They are simply “ ‘spas’ designed to attract teenagers,” according to one university official — plush, state-of-the-art “training” complexes built by universities in the richest athletic conferences to entice elite 17-year-old athletes to come play for (and, perhaps, study at?) their schools. The athletes-only mini-campuses include private housing and entertainment (theaters, laser tag, miniature golf) — but, actually, the schools are in a $772 million-plus “arms race” (according to a December Washington Post investigation) because soon after one school’s sumptuous, groundbreaking facility opens, some other school’s more innovative facility renders it basically second-rate. And of course, as one university official put it, the “shiny objects” have “nothing whatsoever to do with the mission of a university.” (Donors and alumni provide much of the funding, but most schools by now also tap students’ “athletic fees.”)

Latest religious messages

Islam rising: A geography class at Riverheads High School in Augusta County, Va., alarmed some parents in December when students were assigned to copy an Arabic script to experience its “artistic complexity.” However, the phrase the teacher presented for copying was the “shahada” (“There is no god but Allah”). District officials called that just a coincidence — that the phrase was presented only for calligraphy and never translated.

A Washington state man complained in December that a WolVol toy airplane he bought for his nephew on Amazon.com, instead of making engine noises, recited spoken words — which a Whatcom County Islamic Society spokesman said was actually a prayer that hajj pilgrims speak when they journey to Mecca. (WolVol said it would investigate.)

Wait, what? NPR’s “Morning Edition,” reporting on the violent tornadoes that hit north Texas on the night after Christmas, interviewed one woman who said she was luckier than her neighbors because of her faith. She was entertaining 10 relatives when she heard the “trainlike” sound of the winds approaching and took everyone outside to confront the storm: “We … started commanding the winds because God had given us authority over … airways. And we just began to command this storm not to hit our area. We spoke to the storm and said, go to unpopulated places. It did exactly what we said to do because God gave us the authority to do that.”

Weird science

The most promising current concussion-prevention research comes from a study of … woodpeckers (according to a December Business Week report). Scientists hypothesize that the birds’ apparent immunity from the dangers of constant head-slamming is because their neck veins naturally compress, forcing more blood into their craniums, thus limiting the dangerous “jiggle room” in which brains bang against the skull. A team led by a real-life doctor portrayed in the movie “Concussion” is working on a neck collar to slightly pinch the human jugular vein to create a similar effect.

National pride

Factory worker Thanakorn Siripaiboon was arrested in December in a Bangkok suburb after he wrote a “sarcastic” comment on social media about the dog that belongs to Thailand’s king. For the crime of “insulting the monarch,” Thanakorn faces 37 years in prison.

Least competent criminals

The manager of the Nandos Riccarton restaurant in Christchurch, New Zealand, is pretty sure that he knows who swiped the contents of the store’s tip jar that December evening (based on surveillance video), but the man denied the theft and walked out. The manager told police there was less than $10 in the jar at the time — but also that the man had paid his $14.90 tab for food, yet hurried off without eating it.

 

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