Thursday, June 30, 2005

Another Reason for Iran and North Korea to Take a Hard-Line Nuclear Stance

In case you missed it, the U.S. is in the process of making more Plutonium-238. The U.S. has not produced this isotope of plutonium since the 1980s and the end of the Cold War. While it is not to my knowledge used in nuclear weapons (that would be Plutonium-239), it is one of the more deadly materials known to man if ingested. Plutonium-238 is used for nuclear powered batteries/power cells. According to the New York Times, the Department of Energy is making several hundred pounds over a several decade period for “secret purposes,” and that it is necessary for “national security reasons.” My guess is it will be used to power drones used for intelligence gathering, and so on.

I cannot help but wonder if this and other nuclear activities the U.S. has tried to undertake has played a role in, say, the recent election of a hard-line, ultraconservative to be the next Iranian president, who almost immediately said in victory speeches Iran has no intentions of getting rid of its nuclear program. The same can be said for North Korea’s defiance in negotiations to stop its nuclear programs. Putting oneself in their shoes, if the U.S. and other nations (especially Israel) can have nuclear weapons and programs meant for “national security” why can’t Iran or North Korea (who have been singled out by the U.S.) have nuclear programs at least for commercial use, if not for their national security? How and why would you, as an Iranian or North Korean leader, have any faith in the negotiating position of the U.S. when it is so hypocritical? As a superpower we may just be able to ultimately get our way on both fronts, but our actions do seem to be counterproductive and only encourage other nations to take hard-line positions in negotiations.

"Tweakers" Discussion

There was an interesting post on the Neurolearning site concerning the education of "tweakers." As defined by the Drs. Eide,

"Tweakers are people who have creative discontent. They are not just critics, but intrinsically motivated people who seem to be striving toward perfection. Tweakers are generally confident that the way things are can generally be made better, and that they can find some way to do it. "

They then present some successful environments that help cultivate and enhance these types of students, as well as some environments that are discourage such students. I found this interesting because I, and likely all science teachers, have had tweakers in class at some point. As for how to keep them engaged in a classroom, here is a portion of the comment I left on Neurolearning:

One approach that works very well with them is to include variety in everything that is being taught. We look at new material by using mini-labs for students to try and figure out new relationships for phenomena before even mentioning them formally in class; readings; journal articles; traditional lectures; multiple demos; appropriate videos; more formal experiments; students presenting individual research results; computer simulations; small group work focused on applications and problem solving; and even links to to politics, industry, history, other areas of science or technology, and whatever else comes to mind. The point is, by working in an environment where the same material or problem is looked at from multiple perspectives, 'tweakers,' as well as most students, tend to keep their focus and interest in the material being studied. 'Tweakers' in particular tend to go into intellectual overdrive, since they develop so many new ideas to try and attack a problem or device. In addition, because everyone learns in different ways, variety tends to keep all students engaged, which is ultimately what we are after.

Many thanks to Zenpundit for pointing me to this discussion.

Friday, June 24, 2005

So Much for an "Ownership Society"

The current administration has a vision of an "ownership society." However, in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has now handed the well-to-do and corporate America another feather for their caps. Local governments can force you to leave your home for economic development of the community (which almost certainly guarantees someone or some small group a nice payday along the way). Something about this stinks. Isn’t this something the U.S. has routinely lectured other governments about not doing? Anybody have an opinion on this one?

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Neutrinos in the Early Universe

Big Bang models for the creation of the universe make a variety of predictions that come out of the equations of the models. As technology for astrophysical sciences improves and computer simulations and observational methodologies are generated and tested by a variety of means, some sensitive tests are now being done to check the validity of the Big Bang predictions. For example, the rate at which the universe is expanding, star formation and life cycles, and cosmic background radiation distributions have been tested for some number of years and support Big Bang predictions (as well as inflationary models, which are refined Big Bang models).

