“Hooray for me!” or “About Friggin’ Time!”, take your pick.

Still traveling, and don’t currently have an especially good internet connection at the moment. More substantial posts to follow soon, honest, but in the meantime:

The college doesn’t wipe out my login for another week or so, so I was able to get logged into my registration information page. It still lists me as a “Senior”. However, when I have it generate an “Unofficial Transcript” for me, it now has the following before the class listings:

Degree: BACHELOR OF SCIENCE Date: 12/21/07

They don’t send out the actual pieces of paper until March, I’m told, so this is the first direct confirmation I’ve seen that indeed I can not continue to use “but I’m just an undergrad” as a disclaimer in my posts.

Now I just need to decide whether to go to grad school or just become a wealthy industrialist…

Why you really do or don’t want me as a student…

Of the classes I took this last semester, there’s only one I haven’t blogged about at least once.

Masochist that I am, I went and took “Applied Calculus”, even though I’d gotten approval to count my previous semester of calculus (about 8 years ago) as fulfilling the mathematics requirement for graduation. The “applied” in the title of the class caught my eye, and after speaking to the instructor before the semester to find out what the class was like I decided that if there was time and money left I’d take the class. So I did.

Although I’d rank it as only the second most useful “Mathematics” course I’ve taken so far, Dr. Wolper was one of the best mathematics instructors I’ve had up to this point, so I’ve got no regrets for having spent the time and money to take it. I suspect I’ll remember a lot more of it than I did of the previous calculus class.

Anyway, getting to the point of this post:

There are times when I am unable to restrain myself and answer homework or exam questions in a terse, boring manner, regardless of the subject. If you’re an instructor and are wondering if you want me in your class, here is something to judge by.

Calculus (for those who don’t know) is more or less the math you use to deal with when, how, and how fast things change. In practical terms, when dealing with real-world applications this often means dealing with a graph of some data. A number of homework (and exam) problems this semester dealt with questions along the lines of “what would a graph of such-and-such a situation look like and how would you interpret it?”. Here’s one from early in the semester:

This was my answer:

You may judge for yourself whether this is a good answer or not…

I can has graduation?

The last undergraduate final is over.

Everything it taken care of save for one overdue library book, which I intend to take care of tomorrow.

All the other fees are paid. All the paperwork is done. I’m pretty sure I got well above the F– that was the minimum I needed on the Philosophy final to achieve the minimum passing grade. In fact, my only current stress about my grades is whether or not I managed to end out my last undergraduate semester with a 4.0 or not.


Let the wild, uncontrollable drunken orgiastic celebration begin!

After my nap

Make it stop!

Specifically, I think I’m getting a severe case of Noel poisoning.

One of the things I hate most about Christmas is the incessant “re-imaginings” of the same handful of accursed songs, generally done in the same awful forced pretend-emotional tone.

They’ve got “The First Noel” playing in the style of a late-1950’s/early-1960’s Disney Choir style. On a loop. For the last half hour so far.

Ugh. Make it stop…

Thank the Noodly One for headphones, Amarok, and the collection of hard bouncy techno music that happens to be on Igor here…

I’m down to the last class of the last week prior to next week’s finals, so I should have time for a real post again soon…

This blog does not exist

I say that because in order to exist I must have used my computer to type it in, but George Berkeley “proved” that material things don’t exist. No pictures either this post, because after all my camera doesn’t exist, either.

Okay, the fact that I’ve got a whole cluster of time-sucking school stuff last week and this week to deal with is also a factor in keeping the posts here sparse at the moment. Berkeley just happens to be one of them.

Berkeley was what I would call a “philosophical” Empiricist (whereas I would describe myself as a “practical” empiricist – hence the “Applied” in this blog’s “Applied Empirical Naturalism” subtitle. Put simply, empiricism means that knowledge comes from observation via the senses. I’m a practical kind of guy, and I don’t think this in any way invalidates the use of the intellect to infer additional (testable) knowledge from one’s observations beyond what is directly observed. Berkeley, on the other hand, is a solipsist: he claims that nothing exists unless it is perceived – or is a perceiver.

His argument is a little hard to follow. As best I can tell, he’s starting with a Descartes-like observation that the only thing we ever actually experience are sensory perceptions. In other words, we can experience and know about the sensation of “heat”, but this sensation is just an idea in our minds. Even if there were something “behind” the sensation of heat that was causing it, we could not know anything about it directly, since we only ever experience the sensation.

In a way that is still not entirely clear to me, Berkeley then seems to take the leap from Descartes-style “the only thing I can be certain of existing from my direct observations are ideas, and my mind which contains them” to “since there is no direct empirical basis for claiming the existence of anything else, matter cannot be said to exist”.

