As sweet as any harmony …

As sweet as any harmony … January 23, 2013

• “Isn’t life great?” The final words, and final thoughts, of a scientist and “an amazing man.”

• A² + B² = C² … Here, I’ll show you.

• I suppose a new poll showing that “78 percent of Americans believe the earth’s temperatures are rising” is a positive sign. That’s up from  the same survey taken in 2009, so it’s an encouraging sign that climate denial can’t be sustainable.

But on the other hand, the results of the poll — and even the existence of the poll itself — show that even our own personal experience becomes “controversial” once it’s framed as a partisan political question. Yesterday’s weather has become a point of contention and dispute. And that dispute cannot be settled with a thermometer because thermometers are now regarded as politically biased.

“This object is an expanding cloud of gas rushing away from a dying star. So what’s with the huge backwards S-shape?”

• “Astonishingly, if given access to a small hoard of chocolate chips, the free rat would usually save at least one treat for the captive — which is a lot to expect of a rat.”

Giant squid.

Slinkies and Wile E. Coyote.

• The Discovery Institute’s theology and biblical interpretation are also done with a green screen instead of a real Bible.

Sunita Williams gives a video tour of her office — the International Space Station. The special effects in that video are amazing — it really looks like she can fly.

• “A solar powered coal-mining museum is a fantastic way to celebrate this national journey.”

• James McGrath looks at a “science” lesson for fundamentalist homeschoolers that is guaranteed to produce legions of future atheists.

• Ed Darrell shares “A slightly rude film with a powerful point” — as well as some helpful resource links for broader context — in response to the horrific ignorance and negligence of the anti-vaxxer movement.

• “13 must-see stargazing events in 2013

• “Top 10 skywatching events not to be missed this year” (via)

(Five items not shared between those two lists.)

• “The Top 10 Reasons Why We Know the Earth Is Round

CJR must-reads of 2012: Science.

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  • The_L1985

     When I tell you that Alabama’s education system is a joke, this is exactly what I mean.  Unless you’re taking honors or AP courses, that’s how dumbed-down EVERYTHING is.  I have no idea how bad it is in other states, because there isn’t a national standard–they’re set on a statewide level.  And we still have a disturbingly high percentage of students who don’t graduate–so why is the bar set that low?

    Frankly, I think How To Read The Textbook should be more explicitly stated as part of the elementary school curriculum.  I’ve encountered a shocking number of middle- and high-school students who could only find the answers to worksheet questions if the questions were verbatim from the textbook.  They couldn’t find the answers to questions that were paraphrased at all.  They also had no clue how sectional headings could help them find what they were looking for.

    US education is a mess overall.

  • The_L1985

    That sounds like the AP US history test (the one that gives you college credit for taking the course in high school).  There were 2 essay questions, and one of them you got to pick from several options (I chose the Cold War, because I’d watched enough old TV and heard enough stories from my parents that it was the next-best thing to living through the 50’s fallout-shelter madness).

    There were also a short-answer section and a multiple-choice section.  But the AHSGE, which is the bare minimum you need for a diploma, was ALL multiple-choice.

  • The_L1985

     Honestly, the problem is the following:

    Corrupt school-board officials were given administrative jobs at schools for a long time, and this created all kinds of problems, so a law was passed stating that you cannot be a member of a state or local school board, and employed by a public school, at the same time.  This means that the vast majority of school-board officials have never set foot in any teacher-training courses, much less taught in a classroom, and thus have no idea at all how people learn, how to assess learning in ways that make sense, or what incentives actually WORK.

    The goal of NCLB was, officially, to make sure all students were educated to a competent level in K-12.  They chose to measure this entirely through standardized-test scores (for example, in Florida there is now a law that you MUST spend 10 minutes explicitly on preparation for the FCAT).  To motivate teachers to teach better, they tied teacher pay to student test scores.  To make sure principals were watching their teachers and keeping scores high, they also tied school funding to student test scores.  And most standardized tests are scored based on percentile, not on how much of the test that individual student got correct.

