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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Shenanigans in the Texas State Board of Education

TEA LogoThis is a story that's already made its way around the skeptical neighborhoods of the blogosphere, but it definitely bears repeating for anybody that hasn't heard it yet. Last Friday, the Texas State Board of Education approved the new English Language Arts and Reading curriculum standards.

According to the news release put out by the Texas Education Agency,

A less repetitive, more grade-level specific set of English Language Arts and Reading curriculum standards will go into use in Texas classrooms in the fall of 2009 after having been approved by the State Board of Education May 23 on a 9-6 vote.

The process of revising the 1997 standards began in 2005. Hundreds of teachers, numerous experts, national facilitators, and State Board of Education members worked on many drafts of the document over that time.

The standards ultimately approved by the board represent a blending of a document crafted by teacher work groups, with the help of facilitators from StandardsWork, and a version drafted by a coalition of English teachers. Many of the same teachers worked on both documents.

That release also states

Other board expressed strong concerns about being asked to approve a draft document that emerged on the final day of deliberations. Consequently, the board agreed to go through the document page by page, spending several hours looking at the latest revisions.

After working two and a half years on curriculum standards, I can imagine that board members would have "strong concerns" over a document that they'd had less than a day to review. There's an article in the Dallas Morning News that lists more details of how that document was released:

"I find it's really wild that we can work for three years on a project and then the board is so qualified they can pull it out of their hat overnight," said board member Pat Hardy, a Fort Worth Republican who, like other board members, received the substituted document when it was slipped under her hotel door less than an hour before their meeting was set to convene Friday morning.

The article also discusses how the "seveal hours" were spent reviewing the new document.

After first saying he would not give board members time to go over the new document during the meeting, Chairman Don McLeroy, a Republican from College Station, eventually relented, allowing a quick run through of the new document with an explanation of the changes.

But the squabbling did not end there.

"Mr. Chair you're going so fast ... you're moving so fast we can't find it in the other document," Berlanga said, shortly after the page-by-page explanation began.

After more complaints, McLeroy declared that he would continue at the fast pace.

"The ruling is you're being dilatory in dragging this out," McLeroy said.

The Houston Chronicle also has an article on what happened, with an opening paragraph that sums up the situation quite nicely.

A three-year effort to rewrite English language arts and reading standards for the state's public schools came down to a last minute cut-and-paste job Friday.

The way the Board of Education handled this was completely improper. Don McLeroy, the head of the Board of Education (who also happens to be a creationist, and a dentist, with virtually no qualifications for heading that board) should resign, and if he doesn't do so voluntarily, should be removed by the governor.

And don't forget that the science standards are the next in line to be reviewed. If the board can be so underhanded on a topic as uncontroversial as English, I fear just what stunts they're going to pull when it comes to subjects like biology and geology.

The best write up I've seen of this in the blogosphere comes from Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy Blog

Friday, May 23, 2008

Book Review- City of Ember

City of Ember is a young adult/children's book written by Jeanne DuPrau, which I'd highly recommend. Without giving away any more of the plot than what you'd pick up in the first couple chapters - Ember is a city with no natural light. All the illumination in the city comes from street lights and lamps. The city gets its electricity from a giant generator driven by and underground river. But the generator keeps breaking down, they're running out of light bulbs, and there's nowhere to go - indeed, the people of Ember think their city is the only city there is.

Long ago when the Builders constructed the City of Ember, they had an important secret that the people were supposed to learn in 220 years. They enclosed the secret in a box with a mechanism that would open at the appropriate time, and entrusted the box to the mayor, who was supposed to hand it down to the next mayor, who was supposed to hand it down to the next mayor, etc., until the box opened and the citizens of Ember learned the secret. Unfortunately, one of the mayors broke the chain, and the box with the secret was lost.

Now, the two main characters, Lina and Doon, must figure out a way to solve the city's problems.

