Universities Cannot Afford Nonsense Bureaucracy


To be clear, I am not tenured faculty, nor will I ever be, unless a Prime Mover intercedes on my behalf, or my life circumstances alter significantly to allow me another opportunity to pursue a terminal degree. I suspect I will succumb to a terminal illness before that ever happens, though.

My position on campus brings me into contact with faculty, staff, and students from all over campus. I share a building with physics faculty, biology faculty, water science and geoscience faculty, military science faculty, and archaeology faculty. And this is just the building my office is located in. My building also houses Student Support Services. I also frequently work with business and marketing faculty, economics, and agriculture faculty. I get around. I know, that sounds provocative but because I am involved in geospatial education I do get around and visit many areas across my campus. Oh, and education faculty. Yeesh, I almost forgot them.

This month I had an interesting experience with a university academic committee, a high-level committee responsible for evaluating new courses, degree programs, and certificate programs. Historically, whenever I’ve been involved with assisting with modding a course, or a degree program, I’ve never been the one to shepherd the proposal through committee. This time was different.

This time, I was responsible for shepherding the proposal through committee because I was the primary author of the proposal. However, I needed a faculty sponsor since I am merely a non-tenure track lecturer. My sponsor set me up as a “proxy” so I could be allowed to speak in defense of my own proposal. I’m setting aside for this anecdote my background of teaching for my department since 1997 and having served under three chairs, five deans, and have witnessed a near-complete turnover in my department faculty over the intervening years. I’m discounting this…I think.

My proposal was for the creation of a Certificate in GIS program. The purpose of the program is simple: to provide yet another valid form of competency for our GIS majors. Last fall, a recent post-baccalaureate student mentioned he ran across an employer who would not hire him for lack of a Certificate in GIS. “Yes, I see from your college transcripts you have GIS courses with good grades. I still need a Certificate of GIS in order to give you an interview.” This anecdote lit a fire under me, angered me, and I decided to do something about this. The student’s story was only the most recent evidence of problems I have within the business community when hiring students, yet I cannot do anything about ignorant employers. I can only, hopefully, help adapt my program to meet the needs of our students, to help improve their chances of gaining employment. So, I set about to develop a Certificate in GIS program not only to help students in my department but to help students in any department who may need to demonstrate fundamental proficiency in GIS (geographic information systems/science.)

The problem is: my department and various faculty within my department have worked for about 17 years to create and implement a Certificate in GIS program.

Yes; you read that right. 17 years.

Faculty in my department initiated our very first proposal as early as 1998 to develop a Certificate in GIS program. Over the intervening 17 years, faculty tried submitting proposals a number of times only to see each proposals never get out of our college. And, for a while, there was a policy, “The college will only support one certificate proposal for this academic year.” Then, we had to deal with a rumor, “The Board of Regents is not accepting any certificate proposals for the foreseeable future.” That rumor persisted for many years and had the effect of shutting down any further proposal work.

When I was elected to Staff Congress I developed a good working relationship with our Staff Regent, and when she left the Board of Regents, her replacement was the president of Staff Congress, with whom I already had a good working relationship.

Working through the new Staff Regent we discovered the Board of Regents had no such anti-certificate policy. In fact, the Board of Regents were pro-certificates; one need to only satisfy the submission and evaluation process for the University.

With this new knowledge and evidence, I could claim, “shenanigans,” on anyone attempting to subvert a certificate proposal. Fortunately, I did not have to do this. But, I did have to discuss the creation of the certificate proposal with my chair and my dean to let them know this proposal was going to happen.

I’m hoping at this point you might be thinking, “Wow…what a Charlie-Foxtrot,” aka SNAFU (situation:normal=all fouled-up). And, yes, I agree. What a huge problem.

Universities have many, many roles, primarily to provide “higher education” above and beyond what a person might receive from a community college or from a trade or vocation school. Universities and college are institution of higher learning, meaning faculty and staff are going to foster more liberal education on to students, more history, more writing, more humanities. This is by design. Universities must be different than DeVry, different than ITT Tech, different than the Culinary Institute of America, or the Art Institute of America. To wax politically for a moment, this is what the Scott Walker’s of the United States fail to intellectually realize, and why he and his ilk should not be allowed to hold any high-level public office. Walker has no business being governor, let alone POTUS. Maybe a mayor. The U.S. deserves better than to have intellectually enfeebled persons holding office.

Universities have some obligation to meet the needs of business and enterprise, however. Universities need to be receptive to changing environments in technology, for example, and allow internal colleges and departments latitude to mod their curriculum as necessary to meet the changing needs of whatever economic sector associated degrees represent.

For disinterested bureaucrats to stymy change is hurtful fundamentally to students. Whether it is ineffectual faculty, ineffectual teaching, or stonewalling necessary curriculum changes, academic leaders need to be flexible and adaptive to change. THAT IS WHAT EDUCATION IS ABOUT – CHANGING AND ADAPTING WHEN CONFRONTED WITH NEW EVIDENCE.

I had an interesting conversation with my building neighbor, a wildlife management professor. He related a story about wildlife managers in the American Southwest and their knowledge of coyotes. Evidently, Chicago is having problem with urban coyotes. Chicago coyotes have adapted to the smell of humans, and have no problems getting into and out of small places. Thus, Chicago coyotes are very easy to trap. They aren’t afraid of confined areas and they are not put off by the smell of humans. The Southwest U.S. wildlife managers were unable to accept this knowledge of Chicago coyotes simply because, “Our coyotes are too wary of traps because they don’t like confined spaces and can smell a slight trace of human contact on a trap and because our coyotes behave this way I cannot believe your coyotes act that way.” And this coming from educated people who study how animals adapt to environmental changes yet are unable to accept coyotes adapt to an urban environment…Yeah, because no animal has ever adapted to a new or changed environment.

I will admit I say, “No,” all the time. I say, “No,” because with “no” I can get an explanation, the person must communicate their process, in detail, benefitting them in a number of ways. The student (or faculty) get the practice of communicating complex ideas. I can then help them evaluate their process, look for weaknesses, or strengths, or obstacles they may not have considered. Rarely does a “no” remain a “no.” I have found a “yes” typically results in the student walking away only to discover a vast number of problems later, problems we could have reduced if I had initially replied with, “No, but tell me about it.”

Universities, regional to flagships, need to be more pro-active about listening to faculty, faculty ideas, and instill a modicum of trust in people. The policy of, “The college will support only one certificate proposal per year,” is a baseless policy. What if Chemistry could offer some Certificate of Laboratory Management? What if Physics could offer a Certificate of Laboratory Management? Or, if Occupational Safety and Health could offer a number of certificates? I’m not clear on the rationale for limiting a college to a single certificate proposal when a significant number of students could benefit by working towards any number certificates from granted by a number of different departments.

Before I close this post out, I was amused by a part of the quality control process. The last portion of the process was essentially a scrutiny of grammar, punctuation, and formatting.

“You’re missing a semi-colon at the end of Item 3, sub-part (b).”

“I think you are missing an “and” after the comma.”

“Are you using this word as a noun or an adjective?”

I was really amused when one committee member held the sheets of a proposal up to the overhead lights. “I think your left margin is off on page 2 of your syllabus. Looks like it shifted over by one character. Yep, I’m almost sure it’s off.” I thought that was funny, until I realized if this is what stops a proposal from being accepted, some minutae associated with a page coming off a printer a little askew, I might lose my shit. Fortunately, for me, them, whomever, that did not happen.

The proposal I spent three full works drafting went through both reading of the university committee with zero revisions and zero comments. My faculty sponsor was shocked. She had served on the committee years ago, said “this never happens. Something must be wrong.” Nope. The proposal is now almost a sure thing at this point. While I wrote proposal I did submit several drafts to faculty and peers for review. Their comments I reviewed and I made changes along the way. This proposal did not occur in a vacuum. Successful proposals rarely occur in a rarified environment. They have to be exposed to light, allowed to breath, cough out the bad stuff, inhale the good stuff.

Honestly, this time the biggest hurdle was my own departmental curriculum committee. The proposal did not have unanimous support, by one dissenter. Sort of an interesting sub-story with the dissenter. As a tenured faculty, he had been the early proponent and sponsor of a few previous proposals, all of which failed. Now, on the cusp of a proposal with a good chance of getting through, he threw some shade my way.

“Who wrote this? Why is it coming from him? Who decided what courses would comprise the core? Who decided what courses comprise the electives? Who decided on the name of the certificate?”

We had an interesting meeting. He and I don’t get along. My proposal included details from the top 20 certificate-granting institutions plus details on the certificate programs offered by our regional competitors. He had no evidence to support his contentions and argued against my evidence. Perhaps a post for another time, but ego has no role in higher education where students are concerned. Unfortunately, his comments painted him into a corner, and faculty who hadn’t really witnessed his tendency to be unreasonable were now witness to his uncooperativeness in person. I did not concede to his name change as no one on Earth’s green earth would have google searched for “certificate in geospatial science technology.” I did kowtow and removed a course I teach and replaced for a course he teaches. Now, two of his courses comprise 2/3rds of the certificate core and 0/3rds of my courses are in the core. I moved my course to an elective. Our majors won’t be affected by the change as my course is a core course in our major.

