Geomentoring Workshop for Teachers

The first exposure I had to the term, “geomentoring,” was about almost two years ago. Conferences tend to be little more than large accumulations of people who passionately disclose to conference-goers how their innovative bit of plastic and germanium is awesome and their competitors competing product is shit.

But, if one can go to sub-conference conferences, like the Education Conference of the ESRI International Conference, then one might pick up some wisdom nuggets.

The idea behind geomentoring is predicated on the notion of people who are currently educated about geospatial technologies aid and assist those who are not so educated about such technologies. Sort of like being a geo-consultant, consulting about nuances of geospatial technology, methods, and procedures.

Years ago, I was a consultant for a GIS software and hardware start-up in the agriculture sector. I worked with the software and hardware team. They knew the technology; I knew the geography. I would get questions like, “Do I need the header information for this satellite imagery?” and “What does state-plane coordinates mean?” The programmers knew programming but they didn’t know geography. At least, not the geospatial tech of geography.

As people awake to the realization of how truly geography is infused in our lives, and how embedded, literally embedded, geography is in many of our devices, more people will need guidance in understanding their place in geography, and maybe even geography in their place.

Watch this video.

OK, if you took the time to watch the video you now have a good idea about what I am taking about. Geography is swirled with technological goodness just like a good coffee cake is swirled with cinnamon, sugar, and pecans.

Unlike a good coffee cake, understanding how to make and consume the technological aspect of geography does not come naturally to people. Maybe more precisely, does not come naturally to all people; or, comes naturally to only a few people. Yeesh; people are touchy these days about generalizations.

My point is, many educated people are not savvy to the details of geospatial technology and they need guidance to work in the geospatial world. Also, kids need some guidance and tutelage regarding the importance of geography, to demonstrate to them how cool technology is (like they really need to be shown this), how their lives are affected by geography (certainly true), and how their lives can benefit from knowing more about technology and geography, especially for when the day arrives when they need gainful employment.

Enter “geomentoring.” Geomentoring is the coaching of people who are curious about the geography going on around them in the form of geospatial technology.

<insert photo>

In April 2015, myself and another faculty member held a day-long workshop for people in our university community. Our 1st “geomentoring” workshop skimmed the basics, honestly. We showed our audience of nine adults the above “Geospatial Revolution” video. Dr. Z led a discussion of the video, segueing into a discussion of satellites and sensors, how our eyes process information, of shape and of color.

From here, Dr. Z led participants through a sample exercise using ESRI’s ArcGIS Online. Using materials easily available on, the participants were coached in the use of ArcGIS Online and were provided a walk-through of using middle school science exercises specifically developed with current science standards in mind. Geoinquiries available on ESRI’s EdCommunity: GeoInquiries for Earth Science (link). ESRI, ESRI partners, and regular school teachers have already created some content to get people thinking about what they can do to encourage other people to do more thinking. The content available on the EdCommunity helps provide a model for others to develop new content.

Geomentoring1In the afternoon, I took over and handed out a dozen Trimble Juno 3B handheld GPS units. I recently learned some details about “inquiry-based learning.” In a nutshell, IBL turns learning over to the students. A teacher might be tempted to show all students how to turn on their GPS units, for example. Not with IBL. Just hand them the unit. Let them figure out how to turn it on.

Now in my case, I did show the participants what software we needed to use once they had their units turned on. But, I left launching the application up to them. In fact, I told them:

“I’ve learned a little about inquiry-based learning recently. So, I’m going to turn the tables on you. I’m not going to show you anything; you need to discover this stuff yourself. You can ask questions. Don’t be surprised if I reply saying, “I don’t know. How many satellites are visible?””

My comment had little impact on the first workshop participants. Most of these folks were educated but not in Education. When I made the above comments to our 2nd workshop participants, 12 local middle and high school teachers, some were amused, others not so much.

My point in providing little instruction was two-fold. First, I wanted the teachers on the receiving end of inquiry-based learning. As educators, sometimes we put into action plans we ourselves have not experienced. Conversely, I also wanted to see if I was doing IBL correctly. What better way to challenge my IBL implementation but against a dozen seasoned teachers?

My other goal was to communicate to them these ease of which some geospatial learning happens. I distributed a dozen GPS units to the teachers in our 2nd workshop. I gave a brief overview of my expectations. We went outside and discussed the type of geography we would capture, points, lines, or polygons. We discussed details about scale. I gave them a time limit. Then, I instructed them to return to our computer lab where I would demonstrate how to use ArcGIS Online and help them get their geography uploaded and mapped.

From start to finish, the activity took about 90 minutes, from about 1.30pm to about 3.00pm. From 3.00pm to 4.00pm Dr. Z and I answered questions, gave tips, and helped the teachers think about how this activity might be used in the classroom. In any classroom.

My experience with teaching activities is teachers must be able to reach into practical experience in order to compensate for activities which are only superficially multidisciplinary. I say, “superficially,” because the students are given a word problem from some pretty-colored workbook written by committee and describing some event or circumstance. The student is then asked to solve a math problem about this contrived event or situation. Why not put them in that situation? Or, take them outside and walk through a similar situation and then have them work through the data they collect.

I did a brief lecture in workshop #2, similar to one I give my Introduction to Cartography students. Yes, this is geography, I state, and mapping, but maps are numbers we have constructed a picture from, a picture which communicates a theme, an idea, or a story. Beginning as numbers, we can use some fundamental math skills. Our Earth can be described as numbers: “The Earth has a circumference of 40,000km. How many miles is this? How many degrees does a circle have? We know the Earth’s circumference is a circle, and our circle has a circumference of 40,000km, and a circle has 360 degrees, how many miles per degree are there at the Equator?” The Earth can then be divided into smaller and smaller components, and students in middle school and high school can begin to realize the importance of location and how we can locate stuff.

One good way to demonstrate this is to take a simple cheap child’s play ball, usually available from a drug store for about $1. Get a few of these balls, distribute with a Sharpie, and have the students figure out how to create a location system for the ball. “How do you decide where the Equator goes? How do you decide where a Prime Meridian goes? How can we create a system for uniquely locating something on this ball?”

Once the students have been engaged in figuring out how to locate unique places on their pretend planet, then take them outside with their GPS. Discuss latitude and longitude, break things down for the students. Open the discussion up to other forms of coordinate systems. Then, discuss the necessity of map projections and why moving from a 3-dimensional surface to a 2-dimensional surface can create a number of problems, like tearing, shearing, and compression.

Using ArcGIS Online for Education teachers can help students upload their GPS data into the “cloud.” Recently, ESRI and Jack Dangermond bequeathed about $1 billion dollars worth of software to state education departments. Public schools across the United States have access to a wide variety of GIS software, some easy-to-use, other bits not-so-much. But, that is OK; GIS can be consumed from a sippy up.

Without downloading any software, students can take their GPS data and upload the data into the ESRI GIS cloud. Some GPS devices will create a collection of data files with the unfortunate moniker of “shapefile.” This shapefile can be zipped and uploaded into ArcGIS Online. Once uploaded and added to AGO, the GPS path can be symbolized and draped upon some nice aerial photography or satellite imagery.

Check you local college, university, or even to find a person nearby to help deliver and advocate geospatial technology in your classrooms.


Book Review: Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman

Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman. Harper Torch Fiction Publishing. 2005. $8.

I’m not sure Neil needs his books reviewed, actually. His books are enjoyable fiction. If you like Douglas Adams, you might enjoy Anansi Boys. British humor is hilarious; their gift for understatement tickles me. Douglas Adams was the godfather of understatements and eloquently contrived mundane situations which spiral out-of-control at the speed of light. Terry Pratchett shared the same gift, using irony, sarcasm, understatement, and imagination to create his elaborate Discworld. One of my favorite authors, Piers Anthony, has two dozen Xanth novels. If you haven’t read any Xanth novels and enjoy puns, riddles, word-play, irony, and magic, you should definitely invest in reading some Xanth fiction.

Gods live among us. Sure, they do. All of the old gods, the gods of the Native Americans, of the Celts, of the Norse. They are right there in front of you in line at Walmart, filling up their gas tank at Marathon, eating a Thickburger at Hardee’s. Maybe. Depends on their whim. These old gods don’t sit in General Admission at the Cardinal’s game, or maybe they do, just to see how people live and to drink a cold beer. That old guy, sitting at the bar in the townie dive, the one who does karaoke and sings to the pretty college girls, he is a god, too.

And, gods die. One minute, they are belting out the Righteous Brothers, “Soul and Inspiration,” to a captivated audience; the next moment, he’s crashed out on the floor, dead as a Lincoln.

Gods have children, too. In this case, two sons. Charley “Fat” Nancy thinks he is an only child until his dad is buried. A few Anansi’s lady friends lets Charley in on a well-kept secret, he has a brother. Oh, and your father was a god. so, I guess two well-kept secrets. Right, Charley says. My father was a god. So, why is he dead? I thought gods were immortal. And, if I have a brother, why wasn’t he at the funeral? And, if you know so much, then how do I get in touch with him? I guess he should know our father is dead.

The ladies, friends of Anansi, are witches, I gather, or their modern equivalent. They are a little clairvoyant, and are mostly startled by their own prowess at creating visions. One of the ladies suggests to Charley he might simply ask the next spider he runs across to get word to his brother. After all, his name is, “Spider.”

Spider, the brother – and the arachnid, for the that matter – shows up and wastes no time in meddling and mischief-making. Charley quickly loses his fiance, gets furloughed from his job, and implicated in a potentially murder and embezzling scheme. To say Charley has little enthusiasm for his brother’s cavalier attitude about life is a little like saying breathing on the Moon is quite the chore if one is not suitable attired in a nice space suit.

Neil’s writing is quick and sharp, with necessary detours to enrich the storytelling. Sometimes, the story takes the reader one block over, so to speak. You know how when you are out with friends and they “want to take you by the place and show you something nifty?” Neil’s storytelling is a bit like that. We’re just going to dodge in here for a nip of bitters and some fine words, and then we’ll be back on our way, just as you please. And, then after a little side trip, we are back on the route to see the Bird Lady, or the Tiger, or the End of the World.

The quaintness of being a god, or even the offspring of a god, is not lacking for things. The wallet has necessary cash, even the vilest of people are compliant, and one could be vacationing on the beach near Miami one moment, then decide to take in the London Eye the next moment. Charley finds himself jetting back and forth across the Atlantic courtesy of both mundane airlines and his brother. “Maybe you should just close your eyes,” Spider recommends on their first trans-Atlantic journey. They don’t end up in Miami on this trip, though.

A very complex scheme involving Charley’s former fiance, his employer, a ghost, the ghost’s dead husband, the Bird Lady, the Tiger, and of course, Spider, results a trip to the Caribbean. The island of Saint Andrew, to be precise. I’m not sure this is a real place. To be clear, an island going by the name of “Saint Andres” does exist, though the geographic details provided in Anansi Boys don’t seem congruent with the geography of the island I found.

The named island is found several miles off the eastern coast of Nicaragua, part of the infamous “Mosquito Coast.” The island is tiny, a World Heritage site, without the named towns of Williamstown or Newcastle. The island’s location places it a good deal south of most of the cruise ship routes.Each time I run across fictional geography on this planet I wonder why. Some authors have no quandary regarding the use of real places, and use real toponyms even for simple crossroads with impunity. Other authors simply make shit up. They stick towns where none literally exist, fabricate Army bases, create fictional national forests, and have their characters travel roads with no analog in the real world. And then there are those authors who appear to use real geographical places yet create their own place names and supporting histories. Being a professional geography, armchair historian, and pro-am writer, I’m left befuddled by these odd geographical machinations.

