State Testing and Ordeal by Water – Education Thoughts

This blog will help you prepare for state tests that determine if your teacher has taught you anything, if you have learned anything, and whether or not your school is worth attending.

Question #1.  Compare and contrast the following two articles.

On State Testing, excerpt from New York Times Opinion, April 10, 2014, written by Elizabeth Phillips, Principal Public School 321, Brooklyn, NY:

We were not protesting testing; we were not protesting the Common Core standards. We were protesting the fact that we had just witnessed children being asked to answer questions that had little bearing on their reading ability and yet had huge stakes for students, teachers, principals and schools. (Among other things, test scores help determine teacher and principal evaluations, and in New York City they also have an impact on middle and high school admissions to some schools.) We were protesting the fact that it is our word against the state’s, since we cannot reveal the content of the passages or the questions that were asked.

In general terms, the tests were confusing, developmentally inappropriate and not well aligned with the Common Core standards. The questions were focused on small details in the passages, rather than on overall comprehension, and many were ambiguous. Children as young as 8 were asked several questions that required rereading four different paragraphs and then deciding which one of those paragraphs best connected to a fifth paragraph. There was a strong emphasis on questions addressing the structure rather than the meaning of the texts. There was also a striking lack of passages with an urban setting. And the tests were too long; none of us can figure out why we need to test for three days to determine how well a child reads and writes.

On Ordeal by Water, excerpt from Wikipedia:

TrialByWaterOrdeal by water was associated with the witch-hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries: an accused who sank was considered innocent, while floating indicated witchcraft. Demonologists developed inventive new theories about how it worked. Some argued that witches floated because they had renounced baptism when entering the Devil’s service. Jacob Rickius claimed that they were supernaturally light and recommended weighing them as an alternative to dunking them. King James VI of Scotland (later also James I of England) claimed in his Daemonologie that water was so pure an element that it repelled the guilty. A witch trial including this ordeal took place in Szeged, Hungary as late as 1728.

Question #2.  How do you know if a test actually measures what it is supposed to?

Extra credit.  Who is the qualified and independent party “accountable” for insuring that high stakes tests measure what they are supposed to?


It makes no sense to hold students and educators accountable to a test that misses its marks.  Kudos to Ms. Phillips for courageous leadership.



Phillips, Elizabeth.


Other posts

The Common Core Standards for High School have depth, yes, but too much breadth to effectively teach (or learn). The River is Too Wide.

Fitness, Flexibility, and Yoga

A teacher sits cross-legged in an 8′ by 10′ room with almost no furniture.  Light from an overcast sky diffuses through windows onto the wooden floor.  “Honor yourself for taking this time to show compassion towards your body.  Namaste.”  The Sanskrit word “namaste” loosely translates to “the best in me bows to the best in you.”   Students quietly respond, “Namaste” and yoga class ends.

While retaining many of its positive mental aspects, yoga has been adapted to western fitness regimes and sensibilities.  It can be particularly beneficial to the aging athlete (all of us are aging, right?) who recognizes the need to promote muscle and joint flexibility – the need to show compassion towards our hardworking bodies.  Yoga classes come in every variety and flavor, from the advanced gravity-defying, human-pretzel to the restorative draped-over-pillows, human-dish cloth.  Gentle or beginner yoga lands in between.  Classes are designed to reset the mind and body to an alert, relaxed state.

imagesOverall fitness encompasses endurance, strength, and flexibility.  Balancing our efforts to include all three becomes more important as we age.  Yoga addresses flexibility for the entire body and, to a lesser degree, strength.  Let’s say you are a runner or cyclist with tight hamstrings, so you regularly reach for your toes.  Though this may be better than doing nothing, a stretching program that includes all parts of the body would be more effective to stretch your hamstrings.   How can stretching your back affect your hamstrings?  Through your connective tissue, which connects, well… everything.

What happens when you stretch

With regard to fitness, what we generally think of as “stiffness” arises from the joint and ligaments (about 50%), connective tissue in the muscle or “myofascia” (about 40%), and tendons (about 10%).  Since overstretching tendons and ligaments can weaken the joint, efforts to increase flexibility should be directed towards stretching myofascia.  Fortunately, myofascia is more elastic than the other tissues.


So what, exactly, is myofascia? Myo (muscle) fascia (connective tissue) surrounds individual muscle fibers, bundles of fibers, and entire muscles.  Fascia contains elastin and collagen fibers oriented in a wavy pattern parallel to the direction of pull.  They are flexible, but able to resist great tension as pulling forces straighten the wavy pattern of fibers.  Fascia tissue connects muscle fibers to tendons, and tendons connect to bone.  In fact, fascia, or connective tissue, is continuous throughout the entire body, like a flexible mesh from head to toe.

Michael J Alter, author of Science of Flexibility, states that the main reason we become less flexible as we get older is a result of changes in our connective tissues.   Aging has some of the same effects on connective tissue that lack of use has.  When connective tissue is unused or under-used, it provides significant resistance and limits flexibility. The elastin begins to fray, collagen increases in density, and both lose some of their elasticity.  It is believed that stretching prevents formation of adhesions by stimulating the production or retention of lubricants between the connective tissues.  Note however, that connective tissue also has its limits.  When it is overused, the tissue becomes fatigued and may tear, which also limits flexibility.

