Friday, October 28, 2005

House GOP Completely Out of Touch

Here's one for you. A House committee passed, on a straight party-line vote of 24-20, a proposal to cut $844 million dollars from the food stamp program. This will take food stamps away from some 300,000 Americans who struggle to buy food (how many kids would be affected by this?). I want to know how these absolute fools, for lack of a better word, can sleep at night. They are trying to cut spending on food stamps in order to do things like pay for permanent tax cuts, such as the estate tax, for the wealthiest of Americans, as well as thousands of other pork-barrel projects that were contained in the transportation/highway bill, as well as $100 billion in tax breaks and incentives to oil companies that make up our wonderful national energy bill. Oh, by the way, Exxon reported yesterday a profit of $9.9 BILLION, a new record for any American company. Oh, how big oil is struggling, and needs a hand-out...fuck the poor, they don't need to eat anyhow.

How can any voter justify voting these people back into office next year? If you are as infuriated as I am, start emailing and calling your representatives in order to force them to stop this lunacy! Fortunately, a similar Senate bill does not contain cuts to food stamps, so we need to make sure the House does not win this one.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

A Developing Rival to NATO

"It's very important that regional powers are showing the will to resolve Eurasian problems without the intrusion of the US," says Alexander Dugin, chair of the International Eurasian Movement. "Step by step we are building a new world order that is not based on the unipolar hegemony of the United States."

In an article outlining a developing coalition of Eurasian states, it is suggested that Russia, and China may be building a rival alliance of nations determined to dominate Asian affairs and diminish the U.S. sphere of influence in the region. It is suggested that other nations, such as nuclear powers India and Pakistan, and Iran, which, of course, is a wannabe nuclear state and part of the 'axis of evil,' may be interested in joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The SCO formed in 2001 and was largely ignored by Washington, but now there is both rhetoric and action suggesting more intense security and military alliances may be a possibility with one goal being a deterrent against NATO. For instance, last August Russian bombers, submarines, and paratroopers staged mock invasions of a destabilized region with Chinese troops, and the Russian Defense Minister has just suggested te first of a series of Indian-Russian-Chinese war games.

Clearly Russia still wants to maintain its position as a major world player, and it needs to keep its presence strong in its own backyard. China is projected as the next superpower, and to do so appears to be following the U.S. model by building up its military. It needs to build its presence in Asia in order to continue to become a more dominant player that can compete both economically with the likes of the U.S. and Japan, as well as militarily with the U.S. India and Pakistan have, in the last few years, been mre friendly with the U.S., but may find it advantageous to become members of the SCO because they, too, need to try and be more dominant in their part of the world.

What will be of interest to the U.S. are the possible scenarios if strong military relationships ever do develop out of the SCO. What would the implications be regarding Taiwan? What would the implications be in the MidEast for Iraq, if Iran suddenly has formal military, trade, and/or economic relationships with the likes of Russia and China? It is no secret that Iran has been trying to influence the Shia coalitions in Iraq. Russia continues to support building nuclear reactors for Iran, and the U.S. treatment of Russia in the past few years may only encourage them to move in this direction as the once 9/11 support for the U.S. has all but disintegrated. Will the complete disregard of world opinion and military aggression by the Bush administration since 9/11 help these nations decide to move ahead with a large military alliance throughout both Asia and the Middle East? How will this affect trade and economic development in the area? Would China ever get involved with Russia, which has large oil reserves, to help with its need and thirst for oil? What will the U.S. and NATO reaction be to such an alliance? Will Japan feel the need, as is already being debated, to rebuild its military and possibly become a nuclear power to offset China's rapid military build-up (I can only imagine they both will be competing to be the dominant influence in Asia)? It will be interesting to see how this one develops, to say the least. I'd love to hear other, more expert, views on this one.

New Nukes Finally Dumped

For the past few years, the Bush administration has tried to keep a military R&D program as much in the background as possible. There was serious planning on the next generation of nuclear weapons, known as 'bunker busters,' that would be based on miniature nuclear explosions after a missile or bomb penetrated into the ground. As long as there was research being done on such weapons, many scientific organizations jumped in arguing that there were serious consequences to the use of such weapons, as well as serious diplomatic and political ramifications such as possible cold wars reappearing with other nations, such as China. Some of the consequences on the battlefield included the large amounts of radioactive debrs that would go airborne after the explosion, and wind-shifts could in fact expose our own troops to the fallout. In addition, computer simulations showed that if such explosions occurred near cities, potentially tens of thousands of civilians would be exposed to cancer-causing agents.

