Sunday, February 29, 2004

Who is Radagast?

I strongly suspect many who find this blog are searching for information on Radagast and Rhosgobel, a character and a place from J. R. R. Tolkien's fantasy world, known to people through The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and other works. Note: this post has a few spoilers from The Lord of the Rings as well as The Silmarillion, so read with caution if you have not read those works.

Radagast: Radagast the Brown is one of the Istari (called Wizards by Men) that were sent to Middle-earth by the Valar to fight Sauron in the third age. Radagast was a peer of Gandalf the Gray, Saruman the White, and two other Istari who went into the east and of whom little is known (Alatar and Pallando, the Blue Wizards).

To understand what Radagast is we need to look at the higher beings of Middle-earth (discussed primarily in The Silmarillion). Iluvatar is "the father of all," the creator of all else in the world. Iluvatar's first creations were the Ainur, who are powerful spirits that helped create Arda, the world that contains Middle-earth. Some of the Ainur lived in and shaped Arda after its creation; these were classified as two types: Valar (Vala singular) were the "greater," more powerful Ainur, and Maiar (Maia singular) were lesser Ainur. Radagast and the other Istari were all Maiar. Radagast was a Maia under Yavanna, the Vala most associated with the animals and plants of Middle-earth.

The Istari were intended by the Valar to aid the people of Middle-earth in their fight against Sauron, and they appeared as "old but vigorous" men. Gandalf (Mithrandir) is probably the best known of the Istari, as he directly helped both Elves and Men destroy the One Ring. Radagast, on the other hand, played little known role in the War of the Rings. A good summary of the Istari is found in Appendix B of The Lord of the Rings,
"When maybe a thousand years had passed [in the third age], and the first shadow had fallen on Greenwood the Great, the Istari or Wizards appeared in Middle-earth. It was afterwards said that they came out of the Far West [Valinor] and were messengers sent to contest the power of Sauron and to unite all those who had the will to resist him; but they were forbidden to match his power with power, or to seek to dominate Elves or Men by force and fear.

"They came therefore in the shape of Men, though they were never young and aged only slowly, and they had many powers of mind and hand."
Radagast's sole appearance in The Lord of the Rings is in book II, where an encounter with him is described by Gandalf at the Council of Elrond. Radagast was asked by Saruman to find Gandalf and tell him that he was needed at Isengard, Saruman's home, immediately. Radagast met Gandalf near Bree and told him that the Nine Riders (the Nazgul) were traveling abroad again, searching for the Shire, and that Gandalf should quickly go to Isengard. Radagast left immediately (quite clearly afraid of the Nine Riders), but before he left Gandalf asked him to have all birds and beasts send news to Isengard. It was through Radagast's fulfillment of this request that Gwaihir the Great Eagle came bearing news and rescued Gandalf from Saruman's imprisonment on top of Orthanc. Radagast was later sought by the Elves during the War of the Rings, but could not be found.

Although Saruman had by that point in time turned to evil, Radagast was apparently still honest and true; Saruman deceived Radagast into thinking that Saruman's intentions regarding Gandalf were good. As Gandalf later says, "It would have been useless in any case to try and win over the honest Radagast to treachery."

While Gandalf spent most of his time with the Elves, and Saruman with Men, Radagast cared most for the animals and plants of Middle-earth. Gandalf describes Radagast as "a worthy wizard, a master of shapes and changes of hue; and he has much lore of herbs and beasts, and birds are especially his friends." The Silmarillion calls Radagast "the friend of all beasts and birds." He's considered to have been generally useless in the fight against Sauron (e.g. he knows the Nazgul are about, yet does nothing to help Gandalf but send news). It seems likely that he spent the War of the Rings among the animals and plants of Middle-earth, protecting them from Sauron's creatures, though I know of no records saying such. If he had lived in our time he probably would have been a biologist.

Radagast is completely absent from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies. In the movies Gandalf goes to seek counsel from Saruman without being summoned, and escapes from the top of Orthanc by catching, and speaking with, a moth who then returns with an eagle.

Rhosgobel: Rhosgobel was Radagast's home in Middle-earth at one time. The Lord of the Rings contains little information on the location of Rhosgobel other than that "it was near the borders of Mirkwood."

The Atlas of Middle-earth (a great book for anyone looking for maps of Middle-earth) shows Rhosgobel as being on the western borders of Mirkwood, north of the Old Forest Road. Mirkwood is east of the Misty Mountains and west of the Lonely Mountain, and Rhosgobel is near the Eagle's Eyrie found on the eastern side of the Misty Mountains. According to the map on page 80 of the Atlas of Middle-earth, Rhosgobel is about 275 miles north of Caras Galadon in Lorien, about 350 miles north of Fangorn Forest's northern border, about 175 miles east of Rivendell, and about 400 miles east of Weathertop (Amon Sul).

Other sites: While I absolutely love Tolkien's work, I am by no means an expert on Radagst, Rhosgobel, or anything from Tolkien's world, so here are a few sites with more information:

No need to release Saruman

The Return of the King just got the best picture Oscar at the Academy Awards, culminating a night in which it won the award for every category it was nominated (11 total). Yippee! Congratulations to Peter Jackson and all the other folks involved for an excellent series of movies!

I'm still sad that none of the actors got an Oscar, however, as they're all deserving. But hey, it was a great night for the LotR movies!

Leap Year!

Another Feb. 29 rolls around! Of interest on this day are two things:

First, the Academy Awards are today, and I'm very curious to find out whether those dolts have awarded Return of the King best picture or not. If not, I think we'll have to set Saruman on them.

Second, an important note for any Card Captor Sakura fan is that today is Touya's birthday.

Saturday, February 28, 2004

62 years ago today

wedding picture

Sixty-two years ago today my grandparents were married. You can see the happy couple above in this picture from their wedding banquet; they're at the head of the table (click on the picture to see a larger version). They're both in their 80's now, and are still happily married. I gave them a call today, and my grandmother joked about all the big numbers she has to rattle off whenever she's asked her age or how long she's been married.

My grandfather served in the Navy during WWII and worked as an engineer afterwards; my grandmother held a manufacturing job before meeting him but then stayed home to raise their three kids, with the first born during the war. They've both got neat stories to tell (like the one with my grandmother coming home to find my dad boiling a greasy car radiator thermostat in one of her good pots), and I'm grateful that I know them.

When I look at the picture above I've always been intrigued by this man, sitting on the left side of the table:

man at table

His look in this picture has fascinated me, yet I know nothing about him other than that he was at this dinner. Who was he? What happened to him?

