Is GIS Splitting?

Is GIS splitting? And if it is, should we care?

Early in November 2014 I ran across a tweet asking “Is GIS Splitting?” Several thoughts collided in my brain when I saw this question, even more added to the crashing of light-bulbs in my head when I read the post. I had literally just left a meeting where a peer – though I’m sure he would not deign to label himself my peer – suggested no one even refers to “GIS” any longer. And, he seemed staggered and then very dismissive of my rebuttal. “You should google it. You’ll see I’m right,” he recommended. I had just spent the last three weeks doing just this so I knew he was incorrect.

Sidenote: People should not make nonsense comments easily disproven by a google search, especially when one has a Ph.D in a field one is stating no longer purports to use an acronym it has carried for 40+ years. Furthermore, one should not make nonsense comments easily disproven by a google search during a meeting of your peers.

But, making nonsense comments is not the basis of this post, neither is taking a peer to task about their supposed knowledge of the chosen field of everyone in the room. If you detect a peeved tone, you would be correct. While his comment was directed at me, my peeved-ness is not directly related to the comment being directed at me. No, I’m irritated because rather than my peer acknowledging “GIS” is still pertinent, and will be for a while, he elected to paint himself further in corner and made the choice to turn our committee discussion into a personal challenge on his authority and experience, which further encouraged us to question his entire rationale. In other words, I left the meeting with one immediate thought: “Why can he not see we are not provoking him, we are simply seeking a solution to a mundane concern? Why turn this into a question of authority when you aren’t even the committee chair, or the department chair?’

I did not lose sleep over this question. Nothing I could remedy, really, more of psychological question about why people choose to react the way they do, and in ways that work against their own professional demeanor, damage their image and create a perception they are uncooperative and have problems working to consensus. In academia this can be a career-killer. Few administrators will appoint those personalities to leadership positions, locking them into a professorships with little future of advancement. Once in a while these personalities slip through, typically resulting in horrible consequences for faculty, staff, resulting in impacts on student education and administration. Everything, at some point, will trickle down to affect students.

The larger question, of using “geospatial” rather than “GIS” acknowledges the topic in the recent “Is GIS Splitting” post. The timeliness of these events made an impression on me in the broader sense because of the conflict arising during our meeting.

My peer was trying to make a point no organization refers to “GIS” any longer. The term is done, we are beyond GIS. His point was the both the field and discipline are moving towards the use of “Geospatial,” and “GIS” has been relegated to the history books. In all fairness, he does have a point. GIS as a term is facing some competition from other terms and acronyms. In all fairness, though, the point is incomplete. The Death of GIS has not arrived, and neither has “GIScience” nor “geospatial” supplanted “GIS” in the literature, in the software, in any field, or any discipline.

I may need to define “GIS” for my non-GIS readers. GIS is an acronym which can be defined in a few ways, and therein lies grounds for controversy. GIS can stand for “geographic information systems.” Before I move on to the other two definitions, let me break this down further. “Geographic” means geography, and I tell my students geography is “nouns – people, places, things, and ideas and their spatial distribution.” Doesn’t matter where it is, could be Kentucky, could be your brain, could be the Universe. Everything has a place, a position, and reason for being there.

I’m not being funny about saying geography is a “brain” or “the Universe.” Neurologists often talk about the geography of the brain when undertaking studies to map where certain brain functions occur. A person with a brain tumor might have their brain mapped in 3-D in order to get a dose of radiation to a specific place in the brain.

Being a fan of cosmology, cosmologists have been actively mapping our Universe in 3-dimensional space.

Geography tries to answer two fundamental questions: 1. Where is it? and 2. Why is it there? Sometimes, you will see this defined as “site” (the where) and “situation” (the why.) Typically, “where” is a much easier question to answer; “why” is much more fun to work on and far more challenging to address.

“Information” means data, perhaps knowledge. In absolute terms, geographers refer to information as “attributes.” Attributes are things like size, shape, color, distance, area, volume, temperature, elevation, number of cellphone users, number of people aged 15 to 19, marital status, ethnic group. The list is quite extensive.

“Systems” refers to the complex environment related to handing geographic information. Systems include the computers, hard drives, graphic cards, memory; includes the mapping or image processing software; includes the network backbone; includes any database system used to for storing and retrieving information. Additionally, systems include the people, the GIS Technicians, the Census workers, the biologists collecting field data, the GIS Analysts, the database managers. The systems-side of GIS can be as simple as one person sitting in an office running ESRI‘s ArcGIS Desktop, or MapInfo, or GRASS on a decent desktop computer. The systems-side of GIS can be as complex Google Maps and Google Earth, whereby large numbers of staff are busying writing computer code to stitch satellite imagery together so everything looks nice in Google Maps or Google Earth. But, don’t forget, some staff are keeping the servers running, the databases functioning, the network from collapsing. These are Enterprise GIS environments, big, complex mapping and analysis installations. Just so you know, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the U.S. Department of State, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture all have their own big, enterprise-grade geographic information systems environments.

Increasingly, many academic departments, government agencies, and government contractors may replace “systems” with “science,” making geographic information sciences. Sciences connotes the technology behind the systems. Sciences may involve programming languages, like Python. Sciences entail the techniques and methodologies used by common software packages. Techniques include such things as how to find a “hot spot,” a location of some importance, maybe high crime, maybe high sales, maybe high-test scores. The science may involve considerable math, such as finding the shortest route, or fastest route. Math is necessary for measuring sizes, distances, or running statistical treatments against the data to find significance, means, medians, and standard deviations. Science is involved in the technology of managing file sizes, of efficiently storing data in a database, and performing quick retrievels.

Geographic Information Systems can tolerate a variety of users with different skill levels. GISystems can involve an unsophisticated user simply using convenient data to make some variables using a web browser. Training might take an hour or two. On the other end of the spectrum, GISystems can involve very sophisticated users who run large databases, manage web servers, handle dozens to hundreds of users, manage a complex network, and may have several custom applications to address the needs of both intranet clients and extranet clients.

GIScience is more about improving the technology. By improving, I mean figuring out ways to solve problems or using disparate bits of technology in new ways. For instance, a few civilian drones are capable of collecting LiDAR data. Now, scientists have a means of performing surface analysis unheard of as few as five years ago. Mankind has new and better ways of analyzing surface features to improve floodplain mapping, to discover archaeological sites, for managing timber, or for search-and-rescue. New embedded GPS technologies allow companies to provide services unavailable a few years ago. But, we aren’t limited to only the technology but also advances in made in programming languages, the integration of mathematics and statistics for digging deep into data, and the use of multicore processors to augment the number crunching necessary for making highly functional map applications. One doesn’t have to look too hard into GIS software to find the science. Performing cost analysis, calculating sun angle, slope, aspect, or regression analysis are common functions hiding just below the menu bar.

A third term commonly seen is “geospatial.” At first blush, “geospatial” sounds cool, like a really important word. Maybe because the word begins with the Latin “geo.” I don’t know; throw a Latin prefix onto the beginning of any word and that word instantly becomes better. But, geospatial is sort of redundant if you ask me. “Spatial” essentially means “having space” or “having to do with space.” When “geo-” is added, we are merely limiting our examination of space to the Earth, and how a peculiar phenomena is spread-out on Earth. We might think of geospatial as a subset of spatial, then. We could make comments about the geospatial distribution of uranium; we could not make comments about the geospatial distribution of black holes. We could, however, make comments about the spatial distribution of black holes. And, in fact, watch the show “Strip the Cosmos” and precisely that topic is covered.

I have an ESRI Storymap featuring Women Nobel Laureates [link].

Ok – we have a working knowledge of GIS, GIScience, and geospatial. A bit of hyperbole, maybe, but not really for the uninitiated. Now, back to the premise of the post: Is GIS Splitting?

The short answer is, Yes, GIS is splitting. I don’t really like “splitting.” GIS is certainly evolving, and has evolved faster in the last 5 years than perhaps in the 10 years previous. Why would I say this?

The biggest change in GIS arrived when desktop computing became common in the mid-1990s. When GIS moved from UNIX-based systems to PC/Intel-based desktop computers, an enormous transition took place. Software once accessible to a mere few due to the complexity of UNIX could now be placed upon a desktop and made accessible to 10x’s as many people. From about 1995 – 2007 desktop advances keep GIS moving forward. So, what changed?

In 2007, Apple released the first generation of iPhone. I might argue this signature event heralded the beginning of a new age in GIS. With the apps available on the iPhone, such as Google Earth ported to iOS. Later, Apple would develop and embed its own map application with the iPhone iOS. As smartphones grew in popularity, competitors to Apple, Samsung, Motorola, and Nokia would hack out improvements to Android OS. Improvements to Android OS would allow smart phone makers to take advantages of complementary advances in technologies embedded in smartphones, like GPS, barometers, gyroscopes, and high megapixel cameras.

With GPS technology built-in to almost every computing device sold today, and Android OS essentially free, the play field for creation, innovation, and entrepreneurship has expanded more than many prognosticators might have predicted. Kids sitting at home can create a smart phone app. High schools have coding weekends to teach basic coding skills and help those with programming skills to enhanced those skills. Several of these coding events build upon the use of the embedded GPS coupled with online mapping applications. Apps like Yelp can help you find a nearby restaurant. Apps like Tinder or Grindr help people “hook up” with people in their vicinity. FindMyiPhone is an app helping people find their lost iPhones.

Some consumers of mobile device technologies are technicians and scientists. Engineers need GPS-enabled mapping devices to manage construction projects. New roadways, interstates, interchanges are designed and built using mapping technology. Farmers use mapping to increase agricultural efficiency. Companies like Georgia-Pacific manage timber stands with GIS and GPS. UPS, FedEX, and Yellow Freight use GIS to manage the routing of their drivers and packages. Restaurants like Applebees and Bob Evans use GIS to determine what towns and neighborhoods to choose for locations. Anyone who has watched “Bar Rescue” will see Jon Taffer roll-out a large map showing the location of the current bar tragedy, locations of competing bars, and in some cases will showcase local demographics, like the age of people in nearby neighborhoods.

Is GIS Splitting? Yes, if you consider mitosis as splitting, and it is. And, like mitosis, GIS is splitting because it is growing and maturing. Google Earth has made elementary GIS accessible to anyone with a computer. Microsoft Bing! maps offers some basic GIS tools. ESRI offers a couple lightweight GIS apps. ArcGIS Online allows anyone to create an account and begin building online mapping apps. Publish those maps using a template from a collection of pre-made templates and you have a “storymap.” Google Earth has a *beta version of Tour Builder available. Tour Builder allows anyone to build a collection of related places and include videos, pictures, or related websites.

Check out a simply Google Earth tour I created using TourBuilder *beta

King and Maxwell map, based on David Baldacci’s novel

Yes, GIS is splitting, splitting like an amoeba into two amoebas, then four, then eight, then 16, and so on. As a matter of fact, I think it is even bigger than I’ve let on. Every cell phone made in the last two years has a GPS chip which gives the phone’s position in space, i.e. it is “spatially-enabled.” Tablets are spatially enabled, e.g. iPads and Android tablets. Maybe even your car, if you have dashboard mapping system, or if you have Onstar you probably have a GPS chip on-board your vehicle.

GIS, and by reasonable extension, geography, is enmeshed in our lives. Geography is infused in our lives, in our environment. GIS is the technological embodiment of our geography. So, while we might debate about how information should be managed, the Bell of GIS cannot be “unrung;” the technological manifestation of geography is now in the hands of anyone desirous of learning one of the most important skills of the 21st century.


Book Review: King & Maxwell, by David Baldacci

King and Maxwell, by David Baldacci. Grand Central Publishing; Hachette Book Group. 2013. p523. $10

I’m probably guilty of generalizing too often, though in this case my generalization may actually be safe. I may be one of a mere handful of people who had never read a David Baldacci book. He even visited one of the community colleges I’m employed by and I neglected to go listen to him speak. Well, frankly, that was stupid. Stupid, and not really characteristic of me. I usually go in for a reading by an author. Any author, too. I go simply as I might learn one thing, or if I’m lucky, two things. I’ve invited a few authors to visit my university. Neither the authors nor their agents have replied to my emails. I might not have the necessary credentials after my name, like “Student Government President.”

