Friday, August 31, 2012

Mars Science Laboratory's flight director...David Oh

"Life on Mars time for JPL scientist and his family"

A JPL scientist's family joins him on his mission to live sol by sol – and discovers a new sort of life around Los Angeles.


Amina Khan

August 30st, 2012

Los Angeles Times

David Oh's eldest son taped aluminum foil over his windows. His daughter painted a sign warning visitors away from the front door. His wife pulled the phone cord out of the wall and turned the couple's cellphones off.

David's time on Earth had come to a temporary end — and he was taking his family with him.

As soon as the rover Curiosity dropped onto the Martian surface on Aug. 5, David and hundreds of his fellow scientists and engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory switched from Earth time to Mars time.

As the lead flight director for the Mars Science Laboratory team, David would sync his life up with the rover's for the first 90 Martian days of the Curiosity mission. It may not be rocket science, but it's quite an undertaking.

A Mars day, called a sol, is 39 minutes and 35 seconds longer than a 24-hour day on Earth. That small difference adds up fast, so that noon becomes midnight after 2 1/2 weeks. As scientists wind up sleeping during the day and working through the night, their lives pull away from those of their families.

Not the Oh clan. For the first month, all five have stuck together, an idea championed by David's wife, Bryn.

"This project for six years has been so much a part of his life," she said at the family's tidy two-story home in La Cañada Flintridge. "This was a way that I thought that we could be a part of it."

The family has learned a lot about Southern California since their experiment began, talking to friendly folk in a Canoga Park bowling alley at 4 a.m. and gawking at late-night partygoers while eating dinner at dawn at Fred 62 in Los Feliz.

They've discovered the Hollywood sign isn't lit at night and that the sand on Santa Monica's moonlit shores is still the perfect temperature for walking barefoot. They've noticed that freeway traffic bottoms out at 3 a.m., then starts to pick up again just an hour later.

During one of their frequent late-night walks in the hills near their house, one of the kids saw two shooting stars streak across the quiet sky during the Perseid meteor shower.

The idea of working on Mars time goes back to the 1997 Pathfinder mission, which sent the first rover to the Red Planet.

The beetle-like Sojourner rover was designed to skitter around the surface for a week, sending back data once a sol. Members of the Pathfinder team wanted to analyze the results as quickly as possible so they could plan the rover's next moves. To minimize delays, they decided to work on Mars time too.

Sojourner kept going all week, then continued for a second and a third. The Earthlings did their best to keep up, but after a month they'd had enough.

"The team rebelled," said Andrew Mishkin, a senior systems engineer on that mission who has endured three stints on Mars time himself. "They were just too exhausted to continue."

Living on Mars time is like moving two time zones to the west every three days, causing scientists and engineers to feel constantly jet-lagged. That throws off the body's internal clock, which is synced to a 24-hour day and reset by light and dark.

When that system is out of whack for several weeks, negative effects ripple throughout the body. Metabolism slows, which can cause weight gain. People become less sensitive to insulin, leading to an increased risk for Type 2 diabetes. Some medicines don't work as well when taken outside the usual circadian window. And in sleep-deprived states, people make more mistakes.

At first, JPL had no formal policies to keep scientists and engineers from working themselves to the edge of their physical limits. They often logged 18 hours a day, and many tried to stick with Earth time when they were off duty, leaving them utterly drained, Mishkin said.

After the Pathfinder mission ended, JPL asked a panel of sleep experts for advice. The key, the experts said, was to keep the body clock on track so that people could sleep during their "night" and stay alert during their "day."

To do that, the panel recommended that workers stay on Mars time instead of confusing their bodies by toggling between days and sols. They also suggested setting time limits for shifts, limiting caffeine to small doses, and filling the operations rooms with bright light to suppress levels of melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone, said Dr. Charles Czeisler, a sleep medicine expert from Harvard University who served on the panel.

Not all of the recommendations were adopted. No "solarium" was built to help the engineers adjust, nor was bus transport arranged to and from JPL to keep sleepy workers from getting behind the wheel. But the lab did install blackout curtains to block sunlight in the middle of the Martian night and provide cots for sleepy scientists and engineers whose bodies were having a hard time adjusting to the switch.

When veterans of previous Mars rover missions first heard of the Oh family's plans, they didn't hesitate to tell David and Bryn they were nuts.

For workers with children, the logistics of living on Mars time are particularly complex: school carpools, sports practice, music lessons and other activities must be accommodated. But that didn't stop the Ohs.

"I want my kids to have the experience of what it's like to work on the Mars program,"
David said. "Even the youngest understands Dad has a cool job, so for me to kind of disappear on them would be a pity."

Bryn, like her husband, is an MIT-trained engineer. She's logged the family's meals, medical appointments, work shifts and bedtimes on a spreadsheet. She even took a month off from her job as a software training consultant to manage the elaborate Mars-time experiment.

To keep the kids awake when Mars days are Earth nights, she planned a 10 p.m. backyard barbecue, a midnight picnic in Santa Monica and a 3 a.m. run for Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

The first few days seemed charmed. David came home around midnight to a brightly lit house with a cake baking in the kitchen. The kids yelled their greetings when he opened the door.

But a week after the Mars landing, the family started to drag. The kids — 8-year-old Devyn, 10-year-old Ashlyn and 13-year-old Braden — struggled to stay awake until sunrise, when it was finally bedtime on Mars.

Their schedules became so misaligned that the family stopped marking their days by Earth time. Instead, they used words like "yestersol" and "solmorrow."

Even David, whose work and home life are both pegged to the Red Planet, experienced a disconcerting moment when he collected Devyn from a play date around 5 p.m. and asked the friend's mom if the kids had eaten lunch yet.

"She was looking at me like, 'Are you crazy?'"
David said.

The time-traveling adventure kept the family together, but Bryn said she missed feeling connected with the world outside the Mars bubble.

"There's just an amount of contact you get by being on the road, going grocery shopping, whatever it is," she said. "I'm a little bit jealous that [David] gets to go into work in the middle of the night and be with people."

For Bryn and the kids, the hardest part is now over. School started this week — just as Mars time had cycled around to nearly coincide with the East Coast time zone — so most of the family is transitioning back to their earthly routines.

"It really felt like we were on vacation, like we really had gone to another place," Bryn said. "Seeing Los Angeles in a completely different light — we're going to miss that."

The vacation is almost over. Bryn has been watching their time zone edge ever closer to California. On Tuesday, they were lined up with Rio de Janeiro; on Wednesday, New York. On Saturday, they'll return to Pacific Daylight Time.

"Will miss Orion in the AM," she wrote on Twitter. "Will miss looking forward to the dawn."

For two more months, David will soldier on alone.

College debt erased

This could be as difficult as selling refrigerators to Eskimos.

"Having to Prove You’re ‘Hopeless’ to Escape College Debt"


Ron Lieber

The New York Times

It isn’t easy to stand up in an open courtroom and bear witness to the abject wretchedness of your financial situation, but by the time Doug Wallace Jr. was 31 years old, he didn’t have much left to lose by trying.

Diabetes had rendered him legally blind and unemployed just a few years after graduating from Eastern Kentucky University. He filed for bankruptcy protection and quickly got rid of thousands of dollars of medical and other debt.

But his $89,000 in student loans were another story. Federal bankruptcy law requires those who wish to erase that debt to prove that repaying it will cause an “undue hardship.” And one component of that test is often convincing a federal judge that there is a “certainty of hopelessness” to their financial lives for much of the repayment period.

“It’s like you’re not worth much in society,” Mr. Wallace said.

