Archive for November, 2008


30 November 2008

bedsidebooksThis is the pile of books on my bedside table.  I have started reading all but two of them: Surfing Through Hyperspace and Genius.  Am I making progress on the pile over this mini-break for Thanksgiving?  No.  I picked up a novel I’ve read before, instead.

To be honest, Death in the Andes is hard to get into, and not particularly pleasant.  I have already read many of the stories collected in The Winds of Marble Arch (Connie Willis is one of my favorite authors, and I am eagerly awaiting the release of her novel All Clear next year.)  Physics of the Impossible and Krakatoa are fascinating and engrossing (yes, both!), and I go through little bursts of reading one or the other for several days over breakfast.  I haven’t picked up Driving Mr. Albert in over a year–both it and Krakatoa had used to live in the basement lavatory until I rescued them this summer, and I started back in on the one but not the other.  Guns, Germs, and Steel is something I keep meaning to get back to, but I feel like I ought to read some of the others first as it is a relatively recent addition to the pile.

I have in fact removed three books from the pile this past year, having finished them.

What’s on your bedside table (or equivalent)?  Which of these should I try to finish first?

Population growth

23 November 2008

Thanks to a great birdfeeder my parents gave us and my father in law helped us put up, we’ve been feeding the birds in our neighborhood for nearly five years.  When we first started feeding the birds,  I can’t remember seeing more than one adult male cardinal at a time.  We’ve had juvenile males hanging around, however.

This fall, I have seen FOUR adult male cardinals at once! Here’s one of them:


Not a normal day

22 November 2008

When I got up yesterday, it seemed like a normal day.  When I walked out the door, it still seemed pretty normal.  As I drove to school, it was clear that normalcy was no longer the state of the day.

As I drove to school, first, a few flakes of snow started falling.  The snowflakes got fluffier, quickly, and I enjoyed the Millenium-Falcon-transistions-to-hyperspace effect of the snowflakes in my headlights.  I don’t get to see that very often, and here it is still November!

Then, the snow started sticking to the ROAD.  whoa.

Traffic slowed a bit, and as I got closer to school the snow completely coated the road.  The main thoroughfare near school was merely wet, which was not surprising since there is a lot of traffic on it, but then I turned onto the road the school is on which is usually terrible in snowy weather.  The local salt crews leave it until late and it is moderately hilly.  Though it was snow-covered, it was fine.  Even when I pulled into the parking lot, I could see the lines well enough to pick a parking space and get in just fine.

I got into my classroom, pulled out some plasma demonstrations, found a big chart of the nuclides, and enjoyed watching the snow out the window, something I have ALWAYS enjoyed.  I happened to glance out the window at the parking lot at 7:20 AM, when teachers are required to be in school.  The faculty lot was still half empty, and my car looked like it had 2-3 inches of snow on it!


Homeroom wound up being held over for 25 minutes beyond our normal dismissal time, first period was really short, and I managed to do only one of my plasma demos with that class.  All morning, students kept trickling into the building.  I had started a lab experiment with my third period class and one more student came in with a pass, saying he had been on his bus for two and a half hours!  One of the guidance counselors had been involved in a fender-bender with a student and a school bus, lots of kids reported passing multiple accidents and cars in ditches, and one of my colleagues took two hours to get to school.

I love snow.  It is very very unusual to have snow like this here in November.  Apparently this narrow band of heavy snow only across the county I live in and the county I teach in caught a lot of people by surprise, in addition to starting too late for a delayed opening to be called.  Even the accuweather website called for merely a cloudy morning, while also posting a late-breaking weather advisory for my school’s zip code a little after 7 AM.

By the time it was time to leave school, the roads were merely wet and the snow had melted off my car, but the district still canceled all extra-curricular activities after school as a belated precaution.

Odd day!

Darrell is my new best friend

22 November 2008

This is the long-awaited post on the Physics Olympics meet at my school.  My team came in 6th out of eight teams (we were expecting nine teams, actually) but I had a lot of kids participate and most of them had fun!

img_0337_2As the host, I kicked things off.  As you can see from the photo, I wore a hat.  The day was pretty warm, so I wore a straw hat.  I always wear some sort of hat, because it makes me identifiable.  Instead of “the dark-haired lady in the glasses and the red shirt,” I am “the lady in the hat.”  This works at Science Olympiad as well.  Since I had written two of the problem-solving problems each team got, they could ask me questions about my problems.  They just had to find the lady in the hat.