King and Maxwell, an eponym for the book’s characters, Sean King and Michelle Maxwell. You may have heard of them; TNT had a one-season series named for the crime-fighting investigative duo. Rebecca Romijn (Maxwell) and Jon Tenney (King) starred as former Secret Service agents-turned-private investigators. The nice deviation from the norm was Maxwell played the “heavy,” the “muscle,” the “punch-first, shoot-if-necessary, then choke-the-information-from” part of the team. King was the more leveled-headed of the two. Both were equally trained and intelligent; each had their own specialties. Maxwell was trained in hand-to-hand combat and weapons. King’s specialty lies in psychological training; reading body language, asking questions, paying attention to behavior. I enjoyed the show. The characters in the novel were accurately portrayed on the TNT series.

King and Maxwell was a great read, one of the best, most fun novels I’ve read since perhaps “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” by Lawrence Block. Baldacci clearly knows how to draw characters, build elaborate plots, and pace action. If you are a writer looking for a good example of these three characteristics of a good crime novel or suspense fiction, my recommendation is to buy this book and read. I pick on James Patterson frequently. He says his books are “unputdownable.” King and Maxwell was certainly unputdownable. I find Patterson’s books “unbuyable,” in comparison. If you like Patterson’s books and you have yet to read a King and Maxwell adventure, then stop reading Patterson and do yourself a favor and read #6 in the King and Maxwell series.

Yes, thankfully, there are five other King and Maxwell novels to read. Thus, once you finish King and Maxwell five more books await. I bought Simple Genius today (#3 in the series.) It was the only K-M book on the shelf at my sort-of local bookstore. My local bookstore is about 50 miles away. I also bought another Baldacci book, The Collectors. The Collecters is #2 in a 5-book series featuring a group calling themselves The Camel Club. Why “Camel Club” I have no idea; my local bookstore had books #2-5 on the shelf, so I bought #2. And, I don’t want to use Wikipedia to sort out the details. I figure I’ll read #2 and the characters will explain in some fashion how the name evolved. The first book in the series is actually entitled, “The Camel Club.” I suspect the answer might lie within.

I’m not going to go into much plot for King and Maxwell. I want to explain more about what I found so enthralling about this particular book, but I need to give some background. The story begins with a fellow driving a truck through rural Afghanistan to an appointed destination to deliver some heavy stuff. The fellow doesn’t really know what he is transporting and he doesn’t really care, except that if things go sour he is expected to blow himself up. Circumstances do go sour really fast but he elects not to blow himself up. However, now he finds himself stuck in northern Afghanistan, his contacts have closed ranks on him, and he is an American with as many options as one might find in the gap between a rock and a hard place. He does have a cell phone, though, and manages to send a text message to the a person in the United States.

The email ends up in the inbox of the fellows teenage son. Now, one might be tempted to think the son would be happy to hear from his dad. The problem is the Army had visited the son the day before to let the boy and his stepmom know his father had been “killed in action” and his body was not recoverable. Was the email really from his dad, or from someone else? Was his dad really dead? And, if his dad was really alive, then what is going on?

Enter King and Maxwell. The son, Tyler, hires King and Maxwell to sort out the convoluted stories provided by the military, the strange behavior of his stepmom, and figure out, if this person is his father, how to get him safely home. Yeah, not a trip to the grocery store at all.

Authors that do their homework I really appreciate. There are some things I look forward to, like the use of geography – people, places, things, and ideas and their location. Baldacci had me locked-in after the first chapter. The novel begins in Afghanistan, we aren’t told specifically where, but that is fine. We also learn the father, Sam, speaks a little Pashto and Dari. Pashto is the official language of Afghanistan, and is a pretty useful language throughout southern Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, some locations in Iran, and some in India. After Sam’s delivery goes awry he mulls getting out of country. We can piece together his location by the evidence he provides us.

“To the north were three of the stan countries [Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan], to the west was Iran, and to the east and south was Pakistan.” (31)

A little later we learn he arrives in Kabul after a few hours of travel. Travel in Afghanistan is not great; a few hours of travel might get one 150 miles or so. Few roads are more than gravel tracks.


Map of the Administrative Districts of Afghanistan, 2008. Courtesy of the Map Library, UTexas.

Using the map above we can roughly figure out Sam is probably east of Herat and travels east several miles to eventually reach Kabul. We might also guess he may have started in either Ghor or Bamyan province. The first time I had heard of the Taliban was when they destroyed the UNESCO World Heritage site in Bamyan. Bamyan is home, er..was home to the Bamyan Buddhas, 160ft tall buddhas carved into a sandstone escarpment about 500 A.D. In 2001 the Taliban blew up the statues. I felt like the world was in trouble about that point because these fanatics were going around blowing up non-Islamic religious sites, shutting down movies theaters, destroying books and music, and attacking women in the streets for not being covered. The warning signs were there, if anyone was paying attention. Really.

Baldacci set the proverbial hook for me within the first 24 pages. The circumstances of the action coupled with the geography captivated me like the aroma of one of my apple pies right before it’s exit from a hot oven. Not only do the events force you to turn the pages, but the changing geography forces the reader to follow along; “where is Sam going? Where is he going now? How is he going to get there?” These leading questions, rapidly changing events, and changing geographies literally pull the reader from page to page to page, and from chapter to chapter, and before long you’re 100 pages in and its 90 minutes past your bedtime. King and Maxwell is definitely one of those sinister books begging the reader to “read another page. Come on…just one more page. Let’s do another chapter. Just one more chapter. It’s only a few pages. Then, you can go to sleep.”

Google and Google Earth recently developed an app allowing users to build a virtual Google Earth tour. Tour Builder allows anyone to map a set of points related to a topic, and turn those points into a tour, a path, in Google Earth. For instance, I charted Sam Tyler’s escape from Afghanistan into India using Tour Builder. If you’d like to see it, here is the link: King & Maxwell tour. I don’t see a way to embed the tour into a website but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before that capability is made available.

Authors who use their novels to provide some accurate history and geography do all readers a service. As an educator of students from high school to adults back in college I can say unequivocally U.S. citizens have horrible geography skills. I have read a few authors, though, who clearly have no sense of geography, or use geography poorly in their novels. With the presence of the internet today, and apps like Google Earth, Google Maps, and online map collections such as the Perry-Castaneda Map Library at the University of Texas, or the Library of Congress Map Collection, few excuses for bad geography exist today.

“Wingo had read Rudyard Kipling, who had described the Khyber Pass as a “sword cut through the mountains”.” (149)

Even older literature delves into geography, and Sam Wingo exposes some of his education by drawing on his knowledge of Kipling. Sam Wingo also has some experience in Afghanistan, and has traveled to the Wagah Border Center before.

“Wingo had been to this border before. The crossing was right down the middle of the village of Wagah. It had been split in half when demarcation took place in 1947, creating the country of Pakistan from land that had formerly been part of India.” (151)

Baldacci hints at a turbulent world circa 1947. The British Empire was collapsing, a process accelerated by the end of World War Two. India, under British rule, included territory from which Pakistan and Bangladesh would later be created. But, it is also helpful to remember some countries of the Middle East were created around 1947. Israel, for example, was created in 1948; Lebanon was created in 1943. But, I digress.

Later in the book, geography becomes more centered in and around Washington, D.C., Fairfax, Virginia, and Rappahannock County, Virgina.

Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and the software technology inherent in many news cars and trucks today looms large in this story. While the details might seem a little far-fetched, one doesn’t need a fantastic imagination to consider one day these events might possible play out. If you really want to read some books detailing a ‘worst-case’ scenario which could happen in the near future, read Daniel Suarez‘s Daemon and sequel, Freedom. After reading those, you’ll want to hole up in Appalachians or Cascades and never touch technology again.

That won’t work for long. Technology will always find you. After all, smart-drones are on the horizon.




Book Review: Basket Case, by Carl Hiaasen

Basket Case, by Carl Hiaasen; Grand Central Publishing; Hachette Group; 2002.

Despite Carl Hiaasen being a New York Times bestselling author, he is a new author for me. I don’t put much credence in New York Times accolades. These have become meaningless, more or less. James Patterson is a New York Times bestselling author, and I find his books are insipid. Better to measure an author’s worth is to see if they have won some sort of niche award or recognition, like a Newberry, or a Golden Dagger. I have a Two-book rule: I give an author two books to sell me on their writing. Books are too expensive these days to invest in a bad book. But, every author has a bad book, at least one. I gave Patterson three books since his books are outsold only by the Christian Bible itself. Awful, each one of them. I knew after the first the odds were stacked against James.

Carl will get another book. I feel like I got my money’s worth. His writing is clear, dialogue is sharp and mostly witty, like real people talking to each other. Carl writes his characters to act and react as real people. And, not just act and react like real people but people with a smart-assed attitudes. As I read Basket Case, I kept thinking I had read a similar author. And, I had. If you’ve read Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels. Evanovich also has a gift for dialogue, scene-building, writing action, and humor.

Carl Hiaasen is the literary love-child of Janet Evanovich and Patricia Cornwell, in a sense. Basket Case represents well-defined geography, the business world of newspaper journalism, humor and action. Hiaasen writes denser novels than Evanovich, dense in the substance of investigative reporting, and dense in character development, similar to Cornwell, but includes the humor and witty banter and sometimes crazy circumstances, a staple of Stephanie Plum’s adventures. While Hiaasen’s protagonist, Jack Tagger seems to get himself into odd, delicate, or dangerous situations, he seems to accept them with various degrees of humor.

I don’t do spoilers; you’ll just have to read the book. I am interested in the geography in these novels, the real-life places, bars, cities, streets, parks, natural areas which bring novels to life, that give substance to novels, making them seem even more plausible and real. The best author I read doing such is James Lee Burke; he is a master story-teller, showcasing the bayous, bars, and banditry of southern Louisiana.

Basket Case finds Jack Tagger, a brash investigative reporter who has been demoted to the Obituary Desk, writing the obit for one of his favorite musicians, Jimmy Stoma, lead singer for the band Slut Puppies. Jimmy died while scuba diving in the Bahamas. The problem Jack runs up against while getting statements from family members is the decedent’s wife doesn’t really seem too broken-up about Jimmy’s death, and appears to have swiftly moved on to a new boyfriend. In spite of being assigned the Obit Desk, Jack’s instincts as an investigative reporter compel him to question why Cleo, Jimmy’s widow, is able to move on in such a quick and intimate manner. Jimmy Stoma may have been helped along to an early demise.

Jimmy Stoma died while diving on an old aircraft crash site near the Berry Islands, Bahamas. His obituary gave Silver Beach, Florida, as his last place of residence. (7) Fortunately, for the purpose of my posts and my desire to explore the real geography in literature, both of these places truly exist.

Jack Tagger relates some anecdotes about his experience at the Obit Desk. For example, his editor, Emma, had botched an obit in an early writing assignment, a precursor to her being promoted to editor and Jack finding himself writing the obit columns. That she is an editor sort of exemplifies the Peter Principle; she cannot write well or tell a story, yet gets advanced to editor so she doesn’t need to write. She needs only to spell-check and give her seal of approval to incoming articles before printing. Her botched obit concerned a man killed when he crashed his car into a palm tree on Perdido Boulevard. Jack is thinking about Emma’s sloppy obit as he cruises across the Pelican Causeway. From what I could determine, neither of these places exist. Hiaasen appears to have re-imagined South Florida geography, perhaps renaming causeways, towns, and suburbs to avoid any legal hassles.

Lee Child does this as well in his Jack Reacher series. The geography in the Reacher novels is just as fictional as the action. Why authors do this I have no explanation for. I recently read A Walk Among the Tombstones by Lawrence Block. Block depicts real places; real streets, real towns and cities, real cross-streets and addresses of public places, like the New York City Library. James Lee Burke also uses considerable true geography in his Dave Robicheaux series. An avid fan of Burke can drive the same routes and visit the same towns, and eat beignets at Cafe du Monde in New Orleans, just like Dave and his best friend, Cletus Purcell. Judging by the lack of success I’m having in tracking down real places in Basket Case, I’m not sure avid readers of Jack Tagger will be able to follow his literary footsteps in the real world in any detailed way.

