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A generous way to wrap up your holiday shopping

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The holidays are an ideal time to be generous in supporting local charitable organizations. Fortunately, gift-wrapping fundraisers present an easy way to contribute to the causes in your community. Simply look for kiosks set up by charities in your local stores and malls. For a small fee or suggested donation, a volunteer will expertly wrap your presents. Here are a few good reasons to support them:

• Your money will go to a good cause, and you’ll benefit from a useful service — it’s a win-win situation.

• You won’t need to purchase and store your own wrapping paper, gifts bags, ribbons, and bows.

• You’ll enjoy greater personal satisfaction knowing you contributed to the well-being of your fellow citizens.

• You won’t have to worry about finding a place to hide unwrapped gifts from your kids and spouse.

• You’ll be able to check an important task off your holiday to-do list so you can focus on preparing for the festivities and spending time with your family.

To further support your community this season, purchase your gifts from independent businesses and artisans in your region.

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Ice fishing: tips for a successful day

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Ice fishing is a great way to relieve stress, reconnect with nature, and enjoy your own company or that of your fishing buddies. Whether you’re ready to go or still waiting for the ice to thicken, here are a few tips that will help guarantee you have a good experience.

Check the regulations
Before you head out, make sure you have the necessary permits and that you’re allowed to fish in the intended area. You also need to be familiar with the catch and possession limits for various species. Having this information will allow you to avoid unpleasant surprises and ensure that your activities are legal.

Check the conditions

Take into consideration the weather and ice conditions before you decide if you’ll be fishing in a shack or simply out on the ice. Mother Nature can be unpredictable, and without the right gear, you may have to turn back before you make your first catch.

Check your equipment
Many parks and lodges offer all-inclusive ice fishing packages. In this case, all you need to bring are your warm clothes and plenty of enthusiasm. However, if you have your own equipment, you’ll want to assess its condition before you head out. Visit hunting and fishing shops in your area if any of your gear is damaged or needs to be replaced.

Following these tips will ensure that once you drill your holes, you’ll be able to relax, unwind, and fully enjoy the ice fishing experience.

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How to safely watch wildlife in winter

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If you spend time exploring the outdoors this winter, you might cross paths with hares, foxes, deer, and other wildlife. Here’s how you can observe these creatures safely (and comfortably) without disturbing them.

Act appropriately
It’s important to always treat wildlife with caution and respect. If an animal reacts to your presence, you’re too close. Since these creatures need to conserve energy to stay warm in winter, startling them causes undue stress. In fact, keeping your distance is as much for their safety as it is for yours.

Dress appropriately

It’s best to wear layers and opt for breathable fabrics when you engage in outdoor winter activities. Keep in mind that you won’t produce as much body heat when you’re standing still to watch wildlife. You’ll also want to have binoculars or a camera to make the most of your sigh-ting. However, keep in mind that drones shouldn’t be used around wild animals.

If you want to reconnect with nature this season, look for places where you can hike, snowshoe, and cross-country ski in your area.

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Time to learn a second language? Bienvenido! Language apps await

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Let’s be honest. Despite what online language apps tell you, a year of online learning won’t qualify you as fluent in a language.

But here is the good news: You could manage enough useful language for travel, business or visiting with people in different countries. But chances are that you won’t successfully converse about the philosophy of Kant.

Still, there are good choices out there for learning a second language.

One of the senior language resources is Rosetta Stone and it is well worth a first look. It offers a free three-day course with no credit card needed. Of all the online apps, Rosetta Stone seems best at starting you at the right level. If you have a passing familiarity with Spanish, for example, you probably don’t need to start at “hola.” And Rosetta Stone won’t put you there.

Like every online app, it isn’t obvious at first how to use the question-and-answer modules. That seems true for every app and you will get a few instructions in English. But users will quickly get the hang of the app’s interface.

Trending among language apps are Duolingo, Memrise, and Babbel.

Duolingo and Memrise both work on the idea of spaced repetition for better memorization. Rosetta Stone and Babbel may seem more immersive–at least in the beginning.

All the apps have combinations of flashcards and listening exercises. Rosetta Stone features a listen-respond tableau with every lesson. Memrise offers its Learn With Locals videos that demonstrate a new phrase.

Babbel focuses on conversational examples to show the context of words and phrases. It also has a speech recognition feature designed to give you confidence in actually speaking the language.

Memrise is unique in that about 90 percent of its course offering is free. You can buy the pro package, which is supposed to be helpful, especially as you progress. It also has a social element with a leaderboard, which has actually been controversial since some people hacked their way up the board. This is why we can’t have anything nice.

