Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The beautiful language

Feathers of our great and glorious faculty have been ruffled recently by the announcement that the reading test applied to determine entry into some classes maybe relaxed in certain situations to accommodate the needs of the computer system that is meant to control all these things. What Big Brother wants...

In some situations this may well be a good thing. Dulcie, ever anxious to improve her learning, avaricious for learning, insatiable consumer of books, addict of Bravo, attempted to register for an accounting class. Having waded through the several screens, surely enough of a prerequisite in itself, to register for the chosen class, she found herself blocked by the need, apparently, to take the reading test. Here is an adult woman (age not to be disclosed), a professional, a previous student at COD, now apparently required to take a reading test. How preposterous is that?

A recent correspondence from the college indicates perhaps that the reading test may well be put to better use in the hiring of personnel than the registering of students. I present it here verbatim to allow you to enjoy in full the mutilation of my native language.

"I would like inform you that, our next Diesel fuel delivery, will be containing a 5% Bio-Diesel formula. So I am asking for two mean's of assistance from you as supervisor's as well as from your departments' as a whole, in the means of, all your patience during this trial/experiment, while we iron out any issues that may arise from using a bio-diesel formula, we may or may not experience any issue's with this fuel, because as a starter point we are only running a 5% mix, so if any of you experience any problem's in both performance and or strange Oder's while driving these diesel vehicles, please contact me any way you would like. Thank you for you help and future understanding while we convert to this new fuel. I am including my contact information, please feel free to contact me at any time if any issues arise from this bio-diesel in your College vehicle."

Sunday, September 21, 2008

DuPage: nucleus of proton therapy

With the recent approval of a proton therapy center in Warrenville, DuPage county will soon boast having two of these "cutting-edge" facilities, as it will add to the one being built by Northern Illinois University in West Chicago. Your savvy cyber professor is not without interest in this development since he is involved in some peripheral manner with developing education for future operators of these facilities. If Argonne lands the mammoth Rare Isotope Beam Facility (FRIB) contract from DoE, then truly DuPage will be a nuclear center nonpareil. FRIB will utterly dwarf in scope and money what will be spent on these proton therapy centers. I hope Argonne gets it because it will be exciting times in accelerator technician education.

Skeptics will wonder at the utility of these centers. For many years the efficacy of proton therapy in the targeted treatment of tumors has been established. This efficacy comes with a cost: over twice as much as conventional treatment. It has not been demonstrated yet that proton therapy is a necessary alternative in a sufficiently broad range of procedures to justify the additional cost. Is this another situation of an expensive new technology chasing an application? Back in the day, lasers (or laser as the medical community likes to refer to them as - "We use laser.") received a great deal of hype when they were introduced into surgical procedures. There was a lot of aggressive marketing to replace conventional surgical procedures with "laser." Quickly it became apparent that, in many cases, the laser was not superior but was much more expensive. Just as I was trying to get into developing a laser product idea, I encountered a tremendous amount of antipathy: once bitten, twice shy kind of response.

The managers of the proton centers won't care if their procedures are not really necessary. Provided they can load them up with patients that the insurance companies will pay for they will be happy. The rest of us will foot the bill down the road.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Meet COD's new friend of the people

With all the talk and irritation swirling over the new "transparency" policy, intended largely to demean and denigrate COD employees by publishing earnings for all to see, I was motivated to discover who or what was behind it all. There was talk of the "lone blogger," echoes of lone gunman or the Unabomber there, who had started it all. The so-called organization forthegoodofillinois.org - it is really a website - appears to be a front for one Andrew Andrzejewski self-proclaimed friend of the good citizens of Illinois and watchdog of public spending, or so one is led to believe. The website is loaded with pictures of our hero and I discovered one with him posing with certain members of the BOT. What a surprise: only four of them are shown - the four that voted for publishing the salaries. Was the photo shot before or after the vote? Did he have to pay? A final question, in the interest of transparency, is the hair real?

One has to wonder at the real motivation for meddlers like this who present a front so righteous and public spirited. Buried within all the overt desire to promote good government is usually a more malicious intent. That intent usually involves reducing public spending on anything. Why is it, for example, that so many right-wing folks are global warming skeptics? You will find them crawling all over promoting the idea that global warming has nothing to do with carbon emissions. I think it stems from a desire to reduce public spending. In the global warming case, reduce public spending on alternative energy research. In transparency in local government it is reducing spending on education and everything else that relies on it. Publishing salaries is one way to alienate the college from the public. These crusading meddlers ultimately want to smash all the systems to prove they don't work.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The See-Through Professor

