Monday, September 30, 2013

Way to go Marina Shifrin

"Mizzou grad quits job in blaze of glory with viral video"


Dugan Arnett

September 30th, 2013

The Kansas City Star

It wasn’t exactly Jerry Maguire’s goldfish-stealing, “Who’s-comin’-with-me?” diatribe, but a graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism found her own place in the “Leaving My Job in a Blaze of Glory” pantheon.

Marina Shifrin, an employee of Taiwanese company Next Media Animation, decided to tender her recent resignation in the form of a 1-minute, 45-second dance video, which has since gone viral.

During a surprisingly well-orchestrated one-person dance-fest to Kanye West’s “Gone,” she explains that she spent the past two years sacrificing “my relationships, time and energy for this job,” and that she is, in fact, gone — as in, from the industry.

“I quit,” she says in the video, which had been viewed more than 800,000 times as of Monday afternoon. “I QUIT!”

In a recent blog post, she delves into her reasons for leaving. Though not a traditional journalist — Next Media Animation is known for creating animated satirical news and entertainment stories — she was sick of writing for “clicks,” she says, and felt the overall quality of journalism in general has suffered greatly in recent years.

Instead of focusing on the kind of stories she wanted to tell, she was instead pressured into doing the kind of things the company felt would most attract viewers. She was upset “when someone got to the Miley Cyrus twerking story before I did,” she writes.

She goes on: “I am not saying journalists are monsters, but the atmosphere of today’s society — everything has to be first, loud and sensational — is taking the discretion out of journalism.”

What’s next for Shifrin is anybody’s guess. Though her recent display of brashness and misuse of company property — she apparently filmed her video in her former company’s office, at 4:30 a.m. — might not do her any favors in the old job-search department, her enterprising resignation seems to have captured the attention of the Internet.

As she recently posted on Twitter, Huffington Post called me a woman. Man, oh man, I feel old.”

And this from 1977 by Johnny Paycheck...Take This Job and Shove It...

And so the young sycophants reply...

Sir James Dewar and the thermos

"How the Thermos corporation cheated the inventor of the thermos"


Esther Inglis-Arkell

Spetember 29th, 2013


For all you aspiring inventors out there, here's a reason to keep up on your patent law. Have you heard of thermoses? They're the subject of not one, but two major patent disputes. Only one will engage your sympathy.

On the Thermos brand website, there's a little history of the invention. It starts with the thermos's invention and naming, stating:

    Invented in 1892 by Sir James Dewar, a scientist at Oxford University. The "vacuum flask" was first manufactured for commercial use in 1904, when two German glass blowers formed Thermos GmbH. They held a contest to name the "vacuum flask" and a resident of Munich submitted "Thermos", which came from the Greek word "Therme" meaning "heat".

You'll notice that the history does not include the negotiation with James Dewar of a fair price or percentage of the profits from his invention. It is not omitted merely due to the boring technical jargon of financial arrangements. Dewar never got a penny for his invention.

This is a shame, because it's a pretty neat one that includes a fun fact about physics. A vacuum makes a great insulator - because it stops a material's ability to transfer heat through convection. Most kinds of heat transfer result on heat being released or absorbed. Convection relies on the behavior of a material. Smoke rises from a fire because of the fire's heat. The fire heats the air just above it, and the air expands and moves upwards. This allows more air, colder air, to rush in and be heated in turn. If the warm air stayed near the fire, the heat transfer wouldn't happen anywhere near as fast. (Also the fire would be smothered because no fresh oxygen would reach it.) The process happens in air and water, but can't happen in a vacuum.

Dewar suspended on bottle inside another, and pumped out all the air between the two bottles. He wrapped the inner bottle in silver foil to reflect the infrared radiation of the material. Between the two, the invention could keep liquids warm for hours. It was a great invention, and he sued Thermos GmBH for manufacturing it without giving him money for it. Sadly, because he hadn't filed a patent, he lost. Thermos got rich, but soon had a patent problem of its own. The term "thermos" became such a generic term for Dewar's invention that they lost the exclusive rights to the word.

James Dewar [Wikipedia]

Vacuum flask [Wikipedia]

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Grade "B" horror film material--killer hornets

"Killer hornets rampage through China"

Killer hornets: A series of deadly attacks by the Asian giant hornet in China has prompted officials to warn citizens away from forests and fields.


Marc Lallanilla

September 27th, 2013

The Christian Science Monitor

A series of deadly hornet attacks has led Chinese officials to warn citizens to avoid walking through fields and wooded areas this year. At least 28 people have been killed, and hundreds seriously injured, when swarms of the stinging insects descend without warning on unsuspecting people.

The prime suspect in the killings is the Asian giant hornet — sometimes called the yak-killer hornet (Vespa mandarinia) — which can grow to be more than 2 inches (5 centimeters) in length, and has a quarter-inch-long (6 millimeters) stinger that delivers venom containing a potent neurotoxin.

The Asian giant hornet is the world's largest hornet, and is a voracious predator that dines on mantises, bees and other large insects. It has a deservedly evil reputation for wiping out entire hives containing thousands of honeybees by biting off the bees' heads and then stealing their honey and bee larvae. The hornets are capable of flying up to 62 miles (100 kilometers) in a single day at speeds of 25 mph (40 km/h).

Most of the attacks have occurred in Shaanxi province, the South China Morning Post reports. One victim suffered acute renal failure after being stung by hornets; the man claimed the hornets chased him over a distance of more than 650 feet (200 meters). A 55-year-old woman from the same village reported that she was stung more than 200 times and needed to be hospitalized for almost a month.

The unexpected rise in hornet attacks may be due to a number of factors, according to The Guardian. Hotter weather in the area has led to more successful breeding for the hornets, and laborers are moving deeper into the isolated rural areas where the hornets typically live.

"Patients with more than 10 hornet stings should seek medical attention. Those with more than 30 stings need immediate emergency treatment," said a director of the Ankang (Shaanxi) Disease Control Center, as quoted in the Post. Area hospitals have now created medical teams specializing in the treatment of hornet stings, and fire crews have removed more than 300 hornet nests from residential areas in an effort to prevent additional deaths and injuries.

Asian giant hornet [Wikipedia]

Well, I guess it has been done.


Friday, September 27, 2013

Lady Godiva and physics

"The time a legendary physicist was nearly killed by Lady Godiva"


Esther Inglis-Arkell

Septemeber 27th, 2013


Otto Frisch got a Nobel Prize for figuring out the mechanics of fission. It seemed like he would be the last person to underestimate it. But he came within a couple of seconds of getting killed by the fission tester he named Lady Godiva.

Otto Frisch, while winding his way through Europe one step ahead of the spread of the Nazis, found time to figure out how uranium-235 could be involved in a chain reaction, leading to a massive output of radiation and an explosion. He earned himself a Nobel Prize for showing how a neutron ejected by one uranium atom could break up another uranium atom, splitting it and releasing more loose neutrons, which then went on to split more atoms. His work on the subject eventually landed him in New Mexico, as part of the Manhattan Project. There, he was nearly killed by his own creation.

Chunks of uranium send neutrons off all the time, and enriched uranium does even more. Too many blocks of uranium all together can start reacting all on their own. The Manhattan Project had to study the exactly how a reaction went critical, and so Frisch designed the Lady Godiva device.

