Thursday, February 26, 2009

“Centipede Cinema” the theme for 2009 Insect Fear Film Festival at U of I

“Centipede Cinema” the theme for 2009 Insect Fear Film Festival at U of I

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If you’ve been wondering, “Where can I catch a cheesy film about cave explorers being menaced by giant centipedes?” you’re in luck. This year’s Insect Fear Film Festival, which has been dubbed “Centipede Cinema,” features just such a production.

Suspecting that real-world centipedes harbor no great animosity toward spelunkers, I checked in recently with members of the University of Illinois Entomology Graduate Student Association (EGSA), which hosts the festival, to find out what does make them tick. EGSA members Michelle Duennes, Rob Mitchell and Scott Shreve collaborated to provide the following account. (Michelle's devotion to science kept her from being able to make it to our recording session, so only Rob M. and Scott are heard in the audio version of this spot.)

[Scott] While they are the theme for this year’s festival, centipedes and millipedes, known collectively as myriapods, are not actually insects. Both insects and myriapods belong to the broader group called arthropods because they have segmented bodies, hard exoskeletons, and jointed legs.

The main difference between insects and myriapods is in the number of their legs. While insects have only six, myriapods have a “myriad” of them—anywhere from 750 to fewer than ten. [Pictured is Orthoporus texicolens a millipede species found in the southwestern U.S. All photos by Rob Mitchell.] Millipedes appear to have two pairs of legs per body segment because their body segments are fused, while centipedes have only one pair of legs per body segment.

Millipedes are much slower than centipedes and feed primarily on leaf litter and detritus. Centipedes are predators that feed on a wide range of small critters, including worms, slugs and insects.

Unlike many insects, myriapods are discreet and tend to keep to themselves. Their long, thin bodies are perfect for worming undetected through soil and leaves. Curious and patient searchers should be able to locate them, however. In the home, they are most likely to be found in damp basements or cellars. If you’re looking for centipedes outside, try turning over rocks or rotting logs, or poking around in the soil while you garden.

Most of the centipedes you’ll find in nature are in the order Geophilomorpha. Members of this group are generally about half an inch long, very thin, and reddish brown in color.

[Rob M.] Most people have probably seen one myriapod in particular, the house centipede. If this name doesn’t ring any bells, just think of an eerily quick daddy longlegs with way too many legs. House centipedes may look scary, but they can’t bite people and they actually eat household pests like roaches and silverfish. If you prefer not to share your house with them, just put them in the garden instead and you’ll be rewarded with fewer insects eating your plants.

In tropical regions there are centipedes that can grow to nearly a foot in length and are capable of inflicting a poisonous bite. For a person, this bite is only about as dangerous as a bee sting, though, and you would have to go to the Amazon rain forest to get it.

This Saturday’s festival will have some live giant centipedes on display, but people will not be allowed to hold them. Giant millipedes, on the other hand, are safe for handling and will be featured in the petting zoo.

The film portion of the festival will kick off with two family-friendly Disney shorts from the 1930s. But parents should be aware that the feature-length films to follow--Centipede! (2004) and especially Centipede Horror (1984)--are much heavier on “fear,” and are not suitable for small children.

[Rob K.] The 2009 Insect Fear Film Festival will take place Feb. 28 in Foellinger Auditorium on the UI campus. Admission is free, and festivities begin at 6 p.m. Details are available at

Friday, February 20, 2009

UI professor of industrial design William Bullock engages students, business to resolve problem of electronic waste

UI professor of industrial design William Bullock engages students, business to resolve problem of electronic waste

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There is a little used room in the basement of my house. In that room sits a beige colored machine for which my family and I paid about $1,000 nine years ago. This machine functions just as well as it did on the day we bought it—better, really, since we’ve done some work on it over the years, but nobody wants to use it anymore. I bump into a similar machine taking up floor space when I visit with my colleague in the office next door at the U of I. Indeed, until very recently there was a supply room on our floor that housed little other than such machines.

I’m talking about old computers, of course, and I bet you know where some are parked, too.