Nevertheless, Mr. Wallace made his case. And on Wednesday, nearly six years after he first filed for bankruptcy, he may finally get a signal as to whether his situation is sufficiently bleak to merit the cancellation of his loans.

The gantlet he has run so far is so forbidding that a large majority of bankrupt people do not attempt it. Yet for a small number of debtors like Mr. Wallace who persist, some academic research shows there may be a reasonable shot at shedding at least part of their debt. So they try.

Before the mid-1970s, debtors were able to get rid of student loans in bankruptcy court just as they could credit card debt or auto loans. But after scattered reports of new doctors and lawyers filing for bankruptcy and wiping away their student debt, resentful members of Congress changed the law in 1976.

In an effort to protect the taxpayer money that is on the line every time a student or parent signs for a new federal loan, Congress toughened the law again in 1990 and again in 1998. In 2005, for-profit companies that lend money to students persuaded Congress to extend the same rules to their private loans.

But with each change, lawmakers never defined what debtors had to do to prove that their financial hardship was “undue.” Instead, federal bankruptcy judges have spent years struggling to do it themselves.

Most have settled on something called the Brunner test, named after a case that laid out a three-pronged standard for judges to use when determining whether they should discharge someone’s student loan debt. It calls on judges to examine whether debtors have made a good-faith effort to repay their debt by trying to find a job, earning as much as they can and minimizing expenses. Then comes an examination of a debtor’s budget, with an allowance for a “minimal” standard of living that generally does not allow for much beyond basics like food, shelter and health insurance plus some inexpensive recreation.

The third prong, which looks at a debtor’s future prospects during the loan repayment period, has proved to be especially squirm-inducing for bankruptcy judges because it puts them in the prediction business. This has only been complicated by the fact that many federal judicial circuits have established the “certainty of hopelessness” test that Mr. Wallace must pass in Ohio.

Lawyers sometimes joke about the impossibility of getting over this high bar, even as they stand in front of judges. “What I say to the judge is that as long as we’ve got a lottery, there is no certainty of hopelessness,” said William Brewer Jr., a bankruptcy attorney in Raleigh, N.C. “They smile, and then they rule against you.”

Debtors themselves struggle with testifying in their undue hardship cases. Carol Kenner, who spent 18 years working as a federal bankruptcy judge in Massachusetts before becoming a lawyer for the National Consumer Law Center, said that one particular case stuck in her mind.

The debtor had a history of hospitalization for mental illness but testified that she did not suffer from depression at all. “She was so mortified about the desperation of her situation that she was committing perjury on the stand,” Ms. Kenner said. “It just blew me away. That’s the craziness that this system brings us to.”

Debtors also stretch the truth in other directions. In 2008, a federal bankruptcy judge in the Northern District of Georgia expressed barely disguised disgust in deciding a case involving a 32-year-old, Mercedes-driving federal public defender with degrees from Yale and Georgetown. With nearly $114,000 in total household income, the woman’s financial situation was far from hopeless, despite her $172,000 in student loan debt.

No one keeps track of how many people bring undue hardship cases each year, but it appears to be under 1,000, far less than the number of people failing to make their student loan payments. In its most recent snapshot of student loan defaults, the Department of Education reported that among the more than 3.6 million borrowers who entered repayment from Oct. 1, 2008, to Sept. 30, 2009, more than 320,000 had fallen behind in their payments by 360 days or more by the end of September 2010. About 10.3 million students and their parents borrowed money under the federal student loan program during the 2010-11 school year.

One reason so few people try to discharge their debt may be that such cases require an entirely separate legal process from the normal bankruptcy proceeding. In addition, those who may qualify generally lack the money to hire a lawyer or the pluck to file a suit without one.

Nor is the process quick, since the lender or the federal government often appeals when it loses. And even if clients can pay for legal assistance, some lawyers want nothing to do with undue hardship cases. That’s the approach Steven Stanton, a bankruptcy lawyer in Granite City, Ill., settled on after trying to help David Whitener, a visually impaired man who was receiving Social Security disability checks. The judge wasn’t ready to declare him hopeless and gave him a two-year “window of opportunity” to recover from his financial situation, saying he believed that Mr. Whitener had the potential to obtain “meaningful” employment.

Mr. Stanton did not see it that way. “It’s the last one I’ve ever done, because I was just so horrified,” he said. “I didn’t even have the client pay me. In all of the cases in 30 years of bankruptcy work, I came away with about the worst taste in my mouth that I’ve ever had.”

Those who do go to court face the daunting task of arguing against opponents who specialize in beating back the bankrupt.

They will often square off against Educational Credit Management Corporation, a so-called guaranty agency sanctioned by the government to handle a variety of loan-related legal tasks, from certifying students who are eligible for loans to fighting them when they try to discharge the loans in bankruptcy court.

On its Web site, the agency paints a picture of how much of a long shot an undue hardship claim is, noting that people “rarely” succeed in discharging student loan debt.

Some academic researchers have come to a different conclusion, however. Rafael Pardo, a professor at the Emory University School of Law, and Michelle Lacey, a math professor at Tulane University, examined 115 legal filings from the western half of Washington State. They found that 57 percent of bankrupt debtors who initiated an undue hardship adversary proceeding were able to get some or all of their loans discharged.

Jason Iuliano, a Harvard Law School graduate who is now in a Ph.D. program in politics at Princeton, examined 207 proceedings that unfolded across the country. He found that 39 percent received full or partial discharges.

His assessment of E.C.M.C.’s view of the rarity of success? “I think that’s wrong,” he said. While his sample size was small and he agrees that it’s not easy to prove undue hardship and personal hopelessness, his assessment of bankruptcy data suggests that as many as 69,000 more people each year ought to try to make a case. And they don’t necessarily need to pay lawyers to argue for them, as he found no statistical difference between the outcomes of people who hired lawyers and those who represented themselves.

Dan Fisher, E.C.M.C.’s general counsel, said it had no opinion on whether more borrowers should try to make undue hardship claims. As for the “rarely” language on its Web site, he said the company stood by its assertion that it was uncommon for an undue hardship lawsuit to end in a judgment discharging the loans in its portfolio.

Sometimes, getting any judgment is a challenge, as judges may delay a decision if the case seems too close to call or there is a possibility that the facts may change reasonably soon.

Radoje Vujovic, a North Carolina consumer bankruptcy lawyer, for instance, had more than $280,000 in student loan debt and just $23,000 in annual income.

When Judge A. Thomas Small, a federal bankruptcy judge in the eastern district of North Carolina, examined the case in 2008, he decided to wait two years before rendering final judgment, given that Mr. Vujovic thought his law practice might grow. “Must the cost of hope be permanent denial of discharge of debt?” Judge Small asked in his written opinion. “The answer to that question cannot be an unequivocal ‘yes.’ Hope is not enough to end the inquiry and, ironically, permanently tip the scales against a struggling debtor.”

The Department of Education, unhappy with the two-year delay, appealed before the period was up and persuaded a higher court to overturn the ruling. “I would stand by my decision,” Judge Small, who is now retired, said in an interview. “If you’re forced to make that decision, all you have is speculation, and speculation is really not good enough to overcome the burden of proof.”

Getting judges out of the speculation business, however, would require a new law or an entirely new standard, possibly from the United States Supreme Court. Neither appears likely anytime soon.

In the meantime, Doug Wallace, the blind man in Ohio, is nearing the end of his long wait for a ruling.

In December 2010, C. Kathryn Preston, a federal bankruptcy judge in the southern district of Ohio, tried to assess Mr. Wallace’s hopelessness by pointing to expert testimony that blindness does not necessarily lead to an inability to ever work again. But she also noted that because he lived in a rural area, he faced significant transportation obstacles. So she set a new court date for Sept. 5, to give him “additional time to adjust to his situation.”

