Daily Archives: February 9, 2012

Wild Mississippi

A new multi-part special, Wild Mississippi will be first aired on February 12 at 6 Central on National Geographic Wild. I can’t watch this when it is on because I don’t get the channel on my TV, but I copped a review copy and have enjoyed it quite a bit.

Here’s the description of the first episode:

Nat Geo WILD travels to the starting point of the mighty Mississippi River — Lake Itasca in Minnesota, where the 2,350-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico begins. Harsh cannot begin to describe the winter in this region, where temperatures reach 33° below zero. Survival strategies are as numerous as the creatures that live here, such as beavers, bobcats and gray wolves. We’ll capture migrating bald eagles as they prepare for the bitter cold and watch a pack of wolves hunt for deer and porcupine, beavers feverishly work to make dens, and the vole, a creature similar to a mouse, create tunnels beneath the snow to scavenge for food. It is truly a test of survival of the fittest in this freezing cold wilderness.

As you know I’ve written quite a bit about the upper Mississippi headwaters, the lakes, the birds, other things of nature (Here are 40+ posts on the topic, go read them all now!). Our cabin is on a lake that flows via various rivers and other lakes into the Mississippi just a few miles from its source at Itasca; The UMN research station is there and I used to go to an annual conference there (Julia and I have fond memories of our first trip); Recently Amanda has been doing an annual New Graduate Student intake and demonstration thing for the Biology department (and I get to spend that weekend at the research station); I’ve actually done archaeology right on the lakeside, though it wasn’t very interesting; And so on and so forth.

The opening episode depicts, among other things, the very severe winters we get here in Minnesota, and I do not need to be redundant with that presentation, but I can point out a few exceptions to the rule. For instance, there was a nearly snow free year about 12 years ago or so, when I first moved to the area, and various conservation experts were concerned that all those animals that turn white during the winter were, well, not camouflaged. The white bunny rabbits were getting scarfed up by birds of prey and cats, and the white ermines were kind of obvious to their prey, and the white snowy owls were blindingly obvious. This year there’s snow but not much, and it’s not too cold. And the bobcat is moving north and inching out the lynx and some folks up north are starting to hunt the wolves again. The beavers are doing fine. Damn beavers.

(Then there was the winter of year of Goldilock,a Very Cold Winter Night, And a Strange Sense of Empty-ness and the spring of The Mystery of The Returned Outboard Motor.)

Do have a look at this post for a bit of history of Itasca: What I had for brunch: A Trip to Bitch Lake. That is not a profanity. It is a French word. Honest.

The second hour is described as such:

It’s been no ordinary winter. The Mississippi River reached extreme low temperatures, causing an unprecedented deep freeze. Now, spring is in bloom, with all the snow and ice from across the watershed melting, triggering a massive flood of biblical proportions. We’ll see how the inhabitants adjust and fight to survive. In the north, the floodwaters bring a new quest for life. Carnivores use high waters to find meals, while a pair of bald eagles patrol the skies snagging small prey flushed out of the riverside. Coyotes also reap the rewards of the flood by preying on rodents and other small evacuees. Spring not only brings a new hunt for food, but babies also begin to make their debut, including wood ducklings that endure a 30-foot jump to find sanctuary in the high tide. Life is beginning to come back along the river as the weather heats up and brings a fresh start.

This is the time of year I wish no one would go to the North Country (except me) because it is when the migratory birds are establishing their nests, and there is a lot of movement among carnivores. Mink and otters have babies so their easier to spot and more likely to come around. If everyone were to stay away the environment would at least seem more pristine when late June and early July came around.

Flooding on the Mississippi shares a characteristic with that on the Minnesota river (see this post) No matter how big the river gets and no matter how much water runs down it, from a certain point around the Twin Cities and on south, the river is always small compared to the Warren River, which formerly ran down the same channel, and was the largest river that ever existed anywhere, ever. (It drained Glacial Lake Agassiz.)

