Politics are Comical; Comics are Political

Constant Geographer:

Controversy can work in positive ways by drawing attention to a situation or circumstance thereby enticing people to begin discussions. A recent Fox News segment castigated Marvel Entertainment and the creative team behind Captain America. Already raked over the coals for transitioning Captain America from a White male to a younger Black male, Marvel allowed the new Sam Wilson Captain America to jump into the deep end of the culture pool by going after a militia group.

The Fox News Collective has never been known to have their heads screwed on straight, and yet again by opening their mouths place their ignorance on full display for the world to consider.

Comic books and politics are inseparable. This is not a debatable point. All one needs do is a few minutes of internet research and the connection between should crystallize. In this post from another blog, I provide a few nuggets any interested person might use to solidify any doubt they might have about whether or not comics has anything to do with politics or culture, in general.

Originally posted on Comic Shop Stories:

I listen to Geeks Guide to the Galaxypodcast weekly. On a recent drive to Hopkinsville, Kentucky I listened to Episode 173, “Queers Destroy Horror.” Gay and lesbian guests discussed topics surrounding LGBTQ characters in horror fiction and movies, the premise of the show title being that somehow being queer detracts from horror, or from science fiction, or from fantasy, and that being queer means never being accepted in the “mainstream” SF/F/H culture. The queer crowd embraces this sentiment then mocks it, both recognizing some people hold the work of queers as unworthy, yet realizing many mainstream writers are queer, so the title is also an “in your face, mainstream bigots!” admonishment.

One of the guests made a comment I’m going to paraphrase. She said something to the effect of, “I get emails frequently telling to stop injecting politics and social commentary and themes into my writing. Or, readers will…

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Sam Wilson:Captain America Antagonizes Fox & Friends

If Tucker Carlson, et al., at Fox & Friends were miffed at Marvel two weeks ago as Sam Wilson prepared to distribute a thorough beat-down of a paramilitary group Carlson described as “good American Conservatives,” they are going to lose their shit this week. I will go out on a limb and prognosticate the outrage within the Fox News Channel offices will not be limited to Tucker becoming so flummoxed he is unable to get his bow tie straight. I’d like to see Sean Hannity rub his two neurons together to form a salient thought and pontificate his views of Captain America, and how comic books are simply yet another example of how liberals have undermined the conservative foundations our forefathers fought so hard to establish. My clairvoyance also yielded a vision of Bill O’Reilly in the furious throes of penning a new book. See, Bill has killed Jesus, killed Lincoln, killed Reagan, so to continue the theme Bill must now kill Steve Rogers. I wonder if Bill when he gets to writing his own memoirs will call the resulting book, “Killing Myself.”

Issue #1 of Sam Wilson: Captain America gave Fox & Friends considerable fuel to stoke their furnace of burning ignorance. Sam Wilson as Captain America stood up for Marriage Equality, Voters Rights, Civil Rights, and a slew of other concerns facing Americans in a graphic montage depicting scenes from his life as Falcon into the present day experience as the new Captain America. Issue #1 has Sam Wilson faced with declining popularity, accusations of being anti-American and hating the Constitution.

Captain America then learns of a paramilitary group established in the American Southwest tormenting people crossing the Sonoran Desert. Going by the name “Sons of the Serpent” and led by a fellow calling himself the “Supreme Serpent” the group is clearly a contrivance of author Nick Spencer created as an analogy to the militia groups purporting to guard the U.S.-Mexican border. Just as Captain America is preparing to deliver some simple ass-kicking, though, a S.H.I.E.L.D. quinjet lands, dispersing Steve Rogers and S.H.I.E.L.D. troops. Readers are left hanging, thinking Sam is probably going to be arrested.

Issue #2 picks up with Sam and Steve in an uneasy stand-off, as Steve requests Sam stand down. Sam is clearly irritated:

Really? This is where we are? A terrorist group attacks border-crossers, and I’m the one you have a problem with?

The next six pages are simply fantastic, as Steve makes clear the true intentions of his arrival – to arrest the Sons of the Serpent. The Sons of the Serpent then turn on S.H.I.E.L.D., blowing up their quinjet. The true nature of Sons of the Serpent becomes evident, a group similar to other present-day militia groups who believe the U.S. government is being run by another, shadow government bent on implementing a series of new social, economic and political reforms known as the New World Order, and being run out of the United Nations. Sam and Steve then team-up, much like the old days in Harlem, and kick some Serpent-tail.

The scenes written by Nick Spencer and depicted by Daniel Acuna are really going to turn infuriate the talking heads within Fox News Channel offices. If you live in New York City within a few blocks of 1211 Avenue of the Americas, and listen closely – I know; it’s NYC. It’s noisy – you could make out the popping noise of heads exploding. The Marvel offices are at 135 W 50th, just a few blocks away. I wonder if those folks should have a lunch together, maybe, and talk. They probably eat at the same places – oh, wait – the regular people who work at Fox News probably could sit side-by-side with the creative teams at Marvel. I seriously doubt none of the on-air personalities would stoop so low as to eat with the bourgeois.

Many popular culture essayists and bloggers have picked up on the controversial story arc Nick Spencer is delivering. The reviews don’t seem to be mixed; either people love the new arc, or they make comments about Nick Spencer petty attempts to incorporate his liberal political views into Captain America, and how they wish he wouldn’t because it debases the Captain America, debases Marvel, and makes the comic book genre look bad.

I got news for you, True Believers, it is Captain America!. By definition, you must expect government and politics and popular culture to play a persistent role in each and every story arc. If you want safe, apolitical pure fantasy story arcs, then petition Dark Horse or Boom! Studios to develop Captain Kangaroo or Captain Crunch comic.

Furthermore, comics were born from politics, from social strife and injustice. Comics were propaganda in the late 1930’s, through the 1940’s. In the 1950’s, superheroes fought Communist villains. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, superheroes always stood up to government oppression, drugs use, tended towards pacifism with anti-war messages, and social justice. People who criticize Sam Wilson:Captain America have simply not been paying attention, have simply been skimming, and are guilty of under-appreciating the social commentary infused in many comic book titles over the decades. Chiefly at Marvel, Captain America and The Falcon were bastions of liberal ideals of social justice, safe-guarding and protecting the innocent, regardless of creed, color, race, or national origin.

captain-america-idiotsI honestly do not know if Fox & Friends will continue their superficial and ignorant tirade surrounding Captain America. I can’t see how they can pass up some of the dialogue Spencer has developed. Fox & Friends love to have their buttons pushed. Tucker described the Sons of the Serpent as simple folk just taking the law into their own hands because the federal government won’t, and these are simply good Conservatives using the freedoms conveyed onto them by the Constitution of the U.S. to protect themselves and their interests

Steve Rogers recognizes them as “idiots.” I can’t really say I’m dying to watch the war between Marvel and FoxNews ignite, but I sort of waiting for such a thing to happen.

sam-wilson-redneckLike in the 1950s with the genesis of the Comic Code Authority, neither media nor government appreciate dissenting views seeking to undermine or challenge the perspective of those who process information and regurgitate disinformation like a Mother Bird feeding her children. I cannot see Fox News Channel sitting idly by while members of their viewing audience are vilified as terrorists, developed into a cast of characters both former and current Captain Americas beat into the Sonoran Desert dust.

Will Marvel create a media arm of HYDRA? Called The Founding Fathers Foundation, led by a Rupert Murdoch-style character cut from the same cloth as Kingpin, HYDRA would open another front, twisting the minds and perceptions of Americans and its neighbors while using the military arm of HYDRA to engage in directed attacks, killings, and acts of espionage with the ultimate goal of controlling not only the U.S. government and global assets, but also the United Nations.

One commentator I ran across (I should have bookmarked his page; apologies) wrote a piece I fundamentally disagreed with but he did have an idea rhyming with mine. While he vehemently opposed the new story arc in SW:CA as being a silly platform for Nick Spencer to air his politics, the author did share a notion of mine. Captain America and The Winter Soldier should be more engaged in local, regional, and global military actions. I completely agree with this sentiment.

wpid-wp-1446303439889.jpgMarvel needs to stop placing no-, or low-powered characters in ludicrous story arcs. The current Winter Soldier book is pure abomination, the best example of a complete shit book,. I would rather buy the new comic featuring rabbits trying to save Christmas by selling meth so they can buy toys to make up for the ones Santa won’t deliver because Santa died from a heroin overdose than buy Winter Soldier. What this other commentator says is a valid point: Use Captain America and Winter Soldier in stories depicting actions against HYDRA-infected extremist groups. Bring in other characters in support, like War Machine (James Rhodes), Hawkeye, Black Widow, and Black Panther. The opportunity to create some fantastic stories is going untapped by Marvel, and being tapped by other publishers, like Image, Boom!Studios, and Dynamite.