Before you stretch

First off, you should not stretch first.  Stretching is not a “warm-up” activity.  In fact, you need to “warm-up” prior to stretching.  You do this by raising the body temperature 2 or 3 degrees F and by moving joints through comfortable ranges of motion.

things_body_temp_01Raising body temperature makes the muscles and attached myofascial tissue more elastic.  To do this, stretch after your regular workout or after a light aerobic workout.  Research has shown that stretching prior to exercise, in itself, does not prevent injury.  Raising body temperature prior to stretching or prior to exercising is what helps prevent injury.

Joint movement stimulates production of sinovial fluid – a viscous lubricant in the joint which the body produces abundantly when we are young, but less so as we age.  That stiffness you feel when you first get off the sofa – lack of sinovial fluid.  Move your appendages in slow circular motions to lubricate those creaky joints.

Yoga for stretching

Yoga class may start with “vinyasa” or flow yoga, a series of continuously changing poses with integrated breathing, which can serve as a warm-up.  If the routine feels easy and comfortable to complete, this can be a good way to raise your body temperature and lubricate your joints.  Feel free to skip or modify any poses that seem difficult; it is likely your body is not yet warm or flexible enough to achieve proper alignment to do those poses.  If the instructor discourages this kind of self-advocacy, find another class.  One of the most important tenets of yoga is to know and accept your body’s current limitations.  We are so demanding of ourselves!  Try practicing that compassion-thing.

After you warm-up, class may progress into static stretches or poses.  Research (on hamstring muscles in particular) has shown that static stretches are most effective when held for 30 seconds.  Again – these should not be the longest 30 seconds of your life.  A healthy stretch should go only slightly beyond your comfort.  As with much of life, frequency of your practice (minimum: twice a week) yields more improvement than intensity of any single session.
462-7-ways-to-prop-up-your-yoga-practiceA gentle or beginner yoga class generally avoids poses that cause injury for beginners.  Rule of thumb: if the pose is painful and/or you cannot imagine how the movement could possibly help you in your sport – feel free to modify or skip it.  Steve Fearing, Yoga/Joga, states that students who skip a pose, modify it, or do a completely different pose during class are often advanced yoga students, but more generally those with good body awareness.  Some stretches for beginners to consider avoiding include:  the plough (lie down on your back, sweep your legs up and over, trying to touch your knees to your ears), traditional backbend, traditional hurdlers stretch (sit on the ground with one leg straight in front, the other leg fully bent behind you, as you lean back to stretch the quadricep of the bent leg), and straight legged toe touches (it’s perfectly ok to bend your knees!).   Tis better to err on the side of compassion and return quickly to challenge yourself, than to overextend and damage tissue.

I do not receive a commission from any yoga affiliate

Realistically, you can stretch regularly without a yoga class.  The question is:  Will you?

If you decide to try yoga, a class with a qualified instructor will help insure familiarity with poses and correct alignment so you can continue your practice at home, on your own or with a video.  In addition, with a class you have a commitment, you learn new routines which incorporate proper breathing, and you don’t just do your favorite stretches – the ones you are good at.  The yoga community values quiet reflection, but there is also camaraderie.  Perhaps most refreshing, yoga is a fitness activity that yields more benefit if you simply accept whatever you can do.  Yoga invites you to leave your competitive drive at the door.


Finding the right yoga class:

Recommended yoga classes (West Linn and Canby, OR):

Yoga/Joga, West Linn, OR.  Jo McMahon teaches a beginner class.  She accepts a $5 donation per class, which she then donates to the local food bank.  Steve Fearing teaches intermediate/advanced classes with fees for 8-10 week sessions. .

Canby Community Education.  Yoga with Michelle Dahl, Yoga with Steve Fearing.  See page 13.

Online (free!) yoga classes:

20 minute class (good overall stretch)

Unravel the tension (20 minutes – emphasis on hamstrings and shoulders.  Note: I skip reclined hero’s pose, an extreme quadricep stretch)

Seawheeze 2013 yoga practice (30 minutes – more advanced – designed for runners and cyclists, but a good all-around stretch)

Yoga videos – even with all the free stuff, I would pay for these

Yoga conditioning for weight loss with Suzanne Deason (45 minutes – a great overall stretch for beginners of all sizes — don’t let the title put you off)

AM and PM Yoga (20 minutes – Patricia Walden gives great overall PM stretch.  Rodney Yee does the very, very gentle AM stretch, also about 20 minutes.)


Michael J. Alter, Science of Flexibility, ISBN-13: 9780736048989

MCNAIR, P. et al. (2001) Stretching at the ankle joint: viscoelastic responses to holds and continuous passive motion. Medicine & Science in Sport and Exercise, 33 (3), p. 354-358


How to stretch

The effect of time on static stretch on the flexibility of the hamstring muscles.

Understanding flexibility: An important part of fitness.


I lie on my back, knees pulled into my chest, eyes closed, slowly rocking back and forth.  On the backward swing I roll into sunlight. The inside of my eyelids light up neon bright, little floaties swim by, swirling around as I squeeze and relax my eyelids.  I gaze into a red-orange snow globe.  I am six years old, supposedly taking a nap, but it’s way too hot to sleep.  The swamp cooler drones in the hallway, its humidified cool circle of influence extending to within a few feet of our bedroom door.  

My sister Linda, older by three years and past the age of required naps, is supposed to be reading or studying or something.  Her first name is really Laura.  I find out much later that someone in the family could not pronounce Laura correctly.  This person called her Hoar-a, which was just too close to a bad word.  So we moved on to her second name, Linda.  For as long as I can remember, Linda and I have always shared a room, we have always had chores, and because she is older, she has always gotten the harder ones.  Everyone has a set place in the world – mine is middle child.

“Hey Linda, you know that feeling when you don’t feel anything, like your whole body is rubber?”

