Million Dollar Monarch, a glorious film

December 21, 2007

Robert J. Sadler photo of the Million Dollar Monarch of Highland Park, Texas, lighted for Christmas
Robert J. Sadler photo of the Million Dollar Monarch of Highland Park, Texas, lighted for Christmas

Spectacular blend of history, botany and story.

One of a series of short films produced by KERA Television in Dallas over the past few years, this one by veteran filmmaker Rob Tranchin. A lot more details here — and frankly, the video quality is vastly superior at KERA’s site — go view the film there.

I hope it’s available on DVD for classroom use, especially around Dallas, soon.

Hundreds of historic trees grace America’s cities and countryside. We could use a dozen more films this good to tell their stories.

Economics books: Casting light on the dismal science

December 21, 2007

An economics columnist for the New York Times, David Leonhardt, opened the discussions on the best economics books of the year in his column.

His nominee? A book about medical care: Overtreated: Why too much medicine is making us sicker and poorer, by Shannon Brownlee.

Here’s the hook to the story, retold from Brownlee by Leonhardt, and the reason I think economics is so interesting when done well:

In 1967, Jack Wennberg, a young medical researcher at Johns Hopkins, moved his family to a farmhouse in northern Vermont.

Dr. Wennberg had been chosen to run a new center based at the University of Vermont that would examine medical care in the state. With a colleague, he traveled around Vermont, visiting its 16 hospitals and collecting data on how often they did various procedures.

The results turned out to be quite odd. Vermont has one of the most homogenous populations in the country — overwhelmingly white (especially in 1967), with relatively similar levels of poverty and education statewide. Yet medical practice across the state varied enormously, for all kinds of care. In Middlebury, for instance, only 7 percent of children had their tonsils removed. In Morrisville, 70 percent did.

Dr. Wennberg and some colleagues then did a survey, interviewing 4,000 people around the state, to see whether different patterns of illness could explain the variations in medical care. They couldn’t. The children of Morrisville weren’t suffering from an epidemic of tonsillitis. Instead, they happened to live in a place where a small group of doctors — just five of them — had decided to be aggressive about removing tonsils.

But here was the stunner: Vermonters who lived in towns with more aggressive care weren’t healthier. They were just getting more health care.

A good economics book has a story at its heart, making the economics easier to illustrate and much more memorable for students of economics — this story should echo every time a person enters a physician’s office or stops by a hospital for any reason.

Health care is often a clash between good science and economic policies expounded by hard-core fanatics of one hypothesis or another who don’t understand the science; of course, neither do the scientists speak the economics language. And so our health care crises continue, deepen, drain our pockets, defy efforts to solve them and threaten to ruin the nation.

Put this book on the list of every policy maker you buy for, eh?

(No, I haven’t read the book.)

Read the rest of this entry »

J. Russell Coffey, third to last WW I vet, 1898-2007

December 21, 2007

Who are the last two?

From the Toledo, Ohio, Blade:

J. RUSSELL COFFEY, 1898-2007

BGSU professor, 109, was among last remaining veterans of WW I

NORTH BALTIMORE, Ohio – J. Russell Coffey, 109, a former physical education professor at Bowling Green State University and one of only three remaining U.S. veterans of World War I, died of heart failure yesterday in the Briar Hill Health Campus nursing home.Born in Crawford County, Ohio, Mr. Coffey was a student at Ohio State University when the United States joined the war in 1917.

He was 20 years old when he enlisted in the Army the following year and served about a month before the end of the war. While he tried to enlist earlier, the military was hesitant to admit him because his two older brothers, Harley and Hobart Coffey, were fighting in Europe.”I remember going down and registering,” J. Russell Coffey told The Blade last year. “The recruitment man said, ‘I don’t think we need you.’ Two weeks later, it was just the opposite.”

Mr. Coffey was honorably discharged on Dec. 12, 1918, a month after the signing of the armistice.”He had a lot of friends and relatives who did serve [in Europe] and had a pretty rough time,” his great nephew, Jeff Coffey, said.

Years later, the elder Mr. Coffey told friends that he was somewhat embarrassed to be honored as a surviving veteran because he never saw combat.”He really felt that it wasn’t appropriate,” longtime friend James Miller said. “He had been willing to [fight]. But by the time he got there, it was over with.”

