His Last Request

Posted on August 10th, 2008 by iatra polygenos

Written by Iatra Polygenos

Jeff’s last request was for me to write a blog post for him. I have written this and posted it at Yucantgee Eventually Shuts Up.

BCS Update - and it isn’t especially good news

Posted on June 6th, 2008 by nebulous

Well, it has taken almost three weeks, but I finally have some definitive news to post about Jeff, aka the Blue Collar Scientist. When we last checked in on things, it was thought that Jeff had caught some kind of nasty, persistent infection. This hypothesis has since been disproven, and now we know for sure what is going on.

The bad news is that Jeff has liver cancer. He’s got two tumors in the liver; one is small, one is quite large, almost 10cm in size.

The good news is that Jeff has no risk factors for cancer or liver disease; he’s never been a drinker, he’s hepatitis-free, doesn’t have HIV, etc. (In fact, the etiology of his condition remains unknown.) He’s healthy in every other way, with no cardiac, metabolic, or other diseases to complicate treatment. He’s very physically fit, although he’s gradually lost much of his stamina over the last several weeks. He’s had a full-body MRI and thoracic and abdominal CTs that establish he has no tumors outside the liver. All of this is good news for someone who has a disease that normally kills 90% of the people who are diagnosed with it within six months.

Another piece of good news - he’s being seen mid next week by the University of Washington Liver Center, one of the best liver clinics in the world, to receive treatment recommendations and come up with a plan.

Jeff’s still working on several projects - he’s got some political activism going on in Alaska, he’s still working on some curriculum materials for astronomy and physics education for some of his area school districts, and he’s still working on adapting a couple of his lectures into study guides. He’s been polishing his talk about how anyone can help make the science education crisis better.

What isn’t clear is whether he’s going to have the energy to blog very often - he certainly hasn’t during the last couple weeks of daily tests and doctors appointments. What are your thoughts on this - should we try to keep the blog going? Should we bring on a staff of regular contributors to keep fresh content between his occasional posts? Should this turn into an all-hepatic-cancer, all-the-time blog? Should it just be retired? Your feedback is needed.

BTW, you can feel free to e-mail or Skype Jeff (see the “BCS Esewhere” sidebar on the home page), and he’ll see your comments to the blog as well.

The BCS and a blog hiatus

Posted on May 19th, 2008 by nebulous

Hello everyone! I am “nebulous,” the newest contributor to Blue Collar Scientist. I’m an astronomer at the University of Arizona, and an old, old friend of the BCS’s from before either of us were astronomers. I was brought onto the BCS team mainly to make this one posting, as I don’t have time to contribute to a blog properly. I’m sad to report that Blue Collar Scientist must take a (hopefully brief) blogging vacation.

Jeff has fallen ill. He’s been working on getting sick in earnest for a couple weeks, as his Twitter followers might have noticed, but late last week and over the weekend, things took a turn for the worse. The doctors are still trying to sort things, and I’m no medical guru, but the best sense I can make of what I know is that he contracted a gastrointestinal infection a few weeks ago which became systemic, attacked his lungs, and and has caused pneumonia. But that story could be a little off, because they are still trying to pin down the bug and figure out what all the other symptoms mean. He will be down for the count for at the very least some days, and maybe as much as a few weeks.

My own theory is that he angered the gods of the bronchi with his posting about asthma last week, but don’t worry about the BCS himself, because he believes in real medicine and thinks that some completely disinterested microbe is causing the problems. He’s taking a close interest in the tests that they are doing and the treatments they are proposing, and he’s keeping the homeopaths and therapeutic touch people well out of the way. Given his smarts, and the good shape he is in, if anyone is in a position to make quick work of this problem, it’s him. So please keep Blue Collar Scientist subscribed, and we’ll make a big to-do when he’s back!

Junk Bond Observatory Q&A - Part 2

Posted on May 17th, 2008 by blue collar scientist

The final video from the Junk Bond Observatory trip is up at YouTube.

If you sent in a question, and haven’t heard it answered yet, it will be covered here. Enjoy!

Comment of the Week

Posted on May 16th, 2008 by blue collar scientist

Now that I’m back from Arizona and have a smidge more time to pay attention to the blog, I thought I’d bring back the highly popular1 Comment of the Week awards. Winners earn our high opinion, and pretty much nothing else.

