15 things that are safer to do while driving than talking on your phone

February 24, 2010

By Sean Rule, Math

The Broadside’s January 13th, 2010 issue had a humorous cover collage entitled “15 things that are more dangerous than talking on your phone while driving.”  I got a few chuckles as I glanced over these images of intentionally ridiculous things the “driver” was doing while “driving”, including, but not limited to knitting, drying hair, and working an adding machine.  Given time, additions to the list could be a blog in themselves, since there are infinitely many things you could do while driving that are more dangerous than talking on a phone…for example, talking on a phone and checking your email.

I know that the cover art was meant in jest, especially since there is a very nice, objectively written article on page 2 outlining the new ban on texting and cell phone use while driving (by the way, if you think you can text and drive at the same time and not endanger lives, you might want to take this little test and find out why you can’t.  Duh).  However funny the cover art is though, I’m still nervous…will people actually see the fact that the cover art is in jest?  How many of us simply read headlines and ignore the body of the articles?  I fear many people might just glance at the Broadside’s cover, chuckle (as I did) and say, “See?  There are far worse things to be doing while driving than chatting it up with my schnookums!”

That kind of “lesser of two evils” logic, however, is a fallacy.  The simple truth is, if your mind is working on one thing, it cannot do another well.  Ask any psychologist.  Follow Stanford’s study on the subject.  Then admit that talking on the phone or texting while driving is a bad idea. 

Of course, driving, by definition, is multitasking: you’re working the pedals, the wheel, and watching around you at all times.  So, maybe what we should be doing is limiting the amount of extra things that we should be doing while driving, and focusing on activities that only improve our driving.  With that in mind, I present my list of

15 things that are safer to do while driving than talking on your phone

1)      Just drive – it’s hard enough as is…but then add to it the dozens of people out there who are eating, getting dressed, in a hurry, and, yes, calling and texting.  I’d also recommend, as I did in my previous post, growing eyes out of the back of your head, and using them to check your blind spots.  This is related to the next idea,

2)      Drive defensively – there used to me (maybe still are) classes that you could take called “Defensive Driving Classes”.  These were neat.  They taught you great skills to use while driving, and, upon successful completion of the course, your insurance rates would be lowered by 10 or 15 percent.  Here’s the basic gist of defensive driving: the other drivers are gonna screw up; be prepared to react.  For example,

3)      When waiting to turn across traffic, keep your wheels pointed straight – that way, if you get rear – ended, you don’t get pushed into oncoming traffic.  Simple!  I’m embarrassed to say that, before the defensive driving class, I never thought about this. 

4)      Watch out for the 2 wheelers – I’m not talking just bikes here.  Motorcycles are seemingly invisible to cars, as well.  Check your blind spots before changing lanes!  Remember that you, as a car driver, are piloting a multi – thousand pound projectile, while two – wheelers are exposed and vulnerable.

5)      Check your mirrors constantly – you have (at least) 3.  Use them.  Often.  Also, scan your range of vision regularly to watch out for kids running across the road, or other objective hazards.

6)      Keep your hands at 10 and 2 – I think this used to be emphasized more than it is now.  Trust me…when that deer runs out of the bushes and across the road in front of you, you’ll want to have both of your hands on the wheel (and maybe your passengers’ hands on a rosary).

7)       Drive at a reasonable speed – The Bend Parkway is not the Jersey Turnpike, nor is it the Autobahn; don’t drive on it like it is.  45 mph is just fine, thank you.  If you feel the speed limit is too slow, collect some data, fit a Poisson model, and write your congress(wo)man. 

8)      Pass properly – if you find yourself needing to accelerate 15 miles per hour over the speed limit to get around someone, you’re probably driving too quickly.  However, if you need to pass, check your blind spot as you begin (and end) your pass, and signal both ways, as well.  Also, only pass on the left.   Related is

9)      Keep right except to pass – I believe this is the law in all instances, on all roads.  It’s also a really good idea, even if it isn’t law.  Just do it, like Nike.

10)  Use the n – second rule – this is also “follow at a reasonable distance”.  I was told (years ago) a quick way to see if you’re following too closely is this: wait until the car in front of you passes an object, like a pole.  Then, start counting “one Mississippi, two Mississippi”…if you pass the same object before the second “Mississippi”, you’re following too closely.  Related to that is

11)  Tailgating “braking” – if you’re being tailgated, don’t flip the other driver off, or instigate a confrontation.  Instead, lightly depress your brake pedal.  Your brakes won’t engage, but the brake light will come on, which should make the other driver back off a bit. Speaking of brakes,

12)  In sketchy situations, cover your brake – this means, if you see something going down, place your foot over your brake.  This cuts down the fraction of a second you would need to get your foot off of the gas to the brake.  Remember, traveling at 45 miles per hour means traveling 66 feet per second; any fraction helps in an emergency.

