Today In Academia: A Ban on Toasty Dorm Fireplace Fires

Today in academia: $100 for a decent AP score, the ban on toasty dorm fires, rethinking the school calendar in Japan and an anthropological look at stereotypical college signs.

University of Virginia students will no longer be able to have toasty fires in their dorm rooms. There’s some very sensible safety reasoning behind the university’s decision to ban fireplaces in dorm facilities. But, as The Washington Post reminds, what about tradition? You know, the long-ago envisioned “place where learning was not limited to the classroom, where students and faculty lived side by side, where people would gather for philosophical debates over dinner or discuss books by the fireside”? Sure. But it’s still probably for the best the to ban the fireplace fires. [The Washington Post]

Paying students who get good grades in AP courses can help students get good grades in AP courses. A bit of cash goes a long way for students enrolled in high school Advanced Placement courses that actually pay for decent grades. And while The New York Times overview article on a student paying initiative cites research that cautions that paying students isn’t a cure-all, a $100 bonus for a student who gets a passing grade on an Advanced Placement course exam probably won’t hurt performance. For teachers either: “Because 43 of his students passed the exam this year, far above his target, Mr. Nystrom will add a $7,300 check to his $72,000 salary.” [The New York Times]

The University of Tokyo wants to sync up its academic calendar with the West. The long-debated idea is revived by a new Chronicle of Higher Education report which says that the University of Tokyo wants to synchronize its schedule with a Western calendar year in order to attract more foreign students (currently less than 3 percent of students at Japan’s institutions are from out of the country). “An in­ter­nal pan­el is ex­pect­ed to re­port by the end the year” on the potential move at the University of Tokyo. “Sources in­side the uni­ver­si­ty say the pan­el dis­cus­sion is currently bal­anced 50-50 for and against the change.” [Chronicle of Higher Education]

This is a cartoon version of what an Ivy League student looks like.  Without the bloggers atIvygate, we would’ve missed this weekend’s James Atlas New York Times op-ed about the celebration of the smart Ivy League applicant of which he deems the “Super Person.” Super People (who he later clarifies aren’t as Super as he first says) are flooding the elite schools and seem to possess every single skill (Ivygate has curated a full list) known to man. But some of his praises ring hollow: “REMEMBER the Dumb Kid in your math class who couldn’t understand what a square root was? Gone. Vanished from the earth like the stegosaurus. If your child is at an elite school, there are no dumb kids in his or her math class–only smart and smarter.”  Every Ivy Leaguer is amazing at math? [The New York TimesIvygate blog]

An anthropological investigation into stereotypical college signs.  Ever want to know where signs like “Hangover Here,” “Stagger Inn,” and “TK∆: Tappa Kegga Day” originated? Well, one Hamilton College anthropology professor and his students found such signs so interesting at Ohio’s Miami University that they began to investigate them, which ended up turning into a book. In a Q&A with Inside Higher Ed, the professor, Chaise LaDousa, recounts what it was like questioning the undergrads at such houses: “We started to interview residents and were shocked. When we mentioned the categories we had identified, residents claimed that we were taking matters too seriously.” [Inside Higher Ed]


Five Best Tuesday Columns

Nina Burleigh on Amanda Knox “Amanda Knox is nothing if not a good story,” writes Nina Burleigh, who wrote a book on the Knox case, in theLos Angeles Times. Burleigh went to Italy unsure whether Knox had really murdered her roommate, but aware that the case revealed a cultural obsession with the “femme fatale.” But after several weeks observing the case, Burleigh decided there was almost nothing linking Knox to the murder, while most evidence actually pointed to another man. “It became clear that it wasn’t facts but Knox — her femaleness, her Americaness, her beauty — that was driving the case.” There was much misogyny surrounding it. A prison doctor told her she had HIV, prompting her to list every man she’d ever had sex with. After authorities gave the list to tabloids, the prison said it was mistaken and she was HIV-negative. The prosecution called her a “she-devil.” In fact, Knox had only grown into her beauty in college. She remained conflict-averse and unsure of her effect on men. She was an avid diarist. Police used the upbeat tone she took in her “prison diary” to argue that she was psychopathic. Reporters focused on the few instances she talked about sex, and ignored the times she mentioned her jailer sexually harassing her. “The focus on her sexuality suggests that civilization can easily tip backward to the primeval era when the feminine was classified, worshiped and feared in the form of powerful archetypes: Madonnas and Dianas, virgins and whores.” People assigned her a personality of self-possession that in the end she did not have and would have helped her defend herself. “The gaunt, tense woman defending herself on appeal bore barely any resemblance to the fresh, pretty girl photographed kissing her boyfriend outside the murder scene. Only now, having lost the power to bewitch and beguile, has she been revealed as human.”