Mr. Coffey played baseball and was a track sprinter while in college, and went on to receive both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from OSU, and later a doctorate in education from New York University.Both athletics and teaching continued to play leading roles in Mr. Coffey’s life.

He officiated high school sports for many years, while he taught junior high and high school students in Phelps, Ky., at the former Glenwood Junior High School in Findlay, and at the former Findlay College. He also was an aquatics director for the Boy Scouts in Toledo.Mr. Coffey was at BGSU from 1948 until 1969. He primarily taught physical education, although he also taught archery, psychology, swimming, and driver’s education.

He was director of the university’s graduate studies in health and physical education from 1952 to 1968.In later years, Mr. Coffey credited physical activity and a healthy diet for his longevity.

He continued to drive a car until he was 103, about the same time he moved from his home in Bowling Green to the nursing home in nearby North Baltimore.”Most of his reminiscing was about teaching, and a lot about sports,” recalled Sarah Foster, the nursing home’s director.

Mr. Coffey was an active member of the Bowling Green Rotary Club for more than 50 years, and was named “oldest living Rotarian in the world” by the club in 2004.He was a member of the North Baltimore American Legion Post 549.

In 1921, he married the former Bernice Roseborough. She died in 1983.In his later years, Mr. Coffey sat for many newspaper, television, and radio interviews about the war, including one with a former student, Leon Bibb, a 1966 BGSU graduate and former university trustee who is now a newscaster for WEWS-TV in Cleveland.

“He was a very gentle man who told me that he did his duty as he saw fit,” Mr. Bibb said. There are no immediate survivors.Services will be at 11 a.m. tomorrow in the Smith-Crates Funeral Home, North Baltimore, with visitation an hour before the services.

The family suggests tributes to the Rotary Clubs of either North Baltimore or Bowling Green.

Tip of the old scrub brush to Jim “Sojourner” from the old AOL boards.

Also see:  Historians at Work:  The last known Brit who fought in the trenches of World War I

Quote of the moment: Psalms 55.21

December 21, 2007

The words of his mouth were smoother than butter, but war was in his heart: his words were softer than oil, yet were they drawn swords.

◊ Psalm 55.21 (King James Version)

His words were smoother
than butter,
and softer
than olive oil.
But hatred filled his heart,
and he was ready to attack
with a sword.

◊ Psalm 55.21 (Contemporary English Version)


Texas Ed chairman responds: Don’t limit science classes to evolution

December 21, 2007

I hope he doesn’t mean it.

Maybe he had a staffer draft it for him, and he is really not familiar with the issue (though he’s been on the Texas State Board of Education for several years, through at least two rounds of biology textbook selections) — but it’s difficult for me not to see a declaration of war on evolution in science classes in the letter to the editor Texas State Board of Education Chair Don McLeroy sent to the Dallas Morning News:

Science education has to have an open mind

Re: “Teaching of evolution to go under microscope – With science director out, sides set to fight over state’s curriculum,” Thursday news story.

Don McLeroy, chair of Texas SBOE; photo from EdWeek

What do you teach in science class? You teach science. What do you teach in Sunday school class? You teach your faith.

Thus, in your story it is important to remember that some of my quoted comments were made in a 2005 Sunday school class. The story does accurately represent that I am a Christian and that my faith in God is something that I take very seriously. My Christian convictions are shared by many people.

Given these religious convictions, I would like to clarify any impression one may make from the article about my motivation for questioning evolution. My focus is on the empirical evidence and the scientific interpretations of that evidence. In science class, there is no place for dogma and “sacred cows;” no subject should be “untouchable” as to its scientific merits or shortcomings. My motivation is good science and a well-trained, scientifically literate student.

What can stop science is an irrefutable preconception. Anytime you attempt to limit possible explanations in science, it is then that you get your science stopper. In science class, it is important to remember that the consensus of a conviction does not determine whether it is true or false. In science class, you teach science.

Don McLeroy, chair, State Board of Education, College Station
(Letter printed in the Dallas Morning News, December 21, 2007, page 24A; photo, Associated Press file photo, 2004)

My concerns, below.