The question for Mr. Wallace then became what sort of adjustments he was supposed to make aside from a court-ordered $20 monthly loan payment. His routine has not changed much. Aside from hernia surgery a few months ago, his days consist of sitting close to the television (he can just make it out through one eye that still has a bit of vision) and regular trips to the gym with his father. His college diploma hangs on the living room wall, and at night he sleeps underneath it on the couch of the rental house he shares with his father and sister.

Mr. Wallace’s sister, a community college student, is sometimes around during the day while his father works at a Honda factory. There are few visitors. “I’ve got friends around here, I’m sure, but they’ve got lives for themselves,” he said. “So I don’t really bother them.”
The judge did not explicitly order him to move closer to a training center, and his lawyer, Matt Thompson, said that doing so would set him up for certain failure. “I don’t think there is anyplace he could go in central Ohio and live on $840 a month,” he said.

Logistics aside, Mr. Wallace said that it was hard to imagine his overall situation ever improving and wonders who would hire a blind man in this economic environment.

“Do I think I’m hopeless?” he said. “Well, yeah, I mean by looking at it you would think I am hopeless. Like it won’t get better for me.”

What went wrong? Clint Eastwood's "Twilight Zone" speach

Despite his brilliance in the film industry, the 82 year old actor, director, producer, writer planted his feet and uttered dialog as if he were in an Existential play. The well-orchestrated RNC weathered the weather and offered some good rhetoric until Dirty Harry took the stage. It was a total embarrassment for the RNC, but I liked it.

Here is the video followed by the script.

EASTWOOD: Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you very much. Save a little for Mitt.

(APPLAUSE) I know what you are thinking. You are thinking, what’s a movie tradesman doing out here? You know they are all left-wingers out there, left of Lenin. At least that is what people think. That is not really the case. There are a lot of conservative people, a lot of moderate people, Republicans, Democrats, in Hollywood. It is just that the conservative people by the nature of the word itself play closer to the vest. They do not go around hot-dogging it.


So—but they are there, believe me, they are there. I just think, in fact, some of them around town, I saw Jon Voight, a lot of people around…


Jon's here, an academy award winner. A terrific guy. These people are all like-minded, like all of us.

So I—so I've got Mr. Obama sitting here. And he's—I was going to ask him a couple of questions. But—you know about—I remember three and a half years ago, when Mr. Obama won the election. And though I was not a big supporter, I was watching that night when he was having that thing and they were talking about hope and change and they were talking about, yes we can, and it was dark outdoors, and it was nice, and people were lighting candles.

They were saying, I just thought, this was great. Everybody is trying, Oprah was crying.


I was even crying. And then finally—and I haven't cried that hard since I found out that there is 23 million unemployed people in this country.


Now that is something to cry for because that is a disgrace, a national disgrace, and we haven't done enough, obviously—this administration hasn’t done enough to cure that. Whenever interest they have is not strong enough, and I think possibly now it may be time for somebody else to come along and solve the problem.


So, Mr. President, how do you handle promises that you have made when you were running for election, and how do you handle them?

I mean, what do you say to people? Do you just—you know—I know—people were wondering—you don't—handle that okay. Well, I know even people in your own party were very disappointed when you didn’t close Gitmo. And I thought, well closing Gitmo—why close that, we spent so much money on it. But, I thought maybe as an excuse—what do you mean shut up?


Okay, I thought maybe it was just because somebody had the stupid idea of trying terrorists in downtown New York City.


I've got to to hand it to you. I have to give credit where credit is due. You did finally overrule that finally. And that's—now we are moving onward. I know you were against the war in Iraq, and that's okay. But you thought the war in Afghanistan was okay. You know, I mean—you thought that was something worth doing. We didn't check with the Russians to see how they did it—they did there for 10 years.


But we did it, and it is something to be thought about, and I think that, when we get to maybe—I think you've mentioned something about having a target date for bringing everybody home. You gave that target date, and I think Mr. Romney asked the only sensible question, you know, he says, "Why are you giving the date out now? Why don't you just bring them home tomorrow morning?"


And I thought—I thought, yeah—I am not going to shut up, it is my turn.


So anyway, we're going to have—we're going to have to have a little chat about that. And then, I just wondered, all these promises—I wondered about when the—what do you want me to tell Romney? I can't tell him to do that. I can't tell him to do that to himself.


You're crazy, you're absolutely crazy. You're getting as bad as Biden.


Of course we all now Biden is the intellect of the Democratic party.


Kind of a grin with a body behind it.


But I just think that there is so much to be done, and I think that Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan are two guys that can come along. See, I never thought it was a good idea for attorneys to the president, anyway.


I think attorneys are so busy—you know they’re always taught to argue everything, and always weight everything—weigh both sides…They are always devil’s advocating this and bifurcating this and bifurcating that. You know all that stuff. But, I think it is maybe time—what do you think—for maybe a businessman. How about that?


A stellar businessman. Quote, unquote, "a stellar businessman."

And I think it's that time. And I think if you just step aside and Mr. Romney can kind of take over. You can maybe still use a plane.


Though maybe a smaller one. Not that big gas guzzler you are going around to colleges and talking about student loans and stuff like that.


You are an—an ecological man. Why would you want to drive that around? Okay, well anyway. All right, I'm sorry. I can't do that to myself either.


I would just like to say something, ladies and gentlemen. Something that I think is very important. It is that, you, we—we own this country.


We—we own it. It is not you owning it, and not politicians owning it. Politicians are employees of ours.


And—so—they are just going to come around and beg for votes every few years. It is the same old deal. But I just think it is important that you realize that you're the best in the world. Whether you are a Democrat or Republican or whether you're libertarian or whatever, you are the best. And we should not ever forget that. And when somebody does not do the job, we got to let them go.


Okay, just remember that. And I'm speaking out for everybody out there. It doesn't hurt, we don't have to be…

(AUDIENCE MEMBER): (inaudible)


I do not say that word anymore. Well, maybe one last time.


We don't have to be…what I'm saying, we do not have to be mental masochists and vote for somebody that we don't really even want in office just because they seem to be nice guys or maybe not so nice guys, if you look at some of the recent ads going out there, I don't know.


But okay. You want to make my day?


All right. I started, you finish it. Go ahead.

AUDIENCE: Make my day!

EASTWOOD: Thank you. Thank you very much.

"In Defense of Clint Eastwood"


David Denby

August 31st, 2012

The New Yorker

For the record, I didn’t think Clint Eastwood’s chair dialogue was “sad and pathetic” as Roger Ebert put it, or the weird mutterings of a senescent citizen, as Rachel Maddow and other liberal commentators thought, or quite as incoherent as Amy Davidson said. John Cassidy admitted that the speech was “refreshing,” which was closer to my response. It’s amusing that so many commentators complain about the wooden or pre-fabricated nature of convention speeches and then carry on as if some unspeakable disaster had taken place when someone tries something off-beat and a little strange. Rachel Maddow, whom I generally admire, teases Republican squareness with shrugs and grins in every broadcast. But last night, with a larger than usual national audience watching, she relied on some presumed proper standard of behavior to judge Eastwood, using that assumption as an opportunistic sarcastic tool. Last night, Maddow came off as the square.

