Book Reviews: The Bigend Trilogy, by William Gibson

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

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

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

Hollis Henry pulls on a pair of Japanese jeans.

An Italian girl brought her a pot of coffee…

Bigend paws back the Crimean lapels of his suit.

The Tunisian waitress went away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Higher Education Is Anything But Nimble

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


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

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

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

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

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

Am I wrong?

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

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

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

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

Guido van Rossum Parent of Python

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

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

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

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

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

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

How is that nimble?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Printrbot Simple

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

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

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

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


Higher Education is Ripe for Deconstruction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Low-Cost Higher Education Should Be A Federal Government Priority

Some general musings about college and university costs and financial aid concerns.

President Obama is issued comments on June 9th regarding the cost of Higher Education, and since my following and readership is almost equal to his, I determined I should also release my own statements. {humor}

The costs of Higher Education have risen to public scrutiny not because the actual costs have increased drastically, but because state and federal government financial support, in essence the subsidy to higher education, has been dramatically reduced. In Kentucky, for example, higher education funding has been cut about 25% since 2008 ( The reduced funding, the reduction in higher education subsidy, requires public universities to engage in essentially two activities: cutting budgets and increasing tuition and fees.

Budget cuts reduce the ability to repair, replace, or enhance laboratory equipment, computers, and other essential components required by programs. Budget cuts reduce or eliminate maintenance of buildings and necessary infrastructure, such as improving energy savings by replacing worn windows, replacing power grids, and networking infrastructure. Budget cuts limit cost-of-living increases, merit pay, and limit the health care subsidy colleges and universities provide to employees which buffers the impact of rising health care costs. Budget cuts effectively reduce the overall competitiveness of programs, departments, colleges, and universities in hiring desired new faculty, and reduce the attractiveness of work environments to current faculty and staff. If spending is cut “all the way to the bone,” how does the university grow and adapt to rapidly changing technologies and modes of learning?

President Obama would like to offer ways to tie payback of student loans to earnings. For instance, reports indicate student loan payments should be no higher than 10% of income. Some reports suggest that this might become a de facto forgiveness of student loans. After 20 years, the student loan is forgiven under the current Obama plan. If the former student works in public service or for a non-profit, the forgiveness occurs at 10 years. (nprEd)

I would really like the citizens of the United States to consider either free or high-subsidized higher education. Much of the developed world, much of Europe, Japan, and Korea, subsidize the education of their citizens. Many countries, like Germany, France, and the United Kingdom consider education to be a basic human right, and those sentiments extend into higher education.

For some reason, the United States supports Defense and Homeland Security far more than Education. Outside of September 11th, which was a terrorist attack, the United States hasn’t suffered any foreign military attack on its soil since … ever. Even the War with Mexico took place in Mexico. Some might suggest, “Well, the Battle of the Alamo,” was on U.S. soil. Actually, no it wasn’t. The Battle of the Alamo was part of the Texan Revolution, when colonists were rebelling against the Mexican government, their actual government. The Texas War of Independence resulted in the Republic of Texas, a wholly separate North American political entity, not part of the United States. (Mexican-American War;

The United States, at the federal level, supports Defense 10:1 over Education. Another way of thinking about this is for every dollar given to Defense, the federal government provides a dime to Education. Honestly, this ratio seems disturbing to me.

The concerns over student loan debt and repayment are legitimate concerns, but unfortunate concerns due to our American society entrenched in the misbegotten belief higher education results in the idealization of socialism, communism, or at best, liberalism. Furthermore, the notion “I don’t want my taxes to go to support a factory which does nothing but create Godless Liberals,” is a false analysis of higher education and yet remains a fairly common trope among the rural and unsophisticated  populace.

Specifically, my concerns relate to a number of issues. First, I’m bothered by for-profit universities being the primary destination of education grants, and the primary source of student loan defaults. For-profit universities lead the pack of student loan default rates. The two-year default rate was 13.6%, the three-year default rate was 21.8% for for-profit universities compared to 9.6% and 13% for public schools. (2013; For-profit universities also led the way with Federal Pell Grants awarded. Seven of the top ten Pell Grant colleges and universities are for-profit schools, with University of Phoenix leading this pack. Other members of this collection of schools include Ashford University, Kaplan University, DeVry University, and Everest University.

The University of Phoenix leads all universities with 259,998 Pell Grant recipients, amounting to about $945 million dollars in federal government financial aid given to a for-profit university. Now, I did a little figuring, downloading data provided by Ed.Gov. (Distribution of Federal Pell Grant by Institution, 2011-2012) I simply sorted the data from high to low based on number of recipients. I then summed the amount of federal Pell Grant dollars awarded. The seven for-profit universities received almost $2 billion dollars ($1.909B) in Pell Grant assistance.

$2 billion dollars of federal aid for education given to for-profit colleges. Wow.

Then, couple this with the other fact that for-profit universities are responsible for about 31% of student loan originators, and almost 50% of student loan defaults, and the data seems to indicate for-profit universities have gained access to and misused tax dollars really meant for public institutions. The HomeRoom blog of details how people need to do a better job of protecting themselves from the predatory practices of some for-profit colleges and universities. (“Protecting Americans from Predatory and Poor-Performing Career Training Programs,” HomeRoom;

$2 billion dollars does not sound like much. However, when some states, like Kentucky, have experienced significant cuts in higher education over the last 7-8 years, those dollars might have been better spent in public education (they way they were meant to be spent) and not used for supporting for-profit colleges and universities.

In other words, why should taxpayer dollars be awarded to for-profit universities to the detriment of public colleges and universities, especially in light of the poor performance of student loans provided to students attending for-profit universities?

A few thoughts.

First, federal tax dollars should not be used to subsidize education at for-profit universities. If people want to attend a for-profit university, then use some other means. Private colleges and universities should also not be major beneficiaries of public dollars. Again, these are my thoughts, and given a good argument, I might be swayed. Public dollars should stay with public institutions.

Second, and really the entire premise of this post, is I truly believe higher education in the United States should be highly subsidized for people wanting to attend college, or free, in the case of First-time graduates who have no immediate family members with a college education, and free for those truly economically disadvantaged.

The general U.S. population needs to re-evaluate their attitudes towards education. Education is the cornerstone of society. Education is fundamental to employment; business and industry is completely reliant upon an educated workforce. Our society, overall, has reached its current level of achievements on the backs of engineers, chemists, physicists, and educated others, especially teachers. Specifically, our form of government, from local towns and cities, to our Congress, needs to support an educated electorate. The United States cannot afford thinking we can have white-collar wages with blue-collar effort. That sort of myopic focus will doom us to regressive economics, place us in direct competition with growing economies like India, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Brazil, and we cannot afford to match ourselves against those economies, as a country. Some areas of the country may be able to compete, such as Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, but the United States must have a vision similar to that of Japan or Germany. The United States cannot be a world economic leader by competing against low-wage labor countries.

The United States could afford to double spending on education, from about $60 billion to $120 billion per year. Simply take funding from the Department of Defense and Homeland Security. The 2015 Defense budget request for the United States was $495 billion, not including allotments for Iraq and Afghanistan. Overseas operations in Iraq and Afghanistan adds $89 billion.

Put another way, doubling federal spending on education reduces our spending on defense by about 10%.

Am I the only one bothered by this?

I cannot help but think that regardless of how Congress talks about supporting education, few, if any Congresspeople, have actually made their votes and bills congruent with their speech. If the globe were invaded by Alien Accountants, I cannot help but think these aliens would automatically consider the United States an aggressor and war-like state based solely on the unbalance ratio of education spending versus military spending.

