Sunday, February 24, 2008

Leap Year: The Best We can Do in Time Keeping

Tomorrow is a day that comes around only once every four years. It is leap day, February 29. Leap day, occurring in leap years, is a semi-permanent fix to a problem that has plagued official time keepers from the beginning of time.

There is really nothing natural about time keeping. And throughout history scholars have had a tough time figuring out exactly what time it was.

The word “month” is derived from “moon.” It was originally used to measure lunar cycles. One lunar cycle is about 28 days, which includes four phases of about seven days each.

Unfortunately, nature did not cooperate in synchronizing the lunar cycles with the seasons. Although lunar cycles were important to many cultures for religious reasons, the solar cycle and the seasons were important to most agricultural societies. People needed to know when spring arrived.

In addition, the early, overly-powerful, Roman Catholic Church had to have a fixed date for spring, because that is how they computed their holiest day of the year – Easter. Easter always occurs on the first Sunday following the first full moon that occurs on or after the vernal equinox, or first day of spring. So for Christians, the lunar cycle and solar cycle had to be intermingled, and it all had to fit with the changing of the seasons.

It was quite a task to come up with a suitable calendar. Caesar’s calendar, known as the Julian calendar, was pretty good, but it was out of synch with the sun by a factor of about seven days every 1000 years.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII decreed that ten days would be stripped from the current year, in order to bring the calendar in phase with the seasons. From then on, leap years, in which an extra day is added to February, would occur in all years divisible by 4 except in those century years that were not also divisible by 400. So the year 2000 was a leap year, but 1900 was not.

Pope Gregory’s calendar, called the Gregorian calendar, was much more accurate than Caesar’s, but it is still not perfect. It is off by a day or so every few thousand years. But we can live with that for now. It is the calendar we use today, because it is the best at keeping things straight, although it doesn’t even bother trying to fit the week in neatly.

There have been failed attempts at revising the calendar again. It would be nice, for example, to have a calendar in which every month began on a Sunday and ended on a Saturday, with the same number of days in each. All holidays would always fall on the same day of the week and date of the year. But creating such a calendar would mean several “leap days” would be left over at the end of every year. They would not be given dates or names, but would simply be extra days, probably designated as holidays.

As for now, leap year is as good as we can get at reconciling the differences between the sun cycles and moon cycles. Leap years are also good at keeping track of presidential election years and the Summer Olympics, both of which are events that happen only during a leap year.

And as far as calendar reform is concerned, don’t look for any such reform to happen soon. It took over 500 years for Pope Gregory’s reforms to be adopted by the whole world.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Food Doesn't Have to be Expensive to be Good

I’m sitting here browsing the Internet for the latest news, eating my typical weekend breakfast delicacy of biscuits and gravy. It’s my weakness. Every once in awhile, usually on weekends, I get a craving for sausage gravy and biscuits, although any creamy white gravy will do. I’m particularly fond of Cracker Barrel’s sawmill gravy or Bob Evan’s black pepper gravy.

On rarer occasions, I also get another biscuit-based craving for breakfast. When I was a kid, Mom called it sugar molasses. She made it herself, although the ingredients and cooking directions are not very complex. Basically, you get some water, some brown sugar, and then heat them to boiling. Boil for a few minutes and serve hot over a biscuit. Yummy!

I’ve written before about snacks I used to eat, thinking they were common for everyone. Yet they turned out to be almost uniquely ours. Gravy and biscuits are very common. Most restaurants that serve breakfast have the dish. But sugar molasses, I’ll bet, probably is one of those down-home items that most people who are not from your own down-home haven’t heard about.

I believe most of those menu items were developed more through necessity than good taste. I don’t think I’m revealing any family secrets when I say we were fairly poor when I was young. Both Mom and Dad worked at factories, and they held varying hours which left us kids at home with our aunt, Ruby, much of the time. I believe the sugar molasses and biscuit dish was probably her idea. And she used white sugar.

Anyway, when I was around five or six years old, dinnertime consisted of a meal of sausage gravy over white bread. Sometimes we would also get fried potatoes. So most of my preschool years were spent consuming a diet consisting mostly of starch and meat fat. Oh, we had canned veggies, too, but I didn’t like veggies.

The fact is, those meals were cheap to make. And halfway between paychecks, sometimes that’s all Mom could afford to feed us.

Back then, Mom also wasn’t the world’s best cook. I remember her fried chicken. The pieces were small, dripping with grease, and always burned on one side. Her hamburgers were like semi-flattened meatballs, cooked to a crisp. And spaghetti was what you might call extra al dente.

But, we never ate out, even though at one time Mom worked at a restaurant. A little later on, though, when my parents had started earning a little more money, we would have the occasional luxury of sharing a big bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The first time I had it was when I realized for certain what I had long suspected: Mom’s fried chicken had much more love in it than it did flavor.

I must add this disclaimer before I go further. Mom’s cooking improved greatly over the years. She is a good cook today, even contributing to a published cookbook and serving up entrees at church functions and family gatherings. There are no more burned meatball hamburgers or undercooked spaghetti.

I eat out a lot today. I can cook pretty well. There is not much to it. If you have a recipe, just follow it. If you don’t have a recipe, or if you’re missing ingredients, just improvise. It usually works out. But although I used to enjoy making up recipes, today I just like eating out.

