Monday, November 23, 2009

Hand of God II

While most of America spent last week worrying about trivia like health care reform and the stuttering economy, Europe was embroiled in a furore over a football match; France had pushed Ireland out of the World Cup by virtue of a goal resulting from a clear handball by Thierry Henri, aging French legend formerly of Arsenal fame. Not for the first time in recent memory had a French star tainted his legacy on the big stage - Zidane's nutting of the Italian at a crucial moment in the last final for supposedly insulting his mother being a more significant moment.

For us English of course any mention of "Hand of God" instantly summons up memories of Azteca stadium 1986 where England succumbed to bitter rival Argentina (remember the Falklands) at the hand, literally, of Diego Maradona in the quarter finals of the World Cup. In that match the first of two goals by Maradona went in off his hand, quite obvious in replays, but apparently obvious to the ref who allowed it. Maradona dissembled afterwards about the goal being assisted by the hand of God. The racist tendencies of the average Caucasian to view Latin footballers as villains and cheats, with one or two exceptions like Pele, were only reinforced by that moment.

There are some in the old country who cannot forgive Maradona for that sleight of hand and believe his legacy is ruined as a result. I do not hold with that view; in fact I bear no grudge against Maradona despite it costing England their opportunity of winning the World Cup once more; we still have to live on the memories of 1966, and frankly that is getting rather old. The critics want to wail cheat, cheat, cheat. Yet they are silent on the dozens of fouls that defenders meted out to skillful players like Maradona to neutralize them. The rules protecting players are much better today, though far from perfect, and the overall skill level is far higher than back then, when thuggery tended to rule the day. In 1966 the naive Brazilians came to England thinking that footballing skill was all that was required. They were kicked out of the cup in part by the Portuguese, who themselves had a sublime player in Eusebio.

So why begrudge Maradona his one little opportune moment to take revenge against the dozens of fouls that went quietly unnoticed. In any event, a few short minutes after the intervention of the "Hand of God." Maradona more than compensated with the finest individual goal I've ever seen (later rated as the FIFA Goal of the Century). Picking the ball up inside his own half he danced through the English defence (for such a talent he was a remarkably one-footed player) before sliding the ball behind Shilton at an improbably delicate angle.

Let's hope that England, having once again secured their date with destiny next summer, will not have to overcome the Almighty again; the likes of Germany, Brazil, and maybe even Argentina present enough challenges.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

High priests of denial

I was taking one the Fit in for its occasional service (I would like to say periodic but that would be an exaggeration; and maybe I could justify the long gaps between oil changes as doing our part to reduce consumption of precious fossil fuels) and had just turned on Moody Bible Radio (WMBI) only to hear the words "Lord Monckton." I almost parted with whatever remained of my Go Lean (but not lightly) breakfast, for I knew that could only mean trouble.

The timing was notable because just the other day I had been listening to a discussion about "Faith and the Environment" from one of my favourite programs, courtesy of BBC Radio Wales and iTunes, "All Things Considered" (not to be confused with the NPR program of that name). The program involved individuals from four faith groups discussing with our mellifluous host Roy Jenkins (who can heal all wounds with a single soft utterance) the importance of climate change on the eve of the big global meeting in Copenhagen. Roy asked each in turn where global warming registered for them on a scale of 1 - 10. While their faiths maybe diverse and perhaps irreconcilably different, their responses were remarkably unified in placing it around 10 or higher. There ensued a thoughtful, intelligent and informed discussion of the future and how people of faith should respond to it. It was particularly encouraging to hear that people primarily motivated by spiritual matters could recognize the importance of dealing with issues of such earthly consequence. I was left with the thought that two things in this show would be unlikely to be heard on a mainstream Christian radio station in America. One was actually having four different faith groups around the table in the first place; you might imagine having a Jew, the ancient connections after all, but Islam no way. Second, the mainstream Christian organizations in this country seem, for reasons yet to be fully understood, to be overwhelmingly aligned with the climate change skeptics, and so hearing church leaders in this country discussing the importance of dealing with global warming in passionate terms would be unlikely, even less likely than the Second Coming unfortunately.

And so this morning on WMBI it was QED; the discourse could not have been more diametrically opposed to All Things Considered. The utterer of the terrifying words "Lord Monckton" was one Dr. E. Calvin Beisner, National Spokesman for the Cornwall Alliance, an organization that describes itself as being "for the Stewardship of Creation." The rest of the spiel followed a depressingly predictable pattern, and the WMBI host was lapping it up like a thirsty hound. In short, according to Cornwall, The IPCC and its scientists are at best incompetent and at worst dishonest (more or less). The "true scientists," the thousands upon thousands we are told that know the real truth that this global warming business is all wrong, are denied a voice at conferences and meetings by the politically motivated IPCC and its cronies. Thus the truth is being suppressed. More than once "Lord" Monckton was referred to in almost messianic terms as being the voice of reason - the voice in the wilderness (but I think that is John the Baptist rather than the Messiah).

In discussing it with Dulcie (also an avid listener to WMBI) we were unable to explain the apparent coalescence of conservative Christianity and climate change denial. What is the motivation here? Can it be an extension of the anti-scientific attitude towards biologists and evolution? Are all mainstream scientists regarded as atheists, tools of Satan, and thus to be distrusted regardless of the issue? Whatever the cause, I find it dishonest that an influential radiostation like WMBI should be passing off propaganda in the guise of reasoned argument.

Americans seem to be particularly susceptible to the dubious charms of fake English gentry (I should know better than most), and the odious Monckton recently made an appearance at the "Free Market Alliance" in Minnesota. I imagine that Garrison Keillor would be having nightmares if he knew how many of his people were lining up to soak up the nutty Viscount's message. The performance is available on YouTube, and he comes across as a more intelligent latter-day Bertie Wooster. Yet, beneath the unctuous, dapper breeding, there is a venom, a nastiness, not to mention fraudulence and fakery. Regarding the banning of DDT, Monckton proclaims, "The left, the environmental left, the intolerant, communistic narrow minded faction that does not care how many children it kills it is campaigning once again for DDT to be banned. Because they do not want children to be born in the Third World. They want as much of humanity as possible, it sometimes seems to me, to be wiped off the face of the planet." Irony indeed that this self-proclaimed champion of the poor is campaigning against policies to limit global warming at a time when the first generation of climate change refugees in Africa are facing an uncertain future as their livelihoods have been wiped out by the very thing that Monckton and his ilk deny. Not exactly sure what Jesus would say about that.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Beware the anti-climate change alarmists

After sitting through a thoughtful, considered, authoritative exposition of the challenges involving energy facing society in the next few decades given by one of the directors at Oak Ridge National Laboratory on Sunday night (the price one has to pay for an expenses-paid trip to SERCh), it was more than doubly depressing to open the Tribune Tuesday morning still bleary from the exertions of the weekend. Dennis Byrne is urging us to beware the climate change "alarmists." Already one knows from the emotive language where this is going.

The director at Oak Ridge described energy as the "defining issue" of our time. It is not difficult to sustain the argument: demand is growing and supplies of the fossil-derived variety are peaking and at some time in the not-too-distant future will decline. That equation represents a terrifying prospect. Adding into the mix the consequences of increasing fossil fuel consumption on climate change presents an even greater need to take action. So why is there such entrenched opposition to the idea of change, particularly among those on the right, even to the point of adopting almost untenable positions in denying the reality of climate change? It boggles the mind, and drives one mad.

As a skeptic about most things myself I can rationalize why we should take action even without necessarily believing the worst prognostications. Ironically, Christian conservatives, many of whom are among the more ardent climate change deniers, might be familiar with the argument. I can apply Pascal's wager equally well to climate change as to faith. If I bet on it being right, but am eventually proved wrong, what have I lost? Nothing. By taking aggressive action to develop "green" sustainable alternative energy sources, the nation will be well-placed to profit when the fossil varieties run scarce. Why would we wish to be beholden, as we are now to largely disreputable oil-rich nations, to other countries for energy because we haven't bothered to invest in their development? On the other hand, as Pascal argued when considering the existence of God, if I bet on it being wrong, but was eventually proved wrong, then I have lost everything. The likes of Mr, Byrne and the rest of them seem satisfied, nay even proud, of taking that wager.

Further reading of Mr. Byrne's column turned up some familiar chestnuts. Firstly there is the sneering demeaning language, characterizing the thousands of hours of work by professional scientists as 'alleged "scientific" evidence...incomplete at best and...manipulated for political reasons'. Rarely, if ever, is scientific work complete as each discovery tends to bring forth new questions. Not even something as successful, long-standing and rock solid as the quantum theory is by any means complete or certain. So, are we to bide our time until "completeness" can be obtained? Of course not. While there are many uncertainties pertaining to the time scale and magnitude of the outcomes, I am satisfied that the consensus of there being a ninety percent probability of the connection between greenhouse gases and global warming being correct is sufficient to merit doing something.

I am further puzzled as to why the likes of Mr. Byrne and others are so convinced that evil politicians are gladly manipulating data for political reasons. Surely it is politically expedient to deny climate change and avoid taking action. Why would governments wish to take the politically unpopular but necessary steps of making changes that will have costs to their constituents?

I note that Al Gore is mentioned, implying that all scientists that are concerned about climate change are Al's disciples. This is just not so. Mr. Gore may have served some value in heightening awareness, but it does not mean that the real science is defective because his film was flawed. Don't tar everything with one brush.

Why was I not surprised to see the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change rear its ugly head in this article. I wouldn't be surprised if it had sent Mr. Byrne the script. In that author's eyes, the NIPCC contains the true scientists and all the rest are clueless nitwits. Mr. Byrne refers in adoring tones to the "two-inch thick volume" called "Climate Change Reconsidered."