The cost of higher education is not escalating simply because the costs of education are escalating. No; the costs of higher education are escalating because state governments and Congress simply cut education and revealed the levels at which education has been subsidized. State and Federal legislators have simply reduced the subsidy and pushed the burden of the costs onto families and students. Legislators have also been manipulated to allow for-profit universities to use and misuse our tax dollars, allowing yet another financial fraud to be perpetrated upon decent people looking to make their lives better, and in doing so, make our society better.

What say you?


Book Review: Blow Fly, by Patricia Cornwell

Blow Fly, by Patricia Cornwell. Berkeley Press. Penguin Books. 2003. Paperback. $10.

I’m not going to pull any punches with this book review. I did not like this novel. Not only did I not like this novel, I didn’t like the characters, either. “Red Mist” was very good. I liked “Port Mortuary.” I usually give an author 2 books to draw me in. I gave Patricia four books, as I also read and somewhat enjoyed “Point of Origin.” I’m not sure I will read more.

Every character, from Kay Scarpetta, her daughter Lucy, her love interest, Marino – all of them, these are the most humorless characters I’ve run across in years of reading crime fiction. Blow Fly was painful to read, not simply due to the graphic nature of the crimes, but the humorless drama between all of the main characters made reading the novel a humorless endeavor.

The larger problem is these characters never seem to be at ease with each other, across all of Cornwell’s novels. No humor, little to no compassion, few light-hearted moments; I’ve rarely experienced novels with so many characters with such sullen and angry personalities throughout a series of novels. No circumstances in real life lack such humor and I’m not sure why Cornwell is presenting her characters as such pessimistic, one-dimensional people, especially Kay Scarpetta. Kay, Lucy, and Pete come across as simply pissed-off, angry people. And, I’m simply not liking any of them.

Blow Fly features a serial killer preparing for his execution while his brother hides out in a Louisiana swamp, also serial killing young women. Neither of these fine fellows are in any way interesting, either. They clearly both deserve to die. The imprisoned serial killer brother escapes in as ludicrous a scene as I can imagine. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of a murderer escaping from prison while literally walking down the hallway to his own execution. I’m pretty sure, with the possible exception of some “Expendables”-style or “Ocean’s 11″-inspired scheme, aiding in a prisoner escape during an execution is impossible.

“What happened?! Where is James Larry Bruce?” Because all serial killers have three first names.
“Uhhmm. He escaped,” says Guard 1, sheepishly.
“He got the jump us! We weren’t expecting him to put up a fight in the hallway!” Guard 2 cries.
“So, he jumps you two, plus the State Police, runs through the media, the family of the victims, the protesters against criminal punishment, and the one homeless guy, and escapes?”
“YES! We don’t believe it, either! Man, that guy was good.”

The events above I contrived and are not Cornwell’s, merely a satire of the events leading to the escape of a fellow on his way to receive his lethal injection.

Ugh. Not a good book. In Cornwell’s defense, because I’m uncomfortable saying this book sucks, Blow Fly was one of her first books. The latter books appear to get a little better, the personalities more “normal,” and the plots less full of improbable circumstances. If I had read this book first, I may never have reached for a second, though, based on the jaundiced nature of the characters.

Let’s talk some geography. Chapter 8 begins with a good description of downtown Baton Rouge. The capital of Louisiana is in Baton Rouge, both the new capitol building and the old capitol building. In the opening paragraph, the Parish Coroner, Dr. Sam Lanier, is looking west from an office window, casting his gaze across a portion of the Mississippi River. He sees the former state capitol, the USS Kidd destroyer (the novel says, “battleship,” but the website and the National Park Service both state, “destroyer”), and the Old Mississippi Bridge. Additionally, we are reminded of the assassination of Huey Long on those capitol steps.

Later, Chapter 112, Lucy and Marino head out in a Bell 407 helicopter to search for the encampment of the escaped serial killer, his brother, and this brother’s nutty girlfriend.

Quoting from page 494:

This is a time when the GPS will be of no value, nor will any other navigation instruments. A flight chart isn’t going to be of much use, either, so she spreads open a Baton Rouge map on her lap and runs her finger southeast, along Route 408, also known as Hooper Rd.

“Where we’re going is off the map,” she says into her mike. “Lake Maurepas. We keep going in this direction, towards New Orleans, and hopefully don’t end up at Lake Pontchartrain. We’re not going that far, but if we do, we’ve overflown Lake Maurepas, and Blind River and Dutch Bayou. I don’t think that will happen.”

There really is a place described in the novel. Some authors will take literary license and make up a place within a place. Lee Child does this frequently, creating towns where none exist, or fictional military bases, etc., to advance his story. I’m not being critical; I’m simply stating some authors use real places. Others don’t.

To contrast, James Lee Burke, author of the Dave Robicheaux series, and one of my favorite authors, sets many of his novels in the very same geography as Blow Fly. His characters drive between Baton Rouge, Hammond, New Orleans, to Lafayette. Bayou Teche is as much a character in JLB’s novels as any person.

Looking for geography in literature isn’t very hard. The technology of the Internet, though, can help bring these stories even more to life. Sharing these locations with students can help encourage them to pay attention to the environment, and perhaps be inspired to think about their neighborhood, their town, their city, their rural life from a different perspective, perhaps.

But, don’t take my word for it; you may like her book. She does write well. I like the forensic science, when she gets around to examining a body. Cornwell, no doubt, has an eye for detail, for examination, and for deducing cause and effect. I wish there were more of those traits expressed, and less animosity and drama among her primary primary characters. Conflict is good and drives a story but there has to be a balance.

Thanks for reading my review.

Building Consensus for an Idea Lab

I spend a considerable amount of class time each semester advocating “geography is a holistic discipline, infused in all things and in almost every action or choice made, and not merely by people but by all organisms. Geography is inescapable.”

The problem with my perspective is many other disciplines could be argued to have the degree of infusion, mathematics, chemistry, and physics, for example. I retort, “geography is the first science, being people were first interested in their surroundings. Quantification and analysis of environments would come a little later.” Knowledge of geography most likely preceded language. Etching maps in the earth with a stick can accomplish much were no common language exists.

Being a geographer, I am exposed to numerous other fields, biology, physics, chemistry, engineering, graphics arts and design, economics, history, and political science, to name only a few. Being exposed to numerous fields and disciplines does not make me an expert in those area, but it does afford me some common ground when I need to interact with others in those fields. It’s nice being able to talk to a biologists about their spatial problem in their language and help them think about the spatial components of their research.

And therein lies the premise of my efforts to establish a campus Idea Lab. I’m not calling effort, “Idea Lab,” though. I prefer, “RacerWerks,” or “RacerWorxs” or something to that effect. In my in years of working and collaborating and being exposed to a bunch of other educated people, working in various disciplines, I am frequently struck with one persistent thought: How can <discipline_group_1> be unaware of the research and project of <discipline_group_2>? For example, “Why don’t the biologist know that the engineering students are building sensors systems for monitoring water characteristics?”

Sometimes, this is simply, in the words of Led Zeppelin, a “communication break-down.” Departments within the same college, unless individuals make an effort to explore what others are doing, remain uninformed about projects and research. In my opinion, this is really bad for a variety of reasons.

Geography is inescapable.

The fundamental mission of every college and university is the education of young adults. Colleges and universities promote their unique schools and colleges and departments, selling students on the idea they will be instructed how to be critical thinkers, how they will engage in “multidisciplinary research and education,” and how they will learn and grow. Yet, students then told to “choose a major” and are then boxed into a specific field. “Here are your classes you need to take. If you are persistent and motivated, you might get done in 3-1/2 years.”

In a way, the act of choosing a major field breaks the fundamental principle of every college and university. By being boxed-in, students are almost guaranteed to develop a myopic focus related to their chosen field. Then, as they progress through their education career and into a professional career, attitudes about their field becoming calcified, ossified, resistant to new, different, and potentially better ways of doing things. And this is what Education, in general, has to fight against.