A new test has been done and reported in the latest edition of the scientific journal Nature. Detailed studies of the cosmic background radiation map of the universe have revealed small asymmetric patterns and clumping in the data, as predicted by inflation. However, at very small levels there is a ‘smoothing’ effect that has been observed that matches a prediction that in the early universe neutrinos could have affected the gravitational interaction of clumps of matter. Very interesting, indeed!

A Call for Thoughts and Ideas on Education

Here is a chance to share thoughts and ideas about education. I'd lke to develop this over time so anyone can (hopefully) gain new insights or ideas that are useful for those in education or with interest in education.

The first topic I want to encourage discussion, commentary and contributions on deals with education in general. Questions to think about include: What is good and bad about American public schools (can be elementary, middle or high school level)? What can government, industry, business, and universities do, if anything, to help improve primary and secondary education? Should there be a national standard and law (such as No Child Left Behind) to drive public schools? I have already begun to add my own thoughts at and

Thanks for anything you have to offer on these or any other topics I've touched on below.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Nuclear Renaissance Awaits, But...

In solving America’s problem of too much dependence on foreign oil, the Bush energy plan places a significant emphasis on the re-emergence of nuclear power plants. While in principle this is reasonable, it is important to solve existing problems, ranging from cost overruns that plagued the construction of reactors in the 1970s and 1980s after Three-Mile Island; a flood of safety, construction and environmental regulations that need to be considered before even starting to dig on a site; terrorist attack scenarios; as well as the long-term problem of storage of nuclear waste. Until all this is done, it may be a number of years before we see the first new reactor in almost three decades built and operating (perhaps in ten years, perhaps longer). New technologies make this a safer and more cost effective source of energy than existing reactors (of which there are nearly 100 operating facilities), but there is no technology that deals with the waste issue effectively. With some 50,000 tons of nuclear waste in the country already spread around at over 100 facilities, and the Yucca Mountain “solution” up in the air, this is an enormous problem from both an environmental and national security perspective.

If the money and resources for R&D are put into these problems, I am confident our scientists and engineers will be able to one day solve such problems. In addition, one cannot forget to commit and push in other directions of energy production, whether it is solar, wind, geothermal, or others that get beyond the use of limited natural resources that will cease to exist one day. The long-term prosperity of civilization ultimately depends on energy and the environment, so it is vital that our leadership truly get serious about all the issues that will lead to actual progress in this area.

House Passes Flag Burning Amendment

Once again there is a flag burning debate in Washington. The House passed a potential amendment to the Constitution with over 60% of Representatives voting for its passage, and, as in the past, the Senate will decide whether it gets through.

No American enjoys seeing the Stars and Stripes burned. But, in my mind, as disgusting and disrespectful an act as I personally find it, I need to agree that it is a right of our citizens. While the flag is our ultimate symbol around the world, the more important piece of the puzzle is the fact that Americans can protest in any way we choose, as long as it does not directly hurt someone. I find KKK marches equally disgusting because of what that group stands for, but in this day and age of a war on terrorism, we still allow this group that practiced terrorism on our land a chance to have their day in the public’s eye. Being able to speak out or protest is as fundamental a right as each one of us has, and creating amendments that begin to limit that right need to be considered with great care. One other thing to consider, when is the last time anyone has seen an instance of flag burning in the U.S.? It is common overseas, but I cannot recall anything here for a very long time.

I encourage those who read this to share your views, whether for or against such an amendment, because it really is an important decision our leaders will be making.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Check Out Some Public School Successes: High School Science Research

Public schools have taken a real beating the past few years. How often do we hear positive news about our public school system? Probably not very often (with the possible excpetion of high school sports). I just wanted to point out some independent science research projects done by high school students, and the level of work that can be accomplished (many have earned national recognition). There is hope for the future, really, with many of the kids who are coming through the public school pipeline!

Friday, June 17, 2005

Why is the U.S. Making Non-Proliferation Talks More Difficult?