Berkeley then goes on to claim that since only minds and ideas exist, and since there are some ideas that seem to be imposed on him (like if he sticks the idea of a red-hot-poker up the idea of his left nostril, he will have the idea of excruciating pain whether he wants to or not), that therefore there must be some other mind from which these ideas come. From this, he makes the leap to claiming that there must be an “infinite” mind which contains all these other ideas, by which he means God™.

This also gives him a convenient explanation for things existing when nobody’s looking at them. See, God is always looking at everything, so nothing that exists is ever not being perceived.

Personally, I’m finding myself wondering if his argument also leaves open the possibility of an animistic reality instead. He claims that everything we experience (including “sensible things”, i.e. things we see, feel, smell, etc.) is just an idea, and an idea existing without a mind is absurd. Instead of postulating the existence of an “infinite” mind, though, wouldn’t the notion that anything that exists actually does, itself, have a mind (or “spirit” if you prefer) also satisfactorily explain how things can continue to exist even when nobody is observing them? Berkeley makes the claim that inanimate objects don’t have minds…but he gives no justification for this claim. I mean, he admits that he can’t directly observe other people’s minds (or the “infinite” mind either) and therefore can’t prove that anyone but him exists, but he never claims that other people don’t exist. So why couldn’t the continued existence of the fork that I ate dinner with be due to the fork’s own mind?

That “thump” you may have imagined hearing was probably Berkeley turning over in his grave. Berkeley was, after all, a Bishop, going through this whole philosophical exercise out of hatred of “skeptics” and “atheists”, and it amuses me to imagine how appalled he’d be to have his arguments used to support something that he probably felt only “heathens” and “savages” would consider…

Yeah, I know, not much of a post, but I’m a bit overloaded at the moment. Nonetheless, more to follow this week over the next few days, at least.

#1 on Google!

Over on scienceblogs.com’s The World’s Fair, the author has started an amusing meme.

It goes like this: the challenge is to find 5 sets of search terms for which your own blog or site is the #1 hit on a Google search. Note that it is acceptable to quote specific phrases but of course it’s more impressive if you don’t. Here are 8 that (as I type this) for which this blog is the #1 hit (links go to the blog address that is the hit):

There was at least one other which I’m having trouble remembering at the moment. Perhaps I’ll update later if I remember what it was.

Going to have to re-examine Socrates…

Figuratively speaking, of course, since he’s dead and all…

Man, Descartes so far is a serious disappointment. He seems to have an almost Dickensian tendency to verbal puffery (though thankfully the Descartes “Meditations” are much smaller than the big sack of tedium that was “David Copperfield”). It’s like he’s developed an unwholesome lust for his own thoughts and can’t keep his metaphysical hands off of them.

You’d think a guy clever enough to come up with “The Cogito™” could do better.

When I heard Descartes described years ago, I’d heard he started with “I think, therefore I am” and then from there proved the existence of The Supreme Being somehow. While I didn’t expect an unquestionable Proof, I did at least expect to see some spectacular theological philosophy taking place.

Instead, I (metaphorically, of course) show up at Descartes’ intellectual feast expecting some unique and exotic fare, only to see Descartes rummage around in his kitchen to come up with an old, freezer-burnt old package of leftover AquinasAnselm (oops), which he spottily defrosts in the consumer-grade-microwave of his argument. Bah. Not even worthy of dirtying my mental spork on. (There, do I sound arrogant enough to be an old-school philosopher myself yet?)

In other news: Celebration time! I’ve advanced all the way from 1st loser to 3rd loser! WOOHOO! It’s a bit of a jump to get up to the next tier (blogs getting an average of around 50-100 votes/day) but I can make it…

Calling on the entire internet to study for a Philosophy exam…

I’ll probably do two posts today, but only because this one is a preview and an attempt to gather opinions…

I find writing helps me think, and we’ve got a Philosophy exam day after tomorrow. We’ve got a “study sheet” with eight concepts and fourteen potential essay questions that might come up on the exam. Is anyone reading this particularly interested in any of these (some of these have been addressed in earlier posts, but here’s the whole list)?

