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.