Tribulations of GIS Center Management

The unfortunate position of blogging in situ circumstances is having to constantly prognosticate the down-stream consequences of words and assertions. If my words appear to deliberately obfuscate some details, you are observant. As the saying goes, names have been changed to protect the willfully ignorant. That is the saying, right?


Upon my return to my university yet another example reared its mule-headed head, further evidence of how universities can snub geospatial learning, perhaps unintentionally, and demonstrate how completely obtuse universities are at providing students a valuable learning environment. Universities are fantastically adept at being blind to what left- and right-hands are doing. In fact, universities are marvelous at believing they have always been one-handed, one-armed, one-legged, and in most cases, have only a single brain lobe, though if you were ask which lobe existed, or at least dominated, both lobes would have equal chances of being named to the complete exclusion of the other. Universities truly have dual-personalities, academic vs. administrative, and these two entities respect each other almost as much as Israelis and Palestinians respect each other. The bizarre aspect of the academic environment involves the transformation of great academicians into mediocre and lackluster administrators. A fantastic educator who gets promoted into an admin position becomes like an empty juice box a child has sucked all the juice from and most of the air, leaving an empty, puckered, dry husk.

Look, universities have really a single simple mission:

“Provide a well-rounded education to the population of people who want a well-rounded education.

How do universities achieve the goal of this mission?

By exposing students, i.e. people, to a breadth and depth of experiences unattainable in most other environments.

This sounds simple, and I could be accused of over-simplification of the mission and goals. But, seriously, strip away all the flowery language contrived to inspire grandiose feelings of overwhelming warmth, pride, and ego within a Chancellor or Regent, and every single university and college has precisely the same mission and goals. Universities and colleges must then distinguish themselves from their peers, either by political mandate by the state or by mandate of some governing body.

Our current era of devastatingly poor investment in higher education is fundamentally cracking our educational foundations, and by association, our social foundations. And not simply poor investments but to some politicians Higher Education is mentioned in the same context as cancer, Ebola, and Boko Haram, a weak piglet suckling at the societal teat, to be culled.

Given regional universities serve more students than flagship state universities and other research (R1) universities and are essentially being gutted as a result of emphasis on Homeland Security, Iraq, Afghanistan, ISIS, and al-Qaeda, our distractions are doing more to damage U.S. society and socioeconomic status than any single person or collection of people could ever do.

Our Office of Communications went off-campus, to a 3rd-party vendor, located in Maine, to purchase an online walking tour map of campus ( To be clear, these companies are not the enemy. They offer a valuable product, even to schools, businesses, botanical gardens. But, they do take advantage of ignorance, sometimes a willful ignorance among university administrators, drawing money away from a college, from a state, disabling campus innovation by sweeping away opportunities for students to develop skills, gain real-world experience in application development, build useful apps for the university, and demonstrate to potential students the opportunities to excel.

As a GIS Manager, we find ourselves fighting incessantly against the campus marginalization of one of the most transformative technologies of the 21st century. Many of us are truly an Army of One; we teach courses, we mentor students, we train faculty. We give seminars to university staff and conduct workshops for K-12 teachers. We advocate for geography in the classroom, the use of technology, using GPS units, and ArcGIS, or some other software product. We are technologists; we install software, diagnose computer problems, discover network bottlenecks.

To provide a little context, some background, I’m going to provide a brief history of efforts to inoculate against losing grants, contracts, and projects (not in chronological order.)

  1. I personally have visited the college WebMaster on several occasions and demonstrated ArcGIS and ArcGIS Online. I maintain the website for our GIS center, plus social media accounts and I interact with the webmaster frequently. The webmaster has an ArcGIS Online account, unused to this day.
  2. A well-respected faculty member has written two ESRI Press books and is well-respected on campus.
  3. I personally have visited the Associate Provost to demonstrate ArcGIS Online.
  4. In 2012, Joseph Kerski visited my campus and demonstrated ArcGIS and ArcGIS Online to a host of participants, my college dean, dean of Business, numerous faculty and administrators.
  5. I work closely with our Office of Institutional Research. I talked them out of using Microsoft Mappoint and using ArcGIS.
  6. The Dean of Libraries was an excited user of ArcGIS. He resigned after several issues with our Provost came to a head.
  7. I personally have worked for years to keep our Public Safety office trained and aware of how my office can be of support.

With these examples I again bring my point home, regardless of stakeholders and well-rounded support of GIS on campus, the actions of a single person can really throw a wrench in building strong, resilient academic efforts pertaining to GIS on any campus, even after Joseph puts on a commanding performance. I mean, if someone isn’t grabbed by Joseph’s wisdom, insight, and enthusiasm, that says more about that person than Joseph.

A GIS Manager at a large Texas university told me an interesting secret about an hour before our S.O.S. Evidently, Texas Large University had eliminated the very library in which her GIS center was housed. She gave a very powerful presentation on Saturday, and by Tuesday the very existence of her center appears to be in-the-air.

I know for a fact at least one office on my campus snubs our GIS efforts intentionally. The director told me in no uncertain terms. The office is Alumni Affairs, and the director is former state senator. Alumni Affairs went off-campus, bought a social mapping service to connect alumni. I voiced my displeasure to him, to which he replied, “I don’t want to wait for students to develop something. I want something now.” Awesome. What a tremendous public servant.

Mr. Senator represents a difficult mindset to overcome, is part of problem, and yet more evidence of hypocrisy in Higher Education. We are specifically directed to, “find ways to save money, figure out how to better manage and leverage your resources;” and from the other side of the mouth, we hear, “your responsibility is to develop a 21st century workforce by finding ways to engage students, help them develop critical-thinking skills, encourage them to problem-solve, and give them opportunities to develop and augment valuable toolsets.” And then the university, at least my university, has spent over $100,000 in the last 3 years to farm-out jobs students on our campus are quite capable of doing. Further aggravation arises each evaluation period when my office must report “service” to both the university and the service region, and we are asked why we aren’t doing more to serve campus. “Because Public Safety and Communications award contracts worth $10,000s of thousand of dollars for mapping efforts which should have been done through our GIS center. Can I count the money and projects departments and offices have given away to the detriment of students and this university?”

To the proximate problem of the campus walking tour map my director has responded by contacting our college dean, associate provost (we have two, one is awesome; one should be on Walking Dead as a zombie), and the special assistant to the president.

The omnipresent concern is the Sisyphean chore of maintaining a geospatial-literate campus, knowledgeable and aware of GIS while also building cognition among admins of how valuable providing students opportunities to develop…stuff…can be. How cool would it be to say, “Check out our walking tour app. Our own students at Large Texas College made this. You can learn how to, just attend Large Texas College.”

Instead, we have to tell people we get our salsa from New York City, because some new person loves the taste of tomatoes grown in the contaminated urban soil, and, oh yes, by the way, our tomatoes provide a soothing light and if you line your drive-way with them you can pretend you are landing a plane.

Advocating geospatial education is a 36?/24/7 (almost, holidays and a day-off are helpful for maintaining mental health) endeavor.


ESRI International Users Conference: Day 3

My last day, Wednesday, arrives like a bottom-hitting roller coaster. The momentum builds as the days climb towards the apex of Tuesday night. Wednesday arrives as a crashing descent, slipping into the smooth arc of Wednesday evening. Once, I relished the late Thursday social dinner with me and 16,500 of my peers, either in Embarcadero Park or Balboa. I can’t justify spending time away; I’m a one-man shop. Each day I spend away simply makes me fight the Battle of Time Compression; more work in less time. My due dates do not change.

Wednesday was my Map Gallery day, and a day to see how campuses are using GIS to manage facilities. Change your perception of campus for a moment. Some college campuses cover a 1/4 to 1/2 sq. miles. An acre contains 640 acres; the University of Missouri’s main campus covers 1,262 acres, more or less, or about two square miles. I specify “main campus,” as UM also maintains experimental fields for agricultural research. Managing a college campus is administrating a small to medium-sized town. College campuses have utilities, powers stations, water and sewer lines, police departments, roads, telephone and internet, everything a city has, and many of the same concerns.

campus-mizzou-gisThe GIS guru from the University of Missouri-Columbia has worked hard, for a long time, to get his campus a fully functional living-and-breathing GIS for the MU campus. MU built their GIS over time, improving and adding as able. As GIS evolved so did the MU mapping ability. Mapping pipes and sidewalks improved from simply lines connecting buildings, to showing true paths, to showing the actual scale and details of infrastructure components. Everything was built in-house, using local talent, and faculty, staff, and student effort. University of Missouri, using their unique intellectual capital, over 20-some years, developed and continue to modify their campus GIS. A GIS which in any other environment would resemble the GIS of a town or small city. From their effort, faculty, staff, and most importantly, students, gain necessary skills directly translatable into real-world employment.