13)  Increase following distance in poor weather – this seems obvious, right?  Why do people not do it?

14)  Look both ways before starting to pull out into traffic – as a bike commuter, I’m amazed at how often I see this: a car leaving a neighborhood pulls up to a stop sign at the intersection of a busy road and the neighborhood.  The driver looks one way (often towards the far lane, the one they wish to join), then begins pulling out, while turning their head to look the other way.  This gives the driver no time to respond to a car (or me on my bike) actually in that oncoming lane, bearing down on them. Often, I’ve noticed, these people have a cell phone stuck in their ears, which makes me think that their car will not start unless their phone is connected.  Which brings me to

15)  Make your phone call before you get in the car! – People, I don’t care what your reasoning is on this one…there is NO reason to be chatting on the phone while driving.  None.  Please don’t try to justify it.  If you think you can, you’re wrong.         

None of us are perfect drivers, myself included, of course  – see picture above on this post to observe what happens when a 2005 biodiesel Jeep Liberty, piloted by yours truly, meets a patch of black ice).  However, I have yet to find a time when talking on a cell phone while driving is imperative.  There is no shortage of discussion arguing the justice of the new cell phone ban, but all fail to address the most obvious question:  “Why would you ever have to talk on a phone while driving?”  Simple question. 

Here’s the simple answer: You never have to talk on a phone while driving.  End of story.


$500 Notebook Computer – What Do You Get?

February 17, 2010

By Ralph Phillips, Computer & Information Systems

I had the opportunity to go to Costco and BestBuy with a friend to help her shop for a new notebook (laptop) computer. She was looking to spend about $500 with a max of $600. Although she ended up going for a Toshiba for $479, there were several options at that price. When you’re shopping for a notebook computers, there are some things you’ve got to consider.

Will you be using it mostly for…

  • Internet – Web browsing, E-mail, watching streaming videos off of YouTube, etc.
  • Productivity – Word, Excel, PowerPoint, E-mail, etc.
  • Movies – watching DVD movies
  • Media production – creating graphics in Photoshop/Illustrator, animations in Flash, etc.
  • Gaming – playing any of the modern high-quality computer games

The list above is in the order of computing/processing/graphics power you’ll need. Internet and productivity users can often get buy with a budget notebook with on-board graphics processing and minimal RAM and hard drive space. Users with movies and media in mind will need to have more RAM, hard drive storage, and more powerful graphics processing. If your needs are in the latter three groups, finding a sub-$700 notebook is not easy. You’ve got to pay to play.

Below is a typical computer ad with some key items described:

Acer Aspire Notebook advertised at TigerDirect.com in February 2010

Some computer ads put a lot of stuff in the description and use a lot of jargon to make their computer sound more impressive than the ones sitting next to them. The list below are things you WANT to know about the computer and can be used to make real comparisons between different models. Don’t get bogged down in features you don’t need.

This screen is wide-screen HD; 15.6″ diagonal, 1366×768 resolution. If you’re doing basic Internet and productivity, resolution and HD are not critical. But if you’re working with media, you’ll want big numbers in all three sub-categories. Note: big screens mean more weight and ease of portability diminishes.
Memory or RAM
This computer has 4 gigabytes of memory which is really nice and surprisingly common for computers in this price range. Gamers and media-types will want more memory or at least the ability to easily upgrade.
Hard drive
Media folks will want bigger numbers here, but if you’re doing Web work and word processing, 160 gigabytes goes a long way. If you don’t have thousands of music files or large graphics files, don’t be wooed by more expensive computers with 250GB+. Hard drives for notebooks spin at about 5,400 RPMs. If you’re doing high-end stuff with your notebook, look for a disk that spins at 7,200 RPMs or more.
The computer will come with an Intel processor or an AMD processor. Both companies are good and there isn’t much difference in computers sold at the same price range. The faster the processor the better though–look for more gigahertz if you’re a high-end user.
Integrated graphics are fine for Web and productivity work. If you’re watching DVD movies more than a couple times per month or doing other media work, you’ll want a separate graphics processor. This is tough to find on sub-$700 computers. If you’re hunting for more graphics capabilities, look for graphics processors made by ATI or NVIDIA.