However, again and to the point of the post, faculty, whether as chairs, deans, or at whatever level they achieve and to fight against the attitude of shutting down innovation, fight against ossified thinking, be flexible to new ideas, be nimble and pay attention to changes in not only their discipline but any ancillary disciplines. One never can be sure where new ideas may come from which can be modded for use within a seemingly unrelated discipline.

When I coach, I tell my players, “Head’s up! Eyes Open!” This is how education always ought to be.

——————

Shout-out to my new subscribers! Thanks for reading and choosing to subscribe:

Michael Lawrence Langan, aka “Disrupted Physician

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BDHesse, aka “BDHesse

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#PAX

Some Comments On Recent Weather


The following is a post I wrote for an “Understanding Weather and Climate” course I teach each semester, online. I’m not sure all will read; it’s about 2000 words. Like I tend to think, “You payz your money, you takes your chances.” If anyone detects any errors, factual or otherwise, please let me know. I appreciate your attention.

I’ve been collecting images over the last couple days. I was hoping to go over these as sort of a postmortem on the changing weather, looking back on the last few days to see how we got to today.

In the image at left I have placed black arrows at the 5400m level (500mb). This is a diagnostic level where moisture above this is frozen, below this level is liquid. By examining this level we can determine who might get snow and who might get rain. In this image, regions to the right of the arrows, in the blues and purples, will be getting snow. Light blues, greens and oranges will be getting rain, if anything.

In this image I have highlighted two areas. The yellow ellipse highlights the transition zone between the amounts of available atmospheric moisture for precipitation. The larger the number the greater the amount of precipitation possible. Light areas have greater moisture than darker areas. The black circle highlights western Kentucky and the Jackson Purchase. You will have to make a mental note of your location in case you are located somewhere else.

One thing to keep in mind as we examine these images is that these maps are based off data collected at a moment in time; they are static images, not dynamic. While informative, they don’t convey the movement of air masses. We will consider that in a moment.

The image is simply upper level (850mb) temperature with western Kentucky highlighted with a black circle. In this case, cool colors represent warmer temps, and warmer colors represent ridiculously cold temperatures. For instance, the light blue areas represent areas with temperatures of about -2°C. As you look to the purples and reds, the temperature decreases. The area of western Kentucky is about -22°C.

These are not surface temperatures, to be clear. These are temperatures aloft, at an altitude of about 5,000ft, maybe a little lower. As water molecules fall if they pass through cold air, they will freeze. Depending on the thickness of the layer they pass through, snow, ice or sleet will form. If the surface layer is warm and thick enough the water droplets will thaw and fall as really cold rain. In the summertime, if the rain feels really cold to you, quite possible the rain droplets initially fell as ice and then melted as they passed through warmer air layers.

Here is the image I was referring to earlier when I mentioned something about these images being static and not properly showing the dynamic nature of the atmosphere.

This image shows a portion of the upper level Jet Stream. Sidebar: When we talk about events in the atmosphere we refer to altitudes. Balloons, aircraft, clouds, etc., have altitude. They not have elevation. Elevation refers to objects on the surface of the Earth and their height above Mean Sea Level. Mountains, buildings, towers, and such objects fixed to the surface have elevation. Buildings do not have altitude – they do not fly through the air. Aircraft do not have elevation – usually, unless they are sitting on the tarmac awaiting permission to depart, or they crash. Clouds can have elevation in special cases. Those cases we call “fog.”

The Jet Stream featured here is at an altitude of about 38,000ft. The arrows show direction; the arrow color indicates wind speed. Notice how all the arrows are mostly parallel? This is what is called “zonal” air movement and is generally not a good thing. In summertime, zonal movement usually brings extensive drought. The “kinks” or “curls” in air movement provide the instability necessary to generate weather systems – in the summer.

In the winter, the same circumstance can occur and create dry and very cold conditions. Zonal winds tend to create a clearing effect moving weather rapidly out of place. Clear skies allow for more heat (long-wave radiation) to radiate back to space and can create very cold temps. And this is sort of what has happened. Except we have had some large weather systems develop over Alaska and the northern Pacific which carry a lot of moisture. The Jet drags this moisture south where it crashes into the really cold air moving south out of eastern Canada, and then we have a real mess on our hands.

kymesonet.org A great source for weather data in Kentucky.

I want to take a look at these graphs. I have a mouse-over effect in place to help highlight the graph in the upper left. It may be annoying; not sure.

We are getting a lot of rain on Saturday; lots of precipitable moisture in the atmosphere. The “Temperature, Dewpoint, and Relative Humidity” graph is a pretty powerful graphic demonstrating what happens when the air temp and the dewpoint are almost coincident.

The dewpoint temperature will never be higher than the air temperature. The dewpoint temperature generally increases as air temperature increases, too. The way I think of dewpoint is it is the temperature at which water vapor condenses to form a dew drop, sort of like a rain drop. This condition occurs when the air temp and the dewpoint temp are nearly the same. When that condition exists at a level within a few feet of the ground, we can have dew, or fog. When that condition happens at some altitude, we will have rain, sleet, snow, etc. Depends on the temperature.

Today, temperatures aloft are warm enough that water droplets are warming before hitting the ground and we are getting a lot of rain. As I write this, Calloway Co., Kentucky has received about 3.50 inches of rain since Midnight.

Now, we might be tempted to ask, “What if this fell as snow? How much snow would we get?” The answer to that is not simple. For a long time, I used the ratio 6:1, meaning “6 inches of snow was equivalent to 1 in of rain.” That is no longer true. The ratio could be as high as 20:1; “20 inches of snow is equivalent to 1 inch rain.” The real answer is complicated and requires some moderate amount of statistics training. But, in simple terms, we can examine a certain layer of the atmosphere to figure out the ratio.

If we look at the Earth’s atmosphere from about 850mb to about 700mb, and figure out how thick this layer is, and know something about the temperature, we can determine what the ratio of snow-to-rain is. The thicker the layer, and if it is cold enough, the bigger and fluffier snowflakes can develop. Thus the ratio will be closer to 20:1. If this layer is thinner, the less development time for snowflakes, and thus the ratio is closer to 6:1. The problem for us is this is an introductory course, a survey of weather and climate, and we don’t have time to investigate this.

Marine Economy

Ohio River barge traffic (Source: New York Times)

Some comments directed at people who derive their livelihood from U.S. rivers. All of this precipitation has to go somewhere. The majority of precipitation ends up as run-off. As much as 66% of precipitation runs-off into streams, then rivers, and eventually hits the ocean. People working on rivers to help maintain U.S. barge traffic – a near invisible part of our transportation infrastructure yet one of the most vibrant in the world, by the way – have to pay close attention to these weather events. As run-off heads to rivers, we could expect some flooding. We can expect problems associated with high velocity currents, making navigation tricky, dangerous, and potentially shutting down barge traffic. While droughts can impair barge traffic from the lack of water, too much water can be a bad circumstance, as well. Barge operators and companies not only need to be aware of local weather conditions, but as the saying goes, “[Stuff] flows downstream.] Marine companies have to pay attention to weather systems upstream and days in advance in order to best prepare their crews for changing conditions. The USGS maintains a river monitoring system for these very reasons. In cooperation with USGS, the NOAA/NWS provides weather data and river gauge data for a number of sites throughout the United States.

Groundwater

People can mistakenly think, “Oh, we’ve had a lot of rain. This will really help my aquifer, or our water table, or our groundwater.” No, not generally.

About two-thirds of precipitation (66%) will eventually cycle back to oceans. Another good portion will immediately cycle back into the atmosphere through evaporation. Yet another portion will be taken up by plants and vegetation. While a person might note an immediate improvement in their specific case, the change is generally temporary.

For aquifers and water tables to recover, moderate precipitation needs to occur at regular intervals. Light precipitation tends to evaporate too fast, or is taken up by vegetation, or runs-off. Heavy precipitation can quickly saturate the ground and prevent any more precipitation from penetrating to any depth (hence the term “saturation: the inability to handle any more stuff”.) Lots of rain may help depleted reservoirs which feed communities. But, again, this is usually a temporary circumstance.

What tends to happen is people get excited at seeing water levels return to “normal,” and then people not only return to their usual rates of use, but then build-out and add more subdivisions and such. Then, after a couple years, they wonder why the reservoir is drying again.

Climate

Cyclone Marcia (Source: ABC Australia)

Now, climate. Like I mentioned in an earlier post, people may be tempted to think, “Climate change is garbage. Look at this rain/snow/sleet/etc.” I can see this reasoning. The problem with that line of thinking is the use of local conditions, or even regional conditions, and apply those conditions on a global scale. For instance, while we are having some pretty awful weather, so is Australia. The east and north coast of Australia were hit this week not by one hurricane, but by two hurricanes within days of each other. In the Pacific, hurricanes are called “cyclones” and near China, Japan, and Korea they are referred to as “typhoons.” The east coast was hit by Cyclone Marcia, a category 5, the worst. The north coast was hit by Cyclone Lom, a category 4, not the worst but still not pretty.

Climatologists examine at global conditions, how global moisture patterns change, temperature changes, changes in atmospheric chemistry, changes in insolation. Since this is climate and not weather, there may be no apparent and immediate impact. Changes take time to manifest, perhaps years. However, when they do manifest the change can appear quickly.

Let me illustrate. In the summertime, if the weatherperson misses the high temp or low temp by a degree or two no one will really care. If for example, the Weather Channel says, “The high in Murray, KY, will be 85F today,” and the actually high is 83F, no one will shed a tear.

