Getting my Science Fair On

by guest blogger Ken

While Jon gets to go have fun at the Space Access conference, I’m stuck here in the metroplex with a dearth of vacation days in the kitty. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as I was back this last weekend for my second year as a volunteer judge at the
Dallas Regional Science and Engineering Fair. I go waltzing in at 7:30am Saturday morning all ready to be a Junior (high) judge again, slowly working my way over the next couple of years up the ladder to Senior (high) judge. Surprise #1: I’m judging high school projects this year. Uh oh.

Settling in at the Physics & Astronomy table with breakfast, I find there are three sets of papers, representing over 25 projects. I naturally gravitate to the more astronomy set, given my Master of Space Studies. Surprise #2: Despite calling “Not it!” early on, I end up as Captain of the judging team, since the guy from TI and the guy from Raytheon were both rookies at judging, even if they did have a slightly better handle on this stuff than I did. When they asked for a raise of hands of new judges, over half the room raised their hands. I guess that’s the Peter Principle in effect – the more incompetent you are the higher up you get pushed in the hierarchy.

Great projects. A LOT harder to judge than last year. The higher level of sophistication is evident, and these kids are a lot farther along than I was at their level in many regards. There’s always the difficulty of trying to gauge the extent to which the parents hovered over and directed the experience. The added complexity of ready access to the internet made it even more difficult, and in the end what you’re really trying to figure out is how well they really understand the underlying principles of their experiment, how well they applied the scientific process, did they really analyze the data, and does it lead to further investigation.

I do have to say that the forms for the judges are really well done. They have an enormous normalizing effect for finding the best ones. Like last year, I was in the middle of the pack, with the guy from TI a little more generous, and the guy from Raytheon a lot more strict, but he had worked in black projects, so that kind of discipline is understandable (and admirable, in my view). I asked him what it was like to come out from working on technology so far ahead to technology so far behind, and he basically described it as interesting. I was a bit surprised to see much less of a presence from the military this year (though they were there). I hope someone from the government was out scouting for talent and trying to cultivate our best and brightest. Perhaps that was the Special Awards team.

Our top picks on my team didn’t line up quite so much as was the case last year, so we added up the scores, laid out the top half, and wrestled over the order before arriving at a consensus at 1, 2 and 3 plus honorable mention. I think I can say that the young lady who was our top pick definitely has a future in electrical engineering.

After turning in the results the smart guys got to leave, and I got to stay behind with the other two captains to take the top nine picks plus honorable mentions down to the top three plus honorable mentions. At this level each of the Captains is essentially advocating for their experiments against those from the other groups as a means of shaking out the ones that really stand out from the standouts. Our top three were all very good, and it was tough picking the top one. Again, it boils down to the scientific process, and how well they conducted their experiment, and how well they learned from it, which is really the key. I think we did well with our top choices, and a couple of honorable mentions that we felt really stood out.

So we go to turn in the forms, and the official lady tells us that only two honorable mentions is harsh. Yeah, there’s space for up to six, but these are the ones we felt really stood out for honorable mention since they couldn’t get into the top three. I think her point was that only recognizing 20% of the field for awards was not the best way to encourage these bright young minds, so we buckled (it’s for the kiiiids, man) and added some more who weren’t quite as good as our first two choices (who I guess I would have given Special Honorable Mentions), but there you have it.

One thing that did surprise me was how quickly I shot up the hierarchy versus last year. In the first round the two rookies had me cornered, since I at least had one year of experience under my belt, so there was no escaping being the Captain there. But in the second round, I did get the impression that the other two judges were deferring to my ‘leadership’ a bit, even though I in no way sought a leadership position. The young lady from Turkey who was on the same judging team as I was last year also ended up as a Captain. She said she’s seeing a lot of Planck-related stuff, so perhaps the Millenials will be the ones who figure out the quantum foam and the fourth physical dimension (in the same way that circles are two dimensional representations of three-dimensional spheres [or cones or cylinders], I consider our universe to be the 3-D representation of something in the fourth physical dimension; since we haven’t figured out how to measure that fourth physical dimension with our 3-D tools, so consequently there’s a lot of physical effects here in the 3-D universe that we still don’t understand, and probably won’t until we get a better handle on the next dimension up, and quantum mechanics is a part of that, IMHO). The other Captains were both teachers, so they were closer to both the subject matter and the student’s level, and I certainly made it clear that I respected their deeper knowledge of the subject. Perhaps it was just because I made sure we worked through the process and that the consensus was really the consensus. Or the Peter Principle, part two. We were pretty much the last judges to leave.