All of the other things in the computer ad are filler and really shouldn’t be primary reasons to buy or not buy. Having a built-in SD card reader is nice if you work with SD cards on your digital camera a lot. Having a built-in web cam is nice if you use that kind of thing. However, those options are easily added to computers if/when needed.

Ruminations on Veggie Gardening in the Banana Belt of Bend

February 10, 2010

By Sean “Do I have more blogs than Ralph now?” Rule, Math

I love winter…don’t get me wrong.  As the snow falls outside, I’m reminded of one of the many reasons my wife and I moved here.  However, something happens to me starting each January…maybe it’s some strange biological clock triggered by the turning of the calendar from one year to the next (or that I grow weary of continually slogging my snow bike up Archie Briggs to COCC), but I begin to think about spring, turning the pond back on, and the wonderful veggie garden we sprout every summer.

Funny…when I lived in Delaware (which gets feet of rain per year, almost no late frosts, and boasts a long growing season), I never had a veggie garden.  For that matter, I never aerated my lawn, weeded, nor even watered plants outside.  No, I had to move to the high desert, with its short growing season, need for soil amendment, and mandatory irrigation to become a veggie gardener (cue Shawshank Redemption score).  At least weeding’s easy in the loose “soil”.   

This piece is a totally anecdotal collection of my ideas on gardening at 3200 feet (the NE side of town where we live is the lowest in elevation, and, therefore, is a little warmer than the remainder of town).  It’s entirely open for criticism and suggestions; that’s how I learn most of the time.  It will also most likely be amended in the future as I learn new tricks.  I hope you can find some of it useful!

Where We Plant – Living in the NE side of town, we are blessed with minimal tree coverage on our lot (just a few small junipers), and a nice southern exposure for our garden.  In the late spring to early fall, the sun will rise in (roughly) the northeast, swing around to the south in a huge arc, then set in (roughly) the northwest.  A southern exposure maximizes warm nourishing sun rays for your veggies.  We’ve created some raised beds out of rocks, and run some drip irrigation to the area for watering.  Our garden beds are about 30 feet by 10 feet in total area, but I want them bigger.  We’ve also amended them with sheep poop (OK, OK…manure).  Soil in Bend is notoriously crappy for growing veggies except some root varieties, but, if you can cut the soil with some nutrients, the plants will be fooled into thinking they’re somewhere with lots of sun and good soil.  If you need soil amendment, check Craigslist under “free”.  Other good things to use for soil amendments nutrients are last year’s crops (tilled under) and sawdust. 

What We Plant – Unless you have a greenhouse or cold frame or something that keeps fragile plants happy with artificially warm temperatures at night, you won’t be growing things like melons and peppers in Bend.  We plant (with great success) corn, broccoli, zucchini, pumpkin, potatoes, squash, sugar snap peas, tomatoes, and pole beans.  I’ve tried carrots and lettuce, but haven’t gotten them to succeed like the other species yet.  This year, we’re going to try out asparagus (planting this year, for harvest in following years) and some raspberries. 

Make sure that you plan your garden to allow your plants space.  Most seed packets will tell you how far apart to place seedlings or seeds.  Also remember that certain combinations of crops grow symbiotically; one combination we’re going to explore this year is the native American “three sisters” (corn, pole beans, and squash) planting idea. 

When We Plant – A quick Google search will reveal that the “average last frost” in Bend is around July 28th.  As a stats guy, I find this a little humorous (and meaningless).  Saying Bend’s Average last frost is any date is like saying that Bend gets “300 sunny days a year” (hey…wait a minute!).  If I waited until July 28th to plant crops, I’d never be able to grow anything.  If you want a planting timeline chart, consider this one from OSU.  However, I use the old adage passed down to me from neighbor…”When the snow’s gone from Black Butte, it’s time to plant”.  If Bob Shaw predicts a random late frost, run out and put some covers over your plants in the early evening to keep them safe.  I’ve also lined the area in between the rows of veggies with black material to absorb sunlight during the hottest part of the day; then, the heat is released at night around the plants’ roots. 

