When Students Are Ready To Listen

Tonight, I had an interesting conversation with a college drop-out. She is young so she still has a chance at a decent future for herself. This young lady will have a decent future for herself when she is ready to listen. When she is ready to stop talking and start listening she may be able to turn her academic life around and in doing so getting her life straight.

If I’ve heard her story once, I’ve heard it 200 times. She is on her second academic probation. She explained she tried to appeal each probation but the committee wasn’t “compassionate enough.” She claimed to be homeless, moving from house to house, apartment to apartment, from boyfriend to boyfriend. She was homeless due to her “crazy mom, kicking me out of the house for not signing her contract.”

“You didn’t see that coming? You just came home one day and your mom stuck this contract in your face, and told you to sign or move out? And you never saw that coming?”

“Nope. She just gave it to me and I refused to sign.”

The reality is, there were warning signs all over the place, I’m sure. Just based on our brief conversation I detected numerous issues and behaviors standing in the way of this young woman’s success. Lots of denial, lots of blaming other people, not much taking responsibility for her previous actions or behavior, and not many signs she would be changing those behaviors any time soon. I pointed the discussion in another direction.

“Before you were put on probation what degree were you pursuing?”


“Why psychology?”

“Because I really like psychology.”

“Hmm. What do you plan on doing with the degree?”

“I don’t know.”

“OK, here is what you need to do. Imagine you have graduated and have your psychology degree. Now, what are you going to do? What job are you going to apply for?

A pause. “Uhm, I don’t know. I think I see what you’re saying.”

“Look,” I said, “you’ve got to get your life straight. I’ve listened to you talk about being out of school for two years. You’ve bounced around from relationship to relationship. You don’t sound like you have plan. You’ve been out of school for two years and have no car. And, you selected an academic field notoriously hard to find a good job with only a bachelor’s degree. You’ve got so many distractions going on and no focus. You want to be successful and have a decent life, right?” I pause to sip the brown ale I ordered with dinner and let me words sink in a little. “You selected a major that’s going to result in student loan debt of $40,000. In order to get a good job with a psychology degree, you’ll need at least a Master’s Degree. There goes another $30,000. Now, you’ve got a psychology Master’s degree and $70,000 of college debt. Now, what are you going to do?”

I ate some food while she talked about not thinking things through very well. She really likes psychology yet has no idea what she would do with the degree. I continued. “I’m not trying to diminish the value of psychology; I like psychology, too. But, sit down and find yourself a job like you graduated yesterday and see what you come up with. Going into something you like is fine, but you have to face the reality there are not that many good paying jobs for people with only a bachelor’s in psychology. Major in marketing, or business, or economics, and minor in psychology.”

These stories are prevalent throughout every college and university in the United States. Maybe not the part about having a contract shoved in your face by your mother. But, seriously; how do you not see that coming, unless A. You’re completely delusional, B. You’re not being honest with a complete stranger, or C. Your mom really is nutters.

Recurrent traits I notice in college student body population – among those populations I interact with – are ones of aimlessness, of finding an academic path, and laying out an initial career trajectory. I don’t have any empirical evidence; I have not conducted any true research surveys, collected in real data. I maintain a collection of anecdotal stories based on conversations I have with students before, during, and after class. In my world geography courses I like to differentiate countries based not only on levels of educational attainment but how different countries approach education their populations, in general. In the United States, for example, we have no implementation of any type of skill, knowledge, or aptitude testing for the assignment of young people towards career fields. In contrast, countries like Germany and China, scrutinize closely aptitudes within their school aged population specifically directing them towards specific careers paths and educational programs.

In the United States high school students may receive some career counseling. The programs are optional or opt-in and may not be part of a greater district plan. Some school districts and some states are working on implementing more formal career counseling programs based on the history of success of some programs. (“Empirical Research Studies Supporting the Value of School Counseling;” American School Counselor Association) In my opinion this is a great strategy for a variety of reasons.

Students and young adults really need formal assessment of aptitudes, knowledge, and abilities in order to better formulate options of potential career choices. If we know our strength and weakness we can then find greater success in our strengths while working on shoring our weaknesses. Fundamentally, though, we need data on ourselves in order to best solve concerns related to ourselves. Having recently had blood work performed for a doctor’s visit, health professionals collect all sorts of health data to discern changes and to stave off or address impending health concerns. Yet, our United States educational system, rife with testing of academic standards, in general, doesn’t seem too much interested in helping individuals build upon strengths while fortifying weakness.

What I said could be construed as teachers not caring about students. That is patently false. I know many educators, and almost to a person they care about their students to nearly the same degree as their own children. The educational environment seems to be geared towards moving students through tests in order to please state or federal educational oversight committees. Thus to be considered a good teacher one must find ways of motivating students and customizing lessons for students in order for the student to perform better on a state or federal standardized test. Sounds like I’m talking about teaching to the test and I sort of am. But, what I am really saying is students are not being groomed to be successful college students or even success people. The false logic applied essentially states, “As a result of continuous standardized testing student will exit their K-12 educational experience as educated and successful people – because the standardized scores say so.” Guidance counselors, when present, tend to mitigate against the false logic as they assist a number of students in implementing positive personal goals.

Good guidance counseling helps better prepare students for college. Again, studies are showing students receiving guidance counseling tend to have better college graduation rates over peers from similar academic cohorts, i.e. control student groups versus experimental student groups.

One outcome of guidance counseling in high school results not only in higher graduation rates, but potentially carries over to spending less time in college by eliminating the unproductive pursuit of degree programs in hit-and-miss attempts to discover their ideal career, thereby reducing cost of college over the long-term because of the time spent engaged in career discovery activities. An additional benefit of guidance counseling is the application and awarding of suitable financial aid, again reducing the expense of a college degree.

For some reason, probably many and nefarious, improved guidance counseling is not part of the national conversation in education reform. I reason this due to the huge amount of attention given to K-12 testing and the national level discussion currently being waged by various sides and stakeholders over Common Core, and implementation of vouchers systems, coupled with the lack of attention given to career guidance programs, in general, support for creating or developing career guidance programs, and frequent coverage of budget cuts reducing or eliminating contracts of educators involved in career guidance counseling. To partly prove my point, the Department of Labor estimates about a 12% growth rate for school guidance counselors, the national average growth rate for all occupations. (Occupational Outlook Handbook; BLS; DoL) Also noted is since school guidance counselors salaries (and funding) is tied to federal and state budgets growth may be limited in geographic regions.

Studies prove working one-on-one with students improves academic achievement across the board, for all ethnic groups. Studies indicate working one-on-one with students living in moderate to extreme poverty show marked improvement in behavior and academic achievement. Even gender differences in academic achievement can be improved by guidance counseling.

Current research seems to indicate assisting students with career and guidance counseling improves academic performance, student attitudes and behaviors. One would think if schools were really interested in improving student outcomes, and by outcomes I mean student achievement, personal success, college admission, and overall positive approach to life, school districts, school systems, state school boards, and federal programs would be advocating the training and hiring additional school guidance counselors. Evidence one might see of the value of guidance counselors would be employment rates of guidance counselors higher than the national average, for example. Further evidence might be our national leaders suggesting ways to reduce teacher-to-student ratios, and developing and improving guidance counselor programs across the United States. I’m simply not seeing evidence to suggest politicians are truly interested in improving the educational environment in the United States.

Instead, what we really hear from our politicians foretells doom for public education. Scott Walker breaking the teachers union in Wisconsin is not a good sign. Republicans and some Democrats advocating for school vouchers is a second red flag. School voucher systems will simply create a Have and Have-not system among public schools, while potentially sending taxpayer money into the hands of private schools and into the hands of religious schools, which I find to be abhorrent and verging on State support of churches and religion. Will you allow my voucher to be used at St. Pius IX and then deny my neighbor use of a voucher to attend a Muslim school, a synagogue, or perhaps I will pay myself the voucher when I choose to home-school? We are also now witnessing the rise of corporate schools, as education companies like Pearson, play a greater role in providing all sort education services, which funnels millions of dollars away from schools, teachers, counselors and into the hands of disinterested, publicly traded companies (Pearson PLC, NYSE: PSO $17.55 10-1-2015) answerable to stockholders and clearly Wall Street traders pursuing wealth and little interest in the life of some middle school or high school child in Kentucky, or Indiana, or Oklahoma, or wherever.

I get worried – no really, really concerned when states appoint people to education boards who have never experienced a classroom environment in any capacity other than as a student. Kentucky, for example, appointed Kevin C. Brown as interim commissioner of education on September 1st, 2015. I need guard my words as Mr. Brown is a lawyer, holding a Juris Doctor from University of Kentucky. His previous experience is working for a law firm in Lexington, Kentucky. He also holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a minor in political science. I can’t find any hint Mr. Brown has ever taught in a K-12 classroom, holds any teaching certificate from any state, or has any teaching experience, period. Again, people in control or exerting influence over education in states are not those who have real-world experience or front-line knowledge of the daily trial and tribulations of teachers and students in our public schools.

No, the people in control or exerting influence are those litigious-minded, CYA-centered personalities who simply cannot identify with teachers. Has he had to clean human shit from a floor after a student defecated in a classroom during class time? Has he ever had to break-up a fight between girls or boys? Has he ever had to counsel a young woman who began her period in 4th block? Has he ever had to sit down with parents who are convinced their child is fine in spite of IQ scores in the mid-60s and not being able to communicate which hand is left and which had is right? Has he ever had to teach an entire class of Black students? Or a racially mixed class?