Experimental labs

In my zoology lab class last semester I added in two experimental labs. This was a huge change for the course as for the past 30 years it had been a pure slice-n-dice preserved specimen lab. One of the new labs examined rat and mouse metabolic rates, and the other looked at snail locomotion. In both labs students were able to develop their own hypotheses and then designed an experiment to test their hypotheses. Nothing was preset, and by the end of both labs students had collected at least some data relevant to their original hypotheses.

The students responded very positively to the labs on the day of the lab. Both labs had live animals and just about everyone had a blast handling the animals. I gave out surveys at the end of each lab, and both received stellar marks. For both labs >90% of students enjoyed the labs at least "some," >90% thought they'd learned at least "some," and >95% said I should at least "possibly" use the labs again.

However, at the end of the semester, when I asked the students to compare the experimental labs with the dissection / anatomical labs, the students generally preferred the anatomical labs (only 19% preferred the experimental labs, 44% preferred the anatomical labs, and 37% thought they were equal). Essentially the students were saying that they preferred memorizing about 60 anatomical terms in 3 hours to working with animals while developing scientific reasoning and writing skills. I was rather befuddled.

What I suspect is that students felt that the memorization-focused labs were teaching them more. But why? And, more importantly, how can I show students that learning reasoning skills and writing skills is a (probably) vastly more important goal for this course than memorizing 600 terms that they'll forget by next Christmas? Note, I'm not saying that learning specific content is valueless, just that it seems like mixing content and reasoning is probably better.

In truth, I know that part of it is my fault. The grades in the class are largely based around tests on the memorized anatomical content, as they have been for 30 years. Thus, students in this lab probably felt, to some extent, that the experimental labs were a "waste" (though lab reports based on the experimental labs were a decent fraction of their grade). However, even in other classes I've taught where there's been relatively little memorized content on tests, students have still protested that the experimental style of learning is not "learning" at all.

One way I hope to approach this issue is to show students more about how real science is done. Thus, I've added a new lab this semester entirely on scientific writing, the scientific method, and journal articles. I hope this new lab, as well as an expansion of the experimental labs, helps students see that the ultimate goal of science is to learn more about the world, not just memorize what's already known.

Friday, February 27, 2004

Feeling better

I'm feeling much better today; amazing what the immune system will do if you just let it do its job stress-free. Getting sick has reminded me of a question I think of every time I get sick: why do we get muscle aches when we are ill?

There are two ways to approach this question. One is to ask why, evolutionarily, do we get muscle aches while sick (the ultimate question), and the other is to ask what, mechanistically, is causing our muscle aches (the proximate question). It's easy to come up with realistic hypotheses at the ultimate level explaining muscle aches. They may simply be a direct result of the viral infection and have no overall adaptive value (i.e. they're an unpleasant side effect). Alternatively, they might be adaptive in that they're a strong reminder to our conscious selves that we should sit down and stop doing whatever we're trying to do and let the immune system work. For instance, thanks to my sore muscles I needed little extra motivation to spend most of yesterday on the couch or in bed.

However, I've never seen a good physiological explanation for why we get muscle aches during/after viral infections. Are they being caused directly by the virus? Is it some response of our immune system (or other organ systems) to the infection? Any ideas would be wonderful!

Grocery Store Strike

It looks like the grocery store strike in California may be over (see this detailed LA Times article; free registration required). The strike has continued since October 11, with workers at Vons and Pavilions (owned by Safeway) going on strike followed by Ralphs and Albertsons locking out their unionized workers. Because I try to keep non-science politics out of this blog, this is not a post about the details of the settlement or the correctness of either side. Rather, it's a short post about the people on strike.

I pass a grocery store on my daily bike ride to work. Every morning since Oct. 11 I've seen the workers on strike in front of the store. Every morning they've been holding their signs and chatting, sitting in lawn chairs or pacing around, usually just trying to stay warm. I've never had any negative interactions with them, have been impressed with their dedication, and always felt bad as I rode past, off to my nice warm office and labs (and full time job). Now, assuming the contract is agreeable to them, it looks like they might be able to return to work. I'm looking forward to seeing them inside the store, rather than outside

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Still sick

OK, nobody wants to read about sick people, so I'll make this short: I'm feeling worse. I normally have two labs and a lecture today. I was able to get both labs covered thanks to the devotion of a retired faculty member who still teaches a few labs as an adjunct, and had to cancel my lecture. I know there are faculty who claim that they will try to lecture while on their death beds. I'm not one of them; I fully plan to spend any time on my death bed trying to recover.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Still sick

I'm still sick, and only just got done with work, so no posts tonight. Sorry :(

[update: I backdated this post 3 minutes to make dates read easier.]

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Flower power

Your host's cells are busy attempting to fight off some virus, so there won't be any grand posts today. I did, however, find a neat page that had pictures of flowers in both visible light and UV light. Enjoy:

Monday, February 23, 2004

Student versions of taxonomy

I'm grading some lab work where students were analyzing various mammal skeletons for bone homologies (Pharyngula discussed some homologies today too). The students also keyed out all the skeletons to order; here are some of the conclusions they came to:
  • Cats are in the same order as either monkeys or armadillos (Primates or Edentata; cats are actually Carnivora)
  • Rats are in the same order as cats or monkeys (Carnivora or Primates; rats are actually Rodentia)
  • Rabbits are in the same order as either armadillos or rats (Edentata or Rodentia; rabbits are actually Lagomorpha)
Why aren't rabbits rodents? While they're pretty similar overall, one differences is that rabbits have two rows of incisors (two large ones in front with two little ones growing directly behind the large one) while rats only have one row of incisors (two large ones in front).

On a happy note, most of my students figured out the taxonomy with ease. I had to grade >100 papers to come up with these various errors (and many of the problems listed above are understandable based on our key).

Sunday, February 22, 2004

The Deep Green Project

I'm doing more reading on diversity today, this time on plants. Thanks to the advent of molecular techniques our understanding of the relationships between taxa has been changing dramatically, and The Deep Green project appears to be leading the way for plants. See this Science article summarizing the project.

One of the coolest things about the project has to be their data presentation. Instead of using static trees on their website, they've decided to use dynamic hyperbolic trees. They only have two draft trees up right now, one for teachers and one for researchers (notes: Java is required, they're mainly for demonstration, the names aren't the easiest if you don't know plant taxonomy, and the research tree seems easier to use at the moment). The hyperbolic trees include a detailed phylogeny of plants, but you see only a few nodes at a time. You can drag nodes you're interested in to the center of the screen and more nodes related to that one become visible. It's intuitive; try it.