If you work on a college campus, as I do, GIS must become an intrinsic aspect of any campus management system. If GIS is not a part of your campus’ approach to managing facilities, then the campus has a problem.

University of Missouri-Columbia is the flagship school for the University of Missouri system of universities. A big school, more than 35,000 students, plus faculty and staff, and over 1,262 acres of local infrastructure to manage. Across Missouri, UM-Columbia comprises 19, 261 acres, or about 30 square miles. What about a smaller school? Not every school has 35,000 students

campus-ncstam-gisNorth Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NC A&T) has roughly 8,900 students and covers 713 acres; a little more than a square mile. Dr. Tony Graham engages his students in projects to help their campus improve facilities management as part of normal coursework. Each semester, Dr. Graham allows his students to choose a project, a project which will either fill in gaps in the infrastructure database, or augment, improve data. The results of his students work is then merged with the university’s management scheme. The students are not engaged in pointless academic exercises but working on solving real-world problems and gaining real-world experience directly translatable into employment.

These stories are important. Yes, managing infrastructure is critical; being able to provide utilities consistently is fundamental to the mission of other campus offices and university mandates. While these are the proximate reasons for GIS on campus, greater reasons exist. Every student who experiences working in the campus facilities management accomplishes three goals. First, the student gains invaluable work experience in a true mapping environment. Second, the campus facilities are improved and advanced. Third, the campus potentially saves money by using in-house expertise, and developing in-house expertise. In fulfilling these three goals the university acts as good stewards not only of public monies but of producing educated, productive, and experienced people, therefore safe-guarding public trust.

In many ways, higher education is a steam-powered locomotive. Point the engine in the right direction, lay the tracks straight and true, provide a concrete destination, and watch the good be delivered. The engine and transported cargo is not nimble. Once the engine gains momentum, the cumulative mass of all cars heading the same direction, much planning is required for all incumbent energy to dissipate  in order to slow or change course.

GIS is one of those transformative innovations the vast majority of people don’t understand, yet they understand the maps. All of these maps below were created by people I don’t know. But, these people, students, technicians, or analysts are working on getting the engine to slow down and steam in a more productive direction. PAX

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ESRI International Users Conference: Day 2


One of San Diego’s best traits is the dog community. Dogs are great; their owners vary in disposition as much as dogs vary in size, weight, color, temperament, and breath odor. Walking down the sidewalk in San Diego, one may pass all sorts of dogs breeds as well as associated human breeds. Pass a dog and you might get sniffed; not all the time. One of my favorite pastimes is to catch a dog’s eye and see how he or she reacts. Does the dog look right back in your face? Do the ears go up? Does the tail go up? Does the tail go up and a wiggle-butt begins? If the dog walker forbids interaction by simply moving past, does the dog turn and look back at you over a shoulder, as if to say, “Sorry, dude, my pack leader has me on a tight leash. Smell ya later.”

Being a pack leader myself, I appreciate when dogs give me a sniff and take an opportunity to receive a back or belly rub. My mother is babysitting my girls during my attendance in San Diego, and I have had to help her through a couple challenges with my dogs. Sadie, my 8-year old husky/shepherd/mule-mix, is an Alpha-Alpha female. She marks territory and claims toys, treats, yards, streets, street signs, other dogs pee, other dogs poop, other dogs, as her own. She doesn’t tolerate eye contact with other dogs well. The other dog needs to be immediately submissive or she will take the task of showing the other dog their rank within her pack order, i.e. “Hi, my name is Sadie, and I’m your new boss for as long as I’m here.” Sadie has been reluctant to eat and defecate in my absence. Sadie won’t use the backyard many times for her bathroom habits; the backyard is for my other dog or dogs and for guest animals, and guest people, depending on the situation. Sadie prefers the front yard. Here, she can resurvey her range, reset her markers, reassert her claims to my neighbors yards, and challenge any and all neighborhood visitors for their intents and purposes while visiting the street. She conducted an extensive scrutiny of the roofing crew working on my neighbor’s house across the street last week, and the chimney sweeps who arrived at the same house two days later she also waved through. To remedy Sadie’s self-imposed fecal warehousing I told my mother, “Take her for a walk along the creek and just keeping walking until she moves.” And, the walk happened, and the movement happened, and my mother reported, “I think Sadie may have lost 14-lbs on our hike today.” Problem solved.

My other dog, a 3-year old Brittany Spaniel, is happy every moment she is awake, especially if someone will play soccer or try to remove the chew-bone from her mouth. She also likes to give hugs, give kisses, and make-out during movies, a really annoying trait, as I would prefer to watch the movie.

One of my favorite new hashtags on Twitter is #AcademicsWithBeer. I consider myself an academic; I have no Ph.D and will probably never be able to attain one until well past the time when one will do me any good. On the other hand, when I am able to obtain one the good news is I will be old enough to avail myself to free college courses. And, then I’ll be too senile to remember anything. Such is life. San Diego is great town if you are a foodie. I’m not a foodie, not really. I enjoy good tasting food in moderate quantities and am not afraid to eat most food or quasi-food items. The worst edible item I can remember eating was sea urchin. Looks like peanut butter, has the consistency of snot or really soft gelatin, and not a pleasurable experience.

The ESRI Education Users Conference typically has some very nice hors-d’oeuvres, what some might think of as tapas. At the end of sessions Saturday and Sunday, ESRI Education provides an opportunity for education companies and organizations to showcase their products while 800 or so faculty, staff, students, and other education professionals meet-and-greet and share stories and ask questions to ESRI Education staff. Jack Dangermond and his amazing crew of support professionals really pour their hearts, souls, minds into helping people find resolutions for what ever issue or concern or project is faced by attendees. Then, Jack treats us to nice food. Beer and wine are on us, though, and that’s cool with me.

The Ballast Point I was not really a fan of; the flavor was fine. I was caught off-guard by the flavor. I might have been if the label had given me some impression the front end would have a surprising citrus character. Leinenkugel has a Summer Shandy, a light, fresh citrusy lager which I enjoy. The Ballast Point shares a similar flavor profile, I think; I would like to know that in advance, though. Label doesn’t really connote the flavor of the beer. Red Trolley Ale is a standard ale produced locally by Karl Krauss Brewing Company. RTA is fine brew, consistently good and dependable, full-flavor and rich, suitable for paring with many dishes, including my plate of pseudo-Chinese dumplings. Guinness and Shepherd’s Pie at The Field should be a regular visit for anyone traveling to San Diego. Singha, from Thailand, is a nice, full-bodied lager. My hostess seemed pleased I selected Singha, understandable since I had elected to dine on a bowl of Pad See at Sab Lai in the Gaslamp District. Pad See is a variation on Pad Thai, using wider rice noodles than the thinner rice noodles. Outside of the difference in noodles, and Pad See lacked the peanut garnish common to Pad Thai, I didn’t really notice much difference in taste. The Pad See arrived much quicker than I anticipated, arrived hot, yet lacked a fresh quality I was expecting for having pad see in San Diego. The small Thai restaurant in my town in western Kentucky I would have scored higher on taste, presentation, and quality. Your mileage is sure to vary, though, as the saying goes.

Higher Education Site License Administrators Special Interest Group (HESLA-SIG)

So, this happened today. ESRI has some quality people in charge of ESRI Education Team: David Dibiasi, Angela Lee, Ann Masangcay, Joseph Kerski, Michael Gould, Charlie Fitzpatrick, Tom Baker, George Dailey. These folks are top-notch in not simply in the GIS industry but really motivated to help others learn, grow, develop, and encourage those people to, in turn, mentor others. Sure, they sell ESRI software, but philosophically, they are advocating for a set of tools and processes to help make the world a better place. The world becomes a better place by collecting data, asking questions based on data, analysing the data, and interpreting the data. Then, people can make data-driven decisions, the notion being the better and more robust our data collection and analysis efforts the better our decision-making becomes. This reasoning was the foundation of Martin O’Malley’s discussion during the Monday afternoon plenary about coaxing better services from our government, and coaxing better efficiency out of programs using data-driven decision-making procedures.