Iran and North Korea are playing games with the U.S. and other nations when it comes to talks regarding their nuclear programs. North Korea has not been shy to state they have nuclear weapons already, whereas Iran insists their program is strictly for civilian nuclear power (which they are allowed to do as a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), although in 2002 they were forced to admit they had been secretly trying to enrich uranium, a first step for weapons production). Even with today’s elections, Iranian officials state a new president will not affect or alter nuclear policy. The U.S. and European nations that have been trying to engage these members of the Bush ‘axis of evil’ do not, of course, trust the Iranians or North Koreans, with good reason based on past actions.

However, it seems to me that we are making things more difficult for ourselves because of the hypocrisy demonstrated by the Bush administration’s program to develop a new nuclear based generation of ‘bunker busting’ bombs. The so-called mini-nukes have been quietly researched over the past two to three years. In negotiations with any nation over non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, how can any government be expected to take such negotiations seriously if the U.S. is involved? The ‘might makes right’ and ‘do as I say, not as I do’ mentality we have demonstrated can only make serious negotiation and progress towards non-proliferation more difficult. For a known sponsor of terrorists such as Iran and a secretive, isolated regime such as we find in North Korea, when they are backed into a corner by the U.S. with threats and tough rhetoric, the response they will exhibit loses any practical, predictive level. Throw in hypocrisy over nuclear weapons and we have just given them incentive to continue to play games; what reason do we offer that other nations can trust us?

It is no secret I think hitting Iraq when we did was a mistake. Iraq was contained at the time with no-fly zones and inspectors on the ground. If the Bush administration had actually let the inspectors do their job we likely would have avoided war if the true reason was to disarm Iraq from WMDs. From the recent publication of the British Downing Street memo stating war plans were drawn up many months before public talk about a possible war, it is more clear than ever this was not necessarily the case. Be that as it may, by saving our military from an Iraq conflict, we would be in better position to back up our tough talk with Iran and North Korea. Even three or four years ago Iran and North Korea were thought to have more established WMD programs than Iraq, and we gave the other two axes of the evil triangle multiple years worth of time to dig in and likely expand their programs. With few military options left for these countries presently, and hypocrisy taking away a truly persuasive argument to dismiss the intent to develop nuclear weapons, we should not be surprised by the continued difficulties we face with Iran and North Korea. Besides these negotiations, the U.S., in my opinion, should be making a much greater effort to get the Russians to stabilize their nuclear stockpiles from the black market, which is likely the greatest threat for a nuclear weapon to get in the hands of a terrorist group.

For some articles on the effects of ‘mini-nukes,’ check this out.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Some thoughts on Global Warming and the current Adminstration

Tony Blair was just in Washington and tried to cash in some of the political capital he earned by supporting President Bush on the Iraq war. One of the main topics of conversation was the global environment. The Brits, of course, along with the rest of the industrial world, favor the Kyoto Protocol for reducing the amount of emissions of greenhouse gases. The U.S., which is by far the world’s biggest producer of pollution and greenhouse gases (~25%, with ~5% of the world’s population), has, under Bush, refused to sign the treaty. Instead, the current administration favors voluntary reductions by industry, and has in fact relaxed various restrictions on various emitted pollutants (such as mercury) and weakened the Clean Air and Water Act. The argument, which was restated by Bush at a joint press conference with Blair, is that the science needs to be better before we can state that humans have contributed to global warming and climate change. This view held by the administration is contrary to the view held by the overwhelming number and percentage of scientists who study this topic, and contradicts previous administration admissions that human emissions do play a role in global climate changes. Perhaps Bush is holding out for an exact figure of the effect humans have had, and no scientist at the moment can give a firm number due to uncertainties in the data and computer models. While the magnitude of the effect humans have on the global environment is debatable, the vast majority of world experts don’t doubt we play a significant role in global warming and environment change.