Want to see more detail about land plants?
  • Start on the research tree.
  • Drag the tree node at the base of liverworts over to the center of the screen
  • Liverworts are the most basal group of land plants; everything else at the base of the plant tree is algae.
  • If you can't see liverworts, drag the Charales node over until you can see liverworts.
  • Keep going and you'll reach Tracheophytes, the first group of plants to have true vascular tissue.
  • Continue on and you'll reach Lignosae.
  • Lignosae is the root node of what I believe have been called gymnosperms and angiosperms; the name refers to woody plants but I think it also is seed-bearing plants in this case.
  • You'll find Angiospermae (flowering plants) under Lignosae.
  • Interestingly they've split gymnosperms into multiple groups with Gnetophytes separate from the other gymnosperms (Ginkgos, Conifers, and Cycads).
  • Oh, I'd love it if someone more knowledgeable about plants could correct me on what the node Lignosae refers to. I know the word root refers to woody plants, but I thought lycopods and horsetails were also woody, yet they're not in that group, and from what I can tell only seed-bearing plants are in the group.

    Saturday, February 21, 2004

    The wonder of bacteria

    I just finished reading the bacterial diversity chapter from Freeman's Biological Science textbook (first edition) and found a few great tidbits of information. (disclaimer: I have received compensation from Freeman's publisher for reviews.)
    • Prochlorococcus, a bacteria discovered in 1988, "may be the most dominant life-form on the planet. Oceanographers routinely find this organism at concentrations of 70,000 to 200,000 cells per milliliter of seawater."
    • There can be billions of microorganisms in a teaspoon of good soil.
    • Various species of bacteria and archaea can live in habitats ranging in temperature from 0C to over 110C.
    • Remember back to your intro bio class that talked about the Calvin cycle? Well, if not, the Calvin cycle is the mechanism plants use to turn carbon dioxide into complex organic molecules (the cycle is part of photosynthesis). The Calvin cycle is the only biochemical mechanism plants have to obtain carbon. Various bacteria have three alternate mechanisms to fix CO2 and turn it into organic molecules, and certain bacteria can use methane (CH3), carbon monoxide (CO), and methanol (CH3OH) as carbon sources instead of CO2. Take that, plants!
    There are also some striking data on antibiotic resistance:
    • Penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928 and was put into mass production by the start of World War II.
    • "In 1941, 10,000 units of penicillin administered four times a day for four days cured pneumonia completely. Now, pneumonia patients who receive 24 million units of penicillin a day have a good chance of dying."
    • "In 1941 all strains of Staphylococcus aureus were treated effectively with penicillin. Today, 95 percent of the strains are unaffected by it."

    Friday, February 20, 2004

    Trackback enabled!

    My commenting service, Haloscan, is now offering trackbacks for Blogger blogs and the other platforms they support. I've now enabled trackbacks, so feel free to send trackback pings!

    Not sure what trackbacks are? Take a look at the Haloscan FAQ.

    "Bird brain" is no longer an insult

    From time immemorial, to call someone a "bird brain" has been to insult their mental capacity. I don't know why birds have been thus maligned, and a recent article in Science News summarizes research showing that birds who cache seeds have extremely good spatial memories. One of the best tidbits from the article is this mini-experiment:
    Balda also tested one of his graduate students at caching. The student hid seeds and 30 days later found only about half as many caches as a bird typically did.

    Thursday, February 19, 2004

    A free lunch

    I'm giving an exam this afternoon so I finally have my lunch free to do something other than frantically edit slides for the upcoming lecture. Amazing.

    Here's some fun reading for your own lunch:


    Like many other bloggers, I enjoy nightly perusals of my site's referral logs. I've been generating a list of the various Google search terms (and languages) people have used to get to this site, and was not planning on posting them anytime soon until last night when I found this Google search in my referral logs:
    • adding table salt to fool home drug test marijuana
    I was #4 of ~219 sites on Google.

    Regarding other searches, nothing nearly as hilarious has popped up. However, here are a few other unusual searches that led people here:
    • pictures of roman cross's: #45 of 216.
    • follicular cyst picture cow: #3 of 39.
    The majority of searches have been for things like Radagast and Rhosgobel, and I strongly suspect that many of those searchers were looking for information on the Tolkien character/location and not biology or me (though some hardy souls did search for "Radagast blog", yay!) Thus I hope to post a summary of Radagat and Rhosgobel in the near future.

    I've also had a multinational crew reading this blog, as evidenced by Google searches configured for users from Australia, the UK, Finland, Brasil, Denmark, Spain, Turkey, and Austria.

    Welcome all!

    Wednesday, February 18, 2004

    Exam writing

    I spent most of this evening writing my first exam of the semester ... whee. I refuse to give only multiple choice exams in my classes, so much thought had to be put into which essay questions I could ask of my 180 students yet still retain my sanity post-grading. I think I've got a few good questions, but who knows. If you're curious, this exam ended up being about 60% multiple choice to 40% essay (based on points assigned).

    All this exam writing has reminded me why I completely agree with Pharyngula's take on exams.

    Monday, February 16, 2004

    Organizing blogs

    Semantic Compositions linked to a site (TTLB blogosphere ecosystem) that claims to organize blogs into a taxonomic hierarchy based on how many incoming links they have (blogs with more links being better/more successful). I was dismayed, however, to find that the site had decided on a classic evolutionary ladder style of classification. The most linked-to sites are "Higher Beings", then "Mortal Humans" and "Playful Primates." The list continues down in organism "complexity" until "Unimportant Microbes." These labels, however, simply reinforce the idea that humans are the goal of evolution, with all other species leading up to humans; this couldn't be further from the truth. At the very least microbes shouldn't be called unimportant, as without them life as we know it wouldn't exist.

    Why is the evolutionary ladder idea wrong? It posits that humans are the most complex, successful (advanced, etc.) species on the planet, usually on the basis that humans can do things other organisms can't ("Who's ever seen a bacterium writing a novel, hyuk hyuk?"). Sure, bacteria can't write novels (that we know of), but they can live their entire lives at 106C, synthesize amino acids from gaseous nitrogen, live in 20% salt solutions, encapsulate themselves so they can be revived after more than 1,000 times their lifespan has passed, eat solely sulfur compounds, and so on. In the game of life (the real one, not the board game) the goal is to survive and reproduce, and thus any organism that is achieving those goals, regardless of how it is achieving them, is successful.

    However, rather than rant on about the fallacy of the ladder interpretation of evolutionary phylogenies, I thought I'd suggest some slightly more biologically accurate alternate classification schemes for blogs.

