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Monday, August 15, 2011

Graduation and Utah

Yesterday, I graduated from Penn State.  Fortunately, I was spared the pomp and circumstance by being 3,455 kilometers to the west, in Cedar City, Utah.  Instead of the Bryce Jordan Center, today I spent the day exploring Bryce Canyon, a huge amphitheater filled with limestone towers called 'hoodoos' created by the erosive effects of rain and frost.  I definitely win.

Bryce Canyon is the fourth and final national park Bryan and I will be visiting in Utah.  By my estimation, four national parks in four days is a pretty solid indicator of a good trip.

Three days ago on Thursday the 11th, we arrived in Moab, Utah, coming from Rifle, Colorado.  The drive wasn't too long, so we had much of the afternoon to spend exploring Arches National Park.  It was my first encounter with the desert, and I absolutely loved it.  I stopped briefly to take a call from my future research adviser, seeking out cell service on the top of one of the huge limestone fins filling the park.  We started our hike in 'Devil's Garden', took a primitive trail loop, and found a deep hole bored into the limestone by rushing rainfall and filled with water (and life) and a huge arch tucked away among the limestone fins.  We didn't bring nearly enough water and were run pretty ragged by the end of it, but it was well worth it.  For dinner: delicious pasta dishes, jalapeno fries, and a pitcher of pale ale at the Moab Brewery.

On Friday the 12th, we spent the morning taking care of logistics online before heading out to Canyonlands National Park.  Also down the highway from Moab, Canyonlands borders Dead Horse Point State Park.  The landscape we encountered there was desolate and alien.  After staring out at the incomprehensibly massive objects comprising the view from 'The Neck', we headed out in the opposite direction down the sparsely-marked Neck Springs trail.  The first two of the six miles on this trail take place on one massive slab of slickrock; hikers are guided by rock cairns constructed every ten or so meters.  Through a desert prairie and up to the lip of the canyon, the trail then switchbacks its way past cacti and abandoned horse troughs to the canyon floor.  The environment there was surreal: the wash drew upon a wide enough area to support surprisingly verdant plant life, which brought with it all types of insects and small mammals.  As the sun set and the nearly full moon rose, a strong current of cold(!) air began rustling the leaves at the very bottom of the canyon wash.  Bats flitted in the twilight.  Before long we were relying on moonlight, and in the long shadows of the canyon walls, a single headlamp, to seek out the next cairn and keep moving.  Snakes and chipmunks made an appearance, and the bats increased in number.  We wound our way up and down through numerous tributary ravines before finally ascending out of the canyon and returning to the road.  While Bryan practiced some astrophotography, I laid down and took in the stars.  The Perseid meteor shower was mostly drowned out by the extremely bright moon, but a single fireball cut through and fell to the horizon.  On the drive back, we saw a mule deer grazing along the road and the flashing eyes of something vaguely canid (a coyote?) picking over some roadkill.  It was after 10:30 when we arrived again in Moab, but fortunately the Moab Brewery was still open.  Vegetable burritos, another plate of jalapeno fries, and a pitcher of stout finished off the day.

As we left Moab late the next morning, I made note of one more thing.  Right near the entrance to Arches National Park, we saw signs for the 'UMTRA Project'.  While the signage indicated that it was DOE-sponsored, it wasn't clear at all what was actually happening there.  Turns out: they're reclaiming the site of an old uranium processing plant, digging up 16 million tons of soil contaminated with uranium tailings (a waste product from processing) and burying it in a permanent containment site down the street at Crescent Junction.  The official DOE project page:

(To Be Continued: Zion Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and 'nitrogen-enriched' gasoline)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Chemical Engineering Education, Part Two

At a large public research institute such as Penn State, it is all-too-obvious that teaching comes a distant last on the list of priorities.  Which is a real shame... what happened to the original Land Grant rationale that founded the place?

In the course of advising friends-of-friends and just talking to people casually, I come across stories like this all the time:

Amen.  The clear philosophy here is that anyone who can get a PhD is automatically competent enough to teach the material covered in an undergraduate course.  As someone who spent two years teaching privately and two more teaching for the University, I am reasonably qualified to attest that this is simply not true.  Just because someone can understand something complicated does NOT mean they have the skills to effectively communicate the ideas to someone else.  If the academic hiring process isn't carefully screening for communication skills (and it is definitely not - RESEARCH GRANTS bring money and prestige to a place like this, not teaching awards), then the damage to the quality of undergraduate education is immediate and obvious.

Fact is, the PhD process teaches you nothing relevant to actually being a professor.  Having completed virtually all of the requirements for an MS in ChemE, I can attest that success in the program has nothing to do with real talent and is really only a measure of resistance to abuse.  The material covered in the 'core courses' is arbitrary and irrelevant to an extent that is actually quite amazing.

The understanding is that if you can survive the academic hazing, you're in the system... and there is essentially zero oversight from there on out.  Student evaluations like the SRTEs?  They reward the panderers who give little and ask for little in return.  Faculty teaching evaluations?  I saw you having a beer together on Friday night and you babysit eachothers' kids, so give me a break: there is no way anyone can be professionally evaluated by their best faculty buddy down the hall.

The situation is (hopefully) better at places where the undergraduate student as seen as more than just a necessary inconvenience.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

This Should Not Be Up For Debate, Part II

From an article in the Health Behavior section of MSNBC:
Researcher Nina Kraus said the data strongly suggested that the neural connections made during musical training also primed the brain for other aspects of human communication.
"The effect of music training suggests that, akin to physical exercise and its impact on body fitness, music is a resource that tones the brain for auditory fitness and thus requires society to re-examine the role of music in shaping individual development," the researchers said in their study.
This result is pretty intuitive.
The typical criticism leveled at this type of study is that it is very difficult to remove the confounding influence of social and economic wealth; studying music takes time and money, and those who have the resources for such a pursuit often come from favorable socioeconomic positions.
The researchers' take on this problem?  Make music available to more people!:
The researchers concluded that there needed to be a serious investment of resources into music training in schools accompanied with rigorous examinations of the effects of such instruction on listening, learning, memory, attention and literacy skills.
##Image from

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Wheels of Time

Plants, animals (including humans), and even many bacteria have internal clocks that give the organism some sense of what time of day it is.  Chronobiology is the branch of science that studies the regulation and biological significance of these cyclic phenomena.

Plants have photochemical clocks that utilize photoreactive pigments such as cryptochrome to detect the length of the nighttime, allowing them to determine what time of year it is.  They use this information to correctly time critical plant events like dormancy (summer for deserts, winter for temperate regions) and flowering.  There is no point in wasting energy on flowering if other flowers and the proper pollinators aren't available!

Human life is largely constructed around the Circadian rhythm, which matches the 24 hour cycle of day and night.  Light is the primary means by which the Circadian rhythm is kept in time with, or 'entrained', to the cycle of the Sun; other minor 'Zeitgebers' (from the German for 'time-givers') include temperature and patterns of eating and social interaction.  Artificial lighting disturbs this normal cycle, as can disorders such as Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome and Non-24-Hour Sleep Wake Syndrome.

When left to my own devices, I regularly go to bed between 3 and 5am.  I often find myself wide awake long after everyone else is asleep.  My peak work productivity usually falls between 10pm-3am, and I am almost completely nonfunctional before 10am.  To force myself to be awake at the 'regular' times, I pull all-nighters at a frequency of about once per week so that I am awake in the morning, become exhausted, and can fall asleep at a 'normal' hour.

For these reasons, I've often wondered if I have either DSPS or Non-24.  Many sleep disorder practitioners recommend keeping a sleep journal, but a more practical way to analyze activity patterns is to make use of activity data that you already have on-hand.  For my analysis, I graphed several months of time-stamped text message and Google search records:

Though this is a graph of received text messages, texts are usually exchanged in volleys, so this should provide some quantitative sense of when I am awake.  The text message data will tend to underestimate my probability of consciousness during the hours when no one in their right mind is awake (3-8am).

This data is much more useful, because it includes a much larger sample size and is not reliant on the participation of others.

The International Classification of Sleep Disorders diagnostic criteria for DSPS include:

1.  ...a chronic or recurrent complaint of inability to fall asleep at a desired conventional clock time together with the inability to awaken at a desired and socially acceptable time.
5.  Sleep-wake logs and/or actigraphy monitoring for at least two weeks document a consistent habitual pattern of sleep onsets, usually later than 2 a.m.
6.  Occasional noncircadian days may occur (i.e., sleep is "skipped" for an entire day and night plus some portion of the following day)
7.  The symptoms do not meet the criteria for any other sleep disorder causing inability to initiate sleep or excessive sleepiness.


Monday, July 12, 2010

This Should Not Be Up For Debate, Part I

Music is something that almost anyone can do.

You don't need to be an aspiring music professional, or even particularly gifted in the musical arts, to appreciate music and benefit from a musical education.

Patience, persistence, and the art of practice - the music-making process emphasizes skills that are useful in all life paths.

Learning music isn't just akin to learning a language, art, skill, or culture: music education explicitly includes elements of all of these endeavors.

Making music is a perspective-expanding experience, and provides an introduction to new ways of thinking about, identifying connections within, and interacting with the world.

Music is capable of eliciting emotion in ways, and to extents, that are not achievable by other means.

"Why music?"

If you have to ask... you'll never know.

LINK: "...the cost of education is far less than the cost of ignorance."