Fortunately, Congress finally got the message and is set to stop the funding of this program. Kudos to them for this move, which I have argued for in letters and online for a couple years.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Fear of Pandemic: An example of the process of evolution

Why are government health officials in the process of frantically putting together a national response plan to a possible, even though unlikely, pandemic of the bird flu? In a word, the answer is evolution.

What Darwin's theory addresses is not the origin of life, but rather describes the process of how life forms can change and even develop into new species, over time intervals that cover numerous generations of the organism in question. Seeing evolution in action is routine when it comes to single-celled organisms, including bacteria and viruses. The reason for this is that certain tpes of bacteria, for example, reproduce at incredible rates, with new generations forming perhaps every hour. In relatively short periods of time one can see the characteristics of dozens of generations. In addition, the way new types/species of bacteria or organism arise is through random mutations of the DNA and/or RNA insie the cell. Mutations can arise via random mistakes made during the transcription of DNA molecules, or it may occur from bombardment of the DNA with different types of chemicals or radiation. Whatever the mechanism, a genetic mutation, even to single genes, can in fact lead to a different type of offspring when compared to the parent. This is commonplace with single-celled critters. How often have you heard people saying that the use of antibacterial soaps has had an unintended consequence of helping lead to a new stran of the original baceria that is resistant to the soap? Or to medications? It happens all the time, to the point where each year the mix of flu vaccines we can get in the U.S. vary since the flu strains each year are a bit different. Evolution is absolutely a fact because we see it all the time in these systems. New offspring that have a genetic makeup that provides characteristics that are more conducive to survival in a particular environment allow that organism to in fact survive, while organisms with the original genetic akeup may in fact die off. Nature selects the better-suited organisms for survival over poorly-suited strains.

This is precisely the fear with the Asian bird flu. As the present strains reproduce and mutate, it is possible that a new offspring develops that can be transmitted from human to human, rather than the more likely (at least for now) bird to human through close contact or consumption. The main processes that are included in evolution, which include speciation and natural selection, take time (over many generations), which is why we won't likely see the process for multicelled organisms in the lab. This process has, however, mountains of hard evidence in the fossil record, comparative anatomy of all sorts of animals and plants, computer simulations, and by lookng at polymorphisms in the genetic code (is it simply chance that humans and chimps are something like 99% the same genetically? Probably not...). The processes involved in evolution are observed everyday in various situations, which is why scientists have almost universally agreed that the theory of evolution is actually fact (even Pope John Paul agreed that the physical evidence supports evolution as the correct model for understanding the development and variety of life), and it is evolution that has once again made the possibility of a pandemic real.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Hurricane Wilma the Latest Most Powerful Hurricane ever recorded

Hurricane Katrina, at the time it was at sea, was the strongest hurricane on record. Well, Wilma has just passed it up and could hit Florida; the Florida Keys are being evacuated as I type. As I have written about earlier, the trend has been for hurricanes to be, on average, more powerful over the past 3-4 decades. This is what has been expected by global warming models. This may in fact become the norm, rather than the exception or a fluctuation. Time will tell, but should we not start taking the hint that something is most likely up, and if humans are responsible for some part of it shouldn't we try to do something to stop it?

Contact your Representative

This is short notice, I know, but contact your Representative before a vote tomorrow that will cut $50 billion from education, food stamps, college aid, and aid for the elderly and poor, in order to pay for a new round of $70 billion in tax cuts. How much of these tax cuts do you think you will see? How can the sponsors of such a package live with themselves?

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

What to do to Maintain U.S. Lead in Science in the 21st Century

Last week a National Academy of Science report was released that addresses what to do to maintain a U.S. advantage in science and technology in this century. With rapid advancement of science and technology R&D in nationas such as China, India, and other Asian countries, and with decreasing enrollments of American students in science, math, engineering, and other technical fields, it is absolutely wise and necessary for us to think longer-term and begin taking real action to address potential future problems if the U.S. were to lose its present lead in these areas. After all, we are the lone superpower due mostly to our technological and scientific advantage since World War II.

