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 NYCGo.com.

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.


Geospatial Technologies Attract Everyone (Part III)

“Geospatial Technologies Attracts Everyone” was intended to be a long article about the “geospatiality of all things” but I’ve opted to break once article into a series, mostly for easier reading, but also to publish more frequently.


Life is All About Location and Data

I had a trouble adapting the subtitle above. Life is about location and data, really. People will argue with me about this, a situation I find equal parts astounding and frustrating. “You are simply confusing economics with geography,” I’m told. Or, “Geography can’t be made out to be about everything, you know. You’re reaching.” Perhaps I’m guilty of drinking my own Kool-Aid, of being a victim of my own hubris, dogma, and bias, but when those phrases are uttered I simply believe the person speaking them lacks vision and hasn’t overcome their own ignorance, yet. Most of these comments stem from memories 4th grade or 8th grade geography which consists of memorizing states and capitals, countries and capitals, and a few mountain ranges and water bodies. These exercises are similar to learning how to add and subtract and then espousing to know all there is about mathematics. The surface doesn’t show any marks so little has been scratched.

My world geography students tend not to like how I teach world geography. I don’t like to teach “this is this, and that is that,” and then test their ability to regurgitate back to me “this” and “that.” The world has many levels of grey. Few completely white areas exist, few completely black areas exist. While I can give them map quizzes so they can achieve some ability of where things are in relation to other things, other geographical concepts are considerably more murky, less tractable.

Life is complicated. Location and knowledge (data + information) brings about probabilities and potentials and unexpected outcomes. The question arises, “How can we mitigate against the unexpected?” As an answer I would say, “By asking more questions; then, take any answers or resulting data and make some maps.” The map-making pursuit, i.e. cartography, is the third installment in my series on how geospatial technologies are attracting everyone.

Cartography is one of few disciplines allowing the person involved to utilize both their Right and Left Brain talents. To do cartography one must crunch data, distill out some numbers, and be able to relate these numbers to a geographic location or some sort of enumeration unit. Then, one must tap into their creative nature, their sense of color, organization, depth, composition, and be creative when developing a map for a particular audience. Except for the recent revelations Left vs. Right Brain activities are pretty much myths. (“The Truth About The Left vs. The Right Brain Relationship;” NPR) Multi-tasking is a myth, too; at least the way most people define multi-tasking. But I digress.

Today, a fairly decent array of apps and software is available for free or inexpensive through an app store. I am not going to attempt to review all of these offerings; the fact there are offerings, period, supports my thesis. My objective is to showcase a few applications to highlight just how accessible mapping technology is to the general public.

In 2013, President Obama unveiled his ConnectED initiative. ConnectED is a broad collection of activities and programs designed to encourage students and teachers to become more engaged in science, technology, engineer, and mathematics (STEM). ConnectED is not simply geared to towards students as many rural school districts still struggle with internet access, in general, slow or limited bandwidth in specific areas.

Here is a link to the ConnectED Fact Sheet.

One of the benefits from ConnectED comes from ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute.) ESRI is the world’s leading purveyor of geospatial software and applications. ESRI’s software is found everywhere, from utilities, oil & natural gas exploration, business and commercial companies, archaeology, geology; you name it, there is a way to map it and ESRI is probably there. Jack Dangermond, CEO of ESRI, was recently featured in Forbes (March 2015), as ESRI is very interested in sustainability and monitoring natural resources.

ESRI is very interested getting young people involved in science, though. My intent is not to make this piece about ESRI, per se; I am the local ESRI higher education site license administrator, the local higher education contract administrator, the local ESRI/GIS higher education advocate, and the local K-12 geography advocate (in part as my role as a self-identified “geomentor.”) I am picking out ESRI expressly because of their effort to improve STEM resources in K-12 and promote spatial learning in K-12 by partnering with the Obama White House’s ConnectED initiative. ESRI deserves some recognition as they have made some very cool mapping apps available for free to every public school in the United States.

And, you can have a free 60-day account, too, to try. Everybody can. Everybody… And a home version can be purchased for $100.

All public schools, and some private, have access to ESRI’s ArcGIS Online for Education. Generally referred to as ArcGIS Online for Organizations (AGO), being in education I modify the title slightly. Judging from my experience in Kentucky, a very small percentage of teachers are aware of the treasure their school district has access to. Most of my friends and contacts are all associated with education. They report having no idea about this “ESRI” or “ArcGIS” I ask them about.

If you have time and have an interest in turning numbers in maps, visit ArcGIS Online for Organizations and get a free trial.

ESRI offers educators at all levels opportunities to learn, explore, develop, and get involved in teaching geospatial concepts to students of all ages and all abilities through their ConnectED program.

This video does a pretty good job of showcasing the work of students at Roosevelt High School in East L.A., California.


I was sitting in the audience listening to their efforts; Will.I.Am was present, as moral support but also advocating both for these kids, for their teachers, but also calling for people to get involved in helping young people get more involved in their world, to use technology, and to share their knowledge. These kids inspired me to get more involved on my campus and in my local school systems.

A fellow faculty member and I wrote a small grant proposal to help bring geospatial knowledge to teachers. We both realize rural communities need special assistance in promoting geospatial awareness to teachers and to encourage teachers to integrate geospatial exercises into their lessons for their students. Our grant was funded, fortunately, and we set about developing a couple of workshops to help introduce geospatial knowledge upon a willing audience. Our long-term goal is they will themselves become “geomentors” to young people, or act as geospatial contacts in a business community to help increase our societies geospatial knowledge base.

We recently completed our first preliminary workshop for a small number of people. We introduced them to geospatial technology using resources developed by NASA and their education partners (For Educators | NASA).

A good collection of videos for geoN00bs are available from Penn State Public Broadcasting. The “Geospatial Revolution” video series are nearly 5 years old, somewhat dated, but still are a good place to start, to ease in to how geography infuses all the things.

Later in the day, we distributed several new Trimble Juno 3B GPS units to our participants. Outside, in the cool sunny April air, I set about giving them the bare minimum details to help them capture points with their units. I say bare minimum because we live in the Age of Inquiry-based Learning. What this translate into in real terms is teachers provide the barest essentials of direction and students must then work together or alone to discern the True Nature of All the Things.

“OK; I have shown you how to turn on the unit. I have shown you what app to use. I have shown you how to launch the app. Now, comes the hard part: go map something.”

“But, you haven’t shown us how to use the software. How are we to map something if we don’t know how to use the software?” the students inquired.

“Not my problem. Figure it out. Yesterday, I took a random unit from a box, came outside, taught myself how to work the unit, capture edge-of-pavement around that (pointing) parking lot, and captured the building footprint of that building (point in a new direction). I did this in under 90 minutes. I am not special, nor gifted. Working alone or in pairs, you should be able to figure this out.”

And to their credit, they did figure out how to work their units, collect some points, save their points to a file. Took them about 60 minutes or so.

