General Archive

Monday, October 8, 2012

Happy Exploration Day

Moon PrintToday is traditionally celebrated as Columbus Day, but there's a small movement underway to get the day switched to Exploration Day.

I've written briefly about Columbus a couple times before, Debunking a Columbus Myth and Columbus Day. There are a lot of misconceptions about Columbus and his role in history - misconceptions that are still being taught to my middle school daughter, by the way. In reality, he was a bit of a crank. The concept of the Earth being a globe had been known for thousands of years prior to Columbus. In fact, Eratosthenes had calculated the size of the earth to a very accurate degree back around 240 BC (or BCE). Why Columbus had such a hard time securing funding for his trip was that he was so far off in his estimate of the size of the Earth - 15,700 miles in circumference vs the true 25,000 miles. Educated people knew that in theory, you'd eventually end up in Asia by sailing west, but they didn't think any of the ships of the time would allow someone to carry enough supplies to complete the journey. And they were right. Had there not been two unknown continents, Columbus and his men would have starved to death. And Columbus never did figure out that he'd discovered a new continent. He went to his dying day thinking he'd found islands off the coast of Asia.

And if his technical incompetence weren't enough, Columbus was a pretty ruthless governor. To quote an article from The Guardian:

As governor and viceroy of the Indies, Columbus imposed iron discipline on the first Spanish colony in the Americas, in what is now the Caribbean country of Dominican Republic. Punishments included cutting off people's ears and noses, parading women naked through the streets and selling them into slavery.

His actions were so bad that he was arrested and taken back to Spain in shackles. He later received a pardon from the crown, but only after a new governor was put in charge of the colony.

Granted, Columbus was important historically. His unintended discovery of the New World set off a wave of European exploration that changed the course of history. But why do we have a holiday celebrating this tyrant who only lucked his way into the history books instead of starving at sea?

If what we truly want to celebrate on this day is the spirit of exploration, then why not just come out and make that the focus of the holiday? Make a day that honors those like Magellan, Lewis and Clark, Lindbergh, Armstrong and Aldrin, the Wrights, Amundsen, Hillary, Cousteau, the engineers behind the Mars rover. Make a day that honors all those that push the frontiers of our knowledge.

More Info:

Monday, September 24, 2012

Support Doctors Without Borders, Get an Autographed Book from Jerry Coyne

I should have announced this before, but better late than never.

There's currently a fundraising drive going on for Doctors Without Borders. It's a very worthwhile organization, and certainly deserving of your money. Jerry Coyne, writer of the website, Why Evolution is True, has come up with a promotion to give you extra incentive to donate. As detailed in this entry, What you missed (but it's not too late!), Dr. Coyne is offering an autographed copy of his book, also titled Why Evolution Is True, to anyone who donates over $100 as part of this drive. But the offer is only valid through this Wednesday, September 26th. Details are in Coyne's post.

I wrote a brief review of the book in Book Review - Why Evolution Is True. It's my favorite introduction to evolution - just the right balance of evidence and theory, with just a touch of refutations against creationism.

As an example of what to expect, here's the way he signed the book for us.

WEIT Signed by Dr. Coyne

What are you waiting for? Go donate before it's too late (well, it's never actually too late to donate to an organization as worthwhile as Doctors without Borders, so even if you missed Dr. Coyne's promotion, go donate, anyway).

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Tulips for Tremor 2012 - Essential Tremor Fundraiser

Tulips for Tremor Circle LogoThe International Essential Tremor Foundation is having their 2012 Tulips for Tremor Fundraiser. Their goal is to raise $250,000 to help fund research to find the causes of and treatments to essential tremor.

For those unfamiliar with the condition, here's what I wrote for National Essential Tremor Awareness Month.

To quote from the International Essential Tremor Foundation, Essential Tremor, or ET, "is a neurological disorder that causes hands, heads and voices, and sometimes legs and trunk to shake." It is also referred to as familial tremor, benign essential tremor, or hereditary tremor.

To quote from Wikipedia, "ET is one of the most common neurological diseases, with a prevalence of approximately 4% in persons age 40 and older and considerably higher among persons in their 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. Aside from enhanced physiological tremor, it is the most common type of tremor and one of the most commonly observed movement disorders." It's important to realize, though, that ET can occur in people of any age, even newborns.

Although there are some medications to treat the symptoms of ET, those medications are only effective in about 60% of people who suffer from the disorder.

To learn more about ET, visit the International Essential Tremor Foundation. Here are a few pages focused on information.