There are a lot of them out there, and they comprise a significant part of the e-waste problem that has developed around the world as electronic equipment has come to play a larger role in the lives of more people over the past half century. In addition to computers this problem also encompasses old televisions, DVD players, portable phones, and more—just about anything that beeps or sports a keypad.

Recognizing the direct benefit to campus of addressing the problem of e-waste, as well as the opportunity to change the wider world for the better, University of Illinois professor of industrial design William Bullock has this year offered a two-semester sequence of courses in which undergraduate and graduate students from a wide range of disciplines take on this real world issue.

A key collaborator on these courses has been Chicago entrepreneur, Willie Cade. Cade is owner of a company called PC Rebuilders and Recyclers, which refurbishes donated computers and sells them at affordable prices to schools, non-profit organizations, and individuals who might otherwise not have access to one.

In the Fall 2008 part of the sequence students investigated the many facets of the e-waste problem and collaborated to draft a comprehensive report of their findings.

In the second part of the sequence, which is being taught this semester, the focus is on sustainable product design. Professor Bullock hopes that students will complete this class with an understanding of why products should be designed with attention to the entire range of environmental impacts associated with them--from the natural resources and energy used to produce them, to the toxic chemicals that must be accounted for when they are discarded.

Beyond that, students in the class will also gain considerable experience in the “how” of sustainable design, by working together in teams to create new or recycled products from discarded electronics. These products will be entered into a sustainable e-waste design competition, which will be held in April and which is open to all students on campus.

You can support the sustainable design competition and liberate yourself from items of personal e-waste by donating them at a collection event to be held on the UI campus this Saturday, February 21. Acceptable items include old computers, monitors, keyboards, printers, scanners and cell phones. Unfortunately televisions can not be accepted. The drop off will run from 9:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. at Lincoln Hall, 702 South Wright Street. Computer data will be treated securely and hard drives will be erased.

Ultimately, William Bullock and his collaborators are seeking to establish at the U of I an international center to develop policies and processes that will make the problem of e-waste itself obsolete.

** Collection Event Details directly from Sustainable E-Waste Design Competition Web Calendar **

E-waste collection event will be held on campus from 9:00-2:00 p.m., Saturday, February 21, 2009 at Lincoln Hall, 702 S. Wright St., to collect unused CPUs, monitors, keyboards, mice, printers, scanners and cell phones. (TVs and other electrical e-waste cannot be accepted). Donors are encouraged to donate there old computers as specified above as these items will be made available to students entering the competition. Donations will be limited to one carload of computer e-waste per donor. Additional material from donors beyond one carload will be accepted on a space available basis.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Making the most of winter birding opportunities

Making the most of winter birding opportunities

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Arctic weather in the Midwest may keep other people inside, but it prompts many birders to put on another layer of clothing and get out to see what birds have blown in with it.

If you feed birds, you’ve probably noticed that some of your guests show up only during the colder months. Think of dark-eyed juncos, which many people know by the name “snowbirds.” Juncos are the sporty grey, black, and white sparrows that arrive in Illinois from their breeding range in the northern U.S. and Canada in mid September. During their winter vacation here, juncos scratch the ground for food in weedy places or take advantage of the seed that spills from backyard feeders.

In their distinctive plumage and adaptation to human settings, juncos may be the most visible of the northern birds that winter in Illinois, but they are just the tip of the iceberg.

This year birders throughout the state have enjoyed an unusual incursion of several species of winter finches, birds that feed heavily on the seed cones of trees such as spruce and hemlock. When cone crops in the north are sparse, these birds migrate as far as they must to find food.

[Internet discussion lists provide an excellent way of keeping up with such happenings. See Illinois Birders Exchanging Thoughts (IBET), "an e-mail list for the discussion of wild birds and birding issues relating to Illinois" and Birdnotes, "a discussion list for Birders in the Champaign County area . . . managed by the Champaign County Audubon Society."]

The most striking among this year’s irregular visitors are white-winged crossbills. The top half of a crossbill’s bill hooks over the bottom half at the tip, in a configuration that looks like a deformity until it is seen in action. The shape of the crossed bill enables this bird to pry open the scales of seed cones in order extract the seed from within using its tongue. [You can see how efficiently a white-winged crossbill extracts seeds from a cone in the video clip below, courtesy of Mike McDowell's birding blog.]