During our session I used Periscope to capture live portions of our discussion. Periscope is a Twitter-based software app, available for iOS and Android. Periscope leverages the camera in a smartphone, WIFI, and your Twitter account to allow people in off-site locations to watch live, in real-time, some other event. The video can be captured to the device for uploading to a website or watching later. I found the video to be grainy; remember, however, this broadcast event is using your smartphone in real-time to capture a live event. Thus, there is some form of video loss necessary. Audio was a little sketchy, too. However, I sort of liked the technology. As an on-the-fly video capture app to broadcast a live event, Periscope was sort of cool. I will try to remember to post a video segment when I have access to a better network.

Our SIG covered some nice territory. Angela Lee led us through a laundry list of changes, all nice. More ArcGIS Online credits, better administration tools, and an enhanced license agreement for Business Analyst. Business Analyst can now be used for academic research. Prior, Business Analyst was strictly limited to teaching and educational purposes only. Now, faculty can use included software and data for conducting academic research. Notice I did not say, “Universities are able to use Business Analyst for administrative research.” In other words, Business Analyst cannot be used by the college or university for the analysis of its own business patterns or researching the demographics of student body populations, or any other pursuit not associated with teaching and learning. Also, ArcGIS Pro is the wave of the future, so wax up your surfboard and hang ten.


Our Academic GIS Center SOS group.

Later in the day, we were invited to develop Self-Organized Sessions (SOS). I wonder if anyone noted the irony in the acronym. One fellow, Nathan, from a Florida university, proposed a session for “GIS Center Management, Policies, and Practices” for later in the afternoon. A good idea, I thought, so I will offer one earlier, and he will have his later, and we will catch folks who want to discuss GIS center management details.

He and I ended up collaborating on the early session I pitched, and then we merged the sessions into one uber-session, running into the time he was given for his afternoon session.

Mario was not really present. One member of the group vehemently opposed being recorded in any fashion and threaten to walk out of the SOS should I continue to capture details of our meeting with my smartphone camera. I told him, no worries, I will edit you out. True to my word, I edited him from the group pic of our discussion. Not sure how someone can avoid being digitally captured at a conference where everyone is capturing video, taking pics, using Periscope, etc., but not my worry.

self-organized-sessionI became the de facto leader of our merry group, putting together a list of talking points to help drive our discussion. Those points were enumerated on an easel (left). We identified 7 talking points:

  1. Cost Recovery
  2. Budget Lines
  3. Mission / Purpose
  4. Student Workers / Interns / Employment
  5. Grants and Contracts
  6. Communication and support among various GIS centers in the United States
  7. Measures of Success

Yes, I know I have a “#8;” I had to come back and add “Measures of Success” later, and one of the intervening topics had seven bullet points, and my brain didn’t refresh to catch the error as I hopped between pages.

Cost Recovery refers to how a college or university is going to pay for continued use and support of an ESRI license. If memory serves, Angela Lee reported 37 states have ESRI state-wide license agreements. One of the states not having a state-wide license agreement was present at the table, Florida, represented by two schools. Most people reported not really being interested in cost recovery, like those attached to state-wide license agreements, such as Minnesota. ArcGIS Pro and the associated licensing mechanism makes charging users problematic. One recommendation for colleges and universities not able to participate in a state-wide agreement was to encourage grant writers who plan on using ArcGIS software in any capacity to add a budget item to the grant to help defray licensing cost.

Communication Among Centers seems to be a constant struggle. Participants cited numerous efforts, all of which failed, to keep lines of communication free and open. Using GEONET was a proposed option, as well as the ESRI HigherEd-L listserve. The consensus was to create and manage a Google Group, inviting users, posting questions and comments, and ensuring the group was general in order to address a number of GIS center issues, not simply those pertaining to the ESRI Site License Administration.

In our waning minutes we discussed how we might measure success of a center. Many centers are required to provide metrics to show service, progress towards goals, or other forms of achievement. Metrics, while optional at some institutions, can be necessary when requesting money for new servers, new desktops, or introducing other bits of technology. Administrators are renowned for demanding, “What have you done for us, lately?” Without metrics, one lacks evidence for data-driven decision-making.

How can a GIS Center develop metrics? What metrics might be useful? Here are a few tips to consider:

  1. Track the number of students using the labs.
  2. Track the times and days-of-week labs are in use.
  3. Track how faculty use or reserve use of labs.
  4. Track the number of ArcGIS (AGO) accounts issued.
  5. Gather statistics from AGO use via admin dashboard.
  6. Track the number of software licenses issued across campus.
  7. Track the software installations in computer labs across campus.
  8. Track the number of laptop seats or Student Edition seats
  9. Track time on projects, grants, or Help Desk-type activities. One suggestion was to use Paymo (link) for logging time.
  10. Track the number of inquiries from both internal and external sources.
  11. Open dialog with college/university IT Staff and have them perform usage audits on computers labs. Check for times, number of logins, number of computers used, etc.

These are the ideas we arrived upon, certainly not an exhaustive list. A GIS Center manager needs to “sniff the air” to see which direction the wind is blowing and adjust what is being measuring based on local conditions, for sure. These items should give a new or seasoned GIS Center manager a place to begin.

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My late afternoon I spent in the Exhibition Hall, cruising past vendors keeping an eye out for a good contest and enviable swag. Not this year. Maybe the Hay Days of fantastic swag are behind me. I have nice shirts I received as swag, shirt granting me privileged access to the San Diego “House of Blues” no less. Maybe the years where everyone was giving away iPods, iPads, Playstations, and XBoxes are gone, replaced by nothing but ethereal memories of by-gone days, when a young fellow could sit a large round table in the middle of Main Street, Palm Springs, California, listening to Jack and Friends tell stories. Yes, that actually happened to me, in 1995, thereabouts. In those remarkable days, one boarded a small commuter plane to convey conference-goers over and around the San Jacinto Mtns, dodging the propellers of the wind farm, buffeted by air currents and crazy heat-driven thermals to a queasy sideways landing at Palm Springs airfield. At night, some road, I don’t remember precisely if Main Street was involved but might as well have been, was cordoned off. Restaurants and ESRI set up tables and everyone served themselves from a buffet line. If one was lucky, like me, Jack would join the table you were sitting at and eat, have a beer or glass of wine, and hang out. Good times…good times.


ESRI International Users Conference: Day 1

san-diego-crosswalk-bannerOne convenience of traveling to the same locale over time is consistency. San Diego seems to transform with each visit, though in essence change is more superficial, more cosmetic, than truly trans-formative. My comment may seem insulting and I don’t mean to convey any message San Diego is a hopeless mess. Quite the contrary, San Diego has gotten many things right. The guy I overheard at San Diego International Airport may disagree; he said San Diego was the worst managed city of any in his experience. I have no idea who this guy is but I don’t think his breadth of experience is vast. I wonder if his experience would fill space on fortune cookie-sized paper. In any event, San Diego is a consistent and dependable destination.


Red circle (center-left) is where the lions emerge, or a Reek (Star Wars: EP2)

San Diego changes cosmetically, the ebb and flow of business success, failure, and economic development. Restaurants open their doors, and shut doors months later, as do bars, clubs, quaint little foodie places serving peculiar dishes. Some structure is has always been in the midst of being built when during a visit. Just outside Horton Plaza an amphitheater is getting dug out. I’m guessing the large pit with partially completed coliseum-style seating is an outdoor amphitheater; however, there is a gate on one side suspiciously similar to gates opened to allow the lions at the Christians, or some angry creature at Padawan Jedis. Nearby, a condominium is going up, but contractors have barely installed the plywood safety wall to prevent inattentive passersby from getting their skulls caved in or falling into the Sarlaac Pit that will have to be relocated. Sarlaacs are on the “threatened species” list, by the way. I saw that go by on Twitter the other day.