Should being a “Commissioner of Education” require a candidate have some former teaching experience? I’m not qualified to answer that question. I think the question needs consideration.

Guidance counselors play an important role, could play a better, more visible role in schools than they play today. Simple changes may reap real, full, and significant rewards on a singular human level. When you look in a child’s eyes and say, “You are important. You matter. And I am going to help you tap into your potential,” and this is done regularly, positive results will occur. Potentially life-long, difference-making changes.

Simply being available is the first step. Whether in college or high school, being open, available, and welcoming is important. Being pushy, heavy-handed, and confrontational isn’t the best approach, probably.

My best guess is helping when students are ready to listen, to soak up advice, perspectives, and ideas. The conversation described above was with a person not ready to listen in spite of being in her mid-20s. If she were to attain a higher level of emotional maturity, she could benefit from guidance counseling, if she were willing to listen. But, someone skilled, knowledgeable, and patient must be available to listen. Simply stuff.

If you made it this far, you’re awesome !! PAX.





Interstellar. A Tardy Movie Review. A film by Christopher Nolan, based upon a story by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan. Kip Thorne deserves mention as his input was necessary for black hole and wormhole science.

I grew up in the shadow of Kubrick, in the shadow of the Monolith. One of the only movies my father and I truly discussed was 2001: A Space Odyssey. I remember he clearly vetoed my mother in her attempt to hustle me to bed. My recollection also includes her voicing concern about me watching this movie: “Do you think it’s OK for him to even watch this?” I’m not sure what my dad’s response was, other than we sat side-by-side one night in February of 1977, he in his recliner, me in my bean-bag chair.

I would have been just 9 years old, and I remember not being allowed to talk during the movie, except during commercial breaks. “What do you think that monolith is? Where did it come from? Is it intelligent? Are those people beating on it, or are they some other creature? Did they know how to kill before the monolith, or did the monolith do something to them to teach them how to kill?” Those are the sum total of question I remember being asked. Have no memories of the discussion.

2001 is still, almost 50 years later, a hotly debated movie, based upon a short story by Arthur C. Clarke. Arthur C. Clarke was certainly a visionary, no doubt. As much as Interstellar is a product of Einstein, the GPS used by the tractors was foreseen by Clarke albeit infused with Einsteinian relativity. Unfortunately, I don’t think Interstellar will be as debated as 2001. I could be wrong. Fifty years into the future, people will have forgotten Interstellar. It will be that movie people refer to as, “What was that movie that people thought was the successor to 2001? It had that one guy from True Detective in it.”

While I enjoyed Interstellar, the movie was not exactly as I expected. For all the hullabaloo surrounding the science in the movie, the wormhole, the black hole, I wasn’t swept away by any of it. A few of the podcasts I subscribe to devoted hours to discussing and breaking down Interstellar.

Unlike others who reviewed the movie, I wasn’t upset by any of the science stuff, except for perhaps the actual transition through Gargantua’s event horizon. I vacillate back and forth about this but my concern isn’t so much the transiting of the event horizon but surviving the gravitational forces up to the event horizon. I didn’t see where the movie tried to reconcile gravity in many places other than to mention gravity a lot.

The planet of frozen clouds (Mann’s Planet) didn’t bother me as much as other reviewers. Nolan, or perhaps Thorne, repaired this plot problem by revealing the planet has no actual surface. All of these frozen clouds, then, provide enough mass to maintain some sort of coherent planet-thing, gravity, an atmosphere. Thing of a really dense Oort cloud, millions of floating clouds organized around some sort of core, probably. The frozen cloud planet didn’t really seem all that far-fetched.

The water planet has problems, though. If Cooper and Brand are standing ankle-deep in water, no way can a wave achieve the heights of the swells as depicted. Unless, perhaps they landed on a really narrow peninsula, a ridge of land. Again, though, the trough between wave peaks seems too large for waves of those height. I looked into this a little bit and I came to the conclusion wave height is a function of water depth at base (bottom), velocity, and probably a few other factors, maybe slope of shelf. I just don’t see waves like this happening, not without far more exposition. The rush to land on the water world seemed ill-advised without a little more survey from space, and the entire planet itself seemed a dubious candidate based solely on the time-lag; 8 minutes on Water World was about the equivalent of a year on Earth. I think Romy said one hour equals about 7-Earth years so that’s about 8 minutes. I guess if a colony didn’t plan on interacting with anyone else, or could tolerate waiting a quarter-generation for a reply. I could see where this would make binge-watching Netflix attractive.

Contact, I think, is still a far superior picture in terms of story. Interstellar is good but in my opinion, Contact did a far better job capturing the nuances of people, their anxieties about sharing the galaxy or universe, the trepidation of using unfamiliar technology, the challenges of having core beliefs challenged by discovering what something bigger than themselves really means. Interstellar never really gave me any of that; this was a story about time-traveling (which I categorically loathe) and choices, with some intriguing science-y stuff tossed in.

2001 gave audiences long, solemn shots of space; passive movements of astronauts, of Frank and Dave going about their routine astronaut duties. We get the sense of the long, boring trip of the Discovery as it drives to the interception point with the monolith orbiting Jupiter. Even prior to that seemingly interminable journey, we are treated to the basic problems of space travel to a simple space station in orbit around Earth, a flight courtesy of TWA (TransWorld Airlines) a real airline at the time, since bankrupt. 2001 provided an audience with a sense of scope, of the starkness of space travel, the dichotomy of the serenity of space existing alongside with terribly fragile human existence and our reliance upon technology, a partnership with as many dangers as potential benefits. Some of these circumstances come across in Interstellar, with the CASE and TASK robots. We don’t have any long, lingering shots of space travel, no long, lingering scenes of mundane space chores aboard a spaceship. I never really developed any sense Nolan was trying to inspire any sense of awe in us, more like: “Oh, we’ve arrived at this wormhole. Cool. OK, lets dip into it. Off we go!” I also don’t think we were especially coaxed into any sense of appreciation of Gargantua, either. “Oh, here is a giant black hole with a singularity in the middle. Gosh, we better be careful.” They applied only slightly more caution to Gargantua than I might to this pothole on the collector street by my house. “Dammit; I dropped into the pothole again!”

My overall inclination is to believe the movie-going audience simply isn’t as intelligent nor as sophisticated, nor as appreciative as previous generations of movie-goers. Look, nothing is spectacular to us any longer, not in a cinematic sense. My boss remembers being awestruck the first time the Millennium Falcon made the jump to hyperspace, the streaks of stars against the pilot’s canopy. I remember the long gratuitous scene in the original Star Trek movie as the crew takes in their new Enterprise. Even the equally gratuitous panoramic views of Vee-Ger later in the same film were sort of breath-taking. What gives audiences the sense of wonder today? Mad Max: Fury Road, with real people engaged in literal death-defying stunts pole-vaulting among vehicles at speed. No green-screens here, flesh-and-blood people driving elemental combustion machines across the Namibian desert. Our attention spans have been reduced to 90 second snippets and if anything extends beyond we dig our phones out, check SnapChat or whatever, and then bug our friend to fill us in on what happened – who has no idea, either, since their attention span isn’t any longer and she is on her phone updating her Facebook status.

I heard on NPR the other day movie trailers and movie-trailer trailers are now big business. Once, the filmmakers themselves pushed out trailers to tease people about their movie. Today, there are companies who take film snippets and compose the trailers. As much thought goes into making a trailer today as a commercial. That is not derogatory; public relation companies make huge money with good commercials. Trailers created today may cost $1 million or more to produce. My comment is more a testimony of the impetus behind making a good trailer. Trailers can make or break a film; like I have zero desire to see Superman vs. Batman strictly because the trailer is a horrible, miserable, unattractive mess When I see that trailer I am reminded of all the people drowning in the North Atlantic at the end of Titanic, and each one of them has a puppy leashed to their neck, and I think, you assholes, why did you bring all these puppies aboard an ocean-liner and then not pay attention to your route?

I liked Interstellar but I didn’t find it remarkable. I know a couple scientific papers were developed as a result of the ground-breaking special effects. Too bad more wasn’t made about the grandiosity of the wormhole or Gargantua, really. These representations of celestial objects are the closest Humankind will ever get to the real deals, barring intervention by a space-faring race, really. I’m hard on movies these days, admittedly, so take my review with a grain of salt if you need to. PAX

Eric Hanushek on the Education, Skills, and the Millennium Development Goals

EconTalk Episode with Eric Hanushek (Podcast at http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2015/07/eric_hanushek_o.html)

I don’t usually author short posts but I have some things to do tonight and I want to push this out into the aether.

Stanford University’s Hoover Institution is home to the Library of Economics and Liberty, a vast archive of economics material. Also, one has the benefit of listening to Russ Roberts interview some of the world’s best collection of thinkers. Not limited to economics, Russ interviews people from all walks of Life. Fascinating, fascinating stuff. Russ does a great job interviewing, plays the Devil’s Advocate when he sides with a guest, and challenges guests he doesn’t see eye-to-eye with. If you want to learn something about economics, geography, money, and received what could be construed as a world-class lecture on principles affecting all people, listen to the EconTalk podcast.

How important are basic skills for economic success and growth? Eric Hanushek of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the importance of basic education in math and literacy and their relationship to economic growth. Hanushek argues that excellence in educating people in basic skills leads to economic growth, especially in poorer countries where years of education may be a poor proxy for learning. He argues that the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals should emphasize outputs rather than inputs–performance on skill-based exams rather than years of education.