I deplore most of Clint’s politics, yet this speech was not a disaster but an act of cunning, like many of his public appearances. He eschewed rhetoric and “rousing” pro-Romney remarks. I could have done without his reprisal of “Make my day,” but, in general, he was folksy, Will Rogersish, eccentric, maybe, but less doddering than mock-doddering. Look at it again: there’s a kind of logic to what he said. As always, his focus was on his idea of integrity—a man should do what he promises to do. That led him into a tangle on Obama’s not closing Gitmo, but he started out by saying that it was a broken promise. That matters to him much more than ideology. He’s always been more of a libertarian than an orthodox Republican, and is actually quite liberal in his social views. His remark that we should have consulted the Russians before going into Afghanistan was startling and very far from stupid. His assertion that Obama should bring the troops home tomorrow morning was even more startling. How many people at the convention reject our military efforts in Afghanistan and want to end them tomorrow? Eccentric, maybe, but not a disaster, and it will be remembered fondly as the one humanly interesting moment of the convention.

Chump change, but a clever way to make more bucks

This reminds me of a tactic that UPS adopted several years ago. It didn't involve pennies...just time. A study revealed that it would be better for UPS  drivers not to make left hand turns at intersections...time was wasted and that was money lost.
"Chipotle’s Fuzzy Math: Why They Stopped Rounding Customers Out of Change"


Josh Sanburn

August 30th, 2012


The next time you’re in Chipotle, check your receipt. That’s what one guy in New Jersey did, and he discovered that the fast-casual restaurant was rounding up to the nearest nickel — and it was costing him money.

Jayson Greenberg of West Caldwell, N.J., noticed something funny on his Chipotle receipts recently. The numbers just weren’t adding up. One receipt showed several items adding to $35.24, but the “total” came up as $35.25. It happened again with another purchase that was $9.24 but was totaled $9.25, and another that was rounded from $18.99 to $19.00. So Greenberg contacted a Chipotle manager.

“He said, ‘Oh, it’s a computer program. It is just rounding numbers. It takes a little from certain receipts and gives a little to others. What do you want? A few pennies?’” Greenberg told The Star-Ledger.

It turns out, Chipotle was rounding totals — both up and down depending on the price — in high traffic restaurants in New Jersey, New York, locations in Boston and elsewhere. The rationale: counting pennies takes time, and in restaurants that often have people lined up out the door, why not just round to speed the line along?

There is actually research on this very issue. MIT physicist Jeff Gore has become a de facto spokesperson for getting rid of the U.S. penny, not just because it’s lost so much value over the years, but because it actually wastes everyone’s time in line. About a decade ago, Gore estimated that we waste $5 billion a year just fiddling around with pennies to make change at a cash register. While Chipotle’s reasoning was a bit different, it appears they believed they could get more people in the door if they could decrease time at the register.

Since The Star-Ledger investigated Chipotle’s penny-pinching, the restaurant now says that the restaurants that do round will only do so to the nearest nickel rather than rounding up. Greenberg told The Star-Ledger that after he complained to Chipotle, he returned to the restaurant and discovered a new line on his receipt: “Round -0.02.” His bill should’ve been $19.02, but he only paid $19.00. Similar receipts have shown up on Consumerist.

Chipotle’s “hidden fees” bring to mind Starbucks’ shadowy “bean fee” that was disclosed last year after a Massachusetts consumer affairs bureau fined Starbucks for secretly adding $1.50 to an order of beans that weighed less than a pound.

But if Chipotle decides to round at all of its restaurants nationwide, it could make the idea of rounding to the nearest nickel more acceptable to Americans, something that has been talked about in the ongoing debate over whether we should keep the wildly out-of-whack U.S. penny, which costs more than 2 cents for the U.S. government to make. Our neighbors in Canada will take their penny out of circulation next year, meaning every Canadian business will basically be doing what Chipotle is doing — rounding to the nickel.

46 year old Indian mail WILL BE DELIVERED

It is said that as many days as there are in the whole journey, so many are the men and horses that stand along the road, each horse and man at the interval of a day’s journey; and these are stayed neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed.—Herodotus, Histories.

Close enough...the Indian mail will be delivered--46 years late.

"India diplomatic bag found in French Alps after 46 years"

August 30th, 2012


A bag carrying diplomatic mail from India has been found on Mont Blanc in the French Alps, close to where an Air India plane crashed 46 years ago.

The jute bag was recovered by a mountain rescue worker and his neighbour after some tourists spotted it on a glacier last week.

The Indian embassy in Paris told the AFP news agency that it would begin efforts to retrieve the bag.

The Air India plane flying from Mumbai to New York crashed in January 1966.

All 117 people on board died.

The bag recovered from the glacier has markings saying "Diplomatic mail" and "Ministry of External Affairs", as the foreign ministry is called in India.

"Some tourists came and told us they had seen something shining on the Bossons glacier," rescue worker Arnaud Christmann told AFP.
'A dump'

"We found pieces of the cabin, a shoe, cables - it's a real dump up there!"

Mr Christmann said the diplomatic bag was "sitting as if someone had just placed it there".

"We were hoping for diamonds or at least a few gold ingots. Instead we got some soaking wet mail and Indian newspapers," he said.

"It's not the sort of thing you find very often in the mountains - the mail's going to arrive 46 years late."

The bag has been handed over to the police in the town of Chamonix at the base of the mountain.

The Indian embassy in Paris said on Wednesday that it had not been informed of the discovery but officials would be looking into it to recover the bag.

"Send help"...the message in a bottle

"World record as message in bottle found after 98 years near Shetland"

August 30th, 2012


A Scottish skipper has set a new world record after finding a message in a bottle 98 years after it was released.

Andrew Leaper's discovery beat the previous record for the longest time a bottle has been adrift at sea by more than five years.

And he found the bottle while skippering the same fishing boat which had set the previous record, the Shetland-based vessel Copious.

Mr Leaper said: "It was an amazing coincidence."

The find has been confirmed as a new record by Guinness World Records.

The drift bottle - containing a postcard which promised a reward of six pence to the finder - was released in June 1914 by Captain CH Brown of the Glasgow School of Navigation.

It was in a batch of 1,890 scientific research bottles which were specially designed to sink to help map the currents of the seas around Scotland when they were returned. Only 315 of them have been found.

Mr Leaper, 43, who found the bottle east of Shetland, explained: "As we hauled in the nets I spotted the bottle neck sticking out and I quickly grabbed it before it fell back in the sea.

"It was very exciting to find the bottle and I couldn't wait to open it.

"It's like winning the lottery twice."

'Immensely proud'

He said his friend Mark Anderson, who had set the previous record in 2006 on board the same vessel, was "very unhappy that I have topped his record".

"He never stopped talking about it - and now I am the one who is immensely proud to be the finder of the world record message in a bottle."

A spokesperson for Guinness World Records said: "We are pleased to hear that the same vessel helped to break the Guinness World Record for oldest message in a bottle twice.

"This is a fascinating record, both historically and scientifically.

"We hope that future expeditions will retrieve more of these treasured messages from the sea."

Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead added: "Scotland has a long and proud tradition in marine science, stretching from these pioneers of ocean research in the 19th and early 20th Century, to the cutting edge marine studies that take place in our labs today.

"The story of scientific drift bottles is a fascinating one and harks back to an area when we were only beginning to understand the complexities of the seas.

"It's amazing that nearly 98 years on bottles are still being returned to the Marine Laboratory - and in such fantastic condition.

"With many bottles still unreturned there is always the chance in the coming years that a Scottish drift bottle will once again break the record."

The bottle, and Mr Leaper's Guinness World Records certificate, have been donated to the Fetlar Interpretative Centre in Shetland

Message in a bottle [Wikipedia]

Thursday, August 30, 2012

"Are we there yet"...nuclear test site

"My Atomic Holiday"

Way out in the desert, at the Nevada Test Site, a certain sort of traveler can confront strange traces of catastrophe (and tomfoolery).


