Friday, April 30, 2004


A few days ago I heard a fluttering sound occurring regularly outside the house, and with a little investigation found that a pair of doves had built a nest under our eaves:

dove in nest

I quickly snapped a picture and then tried to leave them alone, but unfortunately their nest was near both a door and a hose spigot. Whenever I went for the hose or door they went fluttering off in a panic and paced around on the lawn about 50 feet away, watching anxiously. Thus when I woke up this morning I was only mildly surprised to see that the nest had been disassembled and moved; no doves were in sight. I was looking forward to having my own dove nest to watch, too. Oh well.

On a separate note, my SO returns from a nearly month-long visit with the family today, so I'm all excited about that. There's a few surprises ready currently, and I plan on picking up a few more today; I hope they go over well. Now if only I had kids and could use them as an excuse to get out of that department meeting this afternoon, I'd have even more time to prepare. Oh, wait ...

Backup program

After hearing about my hard drive crash two weeks ago, a student sent me a link to a freeware backup program called ezback-it-up. I installed the program a few days ago and it's pretty simple: it copies files to any mapped drive of your choice and can run backups on a custom schedule. It's perfect for people like me who have a network server they can use for backups, but if you need to burn CDs or DVDs for backups it won't work.

If Pharyngula used Windows he might actually be able to make his backup life easier with this ...

Thursday, April 29, 2004

What are 80x15 buttons called?

I was just browsing through my referral logs before going to bed and saw a search for
This made me think of the exact same question: do those nifty little 80x15 buttons have a name? If so, what is it? If not, why don't they have a name yet?

Since they're buttons primarily used on blogs I could see calling them bluttons, but that sounds far too cute and makes them seem like they overeat.

Window contract signed

The ball is officially rolling again on our long stalled bathroom remodeling. We requested window replacement quotes from four contractors a while ago, and got a rather unenthusiastic response. Besides the way too expensive quote, two companies told us that they didn't want the job (too complicated with siding and window expansions), but the fourth contractor quoted us a reasonable price and was fine with having us order the windows from our lower cost dealer.

Today the contractor and I met to sign paperwork. Due to getting burned in the past I typed up three pages of job specifications (based on the quote sheet we'd given out before), along with six pages of contract terms. The six page contract term document was rather detailed, but the major points were that I wanted the right to terminate the contract for cause (e.g. if the contractor screws up) and convenience (for any reason whatsoever), and have clear instructions on how assets were to be handled in the event of a cancellation. Canceling for convenience is a plus on any contract because it removes the requirement to show violations of the contract for cancellation to occur.

The contractor read over the job specifications sheet and after a few changes we both signed that. He balked upon seeing the second document, and didn't want to sign it (quite understandably, but you can't blame me for trying). So, instead of forcing the issue we added some minor contract termination wording to his original contract, clarified the end date, and left it at that. We also got him to agree in writing that the windows we were ordering were the proper ones for our installation, and that if they were incorrect he'd either modify the installation or buy correct windows. In the future I'll try to whittle down the termination section so it's only a paragraph or two and can be included unobtrusively on a specification sheet; six pages is far too many.

After signing the contract we ordered our windows from 1st Windows. 1st Windows has a large variety of window manufacturers available, and they quote prices and list options in real time so you can see exactly how much each possible window will cost. They're an excellent research tool if you want to determine materials costs; one thing we learned was that the fiberglass frames all the window installers said were hideously expensive added only 10% to the cost of the windows.

So, in a few weeks or months, depending on manufacturing lead time, we should have new windows. Yay! Of course we can't rest on our laurels quite yet, as we now need to look into finding people to do drywalling and tiling (quite possibly ourselves), and get plans for both of those set.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

How cheap is our tuition?

While talking with Semantic Compositions yesterday I did a quick calculation to see how much my students paid in tuition. For the calculation let's assume that I teach a 180 student three-unit lecture and four twenty eight student one-unit labs each semester (my current load). California community college tuition is currently $18/unit, so that works out to be a total of $23,472 in total fees that students pay to take my classes each year (we have no lab fees). To give you an idea of what that will pay for, that's less than half of my annual salary not including benefits, and last I checked there was a lot more to running a college than just paying faculty.

Even though our tuition is cheap, I still pine for the days of $0 tuition; just pay for your books and you can take the classes. How cool.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Childless academics

Two Chronicle of Higher Education articles discussing whether single professors and grad student parents are neglected in academia are causing something of a stir. While I'm not single, I am childless, and thus have sympathy for the non-parent issues that are being discussed in the single academics article. Apt. 11d has discussed the topic and linked to a number of other blog posts, one of which was by Tim Burke who argued that single academics have little to complain about. One particular statement of Mr. Burke's struck me as being worthy of further comment:
"The person who really drove me nuts in the article was Benita Blessing, a historian at the University of Ohio. Colleagues who have children or spouses, she says, are free to leave boring faculty meetings while she can't just say that she wants to go home and watch reruns of "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer". I really, really do try to see things the way other people see them, but this particular statement stopped me in my tracks. There are a million genuine and feigned ways that she could slip out of meetings if she likes: I feel no guilt for her lack of creativity."
I believe that Mr. Burke has completely misunderstood what Ms. Blessing was trying to say. Ms. Blessing was not, I believe, looking for ways to get out of department meetings. Instead she was likely trying to make a much larger point: some academics with families use those families as justification for neglecting the required duties of their jobs.