Figuring out where portions of stories occur sometimes feels like being a detective about a detective novel. Anansi boys is not really a caper or detective novel, more about two brothers getting back in touch after years apart and recovering lost love. My best guess is the isles of St Kitts and Nevis, and especially Nevis, is the true locale of the story. Nevis is a tourist destination, has a town called, “Newcastle,” on the north and a town called, “Charlestown,” on the south. “Williamstown” is an easy leap to make, especially for a British author with a couple of centuries of royalty to draw names from, and whose former empire included St. Kitts and Nevis. Nevis is a hub for off-shore banking, was a port supporting the historical slave trade, and had an extensive plantation system. These details are provided to us because Charley has little to do while in flight to the island and reads some history and geography pertaining to the island from the guidebook found in his seat-back pocket, courtesy of Caribbeair airlines.

And, the island of note cannot be Barbados because the captive couple is scheduled to have a BBQ their later. Yes, there is some taking of prisoners. And, some spiders, but these are nice friendly spiders much like Lassie, who goes for help each time Timmy falls in the damn well, again.

It’s Neil Gaiman, for crying out loud. If Neil wrote “flibbertygibbet” on toilet paper people would stand in line to buy it, I’m fairly certain. Which is sad, in a sense, because how would you know if your work was falling off? How would you know how to measure your own quality if your ascendance to god-like author status is complete and your works immediately rise to “New York Times Bestseller” status within moments of being made available?

But, it’s not like Neil hasn’t had to work for his recognition. He is well-known for his Sandman comics, for his Doctor Who contributions, his collaboration with Terry Pratchett, and his books for children. He delivers quality, thoughtful and creative prose. American Gods was a good novel, as is Anansi Boys.

You should read them if you haven’t. PAX.


First Blush Review: Microsoft Surface Pro 3

I had a few end-of-years dollars to spend. After taking care of everyone else, I opted to spend my allowance on a Microsoft Surface Pro 3. For the last 4 years or so I have been using a 2007 13.7-inch Macbook for all of my remote work. I bought the Macbook used for $300, almost a literal steal, really. I double the RAM, updated to the last version of MacOX the laptop will ever support, and bought a copy of Microsoft Office for Mac. The little Macbook has really performed flawlessly and is a true testament to the prowess, craftsmanship, and attention to detail which has made Apple famous. TunnelBlick and Microsoft Remote Desktop for Mac truly extended the power of my Macbook and allowed me to work from all over town and all over the country over the last few years. If Apple could have found some way to support my Macbook within the MacOS ecosystem, I may not have purchased the Surface Pro 3.

Being a technology adviser, support, and resource staff person for my university I don’t like to spend money for my own use. I concentrate on making sure the computer labs are functional, software is functional, look for technology to improve the communication of content, and look for technology to assist faculty in communicating their content, and advise on technology associated with their research interests. Thus, I tend to use hand-me-downs because I can coax hand-me-downs into working. Like my 2007 Macbook; I bought using my own money, upgraded with my own money, but use predominantly for my online teaching, research, and server administration. I’m only providing this background simply to demonstrate how I roll, not for any accolades, etc.

I have many interests associated with teaching, research, and content delivery. I have a YouTube Channel, Constant Geography, I maintain, albeit not very well, for supporting my online courses, and for the promotion of education, in general. This summer, one goal of mine is to update many of my videos. I bought a new digital camcorder, a chromakey greenscreen, and this Surface Pro 3 to help with video editing. I’m going to borrow some lighting from another department and create a small studio in a work area to produce what I hope are some nice videos to augment my online world geography courses.

I also have two, or maybe three departmental web sites to update and manage, plus the associated Facebook and Twitter accounts I use to promote good content; @MurrayStateMARC and @MurrayStateGSC for those of you interested. My personal experience is my unique content seems to help some students, though not as many as I would hope. I have linked the Twitter accounts to Facebook so the updates I push out also go out to the appropriate Facebook page. I don’t like Facebook; I don’t want to see the content of our department Facebook followers, or any of the secondary or tertiary content. Thus, I simply just post to Twitter and check Facebook on occasion to ensure content is posting correctly.

I dabbled in graphic arts and design frequently. I design t-shirts, posters, flyers, brochures, coffee cups, and handbooks for departments needing some in-house design work.

And then there are the activities truly associated with my job description, managing geospatial resources and software licenses necessary to support the teaching of GIS and remote sensing at my university. We are subscribers to the ESRI/Commonwealth of Kentucky higher education license agreement. I am the local contract administrator for the commonwealth license agreement and am responsible for software distribution, training, license management, virtual campus course enrollment, and acting as a general consultant for campus faculty and staff for GIS and remote sensing applications.

I have a fun job, actually.

Friday, May 22, 2015 my Surface Pro 3 arrived much to my delight. I’m pretty sure no one heard my squeals of joy because I snuck into the office while everyone was away at lunch. But, I couldn’t unpack and check out right away. One of my supervisors was awaiting a RAM upgrade to his Dell Precision Workstation. My department chair needed for me to backup his Dell XPS desktop in preparation for an OS upgrade from Vista to Windows 7. Yes, I know Windows 8.1 is available; currently the only recommended OS for my university is Windows 7. I’ve been told to skip Windows 8.1. With these chores on the docket and had to wait until I got home Friday night to check out this new “lablet” (laptop + tablet). Maybe “tabtop.” I also I had a podcast to do, dogs to exercise and feed, and my ChromeCast to fire-up to watch a new stand-up special by Jen Kirkman.

surface 3 pro

My Surface Pro 3 setup, Surface Pro, Surface Type cover, Surface pen. Bongo Java Coffee (not included.)

Here is what I ordered:

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 w/4th Gen Intel i7-4650U 1.7Ghz
with Intel HD Graphics 5000
with 8GB RAM and a 256GB SSD
with Windows 8.1 Pro and a two-button stylus
with microSD and USB 3.0 and a mini-display port
with a Surface Pen
with a Blue Surface Type cover

Due to the influence of Apple, from the Macbook to the iPhone and iPad, evaluating new tablet technology seems to always be framed by comparing to Apple. The only real comparison I can make here is in product design, really. No Apple tablet product exists which matches the capability of the Surface 3 Pro. The nearest comparison I think I can make is one to the 11″ or 13″ Apple Macbook Air.

Now, I might have bought a Macbook Air if not for one impossible obstacle to overcome. One of the larger bits of my workload is mapping and cartography. For my mapping and cartography and teaching I use a software application from ESRI, “ArcGIS for Desktop.” ArcGIS for Desktop, or simply “ArcGIS,” is only available for Windows. ESRI does not offer a version for MacOS. So, there it is. Otherwise, I might have requested a laptop upgrade to a Macbook Air. The price point is about the same for both the Surface and the Air. And most of the other software apps I use for graphics, and Microsoft Office, have MacOS options.

“The Surface and the Air.” Sounds like a Mieville or Gaiman novel.

This is a “first blush” evaluation. This blog post is actually the first real substantive activity I’ve accomplished on my Surface. As I use the Surface more I’ll add more posts as I learn about the Surface’s strengths and weaknesses.

I don’t mean to give up on the Microsoft vs Apple comparison. Steve Jobs not only left an indelible imprint upon the entire technology industry but also on ancillary design and production industries. At the risk of being too pedantic I’m going to criticize the packaging. The Surface arrived in a white cardboard box taped to a grey cardboard sleeve which covered about 90% of the box. I’m guessing the pale box bit poking out one end is to assist the ecstatic new Surface owner in removing the Surface from the sleeve. Could have been a simple boxtop, like an old Milton Bradley board game, but no.

Instruction manuals were replaced by “Quick Start” guides, and those were replaced by “Quick Start” posters, and those have been replaced by “Quick Start” hieroglyphics. I feel like the state of writing in our human society is now coming back around full-circle; glyphs and pictures to simple glyphs representing sounds, glyphs combined to form words and so on to the point we have instruction manuals. And now we have replaced manuals with unremarkable and somewhat esoterically mind-boggling drawings meant to be illustrative of some process, like inserting batteries. I feel at times like I’m being given an IQ test and being asked to complete the sequence when I have to interpret one on these instructional hieroglyphic pamphlets. The reason I bring this up is the Surface Pen, the stylus, requires not one, not two, but three batteries. One battery, an AAAA (this is not a typo; a quadruple A battery is required and provided) must be installed into the barrel by the user. When the barrel is separated to install the AAAA battery the smaller portion contains two tiny hearing-aid batteries. These, too, are user-serviceable if one has a Kebler Elf-sized Philips-type screwdriver.

The Surface Pen is attached using the Surface Loop. Fancy name for a $5 piece of polyester adhered to the Surface Type due to deliberate absence of any integrated socket to jab the Pen into for convenient storage. Deliberate as designers obviously made conscious effort not to create a hidey-hole for the pen in order to appease the National Polyester Council and related Polyester Lobby. That is only my hypothesis. A $0.01 piece of polyester with a modest amount of glue to adhere to the Surface Type didn’t seem to hold my Pen for longer than a couple minutes before falling off the first time. I reattached the Loop and inserted the Pen. The Loop is very resistant to doing its job but once coerced into changing its mind, the Loop doesn’t cooperate well in relinquishing its grasp of the Pen. This Loop notion seems like massively well-contrived plan to instill a sense of irritation in the Pen user and ensure the Loop being ripped off during some random tantrum event.

Again, these are just first blush impressions.

These are minor annoyances, though, like having to readjust your car seat after it having been at the mechanic for a day or so and mechanic not remembering to reset the seat to the proper position, or not caring to rest the seat. A minor annoyance creating a grumbling at the base of the brain, quickly replaced by the irritation of having to reset the mirrors, then replaced by major ass pains when Human Resources and Accounting appear to have conspired to develop some weird Brownian-inspired bureaucracy to manage paperwork.

The Surface 3 Pro is startlingly fast. The Surface boots up almost instantaneously. Have your coffee ready; there won’t be much time between hitting the power button and the login screen to dodge out for tea or a quick vape/smoke. The keyboard is necessary, really, if productivity is desired. I have yet to use the tablet keyboard. Like I tell my students, “Use the real estate on your monitor. Maximize your windows.” The keyboard provides total access to the complete real estate on the 12″ Surface screen. The resolution is outstanding; 2160 x 1440 creates a brilliant, easy-on-the-eyes display. The Pen creates chillingly cool lines, almost as if I’m drawing with a true graphite pencil. The fast start-up coupled with the nice Pen and the wonderful display reduce the annoyances to vague memories.

The Surface Type is available is several eye-catching colors, like this Plum version.

The Surface Type is a nice keyboard. I like the backlit keys. The keys are square, nicely-spaced, and big enough to accurately strike. The keys depress slightly providing good feedback. For smaller hands the keyboard might be seen as a benefit. I don’t like big keys that require effort to depress. I spend time every day at a keyboard. I don’t like having to work a keyboard with keys requiring effort to press them. I probably have some arthritis developing in a few knuckles; the pinkie finger on my right hand has knuckling swelling and pain. Both hands have general tightness when I have to use a standard Dell keyboard. The Surface Type cover seems like a nice option for typing even above and beyond the keyboard for my old Macbook. The Macbook keyboard was superior, in my opinion, to any standard keyboard and even some of the other keyboards I’ve bought to compensate for hand discomfort.

The Pen is interesting. I haven’t done much but scribble but the lines are nice and tight. I have a Wacom Intuos Manga tablet and pen I have really enjoyed. The Surface Pen is substantial, not a light, hollow-feeling pen. Of course, the Pen holds 3 batteries. The pen I use with my Wacom tablet is un-powered and essentially a nib-only pen for use with the tablet. I have another stylus I use with my iPad, a simple rubber-tipped metal tube, in essence. I researched Wacom for a nice drawing stylus to use with the Surface Pro 3. They technically offered no alternative stylus specifically for the Surface Pro 3 but did offer a few Bamboo stylus options for the Surface Pro 1 or Pro 2. I bought a Bamboo stylus based on “Feel” technology with good intentions of drafting some decent images. Going to have to send it back. Microsoft and Wacom perhaps had some form of gentlemen’s agreement for sharing or using stylus technology. Apparently, the agreement ended with the Surface Pro 3 and the Bamboo Stylus I bought works with the Pro 1 and Pro 2 but not the Pro 3. I did what I thought was thorough research and made a decision to consider the new technology might be compatible with tech with older Surface options. Nope. The Surface Pro 3 tech won’t be compatible with Wacom Feel tech. Microsoft has forged a new path with a new Pen.

