Monday, November 30, 2009

A hugely important Web site

The Royal Society, the world's oldest scientific institution, has made available on a special Web site sixty of its most historic and profound documents. These are of incalculable importance to anyone interested in the history of knowledge, and particularly to anyone involved with education (even if it's only wanting to make sure your own kids get a decent one!).

The Daily Mail reports:

Landmark moments in the history of science, from a grisly early blood transfusion to Stephen Hawking's theories about black holes, have been celebrated online today to mark the 350th birthday of the Royal Society.

For the first time, original manuscripts of papers published by the world's oldest scientific institution have been made available to the public via the internet.

Among the highlights from the interactive 'Trailblazing' site are Sir Isaac Newton's landmark research on white light being made up by a rainbow of colours and Benjamin Franklin's famous kite-flying experiment to identify the electrical nature of lightning in 1752.

Newton's reflecting telescope, the first such instrument in the world

Also included is a 1770 study confirming the young Mozart as a musical child genius, and Professor Stephen Hawking's early writings on black holes.

They are among 60 articles chosen from among 60,000 that have appeared in the Royal Society's journals. The publications include Philosophical Transactions (Phil. Trans.), the oldest continuously published scientific journal in the world.

There's more at the link.

This is an immensely valuable resource. I've already spent a couple of hours browsing through it, and you may be sure I'll be spending a lot more time there! Here, for example, is a facsimile image of an extract from the original 1671 article by Sir Isaac Newton on light and colors (link is to a PDF image of the article):

That article appeared 340 years ago . . . yet Newton's discoveries are still at the root of all our work with lenses, colors, etc. If you wear spectacles (even non-corrective sunglasses) or contact lenses; if you use microscopes, binoculars, telescopes, telescopic rifle sights, and the like; if you have medical samples taken for laboratory testing; if you use a spectrometer in any shape or form; then you're using the fruits of Newton's research. That's how fundamental this treasure-trove of articles is to our understanding of nature.

I can't recommend this new Web site too highly. Fascinating reading, of enormous historical and scientific importance, and an invaluable resource for school, college or just plain old curiosity about the world we live in. Go read, and learn.


The 'Bad Sex In Fiction' award for 2009

The Bad Sex In Fiction Competition was inaugurated by the British Literary Review in 1993. According to its Web site:

The Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award was inaugurated by Auberon Waugh in 1993 to 'draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it'. The prize is not intended to cover pornographic or expressly erotic literature, and is limited to the literary novel.

The nominees, and the passages for which they were nominated, can be read at the Web site. Scroll down that page to see the links.

The BBC reports:

Author Jonathan Littell has won the 17th annual Bad Sex In Fiction Award, for his novel The Kindly Ones.

The book, which was originally published in French, won the Prix Goncourt in 2006 and has sold over a million copies in Europe.

Judges at the Literary Review gave him the bad sex prize for a passage that begins: "This sex was watching at me, spying on me, like a Gorgon's head".

The award was accepted by Littell's agent. He has yet to comment.

In one excerpt, the author describes a sexual encounter as "a jolt that emptied my head like a spoon scraping the inside of a soft-boiled egg".

The Literary Review said Littell's book was "in part a work of genius", adding they hoped the author would take their dishonour "in good humour".

There's more at the link.

Reading those descriptions of sex, I'd say Mr. Littell is a worthy winner - but, on the basis of the available evidence, he might be a less-than-perfect lover!


HIV-positive soldiers and active duty?

I note with real concern that the South African Army is allowing HIV-positive soldiers to go on active duty as peacekeepers - in other words, in combat zones. The BBC reports:

A staggering 30% of South African soldiers are infected with the Aids virus.

. . .

After a test case brought by one of South Africa's military unions and the Aids Law Project, the government reviewed the evidence and agreed that in certain circumstances HIV-positive soldiers can be deployed overseas if they pass a battery of some 39 fitness tests.

"It means people who [have] HIV who are for instance on treatment and who have stabilised and meet minimum requirements will now qualify to be recruited deployed and promoted," explains S'khumbuzo Maphumulo, the lawyer in the case.

In what has been called a "nuanced policy", the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) now has to consider each case on its merits and assess the operational requirements of each post.

Aids testing for South African soldiers is voluntary but the reality is that if you refuse to get tested then you will not be deployed.

With greater knowledge of HIV and availability of anti-retroviral drugs - which soldiers receive for free - the South African military has become a world first in effectively removing the blanket ban and setting objective parameters for assessing whether an infected soldiers is fit to be deployed.

. . .

The army has recently deployed an HIV-positive soldier to Sudan as part of peacekeeping operations in the troubled territory of Darfur.

He is the first but there are many others waiting in the wings.

Soldiers taking part in a recent military exercise seem to back the new Aids policy.

"We've had this conversation and it's not really a problem. We would just like to know who is and who is not infected so we can help them if we need to," says Maj Talia Thomas.

As part of the exercise, a helicopter evacuated a casualty from the field.

This is precisely the kind of scenario that critics of the new policy worry about.

All soldiers are issued with rubber gloves in their first-aid kits to protect against blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis and HIV.

During the test case, medical experts said there was no evidence of increased risk of transmission in this way but defence analyst Helmoed Roemer-Heitman is not convinced.

He argues it is a massive breach of trust for ordinary soldiers who expect more from their commanders.

"What we are doing is exposing them to unnecessary risk. It is bad enough to living under harsh conditions and running the risk of being shot at, we are now exposing them to a situation when one of their comrades could totally inadvertently infect them with a fatal disease," says Mr Roemer-Heitman.

The reality is that there are already HIV-positive soldiers operating in peacekeeping missions but their status simply is not formally acknowledged because of a lack of testing facilities in many African forces.

The reason South Africa has taken the lead is in part because the health burden of HIV is so huge.

It has had to balance the human rights of individual soldiers with the collective rights of a nation which expects a fit fighting force to protect them.

Professor Lindy Heinecken, who has researched the issue extensively at the University of Stellenbosch, says we are likely to see HIV-positive soldiers in frontline duties but it will depend what line they do and what the military considers "reasonable and justifiable".

The new policy may pose some tricky diplomatic challenges if troop receiving countries object to having HIV-positive foreign soldiers on their soil.

Eritrea has already made this point and has voiced its concerns to the UN Security Council, asking it to pass a resolution. It argues that its own people's safety is being compromised.

But so much has been invested by the South African military in its troops that it cannot afford to lose qualified staff to the disease.

Mr Heinecken points to the fact that "infection rates are highest in the middle ranks and at the operational level" and so the military has had to take a pragmatic approach given its extreme position.

There's more at the link.