He put a bunch of uranium together in a kind of block, with a hole through a certain part of it. A uranium plug was dropped through the hole, increasing the overall amount of reactions, and causing the entire device to fire up. At that point, the uranium plug dropped through the hole and out the other end of the block, and the thing powered down. It was called the Lady Godiva device because it had no shielding. Shielding would bounce neutrons back at the device and increase the rate of reaction.

Frisch ran the experiments carefully, always keeping an eye on the lamps that would flicker briefly whenever neutron output increased. One day, though, he didn’t quite hear what a person nearby was saying to him. He leaned over, absentmindedly, so he could hear them more clearly. This shielded Lady Godiva, and she did not react well. Out of the corner of his eye, Frisch saw that the lamps, which flickered during experiments, were glowing steadily. He reached out, and knocked some of the bricks of uranium that formed the main block away from the machine and onto the floor. The lamps went out.

Frisch’s white shirt, and the water in his body, had bounced neutrons back to the device, starting up the reaction. Afterwards, he discovered that he’d gotten a large dose of radiation in the time it had taken for him to lean over and notice the glow of the lamps. Some scientists on the project calculated that if he had stayed where he was for another few seconds, the dose of radiation might have killed him. Nobody got near Lady Godiva after that. Definitely not while wearing a white shirt.

Halloween costume withdrawn from Wal-Mart shelves

"Critics of ‘Naughy Leopard’ costume use spotty logic"


Jenne Osterheldt

September 27th, 2013

The Kansas City Star

Once again, adults have brought their jaded minds to the kids aisles. This “Naughty Leopard” toddler Halloween costume that everyone is clawing Wal-Mart about is less trick and more treat.

In reality, it’s nothing more than a Disney princess dress done up in black and fuchsia with a cat-eared headband. So what’s so controversial?

One word: naughty. For adults, that word means sexy. And once an image of the costume hit the Consumerist website, it went viral. By Thursday, Wal-Mart pulled the outfit and apologized.

Why? Because critics say the adjective “naughty” hypersexualizes little girls. They try to link it to the growing number of sleazy adult costumes.

As Shawnee mom Kelly Shea notes, how will these overwrought parents react when Santa asks if their kids have been naughty or nice?

Whatever happened to naughty meaning mischievous? Let’s be honest, part of Halloween’s fun is the chance to be the bad guy.

For every Dora, Minion and Captain America, you see vampires, witches and ninjas. Even Hello Kitty has a punk counterpart, albeit a cute counterpart.

“Even the Charlie Brown special has scary costumes,” says Kelly, 33.

My friend Nick, a Northland father, says people are looking for a scapegoat.

“It’s common knowledge that so many adult costumes are super-scandalous and also use the word naughty to describe them,” he says. “That being said, people love to find a reason to get worked up and say, ‘this is the reason our society is going down the tubes.’ Kids hearing their parents complain all the time is likely more damaging than anything a marketing executive could ever accomplish.”
In a very rare moment, I am siding with Wal-Mart. I don’t believe the intent was to deliver a sexy costume for toddlers. I do believe society has a problem with the hypersexualization of little girls — the toddler pageants, the tween supermodels hawking adult brands, the push-up bra bikinis. And that’s where the outrage should be directed.

“I’ve seen dance recital costumes that are more revealing and more suggestive than the leopard,” says Erin Gregory, 32, a Lee’s Summit mom. “My beef is more with tiny stripper costumes couched as dance recital costumes or dance competition attire.”
Erin’s daughter, 2-year-old Darby, is dressing up as a pirate this Halloween. And, Erin admits, the word “naughty” on that Wal-Mart costume did give her pause. Then again, she also sometimes calls her daughter “a naughty little monkey.” Context is important.

When you really think about it, this naughty leopard didn’t deserve a cat fight.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Lost Mary Pickford film found and restored

"Lost Mary Pickford film to be screened"

September 25th, 2013


A long-lost movie starring actress Mary Pickford, the silent star known as "the girl with the golden curls", is to be restored and shown to the public.

Pickford received her first on-screen credit in Their First Misunderstanding, made in 1911. But the film was thought to have disappeared by historians who followed the performer's career.

A solitary copy was discovered in a barn by carpenter Peter Massie in 2006.

The US Library of Congress is now funding a project to restore it.

Massie found the film, along with six other vintage reels, in New Hampshire seven years ago.

They were languishing in a barn that had once been used as a summer camp for boys. It is believed the movies were shown to entertain the campers.

Not realising the nitrate film was highly flammable, Peter Massie kept the reels in his truck where he regularly smoked cigarettes. He later stored them near his woodstove at home.

Eventually he donated the discoveries to the nearby Keene State College, where scholars have since been working to identify and restore them.

"This is the coolest thing I've ever found on any job," said Massie. "It's pretty fantastic, that's what I think.

"They were seconds away from going into a dumpster."


Pickford was 18 when she made Their First Misunderstanding, a 10-minute film about a wife's fight with her husband.

"We have a list of all of Mary Pickford's films, but this was among the missing," film historian Leonard Maltin told CBS News.

"It's like finding an early song by George Gershwin, or an unpublished short story by Mark Twain."

The film was initially identified by Larry Benaquist, who founded the film school at Keene State.

It took longer than usual, as the 35mm celluloid had degraded and stuck to itself.

Once a lab had separated the layers, Benaquist asked Pickford scholar Christal Schmidt to confirm his findings.

"I was really stunned, because a lot of those early films, you just figure they're gone," said Schmidt. "For that one to turn up was really exciting."

Pickford was born Gladys Louise Smith in 1892 in Toronto, Canada. She went to work in the theatre at the age of five after her father died from a brain haemorrhage.

She moved to Broadway when she was 15. There she formed a working partnership with pioneering film director DW Griffith, head of the Biograph studio.

She soon became known as the "Biograph girl" and made more than 40 short movies in 1909 alone.

After audiences first learned her name in Their First Misunderstanding, Pickford became famous around the world.

She won two Oscars and later founded the United Artists film studio along with Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks - whom she married in 1920 - and Charlie Chaplin.

Pickford retired from the screen in 1933 but continued to produce. She died in 1979.

Benaquist said that while the first minute or so of Their First Misunderstanding had been destroyed, the rest was in remarkably good condition.

The restored film will be screened at Keene State in October.

Mary Pickford [Wikipedia]

An early Mary Pickford feature...

Plot [Wikipedia]...

Little Annie Rooney (Mary Pickford) is a tough girl from the streets with her own gang. She spends her days wreaking havoc around the streets. She looks up to her older brother, who is into a more violent gang himself. Annie develops a crush on a gang member Joe. Despite being a troublemaking tomboy, her father Timothy Rooney (Walter James) serves as the officer of the neighbourhood. Officer Rooney is a well-respected man of the town. This is why everybody is in shock when an unknown person shoots him.

The culprits mislead Annie's brother into thinking Joe Kelly (William Haines) is the shooter. Annie is now unsure whom to believe.