The Surface Pro 3 weights less than 3lbs. A light-weight tablet with an optional keyboard is a nice option for a person requiring a means to remain productive on the road, or on a plane, or on a boat, or in a coffee shop. One thing to keep in mind for reviewing technology is how the technology might apply to people with certain traits. The nice, convenient and easy-to-use keyboard, bright screen, and light weight might be some Surface Pro 3 characteristics to consider if a potential user has arthritis or other health concerns associated with repetitive motion, joint or weight-bearing maladies. I have a good friend with rheumatoid arthritis. The Surface Pro 3 would be a viable option for someone with RA and who needed a serviceable laptop able to run any necessary application without having to lug around a heavy-duty laptop. Of course, the Macbook Air would also qualify as a candidate, but with one important caveat. Make sure important software is available for MacOS. As I mentioned earlier, my mapping software is available only for Windows. No MacOS alternative.

I work in the geospatial field. ESRI software is nice software and an important provider of educational geospatial software products. Their flagship GIS product runs only on Windows. One of the obstacles my students face is buying a Macbook for school only to discover they can’t run the GIS or remote sensing software my university supports. Why don’t we just pick another GIS software product? Well, we could; about 30 alternatives exist. Some are available on MacOS and others not so much. ESRI happens to be the industry leader in GIS software, with maybe 40-50% of the geospatial software market share. Many 3rd party providers build apps based on ESRI’s APIs and SDKs. Makes the available market share a little larger. Furthermore, the remaining 50% or so of the market share is split among the various other 29 providers of GIS software slicing the other half of the pie into many tiny slivers.

When buying new technology think about your needs, the available software, and your primary uses. Also, think about the health of the user, your health if you are the new user, as the technology could mean a substantial improvement over previous laptops.


Don’t do this.

05-24-2015: The Pen fell off, again. I didn’t even realize the $30 pen fell off. I found it laying on my kitchen counter after I returned from my morning coffee, a coffee I drank while using the Surface. What a dumb option for such an expensive accessory. A used Pen runs about $30; a new Pen from the Microsoft Store is $50. “Here’s a penny’s worth of fabric with a dollop of glue to keep track of your $50 electronic pen.” What nonsense.

05-25-2015: After the Pen fell off yet again, I decided to NOT use the images I found on the Internet for advice on attaching the Pen Loop to the Surface. If you google “Surface Pro 3 Pen Loop” a number of images – in fact, a preponderance of images – will demonstrate the Loop clearly adhered to the Surface Type, the keyboard accessory to the Surface Pro 3. This choice of surface for attaching the Surface’s Pen is a poor choice. What I blame is the fabric-like quality of the Surface Type coating which diminishes the adherence of the Loop to the point of the Loop being pointless. So, don’t be like me and use mindless propaganda images for advice on attaching the $50 pen to the Surface. You’ll lose your $50 pen and then need a new Loop ($5-$7). Attach the Loop to the back of the Surface, to the left or right of the front-facing camera. This position places the Pen at the top of the Surface and probably away from most things bumping and knocking.

Professors Have A Point

Here is the original essay by Mark Bauerlein published Sunday, May 9th, “What’s the Point of a Professor?” I encourage all to read first, then reread, if necessary.

Subtitle: Education is a Shared Responsibility

Perhaps Mark was working against a word-count limit, explaining the gaping holes in some of the comments made. I’d like to let him off the hook a little if essay real estate was a premium. Otherwise, I need to address some of his notions.

I’m not convinced students aren’t interested in us as thinker and mentors. This has not been my experience.

But while they’re content with teachers, students aren’t much interested in them as thinkers and mentors. They enroll in courses and complete assignments, but further engagement is minimal.

My experience has been students desire being exposed to real problems, seeing how those problems were resolved, and then being given similar issues and then being challenged to resolve. Of course, in full disclosure, my department is small, we have about 50 majors or so. I have a fair amount of contact time.

I spend time each week in our university library. I sit in the library coffee shop or at one of the study tables and work and eavesdrop. Mark is correct, technically, but so am I. His comment allows for the vagaries of student behavior. Sitting in the library I hear the gamut, from “Professor X is too demanding,” to “Professor Y really makes you think about stuff,” to “Professor Z doesn’t seem to give a damn.”

One measure of interest in what professors believe, what wisdom they possess apart from the content of the course, is interaction outside of class.

This is sort of no-brainer. Given a 50-minute class, we have only so much time to cover material. I am not a fan of Professor TimeWaster who spends 30 minutes talking about how they interact with their cat when they should be discussing the finer points of the Mongol Invasions or somesuch. Given 50 minutes of class versus interaction outside the classroom, one can nearly safely assume the quality of content may increase. The bigger problem here is, who has the time to devote to more class time outside of normal class time for all those students interested in having more class time? Even if the professor was willing to engage in additional lectures beyond those required a number of questions arise. Do students have time to attend? Do these extra lectures count towards formal instruction and are quizzed and examined as such? If these extra lectures are captured on media for the non-attending student, is the content imparted still a component of the overall course? Does the student have time to watch additional content? If Professor Blue provides X number of hours of extra lectures, and Professor Green provides X number of hours of extra lectures, and Professor Yellow provides X number of hours of extra lectures then precisely how many hours of classes has the student enrolled in? I am guessing these extra lectures will not be included in the course catalog yet built into the syllabus, cloaking the actual number of contact hours from administrators and from students. The effect could have serious repercussions upon a student’s ability to effectively study for a semester’s worth of courses.

See, this extra contact was all well-and-good in the days when class sizes were relatively small, and people could earn real living wages sans college degree, and before the days of social media, of teachers with Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and, of course, email. Faculty often entertained students in their homes, or in campus common areas. Some still do, but the atmosphere for these interactions has changed considerably.

Faculty have to be cautious about having students in their homes for legal and liability concerns. If alcohol is consumed and a student is involved in an accident on the way home, that is a problem. If alcohol is consumed in the presence of minors, that could be a problem. Fraternization between faculty and students, while it happens, makes for some real headaches for chairs, deans, and university lawyers. There are solutions. Use a coffee shop. Use a conference room at the library. Sit outside on the steps of a building. Small upper-level classes are good for this; large lower-level classes not so much.

Richard Feyman’s books include many accounts of his interacting with students outside of class. Go back even further in time, and read the biographies of any one in physics, Einstein, Bohr, pretty much anyone. They essentially sat in their professor’s homes for their courses. How cool would that be? Sitting in Einstein’s house, or Bohr’s house, getting a lecture on physics? Times have changed in many ways and outside of working on Ph.D, I’m not sure many faculty have the time to sit around chatting.

For a majority of undergraduates, beyond the two and a half hours per week in class, contact ranges from negligible to nonexistent. In their first year, 33 percent of students report that they never talk with professors outside of class, while 42 percent do so only sometimes. Seniors lower that disengagement rate only a bit, with 25 percent never talking to professors, and 40 percent sometimes.

I have a gripe about this comment, but I have to couple it with a comment Mark makes later:

You can’t become a moral authority if you rarely challenge students in class and engage them beyond it. If we professors do not do that, the course is not an induction of eager minds into an enlarging vision. It is a requirement to fulfill. Only our assistance with assignments matters. When it comes to students, we shall have only one authority: the grades we give. We become not a fearsome mind or a moral light, a role model or inspiration. We become accreditors.

First, of all, let’s dispel the notion of being a “moral authority.” I’m not sure I understand what he means by this. I know what a “moral authority” amounts to, I’m just not sure I lecture this way. And, if a professor is telling people what to think instead of coaching them on ways of thinking, the professor may have an issue. In my world geography classes, we definitely touch upon some topics which I feel strongly about, which I feel little moral ambiguity exists, like human trafficking and child slave labor, and putting weapons in the hands of children. However, there are other topics, like children working versus education, cash crops versus food crops, which don’t weigh the same in my mind.

Now, before you get bent out of shape about my “children working” comment let me clarify. I am opposed to sweatshops. However, as a young boy, I worked on my grandfather’s farm each summer. I know many people who worked on farms and did chores as children. I don’t see a problem with this; I developed a decent work ethic from learning, helping, and being responsible. There are some people who see even these activities as bad.

I don’t perceive myself as a moral authority, more of a epistemic authority. I like to enjoin my students with some reading material, give them time to contemplate, and then discuss. At times I play Devil’s Advocate, as some real world situations are alien to U.S. residents. Thus, I would rather leave the moral implications for the students to explore.

These two comments when taken together really bother me. I interpret these two comments to essentially abrogate the student from any responsibility to participant in their own learning experience. That students do not come to my office is not my responsibility. That 100% of the responsibility of engaging students rests upon professors ignores at least 50% of the educational ecosystem from consideration. I recently resigned from a local community college for thinking similar to this. My former employer implemented an employment policy making me responsible for my students submitting their course evaluations. Notices come in this form:

“Dear Mr. Busby, you are receiving this notification as your class has registered less than a 50% submission rate for course evaluations. As you know, two consecutive semesters of submission rates below 50% result in your contract not being renewed. Please encourage your students to submit course evaluations if you would like to continue employment with us.”

First and foremost, college students are people, and not just any people, but adults seeking a higher education, not simply chasing a vocation, but desirous of having their minds flexed and stretched. My opening classes typically begin with me stating something like this:

“Yes, you are students, but you are also people, most of you are humans, near as I can smell, and are ADULTS. Do I have any high school students present? Sometimes, they sneak in. When you enter into this classroom you are still ADULTS and when you leave, you will hopefully still remain an ADULT. You are not a child. I don’t especially care what mommy or daddy says. As an ADULT, you have responsibilities, like reading my syllabus, reading my course announcements, and showing up. This is my JOB; your education should be your JOB. Put into practice good habits today so you will have them ready when you graduate.”

Bauerlein’s premise seems to undermine my philosophy about education being a shared responsibility. Students show up not expecting to learn but prepared to learn. That means doing the homework, reading the material, watching videos, and asking questions. I bring content, students bring their minds, and content, when applicable.

Education is shared responsibility. Why do I have to explain this?!

Bauerlein’s premise not only undermined my philosophy of education being a shared responsibility but now, due to his New York Time venue, he has fed all of the PolitiTrolls who seek to demonize professors and the academic side of Higher Education. He has stood up essentially within the auditorium of educators and stated, “Yes, it’s my fault and my peers fault you students have no interest in learning,” I call bullshit on that.

Yes, students are distracted. Their fault, not mine. They are adults; they make the choice to be distracted. They make the choice to involved themselves in silly transitory issues, boyfriends, girlfriends, fraternity and sorority rushes and social events, and every other non-academic event under the sun. I do caution them. I do tell them about distractions. I advise them to focus on academics, “work to your own advantage, be selfish with your time. Few people care about your success as much as you,” and minimize the negative influences in their lives. Not my problem, not my responsibility, and I hold them accountable when I need to.

Furthermore, several politicians have voiced opposition to professors and essentially academics, in generally, recently. Governor Scott Walker (WI-R) has been the poster child for attacking academia. To those ranks I can add Gov. Bobby Jindal (LA-R) and Illinois State senator Bill Brady (R-Bloomington). Senator Brady even has a plan to privatize higher education in Illinois. Media chronically reports politicization of research. (HuffPost, 4/29/13) Notice a trend? You should. And, you should be worried about privatization of knowledge, too. But, I’ll leave “Privatization of Knowledge” for another post. Lucky you :-)

Geography is an excellent and fun and invigorating discipline. To be a decent geographer one must be open and receptive to new ideas, ideas from other fields and disciplines. People often ask me how I know about some topic. “You’re a geographer; how do you know about snakes?” Because snakes have a habitat, the habitat is based on soil, climate, proximity to water, energy sources like mice, and all of those have a place. Place is geography. Boom. And, snakes are cool. Geography helps keep my eyes open, to provide a unique perspective, a breadth of perspectives. I personally borrow from my peers, and my peers include nearly anyone I think has a good idea. That peer might be a student, a fellow faculty member, my mom – in other words, another Human.

