Friday, February 27, 2015

New Jersey Settles 9 Billion Dollar Lawsuit Against Exxon Mobil for 250 Million

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Check out this story from the New York Times about the settlement of a long-standing lawsuit brought forward by New Jersey on damages to about 3 square miles of wetlands.  The area is heavily contaminated with petroleum products and other materials.

The cost to cleanup the site is about 2.6 billion dollars and the value of the loss of the land to the public is about 6 billion.

I have been watching these types of environmental lawsuits for years and I have never seen such a low agreement in a case like this.  Even if one only looks at the cleanup costs, Exxon is off the hook for about 2.4 billion dollars---money that the taxpayers of New Jersey will have to pay to clean up the property--if it ever gets cleaned up.  If this were your personal property you would have been able to recoup the cleanup costs AND the compensatory damages for loss of use.  In this case New Jersey settled for a shockingly low amount that doesn't come close to covering the cost of the cleanup.

A judge was about to rule on the case and would have probably given New Jersey much more money in the decision.

A big question that all of us should be asking is why did New Jersey give Exxon such a sweetheart deal?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

National Cave and Karst Research Institute Studies Home of World's Largest Bat Colony

Last fall, I wrote about a wonderful effort in Texas to preserve a unique cave that is home to millions of bats.  Check it out here.  Over the last several months, scientists from the National Cave and Karst Research Institute have been studying the guano (bat poop) deposits in Bracken Cave to better understand the history and habitat of the cave.

The cave is important because it is home to what is thought to be the world's largest bat colony.

Check out a video of their work here. A briefer video of images of the work is below.  However, follow the link for a greater description of the work.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Fasting for the Climate this Lent

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Are you participating in Lent this year?  Each year, millions of Christians around the world observe the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter as a time of reflection and recommitment to the message of the Gospels.  Non-Christians often join in on the Lent season as a personal spiritual journey to reconnect with their beliefs and reflect on their role in the world.

If you are thinking about doing something around the Lenten season, Global Climate Movement has some suggestions for you.

According to their Website, the Global Climate movement defines themselves this way:

Concerned about man-made climate change and united by our Catholic fait, we have come together to care for God's creation, for the poor-who are the most vulnerable to climate disruption-, and for our children-who will face the worst impacts in the coming years-.  We encourage Catholics to renew our relationship with creation and with our brothers and sisters in poverty, and we urge our political leaders to commit to ambitious climate action to solve this urgent crisis and keep the global temperature increase below 1.5 degree Celsius (relative to pre-industrial levels).

The group is encouraging individuals to sign up for a Lenten Fast.  You can read about it here.  While the term fast suggests slowing down on food consumption, the focus of the fast is multi-faceted.  For example, there are daily suggestions as to how to fast (such as recycling, avoiding consumerism, etc.).

Catholic or not, the Lenten Fast provides a late winter opportunity for reflection about our place in the world and how we can help to make the world a better place.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Sunday Poetry Contribution by Stan Brunn

Here is a special contribution from noted geographer, Stan Brunn, from the University of Kentucky.  He is one of the most prolific writers in the field of geography.  We have been corresponding on a project and he sent along this poem which he gave me permission to publish. 
Snow Is Life/Life Is Snow
Stan Brunn

Snow, snow, all around
Makes us feel so snowbound.
For many are trapped with no escape
From this whitened snowscape.
Children, snow creations and at play
Adults adding numbers nine months to the day.
And what about this global warming
That our scientists said was a-coming?
In all this we confidently know
Whether out intellect is fast or snow
Snow is truly a great equalizer
Whether liberal or radical, youth or senior.
A think white frosting on earth-cake
That covers the sins and beauties we do make.
Did you see the trillions of snowflakes
Sewn together that a snow quilt makes?
And count those many shades of white
And hear the silent building of those mounds of height?
While we all experience polar bear hibernation
Some will discover a snowbound celebration.
Times for extra sleep and inner reflection
Reading, snow shoveling  and needed affection.
Thinking of the poor, those cold, and the hungry birds
And those seeking warm places and soothing words.
While these weather extremes we have no control
We know they affect our body, mind and soul.
Finding the lonely and kindred spirit
And the joys of snow that come with it.
Perhaps heavy snow is God’s embracing the earth
With beautiful and colorful new-found birth.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Hibernating Spirit Bear Wakes Up!

