Sunday, September 30, 2007

Operating systems

Here is a snapshot from Sitemeter of visitors to The force that through... in terms of operating systems used. Two things standout. First MacOS is running about 7%, as is Vista. Windows XP is still the most popular system, most Windows users choosing not to upgrade on their current machines. That is quite understandable as older machines can't handle Vista's graphics requirements.

For the record, I run Mac OS at work, Vista Home premium on my home desktop and XP on my laptap. The laptop most certainly would choke on Vista. Since most of my visitors come via Google-roughly 75%, looking for answers to such questions as "Why are plants green?" or "What is weasel sex?" or.. How do I do problem 5 on my evil genetics test?", these may represent a pretty good cross section of users.


We've had a lot of treefrogs (Hyla) this summer. I found this one perched on the leaf of an orchid this afternoon.

Another view from an oblique angle:


I had always assumed that these frogs are Hyla versicolor, the grey treefrog. But there is an interesting complication as noted here. H. versicolor has a sibling species Cope's grey treefrog, H. crysoscelis. H versicolor is tetraploid (4n=48) but H. crysoscelis is diploid (2n =24).

Thursday, September 27, 2007

A tale of two instructors

There is an interesting article titled "Adjuncts and God: Why are 2 instructors out of a job?" in this week's Inside Higher Ed. The first instructor, Steve Bitterman was reportedly fired from his job teaching Western Civilization at Southwestern Community College in Iowa for saying that Adam and Eve is a "fairy tale." The article quotes Bitterman as saying:

“A few of the students thought I was knocking their religion by not promoting it,” he said. “They were upset that I didn’t say that the Bible was literally true.” Bitterman said that he treats the Bible as a historically significant, important work, but that he does not accord it status beyond that. “That really seemed to come as a shock to some of them...”

The second instructor, Phil Mitchell was reportedly fired for his conservative views. including about religion. He is being defended by the Colorado chapter of the AAUP which reports on this case on it's website.

The AAUP says of this case:

"The American Association of University Professors, CU Chapter, finds substantial evidence that: A history of antipathy toward Dr. Mitchell’s political and religious convictions existed within the CU History Department. CU backed off Dr. Mitchell’s 2005 termination because, when challenged by media inquiries, the administration and tenured faculty could not document cause for his firing. Their stories changed several times, as each story proved ... An improper culture exists at the University of Colorado, wherein most of the faculty can be fired at any time for any reason, or for no reason, thus encouraging the administration and tenured faculty to suppress the academic freedom of the majority. Dr. Mitchell’s termination violates numerous Laws of the Regents protections of due process, shared governance, and academic freedom, as well as his First Amendment right to free speech."

In both cases, there maybe more to the situation, but from the outside it sounds like the notion of academic freedom is being trumped in the minds of some administrators by a desire to avoid lawsuits. There is a line between academic freedom and just plain offensiveness, but I think administrators need to realize that teachers develop particular points of view on topics related to their disciplines. Administrators and students need to remember that education at the college level is all about developing critical thinking skills and that means questioning one's assumptions and beliefs.

Sometimes that means dealing with the challenge of trying to understand beliefs and assumptions that are different from your own. Some times even the best intentioned instructors cross the line between good teaching and out and out boorishness, and our academic systems need to be a bit forgiving if instructors are going to be able to not just teach content but also the points of view important in their disciplines.

In Bitterman's case treating the Bible along with other religious texts is a standard way of looking at these texts from a historical perspective. In Mitchell's case, his conservative beliefs certainly color his approach to history and I see nothing wrong with him explaining those beliefs that are relevant to to his approach to history. In fact the students need to know that. Just students need to know how Bitterman's beliefs that the Genesis is not to be taken literally color his approach to history.