Education is a shared responsibility.


The Case for Homework

Kevin Gannon (Grand View University; Twitter:@TheTattoedProf) wrote an excellent rebuttal to an essay published in the New York Time recently. Mark Bauerlein, himself also a professor (Emory University), penned some thoughts about teaching in “What’s the Point of a Professor?” Dr. Gannon took exception to many of the notions expressed by Dr. Bauerlein, and rightly so, in my opinion. With all due respect to Mark, his comments exhibit far less depth and complexity than I would expect from someone in academia.

However, I also have come to understand something else, having been in academia myself since 1993. Many faculty have lost contact with their academic spirit guides, and have succumbed to the same professional and vocational desires of their students, i.e. “I need this degree so I can get a job at a university.” They then go about aping the behaviors of their predecessors without fully appreciating and valuing the depth and scope of what entails being a life-long learner.

We’ve all witnessed this scene. A head coach, or assistant coach, gets in the face of a little guy or gal, and screams bloody-murder at them for what seems like an eternity to the kid. A couple of episodes of this and the kid is done with sports. Maybe; sometime persistent parents will cajole the kid into playing another season, “because you’ll have a different coach, and it’ll be better. I promise.” Again, maybe.

I contend teaching-lecturing is equivalent to coaching. I can’t really think of any way my allegory breaks down. Some educators might rebel at this; I assure you this is a high compliment. Some educators might agree and state “coaching is a form of teaching.” I submit the converse, “teaching is a form of coaching.”

Teaching is a form of coaching, and homework is the “practice.” But, homework is more than simply practice.

Homework as Practice

Every successful athlete practices. Every day. Hours every day. Over and over again. Catch the ball. Throw the ball. Catch the ball. Throw the ball. Free throw made. Free throw made. Free throw missed. Free throw made. Hit the ball. Hit the ball. Swish. Hit the ball. Hit the ball. The athlete may mix it up, add some variety. Catch the bouncing ball. Side-step, head-fake, shoot.

Why is it athletes practice all the time, understand why they practice all the time, and parents and kids complain about doing homework? It is the same thing, really.

The reality is, athletes don’t practice all the time. An exaggeration on my part, I agree. Athletes don’t do much in the 0ff-season. They sit around, play video games, mess around, get fat and lazy. When the next season arrives they show up at training camp overweight and slow. On the other hand, the new draft picks, fresh from graduation, have their mettle to prove. Guess who is going to lose their starting position? Guess who is going to lose pay because their contract obligated them to be at a target weight, and they missed?

Athletes have a season, and an off-season. Students have a school year, and a summer break. Decades ago, if a student missed their target grade the student was held back. Today’s 21st century students get passed along, awarded “social promotion,” because not shattering their fragile is too important. Little Noah gets promoted passing his reading-level problem along to the next teacher. And, he passes Noah’s reading problem along to the next grade’s teacher. And she passes Noah’s reading problem along to the next grade, or school. Pretty soon, Noah is in the 8th Grade and reads at a 2nd grade level. Brilliant. Let’s wait until they become a college freshman when they realize they read at a 6th grade level and shatter their ego at age 18, rather than rectify their ability at age 10.

I’m not making this up. Teachers may have 50 minutes each per day with Noah. Parents will have more time, hopefully, in the evening and weekend. Don’t have to time to help your child read? Guess what? You had the child. Now, you have the primary responsibility of raising that child. Not the teacher. Yet, too many parents these days point the blame at educators and not at themselves.

Parents, you are academic coaches as much as any professional educator. Step up to the plate and help your child practice.

Homework Builds Skills

Granted, some teachers simply give out homework as busy work. I understand this. Homework is an inanimate object and is not responsible for its own administration, though. The teacher is responsible. Teachers need to assign homework for practice, to build skills, not because they are too lazy to teach.

Ask Wynton Marsalis how often he practices – does his homework. Ask Keb Mo how often he practices – does his homework. Keb Mo is a brilliant blues guitarist, by the way. Ask Lisa Randall how often she practices particle physics and cosmology. Her book, Knocking On Heaven’s Door, is a great read for anyone and does a fantastic job detailing why CERN is critical to humanity understanding humans.

Homework builds skills. How many math problems does it take to learn how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide? The answer: as many as it takes, plus more. Many schools don’t require students to memorize multiplication tables. Thanks for dumbing down our kids, administrators.

Practice builds skills for students to be able to function in a technological society. We cannot let technology stand in for basic knowledge. I teach cartography. I have my students convert, by hand, on paper, degrees-minutes-seconds into decimal-degrees-decimal-minutes (38º7’30” = 38.125°). Some cheat and use their TI-87 calculators used for their math courses. When they cheat more often than not their answers are wrong. How can this be? They used a calculator, for cryin’ out loud! Their answers are wrong because the students haven’t learned the difference between gradians, radians, and degrees. Their TI-87 calculators are set to “radians” and when they perform their cheating they obtain the wrong answer and write it down, trusting their calculator.


Our society cannot support having technology insidiously infection humanity with complacency. Look, I’m a huge proponent of technology – I’m an IT guy working in geographic information systems and remote sensing, but people cannot abrogate their responsibility for thinking, for reason, for rational thought to technology. We constantly have to question our results and we need the mental skills to be able to question results, not blame our computer program or smartphone app or calculator. To be able to handle our analysis we must be able have the mental aptitude to question, and to do that we must practice. When we figure out gratuities at Applebee’s, or discounts at JCPenney’s, or work out how much car or house we can afford, we need to be able to work some math in our head to protect ourselves from simple clerical errors, or people trying to work a pyramid scheme against us and take our retirement fund.

We have to strengthen our mind, and we strengthen our minds by practicing. Sudoku, crossword puzzles, learning a new language, learning a new skill. And all of those activities require practice to become learn the skill, to improve the skill, and become more proficient at the skill.

Homework Hones Skills

Granted, some teachers do not understand the value of homework. Some homework is intentionally redundant. Being able to add, subtract, multiply, divide should be like riding a bike. I know what this is like, too. In elementary school, I could do everything except subtract. I couldn’t subtract. I couldn’t subtract 400 – 200, 40 – 20, 4 – 2 to save my dog’s life. My teachers would send letters home to my parents. My mom is a school teacher. Other than 15 years she spent working for a government agency, she has taught her entire life. Even with her other employment she was responsible for training. She taught preschool, junior high, high school, and special education. She didn’t take me not being able to subtract lightly. I subtracted all the time. I subtracted nights, mornings, and weekends. I subtracted before school; I subtracted after school. Do I look back on these days as being horrible? Nope; I realize my mom cared about me being able to overcome subtraction and learning how to find a way to overcome subtraction.

Learning how to overcome. That was the real goal. Find success. Persevere. Don’t let it beat you.

Later in academic career, I did pretty well in high school math, was in honors math. In college, I did fine in college algebra, trigonometry, and Calculus I. Now, Calculus II, III, and Differential Equations gave me fits but I got through them. And I really enjoyed my three statistics courses.

Homework is as much about refining skills once they are developed. Teachers need to use practical examples, practical homework, demonstrate how the math will help you, how the math will prevent you from being taken advantage off, how to save money, how to best spend money, how to manage a business or career.

Homework is also about building cognitive pathways, to maintain knowledge. Here is a good essay on practice: “Practice Makes Perfect—but Only If You Practice Beyond the Point of Perfection.”

“What’s necessary is sustained practice. By sustained practice I mean regular, ongoing review or use of the target material – [See more at:]

Homework for the sake of homework is not a good idea. Homework should help students maintain fundamental understanding of basic principles. Homework should also adapt, should introduce gradually complex material, and build upon previous skills. Homework then reinforces neural pathways.

Homework should also hit students from different angles. Watch a video. Listen to a podcast, read an article. Students should have some sort of activity to reinforce concepts. Then, the homework should be tooled to address another discipline. For instance, if math homework, draw an assignment from biology. Then, draw one of economics; then, physics. Draw from other disciplines. Drawing from other disciplines keeps topics interesting and fluid for teachers, and demonstrates to students applicability of the subject matter.

Homework as Student Self-Assessment

Homework is necessary for students to assess themselves. Assessment should really be about confidence-building. Today, politicians are enthralled with turning assessment into a numbers game and money racket. Thanks for destroying the intent of learning, politicians. Assessment should really be about helping gauge a student’s skill and ability, assessing strengths and weaknesses, and helping students strengthen their weak areas and challenge their strengths.

Students need to know how well they are doing. They need a baseline of where they have been, what they are doing now, and where they need to be. Students like to know they are making progress. Progress builds confidence, fortifies self-esteem. Assessments as they are done today do not care about the individual student so much as they are used to penalize teachers, penalize schools, and penalize school districts. This creates a horrific punishment and award system, leading teachers and administrators to “game the system.” We’ve seen this already with the Atlanta trials of teachers, principles, and administrators fixing grades in order to protect their jobs.

Policy-makers have to be careful about the incentives they believe they are creating. Incentives can have really crazy downstream effects. A reason why people need to study economics, or at least read all of the Freakonomics books.

Assessments should be used for students to gauge their own progress, for parents to gauge the progress of the child, for teachers to gauge the progress of their students and their class.

Assessments are necessary to ensure topics are being taught, and the topics themselves are being effectively being absorbed by students. Too many standardized tests are being given, though. According to a recent NPR story a student takes an average of 113 standardized tests over the course of their K-12 academic career.

Homework is for Parent Assessment

Parents should be the teacher’s ally. Too often today, parents see themselves as the teacher’s adversary, the school’s adversary, and the district’s opponent. Parents should help their child by encouraging their child to seek help, seek tutoring, by sitting down with them and engaging with them on their homework. Growing up, working on subtraction and word problems, my mom would clean the after-dinner dishes and I would sit at our tiny kitchen table – a table I fondly use today as my own kitchen table – and do subtraction homework.  She would offer help when needed, and check my work. Generally, parents today don’t really understand how to parent, what parenting encompasses. Parenting is not about being your kid’s friend. No. Parenting is about raising a responsible, respectful, educated adult. Parenting is about making hard decisions, being fair yet firm, about being in charge of your child’s learning and exposing them to a variety of experiences. But, the last thing on that list is being your kid’s friend. Bad idea.

Parents need to incorporate teacher feedback appropriately. Teachers are not attacking your offspring. Teachers are advocating on behalf of your son or daughter for you to work as an ally to help your child improve and develop. A friend of mine, “Barbara,” was stopped in her school hallway recently by the irate mother and father of one of her students. Let’s set aside the huge mistake the school administrators made by allowing the parents entry into to the school proper and focus on the primary concern. The parents stopped Barbara between classes, in the school hallway, got in her face, and challenged her as to why their son was failing her class. Barbara is not one to take this confrontation lightly and she has extensive experience from coaching, no less, on dealing with irate parents. She explained to them, there in the hallway with no other supervision except for the hallway cameras, their son was not only not doing his in-class assignments but was also not turning in his homework. “So, he gets a lot of zeroes.”

“My son doesn’t have any homework, MISS BARBARA! He does’t bring any homework home to do!” Mom retorted.

“Oh, I assure you I send homework home. The simple fact is, he isn’t bringing homework home. He’s probably throwing it out in on the bus. It may even still be in his locker. Why don’t we go down to one of the conference rooms and I’ll explain.”