I can sympathize with the requirements of child rearing; it takes time, patience, and skills that I cannot imagine ever having. If you have kids it makes perfect sense to try and spend as much time with them as you can and to alter your work schedule to fit your children's schedules. The point that is important, however, is that sometimes this altering of schedules morphs into doing less required work, and thus distributing this work to the other members of the department. I know that faculty with children work at home, and that their lives are often very stressful. However, childless instructors work at home too and have stresses as well; the childless life is not all cocktail parties and evening walks on the beach (my SO will most certainly vouch for that).

But I digress: we should not turn this into a game of whose life is more miserable, or a war of parents vs. non-parents. The only thing that I'm arguing here is that it is unfair to childless individuals when parents stop fulfilling their job requirements due to their children. Until faculty are demoted to less demanding positions when they have children, then we're all doing the same job and should all have the same requirements on our work schedules, regardless of what time the kids get out of school or Buffy starts.

Brayden King makes a very similar point in a portion of his post:
"If all work takes away time that might be spent with children and partners/spouses, and we agree that people who choose to have children should dedicate quality time to improving those relations and taking care of basic needs, then all workplaces need to do a better job of making room for the family. This is one of the basic themes found in the research of Arlie Hochschild. But once you start looking for solutions that would ease the time constraints of parents, you run the risk of invoking hostility among the single people in your place of occupation."
I agree wholeheartedly that we should give parents more time to raise their children, but I'd add one thing to Mr. King's statement. If solutions are found to ease the time constraints of parents, then those same solutions, or equivalent ones, should be made available to ease the time constraints of non-parents.

Monday, April 26, 2004

Band of Brothers

I just finished watching Band of Brothers last night on DVD. This 10 hour long HBO miniseries, based on the book by Stephen Ambrose, tells the true story of the men of Easy Company in the 101st Airborne during World War II. It's often gruesome and grim, and it contains some of the most powerful storytelling I've ever seen; Schindler's List and Oz are the only two movies/shows I've watched that compare. If you haven't watched Band of Brothers I highly recommend doing so, though if you're smart (unlike me) you'll watch it with a SO or friend so you can find solace in them after it's over.

Even though it's quite graphic (rather hard to show war as it truly is without violence) if I had kids this is a series I would want them to see before they were supposedly "of age" to see it (it's not rated but would easily get an R, if not more, for graphic violence, language, and nudity). Men die, people get seriously wounded, and actions have consequences, just like they do in the real world. Let me put it this way: if my kids wanted to watch something violent, I'd much rather they watch Band of Brothers than James Bond. I've never understood why shooting people and not seeing them die or bleed on screen is somehow better for kids (and adults) than seeing someone bleeding to death in agony after being shot. Sure it's unpleasant to watch, but that's reality, and why should we shield kids (and ourselves) from reality?

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Photo Friday: Junk

crushed can on pavement

The Photo Friday topic of the week is 'junk.' By this morning I'd already selected two of my older pictures to choose between for this topic, but when I saw this crushed can on my bike ride today I couldn't resist. I wonder how many odd looks I got for taking close-up pictures of a can in the middle of the road ...

Saturday, April 24, 2004


You know you're a geek when your idea of a fun Saturday night is driving to the local university's science library, finding a handful of papers you've been wanting to get for weeks, and then searching the indexes for more until the staff kicks you out because they're closing.

My library trip was motivated by the lack of services available at my local campus library. We get only a handful of biological and medical journals (less than ten at last count), have almost no online access to journals (only articles that are cataloged in services like Infotrac; we have no direct access to any journals), and we have a paltry selection of search services available (e.g. no Science Citation Index). It's so frustrating that some colleagues and I are pondering starting up a journal subscription club, with our own money, to get ourselves access to at least a handful of relevant journals.

I love many things about teaching at a community college, but our library is not one of them.

Growth curves

The Annals of Improbable Research blog is looking for submissions of growth curves by pregnant women. I know I won't be able to help them out anytime soon, but maybe you can!

Friday, April 23, 2004

Effects of group work

Today's lesson on nerve cell action potentials was one of those lectures where for no single apparent reason everything just clicked. Every portion of the lecture seemed to seamlessly flow together, the students were involved the entire time and asked many more questions than usual, and by the end of the period it was clear from their questions that at least a decent number of the students had a firm grasp of the basics of action potentials. It was a very, very enjoyable hour and a half.

Near the end of the lecture I asked a few in-class response system questions about what would happen if we changed ion concentrations around a neuron. The first question was easy (removing sodium ions from the system), while the second was harder (adding extracellular potassium, difficult partially because I hadn't discussed potassium in depth by that point). About 65% of the class got the first question correct on the first try, but for the second question only 19.5% of the class (22 students) chose the correct answer.