Sunday morning now. I wanted to see if the coverage by our local rag, the Dallas Morning News, could be any more pathetic than last year, and lo and behold, the winners weren’t even named in the paper, there was just a picture even further back in the Metro section (8B this year versus 2B last year), details on viewing the displays today, and a link to a website ( Just what hundreds and hundreds of eager-beaver young stuents are looking to save to their scrapbooks. The photo is of a display that I remember seeing entitled “A Study of Cymatics, Applied to Planetary Models”. The reason I remember it is that I scanned through the text and didn’t actually see an explation of what the heck the word Cymatics means. The best I can find amongst my dictionaries at home is cyma and cymatium, both architecture terms relating to curves and stuff. I was quite happy to see a junior project called “Operation Moon Dirt: Can the Man on the Moon take up Farming?”. There’s been a fair amount of traffic to the entry in the Lunar Library on NASA’s Lunar Plant Growth Chamber Challenge. Perhaps an article on cytherian gardening is in order for the next Carnival of Space…

Okay, so we’re here later in the week, as I wanted to give John’s great post some time at the top of the page. I missed this week’s Carnival of Space, but the article on cytherian gardening is coming along. I just need to fill out the hyperlinks and get the pictures ready for the first part. I’m going through a lot of the older books in the Lunar Library and scanning the really cool Moon-related illustrations. Finding gardening-related ones is a bit tough, but I’ve found a few. It’s going to be a three-parter, with the first one up probably this weekend. Right now I’m bogged down in a review of “Lunar Base Agriculture: Soils for Plant Growth” from 1989 for the middle part of the article, and then for the third part I’m going to take another stab at looking through NASA’s Lunar e-Library, a collection of NASA research papers over the years relating to the Moon. Apparently it’s so comprehensive that it’s export-controlled (as if that’s stopped anyone that really wanted to get a copy), but it also sucks memory and wreaks havoc on my computer, making it very difficult to use. There’s some other stuff I’m going to look through as well to try to answer the question of whether we can garden in the regolith of the Moon.

One last note, sharp readers will note that the testimony Bernanke gave before Congress today was codespeak for some the financial things I’ve talked about in previous posts, especially relating to Bear Stearns. The Telegraph in the UK was the only decent coverage of what he was actually talking about. The main theme going on here is that the markets must remain calm, and there needs to be sufficient liquidity in the market to make sure that no one gets jittery about counterparty risk. Right now, I have no doubt, investment and commercial bankers are carefully poring over their documentation about just who they are exposed to and for how much (both pay and receive). Documentation and systems risks are also to be considered in companies that have high turnover or supertight staffing. In fact, gentle readers, now is probably a good time to pull out your prospectuses and see if you can figure out in just what exactly your savings are invested. (Ha ha ha…heh heh…oh ho ho……good luck) Self-directed accounts of course know exactly what their investments are, unless they’re buying mutual funds. Read the fine print, all of the mutual fund companies are allowed to engage in hedging activities with all kinds of instruments.

And here’s my issue. In the purest sense, to hedge means to protect against principal loss, usually by trying to at least match the rate of inflation. The whole point is to not lose principal, even if interest is foregone. If you start with a million dollars you should at least end up with a million dollars, hopefully more.

Much of what is called hedging these days is actually speculation, which is when you put principal at undue risk to get outsized gains when you score. This is different from investing, which should really be considered things like grandma buying the bonds of the local utility company for a steady 6-8% return year-after-year-after-year. [Ha! Those days are long gone] You won’t be rich, but you’ll be comfortable if you save.

One thing you might hear is that Credit Default Swaps (CDS) is a way of ‘shorting’ bonds. In a sense this is true. For the uninitiated, shorting is where you borrow some stock to sell at the current market price with the expectation that the price will go down (you have a different analysis from the market), so that when you have to give the stock back to the guy you borrowed it from, you can buy it at the cheaper price in the market and pocket the difference. In the case of bonds, you buy the CDS as ‘insurance’ against your bond defaulting and losing all of that principal, the triggering event being the non-payment of the bond, BK, &c. and anon, though in the case of CDS it is not necessarily clear if you actually have to have any association at all with the bond to purchase the ‘insurance’, which would differentiate it significantly from a short. Since these are considered derivatives, they get special treatment in BK, ranking equal or superior to secured creditors, which would require disgorgement of lots of capital in such an event as market contracts netted out. That is why liquidity is so important for the markets right now. What’s keeping the investors from the markets is lack of transparency. There isn’t any real investment being put in because everyone is looking for their expectation of the proper price and the constant additions of liquidity are propping up prices that no one believes. Until the market goes through a fundamental repricing it is going to experience ongoing timidity amongst investors and people are going to sit on cash. This means that there is going to have to be foreclosures, bankruptcies and yes, deflation of prices. I am not going to pay stupid money for a house. I looked at one last weekend that is waaay overpriced, and as a consequence has been on the market for a while. I have no intention of paying out a speculator, I’d like to buy from a homeowner that’s going to negotiate a fair value.

So there you have it folks, make sure you pay off your credit cards, read contracts before you sign them, even if the salesperson is tapping her toe, only buy something you understand, and eat oatmeal, it’s good for you.

[Caveat Emptor]

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