In closing, I think Nick Spencer and Daniel Acuna are on the proper path of bringing considerable relevance back to Marvel stories, reminiscent of the late 1970’s and throughout the 1980’s. I appreciate their work, and am grateful Marvel has released the book to retailers. Additionally, I recommend Marvel continues to push these commentaries and keep conversations moving forward, keeping with the true tradition of comics as mirrors of social concerns and related policies. PAX.


Thanks to Derek Leslie (@sithspit) and Garrick Crump (@gscomics1) for helping push the message forward.

Thanks to recent email subscribers Philip Parton, A. Wallace, and G. Xalaris.

Thanks to recent WordPress followers Dorris Keevan-Franks, Kosmogonic, and Ice-dammed Lakes And All That.

Fox News Takes On Captain America; Suffers Ass-Whooping

Sam Wilson ain’t Capt’n ‘murica, folks, and neither is Steve Rogers.

I grew up collecting comics. I’ll probably stop collecting comics when I die, maybe sooner. Or later. I haven’t decided yet. As I approach my half-century mark in years alive I figure I have some time to think about my hobbies.

Mainstream publishers, Marvel and DC Comics, spent too many years, about a score, being running one gimmick after another. Marvel killed Captain America. DC Comics committed some egregious story-lines, like the Death of Superman. I have to admit I did enjoy the breaking of Batman’s back in Batman: Knightfall. In misguided efforts to increase readership, these two leaders in comic book publishing took some massive course changes to pull in new readers.

Comics have always been a social thermometer, though. Even from their inception in the early 1930’s comics were created and designed not only to entertain but also to engage readers with social commentary, to promote nationalism, to support social causes, to identify evil or dangerous activities and act as a counterpoint to cultural responses.

One of my favorite books I try to collect as I can are old issues of Captain America and The Falcon from the late 1970s and 1980s. These books are simply brilliant and pure. Starting with issue 134, Captain America and The Falcon form a great alliance and friendship. Steve and Sam live in New York, share an apartment, and are often not in costume. The seem to lead normal lives when not fighting crime. They have girlfriends, try to get their rent paid on-time, grouse about doing grocery shopping, and who’s night it is to have the apartment in order to entertain their lady-friends.

Too often in comics today, we never seen superheroes doing anything other than being in costume – all the freaking time. One of the traits publishers have corrupted is the humanity of superheroes, sort of, and normal people able to relate to them. Dr. Bruce Banner carries this gamma-powered curse in his genes and lashes out uncontrollably when angry. Peter Parker is a high school/college student caught in the pathos of a young person raised by his aunt and uncle. Tony Stark is a recovering alcoholic with a heart condition. Today, pretty much all superheroes have incredible strength, fly, never take damage, share similar abilities. For instance, if Hulk punches Daredevil, there is good chance Matt Murdock will require a new comic book, this one based beyond-the-grave. And we rarely get to see their “normal” lives, instead they wear their costume on nearly every panel while being swept up in fantastical stories, like Bucky Barnes: The Winter Soldier. Exceptions to my comment do exist; Ms. Marvel is one of the best Marvel titles going particularly because of G. Willow Wilson keeping the story grounded in the life of a 14-year old Pakistani girl. Captain Marvel recently had a few issues pertaining to the death of Carol Danver’s mother from cancer. So, I am not without noticing some Marvel titles are doing good things.

My point is comics from Marvel (for the most part) and DC Comics have really strayed from their purer days. The new Hawkeye book from Jeff Lemire is a possible exception, and I really like Moon Knight. Marc Specter gets his face punched in regularly. I’m waiting to see where Mark Waid takes the new Daredevil series which should be hitting store shelves soon. Green Arrow is a good DC Comics title, Constantine, and Wonder Woman is positively stellar.

However, comics are not as socially biting as they once were; they lack the continual infusion of societal themes Congress found so irritating. In the 1950s, comics were seen as subversive, brainwashing youth towards socialism and corrupting our social fabric, and undermining the role and influence of the federal government. Comics were often biting commentary of ground-level problems in our neighborhoods, in our schools, in our cities, and often national security.

This is precisely where comics need to live, in my opinion.

cap-am-the-falcon-power-to-the-peopleCaptain America and the Falcon stood up for New York, and especially Harlem. In a 3-chapter story arc (#143), Captain America and Falcon stand against the People’s Militia, essentially a racist group trying to burn down Harlem. The People’s Militia essentially a tool of Captain America’s old nemesis, Red Skull. Hydra and Red Skull become recurring villains for the next few issues as they try to undermine the creation of a new team, Femme Force (featuring Sharon Carter), try to destroy Las Vegas, and partner with Batroc in kidnapping teenagers from the streets. Some of these stories were written by Stan Lee himself, penciled by John Romita. Later, the social themes continue with scripts from Gary Friedrich and pencils by John Romita. In my opinion, these are some of Marvel’s best comic work, both in terms of the classic comic book art and in terms of being culturally relevant.

Marvel may be dipping back into the past and channeling the best of Lee, Romita, and Friedrich with a new book, Sam Wilson: Captain America. Marvel may have a winning book on their hands, with Nick Spencer writing and Daniel Acuna’s art. Why would I suspect success with this book? Simple: FoxNews decided to call out Marvel this week due to Captain America standing up to the racist, misanthropic, and xenophobic vigilante group, Sons of the Serpent. Just FoxNews hating on Captain America might be enough to drive interest and readership.

Wearing some odd mashup of a martial arts gi and Aztec warrior apparel, the Sons of the Serpent, a guy calling himself “Supreme Serpent” challenges immigrants wandering through the desert Southwest, threatening them with arrest and a dusty ass-kicking. Precisely what these destitute, impoverish people need, a good ass-kicking to inspire and motivate them.

In an image montage leading up to Captain’s appearance, Sam Wilson as Captain America stands in support of marriage equality as a member of a gay pride parade. We see protesters denouncing Sam Wilson’s Captain America as being a traitor, as being a fraud. I know, for instance, a fair portion of the comic audience is not happy with all of the changes in the Marvel Universe; a Hispanic Spider-Man, a female Thor, and now a Black Captain America. If you want to read a bit of how the Conservatives feel about Sam Wilson as Captain America, check out this diatribe from The Right Scoop. In case you prefer not to add traffic to that site, here is a taste of what you would miss:

Liberals can’t stand the idea of illegals being deported or a big wall being built to keep them from coming in. So they portray conservatives like Trump, Cruz, and others as right-wing terrorists and illegal immigration as something to be defended.

Geez, it’s getting harder and harder to give anything Marvel comics does the time of day. Heck, this season of Agents of Shield has an openly gay character who just finds out he has to go back in the ‘closet’ because of his newfound super powers.

But it’s the same in DC comics, as they are putting more gay openly gay characters in their most of their series like Arrow and Gotham.

The liberal agenda never quits which is why we need candidates who will stand up and strongly defend conservative values in a coherent way.

Read more, if you dare: The Right Scoop

Enter the intellectual giants at FoxNews “Fox and Friends” {like these, who needs enemies?}. The voice-over commentator states, “Rather than going after tradition foes like Hydra, Captain America goes after Conservatives.”

Tucker Carlson, appearing on Fox & Friends, then chastises Marvel and the new Sam Wilson: Captain America.

So many problems with their infantile psuedo-analysis, and yes, I do mean “false” analysis. Less than one minute into the segment above, anyone familiar with Captain America will detect how wrong their analysis becomes. Hell, even watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier is almost enough to expose Fox and Friends feeble-minded attempts of analysis. They do a fantastic job, though, of communicating their complete ineptitude about the comic book milieu, in particular showcasing gaping chasms in their knowledge of Captain America’s canon.

