated for them didn't try to take them--they just wanted a forum for their identity politics in the university, with a captive audience of students required to repect and even sometimes study these "subjects."

The guilty secrets of the "big sports" are that they A) don't bring in money, and B) don't actually incite alumni to contribute, and C) don't give the athletes any sort of education. The "small sports" (swimming, track, etc) he has no problem with.

The financial aspects of education in America are rather grim. Universities in particular have no great incentive to keep costs down, and they most certainly do not. Fads drive K-12 schools too: classrooms don't really need computers very much at all, despite the breathless noise about them.

All in all, Sowell paints a rather unpleasant picture of American schools. He is careful not to impugn the motives of most K-12 teachers. This is wise, because I've run across rather few elementary teachers with obvious agendas. Most of the distortion in curriculum is institutional and cultural, and teachers don't usually notice anything out of the ordinary because this is what they were taught--they don't know any better. High school can be a different story. Our local high school seems to have a policy of preferentially hiring lesbians. The same school, faced with a shortage of physics teachers, drafted someone with no physics experience for the class: "a teacher only needs to know how to teach." This luckless newbie responded by dodging all offers of assistance from staff and parents. You don't want to know what that semester was like.

His call for a cure involves accountability and doggedness--years and years of doggedness, because the entrenched bureacracy is very skilled at dodging and waiting out opponents. He wants us to get on the same page as a society in deciding what schools are to be. He wants tenure gone, tighter oversight of universities, and so on.

Sowell's picture is somewhat one-sided, but as far as I can determine he is more accurate than not. Is it still a polemic if you are right? Read it.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Shadow of the Hegemon and Shadow Puppets by Orson Scott Card

Grant the thesis of Enders' Game; that one could find and specially train children to become superlative strategists and tacticians and military leaders. It does not follow that they have the skills required to assemble an army or lead a country--things that require some adult wisdom or street smarts. In these two sequels (I haven't read Shadow of the Giant), Card explores what happens when his superintelligent children and adolescents wind up immersed in adult national power struggles, and not necessarily having a good feel for all the nuances of leadership and control.

The central character is the doomed Bean, and Achilles is his nemesis. Power struggles and eventually wars between countries make the children great prizes.

They make for good reads. The character of Peter is unexpectedly benign, compared to Enders Game. Card and Niven both like writing about superintelligent creatures, and both have the same trouble describing characters more intelligent than they are--it works for a while, and then the reader starts to feel like he's being set up. I'll probably get around to Giant after a while.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Bumper Crop

Have an embarassment of riches in my lettuce patch. James and #2 son very carefully planted neat rows of lettuce while I was out of town. Two weeks later, when I planted, I spilled the seeds. This morning I harvested about two bushels of baby lettuce, and there are another 3 or 4 dozen heads out there. So far, I have delivered eight bags of lettuce to the neighbors this morning, with three more bags waiting for other neighbors to get home from work tonight.

This year we signed up for produce boxes from a local organic farm. It's definitely pot luck: you get a share of whatever's ripe. So in yesterday's box, I found a kohlrabi the size of a Chicago softball, chard, spinach, dill, more lettuce, strawberries, and squash blossoms, among other things.

So now I need recipes for Kohlrabi and for squash blossoms! Off to Google I go.

Mrs. James