I'm very familiar with the South African situation, having served in the South African armed forces. The immensely high proportion of HIV-positive soldiers in the ranks is largely due to the integration of Umkhonto we Sizwe guerrillas with the regular armed forces after the advent of democracy in 1994. Many of the former were HIV-positive, but were admitted to the armed forces anyway, because to deny them would be to 'discriminate' against them, according to the new government. More have contracted the disease due to its endemic nature in South African society (the country has what is probably the world's highest infection rate).

I share Mr. Roemer-Heitman's concerns. As a combat veteran, I know from personal experience the complications of treating casualties in the field. Many of them may be bleeding heavily; if a vehicle is hit, blood, other body fluids, and even body parts, can be smeared all over the interior. If an HIV-positive soldier has been hit, it exposes those trying to rescue and treat him to the very grave hazard of contracting an incurable and ultimately fatal disease.

This is a classic example of political correctness trumping sanity. I'm glad I'm no longer serving with the South African armed forces . . . it might now become a life-threatening career choice in rather more than the usual military ways!


Dry run for terrorists?

Old NFO has a very worrying report on his blog about what appears to have been a 'dry run' or test by wannabe terrorists on a US airliner. Go read, and ponder.

Has anyone had similar experiences? If so, please let us know in Comments.


Sunday, November 29, 2009

Doofus Of The Day #295

Today's Doofus comes to us courtesy of a blog I read frequently, the Johnny Law Chronicles. In a post today, Johnny (a policeman) writes about a series of traffic stops. After an introduction, he continues:

On the night in question we were going back and forth when we heard a loud car stereo blaring. When I say loud I mean the bass was so heavy it was making the glass shake on all the other cars in the street. We quickly narrowed this down to a big shiny H2 Hummer going down the road. An officer rode up to the driver and knocked on the window to get his attention. The driver looked over and his eyes popped out of his head.

The Hummer cut to the left and the driver punched the gas. This tank came within inches of slamming into the officer. The car tried to get up on the shoulder and go around traffic but due to some huge pillars blocking off a nearby bus station (empty) the car had nowhere to go. Within seconds he had several red laser dots dancing on his face while other officers pulled him out of the car by his ears.

We ended up finding several pounds of weed, a few thousand dollars, and digital scales. The driver was also out on bond for another drug case that was pending.

My question is if you are carrying around a felony amount of drugs and are out on bond, why the hell are you blasting your music and driving one of the most conspicuous vehicle around? You might as well have a "take me to jail" sign on your door.

Ahh sweet sweet job security.

There's more at the link.

Johnny writes very well and very convincingly about police work. If you haven't taken a look at his blog before, you might like to try it. Recommended.


A remarkable railway station

I'd read about Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai, India, in connection with the terrorist attacks there last year.

However, I hadn't realized what an architectural gem it was until reader P. M. informed me that it's listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. Wikipedia reports:

The station was designed by Frederick William Stevens, a consulting architect in 1887-1888. He received as payment 16.14 lakh [1.614 million] rupees. Stevens earned the commission to construct the station after a masterpiece watercolour sketch by draughtsman Axel Haig. The final design bears some resemblance to St Pancras station in London.

It took ten years to complete and was named "Victoria Terminus" in honour of the Queen and Empress Victoria; it was opened on the date of her Golden Jubilee in 1887. This famous architectural landmark in Gothic style was built as the headquarters of the great Indian Peninsular Railway. Since then the station came to be known as Bombay VT.

In 1996, in response to demands by the Shiv Sena and in keeping with the policy of renaming locations with Indian names, the station was renamed by the state government after Chatrapati Shivaji, a famed 17th century Maratha king. On 2 July 2004 the station was nominated a World Heritage Site by the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO.

Wikimedia Commons has many photographs of the station, some of which are reproduced here to show just how extraordinary is its architecture. Click on the link to see many more. It's certainly vastly more ornate than most modern railway stations! I'd love to visit it sometime, to see what it's like close up.


So much for automobile pollution!

The Daily Mail has published an article in which it points out that a mere 16 ships produce as much sulphur pollution as all the cars in the world.

We've all noticed it. The filthy black smoke kicked out by funnels on cross-Channel ferries, cruise liners, container ships, oil tankers and even tugboats.

It looks foul, and leaves a brown haze across ports and shipping lanes. But what hasn’t been clear until now is that it is also a major killer, probably causing thousands of deaths in Britain alone.

As ships get bigger, the pollution is getting worse. The most staggering statistic of all is that just 16 of the world’s largest ships can produce as much lung-clogging sulphur pollution as all the world’s cars.

Because of their colossal engines, each as heavy as a small ship, these super-vessels use as much fuel as small power stations.

But, unlike power stations or cars, they can burn the cheapest, filthiest, high-sulphur fuel: the thick residues left behind in refineries after the lighter liquids have been taken. The stuff nobody on land is allowed to use.

Thanks to decisions taken in London by the body that polices world shipping, this pollution could kill as many as a million more people in the coming decade – even though a simple change in the rules could stop it.

There are now an estimated 100,000 ships on the seas, and the fleet is growing fast as goods are ferried in vast quantities from Asian industrial powerhouses to consumers in Europe and North America.

. . .

James Corbett, of the University of Delaware, is an authority on ship emissions. He calculates a worldwide death toll of about 64,000 a year, of which 27,000 are in Europe. Britain is one of the worst-hit countries, with about 2,000 deaths from funnel fumes. Corbett predicts the global figure will rise to 87,000 deaths a year by 2012.

. . .

In London, on the south bank of the Thames looking across at the Houses of Parliament, is the International Maritime Organisation, the UN body that polices the world’s shipping.

For decades, the IMO has rebuffed calls to clean up ship pollution. As a result, while it has long since been illegal to belch black, sulphur-laden smoke from power-station chimneys or lorry exhausts, shipping has kept its licence to pollute.

For 31 years, the IMO has operated a policy agreed by the 169 governments that make up the organisation which allows most ships to burn bunker fuel.

Christian Eyde Moller, boss of the DK shipping company in Rotterdam, recently described this as ‘just waste oil, basically what is left over after all the cleaner fuels have been extracted from crude oil. It’s tar, the same as asphalt. It’s the cheapest and dirtiest fuel in the world’.

Bunker fuel is also thick with sulphur. IMO rules allow ships to burn fuel containing up to 4.5 per cent sulphur. That is 4,500 times more than is allowed in car fuel in
the European Union. The sulphur comes out of ship funnels as tiny particles, and it is these that get deep into lungs.

Thanks to the IMO’s rules, the largest ships can each emit as much as 5,000 tons of sulphur in a year – the same as 50 million typical cars, each emitting an average of 100 grams of sulphur a year.

With an estimated 800 million cars driving around the planet, that means 16 super-ships can emit as much sulphur as the world fleet of cars.