From EconTalk.org; accessed 8-23-2015

Listening to Russ and Eric discuss global trends in education almost forced me to stop mowing my backyard a few times just so I could soak in the knowledge. Education is near-and-dear to my heart, so is geography, and this discussion essentially hit me where I live. If time and money would allow, I would spend good portions of my waking hours intensively researching this issue. But, on the other hand, Eric has done some phenomenal work.

If you care about education, and want to become educated about global education issues, and how the U.S. measures up with other countries, you should listen. I need to rephrase; “If you want a better understanding of how global education measures work, and where the U.S. might rank, and why, then listen to this podcast.”

EconTalk also provides great reading material for those wanting to dig deeper, plus a word-for-word transcript of each podcast. The resources plus the podcast itself makes EconTalk one of the best podcasts available, period.

And, if you’re polite, Russ Roberts may even tweet you back. PAX.

My Cosmology Bookshelf

I read a considerable number of cosmology and physics books written mostly for the general public. Perhaps a better phrase is books written for “general consumption,” as I’m not sure how many people would really enjoy reading “Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy” (Kip Thorne) or “The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism” (Fritjof Capra). I would like to think I belong to relatively exclusive and esoteric club of readers who have turned cosmology into a sort of odd fetish. By the number of people on GoodReads who also share my interest, I am somewhat chagrined by size of the interest group, though I’m sure the authors are exuberant. On the other hand, society needs more people diving into the science domain to counteract what seems to be the anti-science, anti-intellectual, pro-religion rhetoric seeking to infect and damage STEM education in the United States. So, while personally I might like to think I belong to a small group with a peculiar attraction to cosmology, science has nothing to gain, and society has nothing to gain, from being peculiar.


Admittedly, I need a larger collection of books, in general, and more science books, specifically. Not included in the image above are books associated with economics, history, or geopolitics, nor any of the fiction I tend to read in-between reading non-fiction, or the books I’ve read throughout my earlier years I have evidently divested myself of, unfortunately. I thought I would present the books I have studied as a sort of resume for reading and writing about science and history, offer some suggestions for reading, and am completely open to more suggestions. Some of my books are not pictured, as they are still in my To-Read stack, like The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe by Roger Penrose, and An Introduction To Black Holes, Information And The String Theory Revolution: The Holographic Universe by Leonard Susskind.

I am a big proponent of the free iTunesU courses available through iTunes. When working on maps, projects, grading, re-purposing old computers or keeping new computers running, I will keep a podcast or iTunesU course playing in the background. Like right now, I’m listening to “Rationally Speaking #101” featuring Max Tegmark. Dr. Tegmark has a book, Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality.” Dr. Tegmark has evidently already talked himself out of at least one of the ideas he presents in his book, according to his comments during the February 9th, 2014 interview, and the book was published only in January 2014.

My Astronomy-Cosmology Bookshelf (in no particular order)

Your Cosmic Context: An Introduction to Modern Cosmology, by Todd Duncan and Craig Tyler. This is a college textbook, and a good one. If you are really interested in a subject, survey the syllabi of classes related to the topic. See what textbook is used, or look for a reading list. This is what I do. My university has few people, (one, I think), who know something about cosmology, so my resource pool is pretty shallow. Many faculty will post their syllabus online for curious people like me (and you) to find and study. Examining other syllabi is also a good way to check yourself if you happen to teach the same or similar course, by the way.

Infinity and the Mind: The Science and Philosophy of the Infinite (Princeton Science Library), by Rudy Rucker. Some theories border on the metaphysical, the religious, the sublime, or as some suggest, the ridiculous. Quantum entanglement, “spooky action at a distance,” the ability of particles to effect each other across Space, maybe even Time, is a concept few are capable of rationalizing. What came before the Big Bang? and, What is the Universe expanding into? And, are there other dimensions? These are questions which may have no hard answers. But, who is to say our understanding of our universe won’t be radically altered tomorrow, or next week, or in 50 years? Merely because we have no solid answers today doesn’t mean we won’t have solid answers at some time in the future. No one can say that, but thought-experiments are necessary to direct real research, ask real questions, and see if we can’t inch closer to a better understanding of our environment, if only by baby-steps.

The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory
The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality

The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos
, by Brian Greene. I’m hoping Brian’s next book is called, “The Elegant Fabric of Reality,” and our universe is simply one strand on the Universe’s Multiloom.

Alpha and Omega, by Charles Seife

The Metaphysical Foundation of Modern Science, by E.A. Burtt

The Tao of Physics, by Fritjof Capra

The Universe, edited by Byron Preiss and Andrew Fraknoi

Einstein, by Walter Isaacson

Einstein and Religion, by Max Jammer. The best characterization anyone can attribute to Einstein about his religious leanings would be to classify him as “agnostic.” He was always evasive about his religious leanings, and in my opinion, this had more to do with him finding those discussions leading nowhere, and intrinsically boring. I believe he felt more important topics deserved more attention, such as the nature of gravity. Did Einstein believe in God? No, I don’t believe he personally believed in a god. I don’t think he would support intelligent design, either.

Tuxedo Park, by Jennet Conant *favorite. What a great book of history this is. I watched Jennet Conant discuss her research on BookTV (C-Span) and was enthralled, bought the book based on her conversation.

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, by Richard Feynman
The Dismay of Finding Out Feynman Was a Horribly Sexist D-head, by Me. Richard has passed away, so you can safely buy his book without supporting huge sexist pig.We also don’t want to toss the baby out with the bath water, either.
Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, by Richard Feynman
QED (Quantum Electrodynamics), by Richard Feynman

The Dancing Wu Li Masters, by Gary Zukay

The Mind of God, by Paul Davies

Consilience, Edward O. Wilson

The Beginnings of Infinity, by David Deutsch *favorite [Read my review]

Knocking on Heaven’s Door, by Lisa Randall *favorite [See my review] If you buy any book in this list, by this one. The best discussion of the Large Hadron Collider of any book, plus particle physics with cosmology. A great book for the general public.

An Introduction To Black Holes, Information And The String Theory Revolution: The Holographic Universe by Leonard Susskind. I did not review this book. I bought the book specifically for the math behind black holes; I wanted to see what the math looked like. Yep, there’s math, right there on the pages. And, now I moved on. Don’t buy this book unless you positively must see what the math of black holes looks like. And this is an introductory text.

Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy by Kip Thorne *favorite; and I read this before seeing Interstellar. In fact, I still have yet to see Interstellar as of this writing. [Read my review]

Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics, by James Kakalios *favorite [Read my review]

A Universe From Nothing, by Lawrence Krauss *favorite; people don’t like Krauss as he is a stalwart atheist, and sort of oblivious to the reception of both Dawkins and his own anti-religion rhetoric. Still a good book. [Read my review]

The Inflationary Universe: The Quest for a New Theory of Cosmic Origins, Alan Guth *favorite

The Story of Earth, by Robert Hazen *favorite [Read my review] If you believe in a “young Earth,” an Earth with a biblical age and not an age grounded in science, you won’t like this book. So, you should really read this book. In the 21st century, we can’t go around clinging to fables written by unsophisticated people 2,000 years ago who were trying to explain events and circumstances by attributing them to gods and goddesses. No one is saying the messages of peace, acceptance, and respect should be tossed away, just don’t use any religious tome as a book of science.

To close out my post I pass along word I ordered Max Tegmark’s, “Our Mathematical Universe,” mere moments ago. This post has been fermenting in my WordPress draft folder for many months and I forgot to order Tegmark’s book after having read Randall’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door. Tegmark’s name gets mentioned constantly when cosmology is discussed, so it is about time I read the consumable portion of his endeavors. To this reading list I may add Stanley Salthe’s Evolving Hierarchical Systems once I slog my way through. In my review of the Hyperion Cantos I mentioned I ordered Salthe’s book, being part of the scientific foundation of Simmon’s Cantos. I have to allow my brain to rest after reading these books much like weight-lifters must allow their muscles time to recover. PAX.

Black Cherry Blues, by James Lee Burke

Black Cherry Blues. James Lee Burke. Harper Mystery paperback. ©1989. $10.

In the joint, guys in lock-up can get about anything. Make about anything, given enough time, persistence, someone willing to break laws associated with bringing contraband into a jail, and a lazy guard or two. No stretch of the imagination here, right? We should all have some knowledge of the woman who helped the murderers escape in upstate New York. Or, the Baltimore city jail where the inmates were know to be running the joint, even so much so at least four guards had become pregnant by inmates. Guards.

One of the ways a novelist murders a good story is by getting details wrong. Guns are frequently messed up, cartridges ejecting from a revolver, for instance. If that happens, someone better also be losing a hand or a bunch of fingers.

Black Cherry Blues gets its name from the hangover an inmate gets after drinking some home-grown cocktails made from contraband wine brought in by a sympathetic delivery man, and added to syrup, water, and rubbing alcohol easily swiped from a jail kitchen. “It’ll fix you up just like you stuck your head in a blast furnace,” Dixie Lee claimed. Don’t drink rubbing alcohol, by the way.

In the 3rd Dave Robicheaux novel, Dave has created a real mess for himself. Living on his own, making a meager living from his boat and bait shop, and haunted by the murder of his wife by drug dealers, Dave’s life is once again turning to shambles after Dixie Lee Pugh, a former college buddy shows up. Dixie is a guitarist whose life hasn’t measured up much to his expectations. A real talent at an early age and popular among the roadhouse circuit, Dixie spent too much time in trouble. Now, he has himself tied-up with some oil land leases with a grease-ball mafioso wanna be, Sally Dio. Sally Dio fronts the money and Dixie fixes up the land deals. Sally Dio also fixes anyone who gets in his way, like the two guys in Montana who snooped too deep and got themselves whacked and buried beside a cool mountain stream near the Bitterroot Mountains. Something Dixie knows too much about.