Fox & Friends pundits clearly have zero comprehension of the ideology of Hydra. The Sons of the Serpent, if not a branch of Hydra, are certainly acting in the spirit of Hydra. To use a more appropriate analogy, Sons of the Serpent are to Hydra as Al-Qaeda is to the Islamic State. In other words, they are nearly the same thing, the only difference is scale and scope. Anyone watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier must come away with the idea Hydra is fascist organization fixated on idealistic views of controlling both the United States and the world. Many of the views espoused by Hydra in the movie, submission to government authority, control of the media and speech, black government, and targeted killings are all aspects of portions of past, current, and future Conservative ideology of controlling people and populations. Simply look at the Patriot Act, warrant-less wire-tapping, Citizen United, Guantanamo Bay and the suspension of due process, rendition, and drone strikes – all policies implemented during the Bush-Cheney years.

In CA:TWS, Alexander Pierce lays out the plans to Project: Insight to Nick Fury. Project: Insight‘s primary agenda is the targeted killing of upwards of 20 million people in partial fulfillment of ensuring global peace, presumably. HYDRA had infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. at its inception and has been working for decades to twist S.H.I.E.L.D. towards becoming the world’s executive authority.

Fox & Friends tries to cast Sons of the Serpent as mere Conservatives. From the Fox & Friends perspective, I can understand their position. Sons of the Serpent are Conservatives in the same vein as The Minutemen Project, the supporters of Cliven Bundy, and the Oath Keepers, groups of predominantly white fellows who appear at social protests, heaving armed and outfitted under the auspices of maintain order and enforcing laws. None of these groups are anything other than high-profile militia groups who have corrupted the interpretation of the Second Amendment. Sure, this is my opinion, but I’m not alone in this interpretation.

Tucker Carlson, who probably has as much experience in comic books as I do in algebraic combinatorics, makes this comment about the new issue of Sam Wilson: Captain America:

“The [Supreme Serpent] is an American who has misgivings about unlimited illegal immigration and the costs associated with it,” Carlson explained. “And that, according to the comic book, is evil.”

Tucker clearly thinks Sons of the Serpent are simple folk, dressed in black t-shirts, toting automatic weapons, and donning white hoods to hide their identities, harassing non-white people in clear contradiction to the underlying philosophy of the United States, a philosophy so highly touted the words were cast in bronze and attached to the base of the Statue of Liberty. I think it would be interesting to learn in a few issues the man behind the Supreme Serpent mask is himself an undocumented immigrant, using border politics to covertly hide other nefarious activities, e.g. Timothy McVeigh, and attempting to overthrow the U.S. government, using the assets of both HYDRA and S.H.I.E.L.D.

Clayton Morris relishes the era when Captain America “used to punch Hitler in the face.”

The token female on the panel, Heather Childers, suggests Marvel should do a comic book on the opposite of this premise, with a story on

the people who are working the border to keep us safe…Keep politics out of comic books, that’s what I say.”

Fox & Friends has no problem bringing a militant, violent, and vigilante tone to this segment. Tucker waxes compassionately on the “Sons of the Serpent,” who, more to the point, are thugs confronting desperate people in the desert. Here is another quote Conservatives might want to look into; running contrary to their belief system:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

The passage above is part of the inscription at the feet of the Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island. I ask then, does not one of the fundamental characteristics underpinning our American society rest, nearly literally, on the words of Emma Lazarus? And, if so, can any of the groups mentioned above, either real or fictional, be truly cast as simple Americans “trying to keep us safe?”

In issues stretching from about #140 through #149 Captain America and the Falcon battle the People’s Militia, Tucker Carlson would probably describe as a “group of concerned Conservatives simply trying to make Harlem safer and gentrify the neighborhood,” who is reality is a group of racist white people trying to drive people of color from their homes. In later issues, S.H.I.E.L.D. tries to form a league of women heroes, Femme Force. However, in what might be seen as sexist today, the women who are supposed to form this feminist group keep getting assaulted by Red Skull, Batroc, et al., and require frequent rescuing from Captain and Falcon. At least Stan Lee was heading in the right direction. And, there are a few all-female Defenders issues floating around.

FoxNews/Fox & Friends has no idea of what they speak, bottom-line. As with all of their punditry, they are mere narcissists inanely soaking in the glow of studio lights. Captain America is not a spineless, unquestioning, super-patriot fascist Fox & Friends bloviators believe him to be. Steve Rogers/Captain America, if anything, is probably more libertarian leaning, supporting people’s rights and unalienable freedoms. Steve would fight for social injustice, would most likely have stood at Ferguson, worked towards minimizing poverty, drug abuse, fair housing, and against the unparalleled wealth of Wall Street. Steve would have supported Marriage Equality, and voters rights. Rogers, while not completely supportive of illegal immigration, would not have tolerated vigilante groups like Sons of the Serpent or Oath Keepers. Like Snowden and Assange, Rogers would not have tolerated a clandestine government, secretly meddling in the lives of U.S. citizens, meddling in the affairs of foreign governments, nor would have been a supporter of the Patriot Act nor Citizens United.

Dear Ms. Childers: Comic books have always been political. Try reading one. The best comic books have always been in lockstep with the social order and political atmosphere of whatever era that comic was published. Comics were born from the ashes of World War I, grew-up during World War II, and matured throughout the Cold War, Vietnam, and the Civil Rights Movement. Please, before speaking, I beg you, do some homework.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment. If it’s polite enough, I may let it pass my censors ;)


Small Schools Can Make A Big Difference

You probably have never heard of Julius Rosenwald. Even if you grew up in Chicago the name, “Julius Rosenwald,” may not mean a thing, may ring no memory bells. However, if you have ever visited the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago you have him to thank. He was one of the important benefactors who helped create the museum. Maybe he rings a bell, now.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Sears, and when I was young, I was more familiar with “Sears, Roebuck, and Company.” Driving into downtown Kansas City, Missouri one passed a giant warehouse facility with “Sears, Roebuck, and Co.” in enormous letters painted near the roof line and visible for what seemed to me to miles. For some unclear reason I always admired that building. Julius Rosenwald fell into the “Company” portion of “Sears, Roebuck, and Company,” being part-owner of the retail giant from 1895 to 1903. In 1903, due to failing health of Roebuck, Rosenwald and Sears bought Roebuck’s remaining shares of the company. Rosenwald soon after became the company’s president, turning the company around, and setting the stage for Sears to become one of the world’s largest retail chains.

Rosenwald was a philanthropist and used the wealth amassed over his life to assist groups throughout not only Chicago but across the United States, in particular the American South, with a specific focus on the plight of African-Americans in the South. Rosenwald was not alone in his concern, nor did his concern arise from his own recognition of the social conditions prevalent in the Deep South. Paul J. Sachs was the primary driver of Rosenwald’s education in the analysis of social issues both in Chicago and especially in the Black community of the South. You should recognize the surname “Sachs;” the name features prominently in today’s financial world: Goldman Sachs, a world-leading investment management company. Given the animus directed at Wall Street over the last few years discovering Sachs and Rosenwald were actually important philanthropists might come across as a little incongruous.

From “A Light In The Darkness – African-Americans and the YMCA 1852-1946” (link; 1994; Mjagkij) the author details a speech made by Rosenwald to a group of African-Americans in 1911:

I also belong to a race that suffers and has suffered for centuries…You would also probably be surprised to know that there are clubs…,in the city of Chicago, representing what you might call the best type of citizenship…that would not admit a Jew.” (75)

From the same work:

I could not help but think why on earth do people want to spend their time and money on Africans, eight thousand miles away, when we have millions of that race who are our citizens, who are anxious to learn, and I have no doubt would be glad to take advantage of any missionary work which might be available…and that the time and money would, in my mind, bring far greater results…to our own citizens, both black and white. (76)

Interesting how those themes in 1911 reverberate well into the 21st century. And how many people continue to fight, argue, and out-right oppose progress more than a century after Rosenwald spoke those words. Sad.

How, then, do small schools and Rosenwald connect?

A Rosenwald School in Pikeville, TN

In the South, from Maryland to Oklahoma, over 5,000 one- and two-room school houses were built exclusively for the education of African-Americans. Even in the early 20th century, society leaders recognized Blacks were not being educated the same as Whites and were not reaching the same levels of education. Whites tended to leave school after the 8th grade while Blacks tended to leave school after the 5th grade. The reasons for this 3-year gap in education attainment are way outside the scope of this post. But, the primary issue was to close the education gap, and by closing this gap, create a more educated populace, overall. The person responsible for funding these small school houses was Julius Rosenwald. The African-American community, essentially locked-out of most of the lucrative economic sectors had little access to funding necessary to build their own schools. Rosenwald stepped in and funded out of his own pocket the creation of what would later come to be known as Rosenwald Schools.