    Ecological roles: an organization scheme intended to categorize blogs by the amount of original content they produce.
    1. Nitrogen fixers, nutrient recyclers & other decomposers (primarily bacteria): These organisms are the most important groups on the planet; without them nothing else could thrive except under certain rare circumstances. Thus, I classify the network architecture and blog hosting services as this level of organism. All weblogs rely on this architecture.
    2. Producers (autotrophs: algae, plants, and some bacteria): The primary producers of content, these blogs (and other information sources) take in raw materials and process them into new and interesting forms. Most other blogs rely, eventually, on these autotrophs for food.
    3. Primary consumers (many animals, fungi, protists, and bacteria): Relying on the content provided by autotrophs, these weblogs process the material they consume extensively and provide much new information. They're often linked to extensively by other blogs but aren't as original as autotrophs.
    4. Secondary consumers (consumers of primary consumers, e.g. lizards, lions, praying mantises): These blogs consume and repackage material that's very similar to their own, though they often add their own flavor to the content.
    5. Tertiary and higher consumers (consumers of secondary or higher consumers, e.g. a cat eating a bird that had eaten caterpillars): These blogs post only content that has been much chewed over, and may often be lists of links.
    6. Omnivores (organisms that consume more than one other level): These blogs vary widely in their content, at times posting relatively new material while also posting well-chewed topics.
    Other useful ecological divisions that could be used to subdivide the above categories:
    • Whether the blog is a specialist or a generalist, i.e. focusing narrowly on one topic or posting on a wide variety of topics
    • How invasive the blog is with new topics. Highly invasive blogs become spectacularly successful covering a new topic, stealing traffic from the topic's native blogs.
    • Interactions between blogs, i.e. mutualisms (e.g. circles of blogs that all link to each other), commensalisms (e.g. a blog linking to lots of other blogs; the original blog doesn't get much benefit), or parasitisms (e.g. a blog getting most of its material from another blog without providing source links)
    • How efficient the blog is at generating/processing material, etc.
    The fun never ends when you apply ecology to blogs!

    One neat conclusion of this ecological organization scheme: the higher level consumers are often the most ogled, yet the least productive (but all levels in this hierarchy are ecologically important and play an important role in maintaining the blogosphere). Also, as in ecology, much content is never picked up by the primary consumers and thus lost and recycled by the detritivores.

    Species diversity: An alternate scheme would be to classify blogs by the number of times they've been linked to (as TTLB does), representing the number of links by the species diversity of the taxa the blog is placed in. The most linked to blogs would be described as being in the largest taxa (insects), since they've theoretically spawned the most progeny. Sure, it's not perfect, but it seems more biologically realistic than an evolutionary ladder.

    The list would look like the following if we were to go by the current number of described species (data from Stiling's "Ecology", 1996):
    1. Insects (751,000 species)
    2. Plants (248,428 species)
    3. Non-insect arthropods (arachnids, crustaceans, etc.; 123,161 species)
    4. Non-chordate, non-arthropod animals (mollusks, nematodes, sponges, echinoderms, etc.; 115,600 species)
    5. Protists (algae, protozoans; 57,700 species)
    6. Fungi (46,983 species)
    7. Chordates (mainly vertebrates; 43,853 species)
    8. Bacteria (4,760 species)
    Of note on this list is how low chordates are: they're the animals many people are used to seeing, but are far less diverse than most types of organisms. Using estimates of the actual number of species in each of these groups would be neat too, and would drastically change the list.

    A final scheme would be to organize blogs into categories based on the total biomass of all taxa on the planet (equating the number of incoming links with the biomass of the taxa). Unfortunately I couldn't easily find any data on this, but it's quite appealing as a scheme.

    Sunday, February 15, 2004

    "Junk science"

    Deltoid, via CrookedTimber, has an excellent critique of (note: lack of link is intentional). Junkscience purports to expose bad science, a goal I strongly support, but as PR Watch put it, "The tone of the Junk Science Home Page appears calculated to lower rather than elevate scientific discourse." This PR Watch article describes Steve Milloy, the person behind junkscience.

    As just one example of the type of work junkscience does, take a look at this article Milloy wrote discussing the recent mad cow scare. While prions are certainly not completely understood, it seems likely that they are at the root of many diseases, including mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy; see this Science article and its associated commentary). In an attempt to show that prions couldn't cause disease Milloy says,
    "Despite Pruisner's Nobel Prize, however, it has not been scientifically established that prions cause any sort of disease ... Despite almost 10 years of intense research into the causes and potential ramifications of mad cow disease, the prion theory still does not satisfy the basic scientific test known as Koch's Postulates for whether a particular microorganism, such as a prion, causes a specific disease, such as mad cow."
    Milloy goes on to list Koch's postulates, one of which is that "the organism [infectious agent] must be isolated and grown in pure culture away from the host organism" (from Freeman's Biology, 2002). If we go with the hypothesis that the infectious agent of prions is solely a protein, not whole cells, it would be physically impossible to culture prions in pure culture separately from other cells. Thus prions will never satisfy Koch's postulates (at least as I understand them). This is not necessarily a problem, however, as many other parasites also fail to satisfy Koch's postulates, though we clearly understand that they can cause serious physiological problems.

    In questioning whether humans can get variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease from cows infected with mad cow (which is still somewhat open to question, I'll agree), Milloy says, "There is, in fact, no evidence that the 150 victims of nvCJD even ate infected beef, but it is assumed they did because no other explanation has been developed for how they could have contracted nvCJD."

    Considering that known incubation times for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease range from 1 year to more than 20 years, it seems near impossible to determine with certainty whether victims ate infected beef (data from CJD cases caused by neurosurgical procedures or treatment with Human Growth Hormone derived from cadavers; from this article). Can you remember the manufacturer and lot number of all the ground beef products you ate in 1985?

    So if we can't know whether the vCJD patients ever ate infected beef, why do we suspect beef infected with mad cow disease was the cause? Here's some of the reasoning,
    "Cases of vCJD in Great Britain and France raise the possibility that BSE has been transmitted to humans (6, 7). All but one of the 20 vCJD patients are 40 years of age or younger; the only other group of young CJD patients are those who received pituitary HGH during childhood. The neuropathology of vCJD patients is unusual, with numerous PrP amyloid plaques surrounded by intense spongiform degeneration (Fig. 4). These atypical neuropathologic changes have not been seen in CJD cases in the United States, Australia, and Japan (87). Macaque monkeys and marmosets both developed neurologic disease several years after inoculation with bovine prions (88), but only the macaques exhibited numerous PrP plaques similar to those found in vCJD (89)." (from Science)
    I've also looked at some other examples of Milloy's work, and they all seem similarly unconvincting.

    Saturday, February 14, 2004

    Motivation to clean

    My SO and I spent most of today unpacking boxes and working on the yard ... how romantic.

    One of our motivations to clean up was this site (no registration required, just scroll down to the pictures), which is a pictorial tour though one person's house. It's, well, scary. If you want some inspiration of your own, or just want to realize that your place really isn't that messy, take a look. Warning: these pictures are not for the weak of heart, and the page contains ~5 megs of pictures.

