Jul 30, 2009

a little love for the WASL

This morning's Seattle Times offers an article on a recent survey of Washington teachers regarding the soon-to-be-obsolete WASL. An unfortunately small, probably unrepresentative sample reports that, yes, there are some good things about having a statewide standardized test that values critical thinking.
Teachers echoed many of the same old criticisms of the WASL — it's too long, the results are confusing and don't come back in time — but they also credited the WASL with improving students' writing and reasoning skills.

They pointed favorably to its "extended response" questions, which are to be eliminated from new exams favored by Randy Dorn, the new state superintendent of public instruction who campaigned to replace the WASL.

The new tests, to be introduced next spring, will continue to have some short-answer questions but will be largely multiple-choice.

That will be true for the state exams given to 10th-graders and those for students in third though eighth grades. The only exception will be the writing section, where students will still be judged on the quality of short essays.
Researchers found that most of the teachers they surveyed wanted to improve, rather than replace, the WASL. The difference is tough to discern. At some point, we enter into Ship of Theseus territory.

And what about the upcoming non-WASL?
[Superintendent Randy] Dorn is working to offer the test online; math sections will be updated; and the superintendent's office is working on classroom tests that would allow teachers to diagnose what help students need.
Missing: by 2014, math tests will be end-of-course exams directly linked to instruction in various subjects, since not all students take the same math sequence. (The way things have gone, who knows what'll be required by then, anyway.)

The key change is the new, technologically-mediated approach to the upcoming non-WASL's diagnostic capabilities. If the test, as its proponents claim, validly points out deficiencies in instruction, then that information needs to be in schools' and teachers' hands within days, not months. (And, as I argue elsewhere, a better diagnostic test might not even need to be linked to graduation to be effective.)

Last, if we can save at least ten of the sixteen hours currently spent administering the 10th-grade WASL, I'll see that as a win.

good words about a full life

If you read only one thing on the Internet today, make it Tim Sandefur's eulogy for his grandmother Elsie.

Jul 29, 2009

the heat wins

"Beat the heat," everyone keeps saying, offering tips to stay cool as the mercury climbs. I've tried to avoid heat-blogging, mostly, because sustained temperatures in the 90s, for a large part of the country, are par for July's sweltering course. No big deal for someone who spent four college years in East Texas.

But then I see this:

That's right, as of 6:55 a.m., Weather Underground predicts today's high of 106 in "Beautiful Downtown Lacey."

106. That's hot for just about anywhere.

Jul 27, 2009

I never forget a face

Add one more faculty to the crow repertoire: the ability to recognize and remember human faces. As the video shows, though, the face is all that matters; crows in the experiment couldn't distinguish body shapes.


[via BoingBoing's McLaren and Torchinsky]

student congress never looked so good

If you ever thought, You know, someday I might like to run for city council, think again. The jalopy of democracy can't run without the squeaky, clattering wheel of public comment.

Personal favorite: the guy who crams eighteen items into his allotted time.

[via BoingBoing]

CHS roof collapse blamed on faulty trusses

At long last, it appears we have an explanation for the roof collapse at Capital High School this past winter, The Olympian reports.
OLYMPIA – Roof trusses that were substandard contributed to the Christmas morning cave-in at Capital High School that caused school closures in the second half of the year, according to district officials and a report from an engineering firm hired by the insurance company.

Capital High is expected to be ready and open for students by fall, as crews work through the summer to restore the school from structural and water damage caused by the collapse of the library roof during several feet of snowfall over winter break.

So far, the repairs to the roof and the walls have cost about $2.25 million, which will be covered by insurance, district spokesman Peter Rex said.

The school’s roof caved into the library, breaking a fire sprinkler main that poured water throughout the building. The snow that accumulated in the week before winter break also compressed the roof over adjacent parts of the building, damaging gas lines.

The repairs to the roof have included bringing the damaged sections of the roof up to city code, said district supervisor of capital planning and construction Tim Byrne.

When the main part of the high school was built in 1975, codes allowed for a lighter snow load, and plywood gussets at the time could be glued to the trusses, instead of bolted in.

An investigation by engineering firm PCS Structural Solutions of Seattle and Tacoma also found that some of the original trusses were not built to the original specifications.