A year ago, the IMO belatedly decided to clean up its act. It said shipping fuel should not contain more than 3.5 per cent sulphur by 2012 and eventually must come down to 0.5 per cent. This lower figure could halve the deaths, says Corbett.

It should not be hard to do. There is no reason ship engines cannot run on clean fuel, like cars. But, away from a handful of low-sulphur zones, including the English Channel and North Sea, the IMO gave shipping lines a staggering 12 years to make the switch. And, even then, it will depend on a final ‘feasibility review’ in 2018.

In the meantime, according to Corbett’s figures, nearly one million more people will die.

There's more at the link.

The article makes for very interesting reading . . . and shows up the hypocrisy of the 'Green' movement. They're all for tackling problems that are under our noses, such as automobile emissions, but if it's out of sight, it's out of mind, as far as they're concerned.


Another unsung hero comes to light

I'm very moved to read the story of Denis Avey.

Denis Avey is a remarkable man by any measure. A courageous and determined soldier in World War II, he was captured by the Germans and imprisoned in a camp connected to the Germans' largest concentration camp, Auschwitz.

But his actions while in the camp - which he has never spoken about until now - are truly extraordinary. When millions would have done anything to get out, Mr Avey repeatedly smuggled himself into the camp.

Now 91 and living in Derbyshire, he says he wanted to witness what was going on inside and find out the truth about the gas chambers, so he could tell others. He knows he took "a hell of a chance".

. . .

He arranged to swap for one night at a time with a Jewish inmate he had come to trust. He exchanged his uniform for the filthy, stripy garments the man had to wear. For the Auschwitz inmate it meant valuable food and rest in the British camp, while for Denis it was a chance to gather facts on the inside.

He describes Auschwitz as "hell on earth" and says he would lie awake at night listening to the ramblings and screams of prisoners.

"It was pretty ghastly at night, you got this terrible stench," he says.

. . .

He says he would ask where people he'd met previously had gone and he would be told they'd "gone up the chimney".

"It was so impersonal. Auschwitz was evil, everything about it was wrong."

He also witnessed the brutality meted out to the prisoners, saying people were shot daily. He was determined to help, especially when he met Jewish prisoner Ernst Lobethall.

Mr Lobethall told him he had a sister Susana who had escaped to England as a child, on the eve of war. Back in his own camp, Mr Avey contacted her via a coded letter to his mother.

He arranged for cigarettes, chocolate and a letter from Susana to be sent to him and smuggled them to his friend. Cigarettes were more valuable than gold in the camp and he hoped he would be able to trade them for favours to ease his plight - and he was right.

Mr Lobethall traded two packs of Players cigarettes in return for getting his shoes resoled. It helped save his life when thousands perished or were murdered on the notorious death marches out of the camps in winter in 1945.

. . .

... before he died Mr Lobethall recorded his survival story on video for the Shoah Foundation, which video the testimonies of Holocaust survivors and witnesses. In it he spoke of his friendship with a British soldier in Auschwitz who he simply called "Ginger". It was Denis.

He also recalled how the cigarettes, chocolate and a letter from his sister in England were smuggled to him in the midst of war.

"It was like being given the Rockefeller Centre," he says in the video.

There's much more at the link, including two video clips, one of an interview with Mr. Avey, the other of the reunion between Mr. Avey and Mr. Lobethall's sister, Susana, who'd sent the cigarettes and other items Mr. Avey smuggled to Mr. Lobethall in the concentration camp. The latter is quite a tear-jerker. It includes extracts from Mr. Lobethall's testimony to the Shoah Foundation. An audio interview with Mr. Avey is available at this link: it's a BBC program, with Mr. Avey's segment starting at 17 minutes and running for about 7 minutes. (The program will only be available for a few days, so if you want to listen to it, do so quickly!)

I did an Internet search, and found Mr. Avey's name mentioned in several accounts of prisoner-of-war activities, including his role in obtaining compensation for British POW's forced to work in Nazi concentration camp factories. That, plus the Lobethall video recording in the Shoah Foundation archives, persuades me that his story is correct in all essentials. Certainly, the prisoner-of-war camp at Monowitz, also known as Auschwitz III, is well documented (2 links), as is his presence there.

British prisoners of war at Camp E715 in Monowitz (Auschwitz III)

I can only take my hat off to Mr. Avey, and thank him for his courage in conditions of almost incredible hardship and danger. A hero indeed!


Saturday, November 28, 2009

World's strongest beer

The BBC reports that a Scottish brewery has launched what it claims is the world's strongest beer.

A controversial Scottish brewery has launched what it described as the world's strongest beer - with a 32% alcohol content.

Tactical Nuclear Penguin has been unveiled by BrewDog of Fraserburgh.

BrewDog was previously branded irresponsible for an 18.2% beer called Tokyo, which it then followed with a low alcohol beer called Nanny State.

Managing director James Watt said a limited supply of Tactical Nuclear Penguin would be sold for £30 each.

He said: "This beer is about pushing the boundaries, it is about taking innovation in beer to a whole new level."

Mr Watt added that a beer such as Tactical Nuclear Penguin should be drunk in "spirit sized measures".

A warning on the label states: "This is an extremely strong beer; it should be enjoyed in small servings and with an air of aristocratic nonchalance. In exactly the same manner that you would enjoy a fine whisky, a Frank Zappa album or a visit from a friendly yet anxious ghost."

There's more at the link.

Intrigued at the prospect of a 64 proof beer (!!!), I went to the brewery's Web site. There I found the following screed:

Beer was never meant to be bland, tasteless and apathetic.

At BrewDog we are setting the record straight.

We are committed to making the highest quality beers with the finest fresh natural ingredients.

Our beers are in no way commercial or mainstream.

We do not merely aspire to the proclaimed heady heights of conformity through neutrality and blandness.

We are unique and individual.

A beacon of non-conformity in a increasingly monotone corporate desert.

We are proud to be an intrepid David in a desperate ocean of insipid Goliaths.

We are proud to be an alternative.

Well, take that as you will, they certainly seem to have produced some very unique brews! Apart from their new beer, their offerings include Trashy Blonde (subtitled 'you know you shouldn't'), 77 Lager ('juxtaposition pilsner') and Tokyo ('intergalactic fantastic oak aged stout'), which they claim was 'inspired by a 1980's space invaders arcade game played in Japan's capital'.

Here's a video describing how they made their new super-strong beer.

With so few bottles available, I guess I won't be sampling one: but it looks like an interesting effort. Well done to Brewdog for setting the pace for other brewers!


Well, it's a living, I guess!

Add this to your 'world's strangest jobs' list. Ananova reports:

A Chinese man has launched a secret sideline - by renting himself out as a punchbag for stressed women.

Xiao Lin, a gym coach in Shenyang, in northeast China's Liaoning province, has not told his family about his new venture.