Little Annie Rooney


An early Alfred Hitchcock film discovered in New Zealand

"The Mountain Eagle"...missing Hitchcock film

Monday, September 23, 2013

It is the price paid for the precious gold

"How mercury poisons gold miners and enters the food chain"


Linda Pressly

September 17th, 2013


About 15% of the world's gold is produced by artisanal and small-scale miners, most of whom use mercury to extract it from the earth. In Indonesia, the industry supports some three million people - but the miners risk poisoning themselves, their children and the land.

Fahrul Raji, a man in his early 30s, is not feeling well. At the health centre in Kereng Pangi, a town in Central Kalimantan surrounded by goldfields, he explains his symptoms.

"I often have a headache, and I am weak. I have a bitter taste in my mouth."

According to Dr Stephan Bose-O'Reilly, who is examining him, Fahrul is being slowly poisoned by mercury.

"Fahrul's been working with mercury for many years, and he's showing the typical symptoms of mercury intoxication," says Bose-O'Reilly, a German medic who began studying the impact of mercury on Indonesians' health a decade ago. "He also has a tremor and a co-ordination problem."

Although mercury use in small-scale gold mining in Indonesia is illegal, miners still use it to extract gold from the rock or soil.

Fahrul isn't a miner, but he has a gold shop in Kereng Pangi. Every day miners bring him the fruits of their labour - usually a pea-sized piece of amalgam that is mercury mixed with gold.

Fahrul burns it, and the mercury evaporates leaving the gold behind. But the fumes are highly toxic, which is why smelters like Fahrul often show more severe signs of mercury poisoning than miners who use it in the field.

"Mercury is a neuro-toxin," Bose-O'Reilly explains. "It affects the cerebellum, which is the part of the brain that helps you move properly, and co-ordinate your movements. Mercury also harms the kidneys and other organs, but the neurological damage it does is irreversible."

Fahrul's gold shop is on the main street of Kereng Pangi. He sits behind a wooden counter, his blow torch behind him, waiting for business. At the end of the day, the miners arrive with their pieces of amalgam ready for smelting. Fahrul says he's worried about the impact of mercury on his health, but he has no intention of changing his job.

"This is a family business that's been handed down to me. My father was also a gold buyer. And he's about 65 now, and still looks healthy."

Even though he has symptoms, Fahrul has convinced himself that the risk he runs is small. And that is the problem with mercury - its effects are not dramatic enough, in the short term, to act as a viable deterrent.

The worst case of mass mercury poisoning the world has ever seen happened in Japan in the first half of the 20th Century.

Symptoms appeared only gradually in the fishing village of Minamata. At first, nobody could explain why people began to slur their speech, or stumbled when they walked. They would have trouble swallowing, or tremble uncontrollably. Children were born with disabilities. Thousands would die with what became known as Minamata Disease.

But it took 30 years - until the 1960s - to identify the cause of the suffering: a local plastics factory that was dumping mercury into the bay. The mercury was contaminating fish, the staple food of the local population.

If Fahrul continues to smelt mercury in his gold shop, and inhale the poisonous fumes, it is likely his symptoms will get worse. Bose-O'Reilly says his urine contains 697 micrograms of mercury per litre - far more than usual.

"This is incredibly high," he says. "Most people would have one or two micrograms at most."

There are an estimated 10-15 million unregulated gold miners around the world, operating in 70 countries. Artisanal small-scale gold mining (ASGM) is the largest source of mercury pollution in the world after the burning of fossil fuels.

And in Central Kalimantan the effects of this unregulated industry on the environment have been devastating. Around Kereng Pangi, the miners have cleared virgin forest once home to orang-utans and hornbills. What is left is a lunar-like landscape, its pools polluted with mercury.

"There are 60,000 hectares of denuded area that are completely pitted like this," explains Sumali Agrawal the technical director of YTS, a local NGO working to mitigate the impact of mercury.

"You can see it on Google Earth - a white patch in the middle of a green landscape. This was formerly tropical rainforest on a sand substrate. If you left it alone for 50 years, some vegetation would grow, but there would never be a diverse rainforest here again."

There are no large nuggets of gold to be mined around Kereng Pangi - only tiny particles of the precious metal are present in the tons of earth. Miners use mechanical sluices to trap the mud that is rich in gold. They mix this with mercury in buckets using their bare hands.

Mercury is a persistent pollutant - it does not break down in the environment.

On the Indonesian island of Lombok, its potential for harm is multiplied because it is being used in conjunction with cyanide.

"Together mercury and cyanide create double the problem in the environment," says Dr Dewi Krisnayanti, a soil scientist specialising in heavy metals at Lombok's Mataram University.

Cyanide helps to dissolve the mercury, and when the waste is spilled into paddy fields it binds with organic molecules in the environment, becoming methyl mercury. This is far more toxic - in Minamata it was methyl mercury that poisoned thousands of people.

Dewi has analysed samples of rice seeds and leaves from the paddy fields in the south-west of the island.

"The concentration of methyl mercury was the highest ever recorded in a laboratory - 115 parts per billion," she says. "I felt very sad when I saw the data, because methyl mercury can be absorbed by plants, get into the food chain and affect human health."

The same methods are used to recover gold in other Asian countries too, and these are also rice-eating nations. If the contamination of paddy fields was found to be widespread, it could be devastating.

Indonesian's Assistant Deputy Minister of the Environment, Halimah Syafrul, says controls on illegal imports of mercury are being tightened. And the government hopes the forthcoming ratification of the UN treaty on mercury - known as the Minamata Convention - will bring international assistance to help Indonesia's miners find alternatives to the use of mercury.

"There is pollution in the environment, pollution in the rivers, destruction in the mountainous areas and destruction of our protected forests. It's a similar situation in almost every province and we have 34 provinces in Indonesia," says Halimah, an environmental scientist by training.

Dr Rachmadi Purwana, professor of Public Health at the University of Indonesia is worried.

"The threat is there every day and it is escalating. We have to remember that in Japan a small place like Minamata shattered the whole world by revealing Minamata disease. In Indonesia, it's not only in one village, it's throughout the country. In nearly every province, there is small-scale gold mining."

And what is Rachmadi's fear if there is no action?

"A national disaster."

Minamata disease [Wikipedia]

A naked haunted house?

Almost Halloween and this is something novel.

"A Haunted House You Walk Through Naked? Hard Pass"


Meredith Woerner

September 23rd, 2013


We're all for terrifying haunted houses that border on crazy. But going through a haunted naked? No thanks, pal.

Shocktoberfest Pennsylvania's "premiere haunted scream park" is really trying to push the limits of reason with their all-nude Haunted House revue. And if you get so scared you piss yourself, and/or the house? Don't worry! They hired someone to clean that up for you (although there is a small cleaning charge). Here are the details:

Naked and Scared Challenge

Think you’re brave? Experience The Unknown haunted house with ZERO protection! We dare you to take the Naked and Scared Challenge only at Shocktoberfest!

Inspired by the hit show “Naked and Afraid” on the Discovery channel, Shocktoberfest has created The Naked and Scared Challenge to test your fears and phobias on a whole new level. For the first time ever you can now experience the Unknown Haunted House totally naked! See if you have Gymnophobia- the fear of being nude. Naked and Scared tickets are limited. Online ticket purchase recommended.