The NIPCC is the faux authority ghosted by the Heartland Institute, regrettably based in Chicago that I have chronicled in these pages previously. Interestingly, while Mr. Byrne pours scorn on all the climate change alarmists (all scientists who have concern about the state of the climate), he pours lavish praise in equal measure on the NIPCC folks. He laments that people will not bother to obtain a copy to educate themselves. Really, why would one bother? There is real science and there is fake science. To admit the NIPCC into the same arena would be equivalent to admitting scientific creationists into a discussion about the origins of life; there is no point to it. You can dress nonsense up with fancy graphs and persuasive jargon but it is still nonsense. Who was it who said something about lipstick on a pig?

The tag line in Mr. Byrne's article warns us to beware of any science that claims to fully describe (hate the split infinitive) in single theory any phenomenon as complex as global climate change. Is this being done by the thousands of scientists working on this issue? I think not. Lots of models and lots of arguments are going on. There may be consensus on the overall picture, but I believe that there is very healthy debate about the details. It is the simple-minded that are prone to be conned by the mischievous members of the fake NIPCC.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Food for thought

After enduring a number of lengthy and largely unproductive sessions sitting on hot, stationery, idling buses waiting for something to happen, the participants in the Second Annual SERCh competition arrived at Oak Ridge National Labs for the evening festivities. Posters were carefully pinned up and the competition furtively scanned. The next agenda item was a tour of one's choice and, having seen the neutron spallation source (spectacular) last year, and having seen a lot of nanoscience stuff (it's really not that special looking), I chose a presentation on super-hydrophobicity. That means stuff that hates water in the worst possible way. Turns out that most materials are relatively hydrophilic - likes water to some degree - so hydrophobic is comparatively rare. Grease is the material we all confront daily in doing the washing up. A super-hydrophobic material is one that makes water bead up into an almost perfect sphere. Our host showed some interesting examples of materials that ranged from the highly engineered to naturally occurring diatomaceous earth. Some amusing little demos were very convincing as to the efficacy of these materials. Trousers made from this kind of stuff would eliminate the need for umbrellas. The group has also been working on transparent coatings; imagine driving in a rainstorm without need for wipers.

After dinner, we were serenaded by a presentation from Jim Roberto of Oak Ridge on energy challenges for the 21st century. The thesis of the talk was that energy is the number one defining issue facing society today. No argument here. He presented matter-of-factly the kinds of data that intelligent, thoughtful people will tend to accept without argument: fossil fuels are not increasing; climate change is a reality. I wanted to stop him and ask why it is that so many wish to be in denial on this. He then laid out the avenues being followed at Oak Ridge and its partners. Solar, cellulosic ethanol, batteries and nuclear (fission and fusion) featured prominently. Notably fuel cells and hydrogen did not. I asked him about this. The response revealed something of the bias that inevitably accompanies these discussions of energy solutions. Quite correctly he pointed out that hydrogen is not a power source but needs to be created; and if there are decent batteries then the need for hydrogen and fuel cells is obviated. Clearly his belief is that "decent" batteries will be made. "Decent" means about an order of magnitude or more improvement over today's batteries. Given the rate of progress over the past thirty years one wonders about the reality of this. A "perfect" battery would perform like a gas tank in terms of weight and time of recharge. Given that the prototype Tesla's battery pack weighs 400 kilos compared with a gas tank's 50 kilos, this seems like an impossible dream.

The pros and cons of all the non-fossil-fuel sources can be debated endlessly. What is not arguable is that the magnitude of the challenge is mammoth. Mr. Roberto's concluding words were sobering. Incremental improvements will not suffice he said, meaning that major breakthroughs are required. The trouble is that science advances mostly on incremental breakthroughs, with only occasional and unpredictable giant leaps intervening. Even when they occur, high-temperature superconductivity being a dramatic example, benefits to society do not necessarily follow. After the giddy talk of levitated railways and endless repetition of the fact that liquid nitrogen was cheaper than milk in the early days of the high-temperature superconductor discovery, decades have now passed and little is to show for all the wonderful science.

This administration has allocated a lot of money to new energy sources. Unfortunately it is impossible to legislate breakthroughs.

SSCP in Oak Ridge II

Last year my readers will recollect I spent a gruelling tax-payer-funded weekend courtesy of the Dept. Of Energy at the first annual Science and Engineering Research Challenge. Fortunately for me, another student that did an internship at Argonne this past summer had her work accepted for the second annual edition; so off to Oak Ridge I am again. Fortunately flight is at a much more civilized hour and is also direct. I have at this moment navigated TSA without incident, even using a feature of my Crackberry that allows it to be used as a boarding pass; no more battling with recalcitrant machines to try and print one. Espied an interesting sign advertizing "Family Companion Restroom Facility". I'm wondering if this a take on Britain's "Save water shower with a friend" campaign in the great drought of '76.
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Thursday, November 5, 2009

Fifty thousand satisfied customers

A small, barely detectable moment in the history of the internet occurred some time in the early hours of the night when visitor number 50,000 to my website was recorded. With my nifty StatCounter I can spy upon the visitors, tracking their locations and what they are visiting for. Recent visitors hail from as far flung places as Perth, Western Australia and Manila, not to mention the U.K. I hope their visits have not been in vain. Now if only the students would visit...

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Is that nanotechnology in your trousers?

I have been tempted to open my lecture on nanotechnology with the subject line above, adapted reverently from the legendary non-quote of Mae West, as a way to grab the audience's attention, but I have lacked the testicular virility, to borrow from that legendary Shakespearean, the Thane of Ravenswood, known to most as disgraced and indicted former governor of Illinois, to complete the line. But I do raise the topic of trousers by way of showing that something as esoteric-sounding as nanotechnology has impacts at the mundane level - if you consider trousers mundane.

The reputation of the Super Savvy Cyber Professor has apparently spread as far and as wide as Del Webb's Sun City, located in far-flung (it's a stretch to call it picturesque) Huntley on Route 47. For I was invited recently to give a talk on the very subject of nanotechnology as part of their monthly series. While I might not exactly be following in Chad Mirkin's mighty footsteps on the lecture circuit, this talk did number my third on this subject, the other audiences being a group of fifth graders and the octogenarian garden club in Wheaton some months past.

Sun City turned out to be a little piece of Florida in Illinois, acres of little white villas set amongst rolling fairways. A sign at the entrance warns of motorized golf carts. I learned that Sun City is home to over nine thousand mature residents. All that appears to be locally available is a solitary Jewel across from the entrance. The clubhouse, wherein I was to present, was, on the other hand, lavish beyond expectation. The audience proved to be attentive and not short on penetrating and probing questions. Would that the youth were so intentional about being informed.

While the current market place for "nanotechnology" is largely low-tech, featuring stain-proofing fabrics (hence the trouser reference), tennis rackets, car waxes and numerous other products that have largely been long in existence and only recently renamed to embrace the nano boom, the real future, I suppose, is hoped to be in much more exotic and useful applications such as healthcare. I imagined that the more senior segments of society would be particularly interested in those. A website called lists some twelve companies developing nano products for various health-related applications. These include things like, gold nanoparticles for targeted delivery of drugs to tumors; nanoparticles that, when irradiated by X-rays, generate electrons which cause localized destruction of the tumor cells; disease identification using gold nanoparticles; nanoparticles for improving the performance of drug delivery; magnetically responsive nanoparticles for targeted drug delivery and other applications; quantum dots for medical imaging; diagnostic testing using gold nanoparticles to detect low levels of proteins indicating particular diseases. And that is just a partial list.

Nanotechnology is being hailed as opening up new possibilities for advanced identification of diseases, thus permitting earlier and presumably more successful treatment. Will these new capabilities further complicate the healthcare business? Are we not already prone to somewhat indiscriminate use of test procedures just because someone else tends to foot the bill? Medicine has long been an irresistible attraction to developers of new technology. I suppose it is the thought of huge markets, vast mark-ups and a largely captive audience that attracts them. A couple of decades ago, the laser business descended upon unsuspecting doctors offering improved (and expensive) alternatives to low-tech scalpels in any number of applications. It is probably fair to say that, overall with a few exceptions, the scalpels tended to have won out. Lasers did not deliver on the promises and ended up creating a population of medical practitioners rather skeptical about adopting new technology. I hope that gold nanospheres suffer a better fate. There is genuine hope because they do seem to offer unique approaches, rather than a fancier and more expensive way of making incisions.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Gas laws

Since I was covering gas laws in a couple of my classes this week, the flight of the silver balloon provided an appropriate punctuation. Living my life as I do in a hermit like existence within the recycled walls of the HSC, I spent Thursday blissfully unaware of the drama unfolding across the fields of Colorado. Only when I visited the fitness center for my constitutional did I start seeing the endlessly-replayed footage of this space-shipped shaped bag hurtling across the skies. By this time the drama was over and the TV station was heavily into trying to justify the blanket coverage of what was ultimately a non-event.

The boy was not in it after all. Thank goodness, or dash it, depending on your point of view.

A bit of research and thought should have led them to draw the obvious conclusion that this was a stunt. The evidence shows this is the family of a nutcase: the father exposes the family to humiliation on wife swap; he pitches an idea for a reality show (doubtless involving him); he names his kid Falcon Heene (that's the most damning); he keeps a large balloon in the backyard. It was hard to gauge the size of the thing but it seemed to me unlikely that it could carry a human-sized cargo. Yet another example of the vast waste of resources expended on non-entities to entertain the masses. Don't suppose many watching would know what Boyle's law states.
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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A few green leaves

Tribune was an interesting contradiction in messages this morning as the cover page was alerting us to the health risks associated with green leafy produce (number one riskiest food according to the FDA), while the Food section extolled the virtues of green leafy vegetables.