I ran them back up to our 3rd floor computer lab and helped them load their points into ArcGIS Online for Education. Kentucky has a state-wide license for higher education, and a state-wide license for K-12 education. The previous day I spent partially getting their AGO accounts created, a trivial endeavor, really. The participants sat down at their preferred workstation, used the information I provided to sign in to their AGO accounts. Within less than 30 minutes each participant was looking at the results of their ad hoc GPS-based mapping project. They discovered their data was editable; they discovered their symbology was changeable. I demonstrated their work was potentially shareable with the entire world, either by sharing a link, or by embedding their mapping project into an external website.

More importantly, perhaps equally as important, they learned this online application worked simply through a browser; no software download was necessary. We did have to upload data, though this was a simple task due to our network speed and the small size of the file to be uploaded. Additionally, AGO has the ability to reach out and touch publicly available GIS data anywhere in the world.

See, and I apologize for some of the hyperbole above, the “cloud” is making mapping, GIS, and cartography widely available not only for mapgeeks but also for anyone who gets the whim to make a map. ArcGIS Online uses a browser app to build a map, a map which can be publicly or privately shared online with others, using data from servers anywhere in the world, from data on your local hard drive, your local network, your distributed network, or from any number of public or private GIS map servers.

And that is fantastically cool!

ESRI and Google Earth are dating. Or at least they have become pals and roommates. Google Earth is discounting some of its enterprise mapping products, Google Earth Enterprise and Google Maps Engine. Google is providing a means to shift users to some offerings ESRI is making available for free. (Google Earth Alternatives from ESRI; ESRI)

ESRI also offers a Silverlight-powered browser-based mapping app, ArcGIS Explorer (link). ArcGIS Explorer, like ArcGIS Online, allows users to make some pretty cool maps from existing data floating around in the “cloud.”

To this point, I have ignored such services as Mapblast, Yahoo! Maps, both Bing and Google Maps, plus have also chosen to ignore map apps like Apple Maps. These are superficially simple map applications with all the heavy lifting occurring behind the scenes. What I mean by that is the map app connects to servers in operating in the cloud, run a very fixed collection of functions, like route-finding, dinner-finding, bus-finding, finding-finding. The end-user doesn’t really determine what is mapped, how it is mapped, how the map is made, what the map shows, and certainly don’t get to add their data. All of the map-making takes place on the back-end, server-side. By superficial, I mean the user requires little knowledge or sophistication about the mapping app, other than to realize their smartphone “location” needs to be active. By design, these apps are simple for the user because the real work happens back at headquarters, e.g. Apple, Microsoft, Google, etc.

Admittedly, the distinct I make between services such as Mapblast and ArcGIS Online may seem trivial, but it is not. Apps like ArcGIS Online allow the end-user to make their own custom maps, using their own custom data, build Powerpoint-like presentations atop active map data, with the ability to generate HTML code for embedding their map into a personal or corporate or school website. ArcGIS Online has a learning curve but if a 10- or 11-year old can figure out how to publish an online map, nearly anyone can.

Here is a sample map application put together by students at the T.K. Stone Middle School, Elizabethtown, Kentucky. *Please note: my version of WordPress does not support javascript thus embedding iframes is pretty much impossible. By clicking the link below, their web app should load in a few seconds, depending on the speed of your broadband.

T.K. Stone Middle School GIS Tour

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 10.54.50 PMHere is a screenshot of what you should see when the app loads (left).

One truly significant hurdle stands in the way of assisting kids in their exploration of geospatial knowledge. Most schools have no one on premises who knows how to access their school district’s ArcGIS Online for Education account. I personally have spoken to numerous principals, assistant principals, science teachers, and district technical coordinators and no one has any idea of what their school system has at their disposal, let alone has heard of ESRI or ConnectED.


But, parents are taking it upon themselves to introduce geospatial knowledge to their kids. Sometimes, it’s through a GPS, like one purchased at Wal-mart. Or, some parents show their kids how to use GPS-enabled fish-finders on their fishing boats. A good introduction to geospatial knowledge and awareness is Google Earth. Some kids can pick up where Mom or Dad left off and begin hacking their own maps. Google Earth has an API for learning to hack their maps.

Some savvy teachers in middle and high schools who have some college experience are introducing their students to mapping and geospatial knowledge. A few of my students were education majors who saw my demos, stayed in my class long enough to learn something, or perhaps took an online course specific to some aspect of geospatial learning.

I know I focused on ESRI products throughout this post. ESRI is not the only supplier of GIS products or the end-all, be-all of geospatial education. They do offer some user-friendly apps for Android, iOS, and tend to have an important role in setting industry standards for geographic data. iGETT, the Integrated Geospatial Education & Technology Training organization helps two-year colleges develop spatially-enabled workforce skills.

Open source options for mapping and GIS are also available. Quantum GIS (QGIS) is perhaps the most popular open source GIS software. QGIS is not user-friendly for the masses; the learning curve in spite of a bunch of forums, documentation, and videos is still pretty steep.

Location and mapping is the third most important bit of technology affecting all of us, and one we also have some ability to use to our benefit. While some of us may not care about drones and UAVs, we should care about location, data, and mapping. These elements are critical for city services, like police, fire, and ambulance service. These elements are fundamental for managing urban assets, like storm water drainage, signage, lighting, and managing property. Location, data, and mapping have become a part of our daily lives, if only for finding alternate routes around a traffic jam, or for finding the nearest Starbucks.

Thanks for reading. I appreciate comments, insights, or anecdotes.

My next post will be a geographical review of Lee Child’s novel, “A Wanted Man.”


Geospatial Technologies Attract Everyone (Part II)

“Geospatial Technologies Attracts Everyone” was intended to be a long article about the “geospatiality of all things” but I’ve opted to break once article into a series, mostly for easier reading, but also to publish more frequently.


Agriculture is All About Location and Data

Another fascinating implementation of UAV technology is evolving in agriculture. Precision agriculture is no longer a bit of farmland fantasy. Most agricultural applications and equipment are married to the Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS). Everything – every thing – is mapped. Soil moisture and chemistry; field boundaries; the quantities of fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides; bushels harvested; even cattle may wear a GPS tag or a simple RFID tag. Databases are maintained. Maps are generated from analysis, interpretation, and then included in local, state, or federal publications.

Sensefly; a GIS integrated UAV by Parrot.

Today, machinery with on-board GPS are still driven by people, by humans. One day, perhaps one day very soon, agricultural machinery will be steered using a combination of GPS, GSM (global system for mobile), and perhaps WIFI. Using forms of possible signals, autonomous agricultural equipment would not need a human driver. On-board mapping software coupled with location hardware will tell equipment where to plant, where to spray herbicide, and where to fertilize. On-board sensors will examine the soil and analyze its chemistry, will scan the crops and analyze for water or insect stress. Much like the report doctors receive when they order blood work on people, commercial farmers will receive reports from the vast array of data resulting from sensor output, digested by software, and reconstituted into charts, maps, and other graphics. (Source: Inside Unmanned Systems)

Unmanned vehicular systems have many application in agriculture. Today, pilots fly aircraft to collect aerial photography and imagery. The photography and imagery are then used for a variety of pursuits. Farmers use the imagery to plan next year’s plantings. The NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service/USDA) uses imagery to help farmers plan. The NRCS uses the imagery to ensure farmers are abiding by their crop plans, to ensure farmers are being honest in their set-aside programs. The NRCS uses the imagery to assist in mapping of soil types. One day soon, human pilots won’t be necessary.