To engage and encourage students to learn outside-the-box, we have to show them what out-of-the-box is.

Touring campus for many years, introducing myself as the ESRI Campus Site License Administrator, promoting the GIS software, talking to people how the software can benefit them, and their students, has brought me vis-a-vis with many bright, interesting, cool, and energetic people. But, they all seem to share the common trait of not even seeing how geography applies in their field. “You are a geographer. You know that, right?” And, they look back at me as if I’ve just said, “You are a Smurf. You know that, right?” Then, I have to explain to them how they are demonstrating to their students the importance of understanding spatial relationships, and maps are important tools in building that knowledge. Then, depending on the person, I either get (A) “Wow, I never thought of that before. Maybe I need you to talk to my class. Would you be willing to do that? Or, (B) their face goes blank to dark to glowering, a look much like what those in the Roman Catholic church may have exhibited when Copernicus mentioned, “Hey, the Earth travels around the Sun, not the other way around!” and, then the meeting ends. Then, they avoid even looking at me at campus events, the cafeteria, as if I now have intimate knowledge of a profound secret they’ve been holding onto. Don’t worry, I won’t out you as a “closet geographer.” Yeesh.

Those invested in Education must fight to prevent their students from developing myopic attitudes which might result in later resistance in finding betters way outside their field of solving problems.

So, I guess I want to out everyone as a “geographer” and help people get over themselves, and their allegiances to whatever they feel like they must have an allegiance to, education-wise. To learn, a person has to be willing to explore outside their comfort zone. A biologist needs to know something about GPS, needs to know environmental geography, perhaps geology. A biologist needs to know something about databases, about SQL, and maybe something about programming. And, all of this is tied into geography and can be mapped.

To prevent students from developing entrenched biases – perhaps a better way to phrase this would be to say, “To encourage students to draw experience and knowledge from other fields” – we have to show them how it this is done. The “Major/Minor” model is a dated model. Perhaps I’ll leave that for another topic. To engage and encourage students to learn outside-the-box, we have to show them what out-of-the-box is.

And this is what my idea of RacerWerks will try to address.

Below, is a draft agenda for an upcoming meeting. I have invited numerous people from across campus to join me at a local cafe/deli to layout the idea, determine interest, develop some consensus and support. Then, I’ll continue the effort at various levels throughout my university.

I invite any helpful comments, insights, suggestions, or recommendations.


(*tentative title)

A STEM-based collaborative community of educators and students to promote science, technology, engineering, and mathematics at the University, the local community, and the service region.



Purpose of “RacerWerks”(in no particular order)

  1. to promote education and research of current and emerging technologies, such as Arduino, RaspberryPi, GPS/GIS, Python, MakerBot, Linux, drones and other unmanned sensor systems (USS);
  2. to engage current of future students interested in developing experience in 21st century STEM technologies;
  3. to offer local K-20 educators opportunities to leverage current or develop new skills to implement Common Core Science Standards (CCSS);
  4. to identify a cohort of interested parties and leverage the current knowledge base with the purpose of pursuing grants, contracts, and other funding sources;
  5. to improve and expand the current knowledge base of University with regards to emerging technologies;
  6. to remain competitive among our benchmark universities, some of whom have already implemented or are in the process of developing “MakerLab”-style campus resources;
  7. to engage faculty & staff and encourage a multidisciplinary environment representing many fields, disciplines, and experiences for mentoring, supervising, reviewing, consulting, and analysing projects;
  8. to provide non-science students an opportunity to expand skill sets in emerging technologies;
  9. to collaborate with local business and industries;
  10. to foster local innovation opportunities;
  11. to augment skills and experience of current and future students;
  12. to develop and maintain a pool of skilled local talent to assist with grants and contracts requiring experience in new emerging technologies;
  13. to ensure and foster communication of research interests, current or potential projects;
  14. to anticipate, identify, and address emerging technologies as they become economically feasible;
  15. to assist the University in solving in-house technology concerns, rather than having to contract with non-local 3rd-party entities;
  16. Monies leave the University.
  17. Quality dubious
  18. Faculty, staff, and student removed from using current knowledge, experience; students removed from developing necessary employment skills.


  1. Emerging technologies are rapidly gaining ground within many communities.
  2. Georgia Tech recently created a student-run “MakerLab,” open 24hrs during the week;
  3. University of Louisville recently received a sizeable NSF grant for creating a local “MakerLab;”
  4. Many DIY-ers (do-it-yourself) are developing “gadgets” w/real & tangible benefits;
  5. Emerging technologies are very low-cost ($35-$100 for RPi & Arduino, >$1200 for a 3D printer);
  6. Emerging technologies are useful in real applications, drones, unmanned sensor systems (unmanned aerial systems, unmanned ground/terrestrial systems, unmanned aquatic systems);
  7. Emerging technologies are being employed in non-STEM disciplines, i.e. graphic arts/design, political science;
  8. Many towns and cities have their own “MakerLabs,” or “CreationStudios,” allowing people of all skills to come, learn, explore, and enhance skills;
  9. to coordinate / communicate university-wide STEM efforts;
  10. to identify needs related to training, education, skill sets and knowledge, or interest;
  11. to create a comprehensive STEM-based planned to improve knowledge base
  12. To create and maintain collaborative efforts across disciplines
  13. improve communication among different areas on campus, to plan or address emerging technologies. In other words, does anyone outside Telecommunications Systems Management know what TSM is doing? Or, Graphic Arts/Design? Or, IET?
  14. to engage other disciplines outside traditional science
  15. to encourage collaboration among university units to share knowledge, experience;
  16. Purpose of this Meeting
  17. To identify interested faculty & staff (later, students);
  18. To identify concerns or other related issues associated with this proposal;
  19. What areas, ideas, or issues has the agenda missed?

Comments / Feedback

Book Review: Without Their Permission, by Alexis Ohanian

Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed, by Alexis Ohanian. Hatchette Books. Hardback. (c)2013. $27.

For those in the “know,” Alexis Ohanian needs no introduction. Alexis, together with Steve Huffman, built reddit, the “front page of the Internet.” Sitting in their living room, using nothing but laptops, two fellows, undergraduates at the University of Virginia, created one of the world’s most popular Internet destinations.

For those unfamiliar with reddit and Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman, spend some time with reddit. Myself, I created a reddit account long ago, yet recently never put much thought into using reddit. Used wisely, like Twitter, reddit is a valuable resource for learning and networking with other creative and thoughtful people. reddit is a good resource for sharing and learning more details about current events, current trends in technology, software, apps, science, all sorts of interesting topics. reddit is not simply for discovering the newest Grumpy Cat meme. If you have a question about drones, about Ruby, about programming, about Arduino or RaspberryPi, about 3D printing or scanning, get on reddit and add to the conversation.

Alexis overcame his “Sue”-like name, (Johnny Cash reference) to become one of the most vocal advocates for Internet freedom, innovation, and entrepreneurialism in the United States. Recently, Alexis was in the news supporting Net Neutrality and encouraging people to pay more attention to proposed rules changes by the FCC. (TechCrunch, April 2014) What most people don’t seem to get is with every conglomerate merger, with every FCC rules change, the Internet becomes narrower and narrower. Picture a canal with ships and boats moving through, first come, first serve, small commercial ships, pleasure craft, all the way up to the huge cargo ships. Now, the owners of the supercargo ships don’t feel like they should have to share the canal with everyone else and would like to control, i.e. prioritize, the movement of ships through the canal. Big ships will always take precedence over small ships, to the point small ships, and small boat owners may never see the other side, may never reach their market.

OK, I agree my analogy is an oversimplification, but in a nutshell, the imagery isn’t too bad, really. Think of Net Neutrality as rich guys trying to buy their way to the water fountain. Then, they get to control who gets to drink.

See, at no time in human history have so many people had access to so much for so little to do so much with. A person in Afghanistan can sell rugs using a cellphone to a person wanting Afghan rugs in Germany. A kid sitting in a dorm room can build a website to connect his college friends, two guys can program a search engine in their apartment and change the way the world looks at information, and two guys can build the “front page to the Internet,” using two laptops, beer, and pizza.

The Internet does allow an individual to make a difference

Anyone today, with enough drive, desire, determination, can create something and go from unknown to known in a matter of months. One of my new favorite podcasts, The New Disruptors, is all about creative, innovative people doing things they love. In Episode 68, “See You in the Funny Webpages with Dave Kellett and Fred Schroeder,” listeners are treated to anecdotes about young people doing something they like, creating cartoons and comic strips, and leveraging the power of the Internet to build their audience.

All of the episodes I’ve listened to are insightful, thought-provoking, and driven by details, humor, and a meaningful candor any person wishing to branch out on their own should take to heart. But, this episode was especially interesting, as comic strips, and the history of comic strips was the topic. Besides a new documentary revealing the backgrounds of many of the most famous comic strips, “Stripped,” (website), the hosts and guests discuss several people who advanced their drawing pastime into a lucrative ventures.

All of this is part of the message of Ohanian’s book, Without Their Permission. You don’t need anyone’s permissions to be successful, to strike out on your own and do something worthwhile. Whether a person is interested in developing a charity to support a cause, such as providing assistance to the people of Joplin, Missouri in the aftermath of a deadly tornado, to crowd-funding classroom projects in under-funded school districts using, anyone has the power to build, create, develop on the Internet.

The world is not “flat” as Thomas Friedman has sometimes advocated. Not really. The Internet is not exactly flat, either; not with countries like China censoring much of the world’s Internet traffic for local consumption while building their own competing Chinese internet, including social networking platforms and Amazon competitor. Russia avoids the flat internet by attempting to do the same thing, shutting down journalism, speech, Internet access and essentially commerce in what they claim is American hegemony of the Internet. While Russian claims of U.S. hegemony of the Internet may be true, the world is much better off with more internet freedom than less, as both China and Russia advocate.

The Internet does allow an individual to make a difference and that scares the bejeezus out of multinational corporations, like Time-Warner, ATT, DirecTV, and Oracle.

Alexis’ states, “Ideas are worthless.” (91) I don’t disagree with his sentiment, I would only add my own amendment: “without execution.” Having an idea is worthless if the idea dies, if it evaporates, if the idea is never executed. Everything we have today has roots in an idea, but our stuff exists today because someone or some group took the idea and transitioned the idea into something.

Alexis’ book should be read by anyone thinking about venturing out on their own. Readers will be treated to many inspiring stories and personal anecdotes related to his and Steve’s first forays into the internet and application development business. While not a step-by-step guide on getting your idea started, Alexis’ offers many tips and personal observations on how to focus your energy. Ignore the competition, pay attention to people, the users, and don’t hate the haters. My favorite bit of advice is one I tell anyone who will listen, though.

Surround yourself with people who give a damn about what they do. A corollary to this rule is to surround yourself with thoughtful, creative people who have a desire to do more, to achieve something. In other words, surrounds yourself with people who have goals, dreams, visions, and couple those attributes with good, solid skills. Having a party to celebrate something good is fine, but being indulgent in drugs, drama, and the nonsense of sordid pursuits is nothing but draining and does not move society forward.

Surround yourself with people who give a damn about what they do

I loaded a question for Alexis Ohanian, who stopped by the university I work for, being the invited keynote speaker for a regional high school competition, The Next Big Thing. I asked Alexis what he thought about the rising tide of anti-intellectualism coming from one political party. As a follow-up, I asked if he could speak about the value of his own college experience. Part of the anti-intellectualism movement uses the false notion a college degree is not necessary to be successful, citing Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, among others as evidence. Thankfully, Alexis indulged me and my concern, clearly pointing out two important facts. First, both he and Steve Huffman graduated from the University of Virginia. Secondly, and what I argue is most important, the higher education experience brought Alexis and Steve together, a happenstance, no doubt, yet building a team resulting in their mutual success within 9 months of graduating (both became multimillionaires within a year of graduation). United States colleges and universities are breeding grounds for innovation and entrepreneurialism unlike any other in the world.

I bought two copies of Alexis’ book, Without Their Permission. One signed copy I kept for myself; I need motivation, on occasion. One signed copy I gave away to a student in my department in hopes she will find inspiration to do something with her ideas.

I recommend Alexis Ohanian’s book, Without Their Permission (#WTPBook) to anyone needing a push to get started, to any young person wanting a revealing look inside how a couple people take an idea from concept to realized endeavor. A high school kid will get as much from this book as any retired person, bored from a daily routine and looking to reach out and engage with the world.

Did I find the book personally inspiring? Sure. For a couple years, my director and I have been attempting to push our university to become more innovative, more receptive to new ideas, technologies, modes of learning, and encouraging a greater sense of holistic learning. All learning is holistic in nature, really; good faculty and staff illuminate through what I refer to as “good coaching” the interconnections of our environment. One of higher educations greatest weaknesses is college and departmental stove-piping, stake-claiming, and territory-grabbing of topics, fields, disciplines, and information. While students experience great depth of learning, the breadth of learning is constricted when students are not exposed to the economics, history, geography, or mathematics involved in a subject.

Recently, we initiated a venture, “RacerWerx,” an attempt to bring together people of varied skills on our campus to create a holistic STEM learning environment. Faculty from education, biology, engineering, graphic arts and design, and computer programming, for instance, have signed on to support this effort. But, as with any project, I still must push, to reach out, to educate, to promote this idea, as many people, despite being in higher education, are simply sclerotic in thinking. And learning, like business, must be adaptive.

So, give a damn and go do something Without Their Permission!

Promote Innovation in Higher Education Using a StudentStore

Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of reddit, states in his new book, Without Their Permission: The 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed, an idea “is worthless.” I agree, sort of, but in my book review I amend his statement. To me, an idea is worthless if the idea is never executed. So, let’s see if someone will execute my worthless idea.

Honestly, my idea isn’t entirely unique. In fact, I’m sure my idea has been executed at some university and I’m just ignorant of the fact. But, let me give you some background details first.

Part of my job is to promote GIS, mapping, and spatial learning on my campus. GIS, GISc, and geospatial technology are fields and disciplines recognized by the U.S. Department of Commerce as being some of the fastest growing employment areas in the United States. I get out once in while and walk about campus and try to get people interested in mapping, GIS, GPS, mobile mapping and technology.

In my role of advocating GIS and mapping science across my campus, I’ve come in contact with a wide variety of interesting people who are engaged in some really interesting stuff. Developing iOS programming apps, building sensors with Arduino, constructing animated art using RaspberryPi boards and researching swarm algorithms for use in small robots to name a few projects. In talking with faculty and staff across campus, I soon realized in spite of our cozy campus faculty and staff were not really aware of what each other were doing across campus. Computer science might not know Graphic Arts & Design was using RaspberryPi and teaching programming. Graphic Arts & Design might have no idea Engineering Physics had a 3D printer and was teaching design and programming. Within a single large department like Biology, faculty might not realize both Computer Science students and Engineering Physics students are helping develop apps for tracking water quality or building mechanisms for trapping insects.