These schools became a huge catalyst for change and educational attainment among Southern Blacks. In the inter-war era between World War 1 and World War 2, the educational gap between Blacks and Whites narrowed from 3 years to 1 year. (“‘Rosenwald’ Schools, Built A Century Ago, May Still Have Lessons To Teach; nprED; 10-17-2015)

Dan Aaronson and a team of economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago collaborated on a study of these schools. Were these schools successful? If so, what elements made them so? Can we draw any lessons from the past and find applicability in today’s educational environment?

Aaronson and fellow researchers gather as much data as they could lay their hands on, Medicare records, military enlistment records, census and social security data. What they discovered was pretty eye-opening.

“First and foremost, they got more education,” says Aaronson. But that’s only the beginning. Students who went to Rosenwald schools had higher IQ scores than kids who didn’t. They made more money later in life. They were more likely to travel to the North as part of the Great Migration. They lived a little bit longer. The women delayed marriage and had fewer kids. And crime rates in the area of the schools went down. (Aaronson; nprED; 10-17-2015)

Clearly, these schools were successful. Attendees of these schools had higher levels of personal growth and achievement. Made more money. Lived longer, had fewer children, and crime rates diminished. Now, what elements contributed to the success of the schools? Aaronson’s interview doesn’t address that question. We can speculate. In fact, I’m going to speculate because this interview satisfies my own confirmation bias about a particular aspect of education I enjoy grousing about: school size and classroom size.


I’m not a big fan of these giant schools which I feel like are nothing much more than well-appointed prisons for small people, paid for by well-meaning parents and people of the community and local school districts who unwittingly are preparing their children for future incarceration. “Get used to these brick walls and regimented schedules, kiddos; you’ll be seeing a lot more of this when you become an adult. However, at that point you’ll get free health care, the food tends to remain about the same.” However, almost every study available in our current age of Humanity demonstrates incontrovertibly cramming hundreds if not thousands of people together in a closed environment is about the worst way to manage people and their behaviors.

I like change; I think change is good. I don’t think change from small neighborhood schools to huge mega-schools is the change U.S. society really needs and most evidence supports my contention. Building modern small schools, with internet/computer labs, biology and manufacturing (industrial education) labs is the change in my opinion that would benefit people and our society, not cramming thousands of children under a single roof.

My proposal consists of a return to much smaller neighborhood schools. Reduce class sizes to some manageable number, like 15 students. Make sure each primary teacher has one teacher assistance or aide. This requirement could be fulfilled by teacher education programs. Teacher education programs typically mandate student-teachers have some number of real contact hours, from 160 to 200 hours depending on the state. Any person thinking they would like to pursue a degree in education should immediately be assigned to a nearby school and assigned a teacher. Assigning a person to an education environment as early as possible will separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, helping reduce the number of students who resign from education programs in favor of other majors, while also exposing student-teachers to the complete rigor of the educational environment. No sense waiting 4-1/2 years only to figure out teaching is not something a person really has the backbone for.

My proposal would not require building new facilities. Communities could use renovate abandoned buildings or even use empty retails spaces for classroom space. Meals might actually be healthier given on-site kitchen facilities. Again, using community colleges or local universities as support, feeding children could be a good opportunity for students in Nutrition or Food Management programs to develop food service and management skills while in college.

These local schools would be closer to home, perhaps. Busing kids an hour or so away from their neighborhood I just can’t see as being a good idea. Yes, I understand in some cases, like in Kansas City, Missouri, for instance, an example of desegregation gone amok, busing children to different schools to increase diversity may seem like a good idea. Don’t get me wrong – I want diversity in schools – but, I also want children to be somewhat near their home territory. A school nearby, closer to home, would create a less stressful environment in my opinion.

Smaller classes also have the benefit of reducing a number of other environmental factors. More adult oversight and less competition for attention would lead to less bullying, fewer negative behaviors, and more individual attention. Students could be allowed to help each other, engage in more thoughtful, team-oriented activities, and allow faculty to spend less time on correcting behavior thereby allowing more time to provide better and more robust educational content.

When all of these elements, plus others I have not mentioned and may be ignorant of, are introduced we should anticipate a number of societal improvements, some of which were mentioned in the NPR article. We could anticipate higher test scores, higher levels of overall achievement, higher levels of success later in life, higher incomes, perhaps less crime, and lower birth rates.

I had this thought the other day,

We built the Saturn V rocket and essentially built the Space Age based on education many people received in very small, cozy, and stimulating educational environments. Some of the scientists may have had experience in one- or two-room school houses. Some of them may have been self-taught, to some extent. Yet, somehow we have adopted the idea that these mega-schools which have become so popular are the wave of the future and are examples of success. But, are they? Are they really? Aren’t we really just replicating the penitentiary system with brighter colored walls and mascot-themed hallways?”

Like I said earlier, I’m all for change. I think the change we getting is not the change we need, and we are only now recognizing the Shopping Center/Penitentiary Model of School Design is not the way to go. Smaller schools, like those in other highly-developed countries, can contribute more significantly to our U.S. society. Small schools can make a big difference. PAX

My Comments On Geography-themed Writing Assignments


Below, I have provided the word-for-word Announcement I posted to Canvas today to convey some thoughts to my 100-level World Geography class. I post my Announcements here, on my blog, to see if people agree with me, to and show an example of an Announcement, as I am frequently looking for good examples of communicating with students. I’m not saying my example is wonderful. I’m just offering it up to the good folks on the Interwebz.

The responses I read for the Chapter 5 Writing Assignment were overall really good. Most everyone did a fine job of not only discussing particular concerns and issues but also picked out specific countries which exemplified the issues addressed. Seeing data, specific countries mentioned, like Haiti, Cuba, and Jamaica, plus statistics related to a concern like education rates or poverty rates are really important details to see in reports. Please keep up that level of writing.

I spent Monday through Wednesday at a state-wide geospatial conference in Owensboro. I had the opportunity to listen to various speakers discuss qualities and traits of new hires, employees, and good attributes on resumes. 100% of employers said reading and writing skills are fundamental. Writing reports for supervisors, clients, or government agencies is a common practice. People need to know how to write and communicate effectively. I translate these comments into, “Do not use txt msg, slang, or other informal language when writing for academia or for any task related to employment.” When faculty harp and badger students about writing, we are really coaching you into developing good habits so you will be an exemplary person in your workplace. When you get that first great job, you’ll be faced with a number of stressful circumstances and learning how to write well should not be one of those things to worry about. So, really practice writing and communication skills.

The other qualities employers were looking for, in addition to writing skills, were HTML, Javascript, and Python programming experience (OK – not everyone may need those particular skills). Or, at least the ability to write code, and be able to break problems down into workable components, and work towards a solution. Sound familiar? If you have seen “The Martian,” the current movie starring Matt Damon as Mark Watney, and astronaut/botanist stranded on Mars, Watney uses a similar process to help him survive. The novel upon which the movie is based, contains far more problems than the movie requiring solutions. The lesson here is being able to critically think about a problem, break down the problem into manageable bits, then solve each bit using skills you possess. Then, maybe…hopefully, you will have solved the major issue.

Don’t think about where your were (academically), don’t even really think too much about where you are (academically); instead, think about where you want to be, research and plan for that eventuality.

Lastly, when you begin college, your graduation is 3-4 years away, perhaps longer. How many iPhone generations is that? How many Android phone generations is that? How many times is Facebook going to change its user agreement? Is SnapChat still going to be around? Will Tumblr replace Instagram? I have no idea, really. Whatever the answers are, the reality is you need to be skilled, knowledgeable, creative, and nimble enough to be able to adapt to circumstances 4-5 years away, when you graduate.

Oh, and one more thought. If you made it this far, these comments may not apply to you. But, feel free to read them, anyway. “Africa” is not a country. “The Caribbean” is not a country, either. Neither is “Asia.” Please, do not talk about “South America” as if this continent is a country. Pay attention to your writing. Read aloud your words if you need to. Too many students are writing as if Africa is country like Germany, or Canada. There is no president of Africa, or of the Caribbean, or of South America. These are continents and regions, and in some sense, realms.