Duolingo calculates your streak in coming back to the app and its little bird mascot regularly (and somewhat infamously) exhorts your participation.

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Students push back against cheating software

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Educators are fighting cheating with software, but students are fighting back.

Online learning and test-taking have opened new doors for the ancient art of cheating. To fight it, some schools require students to take tests over webcam while professors or teaching assistants observe. But according to TechDirt, a growing number of institutions are using anti-cheating software instead, which uses a mix of human proctors and algorithms to spot what they classify as signs of cheating.

These online proctoring companies use webcams, microphones, and algorithms to monitor eye and head movements, background noise, mouse movements, scrolling, and keystrokes. The software flags suspicious behavior for instructor review. Even something as simple as multiple users taking the test on the same network, connectivity issues, or too much background noise can be flagged, according to the Washington Post.

Meanwhile, the popularity of online proctoring software continues to grow. According to EdSurge, the online proctoring company Proctorio is partnering with McGraw-Hill and other textbook publishers to include its software with courseware, meaning that even homework may be tracked for cheating in the future.

As the software has gained popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic, students say that it violates privacy and causes intense stress for test-takers, according to the Washington Post. And according to NBC News, students have little recourse when penalized for things beyond their control, like interruptions or unconscious behaviors, such as reading out loud. The anxiety they experience while trying to satisfy the software’s demands, they say, is too much.

According to the Electronic Freedom Foundation, dozens of petitions are circulating at colleges and universities to abandon platforms like Honorlock, Proctorio, ProctorU and Respondus. And some schools are receptive to the complaints — The City University of New York recently decided that professors cannot require students to use online proctoring software.

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Lack of rural broadband access hurts American students

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Even before the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way that much of the world goes to work and school, rural Americans were less likely to have access to broadband internet service. According to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Eighth Broadband Progress Report, nearly a quarter of Americans who live in rural areas–about 14.5 million people–lack access. In tribal areas, nearly one-third of the population lacks access.

The benefits of broadband access are well-established. In a webinar for the Council on Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, Federal Reserve Bank economist Alex Marre pointed out that broadband access is linked to higher wages, lower unemployment, more population growth, and higher home values. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts Broadband Initiative, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced disparities in access to the forefront and highlighted the need for universal broadband access.

But the cost associated with extending rural broadband to every American is high–about $80 billion, according to Farm and Dairy.

Lack of broadband access in rural areas particularly hurts America’s children. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts Broadband Initiative, an estimated 15 to 16 million elementary and secondary students do not have adequate internet access or digital devices at home to support online learning. At present, 12 states are seeking to alleviate this burden on families by using Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) dollars to help students purchase internet-enabled devices, wireless hotspots, or both.

According to a Common Sense Media report, issued during the summer of 2020, about 50 million children have engaged in remote learning as a result of the pandemic. Even in states with the smallest disparities, about one in four students lacked adequate internet access. In states with the largest divides, half of the students lacked access.

The incoming Biden administration will spend nearly $5 billion in annual rural telecommunications subsidies, according to Bloomberg Law. Critics of the fund say that it is needlessly complex and distributes necessary funds unevenly between and within states.

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150 years after the Great Chicago Fire, the O’Learys hit the news again

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Did Old Lady O’Leary’s cow kick over a lantern in the shed in 1871, thus causing the Great Chicago Fire?

You’ll be hearing a lot about the truth (or not) of the cow and Old Lady O’Leary in October when the 150th anniversary of the fire kicks off, so to speak.

But while you wait, the O’Learys are in the news for another reason.

The 33-room mansion of Big Jim O’Leary is on sale this year in his hometown of Chicago.

Big Jim was Mrs. O’Leary’s son, and he was a gambling man who made quite a tidy living running resorts (gambling houses) in Chicago. In fact, he was called the “gambling king of the stockyards.”
He had a personal motto: “There are three classes of people in this world: gamblers, beggars, and burglars.”

Around 1890 or so, Big Jim was sufficiently rich enough to build himself a massive Renaissance revival house on Garfield Blvd. in the then-stylish Englewood neighborhood of Chicago.

It has an ornate brownstone facade that includes James O’Leary’s initials and a female face that legend says belongs to the same lady with the criminal cow.

With extensive woodworking inside, the house is full of period touches. Two walk-in safes no doubt gave Big Jim a lot of space to store his gambling proceeds.

Ironically, the house has its own fire hydrant in the back, very rare for the 1890s.

In rough condition inside, the 12-bedroom, 6,300-square-foot house is on sale for about $600,000, according to Chicago Business.

The house has not been owned by O’Learys since 1925 when Big Jim died.

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