Back in the day when I joined this most esteemed center of learning, this Harvard of southern Glen Ellyn, this beacon of knowledge, I only had the vaguest notion of what or who the Board of Trustees was. I never really heard anything about them and never went to the meetings, nor did I ever hear about what happened at any of the meetings; I could not have told you their names. For five years as an adjunct (disposable) I only had the dimmest awareness that there was a president; he would make an occasional appearance, offer an utterance over his wire-framed spectacles about nothing in particular and retreat into the shadows for another year. Perhaps it was better that way: a sign of good management is often an invisible one. Times have changed. Or me. I rather think it is the former. The BOT is now much more visible; one would go the extent of saying that it has become intrusive, even to the point of divisive and destructive. The faces on it have changed: more male, more right wing anti-tax Republican, more "fiscally responsible," decidedly less friendly towards education. I was showing Dulcie the latest article in the Herald (to be further discussed) and the comments that it provoked (dozens of them - you would think it was an article about abortion or teaching evolution or something really controversial) and she responded in that insightful way of hers that to her; and she is no friend of education either, and thinks I have the cushiest job around - and there to my own defence I must differ; the BOT appeared to be angry that COD was somehow involved in education rather than doing something more useful like selling stuff, or making money. Indeed it does seem that way at times.

I have already reported on the whacking of the president on the quiet of the day after Memorial Day. Yesterday, the Vice President of Academic Affairs followed a similar path. In the interests of transparency, explanations yet to be forthcoming... Further, the BOT is yet to explain to the taxpayers why there are now two presidents rather than just one; it hardly seems in keeping with their penny-conscious philosophy and concern for the taxpayers and stakeholders etc.

While administrators tend not to be the greatest friends of faculty members this wholesale slaughter does not sit well. To add to the general ill feelings around the campus, now the BOT appears to be bending over backwards to appease a single anti-public-spending activist nutcase who masquerades as public spending watchdog "forthegoodofillinois" (never trust organizations that sound overly patriotic or do-goody) by voting to publish all the incomes with names of the employees on some public website. While it is not the end of the world, and in any event this sort of information is available anyway, the haste and enthusiasm with which the BOT jumped at the chance, ignoring the wishes of the employees that it represents, leaves a bad taste. And really, what good does it serve? The BOT appears to be repeating with interests the types of actions that earned it such critical reviews in the Fisher Report published in 2000.

An article published in the Herald incited a monumental flurry of comments. The general tone and nastiness of many are quite shocking to behold. What is it about teachers and the profession of teaching that unleashes such venom? Do all those folks have woodsheds as a result of some horrible abuse as a student?

Needless to say, the BOT elections this coming April will be far more significant than most previous ones. The future is at stake.

Opposites attract

The result of my rant against the likes of eminent global warming skeptic nutter and general crackpot (he was a Thatcherite) Third Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, is that an ad appears on my blog page advertizing a "layman's guide" to "flaws" in the case for global warming. The nerve of it.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Mob rules

As is my custom of the morning, I take my daily bowl of Go Lean (but not lightly) with a browse of the Tribune; the idle life of the college professor ideally suited to those extended, leisurely morning repasts with opportunity for reflection upon the ways of the world. An article on the proposed irradiation of produce to eliminate bacteria on the front page caught my eye. When I began the educational trail as a fresh-face adjunct (how soon the optimism of youth gives way to the cynicism of old age in the academic setting), food irradiation was a "hot topic" in the food world. It served as an interesting case study in perception versus reality in assessing risk.

Anything containing the word radiation leaps to the top of the charts in perceived risk, regardless of any facts pointing to its absence. One can discover these disconnects all over the place from the mundane to the sophisticated. We think nothing of driving a car to work (pretty high risk of trouble) but sweat feverishly when the airplane takes off (pretty low risk of trouble). How many pages are devoted to shark attacks (almost no fatalities) versus say coal mining (high numbers of injuries).

Radiation though is the number one bad word, perhaps closely followed by chemical. The reasons for that are pretty clear: the awfulness of Hiroshima that ushered in the nuclear age; the hugely published Chernobyl disaster; the ghastliness associated with radiation sickness. Selling radiation presents a major challenge to the nuclear industry, but I don't think that it has really embraced the challenge.

A decade ago food irradiation was established as a perfectly acceptable and safe technique for sanitizing various food groups by several organizations including food organizations that had no ties with the nuclear industry. Yet the public perception could still be swayed by a collection of dedicated anti-nuclear groups that operated a number of anti-irradiation websites. While the mainstream organizations found no evidence of health effects with irradiated food, the anti-nuke activists referenced various "studies" that found sickness in dogs and other troubling things. The innocent investigator would be left wondering what is what when confronted by this apparent conflict in findings. Who has the time to sort out which of the "evidence" presented is bona fide and which is fake? And that is the point of course: the activists recognize that all you have to do to establish doubt is to suggest problems; it isn't necessary to have any real proof of any problems.

Ten years later nothing has really changed regarding irradiation. The problem, the article stated was consumer acceptance. What is wrong with this picture? It is all arse backwards. It is absurd that uneducated consumers should be dictating what is or is not acceptable. If a process has been established as safe by a critical mass of research, then that should be the end of it; the consumer should be satisfied. Unfortunately that is not the case in this country at least. It points to a fundamental lack of respect for science in the general populace and an overwhelming vulnerability to misleading influences from special interest groups.

Maybe I am weird, but for my part I am far more comfortable munching a tomato that has been zapped by gamma rays than one that may be crawling in e-coli.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Justifiable exclusion or suppression?

So many things to talk about it's hard to know where to begin. One thing is for sure, unlike many people who seem to be able to make a living writing their diary on the internet - all those bloggers who blather interminably and normally crudely about the daily political round - the SSCP lacks sufficient time (though Dulcie would probably disagree) to attend to these sorts of writings. I mean I still have my real book to finish; so how can I be wasting time doodling here?

An article in New Scientist, my absolute favourite science publication, which it is my custom to review over a pint of filthy at my local hostelry (which is on the verge of going out of business it would appear), caught my eye. The author was Lawrence Krauss, who is some kind of physicist often found to be slagging off the faith people in his defence of the rationality of science: he criticized the magazine recently for accepting advertising money from the Templeton Foundation. But that is another story.

In this article he was discussing how the line can be drawn between uncensored, open debate on scientific issues and the exercise of control on the content in these debates. The determining factor should be that the former should be restricted to discussions where there are legitimate scientific differences to discuss. That sounds fair; but exactly who gets to define what is "legitimate" can be the problem. He was relaying the slightly embarrassing, yet highly amusing, tale of how his American Physical Society's Forum on Physics and Society had inadvertently invited a climate change "skeptic" (that means nutter), a certain Christopher Monckton of Brenchley (you know with a name like that you should be wary), to share the stage in a discussion of the accuracy of climate change predictions. The slightly amazing thing is that no one in the publication seemed to be aware who is this Monckton chappie was, even though I have previously exposed him in these very pages. They even addressed him as Dr. Monckton, even though he is no closer to obtaining a PhD than the fellow who delivers my newspaper, with all apologies to the latter if he is an out-of-work Fermi physicist. The wily Monckton wasted no time in seizing his opportunity and now claims to the world that his concocted "evidence" for the absence of climate change has been peer reviewed in a prestigious publication. This is not the case; it was (foolishly) invited, which is way different from enduring the critical eye of review. Worse, political opportunists such as Senator Inhofe are now using this unfortunate blunder as evidence that the American Physical Society is skeptical of climate change. This changes the episode from a slightly amusing gaffe to something of serious consequence. The level of high octane ranting against climate change and alternative energy proponents on the part of the nutty right-wing commentators such as the odious, vile and loathsome Rush Limbaugh, the only person you hear on the radio west of the Mississippi it seems, is truly terrifying. Collectively anyone supporting action against global warming and in favour of alternative energy is part of an extreme liberal, left-wing, Marxist conspiracy to take over the world. The solution according to Limbaugh is simply to drill a bunch of holes.

Although climate change is a pretty hot topic, so to speak, and there are well-funded "skeptics" out there trying to obfuscate the issues with their fake science such as the aforementioned crackpot Monckton, the most popular arena where the boundaries between legitimate discussion and fake science are blurred is undoubtedly evolution. Although the Dover decision may have derailed the Creationist community, operating under the guise of "Intelligent Design," momentarily, like one of those creatures from the horror flicks, it refuses to die completely. This time the approach is even sneakier as the proponents of "ID" (do we really have to continue the pretense?) are pursuing legislation in states like Louisiana that support the "legitimate" questioning of scientific theories in high schools. On the surface it sounds great; I regard skepticism and critical thinking as primary characteristics of a scientific mind. Scratch a little bit deeper and the true motivation of the initiative is revealed: there is really only one theory that is being called into question. Why am I not surprised. So, the story goes, weakness in the scientific theories can be discussed and alternatives (now what might they be?) reviewed, or something like that. So here we are again, pitching millions of man years of research and facts against a few nutty activists and their preconceived ideologies. Is that legitimate debate? I don't think so. Time was, in my naive youth, at the very dawn of ID, which I think emanated from honest men, I would have countenanced the discussion. When ID was hijacked by the Creationist activists and became a weapon in their "wedge of truth" strategy (courtesy of clever but devious creatures like Phillip Johnson (I note in passing that he is a son of Aurora) things changed (trust a lawyer to muddy things up): it's no longer about science, but about social and religious (not even theological) agendas. Nowadays the very mention of ID has me rushing headlong for the porcelain.