Patiently, Barbara guides the parents downstairs to a conference room. She brings up the school’s learning management system on the conference room computer. On the spreadsheet-like interface the parents are able to see the in-class assignments plus the homework assignments and associated grades. The truth then becomes clear; their son has been lying to them for several weeks.

Teachers are the best advocates for a child’s success. Parents wrongly take protective positions of Teachers vs Parents. The reality is, education should be a healthy ecosystem of Teachers – Parents – Students. I hesitate to even use the word “ally” as doing so continues the conflict metaphor. Teachers are not the enemy, students are not the enemy, and parents are not the enemy, yet our society today has vilified teachers and education, in general. Meanwhile, other countries, countries cooperating with the United States, and competing with the United States, recognize education as a societal good, a public good. Only in the United States, do we find single people, parents, and especially politicians demonize teachers as self-entitled, lazy, and “the biggest problem with education.” (NPR, 2010) We also continue to be faced with parents and teachers trying to introduce non-science as science, i.e. Intelligent Design vs. Cosmology vs. Evolution. The rest of the world looks at the United States as suffering from some form of psychosis due to the ongoing prevalence of religiosity in our public schools.

Homework for an Educator’s Assessment

I had an interesting in-class conversation with a student. I like having these conversations in-class as I’m not sure students really get a very good perception of all the “backstage” details of being an educator, or what goes through the mind of an educator. Thus, I frequently entertain questions of, “Why do we need to do .” One student, “Henry,” asked near the end of the semester, “Why don’t we just do a map as our final. That would be sweet [“cool”].” I responded thus:

“I have often thought about doing this, having student make a map as the final. I talk myself out of this for a few reasons I think are pretty valid.

“First, we have only two hours for a final. To make a decent map, you’re going to need more time than that. If we go from start to finish, the map I would need to see would take the best part of a morning. For instance, I just wrapped up some mapping for an office on campus. Just one map, 24 inches x 18 inches, with simple text took me about six hours. I would be very hard on grading and most likely few of you would honestly pass a map final, based on what I’ve seen so far.

“I also have to answer to the department. This course is one part of our core content. The faculty decided the best aspect of the course to assess would be the presentation. Thus, the presentation is extremely important as part of our department’s assessment protocol.

“You need to know how well you understand the material. The final in the course is comprehensive; everything we covered in the course you need to know as you will be expected to be able to do these activities in the field, in the office, or on the road. The homework was specifically designed to introduce all of these concepts to you, and help build and maintain skills.

“Finally, I need to know how well you understand and absorbed the material, for both your benefit and mine. I need metrics to know if I am getting through or not. If I am, great; if I’m not then I need to figure what I need to do to adapt, modify, and improve what I am charged with in order to advance you.”

I give long answers, and I try to be honest and up-front.

I find 99% of students are very appreciative of the long answers. In big classes, usually one cavalier student will attempt to undermine my logic with some logical misstep they perceived I made. And in typical fashion other students usually tell the person to sit down and shut up.

Educators need a way of assessing their own teaching. Homework is a way for us to figure out which students are getting it and which aren’t. Herein lies another rub.

Our schools are too crowded. Our school buildings are designed by the same people designing prisons. Visit a new jail or a new prison, then go visit a new school, and other than the school colors and mascot these buildings are not too dissimilar. Generic and antiseptic, our schools today have too many students, and too many students per teacher. Early, I mentioned “Barbara.” The fewest students Barbara has in her middle school classroom is 25-26. The most students she entertains is about 34. One day, she had 37. Other teachers send her their problem students so she can have a bunch of kids in a classroom designed for about 24 students. Of these students, perhaps 30% have an IEP, an “individual education plan.” In a class of 24 students 30% is about 8 students. Eight students each requiring individual attention. In a class of 24 students I think she also has at least one Special Education student. Thus, we have 9 students each requiring special attention. No teacher aide. A couple of days a week the Special Education teacher makes an appearance. She has a number of Special Education students to keep tabs on and she is spread thin. If you are keeping track, we have 9 student who each have unique learning programs, leaving the balance, fifteen students, to be taught as a single unit. In my thinking, we now have 10 unique “students” in one classroom, led by one teacher.

Screw that, honestly.

How is any child going to get a fair and proper education in that environment? Oh, and before I forget, the school is just two years old. The school district knew the building was going to be over-capacity  during construction, too.

My friend, “Barbara,” is very good at what she does, and has drawn the attention of her principles and the school district. The school year has taken a toll on her, as you can well imagine. She needs details on how each of her students are doing. She needs evidence, lots of evidence. Evidence to provide the student, a curious principle, a concerned administrator, or a worried parent. A single homework assignment is not enough. Her workload is such she can’t really stretch all good students as much as she would like. Her workload is such she can’t give students having troubles attention. But, she gives enough homework to see how each student is doing, to see if they are absorbing her message or not. If they are, great; if not, let’s try another strategy. Let’s introduce some color, some music, some math, some art until we find a message which sinks in.

Homework gives a good educator a way of not only checking their student’s ability but also a means to check themselves.

  • Am I doing a good job?
  • Am I asking the correct questions?
  • Am I asking the best questions?
  • Could I ask the question a different way?
  • Where are the strengths in the material?
  • Where are the weaknesses in the material?
    • Is the weakness based on my communication?
    • Is the weakness based on lack of student effort?
    • Why are students lacking effort?
  • Does the homework address current or relevant topics?
  • Am I effectively communicating material?

These are just a sampling of reflections educators should ask themselves. My impression is too often educators assume, “There is no way my questions are poor; the students simply are not thinking things through.” Maybe so, but we can’t fall victim to our own hubris. Actually, we don’t. Our hubris doesn’t injure us; our hubris injures those we strive to educate. If you are standing in front of adults pontificating on some esoteric topic to stroke your own ego, you are in the wrong field, really. My philosophy is you should be having a conversation with your students about your topic, engage them in thinking and contemplation and examination.


Neil deGrasse Tyson wrestled, plays the piano, and is a world-class cosmologist. Something tell me even he practiced.


Homework, when properly assigned, is more than rote memorization. Assignments sent home are meant to introduce new skills. Assignments can maintain old skills. Teachers may use them to ensure mental pathways are maintained. Parents can use homework to keep tabs on their child’s progress. Students should understand homework is a necessary part of knowledge-building. Teachers can use homework to ensure they are accumulating evidence of skills while checking themselves to determine how well their message is being received.

Michael Jordan practiced lots of free throws. Homework is toeing the line, shooting 50 free throws. Homework is the batting cage. Homework is the putting green and driving range. Homework is the scrimmage and the tackling dummy. Homework is the workout bag. For the brain.

Because, teachers are coaches. Teachers don’t play the game, not any more. We try to help other play the game, to practice before playing, to prepare players for defenses and offenses, to prepare players to anticipate changes and new sets of opportunities.


China, the South China Sea, and the Fog of War

The Spratly Islands are a collection of atolls, reefs, islands, and skerries about midway between the Philippine Islands and mainland China. Navigation around and through the Spratlys can be tortuous; ships and boats have to exercise caution when traveling through them to ensure they don’t run aground on a submerged reef, or suffer damage from submerged rocks and reefs. For this reason the Spratlys are often referred to the “Dangerous Ground.” (The Spratly Islands: Dangerous ground in the South China Sea)

Westerners refer to this collection 750 marine features as the Spratlys, named for a British whaler Richard Spratly. Spratly sighted the islands in 1843 and was rewarded by having them named for him. I can say with some confidence residents of coastal China and Vietnam, plus the islands of Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines already knew the islands were there. These islands are known by other toponyms, Nansha (China), Kapuluan ng Kalayaan (Malay), and Quần đảo Trường Sa (Vietnam). One of those examples where no one knows where anything is unless a British or Caucasian person was responsible for the “sighting” or “discovery” in spite of the fact the place is already fully occupied by people.

Spratly Islands (Source: CIA)

One of my concerns is how distracted the United States government has become by terrorism. Dealing with small groups who share drastically different political philosophies has been part and parcel of nearly every other country on Earth. Every country, from China, to Germany, to South Africa, has had to deal with small splinter groups who exercise terror as a political tool. The United States has some experience with violent domestic groups who sought popular influence through the use of violence. Examples include the KKK, the Pinkertons & early 20th century unions, the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, and Timothy McVeigh. With 9-11, conservative politicians in the United States suffered what I can only conclude was a critical incident stressor so powerful their very DNA was altered. Today, much of politics seems to be viewed only through the Lens of Terrorism; “How does this policy address terrorism? Are we spending enough to secure our borders against terrorism? Are we spending enough on military to suppress terrorism? Are we supporting domestic spying in order to find the spies walking among us?” Our politics have become myopic, focused nearly exclusively on terrorism. The reality is, intelligent people everywhere will always be susceptible to others who seek to gain power through killing, torture, and beguiling the weak and desperate. Unfortunately, on a planet of nearly 7 billion people, a tiny percentage of our population is all that is required to ensure continual havoc and perpetual mayhem and give intellectually weak politicians reason to make life challenging and restrictive for everyone else.

We have to persevere, learn from the past to prevent making similar mistakes in the future; to adapt, modify, and evolve so each day is a little better than the yesterday. For the children being raised to be reasonable, responsible, rational adults. The 3 R’s.

For as our U.S. politicians continue to succumb to fear and ethnic-based bigotry, other countries not so easily distracted expand their economic, social, and scientific influence.


Zonmar-en” by historicair 16:23, 22 April 2006 (UTC) – Adapted from Image:Zones maritimes UNCLOS.jpg by an anonymous user. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

China is very close to taking over the South China Sea. When I say “taking over,” my opinion is China will allow Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia their 12-mile territorial zone, plus the 12-mile contiguous zone allowed under international law. What China will challenge is the 200-mile economic zone allowed to each country with a coastline.

No one should be surprised by China’s actions. Concerned, of course, but surprised? Not at all.

What does China have to gain from control of the South China Sea?

We might be tempted to think controlling and managing shipping and commerce throughout the sea is their primary interest. I don’t think so.

The South China Sea is fairly shallow as far as seas go. A few deep trenches exist but the average depth of is about 1212m (about 4,000ft. Source: In comparison, the average depth of the Gulf of Mexico is about 1615m (about 5,300ft. Source: The South China Sea is about 1/3rd larger than the Gulf of Mexico. A few deep trenches are also scattered about the Gulf of Mexico, very similar to the South China Sea.

My sentiments are China seeks to control many of the small Spratly Islands, establishing small populations and permanent settlements. Like Israel’s colonization of the West Bank and the Golan Heights in violation of almost every agreement or accord, China is essentially seeking to colonize the South China Sea. Their desire to settle and control the islands is not related to population growth specifically; the Chinese government is not looking for room to grow, in other words.

The United States Energy Information Administration reported in 2013 the South China Sea had “11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in proved and probable reserves.” (US EIA) However, these estimates were based on estimates from exploration in undisputed territory.

If China could successfully colonize and build-out onto strategic few of Spratly Islands, China could potentially turn disputed territory into undisputed territory. Who will have the capability of matching China’s navy? Vietnam? Taiwan? Japan? China does not have much of a navy, to be clear. They don’t need much of one. No country in their sphere of influence has much of a navy, either. China has a bigger navy, though this is similar to saying my Brittany Spaniel is larger than your Chihuahua. The United States has mastiffs, to keep the analogy running. The Chinese government has been modernizing their fleet over the last decade or so. Even Chihuahuas can have a nasty bite.

Once control and influence is gained over the Spratly Islands, then all of the energy resources surrounding those islands then becomes the domain of China. The energy reserves unknown or only estimated then have a better chance of being fully realized – by China. The issue is China may not have true territorial claim, making the confrontation of who owns the islands a case of Might Makes Right. By building on the islands China effectively usurps any other claim to the islands by Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, or Taiwan. Again, similar to how Israel has built on the West Bank of Jerusalem.