According to the firm’s report, some of the roof structure over the kitchen and Vis-Com and Tech classrooms “appears to have not been properly designed or constructed originally. The plywood gussets at these joints are smaller than the size shown on the truss shop drawings.”

The district’s insurance carrier told district officials that the contractor who built the trusses in 1975 is no longer in business, Byrne said.

The engineering firm made short-term and long-term recommendations for Capital’s roof, according to its report.

PCS’s long-term recommendation for the district is to repair or replace all the trusses in the building to meet the city of Olympia’s current requirements.

Olympia generally calls a district-wide snow day if there is an accumulation of 4 inches or more of snow, he added.

The short-term recommendations for Capital include:

• Repairing the deficient joints.

• Keeping shoring beams underneath roof top mechanical units.

• Making sure that roof drains are functional.

• Clearing snow from the roof when there is an accumulation of more than 4 inches.

• Checking for signs of structural distress, including sagging ceilings, roof leaks or “popping” noises from the trusses.

The firm also recommended an annual inspection of Capital’s roof.

Officials have adopted the short-term recommendations made by the engineering firm — which would allow occupancy of the building with up to 4 inches of snow on the roof — and the district is looking into its options for the school in the long term, Rex said.

“Obviously, we have an interest in making sure nothing happens even when there’s 8 inches of snow,” Rex said.

The district is looking into purchasing a snow-melting system that would allow the district to clear the roof in case of a heavy snowfall, Byrne said.

The district is working with its insurance company to see how much insurance will cover, Byrne said.

Jul 26, 2009

such a coy mountain

Drove to Mount Rainier today, hiking up Rampart Ridge in expectation of a lovely view of the peak. The trail, though steep, is almost entirely shaded if you go at it clockwise from the Trail of the Shadows.

Everything would've turned out brilliantly, except for interfering clouds.

another batch of random Olympia photos

Jul 25, 2009

a perfect night for baseball

For a late father's day gift, I took Dad to yesterday's game at Safeco. Dad summed it up best. "I feel like I had a night on the town: chauffeured around, treated to dinner and entertained by a three-hour tragedy."

I hadn't planned on the last part, but there it was. On an otherwise perfect night for baseball, with a cool ocean breeze wafting into the stadium, the Mariners got shellacked by Cleveland, 9-0. The game might have slammed the door on their playoff hopes.

At least we each walked away with a Franklin Gutierrez bobblehead.

First, dinner at the Pyramid Brewery. We sat above the busiest kitchen in existence.

Down the third base line, during Cleveland's batting practice.

The view dead ahead.

Take it seriously.

Grady Sizemore, homebody, signs a few autographs before the game.

By the 9th, about half the crowd had disappeared. These lads were happy to grab front-row seats during the fateful inning.

You Can Go to Jail for That?

Via Robert Whitlock at Olyblog, an interesting quiz by the ACLU on Washington's marijuana laws. I wish it were longer, and had included some of the situations covered by people like Lee Rosenberg. Reforming laws isn't enough: institutions, and people, stand in the way as well.

P.S. I scored 5/5.

Jul 23, 2009

breaking: Trader Joe's responds!

From the too little, too late department:
Hi Jim,

We do not have a confirmed opening date on our neighborhood Olympia, WA Trader Joe's store. Keep checking the Trader Joe's website for the exact date.

Thank you,

[name redacted]
Customer Relations
Trader Joe's
Proof positive that Trader Joe's email system is irreparably broken: the email that took a week to come is factually inaccurate. The Olympia location opens August 21st.

Trader Joe's in Olympia opens August 21st

The Olympian has the official story. That is all.

Jul 22, 2009

a very beefcake fundraiser

Vashon Island dads are baring it all to keep their local school district from cutting staff. No, this is not my attempt at pitching a script:
"By day they are attorneys and bankers, at night they are windsurfers, kayakers, farmers, musicians, cyclists," said Kris Thompson who calls herself a co-producer on the project.

What exactly is the project you may ask?

It's a beefcake calendar, "a la Calendar Girls...if you know the story," said Thompson.