In addition to crossbills, pine siskins and common redpolls, both close relatives of goldfinches that may be absent from parts of the state for several years at a time, have been fairly abundant this winter.

Illinois birders have also been enjoying uncharacteristic opportunities to observe northern birds of prey in recent months. If you’ve seen a large hawk near the interstate and thought to yourself, “That’s not a red-tail” you may have seen a rough-legged hawk. Rough-legged hawks are about the same size as red-tails, but their coloration includes much more black, and it varies greatly among individual birds. [Photo: A rough-legged hawk atop a power pole along Staley road in Champaign.] Rough-legged hawks are also distinguished from red-tails in that they often hunt by hovering over a grassy area, rather than from a perch. This habit is attributable to the fact that they breed in the open country of far northern Canada and Alaska, where perches are few and far between.

Of course one of the surest bets for observing winter birds in the Prairie State is also one of the most spectacular, and that’s making time to see the bald eagles that congregate near our larger rivers. More bald eagles winter here than in any other state outside Alaska, and they may be spotted along the Mississippi River from the Quad Cities in the north to Union County in the south. On the Illinois River, Starved Rock State Park offers opportunities for seeing eagles from even shorter distances, with a visitor’s center nearby you can go to warm up.

To survive winter, birds have to be opportunists, and, likewise, to make the most of the season, birders do, too.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Committee invests student funds to promote sustainability

Committee invests student funds to promote sustainability

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As President Obama works to change the course of national environmental policy and congress wrangles over economic stimulus measures, the idea of investing in green technology is hotter than ever. But as a nation, we’re really playing catch up.

Students at the University of Illinois have been investing in projects to generate pollution-free energy and reduce campus energy consumption since they voted to adopt a $2.00-per-semester fee nearly six years ago. With the addition of an even greater $5.00 per semester fee, approved by an overwhelming majority in a campus-wide vote in Spring 2007, they now have a fund that generates about $550,000 annually.

Money from that fund is dispersed through grants that are allocated by the Student Sustainability Committee, which is composed of 10 students and 10 members from the U of I faculty and staff appointed by the vice-chancellor for student affairs. The Student Sustainability Committee solicits proposals from members of the campus community, reviews them, and makes recommendations about which proposals to fund. The committee’s decisions are subject to approval by campus administrators from the Office of Sustainability and U of I Facilities and Services.

Between 2003 and 2008 the Student Sustainability Committee made grants totaling nearly $816,000, most of which were in the $10,000-$50,000 range. Many of these focused on prospects for energy conservation. One grant, for example, supported an audit of energy use in the Illini Union that identified opportunities for upgrading lighting that will save an estimated $30,000 a year in electricity costs, and money from the same grant will also be used to help make those upgrades.

Other grants have helped to promote alternative fuels, including an effort to convert waste vegetable oil from campus dining halls into biodiesel. It is anticipated that this effort, sponsored by the UI student chapter of Engineers Without Borders, will ultimately produce 8,000 gallons of fuel per academic year for use in campus vehicles.

More significant than any of these others are the two much larger scale projects the Student Sustainability Committee has funded for generating electricity on campus. [Photo: Solar panels atop the roof on the auditorium of the U of I's Business Instructional Facility.] It contributed half of the $373,000 cost of the solar panels that grace the greenest building on campus, the new Business Instructional Facility at Sixth and Gregory. These panels are expected to generate up to seven percent of the building’s annual electricity use.

The committee has also invested $300,000 in the project to bring wind power to campus, a long-running effort that embodies myriad opportunities for teaching and research. This effort ran into a substantial obstacle last December, when the university was unable to meet its financial commitment to the project in the face of mounting of budget concerns. But members of the Student Sustainability Committee, in cooperation with other faculty, staff, and administrators, continue to pursue the means to make the campus wind farm a reality. Most importantly, they have succeeded in retaining support from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, they have negotiated a substantial discount with General Electric on the purchase price of a wind turbine, and they have voted to increase the contribution of student funds for the project to $500,000.

Such determination and ingenuity will be needed to keep long term priorities on the table in these uncertain times.