Now let’s say this happens, the Weather Channel predicts, “The high today in Murray, KY., will be 33F,” and the actual high temperature is 31F people might freak-out. Why? The temperature is off by only a couple degrees. What is the big deal?

The big deal is at 33F the temperature is above freezing. At 31F, we are now at below freezing. While at 33F the pavement is wet, at 31F the pavement is now a sheet of ice, and the interstate now has a multi-vehicle pile-up and their are people hurt.

Yes, this is a local example of changing weather conditions, not climate, per se. However, we have to pay attention to changing climate because while 1/10th of a degree in global average temperature may not seem like a lot, this is a global average. Some site, some location, or perhaps a bunch of locations, had to have witnessed a pretty substantial change in order to change a globally measured statistic.

Whew…thanks for reading. Sorry for the length but I hope this helps.

Pax

Radio Shack and the Era of Tinkering


The Slate posted a nonsense article, “The Era of Tinkering is Over,” [link] which really pissed me off. I don’t even want to provide the link but I have to because it is the right thing to do. I read Slate occasionally; their writers are sometimes on-the-mark and sometimes way off the mark. In the case of this article, the author seems to have jumped into the deep water of knowing shit about tinkering, in that the author knows zero about tinkering and hasn’t even done a modicum of research. On a positive note, maybe the author will learn to do some basic research before authoring such nonsense.

I cannot say I have been a life-long tinkerer, but the best portion of my life has involved various bits of tinkering, from maybe 10 years old to last weekend. Growing up I had two favorite places to visit. My local library was located about 3 blocks from my house, a literal 15 minute walk. I would live in the air-conditioned comfort of my public library in the summers. The other place I like to spend money was Radio Shack. My buddy, Robert, and I would walk from his house or ride our bikes to our local Radio Shack. We could take a short-cut across our elementary school playground and pull our bikes through a gap in the privacy fence into the Radio Shack backlot.

My KCMO neighborhood Radio Shack did not look much unlike the one in the picture below. The sign above my store was smaller, the facade was a dark, rustic wood. I distinctly remember this feature because Robert and I were always suspicious of the wasps hanging around the wood siding. There were other stores adjacent to my Radio Shack and I cannot remember what those stores were, they made such a great impression on me. As far as I was concerned Radio Shack was the only store in this small strip.

A close approximation of my local radio shack. My Radio Shack resembled more of a real shack, though, as I remember the store having a wood facade and less brick.

An old white fellow ran the local Radio Shack for a while. He didn’t care much for Robert and I. He would grumble around, and after a few minutes herd us out if we didn’t buy anything. Before being ushered out, we would price buttons, switches, resistors and such for whatever project we had in mind. We were heavy into model rockets at the time and would build elaborate launching systems to launch 5, 10, or even 20 rockets simultaneously. We would buy Estes rockets from another store I liked, by the way. We also repaired electronic equipment. One year, we ran across a neighbor who sold a pile of old Army surplus radio equipment. One of the big radios didn’t work but it would act like it would. We tested the all of the fuses in the radio and determined a few were burnt-out. Using money from mowing lawns, we bought some replacement fuses and got the radio working. Later, a black fellow ran the Radio Shack. He would sell us broken merchandise once in a while for next to nothing. Resistors were easy to find and replace, for instance. One summer, the store manager sold us several color organs really cheap; I think we got 4 or 5 for something like $10. In 1980, $10 was the equivalent of mowing two yards.  Both Robert and I knew how to use VOA meters (volt-ohm-amp) and we tore down those color organs to diagnose which resistors

My friend, Robert, and I would buy broken disco lights, repair them, and sell them at our garage sales.

My friend, Robert, and I would buy broken disco lights, repair them, and sell them at our garage sales.

were bad. We would then spend a few cents to buy new resistors, solder them back onto the circuit board, test with our music. We would blast Billy Squier, Rush, Def Lepperd, KISS, and whatever else we liked and knew would torment the neighbors. Robert and I would then have yard sales to sell the stuff we made or repaired.

Why all of this hyperbole?

As I do with some of my writing I like to provide a back story to demonstrate where I come from to show the relationship I have with something topic or interest.

I love the Maker Movement, the creation of Makerspaces in towns and cities across the United States, the introduction of programming, 3D printers and 3D scanners in middle and high schools in school districts across America. My own beginnings started with Radio Shack so I have a soft spot for this franchise. People who report without feeling a connection to their topic come across not only as ignorant of their subject matter but also risk missing some underlying facts.

Like the Maker Movement. Or that “tinkering” is anything but dead. As the Arduino blog clearly substantiates [link], tinkering is not only alive and well, tinkering is thriving more so now than ever before.

So, if tinkering is thriving and more robust than ever before, then what has happened to Radio Shack?

My analysis argues several points. First, Radio Shack opted to involve itself in a market already saturated – smartphones. The partnership with Sprint was not good business acumen in my opinion. Wal-mart, Verizon, AT&T, Office Depot, even my local Kroger grocery store does smartphones. Add in Amazon and other online resellers and the smartphone market doesn’t make much sense. Especially since other major players like AT&T and Verizon have stores devoted 100% to smartphones staffed with typically five or more employees during peak hours. I’ve never seen more than two employees in my current local Radio Shack.

My local Radio Shack devotes about 50% of floor space to smartphones. Gone are the days of cool electronics and gadgets and parts and stereo equipment. Sure, my local store has a utility cabinet of electronic parts, relegated to a place two aisles from the back of the store. But anyone who walks into my Radio Shack will be confronted with all smartphone models and accessories and plans. Big deal. Then, if a customer wants to buy something unrelated to cell phones, the customer will have to wait until the Radio Shack agent finishes discussing cell phone plans, or trouble-shooting a cell phone problem. I’ve mentioned a number of issues here, but I can summarize these comments by identifying three problems.

Radio Shack stores demonstrate a lack of commitment towards providing enough staff to accommodate customer traffic. Next, Radio Shack sold-out consumer confidence in electronics by thinking they could make a quick dollar in the smartphone market. Then, Radio Shack failed to realize a few years ago the Era of Tinkering was still thriving, and more importantly, evolving.

What could Radio Shack have done differently?

Look; it is not enough to be critical of some thing without offering some solutions or at least some ideas of what could be differently done.

Radio Shack’s historical success was based not solely upon selling end products but providing the parts and tools for people to build, repair, or modify items they already owned. They also supported HAM & CB radio operators who often needed replacement parts, antennas, and other accessories. Today’s electronics are sophisticated; there is no doubt about that. However, many consumer electronics are also based on simple modular designs.

I have a broken VIZIO LCD television. One weekend, I disassembled the TV. After I had the case open I found there are really only two circuit boards driving the LCD, a control board containing all of the IC chips and software for decoding the signal and providing us with a user interface. The other board is the power board which controls how AC power is distributed to the control board. I have the problem narrowed down to one or two IC chips on the controller board. I’d like to simply buy a replacement controller board but I can’t; they are in high demand. VIZIO made some really crap boards a few years ago. The IC chips, however, can be bought online. For about $35 I can order both IC chips I need. Then, I can spend some hours one weekend and de-solder the old IC chips and solder the new IC chips, and test my handiwork.

Now, not everyone would want to do all of this. That is fine. But, to train a young person to perform the service work is not a big deal. Or, to train a young person to trouble-shoot problems so people can have their electronics fixed locally might be a good idea. After all, we once did this decades ago. Families might go without TV for a week or more until a local repair person got around to figuring out what ailed the giant beast of a TV. The economics of those days made repair worthwhile. A TV might be a month’s salary or more. Today, a LCD TV might be a week’s salary or less.

Being able to repair televisions locally might help reduce some of the e-waste. People might be able to have a LCD in every room if they could pick up a cheap “refurbished” LCD from a local reseller.

OEMs also need to be more friendly to repair centers. OEMs do not seem to produce many replacement parts. The replacement parts I’ve bought are from 3rd party vendors, not OEMs. The argument OEMs make is they would rather sell consumers a new product than keep an older model alive. The “green” part of me finds that offensive. For instance, Apple Co.’s intransigence to allowing people to replace glass and digitizers for broken iPhones is part of the problem. Apple takes what could be a vibrant economy and takes a punitive stance towards those who keep that technology alive and make a buck while doing so. Companies like VIZIO, Sanyo, Sony, Samsung, and LG could really inspire economic growth by allowing people to better service devices by providing OEM parts or recommend quality 3rd party replacement parts. Now, we have OEMs making devices, we have 3rd party vendors making replacement parts, we have people engaging in perhaps cottage-type industries repairing electronics.

One of biggest failures I see in Radio Shack is their lack of vision. The people I knew growing up who ran Radio Shack could tell you how to read a resistor, a capacitor, who knew something about voltages and transformers. Not today. So, as Make and the Maker Movement grows in strength and penetrates K-12 education and even into higher education despite some resistance, the ability of Radio Shack to serve that population has diminished.

My local Radio Shack has some Make components, and a small selection of Littlebits modules, but not a huge selection. Enough to make Make interesting. No 3D scanners. No 3D printers.

Is it possible Radio Shack could have leveraged its presence to bring technology to smaller cities and towns, becoming the nexus of distribution, learning, advice and service for these innovative technologies?