I was originally planning on conducting a class discussion on the second question, but after seeing the low success I decided to have the students get into groups and continue working on the problem (there'd been very little interaction initially). I gave the students another 4 minutes, and during that time it seemed like the majority of the class was actively discussing the problem. After working in groups the percentage of students choosing the correct answer nearly doubled to 38.5% (41 students), and a few people were able to easily explain the mechanism underlying the answer in detail.

This question series seems like a good example of the potential power of group work (though there are clearly far better studies on the topic), as well as the quick data collection and classroom management benefits you can get using in-class response systems.

Thursday, April 22, 2004

The Tangled Bank's inaugural post

Pharyngula has just written The Tangled Bank's inaugural post. The Tangled Bank is a version of the "Carnival of the Vanities," wherein a summary of participating bloggers' best recent biology or medicine related posts are highlighted every other week. The Tangled Bank posts will cycle across the various participating host blogs, but Pharyngula has a central page setup at Anyone can participate in this little endeavor regardless of whether they host it or are a biologist or doctor; if you have a good biology or medicine related post, send it on in!

One of my posts was featured in the inaugural edition (thanks Pharyngula!), and Pharyngula has written one of the neatest introductions of myself that I've ever read:
"Rhosgobel: Radagast's home is the weblog of a mysterious, anonymous community college instructor in biology who writes about biology and academic issues. He also has some infatuation with Tolkien, as might be guessed from the name, lives in California, and has a fondness for taunting snowbound Minnesotans with photos of blooming flowers."
So I'm now officially a "man of mystery". How cool! Do I get to dress up in cool suits and go on daring missions?

Oh, and just to make sure that I live up to my reputation:

flowers from Longwood flowers from Longwood

(Both of these pictures were taken at Longwood Gardens.)

Interviewing Adjuncts

We're currently looking for an adjunct to teach Zoology next fall, as I'll be busy teaching a newly offered diversity course and the current adjunct we have helping out with Zoology will not be returning. Unfortunately, by "we" I actually mean "I". The primary help my department head has given me so far is to suggest a few adjuncts that are currently teaching other courses at my campus, as well as dropping a number of CVs onto my desk.

This has raised an interesting problem. What do I look for? "How to screen CVs and conduct interviews" wasn't offered in my graduate program, at least not that I recall (but Biochemical Adaptation was!). As a first step, this week I'm trying to casually introduce myself to the instructors who are already teaching at my campus and schedule a followup meeting to talk more specifically about Zoology. I recently talked to the first person on my list, and we scheduled a meeting (translate: interview) for next week.

After scheduling the interview it suddenly hit me: I'm supposed to know what to do here. I need to come up with something meaningful to talk about, should ask questions that elucidate how this person teaches, and determine whether they're qualified to take over Zoology. How exactly I'm going to do all these things in a brief meeting is still a bit of a mystery to me (though I'm sure my colleagues will help out).

Not that long ago I was an adjunct looking for work, and now the tables are turned and I'm the one interviewing prospective adjuncts. How odd.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Wesley Elsberry, pt. 2: Falconry

While still in the hospital dealing with what appears to be ulcerative colitis, Wesley Elsberry (at The Austringer) has posted a detailed discussion of his falconry with Harris's Hawks, complete with some gorgeous pictures.

Now this guy is a true biologist: he blogs about the details of his medical conditions, helps create a group blog to refute creationist arguments, posts pages about falconry while still in the hospital, and he has pictures of himself hiking with hawks perched on his backpack. I feel like going and hiding under a leaf with my caterpillars ...

Real Estate Disclosures

Today's Dilbert has a hilariously accurate summary of real estate disclosures. When we bought our current house it was, to put it nicely, a fixer-upper. The fence was falling down and rotted out, there was visible water damage in three rooms, visible mold in two rooms, the gates to the side yard didn't work properly, some doors had holes in them, electrical wiring was improperly done, junk was everywhere (including the four sheds in the backyard), one window was cracked, screens were missing from multiple windows, there were problems with the roof, the garage door didn't close properly ... you get the idea (no, that's not everything). Our initial request for repairs totaled more than $20,000.

What had the sellers disclosed in the sales contract? That we'd need to contact the security company to turn the alarm on. According to the disclosure, everything else was OK.

Thank goodness for property inspectors.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

A bit of metabolism humor

I've spent the last few days grading student lab reports. Here are two funny misstatements about animal metabolism I particularly enjoyed.
  • "Every living organism, including you an I, have a metabolism that is responsible for making sure inadequate energy is being released and consumed so that our bodies can make it through the day." Well, now you finally know why you're so tired. It's your metabolism's fault!

  • "It [Metabolism] is the process by which energy and material are transformed within an organism and exchanged between the orgasm and its environment." I had students taking metabolic rate measurements for a full lab period all week? Thank goodness no administrators walked in ...

