Spirit of the season

As everyone knows (or should know), October is the month named in honor of the octopus, and we’re supposed to celebrate cephalopods every day. It culminates in the great festival of Octoween, when all the good children who keep molluscs in their heart are rewarded with sushi, while all the wicked children who think eight or ten arms are too many get surprised by tentacles rising up from the ground to snatch them away to a pelagic doom.*

Whoever carved this is going to get a whole bucket of tako.


*Don’t you dare criticize my mythology!

Mike S. Adams, glib hypocrite

I did manage to get to Mike S. Adams’ talk here at UMM. It was a packed room (not our biggest lecture room here, but it was filled to capacity) and I arrived late, so I had to stand outside the door to listen in. Kudos to our students, who were polite and attentive, and let him blather on without interruption.

Adams is a slick, fast-talking, folksy guy, and he made the audience laugh quite a bit. He had to talk fast, though, to keep his story from sinking beneath the weight of its improbabilities, and I do wonder how many of our students actually caught on to his inconsistencies.

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Lucy is going on tour

The remains of Lucy, the famous fossil australopithecine, are going to be touring the US for the next few years. Start lining up. It’s opening in Houston.

The six-year tour will also go to Washington, New York, Denver and Chicago. Officials said six other U.S. cities may be on the tour. But they would not release the names, saying all the details had not yet been ironed out.

Minneapolis, maybe? I hope? Otherwise I’m going to have to make a trip to Chicago.

No word yet on whether the Answers in Genesis museum near Cincinnati will be bidding on the exhibit.

Blackboards vs. Whiteboards


I got a query about this old article of mine, which stirred up a good bit of discussion back in the day, since it is on a subject truly important to academics…so I thought I’d resurrect it and see if my more recent and larger audience can be driven to equally passionate arguments pro and con.

Yesterday’s Star Tribune has a front page article on the University’s steady abandonment of blackboards.

When Prof. Lawrence Gray enters a math classroom at the University of Minnesota, his teaching tools are his brain and a stick of chalk.

He stands at a blackboard and chalk flies over the smooth black surface, spreading strings of equations like weeds. He turns and gestures to his class, taps the board with the chalk for emphasis, swipes a spot clean with an eraser and races on.

Replace Gray’s blackboards with whiteboards or, worse, a tablet computer that projects numbers onto a screen, and you might as well tie his arms or gag him. He’s among an army of professors who want to keep their blackboards despite the university’s push to eliminate flying chalk dust that can foil today’s expensive classroom technology.

Eh. I don’t have a lot of sympathy. There is a tactile difference to chalk and dry erase markers, but I think it’s largely more a matter of familiarity and personal comfort and obstinate resistance to change that’s fueling the opposition, not anything necessary to teaching. And math in particular—it’s strings of symbols on a surface. Dry erase markers produce higher contrast, bolder lines; I would think that they would be superior to chalk, once the instructor gets used to them. I can use either, and tend to favor video projection, anyway.

Although…there is one place where I would favor the chalkboard. One of my pleasantest memories of my undergraduate education was my comparative anatomy course. I and many of my fellow students would always show up early for class, because Professor Snider would come in 10 or 15 minutes before it started, armed with his own personal box of colored chalk. And then he would start drawing. He’d sketch in these elaborate diagrams—skull bones of reptiles, birds and mammals, a hindlimb with the muscles pulled apart to show their attachments, a time-series of kidney development. One thing you can do with chalk that is impossible to do well with a dry erase marker is shading, and he’d carefully color-code all the parts he was planning to talk about that day. It was like watching a good sidewalk artist at work. And all of us students would be sitting at our desks with our collections of colored pens and pencils, filling in the pages of our notebook before he started talking, because we knew that once he started explaining things there wouldn’t be time to draw.

And at the end of class, he’d take an eraser and quickly destroy all of his work. It was a marvel. The ability to blithely obliterate a beautiful creation because one can create it quickly and at will is a real talent.

There aren’t many people around who do that kind of thing anymore, but I’d be willing to fight for the retention of blackboards to protect them.