I really enjoyed reading this book. To give an idea of how engaging the story is, I read the book in two days, my wife read it in three, and our eight year old daughter read it in two. It's written in a style that sucks you in, so that you really want to just keep reading to see how it's going to end. Granted, it may not be perfect. It's a little predictable, and I definitely have a few unanswered questions (which may be resolved in the sequel or prequel, which I haven't read, yet), but those slight shortcomings are more than made up for by the story telling. I'd recommend this book to anyone, young and old alike.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Global Warming - It's Real, And We're Causing It

Global WarmingI was with a group of people yesterday, and one of them brought up the recent news of the U.S. listing polar bears as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, due to their expected decline as global warming melts the arctic sea ice they depend upon for survival. And of course, this got the conversation going on global warming. Out of the six of us, one guy thought that scientists just didn't know what the hell was going on with the climate, that there wasn't any real consensus on global warming at all, and that even if global warming were real, which he doubted, polar bears would find a way to survive, anyway. Another guy seemed more open to the idea that global warming could be happening, and could be human caused, but wasn't entirely convinced. I tried my best to defend the science, while the other three people stayed pretty quiet on the subject (although from a previous conversation, I think that one of them at least accepts that global warming is happening). Later on, when I told another guy about this conversation, he seemed to think that the current global warming might just be a natual cycle, and that it's not human caused. So, out of 7 people, I was the only one to strongly accept that current global warming is human caused.

Now, I'll admit I'm no expert on global climate. Not only am I not involved with the field at all, but I haven't really studied it in depth on a lay level, either, like I have other fields such as evolution. So, I guess I need to ask myself, how can I go on accepting that humans are causing global warming, and that it is a major problem?

First, I'll defer to the experts. I realize this isn't exactly a sound logical approach - after all, evidence is evidence no matter who discovers it. But, in the same way that I'll take my doctor's advice on what effects different medicines and procedures have, I'll put a fair amount of weight on the statements of the people who devote their careers to studying climate.

First, let's take a look at the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Their 2007 report has a Summary for Policy Makers (pdf), detailing their key findings, which contains statements such as these:

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising global average sea level.
Global GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions due to human activities have grown since pre-industrial times, with an increase of 70% between 1970 and 2004.
Global atmospheric concentrations of CO2, methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) have increased markedly as a result of human activities since 1750 and now far exceed pre-industrial values determined from ice cores spanning many thousands of years.
Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG concentrations. 7 It is likely that there has been significant anthropogenic warming over the past 50 years averaged over each continent (except Antarctica).

So, here's a group composed of hundreds of scientists from dozens of countries, working on a report that needed to be approved by all of them. Even without having a great understanding of the science, I'd put a fair amount of trust in a report prepared that way. But, say you don't like foreigners, and you want some stuff done here in the good old U.S. of A. How about NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies? The day I checked their site, their lead story was Earth Impacts Linked to Climate Change, with the summary:

A new study shows that human-caused climate change has impacted a wide range of natural systems, from Arctic permafrost thawing to African lakes declining in productivity.

They take human-caused climate change as such a given that they're simply moving on to addressing its effects.

How about the Environmental Protection Agency? Well, they have a whole site devoted to Climate Change, but let's take a look at their frequently asked questions, specifically this question, Are human activities responsible for the warming climate?. Here's their response:

Careful measurements have confirmed that greenhouse gas emissions are increasing and that human activities (principally, the burning of fossil fuels and changes in land use) are the primary cause. Human activities have caused the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane to be higher today than at any point during the last 650,000 years. Scientists agree it is very likely that most of the global average warming since the mid-20th century is due to human-induced increases in greenhouse gases, rather than to natural causes.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a section on this, too. Here're some of the things they have to say:

Human activity has been increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (mostly carbon dioxide from combustion of coal, oil, and gas; plus a few other trace gases). There is no scientific debate on this point.
Global surface temperatures have increased about 0.74°C (plus or minus 0.18°C) since the late-19th century, and the linear trend for the past 50 years of 0.13°C (plus or minus 0.03°C) per decade is nearly twice that for the past 100 years. The warming has not been globally uniform. Some areas (including parts of the southeastern U.S. and parts of the North Atlantic) have, in fact, cooled slightly over the last century. The recent warmth has been greatest over North America and Eurasia between 40 and 70°N. Lastly, seven of the eight warmest years on record have occurred since 2001 and the 10 warmest years have all occurred since 1995.