China is not especially concerned about the islands due precisely to population growth. Energy use and needs is directly related to population, though, and by assuming control of the islands China is simply protecting long-term energy prospects. Eleven billion barrels of oil seems like a lot; in 2014 the United States used about 7 billion barrels (US EIA). The proven oil reserves in the South China Sea would last the United States about 1-1/2 years if my math is close. In 2013, China is estimated to have consumed about 4 billion barrels of oil.

As for natural gas, in 2014 the United States consumed about 27 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The proven reserves of natural gas in the South China Sea would last the United States about 7 years, again if my math is close.

3318-004-59ADF8E0An easy estimate would be the proven reserves of oil would last China couple years. The reserves will last somewhat longer as they can only be drawn out at a certain rate. China is also a net importer of both oil and natural gas. In 2012 China consumed about 5.2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. 190 trillion cubic feet sounds like Chinese citizens would be OK for about 36 years – if not for their increased demand for energy.

The South China Sea is China’s Gulf of Mexico. China does not refer to the South China Sea as the “South China Sea.” They simple refer to the vast body of water as the “South Sea,” as if including “China” in the name is redundant, extraneous. “It already belongs to us. What efficiency is added by stating the obvious?” Each of the countries bounding the South China Sea have their own name for the water body. The Philippines refers to this body of water as the “West Sea.” Vietnam calls the same water body the “East Sea.” On thing is certain; few countries possess the ability to stymie China.

The Fog of War

I spent some time doing what we in the business call “visually scrutinizing data” which really means I spent a couple of hours checking out Google Earth. Google Earth is one of the best products on the Internet and if you don’t have GE installed on your computer, you must do so at your next opportunity.

Download Google Earth today!

Use the “Search” box and enter “spratly islands.” The view will display the Earth, rotating west-to-east while focusing upon the South China Sea and the Spratlys. The seamounts, islands, atolls, and reefs will be quite apparent at an “eye altitude” (lower-right) of about 490 miles. As you change scale, zoom-in, notice some islands become very visible, others not so much. In fact, some islands become quite obscure.

Why are some islands clearly visible down to a couple hundred feet and other islands nearby are obscured by the “fog of war?”

spratly-islands-google-earthNotice the white text near the lower-center of the image (left). Data providers are interesting. We can see the U.S. Navy and NGA have some role in data acquisition. The U.S. Navy has a special branch located within the Stennis Space Flight Center complex in Mississippi. NAVOCEANO is a special Navy installation with a primary responsibility of mapping the oceans. Getting an aircraft carrier stuck some place is not only embarrassing but time-consuming to un-stick.

NGA stands for the “National Geospatial Intelligence Agency.” The NGA provides many government agencies data and intelligence from numerous air and space-based sensor platforms. Essentially maps. They produce maps for the Department of Defense and all branches of the armed services, the White House, the Department of State, and many other federal offices, agencies, and departments. These are good jobs, fascinating and intellectually stimulating jobs, with opportunities for travel, to interact with people from around the world. Some of my former students have been to Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Italy, Hawaii, Colombia, Mexico, and Germany. They have worked with Colin Powell and White House staff over the years. Very high-level stuff.

Based on what I can glean from conversations with former students and my own interests in military applications of sensor systems and cartography, my guess is Google Earth has been scrubbed of some data either by request of the Chinese government or perhaps at the request of our own government. So, yeah, not a great leap of intellectual effort, I agree. The data is there, obviously, but has been blurred by the Fog of War. Or, at least the Fog of Conflict, maybe.

Geography is not simply about countries and capitals, water bodies, and mountains. Geography is about understanding where things are, and why they are there. The where is typically very easy to answer. The why is makes for great conversations, research, and study.


Book Review: City of Bones, by Michael Connelly

Book Review: City of Bones, by Michael Connelly. Grand Central Publishing. Hachette Book Group. ©2002. $10

Blurbs on books are worthless. Honestly, the accolades plastered across paperbacks are pointless. “Sizzles with energy,” “Invigorating,” “Haunting,” do not accurately assess procedural crime fiction novels like City of Bones. I’m not taking anything away from Mr. Connelly or any of his of novels based on Michael “Mickey” Haller (“The Lincoln Lawyer”) or Hieronymus Bosch. Procedural crime is notoriously boring. Anyone who has watched “The First 48″ on A&E should have a sense the job of an investigative detective working for any homicide unit in any major city is not exciting work. A lot of time is spent being a phone jockey, calling lawyers, family members, friends, making appointments to meet and talk. Some time is spent being a keyboard jockey, typing names and search criteria into national criminal databases and doing background work.

Some readers might be bored with the mundane details part and parcel of homicide investigations; they want “Miami Vice”-esque chases, guns, people getting shot. They want troubled cops with drinking problems going rogue, throwing years of training out the window, Riggs-style (“Lethal Weapon”), and bashing the perp’s head in. If these traits interest you, another author might be better suited.

What Mr. Connelly does well is capture the reader’s attention through Bosch’s adversarial relationships with superiors and other internal police divisions, his close-knit relationships with his partners, and his perseverance and tenacity on homicide cases. Life isn’t nice-and-tidy, and neither Bosch nor Connelly are working under any premise of every story must have a happy ending. This one sure doesn’t. However, reading Bosch one should get the notion detective work requires consider human contact. A detective must work with seasoned beat officers, “boots,” new cops fresh from training, psychologists who must remain vigilant for stress in career officers. Additionally, anytime an officer fires a weapon, an “Officer Involved Shooting,” all sorts of bureaucracy activates. Connelly, drawing upon years of experience working in journalism, brings the reader into the behind-the-scenes world of law enforcement.

I’ve read several authors who construct a good story yet when I do a little homework, the investigative details fall apart after a cursory examination. It’s like the writer spent a little time at a gun range, maybe went on a ride-along, spoke with an officer friend. Those circumstances are woven into crime fiction, and are perhaps good for most readership, I suppose. I tend to start digging into details – my own fault – I details unravel. Mr. Connelly writes from experience, with believability, and his characters ring true. Thus, while Bosch may not get into fisticuffs and prolonged gun battles with criminals, Bosch takes us along as a third partner, leading us to places where Edgar and Kiz may get left behind.

Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch is not precisely a team player. His partners need to be loyal to him, but he isn’t exactly loyal to them. Bosch is a “do as I say, not as I do” detective. He expects his partner to toe the legal lines; Harry decides when to walk the line or step over the line and shields his partners from his actions, or at least tries to. In City of Bones Harry’s partner Jerry Edgar is often left behind, sometimes because of convenience, sometimes to ensure Jerry’s reputation is not tarnished by Harry’s unorthodox and potentially unethical behavior. It’s Harry’s behavior which gets him promoted to Robbery-Homicide Division (RHD), then demoted to Hollywood Homicide, then promoted again at the end of City of Bones back to RHD.

City of Bones is not so much about the mystery of the bones found in the Hollywood Hills, near Wonderland Avenue off Laurel Canyon Drive as it is about Bosch’s redemption through his pursuit of truth and justice. Harry pushes and pushes, pushes his witnesses, like Johnny Stokes, a friend of the victim; pushes neighbors, like Nicholas Trent, who was in possession of some evidence. Bosch works the remaining family, a father who was a former B-movie actor, and a sister currently working as a casting director but hiding serious secrets.

Much of City of Bones takes place in and around Los Angeles. I’ve only had one experience in L.A. so am nowhere near the expert on the City of Angels as Michael Connelly. Like Sara Paretsky and James Lee Burke, Connelly takes his readers on a tour of his city. The victim’s sister, for instance, lives along a stretch of midtown L.A. called the “Miracle Mile.” Wedged between Wilshire Boulevard to the north and West Olympic Boulevard to the south, the Miracle Mile derives its name from television director, Nik Visgar. He was quoted as saying, “these miles, they create miracles.”

As I scanned these online maps I made a surprising discovery. Right on Wilshire Boulevard is a place called “Busby’s East.” The place looks rough, a sign blaring “Busby’s” and a door leading back to a ping-pong bar. The reviews aren’t so hot, either. Can this place be connected to my family, maybe? Chances are pretty good, actually. My father’s family has many distant relatives who live in SoCal, none of whom I know, but I would not be at all surprised if this business is named for some distant relative.

See what happens when you read?

Much later in the book, Bosch pulls a stunt, leaves his partner behind in morning’s wee hours and heads to Lone Pine, California. Former neighbors of the victim have relocated to this small desert town, located west of Death Valley. Early in the investigation, Bosch and Edgar believed one of the families residing in the neighborhood had the name “Foster,” as in “The Foster’s once lived next door.” However, Bosch, raised as a foster child himself, realized later perhaps the family was really a foster family and he had mistakenly confused a name with a service. Being a detective requires a very nimble mind, not solely a trait of novel detectives but also real detectives. Even non-detective people can benefit from paying attention to details in their lives. Little hints and clues and seemingly innocent details individually meaningless but taken together may lead to a stock tip, or some covert activity your kids are planning. I’m not encouraging people to spy; I’m simply recommending people attention, especially my students :-)

City of Bones represents a mid-career Harry Bosch novel. The first Harry Bosch novel hit stores around 1992, with The Black Echo. I’ve read A Darkness More Than Night (the book preceding City of Bones) and 9 Dragons [review]. As I’ve stated before I give authors two books to sell me on their writing chops, and Mr. Connelly spins a good police procedure crime novel. I’ll keep reading what he writes.

City of Bones also seems the basis for the opening season of “Bosch,” an Amazon Prime Original Series. As I read the novel I couldn’t help but think of the pilot I watched over the 2014 Christmas holiday. Looking back at the series episodes, I’m pretty sure this novel serves as the first season’s primary story arc. Other novels may also serve as plot fodder. I’ll have to dive back into the show and see. Titus Welliver (imdb) plays Bosch; you may have seen him in Deadwood, NYPD Blue, or Sons of Anarchy. I think he hits the mark for playing Bosch.

I’d like to thank Shadow of Iris, LadyFanciful, and Josbons for taking the time to like posts of mine. I know the Internet is full of exciting stuff and I appreciate people choosing to spend some of their valuable to time in consideration of my writing.


Book Review: Breakdown, by Sara Paretsky

Breakdown, by Sara Paretsky. Signet Select; Penguin Books. 2012. $10.

Ms. Paretsky’s books are not for juveniles. I mean, young adults could read them, and probably should read them, actually. They would have a wonderful role model for writing fiction, for spending time thinking about writing, for constructing an amazingly detailed framework upon which to layout intricate crime fiction. My point is her crime fiction is designed to make her readers think, to help solve the crime, or crimes. While one could use Breakdown as great summer reading, readers could go deeper and use the details, hints, and evidence to solve crimes and misdemeanors.

Breakdown is a an interesting book on a number of levels, not simply because of a murder. A guy shows up dead in the deadest of places, a cemetery. Oddly enough, plenty of witnesses saw the murder. In the dark of night, in the rain, in a cemetery, a place and circumstance where literally no witnesses should be around, but, in this case, plenty of witnesses. Why would there be witnesses in the middle of the night, in the rain, in a cemetery?

Evidently, several high school girls have become infatuated with a series of popular supernatural novels. They formed a club concerning the books, the Carmilla Club, named for one of the novels major characters. The club has rules and initiation rites; on this particular night they slipped out to a local cemetery to add a couple new members. In the dark, and rain, the girls slip under the stone alcove of a temple-like memorial, and are startled by the sudden appearance of a vampire and a dead guy on a concrete slab, a piece of rebar impaling his chest, just like a dead vampire might have.

Turns out the dead guy is a private detective, just like V.I. Warshawski. But, who would kill a private detective? Oh, well, a smarmy P.I. like Miles Wuchnik probably had lots of enemies, standing in a line like people waiting for a deli sandwich to kill the guy. Thankfully, crime novels, at least Sara’s, are more complicated than simple vendettas. Wuchnik had connections to a billionaire Chicagoan, Chaim Salanter, whose granddaughter was part of this initiation ritual. The granddaughter was a Carmilla Club member and friend with another girl, Nia Durango. Nia’s mother, Sophy is running for the United States Senate. And, now these girls are tied-up with a murder, being potential witnesses, and potential targets.