Readers will be able to visit Nassua, the Bahamas, of course. Jack and Jimmy Stoma’s sister fly to Nassau to visit police headquarters. In the process of confirming Jimmy’s identity at the morgue, Janet Thrush, Jimmy’s surviving sister notices an odd detail about her brother. What they don’t see precipitates a flight to check the original police report and to have a chat with the fellow who performed the original autopsy. In checking the geography of their flight, about the only thing I can confirm geographically is that the Bahamas exist, Nassau exists, and that Nassau does have, in fact, a police headquarters.

The Nassau police headquarters is pretty much where the novelist describes. “Police headquarters is downtown, across the big toll bridge.” I have to take Carl at his word the bridge is a toll bridge; I cannot discern this detail from imagery but according to a few websites the toll is about $1.00. Permanent resident can use a window decal, or a Smart card to expedite their passage. At one time, pedestrians and bicycles were charged a fee to cross the causeway. The fees for vehicles was increased a few decades ago and the toll for people and their bikes was eliminated.

Several communities are referenced in Basket Case. The town of Beckerville is mentioned numerous times. Beckerville had the misfortune of having a corrupt mayor for about 14 years. I couldn’t find an actual place in Florida named “Beckerville;” doesn’t mean one doesn’t exist, simply I could not find it. The Perdido Causeway I could not find, either.

“Perdido” does seem to be a popular toponym near Pensacola, Florida. 

The county of Gadsden is mentioned early in the novel. Gadsden County, Florida is located in the panhandle of Florida, and is home of Tallahassee. Perdido is a common geographical name in the area. Silver Beach, the location given as Jimmy Stoma’s place of residence, is located due west of Tallahassee, near Destin, Florida. I found myself unable to rectify the confusing geographies presented in Basket Case, as Stoma seemed to be a pleasant inhabitant of South Florida, enjoying Florida Keys, and the Bahamas. Also, Carl Hiaasen is touted as a novelist featuring South Florida prominently in his books. I believe this to be the case. I think he has deliberately conflated real places in Florida with other real places in Florida, with liberal use of local geographic toponyms to fill in the gaps.

I did find a “Silver Beach” but the toponym was tied to a condomium tower near Destin, not South Florida.

Sometimes, an author will pull from the pages of real events, and I expect Carl, being a newspaper journalist, has done this extensively in his novels. I thought maybe I could piece together the puzzle of the book’s broken geography by investigating some of the anecdotal details Jack Tagger provides. Tagger provides some details about a corrupt Beckerville mayor who passed away from cancer. Former major Cheatworth was forced from office by a sex-and-corruption scandal. He was in league with a Miami massage parlor owner, Victor Rubella (what a name, “Rubella”), in a vote-for-happy-ending scandal to encourage zoning board members to vote in his favor. I did some googling to see if I could come up with a similar scandal in South Florida and came up empty. Again, there might have been a real case; I simply didn’t run across one. Carl probably has access to archival data I can’t access without paying for a newspaper subscription.

I’m always curious why authors go to the extra effort of masking true geographies. Several authors I’ve read, James Lee Burke, Lawrence Block, Michael Connelly, F. Paul Wilson, Janet Evanovich, Patricia Cornwell use true geographies in their novels. I have not provided any exhibits from Wilson or Evanovich (at least I don’t remember having done so in any previous post), but both of their primary characters focus primarily within the city of New York and Newark, New Jersey (Wilson) and Trenton, New Jersey (Evanovich). I’m not sure what is gained, or protected, by creating pseudonyms for real places, but I’m pretty sure I know what is lost. What is lost is the connection the reader makes the novel, in general. Sure, a good story can hold a reader spellbound, especially when the novel is a tale of the supernatural, but what if in process of weaving the spell, the author adds elements of true geography to strengthen that bond?

As I investigated the geography of Carl’s novel, I found myself enjoying the book less. However, I’m not sure using geography as the sole criteria to enjoy a book is totally appropriate, though having true geography does enhance my appreciation of an author’s effort. Like I stated previously, I’m going to give Carl at least one more book, probably more. The characters are interesting and captivating, the plot interesting, the dialogue well-draw, thoughtfully constructed and humorous. Carl’s writing is recommended for adults; he deals with body parts and sexual situations and the nuances of adult relationships. So, no kids allowed.

Book Review: When China Rules The World

When China Rules The World; The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order. Martin Jacques. Penguin Paperback. 2012. $20.

The U.S. public needs frequent reminders other places outside of the Middle East exist. Maybe I should not generalize. Perhaps I should say, “The U.S. media and news outlets need constant reminders places outside of the Middle East exist, AND will impact our lives far more than any terrorist group du jour may affect our lives.”  See, the U.S. government is too easily distracted by people and organizations who state as their goal to bring chaos and disorder to the United States. In making these comments, they actually bring chaos and disorder to the United States without really doing anything other than stringing together words which we interpret as threatening. Our politicians then dance like puppets. Jacques makes this point, sort of, very late into his 600+ page tome. While ISIS or some other organization may threaten the United States, and yes, someone might get hurt or killed, ISIS itself does not represent an “existential” threat to the United States, as Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. might want everyone to believe.

Martin Jacques brings to bear a ponderous amount evidence, insight, and a good amount of speculation to address the most important issue people are not talking about, nor is the U.S. government paying much attention to. China.

I’m not talking about the China we hear about occasionally on the news, the China which has a small navy in the South China Sea, or the China which argues with Japan or Taiwan occasionally. Not even the China the U.S. government calls sporadically to figure out what is going on in North Korea.

The China to which I refer is the civilization-state of China, the China with 5,000 years of epic history steeped in the guiding principles of Kong Fuzi (Confucius), viewed by East Asian countries as the Grand Parent, the progenitor of all Asian races. In my belief, a belief I have based on 17 years of classroom teaching of adults, most Americans have very little appreciation of China. While our U.S. government continues to be mired in skirmishes, wars, and general conflict in the Middle East, China is slowly though surely, growing as the blade of grass in your yard, unnoticed, and moving as inexorably as a glacier.

To state another belief, based on my classroom contact with adults, most people do not understand Socialism is a much-nuanced class of political theory. Communism is simply one off-shoot of Socialism, perhaps the most extreme off-shoot. Most countries, like the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, etc. exist inside what political theorists call “Democratic Socialism.” People elect representatives who then set about managing public monies, some monies which are used to support either entirely or in part, services like Medicare, Medicaid, transportation, public libraries, public schools, and so on.

Making this distinction is important for a couple of reasons. First, to understand ourselves we have to understand and be honest with our own system of government. Second, we need to understand “socialism” is a broad term encompassing a spectrum of political systems and beliefs. Third, we need to understand to label a country’s government as “socialist” or “communist” has little meaning due to the variety of nuances managing that particular country. Last, Communist China is nothing like Communist Russia (USSR) or Communist North Korea. And this is an important point Martin Jacques emphasizes throughout his treatise for a critical reason.

The “West,” defined roughly as Europe plus the United States and Canada, have developed a peculiar perspective for viewing the world which will impair their ability to adapt and change.

“…the West because the latter has become accustomed to thinking of its own values as the norm and regarding itself as justified in imposing these on other countries and insisting that they be accepted by the international community.”

I hate to say anything is self-evident, but this appears to me to be self-evident. We need only look at how the United States attempts to impose all sorts of restrictions on foreign aid, investment throughout Africa and Latin America. We need only look at our hubris in trying to establish Western-style democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan. I use examples in my world geography courses of corporate hubris, corporations so wrapped up in believing “the world loves America so anything we make will be loved and appreciated.” While American styles might enjoy popularity, most countries in fact do not want their culture replaced with Western culture. Companies like Nike have made errors in marketing and promotion within Asian countries. Nike messed up shoe design a few years ago, mistakenly believing Chinese feet and design tastes were  identical to those found in the U.S. They aren’t. Even fast food restaurants like McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Subway have all adjusted their menus to accommodate local flavors and ingredients.

But, these are minor disruptions, changes in marketing strategies that only hint at a greater difference hidden behind the facade of consumerism. Jacques continually makes the point Chinese history and culture is 20x’s greater and more extensive than U.S. history, more extensive than European history in many cases, even if one includes the Romans and Greeks. The Chinese, while not precisely being a homogenous culture, see themselves as a single long-running civilization. Technically, China has a minority population about equal in size to the entire U.S. work force, about 155 million people, or about 10% of the population. If we were to examine the economies of several Chinese provinces, the GDP of these provinces would equal the GDP of countries. If we were to simply look at the GDP of some cities, like Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Shanghai, or Beijing, these cities have higher GDPs than many countries.

Martin doesn’t get around to setting up his thesis until well into this dense read. That is OK, though; if you can hang around long enough you will see his general argument has some merit. Martin identifies eight themes which identify why China is the country to watch (not Syria, not Iraq, not Afghanistan, not Russian) from now until the end of the century. And probably beyond that, too; but, by then you’ll have to keep an eye on India and maybe Brazil, too.

I’ll give a brief run-down of these themes.

1.     China is not a nation-state.

China is what Jacques has coined a “civilization-state.” China is simply too big and too old and too populated to fit the traditional definition of “nation-state.” And, the notion of nation-state is also a Western term used to define European countries, based on the Westphalian nation-state theory. Thus, many of us, and by “us” I mean Westerners, are wrongly forcing a Western idea upon an Eastern culture.

2.     China is influenced more by the tributary-state system.

The Asian tributary-state system describes a complex collection of relationships between China and countries bordering or near China. For a couple thousand years, China was viewed as the superior culture by its neighbors. After all, China was the cultural hearth of Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia, providing language, arts, and philosophy. In return, these regions provided raw materials, ores and metals, grain, and such.

3.     China sees itself as a single cultural monolith.

While China does have minority groups, Han Chinese comprise the largest cultural group. About 90% of China is Han Chinese. But … the people of Han themselves represent a variety of ethnicities fused together over space and time. Jacques states that “there is a powerful body of opinion in China that believes in polygenism.” Polygenism is a hypothesis the human race had different origins for different ethnic groups, rather than springing from a common ancestor (monogenism). Thus, when China exerts influence in Asia, China is simply exerting influence over people who are really Chinese – in the Chinese mind.

4.     China is huge.

Russia is the world’s largest country, by size, followed by Canada, the United States, and China. However, China is the largest country, by population. China, then, is the world’s most populous country and 4th in size by land area. Can we really consider China the same way as we regard Germany? Or, France? Or, Israel? Can the United States – or any other country for that matter – apply a “one size fits all foreign policy” to Italy, for example, and then the same policy to China? Jacques would argue, “No, that is ridiculous.” I would 2nd that. I preach in my geography courses I do not like when people hold up the United States against other countries, say Poland, or Denmark. We cannot even hold up the United State to China, really. The United States has about 4-5% of the world’s population; China has about 20% of the world’s population. In other words, given 100 people, 4 of those would be U.S. citizens and 20 of those people would be Chinese.

5.     China has a government which does not share power.

India, the United States, Canada, Germany, Japan, merely to name a few examples, have branches of government which share power with other branches. Political parties exist, special interest groups, political action groups, and grassroots organizations exist. China’s government does not share power with any particular branch or group. No NRA to lobby Congresspeople, no religious sector to satisfy. The Principles of Confucianism infuse Chinese society with an elaborate set of societal rules and structure people have followed since before the dawn of Christianity. The Chinese people have experienced very little sovereignty and have relied on dynasty upon dynasty to make good leadership choices.

6.      China is transforming rapidly.

China is very large, both in size and population, this is true. And one might be tempted to believe China’s size would hinder economic growth. Refer to the previous points as evidence why this belief is misguided. The vast majority of Chinese trust their government. The vast majority of Chinese see themselves as a single people. These same Chinese also, generally speaking, conform to Confucianism. What this means is Chinese society is generally on the same page when it comes to adopting new policies, accepting new ideas, new technologies, and changing behaviors. What this level of social conformity translates to is the ability to move millions of people quickly to new directions. Now, before I get too carried away we need to remind ourselves China is a very complex society, as well. Enormous disparities and inequalities exist, city-to-city, province-to-province, rural-to-urban. Jacques does not suggest, either, that changes to political or social system are impossible to change, only the change will be measured and patient.