The signs are all around us that spring is right around the corner.  Although we are in the midst of a major cold spell, it may prove to be the last one of the year.  The sun is brighter, the days are longer, and the cold doesn't quite seem so cold.  It's time to get out of hibernation like Apollo the Spirit Bear from British Columbia.

Spirit Bears are a subspecies of black bears that live in north and central coastal British Columbia.  They are more commonly called Kermode Bears.  About 10% of the Spirit Bears are born with a cream color coat.  The one below was caught waking up after a long winter hibernation.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Email 101 for College Students Part II--Advice from Readers

Earlier this year, I wrote a post called "Email 101 for College Students" that got a considerable amount of traffic.  You can read this post here.  My main goal in writing the post was to give students some good advice on how to communicate with university professors via email.

The post must have touched a nerve because I have received several comments on this post from faculty and friends from around the country.  I have condensed these and added my own thoughts to them below.

1.  Subject line.  Carefully construct a good subject line to communicate the purpose of your email.  I am probably the worst person in the world on this issue and I often forget to add a pithy subject line category which is probably why I didn't give good advice on this topic in the first place.  However, if you are writing about a particular class, a good subject line might be: Question on Assignment in SBLY 1.

2.  TIming of email.  Students are generally nocturnal creatures while faculty, for the most part, live in a 9-5 world.  Thus, email sent at 11:30pm will not be seen until 9am.  Between 11:30pm and 9am several other emails come into the In Box putting your email low on the priority list.  To fix this, set those late night emails for delivery at 8:00am.  The email will be the first thing Dr. Riseandshine will see in the morning and you will be seen as a bright eager hard worker while you are sleeping in waiting for the alarm to get you to your 11am class.

This is a good business habit overall.  Many companies are banning managers from sending emails after hours.  Late night email stresses employees and creates a negative work environment.  Think of how your email will be seen by the person receiving it.  Will the person be okay with late night emails or not?

I often work late and write emails to colleagues/students/friends.  Some emails I send out if I have a good relationship with the person or if they send me late emails first.  However, I always hesitate before hitting the send button at night.  It takes just a moment to set the delivery time and I often find myself choosing a morning delivery.

3.  Sincerity.  One of the best things you can do in email is to try to show sincerity and thoughtfulness.  When you are a busy college student or professor, it is easy to fall into the trap of brief text type emails that are droid-like communications between processors.  These types of emails lack sincerity and humanness.  When working with university faculty, try to show a bit of who you are.  Add good intros and closings to emails.  Open yourself up a bit about what you do and who you are as a person.  Below are two different emails.  Which one would you like to receive?

Example 1:

What day is the next exam?

Example 2:

     Dear Professor Brinkmann:
     I am sorry to trouble you with my small issue, but I lost my syllabus and I do not currently have access to the online course network.  Would you be so kind as to send me an electronic copy of the syllabus?  I am trying to ascertain the date of the next exam.
     I hope this note finds you well.  We only have a few more weeks of this cold weather.  I cannot wait for spring!

Which of the two examples would you respond to first?  If you were to recommend a student for a prestigious internship, which one would you recommend?  There is no doubt that the first example is the common form of email most professors receive today.  This is largely due to the native text language of our college students.  Yet we need to try to prod the students to become more humane in their communication skills in order to help them in the job market.  Taking a few moments to add a good intro and conclusion to your email (as well as a Dear Professor and a Sincerely at the beginning and end) goes a long way to make your emails stand out.