Open Source GIS and Mapping Tools to Help You Get Started

I’ve been an ESRI ArcGIS user since the days of Arc/INFO Ver. 5.0. Having used “command line GIS” since 1991 the rise of open source GIS solutions intrigues me. Trying new products and new software and learning new terminology and getting familiar with many different data formats are valuable jobs skills for me. However, being an educator I’m obligated to expose my students to as many different new technologies, data formats, and methods for addressing projects as I’m able, given time and circumstances.

Today, I had an opportunity to witness a professor from the University of Kentucky demonstrate some open source GIS and mapping tools. Before I relay some of the details I took-away from the presentation nI want to address some criticisms applied to both off-the-shelf (OTS) software and free and open source software (FOSS). There are two camps, one camp fervent supporters of FOSS, the other camp who placidly supports OTS. Both sides offer good reasons why their respective sides should exist and are better, yet many of the arguments for and against the respective software realms can be applied to each side.

Perhaps the biggest complaint is bugginess, software bugs, glitches, and unworkable code. People on both sides of the aisle agree on one thing: the other side of the aisle has more problems than their side. Every large software company has glitchy software, Microsoft, Apple, ESRI, Oracle. No matter where one looks, software companies always release buggy and unstable software. Until computers are smart enough to write their own bug-free, we will always have software with buggy code.

Now, does OTS have a development advantage over FOSS? My opinion is, Yes, OTS software has a few development advantages over FOSS. OTS software is developed by companies who want to make a profit. Companies developing terrible software won’t last. Thus, companies are motivated by at least profit to ensure their products are more-or-less reliable and answer to their customers. OTS software rides on reputations of corporate branding, programmers, and reputations. OTS software also tends to have development teams who track code changes and follow standard coding policies and protocols. I don’t mean to say OTS is superior or immune to having issues and problems, however, OTS does tend to have a more consistent development environment over FOSS.

FOSS has the advantage of being free. Free is a pretty decent advantage over OTS software. Development can be spotty, though. Support and getting questions answered can be spotty. The Internet is a great help with sites like GitHub providing some ad hoc support to users of all types. FOSS can be just as buggy as OTS; sometimes more so. FOSS may not be user-friendly, not as much so as OTS. FOSS may be more in-step with current technology. FOSS development teams can be more nimble to changes in technology; OTS tends to lag technology advances as software releases follow the quarterly business cycle, or perhaps twice-per-year updates. FOSS can be more nimble, able to embed new functionality and technology months in advance of OTS software but sometimes support wanes, and sometimes support disappears.

Corporations and businesses don’t like to support the unknown. They want comfort, tried-and-tested software, sometimes even in spite of known performance problems. They know what they are going to get. With FOSS, what they get can be sort of unknown. With OTS, a company has a point of contact to which they can complain, seek help, or perhaps even bring someone on-site to help solve problems. FOSS tends not to offer any of those options. Some companies pick up FOSS, train employees, and provide support to others but this is different from being able to call a support line to the same company that both developed and sold the product.

An anecdote. The wife of a former student of mine is working on her Ph.D in Environment Science from a prestigious school in the South. Part of her work involves using image processing software in the analysis of the Pantanal region in Brazil, the world’s largest wetland. She was using OTS image processing software and due to the nature of her research she had to become intimately aware of algorithms used by this specialized software package. However, even though the software developer kept detailed records they were not able to come up with documentation for specific functions. Poorly documented software code forced the Ph.D student into developing her own software tools so she knew absolutely how her data was being processed.

Another anecdote. Today, the presentation covering the FOSS GIS implementation was delayed about fifteen minutes. Why? The FOSS GIS kept crashing every time the presenter attempted to read a simple database attribute table, a very mundane task.

I don’t have any easy answers or solutions. My recommendation would be to first, evaluate your project. If the project can handle being developed using FOSS, then perhaps implementing the project using FOSS is a good idea. If the project needs to comply with certain state or federal policies, or the corporation business model dictates the use of OTS, or the work environment necessitate having a back-office software support system, then OTS might be the best bet.

OK – now that my rambling is out-of-the-way, what FOSS tools for GIS and mapping can I pass along?

qgis-icon_21QGIS is a free and open source GIS package available for PC, Mac, and Linux. I’ve used QGIS a little bit. The GIS implementation is different somewhat from ArcGIS. Getting used to changes in terminology and nomenclature can be a little off-putting. I have not used many of the cartography tools. QGIS has numerous developers, integrates many new technologies, and offers many plug-ins to help expand functionality.

leaflet.jsOnce QGIS has been installed, a user may want to enhance functionality by pushing content to the Internet. Leaflet is a Javascript library built to help users push interactive geospatial content onto the Internet.

mapbox-logoMapBox is one of the fastest growing map companies proudly basing their efforts on open source tools and code. MapBox is free to learn, with some API’s exposedMapShaper.org and an environment to immediately building apps.

logos_full_cartodb_lightCartoDB provides a platform for extracting information from location data. CartoDB provides visualization and analysis tools for data located both “in the cloud” and in a local environment.

The next tool mentioned was Data-Driven Documents (D3). Like Leaflet, D3 is a Javascript library created to assist in the analysis of documents, documents containing data, numbers. The Javascript libraries can build charts and graphs while providing slick animations and “slippy” graphics to help bring data alive on a web page.

Since learning about Leaflet.js, I’m going to pass along some derivative web sites offering some of the same functionality. Dropchop.org and Turf.js are both sites deriving from mapbox.com. Dropchop is still an a project in its infancy, but good source material can be found on GitHub. Turf.js a collection of Javascript libraries ready-to-use, much like Leaflet.js.

Having a Code Editor handy can help improve writing code, make code-writing easier. Maybe not easier but at least easier to read and make code easier to manipulate. I know, right? You’re sitting there thinking, Code? Yuck… Well, the GIS world for as far as we have evolved from the days of command line has yet to abandon command line entirely, and at least for the foreseeable future writing code for mapping will persist. A few code editors were mentioned during today’s presentation. In no particular order: Sublime Text, Atom, and Bracket were all mentioned. I tend to use notepad++ for coding but I’m always open to try something new.

Finally, a couple of other GIS-related web sites mentioned were MapShaper.org and SimpleStatistics.org. MapShaper allows users to drag-and-drop an ESRI shapefile, a TOPOJSON, or GEOJSON file onto a webpage and have that spatial data rendered on a map. SimpleStatistics, like Leaflet.js, is a collection of Javascript libraries for providing a means of statistically analyzing data on a webpage.


When Students Are Ready To Listen

Tonight, I had an interesting conversation with a college drop-out. She is young so she still has a chance at a decent future for herself. This young lady will have a decent future for herself when she is ready to listen. When she is ready to stop talking and start listening she may be able to turn her academic life around and in doing so getting her life straight.

If I’ve heard her story once, I’ve heard it 200 times. She is on her second academic probation. She explained she tried to appeal each probation but the committee wasn’t “compassionate enough.” She claimed to be homeless, moving from house to house, apartment to apartment, from boyfriend to boyfriend. She was homeless due to her “crazy mom, kicking me out of the house for not signing her contract.”

“You didn’t see that coming? You just came home one day and your mom stuck this contract in your face, and told you to sign or move out? And you never saw that coming?”

“Nope. She just gave it to me and I refused to sign.”

The reality is, there were warning signs all over the place, I’m sure. Just based on our brief conversation I detected numerous issues and behaviors standing in the way of this young woman’s success. Lots of denial, lots of blaming other people, not much taking responsibility for her previous actions or behavior, and not many signs she would be changing those behaviors any time soon. I pointed the discussion in another direction.

“Before you were put on probation what degree were you pursuing?”


“Why psychology?”

“Because I really like psychology.”

“Hmm. What do you plan on doing with the degree?”

“I don’t know.”

“OK, here is what you need to do. Imagine you have graduated and have your psychology degree. Now, what are you going to do? What job are you going to apply for?

A pause. “Uhm, I don’t know. I think I see what you’re saying.”

“Look,” I said, “you’ve got to get your life straight. I’ve listened to you talk about being out of school for two years. You’ve bounced around from relationship to relationship. You don’t sound like you have plan. You’ve been out of school for two years and have no car. And, you selected an academic field notoriously hard to find a good job with only a bachelor’s degree. You’ve got so many distractions going on and no focus. You want to be successful and have a decent life, right?” I pause to sip the brown ale I ordered with dinner and let me words sink in a little. “You selected a major that’s going to result in student loan debt of $40,000. In order to get a good job with a psychology degree, you’ll need at least a Master’s Degree. There goes another $30,000. Now, you’ve got a psychology Master’s degree and $70,000 of college debt. Now, what are you going to do?”