On the plus side it seemed like the lab reports were better than equivalent reports from prior semesters. The common problems were still present in many papers (confused presentation of the question and hypotheses, not discussing multiple hypotheses, incomplete methods, awkward data presentation, non-thorough discussions) but most felt like little journal articles and were overall quite good considering that this was probably the first time they'd written a paper in this style. Maybe spending a whole lab on scientific writing actually did some good ...

Monday, April 19, 2004

Wesley Elsberry

Wesley Elsberry, author of the first post on The Panda's Thumb (among other things), has started a new blog at The Austringer. I'll let Pharyngula do the introductions:
"Wesley Elsberry, one of the good guys in the creation/evolution wars, has been hospitalized with a severe flare-up of Crohn's Disease that required some serious surgery. He has started a weblog, The Austringer, that talks about some of his personal experiences with these problems.

Stop by, say hello, wish him well -- we need him back in the front lines.
I don't think there's anything to add other than my own best wishes to Dr. Elsberry.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Photo Friday: Self Portrait

Here's my first entry into the Photo Friday challenge. This week's theme is 'Self-Portrait'. Since I blog anonymously I thought I'd try something a bit different and define myself by what I do rather than what I look like.

self portrait

I also tried a few filters in Photoshop, and rather like the effect of the fresco filter. However, since I'm not sure if the Photo Friday folks want filters or not, and I can only enter one image, I'm not entering it. But here it is anyway:

fresco'd self portrait

Saturday, April 17, 2004

Notional Slurry

It's funny how fate works. Today I finally had a bit of time to catch up on some blogs I hadn't read since my Philadelphia trip, and while reading Apt. 11d found a link to an article discussing information overload over on Notional Slurry. I enjoyed the article, browsed a bit, and pondered adding a link to the site. Then, after some unrelated browsing on Technorati, I found that Notional Slurry had already linked to me.

A few highlights of Notional Slurry's blog that I've found so far are his categories on eBay (e.g. price ratchets), nanohistory (e.g. bloomers), links (e.g. his link to the very Tuftean Ishkur's Guide to Electronic Music), and houses. I have much sympathy for his house buying negotiations; they remind me a lot of buying our current house, which like his house, has apparently been lived in by many people who believed they were significantly more skilled at house repair than they actually were.

Longwood Garden pictures

In my recent Philadelphia trip post I promised some pictures of my visit to Longwood Gardens (also called DuPont Gardens). I finally had time this afternoon to sit down and edit some of the pictures, so here goes.

Longwood Gardens is located in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, and is about a 45 minute drive south-west of Philadelphia's center city. They've got more than a thousand acres of land you can stroll through outside, and have multiple conservatories (with 4 heated acres of space) to enjoy inside. Every time I've been there, which is three or four times now (a lot considering I live ~3,000 miles away), I've found something new and beautiful to enjoy.

On this past trip it was pretty cold, at least for us California pansies, but we still perused many of the trails before heading inside the greenhouses. They've planted more than 2 million bulbs throughout their grounds, and so most places you looked bulbs were starting to pop up and bloom.

naturalized bulbs

They have some very nice manicured outdoor gardens; the one in the picture below is the main fountain garden. The fountains were turned off while we were there this time, but judging by the picture on their homepage (which is currently of the same garden), they're spectacular.


If you wander through a forest on the grounds you're rewarded with this view of a serene meadow, which you can hike through. We didn't walk through it this time due to the temperature, but have on prior trips and it's a neat area.

tree and meadow

But naturalized bulbs and pretty views outside aren't the only reason to go to Longwood; there are also tremendous heated conservatories that house an amazing variety of plants. They have greenhouse areas that specialize in bonsai, palms and cycads, orchids, roses, ferns, Mediterranean climates, and tropical climates, to name a few. Walking into the greenhouses is just amazing, as you're presented with views like this:

inside a greenhouse - lots of green

Now if only I could get them to build a Longwood Gardens 2 in California, complete with the moist climate and seasonal variation in environmental temperatures, living in California would be complete.

Note: these pictures were taken on April 3, 2004.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Semantic Compositions Shines

Semantic Compositions took my challenge (or gentle nudging, as I prefer to call it) and posted a hilarious, pun-filled story based on Melissa Kaplan's Beastly Garden of Wordly Delights. I suspected he'd click with that material, I just didn't think he'd dazzle me by doing it at such a fast pace.

Next time I'll have to give SC something more difficult to work with; that page was like a slow pitch down the middle of the plate for him.

Irrational fears, pt. 2

And the most pathetic fear for a biologist is ... drum roll please ... reaching into the cavity of a store bought chicken [cue wild cheering], which received seven votes; 44% of the total. Chicken-reaching was followed by both spiders and cleaning up moldy food, which received four votes each (25%), and closing out the list was looking at dissected humans with one vote (6%). If we count Pharyngula's inability to decide between two choices as half votes for each, then the final totals are
  • Chicken-reaching: 7 (41%)
  • Spiders: 4.5 (26%)
  • Moldy food: 4 (24%)
  • Dissected human looking: 1.5 (9%)
Now my SO and I will both have more data to back up our respective claims that the other person's fears are more pathetic. To be fair, neither of us is so afraid of these items that we can't work around them; we just prefer that the non-fearful one of us deals with them whenever possible.