Procedure and Disclaimer

Procedure: The Naked and Scared Challenge allows participants to go through the Unknown Haunted House Nude or Prude (either totally nude or with underwear). It takes place at the end of the night after all customers have gone through the attraction. Participants must be 18 years of age or older and must sign a waiver. Participants undress in a semi-private preshow building, experience the Unknown Haunted House, and then exist into a semi-private fenced courtyard where they will get dressed. Participants are never in view of minors or non-participating customers. Naked and Scared Challenge is not offered on Sundays.

Disclaimer: Shocktoberfest has created this experience so their customers can explore a new level of fear. This is about fear and pushing oneself out of their comfort zone. This is not about sex. No sexual misconduct, inappropriate or disrespectful behavior will be tolerated.

Personally, I prefer NYC's Blackout Haunted House, where only the people trying to scare you are naked. Not sure I can handle my wobbly bits swinging around in the dark whilst a scarecrow yells "Boo."

Arthur Kennelly or Karl Jansky...first radio telescope

"That Time Thomas Edison Almost Invented the Radio Telescope"


Ron Miller

September 23rd, 2013


In 1890, Arthur Kennelly, an electrical engineer working for Thomas Edison, wrote a letter to the director of the Lick Observatory. He described an interesting experiment being undertaken by the great inventor that may have been the first radio telescope — forty years before its official invention.

History shows that the first radio telescope was built in 1931 by Karl Jansky, an engineer working for Bell Laboratories, in an effort to discover the source of interference in transmissions. He identified that the origin of the interference was the Milky Way. Five years later, amateur astronomer Grote Reber applied this technique in the first application of a new branch of astronomy that became known as radio astronomy.

Still, there are tantalizing hints that its birth may have come almost 40 years before.

 In his letter about Edison to the director of Lick, Kennelly said "the inventor had turned his mind to solar physics. Along with the electromagnetic disturbances we receive from the Sun," he wrote, "which, of course, you know we recognise as light and heat" Edison had decided that it was "not unreasonable to suppose there will be disturbances of much longer wavelength."

If this were to prove true, Kennelly said, "we might translate them into sound." Edison's plan was to employ a huge mass of iron ore. Around this he would erect a series of wooden poles. From these poles would be a cable consisting of seven carefully insulated wires, the terminals of which would be attached to a telephone or similar apparatus. "It is then possible," Kennelly wrote, "that violent disturbances in the Sun's atmosphere might so disturb either the normal electromagnetic flow of energy we receive, or the normal distribution of magnetic force on this planet, as to bring about an appreciably great change in the flow of magnetic induction embraced by the cable loop."

Edison suspected that such electromagnetic disturbances would be associated with sunspot activity and hoped that Lick Observatory would be able to provide information as to just when these occurred, since Edison and Kennelly would not be able to establish a connection "unless we have positive evidence of coincident disturbances in the corona."

Unfortunately, there is no evidence one way or the other whether Edison ever carried out the experiment. If he had, it probably wouldn't have worked. Edison's proposed apparatus would have been very insensitive, capable of detecting only very long wavelengths—and the ionosphere prevents such long waves from reaching the earth's surface. Ironically, it was Kennelly who went on to co-predict the existence of the Heaviside Layer, which accounted for this effect.

In case you are interested...Hawking and theoretical physics...made simple

"Learn theoretical physics with Stephen Hawking in under three minutes"


Scott Kaufman

September 23rd, 2013

The Guardian

Today The Guardian published an animated short entitled “Stephen Hawking’s big ideas … made simple.”

The video distills Hawking’s contributions to contemporary theoretical physics into a two minute and forty-four second lesson, much in the same way his best-selling 1988 book A Brief History of Time did.

Hawking’s disability — a motor neuron disease related to ALS — inclines some to think of him as a novelty act, but despite devoting time to popularizing physics and its conundrums, his reputation as one of the preeminent theoretical physicists of the second half of the twentieth century is well-deserved.

As the video demonstrates, he’s largely responsible for proving the existence of black holes, which had previously been thought to be mathematical oddities that existed in theory, but not in space.

But with the advent of instruments capable of detecting what’s called “Hawking radiation,” he proved that black holes and their concomitant terrors do, in fact, exist.

Ferncliffe Observatory

My abiding memories of the late RAS Librarian Peter Hingley include the wonderfully entertaining conversations we had based on his encyclopaedic astronomical knowledge. In addition, there appeared to be no part of the country with which Peter was not acquainted and he generally had an anecdote to tell about each. For example, noting that I live near Chester, he told me about his visits to the City as well as the hours he spent in the library of Hawarden Castle, just across the Welsh border in Flintshire. Similarly when I mentioned that I had grown up in Kent, he told me about the Ferncliffe Observatory at Tunbridge Wells, which had been built by the pioneering spectroscopist, Frank McClean (1837-1904), in the 1870s. This came as something of a surprise as I had no idea that Tunbridge Wells was once home to an important astronomical research centre. Moreover, it transpired that McClean’s residence...was located on the Pembury Road, one of the main routes into the town, and therefore I must have unwittingly driven past it dozens of times over the years. Peter kindly gave me copies of some photographs of McClean’s observatory from the RAS archives along with permission to publish them. 

Frank McClean and the Ferncliffe Observatory at Tunbridge Wells by Jeremy Shears

For-profit colleges in the spotlight again

"The Reform of For-Profit Colleges: Can They Give Up Their Predatory Ways?"


Chadwick Matlin

September 20th, 2012

The Atlantic

On the first day of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities annual convention, a storm worked its way towards the convention center. More than a thousand people milled inside Rosen Shingle Creek, one of the golf resort/convention centers that are endemic to central Florida. The attendees had come for the annual congress of for-profit colleges, hosted by the sector’s trade association and central lobbyist. Its theme: “Opportunity for all.”

That night, a self-described “futurist and demographer” took the stage to deliver the keynote address. Kenneth Gronbach is a big man with a bigger voice, going after laughs more than longitudinal studies. Gronbach calls himself a “generational marketing expert,” and has written a book called The Age Curve. Subtitle: “How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Storm.”

Gronbach’s presentation began with a joke: “How many people are really excited to listen to a demographer for an hour?” A little manic, Gronbach paced the stage, taking audible sniffs as he caught his breath and delivered the next slide. “We’re going to concentrate not on money and stuff, but on people,” he said. But for Gronbach people are opportunity, and opportunity is money.

Gronbach spoke for nearly an hour, touching on everything from Honda motorcycles to how Generation Y requires “transparency, integrity, sense of green, humanitarian, fairness, cyber, and empathy” in the workplace. At one point he said, “I don’t think we could invent a better immigrant than a Latino.”

APSCU had brought Gronbach to the convention to try and help its member schools — all for-profit colleges that cater to 13 percent of American higher education students — better understand their target audience. Who were these students that needed vocational certificates and degrees? How best to get them to enroll, and how best to get them to graduate? As Gronbach promised, “Generation Y is going to change everything. They are going to change your lives.”