    Flowers and icicles

    blooming snapdragonsPharyngula recently posted a beautiful picture of his icicle-covered front door, going on to discuss raking snow off his roof. To help cheer him and everyone else living in snow-covered lands right now, I snapped a picture of some snapdragons blooming in my backyard. Yep, this is what I get to look at every time I open my blinds :) Of course I also have to go mow the lawn tomorrow ...

    On a separate note, Semantic Compositions has some good ideas if you're looking for last-minute Valentines Day inspiration.

    Friday, February 13, 2004

    Scientific writing lab

    I apologize for not posting last night; Thursday's my busiest day with two 3+ hour labs and a 1.5 hour lecture that wipe me out. The labs this week were a new lab introducing scientific writing, and after four labs I've found a few interesting things:
    • The students seem to like learning how journal articles are published. I don't know why I haven't discussed this with students before, but in each of my 4 lab sections I got a number of thoughtful questions about the process, and a lot of comments demonstrating a newfound respect for journal articles. The students were especially engaged as I described my own publishing experiences.

    • The recent follicular development paper I've discussed (here, here, and here) that was misreported in many media outlets makes a good, understandable example of the possible problems of using just popular media to gain scientific information. I had half the class read only the "bad" newspaper articles, and half read only the journal article. After the reading we discussed the differences between the two sources' conclusions as a group. With only a bit of background about ovulation and follicular development the students were able to pick up on the difference with minimal guidance from me. During our discussion a number of students were asking, "What kind of punishments are there for this misreporting?" Heh. If you're interested, see my third post on the paper for a list of resources.

    • Letting students explore journal articles seems to be a good way to help them learn how the articles are written. I scattered a number of papers around the room and had the students figure out what was in each section; most students did a good job.

    Thursday, February 12, 2004

    Darwin's birthday quotes

    On learning from Pharyngula that it was Darwin's birthday today I immediately set out to find an online copy of the Origin of Species. It was my sincere intention to find the most ridiculous quotes possible in order to counter the over-proliferation of profound Darwin quotes that I'm sure will circulate today.

    Sadly, I quickly came upon the following quote which I found far too profound to ignore:
    In the first place it should always be borne in mind what sort of intermediate forms must, on my theory, have formerly existed. I have found it difficult, when looking at any two species, to avoid picturing to myself, forms directly intermediate between them. But this is a wholly false view; we should always look for forms intermediate between each species and a common but unknown progenitor; and the progenitor will generally have differed in some respects from all its modified descendants. Chapter 9
    In the conclusion I also found another excellent quote:
    Nothing at first can appear more difficult to believe than that the more complex organs and instincts should have been perfected not by means superior to, though analogous with, human reason, but by the accumulation of innumerable slight variations, each good for the individual possessor. Chapter 14
    And, then, sadly, I found yet another good one:
    It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life. We see nothing of these slow changes in progress, until the hand of time has marked the long lapses of ages, and then so imperfect is our view into long past geological ages, that we only see that the forms of life are now different from what they formerly were. Chapter 4
    Finally, after more reading, my SO found a, well, less-profound quote (note: the exceptionally mature should probably skip this):
    After this interval, I felt sure that the aphides would want to excrete. I watched them for some time through a lens, but not one excreted; I then tickled and stroked them with a hair in the same manner, as well as I could, as the ants do with their antennae; but not one excreted. Chapter 7
    Of course he does go on to make more profound observations based on this, but it's still wonderful taken out of context.

    Unfortunately I need to get some sleep tonight, so here ends my valiant (and, admittedly, brief) attempt to find the ridiculous quotes of Darwin. Final score? Darwin: 3, Radagast's SO: 0.5, Radagast, 0. Sadly, I think Radagast won't be gaining any ground soon.

    Wednesday, February 11, 2004

    How much did you get paid to do all that?

    Today in lab I discussed the details of journal article writing and publishing with my students (they'll be writing two journal article style papers during the semester; today was prep for that). After having the students read over a few "real" articles and figure out what was contained in each part of the papers, I briefly summarized the steps a scientist goes through to publish an article. The list had about 10 steps from research completion to an article being in press, and I had fun describing my recent submission efforts to Ecology (where, btw, I got rejected) and subsequent acceptance at another journal more than 2 years after I'd written the original manuscript. After this description I waited for questions; one student raised his hand and asked,

    Student: "So, how much did you get paid for all this?"

    Me: "For everything after the first step, I haven't gotten paid a cent."

    Student: "Oh."

    I then went on to describe that not only was the work unpaid, but some journals require that authors pay a per-page fee for their articles to be published.

    I think I may have just killed the research enthusiasm of my students :)

    Insects in space

    Two days ago I wondered what Drosophila would look like flying in space. A dedicated reader suggested looking for analogous situations, recommending "Pigs in Space". While the pigs were a good first approximation, I have since found that a bunch of insects have flown in (or near) space. Here's a few neat pages I found:
    • The STARS Program - Site featuring some school-designed experiments sending animals into space. Highlights include spiders, silkworms, fish, carpenter bees, and harvester ants. Many of the pages include pictures and videos of the critters in space! As a sad note, this payload was on STS-107, the Columbia flight that was lost in February 2003.

    • STARS ants article - A National Geographic article on the harvester ants mentioned above. Note that the article was written while the Columbia was still in orbit.

    • Butterfly pupation experiment - A brief summary of an experiment that sent caterpillars into space to see if they could pupate (apparently they can). I'd like to see some of the pictures from this mission.

    • Drosophila microgravity experiment - Another school experiment that sent Drosophila into microgravity using both rockets and KC-135 flights. I was really excited that I might have finally found my pictures of Drosophila in low g, but while they monitored the movement of the flies, their only pictures are of the experimental apparatus and humans.

    • Nematodes in microgravity - A summary of recent nematode research that sent some worms 20 miles up on a balloon. No pictures though :(

    Tuesday, February 10, 2004

    The good ol' days

    At another campus a few years ago I taught what I'd consider my ideal biology course: 24 students in the class with the entire time in a lab room. We met twice a week for 3 hours each day, and by the end of the semester I knew every student extremely well. Discussions were commonplace, and I tried to introduce every topic through an active learning exercise such as answering questions in a group, doing a lab activity, or having a class discussion. It was invigorating to be able to jump from "lecture" to "lab" seamlessly in the middle of a lesson.

    I'd forgotten how many discussion questions I asked in that course until I went back today to try to use some of those slides in a new lecture I'm writing for my current 180 student class. I looked at my old lectures and realized there was no way I could use them as-is; while I try to make my current teaching as interactive as possible, I can't introduce every topic with a question/discussion and expect to keep the interest of, or get active participation from, all but a small fraction of the class.

