Archive for May, 2005


Textbook stickers on their way out.

Matt writes to point out that the anti-evolution textbook stickers are coming off in Cobb County. A small victory, he says. Yes, and an important one. I wish I were more heartened by it.

The so-called debate that intelligent design creationists have sought and inspired is already having a chilling effect on science education. Witness Monticello, Minnesota, where an elementary school withdrew their invitation to children’s book author Lisa Westberg Peters for fear that her visit would spark debate about evolution. I understand principal looking at meager per-pupil funding might have cause for concern, but I still think this was the wrong decision.

My next book purchase will be Peters’ book, Our Family Tree.

Bert Humburg has written a marvelous essay for The Panda’s Thumb, “Creationist Fears, Creationist Behaviors.” Highly recommended. Humburg points out that for creationists, “the whole point of criticizing evolutionary theory is to criticize evolutionary theory.” He explores what’s behind creationists’ fear of evolution, the notion that it invalidates their religious beliefs. That makes sense: my father, a fundamentalist Christian, has said on several occasions that without a literal understanding of the Bible, his faith is meaningless. (Selective literalism aside, this is deeply troubling to me. Why would God’s truth be any less true as metaphor?)

Critically, Humburg suggests what this means for science advocacy strategies:

  • Deny creationists martyrdom. Do not let them portray themselves as a persecuted minority.
  • Don’t confuse the public. “Arguing pseudoscience with science in an audience comprised of those unfamiliar with the science involved will lead to confusion.”
  • Develop alliances. We cannot rely solely on scientific arguments.

Real evolution advocacy happens in day-to-day life. It happens when doctors explain to their patients that since the 1930s, animal research has been required to bring drugs to the market and that such research makes no sense without evolution. It happens in political discussions, as citizens learn the actual science that underpins the contentious issues being debated or supports sound policies. It happens when theologians remind creationists that God calls them to take responsibility for their beliefs and that well-meaning believers have had to reexamine their theology in the light of verified science many times throughout history. It happens when those who understand evolution advocate for it daily without embarrassment, recognizing it for the non-controversial component of essential biology education that it is.

Go read it in its entirety, it’s worth it.

As for the textbook stickers, a lot of people I’ve talked to feel that they’re innocuous enough, what’s the big deal? Read the judge’s opinion (PDF) and it will be crystal clear: the decision to place the disclaimer stickers in textbooks did not happen in a vacuum. A reasonable person in Cobb County is likely to interpret the stickers as government endorsement of particular religious beliefs. That is unacceptable. That is why I am so happy to see the stickers go. Thanks for the news, Matt. It is a victory.


Jobs at Century College

Century College has a couple new positions posted: a DBA ( SQL Server and Oracle), and a web application developer (.NET). They look like good jobs, and the people at Century would be cool to work with. If I were a .NET developer and weren’t very happy where I am, I’d be all over that web job. Deadline’s tomorrow if you’re interested. (Sorry, I thought it was Friday.)

It’s interesting that these are two new ITS 3 positions. It’s a widely held misconception within the system that community colleges can’t get ITS 3s, that they’re unofficially capped at 2 (on a scale of 1-5). This is demonstrably false. Job classification & level is determined by a complex interaction of factors, including scope, impact (what happens if you screw up), type of responsibility, reportability … you almost have to be entrenched in the HR world to really grok it. I’ve seen how those decisions are made, and let me tell you: the position description is extremely important. I haven’t seen many ITS PDs at the two-year colleges that I think merit a 3, even when I know the person is operating at that level. My hat’s off to Century for successfully making the case for ITS3 on these positions.


Ajax in NYT.

See? You knew it was happening: Ajax is making it mainstream. An IT manager at work sent me a link to this New York Times article about Ajax. Okay, maybe the NYT tech section isn’t quite mainstream, but hey. It’s getting there. Even if discussion of specific technologies isn’t happening over the dinner table — and why would it? — the bar is being raised for what people expect out of a web app. This is a Good Thing.