For the people in charge of for-profit schools, they already have. They’ve made them very rich. Between 1998 and 2008, for-profit enrollment increased 225 percent by one count, nearly eight times the rate of the rest of higher education. During the bleakest days of the Great Recession, stock prices soared as students went back to school in a bad job market. In 2009, publicly traded for-profits were $3.2 billion in the black, before taxes. But now for various reasons — a rebounding economy, harsh media coverage of the sector’s abuses, and tighter federal regulation — enrollment is down across the sector. A talk like Gronbach’s was meant to pep up morale.

“The antiquated college system is a rotary phone,” Gronbach said before lauding the private sector schools for being more nimble than traditional schools. That’s where their advantage lay, he said. “If you do it right, you’ll be wearing diamonds as big as radishes.”

Soon, a loud hiss started to drown him out, working its way across the room. It was the rain, moving across the thin roof, pounding, hissing, pleading to be let in. The storm had come.

Feeding Off the Government

If you care about understanding the country’s student loan situation, the best place to start is with for-profit colleges. For the past ten years there has been no sector that’s relied on student loans more than for-profit schools, and no sector that’s used them more to its advantage.

For-profits include brands you’ve heard of — University of Phoenix, Kaplan, DeVry — and small mom-and-pop outfits you haven’t — Fountainhead College of Technology, National Tractor Trailer School, and Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology. Overall, it’s estimated over 4 million students attend for-profits annually.

In a more innocent time we called these schools career colleges; their express purpose is to prepare people to take on a job they wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise. They offer certificates, associate’s, bachelor’s and grad degrees, like any other school, just with more of a focus on the outcome than the process. It is all about school equating to a job. In that sense for-profits are the rare party in higher education that acknowledge what college has become: a commodity.

Take, for instance, Corinthian Colleges, Inc., a network of over 100 for-profit schools across the country. Founded in 1995 and IPO’d in 1999, Corinthian has grown by purchasing other schools and creating its own campuses where it sees demand. Unlike many for-profits, Corinthian focuses on campus-based learning, with three main brands spread across the country: WyoTech, Heald, and Everest, each with its own specialties. WyoTech has a host of automotive repair courses. Heald offers associate’s degrees in business administration. Everest’s medical assistant certificates are very popular, at around $16,000 a pop. About 90,000 students attend one of the Corinthian schools.

The people signing up for the courses are, by and large, the ones for whom a traditional college setting isn’t ideal. They’re usually older, poorer, busier, or some combination of the three. And yet they’re spending more money on college. By some counts, 96 percent of for-profit students take out loans, and nearly all of them are drawing from federal financial aid. In comparison, only 13 percent of students going to community college take out loans, because community colleges are a fraction of the cost.

So why go to for-profits? Because they offer the luxuries of convenience and efficiency. Matthew Mastrogiovanni, a 44-year-old logistics administrator went to an Everest campus in South Plainfield, New Jersey to change his career and get certified in its 9-month electrician program. Mastrogiovanni’s whole family had been to Everest — his wife completed the Medical Insurance Billing and Coding program, and she only went because she was so impressed with the sales pitch when she brought their son in to register for a pharmacy technician program. For Mastrogiovanni, who works night shifts but wanted a career change, it was their testimonial plus Everest’s “very flexible schedule,” that appealed. He said Everest had told him the electrician field was booming with jobs — “and it is booming if you’re 18 and you’re living at home with mom and dad,” he said. He faults Everest for not specifying that the jobs wouldn’t pay him what he needed as a middle-aged guy with a family. Since graduating almost a year ago, he’s had only one job interview, and he found it on his own. He still works in logistics for a stock room company. His electrician program cost more than $19,000. He’s had to put his loans in deferral as he pays off the Everest loans for the rest of his family.

The schools justify their extra cost by offering accelerated programs and more robust distance-learning options that can accommodate a more demanding lifestyle. This, they’ve determined, is what the rest of higher education isn’t offering — and it’s what’s worth at least an extra $10,000.

This is all made possible because the federal government has made it possible with its financial aid program. For-profits long ago realized that the most sustainable business model is the one that feeds off of the government’s largesse. Going up against community colleges is a lot easier than going up against Harvard, especially when the federal government can foot a large part of the bill. The market has confirmed their suspicions. By one count, the sector burned through $32 billion of federal funds in 2009-2010, a quarter of the DOE’s student aid allotment. In 2010, the federal government spent $509.3 million in Pell grants just for Corinthian’s 113,818 students. But Pell grants don’t have to be paid back; the sector’s $32 billion is comprised largely of loans. Ultimately, it’s students who are on the hook.

The readily available funding from student grants and loans has created an entire industry — and one that many now consider a predator against the very population that the loans were meant to empower. It’s an unintended consequence of legislation: our ideals demanded we provide loans so people can afford to go to school before they can actually afford to go to school, but the market’s demands created an opportunity to profit.

Without federal financing, the for-profit sector would be a fraction of the size and its students would be much less in debt. But far fewer Americans would have diplomas. It’s a trade-off: If we as a country want to ensure there’s a path to upward mobility, we have to help finance the way. But financing comes with risk, and some students are going to be left behind rather than thrust ahead.

This is what makes the political debate over for-profits’ role in higher education so warped. Here’s a sector that should be a liberal cause. It serves America’s neediest population, and uses tens of billions in public funds to do it. But its emphasis on the private over the public sector and its unabashed interest in pursuing profit aligns it with Republican orthodoxy. In a different Washington this would lead to bipartisanship. In our Washington it leads to scorched earth campaigns.

As a case study, take Senator Tom Harkin’s crusade against for-profit colleges. For two years he and his staff worked on a report on for-profit colleges’ questionable practices and heavily indebted students. It is the most comprehensive third-party report available on the sector, and much of the preceding data comes out of their work.

Harkin’s team found that for-profit students carry a lot of debt, and aren’t good at paying it off. An executive summary:

    “Independent students,” the report says, “leave for-profit schools with a median debt of $32,700, but leave public colleges with median debt of $20,000, and private non-profit colleges with a median debt of $24,600.”

    The “Department [of Education] estimates that 46.3 percent of all dollars lent to for-profit students who entered repayment in 2008 will default. The comparable number for 2-year public and non-profit colleges is 31.1 percent.”

    To cap it off, the report found that somewhere between 50 and 70 percent of students left school without getting a diploma. Going into debt but not getting a degree is probably the worst outcome for any college student — the student assumes much of the cost without attaining most of the benefit.

Since 2012, that Harkin report has been a scarlet letter for the industry, which is why for-profits treat it like it’s Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter and think it ought to be banned. Steve Gunderson, APSCU’s chief executive and thus the industry’s chief promoter, described it as “ideology drives reality.”

Gunderson and others I spoke with think Harkin and his team are opposed to the very idea of for-profit higher education, and so trying to change their minds is futile. They think Harkin’s report manipulates data, composes an incomplete snapshot, and uses select cases of malfeasance to build an overly-broad narrative about the industry. Chief among the criticisms is that opponents don’t take into account that for-profits are serving students far more likely to drop out of school or have trouble repaying debts, because they come from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is difficult for high schools to educate the students society has left behind, so why should it be any different for for-profit colleges?

Before wading through education statistics — and there’s a swamp of them — it’s best to pack a machete.

