Scientific Writing at its best

From Flannery, T., Archer, M., Rich, T.H. and Jones, R. 1995. A new family of monotremes from the Cretaceous of Australia. Nature 377:418-420.

Kollikodon ritchei was a platypus-sized montreme that fed on material that needed crushing but not shearing. Similar adaptations are evident in marine predators, such as sea otters, crabs and some fish that feed on hard-shelled animals.” p.420.

Wonderful train of thought here, and an excellent example of writing for a purpose (at least that’s what I get out of it; I don’t know what their intention was exactly). First, they extrapolate the size of the animal. Since it is known only from a single right dentary fragment, this is liable to be flexed up and down as need be in future papers–although nothing can be done about that, so I’m sure they made their best guess. The closest mammal in size they suggest as a platypus, first I am sure because platypi (platypusses?) are monotremes. This brings up a mental image of (obviously) a platypus. Where do platypusses (platypi?) live? In the water. So now you’ve been hit with a mental image of an aquatic monotreme right before they suggest the teeth could be used to eat hard-shelled things because they resemble the crushing mouth parts of other aquatic animals.

So now, you have an aquatic monotreme that eats mollusks. Isn’t this interesting from a single dentary fragment?


“The closest known Earth analog to the possible Martian meteorite bacteria
is a critter known as bacterial strain MV-1. Magnetite produced by MV-1
resembles magnetite in *some* of those “fossil” blobs found in the Allan
Hills Martian meteorite (both in size and shape).”

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Earth could seed Titan with life

BTW: If there are any that doubt that some microbes cannot survive in a
space environment for long periods of time:

“The Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF), a NASA research satellite launched in the 1980s, showed that bacterial spores remain viable in space for at *least* 6 years (after 6 years, the satellite was retrieved). The spores were generally un[a]ffected by vacuum, heat, cold, X-rays, gamma rays, solar wind, and cosmic rays. The only thing that negatively affected the spores was ultraviolet radiation. But any spores trapped deep within fissures in an Earth rock would be protected from UV.”

–Phil Bigelow, on the Dinosaur Mailing List


Data my mind has recently ingested–continually updated

* indicates a reread.

*Fanfare, Some Scottish guy
*Schindler’s List, Thomas Keneally
Sync, Steven Strogatz
*An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears
Firefly Season 01 (18 March 2006)
House Season 01 (15 March 2006)
Analysis of Vertebrate Structure, Milton Hildebrand
Haunted, Chuck Palahniuk
Messi@h, Andrei Codrescu
*Second Foundation, Isaac Asimov
The Wall, Jean-Paul Sartre
The Prince, Machiavelli
*Foundation and Empire, Isaac Asimov
Foundation, Isaac Asimov
*The Cat who walks through Walls, Robert Heinlein
*Belgarath the Sorcerer, David and Leigh Eddings
The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell
Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut
Everything you know is Wrong, Ed. by Russ Kick (currently buried, but halfway done)
Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, May 1991
Coffee, Tea, or Me?, Trudy Baker and Rachel Jones
Prisoners of the Stars, Isaac Asimov
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling
Blink, Malcolm Gladwell
*The Scarlet Pimpernel, Baroness Orczy
*The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco
Jailbird, Kurt Vonnegut
*Media Technology and Society: A History: from the Telegraph to the Internet, Brian Wilson
The Wandering Unicorn, Manuel Mujica Lainez
*Dinosaur Lives, John Horner
*Digging Dinosaurs, John Horner
*Eight Little Piggies, Stephen Jay Gould

Class rank and Admissions

Two articles here: the first is from NYT, the second from USA Today. They are totally unrelated. My comments appear before the article in question.

I think this is ludicrous–especially those high schools who are claiming that a low class-rank will hurt kids chances of getting in. People are not equal–students, especially, are not equal. Maybe I’m biased, since I got through high school and college just fine, but we need to accept this.

A point made further down in the article is a good one–that it lets the college see how the GPA stacks up in the school as a whole, because a 4.00 might be damn good at one school while sucking tailpipe at another. The belief that having no rank because of having a small class is idiotic–don’t you realize that you can never even begin to describe where a student falls in his/her class without knowing the size (and hopefully the range of GPAs as well) of the class? Yes, a class of 45 has a “top 10%” of 4 students–but if any admissions officer is focusing only on the percentile rank of a student, they should be fired. My class was 116 or so (anybody remember?), the size of which could have been the top 20% at a larger school.

Finally, if you want to make choices on based upon things other than grades, then do it! Just because the rank exists doesn’t mean you need to use it in the analysis!


Schools Avoid Class Ranking, Vexing Colleges
Josh Anderson for the New York Times

Published: March 5, 2006

Application files are piled high this month in colleges across the country. Admissions officers are poring over essays and recommendation letters, scouring transcripts and standardized test scores.

But something is missing from many applications: a class ranking, once a major component in admissions decisions.

In the cat-and-mouse maneuvering over admission to prestigious colleges and universities, thousands of high schools have simply stopped providing that information, concluding it could harm the chances of their very good, but not best, students.