I ate some food while she talked about not thinking things through very well. She really likes psychology yet has no idea what she would do with the degree. I continued. “I’m not trying to diminish the value of psychology; I like psychology, too. But, sit down and find yourself a job like you graduated yesterday and see what you come up with. Going into something you like is fine, but you have to face the reality there are not that many good paying jobs for people with only a bachelor’s in psychology. Major in marketing, or business, or economics, and minor in psychology.”

These stories are prevalent throughout every college and university in the United States. Maybe not the part about having a contract shoved in your face by your mother. But, seriously; how do you not see that coming, unless A. You’re completely delusional, B. You’re not being honest with a complete stranger, or C. Your mom really is nutters.

Recurrent traits I notice in college student body population – among those populations I interact with – are ones of aimlessness, of finding an academic path, and laying out an initial career trajectory. I don’t have any empirical evidence; I have not conducted any true research surveys, collected in real data. I maintain a collection of anecdotal stories based on conversations I have with students before, during, and after class. In my world geography courses I like to differentiate countries based not only on levels of educational attainment but how different countries approach education their populations, in general. In the United States, for example, we have no implementation of any type of skill, knowledge, or aptitude testing for the assignment of young people towards career fields. In contrast, countries like Germany and China, scrutinize closely aptitudes within their school aged population specifically directing them towards specific careers paths and educational programs.

In the United States high school students may receive some career counseling. The programs are optional or opt-in and may not be part of a greater district plan. Some school districts and some states are working on implementing more formal career counseling programs based on the history of success of some programs. (“Empirical Research Studies Supporting the Value of School Counseling;” American School Counselor Association) In my opinion this is a great strategy for a variety of reasons.

Students and young adults really need formal assessment of aptitudes, knowledge, and abilities in order to better formulate options of potential career choices. If we know our strength and weakness we can then find greater success in our strengths while working on shoring our weaknesses. Fundamentally, though, we need data on ourselves in order to best solve concerns related to ourselves. Having recently had blood work performed for a doctor’s visit, health professionals collect all sorts of health data to discern changes and to stave off or address impending health concerns. Yet, our United States educational system, rife with testing of academic standards, in general, doesn’t seem too much interested in helping individuals build upon strengths while fortifying weakness.

What I said could be construed as teachers not caring about students. That is patently false. I know many educators, and almost to a person they care about their students to nearly the same degree as their own children. The educational environment seems to be geared towards moving students through tests in order to please state or federal educational oversight committees. Thus to be considered a good teacher one must find ways of motivating students and customizing lessons for students in order for the student to perform better on a state or federal standardized test. Sounds like I’m talking about teaching to the test and I sort of am. But, what I am really saying is students are not being groomed to be successful college students or even success people. The false logic applied essentially states, “As a result of continuous standardized testing student will exit their K-12 educational experience as educated and successful people – because the standardized scores say so.” Guidance counselors, when present, tend to mitigate against the false logic as they assist a number of students in implementing positive personal goals.

Good guidance counseling helps better prepare students for college. Again, studies are showing students receiving guidance counseling tend to have better college graduation rates over peers from similar academic cohorts, i.e. control student groups versus experimental student groups.

One outcome of guidance counseling in high school results not only in higher graduation rates, but potentially carries over to spending less time in college by eliminating the unproductive pursuit of degree programs in hit-and-miss attempts to discover their ideal career, thereby reducing cost of college over the long-term because of the time spent engaged in career discovery activities. An additional benefit of guidance counseling is the application and awarding of suitable financial aid, again reducing the expense of a college degree.

For some reason, probably many and nefarious, improved guidance counseling is not part of the national conversation in education reform. I reason this due to the huge amount of attention given to K-12 testing and the national level discussion currently being waged by various sides and stakeholders over Common Core, and implementation of vouchers systems, coupled with the lack of attention given to career guidance programs, in general, support for creating or developing career guidance programs, and frequent coverage of budget cuts reducing or eliminating contracts of educators involved in career guidance counseling. To partly prove my point, the Department of Labor estimates about a 12% growth rate for school guidance counselors, the national average growth rate for all occupations. (Occupational Outlook Handbook; BLS; DoL) Also noted is since school guidance counselors salaries (and funding) is tied to federal and state budgets growth may be limited in geographic regions.

Studies prove working one-on-one with students improves academic achievement across the board, for all ethnic groups. Studies indicate working one-on-one with students living in moderate to extreme poverty show marked improvement in behavior and academic achievement. Even gender differences in academic achievement can be improved by guidance counseling.

Current research seems to indicate assisting students with career and guidance counseling improves academic performance, student attitudes and behaviors. One would think if schools were really interested in improving student outcomes, and by outcomes I mean student achievement, personal success, college admission, and overall positive approach to life, school districts, school systems, state school boards, and federal programs would be advocating the training and hiring additional school guidance counselors. Evidence one might see of the value of guidance counselors would be employment rates of guidance counselors higher than the national average, for example. Further evidence might be our national leaders suggesting ways to reduce teacher-to-student ratios, and developing and improving guidance counselor programs across the United States. I’m simply not seeing evidence to suggest politicians are truly interested in improving the educational environment in the United States.

Instead, what we really hear from our politicians foretells doom for public education. Scott Walker breaking the teachers union in Wisconsin is not a good sign. Republicans and some Democrats advocating for school vouchers is a second red flag. School voucher systems will simply create a Have and Have-not system among public schools, while potentially sending taxpayer money into the hands of private schools and into the hands of religious schools, which I find to be abhorrent and verging on State support of churches and religion. Will you allow my voucher to be used at St. Pius IX and then deny my neighbor use of a voucher to attend a Muslim school, a synagogue, or perhaps I will pay myself the voucher when I choose to home-school? We are also now witnessing the rise of corporate schools, as education companies like Pearson, play a greater role in providing all sort education services, which funnels millions of dollars away from schools, teachers, counselors and into the hands of disinterested, publicly traded companies (Pearson PLC, NYSE: PSO $17.55 10-1-2015) answerable to stockholders and clearly Wall Street traders pursuing wealth and little interest in the life of some middle school or high school child in Kentucky, or Indiana, or Oklahoma, or wherever.

I get worried – no really, really concerned when states appoint people to education boards who have never experienced a classroom environment in any capacity other than as a student. Kentucky, for example, appointed Kevin C. Brown as interim commissioner of education on September 1st, 2015. I need guard my words as Mr. Brown is a lawyer, holding a Juris Doctor from University of Kentucky. His previous experience is working for a law firm in Lexington, Kentucky. He also holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a minor in political science. I can’t find any hint Mr. Brown has ever taught in a K-12 classroom, holds any teaching certificate from any state, or has any teaching experience, period. Again, people in control or exerting influence over education in states are not those who have real-world experience or front-line knowledge of the daily trial and tribulations of teachers and students in our public schools.

No, the people in control or exerting influence are those litigious-minded, CYA-centered personalities who simply cannot identify with teachers. Has he had to clean human shit from a floor after a student defecated in a classroom during class time? Has he ever had to break-up a fight between girls or boys? Has he ever had to counsel a young woman who began her period in 4th block? Has he ever had to sit down with parents who are convinced their child is fine in spite of IQ scores in the mid-60s and not being able to communicate which hand is left and which had is right? Has he ever had to teach an entire class of Black students? Or a racially mixed class?

Should being a “Commissioner of Education” require a candidate have some former teaching experience? I’m not qualified to answer that question. I think the question needs consideration.

Guidance counselors play an important role, could play a better, more visible role in schools than they play today. Simple changes may reap real, full, and significant rewards on a singular human level. When you look in a child’s eyes and say, “You are important. You matter. And I am going to help you tap into your potential,” and this is done regularly, positive results will occur. Potentially life-long, difference-making changes.

Simply being available is the first step. Whether in college or high school, being open, available, and welcoming is important. Being pushy, heavy-handed, and confrontational isn’t the best approach, probably.