I relished receiving this email because late last year I used Ajax techniques in some work I did for this manager. A small hack, really, but it did something a Certain Vendor said was impossible (and that the vendor then mangled, but we won’t go there). So I could respond to today’s heads-up by saying, “yep, we’re all over that.” And we are, my team has started using Ajax to make small UI improvements, bringing subtle & useful efficiencies to the user experience. It’s quite gratifying.


Threat Modeling Web Applications

I haven’t written much about threat modeling yet, but believe me I will. I’m just waiting until I finish writing up my talk, which I was sorely tempted to turn into an hour-long exploration of threat modeling instead of what I promised the conference planners. I mention this now because the Microsoft Patterns and Practices group has released a collection of articles on Threat Modeling Web Applications, well worth a read.

A lot of the best resources on threat modeling are coming out of Microsoft, including a chapter in Michael Howard and David LeBlanc’s excellent second edition of Writing Secure Code, a chapter in Threats and Countermeasures, and of course to cap the bunch, Frank Swiderski and Window Snyder’s comprehensive book, Threat Modeling. You’ll find more at


Tasting the Malabar

This evening I tasted the Indian Monsooned Malabar that Garrick and I roasted the other day. Giving the beans a few days to rest helped quite a bit: the flavors mellowed out and it became a very nice example of a monsooned coffee. Something possessed me to record myself tasting the coffee, so I fired up Audacity and gave it a shot: malabar.mp3. This is very rough, for which I apologize. I know next to nothing about editing audio, and for the first few minutes there’s some occasional static that I don’t know how to remove.

Warning: lots of slurping noises. If you’re sensitive to slurping, you probably don’t want to listen.

My friend and former roommate Stephen Howe reminded me that once upon a time I had a hot air roaster not entirely dissimilar to a popcorn popper except with a chaff collector. If memory serves, it was made by Melitta. I don’t think I was ever thrilled with the coffee, but it sure was fun to use. If this week’s experience with home roasting has taught me anything, it’s that you just can’t beat freshly roasted coffee, even if it’s not professionally done.



This is my part in an interview game, in which another blogger asks me 5 questions. Once I’ve answered here, anyone (yes, even you!) can leave a comment asking me to pose 5 questions to them. Complicated by the fact that I don’t have comments enabled (yet), so please just email me. sam [at] afongen [dot] com.

Today’s questions come courtesy of Tim McGuire over at Primate Brow Flash.

1. Who was the most influential person in your life?

I’ve been going over this a lot and keep coming back to my mom. So much of what I value in myself and that I hope to pass on to my kids was fostered by my mother.

2. Who was the strangest customer ever at the Roastery?

Every time I consider this question, all memories of the real weirdos run into a dark corner and hide.

It was probably Kaye the cat lady. She ran (runs?) a business taking care of people’s pets while they were out of town. She’s a great person and I liked her a lot, but spending a whole day dealing with attention-starved cats and dogs kinda took its toll on her ability for normal human interaction. She was a customer for six of the seven years I worked as a barista, so I got to watch a gradual shift. Kinda freaky.

Man, I hope she never reads this.

Actually, my strangest customers were not at the Roastery, they were at other coffee shops. The two guys at Espresso Extra on Grand Ave. who were dead ringers for Beavis and Butthead were a bit odd. At least until Butthead spread feces all over the bathroom walls one day. After that, “odd” wasn’t quite the word that I used to describe him.

3. When did you first realize you liked working with computers?

In a sense I always have. We first got a computer in the house when I was three years old so my dad could interact with the mainframe at work (this was the early & mid-seventies). I learned to read, type, and play blackjack all at the same time. I didn’t know that I’d want a job working with computers until sometime shortly after I realized that I did not in fact want a career in teaching. That was quite a blow, as I’d spent half my life expecting to be a teacher and wasn’t quite sure what to do next. At the time I had a temp job that included maintaining a few HTML pages for an HR department. I convinced the department to let me stick around a while longer to create a new web site for them, had a lot of fun doing that, and before long realized that hey! I can pay the bills doing my hobby!

