Toads and Kids

In late May, while Freyja took a nap, Sullivan and I went for a walk down the road. I didn’t really know where we were going to go, or what we were going to do; I think my initial thought was to go to the horse stables.

Along the way, we found a hole, probably 4 feet deep and about 6 or 7 feet across (dug out for some utilitarian purpose, I think) that was filled with a couple feet of water. I saw a giant frog, or maybe a toad, on the other side.

“Sullivan, look!” I whispered. “See the frog?”

When we stepped closer, it quickly hopped into the water, making an audible *PLOP*. And then two other frogs, that we hadn’t seen, jumped in too: *PLOP* *PLOP*. A fourth one jumped from about a foot or two from our feet: hop, hop, *PLOP*. This gave me an idea.

“Hey, let’s go check the pond for frogs! I bet we’ll find some!”

We re-traced our steps back to the pond we had passed earlier, and started to walk around the edge of it. About one-third of the way around, I glanced at the water and saw what I initially thought was some sort of aquatic vegetation or strange bed of rocks, but turned out to be a myriad of tadpoles! They wriggled and swam around. Sullivan didn’t see them at first, so I tossed a small pebble into the middle of one of the tadpole groups, and the tadpoles quickly dispersed in all directions; Sullivan saw them.

We kept walking around the pond, looking for more tadpoles and kept seeing more and more. On the far-side of the pond, there was a convocation of so many tadpoles that you could barely see the earth underneath. Remembering that he had his old aquarium in his closet, this gave me an idea. I sent a message to Melissa, telling her about the tadpoles and asking her if she could bring a bucket to us to catch some. We were going to raise some frogs / toads.

Continue reading

Ithaca Biodiesel

This past Sunday, upon my return to Ithaca from visiting family and friends, my Ithacan friend Greg offered to pick me up at the airport, where I had dropped off my rental car. On the way back, something caught Greg’s eye in downtown Ithaca and he quickly asked “Hey, do you mind if we stop and see my friends really quick? It looks like they’ve got some vegetable oil fuel”

My curiosity led the way as we turned around and pulled into a driveway, with the trunk of Greg’s Volkswagen pointed at the trunk of another Volkswagen. “These guys work with Ithaca BioDiesel,” he explained. I was pretty sure that he had mentioned previously that his diesel engine had been modified to also run on vegetable oil, but I had not given it too much thought until now.

When Greg and I arrived, Brian and Jamie were moving “cubies”, small ~4.5 gallon plastic jugs, into their holding area. Each jug weighed about 20lbs and was easily carried with one hand. These cubies held the refined vegetable oil from their last production facility, and are available to members for use in their modified diesel engines. When Greg introduced me to them and we shook hands, I noticed the light purple gloves, which I presumed to be Nitrile rather than Latex, since Nitrile is inert to oils. I shook Jamie’s non-gloved left-hand and was pleasantly surprised that Brian’s gloved hand was not covered in oil and grime when I shook it.

Open letter to the Principal of a Kentucky school about Creationism

Recently, I received this comment on my review of “Inner Fish”:

This book is nothing but evolutionary propaganda and malarkey at best and rubbish and refuse at its worst. It espouses a THEORY that has yet to be definitively proven and offers meager and weak attempts to refute arguments against it. Reading this book only served to strengthen my belief that the earth is not billions of years old and that we did not evolve from lower life forms but were fearfully and wonderfully made by design. Our wondrous designer and creator is God in heaven. There is no amount of scientific jabber and jargon that will ever change my mind. This book disseminates the deception of evolution and presents it as a tried and tested truth. It is unabashedly anti creation and attempts to convert every student to the agenda it promulgates. It is hogwash.

I approved it, because I try to avoid censoring the comments on this site, and it was germane to the topic. While I am skeptical that the comment author had read the book, as she claimed, I was more concerned that she was posting that from a Kentucky school email address. A quick google search revealed that it was indeed a public school, and that she teaches 6th grade.

As you may or may not be aware, Kentucky’s performance in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) has unfortunately on the lower end of the scale nationally, and as a nation we are outperformed by other countries pretty consistently. I located the e-mail address for the Principal of that school and wrote him this e-mail, cc’ing the original comment author. I have redacted their identifying information from the re-cap:

Subject: Teaching standards
From: XXXXX@amhill.net
Date: Fri, April 22, 2011 11:51 am
To: THEPRINCIPAL@XXXXX.k12.ky.us
Cc: THECOMMENTAUTHOR@XXXXX.kyschools.us
Mr. THEPRINCIPAL,

Recently, I received a comment on my blog claiming to be one of your
faculty, THECOMMENTAUTHOR. Here is the relevant URL:

http://blog.amhill.net/2010/01/13/book-review-your-inner-fish/

This comment was received on 04/22/2011 at 2:25 pm from IP address
170.185.XX.XX (which is your school) and the comment used the email:
THECOMMENTAUTHOR@XXXXX.kyschools.us

I do not know whether or not it actually *was* Ms. COMMENTAUTHOR or someone
claiming to be her, but in the interest of the education of your students,
I felt compelled to bring it to your attention. Since Kentucky has joined
the rest of our nation in making an effort to combat the low performance
in STEM subjects, and also since the teaching of Creationism in public
schools has been consistently dissented by the supreme court (Peloza v.
Capistrano, Edwards v. Aguillard, Kitzmiller v. Dover); regardless of what
Ms. COMMENTAUTHOR, or any educator, feels is "true" personally, she is required
by law to not misinform her students with Creationist propaganda.