He told the Liaoshen Evening Post: "It fits in well with my day job. I needed more sparring partners anyway.

"By being a punchbag for women, I can make some money and also practice my self-defence skills and work on my fitness at the same time."

Lin charges 100 yuan (just under US $15) for 30 minutes for his services and says he has already had two customers since launching his new business.

"The first woman was about 25-years-old. She paid for half an hour but soon got tired and spent the rest of her time just chatting to me," he said.

"The second customer also only lasted for a few minutes but they both looked much happier afterwards. It does people good to let off some steam."

Definitely not a job I'd like to do here in Louisiana, where many of the women are huntin', shootin' and fishin' types, and well-muscled!


A sobering report on a house fire

Regular readers will remember that I had a house fire last year, and wrote about it here on several occasions. It's the second building fire in which I've been involved, and neither were any fun at all.

Now comes an account of a British couple whose house caught fire. The wife goes into a lot of detail about the mistakes they made, and what they learned from the experience. I strongly recommend clicking on the link and reading her report.

Friends, a house fire is damn scary, and very, very dangerous too. If you want to be prepared for such an emergency, reports like this are worth their weight in gold. Learn from them.


Friday, November 27, 2009

Firework racing

Yes, you read the title correctly . . .

Looks like fun!


How to annoy the Scots

Just start marketing English whisky - in Scotland!

One of Scotland’s most distinguished whisky retailers has received complaints from some customers about its decision to stock an English brand.

Next month, the Norfolk-based St George’s Distillery will launch the first English whisky for more than a century.

Hundreds of preview bottles of the “malt spirit” have already arrived north of the border and, despite rave reviews by afficionados, some Scottish traditionalists are unimpressed.

The Edinburgh-based Royal Mile Whiskies said its promotion of the English spirit had failed to please some of its customers.

“We sent out a tongue-in-cheek e-mail bulletin, complete with a picture of a bulldog, announcing we were going to be stocking English whisky,” said Arthur Motley, the firm’s whisky buyer. “We got some negative feedback, mostly from American Scots, who said things like, ‘how could you?’ and ‘you’ve betrayed Scotland’.

“Some people were riled but, hopefully, most of the comments were meant in a light-hearted way.”

The English Whisky Company’s avowedly patriotic packaging has raised eyebrows in the specialist shop, which also has an outlet in London.

It risks further straining cross-border relations by announcing plans for a “commemorative bottling” if England lift the football World Cup in South Africa next summer.

Ian Hudghton, a SNP MEP who has campaigned for the European Union to protect the term “Scotch whisky”, has dismissed the Norfolk newcomer as “not the real McCoy”.

John Kaylor, the chairman of the Perthshire branch of the Tartan Army, was equally sceptical. “It’s flattering that the English want to copy us but what’s next, Shakespeare shortbread and the Lake Windermere monster?” he said. “No true Tartan Army member would ever wet their lips with English whisky.”

But Jim Murray, author of the Whisky Bible, praised the southern newcomer.

“Even without the peat, we have a gloriously characterful new make,” said his review.

“This first dedicated English distillery for over a century is likely to gain a name for exceptional quality.”

There's more at the link.

Intrigued by the report, I went to the Web site of the English Whisky Company. It's got a lot of interesting detail, and they seem to have some rather tasty-sounding products, over and above whisky. This cream liqueur sounds rather potable:

Totally unique to St George’s Distillery. A local farming estate has been making their own Nog for generations, and very kindly allowed the distillery to borrow / steal the recipe. This is a very alcoholic cream and is best drunk in moderation. A very simple drink consisting of our unmatured malt spirit, cream and a dash of honey. We think best served outdoors on a cold and blustery day. Perfect for long walks or a days fishing, or if you are not one to brave the elements, add some ice, a comfy chair and a log fire. Either way you are going to love this Nog.

At 27% alcohol by volume (i.e. 54 proof), I'd say that's a bit stronger than the average US Christmas eggnog! I'm tempted to buy a bottle, just to see my friends' faces when they try it. It's a bit pricy at £18, or just under US $30, plus shipping and handling, but just for once it might be worth it.


So much for Identikit . . .

I'm chuckling over an article in the Daily Mirror, 'The Top Ten World's Worst Photofits'. It gives examples of sketches, Identikit renderings, and other aids to identifying criminals that were distributed by police in an attempt to capture wanted criminals. Most of them are completely unrecognizable!

I particularly enjoyed this screenshot of a television news broadcast:

Methinks the newsreader might have some explaining to do!


Thursday, November 26, 2009

How fast is a Formula One racing car?

This video clip compares one to a Porsche sports car and a 'sporty' Peugeot family car. The results are pretty amazing!

Now that's fast!


My neck hurts in sympathy!

It seems Amali the giraffe had a less-than-ideal journey to her new home at Tulsa Zoo in Arizona, according to the Daily Telegraph.

Five-year-old Amali from Tulsa Zoo, Arizona, suffered the unfortunate bend in transit from The Wilds park in Ohio.

It is feared that the hook might never be cured.

Since undergoing treatment from Tulsa Zoo's resident vet Dr Kay Backues, Amali has been kept in medical quarantine since her arrival on October 18.

The 11-foot tall female giraffe is not thought to be in any pain and staff at Tulsa Zoo are hoping the crick corrects itself naturally.

. . .

A giraffes neck is designed with strong ligaments and elongated bones that give it the ability to browse higher on trees in the wild than other animals.

However, in Amali's case the unique support system of the head and neck that gives them this advantage is a delicate alignment that is susceptible to injury by muscle fatigue, or ligament and tendon trauma.

Under constant medical surveillance Amali is adjusting well to her new environment.

There's more at the link. Here's a video report on the injured animal.

She seems quite comfortable, poor thing . . . but looking at her neck, I have to restrain myself from cocking my head to one side in sympathy! I hope they can find a way to straighten her out.


Photograph of the day

NASA has released this photograph of Enceladus, the sixth moon of the planet Saturn. Click the picture for a much larger view.

NASA describes the image as follows:

What's happening on the surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus? Enormous ice jets are erupting. Giant plumes of ice have been photographed in dramatic fashion by the robotic Cassini spacecraft during this past weekend's flyby of Saturn's moon Enceladus. Pictured above, numerous plumes are seen rising from long tiger-stripe canyons across Enceladus' craggy surface. Several ice jets are even visible in the shadowed region of crescent Enceladus as they reach high enough to scatter sunlight. Other plumes, near the top of the above image, appear visible just over the moon's sunlit edge. That Enceladus vents fountains of ice was first discovered on Cassini images in 2005, and has been under close study ever since. Continued study of the ice plumes may yield further clues as to whether underground oceans, candidates for containing life, exist on this distant ice world.