How We plant – This part should actually be first, I suppose.  I’ve found that many crops (broccoli, squash, corn, beans) can be directly seeded into the ground sometime in June.  However, our delicate little tomatoes require a jump start, so we start them from seed inside in March.  One lesson I’ve learned…keep the cats away.  They seem to love tomato shoots.  Also, I keep tomatoes out of the garden proper.  Instead, we’ve built knock – off Earth boxes to keep them (and, potentially, other) “fragiles” safe.  Make sure you put wheels on them…they get heavy!  See, certain crops like broccoli can withstand some frosts safely (we get broccoli well into November), but tomatoes…well, they’re pretty wimpy.  So, we plant the tomatoes into the earth boxes in the garage, wheel them out to enjoy the daily sun, then back in the garage to protect them from cold weather (and deer!) at night.  We actually got our last heirloom Black Russians off the vine in the garage in mid – November, and had the sauce made from the final Romas with my family at Christmas!

Having your own veggie garden is so rad.  Digging in the dirt and finding earthworms,  releasing ladybugs to act as natural pesticides, marveling that an 8 – foot cornstalk’s entire genetic code is contained in one kernel…these are truly magnificent things.  We save seeds from each year’s harvest to use in the following years; some of our heirloom tomatoes are in their 3rd generation now.  Plus, there is nothing gastronomically more wonderful (nor nutritious) than pulling veggies off the vine and eating them minutes (or, in the case of Max at left, seconds) later.

I hope, if nothing else, you learned a little about what is possible in the wonderful, albeit challenging, world of Bend veggie gardening.  Feel free to leave your ideas below!

On online teaching amd learning….

February 2, 2010

by Tina Hovekamp, Library

The online teaching environment is experiencing a tremendous growth spurt, just like my oldest teen son!  Rapid increase in online enrollment is clear even in our own college which currently offers more than 130 sections of online courses for the 2009-10 academic year. This is a 26% increase over the number of COCC online offerings in the previous year and a 130% increase of total online COCC offerings just a few years ago, in 2006-07. Quite impressive, isn’t it?

But COCC is only following the national trends.  According to a recent article in Campus Technology, data gathered by The Ambient Insight research firm indicates that “[n]early 12 million post-secondary students in the United States take some or all of their classes online right now. But this number will skyrocket to more than 22 million in the next five years …”  Moreover, according to this study’s forecast, by 2014 there will be 5.14 million students nationwide who will take all of their classes in a real classroom compared to 18.65 million who will take at least one of their courses online.

One of the explanations for such a rate of growth is the economic recession we are experiencing which has increased not only overall enrollments in schools of higher education (including COCC) but also the demand for more online instruction for people who wish to reenter the workforce but need to update their skills in a more flexible learning environment. From the schools’  perspective, online education can also help with the pressures of shrinking budgets and high teaching demands in a relatively inexpensive way. According to the most recent Sloan Survey of Online Learning report, “50 percent of institutions with online education programs have seen their institutional budgets decrease, compared to 25 percent that have seen their budgets increase.” 

And who says the swine flu scare this year did not also affect our modes of teaching? A U.S. News & World Report article, “Study: Online Education Continues Its Meteoric Growth,” reports that fears of a possible H1N1 outbreak forced many colleges to develop contingency plans substituting online courses for regular classes. Basically, unless schools are dealing with a web virus, “When you have an online plan in place, classes go on as usual.” 

But beyond national and local trends, there is also this debate in everybody’s mind on overall quality: is online instruction as effective as campus instruction providing similar quality learning experiences to the students?  In 2009, the US Deprtment of Education released a report with a focus on the effectiveness of online education.  Here are three of the findings that caught my attention:

  • Students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.
  • Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction.
  • Studies in which learners in the online condition spent more time on task than students in the face-to-face condition found a greater benefit for online learning.

The report cautions that despite what appears to be strong support for online learning, there is no evidence that online learning is superior to classroom learning.  However, the authors of the study take the extra step to note that online learning may give students the advantage of an “expansion of learning time” that face-to-face instruction does not allow as readily within traditional class time limits.

In his commentary of this latest government report Dr. Pyke, Center for Teaching & Learning, UNC Charlotte, states, “It’s not the medium that makes online learning better but the thoughtful, purposeful, and intentional instructional design decisions used to create the courses (a combination of time spent, curriculum, and pedagogy, according to the report)”

Well, that’s an argument hard to disagree with. However, considering the importance and pressure of market trends for more online instruction, differences in learning in the online versus face-to-face environment will probably continue to be an area of debate as well as study.

If you are an instructor of online courses or a student who has taken online courses, what do you think about your experience? (use the “comment” link below to add your thoughts)?