What can a poor boy do?

Of the other items on the top ten list, I can accept the presence of oysters; every oyster is in a way a dice with death; it is the only food that I both love and yet fear. Take into account that oysters are pretty small compared with the others, then it's obvious that they are pretty dangerous. Yet there such relative innocents as potatoes and cheese.

I prefer to take the approach that all this agonizing over safety is a waste of time. If one were to follow the guidelines about dealing with fresh produce, one would be consigned to a lifetime of tasteless food: way too much washing. And what is life without a little risk?

It's been a while since I've had oysters.
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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

What passes for scholarship these days...

I recently received in my electronic inbox an invitation to attend a scholarly seminar at our "flagship" university, the much heralded, though recently much maligned, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (I would feel better disposed towards the institution if it shortened the name. Maybe a decent football team would also help since I spent a hapless Saturday last enduring an ignominious defeat to the mighty Penn State - should have got more for the $60 per ticket). I realize now the gulf between true scholarship and what passes for it in the lowlier backwaters of the community college, because I found I needed an interpreter and several dictionaries to make any sense of it, if indeed sense was anywhere to be found. I present to you the abstract and maybe ask your assistance in its interpretation.


Professor Michael Rothberg
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

"In his recently published book on Holocaust remembrance in the age of decolonization, Dr. Rothberg argues that public memory is structurally multidirectional—that is, always marked by intercultural borrowing, exchange, and adaptation. But such structural hybridity does not imply that the politics of memory comes with any guarantees. In order to continue the urgent task of mapping the political stakes of memory, this talk considers the deployment of the Warsaw Ghetto in struggles for decolonization past and present. Focusing especially on the role of Warsaw memory in the contemporary Israeli/Palestinian crisis, he argues that at stake in articulations of multidirectional memory are divergent conceptions of solidarity, justice, and political subjectivity. This conceptualization of relationality has important methodological implications for transnational studies."

I did not realize that "mapping of political stakes of memory" was an "urgent task." Maybe fixing health care, climate change or the economy are urgent tasks. There again, perhaps I am just not qualified to offer opinions among such luminaries. And they tell me chemistry is hard...

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Lacking motivation

I caught a little article in the Tribune (still clinging on to the sinking ship) about a slightly controversial payout of bonuses to executives despite the decline in revenues (or whatever it was) of about 30%. The justification, we are told, is that these executives need the bonuses as motivation to save the company in its current dire straits. The inference we draw from this is that without these lavish bonuses the executives will lack the desire to do their jobs, for which, I am perhaps naively assuming, they are already being paid a salary, likely of some appreciable magnitude.

From the rarefied air of the boardrooms hermetically sealed off from the tawdry squalor of the working classes, this bonus argument is not uncommon. Have we not heard this from Wall Street in the wake of giant bonuses being handed out to all those cuff link flicking bankers who, in their collective creative genius, had led their various firms to the financial abyss, only to be rescued by the average Joe's taxes. The financial world is evidently resistant to any kind of compensation restraint on the pretext that it would then be unable to attract the sorts of bright young things that it needs to succeed.

I might be inclined to greater sympathy for these executives and their precious bonuses if the same kind of thinking was extended to the ranks of the workers. Why am I not surprised that it does not. While these poor executives are unable to function without the bonus carrot dangling before their noses, the workers (the ones that actually do the work) are subjected to pay freezes or are simply discarded as being an unnecessary expense. The workers, it seems, should be grateful for the slightest crumb that is tossed their way. Methinks the executives could benefit from the same treatment. If they don't want to, I am totally convinced that there are plenty of others equally capable of performing the job for a normal salary.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Reviews are in

The first reviews of Oppression Bitter are in and are favourable. I have been offered actual money for more. Proved acceptable to someone who doesn't normally drink beer. Not too.bitter but with interesting flavour. Can't complain about that.
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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Living in community

You could say that the community college image took a bit of a pasting this week from the combination of a new commedy, Community, on NBC and a lengthy expose of its students struggling with remedial classes in the Tribune. Although the TV show was less about the college than its clueless, venal inhabitants, the producers would never have set the show in a "real" college, although they could find some, Chicago State comes to mind, that would easily qualify. Within the opening minute, the community college's students are identified as losers, drop-outs, divorcees and old people; the lone faculty member in the show (English as it happens) is a drunken wastrel (at least I don't keep open wine bottles on the desk), seemingly prepared to trade exam answers for a decent car - there's a thought... It was quite funny at points, though overall it appeared to have been written in a bit of a rush by teenagers.

The community college shares something in common with the Catholic church's view of the afterlife in that both have purgatory. In the latter, as I divined from reading Dante's book on the subject (Incidentally, I found the books to be increasingly less interesting as one progressed from the Inferno to Paradiso.) the soul spends an apparently unlimited amount of time having the sins purged away using methods unlikely to be found at a spa or even a rehab clinic.

The community college version of purgatory is the more earthly nightmare known as remedial math. In remedial classes, the students have their ambitions agonizingly licked away by the flames of the hot coals of the math placement test. For some, this experience may last an eternity; falling short consigns one to the dustbin of the remedial math classes that do not generate any college credit. For many, the razor blade must seem like a tempting alternative. The article in the paper showed a tearful student celebrating her passing the placement test after hiring a tutor and all-night cramming. Wait a minute: the student's name is Stacey Wolf and she was in my chemistry class in fall 2005! Four years on she was still bashing away trying to pass this math test in order to begin the nursing program. I remember Stacey. I would characterize her as a bright student, cheerful, hard-working and enthusiastic, not by any stretch of the imagination the "loser" that the image generated by struggling with math at community college engenders.

Two questions come to mind. Is the vast army of shades clanking their chains in the 156 sections (that's about 4,000 people give or take) of the various remedial math classes on offer at COD the fault of the community college? Secondly, is too much emphasis placed on the need to pass these math classes in the first place? The second may sound sacrilegious, particularly coming from a practitioner of the physical sciences.

In answer to the first, the fault, if fault it is, lies not with the college but with the high school system that sends its charges out into the college world woefully unprepared to succeed. We can say the same about the high school's preparation for any of the sciences; the standards are just not up to snuff. They say it is not the raw material; students enter the high school system with the same abilities as those from other parts of the civilized globe. They leave it trailing by some margin. What transpired (or not) during those four years to cause the deficiency? Perhaps it has something to do with the teachers? Here is rich irony: I am qualified to teach the teachers, but unqualified to teach the high-school students. In terms of technical content, a person may become a "science" teacher by taking one term of an introductory level community college chemistry class. That seems somehow amiss.

Maybe there is something wrong with the premises that everyone can succeed in math and that everyone must go to college these days. While doubtless a university degree is a good preparation for a successful career, surely it cannot be that this is the future for everyone. For many, their successful career will revolve around relatively unskilled jobs for which no university education is required. Is there not a little disingenuity in establishing unncessarily elevated qualifications for jobs these days (BS in business management to serve at McDonalds for instance)? So why encourage people who are fundamentally unsuited to the task to waste their time in the fruitless pursuit of university education? Is this not driven, at least in part, by the slightly underhand urge of institutions to boost their enrollments and grow in importance?

At least in Illinois, part of the problem is the need to pass a college-level algebra class in order to meet the general education requirements of even just an associate's degree in the arts. Is this justified? I am quite confident that millions of people are leading meaningful, successful, fulfilling careers who could not begin to solve a pair of simultaneous equations; people who would be reduced to gibbering ruins at the very mention of the dreaded letters "x" and "y." I am one of the lucky ones that delights in all manifestation of the simultaneous equation; I have never had a fear of it. I admit to falling short in appreciating fully how x's and y's spell death to many. Yet I know someone who does. Quite well in fact. In all other aspects she is intelligent and accomplished. Yet to her, the math placement test imbues greater foreboding than the prospect of childbirth; it looms as an insurmountable barrier to the completion of a degree. Even to a math lover this doesn't seem entirely right. Meanwhile the college corridors groan with the sound of remedial math students' suffering; and the bookstore shelves bend under the weight of piles of expensive math books. A tidy profit for some.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Butter to the bread

Saturday was a busy day at Ragged Hand brewery, as the brewing crew, known locally as Dulcie and Aylwin, nimbly shuttled between the bottling plant and the labelling plant, dealing with their first two production batches. In truth, it must be stated that the bottling and labelling plants are about two feet apart in a small corner of the Raintree kitchen. Nonetheless they were as busy as bees in bringing forth their own nectar. The Oppression Bitter had finished its two-week carbonation stint in bottle. One was nervously cracked (there are so many things one can worry about in brewing that make it a perfect hobby for a hypochondriac) with a satisfying exhalation indicating that, indeed, carbonation had been successful. The taste was pleasingly similar to that of an English bitter and, if I had been offered the same in a boozer, I would not have been disappointed. The second batch, a weightier, hoppier double IPA style is now doing its stint in the bottle. A sneak preview from the residue in the bottling bucket was, frankly, of aphrodisiacal proportion. Maybe this brewing thing isn't that hard after all.

It is that time of year, with the sun all-too-quickly lowering in the west when it is once again to venture forth to the cinema to catch a moving picture show. We generally eschew those fancy megaplexes, where it is necessary to park about half a mile from the entrance and navigate one's way through pullulating crowds of disaffected youth, in favour of the homely, downtown familiarity of The Glen, Glen Ellyn's sole contribution to culture. It may well have the worst projection system, the creakiest seats and the stickiest floors, but it is welcoming and intimate, and one can park easily on Glen Ellyn's deserted streets, which are reminiscent of what Naperville once was before it was turned into an outdoor shopping mall. Is there some happy medium to be achieved between those extremes of commercial success and failure? What of it, The Glen lives on, and we enjoyed watching Julie and Julia there on Saturday night.