4. If you could go back to grade school and do something differently, what would it be?

Almost all my memories of elementary school are of when I was wronged. My second grade teacher refusing to accept that “quake” is a real word. My fourth grade teacher accusing me of cheating on a spelling test. My fifth grade science teacher refusing to give me credit for a question on a test marked wrong, even when I brought in recent evidence as proof that I was right (the question had to do with the relative size of planets in our solar system. He insisted that we were being tested on what the textbook said, regardless of what scientists now knew to be true.) If I had to do it again, I would have stuck to my guns instead of capitulating and then stewing about it for decades.

On the other hand, then I’d probably have no memories of grade school whatsoever, except of the day in second grade I realized that I was already taller than my kindergarten teacher. That and lots of episodes of Kung Fu.

Man, was I a little smart aleck. I do not know how I managed never to get my ass kicked. Teased, but never beaten. At one point in 5th or 6th grade, after years of threats and teasing, the chief bully just finally hauled off and punched me in the gut. I was ready for it and just stared at him, unphased. He hit me again. My only reaction was to shake my head uncomprehendingly. He and his gang dealt with me with respect from then on, and I kinda wish that I’d provoked him into this years earlier. Might have made 3rd and 4th grade a bit more tolerable.

5. What do you think will bug your son the most about his parents when he is a young adult?

Wow. It’s funny, I never think about what Owen will be like as an adult, or even as a 5 year old.

I expect he’ll be most frustrated that despite the strength of our convictions, we do so very little to take action on those beliefs, just living our quiet little urban life. Kiara will bother him less in this regard than I will. She’s a better person than I am.


Roasting with Garrick.

I stopped by Garrick‘s house the other night to roast up a few batches of coffee. He’s posted a podcast of our conversation.

Garrick has got a cool little setup, roasting out in his garage with an old Poppery hot air popcorn popper. It is important to be outside, as roasting coffee creates a lot of smoke and sends chaff everywhere. He prefers processed coffees, such as the two we roasted, in part because of the reduced chaff. Can’t blame him.

We started with a Colombian Huila (Santa Elena) water process decaf. I confess to doubting how good the coffee would taste. You see, how much heat is applied to the beans (and when) is an important factor in how well a roast turns out. With a popper the only heat control you have is how long you run the machine. (Garrick tells me that there are modded Popperies out there, juiced up with separate heat and fan controls. Wow. Gotta love subcultures.) The beans roasted up damn fast — probably due to the heat produced by the popper and the low quantity being roasted (half a cup). The speed of the roast was evident when I bit into a bean to examine a cross-section: the outside of the bean was sharply distinct from the lighter center, an indication of an uneven roast.

Nevertheless, the Colombian decaf really surprised me. It was more than pleasant, I went back for a second cup! I do not doubt that Garrick’s considerable brewing skill — and his Chemex — helped, but all the skill in the world won’t cover up bad beans. There was no pronounced decaf flavor, as there so often is. It was decaf, but not screamingly so. A lot of mouthfeel, more body than I’m used to in a Colombian. There was a sort of “high back” piquant flavor that dominated the first cup. As the coffee cooled, that effect lessened and the flavor became more balanced. I never tasted the fruitiness that the supplier suggested, but there were hints of baking spices and a molasses/brown sugar. Overall, recommended.

We then roasted a few batches of an Indian Monsooned Malabar. Garrick very kindly sent me home with all of the beans, and I promised I’d write it up. I did a preliminary cupping yesterday morning (tasting, not brewing a whole batch), and with regret have to say that I wasn’t impressed. I tried to keep my expectations out of the picture, but the roast was light (city) and uneven and the coffee tasted like it. Very rough, very pungent. The beans themselves carry the earthy mustiness typical of monsooned coffees, but much of that disappeared (or became something unpleasant indeed) once ground. I thought this might mellow a bit if the beans are allowed to rest a day or two, and Garrick confirmed that Sweet Marias in fact suggest doing just that. So I’ll get back to you with the results of another cupping, as well as how it tastes when I brew a full pot.