    Anyone who knows any damn thing at all about learning and education can tell that this is completely counter-productive, but most people don’t, so the school boards get away with it. There are members of the Texas board of education who have stated several times, for the record, that their goal is to eliminate public schools entirely*, forcing parents to either home-school or cough up insane amounts of money for private schools.  Those people have been re-elected to the TX Board of Education since.

    * There is a movement in the Religious Right to protect kids from those “Godless” public schools, because apparently you don’t get enough religious indoctrination when you only hear it from your parents, Sunday mornings at church, Sunday School, and the Wednesday night church prayer meeting.

  • My modern history class in my last year of high school took us up to near the present day in some circumstances, especially since the Soviet Union had vanished not long before. But there was a fairly broad focus on the 1930s – 1970s at the time.

  • One thing I’ve noticed is that even when I point students to how to solve questions by seeing how the textbook models them, some of them still need me to work the question in real time on the whiteboard. (experience as a TA)

    I don’t know if this is laziness or just reading comprehension.

  • The_L1985

     I think it’s a combination of both.  A couple of those students, after I explained to them what to do, still kept asking me to essentially do their schoolwork for them.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    That sounds like the AP US history test (the one that gives you college credit for taking the course in high school).

    Oh, is that what AP means? I’d heard the term but didn’t realise AP courses actually counted as college credit. The HSC (Higher School Certificate), from which I quoted, is required to get into university (well, the HSC or its equivalent in another jurisdiction). But it doesn’t count towards anything in terms of getting you through uni, no matter how well you did.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Instead we got a stack of names and dates and places, probably because that’s all that no political agenda was lobbying against teaching, or all that the school board feels can be taught without risking the lobbyists storming their meetings.

    Our curriculum is more centralised–to the state level, at least, and in recent years there has been a move to a national curriculum in a bunch of core subjects.

    Of course, when the national history curriculum was first proposed a bunch of high profile conservatives (including a Prime Minister) protested that it had too much focus on Asia, not enough on Europe, and left out some of their pet topics. Keep in mind, it still had a strong European slant, but it’s less than in the 50s (i.e. less than 100%). And there are the usual accusations about a “black armband” approach to history: admitting to the slaughter and oppression of Aboriginal people and its effects into the modern day, rather than saying “all in the past old chaps, the blackfellas get running water now and doesn’t eveyone love Cathy Freeman?”

    So the history wars are a thing here, too, but thankfully not one that every other parent gives a rats about, and not something that has polluted our senior school curriculum to the extent you describe. I think it helps, in NSW at least, that the HSC is seen as one of the best end-of-school qualifications in the world, so there’s a lot of pride invested in maintaining that reputation.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Whether AP courses count for credit depends on the school. Scores on those tests are from 1 to 5. 5 is credit at any college as long as the test was taken recently enough. At some colleges, 4 and below don’t get you credit; at others, 3 and above do. I don’t think anyone takes a 2 and I know no one takes a 1.

    Whether AP courses count to fill distribution requirements is a different ball game entirely. I know Allegheny College–well, Allegheny does distribution funky to start with. They sort their departments into physical science, social science, and humanities. Major in one of the three, minor in another, take at least two courses from somewhere in the third. AP courses in a subject found in the third category do not count toward distribution. I forget whether AP courses in one’s major or minor subject count toward distribution, and I no longer have any recollection of what is done with AP courses in a college that takes the usual ‘X English, Y math, Z physical science including Z’ courses with labs, etc’ route. And if AP courses are credit but don’t fill distribution, well, that’s elective credit you don’t have to pay tuition for, but half the fun of college is finding elective credits that make one happy.

  • AnonymousSam

    It doesn’t help that now the GOP is outspoken in their rejection of public education, too. -_-

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    While I’m on a roll I should note that I loved high school history partly because the curriculum was good (especially in the senior years); partly because my parents were into history so we discussed stuff at home all the time; and partly because my Year 11/12 history teacher was awesome. I chose the elective for the first two reasons, but I loved it because of him.

