Sunday, May 10, 2009

Summer reading

Okay, the days are getting longer, discussions of global warming have started heating up again and the under served students in public schools around the country are getting closer to the end of their 180 days of standardized test preparation. Those things can only mean that summer is here yet again. With summer comes the obligatory recommendations for summer reading. It is in that spirit that I offer up a couple of selections, something to relax with while on a summer vacation or while taking shelter from the oppressive heat, someplace air conditioned.

First up is The The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan. For those of you who have been following this blog from it's initial entry, you know I wanted to call it candles in the dark, so clearly I found this book influential. If you happen upon a copy in a library or book store, I recommend turning right to chapter 12, The Fine Art of Baloney Detection. In this chapter Mr. Sagan presents a baloney detection kit filled with tools for skeptical thinking. Among these tools are definitions of "the most common and perilous fallacies of logic and rhetoric." (Sagan, p. 212). Great stuff to keep i mind the next time you hear a politician talk. Sagan writes intelligently but also accessibly, so you don't need a degree in astrophysics to follow him.

Second, I recommend Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time by Michael Shermer. You might imagine that the publisher of Skeptic magazine would be a little shrill and possibly confrontational but that is not the case. Mr. Shermer comes across as a person who seeks to understand why people believe the things they do and to seek the truth whenever possible. I think one of the more profound things you can take away from his book is that skepticism is a method, not a belief. If you turn to chapter 3 of the book, How Thinking Goes Wrong: Twenty-five Fallacies That Lead Us to Believe Weird Things, you might be reminded of chapter 12 from Carl Sagan's book. They both cover similar material but do it in sufficiently different ways that I think both are worth a read.

I think that a couple of books about science, skepticism, and critical thinking are in order this summer. After all, this is the first summer since the eight year mini-dark ages that the United States had to endure. You remember, when science was scorned and sidelined, intellectuals were laughed at and dismissed, and religious fundamentalist ran wild in the streets, burning copies of The Origin Of Species and frightening the children. In short, it's time to take to heart the words of J-Bone in Johnny Mnemonic when he said, "Snatch back your brain, zombie, snatch it back and hold it!"

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Ken Rand (1946-2009)

About a month ago, I was looking through some second hand books and saw a copy of Star Trek Strange New Worlds II which, I remembered, had a story by my friend, Ken Rand. Flipping through the volume, I saw his story, "I Am Klingon," on page 107 and knew I had to add the book to my steadily growing library. The find also left me wondering how Ken was doing, I knew his health had been in decline for a while. Shortly thereafter, I got the sad news that Ken had passed away on the 21st of April.
I first met Ken in Logan, Utah at CON2it, the short lived spin off of the CONduit sci-fi convention. As Ken would later recall, "You, me and the other dozen people who were there had a good time." While there were slightly more than a dozen people in attendance, it still was a rather small gathering. It was there that I first had the opportunity to hear Ken talk about the craft of writing and I purchased a copy of his book, "The 10% Solution: Self-editing for the Modern Writer." He was kind enough to autograph if for me, "Stan - I hope this helps - at least 10%!"
Ken's hope did pan out. After reading the book, I got all inspired and started writing. One of the stories that came out of that fit of inspiration was, "Drug Runner," it ended up winning the Weber State writing contest in the fiction category and got published in volume 19 of the university's literary magazine, Metaphor.
At CONduit 11, somebody was kind enough to get several copies of Metaphor and put them on the, "Freebie table," with a note mentioning my story and that I was a convention member. Right in the middle of a writing panel that guest of honor, Alan Dean Foster, was conducting, Ken saw me in the audience and, rather spontaneously, blurted out, "I read your story, it was really good." It took Mr. Foster a bit to get the discussion back on track. After the panel I got the chance to talk to Ken and tell him how much his book had helped my writing.
We continued to run into each other at conventions and even a meeting of the USS Ticonderoga Star Trek fan club. I like to think that he took some pride in his contribution to my success as a writer. One of our more interesting meetings was at the second Anime Banzai convention, when they packed the student union building of the Salt Lake Community College to the gills with over a thousand fans dressed up like characters from Naruto and Inuyasha among many, many others. Ken got a table in the dealer's room right nest to the manga guest of honor, Amy Reeder Hadley, so he got a lot of foot traffic and interest in his books. We both commented on the size of the convention, who knew it was going to double in size from it's first year? Not to mention the age of the attendees, if I remember the numbers right the mean average age of the people going to the first con was 16.5, making me more than double the average and Ken . . . somewhat more than that.
While my writing is better for having met Ken, I think that my life has been richer for the times I got to share Ken's company. Ken was a friend and a mentor, he was an original character with a great personality, he will be missed and he will be remembered. For those of you who didn't have the chance to know Ken, I recommend you go out and read, "Fairy Brewhaha At The Lucky Nickel Saloon," it should put a smile on your face.
(Photo Credit: CC from Nihonjoe)

Monday, May 4, 2009

The zombies of science education

While digging around for articles on how science is taught in schools, I found this article: "State of Utah Taps FreshBrain to Ready High School Students for Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math." First of all, did nobody in public relations stop and point out that the choice of words makes it sound like the state is preparing it's youth to be fed to a bunch of zombies? Actually, that might not be such a bad conceptualization for what they do want to do, turn out high school and college graduates with fresh brains that the zombified corporate structure can suck dry to try and fuel their bottom lines. You could imagine that the name fresh brain had to come after a long night of watching John Carpenter movies.

This does seem to draw attention to a problem with how science and engineering are pitched to students. It always sounds like some kind of late night infomercial shrieking, "Do you want to make more money?" Most unfortunate channel surfers who stumble upon such a claim would presume it is some form of scam and continue on their survey of their 500 channels. By the same logic, is it no surprise that students in public schools have a rather tepid reaction to some one promising them fortune and glory if they just jump through this series of science and math flaming hoops.

I believe that you have to change the focus from the, "Hey little girl, want some candy,' approach of promising fat future paychecks to something completely different. Present science and math as interesting and relevant ways of understanding the world, show engineering as a creative and effective way of addressing problems. Depicting the aspects of, what the state of Utah would call STEM, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math that are dynamic, innovative, interesting, engaging and showing the passions of the people involved in those fields would draw more people to them than would be interested in the lucrative aspects of these fields.

Unfortunately, I seem to be about 180 degrees from where this state is going with USTAR, the Utah Science Technology and Research initiative. In describing this initiative they state, "This initiative focuses on leveraging the proven success of Utah's research universities in creating and commercializing innovative technologies to generate more technology-based start-up firms, higher paying jobs, and additional business activity leading to a state-wide expansion of the Utah's tax base. " One is reminded of the Ice Cube lyrics from back in the NWA days;

"To a kid lookin' up ta me

Life ain't nothin but bitches and money."

That's right, made the leap from USTAR bureaucratic jargon to the lyrics from "Gansta Gansta," if the shoe fits. . .

To sum it all up, science, math and engineering should be taught because they have value in and of themselves, not for their ability to produce lucrative cogs for corporate machines. Also, get away from treating students like human capital, schools should serve their students not the business sector, the last thing you want is people not being able to tell the difference between public school policy and gangsta rap.