The third hour, which I’ve not finished watching, focuses on the Delta:

Our romance with the Mississippi River heats up as we head south. The river joins with an even more flooded Ohio River to form a union of destruction that challenges man and wildlife. The water rises at a rate of two inches every hour. Those creatures that can flee, do as fast as they can. Trying to make a last-minute dash to safety, some wild hogs can’t make it out. Wide waters force turtles to look beyond their normal sandy nesting grounds for places to lay their eggs, which become vulnerable to predators. Pelicans flock to the swarming fish and work together to round up dinner. And, by night, bats swoop in to collect moths, using their tails like a catcher’s mitt to scoop up their prey. Not only animals, but people are also forced from their homes as the Mississippi River expands to more than 25 miles wide. The beautiful and dangerous Mississippi River is both a life giver and a life taker.

The bits I’ve seen are quite good and you’ll enjoy it, I’ve never been to New Orleans, the nearby Bayou or the Delta, but one of these days I’m going to build myself a raft and head down there for the winter.

(If you are looking for the videos, I’ve removed them because they were not behaving nicely!)

I just got this email from Michele Bachmann:

Dear Greg,

I haven’t heard back from you regarding my email below. I need to know that you stand with me in my run for re-election to Congress.

If you still believe we need a strong constitutionalist in Congress then I need to hear from you today. Greg, I hope I can still count on your support. Please click here and send your very best gift of $25, $50, $100 or whatever you can afford today.

President Obama and Nancy Pelosi will certainly do everything they can to defeat me and I must rely on supporters like you to ensure we have a strong constitutional conservative to lead the charge in Congress and ensure victory this fall. I need your financial support now more than ever.


Sent from my iPhone

Holy crap. She can code HTML from her iPhone.

Traditional Inuit Knowledge meets Science

When I was a kid, I saw a photograph in an old Life magazine of a man standing on the ice somewhere in the Arctic, and a killer whale breaking trough the ice, much of the whale’s body out of the water, a very short distance from the man. The whale was so close to the man that it was hard to say if the wincing expression on his face was due to being splashed with cold seawater or the thought that he was about to be ruthlessly mauled and eaten by the most vicious and dangerous creature on Earth.

Those were the days…

Go read my latest post at Surprising Science. You might be surprised!

Medina Valley Suit Settled

Americans United for Separation of Church and State just announced the settlement of a suit over school sponsored religious activities inthe Medina Valley Independent School District, Castroville, Texas.

District officials, administrators, teachers, staff and other employees are no longer allowed to initiate or solicit prayers or join in with students during such activities, or to encourage others to engage in such religious activities.

“This settlement brings an end to several practices we believed were unconstitutional and that violated students’ rights,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “I’m glad we were able to resolve this matter out of court.”

Also under the settlement:

* School district personnel will not display crosses, religious images, religious quotations, Bibles or religious texts, or other religious icons or artifacts on the walls, hallways, and other areas at the school.

* The district will not invite speakers, including government officials or community leaders, whom it has reason to believe will proselytize or promote religion during their remarks.

* The Medina Valley High School student handbook will contain a section on students’ rights to religious freedom, including the importance of respect for and tolerance of students from all backgrounds and the specific procedures for registering a complaint with district personnel about violations.

* The district will provide annual training to all district personnel who interact with students or parents or who supervise those who interact with students or parents. The training will cover a variety of topics related to students’ rights and church-state separation.

AU Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper, who served as lead plaintiffs’ counsel, praised the Schultz family for coming forward and challenging the school district’s promotion of religion.

“The Schultz family displayed great courage in standing up for religious liberty and church-state separation in the face of intense community opposition,” Lipper said. “The significant changes in the Medina Valley School District could not and would not have happened without their courageous efforts.”