    I'm hoping that by using the new PRS system I can start to recall some of those small-class days and get more discussions going, but for now I'm reminiscing about those classes and how nice they were to teach. Teaching a lecture to 180 students may not involve more stress, but it sure does reduce the personalization of the education, as well as the pedagogical options available to me.

    Monday, February 09, 2004

    When you can't get a human to do it ...

    ... get an insect. They're much more agreeable, easier to maintain, and often will participate in just about any research you want. Plus they're usually cuter.

    As an example of the versatility of insects, NASA's going to be sending some Drosophila to the space station so they can look at how life in space affects genetic expression over a number of generations (among other things). I doubt this will be Drosophila's first trip into space, but it sounds like this time the astronauts will be freezing individuals from each generation for mRNA analyses, exposing flies to various g's to simulate specific environments, and observing fly mating behaviors (which is not nearly as exciting as it sounds; I've done it). I wonder what Drosophila flying in zero gravity looks like ...

    Sunday, February 08, 2004

    Budget woes

    As you may have heard, California's state budget isn't exactly the most balanced in the nation. Assuming the bonds on the March ballot pass, it looks like the CA community colleges won't be doing too badly, though if the bonds don't pass the future is unknown. Recently I've found out a few new things about the budget relating to the community colleges, and thought I'd pass them along. (note: Some of this information comes from the Governor's Budget Highlights; specifically, the PDF summary of Higher Education).

    1) Remember a few days ago that I was frustrated by the lack of money available for growth? Well, if you look at the proposed state budget for this year there's plenty of money ($125.1 million) available for growth at the community colleges. So growth's being funded, right? The problem at my campus is that due to the significant schedule cuts made last year (overall CC funding in the state dropped from $6.6 billion to $6.3 billion), our enrollment is down about 5% year-over-year. The growth money discussed above is only available for schools that have a net enrollment increase year-over-year. Considering that most schools probably cut their schedules last year, this growth money seems like a nice way of saying "Look! We're funding growth!" without actually spending any money or helping the colleges accept more students (though some colleges may be growing currently, I don't know).

    2) Another point on growth money: the amount any community college can grow in a year is capped at 3% in this year's budget (and it's been similarly capped for many years). Thus, even if next year we were able to regain the 5% of our enrollment that we lost this year, our funding would not increase by the full 5% of students we lost since last year. As I understand it, for many years my campus has grown faster than the state's growth cap and thus we're already not fully funded for our enrollment.

    2) In the past, community colleges in CA have been able to survive temporary drops in enrollment though stabilization funds. Stabilization funds kept a school's funding based on their highest enrollment number in the past 2-3 years; thus schools that had to cut classes due to budget cuts one year could expand back to their original size in the next 2 years without losing funding. This program was in place when we cut classes a year ago and was a critical part of our financial strategy, but has now been cancelled. Thus, our cuts last year are immediately reducing our funding and making it harder for us to "grow" back even to our prior enrollment levels.

    3) It's official: the 80's were a good decade. OK, so they weren't good in all respects, but they were in at least one (ed. note: synth-pop!): our lab supply budgets were bigger. Our current lab budgets are lower than they were in 1985, not even adjusted for inflation as far as I know.

    4) Materials fees will likely be largely eliminated. In CA community colleges many classes use material fees (collected in addition to the per-unit fee for the course) to help pay for supplies (e.g. chemicals for an organic chemistry lab, art supplies, etc.). Recently the state government has specified that these fees should only be used for items the students could buy on their own, and that the students should be allowed to take the items home (I can't find any websites describing this policy change). I've been designing a new course and had applied to have a materials fee for the lab. The fee was to pay for live animals and rearing supplies so that students would rear the organisms they used later in class for experiments. The materials fee was rejected without comment. This is likely to hurt many classes.

    5) Tuition's going up-up-up. Only a year and a half ago our tuition was $11 per unit, a real bargain. Last year it was raised to $18 a unit, and in the new budget it's proposed to be raised to $26 a unit. Students with a bachelor's degree will be charged $50 per unit (they were charged the same rate as non-degreed students before). Twenty-six dollars a unit is still pretty good, even compared with other states, but I still long for the days of $0 tuition. However, our funding will likely not increase a penny as a result of these tuition increases: the tuition increase is letting the state decrease its other allocations to the community colleges, and thus our funding is remaining stable. Understandable, but frustrating.

    As a final note, please remember that I am not an expert on California community college funding. If anyone spots misunderstandings on my part, please let me know!

    Happy birthday to this blog ...

    I just realized that this blog is exactly one month old today! Yippee! I can't believe it's already been a month.

    Thanks to everyone who's spent time reading and commenting here, and to those folks who've linked to and/or discussed items from here (Pharyngula, Academicgame, Nature is Profligate, Semantic Compositions, and anyone else I'm forgetting); you've been inspirational.

    80's music quiz

    My SO found a great quiz on 80's music lyrics. I'm proud to say that I got a 54.5 (not the lowest score possible!) even though I'm a certified lyrics-mumbler, I never watched MTV in the 80's, and I didn't listen to much 80's music until the 90's. Here's my award:

    As I'm sure everyone is dying to know more about my SO (or maybe not, but that won't stop me), I'll tell ya that my SO got a whopping 117 on the quiz and received this award:

    As a side note, the quiz is a great example of the testing power of fill-in-the-blank style questions. If this were multiple choice I'd have done MUCH better.

    Saturday, February 07, 2004

    Site on teaching evolution

    Carl Zimmer over at The Loom has announced the opening of a new evolution website for teachers. The site contains heaps of information, everything from the basics of evolutionary theory, information on the nature of science, links to lesson ideas/plans for grades K-12 (searchable by grade level and topic), and probably the best piece on the history of evolutionary thought I've ever seen. Zimmer contributed to the history section, and a bunch of other folks helped with the site, which is partially funded by both the NSF and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. It's an incredible resource!

    Friday, February 06, 2004

    Receivers installed

    I installed the PRS receivers in the lecture hall today with the help of my dean. I've got to have one of the coolest deans ever: he skirts around the maintenance folks to let me pound nails into the walls of the lecture halls, and then comes in and spends an hour helping string the wires (ed. note: my dean does not read this blog, so no, I'm not kissing up).

    The receivers went up like a charm. EduCue suggests purchasing either an angle iron bracket or EduCue's custom mount (see the bottom of their accessory page). However, the walls in our lecture room were angled perfectly for the units to cover the room, so we used Velcro to attach the units directly to the wall and then used some wire tacks to string the wire across the walls. Not the prettiest or most permanent installation ever, but it should work for now. Next week I'll be able to start asking questions. Yay!

    Thursday, February 05, 2004

    First week of classes and petitioners

    My first week of classes is over. My lectures and labs all went well, with no technical problems to speak of. The students seem genuinely excited about the PRS system; I've already received many positive comments on the system even though none of the students have used it. Tomorrow I'll be installing the receivers in the lecture hall, and after that I can start trying the system in class.