Below is an excerpt from a National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) email I just received:

"In the NAS report released last week the number one action item on the panel’s list of recommendations was to improve K-12 science and mathematics education.

Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, which was reported nationwide by Associated Press and the subject of a New York Times op-ed by columnist Tom Friedman, recommends a series of initiatives that include:

- Recruiting 10,000 students annually to become science and math teachers, thereby educating 10 million young minds, by awarding four-year merit-based scholarships to be paid back through a commitment to teach five years in K-12 schools. Teachers serving in hard-to-staff inner city and rural schools would receive an additional bonus.
- Strengthening the skills of 250,000 current teachers thru summer institute training programs, in master programs, and thru Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) training programs.
- Increasing the number of students in AP and IB math and science courses from 1.2 million to 4.5 million by 2010.

Other proposals include sustaining and strengthening the nation’s commitment to basic research and developing strategies to recruit and retain the brightest students from within the United States and abroad into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers.

Norman Augustine, the retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin and chair of the panel that issued the report, is expected to testify October 20 before the U.S. House of Representatives Science Committee hearing on Science, Technology, and Global Economic Competitiveness. Read the report online at"

I've only begun to skim the nearly 500-page report, but it appears to be very thorough and honest about what to do to improve our situation as well as paints a picture of what our nation may be like if we were to lose our advantage in these areas. It is time for us to make real commitments to improve at all levels, but I agree the top priority is to begin getting serious about K-12 science and math education, as well as to provide incentives for more of our best and brightest to go into science, math and engineering rather than more lucrative fields like law and MBA programs. In order to do this, we need serious collaborations between schools, universities, the federal government, and the tech related business sector who can provide funding, materials, practical expertise, and mentorships for the next generation of students.

Administration of Fantasy Land

It has become increasingly clear to me that the Bush administration has entirely lost its way, and within a couple hours worth of time over the weekend no less than five life-long Republicans I know each expressed their complete lack of faith with Bush and company (it was amusing and oh so coincidental that three of the five came right out and said they were embarrassed by the administration). The breaking point for each of my friends included the well publicized 'candid and unrehearsed' discussion Bush had with ten soldiers in Iraq last Friday. The White House press secretary was asked during a daily press conference if there was the usual staged and well rehearsed setup to this discussion, which this administration is notorious for (of course, with the president's stumbling when he tries to answer questions, his staff limits press conferences of all types more than any other president in the modern era). Scott McClellan, the press secretary, wihtout hesitation replied there was no prepping of the soldiers and that they were, as always, also free to ask qestions of the president. Little did McClellan know that the press had obtained a feed of a full dress rehearsal run by Allison Barber, a Pentagon official, who rehearsed questions the president was asking and the responses the soldiers were to give. Of course, the responses were completely positive and supportive, and were what the president wanted to hear in the face of dismal public opinion polls.

It is one thing to prepare soldiers for something like this, and another to use them as props for a purely political event (which is now a fiasco). This is right up front with landing on the carrier in a flightsuit with the "Mission Accomplished" banner in the background. In fact, the rosy picture the soldiers were asked to give Bush as an answer to a question he asked about the progress being made training Iraqi security forces ran in disagreement with what Pentagon officials reported that same day to Congress, where it was reported the number of 800-man battalions that were completely trained was reduced from three down to one, and training will need to continue for over another year before significant numbers are ready. There seems to be a complete disconnect between Bush and his inner circle and reality, and I am glad to see public opinion polls continuing to drop to weekly record lows. We still have over two years with this guy (I want to pull my finger nails out at that thought), but for the country's sake the administration needs to wake up on all fronts. How can we believe anything they say, as they are caught in blatant lies sch as this and have a record of ignoring science, data and evidence that go against their policy goals? By the way, Harriet Meiers has been quoted as saying Bush is "the most brilliant man I've ever met." This is supposed to be our next Justice on the highest court in the land?

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Our Universe: Continual Emergence

In my last post I tried to offer some mix of examples of systems that involve emergence. Again, emergence refers to many-body systems of all types (physical, biological, social, economic, etc) where the rules/principles that govern the behavior of individual components of the system are different from the organizational rules/principles that govern the behavior of the collective system.

