Thursday, March 11, 2010

Returning to the blogosphere

Hello everyone. Wow, it's dusty around these parts; it's been quite a while!

I have taken several months away from the blogosphere, trying to think about why I would be engaging with it in the first place. When I started blogging here, I found a bit of a community that over time has shifted as people progress through different life stages. In my time away, I started working with Twitter (because posts of 140 characters are much easier to come up with and the platform allowed me to send reasonable text messages to international friends), I discovered I missed blogging, and I decided that it's probably best to close "Journeys of an Academic" in favor of a different blogging voice.

My new blog takes a markedly different angle on things, pulling strongly from some of the attitudes I cultivated here when discussing "Cultural Insanity" and incorporating more parts of how I see the world than really fit into this space.

If you want the new blog address to follow me there, you're welcome to email me at academiccrossroads at gmail dot com. The old blog will stay up unless I start getting spam comments through the roof.

So thanks for reading me here! And I am back in a different corner of the blogosphere. Let me know if you want to know where I can be found!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Not from this angle!

In my email this morning, I found two articles that hit two issues where I have significant interest. I first read Joseph Ganem's article on A Math Paradox: The Widening Gap between High School and College Math, and then I read Randy Kennedy's piece called Capturing a Nation's Thirst for Energy. Ironically, both articles focus on the nature of perspective. Joseph Ganem writes from his perspective as a father of three and a physics professor; Randy Kennedy works as a NY Times arts columnist.

Joseph Ganem makes an observation that, in an increasing measure, high school mathematics instruction compounds "difficult" with "rigorous" riding high on the press for academic standards in mathematics. Given his background as a physics professor, his stories of how he sought to explain mathematical concepts to his children are eye-opening, particularly as he notes that his children saw problems in middle school that he would have not assigned until his upper-division physics students. From my own vantage point, I have met untold number of adults who are surprised to consider the thought that one can reason strategically around numerical relationships. If we do not teach middle-school students to do middle-school math, then why are we surprised when they struggle to employ concepts and foundations from this developmental stage of numerical reasoning?

In Randy Kennedy's article, we meet photographer Mitch Epstein. As an artist, Mitch works to capture the American culture. The images strike a chord with me as they convey a poignancy that communicate some of the deep grief I experience around themes explored. However, the resistance Mitch encountered to his photographs reflected a strong protectionist spirit, suggesting that the systems should be above critique. And I guess I am amazed that I am not remotely surprised. He takes pictures that reflect Americans' relationship with energy. However if we do not think critically about our relationship with energy, then why are we surprised when we struggle to find a new way forward?

And I guess what I would most like to see is a general broadening of these conversations where we consider what different, and perhaps unconventional, perspectives can help us see what we could do different.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

31 Days of Awesome

It's October regardless of that a few days have passed before I got this post authored. Things have been incredibly busy with just about everyone feeling overextended and over-committed. But it's October still the same, and thus, we have seen the opening of one of my favorite blogosphere events: the Donors Choose Social Media Challenge.

Last year I learned about Donors Choose through SciWo and Alice at Sciencewomen on ScienceBlogs. Donors Choose is an online charity that allows teachers to request supplies they deem absolutely essential to learning experiences. And some of the proposals really are about essentials like desks, pencils, and paper. Other proposals are about essentials like books, experimental supplies, and frogs. Some proposals involve a hot new idea that a teacher has to really make learning come alive for their students but require some more resources to make it happen. There's something at Donors Choose for everyone.

This year, SciWo and Alice have decided to fund projects that get science books into classrooms. Last year, I saw what was going on at Sciencewomen and sent an email to my favorite laboratory goddess Dr Isis. This year, Dr Isis seeks worshippers at Dr Isis's Sacred Temple of Giving.

But last year as I got engaged with the month long challenge, I stumbled across another blogger, Sarah D. Bunting, who challenged her readers to raise $100,000 with the alluring prize of a tall woman in a tomato suit going to see the sites in Washington, DC. This year, Tomato Nation is attempting to bet red and raise $210k (the Tomato will go to Atlantic City and play blackjack). But following the contest on Tomato Nation is incredible as they currently have 550 projects waiting to be funded... and a team of incredible readers that have already pitched in to reach over $21,000 in less than two and a half days (and fund 81 projects).

So it's awesome, it's a lot of fun, and it's a way to feel like maybe your $5, $10, $20 matters a bit more. I don't have much of a readership, but every little bit helps. Click around and see if any of the projects strike your fancy.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

More Thoughts on Trash

Lately I have been blogging about issues much closer to my scholarship rather than generalities and particularities of being a graduate student. As such, my posts have gotten longer, and my commentors seem to be scarce. If you're still reading and you want to weigh in on stuff you would like to see around here, then please feel free to visit the comment section and let me know. Thanks!

Like many of my comments, this post comes from a desire to do what I can to enact solutions in my own life rather than to extend the commentary to a point of national policy. But the relevant NY Times article sparking these thoughts articulates some of the challenges with current waste "disposal" systems in Europe. I put "disposal" in quotes because as far as I can see, you can actually never really get rid of something, you can only relocate it.

The more I learn about environmental practices, the more I see habits of "out of sight, out of mind" manifest in a way that particularly troubles me. With an increasingly connected world and increasing awareness of exceptionally poor people scraping by a living salvaging garbage, we have developed a tendency of unloading our junk on the developing (global South, third) world without consideration. The life cycle of consumer electronics carries an unreal level of disturbance in my mind. As an engineer, I cannot stand idly by while people practice disposal of consumer electronics practice by open-pit incineration. I freak out when people burn Subway cups in campfires for crying out loud because I know the toxicity of the emitted chemicals. As a kid growing up, I learned the practices of minimal impact camping and encountered national parks workers who gathered considerable litter out of leave no trace sites. For the unaware, tinfoil does not burn. I'm just saying.

I read about the cycle of electronics, and I then investigate my own practice. Do I acquire every latest and greatest gadget? How many things do I have that have to be plugged in? How do my electronics experience their end of life? Generally speaking, I try to start with absolute consumption reduction. I still have (and use I might add) the TI-85 calculator I purchased in 7th grade. When I receive something that replaces something still operable, I donate my still operable device to organizations like Goodwill or the Salvation Army. The computers I have owned have generally been gifted to friends. But it still bothers me that I struggle to think about what else I can do to be a part of the solution.

I struggle to understand why we live in a society that values absolutely trendy consumer electronics. I have never caught the gadget bug. But if we value absolutely trendy consumer electronics, then why do we not have greater salvage of existing materials? Must we design so everything is "disposal" or in the words of humane societies, in need of a forever home? Can we not do better?

And so I am irritated because I see widespread consequences of merely relocating our trash to communities too poor to have the political connectedness to cry out "NOT IN MY BACKYARD!" And I am left wondering what I can do to encourage people to design things that really can go from cradle to cradle.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Please look at the legend before you assume you know the scale

Ugh, what. a. week. Lots of discussions, lots of frustrations, and lots of nodding and smiling so I did not say something I should not say.

To be clear, I have no problem describing myself as a moderate. On most issues, I simply do not have an opinion because I remain unconvinced of the design, whether my reservations lie in the general assumptions, the options proposed, or the structure of evaluation. Increasingly, I find myself less likely to have a decision I commit to absolutely and try to focus my efforts on thinking what I personally can do to bring my own life choices increasingly inline with my ideals.

However, I find that frustration bubbles up as people take something I say and assume that I have a strong ideological commitment to a particular solution proposed. For instance, the health care system in most countries baffles my mind. Horror stories abound alongside of some amazing feats of current medical practice. Many systems features two (or more) tiers of service depending on the independent wealth of the person trying to access the system. I could also make similar statements about the educational system, the industrial system, and probably just about everything else that can be described as a system. However, if I had one word to describe most systems, I would chose "complicated" as that word. Systems contain significant internal structures and interact with other systems.

For instance, currently we debate light bulbs owing to the nature of their energy consumption and market-ready design. I personally have found the amount of energy wasted by conventional light bulbs to be seriously impressive, independent of climate concerns. Yet, when I read articles like one discussing a 10 million dollar prize for generating a better light bulb, I have to wonder about the interconnected nature of innovation and national policy. This wondering does not mean that I think that national policy always drives innovation, but this wondering does suggest that I think it is at least possible for national policy to encourage innovation.

But more often than not, I speak concerning a scale small enough so that I can be an active participant. And generally, I do not see national politics as an appropriate scale. To be sure, I do what I can to cast an intelligent vote and occasionally write my representative around issues that I care about, but I do not do so because I expect that my voice will make a huge difference. So when I talk about the obligations of engineers to consider the poor, I speak to my own obligation. When I talk about the importance of being a good steward of one's resources, I speak to my own priorities. Generally, I do attempt to challenge people I am talking with to consider their own obligations and priorities, but please don't assume that I'm going to plaster my own priorities on a placard and taking a walk in front of the White House.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

And now for something completely different...

A friend forwarded me this YouTube video about attitudes around the H1N1 virus. It takes a great number of liberties, but it was far too funny not to share.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Thriving Beyond the Limit Point

Living in today's world often means coming face-to-face with our uncertainty. We desire for things to be airtight, logical, rational, and above any sort of reasonable question. Our tendency to buy into a hegemonic narrative acts as one mediator that accents this challenge.

To an engineer, uncertainty means something different than it means to the general public. We accept uncertainty within design constraints and try to understand our models as best as we can to make a judgment. So many things that we encounter reflect design decisions; engineers can be a type of people who ask why certain design parameters came to dominate over other possibilities.

Our current questions around environmental sustainability reflect a cascade of decisions made within a critical operating paradigm. I do not claim to be a climate modeler or even an industrial analyst, but when you get into the narrative of how people constructed the dominant equations, you find many questions. For instance, much of our current environmental policy seems to revolve around the so-called IPAT equation where Impact can be represented as a functional relationship between population, affluence, and technology. Yet affluence seems to be constructed as a general GDP per capita because "everyone knows" that GDP correlates with quality of life. Generally, these models favor all forms of consumption-based economy without considering the impact of a mass production model. I have read around the blogosphere enough to know that I am not the only person trying to figure out how to consume much less. The race is on for "green" technologies, but in investigating how we determine environmental impact, do we really know what we're talking about?

The problem is not so much that we don't know what we're talking about; the problem is that everyone wants the "right" answer instead of a framework for thinking. Either climate change is happening or it's not; either we're on a crash course for impending doom or we're not; either current research is valuable or it's not. The "either/or" end all, be all style communication does not actually seem to prudent amid the uncertainties. The differences between being a naysayer, a constructive critic, and an advocate continually get muddied so we lose the voices of people who are trying to be constructive. A person who says "I don't think we should make hybrid cars with battery X technology because I think battery Y technology will make a much better product" should not be lumped together with another person who says "Hybrid cars do nothing for the environment."

We live in an age of open questions within the scientific community while those same questions are open within the broader human community. Truth be told, this nature of questioning seems embedded in the practice of doing science. Yet when we try to frame science and engineering within airtight philosophy of rational decision-making we do no one justice. But can we find out together? Can we ask the questions that will lead to constructive stewardship? Can we try to walk on this journey with one another?