There's also a "Joint science academies’ statement: Global response to climate change" which was signed and endorsed by the Academia Brasiliera de Ciências, the Royal Society of Canada, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Academié des Sciences of France, the Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher of Leopoldina, Germany, the Indian National Science Academy, the Accademia dei Lincei of Italy, the Science Council of Japan, the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society of the United Kingdom, and the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Some of the wording in that statment includes:

There will always be uncertainty in understanding a system as complex as the world’s climate. However there is now strong evidence that significant global warming is occurring1.
The existence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is vital to life on Earth – in their absence average temperatures would be about 30 centigrade degrees lower than they are today. But human activities are now causing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases – including carbon dioxide, methane, tropospheric ozone, and nitrous oxide – to rise well above pre-industrial levels. Carbon dioxide levels have increased from 280 ppm in 1750 to over 375 ppm today – higher than any previous levels that can be reliably measured (i.e. in the last 420,000 years). Increasing greenhouse gases are causing temperatures to rise; the Earth’s surface warmed by approximately 0.6 centigrade degrees over the twentieth century.
1 This statement concentrates on climate change associated with global warming. We use the UNFCCC definition of climate change, which is ‘a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods’.

So, if we're to trust the experts, there is an overwhelming consensus that global warming is real, and that us humans are the ones causing it.

But, reality isn't based on a vote, so let's take a look at at least a little of the data to back up these claims. I found a site that puts the data into nice, easy to see graphics, Global Warming Art. Here's a graph of carbon dioxide concentrations over the past several thousand years:

Carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere over both the last 1000 years and the preceding 400,000 years. Over long times, carbon dioxide influences and responds to the ice age cycles.
Image from Global Warming Art.

Here's a graph of reconstructed temperature, which seems to show a pretty good correlation to those carbon dioxide levels (note that it goes back just a little farther into the past than the above graph).

Changes in Antarctic temperature and ice volume during the last four glacial/interglacial cycles
Image from Global Warming Art.

And just to show that the scientists really do have a pretty good understanding of what's going on, here's a graph showing model predictions compared to actual measured global temperature:

Climate Change Attribution
Image from Global Warming Art.

So, as stated above, there seems to be a huge consensus among the people actually studying the issue that global warming is real, and that us humans are the ones causing it. The data available certainly seems consistent with what they're saying. So, I really don't understand how people could doubt global warming, unless they're just not willing to look into it.

For those wanting to research this more (as I certainly plan to), the Global Warming Art page looked pretty good. Also, RealClimate looks to be a pretty good resource, especially their page, Start here. They even have a section of links to sites dealing with correcting misconceptions raised by "contrarian talking points." A couple of the ones I've already looked at are How to talk to Global Warming Skeptic and Anti-global heating claims - a reasonably thorough debunking. And finally, just follow the literature. I read the Nature News site every day during my lunch break. Nature's a very reputable journal (note - the News site isn't publishing peer reviewed research like the journal, itself, but it must still uphold the same reputation), and in the past 5 years or so since I've been following that site, with all the articles on global warming that they've published, I haven't seen a single one that called into question global warming or that we're the cause of it.

All images in this entry came from Global Warming Art.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Book Review - From the Ground Up

From the Ground Up Book Cover
From the Ground Up

Buy it from Amazon
I just finished reading From the Ground Up: The Autobiography of an Aeronautical Engineer. It was written by Fred Weick (1899-1993), and co-authored by James R. Hansen. I found it to be extremely interesting (but perhaps there were a few unique reasons that made the book so appealing to me).

Fred Weick is probably not a familiar name to most people, even those involved in aviation, despite the significant contributions he's made. He's probably most well known to Ercoupe pilots - Weick designed the plane back in the '40s, and is spoken of almost reverentially on Ercoupe forums (such as the fly-in and tech groups on Yahoo). My great uncle and I share an Ercoupe (and by share - I mean he keeps it in Pittsburgh and flies it, while I get to dream about it while I'm down here in Texas). It was when I first started following along on those Ercoupe discussion groups that Weick became a name that I would remember.

Later on, after I'd started working as an aeronautical engineer, and was just getting started doing design work on propellers, while doing some research on the subject, I came across an interesting paper, Propeller design I: practical application of the blade element theory, by none other than Fred Weick. That lead me to pay even more attention to his name, and it began popping up all over the place.

Fred Weick grew up during the golden age of aviation, and fell in love with airplanes from an early age. He spent a lot of time at his local airport, watched airshows, joined a club building model airplanes, and just generally immersed himself in the nascent field of flight.