What San Diego has gotten right, or at least taken more than a half-hearted stab at, is multi-modal transportation. Stand at the pedestrian crossing outside the San Diego Convention Center and count the different modes moving people around. People walk. Bicyclists garbed in their safety gear ride by at near-traffic speeds in their own bike lane. SMART cars and other hybrids comprise a good part of vehicular traffic. Of course, we have numerous motorcycles of all makes and models. Waiting for the walk signal may allow a glimpse of both the Gaslamp trolley. The trolley is not limited to the Gaslamp, though, reaching as far north as Santee, and curling south to San Ysidro, near Tijuana, Mexico. The Amtrak Sante Fe Depot offers connections to people who need to get further away, especially north via the Pacific Surfliner. And, then there is the San Diego Metro Bus. The bus is great. For $2.25 a person can ride the bus to/from San Diego International Airport. Don’t pay for a taxi; no need to wait on a shuttle from the hotel. Just wait about 10 minutes for Bus 992 to roll up, slide two bills and a quarter into the machine, and take the easy ride downtown. Great, cheap secret to getting from the airport to any hotel in the Gaslamp District and environs. A person can walk from the San Diego International Airport to downtown. Is there another airport a person can literally walk to, the criteria being the person must travel from a historic district or some other tourist destination, along paved sidewalks and other public amenities? I don’t know of any, but my experience with airports is only slightly more than two hands worth of fingers. Gatwick, outside London, requires a train-ride into London, which is nice, but not really the same as walking. London is a massively walk-able city, though.

My point, hidden among all of my hyperbole, is San Diego is consistent. Ralph’s is right where I left it. Residents and long-stay guests play nice (mostly), and are very casual and cool. The Field is right where it belongs, near 5th and Market, and still have a decent Shepherd’s Pie, though what in the hell is with the messed up Guinness pours? The hell… A Guinness pour means to fill the glass 2/3rds and allow the foam to settle. Then, finish the pour. A person wanting a Guinness needs to expect a wait. While your company is already quaffing their Miller Lite, perhaps half gone, you will be receiving your first Guinness. That is how the process works.  A Guinness pour should never have foam and froth swirling around. Getting a Guinness with a miasma of foam and froth dancing around inside the glass is evidence of a bad pour, and an ignorant bartender. Am I wrong?

Places may change names and branding. My favorite coffee shop is right where I left it two years ago. The two girls who worked making coffee are still there. Name has changed, the awning is a different color, from a bright sunny yellow eye-catching egg yolk yellow, to a commonplace black textile. The old name was “SunnySide Up” or something catchy but obviously not memorable enough for me to remember. The new name is “Crotcheviche” or something too easy to parody. The girls were not entirely cool with the name but “we still have a job, so…”

Geography is Everywhere

The premise of my blog is for me to have a forum to post thoughts, notions, ideas, and other forms of content related to helping people understand this very simple yet tremendously subtle idea: geography is everywhere.

Look, people will often say something is, “Duh, that’s a no-brainer. Of course.” Even when saying so, people may not fully realize the depth and scope in their supposed acceptance and tacit realization. I teach a world geography course each semester. Each semester I make the claim, “Geography is Everywhere,” and I can back, “Yeah, yeah, we know.” Then, after 17 weeks of talking about geography my students will declare, “Man, I had no idea geography was everywhere.”

Today, I told a fellow with an ESRI tag and fabric badge indicating he was an ESRI employee, “I’m drinking the ESRI Kool-Aid.” I was typing my last post, on my knees at a conference folding table I had hauled near a working electric outlet. He said, “Has all this made you supplicate on your knees?”

“Well, this is sort of a cult.”

“True, but the Apple cult is worse.”

“Oh, I agree. But, this morning I am drinking the ESRI Kool-Aid.

“Hope it’s grape!”

“Hey, it’s ESRI Kool-Aid. It all tastes good no matter the color!”

Jack Dangermond addressed the crowd of, oh, probably 16,000 people and spoke to us in his humble but subtly evangelical tone about how great geospatial technology is, how much progress people are making, and how flesh-and-blood people are making real and significant changes in lives of hundreds, if not thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people. I’m not exaggerating about 100,000s of people. The 2014 earthquake in Nepal and the Ebola epidemic in western Africa certainly affected 100,000s of people, continue to do so, and in the case of Ebola, 1,000,000s of people could be impacted. So, I do not exaggerate. GIS is a remarkable tool and ESRI does good work to support humanitarian efforts, of that there is zero doubt, and is a privately held corporation. ESRI is publicly traded nor may ever issue publicly traded stocks.


Forrest C. Lamb, Marine Reservist and Geomentor.

Following Jack D. was a host of both public and private sector GIS disciples showcasing their work in a variety of endeavors. Major advances have been made in fighting and managing wildfires globally, thanks in part to advances in GIS and geospatial technology. Foresters from the province of Victoria, Australia presented their fire management efforts. The vast majority of Australia is affected by wildfires and the southern portion around Melbourne is not exempt from experiencing a wildfire. The southern portion of Australia is a confusing mishmash of toponyms; if I were to mention Victoria, British Columbia, and Vancouver Island all in the same breath any given person might think Canada. Add in Craigdorrach Castle and someone might get really confused. But, all of these places are found near Melbourne, Australia.

A parade of ESRI folks enchanted us with new and improved features and functionality, while other ESRI presenters beguiled us with brand new app offerings, too new to have bug fixes or improvements. ESRI’s ArcGIS EARTH is one such offering, a partnership between Google and ESRI, to evolve Google Earth beyond a simple 3D viewer. Several cool apps were introduced, like “ArcDrone AppStudio for Organizations Server Edition,” a build-your-own-organization-specific drone app managed through ArcGIS Online. No – I made this up. Sometimes, the geek is strong in this one and creating parody applications is too easy. Sounds good, though, huh?

Again, the murmur amongst attendees was, “Why more new features? Why not fix what is broken and work on stabilizing each platform?” These gripes were broadcast in the form of a series of tweets to an account I follow. The individual complained about lack of stability of some ArcGIS extension. The reply was essentially: “Bugs and instability are inherent in all software apps, to varying degrees. Every software company advances the technology, creating and building new technology. Changes, i.e. versions, are the nature of the beast. These challenges haunt and dog every major and minor software developer, have always and will always plague developers.”

“Why new functions and apps? Less than 10% of people will ever use these new functions and app!”

I never understand this question, really. I’ve heard the same compliant since my first conference in 1995. I have the same complaint about ERDAS Imagine every year since I began using Imagine in 1993. My thinking echoes the Twitter reply, plus more. “Software cannot be static. Software isn’t static. ESRI’s job is not simply to provide an application, but to advance the science and to provide the potential for others to advance the science. ESRI then provides a good way to share this technology, and, conveniently enough, offers a development and distribution environment for helping others access new technology. We don’t know, either, what the potential user base is for a new release. Simply because you won’t use an app doesn’t mean 10,000 other people will give the app a pass. If ESRI has an installed user base of one million clients, and 10% think they would like an app, one hundred thousand users are interested. A 1% user base is ten thousand people.”


These people appreciate ESRI. Not sure why people who don’t like ESRI attend the ESRI UC. Like going to Comic-Con and hating comic books, comic books, and cosplay.

There are a good many ESRI haters in the GIS community. Not sure why. I mean, understand their complaints. I’ve been in this industry since 1991. I’ve worked with people who worked in the private and public sector and now work for ESRI. I know some of the cultural mindset inside ESRI. I don’t want to sound like I am defending ESRI but these people need to understand one thing: GRASS, ELAS, and a host of other GIS software had their opportunity to flourish. They didn’t. ESRI and Jack Dangermond masterfully leveraged their software; their ideals have driven the geospatial industry. The geospatial industry was founded upon Roger Tomlinson’s and Jack Dangermond’s perseverance and intellect. They are the geospatial equivalent of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

Complaints and whines about new functionality, new extensions, new enhancements, and new products will persist into perpetuity. Why? Well, first and foremost, software must evolve and no form of evolution is ever perfect. Secondly, each new, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed GIS generation will have the same complaints as those of us did in 1990s, in the 2000s, and in the 2010s. That is Life, folks. Haters make statements like, “QGIS is better,” or “GRASS is better.” Forget for a moment no formal support exists for either. Sure, forums exist on the Internet. People can post questions, perhaps get an answer. But, no formal support. No formal upgrade or update schedule, usually, for open source software. In fact, many of these products are in perpetual “beta,” only a current “build.” Neither is open source immune from bugs, fixes, upgrades, updates, and enhancements. Even today, a new update for QGIS was made available.