When I realized how much stuff was going on yet how little people realized what was occurring on campus, I decided to do something about the lack of communication. I put some thought into what I wanted, did some googling of “idea labs” and “fabrication labs” and “idea sparks” and such to get a sense of what direction I might head. I settled on “RacerWerx,” a combination of our school’s mascot, plus a phonetic modification of “works,” based on some sites themed upon the notion of foundries and ironworks and making things from scratch. And, “werx” seemed to be “hip,” and “now,” and “cool” at the time.

RacerWerx is simply a blog I created to help educate people on my campus about STEM-based activities which for one reason or another never seem to have found a unified outlet for promotion. To borrow from the blog:

“RacerWerx represents like-minded faculty, staff, and students, drawn from a multitude of disciplines, working together to explore new technologies and address real-world problems. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, as Aristotle is quoted as saying, and RacerWerx represents the knowledge and experience of many, brought together to explore, use, and educate others in the use of 21st century technologies, like Arduino, 3D printers, 3D scanner, mobile application development, RaspberryPi, and innovative systems.”

I don’t want you to steal my blog, RacerWerx, though. Do so would be boring and not get you anywhere. I want you to steal the idea of RacerWerx and then execute, i.e. put into action, this idea.

See, I feel some parts of our educational system need to be … disrupted; disrupted in the sense walls, obstacles, and entrenched thinking need to be torn down, the inner workings laid bare, to discriminate between what is really important and needs to be kept and what is simply “turf,” the inner politics which develop inside any system to protect positions, authority, bureaucracy, and perhaps egos. These elements among others, do a disservice to the primary goal of Education, to promote a better society through education by providing those needing knowledge and skills a means to challenge and enhance their intellect. Whether “turf” or “stove-piping” is the preferred term, the behavior is really contrary to the holistic nature of learning, fundamentally.

All learning should be holistic. A person cannot learn economics without learning geography. A person cannot learn history without learning geography. Geography is elementary to chemistry and biology. Notice a theme? I’m a professional geographer so I see everything through a geographic lens. And Mathematics underpins all. Even a geographer must admit Mathematics lies at the root of All :)

I believe colleges and universities should strive to make all disciplines interdisciplinary. Economics involves math, statistics, geography, history and any faculty economics instructor worth their salt should impress upon students these relationships. Same in biology, history, engineering. No one can say with 100% certainty they will not be impressed or influenced by something they learn in a course outside of their major or minor area of study. As educators, we are charged not with protecting our field or discipline but by illuminating to all how our field or discipline affects and is affected by all others.

With RacerWerx, the idea is breakdown barriers between fields and disciplines, colleges and departments, and advocate for more open and broader educational learning opportunities – and then see what happens, see where students take what they learn.

Specifically, I want this:

I want a single point-of-contact with faculty, staff, and students, and open laboratory 2,000-5,000 square feet. Part of the facility would include an array of computers used for faculty-run workshops. These workshops would train people on 3D printing, 3D scanning, or perhaps mobile application development. I would like an array of 3D printers and 3D scanners with suitable design software. I would like desks for students to use to collaborate on projects and research.

Furthermore, I want students to manage the facility. I want the facility operated and managed by students, students from any college or department. Assuming business students should be groomed for operating the facility is wrong, honestly. A student in design or engineering might have aspirations of running their own business. Thus, any interested student should be allowed to participate in this student-operated venture.

Additionally, I want students to make good stuff, applications, art, designs, products, and I want them to have the opportunity to sell their work. Colleges and universities are looking for ways to enhance revenue, and student are looking for way to obtain real-world experience. Open a student-operated and student-supplied “Student Store.” In the Student Store, allow the students to sell the fruits of their labors. The university keeps a fraction, say 40%, students keep 60%. Students run the store, from keeping it staffed and stocked, charting sales, promotion and marketing, the whole shebang. Faculty acts as mentors and advisers.

The store should be in a prominent location, as we all know from geography, location is everything. The student union would be a good place, or a dining hall, or a residence hall. Imagine this: parents arrive for orientation and are shown the Student Store. They learn the store is run by students representing many different fields. Parents learn the items for sale are produce on-campus, by students in Graphic Arts & Design, Engineering, Computer Science, maybe even Nursing or Agriculture. Who knows? And, why limit? When parents see students engaged in real-world activities, managing a business, managing labor, marketing, promotion – the entire ecosystem of industry – what parent in their right mind would walk their student off that campus?

In all fairness, the last bit is not entirely my idea. I spoke with a person at Makerbot, Wallace Patterson, the Makerbot Education Account Manager. We chatted on the phone about what it would take to get a Makerbot Innovation Center (MIC) at my university. As we tossed ideas around, our conversation coalesced around the idea of a student run gift shop featuring items produced directly or indirectly from the MIC as a means of cost recovery. Everything within universities today always involves a conversation about “How do we justify the cost?” or “How do we recover the cost, plus make this effort self-sustaining?” We then hit upon the notion of creating a student gift shop which might help defray some of the costs of a MIC.

My success in promoting all of the above can’t be measured at this point, unfortunately. Some faculty read the blog, on occasion. But I have to say the idea really hasn’t caught on as I hoped.

However, the idea might catch on at another college or university.

So, steal my idea!! Please!!

Then, email me and tell me about your success. Or, email me, anyway, if you already have experience with any of the above and let me know how things are working for you.




Marvel’s New Muslim Superhero

Comic books and the related publishing industry have been a serious form of cultural expression since before the days of Clark Kent and Superman. Superman, created by Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster in 1933, was sold to the publisher who would later evolve into DC Comics. Superman became an iconic part of America culture in spite of both creators being Jewish. Prior to World War II, Jews were reviled throughout the world, even in the United States. Late in 1880’s, the Russian Jewish ghettos were frequently targeted by Russian Christians; Jews persecuted, harassed, and subjected to many forms of humiliation. Even in the United States, despite what many might say, Jews were not welcomed with open arms. In most urban areas, from New York to Chicago, Jews were similarly harassed.

Captain_America_Vol_1_201Comic books themselves have frequently sought to present societal issues to readers. Early in Captain America’s career, his adventures pit him against the Nazis. Interviews with Joe Simon and Jack Kirby reveal Captain America was created specifically to counter what they saw as the horrific actions of the German Wehrmacht.  My favorite comics are those from the 1970s and 1980s partnering Captain America with the Falcon. Together, Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson team-up to take on the Red Skull, cultists, and drug dealers in Harlem. But, even the title itself seems evidence of racism, as Falcon would be dropped from a few of the titles in the series. In the 1990s and 2000s, Captain America would take on White Supremacists, terrorists, and ultra-conservative “super-patriots.” Many authors and researchers have done some nice work detailing the contribution of comics in mirroring societal issues.

Many recent books have taken up a variety of societal issues. Marvel’s Civil War story arc parallel the real-life effort to generate “watch lists,” the promotion of people to spy on their neighbors, and the formation of militia groups along the U.S.-Mexico border. Muslim-Americans were singled-out, as well as anyone who might be suspected of being Muslim, such as Sikhs, light-skinned Black people, and darker-skinned Hispanics.

Both Marvel and DC have promoted LGBT characters. Marvel’s Northstar, part of Alpha Flight, was openly gay and promoted greater AIDS awareness. Most recently, DC’s Batwoman was revealed to be gay. Other characters from both publishers are homosexual, as well, though not as well-known. From Top Cow, the Witchblade’s current wielder, Danielle Baptiste is also gay. These titles tend to explore the effects on life and family of discrimination experienced by these characters, but, honestly, I’m not sure the writers are really doing much, other than saying, “OK, Kate Kane is Batwoman and she is gay. Now, we’re going to kick some evil butt.” I haven’t been impressed much by the strength of conviction for the writers to really address some of the animosity in today’s so-called “free” society. Not in the same sense writers in the ’70s and ’80s took on racism and drugs, for example.