Radio Shack could have been at the forefront of the Make movement. Instead of partnering with Sprint, perhaps they should have partnered with Makerbot, Make, and Littlebits. Furthermore, Radio Shack somehow felt they needed a store in every tiny town. I don’t think this is truly necessary. Perhaps they need a GIS professional with experience in location analysis to help figure out where they need to place stores.

What would be nice for Radio Shack to consider is building stores or finding retail space not only with enough square footage for cool tech devices for people to help people fabricate designs, but enough square footage to perhaps offer classes or courses for local populations to learn how to use these new technologies. Large cities have many venues for learning technologies. Large cities, like Chicago, Denver, and New York City have a critical mass of educated people to help train interested parents and youth. Is it possible Radio Shack could have leveraged its presence to bring technology to smaller cities and towns, becoming the nexus of distribution, learning, advice and service for these innovative technologies?

I honestly do not have the answer to my question. I don’t have an MBA. But, neither did Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs, but then, neither does 13-year old Quin Etnyre. (ISTE article)

Part of Radio Shack’s problem was competing in a saturated smartphone market. Another problem was Radio Shack competing with online resellers of electronic parts. That battle can’t be won, really. There are people who do not want to buy online, who want local expertise, who want to see a device in action, and who want local support, though. These are all within Radio Shack’s domain to control, if they can think outside the box, if they can break-down the corporate mind-think which has set Radio Shack on a ruinous course. Office Depot does OK; if people realized they could purchase online many of the same products found at Office Depot and save 75% Office Depot might be in big trouble. Or, Staples, for that matter.

I feel for Radio Shack. I really do. And, I’m disappointed each and every time I step in my local Radio Shack. The atmosphere is not what I remember growing up. No stores have any of the ambiance of the former Radio Shack stores from my youth. Radio Shack stores are not trendy, not cool, not distinctive, and invoke nothing of their history of being a technology leader. Radio Shack weakly to copy the identity of another tech company, and failed miserably. They should have broken-down their identity, re-built their brand based upon their historical strength of being the bearer of technology and reveled in their nerdiness, and wore their geekiness as a badge of honor.

Thanks for reading!

Pax

The Ancient Mating Habits of Quicquid Qui


Yesterday, NPR broadcast a story about the notorious governor of Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker, discussing his plans to cut the funding to the University of Wisconsin – Madison by 13%. His news conference comments were rather flippant as he offered suggestions on how faculty might better serve the student body by “teaching more classes.”

Additionally, Gov. Walker’s comments were supported by the Speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly, Robin Voss. “Of course, I want research. But, I want research that focuses on growing our economy, not on, you know, the ancient mating habits of whatever.” (NPR; 2:23min)

Both Gov. Walker’s and the Speaker’s comments lay bare their complete lack of understanding of higher education, allude to their own hubris against higher education, reveal part of the Conservative agenda to co-opt public money by funneling monies to private and religious schools, and provide additional evidence of the extremely myopic perspective infusing vast portions of our U.S. population.

I’d like to pick apart the comment by State Assembly Speaker Robin Voss first. His soundbite begins with: “I want research.” The audacity in this simple statement underlies nearly all of the attacks upon higher education which began during the George W Bush’s presidency. Many within more conservative faction of the Republican party want to control who gets funded, they want to direct research down to approval of individual research projects, and want to dictate specific kinds of research. One only needs to look at controversial NSF funding hearings (“NSF bill with dire implications for social sciences moves forward;” Nature, May 2014.)

Now, to be clear, I want research, too. Politicians, nor any political lackeys, should have any input into determining what constitutes research or in devising criteria for what is funded or not. That is simply not their domain of expertise.

How does one go about determining if research “grows the economy?” Who gets to decided whether or not research helps grow an economy? Those questions are not as easy to answer as Gov. Walker or Speaker Voss would have their audience believe. For as much as their Republican cohort considers President Obama audacious in his drive to provide U.S. citizens with decent health care coverage, Conservative Republican are equally as audacious in their desire to winnow the intellectual capability of our American society. They are far too presumptive in their knowledge of education to understand how education and research are fundamental to our society, and naively believe that only those concerns having blatantly obvious economic ramifications are important. Please allow me to counter this grievous misconception.

An insect identification trap

An insect identification trap

Last spring, I met a member of our engineering faculty. His wife was a biology faculty. Her research involves the study of a variety of beetle species. Beetles are an essential part of a healthy forest’s ecosystem. Forest are an essential part of our human ecumene; forest cycle carbon, oxygen, and are an intrinsic component of our planet’s hydrologic cycle. Understanding how beetles procreate and the part each beetle species plays in a forest’s health is almost analogous to understanding the bacterial fauna in our own intestinal tract. Not only are forests part of our planet’s hydrologic cycle but forests and wooded areas provide habit for those who enjoy hunting. So even if one doesn’t have a particular care of beetles, one need to have an appreciate for all of the essential components which provide essential traits necessary for hunting, fishing, or any other outdoor pursuit.

mountain-pine-beetle2

Mountain Pine Beetle

So, yes, Mr. Voss we do need to understand the ancient mating habit of “Whatever Who,”Quicquid Qui, for the simple reason we have to understand the parts in order to understand the whole, the entirety. And in doing this research other research and other innovations might occur. In the image above, the engineering was developing a trap to gather a particular species of beetle. Made from a piece of 3D printed plastic – see, right there! – a plastic elbow joint bought at Lowe’s, and a cheaper Android-based smartphone, these simple components were coming together as a sophisticate field tool.

Here is how the trap works. Insects crawl into the trap. The smart phone’s sensor detects movement and snaps a picture. Custom image-processing software on-board the smartphone processes the image to detect what is in the trap and if the contents is the insect species of interest. If the wrong species, the trap bottom drops open and dispenses the insect. If the correct species, the image and GPS coordinates are sent via cellular SMS to a server for review. A small Arduino board controls the actuation of the trapdoor. Students assisted in the design, Arduino board programming, and field testing. Unfortunately, my university lost both faculty due to a refusal to allow the biologist to apply for a tenure-track position. I never saw the fully functional model.

Hopefully, I should not have to draw a picture of how beautiful the direction the above research was heading. Did it have economic implications? No doubt. Certainly to the crowd who read my blog posts. But, I have serious doubts among our current collection of legislators, both at state and federal levels, they have the ability to contemplate the potential of such research. After all, these underlying use of the technology is to gather beetles to examine their mating habits, at least in part.

No doubt, legislators would have no problem understanding the inherent significance of today’s Internet. Had these same people been in the position to fund a network of universities to exchange information on research, I daresay the Internet would have languished for years, and perhaps we would be asking China for share their network.

From the vulcanization process so important to the tire industry, penicillin, to our immensely valuable semiconductor sector, to tie-up research in politics is to lose out on the unseen ramifications, the so-called “accidents,” which have the potential to yield huge, industry-shaking benefits, and advance not merely the United States but the world.

Conservation Republicans who once held higher education in high esteem, need to return to those days which allowed the United States to develop the world’s greatest, unrivaled, intellectual capacity, i.e. our university system. They don’t need to cut back education; they need to expand higher education. Higher education is society’s “research and development division.” How does one continue to achieve and advance and grow; how does one compete against peers, understand and develop new technologies and expand understanding without investing in research and development?

The answers to my rhetorical questions seem obvious to me. I’ve been in education nearly my entire life. But, I’ve also cleaned toilets for a trucking company, worked for Wal-mart, cleaned toilets for churches, cleaned Section 8 HUD apartments, made and served pizzas, and managed a video rental store. I’ve thrown hay (which made me almost deathly ill due to asthma), helped my grandfather deliver a calf, I’ve ridden bareback to help corral cattle, and mended fence. It’s not like I have no sentiment for hard work. One grandfather was a farmer, one was an oil-field rough-neck his entire life, and my father operated a few trucking companies over the course of his life.

People like Scott Walker and Robin Voss confuse vocational education and training with a university education. Nearly all people, do, in fact. I have this argument with faculty at my own institution, on occasion, which I find mind-boggling. I credit my degree in geography with providing me a holistic education embedded with math, economics, computer programming, language, culture, English and writing skills. Even faculty in higher education operate with blinders. Frequently, I must point out to historians, economists, chemists, biologist, and even business faculty the presence of geography in their content. The prevalence of their oversight merely indicates they, too, share a lack of perspective, at times. When I cannot convince my own college dean to appreciate the importance of Make, Raspberry Pi, Arduino, 3D printing and scanning, and how those technologies are re-inventing portions of our manufacturing sector, I know how hard getting politicians to overcome their simple-minded nature must be. Or, can be. And, it shouldn’t be this way. Not at all.

People who know Gov. Walker never completed his degree at Marquette, and use his position as governor as evidence no one truly needs a college degree to successful argue against themselves, in fact. True, Gov. Walker complete three of the necessary four years for a degree at Marquette. Also, true, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Ted Turner, Larry Ellison, were never awarded a degree. Now, I think all have been granted “honorary” degrees in order to qualify them to give commencement addresses at graduation. There a couple very important distinctions between Gov. Walker and those other Gurus of Technology. First, they hire other smart people, and they encourage people not simply to remain with a static skill set but to continue their own education. These industry leaders realize for their company to remain strong and thrive employees must remain knowledgeable and educated. Each of these people also support education at all levels, K-12, community colleges, and higher education. None of these individuals seek to undermine one of the most important sectors of the U.S. economy, our Knowledge Sector. To group Gov. Walker along-side the likes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs completely misunderstands the personal philosophies of true thought-leaders.

