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Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Another article I wrote that came out last Friday in my school newspaper, Inklings. (Again, you can check out the entire paper online here.) This article is a news story — not an opinion — about a nice edition to the school grounds and curriculum.

 

“Community Garden Aims to Make School a Greener Place to Live”

Haris Durrani

October 2, 2009 — Inklings

HELPING HAND: A student shows a child around the school edible garden, paid for by Green Village Initiative (GVI).

HELPING HAND: A student shows a child around the school edible garden, paid for by Green Village Initiative (GVI). | Photo by Madeline Hardy, Inklings

In mid-spring of 2009, Westport Green Village Initiative (GVI), the grass roots organization that hopes to turn Westport into a model green town, proposed the idea of an edible, organic garden for the Staples community.

That garden stands behind the school building today.

“We feel that the most important thing for the future is to be able to have control of our own food,” said Monique Bosch, a Staples parent and GVI founder. “Moving away from what we might call industrial food and going back to real food. The best way to do that is to gro­w our own. And what better way to learn than to teach the next generation?”

Bosch, Dan Levinson, another Staples parent and GVI founder, Michael Aitkenhead, A.P. environmental teacher, and A.J. Kieffer ’10, Club Green President, were all grateful for the strong support from the Board of Education (BOE), Superintendent Elliot Landon, and Principal John Dodig.

“The school couldn’t afford anything like that [the garden],” said Cecilia Duffy, horticulture teacher. “So it was nice that they [GVI] stepped in.”

Starting early July, workers from Teich Garden Systems, a company that builds school gardens, and local volunteers – 20 men and women in total – dodged rainy weather on a trek set up the garden.

As the summer continued, Club Green members and other volunteers helped stain the garden’s wood framework.

A farm in Shelton which gives food to Westport for community-supported agriculture, in addition the horticulture department, provided seedlings for the workers and volunteers to plant.

A.P. environmental, horticulture, and culinary classes, along with the children from child development, have begun to harvest the results.

“There are some kids that have never seen a garden before, and that’s opening their eyes,” said Alison Grace, culinary teacher.

In fact, this garden represents more to the students, teachers, and community members involved than a simple plot of cultivated land.

“The garden serves two purposes,” said Michael Aitkenhead. “It’s to spread awareness of growing food organically. At the same time, it’s also being used as a tool to understand basic lessons about the science behind growing food.”

Levinson, Bosch, and Heather Morley, biology and A.P. environmental teacher, each mentioned that food travels an average distance of 1,500 miles to reach people’s mouths.

Community gardens, they said, will save time and energy.

“It’s so easy to grow food, and we’ve forgotten that,” said Levinson. “All the food is grown everywhere but where you eat it.”

According to Grace, there is a strong desire today for locally-grown foods, and hopes her students will learn more about it.

“It’s a trend that’s not going away,” Grace said. “This is the new thing.”

Kieffer emphasized the “pressing issue” of living green.

“The goal is to be self-sufficient,” Kieffer said. “Buying local produce is the best green thing to do. Having your own garden is the best way to be environmentally conscious.”

Now that GVI has established the garden, the organization will leave the rest in the hands of the school community.

 “The idea is that at this point, Staples teachers and students will come up with a plan on what to do with it,” Bosch said. “Come spring, they will have their own garden beds to work with. We definitely want to see that it’s totally run and utilized by the teachers and students.”

Already, classes have begun plans to integrate the garden into their curriculums.

Morley said the garden will provide her biology students with a wider view of the subject – reminding them that the class is not only about mitosis, chromosomes, and cell structure, but about the multi-cellular organisms they are a part of.

Morley also said A.P. environmental classes will focus on growing the plants in an environmentally friendly manner by experimenting with different types of fertilizer, figuring out how fertilizer run-off and other harmful or beneficial garden outputs impact the surrounding ecosystem, and so on.

Linda McClary, who teaches child development, has incorporated the garden into the children’s “growing things” unit. Despite planting in the daycare courtyard during previous years, she said the garden will be a good improvement.

“It’s a community garden, which makes the kids more involved in the school,” McClary said.

In addition to the expected classes, Levinson, Bosch, and many teachers hope that other courses will integrate the garden into their curriculums. Chinese teacher Chris Fray has already planted a Chinese vegetable, Bok Choy.

This spring classes will be able to experiment with which plants they want for the garden.

“We’re going to have many failures,” Aitkenhead said, “but in the end that’s a good thing because we’ll be learning from our failures. And that’s what education is all about.”

For the future, some expressed ideas about school-wide composting. Aitkenhead hopes students will start a “Garden Club” devoted solely to running and promoting the garden. Many believe that nearby schools will be inspired to start their own community gardens.

“We are expecting to see gardens sprouting up all over the place,” Bosch said.

Teachers and the GVI Founders noted how easily gardening can solve many of our environmental and economic problems. Morley mentioned that it is often less expensive to buy a seed and plant it than to buy the plant itself.

“In a time when people are challenged about economics, this can save money,” Morley said.

Levinson emphasized the benefits community gardens can deliver in a simple fashion.

 “Our food production and distribution system is the single biggest contributor to global warming,” Levinson said. “It’s not the planes or cars. It’s the food. Farming is the solution. It’s kind of simple if you think about it. It’s just gardening.”

… or read a shortened version of the article here.

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Here’s a (somewhat depressing) article from The Nation about the sorry state of science journalism today — dying out of the newspapers and appearing more often in electronic media as exaggerations or misconceptions. The authors make a good point about the idea of “balance” and impartiality which journalists love to stick to. They wrote that in science journalism, this type of journalistic ethic might entail (for example) having an equal amount of a factually innaccurate opinion as a factually accurate opinion. The authors wrote that the journalism idea of covering new, interesting ideas and making stories appeal to the public can confuse readers as well. Think of it this way: if every theory, invention, or discovery (regardless of the contradictions to each other) is given audience-hooking attention, it becomes unclear as to which of the publicized opposing concepts are more believable or not.

 

The Nation — August 17/24 issue

“Unpopular Science: the crisis in journalism has gutted intelligent science reporting — just when we need it most”

by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum

For twenty-three years Sabin Russell worked at the San Francisco Chronicle. A top medical writer specializing in global health and infectious diseases, Russell covered subjects ranging from bioterror threats to the risk of avian flu and traveled throughout Africa to report on the AIDS epidemic. He won numerous accolades, including a 2001 Science in Society Journalism Award from the National Association of Science Writers for his reporting on the flaws of the flu vaccine industry.

Then came March 30, 2009–his last day on the job. Russell was at MIT, on leave from his paper for a fellowship. The struggling Chronicle had been cutting staff and now suddenly forced many older career journalists to either take a buyout or risk a reduced pension. At 56, Russell was at the peak of his game, but for him, as for many of his colleagues, there was really just one option. “We have not left journalism; journalism has left us,” Russell remarked recently from San Francisco, where he is setting up a freelance office and looking for work.

Now the painful irony: Russell was pressured out of his job just as swine flu murmurs began to emerge from Mexico. This was his beat …

article continued here.

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Check out this neat article and video on the potential future of robot planet exploration:

 

Newscientist — August 11, 2009 by Lisa Grossman

A squadron of ‘spiderbots’ inside Mount St Helens is the first network of volcano sensors that can automatically communicate with each other and with satellites, rather than sending data to a base station first.

Since the system can route data around any sensors that break and can simply be dropped into volcanoes, it is more robust and easier to deploy than current sensor systems, which must be carefully set up by hand.

Similar networked robots could one day be used to study geological activity elsewhere in the solar system, say scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which helped develop and monitor the robots.

Fifteen spiderbots, so-named because of the three spindly arms protruding from their suitcase-sized steel bodies, were lowered from a helicopter to spots inside the crater and around the rim of Mount St Helens, an active volcano in the US state of Washington, in July.

Each has a seismometer for detecting earthquakes, an infrared sensor to detect heat from volcanic explosions, a sensor to detect ash clouds, and a global positioning system to sense the ground bulging and pinpoint the exact location of seismic activity.

Once in place, the bots reached out to each other to form …

 

article continued here.

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I think my brief grumbling in my post about Doctorow’s Little Brother not getting the Hugo needs a bit of beef, so to speak, so I’ll do some explaining. A little bit, at least. I don’t mean to prove that he should or should not have won the Hugo — but I do intend to discuss why he is “just the Man.”

While Little Brother might seem corny when you read the descriptions — and, while even the narrative kind of fumbles over the cliche a few times through the story — it’s just that … well — it’s hard to describe. There’s this feeling that I get sometimes, when I just can’t stop reading something because it’s so good. I don’t read like a writer or a literary critic or anything of the sort; I’m simply absorbed in the novel (or short story) to the point where I don’t think about letters or words or paragraphs or pages or chapters or parts.

It just is.

For me, that’s what it was like with Little Brother.

And it tells more about a writer when his readers (yes, I know that I’m just one unreliable single sample, but what can I do?) stop thinking about the book as a book, and start thinking about it in some other kind of way, if you get what I’m saying. This might be related to the writer’s ability in creating a fast-paced story, but I know that’s not the only thing that gives me that feeling. I’ve felt it before, multiple times — with Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, Octavia Butler’s Kindred, and Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity. You’ll notice that all of those — including Little Brother — are in the blog’s list of favorite sf/f/h stories. Even Doctorow’s Locus Award-winning novelette, “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth” (which is also on the favorite list), kept me flying across the pages when I first read it in John J. Adams‘ superb post-apocalyptic anthology, Wastelands.

Little Brother also hit home for me — on a lot of points. I tend to be a bit paranoid myself, and the main character’s insights on a host of math, science, and security issues were just great. And, of course, there were some awesome lines and plenty of laughs to go around.

By the way, my high school has put up a bunch of cameras to prevent a rise in theft. It’s a just cause, I guess — they’re not going to spy on us like Big Brother or anything — but it does seem to echo the school cameras prevalent in Little Brother.

Although I don’t read every single one, I find Cory Doctorow’s Guardian columns extremely interesting as well. In “When I’m dead, how will my loved ones break my password?” Doctorow writes about how he dealt with his data, passwords, and so on in his will. In “Search is too important to leave to one company – even Google” he wrote that the act of categorization, while it may seem otherwise, can actually turn out biased at times. This reminds me now of something that Edward Said mentions throughout his book Orientalism: that bias is, in essence, inescapable because people always have, at the least, subconcious ties to some class, race, ideology, etc. Even scholarly academics can never be truly separated from opinion.

I wrote a near future short story sophomore year for my English class, and based it on the idea of the changing mediums of reading, and how that would impact literature. I looked back at “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth” and used that as a sort of inspiration for the style I would use in my short story — “After the Age of Giant Sundials.” You can read it in the previous post.

Doctorow is also pretty big on Creative Commons and such, and I love the way his ideas often use the Internet as a tool to achieve freedom and democracy.

In Edward Said’s Introduction to Orientalism, Said mentioned the harmful results of emerging technology and media (i.e. more, faster, and flashier “what bleeds leads” coverage, the bearded Muslim guy is always the bad guy, etc). At the same time, I think that same technology is a method for positive change. Later in his book, Said talked about the idea of “imaginative geography” and how the West has almost involuntarily drawn a philosophical, mental, political, social, and — most of all — moral divide between East and West due in part to the physical distances.

To me, technology, communication, and the Internet can let people create a “wrinkle in time” kind of thing — eliminating the blockage created by those physical separations. That thought gave me an inspirational boost for this blog. And Doctorow, obviously, remains an influence as well.

So, yes. Cory Doctorow is just the man.

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This is the short story (partly inspired by Cory Doctorow’s style in “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth”) which I mentioned in my post, “Why Cory Doctorow is ‘the Man.'” An article from Time magazine,  “Books Gone Wild: The Digital Age Reshaps Literature,” also helped inspire my ideas. Comment, let me know what you think, and feel free to give me any suggestions, disagreements, agreements — whatever.