Thanks much to everyone who participated!

Thursday, April 15, 2004

She's dead, Jim.

The title says it all: my office computer's hard drive is no more. The tech folks tried their best, but she'd flat-lined long before they put her on the table. The drive won't even be recognized by a known-good BIOS.

To give you a bit of the back story, I found that my computer wouldn't boot on arriving in my office this morning, but had to give a lab exam so called the tech folks and ran. After the lab exam I confirmed it was still dead, called the tech people again since they hadn't shown up, and biked home to get my backup CDs (lesson learned: offsite backups make sense, until you actually need them). I made my earlier post from home while copying my backup CDs to my home computer's hard drive (to ensure I had a working copy of the files somewhere), and then rushed into work to rewrite my lecture on a borrowed laptop. On Tuesday of this week, after my backup, I'd reworked a good fraction of today's lecture, adding a lot of in-class response system questions, and so in the hour I had before lecture started I gathered my slides from last semester's files, reorganized them, and tried to remember my questions. I got the file ready by the time lecture started, minus a few elusive questions, and everything went relatively well except that I wasn't nearly as smooth as I like to be. On the other hand, it was far better than the time the projector became indecisive in the middle of a lecture and kept switching between two resolutions every fraction of a second.

Sadly, much as I'd like to gloat about being prepared, my Monday backup was not part of a regular backup regimen. The only reason I backed up the files was because I was writing a test and didn't have my USB drive with me, so I burned a CD with the questions to bring home. Since I had extra space on the CD I figured, “Oh, what the heck,” and added all my files from this semester. My most recently backup before Monday was completed in December. I think, in some perverse sense, I just rolled a 20 on some cosmic luck roll.

Well, that's it for tonight; I need sleep.

Not the best of weeks ...

I found out earlier this week that the adjunct we have teaching the Friday Zoology labs has to head out of town for a funeral, so instead of having a day to grade and catch up I now get to spend all Friday in lab.

Then, this morning, I get into the office and find that my computer isn't booting. The hard drive is making funny noises, and I haven't been able to get past the bios screen. Considering that all my lectures, e-mail, and other teaching materials are stored on there, this is, to put it mildly, not good. Thankfully I made a partial backup on Monday, but I now get to frantically try to recreate my lecture for this afternoon, since I worked on that on Tuesday.

Well, the CD's done copying here, so back to working on lecture ...

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Beastly Words or Wordly Beasts?

If you've ever wondered why pens cry, jack asses are always male, siverback bands aren't something attached to watches, and finding a rhino crash doesn't necessarily mean that you'll find any dented rhino bumpers, Melissa Kaplan's Beastly Garden of Wordly Delights is the place for you. The Beastly Garden of Wordly Delights contains, among other things, a list of the plurals, collective nouns, sounds, gender descriptors, and offspring names for a wide array of animals.

After perusing the list I'm not sure which I'd rather see: a cloud of bats, a sleuth of bears, a wake of buzzards, a clutter of cats, an army of caterpillars (hah!), a peep of peeping chicks, a gulp of cormorants, a rag of colts, a convocation of eagles, an elk gang, a skein of geese, an exaltation of larks, an owl parliament, a rattlesnake rhumba, a snake rave, or a dazzle of zebras. One thing I have seen recently, however, is a cawroboree of cawing crows on campus.

Oh my, this is just too much fun. Take it away, Semantic Compositions (nudge nudge).

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

The Tangled Bank

Pharyngula has started a biology and medicine version of the Carnival of the Vanities, calling it The Tangled Bank. The Tangled bank is designed to give biology and medicine bloggers a chance to highlight their recent work. Every week participants will e-mail their most interesting post of the week to the host of the week, with the host putting up a summary of all the submissions. Hosting will rotate around blogs, with Pharyngula organizing things for now.

Phanyngula is asking for volunteers to contact him. He's interested in finding more hosts for the project, as well as submissions of posts for inclusion in the first edition (to come out Wednesday the 21st). If you're worried about being of a high enough caliber to be included, keep in mind that he's invited me to participate, so he must be letting anyone into this thing. :)

Since you can't be anything in the blogosphere without one of those nifty little 80x15 buttons, here's some I whipped up with the button maker:

Tangled Bank Button Tangled Bank Button Tangled Bank Button

And since everything can't be white text on a grayed out background, here's some that are a bit different:

Tangled Bank Button Tangled Bank Button

My favorites are probably the upper left two, though all of these break the convention of the bar being 25 pixels from the left, and are about as original as Wonder Bread, so more work is probably needed.

Where is Invisible Adjunct?

This afternoon I chatted with one of our adjunct faculty, and was reminded how grateful I am that I'm no longer an adjunct. At my campus we're in an odd position with respect to adjuncts currently: our budget for the fall has been cut, and thus we'll be cutting the number of class sections offered. Normally this would mean we'd lay off adjuncts, but a state retirement incentive program (if offered) may lead to a large number of faculty retirements. If those faculty retire we probably won't lay off anyone, and may even hire a few extra adjuncts. While this uncertainty is frustrating for the professors who want to retire, it's worse for our adjuncts as they have no idea whether they'll be employed here in the fall.