Graeme Wood

September 2012

The Atlantic

 Nearly everyone on my tour bus was past peak reproductive age, which perhaps explained the generally blasé attitude about the remote chance that we’d have our gonads irradiated over the next six hours. We had all, in the previous weeks, received manila envelopes containing an invitation we had anticipated for months: Meet at 7:30 a.m. at the Atomic Testing Museum, in Las Vegas. Leave behind phones, guns, Geiger counters, and cameras. Proceed by bus an hour northwest into the desert for a peek at the scorched and barren zone where the United States conducted the bulk of its nuclear testing. Bring a sack lunch.

Since its establishment in 1951, the Nevada National Security Site (commonly known as the Nevada Test Site) has shaken to the booms of nearly 1,000 nuclear tests. Roughly 100 took place above ground, producing the distinctive death-cap mushroom cloud and showering the surrounding sagebrush with radioactive fallout. Since 1962, all nuclear blasts have been underground, and since the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, in 1996, the only permitted tests here have involved small quantities of high explosives.

One of the most popular day trips from Las Vegas is a tour of the Grand Canyon, the greatest natural site in the United States. The somewhat less popular trip to the Nevada Test Site might claim to reveal the greatest unnatural one—an expanse about the size of Rhode Island that the government has been aggressively blowing up, terra­forming, and polluting for 61 years. Once a month, the Department of Energy offers a free tour to those willing to book as much as a year in advance.

On the bus into the desert, I surveyed my fellow nuclear tourists, curious about what sort of person books this curious sort of trip. At the back of the bus, a gaunt, deeply tanned, white-haired, homeless-looking man got a whole row to himself. He looked like a combination of Gandalf the Grey and the guy who kidnapped Elizabeth Smart. Even though the forecast called for 100-degree heat, he wore a sun-faded lavender sweat suit, with a pair of cornflower-blue nylon basketball shorts over his sweat-bottoms. (I later learned, to my surprise, that he was a recently retired infectious-disease geneticist.) One of the few young men, a pale, skinny guy with a handlebar mustache and olive-drab combat fatigues, wore a T-shirt commemorating the Chernobyl disaster. Nina Elder—a 31-year-old artist and the only unaccompanied woman on the tour—told me that her preferred medium was “radioactive charcoal,” and that she had signed up for the tour because she was creating a series of images of nuclear tests.

John Spahn, the retired government official who led our tour, said he’d had a number of nutters try to join tours in the past—including a man wanting to wear a full spaceman anti-­contamination suit. Spahn said the prohibition on cameras and phones was a precaution to protect sensitive areas and activities at the test site, including what he slyly referred to as “Area … something in the low 50s.”
We drove northwest, to Mercury, Nevada. About half a mile from Highway 95, we reached a gate with a huge white placard forbidding us to go any farther without permission. Spahn said that when wayward tourists or anti­nuclear protesters stray beyond the sign, security teams materialize from out of the desert. The nosy are merely turned back, but trespassing protesters get arrested—though they’re now charged on the spot and spared the hot, 150-mile paddy-wagon journey to the courthouse in Tonopah that they used to endure. Spahn said he had un­wittingly taken antinuclear protesters on tours, and the confrontations became heated. On this particular tour, no one sprang any surprises, although Gandalf handed Spahn a long list of handwritten questions, some of them suggesting that the test site might have been a cover for a secret gold-mining operation, or perhaps illicit government experiments. Spahn flipped through the list coolly, and Gandalf didn’t press the issue.

Past the gate, we proceeded another few miles into the hills that shield the test site from the highway. Mercury itself turned out to be a small company town, with a post office, cafeteria, and steak house but no permanent residents. (Employees of the test site commute in by bus—about 1,200 daily—and stay overnight, in simple dorms, only when necessary.)

We passed signs warning of contamination and forbidding the fool­hardy from pocketing soil or adopting pet rocks. Then the real show began. We stopped to check in at an office and submit to a head count. (If an incident occurs, Spahn explained, “they’ll need to know how many body bags to get.”) We then drove toward Bailey Bridge, a large steel structure on a reinforced-concrete base. The desert is as flat as a hockey rink in all directions, so the sight of a bridge is a little un­settling. On closer inspection, the creepiness did not fade away: the bridge is wrecked and bent, its once-straight 24-inch I beams warped into long, bowing C-shapes.

The bridge and a variety of other things had been built to test how they would hold up to a blast. We continued past a gruesome array of identical bunkers built at different distances from the detonation point. As we progressed toward Ground Zero, these concrete domes showed ever more damage. Other structures were totally wrecked: one building looked like a deflated basketball, and offered a powerful lesson in why you should not shelter from nuclear weapons in an aluminum hut. Spahn showed us rusty old pens where pigs dressed in custom-made Army uniforms were subjected to nuclear blasts, to see how well combat fatigues would protect the skin from radiation and flash burns. For miles around, other than these structures, there is nothing higher than a man’s knee, except for the occasional Joshua tree, standing alone, like a pillar of salt caught looking back while fleeing the hellfire.

A few miles farther, Spahn showed us the last couple houses still standing from Survival Town. These two-story houses had been stocked with furniture, food, and mannequins (allegedly posed in positions of sexual congress), then blown up. The one farthest from Ground Zero remained in decent repair, with its brick chimney just slightly scarred. All of the windows were blasted out, though, and on an upstairs bedroom wall, someone had spray-painted an image of Garfield the cat.

One thousand nuclear explosions had taken their toll on the landscape, from above and from below. Some under­ground detonations just left a sinkhole. Others caused the earth to bubble up like a soufflé, then crack and spew fire, smoke, and ash. One of the largest and most famous of these nuclear soufflés created Sedan Crater, with a 104-kiloton device, in 1962. The crater now bears a plaque noting its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. The bus stopped at the crater, and the tour group gathered at the near edge to admire the steepness of the slopes. The pit was so wide that when I tried winging a stone across, it just plummeted to the bottom. Spahn said that bored site employees had taken tires, doused them with gas, and set them on fire to watch the flames roll into the deep abyss.

These days, the subcritical nuclear experiments conducted at the test site are rarer than another national-security exercise: training for radiation disasters, including terrorist events. Our last stop was what looked like the world’s greatest paintball park: a replica of a small town, mocked up in the middle of the desert so that mass-casualty response teams can practice and prepare for the worst. A decommissioned Delta 727 lay in three parts at one edge of the town, and a derailed train lay along another edge. The instructors simulate dirty bombs and radiological contamination—­with actual radio­active contaminants—­and force squads to clean up the area. “They generally blow up the [simulated] dirty bombs outside the town lawyer’s office,” Spahn said.

Like the men who tested weapons here, the people who now come to train are preparing for something grotesque—a tragedy that could involve city blocks in chaos, and children with radiation burns. And yet somehow, what was left behind suggested something else about what it meant to work out here. The Garfield graffito, the burning tires, and now this area for grim make-­believe confirmed my impression that for all the test site’s scientific and military value, it has also been a playground, the ultimate boys-with-toys zone where real-world rules seemed suspended, where forbidden games were played with impunity. As a day visitor, I was filled with horror, but also jealousy: the test site looked like altogether too much fun.

Blast from the past...atomic oriented postcards

No Legos at ISS...bummer!

"Mike Suffredini Objects to Legos in Space"


Keith Cowing

August 29th, 2012

NASA Watch

"Suff inquired about the relevance of performing the Lego experiment onboard from an ISS research priorities perspective. Ms. Robinson explained that Lego is Leland Melvin's top priority - for education given that Legos are something that children are very familiar with and that can reach tens of thousands of students. Suff asked if the folks at HQ had considered the negative aspects of showcasing Legos in that it may seem we are not utilizing 1SS resources to their fullest capacity. Ms. Robinson explained that she was not aware that people had considered that perspective and would pass this on."