For-profits make easy targets. They’re more expensive than community colleges, less established than storied elites, and less glamorous than mid-tier schools with gleaming athletic facilities. They’re also some of the few schools that still explicitly traffic in an increasingly outdated American Dream: come from adversity, go to school, get a job, become financially stable. And then of course there’s that emphasis on profit, something that’s anathema to the platonic ideal of American education, if not the modern reality.

For-profits, in other words, are weeds amidst the ivy, thriving in the cracks and growing faster than they can be cut down. They keep growing for a reason — they’ve adapted to modern higher education better, and sooner, than nearly any other bloc of schools. They may not be pretty, but they’re here to stay.

But poor results and abuses throughout the sector have forced the Obama administration to try and regulate the colleges. For the past few years the Department of Education has tried to ensure for-profits don’t manipulate students into enrolling, and then leave them unable to make their loan payments after graduation.

The regulations have already changed for-profits, and even they admit it’s largely been for the better. But now there’s a new debate taking place, and it’s one that demonstrates just how hard it is to force colleges to be accountable for how much debt their students have after they leave. The rise and regulation of for-profits can help explain how, for some, college went from being a gateway to the middle class to being an obstacle along the way; and what we can, or should, do about it.

The Hot Breath of Federal Regulators

Inside the exhibitor hall of the APSCU convention in Florida, it was initially difficult to see an industry chastened. As the attendees slurped their ceviche shooters, the exhibitors hawked their wares. A company called Tribeca Marketing Group had someone in full, spray-painted Statue of Liberty regalia, like a street performer who had mistaken suburban Orlando for Times Square. Pyramid Financial Solutions claimed they were expert at “Turning Tuition into Profit.” Gragg Advertising — “Memorable Creative, Measurable Results” — had a virtual golf course.

But this was not the exhibitor halls of years past. As Goldie Blumenstyk at the Chronicle of Higher Education noted, gone were the mermaids of 2012 and the live cattle of 2011. As Blumenstyk writes, “Mr. Gunderson said the group had asked vendors to exhibit with ‘conduct appropriate for the higher-education sector.’”

Left behind were a bunch of companies hyping their morality. It was especially apparent in “lead generators” — a class of companies unique to for-profits that help the schools find potential students. Lead generators have largely gained a reputation as unscrupulous vultures, willfully leading students who don’t know any better to a college even if it isn’t a good fit. Traditional colleges buy leads, as well (the College Board sells its massive address book of kids who take the SATs). It’s just that for-profit lead generators are recruiting some of the most at-risk high school graduates in America.

But these days, ethics are in. One of the convention’s sponsors,, took out an ad on the back of the program that read, “We’ve been doing organic since last century.” When I asked another lead generator, Education Dynamics, which runs sites like and, what was special about their leads, a woman named Anya Bierzynski corrected me: “They aren’t leads to us. They’re highly vetted student inquiries.” Behind her, Shannen Doherty starred in a commercial for one of Education Dynamics’ sites.

And then there was Andy Beedle. Armed with a philosophy PhD from UConn, he taught at Trinity and Grand Valley State Universities before decamping for the world of admissions marketing. Beedle now works for Norton/Norris, an admissions consultant that offers an “EnrollMatch” program that helps colleges “stay compliant yet with enough flexibility to connect with today’s students in the most ethical and effective ways!”

“What’s been great is having this industry get thrown under the bus has made the people who were engaging in unethical practices, the light’s being shown on them now in pretty good ways. Our business model has to be about producing graduates. And those graduates have to get jobs,” he told me.

The new mood was also apparent outside the exhibitor hall. There was a “Compliance/Financial Aid” track of breakaway panels that included: “Detecting Potential Default Scenarios,” “Transparency and the Prospective Student: Effectively Using Disclosures to Achieve Positive Outcomes and Mitigate Future Disputes,” and “Adventures in Veterans’ Compliance: How to Stay Compliant in a Changing Environment.”

This is what happens when an industry feels the hot, bureaucratic breath of federal regulators on its neck. It wises up.

For-profits have long been regulated by the feds. In 1992, Congress imposed restrictions on for-profits, two of which still resonate. The first required that at least 15 percent of for-profits’ revenue came from non-federal dollars. The sector could not exist entirely off the welfare state. That’s since been relaxed to only be 10 percent of a college’s revenue (what’s commonly called the 90/10 rule). These days the average for-profit bases more than 80 percent of its revenue on federal grants and loans, and that’s without factoring in various loopholes. Without federal grants and loans making it easy for poor students to go to school, the bottom would undoubtedly fall out of vast numbers of for-profit colleges.

The second restriction limited the sector’s most pernicious recruiting tactic: paying its recruiters based on how many students they could enroll. By rewarding recruiters on quantity rather than quality, the universities were able to make a quick buck, but students were left paying for something they couldn’t use to their advantage. It was salesmanship, not education, and it was the kind of thing that gave for-profits such a bad name.

By 2002, the industry had convinced George W. Bush’s Department of Education to add 12 loopholes into the law, essentially reversing the recruiter regulations that had already taken effect. Recruiter salaries could be adjusted as long as they weren’t 100 percent based on whether or not the recruiter had netted a good haul. “Incentive compensation,” as the industry calls it, proliferated again.

By 2009, as the Obama administration began to make student debt an issue, there was another effort to stop for-profits from rewarding indiscriminate promises. But the industry was too occupied elsewhere to worry about incentive compensation. And so it was outlawed.

Now, everyone — including the industry itself — praises it. “I think incentive compensation for enrollment is a bad thing. I think incentive compensation for graduation makes all the sense in the world and we oughta be fighting for it,” Steve Gunderson, APSCU president, says. In a fractious corner of education, the one thing everyone can agree on is that there shouldn’t be any reenactments of Glengarry Glen Ross.

What everyone can’t agree on is whether colleges — any college — should be accountable for how indebted their students are. The federal government, spurred by the for-profit sector’s myriad abuses, thinks for-profits should be. The for-profits cried double standard, noting it’s absurd to even imagine the federal government going after private non-profit colleges for this. Too many liberal arts majors coming out of Brown with $60,000 in debt and no immediate job prospects? Sanction a college that’s been around since 1764! (For statutory reasons, the Department of Education doesn’t have the power to regulate schools specializing in liberal arts.)

All of that spurred action, and what followed was a remarkable glimpse into the country’s student loan problem, and why it’s so damn hard to fix it. The Department said it had the power to make a vocational college prove that it could “prepare students for gainful employment in a recognized occupation,” based on the Higher Education Act of 1965. That “gainful employment” bit is the key here — and all the regulations that followed would come to be known by that moniker. If a college couldn’t prove it was helping its students with gainful employment, its students, and thus its coffers, weren’t entitled to federal aid.

The question became what, exactly, gainful employment is, or should be. To put it another way: What qualifies as gainful employment? Does the student have to make more money after college than she would have before? Does it matter how much debt she went into to earn a degree?

Detailing regulatory twists and turns is as thrilling as offering play-by-play of a gently sloped walk, so we’ll gloss over what came next. Ultimately, in 2011 the administration defined gainful employment as the following three thresholds:

    On average, graduates shouldn’t be spending more than 12 percent of their annual income on loan repayments.
    35 percent of a college’s graduates and drop-outs need to be repaying their federal loans after they stop taking courses.
    Students shouldn’t be spending more than 30 percent of their discretionary income on paying back loans.