Teachers need to be free to teach their understanding of their own disciplines and not have to constantly watch where they tried lest they get fired because someone is offended. At the same time teachers have a responsibility to provide a safe space for student disagreement and challenges. Administrators need to take some responsibility too. They need to provide training for instructors on how to approach students with diverse cultural and religious belief. And administrators need to insure that academic freedom is maintained. After all instructors can only teach their best when they feel they are in a safe space.

Move over Second Life!

Second Life attempts to provide users with a virtual world. Now iRobot who makes those cool little cleaning robots has introduced a new robot designed to provide its users with a virtual presence. The ConnectR is supposed to be a "virtual visiting robot" allowing the user to visit a place from a remote. If you are on a business trip to some remote location, Kansas for instance, and you want to talk to your kids and your spouse at home in Boston. ConnectR has a video camera and microphone mounted as part of a flat Roomba style robot that you can remotely control and talk to your family through a home's wireless network.

Or if you have a cat that scratches your furniture when you are away then you could presumably scare the wits out of it even though you are at work. Depending how noisy the bot is, there are endless possibilities for spying on your kids or stealing trade secrets as a former iRobot employee is alleged to have done. Also this could really revolutionize education. You don't have commute to school just let your ConnectR stay at school while you interact remotely.

Oh and prospective Catholic saints have new way to do bilocation and avoid the heavy metaphysical labor involved in being, as iRobot claims, "in two places at once."

More seriously, I think this robot has possibilities for monitoring pets or aging parents who are far away. I think my father would have been intrigued by this robot but maybe he wouldn't have wanted me to see that he was not as able to get around toward the end of his life as he led us to believe. The robot is remotely saucer shaped like iRobot's cleaning bots and they might not be the best system for more sophisticated remote applications. Also it doesn't appear to have a screen so those people you are interacting with can see you.

iRobot also released a specialized robot for cleaning gutters, and I suspect this will be particularly useful in the upcoming presidential campaign in the United States - no wait- wrong gutter.

At any rate, if you're interested in field testing the ConnectR you can apply on the iRobot site and get one for $199, if you help field test it. Might be great fun for "early adapters". I signed up even though I am not usually far from my family and my cats are declawed so we will see if they accept me for the program. The regular retail price is supposed to be "just under" $500 according to the company's website.

By means of full disclosure, I do own stock in iRobot in my small caps portfolio.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Now that it is cooler...

OK that is relative here in Kansas but it is cooler than 40C in the shade now so my Dendrobium are blooming.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Evolutionist bites tongue at Red Lobster

Tonight my wife and I went out for shrimp and other goodies at Red Lobster. Behind us was another couple having a conversation about the Bible and religion and the man started in on evolution about how it was incompatible with the Bible and how humans can't have evolved from other primates since we had so many unique structures.

ground beetle

His example was something about the little bones of the inner ear. Then he started in on how everything in the Bible is true because there are other independent writers that say the same thing. I began to feel like we had our own little 700 Club. Teachers complain about students lacking critical thinking skills but sometimes adults leave their brains behind especially in matters of Faith.

I found myself thinking about something that a historian, Brian Tierney(I Think) said. Namely, that Christianity was attractive to Greek and Roman philosophers because it was so subtle. Clearly Tierney must have been talking about a very different conception of Christianity* than what seemed to be passing for Christianity at the next table.

The ground beetle was at our light when we got home. Click on the image for a larger view.

*Tierney, Brian and Sidney Painter(1978) Western Europe in the Middle Ages. Knopf (p 26)

Friday, September 21, 2007

A rarely noticed plant

I love flowers, and often a flowering plant just doesn't get its due if it is not the plant equivalent of what in the animal world are called charismatic megafauna. These Rattlesnake masters are a common plant here in Kansas but usually overlooked. They are not showy but I find them hard to resist. Fortunately, at least some horticulturalists agree with me.

Rattlesnake master

Click on the picture to access larger images on my Flickr photostream.

According to this site it was used to treat exhaustion from sexual depletion. Hmmmm.

