Galaxy Zoo

galaxyI want to let you know about a website that just launched.  It’s called Galaxy Zoo.

After you sign up, you go through a little training before you are presented with questions regarding the classification of galaxies.  No, computers are not yet at the point where they can reliably distinguish elliptical and spiral galaxies, viewed from any possible angle and with any number of irregularities.

It’s all good fun, and it helps advance galactic research.  “So, what did you do yesterday when it was raining outside?”  “I became a member of a research team taking images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey to classify galaxy shapes so research can be done using the data.”  Wouldn’t you like that on your resumé?

High stakes test anxiety

Validity and reliability are the two necessary pieces that make a test that actually provides useful information about learning.  Validity goes to whether or not a test actually assesses what it’s supposed to.  Reliability goes to whether or not the results of a test are reproducible.

I heard an interesting podcast from Scientific American the other day.  Here is the link, and following is part of the transcript.

… her studies showed that the best students were the ones most likely to choke under a high-pressure test situation. That’s because normally they use their higher memory capacity to methodically work through a problem. But when the pressure’s on, the good students resort to the same ineffective shortcuts the poor students use all the time. Another researchers shed some light on this with his study showing that anxiety actually occupies working memory, wasting it instead of devoting it to the task at hand….

Leading to this conclusion:

They say their findings suggest that high-pressure tests might not be measuring what they’re meant to, and schools might want to try de-emphasizing their importance.

Statewide tests can be a real pressure-cooker for children because so much weight is put on them by No Child Left Behind.  How much do tests assess “test-taking” skills and level-headedness?  If a test’s results are colored by a child’s test anxiety, that erodes the validity of the instrument.  Could regular smaller quizzes or something less stressful than the big statewide test “book” that student are handed out every year be better at measuring student progress?  Something to consider.

A tale of two teachers organizations

goofus…in the style of Goofus and Gallant.

Goofus is locked in an “us vs them” mindset.

Gallant practices collegial negotiations based on trust.

Goofus sends a chunk of your dues to a national chapter.

Gallant keeps all of your money in Missouri.

Goofus has exclusively supported Democrats for president since its founding.

Gallant supports candidates based solely on education issues.

Goofus sends 90% of its political contributions to Democrats.

Gallant does not use membership dues for political contributions.

Goofus spends its money to support liberal causes like Rainbow Coalition, Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, Amnesty International, AIDS Walk Washington.

Gallant spends its money on professional development opportunities for teachers and teacher grants.

Goofus petitions to become sole bargaining authority even if he is clearly in the minority.

Gallant sticks to his principles allowing everyone a seat at the table, even when he is clearly in the majority.

Goofus tells teachers to remove all references to Muslim terrorists in lesson plans for September 11th attacks.  Goofus suggests teachers  discuss “historical instances of American intolerance” instead.

Gallant believes in local authority to set lessons and curriculum.

Key:  Goofus is the Missouri National Education Association; Gallant is the Missouri State Teacher’s Association.

Sources:,, School and Community Magazine, Summer 2008, Wikipedia

Goofus and Gallant is a feature in Hightlights Magazine.

Dawn mission

I guess I can’t take full credit for jinxing this mission.  After all, the mission had already been canceled once, uncancelled, and then put on “stand down” status before I even got involved in the project.  The mission of Dawn is to study Vesta and Ceres, two bodies in the asteroid belt, and Dawn will be the first to visit multiple bodies under its own power, in particular using its new ion thrusters.  And my involvement  … well, I am one of the space enthusiasts whose name (and Angie’s, I take full responsibility for that) is carried on the craft embedded in a microchip mounted between the forward thruster and the high gain antenna.

Of course, after we became involved the mission was canceled.

Then, the manufacturer of the Dawn spacecraft, Orbital Sciences Corporation, appealed, offering to finish Dawn at cost in order to gain experience in this new field.  Just a couple of days ago, the mission is back on again.  Angie and I are going into space.

That is, if we don’t jinx it again….