As others pointed out in comments, the field of complex systems and emergent behavior includes phase transitions and environmental concerns and influences as well. This discussion has got me thinking about the role complexity theory and the notion of emergent behavior will play in the next few decades. Being a relatively new area of study (at least new in the sense that large numbers of people are working on it...perhaps on order of 15-20 years), it is difficult to predict exactly where it will end up, but just from a physical science point of view consider the following progression of events and phenomena where new levels of organization, i.e. emergence, are reached:

Big Bang, where energy and spacetime itself emerges from a singularity.
Matter (quarks, leptons, some bosons) emerges from the energy (a type of phase transition).
Fundamental particles, the quarks, organize into baryons (such as protons and neutrons) and mesons, via strong nuclear force.
Nuclei (isotopes of hydrogen, some helium) emerge from a sea of baryons and gluons.
Simplest atoms emerge from sea of hydrogen and helium nuclei and electrons, via electromagnetic force.
Gas molecules of hydrogen and helium emerge from sea of atoms.
Gas clouds emerge from sea of gas atoms, via gravity.
Protostars and stars emerge from gas clouds.
Heavier elements (up to iron) emerge from thermonuclear processes inside star cores (nucleosynthesis).
Clouds of heavier elements (up to uranium) emerge from first generation supernovae.
Second generation stars, first generation planets/solar systems emerge from gas and heavy element clouds.
Primitive atmospheres and terrestrial environments emerge on various planets.
For earth, more complex molecules, including carbon-based molecules, emerge in the chemical mixtures of the atmosphere and oceans (this includes amino acids, which can be formed naturally when lightning occurs in the primitive atmosphere, as shown in experiments).
Still more complicated molecules, including proteins and RNA, emerge, and from this mixture first set of single-celled life emerge.
Multicellular systems emerge from sea of single-celled critters.
Ultimately great variety of life emerges, including humans, from evolutionary processes.
From this point, social organization occurs, language emerges, technology emerges, social networks emerge, economies emerge, and so on.

In each of these separate eras of the development of the universe and life as we know it, we are talking about a transition from simpler, smaller components that organize into larger entities whose behavior and properties are vastly different from the individual components that make it up. We are at the point where we know an awful lot of the physics that describes how particles, atoms, molecules, stars, galaxies, planets, geological processes, and solar systems behave individually. Chemists and biologists know an awful lot about individual reactions, molecules, organelles, cells, tissues, organs, and organisms. This is what science has worked on for the last few centuries. In other words, we know a lot about the basic rules and principles that govern individual components for each individual step of the evolution of the universe and life on earth. However, what we don’t understand very well is how steps make the transition to the next step. We don’t understand the organizational principles or the rules that govern the phase transitions between steps, which means we don’t understand the emergence of complexity in our universe. This is where we are now and, in my opinion, such studies will dominate whole fields of physical science, biological science, mathematics, economics, social science, behavioral science, technology, and even philosophy, for decades to come. To those who have suggested the end of science is near, think again.

Sunday, October 09, 2005


Recently I have posted about such topics as econophysics and the physics of societal and cultural change, as well as similarities in network structures of the Internet and al Qaeda. I am personally fascinated by the relatively new field of study of complexity and emergent behavior, although I am the first to admit I am an absolute beginner in my understanding of what has been done at the cutting edge over the last ten to twenty years. Some of the comments to my posts as well as questions in emails and additional reading I have done (including a book I have just started: check out “A Different Universe” by Robert Laughlin, Nobel laureate in physics…it is a page turner) have only increased my desire to learn more and develop a deeper understanding of what complexity and emergent behavior means, as well as where physics and science in general is headed in the future.

What I want to do in this post is list some examples of what is meant by “emergence,” and in future posts develop a way of explaining what it might mean for the path science takes in this century. A working definition of emergence: refers to the principles of organization for a many-body system. Such systems consist of individual entities that can act/move randomly, but then the system spontaneously exhibits some sort of collective organized behavior. The details of the individual components are not necessary to understand the system’s behavior. In fact, the emergent behavior is typically not predictable with only the rules of the individual components of a larger system. All of the following are examples of emergent behavior I’ve come across in some of the literature devoted to the study of complex systems.