Go visit the Tulips for Tremor page to make a donation.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Back from Hawaii

I haven't posted in a week and a half because my family and I were on vacation - in Maui. I'll try to get some pictures up as soon as I can, but it's going to take me a little while to sort through them all.

Us in a Lava Tube on Maui

Us in a Lava Tube on Maui

We were there for a week and had a hell of a trip. Here's one more photo, from just offshore from where we stayed.

Us By the Tidal Pools in Maui

Green Sea Turtle in Napili Bay

Anyway, like I said, I'll get some pictures posted to my Photos section as soon as I can. And now that I'm back, I'll be back to blogging again shortly.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Followup - What Is the Value of Algebra?

AlgebraWay back in the early days of this blog, in only the third month of its existence, I wrote an entry, What Is the Value of Algebra?, in response to an op-ed in the Washington Post that suggested doing away with algebra requirements for high school. Now, Andrew Hacker is up to similar antics, writing an op-ed for the N.Y. Times, Is Algebra Necessary? (h/t to Pharyngula).

Here's how he starts out:

A TYPICAL American school day finds some six million high school students and two million college freshmen struggling with algebra. In both high school and college, all too many students are expected to fail. Why do we subject American students to this ordeal? I've found myself moving toward the strong view that we shouldn't.

Later on in the article, he had this to say:

The toll mathematics takes begins early. To our nation's shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school. In South Carolina, 34 percent fell away in 2008-9, according to national data released last year; for Nevada, it was 45 percent. Most of the educators I've talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason.

I already expressed my opinion pretty well in my previous blog entry, so I'll copy a part of it here:

...I think that our education should be well rounded. History and English are important, especially history in my opinion, so that people can put current events into their proper perspective, and learn from the past. But algebra is just as important. And it's not like it's asking a lot for people to learn algebra. It's basic, basic stuff. It's not like the requirement is for students to know calculus, or differential equations, or vectors, or imaginary numbers. Algebra is only one small step up from arithmetic. I use it everyday, and to compare it to English, algebra is as fundamental as being able to recognize nouns and verbs. If a high school diploma is supposed to have any merit for saying that a person has a fundamental skill set, and isn't just a piece of paper saying that a student showed up to class for 12 years, I don't think it's too much to ask students to understand algebra (and language, history & science, as well).

To add to that, we live in a representative democracy. Everybody's vote counts equally, and we all get a say in who represents us, and by extension, what public policy will be. How can you expect that system to work if not for a well educated citizenry, and how can you expect to have a well educated citizenry without the foundation of most of mathematics? I mean, how can you even begin to understand claims about scientific issues like global warming or vaccine effectiveness without a basic understanding of math?

Granted, there may be a problem with students having difficulty with math. But students also have difficulty with a lot of things. Just go read this Newsweek article, America the Ignorant, for a sampling of some of the ignorance of our nation. Here are just a few:

  • "21 percent of Americans believe there are real sorcerors, conjurers, and warlocks out there."
  • "Sixty-three percent of young Americans can't find Iraq on a map, despite the ongoing U.S involvement there."
  • "...more than a third of Americans of any age can't identify the continent that's home to the Amazon River, the world's largest."
  • "Only two out of five respondents, however, can correctly identify the executive, legislative, and judicial branches as the three wings of government."

The solution to all of these problems, including algebra, is not to reduce standards. Rather, it should be improving the education system so that students learn what they need to (there are societal problems that also need to be addressed, as discussed in a different op-ed from the N.Y. Times, Class Matters. Why Won't We Admit It?)

Further down, Hacker had an example:

What of the claim that mathematics sharpens our minds and makes us more intellectually adept as individuals and a citizen body? It's true that mathematics requires mental exertion. But there's no evidence that being able to prove (x² + y²)² = (x² - y²)² + (2xy)² leads to more credible political opinions or social analysis.

That is a truly basic bit of algebra. It's not asking someone to develop the quadratic formula or Phythagorean theorem. It's something that I would hope every high school graduate could do. And even if a few lower caliber students slipped through the system without being able to complete that task, I fully expect that politicians and public intellectuals would be able to do it (or rather, I should say that I'd hope they could do it - my opinion of politicians isn't too high). It's like saying, 'there's no evidence that being able to write a sentence with proper grammar leads to more credible political opinions or social analysis.'

I just don't understand the anti-intellectualism so prevalent in certain sectors of our society right now. Granted, not everybody can be a rocket scientist or a brain surgeon, so we shouldn't set expectations unrealistically high, but we also shouldn't set the bar so low that a high school diploma becomes meaningless. Algebra really is the basis of most 'real' math, and an understanding of it should be expected of all well educated individuals.


Selling Out