With something of a conscious remaining after years of hard living, Dixie confides in Dave he literally knows where the bodies are hiding. On top of that potential mess, two guys working for a local oil company know Dixie knows where the bodies are. When the two oil company reps, Mapes and Vidrine, tell Dave to mind his own business, he visits the offices of Star Drilling Company and communicates the office manager in very straightforward terms to put his dogs back on their leash.

Events soon take a nasty turn when Dave gets a package in the mail. The package contains a dirty needle and a schedule of Alafair’s day. The threat against Dave’s 6-year old adopted daughter is as clear as morning dew on honeysuckle, or the intent of an alligator on a hapless nutria. Figuring out where Mapes and Vidrine are working from, Dave pays them a visit. And things go worse than sideways when Dave ends up unconscious and one of the oil men is gutted like a carp.

Out on bail, Dave decides the only way to clear his name is to work out the details with the money behind Star Drilling, Sally Dio. Taking Alafair out of school and turning the bait shop over to Batist, and his house to Clarise, Dave and Alafair head to Missoula, Montana to set their lives right again.

You’re in a world that caters to people of the Atchafalaya Basin-Cajuns, redbones, roust-abouts, pipeliners, rednecks whose shrinking piece of American geography is identified only by a battered pickup, a tape deck playing Waylon, and a twelve-pack of Jax.

Selected locations from Black Cherry Blues:

#1  [Page 3] I wonder what happen here. The real-world geography doesn’t appear to match the book. “To the east you can see the lighted girders of the Earl K. Long Bridge, plumes of smoke rising from the oil refineries…” Perhaps more than one Earl K. Long Bridge exists; I sort of doubt that, though. The Earl K. Long Bridge is over the Calcasieau River, near Lake Charles, Louisiana, a good distance west of Baton Rouge. To be looking east to see the bridge one would almost be in Texas. Regardless of the what could be a geography error, the image is interesting in that we can see a Philips 66 refinery and the surrounding environment. Clearly, oil is an important part of Louisiana’s economy, yet also a clear environmental concern as these refineries exist in very sensitive ecosystems.

#2 [Page 123] This would be a wonderful place to sit outside, pondering, maybe a horse ride with a simply lunch, in late July or early August, I would think. I’m not a cold weather fan, and Polson, MT, just north of Missoula, seems like a great place to get away but I couldn’t live there, I don’t think. So very remote, isolated.

Polson MTThe image (left) helps us place ourselves. Kalispell and Evergreen, Montana to the north of Flathead Lake; Polson on the southern shore of the lake.

Dave visits the Flathead Reservation a couple of times to check out leads.

Several times, Dave drives back and forth between Polson and Missoula, checking with the FBI.

Alafair is placed in school in Polson. One of her teachers becomes a de facto guardian of her while Dave tries to avoid getting himself, or Clete, killed.

“The rural towns were full of Indians in work denims, curled-brim straw hats, heel-worn cowboy boots, and pickup trucks, and when I stopped for gas they looked through me as if I were made of smoky glass.” [123]

The Native American Reservations have rarely been treated with dignity and respect by Caucasians. James Lee Burke points out in his books at least once the injustices served upon the North American Native American populations.

“Ernest Hemingway once wrote that there was no worse fate for a people than to lose a war. If any of his readers wanted to disagree with him, they would only have to visit one of the places in which the United States government placed its original inhabitants. We took everything they had and in turn gave them smallpox, whiskey, welfare, federal boarding schools, and penitentiaries.” [168]

No argument there.

Readers of my posts know by now I hold James Lee Burke in high regard, for his novels and how he incorporates geography and history. Any writer looking for a model, looking for an author who exhibits the ability to introduce geography and history without pushing it at the reader in long-written exposition would do well to study Burke.

Burke is also a master at dialog. On page 89, Dave is working a bartender to get the details on what room in the motel Mapes and Vidrine are using for an office. Readers are tossed a few dialog hints to let us know who is speaking, to set the tone of the conversation. Then, four times does Burke use “I said” or “he said” in the conversation. The remaining parts of the conversation is simply dialog between Dave and the bartender. Some authors feel compelled, I think, to tell us who is speaking, even if only one person is present, or two. Those conversation can get visually weary after a while, of seeing, “he said,” “she said,” “he said.” Or, authors dig out the thesaurus, to convey some sort of specific attitude between the speakers. Sometimes, writers can convey a message without having to tell the reader, “See! These guys don’t like each other!” James Lee Burke does this exceptionally well, in my opinion, even in Black Cherry Blues, only the third book in the series, where one might still expect to find raw and unprincipled writing.

Reading JLB novels never seems to go wrong, never seems to get old, never seems to get bogged-down, like a propeller might trolling for frogs or catfish in Bayou Teche. PAX



The Hyperion Cantos: A Books Review

Hyperion ©1989
The Fall of Hyperion ©1990
Endymion ©1996
The Rise of Endymion ©1997
By Dan Simmons. Spectra Bantam Science Fiction.

These books present a brilliant obstacle to authoring an authoritative and reasonable review. As I spent the day considering how to present a decent book review for these four books, I decided to begin simple, by presenting a simple argument for reading these books. Then, once I posit my simple argument, I would develop a richer framework why these books should be added to your library.

Let’s get the simple argument behind us. These books are great; a tetralogy of epic proportions. A masterpiece of work which must be consumed as if courses of a banquet for one to attain full appreciation for the magnificent scope, depth, and breadth, and wonder of these tales. Reading any less than all four books is tantamount to driving a new car home from the dealership on three tires; you can but really? Reading less than all four books would be like knowing you need quadruple bypass heart surgery yet opting to just have a bypass, or maybe double-bypass surgery. The effect is not the same nor would you ever fully realize the benefit. Who should read these titles? If you have read the first 3 or 4 Dune titles by Frank Herbert, you should read these books. If you have read the first three books of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, then you should read these books. If you have read David Brin’s Uplift series, then, yes, by all means, if have not plied the pages of the Hyperion Cantos, you must. These books have been on my reading list for nearly 20 years – Hyperion has – and I only just read and finished them.

Technically, the above is an argument by association, not any real reasons have I provided other than to say, if you have read the above series and have not read the Hyperion Cantos series, then you owe yourself Dan Simmon’s books. However, I think I can say I avoid the Argument by Association Fallacy as all of these series are written by well-respected science fiction authors, are science fiction in subject matter, and each of the authors I mentioned have won prominent awards, like the Hugo. And, I have read all of the above series, own these series today, and anyone who visits my house can see them shelved in my library.

So, hop on Amazon today, or tomorrow, find some used copies, or new – whatever suits you, and read the books before Syfy develops the mini-series. I’m not very convinced Syfy can handle this material well. Their treatment of Dune was marginal, at best, but considering the scale and scope of Dune, they had their work cut out for them. And, if Syfy thinks Hyperion will be easier, all I can say is, Get real.

Many reviews of the Hyperion Cantos compare the series to The Canterbury Tales. No doubt there is a strong literary connection to Chaucer’s tales of pilgrims journey to the shine of St. Thomas Becket. To be clear, and frank about those reviews, they are only partially correct. Yes, Hyperion is told as a series of tales by unique and peculiar people traveling to the same place. The people all share one common destination, the planet Hyperion, and the particular location on Hyperion, the Time Tombs. The Time Tombs have been closed for centuries are said to be in a state of flux, indicating they are close to being open. The Church of the Final Atonement has selected seven people from all those who populate the galaxy to attend the opening of the Time Tombs. Each of those seven attendees will be granted a single wish. While the first novel shares similarities with Chaucer’s Tales, the similarity ends both within and after the first book.

But, Hyperion is no simple planet, the Time Tombs no mere burial chambers, and the pilgrims themselves are not simple people. Each was selected by the Church of the Final Atonement to play a singularly unique role in the shaping of Humanity over the next 270 years, though they have no knowledge of this, yet. And then there is the Shrike, a seemingly demonic manifestation built of steel, chrome, blades, wrapped in razors, with daggers for teeth, standing 12 feet tall, impenetrable, and able to move across the landscape of Hyperion with impunity. A metallurgical monolith of terror, death, and destruction.

I propose the Hyperion Cantos is much more than Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; no, Simmon’s tetralogy is a Future Testament. Christianity has adopted the Hebrew books of the Old Testament, is founded upon the parables, fables, and letters of the New Testament. Islam recognizes the Old and New Testaments, adding their Qu’ran as the final book in Muslims consider their Holy Trilogy of doctrinal works. The Hyperion Cantos looks ahead into Humanity’s future, Simmons through prognostication, research, and his creative mind, and has created what I perceive right now as nothing short of a Future Testament. The problem I have with the analogy to Canterbury Tales is the books when taken together are more in line with themes and elements of the New Testament of the Christian Bible. Maybe even the Bible in its entirety.

The pilgrims in the first book become more like prophets in later books. Some of these prophets, for lack of a better term, we don’t really realize their place in the scheme of events until the fabric of the Cantos is laid before us in the fourth book. Thus, the first 2 novels establish the background of the pilgrims, set their place in this universe, yet their true purpose is not revealed until late in the Endymion or into Rise of Endymion. Six tales provide the history and story of each pilgrim, an odd assortment of chosen people, a warrior, a priest, a poet, a detective, a scholar, and a consul, each with their own peculiar background and yet connected to each other by extraordinary circumstances.