I recently accepted what has amounted to a 5% pay-cut at my institution. I was paid for all the course I taught. Now, I teach a course for free. My job description was re-written so any predecessor will also teach a course for free. 5%, I have discovered, hurts a little. For those who have made comments like, “my friend just completed residency in radiation medicine had now has a job paying $350,000 per year,” your single example is not the rule and really is evidence of nothing other than your friend is smart and has a good job. Many faculty and staff at universities across the United States pay, at least in part, for our own health care. Some low-wage employees may not pay anything, while others may pay 20% or more. Plus, we contribute into a state retirement system. And, if you live in Kentucky, you know our state retirement system is $20 billion dollars in red due to mismanagement. That is not an argument for privatization; that is an argument simply to prevent politicians from being allowed to gut retirement systems. The vast majority of faculty work 40+ hours per week already, including ours mandated for service, community outreach,  serving on mandatory committees and councils, etc. I’ve known some faculty who essentially give up, but those faculty are exceptions, not the rule, and would constitute less than 1% of any university workforce.

English skills and organizational management are good skills for game design

English skills and organizational management are good skills for game design

Beginning faculty in the Humanities or Fine Arts might start around $30,000, depending on school, geographic location, and any special skills. Today, some of the best 3D design work and use of technology is coming from Fine Arts programs. Using some of the new microprocessor boards allows artists to make visualizations which move, glow, or respond to crowd or user input. Artists are now becoming programmers, using soldering guns, LEDs, and Arduino boards. Many game designers I know began in technical writing and English programs, using history or art minors to help them in game design.

For politicians like Gov. Walker and Speaker Voss to make statements which can only lead one to belief these people think they have the requisite knowledge to know best how education should be attended provides more insight into their own personal prejudices and presumptions. Unfortunately, they are not unique among their party. The U.S. House Committee on Space, Science, and Technology is loaded with narrow-minded, presumptive, and prejudicial members exclusively from the Republican party. I have no doubt these members believe they are acting in the best interest of the American people, their intransigence in updating their beliefs with real factual knowledge undermines U.S. productivity and, I would argue, undermines the competitive advantage the U.S. has enjoyed since the 1950s in higher education, which has the downstream effect of damaging both our global economic success and our very social fabric.

People should also be advised school vouchers are a means for shuffling public money into private schools, private schools which are predominantly aligned with religious institutions. Thus, whenever a Republican advocates the use of school vouchers this is essentially code for “we want to provide a way to funnel public money to religious institutions, we just can’t say this verbatim because Church versus State.” But from New Jersey to Louisiana, this is precisely what is going on. Public money, money from property taxes, being channeled into private religious schools and undermining our public schools.

Yet, they would rather argue civil marriage.

Thanks for reading!

PAX

 

An open letter to Gov. Scott Walker: stop perpetuating the myth of the lazy professor


Constant Geographer:

In the near future I might author my own rebuttal to Gov. Walker’s plans to scuttle Wisconsin’s higher education. Several high-ranking Republican Conservatives simply despise higher education. More specifically, they seem to be against state-sponsored education, against the public support of education. Listening their comments on C-SPAN and reading essays on their individual websites, one can only come away with the sentiment these GOP members would be more than happy to divest the Federal and state governments of the responsibility of educating people and turn the education of our populace over to for-profit schools and religious organizations. Some states are already using the voucher system to provide public monies to religious schools in clear violation of the separation of Church and State. More to the point, Gov. Walker and his compatriots in the GOP are seeking to break-down state educational systems using “state rights” as a rallying cry yet what their attempts are truly attempting to do is push more federal money into for-profit universities. These for-profit universities are responsible for the greatest portion of student loan indebtedness and lack of results. There are a host of other issues Scott Walker seems too mentally impaired to understand. I’ll take a stab at addressing those issues in my own response. Cheers!

Originally posted on The Contemplative Mammoth:

Dear Gov. Walker,

Last week, you told professors at the University of Wisconsin that they needed to “work harder.” You were making a case that the Wisconsin state budget crisis could be ameliorated by increasing employee efficiency, and you suggested having faculty teach at least one more class. I’m not going to talk about whether or not the budget crisis is manufactured (some have argued it could be solved by accepting federal funds for the state’s Badger Care health program), or whether your real goal is really partisan politics, and not fiscal responsibility.

Ouch. Ouch. Photo by fellow UW Madison geographer Sigrid Peterson.

Instead, I want to talk about the myth of the lazy professor, a stereotype that you’ve reinforced with your comment. I spent 2005 to 2012 at the University of Wisconsin, where I obtained a PhD in the Department of Geography; I am now an assistant professor at the University of Maine.

When you…

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Another Day, Another Collection of Student Evaluations to Consider


Yesterday was like new comics release day except instead of being on the receiving end of one of the cooler parts of popular culture I was the recipient of documents which bear only the merest of traces of what students may be getting out of any of my courses. There is also a remarkable paucity of interesting art or action sequences.

220px-Calabi-Yau

A Callabi-Yau manifold useful for utterly confusing people about multi-dimensional space

Unlike comic books student evaluations are often used to perpetuate a faculty person’s paid position. Unfortunately, and as most faculty are abundantly aware, student evaluations do not really measure course pedagogy very well. Higher education administrators love student evaluations for a variety of reasons. First, they are easy to hold; they are tangible, physical evidence of proof-of-something. Evaluations can be printed, placed in envelopes and bring substance to the insubstantial. They can be shaken, pointed to (“See??? My students loooove me!”), burned, wadded-up or otherwise rendered into an angry version of a Callabi-Yau manifold on a moment’s notice.

Evaluations are wonderful for empowering students and administrators alike. Students get to feel like they are contributing something worthwhile. Administrators have evidence of collecting data, data which is mostly irrelevant for improving education quality, but data nonetheless.

Student evaluations tend to ask a limited number of questions biased towards students opinion of the instructor and the course and not really about how the student approached the course. Questions like:

  1. Did the instructor reply promptly to emails?
  2. Did the instructor provide clear due dates?
  3. Did the instructor provide a well-organized course?
  4. Did the instructor provide well-organized course materials?
  5. Did the instructor grade assignments on a timely basis?
  6. Did the instructor appear excited or interested in the material?
  7. Was the instructor knowledgeable on the material covered?
  8. Was the instructor able to answer questions on course topics?

These questions really only scratch the surface of a course, and provide no substantive information about the student actually managed the course. Nor are questions provided that strike at the core of the instructor-student relationship. Where are the questions like:

  1. Did the student ask questions about the syllabus?
  2. Did the student ask for extra guidance for any course-related topics?
  3. Did the instructor provide other inquiry-based assignments to help develop complicated material?
  4. Did the instructor provide a collection of online notes to compliment the course?
  5. Did the instructor provide any ancillary educational materials, such as lecture podcasts, YouTube videos, or web-based simulations?
  6. Did the student avail themselves to any of the ancillary educational materials?
  7. If the student did avail themselves to ancillary educational materials were these materials helpful?

These are questions I generally do not find on course assessment materials, and I have been employed by three community colleges and one university. On the other hand, I do provide courses my own assessment questions.

  1. List your 5 favorite topics covered in this course.
  2. List 5 topics, themes, or assignments you would change in this course.
  3. What was your least favorite assignment for this course?
  4. How has your opinion of world geography changed since the first week of the course?
  5. Do you believe your opinions or knowledge base has been improved by taking this course?
  6. Would you recommend this course to a friend?

The 13 questions provided above are far more suited to evaluating a course and perhaps a faculty person than the assessment tools currently used which trend to giving students a platform for promulgating weak opinions based on poor personal behavior and attitudes augmented by logical fallacies.

Here is anonymous feedback provided by a recent student, provided in its entirety:

The biggest issue for me was the lack of deadlines. In all other online and actual classroom setting classes, I have been highly successful because I have a clear frame of when I need to get things accomplished. Having unclear deadlines left room for procrastination.

The syllabus was very long and tricky to understand, so when asking questions I would read the syllabus twice, and still wouldn’t come to a clear answer to my questions.

The detail of the essay questions seem to be quite difficult for a simple weather and climate class. I understand that this class is meant to challenge students. But when I am a straight-A student and can’t find a clear answer after reading the textbook and researching answers, there is a problem.

I am not a weather/climate major and need this course for a requirement for my major, and this class seems much too difficult and time-consuming to meet a major requirement.

To begin, this commentary is actually for more literate than my typical feedback. I entreat my students numerous times around evaluation time to give thoughtful consideration to the course, to contemplate content, course management, and to assess their own approach to the course. I have to commend the author of the feedback on their attempt to meet my recommendations. However, their response is replete with problems.

My course had low enrollment, about 7 students. Due to low enrollment, keeping track of students efforts was not very time-consuming. Thus, I can say with no equivocation this student never emailed me to ask questions about the syllabus or any of the course content. The student never indicated using any of the 60+ online lectures I have on my YouTube. My geography channel on YouTube includes over 100 self-created videos, open to people around the world, not simply my own courses. The student never indicated using my lecture notes upon which my videos are based.