The other thing he did that I’m really trying to work towards is that he would only have at most a half-dozen of these diagrams on the chalkboard, and that would be his whole lecture, taking apart and explaining each one in depth. In these days of easy, instantaneous page flipping with computers and video projectors, I’ll easily zip through 20 diagrams in the same amount of time. I don’t think I’m teaching better for it, though, and it’s always a struggle between teaching students one thing very, very well or teaching them a dozen things rather more superficially…which you would think should be a no-brainer decision (depth of understanding is always to be desired!), except that I’ve got a list of a thousand things I’d like them to leave the class knowing, and chopping it down to a dozen is painful enough.

The arrogance of an Ohio creationist

The NY Times is reporting that Ohio scientists are nearly unanimous in mobilizing for the school board election there—and they aren’t on the side of creationists like Deborah Owens Fink. It’s interesting that we’re seeing such activism from scientists; the response from the creationists is also enlightening.

But Dr. Owens Fink, a professor of marketing at the University of Akron, said the curriculum standards she supported did not advocate teaching intelligent design, an ideological cousin of creationism. Rather, she said, they urge students to subject evolution to critical analysis, something she said scientists should endorse. She said the idea that there was a scientific consensus on evolution was “laughable.”

Note the next bit; the reporter, Cornelia Dean, is one of the better science people at the Times, and this kind of unambiguous statement about the status of evolutionary theory is exactly what the media ought to be saying more often.

Although researchers may argue about its details, the theory of evolution is the foundation for modern biology, and there is no credible scientific challenge to it as an explanation for the diversity and complexity of life on earth. In recent years, with creationist challenges to the teaching of evolution erupting in school districts around the country, groups like the National Academy of Sciences, perhaps the nation’s pre-eminent scientific organization, have repeatedly made this point.

But the academy’s opinion does not matter to Dr. Owens Fink, who said the letter was probably right to say she had dismissed it as “a group of so-called scientists.”

Owens Fink is so wrong on every count that you’d think she ought to be mortified at having her ignorance so boldly displayed in the pages of a major newspaper; I suspect her arrogance is great enough that she’ll be oblivious. There certainly is a consensus in the scientific community favoring evolution. You could argue that a consensus is not a guarantor of truth, but Owens Fink is simply closing her eyes and denying what the practitioners of science, including a majority of the scientists in her own state, are saying.

As for calling the NAS “a group of so-called scientists.”…how clueless can she be? The NAS is the assembly of the elite of American science; admission is selective and only the most prestigious, high-powered big-wigs of the scientific establishment get in. It may be a bit stodgy and conservative, but one thing it is not is a bunch of fake scientists from the fringe—it’s kind of the anti-Discovery Institute. Dismissing it is an amazingly foolish thing for a professor of marketing to do.

Mike S. Adams? HERE???

My daughter had mentioned something a while back about some speaker named Mike Adams coming to UMM, and that she’d get extra credit for attending, but it didn’t sink in until I saw the signs around campus. It’s this Mike S. Adams, columnist for TownHall, Horowitzian shill, anti-feminist, creationist clown, homophobic bigot, warrior for free speech, professional racist, gun kook, academic-by-accident, beauty contest judge, and just generally contemptible far, far right-wing nutcase.

I’m very disappointed in our students. We’re far off the beaten track and we don’t get that many speakers passing through our area, and they had to go exhibit the poor taste to invite this sorry sack of rethuglican excreta to our campus. Couldn’t they have at least tried to find an intelligent conservative to bring out here? Why’d they have to scrape the bottom of the barrel for this guy? At least we’re seeing our rather dismal right-wing campus rag‘s fading credibility implode with their sponsorship of such a low-wattage guest speaker.

I’ve heard that a few of our liberal students want to protest his visit. I’m not happy about that, either; we paid good money to ferry this stiff here, let’s at least have him put on a show and argue with him.

I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it to his talk, but if I can, suggest some good questions I can ask him. I’m tempted to ask him to simply expound on the distinction between micro- and macro-evolution, so that he can scuttle himself with his own words…although I suspect his talk itself will be sufficiently foolish on its own.