While the first book may draw influences from Chaucer, Simmons extends the stories of these pilgrims into an even more elaborate tapestry. No, these are not mere religious pilgrims, truth be told most aren’t religious, these individuals are more akin to disciples of faith. These pilgrims fully become disciples of a young woman, Aenea, in the third and fourth books. Aenea, is seen by some people of the galactic Hegemony, aka the Holy Roman Empire of the 30th century, as a “messiah.” Yes, a messiah. Aenea’s existence was foretold in the second book, a person who represents a bridge between Humanity and all things not human and inhuman. And herein lies much of the corollary  I draw between the Hyperion Cantos and the Christian Bible.

The Hegemony itself is predominantly Christian/Catholic and fully aligned with the Roman Catholic Church. Other religions exist, Judaism and Islam, but have become extremely marginalized. The Hegemony occupies over 200 planets, perhaps two of which are exclusively Jewish, and maybe one or two where Islam prevails. The Hegemony’s alliance with the Holy Catholic Church drives the storytelling for three of the four novels, as the Hegemony falls, is replaced by the Holy Catholic Empire, whose new Pope then initiates a series of pogroms to cleanse all non-believers and non-humans not only from previous Hegemony aligned planets but also those planets under Ouster control. The uneasy relationship between the TechnoCore and the Holy Catholic Church erodes forcing the Church to engage in practices students of history will rapidly recognize.

Again, the analogy to Canterbury Tales breaks down when the  influence of the influence of the Hegemony is scrutinized. While the opening book begins simply as the journey of characters to an important cultural site , the backdrop is as complex as the universe. In the known galaxy, three major factions cooperate and compete for authority. The Hegemony represents the secular government bureaucracy managing the operations of the portion of the human-occupied galaxy. The Ousters are humans who have elected to live outside Hegemony control, who have evolved and adapted to the unique conditions found scattered around the galaxy. The TechnoCore comprises the self-aware artificial intelligence elements of the galaxy. The TechnoCore was obviously born from human creators but upon achieving some semblance of sentience, establishing a unique yet complimentary development path parallel to Humanity. The Hegemony and TechnoCore have an interesting relationship; the TechnoCore has surpassed humanity in technological development and is responsible the science and technology allowing humans the capability of interstellar travel. And not simply interstellar travel aboard starships but also the ability to farcast, using a device called, coincidentally enough, a farcaster. Farcasters are a bit of TechnoCore technology allowing people who pass through the giant ring of a farcaster to instantaneously move from planet to planet. Except no one but the TechnoCore understands how farcasters operate; people simple trust the TechnoCore to provide the technology. The TechnoCore also seems to have given Humanity technology to improve their interstellar travel, developing engines pushing starships to near-light speed.

The various technologies pervasive throughout the Hyperion Cantos has been described as “magical” by some reviewers, leading them to the conclusion the Hyperion Cantos is not science fiction at all but more fantasy. These comments harken back to a quote by Arthur C. Clarke, who is credited with stating, “Any technology sufficiently advanced will seem as magic.” Much of the science Simmons integrates into they Hyperion Cantos does not exist, not yet, though many physicists speculate the types of energy and circumstances found in the books exist in some form or fashion. Published in 1989, Simmons’ Hyperion’s imaginative use of speculative technologies and speculative science comes across as unusually prescient to me. Nanotechnology, while not directly mentioned until late in The Rise of Endymion, plays a huge role in the scope and telling of the Cantos.

Further enriching the Cantos is Simmons’ use of biology, philosophy and poetry. My experience with Keats is limited to my college English courses, yet Keats is active character throughout the Cantos. The philosophical musings of Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin are frequently referenced, writings of the naturalist John Muir figure prominently, as well as engineering prodigy Norbert Wiener. The research of Stanley Salthe concerning evolution and his dissenting perspective pertaining to Darwinian evolution may be said to be the underlying premise of the entire series. I might be reaching here, though. However, I did buy a used copy of Evolving Hierarchical Systems, by Salthe, a purchase made due to a detailed exposition by Aenea in book four. This purchase may be the first time I’ve ever bought a book based on the recommendation of a character in a science fiction novel.

The Hyperion Cantos is one of those collection of books which makes me wonder what Simmons’ planning and strategy for writing was like. I’d like to see his notes, maps, graphics, charts, and the ecosystem of development used to build what I would call a science fiction fable. While fables tend to be short, the Hyperion Cantos is not, more along the lines of the Iliad, Odyssey, combined with elements of the Old and New Testament, with moderate quantities of Ecclesiastical History.

Concept art of The Shrike by LocoLlama (Deviant Art)

And, no review is really complete without some mention of the Shrike. What is the Shrike? The Shrike is never fully explained, not fully. We know the Shrike begins as a man, a warrior but has since evolved into a inhuman killing machine against which no man nor machine can stand. The Shrike is part Holy Ghost, part Angel of Death, part Judgment, part Executioner, and for Aenea, a Guardian Angel. The Shrike is an enigma, able to move through Time and Space, directed perhaps by The Void Which Binds, or by the Lions, Tigers, and Bears. These four forces are mentioned many times in the books, yet no one ever encounters them except in a very subtle and singular form. Perhaps the Shrike controls himself, bound to Aenea as his former warrior self once was.

Finally, a comment about time travel. I hate time travel stories. Hate them. Hate time travel movies, or any other media using time travel as a substantive plot element. I have one exception: “Quantum Leap.” As soon as time travel gets mentioned, I’m done. For me, time travel is lazy story-telling and no author ever gets time travel correct. Time travel is the cliché of all clichés. Time travel infuses all of the Hyperion Cantos. The use of time travel is probably what pushed me into waiting one-quarter of a century before reading these books. Having admitted as much, I really enjoyed the Hyperion Cantos in spite of the time travel, in spite of the heavy religiosity, and what some readers might consider unnecessarily lengthy exposition by several characters. Simmons may not have gotten all aspect of time travel correct but he was not lazy in use of time travel, and his method of employing time travel was as logically consistent as any I have encountered. At the end of The Rise of Endymion, when the underlying nature of part of the universe is revealed, the concern of time travel is substantially diminished.

If you have not read the Hyperion Cantos and consider yourself a science fiction aficionado, a fan of science fiction, you should invest in these books. Richer in characters, story, circumstances, with fantastic imagery, one can only imagine how Syfy intends on adapting the first book into a mini-series event. Once you’ve read the first two, you’ll understand why these books continue to receive recognition and have held up well over 25 years. Thanks, Mr. Simmons. PAX.

Privatization of Higher Education Deserves Scrutiny and Skepticism

On March 18th, 2015, the Illinois Senator Bill Brady (R-Bloomington) proposed a new set of hardened news rules for students to adhere to if they want grants from the good people of Illinois (News-Gazette, 3-24-2015). Senator Brady’s bill, SB 1565, creates a repayment schedule for students who have received a grant. Students who complete their degree and graduate are to repay 50% of the grant value. Students who do not graduate, withdrawing from college or fail out of college, are expected to repay the full grant amount.

A couple of thoughts. First, I’m not sure repaying 50% of the grant is particularly reasonable. The student having graduated, fulfilled their obligation to use their grant money to obtain an education. Having to repay a once all of the obligations of the grant are fulfilled sort of goes against the nature of a grant. Having been an educator in higher education since 1997 and a recipient of grant money myself I would not have been particularly happy to have grant repayment added to my $18,000 of student loan debt.

On another side of the issue I am not pleased when I know people are getting grants knowing full-well they have a little intention of completing a degree program. Same goes for student loans. I know why the federal government has become hardened to the issue of student loans – the money has been taken advantage of by naive and unscrupulous post-juvenile adults and their families. One could always tell when student loan money arrived by the screams of high-rev motorcycle engines blasting through city streets. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, guys would use their loan checks not for school but head out to the closest motorcycle dealership and pick out the prettiest crotch rocket they could afford, and then find some naive and vain young lass to race through town with. I’m sure all of that was exhilarating and memorable but U.S. taxpayers should not have to subsidize a post-adolescent lifestyle.

Grant and loan money should go to people who want and need to improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the atmosphere of their community, not for people to spoil themselves with instant gratification. People using grant money, or student loan money for that matter, should be obligated to use the money for academics, including textbooks, laptops, software, groceries, and to supplement living expenses. At times, spending money on a car is legitimate, especially if the car is the sole source of transportation to school and work as is often the case in rural communities and among what are called “suitcase colleges,” where kids travel back to mom and dad on the weekend. Many degree programs require traveling, such as teacher education. Students in training to be teachers often must drive long miles simply to attend school (an hour or so, one-way); then, the student must travel to three or more schools to accumulate observation hours necessary to qualify for teacher certification. Nursing and other health care related fields are precisely the same way. Furthermore, as more programs entertain internship programs, those students often are not paid, or if so, probably don’t receive a stipend large enough to cover simple living expenses. Finally, study abroad programs are a fantastic opportunity to gain new perspectives on people, language, and culture. Employers relish the students who have broken down their fears of traveling abroad to expose themselves to the wealth of knowledge and wisdom gained from traveling and studying abroad.

To me, the use of grant and student loan monies to support the activities I mentioned above are legitimate uses of government funds. We spend far too much worrying about money and the use of the money; we need to spend more time helping mentor and coach students in finding appropriate education majors, or tracks, however. When I was in college, when I began college at a local community college, I paid about $27/credit hour. Yep: $27 per credit hour. I could take a 3-credit hour course for less than $100. I could try a course; if I didn’t like the course, no harm done. I was out of $81 plus a book. I began as an engineering major; after accumulating 80-some hours of science credits, I explored English, Business Law, and Accounting. Not that engineering was boring; not that at all. I was eating, breathing, sleeping, and dreaming engineering; I needed a break to allow my brain to decompress and I knew I was interested in other things besides science. What if I was making a poor choice? What if Business Law was a better calling? Or, Accounting? Or, geographical information systems and geography…?

