Be Vewy, Vewy Quiet

A rabbit has dug a nest in the middle of our not very big backyard.  The death watch has now begun.

Yes, as far as natural history is concerned, Eastern cottontail rabbits do not dig graves.  Especially their own.  They do, however, create nests for their bunnies (separate from the warrens they live in).  In our yard, this is the same thing.

This is the fourth time in the seven years we have lived in our current house that a rabbit nest has been established in our yard.  I don’t think I knew what I was looking at the first time.  At least, I didn’t until the day I was working from home and let our two dogs out (Annie, the lab mix, and Cody, the corgi).  I came up from the basement while they were out and saw a rabbit still in the yard.

I wondered: what makes a rabbit sit still in a yard occupied by dogs?

I was drawn outside to investigate after hearing some weird screaming noise.  I was worried that it was one of the dogs, somehow having injured themselves.  But no, they were fine.  Couldn’t say the same thing for three bunnies in the nest who were busy playing the role of chew toys for Annie.  By the time everything settled down, you wouldn’t have thought the bunnies actually had any injuries: I think they might have just died of shock.

Six months later, here we go again.  Annie got to this batch earlier: they didn’t even have fur.  They also couldn’t really make noise, so while the dog was curious about the smell, she wasn’t getting enough reaction to really spur her predatory instincts.  Unfortunately, if I didn’t do anything, she was going to dig up the entire yard to get to the damned critters.  I waved her off and went to work scooping bunnies out of their nest with a hockey stick.  It’s a perfect tool for the job, I might add, but I still felt pretty awful doing it.  Nevertheless, the rabbits were dead in a Schrodinger’s cat sense at this point anyway: mother rabbits leave their babies in their nest after they’re born, just visiting them until the bunnies are ready to move around more independently.  There was no way these bunnies were going to survive their exposed position, and that was even presuming the mother would come back for them.

So scratch another litter of baby rabbits.

I think there’s a special place in Hell for people who have scooped baby rabbits out of a nest with a hockey stick.

Cody the corgi passed away before the next nest appeared.  He had never been worth much as far as rabbits went.  He was far more concerned about keeping everyone from doing anything dangerous or letting us know that our daughter needed attention.  One time Annie flushed the rabbit out of the bushes in one corner of the yard, driving it beautifully towards the front gate where Cody was standing guard.  The rabbit ran right past Cody, within a foot of him, and he never moved a hair.  Or a hare.

Annie stepped up patrols when the next nest appeared in our yard.  I can’t be sure, but I think she scared the mother rabbit on the very day the next litter was due and the mother chose another location to have her babies.

Anyway, that’s all proof that rabbits are not the smartest of creatures on God’ green earth: our yard might be an inviting sanctuary, perfectly sculpted for the purposes of a rabbit.  Right up until the point where you add in the 70-pound dog with a taste for varmint.

About a week ago, a new nest appeared.  It’s a nice little hole, unless you’re the owner of the yard, in which case it is a gaping chasm.  Dead grass and leaves have already been stuffed into it to keep the bunnies warm.  As yet, however, no bunnies.

My daughter is hoping we can find some way to save the bunnies, but the only solution is to turn our yard into a rabbit nature preserve, which I am just not willing to do.  Maybe the mother rabbit will come to her senses before it’s too late.  It’s happened before.

This morning I was out with Annie and I said, “Where are the baby rabbits?”  She instantly went into alert mode, ready to go all Watership Down on a bunch of cottontail bunnies.  I forgot that I shouldn’t use the “R” word, since she knows what that word means.  Did I say she was a lab mix?  Yes, and she’s probably also part border collie.  She’s got a 10th grade vocabulary.

We have way too many rabbits.  Evanston was the epicenter of a West Nile Virus outbreak a few years, and it wiped out our crows.  Crows, it turns out, are major consumers of baby rabbits, and with them out of the picture, our rabbit population has exploded.  So I’m not feeling bad about winnowing the bunny demographic.  I think the poster child for Conservation Status “Least Concern” is the Eastern cottontail rabbit.  I’d just rather not be the person at the other end of the hockey stick.

So we wait.  We watch and we wait.

They’re coming.  Then they’re going to die.


Is a college degree the right goal for all of our students?

Writing a blog article on an airplane using a device without a proper keyboard… well, there’s always spell check when I get to an actual computer, not to mention access to some actual statistics.