From the AU

Oklahoma Senator Tries Out Reductio Curse

Constance Johnson is a member of the Oklahoma Senate, where there is currently debate over a personhood bill, and she is also a Wizard. You can imagine what the personhood bill is all about. The Senate bill 1433 would legally define a person as a single egg cell fertilized by a sperm, and of course, the two cells that divides into would also be a person. And the four cells that divides into as well, and so on and so forth. You can see the flaw, of course; What happens when the dividing cells become twins? Does that make the twins one person? Can they split their tax liability evenly down the middle? Can they marry separate individuals later in life or not? Have they even thought of these things?


Anyway, Constance Johnson understands this bill better than the people who introduced it, and applying the fierce logic of reductio ad absurdum (which is a spell learned in Wizard school) to add the amendment to the bill depicted in the photograph provided here.

It inserts the phrase “provided, however, any action in which a man ejaculates or otherwise deposits semen anywhere but in a woman’s vagina shall be interpreted and construed as an action against an unborn child.”

Obviously this is a first draft of the amendment because it is impossible for a man to deposit one sperm at a time. The amendment must be rewritten to read: “provided, however, any action in which a man ejaculates or otherwise deposits semen anywhere but in a woman’s vagina shall be interpreted and construed as an action against a whole bunch of unborn children.”

This is not the first time we’ve seen the Reductio Curse used against a Republican bill (something similar happened recently in Indiana with a Creationist bill). And I hope it is not the last.

Senator Johnson writes up her experience here.

How to improve learning

There is a learning technique pioneered in language studies by Pimsleur which makes sense: You learn a word (or some other thing) and over time forget it, and the “forgetting curve” is steep. But, if you re-encounter that same information while the curve is descending you learn it again and the descent into nothingness is shallower. Encounter it again and the line flattens out. This is why if you take a Pimsleur language course, they tell you to NOT study ahead; You are to use each module daily, not skipping a day and not doing two modules in one day. Very nice idea but not mathematically rigorous.

But now we have this:

A dilemma faced by teachers, and increasingly by designers of educational software, is the trade-off between teaching new material and reviewing what has already been taught. Complicating matters, review is useful only if it is neither too soon nor too late. Moreover, different students need to review at different rates. We present a mathematical model that captures these issues in idealized form. The student’s needs are modeled as constraints on the schedule according to which educational material and review are spaced over time. Our results include algorithms to construct schedules that adhere to various spacing constraints, and bounds on the rate at which new material can be introduced under these schedules.

The paper is here

Ten States Will Get No Child Left Behind Waivers

My State is better than your state! (Or Province or District.)

The No Child Left Behind Law, for better or worse, is a Federal program to make states to a better job in education. It is a fairly specific plan. But many states came up with their own plans which are different, yet in some cases, still considered effective. A state can apply for a waiver of the NCLB regulations if they have come up with an alternative that is as good or better.

The Federal government is reported to be prepared to grant waivers to ten states and they are, alphabetically: Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Tennessee. New Mexico also applied for a waiver but will not receive one, but may manage to do so with a few changes that are currently in negotiation. A majority of other states, DC, and Puerto Rico plan to seek waivers as well.

Republicans seem ready to fight this granting of waivers to states, which is interesting (but unsurprising) because Republicans are all about States Rights. I assume that the Republican resistance to this has to do with their dislike of anything Obama does, and I attribute this to a combination of Partisan politics and racism.

It will be interesting to see how the Republican governors of Florida, Georgia, Indiana, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Tennessee, react to their compatriot’s lack of support for their state’s waivers.

For the NEA’s take on this, click here.

Why did Phobos-Grunt fail?

The Russian probe destine for the Mars system never made it out of Earth Orbit and recently crashed back into Planet Earth. Why did the rocket ship fail? There has apparently been a lot of obfuscation of what caused this disaster, but now there is some better information. It may have been caused by a computer programming error.

From Irene Klotz at Discovery News:

In a report to be presented to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin on Tuesday, investigators concluded that the primary cause of the failure was “a programming error which led to a simultaneous reboot of two working channels of an onboard computer,” the Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti reported.

Though it may have been more complicated than that, and partly due to inadequate electronic parts in the computer, according The Planetary Society.