Sunday, December 24, 2006

Off Topic: CompUSA experiment

Years ago, I dreaded purchasing things at Radio Shack. Don't get me wrong: I'm a Radio Shack fan from way back. I cut my teeth on a TRS-80! And they're a handy source for electronic goodies for the physics lab. But if you went in to purchase a couple of D-cells for $1.59, the salesperson would initiate the check-out process by taking down your complete mailing address.

Each time you made a purchase at a different location, they'd ask for it all over again.

I tired of the ritual, so I became accustomed to engaging in a polite refusal. After I was asked for my name and address, I'd kindly respond, "How about I give you my money, you give me your product, and we call it a sale?" They'd look at me like I just spat on their hamburger. The audacity of a customer with money in hand refusing to volunteer personal information! What was that line from The Princess Bride? "Inconceivable!" What did I have to hide, they'd wonder, eyeing me now from head to toe and searching their memories for recently viewed police artist sketches.

And the smoke would really start to curl over their heads if I refused to give the contact info and then paid with a credit card!

After waiting too long in a post-9pm checkout line at CompUSA tonight, I had a recurrence. The cashier asked me for my ZIP code. I decided I wouldn't give it. I told her, "I won't give you my ZIP code but I'll be happy to give you money for this item." I showed that I had cash in-hand to clarify the point.

"Well, I need your ZIP code *and* your money."
"So if I don't give you my ZIP code, you won't take my money?"
"OK, have a nice night."

I left the merchandise for her to take care of as I departed. The title above includes the word "experiment." I intend to go back and try again but with a pricier item on the checkstand counter. I'm curious to see if there is a price point at which the the ZIP becomes optional. At this point, it's an open question and I don't presume the answer is obvious.

If you feel a need to chide me in the comments, please do so. But keep in mind that I was *not* rude to the cashier who was "just following orders," and "had no choice in the matter." I've seen skilled service-sector workers in action before and I know how they would have handled the situation. They would have typed in a common ZIP and moved on to the actual sale. They would have ended up collecting my cash instead of sending me out the door with a heavy wallet.

Anyway, I crossed the street to Best Buy and bought the item without surrendering any personal information. They were the closest among my many alternatives who
a. had the same product to sell and
b. required nothing other than legal payment in order to secure their wares.

Radio Shack eventually heeded the complaints of their customers and dropped their data mining operation. I fear CompUSA will be in Chapter 11 before they figure out why people opted for other--less nosey--vendors.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Carl Sagan blog-a-thon

Carl Sagan died December 20, 1996. If I were more eloquent than I am, I'd be able to write something profound about how his work changed my life. As it is, I will say that Carl Sagan was shining light in an increasingly demon-haunted world. Intelligent, smart, humble, and balanced. And indefatigable. To commemorate the tenth anniversary of Sagan's death, a blog-a-thon was announced. Bloggers with more to say and with better skills to it say are filling the web with remembrances this day.

In keeping with my concrete-sequential cognitive style, I offer a page of Cosmos-related curriculum material.

The worksheets offered are intended for student use while screening the episodes of Sagan's ground-breaking, award-winning PBS series, Cosmos.

If you're a teacher with the DVD set in hand, click to the page below and take whatever you find useful.

Cosmos in the Classroom

And thanks, Carl.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Skepticism in the Classroom 1.0

I posted a collection of curriculum materials to a new website. It includes quick lessons on skepticism and critical thinking. Many of these short classroom exercises were based on "news items" this past semester. Here's a list of the lessons.

Three-color Mind Control
Dead Psychic's Sketch of John Mark Karr
Football Clairvoyant
Chicago's Most Haunted
Columbia Explosion Photos
Angel at the State Fair

The curriculum links go to Word documents and PDFs, interactive QuickTime and Keyonte files, and links to offsite articles or video clips. At this point, I do not have any of the presentations available as PowerPoint files, because I really don't use PowerPoint. The interactive QuickTime files run as standard presentations, and QuickTime is a free download for Mac OS and Windows.

UPDATE: I posted PowerPoint versions of the presentations--I think! A Windows user will have to verify and let me know.

CST RTQ yellow alert!

Sometime between today and one month from today, the newly-updated set of CST RTQs should be posted as a PDF linked to from this URL.

Wow. OK, that was a lot of abbreviations. Let me take it down a notch. Each year, the California Department of Education releases 25% of the questions from the previously administered California Standards Test (CST). For physics, that means 15 new questions are released each year. The Released Test Questions (RTQs) become part of a document that includes previously-released items and additional information about the CST, including the reference sheet.

On occasion, some of the released items do not meet with the complete approval of the physics teaching community. Some people are less than enthusiastic about the mechanics or content of a specific question.

I am always eager to hear the criticism in the interest of improving future tests. So sharpen your knives, phyzcritics! And check that URL now and again. The RTQs up as of this post include items from the 2003, 2004, and 2005 administrations and were posted in January of 2006. The new set should be up within a month. So keep clicking that funky URL to see if the new document is up yet.

UPDATE: All quiet on the western front as of 12-Jan-2007. I don't 'spect we'll see anything until the second week of January at the earliest. As long as the status remains "Physics (PDF; 281KB; 21pp.; 09-Jan-2006)," it's last year's news.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Vote for the Stars!

My favorite science/skepticism blog is Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy. Normally, I'd keep that to myself. But suddenly, the good people at The Weblog Awards want to know. So I hustled over and placed my vote.

Now you should, too.

If you don't, a crazy blog devoted to cephalopods could win as best science blog. Cephalopods? Are you squidding me? I say stand up for those of us in the animal kingdom who have a backbone and can stand up. Or at least for the groovy posts that The Bad Astronomer authors and amazing space photos he shares.

UPDATE: Squids beat stars. Official. Bummer. See for yourself.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Amaz!ng Meeting 5

It's THE conference of the year, every year. The James Randi Education Foundation (JREF) assembles a truly amazing set of guest speakers and brings back some of the best from TAMs past. Thoughts are provoked, laughs are released, and for a few days in January, all seems right with the world.

Registration continues for TAM5: Skepticism and the Media which will be held Thursday, January 18 through Sunday, January 21 at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas. This year's luminaries include...

"Repeat offenders" James Randi, Michael Shermer, Penn & Teller, Julia Sweeney, Mythbuster Adam Savage, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Wiseman, Bad Astronomer Phil Plait, his good friend Hal Bidlack, illusion craftsman Jerry Andrus, and performers Banachek and Jamy Ian Swiss.

Media experts including NPR's Peter Sagal, The Onion's Scott Dikkers, Scientific American's John Rennie, Reason Magazine's Nick Gillespie, and MIT's Niel Gershenfeld.

Other specials guests include ID-warrior Eugenie Scott, Skeptics' Dictionary's Robert Todd Carroll, singer/songwriter Jill Sobule and many, many more.

Not to mention the audience, which should break the 1000-person mark this year. Smart, witty people you want to know.

Conference attendance has gone from 100 to 300 to 500 to 800. It grows because most people who go once become addicted. So past attendees return and bring friends/relatives next time. I dare you to attend just one!