- magnetism: in most materials individual domains are directed randomly but then can spontaneously be redirected by an external magnetic field so they align, causing the emergence of macroscopic fields.
- When you splash water on a surface and those little beads develop: water molecules inside the bead move randomly, but the bead emerges because of surface tension, giving a fixed structure
- Gases in closed systems: molecules move around randomly, but collectively the system follows set statistical rules such as the ideal gas law, PV = nRT
- Synchronization: there are lots of examples of this, such as an audience that begins clapping randomly, but then the clapping organizes into clapping in unison
- Emergent behavior can refer to phase transitions, such as cooling a liquid so the random motion of molecules stops and those molecules then become fixed in some lattice; a solid emerges from the randomness
- Social networks: individuals meet and know others randomly, but what emerges is a network of fixed mathematical structure, such as a scale-free network
- Galaxies: stars begin by moving randomly and are affected most just by other stars in the local neighborhood, but a swirling structured system emerges
- Random motions of vibrated granular materials can spontaneously form structured patterns such as oscillons
- Mix of people with diverse, varying skills emerge as an economy; the individuals can be free to do what they wish with their money, but the collective behavior is a system with fixed mathematical structure and statistical rules
- Art: think of a Monet painting of flowers…look at it closely and the individual brush strokes are imperfect and essentially random, but collectively structures appear and we have a masterpiece. The details of the individual stroke are not necessary in understanding what the emergent behavior, i.e. the global emergence of the form of the flowers, is
- Music: an instrument such as a violin has a continuum of sounds it can make, and played randomly we would recognize as noise. But some random sounds placed in particular order with timing structure emerges as pleasing music
- Radioactivity: individual uranium atoms decay at random. An individual atom can spontaneously decay as easily in a few seconds from now as tens of thousands of years from now. Collectively, however, millions of uranium atoms emerge as a system that follows select statistical rules with well-defined characteristic times such as a half-life. The individual atoms no longer are important, but rather the emergent statistical behavior, which gives predictable results, matters.

What all of these examples show is that the rules for the individual members of each system become less important, and can actually become irrelevant, to understanding the collective behavior of the system. Rather, what is important for the system is the principle of organization that leads to the collective behavior that has emerged. Statistical rules normally dominate to describe the way the system behaves, and predictable results can be obtained for the system, even though the nature of the individual members of the system can act at random. This is the essence of research in complexity and emergence fields of study, and brings about important changes in the way we think about the science of the natural world as well as social sciences. What are the fundamental rules and laws that help describe and explain what we observe? The rules of the individuals (microscopic, local) or of the emergent behaviors of the collective system (macroscopic, global)? Which are more important to understand? Are the rule sets for the local more important than those for the global? Historically most physical science has been geared in a reductionist mindset, breaking problems down further and further to understand the microscopic system of individual components (that is the essence of my days of research in particle physics, for example). Studies of complex systems, however, have been showing the need to step out of the reductionist mindset many scientists have been in and develop an entirely new way of approaching the science. What’s more, the focus needs to be placed on identifying principles and rules of organization, which are more fundamental for the system’s behavior, than the rules of individual components of the system. In addition, what has been observed is that the organizational rules of what are entirely different systems, such as numerous physical systems and numerous models of economics, are nearly identical. This has allowed for unprecedented collaboration between physicists and economists and has lead to new areas of research in econophysics. Most who work in these new areas of study believe we have only scratched the surface in our understanding of emergent behavior of complex systems.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Nobel Prizes being announced

If you are keeping score, the 2005 Nobel Prizes have been coming out throughout the week. Some Americans have been winners in Chemistry and Physics so far. Any guesses for the Peace Prize?

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Hey, Fellow Math Geeks, Time to Argue About 100 All-Time Greatest Theorems

Check out this site. Someone has posted their list of the 100 greatest math theorems. I've never heard of half of them, but I thought there may be a few out there who woul want to take a look. Enjoy!

Odds and Ends

Ah, our 'values' leadership at work. Tom Delay was formerly indicted by a Texas grand jury Monday for money laundering, including a new, second indictment. And then we are forced to see "the Hammer" on TV pulling a Clinton, about how innocent he is and how others are out to get him for political vindication...he should know this when he sees it, for sure. William Bennett, former Secretary of Education and self-appointed moral authority mentions that aborting Black babies would reduce the crime rate. While he was supposedly talking about hypotheticals, how stupid a comment is this? Go back to the slot machines, Bill. In a party-line vote, Congress passes a stop-gap bill which maintains current spending rates for almost everything through November...except, of course, community block grants for programs for the poorest Americans, which were cut by some 50%. I guess I can understand that since there are tax cuts and wars to fund.