This group commutes daily on the ferry from Vashon Island to downtown Seattle and that's where they came up with the idea. So naturally they've dubbed themselves, "The Dreamboats."

Each month of the calendar features one of the Dreamboats posing in the buff, with their personal areas covered by props from their individual hobby of choice.
They hope to raise $10,000.

Whatever they earn, is the Vashon School District going to take the money? You bet they are.

P.S. Not to rain on their parade or anything, but unless they inspire an army of supporters to join their efforts, $10,000 isn't going to save even one position. Which is sad.

traffic circles expanding their circumference of power

I commute through downtown Olympia every (school) day, driving 'round two roundabouts as I head up 4th/Harrison toward Capital High School. While they used to be somewhat treacherous, as inexperienced drivers struggled to learn right-of-way rules, or keep their SUVs in one lane, over the years, the two traffic circles have become easier and easier to negotiate.

Monday I linked to an article by Tom Vanderbilt explaining why roundabouts are superior to traditional four-way intersections. Consider safety:
Roundabouts are safer than traditional intersections for a simple reason: By dint of geometry and traffic rules, they reduce the number of places where one vehicle can strike another by a factor of four. They also eliminate the left turn against oncoming traffic—itself one of the main reasons for intersection danger—as well as the prospect of vehicles running a red light or speeding up as they approach an intersection to "beat the light." The fact that roundabouts may "feel" more dangerous to the average driver is a good thing: It increases vigilance. It's unlikely the average driver killed or severely injured in a high-speed "T-bone" crash as they drove through a green light felt much risk. In addition, drivers must slow to enter a roundabout: Placing an obstacle in the center makes this not only a physical necessity but visually disrupts the speed-encouraging continuity of the street. Motorists also travel through a roundabout more slowly than they would a traditional intersection: Roundabouts are typically built using what's called "negative superelevation," meaning that water flows away from the center and also that the road slopes against the direction of a driver's turn. As a result, any crashes in a roundabout take place at lower speeds and are thus less likely to be fatal. While roundabouts can be more costly to install than other kinds of traffic controls, such calculations don't take into account the fact that reducing fatal crashes also reduces social and monetary costs.
As Vanderbilt goes on to argue, roundabouts are also more energy- and time-efficient, and are better uses of public space.

So, when I hear that the City of Olympia is installing traffic circles in more locations...
Work began Monday on the first of three planned roundabouts to improve traffic flow and safety on Boulevard Road.

Crews for the general contractor, KLB Construction Inc. of Mukilteo, will clear trees and brush before construction begins in earnest at the T intersection of Boulevard and Log Cabin roads in southeast Olympia, said Sheri Zimny, project manager for the city of Olympia.

Crews will build a two-lane roundabout – the first city-funded roundabout in east Olympia – that features sidewalks, bike lanes, landscaping and lighting. Water and sewer lines also will be upgraded, and other utility lines will be buried.

The new roundabout also will feature the most ambitious artwork to grace one of the intersection control devices in the community so far. It consists of a circle of 10 wooden columns, each 8 feet high and carved with Northwest themes. Seattle artist Steve Jensen has characterized the $70,000 work as a “contemporary Northwest Stonehenge.”
...I get excited. And you should, too.

Senate axes F-22 funding

Back in February, Slate's Fred Kaplan had argued that it was time for Congress to stop ordering new F-22 Raptors, later providing reasons that the save-our-jobs argument for the fighter jet was essentially bunk. Yesterday, the Senate followed his advice. Kaplan triumphant:
This is a big deal: The Senate today voted to halt production of the F-22 stealth fighter plane, and it did so 58-40, a margin much wider than expected.

Not only is this a major victory for Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who lobbied strenuously (something he rarely does) to kill this program, and for President Barack Obama, who pledged to veto the defense bill if it contained a nickel for more F-22s. The vote might also mark the beginning of a new phase in defense politics, a scaling-back of the influence that defense contractors have over budgets and policies.

Then again, I might be dreaming. Surely things couldn't be changing quite that much. Could they?
Time, as they say, is a blabbermouth.

The F-22 is wicked cool, but in today's geopolitical climate (partly cloudy, with pockets of insurgency), air superiority through fighter combat is obsolete. As Kaplan observes, the Raptor has never been deployed in battle.