The film must rank as one of the most feel-good American films of recent vintage and beautifully void of vulgarity, special effects, loudness and all the other nastiness that commercial film makers seem to think are essential components of modern entertainment. It contains the stories set apart by decades of one iconic foodie (Julia) whose restless energy in her postwar life as the wife of a diplomat drove into cooking and a modern blogger (Julie) who is inspired by the former. Julia was driven to write a book that would teach American women how to cook French food, which was something of an unknown quantity back then. For all the abuse the English take from the Yanks regarding the quality of their cuisine, I am quite confident that American cuisine is just as bad, only in larger quantities. Tater-tot casserole anyone? Julia's part of the film maps out the legendary book's lengthy conception. Decades later, Julie takes on the challenge of repeating all the recipes in the book in 365 days and blogs about them setting up one of the many contrasts between life back then and now. As both an aspiring author and (occasional) blogger I found resonance with both characters. Although the characters are given about equal weight in the film, on an absolute scale of importance, Julia towers above Julie. Julie wonders, as I wonder, as should every blogger with any sense of self-appraisal wonder, if what she is doing really matters.

There is of course no such doubt about the importance of Julia's book. Of course, for most women today, it would do little more than feature as a piece of decoration carefully placed in the vast unused wasteland of their "gourmet" kitchen. For many, the inability to cook is worn as a badge of honour, as if the noble art is somehow beneath them, something that poor people have to do to survive. Dulcie should know form having to deal with them in the building of their nauseatingly excessive residences. Gordon Ramsay in one of the "F" word series includes the theme of getting women back in the kitchen; it received some stick for being chauvinistic. Fortunately, Dulcie knows, as Aylwin all-too-well appreciates, that a well-prepared meal ranks as the highest token of love. Pity the idiots, another Julie, that don't get it.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Latin hysteria

It's F1, it's Monza, it's Fisi in a Ferrari. Dreams can still come true in motor racing. It's closing the curtain on the European season. My last Sunday breakfast with But, Vet, Alo and co. These are the things occupying the SSCP's mind of a Friday. Must not forget to go to class.
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Crackberry blogger

I have learned that I can compose posts using my Crackberry. If only I had something to say...
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Summer break

So I checked in recently to see with astonishment that no posts were forthcoming in the entire month of August. I suppose if F1 can take four weeks off during the summer then the SSCP can be so excused. It is not as if nothing was happening or no ideas were coming to mind. Far from it. But for whatever reason they never quite translated into the written word. I think I have observed previously how some are seemingly capable of daily rants on almost any topic; and in many cases one really rather wishes they weren't. Perhaps with the coming and going of Labor Day and the lengthening of the evening, my hand will turn once more to the keyboard and the entertainment of my legion followers.

This summer was quite a bit different from last in many ways. How quickly issues come and go. Casting one's mind back to Dulcie and Aylwin's Big Beer Adventure across the endless, sweeping vistas of the west, following on the heels of Lewis and Clark and learning more of their epic adventure and complex characters, the central issue was the energy "crisis." The steepling price of petrol, we were told, was a result of mushrooming demand for energy in China and other emerging economies. Cufflink-flashing investment gurus confidently predicted the price of oil would continue its skyward arc. Speculation had nothing to do with it of course. The energy crisis was closely followed by the food crisis and soon pictures of the starving populace holding empty bowls were making the front pages. All this, we were told, was due to the unreasonable demands for biofuels pushing up the prices of grain. It had nothing to do with speculation of course. Almost before I had time to design the wind turbine to mount on the Raintree roof, the crises evaporated amidst the spectacular disintegration of the financial markets - which had nothing to do with speculation of course.

Barely a squeak has been heard about energy or off-shore drilling since; the starving millions must have their food again; the $200 barrel of oil got closer to $20. On top of that, the unusually mild summer in many parts may have many wondering if this global warming thing is real after all. More on that down the road perhaps.

The issue du jour this summer has been healthcare reform. I have my opinions on that, as any Super Savvy Cyber Professor should. As I await the return of my computer from the grave, I may share them.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Going net-zero quite net outlay

You can tell there is something of a lull today as I am offering up a second item in the space of less than two hours. I have been weighed down with a certain guilt that I haven't been entertaining my readers at quite the frequency with which they have become accustomed. I came across a nice little article last week in the Tribune about a "net-zero" house in Chicago. For the uninitiated, a net-zero house is one that in energy does just what it says: consumes no more energy than it produces, and may in favourable circumstances be a net producer. Cool n'est ce pas? Needless to say the house is suitably architecturally stimulating and also quite expensive - about $1.6 MM for a modest (according to the single occupier) 2,675 square feet. Compared to the vulgar monstrosities of excess that Dulcie provides for her well-mortgaged clients it is modest. I have heard couples wailing at the prospect of 5,800 square feet (8 bathrooms if you please) just not being enough these days.

The energy generating sections include solar panels (of course) and geothermal. There are green rooves (roofs in this country; I guess we could have a debate about that, Firefox none too happy with my word selection), things where stuff is growing to provide insulation and do its little bit for global warming. Inside there is energy-efficient lighting (of course), no plasma TVs, radiant flooring and air recirculation. Just for grins there is also a "gray water" system that diverts the washing machine water into the lavs.

It's all very lovely and would that I were a 44 year-old pharmacist (is that why so many students want to get into pharmacy?) able to afford its spendours. Would that we all could. The question is, is this a realistic vision for the future of housing? We are still waiting for the cost of solar to decrease relative to other energy sources. Will it ever? Would photovoltaics ever be workable in an apartment building where the surface area to volume ratio is a lot smaller? Meanwhile let our architects indulge our energy-conscious, well-heeled brethren. Far better that than the odious piles now losing their value by the million.

The lost tribologists of Argonne

I received the grim news that tomorrow marks the last of our "casual Thursdays," which can only mean one thing and that is summer is coming to an end. Yet one feels that it has hardly started. I wanted to spend a bit of time visiting my student interns in their various environments; last Friday I high-tailed it down to Bloomington Normal to see the students at Illinois State; yesterday I went to visit Ellen Briggs at Argonne. A slight thrill of nostalgia as I entered once more through the visitor center, three long summers have I spent there, but not three long winters thankfully.

I discovered that Ellen was working with a group involved in developing oil additives. Her project was looking at using naturally occurring minerals as lubricants, rather than the conventional synthetics, the idea being that whatever comes from nature can return to it without harming it. One may argue the validity of that argument I suspect. In any event, she showed me round her little kingdom, wherein she makes various tribological measurements of scuffing and friction and so on. Tribology is one of those subjects (apparently unfamiliar to Firefox since it is questioning my spelling) that I have always been vaguely aware of but not known anything about. I joked to Ellen that from the sound it smacks of something anthropological. It turns out I'm not alone in that thought. Later I learned from the group leader that the DoE bureaucrats told him to find a new name in funding proposals because there were always questions about why DoE should be funding Native American research.

I noted that the stimulus has struck home at Argonne because the roads were all asunder in a massive resurfacing project, the first since about 1957 I wouldn't wonder.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

My own private Ventoux

One rite of summer that occupies three precious weeks in July, as Dulcie has unavoidably become nauseatingly familiar with, is the Tour de France, or more simply "Le Tour." All other televisual activities, F1 excluded, become subordinate to the daily couple of hours devoted to a stage on VS (the station formerly known as OLN). So conditioned has she become to watching Le Tour, or in her case more like enduring it, that she expresses surprise when "bicycles" (Le Tour in Dulcie-speak) are not on. "It's a rest day." I might reply patronizingly.

The odd thing about my fascination with this event is that I don't ride a bicycle; I don't even like them; I'm even slightly afraid of being on one. As a student at Oxford I was one of the few without one. A bicycle was central in a long-since-forgotten brush with the long arm of the law. Yet every summer, on that first Saturday in July, I am geared for the prologue (Stage 1). This year it started in Monaco, with the finish using the same piece of harbor front that the F1 cars pound round at nerve-tingling speed. The slightly more sedate pace of the bikers allows the viewer to observe that there actually is a swimming pool on that series of bends. Not that the bike riders are any the less brave than an F1 driver: watch these chaps descend off one of the high peaks down a series of hairpins to get a measure of their cojones on the bike.

There are two things to savor when following Le Tour. One is the complex, fascinating, convoluted, fluid strategy playing off the often opposing ambitions of individuals and the teams they ride for. In general a team has one leader to whom the other team members sacrifice their own personal goals, except on those days when opportunity might present itself. There are Tour super-objectives (winning the Maillot Jaune, the green jersey etc.); and there are daily stage objectives. Only a chosen few have any hope in the first category; but in the second one, history shows that almost anyone can have his day and define a career in the process. The second reason for watching is simply the scenery; all that hyperbole about the beauty of France is annoyingly true: ancient ruins, beautiful churches, beyond-quaint villages, vistas of yellow, jagged peaks and on and on.