Can someone help me out with Harriet Miers? Like most people, I certainly never heard of her before today. Whether you like John Roberts's decisions and views or not, there certainly is no denying his legal knowledge, scholarship and mind. But does Miers have an extensive background and expertise in constitutional law? I know she has no experience as a judge, which I think would be beneficial although not a requirement. Does she have any sort of extensive public record so we know where she stands on issues and what her legal thinking is? I look at this as an odd choice, and I simply wonder what her credentials are, considering she'll be on the Court for the next twenty years.

Addendum: How could I forget Bill Frist...up for insider trading violations. Yikes!

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

What is a Gifted Student?

As another round of parent conferences fast approaches, I anticipate at some point being asked if various students should be looking for opportunities to participate in ‘gifted’ programs at universities, online or in other venues. And it is just a matter of time before the next article on ‘giftedness’ makes an appearance in one of the education journals, or one hears other teachers talk about ‘gifted’ students who get A’s on all their tests throughout the school year. But what is “giftedness?” Is there a single definition that can work for the masses? Or is this term one of the most misused, overused and exaggerated terms in the educational vocabulary?

I personally think talk of ‘gifted’ students is entirely overused and misinterpreted. I don’t think one can come up with a single definition, either, largely because of my belief and support for Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences (although perhaps a replacement for ‘intelligence’ is ‘competence’). Whatever the language, a truly gifted person in any particular field or activity is, in my mind, someone whose skill, intellect, or ability is off the charts and at a different level than someone who is merely competent, consistent, or accelerated in that field. As an example, I know many teachers and parents who refer to their straight A students as gifted. Because of my long involvement with the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University, I know countless parents who place their kids in programs run through universities because their kids are ‘gifted’ and need new challenges that are not available at their respective schools. Having worked with top-tier students for over ten years, it has been more than obvious to me that ‘gifted’ is a term that is as overused and abused in education as ‘genius’ is in the popular media. Terms like 'gifted' and 'genius' are meant to be used for the rare individual whose talents, knowledge, ability, and performance is so far beyond even the most competent in a field that there is not another term that would properly describe them.

Let me stick to my area of expertise and experience to give examples of what gifted might look like in science education. I know many who might consider the typical student in AP classes to be categorized as gifted. After all, students in AP classes are working perhaps one, two or three years ahead of their age-group. These students tend to be motivated, do their homework, listen in class, and have a decent amount of curiosity for the subject. These students are about as ideal for a teacher to work with as you can imagine. But in my ten years working with many hundreds of AP caliber students, there may be a handful who I would classify as ‘gifted’ in science. In my definition of gifted, grades are not part of it. Motivation is not necessarily part of it. Rather, insight and the ability to understand a subject at such a deep level as to make connections between seemingly unrelated topics is part of it. Ability and understanding at such high levels that make me wonder how the student came up with an idea or conclusion that the typical accelerated student would not be able to make fits into the definition. That rare student whose abilities can only be related to others through anecdotes rather than single words fits into the definition.

One example that may sum it up happened a number of years back. After introducing the concept of electromagnetic induction in class, a student who is truly gifted immediately came to me with a comment. This student rarely appeared to ever pay attention in class, because he would be scribbling things on his paper, or have the ‘day dream’ look on his face most of the time. But after knowing him only a few days I knew he was doing something else. He paid attention the first few minutes of class to get the topic, but then took it to new levels on a daily basis in his own mind. Concepts were understood immediately, as soon as he saw where I was headed and what the topic at hand was related to. His day dreaming was normally him deriving in his head or on paper things I was going to do for the class over a week’s worth of time; he knew where it was headed because he intuitively understood at a deep level where it should go. This is hard to put into words, which is why ‘giftedness’ is so difficult to define.

