Universities work up new scheme to ‘free’ students from debt

Modern academia is anachronistic, if nothing else.

The latest trend that appears to be catching on is termed “income-share agreements.”

Schools such as Purdue University, Norwich University and Lackawanna College are offering to pay students’ tuition if students offer them a percentage of their future salary for a fixed number of years, according to an Associated Press report.

In contrast with traditional loans, in which students simply pay down the principal and interest until there is nothing left, students with income-share agreements pay back a percentage of their salary for a set period of time.

Uh, isn’t this just another name for “sharecropping?”

Perhaps universities ought to put a halt to the ongoing building spree which so many are currently engaged in – constructing fiefdoms that would make many a medieval lord envious – and get back to the business of simply educating students.

Austrian telemarketers, pig-dogs and missed opportunities

One of the great things about fancy new cell phones is that they tell you the location of callers. I suppose they’ve done this for quite some time, but I only joined the 21st century late last year when, after 16 years of mediocre flip phone service, I reluctantly upgraded to an Android phone.

This came in handy earlier this week when I saw that I had an incoming call from Austria. I don’t know anyone from Austria or in Austria. In fact, the only people I know of from Austria are Mozart, Emperor Franz Joseph, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Hitler. It seemed unlikely any of them would be phoning, so I ignored the call, just as I ignore any number I don’t recognize.

In retrospect, I missed a chance to try out my puerile German. While I speak extremely poor French, my German is utterly abominable, consisting of “Guten Tag,” Guten Morgen,” a couple of rudimentary sentences and the occasional derogatory remark.

I could have opened the conversation with “Guten Tag, du bist ein Schweinhund!” which translates to “Hello, you’re a pig-dog.”

I figure given my lack of contacts in Austria, it was most likely a telemarketer, so why not try out a little foreign invective, even if I was addressing someone I didn’t know with the casual form of the verb “to be.” They were calling me, after all.

Of course, they probably wouldn’t have understood me and simply hung up, but hey, I would have gotten a chuckle out of it. “Sticking it to those damn telemarketers!” That sort of thing. We take our victories where we can get them.

Speaking of the word Schweinhund, one has to admire the Germans’ ability to level an insult. Not just a pig, not just a dog, but a pig-dog. I’ve seen dogs that act like pigs, but I don’t think that’s what Schweinhund is all about.

One of my daughters has made friends with a German exchange student and she recently asked her friend if there was such a word as Schweinhund. The exchange student’s face lit up. “Ya, Schweinhund! How do you know this word?!?”

My daughter, drolly: “My dad uses it, often while driving.” It made the exchange student’s day to hear an insult in her native tongue.

I wonder if my daughter, were she studying in, say, rural Romania and had a Romanian friend ask if she knew the word “jackass” would light up similarly?

Smartphone technology drags Luddite into 21st century

While I may not have been the last able-bodied adult in the Western world to switch from flip phone to smartphone, it certainly seemed that way at times.

Mind you, this generally wasn’t perceived as a negative, at least by me, particularly when watching hordes of students wandering across streets oblivious to everything but the little toy in their hands, or witnessing families in restaurants silently engrossed in their individual phones rather than talking with one another.

But with a passel of children who don’t do email and prefer instead to text, it was becoming increasingly obvious that I would have to make the move at some point.

An example: in the time it would take me to poke out a finger-by-finger response to one of my daughters’ texts, three more would arrived. Recognizing that, due to some sort of logarithmic progression, I could only fall further and further behind, I would at that point simply pick up the phone to stop the madness.

But what finally convinced me to make the jump a couple of months back was the incredible quality of smartphone cameras.

The above photo was taken recently by Daughter No. 1 at sunset in Lexington County, SC. I have used a Kodak EX with optical zoom for the past 10 years and even compensating for operator error, there is no way my camera could have managed a photo as stunning as that above.

Even more remarkable is that she doesn’t have a state-of-the-art 2017 model, but one that is somewhere between three and five years old.