February 2014, witnessed the arrival of a new Marvel book representing a new, and perhaps bold, direction for Marvel. “Ms. Marvel” represents the most recent incarnation of the Ms. Marvel character. Originally appearing in 1968, Carol Danvers gave up the title in 2012 and assumed a new role as Captain Marvel. In 1985, Sharon Ventura became Ms. Marvel after being coaxed to take part in the Power Broker’s experiment. The former villain, Moonstone (Karla Sofen), assumed the name in 2009 for a brief run. Now, we have Kamala Khan, a 16-year old Pakistani-American residing in Jersey City, New Jersey.

I really like this book for a number of reasons. Not having any experience in reading Ms. Marvel, for new readers, writers and editors should have made determining Kamala’s ancestry a little easier. Embedding geography in comics is not unheard of; in fact, many comics use geographic details frequently (Daredevil, Moon Knight #1, Winter Soldier). Editors and writers merely need to spend a few minutes to get the details correct, embed a few clues, embed a few details, and a good story becomes a learning lesson. Having Kamala’s father threaten her brother with going to live with his uncle in Karachi if he doesn’t find employment was all the clue necessary.

This is a great book to share with your kids, especially if you have a 10+ daughter. Written for Teen+, when I read through the book, had I a 10+ year old daughter I would have allowed her to read and collect this title. Too many books these days, labeled as “Teen+” overly sexualize the title character, and women, in general. For some asinine reason, artists equivocate large breasts with power and physical prowess. Another good title for girls is the newest “Wonder Woman,” written by Brian Azzarello and drawn by Cliff Chiang. One of the best books, overall, in the last two years and a great book for young women to collect.


Writers don’t seem to be too much into humanizing their characters, showing weakness and frailties readers can relate to, but Ms. Marvel’s writers, Sana Amanat, G. Willow Wilson, and Adrian Alphona deserve a lot of credit for making Kamala relatable to readers. Kamala visits her neighborhood bodega and literally lusts after a BBQ pork sandwich. A good talking point for beginning a conversation: “Why would Kamala say something like, “delicious infidel meat…?”” For Muslims, like Jews, pork is off-limits due to its cloven hoof. (Leviticus 11:7-8; Deuteronomy 14:8)


Kamala has a friend she pals around with. In the panel (left) we see Kamala use the name “Kiki” in reference to her friend. Kiki takes an exception to being called, “Kiki,” asking not to be called, “…Kiki, anymore.”

Kamala apologizes, saying with some sarcasm, “Proud Turkish Nakia doesn’t need “Amreeki” nickname. I get it.” We learn Nakia is not Pakistani, but Turkish, and later we learn some other similarities. We also see a reference to “Amreeki,” a colloquialism used for “America.” Many people, when relocating to the United States, will adopt an American-style name. International students on college campuses will assume names like, “Roger,” or “Alex,” or “Alexis,” simply because Americans have trouble pronouncing foreign names. As a sidenote, the world is full of challenging pronunciations. Perhaps, it is the United States that is different, not the majority of the world.


While passing time in the bodega, some high school kids show up. White, perhaps upper-middle class, and certainly representative of many high school kids in today’s rural high schools, the conversation begins innocent enough. “Your headscarf is so pretty.” Notice Kamala is not wearing a headscarf, the hijab, some Muslim women wear. A sign of modesty, women in many countries wear head scarves. Today, people associate the hijab with Muslim women. The reality is the hijab pre-dates Islam, and Christianity, for that matter. Headscarves adorned the heads of Greek, and later Roman, women, who represented nobility, or the upper class of society. The headscarf was a way women would segregate themselves from common women and prostitutes. Nakia is wearing a hijab, though, and this grabs the attention of who can only be described as an uppity white girl.


In the full panel, we see the full expression of the girl’s concern. “I mean, nobody pressured you to start wearing it, right? Your father or somebody? Nobody’s going to, like, honor kill you?”

When I read this the first time, I thought, Wow, the writers really jumped right into the fray, didn’t they?” Honor killings is a big jump from snarky comments about a headscarf.

Honor killings epitomize atrocities against women, but what is an “honor killing?” Some cultures around the world persist in dictating to daughters whom they should marry. A daughter who follows her parents decision honors her family, and life goes on. As we move deeper into the 21st century, technology is exposing very traditional culture values to other values. We see the clash of Culture A versus Culture B splash across media weekly, almost. Honor killings are not religious based. Honor killings pre-date Islam, Christianity, and probably Judaism. In other words, honor killings are not part of Islam, nor Hinduism, nor Christianity, nor a part of any religion. The way honor killings are portrayed in the media one would have no choice but to assume they are part of Islam. They aren’t, but there are those in the right-wing media who would like no more than to make up the dots to connect honor killings to Islam.

Patriarchal societies, male-based, promote control over women’s access to marriage, education, employment, and general life activities. Mothers, sisters, and aunts are also complicit in dictating behavior of younger women in order to maintain the culture. For literally thousands of years, girls have been used to seal alliances between families to end conflict, to prevent conflict, to encourage cooperation in economics or warfare. Young girls were the only bargaining chip, at times, to bring closure to some concern. A girl who refused to accept marriage was seen to threaten a family’s livelihood, discredits a family, dishonors a family among tribes of families – a loss of “face” or respect. The only way to recover respect was the death of the daughter at the hands of the parents or some appointed family member.

We see the same behavior in Asian societies, even today. The loss of face, of honor, for a family member can permeate an entire family. In China, 2008, the manager of the factory responsible for poisoning milk, mouthwash, and toothpaste, committed suicide. Why would he commit suicide? In part, perhaps to avoid an ugly trial in China, culminating in lifelong imprisonment. A larger component would be to prevent his family from suffering. His children may never be allowed to enter college, or be relegated to menial jobs because of the actions of their father. The actions of a family member can stain the entire family for generations in some cultures.

We see news of honor killings come from rural India. We read news accounts of honor killings in Pakistan. Reading of honor killings in Eastern Europe is not uncommon. When people immigrate to the United States, they bring their culture with them, and we have had some cases of honor killings among immigrants. Without a doubt, though, news of honor killings from Afghanistan is the most prominent. True, the practitioners of honor killings in Afghanistan are Muslim, but are not mainstream Muslims. And, as I stated earlier, honor killings in Afghanistan pre-date Islam, and are tied to archaic tribal rules, and have no basis in Islam. Our blonde-haired “friend” of Nakia doesn’t seem to be aware of any of these details.


Kamala’s high school friends are gearing for a weekend party. This will present a problem for a number of reasons for Kamala. First, alcohol will be present. “Alcohol” is an Arabic word derived from al-kohl, meaning “purified.” Kamala is not Arab, she is Pakistani, and probably speaks Urdu, not Arabic. Urdu is a member of the Indo-Aryan language family and not related to Arabic, which is Judeo-Arabic, and closer to Hebrew.

Alcohol is forbidden in Islam; alcohol is also forbidden in some Christian denominations, such as the Southern Baptists and Mormonism. For a Muslim, being around alcohol is fine, as long as one does not partake.

Perhaps a more serious issue for Kamala is the presence of boys her age. We aren’t led to believe this – yet – but fraternizing with the opposite sex is forbidden in most Islamic societies. There is a considerable range in the oversight of these relations, though. Turkey, for example, is perhaps the most liberal Islamic country. Women can hold most any job in the private sector and any job in the public sector. Men and women are allowed to mingle. On the other side of the spectrum, Saudi Arabia and Iran represent more traditional systems. Women are not allowed into some activities, like sports, government, and have limited employment opportunities, like nursing and teaching. Single men are not allowed to mingle freely with single women. Shopping centers and malls have areas set aside exclusively for women and families, while single men must sit elsewhere. Iran has experienced some controversy in sports. Mamood Amadinejad allowed women to attend soccer matches only to be overruled by the Supreme Islamic Council. Several years ago, a ski resort in northern Iran got into trouble with the religious police for allowing men and women to share the same ski slopes.