Also, people seem to forget how complicated and inter-related software can be. How many times have we seen a Windows Update break some other non-Windows application? How many times have we seen something as mundane as a printer driver break an application? Remember the days when Arcinfo, ERDAS Imagine, and Adobe Acrobat Reader had to be installed in the correct order, otherwise none of the software would work? Years ago, I learned ArcGIS represented the largest collection of .NET objects outside of any Microsoft product. That is not of little consequence.

A computer hard drive becomes like a person’s bowels. Code for each bit of software is like a unique bit of bacteria, some bacteria is beneficial to other code-bacteria, some bacteria is detrimental to other code-bacteria. And, let’s just hold talk of viruses for another occasion. A hard drive is code-based ecosystem and pulling out bits of code, making sure they all play nice, making sure one code bit is not toxic to another code bit, well, hell, we don’t even know how our own bacterial flora operate really. And, ESRI is supposed to have perfect knowledge of Oracle, of Microsoft, of IBM, of Intel, of AMD, of whatever?

OK. Sure. Right on. No such thing. Kurt Gödels Incompleteness Theorem sort of addresses the notion of perfect knowledge.

What all of this boils down to really is either  a fundamental willful blindness of how software is designed, developed, and engineered, or just being naive about the larger development ecosystem. Commercial software has benefits; open source software has benefits. But, each have their own unique collection of costs and drawbacks. I use open source software all the time, as well. I use QGIS and GRASS at home, GIMP, Blender. They are nice, and I have no problems using or promoting open source software. I promote them to faculty, staff, and students, and anyone curious about mapping. Whatever can help a person solve or address a curiosity or project. Yes, I don’t like ESRI’s interpretation of JSON; however JSON is a framework able to be adapted by anyone. Sometimes, I have to use QGIS to handle JSON files. But, comments about ESRI’s general approach to software development are simply preposterous, really.

The afternoon showcased three massively brilliant efforts fantastically presented by supremely capable people. We learned about the infestation of red mangroves along coastal Hawai’i (link) by sisters Sarah and Lily Jenkins. Both Sarah and Lily won at the 2015 Intel Science and Engineering Fair, and Sarah turned down a full scholarship at Harvard to attend Duke.

bruce-aylward-ebolaDr. Bruce Aylward debriefed the audience on his work to eradicate ebola in western Africa. Ebola, as we learned Fall 2014, is a horrible, deadly, unforgiving illness with a 90% fatality rate. Ebola infects a host human, typically first through an infected animal, such as a bat. Some people in western Africa eat bats, a source of protein. The person is then infected, passes the infection on to someone else, and within 4 to 6 weeks an epidemic has begun. Ebola passes readily in west Africa for a variety of reasons. People do not trust foreigners, humanitarians, doctors, or any medical personnel. When people get sick, they hide or keep to themselves. As the virus kills, the bodies must be cremated to absolutely kill the virus; families see cremation as a desecration and hide the body of the deceased. People afraid they are carrying the virus do not seek out help for fear of being quarantined. Villages are remote and lack proximity to a health facility even if people want assistance. Roads are poor, at best, and during the monsoon season are non-existent. Thus, as Dr. Aylward points out, while ebola has been marginalized full eradication is presenting extreme challenges.

Gary Knell, CEO of National Geographic Society, discuss two topics. Paul Salopek is crowdfunding his walk around the world. He isn’t walking for fun and pleasure, a side benefit, maybe. No, his real purpose is to follow the steps of Humankind’s migration from near the Horn of Africa, and end somewhere near Tierra del Fuego, in Argentina. People can track Paul using #edenwalk and @outofeden on Twitter.

gary-knell-natgeoGary Knell also set forth details on National Geographic’s emphasis on developing a “geographically competent America.” Knell stated, “We have students, people, who can’t find Japan on a map, who don’t know where Japan is, who don’t know where important countries are. To have an effective democracy who are in touch with world events and circumstances, we need people who are geographically competent, Knell declared. NatGeo has instantiated grant programs for organizations, have developed videos and video programs viewed by well over 700 million people globally, and are working with organizations and educators around the country to assist in helping students become more geographically competent.

martin-omalley-data-drivenThe afternoon’s keynote and closing speaker was former Baltimore mayor, and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. Why O’Malley wasn’t re-elected by Maryland voters is simple: Maryland term limits prevented him from running for a 3rd consecutive term. The Atlantic has an interesting albeit short article on Gov. O’Malley (“The Long Shot,” 12/2014) so I will refrain from doing a comprehensive review of his background here. I will say this, Gov. Martin is an interesting fellow. O’Malley plays banjo in a Celtic band, loves data-driven decision-making processes, has huge love for GIS, gives massive props to ESRI and Jack Dangermond for helping him manage Baltimore during his mayorship, and led the nation in building state government efficiency in Maryland in a number of aspects. O’Malley, unfortunately, may be too far ahead for this day-and-age in America where rampant bigotry and racism is fighting against true existential threats,

sing-along-finaleMany videos were shown. The opening video channeled everyone’s inner Sagan, a perspective not from Earth, but of intergalactic space, zooming in at warp speeds to ground-level Earth in the spirit of Neil de Grasse Tyson’s Cosmos, and Sagan’s Cosmos. Really beautiful video on a huge screen. Each presentation ran the gamut from “Cool” to “OMG That Was Awesome.” Jeremy Weber, who I thought was going to speak from a podium, was actually part of a large ESRI-flavored “America’s Got Talent” skit to showcase many of ESRI’s new apps developed both in-house and by 3rd party software vendors, like Geo-Jobe.

The Monday morning plenary had the desired effect on me, and I think on those in my immediate surroundings. I know I overheard people whispering, “I’m so glad I come to this. After a year of fighting battles, of pushing people, of being pushed by people, of figuring out a way to make things work, I need this enthusiastic crowd and Jack’s motivation to let me know all of my effort is worthwhile.” ESRI helps bring people together, but the momentum to drive forward comes from the crowd, comes from the people working in public works in Ireland, managing Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, the teachers coaching middle school kids in Louisville, the doctor fighting ebola in Sierra Leone.


ESRI Education Users Conference Day 2


Cities are like people. They breath, work, play, sleep. Cities experience stress, can feel tight, like sense sense of foreboding and unease before a storm. Tense and holding a breath, becoming sweaty and anxious, cities can build strain. The rains arrive, the apprehension cleansed, the city plays in the rain, grime and salt and sticky film of humidity washes away. Fresh, clean, comforting breezes replace the stagnant, warm cloying air from the afternoon. The city, rejuvenated from the shower and ready to play, comes alive like a 4th grader anticipating the recess bell. From stories above the street, people mill like children on the playground, their voices tinkling and giggling, rising to the windows floors above the sidewalks of San Diego.

How we frame circumstances can determine how those circumstances affect us. When I arrived in my hotel and checked out my room, I ran across a small note and an even smaller box of earplugs. “As you settle in, we want to point out that we are a Downtown Gaslamp District Hotel. There is activity in the area 24 hours a day.” The recommendation to drown out the noise was to turn on either the fan or the A/C or both and wear ear plugs. Night-time noise has never bothered me. I was the child who always wanted to listen to adults in conversation, to be outside at night, to listen to the city at night. At home, I can’t sleep with the windows open as often as I would like. Temperatures prevent that, either too warm or too cool. But, when I can, I do. When I travel, and conditions allow, I sleep with windows open, especially in San Diego. My guess, people hear each sound as unique and peculiar, each horn, each trill of laughter, each pedicab bell, the rush of wheels on a wet street, claps of heels on pavement, the boom-boom-boom of music. I hear the sounds, too, but for some reason they affect me as the simple noises of an organism, like a dog snoring, or a habitat similar to camping in a forest. For the most part, the regular noises of ‘outside’ don’t bother me. The forest has a sound environment; a city has a sound environment. Regardless of sirens, people shouting, dogs barking, nearly any sound, I have found I have little reaction other than to keep snoozing.