    I mentioned earlier in the week that we were likely to have lots of petitioners (students attempting to register for a class after it's already been filled or started), and I was unfortunately correct. Every math and science instructor I talked with had many petitioners. The enrollment cap for my biology lecture was 170, and I had 7 open spots on the first day. More than 25 petitioners showed up. We had some no-shows, and I hate turning away students since my course is a requirement for many programs, so I took all the petitioners. My lecture now has more than 180 students.

    Lab was little different. The room has 28 chairs, and all but one of my four lab sections were completely full weeks before the semester began. I had more than 15 petitioners show up to those three lab sections total, and while I was able to take them all I now have 30-32 students in each of those 3 lab sections. That number is likely to drop due to lab switches and early drops, but it's still too many. We're even offering one more lab section than normal this semester (the extra section is funded by district reserves; state funding has not increased as far as I know).

    And, from what I've heard, I've had it easy with petitioners. One anatomy instructor I talked to described her first day in lab: 32 chairs in the room, 35 students officially enrolled on the first day of class, and more than 40 petitioners lining the walls hoping to get in. Another microbiology instructor had more than 10 petitioners show up in a lab that was again over-filled to begin with. Chemistry classes have apparently been extraordinarily difficult to get into; I've heard multiple students lamenting the situation.

    Even though I try to take as many petitioners as I can, the problem as I see it is that a number of students who need to take the class probably don't even try to petition once they see the class is closed. To petition the student must come to class on the first day and often spend the entire period waiting for a lottery to be held at the end to select who gets to enter the class. Thus, who knows how many students we've turned away due to our limited number of sections?

    In the current economic climate with higher unemployment and people presumably wanting to "retrain," it would seem logical that community colleges should be opening their arms to all students who come (it is our mission, after all, especially with state universities limiting enrollment severely). However, at my campus we simply don't have the funds to offer the classes. I believe the state determines our funding level based (roughly) on the number of students we had in the past year, and caps our possible growth from year to year. Thus, even though new students would be paying some tuition (which goes to the state first, not us, btw), we don't have the money to pay the instructors to open up new sections to attract new students. It seems counter-intuitive, but right now most of our classes are full (and many are over-enrolled), and yet we're having a hard time paying for the instructors we currently have, not to mention trying to pay for more instructors. Just last year we laid off more than a third of our adjunct instructors due to budget problems.

    Breasts ...

    Interested in learning more about Janet Jackson's breasts? Go see this post over at Pharyngula!

    Wednesday, February 04, 2004

    Instant messengers and daily contact

    Academicgame has posted another very thoughtful piece on spousal hiring, an issue she(?) has discussed often. I wanted to thank her for linking to and commenting on my own job-related separation entry. Just as she found something interesting in my post, I've found something interesting in hers:

    "We made gargantuan sacrifices to stay together, including career sacrifices and major changes in course -- both of us -- in order to keep our relationship going. I need daily contact with my spouse, and I want that."

    I also need/want daily contact with my SO, but the funny thing is that upon reading AG's post my SO and I agreed, "but we had daily contact that was fulfilling ..." We did call and write e-mail to each other, but they weren't a good mechanism for maintaining daily contact because they took significant planning and chunks of uninterrupted time. Since we both use computers much of the day, what we used instead was instant messengers (IMs).

    In thinking about it yesterday we realized that we can't recall a single day we were apart that we didn't IM each other (excluding trips to conferences and the like). IMs provided a vehicle for us to chat about daily events that we never would have mentioned in a phone call or letter. If we had 10 or 20 spare minutes at a computer we could quickly exchange a few words, be they support for an upcoming lecture, planning a visit, or dinner suggestions. One unique element of IMs was that we didn't need to dedicate exclusive time to the communication; we could be doing work on the computer yet continue a conversation for hours. It seems like no other communication vehicle could have allowed us this kind of freedom to communicate, and thus help us feel as though we were together.

    I also use IMs in my teaching; I'm online on multiple services whenever I'm in my office, and encourage students to IM me. I've had a number of revealing conversations with students over IM; some students seem much more willing to open up and talk over that medium. I typically have more than 50 to 100 individual IM conversations with students in a semester, and even though most are mundane there are a few each semester where I think, "That couldn't have happened in person."

    If I had the time I'd be interested to look up studies on IMs from a sociological perspective.

    Joey Kitty

    I got a tearful call from my mom this morning before heading off to campus. Joey, one of my mom's two cats, has been diagnosed with cancer and had to be "put to sleep" this morning.

    My mom got Joey while I was in high school, and he was the most outgoing kitty I've ever known. Anytime I walked through the door Joey would be there waiting and purring, and even on my recent trip to the Bay Area (when I hadn't seen him for >1.5 years) he wasted no time rubbing up to my leg and jumping on my lap as soon as I'd arrived. Joey was friendly with almost everyone, and most people who knew him fell in love immediately.

    Joey had been having a few health problems during my recent visit, but was as loving as ever. A vet visit of a few weeks ago had diagnosed Joey with hairball problems, but this morning my mom went to another vet who did a more thorough job and diagnosed Joey with cancer. The tumors had spread through multiple organs, and the vet said there was no hope.

    Noelle, my mom's other cat, is now apparently looking everywhere for Joey. Poor Noelle. My mom's also pretty broken up, as Joey and she were extremely close. In fact, she just got back from spending a bit of time with Joey before he was peacefully "put to sleep". I feel for both of them, and send both my love.

    Thus the kindest, most loving cat I've known will not return home, and I'll never see him again. I will miss him.

    Tuesday, February 03, 2004

    Good ID discussion at Pharyngula

    Pharyngula has recently had some excellent posts discussing various attempts to supplement or replace the teaching of biological evolution in schools with ID (Intelligent Design). Today he beautifully summed up why ID shouldn't be taught as science:

    "The reason that Intelligent Design creationism should be kept out of the schools is not that there is an a priori bias against it; it is not because evolutionary theory is weak and needs protection; it is not because scientists hate Christians. It is because there is no evidence for it."

    First day is over ...

    My first official work day is over, but all I had was office hours so it wasn't exactly hard. Tomorrow (Tuesday) I give my first lecture of the semester to a roomful of 170 students. One of the things I find funny is that most people say "170? Oh my!" but I find that I get just as nervous preparing a first-day lecture for 170 students as I do a class of 24. Of course I'd much rather grade papers for a class of 24 than 170, but that's another post.