None of this explains why, though. The Qur’an (and the Christian Bible, too) states people should dress modestly, should not expose too much skin. Men should not cut their hair or beards, and women should veil their faces, and not wear clothing revealing the curves of their body. Good luck with that, super-heroines.

People are too susceptible to sin, especially men. Thus, because men are either unable or unwilling to suppress their sexual urges, women must hide themselves. Furthermore, because men have fragile egos and cannot handle a woman who can surpass them in skill, wisdom, and knowledge, men prevent women from engaging in many activities, like sports, politics, religion, and industry. But, we cannot blame any of this on Islam, as we encounter discrimination wherever men and women are found. But, some cultures make Islam responsible, point to the Qur’an was the governing document preventing women from many activities, because “God said so.”


When Kamala returns home, she finds dinner nearly ready, her father reading a local paper, and her brother saying his prayers. We see a broad range of religion expressed here, from her brother, Jamir, who seems to be a devote Muslim, to her father who seems more secular, even chastising his son for praying too much.


Jamir evidently spends more time in mosque than looking for employment. In other words, like some of today’s directionless youth, continue to live at home, idle, and live off Mom and Dad. “Allah” is simply the Arabic word for “God” and is the same God worshiped by Jews and Christians. Islamic beliefs are based on Judaism and Christianity. Islam recognizes the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, the Torah, the Christian Bible, and all of the principle people mentioned in the books. Islam adds the Qur’an to round out a trilogy of religious books. People don’t agree with me; the problem is not with me. People who don’t agree with these details refuse to acknowledge how Islam sees itself.

“Abu” translates as “father”  Most Westerners don’t understand naming conventions used by people around the world. Thailand, for instance, requires everyone has a unique family name. Thus, if you run across two people with the same surname, they are related. English names are no where near as organized. Arab names, for example, the very long name chain we often see in the news, represent consider information. We can tell from an Arab name chain lineage, the grandfather, the father, the person’s given name, the person’s chosen name, tribal affiliation, and perhaps even geographic home or hometown. A friend of mine, Hamid, suddenly became “Abu Rakin” one day. Always trying to pronounce and learn names, I asked him if I had been saying his name wrong. No, he said, my wife had our first son overnight. His name is Rakin, so I have a new name, now, “Abu Rakin” but you can still call me Hamid. The spelling in the panel seems more consistent with Arabic, though, not Urdu.


Islam has some very strict rules governing the handling of money. For instance, interest cannot be charged. No interest. Not only can interest not be charged, interest cannot be earned by Muslims. The Islamic banking system has some attractive qualities to some non-Muslims, as a result. So, you might ask, “How do they make money?” Typically, a loan comes at a price. The loanee pays a fixed amount of money for a loan. For a $10,000 loan, a person may pay $500 dollars or some fraction of the loan amount. When Jamir suggests his father is guilty of the sin of usury and that his father’s choice of employment is worthless, his father takes offense. Jusuf, Kamala’s father, reminds his son (“beta”) his job affords Jamir the luxury of sitting at home doing nothing.


Finally, I found the details of Jusuf’s paper interesting. Sometimes, I think artists get lazy, simply scribbling lines to look like text but on scrutiny resolves to gibberish. Not the case with Jusuf’s paper.

“Akbar” translates as “greatest,” so he is reading Jersey’s greatest newspaper.

The most popular sport in Pakistan is probably soccer. The second most popular sport in Pakistan, though, is cricket. And, like cycling and baseball in the United States, Pakistan has a problem with doping within the sport of cricket. Cricket was introduced by the British, when the Empire of Great Britain ran the entire landscape from Pakistan to Bangladesh for almost one hundred years, from 1847 or so to 1947.

The United States has no idea about cricket, except for some isolated club teams here-and-there. Listen to cricket coverage on NPR sometime. Bizarre, and amusing.

This is a great book with so much potential, potential in a number of ways. Teachers I know are always looking for ways to introduce ideas and concepts to students. What better way than to bring a comic to class, oriented to females, nicely drawn, covering so many societal and geographic issues? Educators representing many disciplines can draw from this single book.

  1. Explore the history of Pakistan and the influence of Great Britain;
  2. Explore the geography of South Asia (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan);
  3. Explore the geography of language families;
  4. Explore the geography of cricket;
  5. Examine the issues of religion, similarities and differences between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; identify the Five Pillars of Islam;
  6. Examine the geography of Islam, the holy sites of Mecca and Madinah; use Google Earth to find locations using Longitude-Latitude coordinates;
  7. Examine the etymology of Arabic words, like alcohol, algebra, banana, kebab, couscous, and hummus;
  8. Explore the issues associated with migrating to new areas with a different culture;
  9. Examine the comic book layout, design, and composition;
  10. Examine use of color;
  11. Examine techniques for communicating action.
  12. Engage in open-ended discussion of how comic books / graphic novels could succeed in communicating issues over other media.

Comic books and graphic novels are entertaining, but their use need not stop there. Used with some imagination and thought, comic books and graphic novels can be important sources of learning and engagement.

Seeing where the Ms. Marvel creative team takes Kamala will be very interesting. She/Ms. Marvel has already been placed among important influences on 21st century global culture and human rights, along side Malala Yousafzai, the young girl shot October 9th, 2012, by the Taliban for attending school.

Of all the new books released in February & March, make sure Ms. Marvel is in your pull-list.

Book Review: The Ragged Edge of the World, by Eugene Linden

The Ragged Edge of the World, by Eugene Linden. Plume paperback. Penguin Books. © 2011. $16.

An interesting travelogue by a frequent contributor to Time, Newsweek, National Geographic, and a few other magazines and publishers, Linden’s book seems dated. Most the experiences he relates are from two to three decades ago, some going back to the early 1970s. In Chapter 4, for instance, Eugene relates a 1990 adventure from New Guinea, when he returned to the island to work on a story for Time magazine. He then returned for a third time in 2004. Chapter 5 relates a series of experiences the author had in Polynesia, first in 1971, then in 1976, then most recently, in 1995. For a book published in 2011, I expect more recent travel experiences.

I enjoy reading travelers tales. Read some Tim Cahill (Outside Magazine) sometime. His books have great names, like “A Wolverine is Eating My Leg,” “Jaguars Ripped My Flesh,” and “Pecked to Death by Ducks” and he can weave a story like few others, really. He exhibits a great combination of wit, sarcasm, irony with a generous side of near-death experiences. I’ve read only one Paul Theroux travelogue, “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar,” and found Theroux’s writing to be witty, thought-provoking, though at times he can leave one wondering why he bothers traveling at all. I’ve also read a hodge-podge of  essays by a few other writers. Eugene Linden does a write a compelling story – my only complaint is the timeliness of his material.

If Eugene Linden were only writing a travelogue, I would say “pass.” Linden has a more focused theme. While some writers travel and journal their experiences to share, Eugene has an agenda and goals to accomplish. I mention the dates of the material in the book only to prepare the reader for dated experiences, not to undermine the experiences themselves. I thought I was going to sit down to read a book of essays based on experiences less than 5 years old, certainly no older than a decade. Not the case, however. The truest measure of a writer’s writing, though, is this: Would you read another book written by the author? Absolutely; I would certainly read another of Eugene’s books simply because of the richness and variety of his travels and encounters.