San Diego has a rich auditory environment, a trait I look forward to when I visit. Weird, I know. Who looks forward to the auditory landscape of a city? Who looks forward to the sounds of the trolley, the train, the police, women shouting at men, men shouting men, people shouting, bells ringing, rain falling, engines of cars racing? The only window able to be opened is opened, and as I type my notes from the day, I listen to the muted tones of Gaslamp San Diego.

Except for alarm clocks. Those devices seem to occupy a separate brain-space unique to them in my head.

Servants as Leaders

Today, we learned about servants as leaders. People who endeavor to help people work through other things. Programmers, GIS gurus, educators, biologists, teachers – they are all servants. Yet, if we frame their efforts differently, they are leading the way to success, to achievement, to accomplishing goals. A servant as a leader may seem counter-intuitive; how can a servant also be a leader? People attribute Jesus as being a servant and leader, and many people around us who advocate for specific policies, rules, or treatment may also be seen as leaders while also serving a community.

esriuc_esriuEveryone in the photo above, from the ESRI staff on the stage to the people in the audience, are servants to some degree. We all serve in some capacity, to some degree; then we undertake “fast-hat-switching” and become a leader for some activity, event, cause, or task. Some of these people may teach GIS, may teach middle school science or math or social studies. In doing so they are serving their students, being a custodian of learning, serving their community by encouraging thoughtful contemplation and critical thinking among their students. They lead by setting goals, setting examples, by directing and mentoring young minds not only to help them achieve academically but also offering assistance for personal dilemmas.

jeremy-fred-meI’m in good company in the above photo. Mr. Jeremy Weber (Geo-Jobe, Nashville) once served the Nashville city schools. While helping Nashville develop routing apps for school buses, he also developed tools for helping administer ESRI’s ArcGIS Online for Organizations. The fellow in the middle with his eyes closed is Dr. Fred Miller. Dr. Miller is a geolocation guru for ESRI, having published two books on geography and the science of geolocation for ESRI Press. Dr. Miller also advocates for GIS in Europe, helping foster education between our university and Germany by working with our study-abroad program.

Both of these individuals foster learning environments, one in the private sector, one in the public sector. Both work with universities and encourage faculty, staff, and students to learn tools, gather knowledge, and translate the tools and knowledge into critical thinking skills which one day might then metamorphose into wisdom. One can dare to dream, right?

Next time you are at an event, a conference, a professional development meeting, a seminar, keep in mind everyone is both a servant and leader. More precisely, I suppose, everyone has the potential to fulfill dual roles of servant-as-leader.

Like I mentioned earlier, sometimes we simply need to reframe our perspective on a topic, a concern, or some circumstance in order to modify our appreciation or understanding of that thing, whatever that thing might be.


ESRI Education Users Conference: Day 1


View from Ramada-St James. Image by Michael Busby

San Diego is a city I’ve come to hate to love. San Diego represents the best of urban life and the worst of urban settlement patterns. San Diego is a city wrestling every day with contrasts; wonderful climate, multimodal transportation, eminently walkable, family-friendly, dog-friendly, bike-friendly, LGBT-friendly, yet not environmentally friendly. Not really, but they do try.

A flight from Nashville to San Diego take about 3.75 hours. I arrived in Nashville about 6.30am Friday morning, an outside temp of about 75F with 60% humidity. Sticky, but not uncomfortable. I arrived in San Diego about 11.30am and conditions were about the same. San Diego, I would discover only today, was hours away from thunderstorms developing from the tropical storm Dolores. San Diego tends to have humidity in the high 60s and low 70s (%). My guess is San Diego feels nicer due to lower air temps than I experience in Kentucky and Tennessee. Our relative humidity tends to hover in the mid-80s in July. But, relative humidity is not a good way to compare how distinct places “feel.” A better way is to examine dew point.

The dew point is the temperature at which the air becomes saturated. When the air becomes saturated, we experience this as rain, perhaps fog, a shower, a thunderstorm, some type of precipitation. When there is a nice difference between air temp and dew point, we feel nice and dry; no sticky business. When the gap between the air temp and the dew point narrows, now we begin to feel damp and clammy, and we wish for rain. San Diego tends to have dew point temps in the low- to mid-60s and air temps in the mid-70s. Thus we have a nice difference of about 11 degrees or so. Nashville tends to have air temps around 80 or 90, but the dew point also tends to be high, in the 70s or 80s. Thus the gap is narrower and we feel hot and sticky.

San Diego is a city I want to love, and do to a waning degree with each visit. San Diego woos visitors with nice bike lanes, and seduces visitors with beaches, sun, and clear air. San Diego feels like vacation, warms a body the same way a yoga stretch might. San Diego is urban yoga. Everyone passed on the sidewalk carries an air of relaxation, peace, and solace. From the German tourist family, the small group of Africa women herding small kids asking, “What is hummus? Why won’t you tell me about hummus?!” to the individuals walking their chill dogs down the sidewalk. San Diego exudes chill.

Not everyone is probably chill. For as much as San Diego epitomizes vacation and relaxation, San Diego also epitomizes urban sprawl, urban blight, and urban homelessness. One must be prepared to see homeless everywhere, all the time, non-stop, day-in, day-out. San Diego’s homeless are as ever-present as pigeons, more present than fire hydrants. Yet, I have found them to be more quiet, less assuming, and less confrontation than those I have encountered in Chicago. I have talked to them, asked about their pets, herded the drunk ones away from the path of oncoming trolleys. Rarely, have I been accosted by a homeless person. Someone once told me San Diego allows them to stay as long as they don’t bother people. The homeless sit with a sign, or perhaps speak in hush tones asking for a dollar.


Pivot irrigation in the Sonoran Desert, east of San Diego. Photo taken by Michael Busby, July 17th, 2015

Enjoying San Diego truly feels like a guilty pleasure. I don’t see how people who fly, and look out their window to watch the desert pass away beneath them, 100 miles every 15 minutes, can think building in the desert, farming in the desert, can make rational sense.

The Sonoran Desert covers almost 12,000,000 square miles in the Southwest United States. Yet, in spite of the heat, in spite of the lack of moisture, in spite of inhospitable conditions, people feel the need to terraform this environment using resources from other environments, to the detriment of both environments.

With each flight to San Diego, I notice farmland, residential, and commercial land capturing more and more of desert. Humans imposing their will upon a landscape which begrudgingly accepts the water, forcing upon the resistant ground our whims and dreams. In the pic (left) we can see a patchwork of agricultural fields. South of those we see the diagnostic imprint of green circles characteristic of pivot irrigation. Usually, at the center of each circle is a well, powered by a water pump, drawing water from an aquifer to moisten the soil. These green circles are probably 1-mile in diameter. Now, even further south (image-top) we can make out 6-8 additional pivot irrigation crop circles. In between the green circles in the mid-ground and top is the Sonoran Desert.

San Diego experienced severe weather this afternoon. In fact, today set a new record for rain event in San Diego, receiving 1.02 inches. (San Diego Union/Tribune) People might believe severe notions, all false, such as this one: “I’m glad we had rain. We needed it. It will help out our water table.” No, today’s rains won’t even see the water table, most likely. Nearly 2/3rd of all rainfall ends up as runoff, never penetrating the ground. Of the 1/3-rd remaining the majority of that moisture will almost immediately be recycled into the atmosphere due to evaporation. Some of the remaining water will soak into the soil but never reach any aquifer. Aquifer recharge rates are not measured in a single rain event, even if that rain event is significant. Aquifer recharge rates vary by geology and geography but most recharge rates are measured in 1000s of years, not months or years.

san-diego-convention center

San Diego Convention Center Image by Michael Busby

I’m here for the 2015 ESRI Education Conference and International Users Conference. By participating in the conference I contribute to the economy which imposes what I consider to be irrational behavior upon the landscape. However, even in Kentucky I contribute to terra-forming the parched landscape of the American Southwest each time I buy tomatoes, lettuce, or asparagus. Only now, by visiting I use their water when I shower, flush the toilet, brush my teeth, or buy coffee. A sign in the local coffee shop posted above the sink reminded employees, “Droughts are not funny. Wash your hands but conserve water.” Every hotel I have stayed in asks guest not to have their room serviced unless absolutely needed.