This week, Glendon Mellow of The Flying Trilobite knocks one out of the ballpark in response to my suggestion that the three of us - Zach at When Pigs Fly Returns being the other - liberate the thoracically-challenged:

Vive le revolucion!

We must free our wheeze-imprisoned brethren!

To the bronchiomobile!

Glendon wins mainly because of the way I laughed my ass off at the moniker for our official superhero car. I think I’m going to name my beloved Honda minivan after this suggestion.

Running a very close second, however, is a comment left by Spiv on the posting about my apathetic response to NASA’s big news this week, which did indeed lift me out of the doldrums a bit and made me feel more positively about the discovery and the hype. Spiv rightly points out:

It’s a serious research opportunity. There’s not a lot of supers that are within our range and young enough to study at such great detail. When you study them going off halfway across the universe you get to study a handfull of effects from it.

When you get to study one in your own backyard you can see all kinds of details regarding expansion, collisions with gas clouds, etc, etc.

That’s my feeling anyway. I’m not terribly excited about what’s been done (finding it), I’m excited about what will done now that we have something to look at.

The last paragraph really hits the nail on the head. The news isn’t really that big, and maybe that’s where my reaction is coming from. But the opportunities moving forward are tremendous. Thanks for pointing that out!

  1. This is called “humor.” []

First Impressions on a New Loupe

Posted on May 16th, 2008 by blue collar scientist

My good fortune in getting a few small fossils in Arizona to use in my guest teaching brought to my attention the startling lack of magnifying optics that I own.

Well, that’s not entirely true - I have two astronomical telescopes, a spotting scope for birds and other Alaskan wildlife, and a good pair of binoculars. But all this requires the subject to be a considerable distance away, and when you want to look at some hadrosaur teeth up close, it just doesn’t work out1. I realized that my first step in adding magnification to my arsenal should be a decent loupe.

I did a little internet research, and decided to make a slightly risky purchase - a Belomo 10x loupe from CR Scientific. The internet pundits - who I trust only a little, because I’m pretty sure I know more about optics than most of them - all spoke very highly of the loupe. So I decided if it didn’t work out, it was no big thing - I’d have a crappy loupe for harsh field use, and I’d go get a nice Nikon or Zeiss loupe at ten times the price for when I wanted to see something really well.

Well, the loupe arrived yesterday and I have to say my initial impressions are very positive. It is a small loupe, with the housing not much over an inch across. The eye lens is 19mm in diameter. It is held in a folding metal enclosure done up with a nice pebbly finish - not the best enclosure I’ve seen (it doesn’t lock, for example, and it isn’t dustproof), but it is hardly bad. The instruction sheet is in the Cyrillic alphabet, and I have no idea what it says.

The optics work for me. The field is flat, so you can focus everything at once; there is no noticeable chromatic aberration anywhere in the field; and the images are sharp and contrasty. The optics are knocking my socks off, actually - they’ve dispelled any kind of reservation I might have had about the enclosure. The two subjects that I consider acid tests for a hand-held magnifier - bird feathers viewed in backlighting, and rocks with shiny specks viewed in sunlight - look real good in this loupe. And I’ve been looking at everything - the seed pods the cottonwoods are dropping around here, little rocks, my MacBook screen, an old scar from a shrapnel wound on my leg…. The fun goes on and on. New toy!

Oh, by the way, the really dominant reason to get one of these is this: it costs $21.95. I seriously doubt anything can beat the price/performance ratio that this modest unit offers, unless perhaps you are looking for something that is resilient . And the company isn’t stupid about shipping it to Alaska - they simply threw it in the mail, and it arrived in great shape. So, if you need a loupe, and you don’t want to spend a bundle….

  1. I came home from the trip wanting a stereo microscope, but that’s mainly to support some teaching activities that I’m expanding into at the beginning of the upcoming school year, and I’m not sure I want to drop money into that just yet. []

Maybe I’m just getting a bit jaded about the whole astronomy thing….

Posted on May 15th, 2008 by blue collar scientist

This big hype up to yesterdays huge NASA announcement doesn’t appear to be justified to me. The announcement doesn’t strike me as that big a deal.

Basically, the big NASA story that we’ve been waiting breathlessly for is that astronomers have found a supernova remnant created by a star that went supernova during the US’ Civil War. This is significant because of two facts:

  1. Prior to this, the most recent supernova we’ve known of in the Milky Way is over 400 years old.
  2. The statistics of stellar populations tells us that there should be seeing about three supernova in the Milky Way each century - meaning we have roughly a 12 supernova deficit (well, 11 after yesterday’s announcement) since that 400 year old remnant.

The thing is, we understood already why we don’t see these things go off - even though they should all be as bright as the brightest planets at the distances within our own galaxy. Basically, the hypothesis is that lots of these supernova aren’t visible due to extinction - obscuration by the huge loads of galactic dust that get in the way of our seeing them.

So we’ve understood that supernova must be going off fairly frequently for a long time now. But we’ve also understood why we can’t easily see them. So now they find a remnant that helps confirm that (a) they are going off like we thought, and (b) we can’t easily see them for precisely the reasons that we thought.

Yeah, it’s a cool discovery. I’m fine with that. But it is cool because it shows the predictive power of the scientific method. We saw a discrepancy in the data. We made some discoveries that might explain the discrepancy. Then, at length, we confirmed that yep, that data does indeed explain the discrepancies.

But as far as the object itself, I’m completely unable to get worked up about it. Maybe it’s because it isn’t in the solar system. Maybe I’m just still a little blown up from my trip.

Whatever. If you want to learn about it, you apparently will get no opportunity from my apathy-riddled brain; instead, the Bad Astronomer has excellent coverage.

Anti-Gay School Earns A Hard Slapdown

Posted on May 15th, 2008 by blue collar scientist

The principal, and at least some of the staff and/or teachers, at Ponce de Leon High School in Holmes County, Florida (about halfway between Pensacola and Tallahassee), have been enforcing an anti-gay policy since at least the beginning of this school year. The whole story started when a student, who was being harassed and threatened for being lesbian, tried to complain to the principal. Instead of insuring that his school was safe for all his students, principal David Davis instead began harassing and intimidating the student.

When other students at the school began to express their support for the lesbian student, Davis and his gang widened their intimidation campaign to include those students, singling out those who wore rainbows on their clothing, or the words “gay pride,” or even “I support my gay and lesbian friends.” They even suspended some of them.

Fortunately, at least one sixteen year old was smart enough to stand up to this small-minded tyranny. Her name is Heather Gillman, she sued the school, and she won.

And it’s no surprise. Gilman’s attorney contacted the school board’s attorney, asking for school policy on wearing rainbow clothing, the initials “G.P.” (for gay pride), and whether students could wear t-shirts that say “I support my gay friends.” The school board’s attorney responded (pdf):

As has clearly been shown at Ponce de Leon School in September of this year, the types of clothing and symbols your clients seek to wear to school will likely be disruptive and interfere with the educational process. Also, said symbols were used and can further be used by select students to show participation in an illegal organization as defined by the School Board….

Because of the occurrences at Ponce de Leon School over the last several months, none of the phrases, symbols, or images contained in your November 2, 2007, letter would be permitted to be worn by students at Ponce de Leon School.

What an awesome example of utter wingnut stupidity. Sixteen year old girls, considered just as bad as membership in Al Quaeda. Unbelievable.

Gillman and her attorneys decided to go to trial. It started day before yesterday; it was over yesterday. It is not hard to see why Gillman won - what principal David Davis said on the stand is even more insane than what the board’s attorney wrote:

…David Davis admitted under oath that he had banned students from wearing any clothing or symbols supporting equal rights for gay people.

Ok, this is merely stupid and unthinking. Not a model of what you want in a high school principal, but, unfortunately, not that uncommon. It gets better, though:

Davis also testified that he believed rainbows were “sexually suggestive” and would make students unable to study because they’d be picturing gay sex acts in their mind.

Seriously - read that again. David Davis is saying that if someone sees a rainbow, they are immediately going to have uncontrollable gay sex fantasies1. He said this on the stand. As a witness. In Federal court. Can you believe this buffoonery?

But that is not all. No, indeed. I’m guessing a few black people attend school at Ponce de Leon. Despite this:

The principal went on to admit that while censoring rainbows and gay pride messages he allowed students to wear other symbols many find controversial, such as the Confederate flag.

Right. So let’s get this straight. Seeing a rainbow and being plunged uncontrollably thereby into the sordid mental world of gay sex fantasies2 is disruptive to the educational process. Therefore rainbows have to be banned.

But sitting in class with three or four or ten kids wearing symbols of a political ideology that says they think that white people should be allowed to own you, breed you like cattle, determine what you are allowed to eat (if anything), prevent you getting married, stop you from ever owning property, and putting you to forced labor, and that the south should rise up in arms against the federal government to get their way on this, well, that is not disruptive at all.

And that, my friends, is total bullshit3.

The judge was Richard Smoak. He was appointed US District Judge for the Northern District of Florida by George W. Bush in 2005. (Judge Jones was also a Bush appointee.) His preliminary comments (pdf) in ordering the school to stop enforcing the policy include these gems:

The speech that is in question, that is exhibit 2, are certainly not sexual in meaning. To say that God loves me just the way I am, to find a sexual connotation in that, I think just can’t be made…. Two of the symbols with the spectrum of the rainbow, it’s hard to drive across town without seeing that on the bumper of a car in front of you, and I doubt that this was the first time that these young people had ever seen that.

About the “disruptions” claimed by the principal, he said from the bench:

I think a more reasonable perception of much that was said about the claimed interruption and disorder was really much the usual background noise of a middle and high school.

As to how the school dealt with the alleged disorder, which the judge has already concluded was overblown by the school administrators, he makes an excellent point:

I did not hear any evidence of any effort by the [principal] to deal with this fear of disorder or interruption by any other … means … than banning the speech and suspending the students who were promoting that speech.

Basically, the judge is slapping them down for unloading both barrels at the first sign of trouble, instead of acting like adults and, you know, talking to the kids:

And [the school] probably had an opportunity, as the courts have pointed out, in the learning environment of schools, where not just comfortable issues are to be learned or debated; that this would have been an opportunity for leadership, it would have been an opportunity for understanding and an opportunity for civil discourse and a learning opportunity about tolerance and diversity.

Unfortunately those opportunities were missed.

Damn right.

What about the secret, illegal organizations that the school claimed?

…when the ACLU wrote the School Board, I think it really gave a pretty clear notice of the contentions about the problems. But I was particularly concerned about the School Board’s response. I don’t know whether he [the school board's lawyer, quoted above] was the author of this strange notion about a secret organization or secret society, he really gave very short acknowledgement, almost a bump and run, to the requirements of Tinker and Holliman.

He goes on:

I really heard no real basis from the principal to warrant his fear that chaos was imminent.

Yes. Well, people who get lawyers and sue tend not to be engaging in arson or assault to settle their scores. Free access to the courts by all citizens for any purpose is one of the hallmarks of civilization as we know it. Civilized people sue; the alternative is to riot. Remember this the next time your congressperson wants to vote to give lawsuit immunity to their biggest campaign donor.

While many people, perhaps the Holmes County community disagree with the plaintiff, but I hope they will keep in mind that this is one of the most fundamental constitutional rights, that of the freedom of speech, and that we are not making up the law today. This law has been long settled by the United States Supreme Court….

The judicial goodness just goes on and on. The basic decision, some of the fine print excised, is below, then I’ll have my closing remarks, which are likely to upset a fair proportion of my readers.

I do declare that the defendants have violated the plaintiff’s rights protected under the first and 14th amendments of the United States Constitution, that the defendants … are permanently enjoined from restraining, prohibiting or suppressing the plaintiff or any other student within the Holmes County school district from expressing their support for the respect, equal treatment and fair accept answer of homosexuals and this includes but not limited to the phrases and symbols which appear on exhibit which is before us now.

…the enforcement of the defendant’s policies concerning expression related to illegal organizations or secret societies is applied to the as applied to the plaintiffs is enjoined.

Defendants are ordered to take such affirmative steps necessary to remediate the past restraints of the expression of the support for respect, equal treatment and acceptance of homosexuals, including but not limited to notifying in writing the Ponce de Leon High School student body and the middle school students and school officials within Holmes County school district that students are permitted to express support for, respect, equal treatment and fair acceptance of homosexuals….

Defendants … are enjoined from taking retaliatory action against plaintiff for bringing this lawsuit or against any students for their past or future expressions of support for the respect, equal treatment and fair acceptance of homosexuals.

Oh, and by the way, Heather Gillman was awarded damages in the amount of one dollar.

In closing, I just want to mention that prejudice is one thing that just really seriously pisses me off4. It is an issue in my life that has prevented me from remaining friends with a lot of people, stopped me getting close to others, and in a few cases putting strong boundaries of the acceptable into place to deal with the prejudiced jackasses that I’ve had the misfortune to have to deal with.

Anti-gay prejudice is no different. It is, like all other forms of stereotyping, stupid. I do not believe you can legitimately call yourself a skeptic, or claim that you bring a scientific mindset to your interpretation of the world, and still be prejudiced in an obvious way like this. I grant that we all have blind spots and character flaws that make us believe stupid things. But in our society, everyone has, by now, been confronted with a description of prejudice and its consequences, and has certainly been called upon, probably many times, to take a good look at themselves and correct these errors in their minds. It is a hard job, as I know from personal experience; and I give people who are working at it due credit. But people who would intimidate whatever group they personally hate, like principal David Davis, by using force, governmental power, administrative privilege, coercion, verbal abuse, or whatever other means - these people can be neither scientists nor skeptics in any broad, holistic way5.

For some years there has been a top ten list circulating in e-mail of items that handily debunk the silly claims of the anti-gay marriage crowd. I reproduce it for you here. Anti-gay folks have to do a lot better than their current load of baloney if they are to show they are any better than the Klan of the mid-20th century6.

  1. Being gay is not natural. Real Americans always reject unnatural things like eyeglasses, polyester, and air conditioning.
  2. Gay marriage will encourage people to be gay, in the same way that hanging around tall people will make you tall.
  3. Legalizing gay marriage will open the door to all kinds of crazy behavior. People may even wish to marry their pets because a dog has legal standing and can sign a marriage contract.
  4. Straight marriage has been around a long time and hasn’t changed at all; women are still property, blacks still can’t marry whites, and divorce is still illegal.
  5. Straight marriage will be less meaningful if gay marriage were allowed; the sanctity of Britany Spears’ 55-hour just-for-fun marriage would be destroyed.
  6. Straight marriages are valid because they produce children. Gay couples, infertile couples, and old people shouldn’t be allowed to marry because our orphanages aren’t full yet, and the world needs more children.
  7. Obviously, gay parents will raise gay children, since straight parents only raise straight children.
  8. Gay marriage is not supported by religion. In a theocracy like ours, the values of one religion are imposed on the entire country. That’s why we have only one religion in America.
  9. Children can never succeed without a male and a female role model at home. That’s why we as a society expressly forbid single parents to raise children.
  10. Gay marriage will change the foundation of society; we could never adapt to new social norms. Just like we haven’t adapted to cars, the service-sector economy, or longer life spans.

Enjoy your day - remember, the courts did a good thing for all of us yesterday.

  1. So much for my family-friendly rating. []
  2. Oops - just dinged up that family friendly rating thing again. []
  3. It is OK to quote a recurring character in a popular 90’s sitcom in a skeptical blog, right? []
  4. Hey, I’ve already lost the family-friendly seal of approval, so why not…. []
  5. I would go only so far as to grant that James Watson is a good technician - he certainly hasn’t applied the critical thinking skills of science to the question of race. []
  6. I feel justified in saying this because gay people are killed because they are gay in my country. []

Let’s Make It Three

Posted on May 15th, 2008 by blue collar scientist

I recently made reference to The Flying Trilobite’s posting about asthma, in a post of my own on the same topic. Now local paleoartist Zach at When Pigs Fly Returns has put up a post on living with cystic fibrosis. It is worth checking out; I knew relatively little about it until reading his account.

I guess the next step is for the three of us to get together and storm the Bastille1 (after we take a suitable break to us our medications) and release all the other pulmonary-function hard-luck cases from their societally-imposed bondage.

Or not….

  1. Just two months to go! []

Denver Museum of Nature and Science

Posted on May 14th, 2008 by blue collar scientist

A few weeks ago, when the news that creationist whackjobs were giving tours at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, I thought I might post a little article here excogitating on how two-faced creationists are, and about how the people doing the tours are nothing more than dishonest cult-enforcers, and about how, despite this, the museum pretty much has its hands tied.

I didn’t, because I didn’t think I really had anything to add that hadn’t already been said (you’ll notice that my m.o. on this blog is to cover a newsy topic a day or two late, but with a surplus of dollars - i.e., with more research than the average blog is putting into it). So I gave it a pass.

However, I’ve now found the best blog entry every written about the topic, bar none. The post is by a DMNS volunteer who has dealt with these whackjobs in person.

(Oh, also, the author is fifteen years old. The main thing about blogging that I learn from this is that I’m doing it wrong.)

Cripes, stop reading my stuff, and get over there and read it, already.


Read it all.