The Chapter 4 tale I note above concerns Linden’s travel to New Guinea for a story about the loss of indigenous knowledge. Remote areas are becoming less remote as populations grow, as industries locate to avail themselves to natural resources, and as government allow commercial enterprises into remote areas to harvest trees or mine minerals. As the indigenous people are exposed to modernizing influences, some people are coaxed into adapting to modernity, others retreat into the remaining wilderness, and some exist on the fringe, like deer or coyote living near people but remaining wild. Linden provides several anecdotal tales, ranging from Polynesian “cargo cults,” to indigenous people who were given tours of manufacturing facilities for common products, only to synthesize a new creation tale upon returning home, incorporating their experience as if the result of an elaborate dream-state induced by the gods.

The “modernizing” influences are technically modernizing, though in mostly negative ways. These people represent corporate interests, hired or contracted by corporations, to extract whatever the resource is, gold, timber, copper, and really represent the most callous of people, mercenaries, thieves, and misfits. Other modernizing influences include tourists, who visit Southeast Asia and Oceania to see “traditional ways of life,” and examine people as if they are museum pieces. And, then, last but not least, are academics who insert themselves into environments, typically for good reasons, yet can also have deleterious effect on local populations. Eugene tells of researchers who seem to treat their local environment with little more regard than those who seek to exploit the natural resources. Biologist, ecologists, and botanists may have no compassion or interest in learning about or respecting local people, they are simply present to gather data for gibbons / clownfish / chimpanzees not realizing the impact their expedition has on the local economy of culture.

Linden relates a story of some enterprising villagers. Tourists like to hire boats to take them upriver to visit the wilderness, maybe catch sight of wildlife or indigenous people eking out a life from fishing. On occasion, these tour boats swamp canoes and villager have drown. The families then sue the boat companies, or their government. Few episodes of drowned family members or lost equipment had to occur before the opportunistic locals picked up on the notion of simply positioning themselves in their canoes, wait for the tour boats to cruise by, swamp their boats, and sue.

The effects of modernity on indigenous people is the crux of Eugene’s writing, and he does put together some interesting episodes detailing the clash between simple, unsophisticated cultures, and us – people with simple and unsophisticated cultures but with the technology and prowess to take advantage of these indigenous people who live in remote areas and subsist mostly by their own wiles. Coverage of topics do move back and forth in time; he has extensive travel experience going back decades. He uses these older travels as reflections upon his more recent visits, noting changes, both positive and negative.

Humans have a disproportionate ability to affect changes in the global environment above and beyond the capability of all other animals, combined.

I fully support the reintroduction of wolves into the West, Yellowstone, Montana, and elsewhere, in full disclosure. The elements of Linden’s book covering the Yellowstone wolves controversy I found interesting and troubling. People often make decisions based on irrational fears and incomplete knowledge resulting in tragic consequences. The killing of wolves, for instance, increases deer, rabbit, and coyote populations, resulting in other management issues for ranchers, mainly. Exploding deer populations brings exploding deer tick populations, and with deer ticks comes Lyme disease, which is easily transmissible to people.

I’m not a big fan of protests like “the natural balance is upset when people are involved,” simply because people are part of the global ecosystem. The problem really being protested should be more accurately described as, “Humans have a disproportionate ability to affect changes in the global environment above and beyond the capability of all other animals, combined.” Because Humankind has this unique ability, we must recognize we have some responsibility to be ecologically sound in our decision-making. The chapter, “Wolves on the Brink,” certainly addresses the elementary battle of Man versus Nature, as ranchers vehemently protest the introduction of wolves despite the rare case of wolves killing cattle.

Chapters 7 through 9 are plenty riveting. Chapter 7 finds the author visiting Central African Republic (CAR) and central Africa, in general. His visits are assignment-based, to provide media coverage for interesting topics ranging from returning a chimp back into the wild, the poaching of elephants, and the study of the lowland gorilla. No coverage of humanitarian or scientific endeavors in central Africa would be complete without detailing of the travails of traveling in Africa. Even today, travel is rife with corruption, graft, with regional or local “bosses” requiring special permission, i.e. a bribe, in order to progress further towards one’s destination. The recognition of a centralized federal government authority is non-existent once one leaves the city and one must be prepared for unscrupulous people, banditry, graft, and corruption, plus horrible roads. In Zaire, Linden recounts standing in a sweltering office of a pissant bureaucrat awaiting the final negotiations of travel details. The office was also that of the local law enforcement, the walls of which were decorated with hand-painted murals of women being beaten with clubs.

However, if Linden’s experiences were limited to mere humans availing themselves to other humans, his tales would simply be further evidence of human corruption which occurs pretty much everywhere. Humankind’s moral turpitude extends to nearly every species. Chimps are found missing hands and limbs after losing them in snare traps. Chimps and gorillas are essentially murdered for food. Political party members of the Central African Republic and of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and already been caught over 10 times contributing to poaching of chimps, gorillas, and elephants. People who think humans are born “moral” are biased by religious influences. People are born “programmable;” meaning our culture and environment contributes enormously to who we are. We might think there are “absolutes,” as in “everyone knows rape is wrong,” and “everyone knows killing a child is wrong.” Nope. There are people and cultures today who rationalize killing of people and living creatures towards their whim.

“Travels with Jane,” Goodall was another favorite chapter. Eugene revisits his time spent with Jane Goodall, witnessing her interactions with gorillas. The weight of evidence and research supports the idea gorillas and chimpanzees are quite capable of thought, language or some form of communication, feelings and emotions, plus tool use. Any person suggesting otherwise is simply delusional. I cannot find the mark I made in my book, perhaps because my book is heavily marked at this point, but an interesting notion was communicated in Linden’s writings.

I can only imagine St. Peter greeting  people at the Gates of Heaven: “You killed all the elephants and gorillas? Dude, God is going to be so pissed-off when he finds out. He told you precisely, “Take care of the Earth!” Show me the place in the Old, New, or the Qur’an where He says, “Grind rhino testicles into a paste and spread on your sandwich for virility?!”

Humans protest vehemently about abortion, infanticide, and go to extreme measures to support the Pro-Life movement. Speciesism, the assignment of different values based on an individuals species (wikipedia), with humans being the ultimate arbiter in deciding behaviors appropriate and inappropriate. Some people believe speciesism is a form of bigotry, as speciesism can easily roll-over into cultural bigotry and prejudice. To the point, people will generate legislation to govern pregnancies of humans, yet have no problem killing animals whose intelligence is equal to or greater than any human toddler or preschooler. Elephants, porpoises, whales, chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, perhaps even the octopus, have well-documented intelligence. Somehow, people find the protection of non-human lifeforms unimportant, in what I can only assume is some ill-conceived Biblical ideology. I can only imagine St. Peter greeting  people at the Gates of Heaven: “You killed all the elephants and gorillas? Dude, God is going to be so pissed-off when he finds out. He told you precisely, “Take care of the Earth!” Show me the place in the Old, New, or the Qur’an where he says, “Grind rhino testicles into a paste and spread on your sandwich for virility?!””

The Noauabale-Ndoki National Park, Congo.

Don’t get too upset over the latency in Linden’s writing. Eugene’s writing is captivating, his stories interesting, and his message troubling. People seem to reach for the lowest common denominator in his accounts. The reality is, this is not the complete picture of the Human Race, merely one facet. Losing site of the goodness, like the recognition of Jane Goodall by the chimps she studies is easily lost in the stories of misbegotten people, agencies, and politics. Many African countries have thousands of square miles of protected wilderness, though this positive effort also has the effect of concentrating highly prized animals for poachers and providing hiding places for rebel militias. The influence of outsiders provides access to drugs and alcohol; Pygmies who would rather smoke pot than work. Or, corporate investment in exotic places providing extra local income also is responsible for the deforestation of Sumatra and Madagascar, and the overall loss of knowledge contained within ever-shrinking populations of indigenous people around the world.

Other similar books by Eugene Linden include:


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