This also demonstrates that material from Enceladus (ejected by such eruptions, and also by collisions with meteorites and the like) is largely responsible for Saturn's E ring, the outermost and faintest of the famous rings surrounding that planet.


So near, and yet so far . . .

Regular readers will recall Yves Rossy, the Swiss adventurer who's succeeded in flying with a wing attached to his back, powered by four micro jet engines of the sort used on model aircraft.

He first flew his wing back in May last year, followed by a crossing of the English Channel in September 2008, both of which were reported on this blog.

This week he attempted to cross the Straits of Gibraltar between Europe and Africa. Sadly, he was less successful, but I've no doubt he'll try again. The Daily Mail reports:

The pilot dubbed as 'Rocket Man' has crash landed in the Straits of Gibraltar after a failed attempt to make aviation history.

Yves Rossy was attempting to complete the first intercontinental flight using just a jetpack.

He was soaring through the skies between Morocco and Spain today when he ditched, parachuting into the ocean.

Mr Rossy was hoping to make aviation history again with the 23-mile crossing between Tangier in Morocco and Tarifa on the south-western tip of Spain.

'It is going to be historic,' he said yesterday. 'No one has ever done this before.'

Clothed in a flame-retardant suit, he leapt from a plane at 6,500 feet and engaged his four-cylinder jet pack to power the eight-foot carbon fibre wing strapped to his back.

The journey - conducted at 130mph - had been expected to take less than 15 minutes.

Fortunately, Mr Rossy was being followed throughout the attempt by a team of paramedics in a helicopter - just in case.

There's more at the link.

Commiserations to M. Rossy, and better luck next time! I'm glad he's helping to keep the spirit of adventure alive in aviation.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A blessed and happy Thanksgiving to all my readers

Just as I did last year, I can't think of a better way to commemorate Thanksgiving than to reproduce two of the documents that are seminal to the occasion.

On October 3rd, 1789, President George Washington signed the following proclamation.




Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God -- to obey his will -- to be grateful for his benefits -- and humbly to implore his protection and favor: And whereas both Houses have, by their joint committee, requested me "to recommend to the people of the United States, a DAY of PUBLICK THANKSGIVING and PRAYER, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:

NOW THEREFORE, I do recommend and assign THURSDAY, the TWENTY-SIXTH DAY of NOVEMBER next, to be devoted by the people of these States, to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be: That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks for his kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; -- for the great degree of tranquility, union and plenty, which we have since enjoyed; -- for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish Constitutions of Government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; -- for the civil and religious Liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; -- and in general, for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

AND ALSO, That we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions; -- to enable us all, whether in publick or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us); and to bless them with good government, peace and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and generally, to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

GIVEN under my hand, at the city of New-York, the third day of October, in the year of our Lord, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine.

George Washington

During the next seven decades, the observance of Thanksgiving, as we call the holiday today, was fairly regular, but it wasn't recognized as a public holiday. That had to wait for President Lincoln's proclamation in 1863.

By the President of the
United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward
Secretary of State

(Click to enlarge)

And so Thanksgiving became a national holiday. In 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved it to the third Thursday in November, so as to extend the holiday shopping period and boost the economy. However, there was massive public protest, so in 1941 he changed it back to the fourth Thursday in November, where it's remained ever since.

Dear readers, I wish you all the happiest of Thanksgiving holidays: and may we truly give thanks to God, by whatever name we know him (or, if you don't believe in God, to whomever you count as the author or source of good things) for all our blessings. I'll be giving thanks particularly for all of you who've stopped by this year, and helped to make this blog so much fun for me. You're all a blessing, in your own way.

God bless you all: and thank you.


Some Muppet music for Thanksgiving

I can't resist posting this, even though neither 'Bohemian Rhapsody' nor the Muppets have any known connection with Thanksgiving that I can discern. Enjoy!

Too cute!


Doofus Of The Day #294

Today's award goes to the person responsible for paying accounts at Tesco supermarkets in England (assuming they still work there, of course . . . ).

The supermarket chain should have paid Universal Cycles ... £984 [about US $1,644] for six Muddy Fox Suspension Bikes but paid £984,000 [about US $1.644 million] instead.

Universal, an Essex-based company majority-owned by Sports Direct, has paid back £863,000 [about US $1.442 million] but Tesco claims it is holding on to more than £121,000 [about US $202,142] in outstanding funds, sources said.

It has launched legal action at the High Court to recover the remaining money, legal costs and a further £1,783 [about US $2,979] - the sum the retailer claims it is owed in interest at 8 per cent a year.

There's more at the link.

Of course, the cycle company will have to repay the money, but I can't blame them for dragging their feet. Tesco, like many other large store chains, is notorious for delaying payment to its suppliers until the last possible moment, earning every cent of interest it can on its bank balance. With the boot on the other foot for a change, Universal Cycles must be laughing all the way to the bank!


Yay, judge!

I'm astonished - and delighted - to read the ruling of a judge in New York.

A Long Island couple is home free after an outraged judge gave them an amazing Thanksgiving present -- canceling their debt to ruthless bankers trying to toss them out on the street.

Suffolk Judge Jeffrey Spinner wiped out $525,000 in mortgage payments demanded by a California bank, blasting its "harsh, repugnant, shocking and repulsive" acts.

The bombshell decision leaves Diane Yano-Horoski and her husband, Greg Horoski, owing absolutely no money on their ranch house in East Patchogue.

Spinner pulled no punches as he smacked down the bankers at OneWest -- who took an $814.2 million federal bailout but have a record of coldbloodedly foreclosing on any homeowner owing money.

"The bank was so intransigent that he [the judge] decided to punish them," Greg Horoski, 55, said about Spinner's scathing ruling last Thursday against OneWest and its IndyMac mortgage division.

It erased up to $291,000 in principal and $235,000 in interest and penalties.

. . .

Spinner excoriated OneWest for repeatedly refusing to work out a deal, for misleading him about the dollar amounts at stake in the case, and for its treatment of the couple over months of hearings.

OneWest's conduct was "inequitable, unconscionable, vexatious and opprobrious," Spinner wrote.

He canceled the debt because the bank "must be appropriately sanctioned so as to deter it from imposing further mortifying abuse against [the couple]."

The bank is involved in a similar case in California, where it's trying to foreclose on an 89-year-old woman, despite two court orders telling it to stop.

There's more at the link.

Another report gives more details:

The decision came after a series of state-mandated, pre-foreclosure settlement conferences between the lenders and borrowers of subprime loans.

Spinner wrote in his decision: "It was celeritously made clear to the Court that Plaintiff had no good faith intention whatsoever of resolving this matter in any manner other than a complete and forcible devolution of title from Defendant."