    Our in-school classes consisted of a bit of reading a passage from the text, or him talking us through something, then a whole lot of group discussion about the issue at hand. He was perfectly happy for people to disagree, as long as you showed a sound line of argument. That quality is essential in a good teacher, I think.

    It was geat for me on a personal note as well as academically. I went to a Catholic school, at that point in my life I was going effectively going through a conversion experience (which sounds weird cos I ostensibly went from Catholic to Catholic but that’s a separate story), and this teacher was a practicing Muslim. Sometimes we’d be chatting about stuff and he’d ask “why do you think that? what does it mean to you? what are the implications?”, and if I gave a considered, reasonable answer, he’d say OK, cool. I ran into him a few years later at uni, when I was becoming more solidly left wing (again, from left to left, also a different story) and he did the same thing. Is this what you, personally believe? Have you thought through your reasons for doing so?

    Of course, he may have reacted diffeently if he thought I was becoming a fundamentalist or a Nazi :) But it’s pretty great as a young person to have someone show that it’s important that your thoughts, opinions and beliefs are really your own, and that you are prepared to own them.

    Great guy.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    The US college system is confusing! Majors, minors, credits, distribution…I’m lost.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Major: one’s primary subject of study. Minor: one’s secondary subject. Or so it’s supposed to work; some people do multiple minors, some people multiple majors. (Some both. On the off chance my brother is reading this: yes, I am looking at you funny.) There’s more required for a major in a subject than for a minor in that subject. Minor is usually fifteen credits, which usually works out to five semesters of lecture, major is more like thirty credits. Distribution is just spreading out not-major-or-minor courses over the panorama of human knowledge in pursuit of the elusive goal of graduating a well-rounded well-educated student.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Distribution is the big difference. We don’t do that (mostly).

    re majors–there’s a difference between taking a subject in your first year and taking it in your third year, right? Or is there no difference in levels of subject, just volume?

  • EllieMurasaki

    Usually class numbers starting with 1 are for freshmen, 2 for sophomores, 3 for juniors, 4 for seniors. (First through fourth years of college.) Nobody’s kept out of those classes for being the wrong year, of course, there’s generally a lot of seniors in 1xx classes to fill stray distribution requirements, but usually getting into a 3xx class needs its 2xx prerequisite.

  • EllieMurasaki

    That might’ve been unclear. Here, real-world example:

    VSC 160, Computer Graphics I. Long list of X-or-Y-or-Z prereqs, any one of the list will do, which boil down to have you proven you can read for comprehension, and another such list that’s for have you proven string a sentence together, I tested out of both.

    VSC 161, Computer Graphics II. Prereq, VSC 160.

    VSC 165, Photography I. Same prereq lists as VSC 160.

    VSC 166, Photography II. Prereq, VSC 165.

    VSC 190, Intro to Videography. Prereqs, VSC 160 and 165. Huh. I’d have thought it was a 2xx course, but apparently people doing visual communications at this college are kind of expected to do photography and graphics in the fall freshman year and videography in the spring.

    VSC 292, Video Production. Prereq, VSC 190.

    Community college, two-year school, so 2xx is as high as it goes, but you get the idea.

  •  Usually, but there are schools that offer certain special classes that are specific to year standing.  They’ll often be one- or zero-credit courses.  My undergrad had special symposium classes that were required for various years in certain programs, where having your name on the class roster got you on the guest list to certain special events.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Can I be concerned that it’s possible to get into college without definitely being able to read for comprehension or string a sentence together?

  •  The numbering system also tends to clump together for more technical fields.  Where I went, 100-series computer science classes were for non-majors, 201 and 202 were the freshman intro-for-majors classes, and the more narrowly-scoped major-sequence classes were all in the 300s. The rest of the 200s and 400s were basically special topics


    Distribution is the big difference. We don’t do that (mostly).

    Really? Weird. There’s been a push here by a lot of schools to pare down or get rid of the Core (‘Core’ is an older name for the same basic thing as ‘Distribution’, though it tends to connote that there’s one specific sequence of classes everyone must take), but I always thought of it as being part of my country’s ceaseless drive to turn college into Good Employee Prep School and get rid of the idea of what they used to call a “liberal education”, inj order to get rid of those godless academics.