Making matters more interesting, Sophy Durango’s campaign finance manager is Chaim Salanter. Together, Durango and Salanter are popular targets of Global Entertainment Network (GEN). GEN is renowned for hosting conservative programs, especially one hosted by Wade Lawlor, Wade’s World. Wade’s popularity has garnered him near-cult figure status among political conservatives.

Ms. Paretsky’s layering here is as delicious as any tiramisu. The Carmilla Club bears a striking resemblance to the Twilight vampire series and the real world adoration for those books. I’m also left wondering if the billionaire might be patterned on George Soros, a benefactor for Democrats. GEN seems to be analogous to Fox News, with Wade Lawlor standing in for Sean Hannity. I think even Rush Limbaugh makes an appearance near the end of Breakdown. A bald, porcine fellow with beady eyes makes an appearance near the final reveal at the novel’s conclusion. Could be Karl Rove. Who knows; this is fiction, right?

I potentially am over-analyzing Breakdown; I couldn’t help but notice many parallels between the many plot devices, intrigue, and characters, though. While reading, and trying to pick up clues, reading the nuances of the characters interacting and dialogue, I couldn’t help but insinuating my own interpretation of characters. Probably wishful thinking along the way. When a reader finds themselves investing time interpreting characters, events, and circumstances both within a novel and outside the novel, trying to infer connections to real events, real events potentially inspiration for fictionalization, this investment is the hallmark of a wonderful author. The author has fabricated an intricate web of stories within stories, drawing motives and influence from many sources, both real and imagined. As I read Breakdown, I couldn’t help wondering if the plot was a infused with a subtext of Ms. Paretsky’s own beliefs. I wasn’t distracted; mostly amused. I could see how some readers might be put off with subtleties and implied jibes. Remember; this is fiction!

The danger then becomes the author loses track of plot details, the story meanders and loses focus, leaving the reader wondering what the hell direction the protagonist is heading. Ms. Paretsky’s writing is sharp and focused. While V. I. Warshawski may get befuddled occasionally, I never get the impression Ms. Paretsky’s plotting has fallen off the rails.

In Breakdown, Ms. Paretsky again captures my attention not simply because of some superficial similarities to current popular culture icons, but because of her inclusion of interesting geography and history. The wealthy Salanter family has connections to Vilnius, Lithuania. Chaim (“rhyme”) Salanter immigrated to the United States as a child before the Second World War. His family, Jews, became part of the extended European Jew diaspora as Nazi-infected Germany spread across the landscape.

Lithuania is one of the three Baltic states, along with Estonia and Latvia. Having a population of about 3.5 million people and a little larger than West Virginia, Lithuania shares a precarious position, wedged between the Baltic Sea to the west and a temperamental Putin-powered Russia to the east. While Russian considers the Baltic states as children who have strayed from the parent, the Baltic states consider themselves to be unique and sovereign from Russian influence. Eight of 10 people living in Lithuania are Lithuanian and speak Lithuanian. Russians living in the Baltic states are there mostly because of Stalin and Lenin relocating Communist party families in the years 1920-1940, to “russify” these places, to keep them within the Russian/Soviet sphere of influence. Same holds true for Ukraine, too.

Lithuania, as well as the other Baltic states and Russia, had significant Jewish populations. These Ashkenazi Jews lived throughout Central and Eastern Europe, and spoke mostly Yiddish. These Jewish populations were discriminated against throughout Europe, sometimes reviled. People would do well to understand Jewish populations were not well-regarded either before or after World War Two. Jewish culture had very liberal financial rules, allowing them to handle money and transactions forbidden to Muslims, or discouraged by Christians, thus making Jews important conduits for handling finances. And, oddly enough, being pressed into service by Christians and Muslims to handle financial transactions would become one of the traits people demonized them for. Jewish populations are much smaller today in Central and Eastern Europe due to both the Holocaust, and voluntary or forced emigration to amenable host countries, like the United States, Canada, and Argentina.

Breakdown features many local Chicago landmarks. The Parterre Club, where V. I. meets Chaim Salanter early in the book, may not exist, but the neighborhood certainly does.

Schiller Street is a few block north of Elm Street, and both are located adjacent to Lake Shore Drive. People familiar with Chicago understand the real estate here is prime. Many choice properties, home to old money and new. A quick search of current property listings is pretty informative. I found a condo near Schiller and Lake Shore Drive, about 7,000 square feet, five bedrooms, for a paltry $4.8 million (Chicago Condo Finders). I won’t make that in two lifetimes. Wait…I broke a mirror this month; make that three lifetimes.

Downers Grove, Illinois gets a few visits from V. I. Warshawski in Breakdown. Downers Grove has a modest population of about 50,000 people. In 2010, Forbe’s identified Downers Grove the 8th “Most Friendliest Town in America” (Forbes)

Authors who take the time to augment their stories with real human episodes I appreciate. I continue to buy their books, read them, and write their reviews here. As much as I am rewarded by the richness of their efforts I want to give a little back and promote them. Ms. Paretsky doesn’t need much of my promotion; she is highly regarded among crime fiction writers without any help from me.

If you haven’t already done so, add Sara Paretsky and V. I. Warshawski to your reading list. She writes a good novel, good characters, thoughtful, with good pace, interesting history and geography. A good model for up-and-coming authors. And, she is the 2015 President of the Mystery Writers of America (link), so you better pay attention!


Daredevil Lives Here: The Geography of Hell’s Kitchen

Daredevil Lives Here: The Geography of Hell’s Kitchen, Matt Murdock, and his alter-ego, Daredevil, The Man Without Fear.

I finished watching Daredevil on Netflix. My personal opinion is Netflix has issued a giant challenge to any and all studios who desire to migrate comic book characters into TV shows. A challenge of, “Do better than us. We dare-devil you.” The bar has been raised on quality, content, writing, and cinematography with Netflix’s first foray into the comic book genre. I’m not sure how “Jessica Jones” will play out; I’m not familiar enough with her character to be a good referee of what to expect.

Iron Fist and Luke Cage, the final two characters Netflix is developing series for in prelude to a Defenders movie, also a Netflix production, are characters I am familiar with. Based on Daredevil, buy Netflix stock now because when the Luke Cage and Iron Fist series is released network fiber worldwide is going to burn up.

One attractive element of Marvel Comics is the setting of some titles. Daredevil, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, and perhaps Jessica Jones, will all take place in and around New York City. Where does Spider-Man live? New York City. Where is the Fantastic Four office tower? New York City. Avengers? NYC.

A word of advice to Marvel Comics and Disney: New York City may have reached saturation levels for superheroes. Can’t Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, Dallas, Kansas City, or New Orleans have a regional superhero office?

Familiar territory is a great way to hook readers and viewers. Analyzing why I’m not so interested in some DC Comics titles, in fact I would say “most,” is due to the vague geographies DC Comics uses in their stories. I have nothing against Gotham City aka New York City, or Metropolis (an amalgam of Toronto, Ontario, and New York City) but I can’t visit those places. I can’t get online and use Google Maps to plot where action takes place, or map the movements or locations of events. Sure, Metropolis, Illinois is a real place, with a larger than life-size statue of Superman, has a newspaper called, “The Daily Planet,” a place to which I have been a few times, but I cannot plan a trip to visit Gotham or Metropolis, or Central City. Central City is the metropolis in which Arrow and Flash are set.

Flash #228 DC Comics

Central City has its own unique problems with geography. Even DC Comics doesn’t really seem to know where Central City is located. In Flash #228, writers place Central City in the geographic location of Athens, Ohio. In the 1985-1986 “Crisis on Infinite Earths” story arc, Central City appears to be Kansas City, Missouri. One year later (1987) in Flash Volume 2, Issue 2, Central City is shown to be in Florida. In a later book, Green Lantern Hal Jordan referred to Barry Allen as the “Illinois Flash” leading readers to infer Allen was at least from Illinois. Finally, the 2014 Flash airing on CW allegedly shows Flash to be set in Missouri, specifically the episode “The Man in the Yellow Suit.” I haven’t seen the episode, yet, but now I must, at least placate my curiosity in how geography is portrayed on the show.

The use of real geography, real toponyms (place names) is a way to make a connection with an audience. We know where this place is. We know we can visit this place if we want. The place has real landmarks, steel and concrete icons more real than the fictional characters or events. Fictional characters existing in a real place has the benefit of being a one-off representation. By one-off, I mean, “the place is real even if the characters are made-up, are fiction.” DC Comics tend to be two-off; “the place is fictional and the characters are fictional.” Writers must really struggle to overcome the psychological hurdles of disadvantaged geography plus fictional characters. On the other hand, fictional places are easy to build, modify, and destroy as the case may be. Real places really don’t like blown up or being detached from our physical plane and transported to other dimensional planes. Much easy to do this with fictional places. So, there are advantages and disadvantages to using real and fictional places in creative works.

In Netflix’s adaptation of Daredevil, we are treated in every episode to a single place, Hell’s Kitchen. No, Hell’s Kitchen is not in Gordon Ramsey’s house, nor any of his restaurants, nor is Hell’s Kitchen to be found in any layer of Hell, at least I don’t remember reading about any kitchen in Dante’s Inferno.

The Five Boroughs of New York (WiseGeek)

Hell’s Kitchen is located in the borough of Manhattan. New York City comprises 5 boroughs, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island. Hell’s Kitchen is one of many neighborhoods in Manhattan, and despite the somewhat unsavory name, has shaken of a history of violence and is now one of the most up-and-coming locations in NYC. Here is a great site for a slideshow tour of Hell’s Kitchen, courtesy of

One might ask, “Why “Hell’s Kitchen?” Couldn’t someone think of a better name? Why not, “God’s Flowerbox?” or “Heaven’s Dog Park?” “Hell’s Kitchen” seems like the culinary institute of Lucifer, where all the cuts of meat are people, pets, animals from the Endangered Species list.

Good question. I wish I had a good answer for you. The history of Hell’s Kitchen is far more interesting than I am going to make it sound. In the late 1800’s and into the middle of the 20th century, the neighborhood south of Clinton and north of Chelsea, bounded on the west by the Hudson River, and to the east by downtown, was probably as close to Hell as one could get in America. Crowded, full of new immigrants trying to make a buck, no air conditioning, Hell’s Kitchen was probably like living in the bowels of an angry giant. Irish gangs, the Mafia, and individuals slinging drugs, money, sex, and contraband made Hell’s Kitchen a law enforcement nightmare.

The technical boundaries of Hell’s Kitchen, near as I can discern, limit the neighborhood to a few blocks between 59th  and 34th streets and west of 7th Avenue (some say as far east as 9th) to the Hudson River. If this doesn’t seem familiar, it really should. The Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street, takes place at the Macy’s on 34th and 7th, the edge of the Kitchen. The musical West Side Story was inspired by life in Hell’s Kitchen.

Details are scant as to who was responsible for the toponym, Hell’s Kitchen, but no one disputes the propriety of the name. One myth surrounding the naming of the neighborhood involves two police officers working the neighborhood in the late 1800’s. The rookie officer voices the sentiment the neighborhood must be like Hell. The seasoned officer responds back with something to the effect, “No, Hell’s climate is still too mild. This is like Hell’s Kitchen.”

“Why “Hell’s Kitchen?” Couldn’t someone think of a better name? Why not, “God’s Flowerbox?” or “Heaven’s Dog Park?”

Hell’s Kitchen is a pale shadow today compared to the rich and storied history of bygone eras. Today, he Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is located here, as well as one of Mario Batali’s finer dining establishments. Visitors can tour the Intrepid, a decommissioned aircraft carrier which served the U.S. from the middle of World War II to Vietnam, moored in the Hudson.