Going back to the electromagnetic induction story, one day he came up to me with a calculation scribbled on a piece of paper. In his mind, he was able to take the concept of time varying electric fields producing (i.e. inducing) magnetic fields and time varying magnetic fields inducing electric fields and apply it in a way that made complete sense to him: a similar thing should be seen with gravitational fields. In fact, he ‘saw’ mathematical similarities between electromagnetic theory and gravitational theory, and deduced a similar phenomenon should exist in an entirely different realm. He came up with gravitomagnetism on his own, which is a prediction Einstein (who, I think we could argue, was somewhat ‘gifted’ in physics) made with general relativity. This sort of intuition or insight is absolutely not the norm, even for knowledgeable, hard working AP level students, who I would classify almost entirely as accelerated students. ‘Gifted’ is a whole other level of understanding that few ever attain, and, at least in science, is based on the deep level of processing and understanding of concepts that allow students to step beyond simply being competent with applying the concept, and rather make connections well beyond the norm. It is the kind of thing as a teacher you recognize and know when you see it.

In sports, one may talk of a Michael Jordan being a gifted basketball player. What separated him from all other players? Others could jump as high and run as fast and dribble as well, but Jordan had ‘instincts’ that no one else did. Some have described it as if he could ‘see’ the play happen and predict what other players would do before it ever happened. It cannot be put into words, and the gifted individuals typically cannot explain how they do it. My student could never explain how he came up with his thoughts or ideas or conclusions…they just ‘appeared’ and ‘made sense.’ Jordan always said he just ‘felt’ where he should go and what he should do on a basketball court, and never thought of it consciously; he just did it. The masters of music simply ‘know’ how to play the notes just right to overwhelm an audience; many others can play the same notes, but there is a quality that separates the truly gifted musician from the masses, and you know it when you hear it. There is not a single definition or word that does it justice.

Addendum: For more comments and observations on this topic, check out Zenpundit.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Despicable Stop-Gap Funding Bill

On the way home from work today, I heard a story on NPR that has my blood boiling. The Congress is doing its annual dance of creating stop-gap funding bills because it has yet to pass the necessary budgetary legislation to keep the Federal government running (the fiscal year has just expired, Oct. 1). While that has become the expectation, what has been reported in the details of this particular measure is simply crazy to me. Funding for all federal spending and programs has been extended at the same levels as the past budget, with a very small number of exceptions. One of those exceptions is funding for assistance programs for some of the poorest Americans. Some of those budget lines are cut from 50% to 75%! In a Republican Congress that will almost certainly make tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans permanent when they return from a break, and for Republicans who want to repeal the estate tax, which only affects multimillionaires on up, and for one indicted Tom Delay to say there is "simply no more fat to cut from the budget" (apparently this is the only fat they found), simply saying that I am outraged doesn't cut it.

Democrats in the Senate, led by Tom Harkin, pleaded with the Republican leadership to call for an amendment to return funding for assistance programs for the poorest Americans before midnight last night. But, of course, this could not be done since the House had already adjourned and Representatives were already out of town. It is mindboggling to me how they could do this. Over 4 million children will be affected as of today, who count on funds for after-school programs and assistance to their parents to make ends meet. But many of the poorest Americans don't vote, so screw them...the Bill Gates of the world can enjoy the additional hundreds of millions of dollars they get from the various tax cuts over the past five years. I guess this is fair and right in some minds, but I cannot at all understand it. In particular, I cannot understand how certain leaders who claim to be 'compassionate' can allow the trend for increased numbers of children who live in poverty to continue like this. In the richest nation in the history of the world, 1 in 5 children live in poverty. Many of their parents are the types who may actually deserve to live in those conditions, but the victims are their kids. I'll bet many more of their parents are the working poor, trying to make ends meet by working multiple minimum wage jobs. From my days in the Chicago Public Schools, I know this is the case. I don't know the ultimate answers as to the best way to create an environment where the working poor have a better opportunity to move themselves out of these conditions, but something new has to happen...the kids are the victims, and are born into a world where the odds of making something of their lives are small. With leadership like we currently have, the odds have just been reduced even more.

By the way, poverty rates are up for the 4th consecutive year. It is currently at 12.7%, with some 37 million Americans living in such conditions. Keep in mind that the poverty level is set at $19,127 for a family of four. How they come up with these levels is beyond me, but I cannot imagine what it must be like trying to support a family with two kids on such a income. It is a different world than anyone in Congress can imagine, at least those on the right who voted to cut community service block grants for the poorest of the poor.