RMAX, by Yamaha

Large expensive drones will be equipped with sensors to capture full-color imagery. Full-color imagery will allow millions of people to manage property and commercial farms. Wildlife managers working for Fish and Wildlife will benefit from being able to assess habitat. Multi-spectral imagery could be collected simultaneously with visible imagery. High resolution multi-spectral imagery would allow for many fascinating scientific pursuits. Vegetation reflects infrared energy much better than it reflects green energy. Sensors capable of measuring slight variations in reflectance of infrared energy can provide data about a variety of vegetation traits, such as water, drought, fungus, mold, or insect stress. What we see with our human eyes is amazing, no doubt, but we simply do not have the sensitivity to other portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Thankfully, we can build technology to extend our vision. But, airborne drones are almost passe.

Airborne unmanned systems are like a Stormtrooper’s blaster, crude and not very accurate. A terrestrial unmanned system is like a Jedi’s lightsaber, not as clumsy or as random. Companies are developing GPS-enabled, sensor-equipped terrestrial drones, i.e. vehicles. These UAVs will be able to move among row crops, among trees in orchards, and among grape vines in vineyards. These UAVs will be able to spot check plants, spot spray for disease or insects, or spot spray for weeds. Planting crops will not only be automated by potentially enhanced by watering, fertilizing, and feeding to give the plants a jump-start. Data will be collected, translated into statistics, analyzed, interpreted and mapped.

Several years ago I worked with a local entrepreneur, a farmer who tapped into some venture capital. The capital was designated for the development of a farm-oriented management system based upon GIS principles and data collected from GPS-equipped farm machinery. The farmer was not ahead of his time, per se; another local company had already developed farm management software and had achieved considerable global success, especially overseas in Brazil. (AgConnections) However, he was savvy enough to visualize the potential of WIFI, GPS, GMS, and GIS in the management of farms. Today, the application exists as FarmLogic (website), by TapLogic.

To demonstrate where the UAV technology is heading, you could watch the video below from TapLogic. While watching the video, mentally remove the human from the video. Leave the dog, though.

Everything the fellow in the video does has the potential of being replaced by an UAV, from the mapping of the field, the selection of soil test locations, to the collection of soil samples. The UAV would then return to a garage, turn over the soil samples for analysis, plug itself into a charging stationing, and await further deployment orders.

Agbots being developed by the University of Illinois.

A fellow faculty member related a story about working on an agriculture robot 10+ years ago. He and a few others had received a large grant from a very prominent agriculture company for developing a means to sense disease and water stress in plants. Sensors were developed, placed upon a robotic platform, tests were run. When the agriculture company discovered the use of the robot, funding was eliminated and the project shutdown. Evidently, this company saw the use of robots and the capabilities they offered as a threat. Not to be undone, the fellow and his small group found alternate funding – overseas, in Europe. Companies overseas were far more progressive, saw the potential, and wanted to develop the potential. Today, they are working on a UAV which can not only detect plant stress but treat the cause of the stress. The UAV, according to our conversation, will have the ability to spot treat weeds, spray for insects, spot fertilize, and generally examine overall plant health, row by row, plant by plant. The European ag companies became so interested the U.S. company who initially funded the project, then pulled the plug on the project, caught a whiff and now has renewed interest…more than a decade later.

Since 2007, the American Society of Agricultural & Biological Engineers (ASABE) has sponsored an annual robotics competition. This year (2015) the ASABE meeting in New Orleans has a new robotics challenge developed by faculty from Texas A&M University. Details can be found at their website. What is evident from European research, and public and private development in the United States, UAVs will be a prominent technology in agriculture in the near future.


Geospatial Technologies Attract Everyone

“Geospatial Technologies Attracts Everyone” was intended to be a long article about the “geospatiality of all things” but I’ve opted to break once article into a series, mostly for easier reading, but also to publish more frequently.


Everything is location. Or, location is everything. All things are spatial. A thought occurred to me as I edit this post. Two acronyms are arising from advances in microprocessors. “The Internet of Things” (IoT) and the “Internet of Everything” (IoE). Location enters into the conversations of even less nuanced consumers because of smartphone tech and the intrinsic location-enabled apps and hardware common to most smartphones. Tweets are geolocated, Facebook posts are geolocated; even dating or pseudo-romance apps, like Tinder or Grinder, are specifically connected to finding others with similar interests nearby. People use free mapping apps, like Google Maps, or Yahoo! Maps for navigating routes for vacations or simply for finding a new place to eat. Even as I type this, some tech writers are prognosticating self-driving autos in 2 – 5 years. (ExtremeTech; NBCNews) Chris Urmson, the director of self-driving cars for Google, says he never wants his 11-year old son to take a driving test.

Google’s self-driving car. (Source: Money magazine)

Think about this: the children being born today will see self-driving cars on roads in their lifetime and potentially may not have to take a driver’s exam, or, to add a little dose of realism to this conversation, may witness the demise of the driver’s exam within their lifetime. Judging by advances in health care, their lifetime may exceed a century. The Human Race went from horse-drawn carriages to the Moon in about 60 years so a century will seem like a millennium to our progeny.

Every generation believes they “live in exceptional times.” The era of the “Greatest Generation,” the generation responsible for initiating and ending two world wars certainly was exceptional. I’m not going to pretend to be a historian but I hypothesize some eras are more exceptional than others. I think we are living in truly such an exceptional era.

Not long ago I received in my mail a copy of “Inside Unmanned Systems: Engineering, Policy, and Practice.” Published by Autonomous Media, LLC., the Winter 2015 issue was nothing less than captivating. Obviously covering unmanned systems, both remotely-controlled by humans and those being more autonomous, the issue highlighted three critical interest areas of mine.

First, marine research centers was the lead story. One of my supervisors has a history at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, a world-renown site of oceanographic research. WHOI operates a number of research vessels, including submarines, and a number of autonomous underwater vehicles. I have an engineering and research interest in underwater UAVs (unmanned aquatic vehicles: my own acronym) due to the proximity of my university to Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. Kentucky Lake is a large man-made reservoir constructed by the Tennessee Valley Authority. The largest dam east of the Mississippi River, construction on Kentucky Dam began in 1938 and was completed in 1944 (Source: TVA.) The Tennessee River, the Cumberland River, and the Land Between the Lakes region is home to thousands of native species of plants, mammals, fishes, reptiles and amphibians, and only one species of humans. I think. Sometimes, I wonder.

