Archive for March, 2008

M, T, T, E, G, F, S!

27 March 2008

I really like playing word games. I didn’t think I play word games that often, but I took stock and found that in fact I do play often. I confess to a little freerice vocabulary-building every week, and I usually try some online boggle every week as well. I have a stash of crossword puzzles from the Sunday newspaper going back a full year, and while I don’t finish one a week I occasionally go through bursts where I do several in a day or weekend. Plus I do a lot of them in the summer.

I also play fictionary (it involves the players making up definitions for an unknown word, then voting on the definition they think is correct) over e-mail with a group that I’ve been playing with for about 15 years. We recently tried defining the words “gnammas” and “tafoni.” I did not win, which is just as well. The winner (whoever gets the most votes) has to choose the next word and run the next round. Once all the players have submitted their definitions, the person running the round has to compile them into one file, make them all have the same format, remember to put in the real definition, and send the ballot out for votes. Then they have to count all the votes without losing track of anyone’s e-mails, and announce the winner. It’s a great game! Usually when I run the game, I have to go through 3 or 4 words before hitting on one that nobody else thinks they know. The players in that game have really good vocabularies!

While I am a physics geek, I think I have a pretty good vocabulary (if I say so myself) and I like to show off sometimes. For example, I have been on level 50 of freerice more than once. I’m pretty sure I got this vocabulary from reading too many books…a topic I will write about some other time. I like to play Scrabble®, Boggle, and Bananagrams® (though I don’t have my own bananagrams set yet…). Unfortunately, I generally think of myself as “too busy.” Well, that is not entirely true–I could be playing a word game right now but I am writing in this blog instead.

Last week, while I was on Spring Break, I played Scrabble against my husband. While I think I have a slightly better vocabulary than he does (I play freerice at a slightly higher level than he does, usually), my husband is an excellent gamer. Gaming is what he loves. He is a whiz at determining winning strategies, and even seems to win games of chance (cribbage comes to mind) more than chance might lead you to expect. He can look at a Scrabble rack of M, T, T, E, G, F, S and scope out the board, and all of a sudden there’s a tiny word snuggled next to another word making two more words and he’s got another 23 points! He’s an expert anagrammer, has a great memory (especially for things like the list of acceptable two-letter words), and is a superb strategist. Here is our board from last week’s game, which he won by over 40 points:

Scrabble Board March 2008

We were pretty pleased with ourselves–our combined total was only a little shy of 700 points, which is a nice total for two-person Scrabble!

Do you like word games? Which ones do you like to play?

The World

22 March 2008

The summer before I went to college, I was asked the question “what are you going to do to make the world a better place?”

I made my decision to become a teacher then. I thought that to educate was paramount, and by influencing a hundred students a year, I could influence untold thousands by the influence my students had on the people around them. But I’ve come to believe that making the world a better place is a full-time, whole-life activity. And there are a lot of things that can be done to make the world better.

Environmental things: reducing my waste, reducing my carbon footprint, reducing my consumption. Choosing to eat “local” foods when possible, taking the train or walking instead of driving, composting with redworms in the basement. Paying extra for wind energy. I try to make the better environmental choice whenever I have a choice and I know enough to make it. A lot of times, I can’t tell, but I figure it is better to buy domestic items rather than imported, organic items rather than conventional, and items with less packaging rather than more packaging. I’ve started taking my own bags to the grocery store, and most of the lightbulbs in our house are fluorescent.

Money things: giving to organizations that defend against discrimination, harassment and hate; paying my taxes so the government can use the money for some of the many good things government does (I don’t like spending money on war, but I do like S-CHIP); buying products from companies that pay living wages to workers who have a voice in how the company is run and who try to avoid damaging ecosystems. Investing in “socially responsible” funds and using Working Assets for my mobile and long distance phone company — they make donations to organizations that also try to make the world a better place.

If we paid more taxes in the US, we could have more money for the government to do things with and be less beholden to other countries. What could be done with tax money? I think I mentioned our crumbling infrastructure in an earlier post, but we could also give health insurance to the uninsured, fund research to finally TRULY develop viable fusion energy (no, we’ll have it in another 50 years…), educate our children better (I might argue about how we could do that in another post, later), or build new prisons designed for rehabilitation and not for just holding. I think these would make our world better, too.

If you don’t feel compelled to make the world a better place, I hope you at least try not to make it any worse!

Driving in New Jersey

19 March 2008

The first time I took the test to get a New Jersey driver’s license (back when I moved to New Jersey in 1999 – I don’t live there anymore) I failed it. The question that I flunked on asked what you should do when you approach an intersection that has no signal or stop (or yield) signs.