What is interesting, though, is the latest news reported by the New York Times that a White House staffer (who happens to be a former oil lobbyist) has repeatedly edited scientific reports to downplay the effect of greenhouse gases on global warming. This goes along with a continued pattern of this administration ignoring, editing, or spinning not just scientific data and evidence that may go against a wanted policy initiative, but other types of evidence (or lack thereof) that may hinder an initiative, such as Iraq (where inspectors found no weapons of mass destruction at sites provided by intelligence agencies, which suggested major flaws in the intelligence being used to justify war). While spinning data and studies to suit the needs of an administration occurs at some level in all administrations, the lack of respect for hard facts and validated scientific results has seemed to flourish the past five years under Bush. Perhaps no other policy area demonstrates this more than environmental policy.

For example, a 2000 blue ribbon commission of government and independent scientists reported on the national assessment of what continued warming could mean for the U.S. This was published shortly before Bush took office, so they could not censor the report itself. Instead, the current administration has censored the findings and recommendations from the record for development of all subsequent significant associated public policy decisions and science program reports. Bush dismissed a 2002 report that the State Department submitted to the U.N reporting on the findings of an EPA report that concluded global warming is “due in large part to human activity,” as simply “a report put out by the bureaucracy.” (Whatever that is supposed to mean) He dismissed a 1999 study of record rises in global temperatures over the previous decade, as well as a National Research Council report in 2001 (that Bush actually commissioned himself) that had the same conclusions as the other scientific reports. In 2003, another EPA report saw a section deleted by the White House. Why? It was a section that stated there is conclusive evidence that global warming is affected by car and factory emissions. Shortly after that an internal memo was leaked to the New York Times where an EPA official was quoted as saying the White House policies for the environment, “no longer accurately represents the scientific consensus on climate change.” And shortly after all this happened, Christine Todd Whitman resigned as EPA administrator. And on it goes.

Worldwide we are seeing signs of global warming - unprecedented rates of increase in temperature, record droughts in some parts of the world, unprecedented rates of glacial melting, the beginnings of migrations of disease to new areas, changing ocean currents (which drive global weather patterns), changes in coral reefs, and so on. No one knows the extent of devastation that may occur on a global scale because the global weather system is so complex we have not yet figured it out completely enough for computer models. But the best science we have right now all suggest that some part of the climate changes we are seeing, along with the consequences, is do to us, and putting the policies that may help reduce global changes in place need to happen sooner than later because changes are occurring at a rapid pace. Yes, no one doubts part of the changes are part of natural climatic cycles. Yes, it will cost large sums of money to make necessary changes to help reduce certain types of greenhouse emissions. Yes, there are gaps in and legitimate questions that can be asked of the data. But if we can start preemptive wars where many tens of thousands of people die based on questionable evidence, can we not help preserve our world for our kids and future generations, where literally billions of people will be affected in some way? Most of the rest of the world is willing to make an effort, but their efforts will almost certainly be in vain if the U.S. does not participate. It is easy to keep the environment off of your radar screen in times of war and social security issues, but it is vital to the future of human civilization, period.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Suggested Modification to No Child Left Behind

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law was established in 2002. This is the national education reform package the Bush administration and Congress passed early in Bush’s first term, and was sold as a new, far reaching, and near revolutionary approach to education. My first comment needs to be that there really aren’t many new ideas in NCLB. It is based on the need to see consistent improvements in state standardized test scores, places an emphasis on math, reading and writing, and has accountability of schools (including watch lists and lists of failing schools) built into it. There are consequences for schools that don’t improve fast enough, such as giving parents and students options to go to other non-failing schools and taking money away from poorly performing schools. It also requires tutoring and other extracurricular options for students at failing schools and mandates that ‘highly qualified teachers’ are necessary in all classrooms.