She is sitting at her desk, identical to mine, with her back to me.  The room has twin beds, parked head-in against the same wall, separated by a chest of drawers, left side hers, right side mine.  Both beds have matching ribbed bedspreads, the thin kind that draws attention to every wrinkle underneath and leaves parallel indent lines on your skin if you lie on top too long.

“No.”  She doesn’t even turn around.

I know she knows what I mean.  What is she doing over there?  Nothing – just looking out the window.  This is so irritating, because I really want to talk about the feeling.  The one that happens when I first wake up from a real nap, but only sometimes.  It never lasts very long.  Last time I had it, I quietly rolled out of bed and headed down the hallway, using stealth mode to protect the feeling.  Even the dust brigade, backs against the walls, hardly noticed me. Carefully sliding each foot down its assigned lane of linoleum tile, I almost made it to the front door before regular senses took over.

“You do know.  Your body feels like rubber and your brain only works in the very middle.”

“No.”  She continues to stare out the window.

Her window faces west, shaded by a cottonwood in an otherwise barren side yard.  I look out my window onto the backyard.  Sprinklers spray the grass under a weeping willow.

A gentle light diffuses through my mind.  Maybe she really doesn’t know about the feeling.  I start to wonder, could she have feelings that I don’t know about?  No way.  If she thinks and feels things I don’t know, that means I don’t really know everything about her.  The light sweeps each thought forward to make room for the next.

Maybe she is more than someone in my world, here to help me grow up.  Maybe she has her own world, and she thinks I am part of her world.  My reflection looks at me from the mirror.  

So, it’s like TV.  There is my show, of course, with all its people.  But all the people in my show also have their own show?  That’s too many shows.  I wait for a new thought.


That must be it.  Everyone I know has their own show, just like I do.  Bigger than that, every person in the whole world has their own show.  Every person can have thoughts and feelings no one knows about.  They can do things no one expects.  Every.  Single.  Person.  

The complexity stuns me.  As I scowl at my feet, my brain grows numb, even in the middle.  Linda is writing or drawing something, her face a few inches from the paper.  I curl up and pull the bedspread all the way over my head.  I take a deep breath and close my eyes, floating into the black snow globe.  The light trails off, then disappears.

Pain and the Brain – Science Thoughts

Last spring, after putting it off until getting dressed became a contortionist’s act, I finally agreed to shoulder surgery.  I expected the short-term pain – what the medical community calls “acute” pain.  I initially managed it with pharmaceuticals, and as one would hope, that pain dissipated with time.  What I never expected was long-term or “chronic” pain.  I decided to manage that by first finding out how pain works so I could make informed treatment decisions.  The most powerful thing I learned?   Knowing how pain works can make its treatment more effective.

As I get ready to launch into the nature of pain, you might be tempted to scan down to find the how-you-fix-it part.  Here’s my bias: most people do a better job of fixing things if they understand how they work.  I believe this to be particularly true in the case of pain.  When I first heard some of the recommendations for self-treating chronic pain, I thought they were almost laughable.  They certainly would not have worked for me at that point.  Because pain perception involves your mind, understanding how pain works can affect the outcome.

Nature of Pain

Most of us find it easier to tell the doctor where it hurts than to describe how it hurts, but the medical community needs to know “how” because it divides pain into two major categories: acute or chronic.  Acute pain initiates from the point of tissue injury, travelling via fast-conducting nerve fibers.  Characterized as sharp or stinging, it serves the very necessary function of letting us know when we damage ourselves and generally subsides once the injury heals. Chronic pain is more sinister.  Carried by slow conducting nerve fibers, chronic pain presents as dull, burning, tingling or aching.  Chronic pain lasts more than three months – some unfortunate individuals endure it for decades.  The sinister aspect: chronic pain serves little or no protective purpose.

programming-bugIf someone tells you chronic pain is all in your head, you can inform them that the spinal cord is also involved.  (My editor nixed what I would tell them.)  Chronic pain can be thought of as errant wiring or a programming bug in the brain and spinal cord. This bug allows false pain messages from long healed injuries.  In the case of phantom limb pain, an amputee may still feel pain from a lost limb.  Wiring, in the form of additional pain nerve cells, may also help transmit the old message.  Researchers have recently come to view chronic pain as a mal-adapted form of “neuroplasticity” – the central nervous system’s ability to change structure, function or chemistry.  This ability facilitates learning new tasks and, unfortunately for some of us, the efficient replay of useless pain messages.  Indeed pain is very mental.  So much so, that in some cases it can be forgotten, if temporarily, when something more interesting distracts us.

madmen_switchboard_opsTo explain why sensory input, thoughts and emotions influence pain perception, Ronald Melzack and Patrick Wall proposed a gate mechanism.  Picture an old-fashioned telephone switchboard: three operators connect messages into the switchboard. Each operator specializes in specific messages.  Operator 1: acute and chronic pain messages from the body; Operator 2 “regular” sensory (touch, vibration, temperature) messages from the body; Operator 3: messages, such as thoughts, from the brain.  An outgoing wire from the switchboard is a pain hotline to the brain.   Before reaching the brain, pain messages must pass through a switch or gate.  Specific combinations of incoming messages close the gate, preventing pain messages from reaching the brain.

No pain signals reach the brain (gate closed) with any one of the following conditions:

  • no incoming messages;
  • “regular” sensory nerves bring in more input than the pain nerves;
  • messages from the brain shut the gate.

Pain signals reach the brain (gate open) when both these conditions exist:

  • pain nerves (acute or chronic) bring in more input than regular nerves;
  • the brain does not send messages to shut the gate.