The Colombian is available from Sweet Marias, as is the Indian Monsooned Malabar(those links will work only as long as the coffee is in stock).

Afterward, I walked through a light rain over to the Tea Source and picked up a small amount of Keemun tea. Keemuns are a good “work-safe” tea, a solid, rich cup that overcomes the lousy brewing conditions available in your typical office kitchen. After the rich Colombian, I need a deeper tea than the Darjeelings that I’ve been drinking lately.

All in all, a fine evening. My thanks to Garrick for having me over. I hope that someday we can meet to cup coffees. It’s a wonderfully fun ritual. And all that slurping would make for a fine podcast, I’m sure. :)

Okay, that just sounded dirty.


Important Firefox update released.

Firefox 1.0.4 has been released. If you’re using Firefox, you’ll want this upgrade, as it patches a serious security vulnerability. Go get it.

A couple days ago the IE team posted gracious, professional comments about this particular vulnerability. Especially gracious considering the crap they have to put up with on that weblog. Good stuff, but I can barely stand to read the comments from overzealous FOSS fanboys. I’ve made my fair share of cracks at IE‘s expense, but I hope that they’ve been at least reasonable/reasoned or obviously tongue-in-cheek. I certainly try for that now.

And on a similar vein, if you’re a Safari user, be sure to deselect the option to automatically “open ‘safe’ files after downloading.” Then read why. Besides being an insecure default, automatically opening downloads is just damn annoying.

Enough already, go get the new Firefox if you haven’t already.


Bad Science in New York

From the National Center for Science Education, via PZ Myers:

Assembly Bill 8036, introduced on May 3, 2005, and referred to the Committee on Education, would require that “all pupils in grades kindergarten through twelve in all public schools in the state … receive instruction in both theories of intelligent design and evolution.” It also charges New York's commissioner of education to assist in developing curricula and local boards of education to provide “appropriate training and curriculum materials … to ensure that all aspects of the theories, along with any supportive data, are fully examined through such course of study.” A08036, if enacted, would take effect immediately. Richard Firenze, who teaches biology at Broome Community College, remarked, “This bill is completely absurd. Those of us in New York who are concerned about our children's science education should sit up and take notice: it's not just in places like Georgia and Kansas that creationists are trying to sabotage biology education.” The bill's sole sponsor, Daniel L. Hooker (R), represents Assembly District 127, encompassing parts of Greene, Otsego, Delaware, Schoharie, Ulster, Columbia, and Chenango counties. Hooker also recently introduced bills that would, if enacted, permit the display of the Ten Commandments on public buildings and grounds (A08073), declassify sexual orientation from civil right status (A07916), and prohibit the solemnization of same-sex marriages (A07723).

I hope this dies hard. Again, in unison this time, we should not “teach the controversy” because there is no controversy! Just because creationists claim there is does not make it so.


Crosby Park

Yesterday I took Owen to Crosby Regional Park along the Mississippi River (satellite photo). We’ve been going for walks along the river since he was born, and Crosby is one of my favorite spots, a pleasant wooded oasis in an urban setting. You don’t have to step far from the road before you feel like you’re deep in the woods. On, granted, a well-maintained and usually paved trail. :) I wanted to make it there a couple times this spring before the mosquitos are out — ’cause once they’re out, they’re everywhere. It’s something of a perfect breeding ground.

We had just started walking around the lake when Owen suddenly sat in the plants at the edge of the trail. Poison ivy, of course, but I foolishly didn’t realize it until a minute or two later when he asked, “Why does my arm hurt?” Sure enough, he had a rash. Poor guy. He was a real champ, though, and didn’t scratch or even rub it once I told him that doing so would make it worse. We had to cut our walk short, but he’s eager to go back soon.

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