7.     China is managed by a Communist regime but not a regime similar to the USSR, nor North Korea.

I tend to think most Americans do not have very savvy knowledge of political theories, especially where Communism is concerned. My perception is a typical U.S. citizen could not discrimination between Socialism and Communism, and media outlets tend to conflate Socialism to Communism. Martin recommends “Communism must be viewed in a more pluralistic manner than was previously the case: the fact is that the Chinese Communist Party is very different from its Soviet counterpart.” U.S. foreign policy seems to place all forms of Communism into one category: bad. A proposal by Senator John McCain sought to create a “league of democracies” and was designed to exclude China (and Russia). [559]

8.     China is both developing and developed.

The coastal region of China is quite modern and advanced. Coastal cities rival any city a Westerner might bring to mind, New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, or Rome. However, if one were to travel into the interior of China, one would see rural communities not particularly advanced, perhaps quaint. Not unlike rural America, perhaps; even more so. Farmers still use crude implements. Millions are illiterate, and have limited access to improved roads, and may lack access to local markets or economic opportunities. To China’s credit, the Communist government has helped 300 million people out of poverty and improved literacy. China is so large, though, even helping a number of people equal to the population of the United States out of poverty means China still has a long way to go.

These eight themes are enumerated late in Jacques’s book but are consistently applied from the introduction to be clear. Martin spends a great deal of effort over 100s of well-researched pages providing copious examples for each of the above points. I feel like he could have made his argument in about 300 pages or so. Much of his discourse was very repetitious.

I agreed with Martin on his points above, maybe not the content but certainly the context. Regardless of how one may feel about China, I think Martin makes a few good criticisms. First,

“the United States thus remained largely blind to what the future might hold, still basking in the glory of its past and its present, and preferring to believe that it would continue in the future.” [558]

The United States has problems thinking and acting long-term, constantly being distracted by terrorism, by societal distractions of marriage equality and ebola, and unable to breakout of its historical Cold War mentality. Second, the West measures China by a flawed “yardstick.” Jacques argues:

“[the West] expresses a relatively innocent narrow-mindedness; at worst it reflects an overweening Western hubris, a belief that the Western experience is universal in all matters of importance.” [563]

Later, Jacques alludes to comments made by Chinese history expert Paul A Cohen, professor emeritus at Wellesley College.

“the Western mentality – nurtured and shaped by its long-term ascendancy – far from being imbued with a cosmopolitan outlook as one might expect, as in fact highly parochial, believing in its own universalism; or, to put it another way, its own rectitude and eternal relevance. If we already have the answers, and these are universally applicable, then there is little or nothing to learn from anyone else.”

Jacques warns “by seeing China in terms of the West, it refuses to recognize or acknowledge China’s own originality and furthermore, how China’s difference might change the nature of the world in which we live.”

The Chinese currency referred to as both the yuan and the renminbi, has the potential to become the toughest competition for the U.S. dollar the world has ever seen. China is flush with money, likes to make investments, and provides attractive loans without the moral or political conditions often imposed by the United States, the World Bank, or the International Monetary Fund. So many countries have taken advantage of China’s largess, China is considering developing its own international loan system in competition to with the World Bank.

Judging by huge U.S. gaps in intelligence over the last 15 years in the Middle East and Central Asia, I find Jacques comments nothing other than stating the obvious. Government leaders in the West seem to fall victim to the adage, “A lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.” In other words, our policy makers are too susceptible to their own belief systems. On NPR this morning, during the radio show, “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” one of the panelists stated, “I just conducted a study in my own brain and found that people who take selfies with bears should succumb to Darwinism.” I think our politicians tend to conduct studies in their own brains, reach conclusions based on little more than bias and feelings, without much in the way of facts or substantive evidence, and without due consideration of experts. Much like our politicians who have zero experience in STEM who prefer to consider their own knowledge about climate change rather than physicists and chemists.

Martin does take several liberties with the landscape of American history. The following statement was made that almost made me throw the book down:

“The fact that the United States started as a blank piece of paper enabled it to write its own rules and design its own institutions: from the outset, steeped in Protestant doctrine, Americans were attracted to the idea of abstract principles, which was to find expression in the Constitution and, subsequently, in a strong sense of a universalizing and ultimately global mission.” [51]

Maybe I might be guilty of over-reacting, but this comment seems blind to the years of harsh discourse among all parties leading up to the creation of the Constitution, and for years thereafter. No doubt, Christian principles and associated racism and bigotry played important roles in the early evolution of the United States. Our cultural “homogeneity” was hardly that. True, Protestants comprised early settlers, but so did Catholics, as well as some who probably did not believe anything. Americans act as if atheism is a recent invention. In any case, Jacques seems to whitewash a hundred or so years of atrocities committed against the native Americans.

The West does need to pay attention to China, to Japan, and Korea, and Southeast Asia. China, in particular, is already aligning itself with many African countries. Tens of thousands of Chinese have already relocated to several African countries. There, they are already beginning to influence local politics and the local economies. China is engaging in important trade negotiations in Latin America, specifically Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. Chinese corporations are buying farmland to raise crops for export back to China. While our U.S. government is manipulated by the Israelis, or the NRA, sidetracked by problems in Iran and Iraq and Syria – places where the United States has no real interest other than oil – China will continue to grow, evolve, and continue to infuse itself in the economic affairs of its neighbors while building relationships in Latin America and across Africa. Russia will come face-to-face with China as Chinese migrate across the porous Russian-Chinese border and begin to assert themselves in the Russian Far East.

Martin spends too much time referring to the “Fall of the West” or the “Decline of the United States.” Of course, I might simply be expressing the hubris he accuses the West of practicing. I don’t see the United States as declining, nor like Charles Krauthammer is quoted as saying do I see the decline of the United States as a “choice.” I dispute this point entirely. China, as has been established, is big, in terms of people and size. When China ramps up its population to the point where 90+% of Chinese are literate, when more Chinese rise from poverty, and as more Chinese become both producers and consumers, China’s rise must surpassed the United States. The United States will not fade away or decline; it may appear so but only because China’s emergence will accelerate past us. Like two cars driving down the interstate our Ford Escape will eventually be approached, met even, and passed by a Volvo or MG. Then, we will see them pull away into the distance. At least, that is the idea.

I am sure I missed some subtle points and themes within When China Rules the World. In teaching world geography I look for broad themes and anecdotes to support the themes. I also like to see maps, charts, and tables. Martin Jacques does a nice job of providing all of these elements. I especially appreciate when he enumerates his points, reasons, or evidence for clarity. All of these assist me in an educator role when I want to encourage critical thinking.

“Ok, get out your laptops, tablets, or phones. Let’s look up some of this data. Can we arrive at the same conclusion as the author? Can we find data which disputes the author’s point?”

Then, once we have found, examined, and interpreted pertinent data, then students can make their own inferences. Books like When China Rules the World make a good place to start and engage students in thinking about geopolitics and global economics.

Thanks for reading my words :-)



The Not-So-Nimble Case of Higher Education

Several of my past essays grouse about higher education not being particularly nimble places despite administrators who implore faculty to be more so while they themselves are anything but nimble. My own workplace is warming to the idea the institution is not as nimble as we would like. My hopes are some administrators are awakening the realization the true hindrance to our lack of dexterity lies both within themselves and their peers. While an individual faculty person can “flip a classroom” or engage students with real problem-oriented assignments a university must itself inspire a complete culture of creative thinking and innovation, not simply using sole faculty in specific departments as examples of “See, look what Professor X is doing! Isn’t that spectacular?”

Colleges and universities across the United States were seen both as sources of innovative thought and sites of infectious social liberalization. Examples are easy to find, from UC-Berkeley on the West Coast, Kent State in the Midwest, to Columbia University in New York, university and colleges across the United States were loathed by many as disruptive to U.S. culture, promulgating ideas of free love, Socialism, peace (or anti-war), Civil Rights, and other ideas which some people felt threatened the very fabric of the U.S.

UCB Bear-smCurrently, I would argue universities and colleges are not the liberating influencers they once were. I feel comfortable saying this in part because U.S. society has become more liberal, has become more accepting of people, more nuanced in their approaches to societal concerns. U.S. society has become more tolerate of the LGBTQ community, has over-come some aspects of racism, such as interracial dating and marriage.

No doubt the U.S. has more changes to make, but we have come a long way. We haven’t seen 100 years yet since women were allowed to vote. Many Conservatives would like to prevent even more people from voting. But, to be Conservative, by definition, means “resistant to change.” So, those of us who would prefer Humanity to stop judging people should not be surprised by those people among us unable to tolerate change. Some human brains are simply not wired to adopt change.

People who hold conservative viewpoints can be found anywhere and higher education is no different. Administrators who once stood in front students and goaded them into adopting new ways of thinking, and being open and receptive to new ideas, and to think about different approaches to problem-solving, go through some type of Kafka-esque transformation, construct a bureaucratic trench, and then impose the same myopic perspective their proselytize to their students to eliminate from their own lives.

I don’t get it. I have an allergy to logical inconsistencies.

OK, enough soap-boxing.

In this post, I am releasing into the “wild” a proposal for an internal internship program. I think all universities need an internal internship program. The changing demographics of the United States mandate changing some of our mindsets and protocols to meet the needs of students. For instance, adult unmarried students with children may desire an internship yet don’t have the required support system to leave their children behind for 8-, 10-, or 12-weeks to engage in distant internship. Why should these students be denied the opportunity to gain experience simply because of their life circumstance? Why should working for a university office be any different from working for some distant employer?

Granted, I do see the benefit of relocating for an internship. I also see the benefit of doing Study Abroad. However, an adult back in school may have already work experience and/or life experience which satisfies part of the rationale behind internships. Secondly, the experience gained in working for a university IT department, research center, Student Affairs, Publications, or some other office on a college campus is potentially no different if we simply reframe our vision of other offices on campus as “clients.”

My generic draft proposal: DraftProposal_Generic_Internships2014-2015_v2 (Word document)

I have found some universities already support internal internship programs. Morehead State University (KY) is one example. Western Kentucky University is another. I’m sure these programs exist at many different colleges and universities. Not at mine; not yet.

I’m trying to get administrators to support this program. I’ve met heavy resistance, actually, from administrators. Mostly because I didn’t follow the chain of bureaucracy. I didn’t want the proposal to get trashed which has happened to other ideas of mine. I made sure the people who read my proposal drafts were also those who were able to get the proposal read by the president’s office.

In addition to the internship program universities should support, I have a few other ideas which I have written posts about.

Higher Education is Anything But Nimble Basically, some thoughts about thinking which does not work to the advantage of faculty, staff, or students, thinking which impairs or detracts from student engagement.

Building Consensus for an Idea Lab I’m a firm believer all universities need a forum and a makerspace to encourage students from all disciplines to work together on projects. No one can honestly say where new ideas will come from. I’ve run across too many presumptive administrators in higher education who state, “Our students will never …” or “Our students will always …” and that person automatically loses credibility in my eyes.

Promote Innovation in Higher Education Using a StudentStore I cannot take credit for this idea. Wallace Patterson, Education Account Manager for Makerbot, and I were riffing back and forth on the phone one day and we hit on this idea. Look, why should art students or horticultural students or whatever organization get a “One Day Only Sale to Support Our Organization?” Why can’t something like this exist for both individual students and for organizations? And, why can’t a university support a student-run retail store / gift shop showcasing student work? Would not parents of current students, current students, potential students, and alumni like to see how their education investment is paying-off? When a student ambassador can walk parents, and students and donors and alumni through a space and say, “This place is managed, staff, and stocked with items produced here on campus by our students. They gain management and business experience, plus have a place in which to sell the fruits of their ideas. We want to inspire innovation and entrepreneurship, and this store is only one component of making sure our graduates leave our school ready to hit the ground running.”

Using Social Media to Promote Your Department, College, and University I don’t have this essay posted. I thought I did. Evidently, the draft exists only in my brain. In essence, the idea is this: all departments, colleges, and campus offices need to have some sort of social media presence. I frequently visit the Social Media page at the University of Victoria (Canada). In my opinion, they have “best practices” for higher education social media presence. Their home page has a nice social media widget at the bottom 1/3rd of the page. They have reorganized their page some but from the bottom of the front page one can access all social media at UVic. Now, if you are following along to this point, thanks, but notice how UVic has their campus social media organized. This is brilliant. Easy-to-access, easy to locate pertinent social media sites for each office and department. The person managing social media for UVic knows what they are doing. Now, in case you say, “Big deal,” it is a big deal. Parents, grandparents, legal guardian, current students, alumni, and potential students all use social media. Social media are no longer a luxury, an interesting side-bar activity one does when a break from the routine. Social media are expected, is anticipated, by everyone. Social media is proactive; social media managers “push out” information and actively try to engage people. A webpage or website is not proactive; if anything it is a passive response requiring someone to visit your webpage or website. Social media, i.e. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, Pinterest pushes out content (in some cases, special configuration is necessary, but still.) Returning to a previous comment, we cannot presume to know the minds of people. We can make some really ignorant choices presuming knowledge. Social media basically is like a broadcast tower, “Whoever can here me, here is what I have to say.” Then, interested parties either tune-in or tune-out. But, the receiver gets to make that choice. The dangerous presumption is one shutting down communication because of a particular bias someone has no interest in your message. Or, equally worse, the presumption someone will seek to find your passive message hiding within the maelstrom of all of the active messages being broadcast. My hypothesis is: always broadcast, always be active about broadcasting and leave the decision to listen or not to the audience. While the immediate audience may not have an interest, they may know of others who do, and again by the power of social media the reach of your message extends beyond the range of the initial message. It just makes sense to me, yet I have failed consistently this year to get my point across to administrators who simply refuse to acknowledge the potential of managing positive messages conveyed through social media. Ta da!

Ok – to all who read my admittedly rambling discourse, and my occasional hyperbole, I really appreciate you taking the time to consider my posts, especially when so many good sites exist.



The Geography of a Comic Book

Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist, published “The World Is Flat” in 2005. Since the book hit the streets people have been citing evidence the world is not so much as flat as Friedman argues. I’m not reviewing Friedman’s book here; I’ve read it, it’s thought-provoking. In some ways I agree; in other ways his argument simply doesn’t stand up to deep scrutiny. There are still too many big economic players, reservoirs of wealth and deserts of poverty, and uneven parity in educational and cultural affairs.

Having said all of that, there are some cool examples of a flatter world. I happened onto one of these experiences at my local comic book store. G’s Comics is my local comic store. “G” is great about having functions at his place, from hosting Magic tournaments, Free Comic Book Day, and Halloween ComicFest. On occasion, G hosts comic book writers, illustrators, inkers, and other creative talent.

The third week of September, G hosted a couple of comic book artists and writers. Tommy Patterson lives in western Kentucky and provides art and illustrations for comic book tie-in for George R. R. Martin’s “The Game of Thrones.” If you enjoy HBO’s The Game of Thrones, you might enjoy the comic books. I have picked up a few comics myself, having read a couple of the books, and found myself enjoying the books more after reading the comics. The art really manifests and augments the story.

Jay Leisten lives in Kentucky’s Bluegrass region. His newest effort is The Death of Wolverine for Marvel. Outside of Spider-man and Captain America, Marvel’s Wolverine has become one of the most popular comic book superheroes to grace the silver screen. Leisten, like Patterson, has an extensive comic illustration resume, providing art for many popular Marvel books, including Uncanny X-Men, Captain America, Thor, and The Incredible Hulk.

I’ve collected comic books for as long as I can remember. My oldest book is a tattered copy of an old Golden Key comic of Star Trek. “Back in the day” comic book publishers existed in one place – New York City. Other cities may have supported a few itinerate publishers but for serious comic book work, one had to eke out a living in New York. As a geographer, I look for patterns, for changing relationships, for changing connections. I knew comic book creation and publication was becoming more distributed, more dispersed. But I wanted to know from the artist stand point just how dispersed the publication of a comic book had become. I figured I would take advantage of the presence of G’s guests and see what I could learn. My findings were pretty cool.

Gone are the days of having to live in New York City to build a comic book. It may help; however, it will not prevent someone with a serious yen for building a comic book if he or she does not live in NYC. In chatting with Jay, I discovered one of the writers he works with lives in Nova Scotia, Canada. Nova Scotia is the second smallest Canadian province, and while it may seem far north to those of us in the American South, is half way between the Equator and the North Pole.

The writer develops the story idea, the story arc, and fleshes out the details, providing some pointers on layout, detailing what goes on each page. The writer then passes these details along to the Penciler. Pencilers take the writers text, plot, and story vision and translate these notions onto paper, usually in pencil but not necessarily. The penciler Jay works with lives in Austin, Texas.

Inkers then take the pencil artwork and firm up the line work, adding contrast, enhancing details, and essentially framing the art. I’m not a professional artist so forgive me for my lack of terminology. I’m hoping Tommy or Jay might read this and help me set the record straight and improve my content on this post, as they do such brilliant work I’d like more people to realize the depth and breadth of the comic book industry. Jay, who lives in Louisville, KY, working as an Inker, performs these enhancements before passing his work on to the Colorist.

Once the inker is finished the Colorist takes over. The colorist adds the approved colors to all of the graphic elements. For “The Death of Wolverine” the colorist lives in Florida. I don’t have a specific town or city, and I think most of us can find Florida on a map.

Final approval of the book occurs at Marvel’s home in New York City. All of the creative editors examine the book and hopefully provide the go-ahead for publishing. I would encourage the reader to scrutinize this map, zoom-in, really. Notice how many other important places pop-up. Sony Music headquarters is nearby, at Madison and 55th. Toshiba America is almost across the street from Marvel Entertainment. DC Comics is just to the north off of Broadway.

Even NASDAQ is just to the south. Notice how many corporations are nestled together in Manhattan? In geography, the clustering of these cooperative and competitive economies we call a “technopole.”

Technopoles are sort of great places to live and work, that is if you like being around creative people, working on cool projects, and engaged in doing innovative and smart projects. Like attracts like. Technopoles are breeding grounds for fantastic ideas, for driving innovation, and foster people of all ages and backgrounds to become entrepreneurs. Manhattan is to New York what Silicon Valley is to San Francisco and the world, really.

For publishing, we return to Kentucky. Cool, huh? I know! Right here in the state I currently live some of my favorite comics are published. Currently, Marvel contracts with a publisher in Versailles, Kentucky for the publishing of its titles.

I don’t want to give the impression the creation of a comic book follows a simple work-flow: Writer -> Penciler -> Artist -> Colorist -> Lettering -> Draft to Marvel -> Printing -> Distribution to G’s Comics in Murray, Kentucky. The talents involved in bringing a story to life may live in different places yet they certainly collaborate with each other often. Jay said he often works with artists in Spain and Brazil. Team members may get together at a convenient location, say Florida or New York City, on occasion. But, far more common is for them to share files using Google Drive or Dropbox. Creative meetings then take place using Skype.

Many new (or old) comic book publishers do not call New York City home. Boom! Studios is located in Los Angeles. OK, so L.A. is almost New York as far as talent, innovation, entrepreneurship is concerned. IDW Publishing is located in San Diego, CA. Dynamite Publishing is found in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey. But these publishers are on the coasts, located in fairly popular regions. Aren’t there any publishers in the Midwest, for instance? As a matter of fact, Avatar Press resides in Rantoul, Illinois. Avatar Press is an independent comic book publisher and home to Max Brooks (“World War Z”) and Garth Ennis (“Crossed”).

The next time you visit your local comic book store contemplate the comic book your holding in your hand. In your hands rests ideas, thoughts, and creative content representative of people not holed-up in a New York City office. No, the writer may live in a cottage in Nova Scotia, or maybe in rural Spain. The penciler may live in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The inker may live in Tampa, Florida. The colorist may live in Austin, Texas. They feed ideas back-and-forth to each other using Google Drive and hash out details via Skype. The publisher makes these ideas manifest by sending the content as a PDF file to a printer in Versailles, Kentucky. I haven’t even covered the origins of the inks, the paper; the geography of the raw materials. Hopefully, we can see comics are an example of geography at work, the leveling of the global economic playing field.

The world is not entirely “flat” as Thomas Friedman argues. Creative and innovative people find ways to navigate the hills and valleys of the world to bring their ideas to life, though.


Education May Be Its Own Worst Enemy

“Your objectives are harshing my mellow, man.”

I talk to a lot of people. People who knew me in high school would be surprised by this. I barely uttered a sentence throughout high school, never participated in any social events. I would speak with my teachers, but my peers – not so much. But, I was paying attention. I lived by the adage, “If you have nothing good to say, then don’t say anything.” The corollary of the adage also guided me: “Better to keep your ignorance a mystery, than to reveal your ignorance by speaking.”

People who know me today know that to ask me a question means to set aside several minutes. Or, to engage me in a hallway or in my office means to attire one’s self in a conversational flak jacket.

Sometimes, my conversations don’t go well. I decided some time ago the only way for me to overcome my own ignorance meant to engage people in conversation, to ask questions, to interview, to probe. I know to some people I come across as badgering. When I ask a question, I’m very passionate about getting an answer directly related to my line of questioning. Some people might think of my inquiry as interrogation. In fact, I think some have said, “Why are you interrogating me?” To which I respond, “I need to know if you have the information I need. If you do, I want that knowledge, to learn from you. If you don’t have the knowledge, I need to move on to someone who does. No offense.”

Over the past month, I’ve had a series of interesting conversations with individuals who are heavily invested in the discipline of Education. To a person, they all share a peculiar trait. Based on this trait and how current education appears to be infused with this trait, I have to say, I’m really concerned with the philosophies and strategies infusing current education philosophies. To me, these strategies seem nearly at odds with the intent of education, almost counterproductive.

The only way I know to effectively communicate my concern is to provide a couple anecdotes. Bear with me; I cannot promise you will agree with me but perhaps you understand the concern.

A month ago, as classes were beginning, I ran across an administrator in the local College of Education, “Ed.” I began my pitch about encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship in high school by introducing students to 3D printing, 3D scanning, and code camps. His reply was this:

“Well, you can’t just go out and buy a 3D printer. You have to have a plan. Thought has to be put into this. There have to be clearly defined objectives, goals identified. You’ve got to produce a plan; these printers are too expensive to simply buy one without having a plan.”

Also about a month or so ago, I attended my semester-opening collegiate meeting. In a nutshell, we were challenged to be “nimble” in thought, in teaching, in outreach; then when offered new ways and current ways of presenting outreach, we retreat to the mean, retreat to the status quo. Here is how that discussion went.

During the collegiate meeting, our dean ran through the list of faculty accomplishments, accolades, awards, grants, etc. These distinctions came on the heels of the college being challenged by the dean to think about new ways of outreach, to be “nimble.” When he said, “nimble,” he had me. He is right, I thought. The university needs to be nimble. He is speaking my language.

I manage the social media for two areas in my college. In my cursory analysis of academic based social media outreach of my university, how we “push out” academic news to the world, I found three accounts were primarily responsible for all the content. Two of those accounts are the ones I manage; the third account is based in our library. When the dean challenged us to be nimble and being the self-appointed social media manager for two areas in my college, I took out my new Samsung Galaxy S5 and emailed the dean’s secretary while he read aloud from the list of accomplished.

“Betsy [not her real name], email me that list of awards and stuff. I want to push out all that info via my social media accounts. Thanks!”

Later that Friday afternoon I received a phone call from Betsy. “The dean says, Thanks, but no thanks.”

“What?! Look, we need to push out good details like this. People need to be aware of what our university is doing. Evidently, I need to come talk to him. Put me on his calendar for next week, please.” The following Monday I was added to the dean’s afternoon schedule.

I brought my laptop to the Monday afternoon meeting. I could not simply debate or argue; I had to demonstrate. I had to show. I given many talks on using social media in a positive way. Personally, I do not have a Facebook account. I did, years ago. But, getting involved in the morass of people’s lives I do not find interesting. Additionally, the shear amount of insipidly stupid details was damaging my mental health. I became a heavy Twitter user, though. I made a conscious decision to follow other users who were mostly positive, who posted good content, and who I felt I had something I could learn about. When I did this, social media for me changed.

I created Facebook pages for my areas and associated Twitter accounts. I linked the accounts so I could post from Twitter and have my comments appear in Facebook. Doing this, I could glean good content from Twitter from my excellent collection of Twitter influencers, like ESRI, USGS, faculty from across the country, and other organizations. I use the social media accounts to keep in touch with students over academic breaks, to inform them about internships, scholarships, grants, funding opportunities, continuing education opportunities like those available from MOOCs, and I give away free stuff like cups, mugs, t-shirts.