People still need to be able to test the waters, so to speak. Exposing high school students and even middle school students to science, math, accounting, health fields, marketing, business, and the law are all good things. No telling what seeds are being planted. Just don’t expect those seeds to grow into anything for a while. How is a child barely through puberty supposed to make a career decision at 18, or 19, or 20? What has that person experienced, other than the influence of adult personalities pushing them in certain directions? Yet, higher education is becoming more and more about corralling new adults into making choices based on little to no information and then holding them accountable for the loan money they borrowed to earn a degree for something they don’t even know if they like or not, and “What the hell am I supposed to do with a degree in Organization Communication, anyway?” Or, worse, a degree in Art History. Or, equally worse, a degree in Sociology or Psychology only to discover the really fascinating aspects of those degrees is experienced only after achieving a Master’s Degree. “What do you mean, you don’t plan on going to Graduate School? You do want a job, right?”

Which brings me around in a true hyperbolic course to the point of my essay: privatizing higher education deserves scrutiny and considerable skepticism. At first blush, the notion of the privatization of higher education seems a horrible, rotten, no-good, very bad idea for a variety of reasons. To be upfront, Senator Brady stated in his idea of privatization public institutions of higher education would be redesigned as private not-for-profits. I am curious about the “private” aspect of public higher education. Does this mean universities would not have to disclose…what? Their entrance requirements? Their selection process for incoming students? Perhaps a more interesting question might be: “Who is going to be underwriting the cost of the college or university?

Private, not-for-profit colleges and universities tend to have other groups underwriting their expenses or are affiliated with a special-interest group. For example, Brigham Young University is supported by the Mormon Church. Liberty University is the largest Evangelical Christian university in the world. I am certainly guilty of cherry-picking my examples, if only to prove a point. Transitioning from a public not-for-profit to a private not-for-profit can create some interesting bedfellows, or perhaps ensure those bedfellows look like and behave like every other bedfellow.

I’m going to brainstorm two scenarios for Illinois. The first storm might involve transitioning, say SIU-Carbondale, into a private not-for-profit. For the sake of argument, let’s say the Pentecostal Church of God, headquartered in Bedford, Texas, with a membership of about 600,000 decided to underwrite the cost SIU-Carbondale. Would this be allowed, for a large religious institution to become the chief affiliate for the university? If so, what new rules might they put in place? Would they terminate all LGBTQ employees? Would they expect students to attend a certain number or selection of religious studies courses? Would they intervene in the teaching of some subjects, such as genetics, evolution, biology, or earth science? Would they mandate all course be taught from a Christ-centered or Bible-centered perspective? Would they expect all enrolling students to be baptized, or willing to be baptized upon admission? As BYU, would they mandate a certain amount of time be volunteered for mission trips? How might faculty be reigned in by decrees against speaking about societal or scientific concerns, if said speech goes against the tenets of the underwriting agency?

Let’s deepen the pool some. Supposed a number of religious organizations decide each is capable of underwriting a public university. Many student would then apply for and receive federal student grants and loans. These monies would then be used to support education at might be loosely defined as quasi-religious private not-for-profit universities. Would this not traipse completely upon the presumed division between Church and State? Would this not amount to de facto state-supported religious institutions? Currently, most of Americans turn a blind-eye towards the use of public dollars for education at private not-for-profit educational institutions. We have very good public university options, so perhaps the dollars spent at Notre Dame or BYU don’t necessarily matter in the larger scheme of things. But, eliminate public universities, turn them into private not-for-profits, and now the balance has shifted.

Another scenario I worry about with the privatization of higher education concerns intellectual property. Using SIU-Carbondale again, instead of a religious organization underwriting university expenses, suppose a couple of corporations engaged in a joint effort to manage their own university. Superficially, two large corporations like McDonald’s and IBM underwriting a university might seem really attractive. Honestly, I would be intrigued if IBM had its own 4-year university with associated graduate school. I imagine what that university might be like. Would every computer across campus be an IBM / Lenovo desktop, laptop, and tablet? Every server an IBM server? Every application some make and model of IBM database, email management, and web server? Would students be allowed to bring a non-IBM or non-Lenovo device to campus? Would every cafeteria consist of an enormous McDonald’s All-You-Can-Gorge Buffet? How would intellectual property be handled? Would their be intellectual property? Or, would everything anyone every achieved or accomplished while employed by SIU-Carbondale / IBM campus belong exclusively to IBM, or perhaps McDonald’s, like if someone genetically engineered a way for corn to taste like “secret sauce.” Currently, public universities can collaborate on a wide range of topics and research endeavors. The reality is, teaching universities must collaborate with Research-1 institutions in order to obtain any decent grant funding, and public universities are encouraged to collaborate and share resources. Universities are sources or at least mirror sites for most open source software. Some public universities design, build, and support open source software specific to certain fields or disciplines, typically in conjunction with another public entity like a state division of natural resources or division of water.

And, then I wonder, what happens to knowledge? What happens to data developed inside one of these private not-for-profits, especially if the private not-for-proft is underwritten by a consortia? Many times, a thesis or dissertation enters into the public domain. Research is published in journals accessible to most anyone, if their library can afford the journal, that is, but nonetheless, the research is made public. Should a consortia find itself in control of a university, what happens to information, then? What happens to research? What happens to the free flow of ideas, results, conclusions? Is it possible a researcher at SIU-C who shares information with a scientist at Eastern Illinois University has just committed an act of espionage? A worst-case scenario I can imagine occurs in 2031 when every public university has been transferred into the clutches of a special interest group or corporate association and now no information passes between schools, at least not without lawyers haggling over Memorandums of Agreement over what can be shared, and how much, and when, and by whom. I envision what a crushing blow upon innovation and entrepreneurship such an environment would create. Meanwhile, China soars past the United States in patents, in innovation, in research, all of which spill over into their economy and transfer of knowledge and wealth to countries not only within their influence but well into Central and South America and throughout Africa. Simply because the Central Politburo of the Communist Party of China had the vision to fund their institutions of higher learning, to support research, with the backing of 1.5 billion Chinese, firm in their solidarity of belief of the power of education.

The United States, on the other hand, can’t keep a gentle robot from being decapitated two weeks into a cross-country journey. (CNN)

I set out to author a scathing rebuttal to the idea of privatizing higher education. In doing some background work, I decided a few positive lessons might be learned from at least exploring the idea.

What initially set my teeth on edge regarding privatizing higher education is the originator of the Illinois bill is a member of the GOP. Twenty-plus years ago I would not have noticed. Today’s political climate finds me completely distrusting of any Republican idea concerning education. The Republican Party had morphed into a party of science deniers, seeking to establish science panels to decide the appropriateness of research topics, as if they would know or understand 1/100th of the topics they might have to review. The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology consists of climate change deniers, science deniers, and members like Dana Rohrabacher who believes climate change is a “total fraud” (The Nation, 10-2013). In February 2015 during a Senate speech about climate change, Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) famously brought a snowball onto the Senate floor as a means to disprove climate change. What Inhofe clearly displayed however was his inability to demonstrate his knowledge of the difference between “weather” and “climate” and also demonstrate any capability of understanding global climate trends beyond Washington, D.C., or his home state of Oklahoma.

The GOP, time after time, consistently misunderstand science and seek to undermine science education with pseudo-religious nonsense like Intelligent Design. Furthermore, GOP support of school vouchers will guarantee the failure of some inner city schools and probably some in rural areas, as well. Teacher accountability standards, while good, do not attempt to remedy anything, only seek to punish teachers who are already under tremendous psychological pressure placed upon them by feckless parents, over-worked administrators, and by some teachers who shouldn’t be in the teaching field to begin with.

Both the GOP and the Dems need to get on thing through their almighty thick skulls: Americans, by and large, do not appreciate their educational system. And they should. Education is a public good as important as our interstate highway system, as important as clean air and potable water, and is equal in importance to the Department of Defense. An educated populace almost guarantees economic success and vitality while ensuring our national security interests.

The Chinese are not our mortal enemy, nor the Russians, or the Iranians, or the North Koreans, or ISIS or whatever neo-fascist extremist group arises after ISIS. No, our mortal enemy is ourselves and we may pave the road to our own ruin by dismantling our educational systems, from K-12 all the way to our public universities. Much like Zimbabwe has now realized after breaking up their farmland into hundreds of thousands of individual tracts, they have created their own nightmare. Once, their farmland was well-organized and utilized efficiently; Zimbabwe was the “breadbasket of Southern Africa.” Robert Mugabe displaced the local landowners 15 years ago, meted out pieces of land to political cronies and voters, and now Zimbabwe must important food to feed its population.

School voucher programs and ideas of privatizing higher education do not solve the underlying issues, they only dilute the problems, carve the problems into tiny chunks to make voters feel better, and push problems onto other entities, never addressing the fundamental problem as I see it: the exceptionally callous disregard most Americans have for education. No where else in the world can we find native populations who treat education so frivolously. No where. Education is seen as either a public good, necessary for a well-functioning society; or, education is seen as a marvelous gift bestowed upon an eternally grateful individual. Except in the United States, where students complain about homework, writing, reading, and only want to learn the vocational traits they think they need to get hired, and our fine elected officials desirous of shirking the mantle of responsibility of ensuring the continued viability of our educational system and thus place responsibility potentially into the hands of special interest groups or consortia who then become de jure managers of our knowledge. PAX.