Apparently the correct answer is to drive right through, without slowing or stopping.

Yesterday, a three-year-old boy was killed in Pemberton, NJ when two vehicles approaching an intersection with no signal or signs both drove right through. A school bus carrying elementary school children collided with a minivan carrying a family.

Why are there ANY intersections without signals or signs in either direction? NJDOT should immediately fix this problem!

I’m glad I don’t often need to drive in New Jersey, though at least that state has better marriage laws than its neighbor Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, the Senate Judiciary Committee has passed along a bill to amend the constitution to ban same-sex marriage. That bill now goes to the Appropriations Committee before it gets to the Senate. I think the constitution should contain important rules for the governance of the commonwealth. Defining marriage in a narrow and discriminatory way in the constitution violates the human rights of gay people and is a distraction that takes attention away from the important business of the legislature.

As in the federal system, I wish the legislature would spend less time posturing and more time running the government properly. How about raising some taxes to repair our crumbling infrastructure? How about taking responsibility and passing some laws to help curb gun violence in urban centers? How about doing something to curb the carbon dioxide emissions of the coal-fired power plants? How about working for the good of Pennsylvanians, rather than worrying about the next election? Sorry, silly idea. Never mind.

On reflection, I think I might be happier if I didn’t read the newspaper. If I weren’t on break, I might not read so thoroughly.


18 March 2008

I mentioned kids competing in science competitions. That is something I never did much of as a kid, and now I shepherd kids onto/off buses and I wait for winner announcements with my stomach all a-flutter. I am the official sponsor of science competitions at my school. I get paid extra for this!

What are these competitions?

Well, any kid at my school who wants to enter the local science fair needs my signature. Last year I had one! He got “best in show” at the local level, and won a prize at the regional fair but not enough of a prize to go on to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, which is where the big money is. That was pretty exciting! This year, nobody entered. Maybe next year!

The Delaware Valley Science Council invites up to four seniors from every high school in the region to take two tests in the fall. The kids get to choose among biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics tests. I’m the one who sends in the nomination form and serves as the communications link between the organization and the students in my school. This year, my school had one student who, after taking the tests, was invited to the awards dinner. He won $250! Wow!

Science Olympiad is a national organization that encourages kids to get involved in science competitions. My school competes in a local region, spending a whole day at a local college where 15 kids per school compete at 23 different science-related events. These include engineering balsa wood bridges or towers or other structures, flying home-made airplanes in a gymnasium, controlling little robots to accomplish various tasks, taking tests in food science, infectious diseases, or ecology, identifying astronomical objects and different kinds of rocks, completing lab experiments in chemistry or physics, playing and explaining home-built musical instruments, answering Fermi questions, and a lot more! Our local region is home to teams who often make it to the national level, and win there, so the competition is very tough. We’ve made it to the state level once since I have been the sponsor, which is exciting, and involves an overnight trip. This year, my team showed great enthusiasm in the fall and then disappeared as the competition grew near. We did not do very well this year.

Since I teach physics, I also have a Physics Olympics team. This is not a national organization, though many states and regions have Physics Olympics competitions. My school is in a local league that has three meets each year. The meets are on Saturday mornings, and they all have the same types of events: build-ahead events, worth up to 200 points; rotation events, worth up to 100 points, and problem solving. The build-ahead events involve making things ahead of time and then racing or testing or otherwise proving them at the meet, going head-to-to head against the other teams. The rotation events involve 8-12 kids from a team going into a room for 25 minutes to complete a task: a mystery lab, a build-something-out-of-something-else challenge, or maybe a pencil-and-paper activity. The problem solving portion is pretty challenging. The various teachers who make up the problems make up some doozies! My kids are still talking about the “cheese train” problem from the December competition (which they got right!)

Our local Physics Olympics in February also serves as the regional qualifying event for the International Bridge Building Competition. Our top two bridge-building kids in the region go on to the International meet. Since the bridges get broken in the process of testing them, the winners have to build new bridges for the finals. I’ve never had a student make it to the finals in bridge building, though I have had teams win the physics relay, and earn medals in various car-building tasks over the years, such as the mousetrap-powered car that will go the straightest down a series of plywood “steps,” or the battery-powered car that wins the most tractor-pull contests against other schools’ cars. This year we also won a medal in a projectile-launching event!

The American Association of Physics Teachers sponsors some test competitions and a photo competition. I have had kids take the Physics Bowl test and the F=ma test. The F=ma test is the preliminary test for determining which kids will be chosen to represent the US at the International Physics Olympiad. This is the first year I have had a student make it to the final testing round! We should know within the next two weeks if he’s made it into the top 24, which is the cutoff for who gets invited to the Physics Team training camp. The top 5 at the training camp will form the “traveling team” and will compete in Vietnam against teams from around the world!

Happily, another teacher in my school guides kids to enter the High School Physics Photo Contest. A chemistry teacher takes care of the qualifying test for the Chemistry Olympiad team, and we have a district-wide FIRST Robotics team that is sponsored by a teacher at another high school. So I am not in charge of those things! I think I am in charge of enough science competitions. However, I could have registered an Envirothon team (but I missed the deadline) or a NOBBChE Quiz Bowl team, if I had talented minority students who wanted to compete (but none have asked me about it this year). One year I had some kids who wanted to enter the Team America Rocketry Challenge, but they never did build the rocket. There are probably other competitions out there, but I am not sure I want to know about them. If kids come and ask me about them and want to start up a team, then I will look into it. But I am not scouting for more opportunities right now, thank you!

Did you ever do any of this competition stuff in high school? Or did you get involved in something else? Some of my top science competitors are also in the school musical, on the Academic Competition team (another quiz-bowl sort of thing), on the debate team, part of the Model UN group, or busy with their own extra-curricular competitions such as piano-playing, or classical guitar. How do they have time for this stuff?

Lists: pies, to-do, did

17 March 2008

Well, on pi day I ate five pieces of pie.  Yes, five.  We had six different kinds of pie in AP physics, so there was one I did not try.  We had:

  • Cherry pie
  • Boston creme pie
  • Key lime cheesecake pie
  • Peach pie
  • Apple pie
  • Mint chocolate chip ice cream pie

We had to invite AP biology to come share the pies, and there were still leftovers!  It took me over 24 hours to recover from the sugar hit, and I probably won’t be that foolish again for a while, but it was pretty fun!

I am happily now on Spring Break!  Yet, I went to work today.  I have been gradually building up a pile of papers, transparencies, magazines, folders, envelopes, and other stuff on my desk, and I really needed to take care of it–some to files, some to recycling, some to trash, some to another pile…which can be attacked tomorrow.  Yes, I am going to work tomorrow, too.   But I have additional motive tomorrow: I am administering a test to two students who hope to qualify for the US Physics Team.  While they sit for 3.5 hours of testing, I will be sorting more papers for filing or recycling.

What else is on my “to do” list?  I need to clean moldy stuff out of the refrigerator, finish sewing my office curtains,  grade the tests I gave last week, continue watching lectures and doing homework for my online course, take a test for my online course, clean up my office space, organize the tax stuff, buy and send my dad’s belated birthday gift, have the car serviced (oil change, tire rotation), and re-write some worksheets that past students have told me were helpful.  The worksheets are a combination of typed bits and hand-drawn bits, and I plan to re-make them as entirely electronic documents.  Whether that means scanning the hand-drawn bits or re-creating them in Word remains to be seen.

Oh yeah, I have two netflix movies that I have had for months now and which I haven’t watched yet.  I should do that too.

You might think, gosh, you surely got a good start on all that stuff over the weekend, right?  Well, if you did think that, you would be wrong.  The weekend was for laundry,  working on my own physics homework, tutoring the aforementioned two students in physics, going to Spring Ball (put on by the Delaware Valley Branch of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society), more physics, more laundry, church, going to the Brunch Dance (also put on by the RSCDS, Delaware Valley Branch), the weekly teleconference for my online physics graduate course, and an unexpected and long nap.  I should have gone to a dance rehearsal as well, but as I am not in the next performance, I had the nap instead.

OK, those were my lists.  I will be trying to write often this week, so I can catch up with explaining my life.  I wonder why blogging didn’t make it onto the to-do list?  Oh well.  I don’t really need any more items on that list.

Pi day

13 March 2008

I had to explain this to someone recently…but I won’t say who. Pi day…you know, 3.14…right. THAT pi. Well, I teach a bunch of nerdy kids, and while I don’t usually celebrate pi day (it is more of a math thing) my AP class decided we are having pies tomorrow to celebrate. Conveniently, we have a double-period class, so we may actually do some physics as well as eat pie.

It also happens to be the last day of class before spring break, so the pies celebrate that as well. I am making ice cream pie. Mint-chocolate-chip ice cream pie, with a chocolate cookie crumb crust and a layer of ganache on the bottom.

Thinking about pie makes me think of all the yummy peaches we had last summer from the CSA we joined. We had peach pie for about three weeks straight, I think. Now that was good pie! Some of you may not know, but when we got married, we had pie instead of wedding cake at our reception. I hope nobody minded too much.