The technological advances made in smartphone cameras have been nothing short of remarkable over the past 10 years.

“The main technical difference between smartphone cameras and standalone digital cameras is that smartphones use tiny lenses and tiny sensors. The smartphone’s results ought to be much worse. They are not,” according to The Guardian. “Smartphones produce high-quality results by using their powerful processors and built-in graphics engines to process the image data and compensate for their technical limitations.”

Best of all, phones with high-quality cameras that were quite pricey two or three years ago are now very affordable. The same will almost certainly be the case two or three years down the road with what is cutting-edge today.

One supposes it has never been easier or more convenient to take high-quality images at any time in history.

Large cache of dinosaur eggs discovered in China

More than 200 dinosaur eggs have been discovered in China, including 16 that hold embryonic remains.

The eggs, from a flying reptile known as a pterosaur, were discovered by researchers working in the Turpan-Hami Basin in northwestern China during a 10-year span ending in 2016.

The cache shines new light on the development and nesting behavior of pterosaurs (Hamipterus tianshanensis), which were believed to have a wingspan of up to 13 feet, and likely ate fish with their large teeth-filled jaws.

Pterosaurs lived during most of the Mesozoic Era: from the late Triassic to the end of the Cretaceous, some 228 million to 66 million years ago.

The discovery, announced through the journal Science, sparked debate about whether the creatures could fly as soon as they hatched, according to National Public Radio.

There had been previous theories that hypothesized that they could, but the paper suggested differently. The research team found that the pterosaur’s hind leg bones were more developed than the wings at the time of hatching, and none of the embryos were found with teeth.

“Thus, newborns were likely to move around but were not able to fly, leading to the hypothesis that Hamipterus might have been less precocious than advocated for flying reptiles in general … and probably needed some parental care,” the paper stated.

Science added that it cautioned against drawing firm conclusions about how the animal moved immediately after hatching because it’s hard to pinpoint just how close the embryos were to hatching.

One single sandstone block held at least 215 well-preserved eggs that have mostly kept their shape, with 16 of those eggs featuring embryonic remains.

The massive discovery does not appear to include a nest, as the eggs had been moved from the place they were originally laid and may have been carried by water after a series of storms hit the reptiles’ nesting ground.

The fossils in the area are so plentiful that scientists refer to it as “Pterosaur Eden,” said Shunxing Jiang, a paleontologist at the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology.

“You can very easily find the pterosaur bones,” he said, adding that they believe dozens more eggs might still lie hidden within the sandstone.

Prior to this discovery, only five other well-preserved pterosaur eggs had been found in this area and one had been found in Argentina, according to NPR.

“The 16 fossilized embryos are at different stages of growth, revealing new information about how the reptiles developed,” NPR added. “None of the embryos are complete, the paper states, and the scientists used computed tomography scanning to view what was inside.”

(Artist’s depiction of pterosaurs, which lived between 228 million and 66 million years ago.)

Researcher allows himself to be zapped by electric eel

You want a good example of devotion to job? Take a look at Ken Catania, a neurobiologist at Vanderbilt University, who reached into a tank containing an electric eel 10 different times in order to measure the power released by the highly charged fish.

Recently, Catania allowed an eel approximately one foot long to zap his arm as he held a device that measured the strength of the slippery beast’s current, according to the website Red Orbit.

Catania works with eels a good deal so he knew what to expect.

The sensation was similar to touching a hot stove or an electric fence, he said, adding that it caused him to reflexively withdraw his arm from the water.

Catania was prompted to conduct the study by a famous story by noted German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, who described catching large electric eels in the Amazon in 1800 when local fisherman drove horses and mules into a body of water, and eels leaped at the animals’ legs.

Once the eels had exhausted themselves – and their electrical charges were depleted – they were easy to snare, Humboldt reported.

However, this behavior had not been seen in the more than two centuries since, and some considered it no more than a fable.