Some people vigorously rub their hand to relieve pain after pinching a finger.  Gate theory would say they increased regular sensory input to override the pain input.  The pain gate closes on the hotline – no pain messages pass to the brain.  Similarly, mental distractions can help us forget pain, as messages from the brain close the pain gate.

Non-Pharmaceutical Pain Relief

pillsPost-surgery, I took an opioid medication prescribed for moderate to severe pain.  At the time I remember thinking, “This recovery thing is a piece of cake!”  If something seems to be too good to be true, it probably is.  The longer I took the medication, the less relief it provided.  I began to understand the roots of misuse and slowly tapered off.  For unknown reasons, chronic pain from a previous, unrelated injury reactivated.

What a drag, it is, getting old.  After consulting two doctors who found nothing “wrong”, I decided to look for alternative treatments to close the pain gate.  Research shows that relief of pain can reverse neuroplastic changes to restore normal brain function.  I hoped to close the pain gate and then let reverse neuroplasticity produce long term relief.

As alternative therapies become more accepted, the number of studies increases until scientists can statistically combine results from multiple studies to reach conclusions on the benefit of these treatments. The therapies discussed below are widely used, but by no means comprehensive.  It goes without saying, appropriate treatment for a particular pain condition should be discussed with a doctor.

Strategies that close the pain gates can be divided into sensory (physical), cognitive (thoughts), or emotional (feelings), with substantial overlap between these areas.


Regular sensory inputs provide competing input to close the pain gate (rubbing the hand to relieve pain from a pinched finger).  Acupuncture, massage and exercise are examples of sensory-based therapies.   Statistically combined studies found they can provide pain relief for chronic pain, depending on the specific condition.  The takeaway for those who prefer some science in their decision-making: there is science behind these particular alternative therapies – both a theoretical model (gate theory) and experimental data for specific conditions.

yoga-1Therapies that have not yet gained scientific acceptance for specific pain conditions also have their adherents.  Yoga helps illustrate the difference between individuals finding relief and a statistical conclusion.  Researchers in the U.K. conducted a literature search on the effects of yoga in relieving chronic pain.  They found ten comparable clinical trials, involving hundreds of patients.  Though nine out of the ten trials found yoga could help provide pain relief, they concluded, “yoga has the potential for alleviating pain. However, definitive judgments are not possible.”   Though many people in these studies found pain relief with yoga, many did not.  Statistically conclusions depend in how much noise or variation exists in the data – too much variation yields no definitive conclusion.

For those who find a human connection powerful in their decision-making:  My friend Jan, an avid hiker, has experienced intermittent leg pain for three years.  She writes, “I think I’ve tried about everything: physical therapy, chiropractic therapy, massage, acupuncture, and rolfing (structural integration). Of these, I’d say acupuncture was the most effective, but none of them have had lasting results. Even though I’m very new to it, yoga seems to be helping more than anything else I’ve done.”  Personally, I also find yoga effective.  As with any unproven treatment, cautious participation may be the only way to draw your own conclusions.


Substantial research has shown that we can diminish pain perception through our thoughts – messages from the brain closing the pain gate.  Over time, repeatedly closing the pain gate may reverse the misguided neuroplasticity that causes chronic pain.

brainFor those skeptical about our ability to “think” our way out of pain, Stanford’s Neuroimaging and Pain Lab provides one of the most dramatic demonstrations of our cognitive ability to dial down pain.  In this program, trained volunteers tried various thought strategies (e.g., relaxation, imagery and distraction) to increase or decrease their pain. They received real-time feedback by watching a pain-perception portion of their brains through functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI).  The Stanford studies show that individuals can gain enough control to impact even severe chronic pain through their thoughts.

Biofeedback and meditation have both been evaluated using statistically combined studies.  Both were found to provide moderate to effective relief for specific pain conditions.  It should be noted that effective meditation programs involve eight to ten weeks training, with continued and consistent practice showing best results.

With the mind-body connection introduced in a scientific context, this is a good time to discuss the placebo effect.  People need not feel embarrassed if they learn their perceived pain relief came from a “sugar pill” or other non-active therapy.  fMRI research demonstrates that the placebo effect has a scientific basis.  The placebo response reduces pain by closing the pain gate and/or by activating natural opiates in the brain.   Surprisingly, the placebo effect does not necessarily require deception.   A  2010 Harvard study told patients they would be taking inert drugs; patients were also told that placebos often have healing effects.  Even the Harvard researchers were taken aback when patients who knew they were taking placebos reported twice as much symptom relief as the no-treatment group – an improvement better than many pharmaceutical drugs.

placeboStudies evaluating alternative treatments generally include test groups to rule out the placebo effect.  However, given the potential for significant pain relief and the lack of side-effects, the question arises: If you are self-evaluating a particular treatment, does it really matter if pain relief comes from the actual treatment or from the brain’s placebo response?


It does not take a medical degree to know emotions affect your perception of pain.  You feel better when you take control of your well-being, keep a positive attitude, reduce stress, and work to overcome depression.  Certainly, chronic pain can lead to depression, but the reverse also applies.  Chronic pain and depression share some of the same nerve pathways and neurotransmitters – the chemicals traveling between nerves.  As with chronic pain, depression reduces signals that close the pain gate (mal-adapted neuroplasticity); the gate stays open, increasing pain perception.  When dealing with depression and chronic pain combined, the need to work with a physician is even greater.  Fortunately, many treatments found effective for chronic pain also help alleviate depression.