Good decisions require good information

Can anyone make good decisions without good information? On the verge of writing a piece in favor of a particular candidate for president, I realize that information quoted is only as good as its source. Never has this been more clear to me in the wake of Rathergate.

I recently had an online chat with an old friend as we debated the value of television news programs. I’ve been so frustrated with all of them that I advocated going the extra mile and shunning all secondary sources. “Look at the record” was my mantra in the discussion.

What frustrates me most isn’t media bias, although that’s right up there. It’s media laziness. Nearly every story on television and radio news goes like this:

Senator Smith blasted Representative Jones today on the issue of abortion (insert sound bite here), while Representative Jones spoke to crowds about Senator Smith’s record on the environment (another sound bite).

No checking of the record. No verifying the veracity of what was said. Just repeating what was said. Here’s a real example that has been getting a lot of superficial play on the “news” lately. John Kerry has been hitting George W. Bush on the issue of health care using the flu vaccination shortage, taunting, “Sounds just like [Bush’s] health care plan: Hope and pray you do not get sick.”   Continue reading Good decisions require good information

Followups & updates

Things are still very busy here. With first quarter winding down, I’m pleased by what I’ve been able to accomplish with my students this year. Time away from school has been divided between my software project, a couple of computer hobbies, and a narrow social life. As the holidays approach, I expect the latter to ramp up.

I’m also trying to work on exactly what I need to get my dad’s notebook computer to wirelessly connect to his dialup Internet service. He needs to not be tethered to a cord, and broadband is not available where he lives. All I’ve come across on the web have been vague references to certain wireless routers with COM ports to hook up with certain external modems. All theory, no concrete brands and models. If you know something about this, please drop me a line.

Cassini continues to make fascinating observations of Saturn. Here’s one of many such stories.

Saturn’s Perfect Storms (Astrobiology Magazine) – Saturn is the windiest planet in the solar system, which is one mystery of the ringed giant. Imagine not what qualifies as a terrestrial hurricane with category five status assigned beyond one hundred miles-per-hour. On Saturn the superstorms can produce a thousand mph wind.

I wrote my Rathergate entry immediately after Dan Rather “apologized” for running his political attack piece. Since then, CBS seems to want to proceed as if nothing happened. I’ve chosen a couple of slightly different viewpoints that have appeared since my first story.

All eyes are on Rather’s future (Variety). Variety – NEW YORK — The morning after Dan Rather admitted the biggest mistake of his career, he agreed to go on Larry King’s primetime show and talk about the worst crisis ever to strike a network news anchor.   Continue reading Followups & updates


So far, I’ve shied away from controversial political issues on this blog, but I have to warn you, I am feeling very harshly toward this story.

CBS News Concludes It Was Misled on National Guard Memos, Network Officials Say (New York Times) – After days of expressing confidence about the documents used in a “60 Minutes” report that raised new questions about President Bush’s National Guard service, CBS News officials have grave doubts about the authenticity of the material, network officials said last night.

CBS backs off Guard story ( – CBS News acknowledged Monday that it received disputed documents critical of President Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard from a former Texas Guard officer who now says he lied about where he got them and has doubts about their authenticity. [Yahoo! News – Reader Ratings]

I think the forged Killian documents are a much bigger deal than most people realize at this point. This scandal will have far-reaching consequences in the world of journalism regarding investigative reporting, bias, and the expectations we have for the news media.   Continue reading Rathergate

Common sense

I’m putting the finishing touches on my grades now!  Tomorrow is the last contracted day of the 2003-04 school year, and I’m bringing things to a dignified close.  Dignified.

Then I read this story.  I am speechless.  I find it embarassing that people in my profession would show school children a beheading (and even more confounding, one teacher showed it during a pizza party).  This kind of act shows no regard for young minds and demonstrates a complete lack of mature judgement on the teachers’ part.

A message to any educators who decide to criticize heros and positive role models and instead emblazen graphic images of the very worst atrocities humanity is capable of into children’s minds.  Think about what you are doing!  Use your common sense!

You are dismissed.