The future belongs to drones.

Jul 21, 2009

an open letter to Trader Joe's

Dear Trader Joe's,

It pains to write this, but I feel spurned and neglected by your corporation. Not because it's taken you so long to come to Olympia--I, too, will celebrate your store's opening next month--but because I had to learn the good news fourthhand.

Seriously: I heard about it on Twitter from someone who posted on Facebook a conversation they'd had with an employee at another store in the region. Heard that the Olympia location will open its doors to an adoring public on August 22nd, 2009.

But I can't vouch for the accuracy of the date. Believe me, I'd love to, but heard-it-from-a-friend is trouble enough, journalistically speaking, never mind heard-it-from-a-multilayered-social-network-of-acquaintances-and-strangers.

What's my beef, specifically? Well, take a look at this sirloin. A week ago I posted on this very blog an update to the news from February that a store would be opening this year. Seeking more specific information, I dutifully filled out the email form on your website, and got the automatic repsonse saying hey, we're busy, but we check all our emails, and yours is in the queue.

A week later, nothing.

I could have mailed a letter and gotten a faster response. I could have resurrected the Pony Express and gotten a faster response. Heck, I could have built a time machine, gone back in time to snatch a Pony Express driver from the Old West, sent him galloping to your headquarters, and still gotten a faster response.

And it's not just me: my wife reports that when she tried to email a concern about a faulty product, she never heard back.

Your email system is broken, Trader Joe's.

And now, so is my heart.



Jul 20, 2009

soccer: coming to a country near you?

When the FIFA World Cup came to America for the first time, I was 15. I knew nothing about the sport, except that everyone else in the world played it. I'm pretty sure my mom bought me this beach towel because it was on sale, not because of its historical import.

It's taken fifteen years longer than the optimists hoped, but it finally seems that international soccer is about to break through in the U.S. Bill Simmons five reasons why.
1. Americans enjoy watching the best (fill in any sport). We are elitists. That's why we like the Olympics, that's why we enjoy any finals, that's why we watch Wimbledon and the Masters, that's why we don't care about sports like the WNBA, MLS or arena football as anything other than a niche sport. International soccer plays into this. It's the best of the best. Hell, we even liked "The Best of the Best" even though Eric Roberts was the biggest star in it.

2. The games zoom along: no commercials, no sideline reporters, no corporate tie-ins, no four-hour games like in baseball, no "takes 20 minutes to play the last two" like in the NBA. You can sit down for a soccer game and say, "I'm going to spend the next two hours watching this and then I'm going to do something else." Like watch more TV.

3. Give credit to ESPN for committing air time in non-Cup years to elite international soccer tournaments like the UEFA Cup. I know that's how I started paying more attention. If you like sports, you cannot NOT get caught up in the level of play, the maniacal crowds, the intensity and tension and everything else. It's impossible.

4. Widescreen TVs make it easier to see the field; HD makes it easier to see faces and numbers (and the grass looks green and vibrant); and better camerawork (and also more cameras) make the games more intimate. Now you feel like the players are flopping right onto your living room rug! Just kidding, soccer fans. Seriously, settle down. Jokes.

5. International soccer never took off here for the simple reason that American sports fans had trouble following anything they couldn't attend in person and/or watch on television at their leisure. Now? We're turning into a sofa culture; since it's more expensive to go to games, many of us find it just as rewarding to stay home, save money and watch games on a nice TV. Throw in the Internet, DirecTV, fan blogs and everything else and you really can follow soccer from across the Atlantic.

That's why, over the next decade -- starting with the World Cup in 2010 -- I predict international soccer takes off to a modest degree in America during the '10s. Not to compare everything to "The Godfather," but for America, the NASL was Sonny (exciting, impetuous and ultimately self-destructive), the MLS is Fredo (weak) and international soccer is Michael (the heavy hitter who was lurking all along). That's how this plays out I think.
The palpable excitement in Seattle over the Sounders' match against Chelsea is, hopefully, a sign of things to come.

today's name links

1. Atlanta retired Greg Maddux's number on Friday night, honoring the right-handed pitcher I'd name as the best of his generation, and a nerd's nerd.