Finally, some people turn to their own spiritual beliefs to deal with pain.  I have another particularly courageous friend, Lynne, who lives a full life while dealing with multiple sclerosis and its multiple points of chronic pain.  She explains, “The primary way I deal with pain, besides due diligence in pursuing medical treatment/therapy, is spiritual.  It depends on an informed faith as revealed in Scripture and as demonstrated by how the Lord has sustained me in the past.”  We each have our own profile in courage to draw from.

Stick To It

The commonality for most of these non-pharmaceutical therapies: they are time-consuming and require long-term commitment.  Most people will likely have to try more than one.  The payoff is in taking charge of your own well-being and potentially helping to reverse the neuroplasticity causing chronic pain.  While evaluating a particular therapy in conjunction with a doctor, pain management experts recommend monitoring quality of life, as well as reduction in pain.  This includes improvements in daily functions, mood, sleep, relationships and pleasure in living.  Many find this particularly powerful because it reinforces the idea that quality of life is not solely or rigidly connected to chronic pain.persevere


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Green Chile Believer – Food Thoughts

New Mexicans have their own mantra for treating the common cold: drink lots of fluids, get lots of rest, and eat lots of green chile.  Didn’t find that last thing on the Mayo Clinic web site? Someone should fix that.  

IMAG0803Therapeutic properties aside, there remain countless gustatory reasons to eat green chile (Capsicum annuum), the defining ingredient in New Mexican cuisine.  Similar in appearance to Anaheim and poblano chiles, New Mexico green chiles are hotter with more complex flavors.  Within the state, natives heap it over eggs, onto pizza and into stews.  You can even order a green chile cheeseburger at McDonalds, though longtime locals hit Blake’s Lottaburger, recognized by National Geographic in their 2006 article: Passport to the Best. [1]  Really though, the best place to find green chile is inside a freshly-rolled flour tortilla, hot off a wood-burning cook stove in a tiny stucco house at the end of dirt road outside Cebolla, NM.  Just the tortilla and the chile.  Nothing like it.

If you think “Chile is chile, so what?” then you have not tasted green chile from Hatch, New Mexico, home of the Hatch Chile Festival.  During this two day event, the town (population: 1639) has hosted up to 30,000 people. [2] If you found your sampling of green chile unexceptional, you may have ingested fake New Mexico green chile.  “What we’ve got is people coming in and selling chile and saying it’s from New Mexico, and some of it is being shipped in from Mexico or elsewhere,” said State Representative Andy Nuñez, sponsor of the New Mexico Chile Advertising Act.

esq-Roasting-the-green-chilesFolks from out of state with friends or family in New Mexico can export authentic Hatch green chiles in airline luggage.  To prepare green chiles for transport, my mom buys and freezes the peppers every September, when fresh chiles arrive in local grocery stores and street corner stands.  Street vendors will fire-roast chiles in rotating screened bins for a nominal fee. It’s quick and cheap and yields perfectly charred, smoky peppers.  Once roasted, the peppers collapse, like the water-doused wicked witch of the west, minimizing their volume.  Most DIYer’s and commercial companies do not peel whole pods before freezing. My mom tucks the flavorsome babies into quart-sized plastic bags, labels with relative temperament (hot, medium or mild) and lets them rest in the freezer.  To ready the peppers for flight, she bundles the frozen chile bags with freeze-packs in thick layers of newspaper, which I further insulate in laundry from my always-too-short visit.  Albuquerque TSA has seen this a million times.

calabacitasAnd what to do once you get them home?  Prior to cooking or just plain eating them, run lukewarm water over the frozen pod.  This defrosts the skin, but leaves the meat firm.  With a little tactile encouragement the skin falls away.  (Take care not to rub your eyes during this process – yeow!)  Once peeled, chile possibilities span every meal of the day.  Breakfast burritos, huevos rancheros, quiche… pretty much any egg dish.  Most “Mexican” dishes: chicken enchiladas, tacos, tostadas.  The Santa Fe School of Cooking offers its version of Green Chile Stew [5].  Vegetable side dishes hosting green chile include quelites (spinach) and calabacitas (squash).  Until I left New Mexico, I had no idea people made guacamole without green chile.

While a virus hijacks my normally fine health, I research the finer points of green chile to learn that chile peppers are packed with vitamins C and A (as beta-carotene), as well as potassium, iron, and fiber.  That may explain why people claim green chile fights the common cold.  I’m heading for the freezer.  Good things come to those who believe.

[1]  “National Geographic Passport to the Best, The 10 Best of Everything”. National Geographic. 2006-03-21.

[2],_New_Mexico viewed 01/08/14.

[3]  viewed 01/09/14.

[4] viewed 01/09/14.

[5] viewed 01/09/14

photo basket of chiles

photo street vendor roasters

photo calabacitas

The River – Education Thoughts


In 2001, I joined a math department that included one of that year’s PAEMST winners (Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching).  It is the nation’s highest honor for math teachers.  “Awardees serve as models for their colleagues, inspiration to their communities, and leaders in the improvement of mathematics and science education.” [1] To top that off, Jerry Young, our PAEMST-winner, is just a heck of a nice guy.

In retrospect, I should have noticed my co-workers tippy-toeing around the honor.  People quietly congratulated Jerry, but no one suggested even taking him out to lunch.  Suffering from social tone-deafness, I took it upon myself to email the math department invitations to a little celebration.  We all gathered for lunch at a nearby restaurant.  Everyone had to sit somewhere at the table, but the half that sat furthest from Jerry actively ignored the rest of us.