The response I get back is pretty positive. Students have told me that without my efforts, they would not have known about MOOC courses, might have registered for the wrong courses, like seeing what is going on in their field, and have received internships based on information I’ve posted. Part of says, “If I’ve made a positive difference in one student’s academic career, then this work is worth the effort.”

In my meeting, I outlined all of these details for the dean. I explained the impact I was having with in my own areas. I provided some anecdotes how my own contacts have grown and my own knowledge as an educator has evolved by following good people on Twitter. I detailed the serious issues our university is currently experiencing with siloing and claim-staking. Siloing and claim-staking are incredibly detrimental to academics and anything hurting academics directly impacts and damages students education by interfering with cross-pollenization of ideas and builds barriers against the fundamental premise of higher education: holistic learning. I showed the dean my own Twitter account plus the accounts of the areas I manage. I use HootSuite to manage my social media, and have several Twitter feeds organized by hashtags applicable to my university. I filter for university-specific hashtags so I can monitor the type of information being driven and who is doing the promoting.

In the end, none of this made any impact on my dean. In essence, his response distilled to two points. First, he and his family had bad experiences on Facebook. “How can you control what people say about you?” he inquired. I’m sure I looked at him with an expression mixed with equal parts of confusion and you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me. Secondly, his sentiments were that each department and each faculty person should be responsible for their own self-promotion. “I think each area and faculty person needs to handle these details in their own way,” he stated. “And, it’s not fair to those faculty who don’t get the recognition,” he added.

I countered; “As a college we need organization and management to provide a unified front, to showcase the talent and efforts our faculty have and the work they are engaged in. As a form of outreach, we need to use social media to reach any and all potential students in our service region. We need to use social media to reach out to other faculty at other institutions to share our efforts and build networks. We need to let parents, and current students, and potential students, and alumni what our colleagues are engaged in. Furthermore, we cannot worry about faculty who get upset about not getting attention. ESPN doesn’t interview the entire team; they interview the coach, the quarterback, the wide receiver, and running back, and maybe a guy who had a good game. Also, that is a problem we want to have. We fix that problem by saying, I’m sorry you’re upset; we will do a better job of pushing out content, and we will get your message out. Thanks for letting us know you are paying attention and letting us know this is effort is important to you.”

The dean then proffered the idea of desiring a better website. “We need a better set of website management tools for building better content,” he said. I agreed. “But that is a passive activity. People have to want to visit our website. Building a website is a passive action, predicated upon a “If we build it, they will come” fallacy. Not necessarily. We still need to actively engage our community, our service region. You never know who is listening, a teacher, a principal, a research at another university, a parent, an uncle or aunt. They see our promoted content via Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest. Our resources are recognized, mentioned to others. People then choose to visit our website. We have to engage them, though. It’s my belief we can’t merely build a new site and expect people to hit our site.”

None of this had any impact. I left the meeting making no progress, made no headway. We agreed to disagree. What I thought was acceptable as a “good idea” and an effective way of engaging people in our region was dismissed.

A week ago, a colleague and I had a meeting with another colleague of mine in biology. NSF has a nice funding opportunity with an rapidly approaching deadline. Our biology colleague is well-versed in the language required for NSF grant documents. She knows what they like to read. Essentially, “inquiry-based learning” language must run throughout all documents. Problem is, no one seems to be able to adequately detail what “inquiry-based learning” is. IBL eludes description but evidently reviewers at NSF know what it isn’t. After an hour-and-half we had made little progress. We aren’t stupid people.

usdaWe met again this morning. NSF does not consider Agriculture a STEM related discipline. (Source: Congressional Research Service) I adamantly protest this exclusion. Not including agriculture simply reveals the hubristic bias of NSF as to what qualifies as a STEM field and what does not. Sociology and psychology are included, as well as economics, and economics began as a field of philosophy. How can agriculture be omitted, a discipline which includes many fields steeped in STEM, and economics be included, a discipline was part of philosophy? The US Department of Agriculture is one of the chief developers of environmental policy, affecting farming, forestry, and our food-production industries. How is agriculture not STEM?  The logical inconsistency of this derails my mind.

Recently, I attend a GIS conference in my state. I was encouraged to attend and be part of a panel discussion. “Best Practices in…” is a common conference session title, and our panel discussion was entitled “Best Practices in Enterprise GIS in Higher Education.” Prior to the panel discussion I was assigned to, the morning began with an intriguing session, “Best Practices in Using GIS in K-12 Education.” A another faculty person and I are very interested in increasing geospatial education in our university’s service region. However, we work in higher education and have no idea how ESRI’s state-wide license agreement for K-12 works. I thought, “What better way to find out how the K-12 state-wide license works than to attend this session, ask, and find out. Someone will likely know. Then, I’ll know, and be able to pass this info along to interested parties. Brilliant!”

Yeah, well, not so much. In fact, I pissed off a presenter so much she didn’t stick around to give her presentation. Here we go.

The session had two speakers from a state university. The fellow is the current director of the state geography group and the administrator of the K-12 state-wide contract. After he and his partner gave their presentation, I asked if we could step back and go back to the very beginning. “Your presentation assumes everyone in the schools already has access to the software. I’ll be working with teachers who have zero knowledge of this software; I need to know how they get access to the software. Who at the state would I talk to? Or, are there already designated people within each school district I need to contact?”

The speaker said, “Oh, great question. I love this question when I hear it. Yeah, so, let me see if I can explain this.”

At that time a woman stands up. Susan is the next speaker. She is from another state university attached and is the next featured speaker. She states, “I’m scheduled to go next. I can answer this. Let me explain how this works.” The last two presenters then smile and differ to her. “First, your students need a problem. When they figure out their problem they need a goal and some objectives, and then you help them figure out their problem. Once they have fully defined the problem, you can introduce them to the mapping software. Then once they use the software to analyze the problem, they can get the community involved.”

She paused and the gentleman from the first presentation looked at me. “Does this answer your question?”

“I don’t even know what she said! No, not really. I need to know who handles the software. Who at the state do I need to talk to so when I walk into a school and talk to a principal I can help them figure out how to get started.”

“I just told you,” Susan retorted. “You have to start with a problem. Then, you have to figure out what your goals and objectives are going to be.”

“I don’t need to know about goals and objectives. I know about those. I need to know how I get the software, who do I talk to?” I said.

“If you would listen to what I am telling you, you would know how to do that.” At this point, Susan is obviously flustered, red-faced, and beginning to mutter. “I don’t know what you’re asking. You don’t make any sense. If listened to what I said, you’d know. You aren’t processing this right. I don’t know what else to say.”

“How about answering a direct question?” But, at this point she is collecting all of stuff, putting her materials into her satchel, as she mutters. The moderator, whom I know, began patting the air, like he was trying to keep the crowd pacified. “Hey, Michael, Michael, Michael, hang I on. I know how you can be.” The fellow from the first presentation then offered, “Michael, why don’t we go into more detail after the session is over. I can show you what I’m doing at the schools I’m working with.” I said, “OK, cool.”

While the moderator tried to assert some control, I ignored him and directed my attention to the KGA director since he seemed interested in actually answering my concerns. I noticed that Susan had sat down and was glaring at me. While the KGA director was speaking to me, I returned Susan’s look. That exchange didn’t last long; she gathered up all of her stuff and stormed off to another nearby table. The moderator went over and tried to soothe her, but she ended up leaving and never giving her full presentation.
It was sort of funny. My question wasn’t even directed at her but she hopped up and started blabbing some bullshit about Common Core, and goals and objectives, and utter nonsense which had zero to do with my question. What she was reciting, I have come to discover, is a recognized form of English in education circles. This new English form is called “EdSpeak,” which I refer to as “EdBabble.”

EdBabble is made up of real English words, organized in such a way they seem to make sense, but when analyzed make no sense. For example: “See, we first need to present students with a problem. Then, we mentor them through an inquiry-based processed of discovery established by an initial set of goals. The goals are coupled to definite learning objectives guiding the student through a holistic journey of discovery resulting in an interpretation of information which can be shared with a community of self-directed learners.”

“The hell did you just say?? Look, I just need to show my students how to use a calculator and work them through how to convert Celsius temperatures to Fahrenheit.”

After this session debacle lunch was served. The first presenter sat to my left and we conducted a postmortem on the morning’s sessions. He related a failed grant of his own. Grants are extremely tedious to write and organize. He spent considerable time detailing goals and objectives and getting faculty from other departments on-board to help support the grant. The grant was not awarded and he was disappointed. However, another education agency in his town picked up his grant, re-wrote using IBL “EdSpeak,” engaged some of the same faculty from the previous grant. The grant was funded.

GIS in K12 Education

Finally, many anecdotal stories are hitting the news regarding techniques being taught in schools for performing simple multiplication, for figuring out percentages, and for learning how to round numbers. Kids come home confused, can’t remember the technique once at home, can’t communicate the technique to parents or guardians. Even with instructions parents can’t follow the logic of what I can only describe a bizarre teaching techniques.

Current education pedagogy does not support rote memorization. No memorization of multiplication tables; kids have to follow some maze of instructions to multiply 5 x 7. Rounding a number requires the use of number line.

I don’t know what is going on. I can only guess and speculate. The problems are not limited to K-12 but rise into Higher Education. I had issues in elementary school; I had problems with subtraction. I couldn’t. If the question was “100 – 99 = ?” I would sit there and my head would get hot, I’d sweat, maybe drool, or sneeze. But, I worked, and worked, and practiced, and stayed after school, and did all the extra work, and found other books in my local library. Eventually, the next time I saw “100 – 99″ I still sweat and drooled but I sweat less and drooled less and gained more confidence from all my practice.

We all memorized multiplication tables. We practiced with flash cards, we worked practice sheets, and filled out empty grids of multiplication tables. And I have to say those efforts worked.

When I think about it, with our early 20th century educational techniques, what were we, our global society able to accomplish? Well, the United States put men on the Moon. We developed rocket power. We developed atomic and nuclear power. The Internet itself was built. We went from mechanical numeric computing machines to desktop computers. Voyager 1 and 2 are now in deep space. A fleet of space shuttles have come and gone.

The Human Race has accomplished a-maz-ing stuff with simple approaches to education and learning, made radical changes to our global societies and cultures using proven teaching methods.

Where is this movement coming from making education so needlessly complicated? Why are intelligent people being sucked into what seems to me to be a morass of circular logic and education babble? Who benefits from designing all of these bizarre pedagogical methods imposed upon teachers who are at loss to explain these methods adequately to kids, to other adults, and may not really understand themselves?

Addressing the anecdotes above: No, you do not need a “mission statement” to buy a 3D printer. In fact, part of says “this makes no sense.” I’m not going to draw detailed flow-charts and determine best practices before I buy a hammer or any other tool. I’m going to take to hammer owners. I’m going to check out hammers at Lowe’s. I’m going to try to borrow a few and see how they feel, how they balance. The, I’ll buy one. I’ll practice hammering nails, and pullings nails. Then, I’ll think about building something. But, I’m not going to create some detailed plan, with goals, objectives, and outcomes. Not initially.

I don’t see how anyone can develop goals, objectives, and learning outcomes without having some fundamental knowledge of how something works, without having some experience first. 3D printers can be purchased for a few hundred dollars. Buy one; give it to faculty. See what they can do with it. Let students use it. See what they can do with it. See how they react and how their imaginations are affected. Once one gains appreciation for how technology can be introduced, THEN, then develop some goals and objectives and outcomes.

With my GIS conference and the person who got upset with me, she was obviously locked into a mindset and had a pre-arranged script she did not want to deviate from. A person with a Ph.D in Education, who sells herself as an educational consultant, can’t listen to a simple question, refuses to answer a direct question, and throws a tantrum when pulled off script. How does any of that advance education, promote knowledge, and recognize “here is someone who sounds passionate about helping and wants to have some contact information.”

When a higher education administrator encourages his faculty to be “nimble,” then the response should be to consider new ideas. Using social media to reach new students, to maintain contact with current students and keep them informed using social media is a good idea, and to reach out to alumni via social media is a good idea. Initiating contact with other academic schools and organizations can lead to grant cooperation, exchange of research work and ideas, exchange of data and technology. Initiating contact with both private and public entities could lead to internships, employment, grants or scholarships. Yet, I’m faced with nimble in words and not action and the continuation of the status quo.