This weekend, there are about 1000 of attendees for the education conference. By Monday, that number will blossom to 15000 or so. However, those people represent but maybe 10% of the people attending Comic-Con. While San Diego residents, all 1.38 million of them stress the environment, an extra 15000 to 150,000 don’t help matters. And, San Diego is 2 inches behind what is consider average, even with Hurricane Dolores delivering moisture.

With each conference, I’m torn in my appreciation for all San Diego offers. People avail themselves to the bike lanes, the jogging paths, the dog runs. Each corner has a nice coffee shop with outside seating for you and your canine buddy to enjoy some confection and a nice coffee. Tourist roll by on Segways, or sitting in the back of a pedicab. I like walking around the city, checking out the property listings while heading down to the waterfront to watch a Dole transport ship unload or admire the fantastic boats in the harbor. I’m torn because on my flight to San Diego I see how humans are modifying the desert beyond our ability to sustain that environment in safe, healthy, and rational ways. In a sense, we have assumed a Russian view of the environment: with enough money, power, effort, and will we can force Mother Nature to obey us. She will cow to our greater ego.

The ESRI conference has 15000 attendees. Quite a few. The conference is organized by ESRI, a software company whose headquarters is 90 minutes away, in Redlands, California. ESRI alone requires 18 semi-trailer trucks to move conference materials from Redlands to San Diego. The San Diego Convention Center has the advantage of both immense size and proximity in order to be a suitable host. Few places in the United States are large enough for the conference and close enough to be able to mobilize materials in a cost-effective way. Rumors have abounded the conference may be split into East/West conferences, though these have not materialized. The single, annual ESRI User Conference requires a years’ worth of planning, making dividing the conference into two large regional conferences extremely unlikely.

The conference is valuable. For me, the ESRI Conference, especially the Education Conference, builds an environment encouraging my brain to work, evoking my brain cells into action, awakening energies and networks inside my head dormant since my last conference. I think conferences are supposed to be like that. Being around other innovative, energetic, thoughtful, and also humble people merely trying to solve problems is an invigorating atmosphere.

Oh, I’m not alone. Others are working on similar issues and facing the same troubles.

Today, we listened to innovators and problem-solvers who haven’t even yet finished college. One young fellow took the place of his high school teacher who was unable to attend the conference. One young woman was inspired by Jane Goodall and took on the palm oil industry as well as the Girl Scouts. This morning, we listened to Madison Vorva discuss her efforts to change the recipe for Girl Scout cookies, pushing for the elimination of palm oil. (Palm Oil and Scout Cookies. NYT 2012.) These opportunities to stand beside someone who was a literal child working with Jane Goodall a couple of years ago do not come around often.

GIS users and practitioners also have the floor to tell their unique and individual stories, sharing the successes, obstacles, and failures. One fellow from Ft. Hays State University (Hays, Kansas) told an interesting story. ArcGIS, along with other software, is covered by the United States non-technology transfer security blanket. What this means is students from countries under particular sanction by the United States, are unable to have access to ESRI’s ArcGIS software. At Ft. Hays State, the administration has passed the buck of responsibility to the faculty member. If the instructor provides ArcGIS for Desktop to a student, and that student is a resident of a country the United States has sanctioned, say Syria, or Iran, then the faculty member has committed a felony and could find themselves confronted by federal agents and placed under arrest. The question I posed was this: “If a student requests a Student License of ArcGIS and I provide that student a copy, and the country of residence of that student is on a sanction list, would I be held accountable?” The answer was, “Yes, probably.”

The problem faculty have with being made responsible is many-fold. First, the university admissions office should know whether or not the person enrolling is from a listed country. This should initiate a flag of some sort. Anti-discrimination policies plus profiling rules prevent the faculty member from asking students directly about their country-of-origin. Thus, questions have to be formed surreptitiously from which info can be gleaned allowing the faculty member to determine whether or not a student is from a listed country.

Crazy legal-stuff comes up sometimes. PAX.


Summer Work in Higher Education

Anyone who follows the trials and tribulations of higher education have little choice but to conclude the very foundations of Higher Education are being undermined. Higher Education and the intellectual integrity of the United States is being worried away by people and special interests who really don’t seem to appreciate the consequences of their actions. What they argue as being “choice” and “accountability” is little more than a wholehearted attempt to transform the current form of education in the United States into a commercialized, for-profit, corporatized version of the University of Phoenix, where the U.S. taxpayers and the very nature of our intellectual capacity are on the hook to shareholders and private investors, and potentially the 1%.

Higher education has been gutted in every U.S. since 2007. Fortunately, some states have realized their error and are working to restore funding in education. Of all the investments taxpayers make, education is one of the few which has a positive return. The problem people get into when determining their return-on-investment is they turn the microscope on themselves. That is like collecting 100,000 data points and making a judgment based on a single data point (datum.) I frequently hear students complain such things as,

This psychology degree is worthless. No one will hire me without a Master’s degree.


What am I going to do with this degree in Art History? I can’t teach until I get a Ph.D!


There’s no jobs for someone with a Creative Writing MFA. How am I going to pay back these student loans?

Those aren’t truly failures of higher education. Those are failures of planning by people who spend more time researching what kind of car they are going to buy after graduation than they spend on researching the degree itself. If they spent 50% of the time researching their degree or chosen field they do in researching how to win the newest video game, or what type of car they think they will be able afford post-graduation, they would be much better off.

No doubt, though, higher education has some deep-seated issues, behaviors, traditions which could stand some changing. I see many of these traditions every day, poor workflows, stumbling bureaucracy, recalcitrant leaders, ineffective leaders, calcified thinking. Higher education needs to be nimble, quick-thinking, light-on-its-feet, yet grounded in the principles of discipline and intellectual fortitude which people expect. Higher education cannot be nor should not be thought of as a “machine” into which raw materials enter and a finished product exits. One trait higher education should impose on graduates is higher level thinking, better tools for reasoning, for logic, and for decision-making.

Among the opponents to higher education I count Scott Walker, Gov-Wisconsin. Gov. Walker is an individual lacking in the intellectual capacity to contemplate the very nature of higher education, the pursuit of intellectual problems, the freedom to express intellectual curiosity, and certainly opposes any taxpayer supported research. He seems to think employees of higher education are lazy, at best, and parasites, at worst, sucking the life-blood from the U.S. taxpayer, contributing nothing yet costing Wisconsin taxpayers.

I’m rambling. I have some legitimate concern too many people share Scott Walker’s perspective. People seem to misunderstand their experience in college doesn’t really prepare them to be a critic of higher education. No one would think to criticize the autoworker who assembled their Toyota simply because they drive a Toyota, yet for some reason college graduates think their college experience prepares them to criticize higher education. Their experience may grant them permission to judge their Greek System, perhaps their student government association, perhaps even their student loan office, yet they commit a logical error in extrapolating their experience into all areas of campus.

Even within a college or university, employees are guilty of extrapolation errors. Simply because the student loan office appears incompetent, all office then become incompetent. Or Accounting. There do exist people who whose workflow brings them into interaction with multiple offices, agencies, and departments on a college campus. We call these people, “secretaries.” These are people tend to be the true workhorses of any college. They know how to make the bureaucracy function even when policies are in place to make everyone’s life difficult. They work their asses off, year-round, too.

The technical staff at most colleges and universities also work their asses off year-round, too, sacrificing weekends and holidays in order to keep web sites, networks, WiFi, Active Directory, email, software licenses, computer labs functioning and up-to-date. They work early mornings and after-hours to ensure the university’s circulatory and nervous system is healthy. Most of the time, no one sees us, or have no idea what we are doing behind the scenes to make faculty and other staff’s lives easier.

Every once in a while, one of us will get recognized, during a staff luncheon or other meeting. We may look bashful when singled-out; we know we have to rely on others in order for us to get our jobs down. Technical jobs are a team effort at most colleges. We have to work in concert with others. When technology works well, many people had a hand in the implementation, most likely.