Math Wars.  Wikipedia defines Math Wars as the debate in modern mathematics education over traditional mathematics and reform mathematics, philosophy and curricula. [2]  Ladieees and gentlemen… At this end of the table, we have Jerry Young, passionate advocate of reform mathematics.  And, at the far end we have the traditionalists, firm believers in time-honored methods.

What is the difference and who is right?  In the simplest terms, traditional methods rely on direct instruction. Teachers provide full and explicit guidance accompanied by practice and feedback. Students do not “discover” what they must learn. [3]  Reform methods, on the other hand, challenge students to make sense of new mathematical ideas through explorations and projects.  Teachers do not explicitly tell students what or how to think.  Teachers provide support and guidance as students develop new ideas by building on what they already know. [4] Sage-on-the-stage versus guide-on-the-side. Though either side may take exception with this generalization: traditional curricula tends towards more breadth, reform tends towards more depth.  The debate over which is better has raged for more than 20 years.

River - Ants

Did you hear the one about the two ants?  I digress here, but hang with me.  Two ants stand at water’s edge arguing about how to build a bridge to cross the river.  Ends up, ants have a remarkable ability to build bridges out of their collective live bodies.  One of the ants has experience with live-body bridges, the other wants to use the more standard grass-blade technique.  Soon, the argument gets physical and the ants are trying to sever each other at their skinny little waists.  Zoom out from the scene…  back a bit further…  the river is a mile wide and an inch deep.

The River.  Many teachers will recognize the phrase “mile wide and inch deep.” It is often used to describe math curriculum in the United States, particularly when compared to other top achieving countries.  “Mile wide” refers to the large number of topics taught at each grade level; “inch deep” refers to the unavoidably shallow understanding that results from covering too much, too fast.  It matters little how you teach when the time spent on each topic allows for only rote or algorithmic understanding of the problems. (Note: The most traditional of teachers maintain that K-12 requires a mile-wide river to insure their view of “math literacy.”  For them, the goal is to memorize and use as many different algorithms as possible.)

Many reasons account for the creation of our mile-wide river.  Among the first stands the breadth of topics in No Child Left Behind high stakes tests, which were based on NCTM Standards [5].  Fortunately, as we move onto the new Common Core Standards, those days are behind us.  Or are they?

Common Core has something for everyone, reformists and traditionalists, alike.  And therein lies the danger. Few would question that Common Core calls for deeper understanding.  At the same time, for high school math, it also addresses breadth with a vast number of standards.*  Do we now have a river that is 0.8 miles wide and 0.8 miles deep?


How wide and how deep is the river?  With the number of school days pre-set, breadth and depth are interdependent.  In practice, whichever gets established first becomes the limiting factor for the other.  In policy-making, that interdependence can slip by forgotten or ignored.  The language and rationale that go with Common Core seem to prioritize depth; however, the number of high school standards provides a breath-taking width.  In practice, since depth of understanding can be difficult to quantify, hitting all those standards often becomes the driving factor – at depth’s expense.  Once again, we find ourselves gazing across the River of Perpetual Return.

Teachers need policy-makers to clearly define depth and specify a compatible breadth in the number of standards.  Until then, it really does not matter if one teaches reform or traditional.  Neither can be fully effective.

* I cannot speak to the number of standards in K-8.

[1] viewed 01/02/2104.

[2] viewed 01/02/2014.

[3]  viewed 01/02/2014.

[4] viewed 01/02/2104

[5] I use the phrase “NCTM Standards” for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics recommendations for K–12 curriculum contained Principles and Standards for School Mathematics (2000).


Indiana Jones and the Unbroken Egg – Engineering Thoughts

We all know stress. It’s that feeling when you have too much to do and consequences loom. The load is heavy and failure is not a good option. You reduce stress by removing some of the load or enlisting more people to carry it – a concept few managers seem to get.

To the structural engineer, stress is how a beam or column feels. Who says engineers are not sensitive creatures? Of course they have a mathematical way to describe these feelings.

Eqn. 1                           S = P/A

Here, S is stress in psi, P is load in pounds, A is cross-sectional area in square inches.

An example might make this more clear. Say Indiana Jones dangles from a rope above a snake pit. (Indiana hates snakes.) Engineers cannot put numbers on Indiana’s personal stress, but they can tell you if his 1000 psi-rated rope is likely to break. You may be thinking the guy cannot weigh much over 200 pounds, nothing near 1000 pounds – what’s the problem?

The problem lies in the units. The rope is rated in psi (pounds per square inch or pounds divided by area) and that is stress; you need to use Eqn 1. Take Indiana’s weight, 185 lbs, and divide that by the cross-sectional area of the rope. The cross-sexual what?

Cross sectional area is the area of the cut that the bad guy would make to dispense with Indiana. It is the circle area you would see looking straight down the rope. Engineers are famous for drawing on the backs of envelopes and napkins, so here you go:20131214-210928.jpg

The area of the circle is like the number of people working on that stressful project with the lousy manager. More area (or more people) means less stress. The area of the circle comes from another formula you may remember from high school, A =  π × r2. Suffice to say the area is .1963 square inches. So using Eqn 1, the stress is:

S = 185 lbs/.1963 = 942 pounds per square inch or 942 psi.

Whew! Less than 1000 psi. Are we relieved for Indiana escaping the snake pit or for ourselves somehow passing our last math class?

The stress we just waded through is called tensile stress. We say the rope carried the load in tension. Tensile stress occurs when we pull from both ends. Compressive stress or compression is when we push from both ends. Ropes do not carry compression; however, shortly after the snake pit, Indiana had another stressful situation involving a room with moving walls. As the walls closed in, he was in imminent danger of suffering from excessive compressive stress.