The California State Universities, who also hire a large number of adjuncts, aren't doing any better. The adjunct I talked to this afternoon said there is a good possibility that no adjuncts will be rehired this fall at the Cal State department he or she also adjuncts for, even though some adjuncts have been there as long as fifteen years. Even though this adjunct works at multiple campuses, there's a possibility that he or she will either not have a job at all next fall, or will have only one position.

Considering that our district limits the number of classes any individual adjunct can teach, living on the adjunct salary from just our district isn't easy. A faculty member at the highest pay scale for adjuncts (5+ years service), teaching the maximum load allowable (9 contact hours), earns almost exactly $10,000 a semester in our district. Adjunct faculty at the lowest pay scale earn approximately $7,500 a semester for the same load. Adjuncts can teach summer classes as well, but those are highly sought after by full time faculty, who have priority for assignments. In this summer's schedule there is only one adjunct employed across all my campus's science departments (including biology, chemistry, physics, geology, and astronomy). So, assuming an adjunct can't get a summer assignment and only teaches in our district, the maximum they can earn in a year ranges from $15,200 in their first year to $20,000 if they have 5 or more years of experience. Not exactly what you hope for after getting a masters degree or Ph.D.

Let's put this in perspective. If I, a non-tenured full time faculty member, hired two first year adjuncts to teach my full load of classes for me, paying their contract salaries out of my pocket, I would have more than $30,000 left after paying their salaries. If my most experienced colleagues did the same thing they'd have more than $56,000 left after paying the adjuncts. Even if my most experienced colleagues hired the most experienced adjuncts, they'd still have more than $48,000 left. Any way you look at it, adjunct faculty pay is paltry compared to full time pay.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Transit of Venus

The astronomers among us should like this: a reanimation of the 1882 transit of Venus from 147 still images taken by David Peck Todd. The next transit of Venus will occur on June 8, 2004; it will be completely visible in parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia, will only be partially visible in the eastern US, and those of us here in the western US will miss it completely. (Via BoingBoing)

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Sea Star Lunch

Yesterday morning I helped our resident ecologist conduct a field-based lab in the rocky intertidal zone at a nearby beach. The students measured the relative abundance of organisms and quantified abiotic conditions in both the high and mid intertidal zones. Due to staying up far too late with Semantic Compositions the night before watching Scooby-Doo 2 (it was pretty good), I spent the start of lab pondering whether barnacles, mussels, or rockweed would make the better pillow. I concluded that rockweed would probably be best.

Shortly into the lab one student spotted a sea star (starfish) enjoying a meal of a mussel. Sea stars are voracious predators, and they're some of the most feared animals in the intertidal zone. Simply placing a severed arm of certain species of sea stars into a tide pool will cause nearly everything in that pool to go running for cover. However, sea star mouths are pretty small, often less than half the width of their central disk. By examining the picture it becomes clear that the sea star cannot possibly fit the mussel into its mouth.

sea star feeding

Sea stars get around this size problem by digesting prey outside their body. Sea stars have two stomachs, a cardiac and a pyloric stomach, and can push their cardiac stomach outside their body so that it surrounds a prey item. In the case of a bivalve, such as a mussel, they use their arms to pull open the bivalve's shell wide enough to push their stomach inside, and then digest the bivalve in its own shell. Once the food is partially digested by the cardiac stomach it is moved to the pyloric stomach to finish digestion.

Sea stars are echinoderms, as are sea urchins, sand dollars, sea cucumbers, feather stars, sea lilies, and brittle stars. Echinoderms, along with hemichordates (acorn worms and pterobranchs), are humans' closest evolutionary relatives outside phylum Chordata. Why? Besides molecular data, echinoderms, hemichordates, and chordates share many characteristics of their embryonic development, and thus are classified as deuterostomes, while most invertebrate phyla are protostomes (e.g. mollusks, arthropods, and annelids).

Excuse the mess ...

I'll be playing with my template settings for a bit this evening (primarily to try and add a search feature), so things might look chaotic for a bit. If I break something, or things just look wrong, please let me know.

[Update: The template editing is finished for now. I've added a search feature powered by Atomz, some link buttons in the side bar from gtmcknight, and changed the style sheet a bit. Enjoy!]

Introducing Gruff

picture of Gruff kittyThis is Gruff, the new occupant of my SO's parent's house. In this picture she's sitting on her favorite chair, probably wondering why this weird human keeps flashing lights in her eyes. She's taken a liking to my SO's mom, and on most evenings could be found curled up next to her on the couch.

Saturday, April 10, 2004

Sorry for the delay

Those who read my blog regularly will probably have noticed that it wasn't updated until well after my previous post was time-stamped. I apologize for any confusion; I've been trying to publish my most recent post for the last 3 hours, but Blogger isn't publishing my blog.