The subject of Evolutionary Biology is typically not introduced until the
high school level anyways, so this may be all be moot, but I am concerned
about Ms. COMMENTAUTHOR religiosity with regard to her students, being that it
is a public school system.

The National Center for Science Education (http://ncse.com/creationism)
has some terrific content up regarding this topic and the actual science
around it. I will not waste your time arguing with Ms. COMMENTAUTHOR's position
here. There is also the Talk Origins website, which features a terrific
guide to explaining the misinformation behind common creationist claims: 
(http://talkorigins.org/indexcc/).

I apologize for bringing this up right before Easter vacation. I hope you
and Ms. COMMENTAUTHOR' families have a wonderful, albeit brief, holiday weekend.

I have cc'd Ms. COMMENTAUTHOR on this, so that she is aware of the matter in
case it was not her that posted the comment originally.

Warm regards,

Aaron

I certainly wouldn’t have gone through all of this trouble had she not been a public educator. I was fortunate enough to go through a grade school where, I am pretty sure, there were no creationist influences by any of my trusted teachers. Kentucky, which has been somewhat of a national laughingstock with its Creation Museum, and soon, a theme park based around a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark, has notoriously been behind the curve with the sciences, particularly on this topic. (“Evolution” was changed in school text books a few years back to be “change over time”, which isn’t completely accurate, as Evolution has a lot more to do with population composition and genetic inheritances than it does with how those things manifest morphologically, although morphology is certainly one of the more interesting and visually identifiable products of evolution. “Change over time” is really more of the Hollywood-style definition)

The comment author is certainly entitled to believe what she wishes to believe, and while I would be happy to have a friendly and spirited discussion with her over what seems to be a gross misunderstanding of the subject on her part, I would never tell her she does not have the freedom to make her own choice. HOWEVER, she does have a responsibility as a teacher to both (a) follow the legal prescriptions and (b) follow the curriculum as dictated by the Board of Education.

The Supreme Court has consistently ruled against Creationism (and more recently it’s progeny: Intelligent Design), and the mandates of the Board of Education, which are set forth by a committee of individuals, should at least be more attenuated than the wily desires of a renegade teacher with a passionate, yet misinformed, belief.

I sincerely hope that the Principal will speak with the comment author on this topic to ensure that she is aware of her obligations as a licensed teacher; I do not wish her to lose her job, particularly not in this economic climate. I imagine she probably has a family to help support and there’s no reason they should suffer because she had a sudden case of SIWOTI. And while I’m thinking idealistically, it would be really awesome if the comment author would give some serious thought to the substantial evidence against Creationism.

And most importantly, if she hasn’t already (like I said, I’m skeptical!), she really should read “Your Inner Fish” — it’s a well-written and very intriguing book. :)

Why Arsenic-based life is cool, but not revolutionary

If you’ve been on the Internet the past couple days, particularly if you use any social media, you’ve invariably read something about the Arsenic-based life forms discovered in the bottom of Mono Lake in California.

The headlines have read with typical sensationalist flair:

From the sounds of the headline, one would think it was ET that we found, or that this discovery somehow turned our understanding of life and biology on its head. But not quite. Continue reading

The Periodic Kingdom [Book Review]

I’ve actually had this book for a while — I picked it up while back east on holiday with my family. Somehow, it got shuffled away and then rediscovered when planning out this years books.

The Periodic Kingdom is a book that explores the Periodic Table of Elements (ie. chemicals) through the perspective of geography. I was initially attracted (pun not intended) to it partly because I’m a nerd for chemistry, but also because I’ve been sort of working on my own variant-approach to teaching chemistry, and I wanted to see what Atkins has to say.

P.W. Atkins is a professor of Physical Chemistry (the kind that deals with quantum mechanics, as opposed to organic or biochemistry, which deals more with life-based compounds) at the University of Oxford. Throughout the book, he clearly shows that he has both academic prowess and extensive teaching experience; it’s worth noting that simply because I’ve read many books on scientific topics where one or the other is lacking — it’s not often that you find both.

That said, I was a little disappointed with the book. Continue reading

Good Germs, Bad Germs [Book Review]

by Jessica Snyder Sachs

When people think of “germs”, the connotation is generally bad. In fact, when you look up the word germ, the definition of “microbial organism” is usually followed up with “especially a disease-causing microbial organism.”

As a species, we traditionally don’t think too highly of our microbial co-habitants. Store shelves are covered with products that tout their effectiveness at killing “99.9% of germs and bacteria”.

But are they all bad? In recent years, more awareness has been growing about “pro-biotic” diets and lifestyles; one that introduces “good” bacteria into the body. Nobel Laureate Joshua Lederberg, a pioneer in microbial research, believes that “[w]hat’s important is that we’re better off aspiring to a relationship of symbiotic coexistence.”

And that is the crux of this book. Sachs makes a very strong case for the need to delineate a difference between beneficial microbes and harmful microbes, in the same way that we may differentiate between beneficial small animals (dogs, cats, turtles) and harmful small animals (vipers, porcupines, brown recluse spiders). We have many bacteria (microflora) living inside us that are absolutely critical for our existence — digesting food we cannot otherwise digest, producing chemicals that make our body function better, etc. Continue reading