Sunday, September 28, 2014

Mission: Space

I recently took a trip to the planetarium (not surprising, considering it's one of my favorite places to visit).  I think the aspect I love most about it is the number of exhibits available to the public.  There's an interactive telescope exhibit, several movies to attend, and scores of basic information about our solar system as well.  However, this visit was different, mainly because the show I attended (Destination Solar System, for those interested) failed to mention the most recent news that swept throughout the space community!

This past week, both India's Mars probe Mangalyaan and the United States' satellite MAVEN successfully went into orbit around Mars.  MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) began its orbit around Mars on Monday, two days earlier than the Indian probe, which finally arrived on Wednesday.  Curiosity, the US rover who has been on Mars since 2012, welcomed the Indian probe over Twitter when it began orbiting Mars.  According to BBC News India, Mangalyaan will "...take pictures of the planet, study its atmosphere and try to detect methane in the Martian air, which could be an indicator of biological activity at, or more likely just below, the surface."

The phrase "biological activity" found in the quote above suggests that there is life on Mars.  In fact, recent studies of Martian soil by the rovers on the planet's surface revealed that underground water still remains on Mars, a find that could determine whether life survived and thrived on the red planet (along with the results of Mangalyaan's studies of the atmosphere).

How incredible would it be to find life, however miniscule, on a planet other than our own?  NASA has found countless numbers of exoplanets (a planet that orbits a star outside of our solar system) in our universe, but none of them are even remotely close to sustaining life. Take a look at OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb, an exoplanet found in the Scorpio constellation that is orbiting its own star at a whopping distance of 21,500 light-years away.  (A light-year is a term used to describe the distance light travels in a year, or 10 trillion km/year.  And for all of my American friends, this is around 6 trillion miles/year.)  This planet resides in the area mainly referred to as the inhabitable zone.  If this planet were in our solar system it would orbit the Sun somewhere between Mars and Jupiter.  This planet is interestingly cold and rocky considering its location in relation to its sun (temperatures are estimated around -220°C, or -370°F), conditions that make it unable to sustain life.

What makes this seemingly off-topic information relevant is the fact that 1800 exoplanets have been discovered so far in our universe, but many of them are way too extreme to ever have had life on their surfaces.  To think that Mars, a planet so close to home, might have life forms on its surface is so exciting!  This is why I wish the staff at the planetarium had mentioned the arrival of our spacecraft on Mars in one of their feature films.  If we can find life on Mars, life that currently exists on its own, there might be hope for the future of the human race to expand farther out into our complicated and overwhelmingly beautiful universe.  And wouldn't that be magnificent!

A side note: if you're the type of person who likes to watch sci-fi television shows, I would recommend Roswell.  The show aired from 1999-2002 and stars Shiri Appleby, Jason Behr, Katherine Heigl, Brendan Fehr, Majandra Delfino, Colin Hanks, and William Sadler in an exciting teen drama based off of the Roswell, New Mexico "UFO crash" of 1947.

Monday, September 15, 2014

A Reflection on the Average Teenager's Lack of Grammar Skills

In class this month we've been discussing how certain images and carefully constructed captions evoke different emotions in viewers of photographs.  For example, the caption on Stanley Forman's piece The Soiling of Old Glory contains a lot more depth than if he had titled it Misuse of the Flag.  The words used by a photographer to describe his or her work of art are everything to the viewer!  The caption can provoke thoughtful discussions on the piece or quietly resonate with those who choose to look at the photographer's art.  
"The Soiling of Old Glory"

On that same train of thought, if artists of photographs or paintings give a lot of thought to their captions, shouldn't we, as students, do the same with our pieces of writing? After all, one could argue that an article or even a blog post truly shows how much the author cares about his or her piece of art.  When a short writing piece is published with correct spelling and meticulously constructed grammar, it presents the author in a positive light.  An author like this is someone who cares about what people think of his or her art.  However, I've also seen my fair share of writing that just isn't up to par, thereby presenting the author in a negative light.  Just by reading various school essays I've encountered run-on sentences, incorrectly spelled words that should be easy to spell, sentence fragments, misused commas, semicolons instead of colons, e's before i's, you're instead of your, and other various errors that should be caught, at the very least, by spellcheck software or basic knowledge of grammar.