Keith's note: The United States has spent somewhere between $60 to 100 billion on the International Space Station - and the agency's program manager doesn't think that a simple education project - one that uses something simple (Legos) that millions of "future explorers" use every day - is relevant? I do not hear Mike Suffredini objecting to all of the other stuff (baseball caps, college t-shirts, cartoon characters) that make their way onto the ISS. So why pick on something simple that (potentially) allows children to have a personal connection with this incredible on-orbit research facility? This is simply baffling.

Do I smell a challenge in the streets of Dodge City?

Ole "Dead Eye" Curiosity honing its skills. How soon will it be before toy companies market the goodies. WOW, NASA will make millions on royalties.

"Before-and-After Photos: Curiosity’s Laser Burns Holes in Martian Rock"


Adam Mann
August 30th, 2012


When it comes to laser blasts, the Curiosity rover is no slouching Stormtrooper. These impressive before-and-after shots show a nice row of dots resulting from the probe’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument on a target patch of soil on Mars.

Burning tiny holes in this unlucky bit of Martian dirt — which NASA engineers nicknamed “Beechy” — is called a five-by-one raster. The technique provides data about changes in chemical composition over small areas of the regolith. Each image covers a circular view about three inches wide.

ChemCam is Curiosity’s coolest bit of science gear, shooting laser beams that deliver a million watts of power for about five one-billionths of a second. The rover analyzes the resulting glowing plasma to determine what elements and molecules make up its target. Beechy received 50 laser shots, creating holes ranging from 0.08 to 0.16 inches wide, and demonstrated the rover’s ability to clear dust and small grains from its target area.

Chemical analysis showed that the rocks in this sample look unsurprisingly similar over such a short distance, but the small amount of variability will help scientists with future studies. This is not the first time that Curiosity has shot its ChemCam laser — a previous rock, Coronation, was at the receiving end of the rover’s might 11 days ago.

The heat is on for Bill Nye

"Bill Nye the Science Guy defends anti-creationist video"


Dennis Bodzash

August 30th, 2012

Last week, Bill Nye, best known as TV's 'Science Guy,' created quite a stir when he appeared in a video for the website the Big Think, in which he declared that a belief in creationism was bad for children. Now, after the video has gone viral (over 1.6 million hits and counting), a lot of attention (and criticism) has come down on Nye for his view

Appearing on CBS This Morning, Nye is fighting back against his critics, declaring that he was not attacking religion at all, but is merely trying to promote science.

Speaking on the science vs. religion struggle, Nye stated that "You can believe what you want religiously. Religion is one thing, but science, provable science is something else,” adding that “you want people to believe in science, this process, this great idea that humans had to discover more about the universe and our place in it, our place in space.”

Turning to current events to illustrate his point, Nye focused on Hurricane Issac, stating that “this morning, talking about Hurricane Isaac, and we're watching satellite maps made with spacecraft orbiting the earth, and this all comes from science. If you have this idea that the earth is only 6,000 years old, you are denying, if you will, everything that you can touch and see. You're not paying attention to what's happening in the universe around you. As I say, this is bad for kids."

Basically, Nye is saying that people can believe in whatever they want to in terms of religion, but that religion should not be confused with science.

As for what is supposed to be taught in schools, Ohio has implemented academic content standards for all core school subjects, including science. The goal of these standards is to ensure that teachers are teaching the same content in every school at any given grade level. By looking at the Ohio science standards, one sees no reference to creationism/intelligent design, only evolution, to which there are over a dozen in just the high school grades alone. Besides scientific facts, the Ohio standards also emphasize the scientific method, which makes no room for including one's preconceived notions in scientific research. .

Now, one may be asking “what does all of this have to do with astronomy and space? Answer: plenty.

Like biology, astronomy is a subject that has had a history of conflicting with religion and, even now, can shock the sensibilities of some, particularly religious fundamentalists, who continue to hold onto the belief that the world was created in a matter of days and that the age of the Earth can be determined by counting back the years as given in holy books. Just as anyone committed to the correct teaching of science would be appalled at the lack of evolution in biology, a same revulsion would occur if the Big Bang along with solar system formation were taught side by side with the account in Genesis, or skipped altogether, in an astronomy class. Needless to say, omitting these two most basic of processes would do as major a disservice to any astronomy student as glossing over evolution or teaching it in tandem with a most nonscientific idea as creationism would do to anyone learning biology.

Needless to say, if biology teachers are too afraid to teach evolution through either personal ignorance or risk of offending someone, what's not to say that astronomy teachers will become the same way if the religious decide to get up in arms over the Big Bang or solar system formation? It's a scary thought but, considering the social climate of the country we live in, it may not be an impossibility, especially considering that the U.S. is an anomaly in the Western world wherein belief in creationism far outweighs that in evolution.

As a final thought, consider the following: in science, if there is any commandment, it is this: respect the facts. No matter what we want the world to be or what our preconceived notions are, the world is the way it is, inflexible to human will. If one truly wishes to assume a scientific mindset, he/she must have respect for facts, no matter how contrary to personal beliefs they are. In the case of both evolution and the Big Bang, all facts point towards the scientific theories, not the religious dogma, being the truth. Yes, there are many great things about religion, such as ethical principles, its function as a social bonding agent, influence on the arts, and many others. However, religion is not science and it should be kept out of the science classroom.

The video is at this link...

Some thoughts by Bill Nye regarding creationism, evolution, and science

British auction of space memorabilia

"One small sketch for man: Remarkable Nasa illustrations plotting Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon set to go under the hammer"

Read and see a whole lot more.

Yipes...consumer manipulation...well, it does work

"The Brilliant Genius Bar Manual That Teaches Apple Employees How To Manipulate Customers"


Will Oremus

August 30th, 2012


A number of articles lately have attempted to convey the full measure of Apple’s unprecedented streak of business success. Perhaps the most mind-blowing factoid about the company’s value came yesterday from Kontra, via Twitter: At the time of his tweet, Apple’s market capitalization had exceeded that of Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon—combined.

One reason for that phenomenal success is, of course, Apple’s products. Another is its customer service, namely the Genius Bar, where bright-faced young geeks win customers’ hearts and build brand loyalty that Apple’s competitors can’t match.

How do they pull off this “high-touch” approach? Gizmodo this week reported on a leaked copy of Apple’s training manual for Genius Bar employees. Sam Biddle summarizes: “Sales, it turns out, take a backseat to good vibes—almost the entire volume is dedicated to empathizing, consoling, cheering up, and correcting various Genius Bar confrontations.”

To wit, a section of the manual under the subheading “Empathy Exercise 2—Techniques” introduces “The Three Fs: Feel, Felt, and Found.” A sample conversation from the handbook:

Customer: This Mac is just too expensive.

Genius: I can see how you'd feel this way. I felt the price was a little high, but I found it's a real value because of all the built-in software and capabilities.

This tactic dovetails nicely with the section of the manual on things to avoid saying and doing. For instance: “Do not apologize for the business [or] the technology.” Instead, empathize: “I’m sorry you’re feeling frustrated,” or “too bad about your soda spill accident.”

Biddle’s fascinating post on the manual is worth reading in full. But while he reads Apple’s tactics as outlandish and creepy, if brilliant, I’d just call them brilliant. Of course the company wants employees to address tech problems without trash-talking Apple’s own products. Of course it wants them to make customers feel valued while not forgetting that the ultimate goal is to part them from their money. These are things that every company wants, and they are skills that come instinctively to great salespeople.