After a few odd jobs, such as working for a small aircraft manufacturer and mapping out routes for the air mail service, he took a job with the NACA in the Washington D.C. area (I used to work in D.C., too). He got his start doing theoretical and experimental work on propellers (like I said above, I've had some experience designing propellers myself). He even wrote a text book on the subject.

After a brief stint as the chief engineer at Hamilton, Weick went back to the NACA to help run the NACA's new full scale wind tunnel at Langley. He started during the construction of the tunnel. One of the research projects conducted there by Weick was the NACA cowling. According to John D. Anderson in his textbook, Introduction to Flight, "The development of this cowling was one of the most important aerodynamic advancements of the 1920s; it led the way to a major increase in aircraft speed and efficiency." (Anderson 452) This work earned Weick the Collier Trophy in 1929.

While still with the NACA, Weick began working on the side on a research aircraft to try to address the most common causes of accidents at the time. The aircraft was named the W-1, and Weick had the volunteer assistance of a few of the other engineers who worked under him. He designed the aircraft to be stall proof and spin proof. He developed a 2-control system, experimenting with rudder only and aileron only control. Perhaps the greatest legacy of the W-1 was its tricycle landing gear which made takeoffs, landing, and ground handling much easier and safer. This was the first aircraft developed with a steerable nosewheel, which has since become the standard on just about all airplanes.

Engineering Research Company, or ERCO, which was being run by one of Weick's old friends, Henry Berliner (who had also done some pioneering work on helicopters), and which was already providing parts to aircraft companies, wanted to get into the business of making planes for themselves. They hired Weick as their chief engineer, and he moved to College Park (which, incidentally, is the home of the University of Maryland, where I earned my degree). The project allowed Weick to put into practice many of the innovations he'd developed for the W-1, in a plane that became known as the Ercoupe. One difference between the two planes was in the 2-control system. The W-1 was able to get away with aileron only control, because the ailerons produced so little adverse yaw. However, the design was also draggy overall, so it wasn't suitable for high speed cruise. The Ercoupe instead used interconnected rudders and ailerons (this was offered as an option - customers could still buy the airplane with a more conventional 3-control setup). The Ercoupe really is a unique airplane, and when you consider that it was designed around the same time as airplanes like the Piper Cub, you can see just how revolutionary it was.

When the civil aircraft market crashed after WWII, ERCO got out of the aircraft manufacturing business, and Weick took a job down at Texas A&M (College Station's a few hours away from me, but I also moved down to Texas). One of the areas Weick got involved with was agricultural spraying, better known as crop dusting, and one of his major projects was to develop an airplane ideally suited for the purpose (both in terms of utility and increased pilot safety). He came up with the Ag-1, a low wing monoplane with the pilot set up high for good visibility. It was a bit unconventional at the time, but the configuration has become the standard for agricultural planes (such as the Air Tractor, which, by the way, is manufactured in Olney, where we test fly the CarterCopter).

Weick had earlier developed a friendship with Howard "Pug" Piper, son of William T. Piper (of Piper Cub fame). Pug recognized that the company's old fashioned Cubs and Tri-Pacers wouldn't be able to compete with the more modern designs being put out by other manufacturers, and he asked Weick to join Piper Aircraft as the director and chief engineer of their development center. Weick took the job, moved to Vero Beach, FL, and was to stay with Piper until his retirement.

One of Weick's projects at Piper was the PA-25 Pawnee. Reminiscient of what he did with the Ercoupe from the W-1, the PA-25 was an agricultural plane that incorporated many of the design features he'd come up with for the Ag-1. Weick also lead the design of the Cherokee series of aircraft. This included not just the 4-seat PA-28, but also several variants, including the PA-32 Cherokee 6, and the twin engined PA-34 Seneca.

Weick continued to stay active in aviation even after his retirement, as a consultant, and also doing research on his own. He'd even mount models to his car to test while running down the highway (I've got some experience with that, too).

Weick details all his experiences in these various companies in this autobiography, tells of a few adventures he had flying and watching air races, and describes his experiences working with and meeting such figures as Orville Wright, Charles Lindbergh, and Amelia Earhart. His may not be a house hold name, but Fred Weick truly was very influentional in aviation, and his innovations have no doubt improved the field. It was extremely interesting to read about his life in his own words.

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