At least I'm not alone, as other people appear to be running into the same problem.

[update: Gee, I guess posting a message about the delay did the trick; ten minutes after I first tried to post this message I was able to successfully publish my blog.]

Friday night review

It was with a bit of trepidation that I decided to have a review session yesterday evening. My students have a test in both lecture and lab next week, so a few had asked for some extra lab time. Since Friday evening was the only plausible time (for a variety of reasons), I scheduled the review for 6-8 p.m. I made it clear that I wasn't going to lecture; this was going to be time for them to ask questions and review the lab specimens.

Considering that it was a Friday night, I figured few people would attend. I'd been on campus since 9 a.m. for a department curriculum meeting, and brought a few magazines with me to occupy myself as the one or two students I expected to show up wandered around the lab.

Waiting for me at the door were ten students, and at least thirty five students showed up throughout the evening, with most staying for at least an hour. The students all got right to work looking at lab specimens, kept me running around the stockroom searching for more materials, and asked me dozens of questions throughout the evening. My original plan was to host the study session for 2 hours, but given the response I continued it for three. It was a blast.

There are currently 150 students officially enrolled across all 6 lab sections, so a fifth of the registered class attended. However, there are probably only around 100 to 120 students regularly attending, so at least a quarter of all my students showed up.

Tonight was a reminder that my students are, by far, the best around. They seemed to really appreciate my being there, and I loved their questions. What a great job.

Friday, April 09, 2004

The Silmarillion in 1,000 words

The Silmarillion, by J. R. R. Tolkien: It's beautifully written, it's filled with compelling tales, and it's the best book ever made. Period.

The Silmarillion is a book (or, more appropriately, a compilation of stories) written by Tolkien that covers the major events leading up to the third age of his world, ending at approximately the time the Lord of the Rings begins. It's one of the saddest books I've ever read: it makes me mourn for the beauty and beings that never were. One of the reasons I believe the Lord of the Rings stands above all fantasy (and other) books is that Tolkien took the time to create an entire history of his world, and by reading The Silmarillion you get a glimpse of that history. The Lord of the Rings takes on a whole new depth after reading The Silmarillion.

So why hasn't everyone read it? Well, it's long, it's filled with names, and it hasn't been turned into a series of movies yet (though it should be, darnit). Now, thanks to J. the Honourary Canadian, there's a solution to all that: The Entire Silmarillion of JRR Tolkien in One Thousand Words. It's a hilarious summary of the book: if you've read The Silmarillion you'll laugh hysterically, and if you haven't read The Silmarillion then you should go read The Silmarillion immediately (if only to appreciate the humor of J's summary).

A hearty thanks to Semantic Compositions for forwarding me the link.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

The Uninvited

I'm having dinner at my desk, and while reading Jill.txt found a link to The Uninvited; it's a unique flash site (that has nothing to do with science, in case you're curious). When you go there select "Truth" and then explore the options under Truth. I'd like to echo Jill's recommendation that you explore the site before reading more about it.

If you're still curious what The Uninvited is after exploring the site, Jill has posted a good discussion.

Moodle first impressions

Our campus has not provided online course management systems, such as Blackboard or WebCT, for on-campus instructors; they've been reserved for online course instructors due to the high cost of licenses. I and a few other on-campus instructors have managed to squeeze our way into the system, but we're the exception.

That's all about to change because our campus is testing Moodle, an open source course management system. Since our tech folks have installed Moodle on local servers we have no license limitations, and they plan on allowing all instructors to use Moodle in the fall. I've just created a Moodle site for my zoology lab course, so thought I'd share some first impressions.

So you know where I'm coming from, I currently use WebCT in my lecture class to administer weekly knowledge checks and post handouts and lecture slides, but have not had an online course management system for lab. I've used WebCT for about 2 years, and before that was trained in Blackboard.

I found Moodle's interface to be very intuitive, and have created my course page containing PDFs of handouts, discussion forums, a live chat, and a mini-survey with a minimum amount of background reading. Moodle courses are usually organized by either topic or week, and you can add as many activities to each topic or week as desired. Possible activities include:
  • assignments/lessons
  • live chats that are recorded for later viewing
  • threaded discussion forums
  • quizzes
  • non-graded surveys
  • choices (single questions you can pose to the class)
  • glossaries
  • journals
  • "resources" including uploaded files, wiki pages, web links, and much more
  • a scheduler
  • a workshop peer assessment tool

Here are some of the positives I've found in my short trial:
  • It's easy to access just about everything in Moodle. Very few things are more than one or two clicks away from the main screen as a designer, and for students the root page of any given item should never be more than one click away from the homepage.

  • The menus and navigation are simple, at least compared with WebCT. Even though uploading and posting a file requires about the same number of clicks in Moodle and WebCT (around 10), the menus are clearer and the process feels more intuitive in Moodle. For example, the initial menu to add a file in Moodle has 7 menu options, two dialog boxes, and three navigation items visible on the page, whereas in WebCT the initial menu to add a file has 26 menu options and at least 14 navigation links displayed, with my course displaying 29 navigation links on the page.