I’d like to thank the following people/accounts for choosing to follow my blog. I know there are a billion choices of blogs to follow and I am humbled and honor to have your attention.

Luis C.C.S at Creativenauts

79Nexus at WritingInDevizes, and

Once Upon a Book at Once Upon a Book

Higher Education Needs A Start-Up Mindset


I have numerous posts espousing changes I think I’d like to see in Higher Education. In May 2012, I posted Fostering Education Through Student Incubators (5-21-2012); in November 2013 I posted Education Is Like A Dysfunctional Family (11-6-2013); in December 2014 I was rather prolific over the holiday, posting Steal My Idea, Please! (12-13-2014) and Education Is Ripe for Deconstruction (12-29-2014).

Once again I visit this topic based on interactions occurring during my recent experience at the 2015 ESRI Education and International Users Conference. My university is so remote; we are truly debilitated by the irony of our geography. Four major river systems converge within 60 miles of my home. The Mighty Mississippi, the Ohio, the Tennessee, and the Cumberland rivers merge along the conjoined states of Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri. Southern Illinois has the Nubian nickname of “Little Egypt,” and people interested in toponyms can find towns of Cairo, Thebes, Karnak, Palestine, and Lebanon. I can’t find a reference for saying this but when I first moved into the region, I know I heard a radio show on my local NPR station refer to the area as “mini-Mesopotamia.”

One might think, “Wow, how could such a place be considered remote, seeing how so many rivers flow together here, so much barge traffic and commerce passes through the area?” True, many places around the world would envy our geography. But, now consider the greatest earthquakes to hit the interior of the United States had epicenters a mere hours’ drive away and we can begin to see the irony of our geography. In 1811-1812 two of the highest magnitude earthquakes rippled throughout the central United States, felt over as many as 1,000,000 mi². In spite of these earthquakes jarring the region 203 years ago, and no other earthquake since commanding any sort of newsworthy attention, the region still lags economically due in part to fear of earthquakes. Never mind for a moment the United States Uranium Enrichment Corporation has an enormous facility on the southern banks of the Ohio River, upstream of Memphis and New Orleans, the region suffers from a debilitating curse no amount of positive propaganda or enticements have been able to overcome.

So, educated people from my region must travel if they wish to find other like-minded, smart, witty, innovative people who shop at places other than Tractor Supply Company, or the farmers co-op, or the local thrift store, and who want to talk about something other than Duck Dynasty and how many points were on the antlers of the last buck they killed. My closest airport is 2 hours away, a little more, in Nashville. Memphis is an hour further. St. Louis, say should I want to see the Cardinals lose a few games, is a 3-1/2 hour drive. If I want or need to attend a state conference, Louisville is about 4 hours away and I lose an hour due to my state being divided into Central and Eastern Time Zones. The state capital is nearly 5 hours away, so far away in fact, many of the state’s own administrators think Paducah is in southern Illinois and “Why would you want to attend a conference in Frankfort, anyway? Shouldn’t you be in Springfield?” (True story.) For most Kentuckians, the Commonwealth ends just past Bowling Green, with the exception of Ft. Campbell, the entirety of which is really in Tennessee.

Thus, if I really wants to interact with the outside world, I have to drive or fly at least two hours to find my nearest peer. In Higher Education this “tyranny of distance” is a real threat…er…challenge to being innovative, to being open and receptive to new ideas. Additionally, one must be willing to accept some ideas and then act on those ideas. When an institution is isolated, an “Oasis of Intellect” surrounded by hundreds of thousands of acres of corn, acres of tobacco, acres of soybeans, and even acres of cotton, that Oasis of Intellect can stagnate, can wither just a sure as ears of corn during a drought. Remote or rural colleges and universities must strive non-stop to remain fresh and vital, as the temptation to remain complacent in such peaceful and bucolic environs is too great.

A couple of real world examples to bring clarity to my topic. One of my posts from December 2014 entitled, “Steal My Idea, Please,” was written in hopes someone would discover my plan for an idea/innovation lab I developed for my campus and be able to use my plan as a blueprint or the basis of a draft for their own campus innovation lab. My campus leaders passed on the idea two years ago even though campuses across the United States were firing up plans to create their own “innovation centers” or “idea labs.” Not just college campuses, either, but the DIY and Make communities were finding advocates and resources for K-12, too. Yet, my own school essentially said, “Thanks, but no thanks. This stuff is essentially toys, isn’t worthy of exploring, and is a mere flash-in-the-pan.”

Two years later, the story has come around 180°. Spring 2014, I passed along my idea to the local director of our state’s agency responsible for commercialization and innovation. She liked the idea, thought the idea had merit, and would be worthy of pursuit especially in light of how industry was adapting to new forms of fabrication, how reasonably priced new 3D equipment had become, and the potential to get middle and high school kids involved. I provided her my notes and contact information for Makerbot, as I had established a dialog with their Education Account Manager. The agency director worked on this idea for many months while I continued to consult with people across campus, mostly fact-finding, as I had learned my idea was bound to die because implementation was well-beyond my pay scale for anyone to take me seriously. Yet, within the last weeks I’ve learned the basis of my plan is about to be implemented. My university has bought into fabrication, 3D design, printing, and scanning in two important ways. First, floorspace has been designated as a public-facing fabrication lab. The public-facing fabrication lab will be used to train faculty, staff, and students regarding fabrication equipment and software. Furthermore, the lab will be open to the public for training and use, with the added benefit of being managed by students, with faculty and staff oversight. As if that weren’t enough, the university has invested considerable floorspace in a new engineering building devoted exclusively for industrial-strength rapid prototyping and fabrication. WHAATT! Brilliant, right?

Not so fast.

According to superiors, the public-facing fabrication won’t be available for another year. In fact, the direct quote, near as I am able to remember is: “We hope to have the fabrication lab open and operating maybe within a year.”

What in the blankety-blank-blank! A year! Seriously? Twelve months represents two major software updates to most software companies. Occasionally, three major updates might be issued depending on the software company. Twelve months is 2/3rds of the way to the doubling of computer power, if one subscribes to Moore’s Law. On the one hand, technology is ever-changing, right? In a year, new hardware and software will be available we could potentially tap into. On the other hand, technology is ever-changing and when does one leap? Now? Wait…now? No? Wait…almost…no-yes…no, hang on.

Two fundamental concerns illustrated above, maybe more. I’m not an expert in the “Start-Up Mentality,” I’ve only read a few books and recently stayed in a Holiday Inn Express. The first concern is timeliness, or the lack of timeliness. How many people would invest in a start-up if nothing was going to be available, no movement towards results were going to be seen in a year? Remember to consider the technology exists, the floorspace exists, and the staff exists. A year to get a fabrication lab up-and-functioning is too long, not when similar labs found throughout the United States have taken a few weeks until time-to-live. A year exposes how out of touch academia is with the new Innovation Economy arising globally.

The second concern is not specifically detailed but alluded to, sort of. Technology is ever-changing, so the question I posed, “When does one leap?” is an important question, in a sense. The question is important if no plan exists to build-in an upgrade path, no plan to fund equipment updates or upgrades. If no plan exists to refresh a lab, in of any type, then the lab is frozen in time with whatever technology was able at the moment the doors opened. And, Higher Education, in general, for as smart and as savvy as the individuals are working in Higher Education are, Higher Education is a poor planner for the future. Now, we can point blame in a bunch of directions, but that is not the point of this post. The fundamental problem is how Americas fund education, and the importance our political leaders place on Higher Education, both philosophies fraught with ignorance, dogma, and politics.

Higher Education must do better than in-the-moment decisions. Institutions need to plan for the future, plan for changes in technology, plan for deprecating labs, equipment refreshment, training. Monies collected from student technology fees and/or additional lab fees must be charged and saved so computers, plotters, printers, scanners, data projectors can be updated on an appropriate cycle. Computers, for example, may need upgrading every 2-3 years. Waiting four years is potentially too long for upgrading computers, depending the application. Printers, depending on wear-and-tear, may need refreshing every 2 years. Certainly, 8 years to refresh a computer lab is 4 years too long, and 9-10 years indicates a true lack of focus for an institution, especially if the computer lab is found in a College of Science.

Administrators need to spend some time “managing by walking around.”

I promised two anecdotes and here comes the second. If you’ve read this far and you are anticipating yet another example of how Higher Education is ossified, you won’t be disappointed.

Again, in my college, my College of Science, I am faced with another concern, one existential in nature. The office is in danger of being dissolved, a tragedy, a literal tragedy, should this happen, given the discipline my office is charged with supporting, and the related fields my office is charged with educating. Technology is without a doubt the fastest and arguably most important aspect of the United States economy. Given technology is a very broad spectrum sector, the geospatial component of technology is a not an insignificant part of the technology sector. Much of our lives has now become intimately bound with mapping. We use our phones and tablets to help us find the nearest Starbucks, theaters, nic-nak shops, directions to that wedding we don’t want to attend, or the campground we need to set up. And, we haven’t yet scratched the surface. Self-driving cars are a reality, in part due to GPS and geospatial technology. We run, bike, and hike with a GPS-enabled app strapped to our arm like a blood-pressure cuff. Given how vital, how infused geospatial technology is becoming in our lives, I have a struggle on my hands to keep my campus geospatial open.