Weather and climate is not a “simple” course. I try to reduce the complexity of the course into common terms and circumstances people can relate to, hence the videos. Most textbooks tend to weigh heavy on the science. As a coach and educator my job is to distill these concepts into simple forms. Then I can reconstitute them as knowledge improves. A person who tries to use “The University of Google” to conduct their own research in weather and climate will have issues without a good foundation in some science. Additionally, and at the risk of committing a logic error myself, based on our current Congressional ignorance of climate science no one can truly claim weather and climate is “simple.” Anecdotally, with the messed-up Blizzardopocalypse of 2015 forecast, even meteorologists get things wrong.

[Watch Jon Stewart provide up-to-the-minute coverage of CNN’s ridiculous weather coverage]

Not to belabor this psuedo-rebuttal, but one point mentioned I hear frequently. “I am a straight-A student and can’t <insert some course failure here>.” This is truly a False Cause logical fallacy. The student was not able to perform some assignment to their perceived level of aptness not because they truly aren’t adept but because the course was too hard.

The notion a straight-A’s should infer success in every course is a problem. In college I loved literature, my literature professors appreciated my as I loved to write about what I read, loved to analyze what I read, and liked to discuss the issues and themes of what I read. I received straight-A’s in all of my English and literature courses. I received straight-A’s in all of my history and geography and political science courses for pretty much the same reasons. However, I did not receive straight-A’s in my math courses, in particular Calculus II and Matrix Algebra. Now, would I go to my math instructors and tell them, “I am a straight-A student. I am getting C’s in your math courses. Obviously, your course is the problem, not me.” Knowing my math instructors at the time, they would ask me to leave and never come back. Except for the sweet Chinese woman who taught matrix algebra. She would have smiled, apologized, offered to help tutor me. After a week or so and realizing it was my own ineptness at matrix algebra, I would have politely excused myself and withdrawn from the course. And I did. True story.

That the student needed this course for a major indicates to me the student was working on an Education degree, probably in middle school science. I’ve been around long enough to notice this pattern. The pattern troubles me. The education courses tend to be anemic in teaching true teaching skills, i.g. classroom management, dealing with visible poverty, bullying, careless parents, sniping peers, and apathetic administrations which pass kids reading at the 1st grade level into the 7th grade. But, this is a bit of hyperbole. A person going into education needs to fight against their own procrastination, take responsibility for their own learning, use their faculty as mentors, and understand they are not educating themselves for only themselves but so they can prepare themselves to educate today’s youth who will grow into tomorrow’s adults.

Thanks for reading my thoughts on student evaluations. I know my posts tend to be lengthy and appreciate the consideration of everyone.

Pax

Blizzard of January 2015


Screen Shot 2015-01-26 at 11.08.43 AM
The weather systems which brought rain and some snow to the U.S. Midwest and South threatened to bring record amounts of snow the U.S. Northeast. The NOAA (National Oceanic and Aeronautical Administration) provides daily images, maps, graphs, and reports for global weather systems, not merely those systems affecting the U.S. The image (above) was captured January 26th, 2015 and illustrates what a significant weather system looks like from space. From this image the major part of the weather system appears to have moved off the East Coast of the United States. I’ve noticed from following some social media weather accounts, e.g. National Weather Service (NWS), the estimates for snowfall have been cut almost in half, going from 20-30 inches to 10-20 inches. That is still a fair amount of snow to shovel.

While the full-color satellite images are pretty and carry some information, meteorologists use other forms of satellite imagery for weather analysis.

jan26-2015-visibleThis image (left) is a black-and-white image showing simply nothing other than clouds without the Earth’s surface features.

The varying shades of black, grey, and white indicate the depth and extent, or presence, of cloud cover.

Using visible light meteorologists can make an attempt to determine cloud forms. Cloud forms can help us determine what type of weather is arriving and if we might be getting precipitation and maybe some idea of how much precipitation. Thus being able to read the clouds can help us figure out what weather to prepare. Anyone who has watched “World’s Deadliest Catch” has seen evidence of how serious changes in weather can be.

Broad expanses of clouds tend to be stratiform, like those over southern Texas or over Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Changes in intensity can hint at cloud height. For instance, those clouds in Texas might be closer to the ground, while those clouds over Alabama could be more developed and higher in altitude. How can we know?

jan26-2015-infraredThe image (left) represents the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. The sensor on-board the satellite is sensitive to the thermal energy being radiated back into space. The colors represent the lack of heat.

Grey clouds represent warm cloud formations. Yellow cloud formations are slightly less warm (cooler). The blue cloud formations represent the much less warm (coldest) clouds and cloud tops.

You might wonder why I would say “less warm.” Heat is energy; if something is warm that thing contains more energy. If that thing feels cool it could be due to its lack of internal energy. Cool objects are cool due to their lack of molecular energy. So, cold objects feel cold because of their lack of heat. I know that sounds sort of ridiculous, but this course has to frame topics with physics in mind. In physics, we don’t usually talk about things being cold, we talk about their lack of heat, their lack of energy.

In the case of my interpretation, I can see I got the positions of the cloud layers wrong, in fact, reversed. The clouds over south Texas are obviously colder than those over Alabama. The clouds over south Texas are probably stratocirrus, very high, cold clouds. The clouds over Alabama might be stratocumulus, lower and warmer clouds.

These images can come in handy when trying to assess regional precipitation potentials and planning for future weather. For instance, another significant weather system has formed over Alaska. We can see the system is compact with well-developed clouds. The deeper the blue the colder the clouds. The clouds are very high and most likely very thick.

Also, notice the system has a slight eyebrow shape? And, notice the dark arch of clear sky beginning off the coast of California, rising over Idaho, and sinking down over Kansas? This is evidence of a Rossby wave. We will learn about these later. Rossby waves guide and control the movement of global weather systems. By finding and analyzing a Rossby wave we can predict how weather systems will move across a region. Rossby waves are not hard to locate, but you do need a map of the upper atmosphere.

The map at left is from NOAA. NOAA provides many maps for a variety of purposes. This map is from their Aviation Weather Center [link]. Pilots have a very specific need to know about conditions aloft and at various altitudes. A pleasure craft pilot has a different need than commercial pilots. Commercial pilots will direct aircraft through many of the important atmospheric layers. A pleasure craft pilot may information to 12,000ft or so – where much of our poor weather is located.

jan26-upperair-225mbThis map illustrates a Rossby wave. The wave is colored in Valentine’s Day colors, reds and pinks, and the wave follows the pattern of a sine wave. Sometimes, Rossby waves can be shallow; other times they can be deep.

This Rossby wave coincides with our current weather system, aka The Blizzard of 2015. The little black “arrows” are station symbols indicating wind speed and direction. The arrows point in the direction the wind is moving, the “feathers” point in the direction of the wind source region. The number of feathers indicate wind speed. Each line is about 10 knots. Half a mark is 5 knots. A thick triangle is 50 knots. Add up the triangles, plus each full mark, plus any half-mark, and wind speed can be determined.

In the red areas, wind speeds are about 125-150 knots (144mph – 172mph). Commercial airlines pilots prefer west-to-east travel as passenger jets can fly more efficiently being carried along in the Jet Stream. East-to-west travel is not as efficient as the aircraft must deal with headwinds. Think of the last time you took a road trip. Much easy to drive “with the wind” than “against the wind.” Boating can have the same effect when piloting “with the current” versus “piloting against the current.”

By examining the position and characteristics of the Rossby waves meteorologist can track and predict how storm systems move. Earlier, I drew our attention to a storm system over Alaska. When we superimpose this information with the information presented on upper air maps we can predict the Alaska storm system will track down over the U.S. Midwest and then proceed over the U.S. Northeast. We also need to remember this storm system will interact with other weather systems, affect and be affected by other air masses, and so conditions may change.

Our atmosphere is not static. But, we have some wonderful tools to help track our weather.

PAX

Book Review: Kraken, by China Miéville


Kraken, by China Miéville. Ballantine Books, Del Rey Paperback, Random House Publishing. 2010. $16.

I’ll pick out some geography in a little bit. Kraken was an immensely fun and worthwhile read, one of the best reads I’ve experienced in a long time. I don’t want to sound dismissive of the good books I’ve read, crafted by fine authors. All of us who read plenty get slapped in the face by writing on rare occasions, writing so electrical our neurons go bink-bank-boink-hey-this-is-brilliant! Kraken is such a novel.

Ray Bradbury was my first brain-AED. An AED is the automated external defibrillator, and Bradbury was my brain-AED. Somehow, some writers are able to arrange normal words in such a way as to spell-bind a reader, beguiling them to forget work, school, eating, sleeping. Normal words, words used every day by normal people yet when Bradbury pens them, everyday images in my mind are over-written with new bits, new zeros and ones, and the real world my eyes capture is replaced by the virtual world of Mars, or a country fair.

For some people, Tolkien was their AED, or maybe C.S. Lewis. Or, maybe J.K. Rowling.

The inherent danger of finding a fantastic author is the danger of being off-put by the author’s mastery of language. “Wow…this is nothing short of brilliant. If I try to write, how will I ever be able to reach the bar Bradbury has set?” Or, Asimov, Piers Anthony, Clarke, Benford, Brin, and others, I’m sure. Reading a great book can be a uniquely humbling experience. Bittersweet.