  • Tracking individual student activity is easy with Moodle. In WebCT it's difficult to get detailed log information for students; most of the logs are summarized as hits per type of material or total counts of discussion board posts. In Moodle you can easily see what each student has done down to individual page loads, and can also see which individual resources have been accessed by which students.

  • With our campus's setup the students create their own accounts on their own time, and course enrollment is controlled by an easily-set registration key given to the students. In contrast, to create a WebCT account for a student anytime after the first week of class I have to e-mail our tech support staff. Note, however, that this enrollment system can vary, as I've worked at other campuses that let students create their own WebCT account.

  • Text editing in Moodle is easy, as the program auto HTML formats everything for you. Surprisingly, WebCT doesn't do this (or I just haven't figured out how to tell WebCT to do it, which is probably more likely).

  • I haven't created a live quiz in Moodle yet, but have explored the options and it seems to have just about all the features available in WebCT, if not more. I should be able to easily move my knowledge checks to Moodle.
If you're looking for an alternative to WebCT or Blackboard I'd highly recommend giving Moodle a try; so far I'm quite pleased with it. However, I'm only just now letting students access the Moodle page, so we'll see in the coming weeks what kind of problems appear. Also, I was not involved with installing and configuring Moodle on our servers, so have no idea how difficult (or easy) that process was.

For more information see Moodle's official page at, and which can provide Moodle hosting and installation services. is designed using Moodle's software, so when you go to that site you're entering a live Moodle course as a guest.

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Bush photomosaic

Image of Bush from Joe at American Leftist

Joe at American Leftist has created a photomosaic of George W. Bush using pictures of soldiers killed in Iraq. It's generating passionate responses across the political spectrum (e.g. see Joe's comment thread), some of which Joe has responded to here. I recommend looking at the large resolution version (~1900x2200 pixels and 4 megs) if you have a chance. (Via BoingBoing)

Shipping Frustrations

In biology we have pretty specific shipping and delivery requirements, since a lot of what we deal with is either live, toxic, or temperature sensitive (or in some cases all three). Unfortunately, at community colleges the shipping staff usually isn't familiar with biological shipping, and to make matters worse most of the materials are extremely time sensitive because they're used in teaching labs.

A few weeks ago two shipping problems occurred nearly simultaneously:
  • A package of very temperature sensitive enzymes was hand-delivered to a co-workers office one afternoon. The box was stamped in bright red ink on every side "Freeze upon arrival." Unfortunately, the shipping staff at our campus held the box at room temperature for at least 24 hours before delivering it, so the ice in the package melted and the enzymes were destroyed. Better than this, though, is that no-one will be held accountable, and we'll have to pay for new enzymes out of our own budget (which is now nearly nonexistent).

  • I ordered a large number of live items for my zoology lab through our purchasing department at the beginning of the semester; each item was scheduled to arrive on a different week. The caterpillars I ordered for the fourth week of the semester never arrived. Then, the hydra, flatworms, and sea urchins all arrived in the same box. This would have been fine, except that we didn't need the flatworms for 3 weeks or the sea urchins for 7 weeks. Our aquarium folks had offered to help us keep the urchins, but they weren't planning on them arriving for weeks so no tanks were setup. Thus, the sea urchins have died and the flatworms are likely to be in horrible shape by the time we need them since most of them died during shipping (two of their containers broke).

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Back from Philly

My trip to Philadelphia was quite relaxing: it was cloudy and cold most of the time, so we had lots of encouragement to stay inside. Spring was springing, however, so we braved the cold and took a trip to Longwood Gardens. Longwood's grounds are beautifully manicured, complete with millions of bulbs, and they have some spectacular conservatories. I took a number of pictures, and will try to post some up in the days to come (I just got into town a few hours ago; what do you expect?)

The culinary highlight of the trip was, by far, getting an authentic Philly cheesesteak the first night I was in town: it was deliciously full of greasy thin-sliced beef, fried onions, and melted cheese food product. A good Philly cheesesteak is the one exception I'll make to my typical avoidance of beef, and I mourn along with Pharyngula that they're not available outside of Philadelphia.

The only bad thing about the entire trip is that my SO is staying in Philly for another 3 weeks to spend some time with family. I occupied myself on the flight home with grading; it's a good thing I brought a lot, because the meal was not enough to keep my interest for long:

food, food, and more food

Ignoring one additional small glass of tomato juice, that's all the food I got for the entire 5 hour flight. They did have lunches on sale for $10, but paying for airline food just seems wrong (and my SO's mother nicely stocked me up with snack bars for the flight).

Thanks to a lot of luck and SeatGuru I ended up getting a great exit-row seat on the plane, which more than made up for the meal. Here's a picture of my leg room:

leg room

My knee is in the lower-right corner of the picture, and the white square at the bottom is a standard letter-size manila folder (8.5x11") on the floor with a red pen clipped to it. I couldn't even reach the seat-back pocket in front of me without getting up. For those who care, this was row 21 seats D, E, and F on a US Air Airbus 321.