Concepts: “valid argument”, “sound argument”, “a priori knowledge”, “a posteriori knowledge”, “epistemology”, “metaphysics”, “doctrine of recollection”, “Objective reality/formal reality”

Essay topics (in short):

  • Describing the “Socratic Method” and contrasting it with the sophist method.
  • Discuss some of the Socratic philosophical positions that might call into question the view that what is right for a person is whatever that person believes is right.
  • Discuss Socrates’ claims that evil harms the evildoer and that “the unexamined life is not worth living”, and whether or not he’s justified in these claims
  • Critically discuss Socrates’ claim (at his trial) that he could not have been knowingly and willingly corrupting the youth
  • Discuss Socrates’ arguments in the “Apology” that death is not something to be feared
  • Discuss the “Learner’s Paradox” in the “Meno” (roughly – is it possible to “learn” something without being “taught”, and if so, how can this be?)
  • What was the point of the “slave boy” portion of the “Meno” (Socrates’ attempts to demonstrate that someone who doesn’t understand Geometry can come to have knowledge of geometry without being taught.)
  • Discuss Meno’s definition of “virtue” and Socrates’ objection to it
  • Discuss the distinction (in the “Meno”) between “true knowledge” and “opinion”, and how it relates to the question of whether virtue can be taught
  • From “Euthyphro”, discuss the issues around whether or not whether something is “pious” because The Gods love it, or if The Gods love it because it is “pious”.
  • State clearly and describe Descartes’ three levels of doubt
  • Discuss Descartes’ contention in the first Meditation that he cannot know if he is not dreaming
  • Discuss The Cogito (“I think, therefore I am” and why Descrates couldn’t instead say (for example) “I walk, therefore I am”
  • Discuss: “I hear a noise, I feel heat. These things are false since I am asleep. Yet I certainly do seem to see, hear, and feel warmth. This cannot be false.” (A quote from our translation of Descartes’…)

That’s what we’ve been given to work with. What are the odds that any of that is interesting to any of you? If so, please comment (no login required, and go ahead and put a fake email address in the comment form if it bothers you – as long as it doesn’t appear to be spam I’ll post it.). Come on, you’ll be doing me a favor, and you’ll automatically sound like a genius because we’re discussing philosophy.

Followup post later today…

Yatta! I Fail to Reject the Null-Scholarship!

(Oops, got so excited I got carried away with the title. Fixed now.)

I am thrilled to notice this morning that I am in the running for the College Blogging Scholarship, honestly, if this even attracts a larger population of active readers, I’ll consider that alone an excellent “Runner-Up” prize.

Not that the scholarship money wouldn’t be much appreciated…but more about that later.

For the moment though: Hello, current and new readers, to the internet’s self-proclaimed foremost authority on Expired JellO, among other things. I suppose that since I’m asking people to vote for me, I should probably give a quick description of myself and this blog. I’ll keep it short for the moment:

My actual name is Sean Clark; the explanation for the “Epicanis” handle deserves a post of its own. I am a “non-traditional” student at Idaho State University, working on finishing my long-overdue B.S. in Microbiology. This is actually the 5th college institution I’ve attended. It’s not that I’ve been kicked out of the others or anything, just that I keep having to move and start over. I’m finally in one place here long enough to actually finish the degree. Where I end up doing my graduate work depends on where (and if) we end up moving next year – I’ll post about this if anybody’s interested.

My primary interest is in “applied” microbiology, particularly non-medical biotechnology. I’ve been convinced for many years that non-medical applications of microbial biotechnology are underappreciated and somewhat neglected, and I’d rather people not have to get sick before they can benefit from whatever I might come up with…

Incidentally, Hillary Clinton agrees with me (“we should increase investments in non-health applications of bio-technology” – see paragraph 23). Whether that helps or harms my position no doubt depends on your political opinions, but still, I appreciate that someone with some kind of official authority agrees with me. And, hey, maybe this means I’ll be able to find a decent job during or after graduate school. Anybody think the Office of Technology Assessment will be hiring again soon?…

This blog itself is primarily concerned with sharing some of my education, and science in particular, as an exercise in communicating science. I, for one, think I’ve gotten better as the blog has progressed.

A couple of important points: This is a blog, not a magazine: participation is encouraged. If nothing else, the voting for the scholarship looks like it goes on for a couple of weeks, so if you are thinking to yourself “Gosh, I’d vote for you, but you don’t talk enough about X” or “you talk too much about Y” or “I hate the background color of the webpage” or whatever, now’s your chance to speak up. You do not need to be logged in to comment (but I do screen comments, so spammers: you’re wasting both your time and mine), so please do. Also consider subscribing to the RSS feed, found in the upper-right area of the page.

I try to update at least a couple of times each week, though lately I’ve managed to maintain a nearly daily pace. Participation helps here, as comments from readers helps me come up with additional topics to post on. I’m getting a lot of enjoyment out of blogging, so I’ll post as often as I reasonably can…

One last quick note on using this blog: I try to put title tags on most special bits of posts, like images and links. And…bits of text like this, which you might think of as “inline footnotes”. If you hover over anything with that thick-dotted-underline, you should see some additional information. As of a week or two ago, if you click on them, the entire extra text will pop up in a separate box where you can read it all, assuming you don’t have javascript turned off. I haven’t yet gotten around to going back and doing this to the previous bits like this, but I will eventually.