Geography seeks to answer two questions. The first question is, “Where is it?” Whatever it is. Usually, this is the easier of the two questions to resolve. The second question is, “Why is it there?” The “why” of something is usually far more interesting and far more complicated than the first question. Describing where something is located is typically fairly trivial. Yes, boundaries might be complex, the processes which cause a situation or phenomenon to arise might not be trivial, but locating and describing a phenomenon is fairly easy. Today’s mapping software and ability to analyze data can help investigators lock down a position.

Readers may also find these questions formed another way. Market analysis, such as endeavors used to find suitable building sites, suitable office locations, or appropriate retail centers will see the same two questions posited as “site” and “situation.” The questions to the effect of, “where is the site?” and “what is the situation?” Again, the site essentially refers to the specific location. For instance, a site may have a street address, certainly has a geographic coordinate, a latitude (y) and a longitude (x), a UTM coordinate, or a State-Plane coordinate.

Above, I have detailed the where, using a map and some cross streets to identify the location of Hell’s Kitchen. The why is better left to historians or good journalism, perhaps. A New York Times article, “Turf of Gangs and Gangsters,” (NYT, 2007) provides a historical backdrop as to why the Kitchen is an appropriate setting for Daredevil.

The showrunner for Daredevil, Steven DeKnight (known for “Spartacus”) wanted to take Daredevil “darker” than the Marvel movies. Using Frank Miller’s vision of Daredevil, Netflix’s Daredevil takes place in a Hell’s Kitchen of today, yet with elements of the late 1970’s and 1980’s intertwined within the atmosphere of one of New York’s most notorious locations. Gangs, drugs, and organized crime infuse the body of Hell’s Kitchen like an infection, like malaria, racking the neighborhood with violent episodes before quieting, convalescing, only to be racked again by death and violence. Hell’s Kitchen was a den of iniquity, the Mos Eisley spaceport of 20th century United States. I am sure if Obi-Wan Kenobi had visited Hell’s Kitchen in the 1970s he might have been heard to utter, “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”

The environment imagined by Frank Miller (“Sin City” and “A Dame To Kill For”) is lousy with organized crime. Not simply the influence peddling of Wilson Fisk who seeks to re-build Hell’s Kitchen in his own image, but truly globalized organized crime. The Russian mafia controls the docks. The Chinese mafia vies for control of portions of the drug trade. The Japanese Yakuza leverages properties and development projects to launder money, engage in human trafficking, and control merchandise. Matt Murdock tries, usually unsuccessfully, to protect small business owners, rent-controlled tenants, and people who have been victimized by the Fisk, his minions, and his allies. What successes he cannot achieve in court in exacts as Daredevil, trying to get across a very important message: “You might win in court, but you’re gonna lose in Life. I might not kill you, but I will certainly cripple you.” As if his enemies will share a commonality, a physical disability or permanent impairment.

In thinking about the impression Daredevil left on me, a though occurred to me. I’ve watched all of the episodes of “Law & Order” with Lenny Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) and Ed Green (Jesse L. Martin, who is currently starring as Det. Joe West on CW’s “The Flash”). I’ve also seen all of the “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” episodes until Stabler left. Anyone who has ever watched those episodes can remember at least one episode where the killer or molester or rapist was not convicted. Some episodes had some really shady people who were never indicted for anything yet were 99.9% guilty of something, yet Lenny and Ed, or Stabler and Benson were figuratively hand-cuffed by the legal system. Some episodes would simply go to credits, leaving the audience with all of these unresolved questions and feelings.

Daredevil is going to resolve an issue. Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson may resolve a conflict in the courtroom. But, if proceedings go sideways, and Justice is not served according to Matt’s interpretation, Daredevil is going to dangle someone from a building, or toss someone from a rooftop, or break a kitchen sink over their head. And, I think the resolution of watching someone dirty and evil get their just reward by having their shit kicked in provides some emotional and psychological release the Law & Order series didn’t always provide. I also find interesting Wilson Fisk is played by Vincent D’Onofrio, a great actor, also part of the Law & Order cast, playing Det. Robert “Bobby” Goren.

Netflix has produced a great show; I truly enjoy the work of Frank Miller and the vision of Steven DeKnight, and the willingness of Netflix to let this series happen. I look forward immensely to the next three series and the Defenders movie.



Book Review: A Wanted Man, by Lee Child

A Wanted Man (A Jack Reacher Novel), by Lee Child. Dell Paperback. 2012. $10.

In Child’s 17th Jack Reacher novel, we pick up Reacher where he left off, in far western Nebraska, in the wintertime. As Reacher is want to do, he is hitchhiking. But, just how attractive a hitchhiker is Reacher, at 6’5″ and 230lbs give or take. Then, add in his broken nose, suffered from taking a rifle butt to the face, giving him the appearance of a pale gorilla. If you’ve read Reacher before, “you should have seen the other guy,” applies. Actually, in Reacher’s case, the other “guys” is more appropriate.

Reacher is collected from a highway cloverleaf in far western Nebraska by a dark blue or dark grey sedan, driven by one fellow, and occupied by a second man and a young woman in the backseat. Reacher is never given a ride by people with simple lives. How interesting of a story would than make?

My guess is Reacher was collected somewhere around Exit 126 on Interstate 80 (above). We learn he is close to a split in the interstates, one road leading to Salt Lake City, the other leading to Denver. The town of Ogallala pretty much fits the geography, as well as the cloverleaf south of town.

Reacher senses something is awry not longer after getting a ride. The people in the car are dressed like they have just come from a trade show, wearing similar and nondescript denim shirts, both gentlemen in the front seat somewhat convivial, the young woman in the backseat quiet. The supervisor of the trio works out an arrangement with Reacher for him to do a little driving, they swap seats, and soon the boss is snoozing while Reacher drives everyone east.

As they travel east along I-80, they pass through a couple of law enforcement roadblocks. FBI is looking for a solitary male, maybe two, heading east. The officers don’t really communicate much to Reacher, give he, the car, and the occupants a cursory examination and pass them through.

Meanwhile, somewhere around Ogallala, probably – more on this later –  the FBI and the local sheriff’s department are trying to figure out who killed a man out in the middle of nowhere. The FBI is curious as the dead man might have been a terrorist. Or, he might have been a State Department official. Or, he might have been a CIA section chief, well out of his jurisdiction, since CIA is forbidden to operate in the United States. A local waitress is missing, too; and a drunk claims to have seen three men enter a shed, and two men leave.

Reacher’s trip to Virginia is later complicated when he is abandoned and left for dead. Except Reacher has a hard time allowing bygones to be bygones. No one shoots at Reacher and doesn’t suffer some serious health setbacks. Involved a woman or a child, or in this case, both, and Reacher operates like the arrow on a compass, always seeking North. In Reacher’s case, he seeks justice.

Reacher’s trip across Nebraska almost lands him in Omaha, turned over to the FBI. Not exactly collected while hitchhiking, Reacher is picked up by FBI Special Agent Julia Sorenson. They form an uneasy alliance to track down the two men and the woman who left Reacher for dead, who may have kidnapped a waitress, and who may be working with terrorists.

But, just as soon as they begin to figure out some details, Sorenson is pulled from the case, and Reacher is arrested and placed in protective custody. Jack finds his protective environment a bizarrely remodeled motel south of Topeka, Kansas. Again, in the middle of nowhere, Jack runs up against the motel’s other residents, the drunk eyewitness to the original murder, and the woman who he shared his initial car-ride with. Karen Delfuenso is also a FBI agent, working undercover inside her own law enforcement organization. And, she is a mother of young girl. Just when Reacher thinks circumstances could not get more odd, Julie Sorenson arrives at their odd motel. Sorenson is not visiting, though; she has just become the newest resident.

Wakarusa, Kansas, is a few miles south of Topeka, the capital of Kansas. Topeka is about 100 miles west of the Paris of the Plains, the City of Fountains, Kansas City, Missouri. The odd little motel Jack, Karen, and Julie find themselves the guests of is potentially nearby. Once one gets off the interstate Kansas seem very isolated. You don’t have to trust me, though I have personal experience with central, southern, eastern Kansas, and stretches from Kansas City to Denver. I was raised along I-70, from birth until today, actually. Though, these days, I tend to travel the St. Louis to Kansas City, Missouri route far more frequently. My immediate and extended family can be found from Wichita to Lincoln, from Denver to Kansas City.

Reacher and his crew find a means to leave their accommodations in east-central Kansas. Loaded with a handful of clues suggesting Syrian terrorists have set up shop in central Missouri, Reacher, along with Agents Sorenson and Delfuenso, head to Kansas City. At this point in the book, about page 414, Child grabs my attention, and I mean slap-my-face attention.

Child, through Reacher, begins describing where I live. I don’t mean describing Kansas City, a city where I spent about 21 years of my life, went to school, church, concerts, the zoo. I mean describing where I live as in how to get to my house, my neighbor, the places I grew up.

“It’s a suburban house,” Delfuenso said. “South of the city, and a little east.”

“How far out of town?”

“Maybe twelve miles.” (pg. 414)

My neighborhood. Where I rode my bike, went to the movies, read at the library. Even more.

Delfuenso … headed east again on a federal reaod with a new number, and they entered Missouri in the overtaking lane at ninety miles an hour, following a sign to a place called Lee’s Summit. (pg. 417)

Again, striking even closer to home. But, the team doesn’t quite reach Lee’s Summit.

But, they turned north well before they got there, toward a new place called Raytown, but they never got there, either. They turned off before it slid into view, heading north and west, into multiple acres of suburban sprawl backed by what Reacher took to be a large park.

I have to say when I was reading through these pages I was like, Holy Sh!t, Jack Reacher is running around in literally my neighborhood. Reading a book with familiar geography really raises my interest level. When authors use real geography I tune right in. When said geography is my neighborhood, I lock in on that like a laser-guided drone strike.

I’m pretty sure my mom saw Jack, Julia, and Karen at the McDonald’s drive-thru

A Wanted Man was my 17th Jack Reacher novel. Yes, I fall into the cohort who was appalled by the casting of Tom Cruise as Reacher. I would have preferred Eric Bana, or maybe even Dwayne Johnson. The most entertaining aspect of this novel was Child dipping his toes into my personal geography, though. While Child’s embedding of my personal geography into this novel piqued my interest, the bulk of the novel was not particularly exciting, thrilling, or captivating. A Wanted Man doesn’t really add much to Jack Reacher’s canon, other than to help convey him closer to his destination, Virginia. If you are reading the novels in order, #17 leaves him hitching a ride in central Missouri.

One of the issues I have with Child’s writing is his use of vague geography. For instance, we never really know where Reacher is picked up hitchhiking in western Nebraska. No real toponyms are provided; we don’t even know what road Reacher is on. We are never told some of the action occurs along Interstate 80. We aren’t provided the route taken by the FBI to deposit Reacher at his motel. The route into Kansas City is vague. I’m not really sure why Child is vague about the geography in which Reacher’s tales occur when other authors like Paretsky, Burke, Baldacci, and Connelly use real places in their novels.

A Wanted Man exemplifies Child’s writing style. His prose is terse; he wastes nothing on excessive verbiage. I can appreciate Child’s lean writing and attention to detail. Being a geographer, though, and interested in how authors weave geography into their craft, I am often frustrated by Child’s vague geographies. I would like to be able to plot Reacher’s adventures in Google Earth, for example, like I’ve done for Dave Robicheaux, James Lee Burke’s protagonist. Geography brings the environment to life. Reacher fancies himself a polymath, I think, bringing out superficial historical information, or economic details, or demographic characteristics. That Reacher likes numbers is fine, but Reacher doesn’t seem to back up his experience and his interest with reading or any sort of study. We never catch Reacher reading “The Naked Economist” or “The World Before Tomorrow” or reading “The Economist” magazine. More attention to geography and a little more attention to Reacher’s interests would make these books more robust crime genre literature and less like a novelized movie screenplay.

Thanks for reading.


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