The center where I am the system manager/programmer was created in part to support research not only concerning the two lakes but the entire ecosystem around the lakes, the larger rivers like the Ohio and the Mississippi, all the watersheds, and all of the associated land use and land covers. My university has used many different sensor platforms, from NASA aircraft to NASA, ESA, and private satellites, e.g. DigitalGlobe, for obtaining necessary data for use in regional analysis. We have been using some recently acquired LiDAR data and probably one day soon will find some imagery captured by a UAS (unmanned aerial system.)

I would like my university to be a little more proactive about developing sensor platforms. We are not a Research-1 university; sometimes I feel like we are in the double-digits. We don’t need to be designing and building our own sensors. However, building platforms from commonly available sensors should certainly be do-able. Yet, I am confronted by General Malaise. Someone needs to encourage that guy to retire.

I’ve written before about my frustration with the ambivalent atmosphere which settles upon the place like a fog. Once in a while I run across a peer who is interested in doing something, yet the fog thickens and we can never seem to find enough help to disperse the fog. And then we get lost in our departmental minutiae and then undead pirates materialize from the mist and eat a few of our peers and our work load increases and forget about developing a drone, either airborne, terrestrial, or aquatic.

Yet, the ambivalence seems to create drones out of us, the educators…


But, so many cool activities and research are going in our era. So many significant advances in STEM, from robotics, Makerspaces, computing languages and scripting, to the Large Hadron Collider and many different deep-space looking telescopes. The Center for Marine Robotics at Woods Hole is one such place doing fantastic research. Another place, the National Oceans and Applications Research Center (NOARC) was recently created at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Stennis Space Center is also home to NAVOCEANO, the Naval Oceanographic Office. One task NAVOCEANO has, besides mapping the oceans for the U.S. Navy, is to maintain the network of ocean buoys. One of the newest, coolest analysis devices available to NOARC is C-Worker. The C-Worker is an autonomous water craft used primarily in the marine oil and gas industry for research and environmental assessment. However, the craft is being modified to enhance data collection and reporting capabilities.

The Earth is called the Blue Marble by many people due to the abundance of surface water. The vast majority of surface water is not potable water; only about 0.7% of our planet’s water is potable, and the bulk of that ends up supporting agriculture or industry. (The Worlds Water; USGS) Reservoirs are critical elements of our U.S. water supply. The Great Lakes are important source of freshwater, fishing, and transportation. In addition to using aquatic drones in the analysis of oceans and seas, we also need to be developing sensor platforms for our freshwater sources. Coupled with satellite and airborne imagery systems, aquatic drones could advance environmental research of freshwater ecosystems into uncharted territory.

The United States, in general, is lagging European companies. The legal system in the United States is part of the problem, rather fear of the legal system. While I personally appreciate some forms of regulation, other forms of regulation come in the form of solutions awaiting a problem, or applying regulations created in the 1960s to new 21st century issues. Most of the more sophisticated drones available today are those designed, engineered, and built in Europe. Companies in Belgium, France, and Germany already have high quality mapping and photogrammetric survey drones available. One of our university program directors directed me to a company in France, Spyboat Technologies.

Spyboat Technologies (website) has a public relations nightmare for a name. Setting aside that fact for a moment they have a good idea. Autonomous, GPS-enabled and sensor equipped airboats designed for measuring and monitoring the environment. Spyboat has a video on Vimeo showcasing their airboats. While I commend them for their idea, their boats are too small. They appear to be too easy to capsize, not stable, and not powerful enough for work on either our local reservoir or any of the Great Lakes. I’m not sure they would work well for the Ohio, Missouri, or Mississippi Rivers.

SPYBOAT SWAN in action with a single beam sonar 200 kHz with a built-in GPS system from SPYBOAT Technologies on Vimeo.

Aquatic drones haven’t appeared on the radar of the generic consumer, yet. May not ever, actually. I can see where boats may eventually come equipped with self-driving capabilities. When coupled to sensor systems to detect other vessels and GPS for navigation, self-driving boats may not be far into the future, either. Aquatic drones I can see only being suitable for natural resource management, monitoring, and research.



Book Review: The Glass Rainbow, by James Lee Burke

The Glass Rainbow, by James Lee Burke. Pocket Star Books. Simon & Schuster. ©2009. Paperback, $10.

Another great book by Burke, an amazing, captivating page-turner I hated to put down. His books wear me out; I stay up too late reading his prose.

Inside view of a barracoon, a holding chamber for incoming slaves before being sold. (from http://kathleenallisonopinion.blogspot.com/2011_03_01_archive.html)

The image (left) is of a barracoon. This particular barracoon can be found on River Street in Savannah, Georgia. A barracoon plays an important role in The Glass Rainbow. An artifact of the Slave South, a barracoon is essentially a human corral, a warehouse for humans, slaves moving between Africa, the Caribbean, the United States, and throughout Central and South America. Barracoons can be found throughout the South, and one plays a significant role in this 2009 Burke novel.

The Glass Rainbow tells the story of a collection of nefarious people working together and in spite of each other to bring Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcell down. And by “down,” I mean six-feet-under “down.” They want Dave and Clete dead, and if Molly and Alafair are killed along the way, so be it. And, maybe, maybe we should use Alafair to get to Dave, and when we have Dave, we will have Clete, too.

Dave and Clete are not without their sins, not without their ghosts, their personal demons tied to their past lives in Vietnam tend to become stark and apparent, especially for Dave. Their poltergeist aren’t corporeal but their adversaries truly are and they want to make Dave’s and Clete’s personal lives a living hell.

Two young girls are found murdered in a neighboring parish. A pimp from Dave’s own beat, Herman Stanga, seems a likely candidate. The more Dave and Clete investigate, the less likely Stanga seems to be the perpetrator. When the pimp ends up dead, the case begins to assume a darker tone. One of the dead girls has a tie to a wealthy landowner, Timothy Abelard, a sick and elderly man himself connected to organized crime.

Abelard has a corruptible son, Kermit, who has become tight with a up-and-coming author Richard Weingart. Weingart is making a name for himself in the publishing world, writing a somewhat autobiographical account of his time in prison at Raiford, Florida.

You see how complicated things become in JLB’s novels?

If this were only as complicated as his books became, they would still be very good. But, no, life is more complicated. Dave’s daughter, Alafair, adopted at 6 years old after surviving a plane crash, is in her mid-20s in The Glass Rainbow. She is a highly intelligent young woman but can still be beguiled by handsome, intelligent men. Probably like Ted Bundy. Except in this case her beguiler is Weingart. Alafair learns an early hard lesson yet some feel she has more to learn, and her father needs to learn some lessons, as well.

As if those shady folks weren’t enough for Dave and Clete, toss in a corrupt deputy sheriff, unscrupulous managers of a non-profit, men in black SUVs, and uncooperative sheriffs in neighboring parishes and Dave and Clete seem like the only sane people in New Iberia.