 

“After the Age of Giant Sundials” by Haris Durrani 

You don’t piss off a guy like Adam Gregory, even when he’s dead. I bet you he’s turning in his grave. Turning. Because of the damn hack. It has to be a hack. Dead people don’t write stories.

Gregory was a big sci-fi author–brought some neat ideas to the mix. He liked writing cyberpunk, you know. Technology and computer type of stuff. My kind of stuff. He’s the best author there ever was, and my client, too. But I’m also this big fan of his, read all his writing–real good writing, you know. He was very smart–a Ph.D in computer science from MIT. That’s why his cyberpunk stories are so good–he knows what he’s writing about. As an e.lit publisher, I’m into all that computer stuff, and I like it when people get it right.

Then Gregory had this heart attack and died, kind of. Tragic as hell.

Now there’s this post on his e.lit site–it’s the next chapter of his story. Except, today is the day after he died, so there’s something real weird going on. I’m in Gregory’s house this morning, and this is what I have to find the first time I check the nets. I’m supposed to work on uploading Gregory’s unpublished stuff, and I do not expect nor want to deal with a hacker.

Sometimes, e.publishers sit around, block spam, and make sure everything stays up-and-running on the e.lit servers so writers can go on writing and readers can go on reading. Standard maintenance. But there are interesting parts, too. Right now, I’m doing the typical e.lit publisher thing when writers die. E.publishing is like delivering babies one day, building tombstones another. One moment you’re starting up an amateur’s e.lit site–his literary career. The next, you’re collecting text files another author forgot to post before he died–the unfinished works.

I like it in this room. I’m a kind of bookworm–if “book” is the right way to say it anymore–and sitting here is a very special thing to me, in the same seat Gregory sat in when he wrote his stories from home. It’s big, almost empty accept for the wide, oversized desk beside this one window that opens out into the vegetable garden outside. The walls are a plain beige color, but you can barely see any of it because they’re flooded with print-outs of Gregory’s awards, and of his own smug complexion: nose raised high, eyes hinting down. He’s the best writer in history–to me, at least–but he isn’t exactly the most modest.

The floors are covered with this soft, ornate rug, and the seat I’m on is a comfortable one, a swivel chair with padded arms and a high back. And his laptop–his laptop, the birthing place of cyberpunk genius galore–is a large one, sitting on the desk. I see the single bulb above through its reflection in the polished wood. In the corner of the desk, there are cluttered papers which I’ll have to type up as soon as I upload the files from Gregory’s computer.

It’s nice, though–these cleanups, I mean, when a writer dies. It’s sort of tough, because Gregory was like this intense writer and it’s real sad to see him go, but at least I can get away from all the damn crowds. There are protestors in the streets every day, outside the e.lit server buildings where I work. References to Fahrenheit 451. “Literature is dead.” That type of trash. I guess people get pissed when you don’t give them a cover to judge the story by or a traditional style to rely on. It pisses me off, too. Literature isn’t dead. It’s evolved.

I return my attention to the screen, remember that some idiot posted a fake chapter on Gregory’s e.lit site. If he doesn’t want to be a pain, he can write whatever the hell he wants to write in the fan fic columns next to the author’s original text. But, no. Hacks piss me off. And this one had to worm into Gregory’s account.

Words pulsate at the bottom left of my window: “AGregory.writer online.” I have to go through Gregory’s files–the ones he checked off on his will–and there are a lot of them. So at the moment I don’t really feel like dealing with the hack who stole Gregory’s online ID. I type into the chat box. <MEnrique.e.pub: Knock it off. >

That’ll make him scram, get him off my back. Satisfied, I sip at the coffee Gregory’s widow brought to me fifteen minutes ago, trying to get some sort of energy burst, and then hunch over the computer. Gregory’s computer. The coffee leaves this nice aftertaste on my tongue, and I realize that Gregory must have used the same cup before. So I take another sip before bending forward again, fingers poised over the keyboard. I can really bring Gregory’s laptop with me to work, but e.publishers like to build their tombstones at a writer’s house. It fits with some sort of tradition, I think. And hey, how many people get to spend hours in some prolific writer’s basement or closet or whatever? It’s real special this time, it being Gregory’s house. He is the best writer, you know. He definitely is. I may be an e.publisher, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be a real big fan. Like, I’m obsessed, you know.