Friday, September 14, 2007


Found this five-lined skink sitting in a flower pot in my garden the other week. I assume it is a five-lined skink as that is the skink I see in my yard. The young ones have blue tails and so a easier to spot than the adults. Not a great picture for detail, but i like the striping and all the different shades of brown in the image.

five lined skink

NARTH Field Research?

Sorry I can't resist noting this article from EdgeBoston, Boston's Gay publication. It seems that an "ex gay" counselor was convicted of sexual assault on a man. What's interesting is what Edge alleges about this person:

"Austin was affiliated with NARTH, the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, and had presented a seminar at a NARTH convention in 2004 called 'Understanding and Treating Compulsive Sexual Behavior in Men with Value-Incongruent Homosexual Issues: A Multidimensional Approach.' "

Maybe he was doing field research for another seminar?

Monday, September 10, 2007

Ooops! NARTH caught... a lie. or at least a gross distortion. NARTH for those people unfamiliar with this group is the so called National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality. This group has in the past been a proponent of so called reorientation therapy, which claims to be able to change one's sexual orientation say from gay to straight. Now I am all for therapy, and it is not my intent here to get into this whole issue. But back in May 2007, the blog Ex-Gay Watch caught NARTH in a distortion of Francis Collins' beliefs about homosexuality. The NARTH article currently at claims that Collins says that homosexuality is NOT hard wired. The problem is that Collins' said no such thing. When asked about the NARTH article, here is what Collins said according to Ex-Gay Watch:

"The evidence we have at present strongly supports the proposition that there are hereditary factors in male homosexuality — the observation that an identical twin of a male homosexual has approximately a 20% likelihood of also being gay points to this conclusion, since that is 10 times the population incidence. But the fact that the answer is not 100% also suggests that other factors besides DNA must be involved. That certainly doesn’t imply, however, that those other undefined factors are inherently alterable.

Your note indicated that your real interest is in the truth. And this is about all that we really know. No one has yet identified an actual gene that contributes to the hereditary component (the reports about a gene on the X chromosome from the 1990s have not held up), but it is likely that such genes will be found in the next few years."

NARTH of course conveniently conflates, non genetic with something that is a choice. It would seem to me that if NARTH is really interested in helping people and interested in the truth about homosexuality it would pull or at least rewrite the original article so as to not distort what Collins actually said and believes.

But no. Taking a page from the creationists and intelligent design advocates they have left the article intact. Sounds like NARTH understands what those propagandists have long known. If you repeat a lie enough people will begin to believe it.

I wonder what NARTH would make of this article from Scientific American. The article notes:

"In the past, people thought that…[political leanings were]…all environmentally influenced, a combination of biological dispositions as well as cultural shaping," says David Amodio, an assistant professor of psychology at New York University. However, a new study, led by Amodio, indicates that political bent "is not just a choice people have, but it seems to be linked to fundamental differences in the way people process information."

Does this mean being a Republican can't be fixed with therapy?

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Tuesday, September 04, 2007



This is where they belong:
Part of the over-story
A blue note in the opening
Phrases of the hardwoods,
Mainly oak here with Viburnums
And creepers filling in
The middle ranges.

At first the trail seems
The theme: wood-chip lined
For children not to get lost.
But then the main trail
Forks into the quiet hills,
Only a few arrows and warnings
To guide a morning walk.
We teach our children to trust
The trail maker who comes before:
Don't stray but stay on theme.

And that trust persists to right now
On this trail and its cedars
That belong here with the oak.
Trust that maker who sends me
Along the top of a ridge,
Seemingly the wrong way-
Sends me off the trail
Into his world
With its themes,
lush and silent.

Commentary: Cedars have gotten a bum rap here in Kansas especially from me who asks if they might best be considered an invasive species. But in the Ozarks of Southern Missouri you can see cedars as a normal part of the forests, much like yew and fir in the forests of my home in New England. This poem was written during and after a brief trip to Big Cedar Lodge South of Branson Missouri, a place my wife and visited to celebrate our anniversary.