Roughly 30% of adult Americans have a college degree (31.6% of Americans 25 and over, as of 2013). While this has been trending upward (it was about 25% not fifteen years ago), it’s not moving that fast.  Part of that is simple arithmetic, as older folks without degrees continue to be part of the denominator of that equation.  The other part is that, while more young people are heading to college than ever before, they’re not all finishing.

So here’s a question to ponder: what if 30% is actually the proportion of people capable of meeting the academic challenge of college?

The odds are incredibly good that, if you’re reading this, you have a college degree.  It’s worth remembering the sacrifices and challenges in achieving that degree.  How many of us chose a school, a major, or a class because we thought it would be easier?  College can be very tough.  It’s supposed to be.  So it certainly seems possible that there’s some basic cut-off to doing the work to earn a meaningful degree, some level of ability that no amount of hard work can make up for.

This is, in America today, a totally heretical idea.  It’s absolutely un-American to accept that people have limits that aren’t somebody else’s fault.  If people aren’t attending college to begin with, it must be cost, discrimination in admissions policies, or social injustice.  If they start but don’t finish, it’s because college campuses were insufficiently diverse or supportive.

We wouldn’t care about these statistics except that we continue to see how much more you can make over your life with a college degree.  This overall economic bonus continues to grow, even while college costs rise.  We don’t really value equal opportunity in education, but if the economics aren’t fair, then it’s social injustice.

So, is academic ability a significant barrier to finishing college? It’s certainly logical that it’s key, but it’s not the only factor.  Certainly money is imporrtant, but with loans, grants, and merit scholarships, money has to be a rare barrier to people with academic interest and capability.  Family and community support is also important.  When a student sees education encouraged and rewarded, they’re more likely to keep at it; told it’s unimportant or not appropriate for them, and it will be that much harder for them to get to a degree.  There’s also the ability to navigate a bureaucratic process (in admissions, financial aid, and the degree process), which if anything can be as much of a challenge as coursework.

In the end, though, they still have to be able to do the work.  What if they can’t? What if all the money, community support, and administrative assistance wouldn’t make a difference?

First of all, it would mean our education system is focused on the wrong goal.  We are putting money on the wrong bets, providing unwise direction to many young people.  We’re telling them that they should aspire to a college degree, but we are actually positioning many of them for failure and debt.

We’re also investing in the wrong institutions.  A better breadth of career training would be more useful.

More interestingly, though, is the realization that as we have more demand for higher-educated people and technical skills, a fundamental limitation for academic success can hold us back from scientific, cultural, and social development.  If only a minority of our population can contribute to the major steps forward, our progress will be slower, with much missed opportunity.

America solves this problem for now by importing college students: 524,000 in 2012 (based on student visas), and they primarily focus on business and STEM majors.  Measures are poor on how many of these students stay in the US after completing their studies, but any number is still a contribution to America’s economy.  This is a solution to some degree for other developed countries, but no other country has the breadth and capability of America’s higher education system.  We are essentially an importer of the intelligent and the scholarly, frequently at a cost to the exporting countries.

Who knows how long we can keep this up?  It may be that demand for America’s university education is insatiable, but with a finite world population, this defies mathematics.

I think the answer lies in some real revolutions in education.  Broadened vocational education isn’t enough: it may provide workers educated enough to support a society pushing forward, but it won’t do more than that.  What we need is something we’ve never seen before.  We need something that helps people be part of the future without requiring that they be able to satisfy all of the requirements of a college degree.  That basic structure of academics and qualifications, by the way, dates from the Middle Ages.  Isn’t it worth looking for something new?

Time Machine to the Present

On the Chicago Tribune site today was a link to the scanned-in version of the January 12, 1969, edition of the Tribune.  In particular, there was a front page article entitled “Experts Preview ‘Good Life’ for Chicagoans in 21st Century”.  That was the hook that grabbed me: I’m always a sucker for past views of our future paradise.

In my “Old Wombat’s Concise History of the World”, I wrote a section on the history of the future.  The point was that we are constantly redefining what the future is going to look like.  Usually people ask, “Where’s my flying car?”  Some authors, however, have dealt more specifically with social predictions.  Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward” (1888) and H.G. Wells’ “When the Sleeper Awakes” (1899) are two classics in the genre.  In the end, both elements can be entertaining.

Anyway, I was fascinated to check into what people in 1969 thought the future would look like.  Through a “day in the life” scenario, we get shown some of those predictions.

–              [Chicago] Metro population reaches 12 million – Nope.

–              Per Capita Income Tops $10,000 – Not sure whether that was supposed to be for Chicago, Illinois, or U.S., but we got that one covered.

–              City [African-American] Population Exceeds White – Whites are 45% of Chicago’s population as of 2010 compared to Black / African American at 32.9%; if you compare White, non-Hispanic, though, that’s only 31.7% – I’ll call it a tie.

–              200-story vertical community open – Nope.

–              Breakfast prepared in a microwave oven – Since microwaves were pretty cutting edge in 1969, I give points for vision here, but I’m calling this a tie also, as we don’t prepare as much food in microwaves as past futurists thought we would.

–              Automatic laundry center washes, dries, and folds clothes – Nope.

–              Using computers to prepare for standardized tests at school – Yes.

–              That computer is a leased service (time share) – Wow, missed that one by a mile.  Maybe I’m being pedantic on the service used, however.

–              Wireless microphone for household intercom – I’ll call that a tie: we’d probably just use a cell phone to text across the house.

–              Dad drives electric car to work – I’ll give that a yes: electric cars are mainstream enough for that.

–              Dad recharges the car at a plug-in at the commuter station parking lot – Yes.

–              Student at school uses “electronic study carrel” to access the campus library, Chicago public library, and the Library of Congress – That’s pretty insightful, really: it’s halfway to the internet.  Calling it a yes.

–              Mom uses wireless telephone to plan a shopping trip with a friend – Yes, if still a bit sexist.

–              6 and a half hour day, 4 day work week – Uh, no.

–              Mom makes television-telephone call – Yes, but we call it Skype.

–              “Highway cruiser” car (which still runs on gasoline) has many comforts of home, including a coffee maker – Gotta say no on that one.

–              Speed limit on the expressway is 100 miles an hour – I’m calling this one a tie.  The official limits on Chicago expressways are still 55, but when the traffic’s moving, 80 isn’t a rarity.  100 isn’t unknown, but it’s still dangerous (and illegal).

–              Mom and friend take electric tramway through suburban shopping / business complex – No.

–              Mom shops using electronic payment – Took the writer a whole paragraph to describe what we call a debit card, but yes.

–              Kids walking home listen to music through ear buds – Yes.

–              Mom watches giant screen TV while making cooking – Yes.

–              Mom dictates recipe notes and then edits them on a computer – Calling this a tie: the technology described exists but I really don’t think anyone does this.

–              Mom reviews video tape library and erases tapes the family doesn’t watch any more – Yes, only we call this a DVR.

–              Kid asks mom when they’re going to get a 3-D wall TV set – Yes, only I think we’ve decided that 3-D TV is kind of a fad.  Also giving this a nod because it was specific about the TV being on the wall, which is rather common now.

–              House has built-in heating and cooling panels in the walls – Nope.

–              Kids play with mathematical puzzles on community center computer – Yes, only we call those puzzles Angry Birds.

–              Sanitation district uses lasers to eradicate waste that can’t be recycled – Partial points for the recycling, so I’ll give this a tie.

–              Kids want to go on vacation to an orbital resort – Nope, we still don’t vacation in space.  Stop asking.

–              Dad tries to make the trip to Singapore sound more fun (okay, the actual point is that the flight to Singapore is only supposed to take 45 minutes) – No.

So, to the scoreboard: 13 for yes, 10 for no, and 6 ties.  Pretty good, really, and no mention of flying cars.

And what was even more interesting?  Reading the rest of the newspaper.

For one thing, this was the Sunday newspaper, which was 360 pages.  Let me write that again in words: three hundred and sixty pages!

Some of the interest lies in the style of writing, with headlines (and stories) like:

–              “Mrs. Johnson Glad that LBJ is Retiring” (this was a week before Nixon was inaugurated)

–              “2d Airliner of Day Hijacked to Havana”

–              “Mysterious Natural Chemicals May Be Key to Better Life” (some things never change!)

–              “Proposed Bill to Regulate Use of DDT: Aims at Protection of Lake Michigan”

–              “Intensified Police Training to Include Sociology” (could probably use a little more of that)

–              “Fishing Through the Ice Can be Enjoyable” (really)

Some things, of course, never change.  There’s a front page article about the outgoing governor of Illinois, Samuel Shapiro, naming 11 Circuit judges to the bench just before he yielded to the incoming governor, Richard Ogilvie.  Front-page headline in the Tribune for today (January 13, 2015): “[Governor Patrick] Quinn lays political traps for [Governor Bruce] Rauner on way out door”.  That’s Illinois politics for you.

Also interesting are the ads, especially prices.  There were a lot of ads for fur coats, for example.  How about a turtleneck sweater for $1.99?  Or a “giant screen handcrafted 21″ diag. portable television” for $169.96?  That’s in an “elegant, vinyl-clad metal cabinet that is a masterpiece in clean modern design”, by the way.  In the real future, no one will ever say “elegant, vinyl-clad” – and mean it.  While some amount of inflation has hit just about everything over the last 45 years, for electronics, we’re making out pretty well.  Wieboldt’s, for example, is selling an Admiral 23″ color TV – with both VHF AND UHF! – for $498, formerly $549.95.

Oh, yes – Goldblatt’s is selling “The New Senator … Electric Multiplier” for $139.88.  It adds, subtracts, and features automatic short cut multiplication.  Eventually, in the classifieds, I’d find listings for “comptometer operators”.  I had to look that one up.  A comptometer was a device where you selected all the digits at once for a number to add.  The technology was invented in the 1870s and lasted into the 1970s, when devices such as the New Senator finally killed them.  But you could have gotten a job just for knowing how to run one of those things.

Some of the bigger employment ads were especially interesting because the companies and the roles haven’t changed in all this time.  Texas Instruments needs sales engineers, Abbott needs engineers, Blue Cross Blue Shield needs auditors and system analysts, Continental Coffee needs food technologists, United Air Lines needs programmer analysts, Quaker Oats has numerous openings, and Loyola University Medical Center needs programmers (to do COBOL on an S/360, but hey!)

On that last one, even in 1969, companies knew that programmers were hard to find and needed special inducements.  One classified proclaims, “We have a swimming pool, a trout pond, profit sharing, and an IBM 360”.

One of my favorite headlines was “Miniskirt Ban Spurs Debate in California”.  This included the statement: “The Democrats promptly accused the Republicans of imposing on their constitutional right to look.”  This sort of sets the stage for noting the pervasive sexism in the paper, and not just in the view of the 21st century in which mom is still a homemaker.

For example, the want ads are actually divided into “Help Wanted – Men” and “Help Wanted – Women”.  Honest.  Unbelievable, in our day and age, but there it was.  There was a “Help Wanted – Men and Women” (also one for Miscellaneous) but it was very small.  In the “Employment Agencies – Women” section were such ads as “Mature Office Girls – Age Completely Open”.  There’s an entire category of job called “Girl Friday”; Jane Arden Personnel “Needs 100 Girls”; there’s also an opening for “Baby Doctor’s Girl”.  Comptometer and keypunch operator positions were very open for women, apparently.  One ad asked, “Want a Man’s Job?”  The Federal Reserve Bank invited interest with an ad headed “GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS”, just like some burlesque show neon sign.  How did this not seem inappropriate, even then?

However, the seeds of hope are there to be found, if you look hard enough.  On page 130, deep in Section 5 after a column by Vincent Price – yes, that Vincent Price – is Mary Merryfield’s column.  Mary looks like she was born full-grown in 1951, put on her librarian glasses and hasn’t changed a bit since.  But she reports on a study conducted by the Sociology of Family Living classes at Niles Township high school, surveying kids and their parents about the proper role of a woman in tomorrow’s society.

The parents were in favor of girls finishing college, having outside interests and (gasp!) even part-time jobs … as long as that didn’t interfere with responsibilities at home.  Many mothers also noted that they did not want their daughters to compete with men professionally.  Promisingly, however, girls generally responded that they wanted a job that they could enjoy, and that would be fulfilling and rewarding, although some questioned finishing college if they would end up as housewives anyway.  Most, though, wanted homemaking and a career.

Perhaps the real indicator of where society headed comes from the viewpoint of the boys, who said “the ideal life of the modern woman is one of opportunity equal to others, male and female.  She should travel, finish college, establish a career…”

The experts didn’t see that one coming, apparently, but the high school boys at Niles Township did!