    One thing I'm not looking forward to dealing with this week is petitioners. On our campus we have no registration wait lists and must do a random lottery of all attending petitioners to fill up empty slots. Considering that our math and science classes are ~100% enrolled currently, and I know there are more students looking for classes, I suspect I'll get a bunch of petitioners. I heard of some math classes last semester that had more petitioners show up than students officially enrolled in the class.

    I spent some of today looking into how I can get students the PRS transmitters I'm requiring. As you may remember, last time I posted the bookstore said they were having problems ordering the transmitters separately from the book bundle I ordered. Apparently the bookstore was trying to order the units from the book publisher instead of EduCue itself, as I'd told them they needed to do in a memo 2 months ago, grr. Now they've told me that they'll need to "go through their home office" and setup an account with EduCue, which could take weeks.

    However, thanks to my hard-working book rep and the EduCue website, I found out today that students can order the transmitters directly from the manufacturer, skirting the bookstore entirely. Considering that the bookstore is marking up the book/transmitter bundle nearly 35% over their cost, and doesn't have a single used book for sale, I don't feel too bad for them if they lose a few sales.

    Monday, February 02, 2004

    Atom feed created

    For those of you who use newsreaders, I've created an Atom XML feed. If you don't know what Atom is, see this blogger knowledgebase article if you want to learn more. Not that I expect anyone to use the feed ... but hey, maybe somebody will :) Enjoy!

    Super Bowl Summary

    Semantic Compositions has nicely summarized our joint experience watching the Super Bowl, in his usual wonderful style. Everyone had a good time, especially after yours truly decided to start ignorantly harping on the evils of the running game (can you blame me after growing up with Jerry Rice?), only to have a rushing touchdown occur a minute later.

    I have only one comment on his post: What's wrong with J.K. Rowling's writing? Sure, it's not exactly Tolkien, but it's good, fun literature. And heck, if it gets kids to read, I'm all for it.

    Sunday, February 01, 2004

    Football and a rejection

    I just got back from watching the Super Bowl at Semantic Composition's place (the ads were quite disappointing), and found a sad e-mail in my inbox. One of my best former students, a very shy, bright young woman, had applied to a high-end technical school and was really hoping to get in. She's only been in the US for around 2 years but speaks excellent English. Only after I'd known her for a while did I learn why she spoke so well: a number of years ago in her native country she decided to teach herself English, alone, and eventually decided (while in her native country) to think only in English. She's done extraordinarily well in her science classes, and appears to reason with ease. IMHO she seemed like a really good candidate for any selective science/technical school.

    Thus I was disheartened to hear her reply today that she hadn't gotten into her school of choice. She thinks a large part of the reason was her international status combined with her need of financial aid (though truth be told I do not know the details). Apparently at one school she was required to sign a waiver stating either that she wouldn't apply for financial aid or that her aid requirement would affect admissions decisions.

    I can understand why schools take financial aid considerations into account. What really irks me is that because she's an international student she's having an incredibly hard time getting financial aid, and it seems that this lack of financial aid will prevent her admission to schools. Even public schools like UCs will be extremely expensive for her due to her international student status, and she barely has money to pay rent. It's rather distressing ...

    Middle earth grieves ...

    Fembat reposted a hilarious article discussing the Academy Awards from a LoTR perspective. Being a LoTR fan myself (if you didn't know this from my pen name I suggest rereading the Fellowship of the Ring), I can't help but share in Middle Earth's grief and anger at not being nominated for more acting Academy Awards. The entire article is wonderful (playing the "find the original quote" game is fun!), but my favorite snippet is probably Saruman's:

    "Too long have those peasants stood against us," Saruman said, referring to the Academy's failure to give any fantasy film the Best Picture Oscar yet. "Leave none alive! To war! There will be no dawn for film critics!"

    Visited states ...

    Thanks to Pharyngula, here's a list of states I've been to (red = I've visited that state).

    Of coruse I've only had airport layovers in two of the states, but we'll ignore that :)

    Create your own visited states map

    In-class response system

    I mentioned in my last post that I was going to be requiring students to use transmitters in my zoology lecture to encourage participation, and a comment from a dedicated reader has encouraged me to describe how they work in more detail. I should preface this post by saying that I have yet to use this system in a classroom – I've only seen it demonstrated at a conference, though I am in the process of installing it.

    The system I'll be using is a wireless "personal response system" (PRS) manufactured by EduCue. Students purchase a transmitter and then use it to respond to questions posed by the instructor. The questions can be either multiple choice or numeric in answer. The transmitter has a number pad and buttons that can be used by students to rate how confident they are in their answers. The answers are stored and displayed in real-time on a central computer in the room (Mac or PC) and each transmitter contains a unique code, so the system is able to track each student's response. I believe the transmitters cost ~$40 individually from EduCue, though I'm bundling them with a Prentice Hall textbook which reduces the cost to ~$15 per transmitter for the students. Bookstores can repurchase the transmitters, so the actual cost to the students can be relatively low. I know some schools have purchased sets of receivers for a room, and then distribute the transmitters during class.

    As with any transmitter, you need a receiver. The EduCue receivers I'm using hook up to a serial port and each receiver is supposed to handle ~40 transmitters at once, so for a larger class you must daisy-chain a number of units together. The receivers need to be spread around the classroom since they work on a line-of-sight basis with the transmitters. I'll be installing 4 receivers in my lecture hall, with a few decameters of cabling going around the room hooking them all together. If cabling isn't your thing, they also sell wireless transmitters.

    One of the reasons I went with EduCue's system was that the publisher of my textbook gave a discount on the transmitters for the students and included the necessary receivers and software for free with a large enough order. There are other manufacturers of similar systems out there; a friend in Texas uses a system by I haven't compared the systems, so can't say much about the competition.

    I'm planning on using a mix of basic content review questions, content extrapolation questions (going one step beyond what I just introduced), and content introduction questions (to motivate curiosity in the upcoming topic). To reward students for using the system, each question will be worth 1 point, with each answer being worth a full point (whether right or wrong); I'll scale the total possible points to about 8% of the points in the class. I was pondering a grading system where wrong answers were worth 0.5 points and correct answers were worth 1 point, but thought this might create a high-stress pop quiz atmosphere and encourage cheating, which would cancel out the positive aspects of the system (I'm intending it to be a low-stress self-evaluation tool for students that provides an honest real-time assessment of student understanding for the instructor).

    Hopefully by using this system I'll motivate every student in the room to consider the questions being asked, and thus encourage them to think critically about the material being covered. I've asked questions and attempted discussions in my large lectures in the past (even using a program to randomly call on students), but in a hall of 170 students I got vastly less than half the class paying attention during these times.

    I'll be installing the receivers and software in the room this coming week, and will provide updates on how everything works. I'm quite curious how the students will respond to the system ... it's not cheap for them, but I have high hopes that it will help significantly and they'll enjoy it.