Coastal Louisiana is as much a character in each book as any pimp, cretin, hooker, or nun. Geography is elemental in Burke’s stories. Swamps, bayous, and coulees are as common as people. Each has a character, a danger, a presence. The Atchafalaya Basin is “...an enormous geographical composite, bigger than the Florida Everglades, containing rivers, bayous, industrial canals, flooded woods, hummocks, and wetlands that bleeds as far as the eye can see into the Gulf of Mexico.” (256) Emphasis on “bleeds,” an interesting word choice, as if the basin is a wound, seeping, bleeding into the Gulf, draining life and willpower.

Another brilliant aspect of Burke’s writing is ability to bring so many cultural nuances to his work. A lessor author may simply limit themselves to familiar cultural tropes, rich whites, poor blacks, with a supporting cast of Cajun stereotypes. Burke is unafraid of discussing the history of Louisiana, Angola, and the fascinating imbroglio of cultures found in coastal Louisiana. Located in southwest Louisiana is a unique ethnic group, the Redbones. Now, to be clear, “redbone” is also used as a racial slur among some and I am not referring to that use, nor is Burke. Burke is referencing the ethnic group. To be a Redbone, one is neither White, nor Negro, nor Indian. So, what is left, then? A Redbone is like being mulatto (part White, part Black ancestry), except a Redbone is probably part Black and part Indian, or part White and part Indian, or perhaps part Spanish and part Indian. Today, I’m not sure if Redbone is a culturally-acceptable term, if people with this ancestry self-identify as “Redbone.” As Burke points out, these people may simply see themselves as “Creole.”

I feel like even when reading fiction, one should learn something, or at the bare minimum be made curious about some aspect of the plot. I don’t mind looking up words I have forgotten the definition for. I like the places in fiction to exist; I want to dig out a map or hop on Google Maps, or Bing Maps and check places out. Burke’s novel intertwine history, geography, culture, climate and weather, even economics. The fishing industry, Big Oil, plus the underground economies of corruption, graft, and bribery are portions of all local economies.

The Glass Rainbow represents perhaps the most grievous threats Dave and Clete have ever experienced of any of the books I’ve reviewed. Dave takes his cases personally, as if each criminal has personally challenged Dave to a battle of wits upon which rests real lives. Yet, I think this novel elevates threats and life-changing circumstances to a new level.

Loved this book.

Book Review: A Morning for Flamingos, by James Lee Burke

A Morning for Flamingos, by James Lee Burke. Harper Mystery paperback. 1990. $9. (#4 0f 19 in the Dave Robicheaux series)

I’ve been toying with this idea for a few days. I’m debating of starting a giveaway. JLB has become one of my favorite authors of fiction, not simply crime fiction, but fiction, in general. If you’re reading my posts, you know I review JLB with frequency. JLB’s writing somehow makes the gritty, ugly, simple, day-to-day life of coastal Louisiana delicious. James is like the Bobby Flay of the crime novel. He can take the worst people, the worst environment, the moral decay and decrepitude and fashion an amazing tale leaving me ready for another course of Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel.

Out of respect to Mr. Burke’s craft, I’m contemplating beginning a “Burke of the Month” contest. Or, perhaps a “Crime of the Month” contest. There are several authors I read whose writing is brilliant and whose characters I am really drawn to. Another author I might involve is Sara Paretsky, who writes about V.I. Warshawski. The authors write about characters who lack self-indulgent soliloquies. Not that Robicheaux or Warshawski don’t engage in some soliloquies but for reasons I haven’t come to terms with I don’t find them irritating. I not going to bash other writers, I just won’t promote them as much. I find Burke’s exploration of base forms of human nature captivating, human frailty, weakness, psychic damage wrought upon people by others keeps me reading his books. Burke’s book aren’t procedural crime; the bayous, lagoons, and backwater estuaries of coastal Louisiana, of Bayou Teche don’t lend themselves well to textbook solutions. Lives are complicated, and every character in Burke’s books are complicated people.

So, to encourage people to give Burke, Paretsky, maybe a couple of others a try, I’m thinking about giving away a book or two per month. Watch for details.

Reading the Dave Robicheaux series in order is not necessary. I hope not; I think I began with either “Jolie Blon’s Bounce” (#11) or “Last Car to Elysian Fields” (#13). The first Robicheaux novel was published in 1987. “A Morning for Flamingos” was published in 1990. The newest Robicheaux novel, “Light of the World,” was published in 2013. If my maths are decent, Robicheaux has been around for about 26 years. Reading the books out of sequence leads to some confusion about Dave’s personal life. Dave has a few wives; he loses one to divorce, loses one to illness, and gains one later in the series. Dave also has an adopted daughter, Alafair, who grows up as the series progresses. Readers get to see how Dave’s attitude changes with each wife, how his law enforcement life interferes with, sometimes rules, consistently complicates his personal life. Another nice aspect of the series is watching how Dave’s relationship with Alafair changes as she matures. I’m currently reading, “The Glass Rainbow” (2010), and not to get ahead but Burke refrains from giving into the societal tropes of concerned, irrational parents and irrational, emotional young people. Instead of simply writing cookie-cutter dialogue and situations like many other authors, Burke’s portrayals of Dave and Alafair are thoughtful, respectful, concerned. Each acts in what I consider rational ways, though Dave is an occasional hot-head and is not opposed to mashing someone’s grits, especially where his wife or daughter are concerned.

In “A Morning for Flamingos,” Dave is nearly killed. No spoiler here; his partner is killed and he is left for dead in the first three pages of the novel. The killer was being transported by Robicheaux and his partner to a state facility for nothing less than execution. A little more than an hour later, the killer is loose, Dave’s partner is dead, and Dave was left for dead behind a gas station.

Cajun Boudin (“boo-dan”)

Dave recovers from his wounds over three months or so, and Dave is back in action with the Iberia Sheriff’s Office. Not long after returning to duty, though, Dave is approached by a special investigator working with the Presidential Task Force on Drugs. Dave, we’d like for you to go undercover. “We want to put you inside the mob. You’re the perfect guy. You resign from the department; we set you up in New Orleans, give you a lot of money to flash around to the lowlifes.” New Orleans has a new and big bad player in the drug community, and the task force wants him like a starving man wants a nice hot plate of cajun boudin.

I mentioned earlier Burke’s characters are complicated. Even his villains are complicated. The new drug kingpin, Anthony Cardo, aka “Tony C” and “Tony the Cutter” is a complicated fellow, and not simply because he has operations in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale. No, he has an interesting family – and that’s all I will say. To say anything more would be a spoiler.

Dave becomes a reticent and wary player in the drug community in New Orleans. He has to place his adopted daughter, Alafair, with friends. Along the way he becomes re-acquainted with an old girlfriend. His best friend, Clete, runs amok, solving simple dilemmas by punching them in the face. And, while trying to handle his undercover operations he discovers the piece of human excrement who killed his partner and nearly killed him has returned to New Orleans.