So, again, welcome. Comments, questions, and suggestions will help me improve the blog, and are therefore strongly encouraged. Oh, yes, and please vote for me. Otherwise, I’m going to have to resort to selling blood plasma and begging outside of scientific conferences. Thanks.

Environmental Chemistry Field Trip – Day 1, part 3

Overview of Narrow Gauge Spring
Our final destination of the day was Narrow Gauge Spring, which is on the backside of the Mammoth Terraces area. Apparently, there’s only one other place in the entire world – somewhere in China – that has exactly the same kind of conditions as this place.

The process of making this kind of formation requires rainwater, healthy microbe-supporting soil, limestone, and heat. It goes something like this: rainwater seeps down through the soil, where lots of healthy microbial activity uses up the oxygen in it and excretes plenty of extra carbon dioxide into it, making it more acidic. The water sinks into the ground and runs into the limestone, which is Calcium Carbonate (CaCO3). Calcium Carbonate doesn’t dissolve well in plain water at all, but there are two things that make it dissolve better: acid and heat. The heat from the magma under the park and the acidity of the water combine to dissolve a whole lot of the limestone. Then, somewhere, the heated water gets forced back up to the surface through a crack.

Where the water comes back in contact with the air, it can let off the extra carbon dioxide and heat. This doesn’t happen very fast in a deep pool, since this can only happen in a thin area near the top. Where the water overflows, though, it’s very shallow, and the carbon dioxide and heat can escape very quickly into the air. This makes the water suddenly become less acidic and less hot, and all that extra calcium carbonate can no longer stay dissolved. It crystallizes, making a hard calcium carbonate “shell” along the edge of the pool. The edge can end up growing some much over time that it forms an overhang with stalactite-like formations underneath it:

Another view of Narrow Gauge Spring

You can just make out an overhanging area in the upper-left of the photograph.

It was fun taking measurements of the water here. Water freshly removed from a pool initially showed up off the scale on our “Total Dissolved Solids” meters, but if you waited a few seconds the reading would drop down to where the meters could read it, and keep falling. Out of the pool, the water was cooling off quickly enough that the extra dissolved Calcium Carbonate was un-dissolving out of the water in tiny bits even as we stood there.

The water appeared to be about 56°C at the top of the pool where it was initially emerging. If you want an idea of not only that I am a nerd but what kind of nerd I am, I will mention that I think of this as “stewpot temperature”, and often wonder if there is any useful or tasty effects to be discovered in the microbial processes done by thermophilic microbes that live in these conditions. I’ll find out one of these days…

Oh, and a couple of bits of trivia about the Apollinaris Spring area from a couple of posts ago. Firstly, it was apparently named after a spring in Germany with the same name. Secondly, we briefly discussed the chemistry of carbon dioxide in water in class this week, and it turns out that the pH of 5.9 that Apollinaris Spring has is probably more basic than plain distilled water would be.

Now, anyone who’s had basic chemistry is probably a little baffled by this – after all, isn’t a pH of 7 that of pure water by definition? The answer is yes, but we’re not talking about pure water, we’re talking about water exposed to the air, where carbon dioxide can dissolve into the water. Working through the mathematics involved showed that distilled water should end up with a pH of about 5.6-5.7, at least at “standard temperature and pressure” (roughly sea-level air pressure and a temperature of around 72°F.). I have a suspicion as to why the Apollinaris Spring water seems less acidic than I might have expected, though.

They actually took our Apollinaris Spring water and ran it through an analytical instrument of some kind (I wasn’t there for it, but the description of the results made it sound like it was a “liquid chromatography” type of device). They found NO nitrates or nitrites in it. Since we’re talking about spring water percolating through healthy soil, I would have expected some nitrogen. I noticed, though, that although they checked for nitrite and nitrate, they didn’t check for reduced nitrogen – that is, ammonia.

I managed to score a tiny vial of the water during lab last Wednesday. When I get a chance to hit the pet store for some ammonia testing supplies, I’ll check that. If it’s there, it might explain the possibly slightly higher than expected pH. Similar to what happens to carbon dioxide and water, when ammonia (NH3) is dissolved into water(H2O), there tends to be some recombination of the atoms to make “ammonium hydroxide” (NH4OH), which is basic.

I don’t know if that’s what’s going on, but I intend to check.

There’s one more post worth of Field Trip stuff, and then I’ll be back onto other topics. Here’s a hint of what might come up, though: can anybody tell me what the effective pore size of pectin and cornstarch gels might be?…