But I still crave some of those cheap, making-ends-meet meals I had when I was a kid. I hated them back then. I love them today. Unfortunately for me, they are still little more than meat fat and starch.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Getting Up Close and Personal with Online Maps

Once upon a time, you could go into almost any local filling station and ask for a road map of the state. They were free for the taking. The maps depicted borders between counties and other states. They showed roads, of course. And you could get an estimate of the population of towns and cities by the size of the map symbols representing them.

What you couldn’t see on those maps, which are still available but are far from free anymore, were actual photographs of buildings, houses, people, and cars. They were simply line drawings, as most maps are.

These days, maps are changing. Download a program from the Internet called Google Earth to see a 3-dimensional rendering of the earth. Then zoom in on almost any place on the globe to see not only line drawings of the standard borders and labels of various places, but real photographic images, taken from space, of rivers, roads, buildings, homes, cars, even people. Granted, it’s not in real time. Most images are weeks to a couple of years old. But, still, they are real images.

Now for something completely different: Go online to Google Maps, type in your street address, and then click on the Street View icon. If you live in Indianapolis, Greenwood, Franklin, Columbus, or anywhere along U.S. 31 that connects these cities, you can see a close-up view of your house, your car, and even yourself if you happened to be outside when Google’s picture-taking vehicle passed by one day last summer or fall.

Then, you can use the arrow keys on your keyboard to take a virtual drive through your neighborhood. Again, it’s not live, but it’s the next best thing.

Maps have certainly come a long way from how they looked just 10 years ago. On Street View, you can turn your view 360 degrees to see in all directions. You can even point it up to see the sky or down to see the road.

Not only is it cool technology, it can also be very useful. Imagine you’re looking to buy a home. You can drive through the neighborhood in virtual reality before you decide to drive through it for real. If you don’t like what you see, you can save some gas.

Or what if you’re planning a trip to a city you’ve never been to before. You can spend some time in front of your computer screen driving through every street, looking at the landmarks, finding the restaurants or hotels, and getting to know the place before you depart.

Of course, it’s also fun just to browse through places you are familiar with just to see if you can get a glimpse of your friends or neighbors out mowing their lawns or maybe even sunbathing.

Of course, there are always the stick-in-the-mud disparagers who don’t like the new technology. Some claim it is an invasion of privacy. Others say it will become a tool for pedophiles.

Pedophiles can drive through the streets live looking for houses with kids. There is little added incentive to do it on the Internet, since the images are at least several months old. The kids may not even live at the same location anymore. And if people don’t want to be photographed while sunbathing, then don’t sunbathe in view of the public. If people don’t mind others seeing them on the street live, what difference does it make if their photo is snapped while they’re in public view?

It’s a fun, useful, and legal technology. Enjoy it. Go find yourself, and quit worrying about privacy issues. You have no expectation of privacy anyway when you’re in public, so get over it.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Gadgets and Gizmos Abound at HASTI Convention

As a science teacher, one of the things I look forward to each year is the annual convention of the Hoosier Association of Science Teachers, Inc. (HASTI). It takes place at the Indiana Convention Center.

Back during my first round of teaching through the 1980s, I not only attended each year, but one year I was a presenter. During the preceding summer, I had traveled much of the state taking photos and videos of the geology of our state. Yes, there is much more to Indiana than cornfields. So I presented a video program to the group covering all the different aspects and features of Indiana’s varied geology. It was well received.

But over the past four years or so, since I got back into teaching, I’ve just been a spectator. Like most conventions, there are lots of vendors displaying their wares. Some of the science equipment so cool I wish I had it in my classroom. But with school budgets being what they are, I’ll have to be content to just look.

In addition to the main exhibits, there are always plenty of break-out sessions where science teachers, textbook publishers, or science supply houses can present hour-long programs that are specific to certain grade levels and subject areas. I especially enjoy the hands-on programs that use candy or other food items to demonstrate scientific principles.

Keynote speakers are always a part of the convention. Most are nationally known for one reason or another. Last year, for example, an author of a popular science textbook who was also one of the expert witnesses for the plaintiffs at the Dover, Pennsylvania court case pitting evolution against Intelligent Design was the keynote speaker. His topic was why it is important for science teachers not to shy away from teaching evolution at all grade levels. He was preaching to the choir with me there.

I also enjoy hobnobbing with others of my discipline from schools across the state. It is fun to see what familiar faces show up each year from schools I’ve taught at in the past.

One of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had at the convention was the year I went with a group on a field trip to the National Weather Service. Weather has always been an interest of mine. It was fascinating to see the real meteorologists and their high-tech equipment in action.

As a fan of the CSI television series, I enjoyed last year’s field trip to the Indianapolis Crime Lab. Some of the things they do are similar to the TV show, but there are far more differences than similarities.

In past years, I’ve enjoyed previews of what have become staples of learning in Indianapolis, including the planetarium at the children’s museum and the Indianapolis Zoo. We got to see it before it opened to the public.

We all rely on science every day, whether we realize it or not. Many of the things we take for granted, such as cell phones, television sets, computers, our cars, and the weather forecasts we rely on are all based on what was once pure research and scientific theory. Most people don’t care about how it works or whet it came from; they just want to know it will work when needed.

And that’s fine. The purpose of technology is to make scientific theories workable and transparent. It’s too bad, though, that science has always had to fight an uphill battle against those who enjoy and use the benefits but would rather quash the process.

I’m referring, of course, to the vocal minority who are opposed to embryonic stem cell research, cloning experiments, and the teaching of scientific theories such as evolution in school.