Michael Gerson on Romney’s Mormonism Mitt Romney’s Mormonism continues to be a challenge to his primary odds, writes Michael Gerson. “About 20 percent of Republicans and 23 percent of Protestants tell Gallup they would not support a Mormon for president,” he says in The Washington Post. Gerson says the right’s opposition to him based on his religion is likely to fade. The Mormon church is “America’s fourth-largest denomination; Mormons are one of the nation’s strongest conservative voting blocks. A serious Republican candidate simply can’t run an anti-Mormon campaign.” Furthermore, as choices between candidates become specific, voters may change their minds. Conservative evangelicals have never been a majority and so they have always reached out politically to other groups from Catholics to Jews. On the other hand, “criticism by secular liberals is likely to blossom,” Gerson argues. The Mormon Church became a main supporter of California’s Proposition 8, and liberals will couple this with the church’s traditional “offenses against women and minorities” and will even raise “the specter of theocracy.” “Damon Linker has warned that Mormon leaders, claiming prophetic authority, might dictate to an American president. Jacob Weisberg has insisted, ‘I wouldn’t vote for someone who truly believed in the founding whoppers of Mormonism.” “On much of the right, politics will eventually trump theology. On at least some of the left, secularism will trump tolerance,” Gerson says.

Bill McKibben on Obama’s cronyism Last month, Obama’s administration debuted a system where any petition with 5,000 signatures would get some sort of response from the White House. The move probably will not “stop people from trying to occupy Wall Street,” though, because in other ways, the administration has shown itself to be less than transparent, writes author and environmental activist Bill McKibben in The New York Times. E-mails released through the Freedom of Information Act show cronyism like that of the Bush administration remains alive. The e-mails reveal the State Department worked with lobbyists to advance the interests of TransCanada, “the company trying to build the Keystone XL pipeline from the tar sands of Canada across the center of the continent. Even as the State Department was supposedly carrying out a neutral evaluation of the pipeline’s environmental impact, key players were undermining the process.” Paul Elliott, TransCanada’s chief Washington lobbyist, worked for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. A member of the U.S. embassy in Canada, the e-mails show, reassured Elliott that “it’s precisely because you have connections that you’re sought after and hired.” A WikiLeaks cable revealed a State Department official coaching Canadian diplomats on how best to spin their cause in the media. The State Department hired the same consulting firm that works for TransCanada to evaluate the environmental impact of the pipeline. The firm concluded the pipeline will have no real impact, which contradicts the advice of twenty of the country’s top scientists, McKibben says. If this is happening in State, it could be happening elsewhere in government, too. Obama promised to “end the tyranny of oil” as well as cronyism, McKibben says, and with his upcoming decision on the pipeline, he has a final chance to reverse course and keep his promises.

Frank Bruni on the road to Romney Frank Bruni opens his column with a series of exaggerations. “The Iowa caucuses have been moved up significantly… They will be held on Wednesday.” Florida moved their primary to October 31st, and South Carolina moved theirs to October 17th, he jokes. “Far-fetched? Only a little,” Bruni writes in The New York Times. The states are “playing leap frog” with primary dates. The media continues to obsess over, then reject, the candidate of the moment, showing that “an epically silly primary contest” has “only just begun.” And yet, after all this, Bruni says, the victor will almost certainly be Mitt Romney, the man nearly everyone predicted would win from the outset. “The arc of Republican history bends toward the foregone conclusion. But while it’s bending, what fun we have!” The news media needs to fill time focusing on different candidates and different straw poll results. “Down the line [Michele Bachmann] and Cain and Rick Santorum will be in competition for the kinds of speaking gigs and television slots enjoyed by Sarah Palin,” Bruni says. “All four now enjoy a currency well beyond their actual political offices or professional accomplishments,” proving that just running for president can be a profitable endeavor. Bruni has long been frustrated with the “outsize” influence given primary voters in socially conservative Iowa and South Carolina. He wonders, if Chris Christie supported either abortion rights or same-sex marriage, would Republicans be courting him as they are now? Meanwhile, the states continue to wrangle over primary dates, and even Florida, a state that captures the attention of presidential news media, is complaining that it doesn’t get enough say.

Richard Cohen on Christie’s temper The media spent last week examining Chris Christie. “He was found to be too fat, too aggressive, too undisciplined, too angry and — not insignificantly — too late into the race,” writes Richard Cohen in The Washington Post. Columnists and talk show hosts decided that his weight was disqualifying. “They raised health issues. They raised willpower issues. They raised self-discipline issues — all of which are real, because, among other things, in a presidential campaign anything is an issue.” (Cohen cites the birther debate.) And yet while the weight debate raged, campaigns were likely preparing manuals on how to defeat Christie in a debate. “The purpose is to have him lose his temper… He operates a lot on instinct, but that instinct can come off as bullying. So in New Jersey debates, he has dialed back his personality and comes off as flat.” Christie is backed by many businessmen, who see in him values they hold, namely the ability to speak tough truths. But these backers might not have the keenest political senses when they support someone like them. “Chris Christie is a keenly intelligent man who has the smarts and confidence to attract really good people as aides. But he’s been governor for less than two years — one inexperienced politician per decade in the White House is enough.” Washington is already too full of politicians who think they know what’s right, and this is one of Christie’s main qualities. “American politics now is a china shop. The last thing it needs is a bull like Christie.”

Watch Researchers Show Off an Underwater ‘Invisibility Cloak’

For obvious reasons, we’ve been fascinated with researchers various attempts at creating a working invisibility cloak. But whenever we see enthusiastic headlines, progress seems mostly theoretical. Not today. Thanks to University of Dallas researchers that filmed their findings, we actually get a glimpse (underwater) of how the science works in real-life using carbon nanotube sheets. From their press release, we’re told that these nanotubes have the handy ability of “the density of air but the strength of steel,” which seems useful:

Through electrical stimulation, the transparent sheet of highly aligned CNTs [carbon nanotubes] can be easily heated to high temperatures. They then have the ability to transfer that heat to its surrounding areas, causing a steep temperature gradient. Just like a mirage, this steep temperature gradient causes the light rays to bend away from the object concealed behind the device, making it appear invisible.

Practically speaking, the video below shows an unpictured researcher presumably toggling an “on/off” switch that clicks, triggering the tube sheets to perform the cloaking mirage effect. Not quite magic, but still pretty interesting (the full study is here):

Say Goodbye to Napster’s Kitty Logo

In the not-too-distant future, the Napster brand and the iconic logo will disappear. Rhapsody announced plans on Monday to acquire the once-disruptive music service from Best Buy for an undisclosed amount, and after the deal closes on November 30, a Rhapsody spokesperson said that “the Seattle company plans to re-brand Napster under the Rhapsody name.” As the company’s president Jon Irwin said in a statement, Rhapsody is really only interested in two things: “There’s substantial value in bringing Napster’s subscribers and robust IP portfolio to Rhapsody as we execute on our strategy to expand our business via direct acquisition of members and distribution deals.”

This isn’t the first time that the Napster brand and cat-wearing-headphones logo has disappeared, but it’s likely the last. As such, it represents the end of an era that was really supposed to end a while ago. Elizabeth Brooks, who worked under founders Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker as the company’s former head of marketing, explains the background to the logo in a Quora post:

The logo was created by a friend of Shawn’s early in the company’s history. The logo was intended to be a cat partly as a response to Lycos using a dog in their advertising at the time. (Lycos was a preferred way to search for mp3s prior to the Napster program and other P2P initiatives.) Some people seemed to think the logo was a devil, so small changes were done to the logo in order to make it slightly less “devilish”

Following an intense series of legal battles in 2000, the company shut down its service in 2001 and declared bankruptcy in 2002. After being reintroduced in 2003 as a paid subscription service, Napster’s brand was passed around a number of companies before finally being purchased by Best Buy in 2008 for $121 million.

As Irwin says, Napster is now pretty much useful only for its patents and its users. At this point, it’s not immediately clear how many of either Rhapsody will gain with the Napster acquisition. When Best Buy bought Napster in 2008, the service had 700,000 subscribers, and The New York Timesestimates that number could be down to “an estimated 300,000 to 400,000.” When added to the 800,000 paying subscribers, the new pack is bigger but nowhere close to Spotify’s 10 million. According to PC Worldmore than 80 million users downloaded and signed on to Napster–clicking that little cat log–on a daily basis at its peak in February 2001. Of course, it was totally free and totally illegal at that point in time.

U.S.-Born Scientists Win Nobel for Terrifying View of the Universe

Did you know the universe is constantly expanding and accelerating at a pace that will leave the cosmos frozen, dark, and lonely? Well most of the scientific world did not, until three U.S.-born scientists demonstrated as much in the 1990s. This morning, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize in physics to Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess who will share a $1.5 million award for their breakthrough research. According to the Associated Press, the trio “found that the light from more than 50 distant exploding stars was far weaker than they expected, meaning that galaxies had to be racing away from each other at increasing speed.” The force driving this breakneck speed is called dark energy, “a cosmic force that is one of the great mysteries of the universe.”

The end result of the rapid expansion and acceleration is a very scary, sci-fi dystopia-type world.

The Nobel-winning discovery implies instead that the universe will get increasingly colder as matter spreads across ever-vaster distances in space, said Lars Bergstrom, secretary of the Nobel physics committee.

He said galaxies that are 3 million light years away from Earth move at a speed of around 44 miles per second (70 kilometers per second). Galaxies that are 6 million light years away move twice as fast.

The research implies that billions of years from now, the universe will become “a very, very large, but very cold and lonely place,” said Charles Blue, spokesman for the American Institute of Physics.

Microsoft Zune, Second-Rate MP3 Player, Dies at Age 4

Late Monday evening Microsoft announced the death of its ailing music listening device. “We recently announced that, going forward, Windows Phone will be the focus of our mobile music and video strategy, and that we will no longer be producing Zune players,” read the brief notice on The device, age 4, would have celebrated its fifth birthday on November 16, 2006. The Zune had a short lived, but relatively successful career. If you consider second best an achievement.

Five years after the iPod changed the way humans listen to music, Microsoft decided to craft an iPod competitor. Not exactly too little too late, in its early life, it showed small signs of success. After launch, it ranked second to the iPod, reported Gizmodo.

Despite the fact that the Zune was only #18 on Amazon’s sales chart (it’s #17 now)—behind 12 varieties of iPods—Microsoft’s doing quite well this holiday season. Statistics released by NPD Group says that while the iPod is still number one, the Zune’s leapfrogged everyone else and claimed 9% of sales and 13% of total dollar share. Impressive, until you compare it to the iPod’s 63% of sales and 72.5% of dollar share.

The Zune looked like Microsoft’s Jessica Simpson to Apple’s Britney Spears. It had a chance! But then came along the New Years glitch of 2009: Z2K9. At midnight on December 31, 2008 thousands of first generation Zune’s froze. The Zune never recovered.

In May of 2008 Game Stop discontinued Zune players because of insufficient demand. By January 2009, Microsoft admitted the nobody really wanted the Zune, reported The Wall Street Journal. “Microsoft mentions a steep drop in Zune revenues in the holiday quarter compared to the same period the prior year. ‘Zune platform revenue decreased $100 million or 54% reflecting a decrease in device sales,’ notes the filing.” In March of this year, Microsoft said it would no longer release new versions becaese of “tepid demand,” reported Businessweek.

Yesterday, after a fake out, Microsoft officially announced the death of the Zune. And today we say goodbye to a star that burned bright, just not brightly enough.

How to Watch Apple’s Big iPhone Announcement

Apple needs to wow the world with their “Let’s Talk iPhone” event, but they won’t be doing it live. There will be no streaming video of the event at Apple’s Cupertino headquarters–1 p.m. Eastern time, 10 a.m. Pacific–but with an audience of fast-typing tech bloggers, tweeters and a stray camera or two, there are plenty of ways to mimic the experience. We’ll be covering the event live with a quickly updated post on what you need to know about Apple’s new iPhone adventures, but if you prefer the reverse chronological feed format, try these sources.

For Visuals
Engadget is already reporting from the ground with a pre-announcement video stream. When the event starts, they’ll be liveblogging here, and they’re already posting pictures of the headquarters.

For Snark
Gizmodo fired up their live coverage fairly early Tuesday morning with a Twitter-like stream of updates from several of their bloggers. They’re also inviting readers to send in their thoughts and reactions.

For the Twitter Experts
Robert Scobble’s list of the most influential tweeters in tech will surely light up with instant reactions.

For a Dedicated Fanboys
MacRumors will be posting live updates on their site and devoted Twitter feed the event. However, if you don’t want any spoilers, turn off all of your devices and check this post later in the day. MacRumors will post the video of the event when Apple makes it available.

For an Outsider Perspective
The traditionally Android-centric Slashgear is doing a “livecast“. No clue if that means they’ll try to post live video. In the past, illegal streams tend to get taken down pretty quickly.

For the Broadcast Experience
Try Vertex. They’ll be covering the event with live video, talking head style. Again, they may or may not try to sneak some live shots from the announcement itself.