These are the encouraging parts of Chairman McLeroy’s letter: “What do you teach in science class? You teach science.” And this closing sentence: “In science class, you teach science.”

Most of the three paragraphs in between those sentences is laced with the code language of creationism and intelligent design partisans who aim to strike evolution from schools by watering down the curriculum and preventing students from learning the power and majesty of the science theory derived from observing creation, by limiting time to teach evolution as state standards require so that it cannot be taught adequately, and by raising false claims against evolution such as alleged weaknesses in the theory.

No, we don’t teach dogma in science classes. Dogma, of course, is a reference to religious material. “Dogma” is what the Discovery Institute calls evolution theory.

Evolution is one of the great ideas of western civilization. It unites disparate parts of science related to biology, such as botany, zoology, mycology, nuclear physics, chemistry, geology, paleontology and archeology, into a larger framework that helps scientists understand nature. This knowledge in this framework can then be applied to serious matters such as increasing crop yields and the “green revolution” of Norman Borlaug, in order to feed humanity (a task we still have yet to achieve), or to figuring out the causes and treatments, and perhaps cures for diabetes.

In Texas, we use evolution to fight the cotton boll weevil and imported fire ants, to make the Rio Grande Valley productive with citrus fruit, and to treat and cure cancer and other diseases. We use corroborating sciences, such as geology, to find and extract coal, petroleum and natural gas.

Am I being dogmatic when I say Texas kids need to know that? None of that science rests solely on a proclamation by any religious sect. All of that science is based on observations of nature and experiments in laboratories. Evolution theory is based on extensive observations in nature and millions of experimental procedures, not one of which has succeeded in finding any of the alleged weaknesses in the theory.

If Chairman McLeroy would stipulate that he is not referring to evolution when he says public school science classes are “no place for dogma,” this letter is good news.

But I’ve listened to the chairman too many times, in too many forums, to think he has changed his position.

So his letter should be taken, I believe, as a declaration of war against science in Texas school science classrooms.

I’m willing to be persuaded otherwise, Chairman McLeroy, but you’ll need to catch up on the science and modify those views expressed in the paper today to start persuading.

An olive branch: Dr. McLeroy, I will be pleased to sit down with you and other commissioners to explain how and why evolution is important to know especially for people who do not “believe” in it. I would be happy to explain why I and other educators, like former Education Sec. Bill Bennett, believe we have a duty to teach evolution and teach it well, and why that is consistent with a faith-respecting view of education. Even better, I would be pleased to arrange visits for you with some of Texas’s leading “evolutionists” so you can become familiar with their work, and why evolution is important to the economy and future of Texas.

Update:  Welcome readers from Thoughts in a Haystack, and from Pharyngula.  Please feel free to leave a comment, and nose around to see what else is here on evolution and Texas education.

Nuclear tests: Downwinders story still relevant

December 21, 2007

Z Magazine is a little slow on the draw with this article, “Downwinders catch the drift,” so we note it here for the archives. The Energy Department scotched the worried-about test. So this is history.

But it’s scary history, and it needs to be remembered. The scariest part is that it comes around again, after even the most ardent pro-military, keep-the-finger-on -the-missiles-launch-button types acknowledged the injuries and deaths of thousands of U.S. citizens, innocent civilians mostly.

Every once in a while I see a small note about the problems with the radiation injury compensation program, intended to fill in where the courts and the Federal Tort Claims Act failed so spectacularly. This story is just a reminder of the deadly nature of big government unchecked.

Did we need to be reminded?

(And Ron Preston: Where are you?)

Quote of the moment: “A rising tide of mediocrity”

December 21, 2007

“Our nation is at risk. The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity. If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament. History is not kind to idlers.”

Those warnings, grim and intentionally provocative, were issued last week by the 18-member National Commission on Excellence in Education in a 36-page report called A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Headed by University of Utah President David P. Gardner, the NCEE was set up 20 months ago by Secretary of Education Terrel Bell to examine U.S. educational quality.

– Ellie McGrath, “To Stem ‘A Tide of Mediocrity,'” Time, May 9, 1983.

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