2. Even if he'd been famous upon its publication, you wouldn't have found Maddux's name in Webster's Third Dictionary, as David Skinner explains in a fascinating article.

3. A Starbucks by any other name?

4. The biggest name in computing is going to set up shop next to Mac stores. "Anything Mac can do, Microsoft will do later...."

5. I love roundabouts. For some, though, the name "roundabout" conjures up dread incommensurate with their safety record. Maybe this will change a few minds.

Jul 19, 2009

deconstructing merit pay

Ryan at I Thought a Think explains why merit pay is never a simple matter.
So, who is your Most Valuable Teacher?

Is it Teacher A, who added the most value to her class over the course of the year?
Is it Teacher B, who had more of her kids meet the year-end goal?
Is it Teacher C, whose class scored the highest in the spring?
Is it Teacher D, who turned around more failing kids than any of the others?

"Value" is a homophone; there's the value signified by the numbers, but there's also the values of the school, the district, and the state which have to be superimposed atop any effort to link the data to the teacher. If the incentive pay/merit pay/whatever pay in this case goes to only one of the four teachers, you're making a statement about the value of the work the other three did, and it's a pretty lousy thing to say to the other three who also made progress that their success didn't matter as much.
And, of course, there are even more fundamental assumptions at work:
1. That the differences across teachers are statistically significant. (In small sample sizes, chance is magnified.)
2. That there are no mitigating factors that better explain students' growth within and across classes. (How much is due to good ol' maturation? Are all relevant factors controlled for?)
3. That the test measures something important.

We run into more trouble when we deal with mobile populations, or when we consider high school teachers who see their students for only fifty-five minutes a day in a single subject.

This is not to say only nay to the prospect of performance pay for teachers. I'm sure with today's data collecting and crunching powers, some magic formula can be worked out--something akin to the Netflix prize for education--but as Ryan shows, first we have to agree on what we actually value.


Taken at last night's South Puget Sound Tweetup, a shrimp boil of epic proportions. It was my first dump dinner, and had better not be my last.

better driving through chemistry

Step One
Dip desired portions of vehicle in barium or molybdenum salts. (Warning! Toxic!)

Step Two
Drive like a bat out of hell through a flaming hoop. (Warning! Fiery!)

Step Three
Enjoy. (Warning! Dubious Advice!)

Jul 17, 2009

math requirements changed again, again

From time to time, this blog deals with the education standards set by the state, particularly those dealing with graduation requirements. After all, they're important.

They're also as confusing as hell.

Actually, more confusing, because in hell, as Gary Larson, cartoonist and theologian, noted, you get your accordion and off you go. As for passing high school in Washington state, should you fail the math WASL*: welcome to hell. Here's your flow chart.

Which is now obsolete, with yet another in a long line of changes to the math requirements. The Seattle Times explains:
The board decided earlier that beginning with the class of 2013, high-school students will be required to earn three credits of math to earn a diploma.

When the requirement was changed, the state rule said students who took a high-school-level math class without credit as an eighth-grader were required to repeat that same course for credit in high school.

The state board decided Friday that students can choose to start with a different math class in high school and don't have to repeat the eighth-grade class if they don't want to.
Hurrah for flexibility, I suppose. And, hopefully, someday, hurrah for clarity.


Until then, here's your accordion.

*Which won't be the WASL for long. Progress!

Jul 15, 2009

why we love Ichiro, part XXIV

Ichiro meets Obama at the All-Star Game, July 14, 2009.

Guess which one doesn't have the weight of the free world on his shoulders?

Added 7/16 U.S.S. Mariner has the official, hi-res, solemn shot.

;) or :) at the end of a sentence

;) or :) at the end of a sentence: which should I use, and how often?

First, you should use emoticons, as they are called, as liberally as possible, unless you are politically conservative, in which case you should use them frequently.

Each has a specific effect as supplemental (or as a replacement for) punctuation.

Let's compare and contrast, shall we?
I robbed a bank yesterday.

I robbed a bank yesterday :)

I robbed a bank yesterday ;)
The first is a frank admission of guilt, or a matter-of-fact description of one's accomplishments. Devoid of context, it is bland and unassuming. The second positively beams with pride.