You might be excited to know that the room with moving walls brings up yet another engineering concept: hydrostatic stress. If all sides of the room, including the ceiling and floor were to press equally on a square block placed inside the room, that would be hydrostatic compressive stress. That is, stresses from all three directions are equal.

Here’s an experiment you can do at home: Take someone with a big hand – well, generally people who have one big hand also have a second big hand. But say they use one big hand to completely envelop an egg and crush it. Regardless of how hard the big-handed person presses, as long as the stresses stay equal all around (or “hydrostatic”), the egg will not break. This is true* only if the egg has no cracks in it. Eggs with cracks brings us to Fracture Mechanics; a totally fascinating subject, but ok, I won’t go there.

In theory, objects under hydrostatic stress (all-over tension or compression) never break. However, since most materials have small flaws (e.g., cracks) in them, the cracks eventually cause failure, albeit at a much higher stress than you might expect.

So, how does this all fit together?

First off, let’s remember that to talk about stress and failure, you must take cross-sectional area, as well as load or weight, into account. Ignoring cross-sectional area is like not knowing how many people a project work load is being spread over. Then we need to take out hydrostatic stresses, as they do not cause failure.

Now let’s examine compression.
Say you have a rectangular bar of steel .25″ x .25″ x 4.” (Note: the 4″ height measurement of the bar will not enter any calculations). You vertically push on this bar with 2250 pounds; it is rated to hold 36,000 psi. Watch the units. We need to divide the load (pounds) by the area (square inches). 20131214-195444.jpg

The cross-sectional area, this time, is a square, so its area is length times width: .25″ x .25″ = .0625 square inches. Using Eqn 1 again, the stress is:

S = P/A = 2250 lbs/.0625 sq. in = 36,000 pounds per square inch or 36,000 psi.   Not another failure! We gotta do something.

Enter the Dogbert School of Management. To alleviate stress, apply more pressure. Let’s push with 10,000 psi in the horizontal direction and the into-page direction. Since the 10,000 psi is already given in stress units, we do not need to use Eqn 1.

Here’s what we have now:20131214-202048.jpg

Ends up, Dogbert is right. This bar will not fail if we add more compressive stress. Though it was no doubt unintentional, Dogbert took advantage of the Principal of Superposition. Engineers understand it and use it a lot. Managers, not so much.

The Principal of Superposition says that you can separate out stresses any way you want so long as the resultant stress state adds up to the same one you started with [2].


Here, we separate the stresses into two parts and add them.The first part is hydrostatic compression. Stresses in all three directions are the same.  Since hydrostatic stress does not contribute to failure, for failure analysis, we can ignore it. That leaves the bar “feeling” like it only has 26,000 psi compressive stress in the vertical direction. No failure.

Time to conclude. We have discussed some important engineering concepts: tensile and compressive stress, units (like psi), cross-sectional area, hydrostatic stress and the Principal of Superposition. More impressive still, especially at a party, is the concept that someone with a big hand can squeeze an egg really hard without breaking it.

[1] Timoshenko, S. P. (1953), History of Strength of Materials ISBN 0-07-064725-9, p. 283.
[2] Popov, E. P. (1968), Introduction to Mechanics of Solids ISBN-10: 0134877691, ISBN-13: 978-0134877693, p. 99.

* OK, it is not quite true: Even if the big hand presses evenly all around, the egg has to be completely filled with fluid to keep all stresses equal. The egg has a little air gap, so it would eventually fail where the radius is largest – around it’s equator. Most people are not strong enough – try it!

….. …..

Twin Sons of Different Mothers

Corvallis Oregon, home of Oregon State University and capital of Beaver Nation, very likely has the highest concentration of beaver fans in the world. Beavers are likeable animals. Large for a rodent but industrious (busy as a… ), these clever engineers build dams and design homes with underwater entries. So why is it their distant relatives, the nutria, are reviled by those who know them?

If you think I overstate the animosity, consider this: I had a coworker, Marilyn, well-known as a master gardner, who woke up one morning and spotted a nutria munching in her lettuce patch. Marilyn grabbed her husband’s .22 rimfire rifle from the closet and loaded it. She propped it on the sill of her second floor bedroom window, carefully sighted down the barrel and shot the nutria between the eyes. Marilyn later informed me this was the first time she had ever shot a gun. I have other examples, but they are pretty violent, so I will move on.

The nutria (Myocastor coypus) is a large semi-aquatic mammal often confused with beavers or muskrats. Adult nutria weigh ten to twenty pounds and measure one to two feet in length without the tail, placing them between beaver and muskrat in size . Probably the most distinguishing (and least endearing) physical feature of the nutria is their thin, round, sparsely-haired, scaly tail. [1] On land, nutria appear hunched due to disproportionately long hind legs. Picture a 20-pound rat named Igor.


O.K. So this is not the most handsome mammal on the planet. What else?

A visit to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife website [3] starts you out with a description of the damage and destruction wreaked by nutria burrowing, then continues with the rodent’s “depredation” on crops and natural plant communities. The site notes aggressive competition with the smaller muskrat. This naturally segues into nutria’s status as unprotected wildlife which can be trapped (but not relocated) and shot.

Still. Beavers girdle trees, their dams can cause flooding; but for their flat tails, they would also look like ROUS (rodents of unusual size). Here is the rub: nutria are native to South America. They were introduced around the turn of the century by the fur industry. They are not one of ours.

So nutria are non-native. So what? There are many non-native species we would happily call our own: cats, horses, European honeybees, and Norway maples to name a few. The trouble starts when a species crosses the line and becomes “invasive.” That is when the government gets involved. From [4]: “Executive order 13112 defines an invasive species as an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.” Igor is on the federal Most Unwanted list.

Nutria have a well-documented history of wreaking economic and environmental havoc in Maryland, Louisiana and Texas, where there are multi-million dollar programs to manage them. In a recent presentation at the Tualatin National Wildlife Refuge [5], Dr. Trevor Sheffels, one of the forefront researchers of nutria management in the Pacific Northwest, stated that the public needs to know nutria are non-native, and invasive. They are prodigious breeders, reproducing up to 3 times a year, with an average litter size of 4 to 5 and a maximum of 13. Nutria prefer the basal succulent portions of plants, wasting up to 90% of the plant while eating 25% of their weight, daily. Doing the math, a large, wasteful nutria could consume up to 5 pounds of vegetation and waste 45 pounds. Daily. That’s bad, but probably not of immediate concern to the homeowners in Sheffels’ presentation whose house tilts into a creek, the creekbed destablized by nutria burrows.

Start the scary music. “In the year 2050 we show that almost all of the states are suitable for nutria [due to climate change],” said Catherine Jarnevich, a research ecologist with the USGS. The research, not yet published, was presented at the recent meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Minneapolis [6].  Sheffels states that with the current regional population size and prolific reproduction, a long term, high cost program would be needed to attempt eradication in the Pacific Northwest [7]. No wonder folks don’t like them.

[1] Maser, C., et. al. 1981. Natural History of Oregon Coast Mammals. USDA Forest Service Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-133, p. 146.
[2] Visited 11/20/2013.
[3] Visited 11/19/2013.
[4] Visited 11/19/2013.
[5] Sheffels, Trevor. Extended Learning Program – Nutria, Tualatin National Wildlife Refuge, November 5, 2013
[6] Visited 12/15/2013
[7] Sheffels, Trevor and Mark Systma. “Report on Nutria Management and Research in the Pacific Northwest” Center for Lakes and Reservoir Environmental Sciences and Resources, Portland State University. December 2007. Available on-line: Visited 11/18/2013.

Boyinton Overlook, Escalante


October 2013
I must have veered off the main trail. I am terrible with directions, but this time I am not lost. I can see Highway 12 and I can hear people talking below. Unfortunately, my trail ends at the edge of a short cliff. Is someone down there pointing me out? What are they saying?  I navigate across three states to explore Escalante National Monument and get myself stranded within sight of my car. How embarrassing.

Escalante National Monument occupies 1.9 million acres in south-central Utah. Ancient dunes hardened to stone, then eroded, leaving slickrock canyons, arches and spires. The Escalante River creates a startling contrast of lush waterfalls in the middle of an stark desert. In 1996, three months before leaving office, President Clinton declared these 1.9 million acres a national monument to effectively thwart a Dutch mining consortium from establishing coal mines.

EscalanteOct2013 03420131118-224953.jpg

Hoping to pick up the main trail again, I traverse across the hillside, scramble through some brush, and surprising no one more than myself, I pop onto the main trail. I gratefully follow it down to the trailhead parking lot and my trusty Subaru.


This hike started out as a short diversion on my last day in Escalante. I wanted to visit the Anasazi Museum before heading back to Salt Lake where I would stay with friends, enjoy sleeping in a real bed and eat real food. I also wanted to see the Anasazi Hundred Hands Pictograph in situ.

I first learned of the Anasazi or Ancient Pueblo people on a fourth grade field trip. We visited Bandelier National Monument in northern New Mexico, where the Anasazi carved homes in the sides of steep canyon walls, using ladders to access them. As a 9 year old, the only thing cooler than having my own apartment would have been to have my own cave apartment. The Ancient Pueblo people attained their golden age between about 900 and 1150 AD. Settlements included apartment-like complexes and structures with planned community spaces. For unknown reasons, the puebloans abandoned their homes in the 12th and 13th centuries. Hypotheses include climate change, environmental degradation, hostility with new arrivals or cultural change.  I still feel sadness and mystery over these ancient people abandoning their homes and disappearing.

My guide book said you can see the pictograph from the Boyington Overlook, where UT-12 crosses the Escalante River if you have binoculars, which I did not.  The field of view contained at least a dozen potential pictograph sites. There is no official trail, but the unofficial trail head was easy to find.  The round trip to Hundred Hands generally takes half an hour, so I gave myself 30 minutes of wandering around just to find it.  There were a lot of false trails that looked well-used and I tried several of them to no avail.  I retraced a particularly inviting trail to the same dead end that overlooked a nice canyon, but no pictograph.  Half an hour came and went. How could I have missed it?

Ludicrous as it sounds, people remove rock art for their own use or to sell on the black market. In 2011, a Nevada man cut and moved a 300-pound petroglyph from the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area to his front yard. He was sentenced to six months in federal prison for his efforts. In 2012, thieves, apparently armed with ladders, power saws, and generators, gouged out six sacred Paiute petroglyph panels from Volcanic Tablelands north of Bishop, California. Online photographs record at least one similar attempt in Escalante.

I finally turned back pretty disappointed.  As my feet plodded along, I kept looking for the hands, mostly to say I did not give up. And then…  sure enough.  There they were, but much higher than I expected.  Rows and rows of white handprints on a sandstone wall. Sometime between 750 and 1300 AD, these ancient people sent us a message.