We had two build-ahead events: mousetrap boat and toothpick egg-toss.  Both were great fun, but they also both had their own logistical problems.

Mousetrap boat was the first event of the day.  We had to set up two long troughs of water, with plastic on the floor (we were in the school gym, which is still fairly new) and some tables and chairs, and all the boats had to be checked to make sure they qualified under the rules of the event.  Then, teams of two or three for each boat would come up, launch their boat down one trough by burning through a string holding the mousetrap in the “ready” position.  They collected their boat at the end (if it made it) and re-set it under a time limit to run down the other trough.  The times were added for the total score.img_0390

My kids had been building their boats in class and tested them two days before the meet.  Only a couple of the boats were able to make it all the way from one end to the other, from our school, so those were the only boats from our school that competed.  I was pleased that we made 4th place overall!

After the boat races, I had some students in the main office announcing the rotation events over the PA system.  For 25 minutes at a time, teams of students from each school were shut in classrooms to compete in “penny barge,” “mystery lab,” and “paper clip tower.”  A limited number of kids are allowed in the room, and parents who have been trained by teacher coaches the hour before judge the results.  We had 8 rooms operating at any given time, with 2-5 parents in each.  It’s a pretty big operation.

The “penny barge” is an event where a team gets a single square of Reynold’s brand aluminum foil and a big pile of wet pennies.  They have to fold or otherwise shape the foil into a boat or barge, float it in a big tub of water, and start loading it up with pennies.  Students can dry the pennies if they wish, but they have to bring their own towels.  Once the boat sinks, the pennies are counted by loading them onto an angle-iron and measuring the “height” of the stack.  The tallest stack of pennies wins!img_0514

The mystery lab was based on projectile motion, and students had to predict where a projectile would land when launched from the same launching device at two different angles.  My kids did terribly at that…we had not practiced it, and practice is key.

The paper clip tower was an event where kids had 10 rubber bands, a box of paper clips, and 15 cm of masking tape, and had to build the tallest possible tower.  They could bring in pens, pencils, rulers, scissors, pliers, and craft knives, but no plans or photos.  They had to get their towers measured before the 25 minutes were up, which my team did not manage to do: a strategy problem.

Once the 25-minute events were over, the teams had to hand in their problems back in the gym, where the mousetrap boat group had dismantled their area and the egg-toss team had set up a different one.  This one was a plastic-covered section of floor that was covered with sheets of newspaper, surrounded by a border of swimming-pool noodles, and with a high-jump device mounted on one side.  Students had to toss their toothpick-and-glue device underhanded to get it over the two meter high string without touching the string.  Then it had to land in the landing area without breaking the egg inside the device.  The lightest successful device is the winner.img_0369

This was an odd event for us.  One of the devices we’d tested successfully in school failed the real event, and another device we’d tested unsuccessfully in school did very well and got a good score!  We came in 5th place.

So, why is Darrell my new best friend?  Darrell is the custodian who was assigned to work the event.  He unlocked doors; granted access to the custodial closet for the mousetrap boat set-up team, who arrived an hour ahead of everyone else; got us into the concession stand in the gym lobby; and provided lots of tables and rolling trash cans.  Darrell set up and tested the gym’s PA system, got the bleachers out for us, kept track of kids wandering around the building where they didn’t belong, and smiled the whole time.

In addition, the week before the event, I talked with Darrell several times as other coaches called or e-mailed with requests.  He assured me that all would go well, made suggestions, and calmed my nerves.  He spent time in my room after school to go over the details, watched over the facilities and provided extra paper towels.  Darrell was the best.  Other coaches also commented on how smoothly the event ran.  Things started and ended on time, and we were all cleaned up and out of the gym exactly on schedule.

It was fantastic, and I am very glad that I probably won’t have to host another meet for another two years.  I slept all afternoon afterward!

Thank you very much to RW for the photos, to all the coaches and parent volunteers for making the events run, and to Darrell!


16 November 2008

Every year, we get asked what we want for Christmas.  I don’t mean this in the general sense, I mean my mom calls or e-mails and asks if my husband and I have our lists yet and to please send them as soon as we can.

This is difficult.  We both maintain wish lists on, and keep them fairly up-to-date.  But to come up with things we need is a challenge, and things we want, well, we don’t want much and when we do want something we usually buy it for ourselves.

So this year, we decided to make a list of charities.  A list, so there would be some choice, or maybe our parents could give a little to each one.  Here they are:

  • Heifer Project International – Donations buy farm animals which go to needy people who can then sell the eggs or milk and breed the animal(s) to expand production.
  • Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres – Doctors help people who are victims of natural disasters, wars, or poverty.
  • The Nature Conservancy – Donations are used to conserve nature, either by directly buying up land or by partnering with others to buy or protect land.
  • Camfed USA – This group is educating girls in rural Africa and empowering them to become leaders for change in their communities.

I hope you will agree that at least one of these charities is worth supporting.  I have given to each, and I would love it if you would also.  Please do not give me any gifts this year.

If you are curious about how these organizations (and many others) spend their money, you can check out Charity Navigator.  This website gives a breakdown for charities on how much they spend on accomplishing their mission, fundraising, and administrative expenses.  You can see how much the CEO is paid and how big a chunk of the overall pie that is.  I recommend checking this site before donating to any organization that is asking you for money.

Poem by Walt Whitman

5 November 2008

I’ve been reading this poem to my students today, even to my homeroom students and my single distance-learning proctoree. Even though I teach physics, I think it is important to emphasize how historic this election is, even more so now that Senator Obama has won it.

I don’t tell students who I voted for, however. My parents taught me that who you vote for is private, and they kept their own choices private. This makes it easier to talk about in school, also, since there are supporters of both candidates in my classes.

Well, enjoy the poem:


If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show,

‘Twould not be you, Niagara—nor you, ye limitless prairies—nor your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,

Nor you, Yosemite—nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-loops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,

Nor Oregon’s white cones—nor Huron’s belt of mighty lakes—nor Mississippi’s stream:

—This seething hemisphere’s humanity, as now, I’d name—the still small voice vibrating—America’s choosing day,

(The heart of it not in the chosen—the act itself the main, the quadriennial choosing,)

The stretch of North and South arous’d—sea-board and inland—Texas to Maine—the Prairie States—Vermont, Virginia, California,

The final ballot-shower from East to West—the paradox and conflict,

The countless snow-flakes falling—(a swordless conflict,

Yet more than all Rome’s wars of old, or modern Napoleon’s:) the peaceful choice of all,

Or good or ill humanity—welcoming the darker odds, the dross:

—Foams and ferments the wine? It serves to purify—while the heart pants, life glows:

These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,

Swell’d Washington’s, Jefferson’s, Lincoln’s sails.

—Walt Whitman (1819-1892)


5 November 2008

I am in awe of the voice of the people of the United States.  This is what Dr. Martin Luther King was talking about when he said “I have seen the promised land.”  We are on our way there, we have crossed over the mountain and we can all see the promised land.

I am looking forward to being old and being asked what it was like, to help elect the first black man to be president of the United States of America.  This is a year to remember for the rest of our lives.  That a majority of the voters were able to share the vision, the hope…Thank you, voters!


3 November 2008



1 November 2008

This is Irmela.  She knew me from the day I was born, and attended my first birthday party and also my wedding three years ago (this photo was taken at the reception).  She had two grown daughters and a loving husband.  She loved her cats, collected frogs (not real frogs), and enjoyed art.  She made sure my dragon collection increased most years, and made sure Buzz got appropriately unbiased political information (Buzz was given both a catnip George W. Bush and a catnip Hillary Rodham Clinton.)

Irmela had a good sense of humor and was a good friend.  I hadn’t seen much of her lately, as my trips to visit my parents who live in Irmela’s part of the world have not been terribly frequent, but we did have dinner at her home a few years ago at Christmas when my husband and I drove out for a visit.

We heard Irmela was ill just a month and a half ago, and she succumbed last night to the cancer.  My heart goes out in deepest sympathy to her husband and her daughters, whose feeling of loss I cannot imagine.  Irmela was a wonderful person, and many will miss her.

I celebrate Irmela’s life; she touched thousands of students as a school librarian and made the world a better place.  I am glad to have known her, and I am so sorry she is gone.