Life is never simple, quiet, or mellow for Robicheaux. His conscious is tormented by visions of horrifying details of time spent in Vietnam. Dave suffers flashbacks, night sweats, and night terrors, the circumstances of his daily routine unleash dreams reminding him of death, sadness, and regret. Ghosts of his past follow him – not literally, but he sees human interaction through a lens of violence, mistrust, and deceit, and tries to buffer his loved ones from detritus of the discarded filth of humanity.

Shrimp Etouffee

Burke’s story-telling is like a rich, tantalizing shrimp etouffee. Large flavorful characters sauteed in a spicy roux of drugs, sex, guns, and teeth-crunching knuckles. Walk down St. Ann, or wander through Jackson Square, or pick your way down Bourbon Street. Visitors will be simultaneously lured by aromas of crabs being boiled, of sweet oily beignets being fried at Cafe du Monde; and repelled by fetor of urine, booze, despair, and bad choices. Burke’s writing makes me want to visit New Orleans more than I do. New Orleans is like a microcosm of global humanity sitting on the cusp of Life and Death, the literally collision of the Mighty Mississippi River, Big Oil, and Mother Nature’s hurricane tantrums.

Burke weaves history and geography effortlessly into his prose. “Later, she worked in a laundry and did housework for twenty dollars and week, which was the standard full-time salary for any Negro in South Louisiana, wherever he or she worked, well into the 1960s.” (4)

The oil industry is never far removed from any of Burke’s stories. Sometimes, evidence is as simple as a boat. “It was called a jugboat because it had been used by a marine seismograph company to lay out and recover the long rubber-coated  cables and instruments, or “jugs,” that recorded the vibrations off the substrata after an explosion was detonated in the drill hole.” (51)

Burke’s book elevate crime fiction to a new level. A reader may not learn about the scientific names for body parts, for bones, or about certain aspects of decomposition. It’s not like Burke leaves these elements out; readers will find these details. They are more anecdotal; they don’t fuel the inevitable impact of Dave and Clete with the true villains of the book, never become focus. Fighting against amoral people and dealing with his internal demons consume Dave’s time.

Here is a link to Amazon should my review be enticing enough for you to consider Burke’s book.

Thanks for reading. And keep an eye out for an announcement concerning some free books.


New Level of Absurdity Reached! Achievement Locked Even More!

I’ve written several times about nonsense in Higher Education. Administrators in Higher Education love bureaucracy like zombies love brains. Some bureaucracy has to exist. We want to make sure people are treated fairly. We want to ensure people have access to appropriate amounts of financial aid. We need to document course work and hours. We need to ensure federal and state laws are followed. I get all of that. Over my 18+ years of higher education experience I’ve learned a number of things about the inner workings of higher education. No doubt I have many more things to learn.

I’ve run up against a new, nearly insurmountable form of bureaucracy. I think they are called, “Accountants.” Under normal circumstances, I would be “Pro Accountants.” I have a lot of respect for numbers, and decimals points, especially numbers including a $ or €. I like ∏, and while I was never good at ∫ or ƒ I still appreciate them for the mathematics each represents. In fact, I like a lot of the Greek alphabet.

But, my beef has little to do with the math or numbers falling within the wheelhouse of accountancy. My beef has more to do with what appears to be nonsense policies contrived with what I can only surmise is either an excruciatingly myopic interpretation of some obscure IRS guideline, or is simply a means not to do any work.

A colleague of mine and I are conducting two workshops. The first workshop is in April, the second workshop is in June. We are going to train people on geomentoring. A geomentor is a person who has received instruction or who works in a geospatial field and can help transfer geospatial knowledge to young people. Participants in our first workshop are mostly students with a couple of staff. Participants in our second workshop will be teachers, middle and high school educators.

We hope. Hoped. I’m not sure at this point.

We received a small NASA grant to develop and host a workshop to communicate and demonstrate NASA educational materials to two local populations. When news came our proposal was accepted, we were really excited. Finally!

And then my university accountants got involved.

Our workshop had an Achille’s Heel we did not see coming. See, we wrote into our grant the capacity to reward, e.g. compensate participants with $50 each in the first workshop, and teachers in the second workshop with $150. I’ve been in workshops where I have received materials, or an Amazon gift card as a means of saying, “Thanks!” I know of faculty who have gone to other universities for workshop who have received similar expressions of gratitude for attending and participating.

However, at my uni, if you attend a workshop and could potentially receive some form of gratitude that has a monetary value, you must become an employee in order to receive it.

For the last two weeks I and my colleague have been waging a Logic War against accountants. The accountants want to treat our workshop attendees as employees. The attendees will be assigned employee numbers. The attendees will have background checks performed by Human Resources. The attendees will have to provide Social Security Numbers and fill out an IRS I-9 form.

On our side, on the side of workshop facilitating, we also have a number of ludicrous chores. We have to distribute our workshop flyers next week for our June workshop. Not a bad idea, really; people need a chance to plan. However, we have to do this so that anyone interested in the workshop can begin the process of becoming a university employee, so the individual can file their I-9, submit a copy of their Social Security Number, and fill out their background check paperwork.

♣”How many participants do you have?
“Nine or ten.
♣”So, you’ll need ten I-9 form so we can do withholding. And, we need their social so we can begin their background check.
“Background check? What? Why?
♣”Well, they are receiving compensation for their work. Being so, we need to enter them into our HR system so they can get paid. Background check is part of the process.
“What work? This is a workshop for educating people about geomentoring.
♣”It is a “work” shop, correct? They will be doing work. If they are doing work, and are working for you, then they are employees, and we have to do withholding on their pay.
“Yes, it is a workshop. We are educating them and training them on some NASA educational materials. But, we aren’t hiring them. Workshops don’t hire people? Are you high…maybe just a teensy-weensy stoned?
♣”Do you control the time of the workshop? When it starts and ends? Do you control the hours they work? Do you tell them what to do?
“Well, of course. It is a workshop, after all. That’s the point. We train them over a given time period. We show them how to do stuff.
♣”So, we are in agreement, then. They show up when you tell them to. They sign in to computers. They follow your instruction. They are then working for you. The gift card is their compensation.
“What? No! They don’t work for me. I have not hired them. I am giving them a $50 gift card to thank them for their participation.
♣”Yes, I know; just like the uni “thanks” you for your work, you get a paycheck.
“Huh? No…wait, I do real work. I teach, I consult, I manage. These people are guests who have signed up to learn how to integrate GIS and remote sensing and NASA educational materials into their classroom.
♣”Who else do they work for? If they are working for us, are the workshop hours going to increase their work week hours into over-time?
“Oh, for shit’s sake, I’m refuse to entertain any more questions because none of this is rooted in Reason or Logic. I refuse to be infected by your crazy-conflation of workshop participants into university employees. By engaging with you, I am complicit in making this Pratchettian situation a reality. I’m not going to play the Copenhagen Interpretation with you, as I fear by humoring you, I bring this absurdity into existence.

While this dialogue is contrived, about 80% is real. The part I concocted is the very last comment. Seriously. 