Why should this be? For a number of reasons, some of which, honestly, are self-inflicted to some degree. One of the department chairs supporting the office is retiring within a few months. The director of the office is retiring in 18 months, sooner if cancer threatening the director’s life is not able to be managed. The executive secretary has 34 years of employment history. Then, there is me. The executive secretary and myself are the only two salary items on the office’s budget. These are not self-inflicted reasons, of course. No, the self-inflicted damage came about by the reluctance to change, the ignorance of the need to change, and the documented refusal to change the mission and purpose of my office.

For at least a decade, management practice was laissez-faire, “let’s see what happens.” In the meantime, federal grants dollars dried-up. As federal grant dollars withered, so did state grant and project dollars. During this era, the Department of Homeland Security was created, a war in Afghanistan was initiated, as well as a war in Iraq, with subsequent aftermath economic support. These efforts witnessed the reallocation of financial resources away from education, the environment and natural resources, away from the CDC, and the USDA, and the Department of Energy, and into public sector activities where only the military industrial complex and secondary economic activities benefit. We stood by and watched this happen. Concomitant with the drop in domestic spending, the rise in foreign and war-fighting spending, another trend was emerging.

Our competition was increasing.

Universities were not entirely ignorant to the benefits of GIS and mapping. Quite the contrary. As funding levels diminished colleges and universities sought to increase efficiencies by looking in-house for software development, design, and management. Additionally, geospatial knowledge blossomed into an important skill set of students in many disciplines, from economics, biology, marketing and business, health and human services, to non-profit leadership. Universities without GIS created new programs, offered new courses, and competition between programs and departments escalated. We were complacent, relying nearly exclusively on word-of-mouth and reputation of rigor for potential students to find us.

Five years ago my office director and I developed a plan to reinvigorate the office, reset our mission, our purpose, our goals, even change our name. We spent many hours hashing out details, outlining new educational offerings, improving communication with our current stakeholders around campus, promoting our abilities to local school systems, broadening the scope of what we do well and narrowing the scope of aspects which have diminished as emphasis on the spending public dollars has shifted away from science and more toward fighting people at least an ocean and a continent away. Once we nailed down our proposal, the document was submitted to the college dean.

Remember how my pitch for an Idea / Innovation Lab was received? I know those details were many words ago so I won’t make you go back, hunt them down. “Thanks, but no thanks,” was the cool reception to our proposal. “This just isn’t the time for that sort of change.”

While I assume blame for being partly responsible for the self-inflicted damage, the self-inflicted damage was wrought by the university upon itself. One of our supporting faculty came out in opposition to our proposal, as I would learn nearly a year later. Again, self-inflicted damage wrought upon the university, by members of the academic community.

Yet again, this week, today, even, a conversation with an administrator went sideways, through the guard rail, down a slope, crashed and burned in the ravine with no sign of survivors. This week has been a frustrating week in a sequence of frustrating weeks dating back to the time pre-dating my divorce when I was trying to convince my then-wife there is only so much room on a credit card before you cannot charge more items and “no, I am not going to open another credit card account.” During my conversation with the administrator, I voiced my concern over the direction my office was heading, given the looming retirements of two primary actors, potential retirement of a third. “We don’t have to think about that for a couple of years,” was the response. “I won’t be around for that conversation, since I’m retiring.” And, therein lies the rub, and a strong reason why Higher Education needs a Start-Up Mentality, at least in some departments, in some colleges. Planning, foresight, vision, the contemplation of not what happens the next semester, or over the next academic year, but planning and vision for what happens two academic years away, or more.

I persisted in our conversation, as I am but one of only two salaried positions attached to the office. “It’s easy to let this decision sit, but as one of the only two salaried positions I have a vested interested to ensure not simply the success of the office, but the simple existence of the office. In a time when universities around the United States are creating offices like mine, enhancing and expanding offices like mine, to see this office dissolved, the mission and purpose evaporate like water on a hot July sidewalk, is regressive, a step backward. I’ve been told by your boss this week, “We don’t want to make your office a target.” I replied, “On the contrary, we need to make ourselves a bigger target, we need faculty, staff, and students to know we are here, what our mission is, our purpose, and how we can help. Hiding under the radar does not help us nor garner us any further support. We’ve lost over $100,000 of project work to 3rd party vendors, by my calculations, and that’s based only on what I know. Money which has left this university and ended up in Maine, in Tennessee, in Alabama.”

Colleges and universities are stuck in a model in place since at least the 1950s. A military-like bureaucracy governing the stereotypical liberal-minded college professors. Many are not liberal-minded; that is myth. Professor are just like other people and adhere to irrational beliefs, biases, and occasional bigotry. Professors are liberal in their approach to their peculiar research interest but get them out in public and they can be as dunder-headed as any person you collect off the street. A few universities have broken the mold. Stanford is an example. Stanford supports itself in part due to the intellectual property developed on campus. Stanford openly supports innovation among faculty, staff, and students, and I’ve personally met a number of former Stanford students who founded their own technology start-ups. MIT is another example. I’m sure there are others.

There should be hundreds of other examples, though. In fact, I assert every university should be actively engaged in fostering a start-up mentality, to support faculty, staff, students, and people in respective service regions in ideas near-and-dear to them. Universities must rethink their approaches to management, especially colleges enmeshed in design, fabrication, and technology. To wait a year to accomplish want should take 6-8 months is not effective. To wait two years to address the nature of a campus technology office is not an appropriate action plan. Not in my mind.

To be clear, I am not advocating decisions be made simply to protect my employment nor the employment of the office’s executive assistant. My university would be damaged by losing the geospatial locus of campus. Sure, faculty could still teach GIS courses, do research, work with undergraduates and graduate students. However, the service to the campus, in general, is diminished. The service the region, the local schools and school districts, is potentially lost. Once news propagated among other state colleges and universities my university dissolved the GIS office, the reputation of the university, especially in light of economic trends, would cause all to wonder about the sanity of administrators. A few years ago, a state school took just that course of action, eliminating most of the geospatial education from campus. The reaction around the state among those of us who know the temperature of the water were like, “What in the hell? Those people are crazy.” A couple of faculty remain, reassigned to other departments, the other faculty resigned, from what I understand.

I hope my passion comes across as positive. Oftentimes, I do not come across as anything other than confrontational, I am told. “You don’t understand who the bureaucracy works,” is a phrase I hear. “No, I understand how it works. I just don’t believe the bureaucracy has to work that way; there are alternatives. The question is, are people ready to choose alternatives? Or, are people wanting to choose only the comfortable path because the alternative to easy is work, is change, is new, is different, is challenging, is potentially time-consuming, is not going to work, is unknown.”

If you work at a university who appreciates something akin to a “start-up mentality,” kudos. Take some solace to heart your environment is probably uncommon if not rare. My experience in talking with people from campuses around the United States is my experience at my college is not unique. From small colleges to big universities, people report essentially many of the themes I have mentioned above. Part of me is relieved my environment is no different, and part of me is chagrined Higher Education is not educating itself to adapt, to become more nimble, to be more risk-taking, or less risk averse. I know – politics; politicians cry crocodile tears when universities are deemed not to be spending public monies in effective, useful ways, and are seen to be whimsical and frivolous luxuries sucking at the teat of the public taxpayer. Wisconsin politicians come to mind. Politicians don’t want Higher Education taking risks, not when public dollars are at stake. I get that. People, the American People, should see Higher Education as an ally in job creation, economic development, social progress, and intellectual achievement, and not buy-in to the false narrative colleges are an expensive asset which should be divested into the private, for-profit economy. That would be a complete and utter disaster, and if you want to know why I think so, leave me a comment. I discussed my perspective with a number of people, none of which saw the particularly insidious doom of the privatization of Higher Education I seen. Once I explained the details, each were like, holy shit, that’s nuts and that’s exactly what would happen.

We have to constantly be mindful universities produce a societal good which returns considerably more than has been invested. College graduates, in spite of owing an average of $27,000/yr in student loans, will produce more value than that, once the graduate is able to figure which direction their life should go. I’ve posted on that topic, too. I think. We can improve the social good contributed by colleges and universities by encouraging administrators to be more responsive, by promoting responsive people into leadership roles, by identifying opportunities on campuses for cost-saving, cost-sharing, and education-sharing, discipline-sharing; truly developing and fostering multi-disciplinary projects and programs and looking for ways to connect various programs across campus.

From what I understand, the Real World sort of works that way.

But, what do I know. I’m a mid-level manager, with little to zero influence, with no Ph.D, and no hopes of earning one (*see credit card fiasco from earlier.) I try to pay attention, and being a geographer, everything comes around to geography at some point. In these, the early days of the 21st century, geography represents the collision of people, place, and technology. Sometimes, it’s a true collision as some of those dashboard navigators are really messed-up. PAX

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 (CampusTours.com). 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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.




Unraveling the Beauty in Space

Embark on a Journey around the Cosmos

The Science Geek

Astronomy, space and space travel for the non scientist

What Rhino Said

My Journey through Video Games & Geek Culture


Bit of this, bit of that. Making it up as I go along. If you can't beat 'em, blog.

Ed Johnson's Blog

A blog to get some thoughts on my OpenStreetMap research


The Book Reviews You Can Trust!

crime thriller girl

crime thriller addict. writer. guilty as charged.

So, I Read This Book Today

Editing, Proofreading, Reviewing and Other Stuff

Words on a blackboard

In a world of poems, words steal love and put it on a blackboard

Elan Mudrow

The Ridges of Intertextuallity


This site is all about ideas



Chili on the Bunsen Burner

The shortest distance between two points is NOT a straight line.

The Contemplative Mammoth

(ecology and climate change from the 4th dimension)


Open GIS: No Bounds


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,535 other followers

%d bloggers like this: