Monday, 30 April 2007

It Begins...

It's that magical time of year when the undergrads have just turned in their reports and practicals, and the teaching assistants prepare their coloured pens...

As of today, I have a stack of 130 student reports to mark. Each one is 2,000 words, bringing the total word count to 260,000, which is equivalent to about 850 pages from a book. They are due back, with grades and comments, in two weeks time. If I find anything truly comedic, I'll let you know, to the extent that I can while preserving student privacy.

Speaking of students, check out the best student complaint ever. I'm very fortunate to never have had to work with anyone quite like that.

Posting may be light over the next two weeks, I've got to grade and write feedback for 10 reports a day (which takes 6 to 8 hours) to keep pace... and I wanted to do so much gardening this week, too.

Update: From a paper on the personality traits Extroversion, Psychoticism, Neuroticism, Impulsive Sensation Seeking, and Risk Taking:

the independent variables were the total individual scores for P, E, N and ImpSS.

Hmm, what does that spell? I can imagine some teachers would want to mark down for that, but this person has obviously put some time into coming up with that, and I'm always inclined to appreciate cleverness.

Update II: Ok, quite a few students included the P-E-N-ImpSS acronym (the normal order is E-N-P-ImpSS.) Clever.

Overall, these papers are much, much better than the ones I marked last term. I would say about a full 10 points better. It's a good feeling to see a large group of students almost universally improve. Good job!

Saturday, 28 April 2007

Happy Belated Earth Day

April 22 was Earth day. This video from Rocketboom sums it up nicely:

I'll post an update about Green Week later. It was a really good success, we had 12 organizations and 400+ people come to the Green Fair on Friday. We were really surprised at how successful it was. Hopefully we can organize another one for the autumn next year so we can catch the students at the beginning of the academic year, rather than the end.

Nice weather out...

Unfortunately that nice weather makes it the hottest April for England in recorded history. Worldwide, the Meteorological Office has predicted this will be the hottest year ever recorded.

Thursday, 26 April 2007


One of the things I brought back from Michigan was a bird-feeder. This one here on the right is a picture of it. I ended up picking one that was a bit pricier than I would normally go for, but it has a lifetime guarantee, and is made of metal and very durable plastic. Some of the cheap ones I looked at had the structural integrity of a Dixie cup. Anyway, it is now hanging outside full of sunflower seed. And it is no ordinary sunflower seed; it is seed I grew myself last year! Our rabbit Connie really enjoyed munching down on the empty flower head, too. I've yet to see many birds at the feeder yet, but it takes a few weeks for birds to be comfortable with a new feeder, and it has only been a few days.

I've also found three of these, near the back end of the house, broken on the concrete, slightly wet:

The broken egg shells looked like they had hatched successfully, as there was only the slightest residue around the egg shells, and no body. Based on where the shells fell, the nest must have been either on top of the boiler vent or on the roof. I had a look on the web, and found only one species that has that size and colour of egg that will nest on a house. It's this little fellow:

It's a house sparrow. When I saw the picture, I realized I had seen them in the garden many times before. It seems like a house sparrow would not be something to get all that excited about, but house sparrows are actually becoming pretty rare. Their numbers have plummeted in recent years, cut in half from what they were 25 years ago. No one is quite sure why they are going down, but it's nice to know the numbers have gone up, however slight, in my back yard.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Busy Week...

Ugh, it has been an awfully busy since I got back. On Sunday and Monday I spent 28 consecutive hours in my office or in the classroom (with 3 hours asleep on the floor from 5am to 8am.) It is also Green Week this week, which I am active in (which has been great so far). I got home at 10pm last night, and will get home at 9pm tonight.

Posting will probably be light this week.

In the mean time, enjoy this video of a flying motorcycle.

You can order a full kit to build one.

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Step It Up: Review

The Ann Arbor Step It Up 2007 rally was pretty impressive. In freezing weather and high winds, we had between 200 and 300 people show up in the University square. However, I should note that this rally was only one of about 15 within 30 miles from here. I'm not sure how well attended those were, but of course we would have been larger if it had been one rally and not 1,500 across the nation.

Speakers at our event included students, professors, engineers, the mayor, Michigan state congressmen, and our national Rep in congress, Rep. Dingell, author of the Clean Air Act (1990) and current Chairman of the US Energy and Commerce Committee. That makes him one of the most influential people on US energy policy, arguably more so than the President (and yeah, I know Dingell has been a slimeball on the environment before). The speeches were generally good, and the crowd enthusiastic.

There were also about a dozen tables from various local organizations. (They were even giving out free Clif Bars!) An event like this has a few purposes: the explicit one of lobbying congress for change, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to cultivate connections and networking between like-minded people. Social capital, in other words. And if you're familiar with Social Capital Theory, then you know SC is necessary for any prolonged social movement, and for it having any chance of affecting change.

This is a video of the event from Detroit Free Press. If you look closely, you can see both me and my brother.

Pictures to come soon (hopefully)...

Thursday, 12 April 2007

Rest In Peace, Kurt Vonnegut

I think he truly will. He saw more horror than is conceivable, yet was one of the greatest writers and forces for peace of the century. Even up until his death at age 84, he never stopped working, moving, appearing on the Daily Show. He was never afraid to call bull-shit on the present day popular absurdities of war.

He was a German-American who fought in WWII, was captured in the Battle of the Bulge, was held as a POW during the largest slaughter of civilian life in human history (the firebombing of Dresden), and was one of only seven Americans to survive.

His contribution to the peace movement was profound and powerful, beautiful and disturbing. Likewise his literature.

Many of his books are near and dear to me. He will be missed.

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Step It Up

Got any plans for Saturday, April 14?

If not, consider participating in a Step It Up rally, to tell Congress to take some serious action in cutting carbon emissions. I'll be attending the one in Ann Arbor, but there are events planned in 1347 cities and towns throughout the US. See their website for more info.

The US contains about 4% of the world's population, and produces about a quarter of the world's pollution. We've really lagged behind the rest of the world on what will soon become the most pertinent international issue of the century. It's really time to get our butts in gear on this.

I'll post a review and pictures after the event.


I would normally be working on the statistics helpdesk every Monday, but because of the Easter holiday, I've had the time off. This is what it can seem like sometimes:

I realize some of my readers may sympathize more with the monk...

For reference, the show is Øystein Og Jeg, produced by Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) in 2001.

Saturday, 7 April 2007


What is microlending?

You've probably heard the saying "Give someone a carrot and you feed them for a day. Give them some carrot seed and a spade and you feed them for a lifetime." Er, or something like that. And you've probably also heard "you have to have money to make money."

Microlending is the combination and extension of these two aphorisms. The poorest of the poor are given small loans (typically under $100) which allows them to buy the tools they need to support themselves, typically something like a sewing machine, or a pottery wheel, or farming tools. It is not charity in the usual sense; they do have to pay the money back, with a small amount of interest. Traditional banks wouldn't want to touch these people: they have no property, no collateral, no hope. Or so it would seem. Microborrowers actually pay back their loans at about the same rate as we wealthy Westerners typically do, even though they typically have no material collateral.

Microlending has been one of the biggest success stories in the struggle against poverty, especially for women. As far as value-for-effort, I would say microlending and Fair Trade are the two most successful anti-poverty programs since decolonization. Both are spreading at rapid speed, and it is now becoming possible for Western individuals to make more of a personal contribution in these kinds of programs. But with so many new programs, how are they different? Which make best use of their money?

Slate has a helpful semi-systematic review of many microlending programs, kind of like a Consumer Reports of charitable lenders, giving detailed comments about the best and worst aspects of individual programs. Very useful to the discerning donor, and the recipients as well.

Thursday, 5 April 2007

On Beauty

Sorry to go all video-crazy, but I feel these are worth sharing.

Some of you may have heard of Dove's Real Beauty Campaign. It has gathered quite some momentum online, having been viewed on YouTube millions of times, and distributed through the blogosphere. This is the ad:

What do you think? It's generated a huge amount of feedback worldwide.

Now compare it to this advert:

Although I don't speak Hindi, I know exactly what the message is: you only matter if you are beautiful, and you're only beautiful if you are not dark. (As an aside, the "dark" woman in the advert starts off being far lighter than most Indian people.) And although the advert is undeniably sexist, women are not the only target (click link to view.)

So what do you think of those last two? Compared to the first one? What a world of contrast.

Now here is the catch: all three advertisements are made by the same company (Unilever.) Dove and Fair and Lovely are products of the same people. Dove's "Self-Esteem Fund" and "Campaign for Real Beauty" are made by the same company who make "Fair and Lovely" skin lightener, and who explicitly say brown is ugly.

"No wonder our perceptions of beauty are distorted."

Chew on that for a while. I don't know that there is a single take-home message here, but two stick out to me:

1) Always be skeptical of advertisements.
2) It is possible to do good whilst also doing bad, and in fact most of the good done in the world is done by people who are also doing a lot of bad. Purity does not exist.

I would also like to point out that these adverts were uploaded to YouTube by the producers of the adverts themselves, suggesting they feel it is appropriate to reach as wide an audience as possible with the "brown is ugly" message.

Before leaving you, I would like to share this joyful gem, completely unrelated to the rest of the post, but also from India.

Hat tip to Sita for the last video. It has brought tears to my eyes with laughter more than once.

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

In Egg Shells She Day Ohh

For anyone who ever tried to understand a hymn without a hymnal.

Hat tip to Stacey for this one.

Sunday, 1 April 2007


The Guardian now features a fully fledged Environment section, with subsections covering climate change, conservation, energy, travel, ethical living, food, and water. I've read several of the articles and they're very on-target - not preachy, but interesting and factual. Five years ago, it would be pretty unimaginable to see a big-name newspaper devote as much space to the state of the environment as they do to sports. Most of this information just wasn't even in the public consciousness five years ago. Now, there is sizeable demand for it, and growing fast. Have a look, there's a lot of great stuff there, and it is all freely available.

For the Radiohead Crowd

If you're in the mood for some haunting social commentary...

If you are having trouble with the first video, this is a copy from youtube.