So why don't people take pride in their writing?  Personally, I'm the type of person others classify as a "grammar Nazi."  I take pieces of shared in-class writing and mark all the mistakes that the teacher overlooked with my red marker.  When I read a piece where it's obvious the author didn't proofread, I think one of three things: the author was 1) too lazy to correct themselves, 2) too lazy to turn on spellcheck, or 3) genuinely did not understand grammar rules.  And even if the author has made a "silly mistake" (such as using "it's" instead of "its") in a piece that I am reading, it becomes extremely difficult to focus on his or her main purpose when all I can think about is the error. Instead of understanding the deeper meaning, my mind is stuck on "silly mistakes."  

Take our blogs, for instance.  I try to make mine as conversational as possible, beginning the post like I'm entering a chat my friends are having at lunch.  Now, if I really wrote this post like I was talking with my friends, this blog would be riddled with phrases such as "can you, like, not?" and "oh my god, that's so lame!"  And as always, general conversation has the potential to throw grammar out the proverbial window.  What I want to point out is that though common conversation often doesn't utilize proper grammar, a blog post or magazine article should.  But let's be honest: what teenager wants to go through and mark their own writing for incorrect spelling or grammar when they could be watching the last How I Met Your Mother episode on Netflix?

The real issue here is not laziness, but rather the lack of teaching on this subject.  It's quite possible that many teenagers haven't fully gotten the hang of how to proofread.  My education in writing mechanics stopped after eighth grade because the teachers in high school assumed that I had learned it all in middle school.  Personally, I was one of the few that understood the subject, so I was fine with not learning any more about mechanics.  However, I know at least a couple of my friends still make simple errors in their writing and will continue to do so because their English classes assume they know the topic already.

Now that our school has introduced iPads to the curriculum, almost all of my classes use the iPad's technology to teach lessons and pass out worksheets.  I'm pretty sure that most of my time spent at home is on my iPad, writing out biology terms in PDF Expert.  In a study done by the Nielsen Company, data collected from 12-17 year olds shows that teenagers spend at least five hours online and eight hours on a mobile device, time that could be spent revising and editing writing for school.  And now that many schools are making the switch to technology in their curriculum, why couldn't we use certain apps to make sure our writing is up to par?

I think that our writing describes our personalities more than many people care to admit.  I cannot stress enough the importance of good mechanics in blog posts or articles we write.  If someone were to look at your blog right now, would they see a clean, polished piece?  Or would they see messy, unorganized paragraphs and automatically assume you don't care about your work?  I care enough to read and reread my entries to my blog; do you?

(On a side note: feel free to reach out to me through this blog and share your pieces of writing if you need someone to proofread them.  I would be happy to look at your work if I have spare time.)

Also, if you need help with basic writing mechanics, click here.

Why Aren't We Funding Music Education in Schools?

"Lover please do not
Fall to your knees it's not
Like I believe in
Everlasting love" 
-"Ghosts", Laura Marling

Have you ever had that one song stuck in your head but the same four lines keep repeating constantly?  Yeah, that's me every single day.  And, actually, right now as I write this post.  Laura Marling rocks.

Anyway, some people might find constant music in your head annoying, but I find it comforting.  I mean, I can't remember a day when I didn't listen to music or sing it in some sort of music class at school.  Indie, rock and roll, choral, alternative, rap, pop-I guarantee you I have a song in each of those categories on my iPod.  And while some bands I favor more than others (159 Beatles songs vs. 27 Backstreet Boys songs) I do love all sorts of music and artists.  
Just in the comments below, tell me your favorite songs and why you like them.  Have you done it yet?
Now listen up.