Canny college officials, in turn, have found a tactical way to respond. Using broad data that high schools often provide, like a distribution of grade averages for an entire senior class, they essentially recreate an applicant’s class rank.

The process has left them exasperated.

“If we’re looking at your son or daughter and you want us to know that they are among the best in their school, without a rank we don’t necessarily know that,” said Jim Bock, dean of admissions and financial aid at Swarthmore College.

William M. Shain, dean of undergraduate admissions at Vanderbilt University, said, “There’s a movement these days to not let anybody know that a kid has done better than other kids.”

Admissions directors say the strategy can backfire. When high schools do not provide enough general information to recreate the class rank calculation, many admissions directors say they have little choice but to do something virtually no one wants them to do: give more weight to scores on the SAT and other standardized exams.

But high schools persist. The Miami-Dade County School Board decided last month to discontinue class rankings. Jeanne Friedman, the principal of Miami Beach High School and chairwoman of a committee of principals that lobbied to end ranking, said principals thought it would cut down on competition in schools and force college admissions officials to look more closely at each applicant.

“When you don’t rank, then they have to look at the total child,” Dr. Friedman said.

The shift away from class rank began with private schools making calculations that admissions officers might not look favorably on a student with an A-minus average and strong SAT scores who ranked 25th or 35th in a talented class of 150 students.

But the movement has accelerated over the past five years or so, many deans of admissions say. Now nearly 40 percent of all high schools have either stopped ranking their students or have ceased giving that information to colleges, according to a survey released last year by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, which represents high school guidance counselors and college admissions officers.

At Kenyon College in Ohio, 60 percent of the students who enrolled last fall as freshmen did not apply with a class ranking. At Vanderbilt, 57 percent of those who applied for admission this year did not have a class rank. Last year, 51 percent of the applicants at Swarthmore and at the University of Massachusetts had no class rank, as did 42 percent of applicants to the University of Oregon.

Many college deans deplore the trend, saying it forces them to either recreate class rank, make less informed decisions or overemphasize results on standardized tests.

That is because when a high school provides a student’s grade point average without giving class rank or other information that puts the grade in context, it significantly diminishes the meaning of the grade, Mr. Shain and a dozen other admissions directors said.

“If a kid has a B-plus record, what does that mean?” said Jim Miller, the dean of admissions at Brown University. “If a school doesn’t give any A’s, it could be a very good record. You’ve got to position the kids in some relative environment.”

Mr. Shain said the lack of information could result in judging the student more on standardized test results, something he said was counterproductive.

“The less information a school gives you, the more whimsical our decisions will be,” he said. “And I don’t know why a school would do that.”

While admissions officials emphasize the need for class rankings to view a student in context, the impulse to do away with rankings came from parents and high school administrators who thought colleges were failing to view students in their full context when they used shortcuts like class rank.

Sometimes students are separated in class rankings by a few hundredths of a point in a four-point grading system, in which an A is worth four points and a B three points. In the most competitive private and public high schools, the gap between a student ranked second and one ranked 14th can be minuscule.

Private schools in particular make this argument.

“Especially in schools that are smaller, ranking is something that could hurt applicants,” said Myronee A. Simpson, associate director of college guidance at the Ranney School, a private school in Tinton Falls, N.J. “Our top 10 percent of the class here, since we have 46 seniors, would be four or five students.”

Some high schools have other motivations for eliminating class ranking: to restrain cutthroat competition among students and to encourage them to take challenging courses without worrying about their grades.

“The day that we handed out numerical rank was one of the worst days in my professional life,” said Margaret Loonam, a co-principal and director of guidance at Ridgewood High School, a public school in northern New Jersey that stopped telling students and colleges about class rank a decade ago. “They were sobbing. Only one person is happy when you hand out rank: the person who is No. 1.”

“In a school like this, where the top 30 percent of the class is strong academically, it was unfair to all of those students who are in that elite group,” Mrs. Loonam said.

At some schools, including Ridgewood, officials continue to maintain class rankings in secret, disclosing them only when absolutely necessary, like when a student is applying to military academies, which require class rank, or when they are competing for merit scholarships that require the information.

When high schools do not provide rankings, the broad information they sometimes include about grades can come in many forms: a bar graph showing how many students in a class had grade averages of A-minus to A or B-plus to B; a table listing grade averages by deciles (which averages fell in the top 10 percent of a class, for example); and even a graphic device called a scattergram, which shows the distribution of grades by plotting a dot for each grade average in a graduating class.

That allows colleges to estimate where a student ranks.

Still, some institutions, especially larger universities, may not have the time for that.

“If we’re looking at a particular student’s file and we can’t find a proxy for class rank, then we move on and we make a decision without it,” said Martha F. Pitts, assistant vice president for enrollment management at the University of Oregon. “The question is, how good is that decision? Have we made a decision that is not as well informed as it could have been?”

For some, the decline of class rankings represents an opportunity. “I think it kind of frees us in some ways; it enables us to take the kids who are a joy to teach,” said Jennifer Delahunty Britz, dean of admissions and financial aid at Kenyon College. “It allows you to tailor your admission process to what your institution strives for.”