Of all that, there really isn’t any new, visionary, or revolutionary approach to fixing many of the nation’s public schools. Most, if not all, states had some sort of state testing system in place well before Bush first took office. I teach in an Illinois public high school and used to teach in the Chicago Public Schools, and there have been state standards, state testing, and watch lists for years. In Chicago, early in the Clinton administration, the public school system (once called the nation’s worst by Bill Bennett) became the national model for large systems by ridding itself of social promotion, requiring improvement in reading scores at all levels of schooling, placing schools on probation, instituting local control for all schools, taking over the worst schools and replacing ineffective principals and staff. Chicago has always allowed students to attend any high school in the city, depending on waiting lists and enrollments after neighborhood kids had first dibs. Much of this sounds like NCLB, which Bush of course takes credit for. Having said that, I do think there is some good in NCLB. Perhaps the best aspect of the NCLB law is that it requires schools to look at data for all demographic groups of the population rather than just overall averages. While many schools already have been doing this, not all were looking at breakdowns specifically between White students and minority students, male and female, low income students, and students with disabilities or in special education programs. This is valuable, and at many schools with diverse populations, the minority student achievement gaps that have gained national attention truly begin to stand out. NCLB continues to emphasize mathematics, reading and writing, which are the essential skills necessary for learning in all other subjects, and soon science will be added to the list. This is all very good and necessary for schools to address and fix.

I, and the overwhelming number of colleagues and educators I know, do have a number of issues with NCLB, however. While testing is absolutely a necessary piece of the assessment process, one problem is that NCLB uses standardized tests as the sole assessment for students and schools. Testing gives a single snapshot at a single time, and any educator knows that a single test is not at all indicative of how much a student knows. Just think about tests you have taken during your school years, and afterward wanted to kick yourself for making silly mistakes, running out of time even though you knew the rest of the problems, taking the exam while being ill, or not getting enough sleep the night before. What’s worse, the scores used in NCLB for evaluating each year in school are not used in a longitudinal manner. In other words, the kids in 5th grade being tested this year to assess the 5th grade move on to the 6th grade next year. Next year’s scores to see if there was improvement for the 5th grade will come from next year’s 5th graders, a completely different and independent set of kids. Comparing this year’s 5th grade scores with next year’s does not necessarily measure what you want to see, which is the academic improvement for a given child.

The other problem I and many others have is that an arbitrary cutoff of 40% was used last year to assess schools. What do I mean by this? In a high school, for instance, juniors take a state exam that tests them on state standards for reading, math, and science. The results of those tests are the broken down in terms of the percentage of students who meet or exceed standards and those who do not meet the standards. Last year, for a school to be deemed a ‘passing’ school, 40% of students needed to meet or exceed standards. Each sub-group of students need to meet this percentage, rather than the overall school average. Each successive year needs to increase that percentage by 5%, and ultimately 100% need to meet or exceed standards. The arbitrary 40% will put numerous schools on ‘failing’ lists even though they may make remarkable progress from one year to the next, especially inner-city schools and schools with large immigrant populations. Such schools may start off with 10% - 20% of students meeting reading standards. These schools tend to have all the major problems ranging from large-scale poverty, gangs and drugs, lack of resources and qualified teachers, and large percentages of students where English is their second language.

Let’s say a school starting off at 10% of students meeting reading standards makes a major school-wide push and doubles their scores to 20% meeting or exceeding standards. This is not easy and requires a school-wide focus on reading, as I can personally account for when I taught at a city school where 95% of students were from low income families and 75% had English as a second language and we made such gains. Well, so much for the effort because that school will be put on a failing list. Even if the next year saw an additional 10% increase, it would still be far below the increasing cutoff percentage, and this ‘school on the rise doing remarkable work’ will continue to be a ‘failing’ school and will eventually begin to lose money even though mandated reforms will require more money. Most of these schools are already in the red, by the way. Parents will be given the option for their children to attend a nearby school, if that other school is willing to take in more students, but guess what? Chances are other city schools are also failing and overcrowded, and cannot handle more students. Nearby private schools tend to not take in more students, either. What I would like to see is for a school to be assessed on the current baseline scores, and then require yearly improvements from that baseline. Why should schools making very good progress under very difficult circumstances be punished? This would be a common sense and more fair method for assessing schools under the current structure of the law.

Hopefully, by suggesting this, the administration will not refer to me as a ‘terrorist’ since I disagree with how their reforms are being implemented (although I am, accordng to former Ed. secretary Paige, a member of a 'terrorist organization,' the NEA).