My best guess is helping when students are ready to listen, to soak up advice, perspectives, and ideas. The conversation described above was with a person not ready to listen in spite of being in her mid-20s. If she were to attain a higher level of emotional maturity, she could benefit from guidance counseling, if she were willing to listen. But, someone skilled, knowledgeable, and patient must be available to listen. Simply stuff.

If you made it this far, you’re awesome !! PAX.





Interstellar. A Tardy Movie Review. A film by Christopher Nolan, based upon a story by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan. Kip Thorne deserves mention as his input was necessary for black hole and wormhole science.

I grew up in the shadow of Kubrick, in the shadow of the Monolith. One of the only movies my father and I truly discussed was 2001: A Space Odyssey. I remember he clearly vetoed my mother in her attempt to hustle me to bed. My recollection also includes her voicing concern about me watching this movie: “Do you think it’s OK for him to even watch this?” I’m not sure what my dad’s response was, other than we sat side-by-side one night in February of 1977, he in his recliner, me in my bean-bag chair.

I would have been just 9 years old, and I remember not being allowed to talk during the movie, except during commercial breaks. “What do you think that monolith is? Where did it come from? Is it intelligent? Are those people beating on it, or are they some other creature? Did they know how to kill before the monolith, or did the monolith do something to them to teach them how to kill?” Those are the sum total of question I remember being asked. Have no memories of the discussion.

2001 is still, almost 50 years later, a hotly debated movie, based upon a short story by Arthur C. Clarke. Arthur C. Clarke was certainly a visionary, no doubt. As much as Interstellar is a product of Einstein, the GPS used by the tractors was foreseen by Clarke albeit infused with Einsteinian relativity. Unfortunately, I don’t think Interstellar will be as debated as 2001. I could be wrong. Fifty years into the future, people will have forgotten Interstellar. It will be that movie people refer to as, “What was that movie that people thought was the successor to 2001? It had that one guy from True Detective in it.”

While I enjoyed Interstellar, the movie was not exactly as I expected. For all the hullabaloo surrounding the science in the movie, the wormhole, the black hole, I wasn’t swept away by any of it. A few of the podcasts I subscribe to devoted hours to discussing and breaking down Interstellar.

Unlike others who reviewed the movie, I wasn’t upset by any of the science stuff, except for perhaps the actual transition through Gargantua’s event horizon. I vacillate back and forth about this but my concern isn’t so much the transiting of the event horizon but surviving the gravitational forces up to the event horizon. I didn’t see where the movie tried to reconcile gravity in many places other than to mention gravity a lot.

The planet of frozen clouds (Mann’s Planet) didn’t bother me as much as other reviewers. Nolan, or perhaps Thorne, repaired this plot problem by revealing the planet has no actual surface. All of these frozen clouds, then, provide enough mass to maintain some sort of coherent planet-thing, gravity, an atmosphere. Thing of a really dense Oort cloud, millions of floating clouds organized around some sort of core, probably. The frozen cloud planet didn’t really seem all that far-fetched.

The water planet has problems, though. If Cooper and Brand are standing ankle-deep in water, no way can a wave achieve the heights of the swells as depicted. Unless, perhaps they landed on a really narrow peninsula, a ridge of land. Again, though, the trough between wave peaks seems too large for waves of those height. I looked into this a little bit and I came to the conclusion wave height is a function of water depth at base (bottom), velocity, and probably a few other factors, maybe slope of shelf. I just don’t see waves like this happening, not without far more exposition. The rush to land on the water world seemed ill-advised without a little more survey from space, and the entire planet itself seemed a dubious candidate based solely on the time-lag; 8 minutes on Water World was about the equivalent of a year on Earth. I think Romy said one hour equals about 7-Earth years so that’s about 8 minutes. I guess if a colony didn’t plan on interacting with anyone else, or could tolerate waiting a quarter-generation for a reply. I could see where this would make binge-watching Netflix attractive.

Contact, I think, is still a far superior picture in terms of story. Interstellar is good but in my opinion, Contact did a far better job capturing the nuances of people, their anxieties about sharing the galaxy or universe, the trepidation of using unfamiliar technology, the challenges of having core beliefs challenged by discovering what something bigger than themselves really means. Interstellar never really gave me any of that; this was a story about time-traveling (which I categorically loathe) and choices, with some intriguing science-y stuff tossed in.

2001 gave audiences long, solemn shots of space; passive movements of astronauts, of Frank and Dave going about their routine astronaut duties. We get the sense of the long, boring trip of the Discovery as it drives to the interception point with the monolith orbiting Jupiter. Even prior to that seemingly interminable journey, we are treated to the basic problems of space travel to a simple space station in orbit around Earth, a flight courtesy of TWA (TransWorld Airlines) a real airline at the time, since bankrupt. 2001 provided an audience with a sense of scope, of the starkness of space travel, the dichotomy of the serenity of space existing alongside with terribly fragile human existence and our reliance upon technology, a partnership with as many dangers as potential benefits. Some of these circumstances come across in Interstellar, with the CASE and TASK robots. We don’t have any long, lingering shots of space travel, no long, lingering scenes of mundane space chores aboard a spaceship. I never really developed any sense Nolan was trying to inspire any sense of awe in us, more like: “Oh, we’ve arrived at this wormhole. Cool. OK, lets dip into it. Off we go!” I also don’t think we were especially coaxed into any sense of appreciation of Gargantua, either. “Oh, here is a giant black hole with a singularity in the middle. Gosh, we better be careful.” They applied only slightly more caution to Gargantua than I might to this pothole on the collector street by my house. “Dammit; I dropped into the pothole again!”

My overall inclination is to believe the movie-going audience simply isn’t as intelligent nor as sophisticated, nor as appreciative as previous generations of movie-goers. Look, nothing is spectacular to us any longer, not in a cinematic sense. My boss remembers being awestruck the first time the Millennium Falcon made the jump to hyperspace, the streaks of stars against the pilot’s canopy. I remember the long gratuitous scene in the original Star Trek movie as the crew takes in their new Enterprise. Even the equally gratuitous panoramic views of Vee-Ger later in the same film were sort of breath-taking. What gives audiences the sense of wonder today? Mad Max: Fury Road, with real people engaged in literal death-defying stunts pole-vaulting among vehicles at speed. No green-screens here, flesh-and-blood people driving elemental combustion machines across the Namibian desert. Our attention spans have been reduced to 90 second snippets and if anything extends beyond we dig our phones out, check SnapChat or whatever, and then bug our friend to fill us in on what happened – who has no idea, either, since their attention span isn’t any longer and she is on her phone updating her Facebook status.

I heard on NPR the other day movie trailers and movie-trailer trailers are now big business. Once, the filmmakers themselves pushed out trailers to tease people about their movie. Today, there are companies who take film snippets and compose the trailers. As much thought goes into making a trailer today as a commercial. That is not derogatory; public relation companies make huge money with good commercials. Trailers created today may cost $1 million or more to produce. My comment is more a testimony of the impetus behind making a good trailer. Trailers can make or break a film; like I have zero desire to see Superman vs. Batman strictly because the trailer is a horrible, miserable, unattractive mess When I see that trailer I am reminded of all the people drowning in the North Atlantic at the end of Titanic, and each one of them has a puppy leashed to their neck, and I think, you assholes, why did you bring all these puppies aboard an ocean-liner and then not pay attention to your route?

I liked Interstellar but I didn’t find it remarkable. I know a couple scientific papers were developed as a result of the ground-breaking special effects. Too bad more wasn’t made about the grandiosity of the wormhole or Gargantua, really. These representations of celestial objects are the closest Humankind will ever get to the real deals, barring intervention by a space-faring race, really. I’m hard on movies these days, admittedly, so take my review with a grain of salt if you need to. PAX

Eric Hanushek on the Education, Skills, and the Millennium Development Goals

EconTalk Episode with Eric Hanushek (Podcast at http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2015/07/eric_hanushek_o.html)

I don’t usually author short posts but I have some things to do tonight and I want to push this out into the aether.

Stanford University’s Hoover Institution is home to the Library of Economics and Liberty, a vast archive of economics material. Also, one has the benefit of listening to Russ Roberts interview some of the world’s best collection of thinkers. Not limited to economics, Russ interviews people from all walks of Life. Fascinating, fascinating stuff. Russ does a great job interviewing, plays the Devil’s Advocate when he sides with a guest, and challenges guests he doesn’t see eye-to-eye with. If you want to learn something about economics, geography, money, and received what could be construed as a world-class lecture on principles affecting all people, listen to the EconTalk podcast.