Only after a college failed all three thresholds for three consecutive years would they lose access to federal funds. Analysts estimated that the regulations would have made 5 percent of for-profits ineligible for federal funds, effectively dooming them.

To recap: the worst actors in the industry would be put out of business, the ones left behind would be able to boast that they’re DOE-approved, and the industry could begin to shake the impression that it’s overpriced, underwatched, and interested more in students’ money than their post-graduation livelihoods.

But to for-profits, gainful employment was a pox on their campuses, a discriminatory middle finger from an administration hostile to all things profit. They sued.

They won. A federal district court judge struck down the gainful employment regulations, citing the DOE’s arbitrary choice of 35 percent as the repayment threshold. The Department had a right to hold for-profits accountable for its repayment rates, but not without some basis of what the threshold should be.

Nevertheless, the regulations, or the threat of them, have had a major effect on the for-profit sector. Enrollment was down 2.8 percent in 2011, compared to a .2 percent drop in higher education overall. Apollo Group, which runs the University of Phoenix, noted a 14 percent drop in enrollment between summers 2011 and 2012, and its stock is down 80 percent from its 2009 high. Industry watchers attribute this partly to a rebounding economy, but also to new orientation programs in various schools that let students take classes tuition-free for a trial period, so that if they drop out they won’t incur debt and hurt the college’s default rates. That type of screening has led to lower enrollment.

Not to be denied, this September the Department of Education restarted negotiations around gainful employment. For-profits have resumed their fierce opposition to it. As the for-profits fight for their livelihood, they’re fighting against the very thing that could help legitimize them.

"How Do You Balance Outcomes Versus Access?"

Steve Gunderson still shakes hands like a congressman. Double clasp, eye contact, big smile on his elfin face. Gunderson, the president of APSCU, was a Republican congressman from Wisconsin until 1997, three years after being outed as gay on the floor of the House. Now he’s the figurehead of for-profit higher ed, taking the APSCU CEO job in 2012. He’s the guy who has to make the case against the Department of Education’s vision of gainful employment.

I first met Gunderson in late June, before he was scheduled to give the commencement address to hundreds of DeVry graduates in Crystal City, Virginia. Good with small talk, he has a hushed speaking voice when he’s not at a lectern, and has a habit of tucking his fingers against one another as he leans forward in his seat. Gunderson, who hates waiting in line, filed into the room along with the graduates. “Pomp and Circumstance” played. Families craned their iPads to get a good picture. Aside from the large number of minority faces in the crowd and under the mortarboards, it was like any other college’s graduation.

When it was Gunderson’s turn at the dais, he name-dropped Thomas Friedman, David McCullough, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and President Obama. He also tried to assure the graduates that their degree was money well spent. He said associate’s degree recipients could expect an extra $423,000 in lifetime earnings. Bachelor’s degrees: $900,000. The subtext was clear: your student loans are nothing compared to what you’re about to reap.

“Today, entrance into the American middle class requires a combination of hard work, education and career skills,” Gunderson said, “You have been given that gift. The question now is how you will use it.” But for nearly all of these students, the gifts were paid for with an installment plan.

Two days later I went to Gunderson’s office, a nice corner unit nine floors above Connecticut Avenue in D.C., to have a chat. On the agenda: gainful employment, the sector’s struggle for legitimacy, and how to ensure a college is actually doing its job. His book, The New Middle Class: Creating Wages, Wealth, and Opportunity in the 21st Century, sat on a coffee table, and we settled in for a two-hour interview.

“We’re not against gainful employment. That’s the misunderstanding of this sector,” Gunderson told me. APSCU, it turns out, doesn’t want an absence of accountability; it would just like accountability that (it thinks) makes sense. Its main complaint is that you can’t ask a sector that caters to low-income students to ensure a certain number of those students pay back their loans within a certain period of time. “Under that standard, two things would have happened. Schools in the inner city and schools in rural America would’ve been forced to close,” Gunderson said. “You automatically sentence that demographic to being excluded from the opportunity.”

Opportunity. This is Gunderson’s favorite safeword, a tug of the heartstrings and an allusion to a nostalgic American Dream in which anyone, given a chance, can make something happen. APSCU’s convention was titled “Opportunity for all,” remember, and his book’s subtitle is “Creating wealth, wages, and opportunity in the 21st century.” It’s potent stuff, and it’s hard to refute: if someone wants to go to school and better themselves, why should the government stop them? How is it in a government’s interest to deny its citizens that, ahem, opportunity?

But how do we judge what an opportunity should cost? Is it our responsibility — as a society, as a government, as a democracy — to do that calculation for consumers? Or is it only Elizabeth Warren’s?

Gunderson says he considers college to be an investment. But then he also thinks that colleges shouldn’t be held responsible for its students’ financial decisions. Gainful employment, he says, doesn’t make sense because it punishes schools for choices students make after they’re out of school. “It’s like blaming my brother [who’s a car dealer] for people who default on their car loans. Like, what was I supposed to do, you know?”

But college is not a car. One isn’t supposed to be more likely to pay off car payments after buying a car than she was before. Colleges — and especially for-profit colleges — predicate their entire purpose on that very idea. Higher education is supposed to transform the student, whether it be her mind, her resume, or both.

But is it fair to expect the same results from for-profits as from traditional schools, given their students’ demographic differences? Are they handicapped from the start?

Gunderson told me that the industry needed more “risk-adjusted metrics,” meaning more data that took the for-profits’ high-risk students into account. The little research that has tried to control for the difference in students has been inconclusive.

Even if the data is mixed, are we really to blame for-profits for exploring America’s neglected corners? Reflecting on the industry’s struggles, Gunderson said, “I think it’s a cheap shot to criticize our sector for serving students who are low-income and eligible for financial aid. I don’t see anybody else trying to serve them and I think there’s real evidence that the traditional elites are not reaching out and serving that constituency.” It would be easier to refute Gunderson’s point if states hadn’t just spent a half-decade defunding community colleges.

This is what happens when we are unwilling to adequately fund public higher education, but still claim it as an imperative for a new American economy. We end up outsourcing the Americans who need the most help to the private sector. That sector, despite being more accountable to its shareholders than its customers, customizes its programs for a demographic that, through a quirk of welfare, can pay. As the government decides how best to fix the problem, millions of students are caught in between.

Which brings us back to gainful employment, and what, to APSCU, is fair. Its ideal is simple: Apply the same standards to for-profit schools as to the rest of higher education. As of now gainful employment only applies to vocational schools because of arcane legislative reasons. The sector would prefer that changed.

This, of course, also buys for-profits time, as a legislative change like that requires Congress to pass a new Higher Education Act. That is unlikely anytime soon, which is why the DOE has been so aggressive with gainful employment in the first place.

Gunderson said he understands why there’s such a focus on accountability right now, with student debt rates as high as they are. But he thinks that something is lost if we turn away students at the door. There’s one central question he asked that could apply to all of American higher education: “How do you balance outcomes versus access?”