China Miéville (“mee-AY-vill”) is one of those authors whose writing will connect your angular gyrus to jumper cables and turn your engine over. Miéville is the type of author whom after you read one book you’ll feel an unnatural compulsion to acquire all others. I’m suspicious writing is his knack. In fact, I tried to do such a thing today and my local Books-A-Million lived up to my continual lack of expectations. Not a single Miéville novel. Not a single Guy Gavriel Kay novel, either. Mind-boggling. But, they have millions of Patterson. Go figure.

All that being said, if you don’t like urban fantasy then forget all the above and wait for my next review, World Order, by Henry Kissinger. After that, I’m not sure. I’ve got 47 books in my “to-read” stack.

Kraken opens with the startling discovery someone has managed to nick an exhibit from the British Museum of Natural History. I’ve been to the museum and, yes, there are lots of items which might be tempting to pilfer. Small, delicate relics easily pocketed away if one were able to dodge the security counter-measures. No, the nicked relic in question is the eponymous kraken, Architeuthis dux. The giant squid. And not simply the squid, as if that endeavor in and of itself were easy, but the entire bloody formalin-filled tank plus giant squid simply disappeared. Billy Harrow, the curator of the exhibit, plus museum visitors anticipating seeing the specimen of a lifetime, enter the exhibit room as normal, only to behold the emptiness of the specimen room, home to tank and squid.

What follows next and thereafter is a really fun and complex set of events and circumstances. The police are called, but the normal police hand the investigation over to the London equivalent of Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. Those of you who read Hellboy know what I’m talking about. Except in this case we have the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime (FSRC) Unit. London, it seems, is awash with sects, cults, and agencies attached to all manner of deities, both real and imagined. Telling the two apart gets confusing. Thus, the London metro police department has a special unit for when crimes seem a little knacked. While the FSRC goes about trying to determine which cult might have stolen the squid, Billy gets wrapped up in the mystery much to his own dismay.

Whoever has the squid might be using the fleshy corpse to bring about the end of the world, and London is home to untold numbers of people, agencies, and beings and entities who want that power. And, as it turns out, some are be paid by others simply to track down and locate the squid – at all costs. Billy, as curator of squid, is seen by some as the holy man of the squid, the prophet of the squid, the only person to have touched and cared for the creature during the preservation process. He really isn’t happy about this new-found attention, and the evil literally oozing from the London stonework.

As the realization builds within Billy the squid, the squid cult, and those attempting the attain the squid really could bring about the end of the world, he forms an uneasy alliance with a former squid-cult member and together they set about scouring London, hoping to be the first to find and secure the formalin-infused squid-god. In doing so they run across many of London’s magical and mercurial denizens.

And the tale of pursuit is just simply so much fun.

I’ve been describing Kraken to people, “If Douglas Adams’ and Terry Pratchett’s books had conjugal relations after the bookstore went dark, Kraken would be the literary love-child.” Miéville has his own voice to be sure but for those who have read Adams and/or Pratchett I think this comparison forms a decent baseline.

A sample:

     There was a whole slew of skill-sets in the room: miracle-sniffing, unwitchery, iron blood. Some of those present worked in teams, some alone. Some had no occult skills at all, were only extraordinarily lucky with contacts and good at everyday soldierly expertises like killing. Of the others, there were those who would disguise themselves when they left this congenial atmosphere: the miasmic entities drifting at head-height like demon-faced farts would reenter their hosts; the huge woman dressed in a reverse-polarity rainbow would reinstitute her little glamour and be a teenager in a supermarket uniform again.

from Kraken; page 182

Miéville crafts prose specific enough to guide us to the notion the room is replete with mystical forces, agencies, and entities, but vague enough to allow our imaginations to uniquely interpret and build the required imagery.

Miéville is English, writing about London as someone who not merely has their hand on the pulse of London, but as someone whom pretty much knows every other bum to bonnet detail. He is London’s dermatologist and proctologist, internist and podiatrist, perhaps shaman or even Londonmancer.

Now, let’s hit some geography.

Billy Harrow and his friend, Leon, live in the Hoxton district of Hackney, Hackney being a borough of London on the north side of the Thames.

Chapter 28 begins with a contingent of fat beetles moving from Pimlico by wall-top, sidewalks, and sewers to a workshop in Islington.

The map shows a couple different routes a person driving might take. Google Maps does not do routes for insects, so you’ll have to use your imagination.

Anyone familiar with urban fantasy knows one of the best places to find research support for the supernatural is the library. The older the library the better. Better still if the library is the British Library.

We all know for the most part law enforcement tends to deny anything having to do with magic or supernatural circumstances. Not the London Metropolitan Police. They have their own SVU-style branch. Located in Cricklewood, the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crimes (FSRC) unit has an office for handling crimes involving knacking.

Even the bad guys remember the days of taking a geography class.

Do you remember when she was in Geography with us and he kept nicking all the pens for the overhead projector?” Goss said. “I knew you liked her then. I know you did stuff for Dane, that’s why your here, where is he?”

And then awful stuff happens.

London is not the only old city with a complete compliment of citymancers. Other “psychopoli” have their own folks who look after and act as energy conduits for the urban organism. Paris, France, has Paristurges; Warsaw, Poland has Warsawtarchs; and Berlin, Germany, has the Berlinimagi. These people are as important to the function of the city as any police officer, firefighter, or rubbish collector. One would never realize who these people are; they have been around since perhaps the time when the island of Great Britain rose from the sea, the dawn of Albion, and the days of giants. But, they work as librarians, or clerks in odd shops in peculiar neighbors, or technicians in service to the water department. They could be your friends, neighbors, or post carrier.

Kraken is a marvelous novel. Don’t expect wizards or time-consuming spells resulting in cataclysmic blasts of mythic energies carving out huge tracts of pavement or destroying buildings. There are no people running around waving wands spewing rainbow sparks, reducing people to ashes or wrapping them in spidery-webs. Miéville’s London is subtle, happening right in front of you or right under you. That line of pigeons walking around in front of your favorite coffeeshop? Yeah, that is not coincidence. They are sending a message to the head barista, or the manager. Those squirrels at your office window chewing nuts? Not coincidence. They really are spying on you. That guy who is walk-skipping along the sidewalk caught in his own moment? He is on a secret mission and stepping hexes out on the sidewalk to hide traces of his passage from others who have a knack for sniffing out magic.

If you’ve read other Miéville novels and not this one, pick this one up. If you have never read Miéville and you like fantasy or are just looking for something fun and imaginative, I think Kraken would be a good start.

PAX

Email Etiquette and Higher Education


I’ve examined a number of faculty posts over the last few years, tweets and Facebook updates, blogs and essays, relating how poorly students communicate with faculty. I’ve had conversation with faculty, my peers, who have various policies for handling questionable emails. I’ve tried to examine my own email styles along the way. As our global society moves more into digital communication, electronic media becoming as important as verbal communication, there is a growing body of evidence we are becoming less nuanced about interpreting messages, and perhaps more sensitive over word choices, tone, and general content. I overheard a basketball coach state recently, “My girls will text each other all day long and never say an actual word, and when I want them to talk to each other on the basketball court, they don’t know how, or won’t.”

txtmsgElectronic communication is easy to misconstrue. Emails and text messages are not nuanced; we bring a priori knowledge to a text message email and overlay a tone biased with our own experiences. There is no body language or vocal tones to derive wit, sarcasm, anger, concern. We may read an email using an internal voice of a child, e.g. “I can’t find the syllabus – waaa!” or in the voice of a parent who spoke to us in a demeaning tone. Because we (faculty) bring a personal bias – due to life experience, honestly – to these forms of messages we erroneously infer the student is being rude or condescending without that necessarily being the case.

About two years ago, I stopped being antagonized over what could easily be taken as rude emails from students. Or, really, I mentally stepped-back and made a choice to be less antagonized by what I could easily interpret as blatantly rude emails from students. I decided I would take these emails at face value: crude emails written by a young person who has no idea how they are coming across potentially as a result of having no exposure or experience in creating professional or formal emails. With so much emphasis on testing, I’m not sure how much training or education high school students have received on something as simple yet meaningful as authoring an email.

Thus, when I get an email I don’t like I take a moment, re-write the email for the student, compare and contrast their email with mine, and then let them know their email was not acceptable for communication with a professional of any type. Below, I provide an announcement I provide to one of my online courses based on a series of recent emails.

[Announcement]

I’ve handled a number of emails over the weekend and this morning sharing a common theme: the emails come across as rude.

An example. If your email looks like the following, don’t be surprised if you don’t get a reply back from a faculty person, or you get a reply that is … terse.

“I need the code for Pearson.”

“I want the code for Pearson.”

“i can’t find the code you are talking about.”

If your emails look like that then do not send them. Do not send them until you rewrite them. These are not appropriate emails to send to a professional person, faculty or not. Hopefully, emails like this would not be sent to a potential employer. If you wouldn’t send an email like the above to a boss, supervisor, or someone with whom you are setting up an interview, then don’t send the email to faculty.

I don’t really blame students for rude emails. I often wonder what example they are using for composing emails, or if students even have an example to work from.

When communicating with professionals – and all faculty are professionals – students need to engage faculty as such, at least until the faculty person is known well-enough to be able to send conversational emails. I’ve taught at Murray State since 1993 and one of the common complaints I hear from faculty is the increasing rudeness of students and the use of text message-style emails to communicate. 