When I say “education may be its own worst enemy” I mean we really are. Institutions fight amongst themselves. Internally, colleges and departments bicker and fight over domains and stake claims. Administrators who claim to want innovation and creative thinking really only want those from certain people, or don’t really want them at all. Funding agencies require a special form of English involving the use of a lot of big words, commas, cute pictures of kids using computers, and self-referential logic.

Much like the Christian minister who preaches about living a life without sin then being arrested for trying to hire a guy to kill his wife so he can later marry the parishioner with whom he has been having an affair with for the last 2 years, Education is full of hypocrasy.


Book Reviews: The Bigend Trilogy, by William Gibson

Pattern Recognition (2003), Spook Country (2007), Zero History (2010); by William Gibson. Penguin Books. Unless otherwise stated, my reviews are without compensation (no review copies, no fees, entirely from my own pocket.)

I’m going to get right to the chase and talk about geography. Then, I’ll take a stab at reviewing these books, “Pattern Recognition,” “Spook Country,” and “Zero History.” I call these, “The Bigend Trilogy,” as Hubertus Bigend is a prominent character in all three novels. The novels also reminds me of, “The Millenium Trilogy,” written by the late Steig Larsson.

Keeping Google or Bing Maps handy while reading Gibson’s trilogy of books is a good idea. His characters hop on planes, fly from New York City, to Atlanta, Georgia, to Paris, France, to Heathrow (London), and many points in between. Gibson must love geography as every page names some place; Los Angeles, Vancouver, or a person is referred to as “Russian,” or “Italian,” or Japanese.” Gibson has an eye for details. Not simply colors and materials, but the geography associated with styles.

Hollis Henry pulls on a pair of Japanese jeans.

An Italian girl brought her a pot of coffee…

Bigend paws back the Crimean lapels of his suit.

The Tunisian waitress went away.

Milgrim looks into the face of a smiling American girl, ethnically Chinese.

Infused within nearly every page is a smorgasbord of geography, sights, ethnicities, smells, and languages. People pay attention to ethnicity and culture, assign rank and value, origins, and contemplate raw materials, sourcing, design, and lineage of products. Gibson peels back the curtain of today’s cultural tastes and trends. In doing so, he exposes the currency of being on the bleeding edge of trends, the new, the hot, the now, to identify the next consumer product to spread like an infection among socialites, elites of highly developed countries.

In order to find these products, coolhunters are hired, people who are “sensitive” to emerging trends. Some coolhunters are sensitive to certain colors, having what can only be described as an allergic reaction. Some coolhunters have reactions to fabrics, to fragrances, some to technology, some to apparel. These coolhunters cover the world looking for the next big thing, and the hunt for highly-prized cool trends evolves into conspiracy, corporate espionage, and murder.

In Zero History, the Odeon Hotel becomes the stage for action early in the novel. (p129) Gibson uses real locations and real places to enrich his story-telling.

Later, on the way to a meet, Hollis and Milgrim have a driver who cautiously takes them on a circuitous route around downtown Paris, in hopes to confound the GPS tracker one or both of them might have embedded on their person.

During the driver to the meet, Hollis and Milgrim separate. Milgrim exits the cab to proceed with his plan to determine who is following him around Paris. Milgrim steps onto Boulevard Haussman to “disappear,” to draw attention to himself by disabling the GPS device in his cellphone.

Later, we find Milgrim on Rue Git-le-Coeur, waiting and walking toward the river Seine. Tea shops, an African shop stocked with folk art and fetishes. Milgrim stops in a camera shop and buys a Chinese card-reader from a “pleasant Persian man” wearing a natty gray cardigan. He stops and gazes into a “magical-looking” bookshop. He reaches the bank of the Seine as a light rain begins.

It is here, on the margins of the Latin Quarter, Milgrim sees the flying penguin, a silent, silvery drone swimming through the air as if an illusion.

Years ago, I played a video game called, The Getaway. The Getaway boasted a mapped environment borrowed from London city streets. The game mechanics allowed the player to drive around a detailed 16 square kilometer region of London (wikipedia) and engage in a few nefarious and illegal activities, a la Grand Theft Auto. These games were cutting edge at the time, setting the stage for today’s shooters incorporating real mapped geographies of places. The Getaway was one of the few games I found interesting in that a real road map of London would have been really helpful for navigating streets and eluding the other bad guys, the police, and whoever might be trying to hunt down my character.

To say Gibson incorporates geography into his novels is like saying humans incorporate oxygen into our lungs. Geography is essential to Gibson’s characters, to his novels, to the central message of his plots, the over-arching driving force preternatural force, the Midichlorians of Lucasian films.

Gibson writes about popular culture. The superficial nature of popular culture and the depth of the roots of culture. The stakes and importance many people place on cultural tropes and memes, to the extent of killing to be the first. The first to expose or reveal the new thing. To have this new thing.

When I first sat down to write this review, I felt like my tone would be scathing. I didn’t really care one way or the other about the characters, plot, the premise of Pattern Recognition or any of the later novels. I was bothered by felling this way as his earlier novels I recommend without hesitation. But, William Gibson’s reputation pushed me to read the second novel, Spook Country. Sheer momentum carried me through Zero History. Years ago, I read Mona Lisa Overdrive and Neuromancer. Great, intriguing, insightful and compelling books, those. Those books firmly placed him as a progenitor of cyberpunk. In spite of his past excellent endeavors, I simply didn’t find these stories very compelling. Interesting, yes; fascinating, not really. Just not my cup-of-tea, really.

Perhaps the boredom of reading these stories stems from me, honestly. I think about how technology infuses our society, its history, where it is now, how it is evolving, and how it might evolve frequently. I daydream a lot. So, when I read these stories I don’t see much I haven’t already thought about, I don’t see surprises. I do feel a certain amount of vindication I am not the only one who envisions the … current history, for lack of a better term, of the conditions detailed in this trilogy. And, yet, what draws me away from being interested is the focus on trends, on labels, on designers, on logos, and consumerism.

A person who finds mass-marketing, mass media, corporate branding and logos, styles, and trends fascinating, then, by all means, you nearly have no choice but to read this trilogy. I’m pretty sure some college and universities might require this collection of Gibson novels as mandatory reading to their Organizational Communication majors or their Public Relations majors. If not, they should. One message abundantly clear the importance of “trend awareness.”

The military and law enforcement trains people for “situational awareness,” always being on alert to changing circumstances, be aware, be awake, pay attention, watch people, watch crowds, where are people moving to, where are people moving away from, who is in front of you, who is around you, who has your “back.” Gibson basically takes this same philosophy and applies it to cultural tropes and trends. “Where did this fabric come from? Who makes it? How is it made? Who owns the rights? Does anyone own the rights?” and so on.  The first to jump controls the message, controls the trend, controls the rights and privileges, controls the market. And in establishing control, controls the consumer, more or less.
Others may find these works more enjoyable than I. Gibson has a unique writing style; he offers few clues to who is speaking, changes voice and perspective, on occasion. A nimble reader will adapt but the style may be off-putting to those used to more traditional writing styles.

I’m glad to have read the series; Gibson is no doubt a talented author, worthy of his many accolades. The infusion of geography did enhance my appreciation of his books. If struck by the curiosity of what mechanisms lie behind how certain brands and logos can pervade society, you should take on this trilogy. You might enjoy them.

Check out William Gibson’s Amazon page for more details about the author and his books.





Higher Education Is Anything But Nimble

I need to state this at the onset of this post, otherwise I may be accused of being a supporter of “running education like a business,” but I am not supporting the notion of running any educational system as a business.


We, and by we I mean those of us in education, cannot on the one hand argue for more efficiency, more flexibility, more adaptability in education and ignore some fundamental principles of business in the other hand.

We cannot request our faculty and staff to submit ideas, concerns, or suggestions to help improve the quality of a student’s educational experience, then cling to the status quo of “that’s just how it’s done.”

We cannot implore to faculty and staff we need to be “nimble” and “open to new and disruptive ideas and technologies,” yet use pedantic arguments and faulty logic to deny use of new and disruptive ideas to improve education.

Ok, technically, we can do all of those things. All the above happened to me this week. Nothing prevents anyone from saying one thing and doing another. I expect administrators to be introspective, thoughtful, and wise, not completely immune to making logically inconsistent statements and requests. No one is immune. But, highly educated people when faced with their logically broken thinking should replace that thinking with new thinking, not cling to the Ways of Old from Days of Yore.

Education should be nimble, right? We become exposed to new information, new data, new insights, and then we update our knowledge with this new knowledge, and our thought-process update with all of these new details. Going to college is like getting Microsoft Updates, in a sense; we are downloading new mental apps into our processing units, new drivers, patches, and fixes, and hopefully, when we wake up the next morning, our biological operating systems have been updated with new and improved ways of doing things.

Am I wrong?

Education should be as nimble as any good business, really. Education should grasp and adopt new technology. Education should adopt, test, evaluate new teaching styles, new delivery methods, new learning methods, in other words, Pedagogy should be nimble.

I am often approached by students who ask, “When was the last time Dr. Crayola updated his notes?” Or, “When I had this course  10 years ago Dr. Quicksand was using that Powerpoint presentation. Do faculty not have to update their lectures?”

I’ve taught at colleges and universities since 1993. Preparing for a course is extremely time-consuming. Many of my peers work on their courses during the day, evenings, and weekends. These diligent folks are not only preparing Powerpoints but also educating themselves about topics. Faculty knowledge varies; our knowledge runs a spectrum from little to no knowledge of a topic, to near-complete encyclopedic knowledge of a topic.

Some topics require constant vigilance. Technology course must change and update all the time. I say “must” but because everything is grounded on the vagaries of a faculty person, change is not always coming.

Guido van Rossum Parent of Python

For example, Python programming has become a very popular programming language. Python is a popular scripting language used by many popular software packages. ESRI’s ArcGIS actually ships with Python 2.7. The open source statistics package, R, uses Python as its scripting language. Yet, when I search for Python programming at my university, I find no specific course. When I search our community college system, many of the community college implemented specific Python programming courses as early as 2012. Most are implementing Python programming as a stand-alone course this year (2014.) However, we do offer two specific ADA programming courses and a FORTRAN course.

I can understand FORTRAN being taught, sort of. FORTRAN, like Pascal, are both languages which serve an important community – high performance computing (HPC), like those environments in and around super-computers. But that is an esoteric community, a valuable one, for sure, but a fairly small one.

ADA also serves an important but esoteric community. Air traffic control systems are programmed in ADA. Many military applications controlling missile and rocket systems use ADA. Flight control systems for the Boeing 777 were written in ADA.

I can see FORTRAN being taught at Rank 1 research universities with a supercomputer on premises. Or, at least access to a supercomputer. I can see ADA being taught at Embry-Riddle, schools with aviation or aeronautical engineering programs. I’m not sure I see the immediate applicability of FORTRAN or ADA at a small regional university with neither a supercomputer nor aeronautical engineering program. I can see SQL, Python, PHP, and a few other languages being important.

Sorry for verbosity, but sometimes college and universities teach topics they want to teach rather than what the regional businesses and employers need. Colleges and universities succumb to hubris.

Furthermore, colleges and universities LOVE bureaucracy. “We need a course proposal. The course proposal needs to be reviewed by the New Course Committee. The New Course Committee will review the proposal and forward to the Curriculum Committee. The Curriculum Committee will forward their review to the Provost’s academic review committee. The Academic Review committee will pass along their recommendations to the Provost. The Provost will review their findings and forward a recommendation to the university President. If the university president signs the proposal, the proposal will be forwarded to the state’s Council on Higher Education. The CHE will pass the proposal to their New Course Committee. The New Course Committee will forward their recommendation to the Curriculum Committee…”

How is that nimble?

Colleges and universities are ripe for disruption as I argued in a previous post. Some parts of bureaucracy are a necessary evil. But, like businesses and corporations, colleges and universities need the leadership to be nimble, to be free to adapt, to change, to learn – perhaps even in real-time, to changes in demographics, to business and industry, to new knowledge.

We cannot argue for “innovation and entrepreneurship” and “out of the box-thinking” from our students while we cling to legacies of methods and mindsets literally centuries old.