So you might be thinking that I'm one of those Johnny-come-lately Lance worshipers. In truth, like John the Baptist, I came before him - not exactly making a way though. For I have been an addict since turning on to watch Indurain (then 5-time winner) crack in the mountains in 1996. A youthful Jan Ullrich finished second that year, and won it the next, the first of many it was thought. That was until a certain cancer survivor arrived on the scene in 1999, with neither fanfare nor expectation. In the prologue that year, Lance rode like a "man on a mission" as Phil Liggett described his awesome display in seizing yellow on his very first day back. Paul Sherwen later gushed "He has come from the gates of death to ride like a Trojan at the head of the Tour de France." Paul should know; he knew him back when. Much more thoroughly justified hyperbole has followed. Whatever might be said of Lance's less-than-amiable personality, his achievements stand alone in the sporting pantheon.

So as I head out for my own modest constitutionals, the images of Le Tour accompany me. The hill up to Thornhill on the west side of the Morton Arboretum (the Arb in Dulcie and Aylwin speak) becomes my own private Mont Ventoux, that terrifying moonscape peak in Provence (toujours Provence n'est ce pas?) that faces the riders on the penultimate stage this year. The Ventoux will make or break the contenders or so it is hoped: the ultimate stage on the penultimate day. Upon that stony slope decades ago Tommy Simpson collapsed and died, his alleged last words being "Get me back on the bloody bike." These chaps are driven. Sometimes too far, as Simpson was one of the early victims of performance enhancing drugs. It's not just a modern problem.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Cap and trade

Some time Thursday or Friday I received an anxious e-mail from somebody at Environment Illinois urging me to call my congressman (woman in my case) to exhort them to vote for the new emissions bill. As it happens, my phone call was not needed because the The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (ACES) (aka the Waxman-Markey bill) was passed by a slender margin of 219 - 212. Onto the Senate it now trundles to what end we shall see. I doubt if my phone call would have had much impact as my congresswoman voted against it, and I doubt that my little voice would have swayed her. So, while she is all for earmarks for green fuel depots in Naperville (many thanks for that), Ms. Biggert is less persuaded by the proposed legislation for curbing carbon emissions on a national scale.

There are several questions, at least a couple being exactly what is a cap and trade system and will it have any effect? I have long been a bit mystified by the whole concept of cap and trade and how it could be preferable to a more direct approach such as simply setting limits and/or taxing emissions. As I understand it, there are annual targets of emissions established on a downward slope with the goal of achieving some ambitious reduction (17 % by 2020). Individual producers will be able to exceed the limits only by purchasing credits, which, in order for the system to function effectively, will be sold by those who have reduced their emissions below the established standards. Thus the cap and trade establishes economic incentives for industries to lower their carbon emissions. At the same time it accommodates those that can't or won't reduce their emissions, but a cost is imposed upon them.

There are already some free-market versions of the scheme floating about. For example, we have our very own Chicago Climate Exchange, which is a voluntary exchange operating a cap and trade system for greenhouse gases. According to their website, CCX emitting Members make a voluntary but legally binding commitment to meet annual GHG emission reduction targets. Those who reduce below the targets have surplus allowances to sell or bank; those who emit above the targets comply by purchasing contracts. The contracts are priced by the metric ton of CO2. The data show that the price has fluctuated wildly over the past few years (data begin in 2004) from a floor of about $1 a ton to a high of over $7 last summer. The bursting of the energy crisis bubble appears to have caused a similar deflation of the contract price. Good for polluters I guess. So why would anyone want to join an exchange like this? A review of the members reveals some interesting things. One brewery, New Belgium has signed up; beer drinking environmentalists should now flock to Fat Tire. There are just two coal mines, but quite a list of electric power producers. The longest list comprises participant members that represent "offset aggregators." They sport names like Carbon Green, LLC, Carbon Logic, LLC, Climate Bridge Ltd. and so on. I suppose these companies have all sprung up with the intent to make money on the regulation of emissions. If they invested last year at $7, then things are not looking good currently. On the free market, it is a polluter's world right now. And even then, there is no compunction to participate.

Critics have claimed that the cap and trade system will lead to an increase in energy prices. This of course is true if the sources of energy are carbon-based; and since some 80% of the current energy is carbon-based there is little likelihood of the sources changing to non-carbon sources any time soon. They say this is a bad thing for the economy and that prices will rise for consumers. Undoubtedly, yet that surely has to be the outcome if the objective of reducing emissions is to be accomplished at all. There are two alternatives: one, to replace all the carbon-based fuels by alternatives (or renewable carbon fuels); two, reduce consumption (drastically) of carbon fuels.

The critics further argue that the price increase will drive industries overseas to locations where energy is cheaper. It's a fair point, but industries have been becoming globalized for decades now for cost reasons, notably labor and materials.

The biggest question is whether or not the current legislation will be effective in reducing emissions. Many are skeptical. For one thing, the bill could not have passed without a host of compromises (the essence of politics being compromise - or quid pro quo). To that end, accommodations have been made for the coal industry. Since coal is both the most important fuel in electricity production and the most carbon-intense, there is little chance of significant progress unless there is a radical change in the coal business. While saying the right things by environmentalists, the new king of Camelot has not forgotten the lobbyists for the coal producers. Mattoon may again be the host for the once-and-Futuregen project for "clean coal." The talk is all about carbon sequestration and how it will revolutionize the coal industry, transforming it into an environmental friend. Even if it is technically successful, questions about cost and time required to implement on a national scale remain. I cannot believe it can be implemented without a massive price increase being incurred. How could it be otherwise? Oh, and wasn't there recent approval of that environmentally devastating coal mining technique that involves blowing the tops of the hills to expose the coal?

Meanwhile, I'll start hoarding CO2 credits.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Proton accelerator hits the brakes

Just checked in to the blog and was shocked to find last posting was two weeks ago. What has the idle bastard been doing I hear my dwindling readers asking; after all, it is the summer and we all know that academics do nothing over the summer. At least that is the impression I get from students as they depart the spring term with the farewell, "Have a great summer!" What, like I'm going to spend it idling on a beach somewhere? Au contraire of course: your (Super) Savvy Cyber Professor has, as is ever his wont, a plate filled to overflowing with summer assignments; working at Argonne, as I have the past three summers, is not one of them unfortunately. (Of course I am writing this while watching practice for the British Grand Prix (weather appears uncharacteristically summery there), Friday morning - but that is because of the decision taken by the higher powers to close the college from Friday through Sunday. No comment.)

So much has been written in the papers and elsewhere the past few weeks that really demands a response, and I have been slightly frustrated at my lack of productivity. Around about the time I saw the article about the Green Fuels earmark, there was another one concerning Northern Illinois' beleaguered proton therapy center. It appears that the economy has impacted the funding for its construction. It was about a year ago that we were having meetings with Northern and Argonne about developing the workforce to man the accelerators that were about to sprout like mushrooms in the DuPage landscape. The cynic in me surmised that the whole exercise was motivated by Argonne's bid to land the huge Rare Isotope facility (FRIB), and that the "educational" interest was designed to flesh out their proposal. It's a familiar role for the community college professor: that of being added to other institutions' proposals to enable them to land large grants, from which a few crumbs are handed down. (What is rare about the undergraduate research NSF grant that I'm involved with is that the roles have been reversed: the primary institutions are the community colleges, while the partner 4-year institutions are subordinate.)

Not surprisingly, when the FRIB project sadly went to its (probably rightful) home at Michigan State, the dialog ceased; not a single meeting involving the parties has been held since, despite the fact that the educational needs were supposedly far exceeding those of the FRIB.

As an ironical footnote, it appears that the other proton therapy center being built by Central DuPage Hospital, close enough to the NIU version that the evanescent fields of the beams will actually overlap, may be finished first. In a rather churlish move, and one rather counter to the spirit of championing technology and boosting demand for education, NIU had lobbied aggressively against the CDH project on the grounds that a second unit in such close proximity was unnecessary.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Of green fuels and earmarks

I was distracted by an article in the Tribune last week about some corruption-tinged lemon of an expensive plant in Chicagoland that was supposedly designed to convert human waste into fertilizer. Now the community that ordered it are hoping that the test runs fail so they can get out of the contract (with a former community official of course). I originally missed a much more important article about a proposed "green fuels" depot in Naperville with which the SSCP has more than a passing interest. One of my loyal readers (perhaps the only loyal reader) later alerted me to it. You can read it here if you so desire

In short, a small but energetic company in Naperville called Packer Engineering, which lies in the shadow of the (former) Amoco Research Center (where of course the SSCP once plied his trade) has developed a fledgling technology for converting yard waste (leaves, cornstalks and the like) into "syngas" - a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Instead of the old-fashioned approach of lighting a big bonfire and converting leaves into less than useful carbon dioxide (bad) and water, or finding some place to dump them all so they can quietly rot, this approach actually inputs chemical energy into the waste which can later be extracted in a number of useful ways. The products could be burnt and converted into electricity; the hydrogen could be separated and used to power fuel-cell cars; the syngas could be converted into alcohol fuels for use in conventional engines. At least one enlightened member of the Naperville City Council thinks it would be a cool thing for the city to be associated with and so the idea of a "green fuels depot" in Naperville was born. Throw Argonne National Lab and its transportation research and COD and education into the mix and that is what we have.

One slight problem remaining is actually paying for it. Despite the vast oceans of wealth (debt?) sloshing around the vulgar excesses of Naperville's bespoke subdivisions, it is unlikely that the citizens would be entirely happy about $12MM of their money being used to finance this experiment, even though it would represent a massive assuaging of their collective green guilt. And that is where the earmark comes in. Congresswoman Biggert has requested a nearly $5MM earmark to fund this project. Some months ago your loyal scribe spent a morning engaging in some low-level lobbying at her office in Willowbrook. Earmarks are those things that normally get one all riled up at the waste of public money in pet projects; bills slide through the system laden with welters of earmarks for often irrelevant special interests. So, should we be praising the congresswoman for the financial support of what is a really cool project, or getting upset at the use of public funds to do it? After all, every NSF grant is an application of taxpayers' money. Is an earmark different from writing a proposal to NSF?