Instead, compose emails similar to:

“Hi, Mr. Busby;

I was wondering where I might find the Pearson code. I was wondering where I might find the syllabus. I was wondering why Alpha House didn’t win a Golden Globe award. Could you assist? Thanks!”

-Bob Student”

Let’s set aside the concern the information requested is probably already available on Canvas for a moment. An email like the above is far more likely to leave a good impression with faculty and is far more polite than the initial requests which come across as demands.

Always make sure you consult all course documents before you go about asking questions. That is a huge help.

I am posting this announcement to help you, to improve the probability of getting positive feedback not only from faculty but everyone in a position of authority.

pax 

[End of Announcement]

To clarify, the three examples I open with were all real examples of emails I received – in their entirety. That’s correct; a single line. No salutation, nothing in the Subject: line, and no closing or signature. What you read above is word-for-word the complete email, including the lower-case “i” in the third example.

I have a rule in my syllabus reserving the right NOT to reply to emails that are not professional /  formal or have gross misspellings. But, here is what happens. I don’t reply to the emails, the students complain to administration, chairs, VPs of Online Learning, etc. I then get a phone call from the chair or the VP asking why I am being rude to students. Then, I have to explain myself. The other circumstance I’ve dealt with concerns course evaluations. A student may not call or email (of all things, students email to complain. I always wonder that those emails look like…) but they wait until “Evaluation of Online Course” time rolls around. I then received very low marks in areas of communication. Our evaluation system is color-coded; obviously any red is going to be eye-catching. I then get a phone or email from a chair, dean, or VP of Online Learning inquiring about the nature of personal problem with students and if I want to continue employment I need to improve my attitude.

Higher Education being turned on its head by bureaucracy so education is now sacrificed to ensure happy students and course content now falls within the domain of administrators might be a topic for a future essay. To keep things basic for this post, I’ll simply state some colleges have administrations which will advocate in favor of students, imposing the burden of proof onto faculty.

To close out this post, I’ll ask a question on your behalf: “Since you have been re-writing student emails, how have your students responded?

I’d like to say students have without a doubt, unanimously, been appreciative. I can’t say that. Sometimes, I get a “thank you. You are right; I forgot.” Sometimes, the emails improve, sometimes they don’t. The student who offered Example #3 above actually replied with, “How am I rude? My email was not rude?” I then sent another, even more detailed email than the content of the announcement above. The reply I received was, “I’ve never had a problem before. My teachers like me.” The response of this student indicates far more to me about the intellectual processing power present within the student than I really want to stop and consider.

PAX

Book Review: The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore


The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore. Alfred A. Knopf Publisher. 2014. Hardcover. $24.

I’m not sure many people realize Wonder Woman is nearly as old as Batman and Superman. My impression is she has gotten lost in time, lost in small screen and silver screen cinema, and most importantly, has essentially been shelved by a male-dominated media culture who has historically refused to recognize the contribution of Wonder Woman to popular culture and who deny a woman can be a lead in an action movie.

Historians are charged with a critical responsibility. Historians are the referees of society. When a group or agency or person make some claim historians have the responsibility to step in and determine the veracity of stated claims. Said another way, historians should keep or maintain accuracy of events. Jill Lepore’s entry into the literature of comic book history and the influence of comic books on U.S. culture offers considerable commentary on the dominance of white males in higher education, in marketing, in publishing, and in controlling who speaks and what is spoken early in the 20th century, in a country priding itself upon “freedom of speech.”

The other dominate force in addition to white male dominance is that of religion. Together, the role of males augmented by the vociferous rhetoric of organized religion very much controlled the rights of women. Finding the proper tense for my commentary here is challenging as many of the obstacles faced by women in the early 20th century continue to thrive well into the 21st century. The United States continues to exhibit the implementation of policies to control women’s presence in certain economic government sectors, while politicians continue to try to exercise legislative pressure to control birth control, sex education, and access to family planning.

Sensation Comics (1942)

Sensation Comics (1942)

Wonder Woman is a contemporary of Batman and Superman. Published in “Sensation Comics” in 1942, perhaps I should say Diana Prince is a contemporary of Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent/Kal-el. Much has been made about Batman over the last two decades or so, and almost as much has been made over Superman over an even longer time frame. I am only using the most recent incarnations of “Batman,” circa Michael Keaton, in making that statement, and only post-Christopher Reeves “Superman.” I’m not in denial of previous manifestations of those characters, I’m simply framing them in relationship to current pop culture. I realize Batman and Superman go back to the late 1930’s.

Jill Lepore offers a very interesting examination of the many facets behind the origins of Wonder Woman. WW wasn’t simply the creation of William Marsten to develop a strong female character in the vein of Superman, or an intelligent heroine borrowed from Batman. No, the design behind WW was not initially deliberate. Later, as her character became immensely popular themes and art would certainly become exquisitely deliberate.

Wonder Woman was created by the fellow who designed and patented the world’s first “lie detector” device. And where did his inspiration arise? From his sister-in-law, Margaret Sanger, the principle person advocating women’s rights in the United States, and chiefly responsible for founding Planned Parenthood.

William Moulton Marsten was a very intrepid young man with an active mind and considerable motivation. In 1911 he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts and began taking courses at Harvard University. He was fascinated by philosophy, psychology and sociology and not so enthusiastic about English and history.

Cambridge was rapidly becoming the “proving ground” for women’s suffrage and Marston was right in the thick of the controversy. Cambridge was the site of many of the early protests, campaigns, and rhetoric of the early women’s rights movement. The movement, which began in Great Britain, expanded across the pond to the U.S. East Coast. Harvard University supported women’s rights, creating the Harvard Men’s League for Women Suffrage. Harvard invited a popular speaker on women’s rights, Florence Kelley, to speak on fair wages, an 8-hr work day, and the end of child labor. One problem. In 1911, women were not allowed to speak on the campus of Harvard, or nearly every other university, not as a guest speaker. The Harvard University Corporation – something similar to a Board of Regents, I imagine – upon receiving a petition in support of Kelley from the league, stated Kelley could speak on campus but only if the speech was closed to anyone not affiliated with Harvard. (p10)

Let me break that paragraph down a little further, then add more details. In 1911, women could not vote. Women could not attend Harvard; they had their own colleges separate from men. And, let’s not forget Blacks were also segregated at this point, as well. Thus, we are really dealing with a White oligarchy and aristocracy in control not only of industry but most of education, and thus the greater part of American culture, I would argue. Kelley is invited to Harvard to advocating against work days longer than 8-hours, a minimum wage for women, and the end to child labor. As evidenced by Harvard’s reaction, we can see regardless of how progressive society believes itself to be a vast chasm exists between where society is and where it needs to be.

True, these events took place 104 years ago. But consider events and circumstances of today. We are still debating maternity leave. Legislation has been submitted to control a woman’s reproductive rights. We have legislators who posit notions like “legitimate rape,” and make such nonsense claims a woman’s body “has a way to shut the whole thing down.” In late 2014, the GamerGate controversy became headline news as males took aim at women journalists covering the video game industry. Video games and video game creators came under the scrutiny of female journalists for their unequivocally sexist themes and overt over-sexualization of women. Some of these female journalists have then be subject to death threats and harassment, with the controversy spilling over into all social media venues.

Wonder Woman, of the New 52. (2012)

Wonder Woman, of the New 52. (2012)

Few other comic book heroes are as controversial as Wonder Woman. From her warrior bands of gold worn around her wrists which some people take to imply sexual binding, to binding villains in her golden lasso, again interpreted as sexual binding and submission, the character of Wonder Woman has proven to be a lightning rod for societal issues.

If my commentary comes across as supporting feminism, you’re right. Look, society has made advances since the 1920s. However, all one must do is look at limitations in the military placed upon women, or look at limitations incorporated into school systems limiting the discussion of sex education, or look at the fights occurring in some school districts and in churches limiting the discussion of birth control, and look at the legislation of women’s clinics, and we are surrounded by evidence the grasp of conservative and religious is nearly as tight as existed in the 1920s. Furthermore, social media continues to provide platforms for people to threaten and harass women who point out misogynist themes in society.

A mature society must review itself on occasion. A mature society must step back and assess where it has been, where it is, and where it needs to go in order to progress. A mature society cannot deny rights or privileges to any proportion of its population based simply in gender or race. Yet, an honest and current assessment of our U.S society can only result in the conclusion we have a long ways to go to consider ourselves “mature.” My belief is Lepore’s book offers “Exhibit A” in an extensive litany of evidence to support the contention of many the United States needs more self-reflection and more social progress to eliminate cultural bias, racism, and sexism.

Jill Lepore’s “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” is thoroughly researched. She interviewed surviving family members, former WW artists, former writers, current and former publishers of Wonder Woman. She dug deep into newspapers and university archives to support her commentary of Wonder Woman. The book is deceptively thick; 25% of Jill’s book is essentially her research notes.

Anyone who has an interest in comic book history, the history of beloved characters, needs to read this fascinating book. But, Jill Lepore’s work also provides considerable insight into the history of feminism, and the history of Planned Parenthood. All of these topics are woven together due to William Moulton Marsten being at the epicenter of the women’s rights movements. Jill’s book would make for a good addition to a college course reading list, in history, feminist or women’s literature, perhaps in graphics arts and design, or for a political science or public policy/public administration course.

Read this book. PAX

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