We cannot argue for “innovation and entrepreneurship” and “out of the box-thinking”from our students while teaching from notes a decade old.

We cannot argue for “innovation and entrepreneurship” and “out of the box-thinking” from our students while refusing to embrace technologies designed specifically to enhance those qualities.

Funny; I am the first to admit I frequently say, “no.” Students walk into my office, ask a question, and my most common response is, “No.” But, my goal is not to shut them down. My goal is to engage them in a debate as to why they need to do what they want to do. I want to hear their reasoning, their thought processes, their goals, and their outcomes. A “yes” does not get me that information. I want to play Devil’s Advocate and see what they understand. Then, when I see if they become disheartened, I stop and then I take on their argument. Usually, students have good ideas but haven’t thought about all the details, or may be unaware of how things work and have built their idea on a false set of assumptions. Then, we work out the details. My initial “no” then evolves into a qualified “yes.”

I’m not saying this is the best routine, but pragmatically, I find it works most of the time. Maybe not truly nimble, but inside of an hour, progress is made and everyone can move forward.

Colleges and universities require an ecosystem allowing for nimble adoption of new ideas. Anything else is damaging, really.

Business and corporations expect failure. Researchers, individuals, learn from failure. “That experiment failed. But we learned oil and water don’t mix well at room temperature.” We learn from failure.

Colleges and universities, like businesses and corporations, need to embrace failure, learn, adapt, and try again. The conversations I had this week were all founded upon fear and failure. Fear of what people will say, think, or do. Failure to understand technology, failure to trust, failure to even try – TO EVEN TRY.

A college and university with a failure to try, and a fear of what people will do, say, or think.

We, those of us in education, can cling to our bureaucracy, our safety net, our same shit, different day of our collection of Powerpoint notes, our fear of technology, and our failure to recognize changes.

Colleges and university administrators can tell us to “be nimble.”

Perhaps my issue is my really my own. My father took me to leadership conferences ever summer. Zig Ziglar, Norman Vincent Peale, Billy Graham, Col. Oliver North, and a bunch of others. Sitting in Kemper Arena, Kansas City, or Municipal Auditorium, Kansas City, listening to recognized leaders in their fields divulge their secrets. Honestly, I was bored to tears. Then. Then, I was bored. Today, I recall the enthusiasm those people had for their life, their job, and their experiences. I recently read, “Without Their Permission,” by Alexis Ohanian, founder of reddit. I’m reading, “The Lean Startup,” by Eric Ries. Move quickly, react quickly, adapt quickly, pay attention to your customers, know your customers. These are common themes. And these themes conflict with the current state of some institutions of Higher Learning.

I recently ran across a fellow. During our conversation, he said, “It’s better to wait and get permission than to move and do something that won’t be approved.” I said, “Hmm. No. It’s better to move, and act, and do something. Show people your idea works or could work. You aren’t acting maliciously, so you are not deliberately setting out to damage anyone. And, as the occasion arises, then apologize. Otherwise, you won’t get anywhere; or, someone else will be more nimble out maneuver you.” He looked at me like I was destined for jail, maybe out on bond.

I ran across another administrator the other day. He said, “You can’t just go out and buy a 3D printer without having a plan.” I said, “I don’t want to argue the point, but, yes, you can. Anyone can go out and pay $900 for a 3D printer and start showing kids how to use it. No plan necessary.” Now, I did go on to explain we did have a plan, an intended use. But, we never needed to involve the bureaucrats. We simply acted, bought, setup, configured, and printed.

Printrbot Simple

One of my peers, acting on his own, took his Printrbot Simple to his daughter’s elementary class for a “show-and-tell.” He allowed them to use it, demonstrating how it worked, and printed some items. That is being nimble. That is doing. That is acting.

Many examples around the United States of people who simply act for the benefit of others with positive results, especially in Make and Maker and DIY.

Who is the real customer for Higher Education? I would submit it is not the student. No, the student is not the “customer.” The student is the product. Business and industry and society are the customers. Higher Education needs to re-learn this important lesson.

Don’t expect us to take the “be nimble” request seriously when nothing else about education is nimble and admins won’t practice what they preach.


Higher Education is Ripe for Deconstruction

Higher education has some problems, the cost of college being only one concern. Our global model of higher education has served us well for a century or so but the time is upon us for those in higher education leadership to step back and deconstruct education.

I walk around my campus and talk to people. My job as a GIS Manager/Programmer and ESRI Higher Education Contract Representative for my campus puts me at the crossroads to meet various people, from interesting backgrounds, working in departments and offices trying to accomplish different tasks.

Sometimes, I travel to nearby public schools, other universities or community colleges. Going to a conference or a meeting exposes me further to different ideas. I also subscribe to a variety of newsletters which cover pedagogy in higher education, technology in higher education, leadership topics in higher education. I try to stay aware of what is going on in my discipline, and the greater university community.

Taking all of this in, plus the disruption of online education, I’m thinking higher education should be considering deconstruction. Regardless of how one feels about online education, whether one class at a regional university or a MOOC, higher education is ripe for some serious disruption. Here is what I mean, and bear with me, as I’ve got to build to my point.

Education is a subset of learning. Learning happens all the time, every day, and encompasses all forms of knowledge transfer, from touching a stove to learn about burns and blisters and heat transfer, to sitting a brick-and-mortar classroom listening to a lecture on the Warsaw Pact. Education is the formalized approached to learning, with textbooks, and exams, and Powerpoint, with grades, and transcripts and portfolios. But, how did we get here?

Reading some history paints an interesting picture. As with any argument, I’m going to begin with the Greeks. Look at the biographies of any Greek scholar. Examine their interests and skills. Eratosthenes, the father of geography, calculated the circumference of the Earth, developed a means of communicating the passage of time, so people could talk about “when” some event occurred. He worked on prime numbers, created maps, and wrote. Plato also studied math, writing, philosophy, and gymnastics.

I don’t want to give an extended treatise here, so let me provide a couple more anecdotes. Carl Linnaeus (18th C.)[link], the father of the modern naming system in biology, and a founder of the discipline of ecology, was interested in botany, zoology, and later became a physician. While traveling throughout Europe, he developed classification schemes for animals, plants, and minerals – making him a geologist, too. James Hutton (18th C.) was a Scot and is considered the father of modern geology. [link] Hutton’s interest was not limited to rocks, though. He also was a chemist, studied medicine, and was a farmer. Together with David Hume and Adam Smith, Hutton was an important part of the “Scottish Enlightenment.” He, Hume, Smith, along with John Playfair, Joseph Black, and Erasmus Darwin would establish the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

The idea I want to argue is people who were fascinated by the natural world gravitated towards others who also shared a similar fascination. Some universities and colleges did specialize in certain areas, like medicine, or astronomy, but by and large, students could attend a college and be exposed to the lectures of well-traveled, well-read, and well-educated instructors who were experts in a variety of fields, at least for the time. These student could drift from one lecture to another, from one instructor/lecturer to another, and learn from a wide variety of experiences.

Education was more like learning as I established by definition earlier, broad and holistic in nature with little bureaucracy and regimentation. Transcripts, letters, diplomas were hit-or-miss. Students and teachers were recognized by reputation, how well they communicated, how well they were able to convince the common people, and perhaps, how well they could read.

Education, like any other organism, evolved over time. Education organized, either by intrinsic design or by exogenous forces, into college and universities which have come to specialize in discipline-specific areas. Think about Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, Harvard, Johns Hopkins; I know the list is not exhaustive but you get the idea. Engineering, for example, brings to mind Stanford, MIT, Purdue. I’m sure I missed a few.

Today, schools have become specialized, to a degree. Young adults scrutinize reports published by U.S. News regarding, “The Best Colleges for {insert field or discipline here}.” For some, people look for, “The Top 100 Best Value Universities.”

Within schools, though, even more organization and compartmentalization has occurred. In prior years, even centuries, a student could float among philosophy, botany, or math lectures as a breadth of experience and knowledge was truly valued. Today, student must engage separately the “school of agriculture,” or the “college of science,” or  the “college of business” as if these are green beans, potatoes and gravy, and Salisbury steak which cannot touch lest the dinner be ruined.

The compartmentalization I refer to is euphemistically called, “stovepipes,” or “educational silos.” Students do not understand why they have to take a humanities course about Western Civilization, plus read a book by Jane Austin, then sit through a lecture on plate tectonics. Even some in education have lost touch with our educational ancestry, and argue for the elimination of general education requirements.

I hit upon the notion recently – and I admit, I may be late to the party – general  education, a liberal education is not a bad idea for a simple reason.

Professors are not hired to “tell” or “recite” information, really. Professors are hired to coach the uneducated among us through a process of discovery and formal education, under the umbrella of learning. We – professors, adjuncts, lecturers, we cannot ultimately prepare a student for the unknown. The idea of transferring a person 100% knowledge to make them successful is impossible. All we can do to prepare students for success is to expose uneducated or under-educated people to a variety of experiences in an intellectually safe yet challenging environment in hopes the academic hurdles we throw at them will adequately prepare them to handle what the non-academic world will throw at them.

The question, “I don’t understand why I have to learn about Western Civilization,” actually has some good responses, and one I would like to supply goes something like:

I don’t know what you will be faced with in the world you have selected to make a career in. We, faculty, have to expose you to a variety of experiences, history, culture, language, etc. This is not a vocation school, simply challenged with teaching you a skill. We are charged with helping you become a better thinker, more contemplative, more thoughtful, and have a better set of experiences to draw from than 70% of the U.S. population, and most of the world, actually.

However, what seems to be happening is universities are collapsing towards the mission of community colleges while community colleges are expanding their mission towards regional universities. Coupled with these realignments, internal changes within universities are further isolating colleges and departments as each stake out academic territories, promote reducing academic hours yet want their courses to replace the general education courses offered by other colleges and departments.

Let me see if I can clean this up by offering a few anecdotes. At my workplace, we have reduced the number of required writing courses from 2 (6 hours) to 1 (3 hours). Each department is then charged with developing more writing assignments to account for the lack of writing instruction. At my workplace, we have reduced the number of hours required for Humanities by at least 3 hours. My workplace has also reduced the number of hours required for most bachelor’s degrees, from 128 to about 120.

The effect I see occurring is singular: reducing the exposure of the uninformed, undereducated, and possibly ignorant to ideas of problem-solving, ways of thinking, and philosophies which have the potential of being life-altering. By reducing a student’s interaction across disciplines, they miss out by not being exposed to computer science, political science, history, literature, geography, biology, and all of the realms those disciplines touch. The result is learning is moving away from the roots of being holistic and into an insular realm where few people will be able to think creatively, to think not just “outside the box” but “destroy the box” and approach problems with new perspectives, new energies, and a reinvigorated vision.

Twenty-first century thinking, no; 21st century society must be one where people draw from many disciplines and experiences. I’m not suggesting people must be experts in a multitude of areas. What I am suggesting is to be aware of these disciplines and to be open and receptive to seeking out solutions beyond one’s own experience. Computer scientists must seek out biologists; biologists must seek out engineers; engineers must seek out mathematicians. Actually, everyone should seek out a mathematician – and this coming from a geographer.

Higher education, by definition, and specifically universities, must fight against those who would drag higher education into mediocrity. Those in higher education must encourage multidisciplinary efforts that refuse to build barricades against other disciplines and departments. Nothing is gained, and must is lost, by refusing to acknowledge, accept, or be dismissive of the work of other disciplines, no matter what personal attitudes might be.

How can a professor ignore the field of criminology based solely on one’s own perception? I mean, yes, technically a person can be an irrational actor and choose to be ultimately dismissive of a field or discipline. Sociology and psychology fight this battle frequently, as does geography. “You aren’t a real science because you just borrow from all the others.” The problem with this thinking is it wrong. Period. And, by wrongfully dismissing disciplines, a person, i.e. professors, wall themselves off from the potential benefits to themselves and to their students, and no one benefits from such myopia.

Learning must occur in an open, free, and safe environment, and be encourage by those unafraid to say, “I don’t know but let’s find out.” Worshipping our own hubris is essentially a means of becoming not only stagnant but is a path to becoming irrelevant. Higher education must work on preserving primary mission; to share, encourage, and promote learning across disciplines and certainly across personalities.


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