    (I recall when I was in high school, a recruiter came around from a for-profit tech school, and they treated “You will never have to take a class that is not directly applicable to your chosen profession” as a major selling point. It was like “Do you hate reading? Good news, come study here and you’ll never have to read a novel again!”)

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Yeah. Covering a bit of everything is what high school is for.

    You can choose to take subjects from a bunch of different disciplines if you want, but it’s not required. At uni, you’re supposed to go pretty deep into a field and that’s hard to do at the same time as getting lots of breadth unless you spend a decade studying.

    Even within one discpline there’s a breadth vs depth issue. I studied medical science, which was one of the more specialised courses at the time. It involved a year of courses across the sciences–maths, physics, chemistry, biology, statistics–and they were way more advanced that my Year 12 advanced science courses. In second year I took more specialist courses–dropping maths and physics to do biochemistry, genetics, pharmacology and a composite human biology course (physiology, histology, pathology, anatomy). In third year I dropped pharm and biochem to specialise more. And so on.

    This wasn’t about employee prep–there’s a level of depth necessary to engage academically in the field, and you can’t get it by doing a handful of introduction to major subdiscipline courses.

    I was on the governing board at one of our best universities a number of years ago when there was serious discussion about the merits of moving towards a US-style generalist undergrad degree. Ultimately the VC was concerned that it would exacerbate the difficulties people from disadvantaged families face in getting a tertiary education–effectively requiring a graduate degree on top of the bachelor’s before you got to specialise would make higher education a 7+ year commitment, which is just too much.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Yes. Very. The problem is more acute at community colleges than four-year institutions, though.

  • The_L1985

    Yes.  Here in the US, you are allowed college credit for some honors courses you took in high school if you pay $100 or so to take the AP or KLEP exams (depending on your state).

    What they don’t tell you in high school is that there’s a limit to the number of AP credit-hours most insitutions will take.  I earned 24 hours of AP credit in high school, but the unis I went to only accepted 18 hours.  I was just happy to have had challenging courses in high school, for once, and the college credit was the icing on the cake.  Mom and Dad had actually paid for all those exams, though, and they Were Not Pleased.

    Courses labeled “AP” in US high schools allow you to take the AP exam, but don’t require it.  If you take an AP-level course, but can’t or don’t want to take the exam, it’s counted as an “honors” course.

  •  That’s interesting. Different fields have very different requisite knowledge bases, but I know for my own field, what I learned in my major  courses actually ended up being far less useful to me professionally than my non-major classes. The most important thing I learned in undergrad was really how to learn, to think, and to construct an argument. Every actually technical thing I learned in undergrad was obsolete by the time I got into the workforce (That would likely be less true if I’d gone straight into it instead of spending the next three years in grad school).

  •  I ended up in the very strange position where the computer science department would accept my physics and calculus AP credits, but the physics and math departments wouldn’t. Which meant that I met the lower-level math requirements for my CS major, but did not have the necessary prerequisites to take the higher-level ones (I managed to finagle it by finding an assortment of high level classes that were orthagonal to calculus. Which was not great for my GPA, since it turns out that I have absolutely no aptitude for statistics.

    (The other weird result was that I got credit for the physics lecture class but not for the lab, and you can’t take one without the other. The department chair eventually just signed off on exempting me from the lab requirement.)

    Of course, I also finished high school with 33 of a possible 30 credits at a time when you only needed 21 to graduate (A few years later, they revised the requirements so that you needed 28 to graduate, which sounds fine, but I’ve heard that the specific requirements actually make it extremely hard to get all the right classes in 4 years without doing summer school at least once)

  • We Must Dissent


    5 is credit at any college as long as the test was taken recently enough.

    This isn’t exactly true. At my alma mater, a small school focusing on science and engineering, AP scores only got distribution requirements waived. I skipped straight into vector calculus and didn’t have to take a history course, but I still had to take as many credits as anyone else. No actual credit was received for my AP scores.

    There are probably schools that simply don’t do anything with AP test scores.