I want you to imagine that comfort of music gone.  Or, for that matter, pick something you love doing and imagine it gone.  Just taken away.

This is what's happening all over the country.  Many schools just aren't receiving the funding they need to continue with programs in the arts. states "As schools across the country have faced budget shortfalls in recent years, a common cost-cutting measure is to slash funding for arts education, prioritizing what are deemed more essential subjects such as math, reading, and science".  But how can educators say that "math, reading, and science" are "more essential subjects" than music when "Research has found that learning music facilitates learning other subjects and enhances skills that children inevitably use in other areas" (  It's not just music, either.  It's theater programs, art programs, orchestra and band programs too.  And even though the ThinkProgress article is from a year ago, the issue still persists today.

In cities like Chicago and Philadelphia, million dollar budget cuts are forcing schools to cut teachers.  In Chicago alone 1,581 Chicago Public School teachers were "...laid off...", where "...105 [of those cut] taught art or music" (ThinkProgress).  What I don't understand is why we cannot fund both music and general education in schools.  Shouldn't we be funding programs that help with language development, can improve upon our spatial reasoning skills, and may raise our IQ levels?  I personally would love to cut down the number of standardized tests I take per year in favor of a couple minutes more of music classes.  But maybe it's just me.  

All I ask of you is to think about something you love.  It could be soccer or piano or clay art or writing or mathematics or any other topic of your choice.  And now imagine there was no possible way for you to play that sport or that piece of music or write that bestseller or solve that one equation no one else can solve because the school just decided to cut it in favor of something else.  
How angry would you get to not have that one aspect of your life that defines who you are?

Music defines who I am, and I can't imagine being without it.  That's why this issue is so prominent to me and why I chose to devote 3,463 words and counting to it on this post.  

So I just want you to think about this issue and how we can resolve it in the next couple years or so.  And lastly, here's the song that opened this post to listen to.  

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Americans Are Taking Free Speech for Granted

As an American, I know that I am entitled to disagree with the way our government is run because of my right to free speech.  That's not to say I do or do not disagree with what the United States government does, but rather to remind others that we could disagree with the government if we wanted to.

That being said, I've heard a lot of talk from my peers (none of it based in actual fact) lately about how they believe our government is hindering our ability to speak up against issues we disagree with.  I've heard people say the NSA is behind it, Obama's behind it, all sorts of different speculations.  However, what I think these people fail to take into account are the major differences in freedoms between the United States and, on the other end of the spectrum, oppressive countries.  What we don't realize is that the United States in no way compares to an oppressed country such as Russia.  If United States citizens are so repressed as many tend to believe, why does the government allow news stations to report every detail of what is going on in the country?  If our government was run anything close to how the Russian government is run, television, radio, newspapers, and magazines alike would only be allowed to publish stories that made the country look good.

In actuality, US citizens aren't being oppressed at all.  Our press is allowed to publish controversial stories on issues such as the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.  We're allowed to voice opinions through mediums such as YouTube and Facebook.  Sure, there's political propaganda, but nothing like this music video praising Vladimir Putin.

When we look at Russia, the true meaning of "oppressive government" is shown.  Even musical groups from Russia aren't allowed to bad-mouth the government.  For example, the band Pussy Riot (from Moscow) was under scrutiny by Cossacks (who are financially supported by the government) after they "...became famous...performing a protest song in a church against President Vladimir Putin…" (BBC News).  While performing a song outside of the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games, Cossacks patrolling the outside of the arena began whipping the group and assaulting them.  The band was trying to record a song titled "Putin Will Teach You to Love the Motherland" when they were attacked (The Guardian).  

So how can we, as American citizens, maintain the opinion that we aren't allowed to speak out against our government when our press reports stories that disagree with how our nation is run?  We're allowed to criticize our government where Russian citizens cannot.

All I really want to leave with you is this: before saying the United States government is oppressive and that we have no rights to free speech in the media, just remember the comparison between our country and other, very oppressive countries like Russia, where a band protesting against their government was beaten at an event made to evoke peace.