How important are basic skills for economic success and growth? Eric Hanushek of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the importance of basic education in math and literacy and their relationship to economic growth. Hanushek argues that excellence in educating people in basic skills leads to economic growth, especially in poorer countries where years of education may be a poor proxy for learning. He argues that the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals should emphasize outputs rather than inputs–performance on skill-based exams rather than years of education.

From EconTalk.org; accessed 8-23-2015

Listening to Russ and Eric discuss global trends in education almost forced me to stop mowing my backyard a few times just so I could soak in the knowledge. Education is near-and-dear to my heart, so is geography, and this discussion essentially hit me where I live. If time and money would allow, I would spend good portions of my waking hours intensively researching this issue. But, on the other hand, Eric has done some phenomenal work.

If you care about education, and want to become educated about global education issues, and how the U.S. measures up with other countries, you should listen. I need to rephrase; “If you want a better understanding of how global education measures work, and where the U.S. might rank, and why, then listen to this podcast.”

EconTalk also provides great reading material for those wanting to dig deeper, plus a word-for-word transcript of each podcast. The resources plus the podcast itself makes EconTalk one of the best podcasts available, period.

And, if you’re polite, Russ Roberts may even tweet you back. PAX.

My Cosmology Bookshelf

I read a considerable number of cosmology and physics books written mostly for the general public. Perhaps a better phrase is books written for “general consumption,” as I’m not sure how many people would really enjoy reading “Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy” (Kip Thorne) or “The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism” (Fritjof Capra). I would like to think I belong to relatively exclusive and esoteric club of readers who have turned cosmology into a sort of odd fetish. By the number of people on GoodReads who also share my interest, I am somewhat chagrined by size of the interest group, though I’m sure the authors are exuberant. On the other hand, society needs more people diving into the science domain to counteract what seems to be the anti-science, anti-intellectual, pro-religion rhetoric seeking to infect and damage STEM education in the United States. So, while personally I might like to think I belong to a small group with a peculiar attraction to cosmology, science has nothing to gain, and society has nothing to gain, from being peculiar.


Admittedly, I need a larger collection of books, in general, and more science books, specifically. Not included in the image above are books associated with economics, history, or geopolitics, nor any of the fiction I tend to read in-between reading non-fiction, or the books I’ve read throughout my earlier years I have evidently divested myself of, unfortunately. I thought I would present the books I have studied as a sort of resume for reading and writing about science and history, offer some suggestions for reading, and am completely open to more suggestions. Some of my books are not pictured, as they are still in my To-Read stack, like The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe by Roger Penrose, and An Introduction To Black Holes, Information And The String Theory Revolution: The Holographic Universe by Leonard Susskind.

I am a big proponent of the free iTunesU courses available through iTunes. When working on maps, projects, grading, re-purposing old computers or keeping new computers running, I will keep a podcast or iTunesU course playing in the background. Like right now, I’m listening to “Rationally Speaking #101” featuring Max Tegmark. Dr. Tegmark has a book, Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality.” Dr. Tegmark has evidently already talked himself out of at least one of the ideas he presents in his book, according to his comments during the February 9th, 2014 interview, and the book was published only in January 2014.

My Astronomy-Cosmology Bookshelf (in no particular order)

Your Cosmic Context: An Introduction to Modern Cosmology, by Todd Duncan and Craig Tyler. This is a college textbook, and a good one. If you are really interested in a subject, survey the syllabi of classes related to the topic. See what textbook is used, or look for a reading list. This is what I do. My university has few people, (one, I think), who know something about cosmology, so my resource pool is pretty shallow. Many faculty will post their syllabus online for curious people like me (and you) to find and study. Examining other syllabi is also a good way to check yourself if you happen to teach the same or similar course, by the way.

Infinity and the Mind: The Science and Philosophy of the Infinite (Princeton Science Library), by Rudy Rucker. Some theories border on the metaphysical, the religious, the sublime, or as some suggest, the ridiculous. Quantum entanglement, “spooky action at a distance,” the ability of particles to effect each other across Space, maybe even Time, is a concept few are capable of rationalizing. What came before the Big Bang? and, What is the Universe expanding into? And, are there other dimensions? These are questions which may have no hard answers. But, who is to say our understanding of our universe won’t be radically altered tomorrow, or next week, or in 50 years? Merely because we have no solid answers today doesn’t mean we won’t have solid answers at some time in the future. No one can say that, but thought-experiments are necessary to direct real research, ask real questions, and see if we can’t inch closer to a better understanding of our environment, if only by baby-steps.

The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory
The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality

The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos
, by Brian Greene. I’m hoping Brian’s next book is called, “The Elegant Fabric of Reality,” and our universe is simply one strand on the Universe’s Multiloom.

Alpha and Omega, by Charles Seife

The Metaphysical Foundation of Modern Science, by E.A. Burtt

The Tao of Physics, by Fritjof Capra

The Universe, edited by Byron Preiss and Andrew Fraknoi

Einstein, by Walter Isaacson

Einstein and Religion, by Max Jammer. The best characterization anyone can attribute to Einstein about his religious leanings would be to classify him as “agnostic.” He was always evasive about his religious leanings, and in my opinion, this had more to do with him finding those discussions leading nowhere, and intrinsically boring. I believe he felt more important topics deserved more attention, such as the nature of gravity. Did Einstein believe in God? No, I don’t believe he personally believed in a god. I don’t think he would support intelligent design, either.

Tuxedo Park, by Jennet Conant *favorite. What a great book of history this is. I watched Jennet Conant discuss her research on BookTV (C-Span) and was enthralled, bought the book based on her conversation.

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, by Richard Feynman
The Dismay of Finding Out Feynman Was a Horribly Sexist D-head, by Me. Richard has passed away, so you can safely buy his book without supporting huge sexist pig.We also don’t want to toss the baby out with the bath water, either.
Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, by Richard Feynman
QED (Quantum Electrodynamics), by Richard Feynman

The Dancing Wu Li Masters, by Gary Zukay

The Mind of God, by Paul Davies

Consilience, Edward O. Wilson

The Beginnings of Infinity, by David Deutsch *favorite [Read my review]

Knocking on Heaven’s Door, by Lisa Randall *favorite [See my review] If you buy any book in this list, by this one. The best discussion of the Large Hadron Collider of any book, plus particle physics with cosmology. A great book for the general public.

An Introduction To Black Holes, Information And The String Theory Revolution: The Holographic Universe by Leonard Susskind. I did not review this book. I bought the book specifically for the math behind black holes; I wanted to see what the math looked like. Yep, there’s math, right there on the pages. And, now I moved on. Don’t buy this book unless you positively must see what the math of black holes looks like. And this is an introductory text.

Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy by Kip Thorne *favorite; and I read this before seeing Interstellar. In fact, I still have yet to see Interstellar as of this writing. [Read my review]

Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics, by James Kakalios *favorite [Read my review]

A Universe From Nothing, by Lawrence Krauss *favorite; people don’t like Krauss as he is a stalwart atheist, and sort of oblivious to the reception of both Dawkins and his own anti-religion rhetoric. Still a good book. [Read my review]

The Inflationary Universe: The Quest for a New Theory of Cosmic Origins, Alan Guth *favorite

The Story of Earth, by Robert Hazen *favorite [Read my review] If you believe in a “young Earth,” an Earth with a biblical age and not an age grounded in science, you won’t like this book. So, you should really read this book. In the 21st century, we can’t go around clinging to fables written by unsophisticated people 2,000 years ago who were trying to explain events and circumstances by attributing them to gods and goddesses. No one is saying the messages of peace, acceptance, and respect should be tossed away, just don’t use any religious tome as a book of science.

To close out my post I pass along word I ordered Max Tegmark’s, “Our Mathematical Universe,” mere moments ago. This post has been fermenting in my WordPress draft folder for many months and I forgot to order Tegmark’s book after having read Randall’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door. Tegmark’s name gets mentioned constantly when cosmology is discussed, so it is about time I read the consumable portion of his endeavors. To this reading list I may add Stanley Salthe’s Evolving Hierarchical Systems once I slog my way through. In my review of the Hyperion Cantos I mentioned I ordered Salthe’s book, being part of the scientific foundation of Simmon’s Cantos. I have to allow my brain to rest after reading these books much like weight-lifters must allow their muscles time to recover. PAX.

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