The lending institution, represented at a hearing on Sept. 22 by Karen Dickinson, regional manager of loss mitigation for IndyMac, asserted Yano-Horoski owed a debt in excess of $525,000 - and "freely concedes" that the property was worth "no more than" $275,000, Spinner wrote.

He noted that the lender claimed a balance due of $527,437.73, including an escrow overdraft of $46,627.88 for advanced taxes, though the outstanding loan balance was $283,992.48 as of Aug. 10.

The judge noted Yano-Horoski and her husband both had health issues and that IndyMac denied an offer by Yano-Horoski's daughter to purchase the home at fair-market value - a move that would have created "a win-win situation" for all the parties involved. He also noted that Dickinson "insisted" that Yano-Horoski had been offered a so-called "Forbearance Agreement" but had "quickly defaulted" on it, which then led to the foreclosure action.

However, Spinner said that "it was only after substantial prodding by the Court that Ms. Dickinson conceded, with great reluctance, that it [the Forbearance Agreement] had not been sent to [the] Defendant until after its stated first payment due date."

Which meant, Spinner wrote, that Yano-Horoski could not have consummated the agreement - and that, through what he called the "Plaintiff's duplicity," found herself "in the unique and uncomfortable position of being placed in default of the 'agreement' even before she had received it."

. . .

In his decision, Spinner noted that while IndyMac "purports to be the servicer of the loan" for Deutsche Bank, the actual record holder of the mortgage is IndyMac Bank F.S.B. - an entity, he said in his decision, "which no longer is in existence."

The judge ordered that the adjustable rate bank note issued Aug. 4, 2004, is "hereby canceled, voided, nullified, set aside and is of no further force and effect," and also ordered that the lender and its successors are "barred, prohibited and foreclosed from attempting, in any manner, directly or indirectly, to enforce any provision of" the mortgage loan.

Again, there's more at the link.

If the details of this case have been correctly reported, it sounds to me like the judge's decision is poetic justice indeed! I hope that this bounces back all over the bank, and that they suffer the consequences of their bad-faith 'bargaining'.

As for Judge Spinner: when's the next SCOTUS vacancy due? We need some sound common sense up there!


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Amazing video of an owl landing

I've no idea how the photographer captured this video of an eagle owl landing on a branch. He must have concealed his camera very well indeed! At any rate, it's produced some spectacular footage.

Lovely! I've always liked owls, and this is some of the best footage of an owl in flight that I've ever seen.


Doofus Of The Day #293

Today's title goes to two New Zealand idiots gentlemen.

Two Cambridge mates say they may turn their unusual method of trimming hedges into a business, after they suspended a ride-on mower from a crane to do the job.

"This is how the Waikato boys mow a hedge," the ride-on mower operator told the Waikato Times.

The operator, who did not want to be named, is now nursing a broken hand, but said it wasn't a fall from the mower that caused the injury but one off the crane.

He admitted it was not the safest method of trimming the hedge, but said it was all done as a bit of a joke.

The man had expected a real hedge trimmer to turn up on Sunday to mow the hedge, but when he didn't his mate arrived with his crane and a ride-on mower.

The next thing he knew he was being hoisted up on top of the two-metre high hedge.

"We were supposed to get all dressed up in our Mooloo gear and show people that this is how the Waikato boys mow their hedges."

The unusual sight bemused passing motorists. One passer-by, Bart Dinger, said it was a classic case of Kiwi ingenuity.

"A kiwi classic – jandals and all," he said.

The mower operator's wife burst out laughing when she drove home to see her husband on the hedge.

"I saw the crane first and thought 'great, the hedge is getting trimmed', but I didn't realise this was what they were planning," she said.

Her husband spent about 20 minutes mowing the hedge which had "got out of hand over winter".

"The mower was doing an all-right job, but I reckon it would work better on a hedge that's not so spiky." He said there was nothing in the instructions to say the mower couldn't be used on hedges and joked that they should go into the contracting business.

There's more at the link.

I thought I'd seen just about every safety violation in the book . . . but somehow, someone always manages to come up with something I'd never have dreamed of! I'd say that broken hand was thoroughly deserved!


Quote of the day

By Abi Titmuss, British model and actress, concerning Lady Macbeth, whom she's playing in a production of Shakespeare's Macbeth at Lowestoft in England. She opines:

"I don't think Lady Macbeth is a bad person. I don't think anyone is intrinsically bad. Maybe she is just trying to revitalise her marriage?"

Lady Macbeth? Trying to 'revitalize her marriage' by having her husband kill his boss when he came to dinner? If so, I suppose her later utterance of "Out, damned spot!" was really a commercial for laundry detergent!

Verily, the mind doth boggle . . .


Fuel cells for aircraft in the news again

Back in July I wrote about the Antares DLR-H2, the first manned fuel-cell-powered aircraft, under development in Germany. Now comes news of two developments in the USA, both concerned with powering small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV's).

The US Naval Research Laboratory has just achieved a milestone by flying a fuel-cell-powered UAV for more than 24 hours. In a news release, the USNRL reported:

The Naval Research Laboratory's Ion Tiger, a hydrogen-powered fuel cell unmanned air vehicle (UAV), has flown 26 hours and 1 minute carrying a 5-pound payload, setting another unofficial flight endurance record for a fuel-cell powered flight. The test flight took place on November 16th through 17th.

The electric fuel cell propulsion system onboard the Ion Tiger has the low noise and signature of a battery-powered UAV, while taking advantage of hydrogen, a high-energy fuel. Fuel cells create an electrical current when they convert hydrogen and oxygen into water and heat. The 550 Watt (0.75 horsepower) fuel cell onboard the Ion Tiger has about four times the efficiency of a comparable internal combustion engine and the system provides seven times the energy in the equivalent weight of batteries. The Ion Tiger weighs approximately 37 pounds and carries a 4- to 5-pound payload.

. . .

NRL has now demonstrated that PEM fuel cell technology can meet or surpass the performance of traditional power systems, providing reliable, quiet operation and extremely high efficiency. Next steps will focus on increasing the power of the fuel cell to 1.5 kW, or 2 HP, to enable tactical flights and extending flight times to 3 days while powering tactical payloads.

There's more at the link. Here's a video from earlier this year showing testing of the Ion Tiger.

It's also reported that United Technologies has applied fuel cell technology to a helicopter UAV. From UT's press release:

United Technologies Research Center (UTRC), the central research and innovation arm of United Technologies Corporation (NYSE:UTX), achieved first flight of a hydrogen/air fuel cell-powered rotorcraft. The successful technology demonstration was accomplished using a remote-controlled electric helicopter model modified to incorporate a custom Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cell power plant.