4.  Email/Call/Office Hours.  Do you really need to email?

I don't know about all university faculty, but I am finding myself overwhelmed by emails.  It started about 4 years ago.  About that time, everyone started sending emails on small issues--even issues that could be handled by getting out of a desk and walking a few feet down a hallway.  It is not that uncommon for me to get 100 emails a day.  Some companies have banned emails overall as inefficient ways to communicate.  I wouldn't go that far, but there is no doubt that there is way too much out there.

I do triage on email every day and save important thoughtful emails for the evening or weekends.  Quick emails I try to get done with quickly.

I am sure that I am missing some emails from students.  That is why I am urging everyone to think twice before hitting send on emails as of late.  Do you really need to send an email?  Would a quick phone call work?  Could you spend an extra minute finding the information on your own?

There is a major secret that most students do not know about university faculty.  They have office hours and students rarely come to them.  If you have the time and have a question, go see the professor.  Such meetings build bonds that will help you get letters of recommendation, internships, and other good things.  While an email might be a quick way to get an answer, an office hour visit pays off much better.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Is the University of Wisconsin System Following the Florida Model?

Me at my alma mater, UW Oshkosh, December, 2014.
I have been getting emails from many leaders of the Wisconsin University System as of late asking me to contact Wisconsin legislators and other political leaders to express my concern over the proposed 16% budget cuts to the system. I received my undergraduate degree in geology from UW-Oshkosh, my MS in Geology from UW-Milwaukee, and my Ph.D. in Geography from UW-Milwaukee and I am very appreciative of the quality education I received.  There is no doubt in my mind that the UW System is one of the best in the world.

Before I get into the cuts, let me just review what makes the Wisconsin system so successful.  The system has always had good vision and planning from the top.  The goal has always been to provide solid educational offerings throughout the state that do not duplicate each other and that promote economic development while supporting broad strong liberal arts education.  The targeted nature of the system allowed for specialization of programs with national reputations.  For example, UW-Whitewater is one of the best schools in business, UW-Green Bay is one of the best schools in theater, and UW-Milwaukee is one of the best urban focused universities in the world. At the same time, the flagship campus at Madison is one of the world's leading research universities and is consistently ranked in the top 10 public schools in the U.S.

Currently, Wisconsin is undergoing a budget shortfall.  One of the remedies that is suggested by the Governor is to cut the system budget by 16%.  The Governor says that the cut is much smaller--2.5%.  Let's break this down a bit.

Universities get a considerable amount of funding from granting agencies like the National Science Foundation to conduct research.  The governor is counting this money in his total university budget.  Of course, this money cannot do what the state money does--deliver courses to students.  Universities also get a considerable amount of money from donors--again this money is being counted in the total budget dollars to get at the 2.5% figure.  Again, this money cannot be used to deliver courses.  Donors give money for scholarships and to build buildings--not to pay faculty to teach.

The reality is that the UW System will be taking a double digit hit.  They are receiving a 16% cut in the money they receive from the state.

This is a budget figure that is all too familiar to me from my days teaching at a big public university in Florida.  Over 23 years I saw budget cut after budget cut (many of them double digit) to the point that today the state funding for public education is a small part of the university budget.  

Was this good for public education in Florida?  

When I left, we had courses with 1200 students taught by an instructor.  Raises were rare and small.  The administrative support for faculty and chairs was limited. Administrators were overworked or worse.  There was a widespread movement of tenured faculty (including your's truly) out of the state.  Plus, the state disbanded central planning of universities which led to regional chaos and competition that caused many problems throughout Florida.  

Don't get me wrong.  There are great things going on at Florida Universities despite the lack of state support and administrative leadership.  Yet, I don't think many would look to Florida as a model for how to run a great educational system.

I totally understand the difficulty in balancing budgets and I am sympathetic to the notion that universities have to have a share in budget cuts to ensure fairness.  But before Wisconsin enters a path of double digit budget cuts, I hope leaders take a hard look at what happened to the Florida system over the last 20 years.  Do Wisconsinites really want to go down that path?  

The UW system is one of the most respected institutions of higher learning in the world.  I hope they keep it that way before they suffer the same fate as the Florida system.