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The most important thing I learned from a teacher

Who inspired you?

The role that teachers play in influencing the lives of their students is something that's been lost in current debates about education mandates and standardized testing. Teaching isn't just about making sure kids can pass exams. It's also about helping future adults find their gifts, discover their interests, and learn who they want to be. That's a hard thing to quantify. You can't really put together a concise list of "Children I've Inspired" for a CV. But this is the part of a teacher's job that is the most lasting. What we remember about good teachers isn't necessarily the dry facts they taught us, it's the doors they opened, the curiosity they kindled, and the moments where they made us rethink everything.

Science journalist Steve Silberman is married to one of America's hard-working teachers. Watching his husband, Keith, inspired Steve to collect stories of how teachers shaped the lives of a wide range of writers, thinkers, and scientists. In a post on Steve's blog, you'll find stories from people like award-winning journalist Deborah Blum, cultural critic Mark Dery, and molecular biologist Bonnie Bassler.

I'm honored to be a part of this line up, as well. Below is my contribution, dedicated to the grade school teacher who made me the person I am today.

I had the same teacher for 4th and 5th grades, Shirley Johannsen. She started teaching at State Street Elementary in Topeka, Kansas in 1963, so by the time I met her in the late 1980s, this woman was already educating the children of her first students. She taught both grades, simultaneously, in the same classroom. And there were more than 20 of us in each grade. Forty-plus students, one room, one well-loved Apple IIE, and Ms. Johannsen.

That sounds like a recipe for a failing school, but Shirley Johannsen was one of the best teachers I have ever had. There are two things this woman did that completely changed my life.

First, Ms. Johannsen made me a writer. It was in her classroom that I first made the connection between my obsessive love of reading, and the fact that I could write books, too. And she encouraged me to write, not just for school assignments, but for fun and for practice. She was the first person who told me that writing was something I was good at. She was my first editor.

Second, Ms. Johannsen made me love science. In my memories, it’s like I woke up one day, in her classroom, with a 9-volt battery and an electric switch in my hand. Before her, science was dinosaurs and trips to the museum with my parents. After, it was something to look forward to every school year—new discoveries, surprising knowledge, a better understanding of how the world around me worked.

Today, I’m a science journalist. I love my job. And I owe that to the teacher who saw my gifts and inspired my curiosity.

When Neil deGrasse Tyson met Carl Sagan

This is a seriously incredible story. If you did not already kind of love Carl Sagan, and think of him as a sort of benevolent hippie grandpa, you totally will now.

And the message here is seriously spot-on: The best way to honor the people who helped you realize your dreams is to help somebody else realize theirs.

Via Joanne Manaster

[Possibly fake] video of hunter-gatherer tribe's first contact with people from outside world


[UPDATE: A couple of Boing Boing readers have translated articles that say this encounter was staged. Read the comments below.]

[Video Link] This is a fascinating 15-minute video that shows a hunter-gatherer tribe in Papua New Guinea meeting with people from the outside world for the first time. They are very cautious, but also very curious, about the man on the other side of the river. They eventually cross the river to meet Jean-Pierre Dutilleux, the producer of Tribal Journeys: The Toulambi. When the men see Dutilleux's clothing, they then look at the clothes they are wearing, as if for the first time. When they stroke Dutilleux's hair, they then stroke their own hair.

It looks like all five parts of the documentary are on YouTube.

Richard Dawkins on vivisection: "But can they suffer?"

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The great moral philosopher Jeremy Bentham, founder of utilitarianism, famously said,'The question is not, "Can they reason?" nor, "Can they talk?" but rather, "Can they suffer?" Most people get the point, but they treat human pain as especially worrying because they vaguely think it sort of obvious that a species' ability to suffer must be positively correlated with its intellectual capacity. Plants cannot think, and you'd have to be pretty eccentric to believe they can suffer. Plausibly the same might be true of earthworms. But what about cows?

What about dogs? I find it almost impossible to believe that René Descartes, not known as a monster, carried his philosophical belief that only humans have minds to such a confident extreme that he would blithely spreadeagle a live mammal on a board and dissect it. You'd think that, in spite of his philosophical reasoning, he might have given the animal the benefit of the doubt. But he stood in a long tradition of vivisectionists including Galen and Vesalius, and he was followed by William Harvey and many others (See from which this picture is taken).

How could they bear to do it: tie a struggling, screaming mammal down with ropes and dissect its living heart, for example? Presumably they believed what came to be articulated by Descartes: that non-human animals have no soul and feel no pain.

Read the rest

Tsunami photos from Fukushima

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Last week, the Japanese utility company Tepco released photos taken of the March 11 tsunami as it struck the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Out of the two sets of shots, this photo, in particular, caught me cold. From this angle, the wave looks like such a small thing, doesn't it?

Also chilling: A series of shots taken as the tsunami flooded in and then receded from the power plant, sucking away a bunch of cars and leaving behind one totaled SUV. (Among other damage.)

NYT magazine on the hunt from Air France 447

The New York Times magazine has an amazing narrative story about the hunt for Air France 447, and how the crash has affected victims' families, air safety science, and French regulators. It's beautiful, haunting, and—by the end—damn near guaranteed to make you cry.

Alabama tornadoes: How you can help

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Over the weekend, I read several beautifully written, deeply moving essays about the deadly line of tornadoes that swept through Alabama last week. I wanted to share a few of those essays here, as well as let people know where you can donate to help the many, many people left homeless by this disaster.

First, my old Alabama buddy Kyle Whitmire wrote a piece for CNN called "When a Monster Came to Alabama".

There is no getting accustomed to natural disasters, but in Alabama tornado emergencies are seasonal part of life. I was in first grade the first time our teachers took us into the hall and taught us to line up against the walls and curl in the fetal position with our hands covering our necks. I can't remember how old I was when my mom made me climb into an empty bathtub, but I do remember her lugging a mattress into the bathroom to throw over me in case things got bad ...

You look for the "debris ball" that means a twister is on the ground. And when they get close, you hide in a windowless room, closet or hallway. If you're on the road, you're supposed to pull off and hide in a ditch, although I'm not sure many folks actually do. Then you wait. Maybe it kills you. Probably it doesn't. When it's over, you call your family to say you're safe and ask them if they're safe. And then you look around outside to see if it's all still there. The experience is terrifying, but it comes with the exhilaration Winston Churchill attributed to being shot at and missed. Of course, nature doesn't always miss.

The other essay comes from writer Brian Oliu. It's something he pieced together at the Tuscaloosa public library, not quite sure whether he'd have the Internet access to post it.

[Tuscaloosa] is where I have lived, worked, and wrote for the past six years, made art, made friends, made mistakes, always making. At some point, the town was called "Tuscalooska", but there was an executive decision at some point to drop the "K", perhaps it made the town sound too stammering, too unsure of itself. There are some old buildings in Alberta City that still had signs that had the "K" still in the name. Those buildings are gone now ...

Commonly, I hear "You live in Alabama? Why?" from folks up north. The effort that has been put forward during these past few days is why. Tuscaloosa has given me more than I can ever repay it for, and now that it needs my help, I am trying the best that I can. One of the jokes I heard a lot when I first moved to Alabama is "You're studying writing in Alabama? Do they even know how to write?" The short answer is yes: they do know how to write. They know how to do a lot of things. They know how to come together. They know how to love. They know how to rebuild.

But as they clean up and rebuild, the people of Alabama do need help. Thousands of people lost their homes. They need basic necessities. The organizations supporting them need money.

• If you'd like to donate supplies, check out this list of needed items. At the bottom of the list is an address to donate supplies by mail, and a list of places in Alabama where supplies can be dropped off.

• There's a long list of places you can donate money, ranging from the Red Cross and United Way, to the Alabama Governor's Relief Fund, religious charities, and Habitat for Humanity.

• If you're in the area and want to donate your time and labor, you can do that, too. Hands on Birmingham is a great organization that's coordinating volunteer efforts within that city. Serve Alabama is a government initiative that's registering volunteers for the whole state.

Image: Tami Chappell / Reuters

All the things left behind

On my walk around the neighborhood tonight, I found the following tornado debris: insulation, wood shrapnel, roof shingles, KFC receipt from Skyland Blvd in Tuscaloosa, a lease from 1996 for an apt at 800 20th street in Tusc., a tax return from a Schmon Ruffin, a receipt from Tuscaloosa Realty, pg 9 of 15 of "Exhibit B" with tank prices on it, and the Jesus bracelet. According to the KFC receipt they bought a pot pie, mac and cheese, and a 12 piece mix box. — My friend Eileen Kiernan, who lives in Birmingham, Alabama.

Photos found after the Alabama tornadoes

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More than 100 individual tornadoes struck the Southeastern United States yesterday. More than 200 people were killed in Alabama alone.

I lived in Birmingham for two years, working for mental_floss magazine. I'm happy to report that all of my friends—including the mental_floss staff—are present and accounted for. But even for those who got by relatively unscathed, there's a lot of work to be done. The clean-up from this disaster is turning out to be remarkably disturbing. Many of my friends have reported finding strangers' belongings and pieces of demolished homes in their yards. In several cases, debris found in the Birmingham metro area appeared to have come from Tuscaloosa—some 60 miles away.

In the wake of that, someone's set up a new Facebook group where people are posting scans of photos and documents they've found post-tornado. Partly, it's meant to help reconnect keepsakes and belongings with their owners. And partly, it's a deeply moving memorial. There's little doubt that at least some of the people in these photos won't be able to come collect them.

My thoughts are with everyone down South tonight. I hope you, and the people you love, are safe.

(Thanks to Eileen Kiernan)

"Mute: the silence of dogs in cars," a photo series by Martin Usborne

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Photographer Martin Usborne has a wonderful project titled Mute: the silence of dogs in cars. Most of the images were taken at night. Above, a piece from the series titled "Peggy."

Usborne writes:

I was once left in a car at a young age.

I don't know when or where or for how long, possibly at the age of four, perhaps outside Tesco's, probably for fifteen minutes only. The details don't matter. The point is that I wondered if anyone would come back. It seems trivial now but in a child's mind it is possible to be alone forever.

Around the same age I began to feel a deep affinity with animals - in particular their plight at the hands of humans. I remember watching TV and seeing footage of a dog being put in a plastic bag and being kicked. What appalled me most was that the dog could not speak back. Its muteness terrified me.

Read the rest of his story here, with more photos. You can purchase prints here. (thanks, Andrea James!)

Time lapse video of woman with HIV/AIDS

Just noticed this powerful advertisement from the Topsy Foundation. It was one of the winners at TED's "Ad's Worth Spreading" contest, which is generally worth checking out. This particular video does a great job (with a lovely twist at the end) at showing the effectiveness of HIV antiretroviral drugs (ARVs). There's also a followup video you can view that checks in on the woman (Selinah) as well as chatting with the folks behind the video. Although I realize that the ARVs have been made possible by the work done in the pharmaceutical industry, and that there is a chance that Topsy's programs are facilitated by kind donations from the same industry, it's still a pity that there isn't a more sustainable system for the provision of such drugs to developing countries. Pity that these sorts of medicines are usually priced way too high for individuals like Selinah, which is why so many go untreated and so many die. Pity also that laws like Bill C-393 (which aim to explore different ways to create that sustainable market and lower that price) are being deliberately stalled in government so as to guarantee not being passed. That kind of unfortunate reality deserves a megafacepalm.

Chimpanzee mother learns her infant has died (video)

Video Link:

This video contains excerpts of the reaction of the mother chimpanzee to the body of her deceased infant. The video was recorded at Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust in Zambia. A full report of this event is in press in the American Journal of Primatology (DOI: 10.1002/ajp.20927). This report was a collaborative effort between the Max Planck Institute, Chimfunshi, and Gonzaga University.
(thanks, Tara McGinley)

What makes Mt. Merapi different from other volcanoes?

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This is what happens when your kitchen meets a nuée ardente.

Literally a "burning cloud", the name is French for pyroclastic flow—a mass of hot gas, ash and rock released in some volcanic eruptions. Basically, it's an avalanche that happens to be hot enough to sear flesh. The danger of these things is that they move fast—hundreds of miles per hour, in some cases—and that they hug the ground, burning and suffocating everything in their path. Almost all the big, famous eruptions—from Mt. Vesuvius to Mt. St. Helens—included pyroclastic flows. And so have the recent eruptions at Mt. Merapi in Indonesia.

In fact, these things happen so often at Mt. Merapi that the Mountain has become the namesake of a specific type of pyroclastic eruption, different from the ones that buried Pompeii and the Toutle River. You're probably most familiar with Pelean-type eruptions. Named after the volcano that flattened the Caribbean town of Saint-Pierre in 1902, these eruptions are often phenomenally destructive. Pressure builds up for decades under a dried lava "cork". When the lava dome collapses and the cork finally pops, the pyroclastic flows spill out—fast and furious.

Merapi, in contrast, erupts a lot more frequently—on the order of every 4 or 5 years. Between eruptions, it builds up a lava cork of its own. In this case, though, the cork isn't very well supported by the underlying structure of the mountain, so it collapses any time it gets a bit too big. Collapse triggers pyroclastic flows, but, because so little time has passed, there isn't nearly as much pressure behind them. At Mt. Merapi, pyroclastic flows happen more frequently, but they're considered to be less dangerous.

That doesn't mean they can't kill you, however. Most of the people in the way of these recent eruptions were evacuated ahead of time. But not all. As of yesterday, 153 people were reported dead. The Boston Globe's Big Picture blog has some truly devastating photos of the human toll. They are, in many cases, more explicit than you're used to seeing. But I think it's important to not get so caught up in the the zoomed-out, awe-inspiring perspective that we lose track of the impact these eruptions have had on individual people. The pyroclastic flow went through somebody's kitchen.

Image: Dwi Oblo / Reuters

(Thanks to Howard Koerth—Happy Mutant, raconteur, Dad—for bringing the Boston Globe photos to my attention.)

Baby animals: Boy, they sure are cute!

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Behold! A positive application of the old saying, "What is seen can never be unseen."

WARNING: The images in this gallery are dangerously, addictively cute. Once you have seen them, you will want to see more, and more. And more. And you may never finish what you were working on before you saw them. But it's probably too late for you anyway, because you've already seen the baby ocelot, so never mind.

Wired: Cutest Book Ever: Zooborns Internet Craze Moves to Print
Here there be baby otters and baby aardvark. You've been warned.

What's it like to be incarcerated in a US prison?

I could not stop reading this series of posts from a 99chan forum regular who returns after a 2 year prison sentence until I'd finished every last word. Terrifying, dehumanizing stuff. But is it real, or fiction? The "chans" aren't exactly where one goes for fact-checked documentaries. (via @mala)