Monday, June 1, 2009

University of Clout

It's been a rough couple of weeks or so for the president of the flagship university of this state, B. Joseph White. First there was the business of the bonuses paid to staff who had worked on UIUC's less-than-stellar performing Global Campus, an online entity that was expected to attract thousands of eager students from all over the place. As it turns out, only a few hundred ever signed up. That is interesting in of itself, because there is a perception I think that online is the way to go to boost enrollment by reaching a wider audience at minimal cost to the institution because facilities are not required to house these additional students. At the COD, for example, there appears to be only one way forward. Online. The online course appears to be the educational analog of a community's opening a casino to raise revenues. It seems to be the first option regardless of whether or not it is the best option, or even a good option. Forget about the question of whether the quality of the educational "product" compares (presupposing that it can even be measured reliably) with the traditional delivery. The first question is whether or not students really want this approach. Aside from exceptions such as folks trudging around Afghanistan, I'm thinking that most do not.

More embarrassing for the president has been the pounding lately handed out by the Tribune in one article after another regarding special admissions deals for students with clout. With offspring currently at Illinois' jewel in the educational crown and maybe another on the way, I was more than a little interested in this story. Of course, why should we be surprised. I mentioned it to Alan and even he, a mere youth unsullied by the ravages of time, displayed alarming cynicism by responding that it probably happens everywhere. He is regrettably probably right, which of course does not make it right. Armed with mountains of documents detailing the admissions favors doled out on behalf of students with the right connections, the university could hardly deny it. However, the president made a revoltingly dissembling response to the revelations on Friday.

Dulcie observed in her usual acerbic fashion that it simply proves that the whole college experience is nothing more than joining a club so it can be added to the resume. Why would people who don't warrant it on merit, and who are unlikely to succeed academically, want to go there at all? Because the only thing that matters is that they can stamp their passport and later wave it in front of prospective employers. University should be a whole lot more than that.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Dawning of a new era

Wow, it's hard to believe it's been three weeks since my last rant! Where has all the time gone? There has been a lot to talk about but regrettably little time to talk about it in, unless it has been an extreme case of lassitude on my part. Maybe.

Today is the beginning of the summer semester, and your SSCP finds himself administering chemistry laboratory experiences to a doubtless eager group of students for the next ten weeks. There is nothing particularly of interest in that intelligence except that the new semester is beginning in our brand new science building that is now open for business. I have already been acclimatizing myself to my new room (with a view) over the past week or so. Now a distant memory is the 9 x 9 cell that reverberated like a ship's engine room whenever the AC was in full flow. That was usually accompanied by an icy blast emanating from the ceiling vent that necessitated wearing warm clothing on the hottest of summer days. Now my Akea-like office affords a pleasant third-floor view of the prairie area of the campus; with a suitable set of powerful binoculars I could spend those quiet office hours bird watching.

The end of the spring term was rife with activities. I have already bored my readers with a lengthy account of the BoT changing of the guard and the antics of the black-shirted Objector and his gang (more to come on that by the way). A couple of days after that I attended the annual grants lunch event, which honors those involved with grant writing with lunch prepared by the culinary arts program. It is one of the few lunches worth attending at COD. I always feel like I'm participating in a taping of Hell's Kitchen or something, since you can see the food being prepared on any of several screens around the room. The only thing missing is a chef going totally berserk; in fact everything happens in quiet, orderly calm. The only other thing missing is a glass of wine to set off the generally excellent cuisine. This year was special because, though modesty renders me hesitant to make mention, your scribe was honored along with two other members of the sciences for work in getting NSF funding. Although it really shouldn't matter, it's encouraging to get a little recognition every now and again.

A few days later, we held our final meeting of the year for the Undergraduate Research Collaborative (funded by the NSF incidentally) where the participants presented posters of their work. Some fifty or more students from the member colleges were there, along with their faculty members. Regrettably, lunch this time consisted of something pre-packaged in a cardboard box, with an apple that appeared to be deep-frozen with the mechanical strength of a cannonball. The SSCP scored big-time by getting both the president and a board member (Sandy Kim) to put in an appearance. The NSF evaluator was suitably impressed.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Tweeting from the Board Room

I thought that the COD board room would lose its allure after the April election and the vanquishing of the gang of four. How wrong was I after first the April meeting and, last night, the supposedly ceremonial transfer of power meeting. There was more drama than an episode of the Hills, which I missed in order to witness the swearing in of Sandy, Kim and Nancy. We should have expected the deposed not to exit with grace and decorum, but I think we were all surprised by the show put on by the Objector and his Roselle rent-a-crowd. At the last meeting, the shameful gang on the old BoT endured 42 minutes of non-stop carpet bombing from community members, wave upon wave of skewering comments mercilessly exposing the self-interest and contempt for shared governance. This time the friends of the Objector came armed for a fight. The result was something like being at a Cubs-Sox game or like in the Wrigley Field of old, the drunken denizens of the bleachers would yell "right field sucks!" and back and forth.

The Objector and his friends were readily identified by black teeshirts emblazoned with "Stop faculty pay to play," summoning up images of the epoch-making November board meeting when the students wore their black teeshirts in protest at the new policy designed to make the president boss of the student newspaper. Unfortunately, unlike the students, these people did not put duct tape over their mouths and stand in silent protest. Rather, they trooped up to the microphone one after another and enunciated over and over again, I.E.A. - N.E.A. Union, union, union...The vanquished LeDonne was there too, not sporting a teeshirt at least but, in the spirit of a sore loser nonetheless(how did a seemingly well-spoken, relentless campaigner like him score fewer votes than candidates who uttered not one word nor make a single appearance during the entire campaign?), posing as a representative of the "tax-payer," exhort the new board members, "bought and paid for by the faculty," to recuse themselves from any votes over faculty contracts. As Lisa Higgins quietly pointed out later, the vanquished McKinnon was supported by the IEA and no one had ever asked the same of him.

The highlight was when the Objector, newly minted as a member of the community, his turn as appointed BoT attack dog done, making his own public comment to the new board, turned it into a bit of a circus. Wearing his black teeshirt proudly, he held aloft giant fake checks that purported to show how much money "we" had spent on electing our candidates. It was like something out of a TV show. On his exit he muttered warnings about the prosecutors knocking on the door.

The excitement was not only in the public comments and the ridiculous spectacles people were prepared to make of themselves (Objector number one by a mile in that regard, although a "student" similarly clad in black rivaled him for imbecility of language - since when is being thoughtful and intellectual such a crime amongst conservatives?). The new board struck unexpectedly swiftly and moved to undo some of the havoc wrought by the vanquished by tossing out (rescinding I should say) the reviled policies bulldozed through at the previous meeting. It was a 4-3 vote (I think we may see a lot of that), holdover from the previous board Carlin warning the new members, to hoots of derision from the audience, of acting overly hastily in these matters. With such people, irony is beyond them.

The whole evening was so enthralling, I Tweeted away furiously on my new Crackberry. Later I reviewed how bad my spelling was in the subdued light; my followers must have thought I was drunk. In a way I was; such nights are rare.

Tweeting from the board room: last night for the vanquished bots.

It wouldn't be so bad if they weren't all thick as posts and boring. Stupid veiled threats

The Objector's rentacrowd keeping me from my dinner.

The Objector is the chief clown, wearing his stupid shirt and now waving giant fake checks showing how much we apparently paid the election

New BoT strikes quickly.

ABOR in the dock: maybe it's going away. Tension amounts.

New board order: four (mostly balding) angry old men slink away; four women take their places.

BoT etiquette: the Objector wearing a shirt saying "stop faculty pay to play" this is shared governance! Sore loser.

ABOR supporter confident that registration will soar as a result of COD adopting Horrorwitz. Ask students whose tuition just doubled...

I thought the election would end the fun. Far from it. Sparks flying once again. Watch the highlights on COD website.

Mr. Goodforillinois in attendance; the lone blogger is running for guvnor!!! Is this the best that the GOP can do? Yikes.

The Objector wearing an anti-faculty teeshirt. Poor loser.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What's in your water

A substantial part of the time with my chemistry 1105 class is spent developing awareness of the role of chemicals and chemistry in the environment. This in some ways is an exercise in marketing, for most people chemistry has a negative connotation.

A few minutes spent in Wholefoods will explain why that is the case. The words "natural" and "organic" appear everywhere, whereas the presence of anything "chemical" is hotly denied. This is of course a nonsense as we proceed to explore. All matter is made of chemicals, and there is no shame in being addressed as a chemical. On the whole, chemicals synthesized by men have done a lot more good than harm.

Still, the papers have been replete with stories about the venality of communities and companies in their dealings with chemical waste. First there was Crestwood where, according to records obtained by the Tribune, water was distributed from a local well even after it was shown to contain unacceptable levels of chlorinated solvents. To think that the solvents I used to wash the grease off my hands when working on the car are now not tolerated at any detectable level in drinking water. I'm still waiting for the second head to appear. Although it appears that the city officials were informed by the local EPA that the water was contaminated, these guardians of public health omitted to inform the citizens. That apparently is the norm in Illinois, and entirely fitting with its wider reputation of corruption, patronage, cover-up and deceit. (As a side note, I can see why some citizens are activists for greater transparency, and one such visited himself upon the college (forthegoodofillinois) demanding greater transparency; and the good board responded by publishing all our salaries on a website that cost $20,000. I'm not convinced that it has really done much to improve government in Illinois; but if you think otherwise I'm happy to listen.) The citizenry of Downers Grove were similarly kept in the dark about the chlorinated solvents in their wells, until they were told not to use them. Amusingly, the mayor of Crestwood is trying to tell the residents that the water was tested to be safe, despite the records obtained by the Tribune to the contrary.

Yesterday there was an update about the radioactive contamination in the DuPage river in Warrenville, originating from a Kerr-McGee plant in West Chicago that closed in 1973 - this was before Silkwood, made famous by the film with Merryl Streep. I had heard about the contamination when I first moved here twenty-five years ago (don't think about it); now, it appears that the cleanup has been compromised by the bankruptcy of the firm Tronox that was responsible for the job. Just exactly how unsafe the situation is is of course difficult to judge.

In yet another environmental story, political junkie John Kass strayed from his traditional lambasting of Chicago or Illinois politicians to discuss a recent bill that sailed through the Illinois house that permitted the dumping of building waste in old quarry sites rather than landfills. Mr. Kass suggests that the bill is motivated in large part by the city of Chicago's desire to prepare for the Olympics; the debris associated with that project will be more readily be disposed of in neighboring quarries than shipped to landfills further afield. Juxtaposed with the Crestwood case about contaminated well water, the exposure to greater risk of contaminating water by dumping in quarries seems rather odd. Yet, as Mr. Kass points out, the Environmental Law and Policy Center has been oddly silent on the matter.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Shame at last

Just the kind of headline you don't want to read when grappling with the morning's Go Lean (but not lightly). Fortunately the distance from breakfast table to lavatory is short. Thanks to the actions of the dead meat BoT approving the highly contentious ABOR board policies (see earlier posts for further details) the Horowitz PR machine has launched into hyper-drive. I was greeted by the headline, "Historic Victory for Academic Freedom at College of DuPage" on

You can, if you wish, read the whole thing; I was in two minds about providing the link; why give free publicity to this mob? The triumphant crowing is almost too much too bear: "victorious chapter...storied history of the Academic Bill of Rights." Wait, the following sentence states that the COD is the first (note again the first) campus to adopt the ABOR. Scarcely a storied history, more an exercise in futility. More fool the COD for being the first - a community college, in one of the most conservative areas of America. Reading further, " ...the DuPage Faculty Association (a unit of the National Education Association) launched a hysterical misinformation campaign in an attempt to derail the bill..." I suppose that includes my own measured thoughtful comments about the wisdom of the college inviting all the adverse publicity for really very little.

Not surprisingly, the appointed trustee who spearheaded the whole exercise in costly, divisive irrelevance made one final quote prior to riding into his Roselle sunset: “The adoption of the Academic Bill of Rights as official college policy demonstrates the commitment the College of DuPage has for the academic freedom of its students,” said DuPage Trustee Kory Atkinson. “The College exists for the betterment of its students and our students now have the explicit assurances of academic freedom that they are paying for and that they need to flourish.” This trustee had hosted the curious non-event that had been the ABOR champion's stealth visit to the COD in April.

While they may crow, it often pays to remember the old adage about he who laughs last. We await with interest to see what the new BoT (four of the six that voted for that historic moment have been vanquished) will do about it.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Green slime

While washing the dishes this morning after a frenetic Bahrain Grand Prix (what possesses people to live in a giant sandpit?) I took opportunity to catch up on some podcasts from NPR's Science Friday. Despite Ira Playdough's slightly irritating voice, the program's are usually informative and interesting. This one discussed the future of algae as a source of fuel and food. Some of my own students have been attempting to grow the blighters in order to extract oil to convert into biodiesel. This has proved somewhat more challenging than originally envisaged. While the potential is there, I suspect that the quantities of algae required to replace a significant fraction of the fossil fuel consumption are mind-bogglingly enormous, which translates into the areas of water required to culture them equally daunting. Nonetheless, research into algae is proceeding at a pace as frenetic as that of Jenson Button in his (third) winning drive.

One of the guests on the show was the director/curator of perhaps the largest library of algae in the United States, which is housed at the University of Texas, Austin. I discovered this self-same institution when roaming the internet in search of a source of Chlorella for the students to culture. We have since purchased a number of different strains from UTEX, which possesses a dizzying array of these things. Like any good library, the history of each strain is painstakingly documented; some of them can be traced back decades. Papers published using the strain are faithfully noted. For the neophyte like myself, making a purchase is a bit like throwing a dice.

One of the things we have discovered with algae, and I suspect some of these companies interested in turning them into energy sources have also discovered, is that they aren't as easy to grow as you might think. After all, you find them floating in and on all kinds of unpleasant, unsanitary looking bodies of water; but in the laboratory they are a lot more finicky, or so it seems. Media have to be just so; each strain comes with a recommended medium for its growth. Sterilization is also essential - a bit like home-brewing beer (an activity that the SSCP is poised to undertake but is yet to bite the bullet - fear of failure holding him back). A lot of the time we have ended up with some exotic but thoroughly disgusting concoction of multi-colored slimes, liberally adorned with all sorts of foreign molds (moulds? I never can remember. Doubtless Dulcie will gladly point out any error.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Gardening and nanotechnology

A few months ago I had entered my name into the College of DuPage "speakers bureau." I had really expected nothing to come of it but, lo, just last week I received an invitation to speak to the Home and Garden Society of Wheaton on the subject of nanotechnology. Shocked and intrigued at the notion of a garden club wanting to know about nanotechnology, I eagerly accepted. They had given me sparse notice because I received the invitation on Tuesday to give the talk on Friday. This left me little time to fashion a talk focusing on the importance of this new scientific field on gardening, so I went with the one I had used at Christmas for the local fifth grade class. This turned out to be a good move because it transpired that (to borrow the imagery from the melancholy Jacques in As You Like It) the Home and Garden Society was a group entering its second childhood.

Dulcie and I duly arrived at our hosts' house full of curiosity about this club. It quickly became apparent that the Home and Garden Society is not a club with any particular interests in either home decor or gardening, but an exclusive, by-invitation-only, social group. I felt as if I had entered a time capsule and landed on the set of an A.R. Gurney play. For starters, no one was under the age of seventy except us. Clearly, no invitations had been proffered in recent years - perhaps the last two decades. Like the Cathars centuries ago, the society is facing inevitable extinction because of its reluctance to reproduce. When that happens, a particular slice of Wheaton society will be forever extinguished. Everyone was very formally dressed, with the exception of the SSCP and his companion. This was a group from old Wheaton money, and they were understated with it. The home was comfortable but not ostentatious to any degree; not a whisper of vulgarity was evident anywhere. Contrast that with the modern fascination for excess. There were actual portraits of family members on the walls as would have been the custom generally decades ago.

We sat down at the dining table to a rather formal meal that was prepared by a hired servant. The best dinner service was placed in service. I made the appalling faux pas of grabbing a chair at the head of the table. Fortunately my blunder was excused and we were able to continue with the meal. Wine was served in perhaps (echoing Lucky Jim) the smallest wine glasses I have been seriously offered. The wine was well chosen, though frequent refills were required.

Over the course of the evening I learned that, although my Home and Garden Society hosts may be entering the evenings of their lives, they all had a keen wit and intelligence, were very well informed about issues, were to a man world travelers and were ardent patrons of the arts.

They digested while I prattled on about nanotechnology in the living room, my laptop precariously balanced on a card table. I think only one of them dozed off, which, under the circumstances, replete with wine and food was very acceptable. They seemed to enjoy it and asked some interesting questions. We enjoyed ourselves. As we left the time capsule, I wondered if I would ever enter it again.

Did not go gently

I had hoped that the last post was going to be the last post about the outgoing BoT at COD. Unfortunately, the vanquished were not content to go quietly into the evenings of their trusteeisms.

Four of the six members of the College of DuPage Board of Trustees who voted on Thursday to, among other things, offer an unnecessary and unjustified contract extension to the president, bulldoze through the outstanding highly contentious board policies, and hire another landscaper even as the current landscaping that they selected is scarcely complete, will not be present when next the board meets to conduct business in May. Thus did they thumb their noses at the community that had voiced its disapproval of this board by its emphatic defeat of the two incumbents that bothered to run. Now the work of the new board will be hamstrung even before it is able to begin its work to repair the damage wreaked by the old one.

The board has tried to paint itself as operating with greater transparency and fiscal responsibility. Instead, its activities, even to the very end, have been characterized by opacity and subterfuge; while the wasteful dalliances with multiple presidents, parking lots, policy manuals and so forth, have resulted in not only reduced services but also increased costs to students.The mission of education has been diverted. Let these men be gone and not before time; but let not their acts be forgotten.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Tipping Point: Apathy to Activism

A few days after the election and I'm still adjusting to the fact that there will be a new BoT in just a few days. Although it is naive to believe that the winter of COD will turn instantly into a new spring, as in Narnia when the White Queen's spell was broken, (like the Exxon Valdez, things already set in motion have their inertia), it is time to return one's full attention to the business of education. For I fear I have been away. How often in the dark, silent waking hours of early morning, where once I mused over teasing, provocative new assignments for my classes, did I instead quietly seethe over the latest machinations emerging from the board room?

I think back to the beginning of the summer term, where on the quiet of the Tuesday after Memorial Day, the president was gunned down in a style redolent of an episode from the Sopranos. Not for the last time did the perpetrators manifest their cowardly nature. At that moment, amorphous feelings of concern and misgiving crystallized to focused anger. The first letter was dispatched to the Herald.