But when you’re a big company, it’s almost impossible to impart these skills to every single employee. Most don’t even try—they hand out a generic HR handbook that no one will read, mainly just to cover their butts. Apple’s manual, in contrast, reveals a firm so bent on maintaining customer loyalty that it will go to abnormal lengths to show its workers exactly how to behave in all situations.

The investment has helped Apple establish one of the all-time great business empires. But as Apple continues to grow, it will become harder for it to serve its customers well. The company today has some 300 retail stores in the United States, but far fewer in many fast-growing overseas markets. It’s difficult to imagine the company keeping up with demand for its Genius Bars without compromising on the quality of its service.

As it happens, the company has offered a glimpse into the Genius Bar’s future: “online specialists.” The online service, which is now available to customers in Brazil, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom, is meant for people serious about buying an iPad or iPhone. Through live chats, phone conversations, and “screencasts,” the online helpers guide them through the product’s features, answer questions, and even help them set up their new gizmos once they’ve made their purchase.

What it doesn’t offer is any tech support, which means this is not really an “online Genius Bar.” But online tech support is surely not far away. And if Apple wants to keep printing money, it had better start writing a manual for its online geniuses that’s just as devious as the one for the men and women who manipulate us in brick-and-mortar stores.

Matthew Maury and William Whewell...citizen scientists

U. S. Navy Museum...

Matthew Fontaine Maury (1806-1873)

Nicknamed "Pathfinder of the Seas," Matthew Fontaine Maury made important contributions to charting wind and ocean currents. His studies proved that by following the winds and currents ships could cross the ocean in fewer days than ever before.

In 1825 at age 19, Maury joined the United States Navy as a midshipman on board the frigate Brandywine. Almost immediately he began to study the seas and record methods of navigation. When a leg injury left him unfit for sea duty, Maury devoted his time to the study of navigation, meteorology, winds, and currents. His hard work on and love of plotting the oceans paid off when he became Superintendent of the Naval Observatory and head of the Depot of Charts and Instruments. Here Maury studied thousands of ships' logs and charts. He published the Wind and Current Chart of the North Atlantic, which showed sailors how to use the ocean's currents and winds to their advantage and drastically reduced the length of ocean voyages. Maury's uniform system of recording oceanographic data was adopted by navies and merchant marines around the world and was used to develop charts for all the major trade routes.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Maury, a Virginian, resigned his commission as a U.S. Navy commander and joined the Confederacy. He spent the war in the South, as well as abroad in England, acquiring ships for the Confederacy. Following the war, Maury accepted a teaching position at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. He died at his home in Lexington in 1873 after completing an exhausting national lecture tour.

"Victorian-era citizen science: reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated"


Caren Cooper

August 30th, 2012

Scientific American

In my last blog post, I introduced Matthew Maury, an American naval officer who began a citizen science project in the mid-1800s that transformed seafaring and drew society closer to science. Now let’s meet his British counterpart, William Whewell, an elite scholar who engaged the public to understand the tides, but in so doing helped to solidify the distinction between amateur and professional scientists.

Whewell pursued an exemplary career at Trinity College, Cambridge. Whewell began as a student at Trinity College in 1812, served in two professorships, first mineralogy and then philosophy, and finally rose to the top as Master at Trinity College from 1841 until his death in 1866. Although Whewell’s colleagues embraced the emerging trend of specializing in particular disciplines, Whewell remained a polymath with expertise in many subjects, including geology, astronomy, economics, theology, law, and the philosophy of science.

Where Maury mapped the oceans, Whewell mapped the coasts, where unpredictable tidal cycles caused shipwrecks and made coastal navigation dangerous. Tides are puzzling: as late as 1953, an “unexpected” high tide on the Thames drowned 300 people. Great thinkers have investigated the mystery of tides throughout history, and the influence of the moon was suspected as far back as Galileo. Advances in tide research were not stymied by a lack of great and curious minds, but by a lack of data – and Whewell figured out how to get it. Whewell took a citizen science approach to tidal research with a project known as the “great tide experiment.”

With the consent of the British Admiralty, Whewell coordinated thousands of people in nine nations and colonies on both sides of the Atlantic in the synchronized measurement of tides. At over 650 tidal stations, volunteers followed Whewell’s instructions for measuring tides every 15 minutes, around the clock, during the same two week period in June 1835. Volunteers in the “great tide experiment” included dockyard officials, sailors, harbormasters, local tide table markers, coastal surveyors, professional military men, and amateur observers. Many participants did more than measure the tides; they also tabulated, graphed, and charted the data. Whewell brought it all together into maps illustrating how the tides progressed across the Atlantic Ocean and onto shores, inlets, ports, and into rivers and estuaries. In 1837, the oldest learned society of science, the Royal Society, awarded Whewell a Royal Medal for his work on tides. The Royal Medal is one of their highest honors, and one they later bestowed on Charles Darwin.

Whewell was very different from the navy-man Maury in two important ways: writing style and academic tradition. First, Maury’s writing appealed to popular audiences; Whewell’s appealed to academics. Maury’s style was accessible, sometimes poetic , and sometimes he wrote humorous and candid political critiques using the pen name Harry Bluff. Whewell, on the other hand, fathered scientific jargon. He coined many terms, including one for his own niche in physical astronomy, tidology (it never caught on). Whewell was the go-to person when other scholars needed to describe a new concept or discovery, inventing words like ion, anode, and cathode. As early as 1833, Whewell coined the term scientist: before it caught on, such an individual was called “man of science” or “natural philosopher” and they were more likely pursuing science in their leisure, not as a profession.

The second important difference was academic tradition. Both men carried out research by quite similar citizen science methods in the mid-1800s, but they were part of very different intellectual traditions. As a professor at a college founded in 1546, Whewell was part of an academic hierarchy established long ago. Maury was a military man who later taught physics at an institution (Virginia Military Institute) barely more than a decade old. Whewell was in the prestigious Royal Society, mentioned above, which was founded in 1660; Maury was a key figure presenting at the founding meeting, in 1848, of the US counterpart, the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS.

These two differences between Maury and Whewell translate into their differing views of the relationship between science and society. Both men produced results of practical and theoretical importance, but Maury popularized science and engaged the common person in applied research, whereas Whewell involved people in supporting the work of the professional elite. In two highly regarded books on the philosophy of science, Whewell defined the social and intellectual roles of scientists. Whewell emphasized that a scientist did not only make and assemble observations, but also synthesized concepts and developed theories to explain the patterns of observations. In erudite arguments with John Stuart Mill about inductive reasoning, Whewell viewed observations as pearls, and induction as the rational mental processes by which minds can string the pears together to form a necklace. In the context of Whewell’s citizen science project, thousands gathered the pearls (he referred to the thousands of collaborators as his “subordinate labourers”), and he, the scientist, assembled the necklace. His choice of the words “subordinate labourers” illustrates the class systems which structured his thinking.

Whewell’s books established a social hierarchy to science, distinguishing the hobbyist or part-time devotee from the professionals and specialists. He placed elite theorists on the top of the hierarchy. Below were those paid to help construct tide tables and make sophisticated mathematical calculations. His “subordinate labourers” were not part of the hierarchy of professional science. Today, many think of public participation in science as a way to democratize science, or at least better integrate science into society. At first it may seem ironic that Whewell – one of the first to engage a broad swath of the public in a formal, highly structured research project – led the charge to professionalize science and separate the scientist from society.