But that is a distinctly minority view. Mr. Shain of Vanderbilt said an internal review showed that the admission rate at Vanderbilt was highest for students with a class rank and lowest for those whose schools provided neither a rank nor general data about grades.

“You’re saying your grades don’t matter and that you won’t tell us what they mean,” Mr. Shain said. “I think it’s an abdication of educational responsibility.”

Schools Avoid Class Ranking, Vexing Colleges – New York Times

or some reason our supposed “advanced” society wants to make everyone equal when that isn’t possible–you just may not be as smart as the student sitting next to you. Wait. Back up. What should be said is, you just are not as good as school as they are. There may be a wide variety of reasons for this. I’ll even give the benefit of the doubt to those who had poor grades that they are good (or could be good) at something else.

For once, blame the student
By Patrick Welsh
Failure in the classroom is often tied to lack offunding, poor teachersor other ills. Here’s athought: Maybe it’s thefailed work ethic of todays kids. That’s what I’m seeing in my school. Until reformers see thisreality, little will change.

Last month, as I averaged the second-quarter grades for my senior English classes at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., the same familiar pattern leapt out at me.

Kids who had emigrated from foreign countries — such as Shewit Giovanni from Ethiopia, Farah Ali from Guyana and Edgar Awumey from Ghana — often aced every test, while many of their U.S.-born classmates from upper-class homes with highly educated parents had a string of C’s and D’s.

As one would expect, the middle-class American kids usually had higher SAT verbal scores than did their immigrant classmates, many of whom had only been speaking English for a few years.

What many of the American kids I taught did not have was the motivation, self-discipline or work ethic of the foreign-born kids.

Politicians and education bureaucrats can talk all they want about reform, but until the work ethic of U.S. students changes, until they are willing to put in the time and effort to master their subjects, little will change.

A study released in December by University of Pennsylvania researchers Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman suggests that the reason so many U.S. students are “falling short of their intellectual potential” is not “inadequate teachers, boring textbooks and large class sizes” and the rest of the usual litany cited by the so-called reformers — but “their failure to exercise self-discipline.”

The sad fact is that in the USA, hard work on the part of students is no longer seen as a key factor in academic success. The groundbreaking work of Harold Stevenson and a multinational team at the University of Michigan comparing attitudes of Asian and American students sounded the alarm more than a decade ago.

Asian vs. U.S. students

When asked to identify the most important factors in their performance in math, the percentage of Japanese and Taiwanese students who answered “studying hard” was twice that of American students.

American students named native intelligence, and some said the home environment. But a clear majority of U.S. students put the responsibility on their teachers. A good teacher, they said, was the determining factor in how well they did in math.

“Kids have convinced parents that it is the teacher or the system that is the problem, not their own lack of effort,” says Dave Roscher, a chemistry teacher at T.C. Williams in this Washington suburb. “In my day, parents didn’t listen when kids complained about teachers. We are supposed to miraculously make kids learn even though they are not working.”

As my colleague Ed Cannon puts it: “Today, the teacher is supposed to be responsible for motivating the kid. If they don’t learn it is supposed to be our problem, not theirs.”

And, of course, busy parents guilt-ridden over the little time they spend with their kids are big subscribers to this theory.

Maybe every generation of kids has wanted to take it easy, but until the past few decades students were not allowed to get away with it. “Nowadays, it’s the kids who have the power. When they don’t do the work and get lower grades, they scream and yell. Parents side with the kids who pressure teachers to lower standards,” says Joel Kaplan, another chemistry teacher at T.C. Williams.

Every year, I have had parents come in to argue about the grades I have given in my AP English classes. To me, my grades are far too generous; to middle-class parents, they are often an affront to their sense of entitlement. If their kids do a modicum of work, many parents expect them to get at least a B. When I have given C’s or D’s to bright middle-class kids who have done poor or mediocre work, some parents have accused me of destroying their children’s futures.

It is not only parents, however, who are siding with students in their attempts to get out of hard work.

Blame schools, too

“Schools play into it,” says psychiatrist Lawrence Brain, who counsels affluent teenagers throughout the Washington metropolitan area. “I’ve been amazed to see how easy it is for kids in public schools to manipulate guidance counselors to get them out of classes they don’t like. They have been sent a message that they don’t have to struggle to achieve if things are not perfect.”

Neither the high-stakes state exams, such as Virginia’s Standards of Learning, nor the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act have succeeded in changing that message; both have turned into minimum-competency requirements aimed at the lowest in our school.

Colleges keep complaining that students are coming to them unprepared. Instead of raising admissions standards, however, they keep accepting mediocre students lest cuts have to be made in faculty and administration.

As a teacher, I don’t object to the heightened standards required of educators in the No Child Left Behind law. Who among us would say we couldn’t do a little better? Nonetheless, teachers have no control over student motivation and ambition, which have to come from the home — and from within each student.

Perhaps the best lesson I can pass along to my upper- and middle-class students is to merely point them in the direction of their foreign-born classmates, who can remind us all that education in America is still more a privilege than a right.

Patrick Welsh is an English teacher at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., and a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors.