Adonis Diaries

Archive for November 2nd, 2010

I created a new graduate course for students about ready to start finding a PhD proposal.  The idea was to facilitating the task in matter of topics that a student might feel more inclined to selecting for further investigation.  The purpose was initiating graduate students to openly extending feedback to their colleagues and to learn asking the right questions.  The method was getting aware of the various scientific methods available in approaching and resolving problems.

The course intended for each student to researching four topics, among peer-reviewed articles:  Two in different engineering or scientific disciplines and two in social sciences fields of study.  Each topic will be followed up by another supporting or related subject article to be presented in each session.  The final two sessions were reserved for the presentation of a definite topic that students have decided for submitting draft proposals.  That proposal had nothing to do with the advisor’s line of research, but the student would greatly benefit if he shared his interest with his advisor.

There are a few graduate students who directly resume and build upon their MS thesis, saving many years of searching and suffering.  Those particular students were welcomed and encouraged to enroll in the class:  The only condition is that the “potential proposal” presented in the last two sessions should be different from the proposed thesis.  The rational is for a graduate student to learn flexibility in focusing on several topics of research:  The opportunity for that kind of research diversity and availability of alternative perspectives will be rare to come by in a “professional environment” later on.

I got the phone numbers of students and did call them during the semester to follow-up on their academic progress and behaviors.  Students were not forbidden to calling me up:  I lack time and resources for additional tasks that end up within the psychological domain of expertise.

For example, two days after each session, I would reserve an hour to calling up the students with sample questions such as: “Did you find an article? What is the title? You don’t remember the title then you may fill me on the subject matter.  You cannot because you had no time to browse through the article?  What if the day before the session you realized that the title was misleading?  What if the article does not involve any experiment?  You have a few more important courses to focus on?  Define me what is “more important”….

In the first session, I distributed sample articles in many fields, disciplines, and experimental methods.  The articles were distributed in random to students.  I select one student to read his selected article to class.  Actually, every session requires a student to reading to class.

The next session is basically a “looking dumb” experiment:  First, all students were confused explaining new topics they were not familiar with; second, they had no idea what kind of questions to ask that made sense to them; and third, the most important factor, every student was considering the backlash of the other students when his turn comes to present his article.  The student is saying: “If I ask corny questions then, the other students will get their revenge and harass me pretty good.  Let me go through this course in the most advantageous peace of mind.”

Fact is, most students have not be exposed to any kind of “experimental design” courses; they had no idea what is meant by dependent variables, independent variables, control variables, or confounding variable…  The students manipulated equations for years but have no idea what they are manipulating and how to discriminate among the variables.  Students sat in lab courses and still have no idea of experimental methods.

The students are smart, but the logic for designing experiment and controlling variables or factors is not familiar to them:  This logic requires training and frequent initiations.  I tend to believe that knowledge of designing experiments is the basic common denominator method in sciences, whether hard or soft sciences.  I am bewildered that most engineering and scientific fields do not require a single course in the logic or philosophy of designing experiments.  How can any professional comprehend articles outside his domain if he is not initiated to designing experiments?

I gave more weight to social sciences articles because they were sources of demonstrating the far more complex experiments that social scientist are confronted with:  The hundreds of human variables to control in order not to end up with confounding results that ruin months of assiduous work.

Most probably, my course was designed to initiate students on methods of designing experiments before it is too late when approaching their thesis:  It is a way of encouraging the students to enrolling in “design of experiments” courses, even if not required (which was generally the case in engineering and sciences).

I used to retain two students after each session and give them each an article to read.  The following session delivers what I expected:  half the follow-up articles were identical to the one I handed the two students with comical excuses of how they related to their original topic.

The third session was meant to overcoming barriers erected between the presenter and the other students.  Anyway, one of the main objectives of this course is asking openly the right questions with the purpose of comprehending another topic and learning to focus on the presentation instead of worrying on “when is my turn and how stupid will I look?”  This objective must be the hardest to achieving and the most useful, if successful, to a professional career.

Note:  This post is a fictional short story on teaching methods.

Japan is hosting the representatives of 193 States that signed the 1992 treaty for preserving biodiversity in Rio de Janeiro’s “Summit Earth”.  It was agreed in that summit in 1992 for protecting 10% of natural spaces in every signatory State in order to diminish the rate of extinction of species.  The Indian economist Pavan Sukhdev estimates that $3 trillion could be saved each year if the rate of deforestation is reduced by half.

The vast Brazil atlantic forest has been reduced to 10% for demographic expansion; many animal species are not able to survive on these remaining patch work virgin spaces.  Reforestation will be financed out of the CO2 credits.

So far, funds allocated to protecting biodiversity have dropped to less than $3.3 billion in 2008 from almost $4 billion in 2007.  However, surface dedicated to sustainable forests has climbed to 4 million square kilometers in 2010 from almost nil in 1995.  Earth lands occupied by protected species has increased to over 25 million square kilometers in 2010 from almost nil in 1970.

Norway has set aside one billion dollars to rehabilitating humid tropical forest in northern Indonesia.  Fractions of that aid will be paid out as the Indonesian government show concrete realizations in preserving the ecosystem.  Indonesia hosts 10% of vegetable species, 17% of reptiles and birds, and 12% of mammal species.

San Diego Zoo is freezing specimen of skin species doomed to extinction so that to reconstitute the species later on using cell stump techniques.

The most promising activities are coming from private enterprises.  The new motto is to prove to people that they can make profit protecting species instead of just forbidding hunting.  For example, the poor and vast country of Namibia (Africa) is generating huge profit from “Hunting Sport” of the well-to-do; Namibia is employing 250,000 citizens protecting wild life population that increased 60% since 1960.

Africa is reaping $200 billion from hunting sport activities that are turning to luxury safaris costing $1,400 per night (excluding all other expenses).  Tourism revenue from visitors to the preserved land of Camp Selinda (Botswana) climbed to $3 billion.  The private South African association African Parks Network is administering national parks in Africa; for example the reserves of PN Garanba (Rep. Dem. Congo) and Ol Pejeta Park in Kenya.

The US and Russia signed a treaty for a project to reserving the strategic lands on both sides of Bering Straight in the arctic.  infrastructure will be developed to encouraging tourism and thus, protecting whales and polar bears.

The Pentagon spends 56 million to preserving the 15 million hectares of virgin lands used in the various military training grounds.  For example, commanders are trained to applying the “Endangered Species Act” in the training centers of Fort Stewart and Townsend Range (Georgia); Eglin in Florida; Island San Clemente and Twenty-Nine Palms in California.

It appears that virgin lands in Africa are ideal for relocating extinguished species living in zoos:  There is no way of measuring the “spiritual value” of intact virgin lands still in existence.  The greatest hope relies on the rich Chinese and Indian investors for protecting natural life in Africa.

It appears that the Nagoya conference was not a success.  No specific regulations were demanded on particular countries and the final resolution paper was delayed for publishing several days.  Only two third of the 200 States sent representative of lower echelons; only five small State Presidents showed up.  If the conference was related to banking or finance you would have witnessed all world Presidents hurrying up to have their photos taken.

John O’Lantern

I bought a piece of land from a Maronite convent in order to build a summer cottage.  This land was called “3awdeh” because people used to grow blackberry trees in order to raise silk worms by feeding them the leaves.

In one corner of the land was a stone room called “cabo” where a family lived to maintain the silkworms.  John O’Lantern, also known as Hanna Fanouss, was the surviving member and refused to vacate the cabo.

John wore a threadbare overall called “gumbaz” and carried an extinguished lantern (fanous) when he wanted to send a message to any person that he is behaving as a “blind” person.

John never bought oil for his lantern since his mother died:  John had no money or refused to handle money and he bartered for his daily necessities.  John would raise his lantern early in the morning facing the sun to recharge its light.

The head cleric of the convent showed me around the land and introduced me to my neighbor John, living in my land:  The convent never managed to force John vacate “his cabo”.

John stepped out and pushed his extinguished lantern in my face and then turned it to the head cleric face and said: “So the convent sold you this land? Lands are the property of no one.  Show me the signature of God, his son Jesus, or the Holy Ghost and I will recognize you as owner” and he re-entered his stone room.

I am a judge and it was not difficult to incarcerate John in an asylum.  As the cottage was finished, I threw a party to celebrate my new acquisition.  Just then I saw John sitting on the steps of the front porch.  John had fled the asylum and I was pretty upset.  The clerics in the convent were laughing under their thick beard saying: “Before the asylum, John stuck his lantern in faces, but now he discovered that people are also  blind in their asses:  John is turning his lantern in the back side.”

John began: “Congratulation on this lovely cottage.  I must also thank you for the free ticket where you sent me.  I discovered new friends who were not blind at all.  I decided to come back among the blind people:  They need me more.

I ended up having a deal with John.  John would guard my cottage and maintain the apple trees in exchange of paying off what he borrows from the small shops in the village.  John vehemently refused any liquid money, and rebuffing me he said: “Are you blind again?”

I once asked John why he hangs his extinguished lantern outside his cellar. H replied: “I wait for my many friends who visit me every night.”  I said: “I never saw anyone coming close to your cabo”.  He said: “All my friends are the dead ones and they come and talk to me.”

The village has many stories to tell about John’s antic behaviors.  The son of the mayor was leading a group of youth harassing John when John occasionally visited the village.  John confronted the boy’s mother who threw his lantern away and John out the door.

Next morning, people saw John on the roof of the mayor’s house raising and lowering his lantern in the sun.  When asked, John said: “I was warning the mayor that his wife is growing horns on the mayor’s head (cheating on him) and these horns have been piercing the roof.”

John is very literate and has books in his cellar and can write.

I read to John the story of the Greek philosopher Diogenes who demanded from Alexander to step aside because he was blocking the sun.  I told John that Diogenes lived in a barrel.  John said: “Your Diogenes was searching for men.  Show me any great man who was not blind and thought that being a king and all-powerful he was permitted to crush people.  If you are alluding that I can as well live in a barrel and vacate my cabo then let me tell you that John is not one to live in any barrel for refuse.

I once asked John: “Why don’t you marry?  Lesser men than you did marry.” He replied: “All married people are blind.  You have to thank me for not bringing commotion to my cellar and preventing you from good sleep with a woman sharing my room.”

I said: “John, don’t you like kids?”  He replied: “I like seeing kids playing on church yard.  I wouldn’t like them shouting in my room and then ending up fighting for inheritance.”

I said: “So, I think you hate women.”  He smiled and said: “I love all women to spike you.  I love all of them save one woman:  The one I might marry.  This woman will get into her head to rob me from my right to love all other women and smash the lantern over my head.  Listen, I fear no one at all:  I just fear a wife destroying my lantern.”

Before election, the bishop honored a candidate deputy by celebrating a mass. After communion, the congregation saw John emerging from behind the bishop and pushing his lantern toward his ass.  John was locked in prison and beaten savagely by the guard.  As John was freed, he said: “I didn’t mean to disrespect the bishop.  I wanted to warn the bishop that the deputy did not confess his many capital sins before receiving the Eucharist.”

I was surprised, one winter visit to my summer cottage as I missed the antics of John, to find a sheet of paper attached to the key hidden under the mat.  The note read: “Bye. Do not rent the cabo.  You may raise pigs in the cabo if you wish.

People informed me that John married Daloula, the baker’s daughter.  Daloula used to visit her aunt in Beirut, frequently.  The village innuendos related that Daloula worked in a hotel.

I entered John’s cellar for any indices and for the lantern.  The lantern was gone; I found broken glasses outside the door.  Most probably, John decided to break his lantern and not wait for his wife doing the job over his head.

Note:  This Lebanese short story is an abridged translation of  Toufic Youssef Awad




November 2010

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