Additionally, we have been saddled with answering the following questions for each workshop participant:

1. Has the individual provided the same or similar services to other unrelated entities or to the general public as a trade or business during the last 12 months?
2. Will the department provide the individual with specific instructions regarding performance of the required work rather than rely on the individual’s expertise?
3. Can the university set the number of hours and/or days of the week that the individual is required to work, as opposed to allowing the individual to set his/her own work schedule?
“Has the individual provided the same or similar services to other unrelated…” Pardon my French, but how the F should I know?? And what bearing does this have on giving someone in a workshop a gift card to the university bookstore? If Michigan State University can do this with no problem, then why is a small regional university in the South experiencing conniptions about a gift card.
And herein lies the rub. This really isn’t about a gift card. This is really about an obscure policy not simply impacting people in a workshop but imposing a will which has already damaged the reputation of a small regional university with a large Division I research university.
I did not grab Michigan State University’s name at random. As I learned this week, my uni has become, uhm, “uni non gratis” at Michigan State University. Evidently and singularly the result of dealing with our finance department (and potentially HR), Michigan State refuses to work with my university. Too much of hassle.
In my earlier years, I had a few buffers between my contact with contracts and the stream of funds. For a number of reasons, I am much closer to the money, now. I heard tales of ridiculous encounters, paperwork lost, paperwork delayed, micromanaged paperwork. In those days, my superiors would find ways around our local bureaucracy, such as funneling grant or contract money through another university or state agency simply to avoid the Event Horizon of my uni’s accountants. Recently, though, another colleague of mine told me he had worked without a contract for the first month of the semester in 2014. He had recently received a promotion, from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor. In order to clear his old title, he had to be deleted from the payroll system as “Assistant,” then added back as “Associate.” In our system, this cannot be handled by checking a box. Evidently, the process is handled with two mutually exclusive processes, potentially by two different people. One person deletes the entry in the database; the other adds a new entry into a database – when the paperwork arrives. What if the paperwork is never passed along after the “Associate” entry is deleted? Well, you aren’t an employee any longer, that is what happens. When he discovered this (discovered because he no longer had insurance coverage, either) a letter from the college dean and the provost was required to document his employment. “Yes, he is still an employee of the university.”
Neither I, nor my colleague on the workshop, nor my dean, nor the staff of our Sponsored Programs Office have been able to communicate to our Accounts Department, “You cannot treat workshop attendees this way. This literally makes no sense.” I have run across a hand-full of faculty and professional staff who simply do not engage our local community in adult-level workshops due to the obstacles created in our Accounting Office. In a few cases, they network with faculty at other schools in order to use that particular schools accounting office and circumvent our own.
These bizarre and capricious accounting practices damage reputations, both faculty and institutional. They reduce cooperation among schools and institutions. On the one hand, administrators encourage grant submissions, yet the supporting financial offices actively work against the grant awardees and any other associated institution.
My questions are, “Does this ring as familiar with anyone? Has anyone experienced similar situations at their institution? Or, perhaps run across similar problems maybe not at their own school but with another institution?”

Spring is Finally Here…Maybe

Flooding along Ohio River, March 2015

Flooding along Ohio River, March 2015

The above region depicted in the image above should be familiar to most of us in the United States. The blue “veins” are the regional arteries of part of our nation’s transportation network. Here, we can see flooding along the Ohio River near Henderson, KY. Also, small areas of flooding are located across from Paducah, KY., and west of Ballard, Co., KY., near Cairo, Illinois. If you would like to see a “before” image, visit NASA’s “Earth Observatory” website. We tend to forget rivers in the United States are as important as our system of interstate highways. People notice when roads fall out of repair; we drive on highways all the time. Few of us realize how vital our waterways are for global commerce, not simply for pleasure. Flooding, as well as droughts, can have long-term impacts on the movement of materials within the United States, or the delivery of materials to port facilities, in preparation for shipment to other countries.

Weather Journal for March 25th, 2015

Date of the observation: 3/25/2015

Time of the observation: 13:27 CST

Geographic location: Murray, KY 42071

Air temperature (units: F and C): 74° F / 23° C

Wind speed: 11mph (west-southwest WSW)

Relative humidity (%): 57%

Dew point (units: F and C): 59°F / ° C

Barometric Pressure 30.04in / 1017.27 mb

Heat Index/Wind Chill (units: F): 77° F / 25° C

Skies: Mostly clear, maybe 10% … right now.

Yesterday was the nicest day in weeks, mostly sunny with air temps in the low 70s.

Today is warmer than yesterday, with air temps in the mid-70s at the time of observation. We may be experiencing a little compression warming, which occurs when an air mass gets pinched between two denser air masses. A cold front recently cleared from our area, but a cold front is approaching our area. The air mass in the middle is getting squeezed and this can lead to slightly warmer temps.

Later today, tonight, and tomorrow our region is expected to receive a lot of rain, maybe inches or more by some forecasts. Cold air is moving in from the Plains and the air mass is colliding with warmer, moister air from the Gulf of Mexico. We all know what happens when warm air comes in contact with a cooler mass, we get condensation. We see this happen on the outside of our tasty summertime beverages. We could see a lot of rain from the collision of the cooler air mass with the warmer air mass.

One final note. Spring just began, and will run essentially through the end of June. Some of the questions I pose in the homework ask people to think about when certain types of weather occur, as in “what season?” When temperatures warm, when we get lots of rain, when we get the majority of severe weather, people tend to associate “warm” and “sun” with summer. Yet, summer may not be the precise season when some forms of weather are most likely to occur. Also, bear this in mind. The questions will state, “During what season do most <insert_phenomenon> occur.” The operative word is “most” as in “more than 50%.” Severe weather can occur year-round. However, the vast majority of severe weather occurs predominantly during two seasons.


Book Review: World Order, by Henry Kissinger

World Order, by Henry Kissinger. Penguin Press. 2014. 420 pgs. $36 

Dr. Kissinger has six books to his credit; this is the only book of his I’ve read. I’m not receiving any compensation for reviewing this book. I did receive the book for free, but only because I entered a Penguin book contest near Christmas of 2014 and this was the book I selected as a winner.

I was not particularly impressed with this book, though perhaps through no fault of Dr. Kissinger or his prose. Perhaps my expectations were misplaced, too. Knowing Dr. Kissinger wrote this book, and the book dealt primarily with how countries and regions sought to achieve some sort of equilibrium, I expected more personal anecdotes, more personal observations, more particular details regarding geopolitics contemporaneous with his career. If you are reading this review in anticipation of purchasing this book, do not buy the book with those hopes in mind.

For the first three chapters, World Order reads like a textbook for an upper-level history or political science course. A history or political science course with a distinct Western bias, for sure. The entire book is couched in the Westphalian System of State Development, in and of itself a development of regional politics and conflict of 17th century Europe. As is often the case with books I read on geopolitics written by those educated in Western society, authors seem to consider nothing outside Europe ever existed, that Europe brought the only models of civilization to the planet.