Yet, sometimes we can only define something by its antithesis. As Mark Twain pondered, “What is joy without sorrow? What is success without failure? What is a win without a loss? What is health without illness? You have to experience each if you are to appreciate the other.” Before “scientist” became a clearly defined career, discovery was commonly a collective effort by those with leisure time. Early collaborations between science and society often took the form of well-to-do natural history collectors donating specimens to museums. I view the great contributions of volunteers among the upper-crust as more representative of how science, not citizen science, was accomplished at that time. By distinguishing the profession from the leisure, Whewell defined both. Now we can’t have citizen science – defined as the public engaged in professional research – without professional research.

The continental-scale citizen science projects carried about by Maury and Whewell are a nice reminder of what was possible before our age of the Internet and mobile communications. Maury and Whewell were able to compile enormous amounts of data they received in handwritten logs carried in burlap sacks on sailing ships and notes delivered by stagecoaches. They didn’t have GPS, but they created useful maps. Nowadays it is hard to plan a simple lunch date without using a phone or email, but people used to communicate, coordinate, and plan complex events without the help of these technologies. Even before Maury and Whewell, the synchronized, worldwide observations of the 1779 transit of Venus allowed the calculation of the distance to the Sun and the size of the solar system. Fact is that the lack of speedy communication technologies did not prevent global collaboration, crowdsourcing of data, or the coordination of large-scale data collection by volunteers.

Discovery has always been possible through collaborations among curious people working in other careers across all segments of society. The most important way that advances in science and technology have fostered citizen science often goes unnoticed: thanks to science we have more leisure time than people in the 1800s. Society and scientists are reviving a fashion from a time when scientific endeavors were highly integrated into society; a time when hobbies were damn serious, meaningful, and sophisticated commitments. I think we in the citizen science field are stylish hipsters carrying out science the original way: the way that leads to big discovery and big societal change. Speed is not essential, but it is a beautiful fashion accessory: it brings unique prospects (many of which I will cover in future blog posts). We are not the first generation to understand that to answer the big questions, you have to coordinate big networks of people around the globe. Will the current technology-driven explosion of this retro science fashion bring back that time when discovery was fair game for anybody?

[Caren Cooper, PhD, is a Research Associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. She studies bird behavior, reproduction, and ecology at large scales using data from citizen science networks. In addition, Cooper works with social scientists to study why people get involved in citizen science and nature-based recreation. She has analyzed how citizen-science methods have been used to aid urban planning, e-governance, and policy initiatives. She is writing a nonfiction book about citizen science and is a Senior Fellow in the Environmental Leadership Program.]

Peer Instruction...a new teaching tool?

"Physics faculty try innovative teaching methods"

August 29th, 2012


A study of physics faculty awareness and use of research-based instructional techniques offers greater understanding of what is missing from current education reform efforts

The world has changed dramatically in recent decades but many argue that the university system has not kept pace. As another academic year begins, if you peek into any introductory college science course you're likely to find the same scene as you would have twenty years ago: An instructor writing equations on the blackboard while a lecture hall full of students take notes.

Why is college science instruction so slow to change when we know that there are better methods? Focused research and development has resulted in a variety of effective strategies for teaching science. These techniques typically actively engage students through discussions with classmates, posing and answering questions, and making sense of science concepts. Physics, among all the sciences, has been noted for leading the way in developing such research-based teaching strategies. For example, in one such technique called Peer Instruction the teacher poses challenging questions to students. Students discuss the question with their neighbors, use an electronic device called a "clicker" to vote on the answer, and then the instructor facilitates a whole-class discussion about the question using the real-time feedback from the students' electronic votes.

However, education reformers know very little about just how teaching techniques like Peer Instruction are being used by instructors. A recently released study sheds new light on this critical area. The study, authored by Charles Henderson and Magdalena Niewiadomska-Bugaj of Western Michigan University and Melissa Dancy of the University of Colorado at Boulder, was published in Physical Review Special Topics: Physics Education Research on July 31.

"Nobody had ever done a study like this,"
said Dr. Henderson. While other researchers have looked at whether faculty do or don't use research-based techniques, Henderson and his colleagues were trying to figure out what types of faculty tend to try these techniques, and whether they keep using them over time.

To accomplish this, the authors used results from a national web survey of 722 physics faculty who had taught introductory physics in the previous two years. Faculty gave information about their background (such as rank, type of institution, gender, and number of research publications). Then, faculty read through a comprehensive set of 24 research-based instructional techniques in physics and indicated whether they had heard of the technique, whether they'd used it, and whether they were still using it. This provided information about where each faculty member stood in the process of choosing whether to use a new teaching approach.

The authors' first finding was that most physics faculty (88% of survey participants) know about at least one of these instructional techniques, and most faculty (72% of participants) had tried at least one. However, faculty who chose to respond to the survey may be more likely to use such techniques, so these numbers may over-estimate actual nationwide numbers. Despite this limitation, it does appear that the hard work to disseminate these materials and techniques has indeed paid off, and the word is out.

But the clincher came when the researchers looked at discontinuation– about 1/3 of faculty who try one of these strategies stop using it.

"Most faculty actually know about these things, a lot of people try these things," said Henderson, "but the biggest loss is this discontinuation after trying. That's an important finding."

Myles Boylan, program officer at the National Science Foundation, agrees. Boylan says that this discontinuation is probably "the most dismaying" part of the study. "It is, however, largely reflected in the experiences that other groups have had around the country," he said. "There are even examples in the past of whole departments trying out new teaching practices for an introductory course and the whole department backing off when the students complain." While dropping the use of a teaching technique, for whatever reason, is well-known in various science disciplines, the detailed data in the current study is unprecedented, said Boylan.

The researchers then used a statistical model that allowed them to examine the effects of any one aspect of instructors' backgrounds on their use of teaching techniques, while controlling for the effects of other background variables.

They found that if an instructor attended a particular set of national workshops for new faculty in physics, they were more likely to know about and try a research-based method. However, these faculty were no more likely to continue to use that method over time. The same was true of other ways that faculty used to gather information, such as attending talks or workshops or reading about teaching. Workshops and articles create motivation and awareness, but do not support faculty in continued use of a technique.

"I'm not surprised that about a third of the faculty have tried one of these methods and then dropped out from using it," said Boylan, "because they probably experienced some real bumps along the road and didn't know how to deal with that."

Additionally, many assumptions about what might keep faculty from using educational innovations were not borne out by this study. A common idea is that older faculty are less innovative and, if we wait for older faculty to retire, then educational change will naturally follow. However, age (as measured by rank and years of teaching experience) was not correlated with use of instructional techniques, and it also didn't matter if an instructor was in a teaching-oriented job, what type of institution he/she taught at, the size of the classes they teach, or if they were highly productive researchers. So, one can't assume that more senior faculty, those more engaged in research, or those teaching large classes can't or won't use research-based teaching techniques.

"It's contrary to common thinking," said co-author Melissa Dancy. "The common thinking is that faculty are to blame, they don't know about the reforms, they're too old to change, they have big classrooms that make it hard for them to do things, that this is where the problem is. So we're not addressing where the problem actually is right now."

However, some of these variables did come into play when considering whether faculty used more than 3 such research-based teaching techniques. Such "high" users tended to publish fewer research articles and teach smaller classes. Female faculty were also more likely to know about, and be high users of, research-based strategies.

These results suggest that, instead of focusing so much effort on getting instructors to try a teaching technique for the first time it may be more productive to work on helping instructors use such techniques effectively over the longer term.

"Our model of how to bring about [educational] reform is flawed," says Dancy. "Faculty aren't uncaring research-focused people who don't want to try things or don't want to change… they do, but they need more help and support to do it and more acknowledgement that it's not that easy. So to me the biggest lesson in that is that we need to be providing more ongoing support during the implementation phase, because that's where we're losing people."

Peer instruction [Wikipedia]