The last, however, adds a pinch of flirtatiousness: If you're lucky, you just might end up a little richer. So, while :) is ambiguous, albeit friendly, ;) adds a hint of sauce. If you're going to employ it, be aware of this critical fact.

Also, I should note that for good reason, in academic writing, the use of emoticons is generally frowned upon. >:(

[165th in a series]

Jul 13, 2009

the band enters its next phase

One of the all-time great philosophical questions goes something like this: take a ship, say, the H.M.S. Pinafore. Reupholster the captain's chair, and it's still the same ship. Replace a ragged sail, and it's still the same ship. Put up a new main mast, and it's still the same ship. But how many replacements can you make until the Pinafore is no longer the Pinafore?

For about seven years, I've drummed for the Mike Dean Project. During that time we've changed female vocalists, added and lost guitarists, and branched off in new musical directions. The core group--myself, the eponymous lead guitar, the bassist, and the keyboard wrangler--have stayed the same.

Until now.

Right before our most recent gig, Mike announced that bassist Jeff Perrin and vocalist Kim Hinderlie were, for unrelated reasons, taking a break from the band, with a yet-undetermined level of permanence. I've always known that no band lasts forever, and have wondered just how long we'd keep sailing. But I can't tell if this means time in the dry dock for an overhaul, or to commission a whole new ship.

So, there's a rock and blues band in the Grays Harbor / Thurston County area in need of an experienced bassist and a powerful mezzo-soprano.

Or, quite possibly, there's a moderately competent drummer with a day job looking for a band.

We'll see.

Jul 10, 2009

A Table For Olympia

Just got back from A Table For Olympia, a chance to share time, food, and conversation with folks, potluck style. 'Twas nice, and I hope we have more in the future.

The Olympia Free Choir, singing.

The man who set it up: Mathias Eichler, proprietor of ein mal eins, Twitter guru, and all around good guy.

Jul 9, 2009

Smith Rock on a hot day

photos of Crater Lake

From one of the many photographic vantage points near the Rim Visitor Center.

Lingering snow + pesky mosquitoes = Picnic Hell.

A dead tree helpfully points to a cinder cone called Wizard Island.

Afternoon rain.

Hypnotic and meditative and multifaceted, there is no blue quite like the blue of Crater Lake.

Jul 8, 2009

demons that attack the scalp

The following is written by guest blogger T. Richard "Rich" O'Dynia, a licensed scalp exorcist. Names have been removed to preserve privacy.

He entered my office sullenly and slumped in the chair. A young man of about twenty, he wore a black leather jacket and a Yankees cap pulled low. At first I thought it was to hide his eyes--as if to say, "I know I am wearing a Yankees cap, and am ashamed"--but then I saw the telltale tufts around his ears, the tiny flakes on his shoulders. Signs of a man with scalp trouble.

Demonic scalp trouble, it turned out.

He had been flirting with the occult--more specifically, a cute clerk at a game store called Wizards of Wisconsin. She lured him into a den of role-playing demonic influences, and within weeks, the formerly goldy-locked, confident college student was a wreck, a dandruff-ridden, balding chump.

He tried specialty shampoos and scalp treatments to no avail. He might have been lost forever to the darkness, but, by coincidence--divine coincidence, you can be sure--he saw my business card in the win-a-free-lunch jar of the Applebee's where he worked.

Before I continue his tale of possession and redemption, let me share a word about spiritual warfare. You have to understand that malevolent spirits, or demons, try constantly to crack the defenses of the soul. Sometimes they use the direct approach, assaulting the mind while it slumbers. For instance, last week I counseled a young woman who dreamed that Ashton Kutcher was able to travel in time and attempt to undo the mistakes of the past, ironically only making them worse, something to do with chaos theory or somesuch. It was an horrific nightmare, and I am still shaking from merely recounting it here secondhand.

In other cases, when the direct approach fails, demons assault the body, hoping to destroy one's dignity. Scalp demons are like this: demons of dandruff, demons of dermatitis, demons of head lice, demons of the combover.