Chapter Two details the repercussions of the Congress of Vienna, the implementation of the Westphalian system, and establishing a geopolitical order throughout most of western Europe. Essentially, people were not used to identifying with a state (a country), or having to recognize new political boundaries, or aligning themselves with an entity of significantly larger size than a fiefdom. The benefit of recognizing borders and defining areas of control was conflict was minimized. War was not eliminated, but for years after the Congress of Vienna, Europe had witnessed less conflict than in the previous generations. Less war meant being able to redirect resources to other economic pursuits, especially exploration, colonization, and conquest of other world regions.

Reaching beyond Europe brings these nascent world powers into contact with Southwest Asia, a region most media refers to as the Middle East. Kissinger argues, in my opinion, the Westphalian system simply doesn’t work for the Middle East, with a few possible exceptions. The exceptions include Turkey, Iran, perhaps Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Israel I include only because the state of Israel was brought about through force of will by the United Nations and did not (and probably would never have) evolve and rise of its own accord within the Levant region. The remaining portion of the Middle East realm, which also include portions of North Africa comprise a human mosaic of different cultures, different languages, and different religions. Many of these components tend to have sub-parts which are mutually incompatible. The political structures and climate which arose in Europe were never present in the Middle East, for a variety of reasons, thus the Westphalian system lacks any substantive cornerstone on which to build any lasting states. Turkey exists as the last bastion of the Ottoman Empire. Iran exists as the homeland modern Persian state. Saudi Arabia exists through the will of a complicated familial network supporting a monarchy.

Don’t look for any powerful insights into Middle East geopolitics, however. Dr. Kissinger doesn’t include any particular person episode or any chronicle of his experience of working on any major geopolitical issue concerning the Middle East. I found the lack of any experience disappointing.

His views of Asia are also somewhat disappointing, as well. The growth of the Chinese state is passed of as “the single pinnacle of human hierarchy.” To translate, the Chinese emperor was seen as a god, and thus everything existed under him, regardless of where on the global. So, in spite of never having visited Europe, and not even knowing about Europe, Europe is still a subject to the Chinese emperor. While true, the development of the Chinese state was a little more complicated and nuanced than one might understand from reading World Order.

Furthermore, Dr. Kissinger frequently cites from the Arthashastra. The Arthashastra is a journal composed by a 4th century BCE Hindu minister, Kautilya. The particular philosophy set forth by Kautilya in the Arthashastra can be summed up in this quote: “The conqueror shall always endeavor to add to his own power and increase this own happiness.” (pg. 196) This seems to suggest constant conflict as the leader would continue to strive to minimize both internal and external opposition. Ruthlessness was an asset to be used to “build a harmonious universal empire and uphold the dharma – the timeless moral order whose principles were handed down by the gods.” In other words, the Arthashastra promotes war and conflict, with the result being everyone is brought under one dominion led by a benevolent ruler…hopefully.

Admittedly, I did enjoy this particular section as I am not well-versed on Hindu or South Indian culture. I bookmarked the Arthashastra for future research, as I had not run across this reference before. Yes; I know, what cave do I live in.

Dr. Kissinger while being a remarkable personality in U.S. politics, especially the portion of his career overlapping with Richard Nixon, is fairly much loathed throughout in the world. Not included anywhere in this book are the attempts by various U.S. administrations to undermine governments around the world. Nothing notable about Vietnam, though Dr. Kissinger does discuss some of the issues pertaining to Korea, control of the Korean peninsula, and the interests of various nearby global actors, the U.S.S.R., China, and Japan. Not surprisingly, though, there is no mention of any particular activities, such as the carpet-bombing of Cambodia. The meddling in politics in Chile is not to be found, nor any sort of intervention in Central America. I find it very challenging to read a book purporting to be about World Order when the author has first-hand experience sowing the seeds of disorder.

Some of his history seems to be off, too. “Begun in 1904 with American funds and engineering expertise on territory seized from Colombia by means of a local rebellion supported by the United States, he is referencing the Panama Canal. (pg. 251)  This account does not jibe with any other historical evidence I’ve encountered. The Panama Canal was initiated years earlier by the French, by two separate companies, both of which ended up going bankrupt. The U.S. entry into the canal zone was the last and most fruitful, but we certainly did not begin the canal. PBS’s “The American Experience” provides a nice timeline of the Panama Canal effort.

The later chapters of the book seem to gloss over all sorts of contemporary events. Dr. Kissinger spends a good portion of a chapter exonerating President Nixon from a very controversial presidency. President Ford is barely mentioned; President Carter amounts to a paragraph. President Reagan comes across as a savvy geopolitical genius. Both President G.H.W. Bush and President G.W. Bush are credited with being critical-thinkers of their respective geopolitical episodes. Finally, President Obama is described as contributing America’s history of seeming “ambiguous.” An interesting comment considering Dr. Kissinger has been instrumental in developing American foreign policy.

The last chapter seeks to examine the impact of technology, especially social media and smartphones. Dr. Kissinger offers some very salient commentary. He worries about the reliance upon a public opinion as a means of policy-making:

“the participants in the public debate risk being driven less be reasoned arguments than by what catches the mood of the moment…Participants at public demonstrations  are rarely assembled around a specific program. Rather, many seek the uplift of a moment of exaltation, treating their role in the event primarily as participation in an emotional experience.” (pg. 358)

Dr. Kissinger raises many good points. Actually, I wonder if they are his, though. In the epilogue, he admits to not knowing much about technology. In fact, most of his knowledge from his commentary comes from conversations with Eric Schmidt, of Google. Upon realizing, this I again felt somewhat underwhelmed by this book. I would much rather prefer to read about the impact of technology upon people by someone more conversant in technology, like Eric Schmidt himself. I do have to exercise caution with this opinion; I don’t want to discount the importance of the message simply because I would prefer a different messenger.

The quote above is not really prescient; the Fallacy of the Masses has been quite active for a while. Fallacy of the Masses fallacy is the belief that since a large number of people share the same belief that belief must be accurate or true, i.e. “how can all those people be wrong?” The precise concern in our current state of U.S. politics is political leaders will prefer to pander to potentially ignorant populations than actually make good, tough choices based on thoughtful consideration. Leaders will make decisions based on how popular those decisions might make them, eschewing the hard, and potentially better, longer-term decision which could potentially make them less popular – and less electable.

I’d like to recommend this book; I simply cannot. Some aspects might be fine for those without any knowledge of European history. The first two chapters are fine for a brief synopsis of 17th century European history, for instance. Beyond those chapters, the portion about the Hindu world-view is interesting. But this book gives short-shrift to Chinese history, provides a small slice of Hindu history, and does not adequately touch 20th century geopolitics. My sentiment is most of this knowledge is better gathered from other books by other authors, however. About 75% of the way through the book I felt the contents would have been better suited as a few essays in Foreign Affairs. I don’t think there is enough information contained herein to move any conversation forward.

Thanks for reading.




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