Change Is Coming (Maybe)

On the final day of the APSCU convention, as attendees recovered from the Kool & the Gang concert, I ducked into a panel called “Managing Risk in the Current Regulatory and Legal Environment.” There, five men (lawyers and college officials) gave a presentation about how not to run a company into the ground. General advice: don’t be egregiously predatory, and don’t work with anyone who is.

When the conversation turned to lawsuits — there have been many against for-profits — one panelist was particularly active. William Calhoun, the Vice President and Deputy General Counsel at Corinthian Colleges, has dealt with enough lawsuits to have tips about best practices. He noted that the company doesn’t pay nuisance settlement fees just to make a case go away. Calhoun, warning he was going to be politically incorrect, said that if it did it would allow the plaintiffs to “sidle up to the trough as often as they can to get money out of you.”

Intrigued by Calhoun’s equating students to swine, I went up to talk with him. Calhoun said he knew better than to speak on the record. Kent Jenkins is the man who does that.

I emailed Jenkins on June 10. That same day there were reports that the SEC had begun an investigation into Corinthian’s practices. As Corinthian itself wrote in its SEC filing: “Corinthian is also under investigation by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and several state attorneys general.”

Among opponents of for-profits, Corinthian is seen as one of the sector’s worst offenders. David Halperin, an anti-for-profit activist, has a particularly comprehensive chronicle on his website, Some highlights:

    If gainful employment regulations had gone into place immediately, 43 of Corinthian’s 143 schools would have failed all three tests.
    In order to comply with the requirement that more than 10 percent of its income come from non-federal sources Corinthian raised tuition, forcing its students into deeper debt.
    Corinthian admitted on an investor call that it expected 55 percent of its private loan recipients will default.

Amidst all this, it should come as no surprise that Corinthian’s stock is down 89 percent from its 2009 high.

Jenkins, a verbose guy from North Carolina who has done stints as both a reporter and a public relations officer, has made a career pushing back against government intervention. His LinkedIn page boasts that he’s helped stopped a “water-system takeover by Chattanooga city government,” and “defeat organ transplant policies proposed by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.” His entry for Corinthian boasts, “Crisis communications strategy to counter year-long series of congressional hearings on private-sector education.”

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you that our sector has not had problems,” Jenkins told me. But look at “any type of organization in the U.S. that is trying to offer career education that leads folks directly to a better job opportunity. Who’s doing it better than us? Who gets comparable or better results?”

He has a point. Federal job training programs are underfunded, stigmatized, and ineffective. And then there are community colleges, which are overburdened and offer a traditional course structure. Indeed, community colleges have a much lower completion rate on 2-year associate programs than for-profits — 21.9 percent compared to 62.7 percent in 2008, according to DOE data. In certificate programs, the numbers are more equal, with community colleges slightly better.

Wanting to see a for-profit campus in person, I asked Jenkins to meet me at Corinthian’s Everest Institute in South Plainfield, New Jersey. South Plainfield is part of the larger Everest chain that specializes in medical assistantship, accounting, and electrician training. In 2010, something like 19.7 percent of students who had attended South Plainfield defaulted on their loans. (Numbers aren’t exact because South Plainfield is grouped with several other schools in its default report.) Average loan debt is around $11,000, which Everest discloses to all students, as federal law now requires.

This is where Matthew Mastrogiovanni, the logistics administrator who wanted to be an electrician, took his courses. And it’s also where Denice Addy, a 29-year-old from nearby Irvington, graduated with a dental assistant certificate in August. Addy had been to a few other schools, but their structure put her off. Everest’s single-track curriculum appealed, as did its commercials. “I thought they were funny. I’m sorry to say that, but I thought they were a joke, so I went down to the school to check it out. To see if the school was a joke. But once I got there it was actually a decent school.”

South Plainfield’s campus is right off the highway, in a rundown industrial lot. I found Jenkins with South Plainfield’s president, Bob Butterworth. Butterworth came to Corinthian from a background in business, working at Marriott, PepsiCo, and Wendy’s International. He and his sleepy blue eyes had no education experience before this job. Neither did Jenkins and his salt and pepper mustache.

The tour began, and seemed to be engineered to rebut every one of the industry’s critiques. Poor customer service? Let me introduce you to our receptionists, whom we call Directors of First Impression. Kids that get lost in the shuffle? Here’s our bulletin board with all the current students’ faces — nearly all people of color — under a label that reads, “Our New Future Graduates.” Sketchy admissions employees? Let’s take a walk to the admissions pod, where everything’s out in the open, so anyone can overhear anything at any moment. Everyone who worked for Everest was wearing nametags, like they were in a commercial.

Coming through the vents I detected that familiar, clammy breath of the federal regulator. I hadn’t felt it since Orlando.

The campus itself had the feel of the interior of a very new high school — gleaming floors, classrooms that doubled as lab spaces, and kitschy street signs, one of which read “New Start Boulevard.” In one hall there was a piece of paper stuck to the wall that boasted about a 53.36 percent hiring ratio for nursing students out on externships.

Students were in class and wandering the halls, the same as students anywhere else — some goofing off, some paying attention. We walked into a physical therapy class as test subjects’ legs were high in the air. These students, and the ones in front of the dental mannequins, and the ones in a makeshift house with loose electrical wiring, and the ones prodding old Dell computers in an IT workshop had come to Everest to try and change something. They wanted something more from their lives, and for various reasons had chosen to spend more to get it.

Denice Addy, the South Plainfield grad with the dental assistant diploma, has a job now. But Everest didn’t help her get it. She found it herself, at her kids’ dentist’s office. First the office brought her on as an intern, and then hired her outright. “My school actually didn’t help. Of course they’re going to take that and say that I did. But in all actuality I found it myself,” she said.

I asked if she felt like she needed the Everest certificate to get that job. “They’ve hired people that have no experience and they’ve hired from other schools. So, yeah, if I wouldn’t have gone to Everest I probably would have gotten there anyway.” Her program cost upwards of $16,000. But she doesn’t regret going. “I wanted a career, you know?” she told me, reflecting on why being in dentistry is better than her last job, in security. “Because I don’t think security — you don’t need to actually go to school for that.” There is a ladder to climb in healthcare that there wasn’t in security. Going to college was a step towards socioeconomic mobility.

Nevertheless, the loans put Addy, Mastrogiovanni, and the rest of for-profit students in a precarious position, just like student loans can do for students who go to more traditional colleges. All of them limited their immediate financial scope in order to hopefully expand it in the future. But for-profit students are the ones less equipped for that adjustment than any other, largely because the society that’s trying to save them now didn’t provide for them somewhere else.

Now that the sector’s combative stance towards government in the early part of the decade has passed, what everyone seems to agree on is that change is coming. With a stalled Congress, for-profits remain one of our only immediate chances to experiment with how we hold colleges accountable for student debt. For obvious reasons, they find that onerous; but nearly everyone else should find that exciting. This is the frontier.

When the tour came to a close, I walked by the gong that students ring when they enroll, through the lobby with the children’s play set in the corner, and out into a parking lot noisy with the sound of the highway. As I got into Jenkins’ car for a ride to the train station I noticed something in the adjacent lot. It was empty and neglected, having been forgotten years ago. But there was something growing amidst the emptiness. A field of weeds had shot through the asphalt, yearning for the sun.

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