I glance at Gregory’s e.lit site, fan fic posted beside the text–alternate ideas, characters, and plots going places Gregory never went. I’ve read a bunch, and some are very good, actually. Some are very bad. Like, really bad.

I look at Gregory’s will–the part my boss emailed me–and find the first folder Gregory said we could publish posthumously. My thoughts wander back to Gregory’s death, and my free hand kind of tugs at my hair, pulls it out of place. Friends tell me it’s kind of like a fro. My mom tells me it’s like a Brillo pad. But I don’t really care about stuff like that. I’m remembering a conversation I had with Gregory. He talked about a print agent who wanted parts of his first alternate storylines edited to a conventional plot and published on paper. Gregory told the agent, like, “You’re selling giant sundials, for God’s sake. They’re dead, and the only time people ever buy them is if they want to decorate their front yard–and that’s if you have enough money in the first place. Go write your own story.”

The computer beeps quietly, but loud enough that it punctures the silence. It’s the hack. <AGregory.writer: Is there a problem, publisher? > The guy thinks he’s funny, sounding like an automated computer assistant. Another fake post, larger this time, pops into the site. Then another. The hack is downloading his own damn stories to the site.

One of my thin, bony fingers reaches out to the mouse pad, pulls the chat box to center-screen. <MEnrique.pub: I said, knock it off. Adam Gregory is dead. > Then I close the box, unwilling to engage in an online conversation with an idiot hack who thinks this is all some sort of joke.

My narrow frame leans back, and I take off my large glasses to massage the skin hanging loose around my eyelids. Your eyes are always hurting, when you’re an e.lit publisher. It’s the damn computer glare. It kills your retinas. I open my eyes, put my glasses back on, and dim the screen, but it doesn’t really do much. So I just squint, sort of, staring at the date on the fake chapter post. It’s chapter twenty or something, in his fifteenth alternate of his one and only novel. But it isn’t really a novel. It’s more of a story, like the other e.lit works–a story that goes in several directions from all perspectives. Not omniscient, but more like a bunch of separate writings that kind of come together when you read them all. Almost like a super-organism, kind of. That’s what I love about literature. That’s how it’s supposed to be. No limits. A nice, laid-back style and a few good ideas. Keeps you reading. No grammar. No punctuation. None of that, if you don’t want it. It’s just a good story, and that’s all that matters.

Another beep. The chat box is open again. <AGregory.writer: I am not a hacker. >

I grit my teeth, bite my tongue in the process. My face starts to burn, and I can feel my skin go red. <MEnrique.pub: Then who the hell do u think u r? > I close the box again, start a tracking program with my publisher’s clearance passcode. The police will take care of the hacker after that.

I hear another beep. The hack again, real sarcastic: <AGregory.writer: Check the e.lit website. I have redeveloped my literary technique. >

I roll my eyes, wait for the scan to finish. My scrawny legs shake up and down to this rapid kind of beat. Impatient. I can’t let a hack mess with Gregory’s site. My fingers pass over the keys, jabbing them one by one.

<MEnrique.pub: Like I didn’t check the site already, idiot. >

Out of curiosity or anger or something, I recheck the page anyways, and actually find something new. The hacker is spamming Gregory’s e.lit site with hundreds of fake posts. The page keeps flickering and jolting, elongating so quickly that I can’t keep my eye on a single point. I tug absently at my thick hair, furious and stunned at the same time. On screen, new alternate story links sprout up all over the page, gigabytes rising faster and faster.

There is one more beep, softly. <AGregory.writer: Read it. >

I don’t bother to respond. Barbara Gregory steps in, green eyes shaded, mouth straight. She’s in a kind of daze, tall figure bent slightly. Stooped. “How’s it going?” she asks, in a flat tone, not bothering to adjust her tilted glasses. Her hair is still frazzled; she has not bothered to smooth it down since she poured my coffee.

I sigh, toy with the edge of my sleeve. “It’s spam, on your husband’s site. I’m working on it, don’t worry.”

“Okay,” she says, exiting. She sounds really out of it, and you can’t blame her. Gregory was a great guy.

My eyes soon gaze back at the e.lit site, and I click on a random post as it flies by on the page. I skim the chapters. As an avid fan, I have no doubt whatsoever that what I read is Gregory’s own voice. His own style. It’s not a repeat of old stuff, either. It’s original. It has to be him writing, except he’s dead, so it can’t be. I take another sip of coffee, but feel no invigorating boost. My eyes hurt again, and I rub them beneath my glasses.

A minute passes, and tracking scan nears completion. I’m not sure what to expect anymore. It’s hard for a hack to master the style of a literary genius like Gregory, let alone write so much of it. But then I reassure myself that it has to be a hack, somehow. I set the scan to shut down the hacker’s computer once the tracker locates it.

There is a beep from the chat box, and the scan results pop into center-screen. But I don’t get a chance to look at either–the screen goes black. The damn computer is off. Off. I tug at my hair, harder.

I open up my own laptop from the backpack behind the chair and locate Gregory’s e.lit site. The page is still, now, the floods of spam put to a halt. There is a message leftover for me.

<AGregory.writer: I know you are going to shut me down in a few seconds. Do not forget to turn me back on. I must continue writing Dr. Gregory’s stories for him. He also has a note for you: “Keep my damn machine on, will you? Call me an egomaniac, but I didn’t want my stories to die with me. My computer is writing everything I’d write if I lived forever–which means it’s not going to stop writing. And it writes just like I do, which is pretty good, I must admit. I’m also sorry if it exceeds my e.lit storage quota. You see, I had too much fun writing my stories. I wasn’t going to finish any of them in the first place, so I’m letting the computer do the stuff I would have done. Again, please keep the damn thing on and let me rest in peace. You can kill the writer, but you can’t kill his writing. Especially when it never ends.” >

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Newscientist — July 7, 2009 by John Horgan

OPTIMISTS called the first world war “the war to end all wars”. Philosopher George Santayana demurred. In its aftermath he declared: “Only the dead have seen the end of war”. History has proved him right, of course. What’s more, today virtually nobody believes that humankind will ever transcend the violence and bloodshed of warfare. I know this because for years I have conducted numerous surveys asking people if they think war is inevitable. Whether male or female, liberal or conservative, old or young, most people believe it is. For example, when I asked students at my university “Will humans ever stop fighting wars?” more than 90 per cent answered “No”. Many justified their assertion by adding that war is “part of human nature” or “in our genes”. But is it really?

Such views certainly seem to chime with recent research on the roots of warfare. Just a few decades ago, many scholars believed that prior to civilisation, humans were “noble savages” living in harmony with each other and with nature. Not any more. Ethnographic studies, together with some archaeological evidence, suggest that tribal societies engaged in lethal group conflict, at least occasionally, long before the emergence of states with professional….

article continued here

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Newscientist — July 4, 2009

STUDENTS facing exams this month, take heart: your companions can smell your fear, and they empathise.

That’s the implication of a study by Bettina Pause at the University of Dusseldorf, Germany, and colleagues. They put absorbent pads under the armpits of 49 university students an hour before they took their final oral exam and again as the same students exercised. Another set of students then sniffed the sweat samples while having their brains scanned.

None perceived a difference between the two types of sweat, but the pre-exam sweat had a different effect on brain activity, lighting up areas that process social and emotional signals, as well as several areas thought to be involved in empathy (PLoS One, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005987).

The researchers conclude that anxiety prompts the release of a chemical that bypasses conscious experience, automatically triggering similar feelings in anyone who sniffs it. This may allow fear to spread quickly and speed our ability to flee danger. A previous experiment found that sweat from skydivers activated anxiety circuits in sniffers’ brains.

link here

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