No Hair Club for Men can stop scalp demons. No shampoo or medical treatment can blunt their spiritual attack. Instead, the victim must visit a professionally trained and spiritually ordained scalp exorcist, a person who is prepared and licensed through Vatican correspondence courses and a lengthy internship.

So, what became of our demon-haunted lad? After five arduous hours of exorcism and a weeklong fast, I am happy to report that the spirits were banished, and his scalp returned to its former glow. Gone are the tufts and flakes of tragedy and failure, replaced with the golden locks of God's grace.

But every day I continue to pray for him. He still roots for the Yankees.

[164th in a series]

detailed Olympia SD budget released

We already knew that the Olympia School District Board of Directors approved the 09-10 budget; the summary of changes is available here [pdf].

More important from a long-term accountability and public relations perspective, yesterday the District, on its website, released one of the most detailed budget breakdowns I've ever seen [pdf].

Peter Rex, if you're out there, correct me if I'm wrong--but this seems groundbreaking.

memristors, slime molds, and artificial intelligence

Memristors, a fairly recent discovery that I've blogged about twice previously, get the long form treatment in NewScientist.
To Chua, this all points to a home truth. Despite years of effort, attempts to build an electronic intelligence that can mimic the awesome power of a brain have seen little success. And that might be simply because we were lacking the crucial electronic components - memristors.

So now we've found them, might a new era in artificial intelligence be at hand? The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency certainly thinks so. DARPA is a US Department of Defense outfit with a strong record in backing high-risk, high-pay-off projects - things like the internet. In April last year, it announced the Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics Program, SyNAPSE for short, to create "electronic neuromorphic machine technology that is scalable to biological levels".

Williams's team from Hewlett-Packard is heavily involved. Late last year, in an obscure US Department of Energy publication called SciDAC Review, his colleague Greg Snider set out how a memristor-based chip might be wired up to test more complex models of synapses. He points out that in the human cortex synapses are packed at a density of about 1010 per square centimetre, whereas today's microprocessors only manage densities 10 times less. "That is one important reason intelligent machines are not yet walking around on the street," he says.
You'll have to read the article to figure out how slime molds fit in--and then judge for yourself whether this new technology will lead to a breakthrough in artificial intelligence.

Of course, as Slate's Tom Vanderbilt reminds us in an otherwise unrelated essay on the Segway, the future has its own plans.

Jul 7, 2009

Lava Butte

Lava Butte, part of the Newberry National Volcanic Monument, is accessible only with a special half-hour parking permit attained at the Lava Lands Visitor Center registration booth, where one is adjured to watch the 15-minute introductory video before departing for the butte. (Did you know that geology is an ongoing process? Crazy!)

The view from the top, looking down into the landscaping rock collection bowl.

Looking back from the trail, wistfully.

A foolish, foolish tree.

Jul 6, 2009

Fourth at the Fort

I spent this year's Fourth of July with some of my favorite people at one of my favorite places, Oregon's Fort Rock. From our campsite at La Pine State Park, in two cars, eight family members rode roughly fifty miles in late morning sunshine, ready for a hike in the heat at the geological oddity that rises out of the desert like a... fort. As you can see.

While I was scouting a route up the right side--and not finding one amenable to the less daring / foolish members of the group--others hiked around the base.

A pocket gopher makes a rare appearance atop the formation.

The lizard asked if I was going to blog the photo, and I said not if he didn't want to, and he shrugged and said no biggie.


If you're into the easy way, when you start up the trail to the interior, head left toward the path you can see snaking up the side. If you're into the hard way, good on you. You're gonna love Fort Rock.

Jul 5, 2009

back to the blog we go

I just spent five days camping in Oregon, casting aside the blog and email and Twitter, embracing nature and family and hours of driving. Beside photos, which will arrive soon, I have memories, a farmer's tan, and assorted mosquito bites.

I came back to civilization to learn that the Mariners traded (trod?) water, Sarah Palin resigned (?!), and Steve McNair and Karl Malden passed on. And that, mostly, the world without me is still the world.

Jul 1, 2009

all quiet on the blogging front

Shh. Taking a little break. Back soon.

(Not sure what to do? Look right. Archives. Links. So much time to waste, and so many ways to waste it.)