Last year, Catania reported seeing an eel leap from the water and press its chin against an apparent threat while discharging high-voltage energy, supporting Humboldt’s account, Red Orbit reported.

That experience prompted Catania’s most recent experiment. And, as in Humboldt’s experience, the eel did indeed jump to apply a jolt to Catania’s arm.

Catania revealed in the journal Current Biology that the small electric eel he worked with delivered a current that peaked at about 40 or 50 milliamps. However, his calculations indicated that a larger eel would deliver a far stronger jolt, with a pulse rate higher than that given off by a law enforcement taser.

Ignore conflict, these shiny stones will catch your attention

And newspapers wonder why an increasing number of readers (and former readers) view them with incredulity.

Eleven of the top 12 stories in the online version of my local paper are eclipse related, the astronomical event that area media has been hyping for months. Everything from improving your eclipse glasses to a list of where to find the best eclipse-related food.

A complete solar eclipse is impressive, but this seems over the top. One might even get the impression that not much else was going on elsewhere in the state, nation or world. Kind of how ancient people used to react when they thought an eclipse presaged the world’s end, but with a more mindless twist.

Actually, there are a few other things of note taking place around the globe. Such as:

  • President Trump will address the country tonight and outline a new strategy for Afghanistan, the longest war in US history;
  • The death toll from last week’s militant Islamist attack in Spain, which appear to be striking Europe with startling regularity, is now at 15; and
  • Aggrieved demonstrators, while not done training their sites on all things Confederate, converged on a bust of Christopher Columbus in Detroit and demanded the monument come down as they protest against white supremacy and the nation continues to be roiled by racial tension.

But here, local ink-stained wretches gleefully slap story after story about the eclipse on page 1 and the Internet, eager first and foremost to sell as many papers as possible. Informing readers is somewhere further down the line of priorities.

The Roman poet Juvenal knew of what he wrote more than 2,000 years ago:

“… Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions – everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”

(Top: Image showing online front page of local daily newspaper, showing 11 of top 12 news headlines devoted to today’s eclipse.)

Intrepid reporter: Avoid floating masses of fire ants

One would think that if a large newspaper company were going to rewrite press releases sent to them – rather than going out and finding news stories – it could do so in an intelligent manner.

A reporter for al.com, which is the website for several publications, including Alabama newspapers the Birmingham News, the Mobile Press-Register and the Huntsville Times, apparently decided the recent arrival of Tropical Storm Cindy, with its potential for flooding, would be a good opportunity to rewrite a release from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System on the dangers of fire ants.

Fire ants, of course, aren’t daunted by flooding, as they ball together by the thousands during floods, making small rafts that enable them to survive for considerable periods until they find dry land.

According to the al.com story, “If a person encounters one of these floating balls of fire ants, it can be seriously bad news, causing potentially serious health problems not to mention many painful bites.”

Anyone living in the South who isn’t aware that a floating mass of fire ants is bad news either just stepped off the plane from an Inuit enclave in northern Canada or has serious short- and long-term memory issues.

And it isn’t the bite of fire ants that is so much bothersome as the other end of the critter; the fire ant has a sharp stinger on its rear, connected to an internal venom sac.

Among advice al.com included, directly quoting the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service release, was the following:

During times of flooding, avoid contact with floating masses of fire ants; and if you are in a rowboat, do not touch the ants with oars.

It’s understood that newspapers cater to a sixth-grade reading level, but even in sixth grade, when I happened to live along the Mississippi River, I knew you didn’t mess with fire ants, never mind a floating mass of the pernicious devils.

To be told to avoid contact with floating masses of fire ants is akin to being instructed not to stare directly into the sun with a pair of high-powered binoculars.

If all this seems nitpicky, remember that the fire ant that today has spread throughout the Southern US, the Southwestern US and California, came into the United States through the port of Mobile in the 1930s. One would expect a story from a site representing in part the Mobile Press-Register to have a pretty good understanding of the facts regarding this invasive and painful nuisance.

(Top: Fire ants grouped together floating on water.)

Herpetophobes beware: Some snakes found to hunt in unison

Snakes, central characters in many a nightmare, may have just added to their bad reputations: Researchers have found that some of the slithering reptiles attack in packs.

Cuban boas hunt as a team to increase efficiency, providing evidence of the creature’s intelligence, a University of Tennessee scientist has found.

“Coordinated hunting requires higher behavioral complexity because each animal has to take other hunters’ actions into account,” said Vladimir Dinets, the study author and an assistant research professor in the school’s psychology department.

While increased food consumption is believed to be the main reason for the behavior, it’s also possible there is a social function linked to working together, according to RedOrbit.com.

Snakes have been observed to hunt together previously, but the amount of coordination was questionable, and Dinets’ research is the first scientific recording of such behavior.

A recent much-viewed video by the BBC’s Planet Earth showing a young iguana barely escaping a seemingly endless number of attacking snakes would seem to be evidence of the reptiles working toward the same goal, though necessarily in a coordinated effort.

The new research showed how individual snakes take into account the location of others.

The snakes Dinets studied were hunting fruit bats in Cuba. At dawn and dusk, they positioned themselves around the mouth of the cave in such a way as to increase the chances of catching prey.

“Snakes arriving to the hunting area were significantly more likely to position themselves in the part of the passage where other snakes were already present, forming a ‘fence’ across the passage and thus more effectively blocking the flight path of the prey, significantly increasing hunting efficiency,” an extract from the study explained.

The Cuban boa can reach 6 feet in length, which makes the fact that they hang upside down from the roofs of caves even more remarkable.

“After sunset and before dawn, some of the boas entered the passage that connected the roosting chamber with the entrance chamber, and hunted by suspending themselves from the ceiling and grabbing passing bats,” Dinets said.

Dinets observed that the positions taken up by the snakes lowered the chances of bats getting out of the cave. Brilliantly, those hanging positions also meant they behaved like the bats they were trying to catch, according to RedOrbit.com.

For the 2 percent of us that like snakes, this is fascinating; for everyone else, it’s more fodder for bad dreams.

Butterflies: neither butter nor fly, but still welcome

Spring’s advent is announced any number of ways, depending on what part of the world one inhabits. In the Deep South, wisteria vines taking bloom in otherwise drab, lifeless trees are often the first sign that seasons are changing.

This year, I came across a new harbinger: a brood of recently hatched Eastern tiger swallowtails.

During a weekend drive through the country 10 days ago, I stopped at a small creek to peer at the water coursing below. Being shallow, the creek was more sand than stream. In one of the many islands were eight Eastern tiger swallowtails, a common butterfly noted for its yellow body and black stripes, congregating together.

After snapping a few photos from the bridge, I made my way down to stream level. With each couple of steps, I’d snap photos, not knowing when the insects would take flight.

After a short time I was upon them, and it was only when I touched a couple with my finger did some make a lazy effort at flight. Others simply walked a few inches away.

It was apparent that this group had just hatched and were sunning themselves, letting their wings dry before setting off in search of food.

The Eastern tiger swallowtail is among butterflies that spends winter in a chrysalis, emerging when the weather warms. This made sense as it seemed difficult to fathom caterpillars finding enough greenery to fatten up in winter, never mind surviving occasional below-freezing conditions.

Eastern tiger swallowtails are abundant, being found across much of eastern North America, from Ontario south to the Gulf Coast and into northern Mexico.

Typically, Eastern tiger swallowtails avoid company, except, apparently, just after hatching and, of course, when mating.

Besides birds, swallowtails have a variety of predators, including hornets, praying mantises, squirrels, possums and raccoons.

With bright colors and a wingspan of up to 5.5 inches, one could see how they’d make a tempting target for the butterfly-hungry.

However, within a short time, my kaleidoscope of swallowtails had gained enough strength to safely take flight and make their way into the world.

(Top: Eastern tiger swallowtail resting after being disturbed by nosy blogger.)

Earth Hour: the Dogged Drive of Inane Intentions

We in the West are drowning in a cornucopia of ill-conceived special celebrations.

From National Bike to Work Day (May 19) to Global Forgiveness Day (Aug. 27) to International Peace Day (Sept. 21), there are a rash of events that the self-righteous have concocted in order to make themselves feel good, if not morally superior, to those around them.

These events are largely limited to the Western world because the rest of the globe is too busy trying to stay alive to be bothered with such claptrap.

This Saturday (8:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m. for those of you keeping score at home),  the annual self-congratulatory activity known as Earth Hour will be held under the guise of “United People to Save the Planet.”

Rather than list my many objections to this bit of imbecility, I’ll let you read the words of Canadian economist Ross McKitrick, who, in 2009, was asked by a journalist for his thoughts on the importance of Earth Hour:

I abhor Earth Hour. Abundant, cheap electricity has been the greatest source of human liberation in the 20th century. Every material social advance in the 20th century depended on the proliferation of inexpensive and reliable electricity.

Giving women the freedom to work outside the home depended on the availability of electrical appliances that free up time from domestic chores. Getting children out of menial labor and into schools depended on the same thing, as well as the ability to provide safe indoor lighting for reading.

Development and provision of modern health care without electricity is absolutely impossible. The expansion of our food supply, and the promotion of hygiene and nutrition, depended on being able to irrigate fields, cook and refrigerate foods, and have a steady indoor supply of hot water.

Many of the world’s poor suffer brutal environmental conditions in their own homes because of the necessity of cooking over indoor fires that burn twigs and dung. This causes local deforestation and the proliferation of smoke- and parasite-related lung diseases. Anyone who wants to see local conditions improve in the third world should realize the importance of access to cheap electricity from fossil-fuel based power generating stations. After all, that’s how the west developed.

The whole mentality around Earth Hour demonizes electricity. I cannot do that, instead I celebrate it and all that it has provided for humanity. Earth Hour celebrates ignorance, poverty and backwardness. By repudiating the greatest engine of liberation it becomes an hour devoted to anti-humanism. It encourages the sanctimonious gesture of turning off trivial appliances for a trivial amount of time, in deference to some ill-defined abstraction called “the Earth,” all the while hypocritically retaining the real benefits of continuous, reliable electricity.

People who see virtue in doing without electricity should shut off their refrigerator, stove, microwave, computer, water heater, lights, TV and all other appliances for a month, not an hour. And pop down to the cardiac unit at the hospital and shut the power off there too.

I don’t want to go back to nature. Travel to a zone hit by earthquakes, floods and hurricanes to see what it’s like to go back to nature. For humans, living in “nature” meant a short life span marked by violence, disease and ignorance. People who work for the end of poverty and relief from disease are fighting against nature. I hope they leave their lights on.

Here in Ontario, through the use of pollution control technology and advanced engineering, our air quality has dramatically improved since the 1960s, despite the expansion of industry and the power supply.

If, after all this, we are going to take the view that the remaining air emissions outweigh all the benefits of electricity, and that we ought to be shamed into sitting in darkness for an hour, like naughty children who have been caught doing something bad, then we are setting up unspoiled nature as an absolute, transcendent ideal that obliterates all other ethical and humane obligations.

No thanks. I like visiting nature but I don’t want to live there, and I refuse to accept the idea that civilization with all its tradeoffs is something to be ashamed of.

If I possessed that eloquence, I’d probably have more than half a dozen readers and wouldn’t be living in a van down by the river a much larger bank account.

No word on whether Earth Hour is just a giant charade cooked up by Big Candle to boost profits, but come Saturday evening I’ll be happily burning every old-fashioned 100-watt incandescent light bulb I can find.

(Top: One can only hope that the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the University of Kentucky Children’s Hospital, which saves hundreds of newborns each year, won’t turn off its life-saving equipment this coming Saturday night for Earth Hour.)