Such bloodshed would be as nothing compared with the carnage that greeted us as summer gave way to fall. Corpses piled high in the (award-winning!) bioswales (their true function?) betrayed the clumsy reorganization summarily enacted by the interim president. A man by the name of Tom Wendorf walked in off the street and delivered a withering blast at a September board meeting. That the community was taking notice and expressing their concern so vociferously was source of both comfort and encouragement. One noticed a sea-change in the tone of the comments at the foot of Herald articles and letters. The preponderance of angry-tax-payer outrage at overpaid teachers was giving way to community concern over BoT malpractice and the future of the county's educational crown jewel. This was not just about pampered, self-indulgent faculty not getting their way, as if it ever had been.

The turning of the leaves ushered in a new outrage and raised the unrest to a new pitch. In one fell evening we witnessed the premeditated ambushing of one board member by another, shocking in its crudity, and the introduction of a completely new policy manual under the guize of "revision." I was forced to become acquainted with David Horowitz. The response to the attempted bulldozing of the manual through the board resulted in the epochal November board meeting, where students en masse, their mouths taped silent in dramatic symbolism, ringed the board room where faculty and other community members gathered. While the 300 faculty members anticipated by security did not materialize (and we may well wonder why even to this day many of them are not even registered for the discussion board), the numbers were high enough to make an impressive crowd. I forget how many spoke, but the tone was set by one Tom Tipton who, choking down his private fears, delivered a message of breathtaking boldness and clarity. I thrilled to listen. Even now I tingle at the memory. Then was I resolved that this system must not stand.

The embracing of Horowitz led to unprecendented national coverage in reputable circles like the Chronicle of Higher Education and disreputable alike. Like mushrooms in a damp pasture, the weirdo blog sites lit up with DuPage and Horowitz. Gunslot and Jingoists crowed at the comeuppance of lefty liberal faculty. We greeted the new president at his first board meeting with a powerful but thoughtful condemnation of the consequences of the board's ill-considered, wasteful and thorougly unnecessary dalliance with this controversial individual. Though he later came, the event passed without fanfare. A disappointing anti-climax to the few months of drama.

The election process began and the candidates revealed themselves, followed closely by the objections, an unprecendented number for a sleepy little community college election, all but one originating from one individual. Once again the board room was the scene, this time serving as the (kangaroo) court to hear said objections. Much has already been written about the "trials," so no need to belabour it again. If the November board meeting had set the resolve, then Sandy Kim's long afternoon's journey into night confirmed the cause to be just. Sandy, calm, dignified, resolute, old beyond her youthful years, thank goodness for the help of a good lawyer, faced the combined forces of the incumbents down. So many times we were assured that the process was "legal." One began to wonder what really is the meaning of legality; do we sometimes place the rule of law on too high a pedestal? Whatever the legality of this travesty, it was not right. Despite her ultimate triumph, there was scant cause for rejoicing. Raw emotions, usually preserved for love affairs or Formula 1 racing, welled up within; actual tears may have been shed, hatred the scale of which I had not thought possible. For Sandy and the others we must prevail. And we did. Thus were we sustained for the phone calls and the rest: walking the platform in a biting March wind, offering cards to strangers, self-conscious, fearing rejection. Most of the time it did not come. In the end the results were almost beyond one's wildest dreams. It was all worth it.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Whither the balding white males? Election review

Dulcie and I returned hotfoot from across the pond (engaged in filial and other duties) just in time to catch the returns for the election in District 502. I tuned in at 98 % precincts reporting to find with unabashed joy that the good guys were triumphing in majestically shocking style - almost beyond one's wildest dreams. The full results, for those with an eye for statistics are below (Good guys in bold):

2 Year terms

Sandy Kim 39268 48.17%
Jeffrey J Handel 11427 14.02%
Mark J Nowak 30521 37.44%

6 Year terms

Allison O'Donnell 28705 12.68%
Kim Savage 38430 16.97%
Tom Wendorf 27654 12.21%
Matthew H Nelson 14570 6.43%
Ivan H Fernandez 7296 3.22%
Micheal E McKinnon 19513 8.62%
Lisa N Wehr 18192 8.03%
Sharon Giorno 12981 5.73%
Nancy Svoboda 42079 18.58%
Michael V Ledonne 16708 7.38%

Friends for Education can claim a dominant victory: the three candidates in the 6-year term garnered 47 % of the vote, while Sandy in the 2-year term obtained a clear majority with 48 %. Unfortunately a clean sweep was denied the Friends because Tom Wendorf, who made such a powerful impression at board meetings last year, fell short by about a thousand votes to the advantageously placed Alison O'Donnell. Nonetheless, I think that three out of four ain't bad.

One of the most notable changes to the BoT will be in its gender; at a stroke it will be transformed from a male bastion, with the brave Kathy Wessel carrying the lone torch for the "fairer" (I dare not say weaker in these politically correct times) sex, to a group containing five women. All the candidates elected were women. Is this the consequence of a feminine backlash against the "good ol' boy network" that the BoT had appeared to become, and the sordid maelstrom of alleged sexual harrassment, defamation suits and counter-suits that has occupied too much space in the local papers this past year?

It was somewhat surprising to see that Nancy Svoboda, alone of "our" (okay a tad too possessive perhaps) gang of four not to be endorsed by the Daily Herald, led all candidates at 18.6%. Meanwhile, Tom Wendorf, who with his business background might be thought to appeal to the broader community, trailed in at 12.2 %. Even more surprising is that Lisa Wehr, one of the ghost candidates, whosofar as can be told uttered not a single syllable the entire campaign, outgained the prominent LeDonne, friend of Taprooters and anyone else who came his way, who for his part had been quite prominent and generally well-spoken, even appearing at the candidate forum at COD. The mysterious Lisa almost out-polled the soon-to-be-ex BoT chair whose campaign can only be said to be peculiar: not good timing to have all that legal stuff in the papers the week before the big day.

The 2-year picture was a lot simpler with only three candidates. The youthful Sandy (I cannot imagine myself at that age contemplating running for a public office) easily beat the two men. Amiable (but when it comes to community colleges completely clueless - please don't talk to me of lecture halls teeming with a thousand students as a model for education - or mention parking one more time), plant-breeding dentist Dr. Handel trailed in a distant third. Thinking back to that despicable scene in the kangaroo court as Ms. Kim's candidacy was assaulted by some of the now-whithered males, the victory is the more sweet.

Mr. NOwak has been heard to mutter that this election has been motivated by the faculty being upset over their measly 2 % pay increase. I might point out that the gang of four polled a collective 145,000 votes, while there are only about 300 faculty members. His argument is a bit of a stretch to say the least; it is a hard to believe that 144,700 community members can be that concerned about the small increases of our giant salaries. Is it not perhaps the well-publicized bunglings and shenigans of the BoT, now in its death throes, that played a bigger role in the game? I cannot speak for the other 300 (gosh some kind of allusion to the Spartans?) but on my list the pay rise is at the very bottom of a very long list of reasons to replace the current gang of four by the new gang. It's going to take a little while getting used to the new dawn.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

T - 7 and counting

In just seven days the much anticipated election for the COD board of trustees (in most years a yawn of the century) will reach the inevitable denouement. The big question is, who will be in and who will be out? Will the forces of good prevail over those of evil? If it was one of those cookie-cutter popular movies, the answer would be clear. Unfortunately, real life is not normally so predictable.

There was a forum for the candidates at the COD today, organized by some of the groups on campus. A pretty sparse showing from the electorate, given that there are some 30,000 students in any given term, and some 2,000 employees of one form or another. 40 or so took time out of their busy days to attend. Evidently, some of the candidates were also too busy to attend, and the pattern is beginning to emerge. There are the invisible candidates who will never appear at anything, and have little more than a name on a ballot. One might even question whether they could spell the school's address or name its arts center. The two incumbents again showed their contempt for their own institution by not showing. Micheal "Mike" McKinNOn and Mark NOvak (there appears to be a glitch in my CAPS key). It's not as if the faculty (portrayed by these two as the inmates attempting to run the asylum) had organized this one.

At one point, LeDonne, firm of voice and bristling with enthusiasm, hails me from the podium as having a nanotechnology department (moment of embarrassment here) - an example of the kind of thing we should be doing - that I can agree with. This was in response to a question about his previously stated desire to get rid of "academic" courses. Things must be "relevant" to the community, he says. Fair enough I think, but why are not academic courses relevant to the community? How does one decide "relevance"? I guess the more significant question is, what exactly is meant by academic? Perhaps Mr. LeDonne's definition is different from mine. Nonetheless, I am flattered that he would think I have a nanotechnology department, and sad to face the reality of there not being one - unless you count a course on nanotechnology that has not yet actually been offered as being equivalent to a department. Maybe one day...

After the statements and the questions, I hung about for a bit and chatted and met a formidable, and somewhat terrifying, woman who identified herself as a member of Taproot. For those not in the know, Taproot is a collective of local conservatives, and I mean real conservatives - the kind that would find most moderate conservatives unacceptably liberal. So I enquired innocently, feigning ignorance, if Taproot was a group interested in growing vegetables like carrots - about the only taproot with which I am familiar. She responds with vigour, in the manner of a greying, but still energetic, drill sergeant, that Taproot gets its meaning from burrowing deep down (slightly unnerving idea), which means stability, and that's what conservatives are, like the people that founded this country (like only Taprooters are true Americans). She turns to Mr. LeDonne and asks, "Do they get it?" meaning me, implying I didn't. Well I did, only too well. Hmmm. Neither being a historian nor a student of the genesis of America, I am ill-equipped to respond to that assertion. Nonetheless, I am not entirely convinced that Jefferson would readily identify with the baying, jingoistic, shrill voice of the "true" Republican (the types that slaver over the repellent Limbaugh) that fraternizes with taproots. I gesture towards the refreshments and make my escape.