Much of what I do relies upon the efforts of my university’s technical staff, our information systems office. I handle everything from the network jack out, for the areas I am responsible for. In my areas, I am a one-man, one-stop shop for many jobs. But, the work going on behind the scenes our IT staff accomplishes allows them to distribute some of the work-load on technically capable people in other work areas. And, we work year-round, Thanksgiving, Christmas, summer break, winter break, snow days, birthdays, etc. And, sometimes, we do work outside of our documented job responsibilities.

GSC-Program Banner-GIS

Banner for GIS Track (Major)

This summer (2015) I created 9 promotional banners for one of my areas, Geosciences. We have no promotion signage. We have no signage, in general, except for a small, 11″ x 8.5″ sign flying above the office door. Students who enter onto our floor potentially have no idea where they are. Due to a confusing set of building abbreviations, students attending courses in our business building often end up in our building. Thus, even if they have a mapping application they can end up in the wrong building if the building code is interpreted wrong. I’ve been trying to get the university to allow me to make them a web app to handle this conflict and am always told, “Thanks, but no thanks. We’ve got this.” Yeah, well, apparently not because if you have then why are dozens of students still showing up wanting to know,  “Where is Room 317?”


Nine, 8ft x 3ft I made this summer, using imagery from NASA’s Earth Observatory and raw Landsat 8 imagery. I elected not to use our image processing software for handing the imagery. Instead, I decided to use GIMP and figure out how to manipulate the satellite imagery using a graphics package. Final layout of the banners used Corel X6. I also used a handy free app, Paint.Net. A considerable amount of review and proofing occurred, plus I had to educate myself on GIMP, download Landsat 8 imagery for western Kentucky, Beijing, China, and Istanbul, Turkey. I also grabbed some National Airborne Imagery Program (NAIP) imagery in order to provide a graphic of a truly important archaeological site in Louisiana one of our faculty has worked at for a number of years. Lots of good stuff.

SamsungDisplayIn addition to creating these promotional banners, which took about 2 weeks, I managed to sneak in some other departmental upgrades. With some monies I had from a program I helped develop, I bought a couple of 48″ Samsung Digital Displays SmartTVs. These digital displays come with a selection of templates to assist users in getting content pushed out to an audience. In the image (left) I have created a rotating series of Landsat 8 images to – hopefully – captivate my audience, students standing outside classrooms waiting to gain entry and have their brain cells stimulated by new and wonderful knowledge. These displays can be connected to the university network, can handle JPGs and Powerpoints, and can play video files in a few different formats. I plan on using these displays to attract an audience, education the audience about the discipline of Geosciences, and promote different departmental activities and research.

smart.podiumIn the meantime, two of these ©SMART podiums arrived, along with brand-new data projectors. Years ago, we invested in a number of ©SMART Smartboards. These big white board allowed data projector images to be displayed, a set of colored pens could be used to draw across the images, the entire process captured to a JPEG, TIFF, or PDF and saved for later, perhaps to be included in a set of notes posted online. The Smartboards proved very popular among faculty and students. They could be adapted to for use with USB which kept them alive longer. When we updated to Windows 7, I believe SMART opted not to carry drivers forward beyond Windows XP, leaving a large user base with almost useless whiteboards. There are lots of competing technologies available today allowing educators to use current dry-erase boards as a lecture capture medium, though.

Also about 10 years ago we were handed down a couple of ©SMART Podiums. These initial Podium versions essentially captured all the potential of Smartboard yet on a digital display. The pen could be used to write notes, draw, or drive any application just like a mouse. Every thing performed on-screen could be captured to a JPEG, TIFF, HTML, or PDF. Faculty really found the Podium useful, especially those teaching software, or wanting to annotation Powerpoints on-the-fly.

The new Podiums (SMART Podium) I chose to invest in are much larger, about 24″ wide, with 3 USB ports, HDMI, DVI, and VGA ports. If you are familiar with any of the Wacom graphics tablets used by professional designers, artists, and cartoonists, the Podium is essentially that. The pen senses varying amounts of pressure, can drawn colors from a large palette, and has a large symbol library. SMART also include a large collection of clip art for use in enhancing presentations. I serve about 14 faculty, more or less; sometimes I have to include faculty from Biology or Chemistry, or at least consider their teaching needs when I perform classroom upgrades. Initially, my plans were to install the Podium/data projector combo in a teaching computer lab. I had more requests for installing the new tech in a typical lecture classroom, thus a Podium was installed in a 40+ seat classroom.

soundsystemSometimes, I have to be the sound guy, the Geosciences “roadie.” We have a lecture room with stadium seating capable of holding maybe 180 students. The room rarely sees maximum capacity but we have two Squire speakers, a wireless microphone system, and an amplifier to help blast knowledge and wisdom and critical thinking skills into the brain cases of today’s youth. This summer I had to reroute my wiring from last year, clean up some cabling issues, and make access the equipment more convenient. We are working with cabinets and fittings and such circa 1950, and doing so requires making modifications. Watching episodes of “This Old House” and “The New Yankee Workshop” has really paid off, let me tell you.

20150706_112025Finally, I mended this old table. I’m not going to go spend money on furniture if I can spend $6 on some hardware to repair a table. I did repair this table; the image (left) is a “before” image. I’m going to leave the “after” image to your imagination.

Some tasks don’t translate well into graphical form. For example, I wrote a script to silently install ArcGIS 10.3.1 onto computers. But, in order to do this I needed a script to silently uninstall ArcGIS 10.2.2 from those computers. Better this than to sneakernet a USB drive around.

Now, you could say, “Why don’t you image your lab, then push your image back out?” This lab is a small 24-seat lab and to build an image and push said image back out might actually take longer than the process I have, especially when I can execute the uninstall and install script across a network.

Early in the summer I also conducted a 1/2 day workshop for teachers. I discussed those details in my last post, “Geomentoring for Teachers,” so I will save you those details.

And there have been various and sundry other tasks, like arranging a regional meeting for members of a state-wide mapping association (failed), planning for an archaeological society meeting (failed), assisting a student with an ESRI Virtual Campus course written for an earlier version of the software than he had installed on his laptop, and designing departmental t-shirts for sale as a fund-raiser.

In a few weeks, faculty will return to campus. They will have needs and expectations pertaining to their classes, their classrooms, and technology. Me, too.

I also teach 6 hours of course work per semester, sometimes more, rarely less. One semester I taught 21 hours, and I’m an adjunct. In a few weeks, I’ll have to prepare for my own courses, plus assist faculty with their courses. Actually, sooner, as I need my courses prepped and ready about the time faculty return otherwise I can’t get my courses published on-time.

My point in providing these details is first and foremost not to ask for recognition for anything. My intent is first to convey information about what people in academia do over the summer. Many of us work our asses off to ensure classrooms, technology, and other details are ready for the fall semester, or the spring semester, or maybe the winter semester. Every semester, but especially the fall semester. Many of us have family members who, despite having known what we do, still state, “Oh, you have summers off. You need to come and mow my yard and paint my house and bathe my dogs each week.” And, we have to say, “Look, I’m sorry, but I don’t have summers off. I have a 12-month contract. I’ve got to clean up from the last academic year, upgrade and update some things, and prep for the next school year. I can come visit for a few days, maybe mow, but your dog doesn’t need to be bathed that often. Not good for them.” I’m attempting in my own small way to reveal what goes on within these little isolated communities we call “universities” during the off-times and provide people some insight, and lessen ignorance of the university workplace.

Some faculty have 9-month or 10-month contracts. Their wages/pay periods are crammed into 9 or 10 months, and they account (hopefully) for the months they go without pay. Some colleges allow faculty to spread the salary across the non-contract months. However, most university employees, myself included, work 12-month contracts. And work we do.

To Scott Walker and his acolytes I say, you really have no idea what you’re against. Cutting higher education improves nothing, and in fact, cuts the head from the body to spite the hands, or feet, or really to spite the rest of the body, I think. Education pays considerable dividends to those who choose their educational route wisely. And many of us in higher education really do put in hours well past those we get paid for to ensure people, i.e. students, get a good value for their time and financial investment.


Geomentoring Workshop for Teachers

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

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

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

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

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

Watch this video.

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

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

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

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

<insert photo>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


First Blush Review: Microsoft Surface Pro 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have a fun job, actually.

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

surface 3 pro

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

Here is what I ordered:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, these are just first blush impressions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Don’t do this.

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

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

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