None of this is to say that I don’t like cake–I do like cake. I love cake! I am not that into icing, but I love cake!

Here’s the pie:

Mint chocolate chip ice cream pie

Ack-no time!

9 March 2008

I want to write, but I have no time.  So I am making a quick list of thoughts that I might expand when I have time!

  • I hate daylight savings.  Starting tomorrow, I have to drive to work in the dark again.
  • At some point I will tell you all about taking high school students to compete in science events.
  • I get a bad feeling in my tummy when I think about the president’s belief that the USA should use torture.  It reminds me of his father, who said he believed it was possible to win a nuclear war.  I wish people who say they are Christians would act like they agree with what Jesus is supposed to have advocated.
  • In our back yard, there are several families of squirrels.  We have gray squirrels, white squirrels, and every once in a while we get a visit from a black squirrel.
  • I can’t find my planning calendar, and it’s really bugging me.  I don’t know when my next haircut is supposed to be, I can’t make plans because I don’t know if I already have plans…I really wish I could find my calendar!!!

OK, that was it.  Time to write a program for my course, grade some papers, and get some work done before having to go to a dance rehearsal.  I’ll try to flesh out some of these tidbits when I am on Spring Break (but I have a lot of things I plan to get done during Spring Break, so I am not making any guarantees!)

How I waste time…

2 March 2008

One of the things I probably do way too much of is read webcomics. I started with Unshelved, which came recommended by my husband on his previous blog. Unshelved, by Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum, is about librarians. I am not a librarian. However, the humor is easily appreciable by the reading public and on Sundays features recommended books. It is a very conventional-looking, 3-panel black and white comic strip produced daily, and is an easy introduction to the seductive world of webcomics. I read it every day.

From Unshelved, I found Sheldon, by Dave Kellett. This is another very conventional style of comic strip. Soon, I started reading more and more webcomics in very short order (mostly over the summer, when I had time to read the comics from the beginning of their archives). A physics teacher on one of the e-mail lists I am on sent a link to this xkcd comic, for example. Last year, I didn’t know anybody who read xkcd (a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language) by Randall Munroe. This year, all my AP Physics students read it. Xkcd is the one webcomic that I actually bought a t-shirt from:stand_back_square_0.png

I do get sucked in by plot, in particular. I have always loved reading novels, and comics that are serials with a complex plot that unfolds over time are like potato chips to me. I can eat way too many potato chips at once, and I can get sucked into a plot to the detriment of getting necessary things done. I have learned to buy novels when I have a break from school coming up, and I don’t go to the library during the school year. Comics, at least, regulate how much time I can spend by publishing new panels only a few times a week.

My favorite webcomic with plot is Phil and Kaja Foglio’s Girl Genius. It follows the life of Agatha Heterodyne (the girl genius) who discovers that she is the lost heir to the famous Heterodyne Boys, scientist/inventor/heroes who mysteriously disappeared at about the same time Agatha was born. The story takes place in an alternate-history Europe ruled by Baron Wulfenbach, a tyrant whose focus is stamping out all remnants of “the other,” the enemy who presumably destroyed the Heterodyne Boys and wreaked havoc over most of Europe. Like xkcd, the Foglios update their comic every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Unlike xkcd, you can buy paper versions of the story to read without the aid of a computer. I own volumes 1-6.

A webcomic with plot, physics, and obscure references geared toward the well-educated is Dresden Codak, by Aaron Diaz. Dresden Codak usually contains a plot in every comic (some of which are long for comics–you have to scroll down a lot to read the whole page) except for the Hob series, which is still incomplete as of today. I am highly skeptical that Diaz can earn a living at this, as he claims to be attempting, since he updates the comic less often than once a week. However, I certainly appreciate his work, especially this one and this one. It does help to have already taken a course in modern physics (intro to quantum physics) to understand the second one, but wikipedia does a good job of explaining it.

These few webcomics are not all the ones I read, but I don’t feel like making an exhaustive list here. I would feel obligated to review them all, and I have other things I need to do. I definitely recommend Unshelved to just about anyone who likes comics, but the others are for people with certain tastes. Sheldon is similarly geared towards a general audience, but I don’t find it as consistently funny as I find Unshelved. Maybe you will really like it, I don’t know. Xkcd is really pretty geeky, and Dresden Codak is highly intellectual (I feel smug if I think I get all the references, and feel bummed when I don’t). I recommend Girl Genius for its art, humor, dialogue, and engaging story, but if you are a person who hates reading fantasy/science fiction you probably won’t enjoy it.

I know there are a lot of other webcomics out there that I have never heard of. If I find any more to recommend to you, I’ll try to remember to post about them here.