"Achieving vertical flight represents a key milestone in fuel cell-powered flight as the power density requirements are much greater than for fixed wing aircraft," said Dr. David Parekh, Vice President, Research, and UTRC Director. "In addition, this environmentally friendly power system produces zero pollution, zero emissions of greenhouse gases and operates with very low noise."

The pioneering flight using a high power-density PEM fuel cell took place on Oct. 11, 2009, at 10:30 a.m., on the East Hartford campus of UTRC. The remote-controlled helicopter originally designed to run on batteries had a rotor diameter of 2 meters and a takeoff weight of 10 kg. The duration of the fuel cell powered flight was approximately 20 minutes. The team plans to demonstrate longer flight durations in the future.

Again, there's more at the link. Here's a video of the helicopter UAV during its test flight.

If such fuel cells can be further developed, they'll provide a major increase in capability to UAV's. They typically are far more 'energy-dense' than the equivalent weight of an internal combustion engine plus fuel, or a battery pack, so UAV's using them can carry a more power-hungry payload, or fly further or faster or higher, or a combination of these advantages.

If the German tests of a manned aircraft with fuel cell propulsion also prove successful, and their technology can be 'mated' with that under development here, we may see light general-aviation aircraft powered by fuel cells before long. Given restrictions on the refining of high-octane aviation gasoline, plus its relatively high cost, that might be a blessing for this sector.


Monday, November 23, 2009

More guts than sense?

The video clip below shows a shop clerk wrestle a gun from a would-be armed robber in an unidentified store (which, from the people shown, looks to be somewhere in South-East Asia or China).

He was very lucky! If that thief had been just a little more ruthless, he'd have shot him after the failure of his first attempt. Still, one has to hand it to the clerk - that took cojones. One hopes he'll learn better disarming techniques now, in case it happens again!


Oh, well done, sir!

Andrew Breitbart has scooped the entire mainstream media on his blog, 'Big Government'. He's caught ACORN red-handed dumping a mass of documents (possibly illegally) in what looks like an attempt to forestall an inquiry that would force them to hand over those documents to the authorities. As he points out:

On October 1st, 2009 California Attorney General Jerry Brown announced that an investigation had been opened into ACORN’s activities in California, resulting from undercover videos showing employees seemingly offering to assist the undercover film makers with human smuggling, child prostitution and even tax advice to boot.

Although ACORN has denied any wrongdoing, some of the employees involved were terminated, and ACORN has publicly stated that they would fully cooperate with any investigations that followed.

Interestingly, the local head ACORN organizer in California, David Lagstein was caught on tape earlier this month speaking to an East County Democratic Club.

Mr. Lagstein stated: “…the attorney general is a political animal, but certainly every bit of the communication we have had with them has suggested that the fault will be found with the people that did the video and not the people with ACORN.”

Continuing, Mr. Lagstein stated: “…we are fully cooperating, some of the investigators visited our office this morning and I think they really understand what’s going on.”

Shockingly, we now learn that the ACORN office in National City (San Diego County) engaged in a massive document dump on the evening of October 9th, containing thousands upon thousands of sensitive documents, just days prior to the Attorney General’s visit. has learned that not only did this document dump occur, but the documents in question were irresponsibly and brazenly dumped in a public dumpster, without considering laws and regulations as to how sensitive information should be treated.

I am a local licensed private investigator. I took it upon myself to keep an eye on what the local ACORN office was up to, in light of the release of the undercover videos. I retrieved these documents from the public dumpster.

Documents shared with include information exposing not only the inner workings of ACORN in California, but also personal, sensitive information belonging to employees, members and clients of ACORN. ACORN and its few remaining defenders insist that the “good” ACORN provides outweighs the transgressions exposed in the recent undercover video sting. But, ACORN’s massive dumping of these documents and the cavalier manner in which it betrayed the trust of its supporters betrays that talking point.

ACORN’s political agenda is also exposed, with thousands upon thousands of documents revealing the depth of the political machine that is ACORN, and its disturbing ties to not only public employee labor unions but some of the most radical leftist organizations.

The laws governing how sensitive, personal information such as social security numbers, driver’s license numbers, immigration records, tax returns, etc. must be treated are very stringent, and thus it seems as if ACORN may have committed serious violations in that department alone, with thousands upon thousands of potential plaintiffs.

There's more at the link, including photographic and video evidence and samples of the documents. A scoop indeed!

Well done to Mr. Breitbart for pursuing this story, and exposing what's looking more and more (at least to this observer) like a massive criminal conspiracy. More power to you, Sir!


End of the check-book?

A report from England suggests that banking authorities are about to phase out the check-book after 350 years of use.

Cheques are to be abolished under controversial plans being drawn up by bankers.

They are widely expected to vote next month for the chequebook to be consigned to history.

Yesterday, the move was criticised by consumer groups, business lobbyists and charities representing the elderly.

They raised fears that vulnerable people, who have relied on their chequebook all their lives, will be left confused.

Many others simply prefer to pay by cheque, instead of by direct debit or bank transfer.

The Payments Council said its research shows the number of cheques being written every day has fallen dramatically in recent years.

At their peak in 1990, around 11million cheques were written every day. Latest figures show the number has dropped to around 3.8million.

Cheques, which were first used in Britain 350 years ago, are also an expensive form of payment for banks.

They cost around £1 each to process, which is four times as much as electronic payments.

There's more at the link.

The abolition of checks wouldn't be immediate, of course, and would take place over several years. Also, if it happens in one country, we may be sure it'll spread to others as well - I can't imagine the US being far behind Britain if this decision is taken.

In one sense, I can understand banks wanting to get rid of an old-fashioned manual funds transfer mechanism like checks: but with the huge potential for electronic fraud already demonstrated in so many ways, can a secure alternative be found?


Why college may not be such a good idea for everyone, any more

A number of interesting articles in recent days have highlighted the problems being experienced with the US higher education system.

George Leef asks: Does a college education build human capital - or are students just marching in place?

Human capital means the mental toolkit a person has—the stock of knowledge and skills that enable him to produce and solve problems. We benefit from accumulating human capital just as we benefit from accumulating physical capital (tools); both increase our productivity.

We augment our human capital through learning. That fact leads many people to jump to the conclusion that schooling necessarily adds to human capital. After all, when students take classes in grade school, then high school, then college, they’re engaged in learning. So the more time people spend in education, the more human capital they acquire.

. . .

Are we sure that students who attend (and perhaps graduate from) those school gain in human capital?

I don’t think so. Human capital gains occur when an individual improves his mental ability; when his learning enables him to better think through problems, produce value, communicate, evaluate options, and so on. Unfortunately, at many colleges and universities, students can easily pass courses with just the mental toolkit they possessed in high school. Yes, they briefly learn enough about subjects to pass their exams, but they could do that before. Short-term learning isn’t the same as improving your mental capacities.

Let’s put it this way: passing a college course no more indicates a human capital gain than just going to a gym indicates an improvement in physical fitness.

To get through college, many students don’t have to become better at reading, at writing, at math, at logic. Sadly, the key consideration at many colleges is not educational excellence or even modest progress, but simply enrolling and collecting tuition from as many students as possible. Therefore, course content has been watered down and expectations lowered so that even the weakest and most disengaged students can pass. As Steve Balch, founder of the National Association of Scholars says, “We don’t so much have higher education these days, as longer education.”

. . .

Taking college classes isn’t the only way to learn useful things. For many young Americans, it isn’t the best way and it’s a costly mistake to push them into college if they aren’t prepared for or interested in academic pursuits.

There's more at the link.

Via Al Fin, we learn of another very interesting article by Frank Furedi, who points out that 'in flattering kids as ‘digital natives’ for whom the past is irrelevant, we degrade a vital adult mission: transmitting knowledge'. It's long, but very worthwhile. Some excerpts:

Although education is celebrated as one of the most important institutions of society, there is a casual disrespect for the content of what children are taught. Curriculum engineers often display indifference, if not contempt, for abstract thought and the knowledge developed in the past. Both are criticised for being irrelevant or outdated; only new information that can be applied and acted on is seen as suitable for the training – and it is training and not teaching – of digital natives.

In policy deliberations about education, the acquisition of subject-based knowledge is often dismissed as old-fashioned. Typically, an emphasis on the intellectual content of classroom subjects is labelled an outdated form of scholasticism that has little significance in our era. Policymakers often represent change as an omnipotent force that renders prevailing forms of knowledge and schooling redundant. In such circumstances, education must transform itself to keep up with the times. From this perspective, educational policies can be justified only if they can adapt to change.

Since they are likely to be overtaken by events, classroom innovations by definition have a short-term and provisional status. The instability that afflicts the education system is turned into the normal state of an institution that needs to be responsive to the uncertain flow of events. Although fads come and go, the constant feature of today’s throwaway pedagogy is a deep-seated hostility to teaching academic subjects to young people, especially to those who come from disadvantaged socioeconomic groups. So-called modernisers regard the subject-based curriculum as far too rigid for a school system that must adapt to a constantly changing world.

. . .

In the worldview of the educational establishment change has acquired a sacred character that determines what is taught. It creates new requirements and introduces new ideas about learning. And it encourages the mass production of a disposable pedagogy. Educationalists adopt the rhetoric of ‘breaks’ and ‘ruptures’ and maintain that nothing is as it was and that the present has been decoupled from the past. Their outlook is shaped by an imagination that is so overwhelmed by the displacement of the old by the new that it often overlooks historical experience that may continue to be relevant.

The discussion of the relationship between education and change is frequently overwhelmed by the fad of the moment and with the relatively superficial symptoms of new developments. It is often distracted from acknowledging the fact the fundamental educational needs of students do not alter every time a new technology influences people’s lives. And certainly the questions raised by Greek philosophy, Renaissance poetry, Enlightenment science or the novels of George Eliot continue to be relevant for students in our time and not just to the period that preceded the digital age.

. . .

The fetishisation of change is symptomatic of a mood of intellectual malaise, where notions of truth, knowledge and meaning have acquired a provisional character. Perversely, the transformation of change into a metaphysical force haunting humanity actually desensitises society from distinguishing between a passing novelty and qualitative change. That is why lessons learned through the experience of the past are so important for helping society face the future. When change is objectified, it turns into spectacle that distracts society from valuing the truths and insights it has acquired throughout the best moments of human history. Yet these are truths that have emerged through attempts to find answers to the deepest and most durable questions facing us, and the more the world changes the more we need to draw on our cultural and intellectual inheritance.

. . .

One of the key tasks of education is to teach children about the world as it is. Although society is subject to the forces of change, education needs to acquaint young people with the legacy of its past. The term ‘learning from the past’ is often used as a platitude. Yet it is impossible to engage with the future unless people do draw on the centuries of human experience. Individuals gain an understanding of themselves through familiarity with the unfolding of the human world.

The transition from one generation to another requires education to transmit an understanding of the lessons learned by humanity through the ages. Consequently, the main mission of education is to preserve the past so young people have the cultural and intellectual resources to deal with the challenges they face. This understanding of education as renewal stands in direct contrast to the present predilection to focus the curriculum on the future.

Again, there's more at the link.

Al Fin comments on Furedi's perspective:

If the parents are able to spend enough time with the child in the early years before school, and if they are able to supplement the child's official schooling with an authentic education provided at home and under the direct supervision of the family, the child will likely turn out fine. But most parents are too busy working for the tax collector and the bill collector to provide a child with a quality, meaningful contact education. And so the child is thrown to the experimenters.

Change is, undeniably, an everpresent condition of life -- particularly young life. But for the health of the child's mind it should be a background condition, not a foreground condition. If perverse educators and curriculum planners push the idea of "change" to the forefront, it too easily becomes a euphemism for meaningless emptiness and void substituted in the place of the deep and vital truths that all children must learn to create their own meaning within themselves.

Modern pedagogy assumes that this will happen on its own -- or they assume that if teachers of the proper ideology control education from top to bottom, the child can be set on the (politically) correct path by means of proper indoctrination.

But indoctrination is not education, and it has nothing to do with the deep morality that every child must learn -- regardless of the presence or absence of any religion in his life. The overriding emphasis upon political and ideological indoctrination combined with the fetish of "change" leaves an empty mind, a change zombie.

It is happening at all levels of education. It is reflected in our culture, in rampant political corruption. The widespread abandonment of books and solitude. The irritated dismissal of deep meanings that require more than a minute or two to absorb. The susceptibility to emotional pitches from well-cadenced politicians with speechwriters who understand the necessity of a short-attention-span appeal.

There is change, and there is meaningful change. The difference is lost to modern professors and graduates of university schools of education, but it is a critical difference. Most of the change that the young experience is meaningless, because they are moving from nowhere to nowhere. Meaningful change is moving from a significant somewhere to another significant somewhere.

But children are never given the opportunity to get anywhere -- they are pushed, twitter-like, from one distraction to the next without significant meaning ever setting in. Curriculum designers and educators are themselves lost in distraction, drifting in turbulent currents, having burned all their navigational charts as a demonstration of their independence of thought.

It is an ongoing tragedy of the wide-scale destruction of mind potential. It is simply how things are done in the age of change. Throw in a dash of hope for good measure. Better than nothing....

(If Al Fin isn't on your daily reading list, may I strongly suggest that he should be? He offers interesting, challenging and endlessly stimulating perspectives on many aspects of modern life.)

All thought-provoking articles, and highly recommended for anyone with any interest in higher education today.