Thursday, November 21, 2013

Teaching Millennials: Some Notes from the Classroom, Part II

 (Nicolas, Paz, and Maria planning their attack)

The previous post contained some general operating principles that I have become aware of while teaching economics and international affairs courses to undergraduate students, one or two nights per week, at a private liberal arts college.   Today's post picks up where the last one left off.  The final in the series will be posted next week. 

 Be Entertaining (Continued)

The show business aspect of college teaching frequently seems to favor extroverted personality types, but I believe that the (mild) introvert who learns production and presentation skills often is the most effective because he or she doesn't try to just show up and wing it.  Extroverts often allow other extroverts to dominate class discussions, when it may be the soft-spoken, shy person in the corner who has a particularly pithy comment or observation to make.  Creating a classroom environment in which "air time" is distributed fairly evenly is a challenge, and in course evaluations I have been critiqued for having not done enough to stop the occasional hyper-extroverted student from completely dominating a discussion.

Extroverts may also be overconfident in their social skills and fail to see how they are making others uncomfortable.  Arrogance and intolerance imply a lack of social calibration and self-esteem issues, but those projecting these characteristics frequently feel that the audience is responding positively to them.  In his meditation on the problems of overconfidence, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzik observes that:

"In short, Social competence = reading others + presenting well + influencing others... in line, leading scholars in social competence research have recently proposed that the essence of self-presentation is a form of interpersonal self-control, or the capacity to demonstrate high levels of self-control in public social contexts.

"Almost a century after the formulation of Carnegie's social competence rules, psychologists are still in agreement with him.  Indeed, recent studies show that social competence is best understood as a combination of social responsiveness, social maturity, and social control.  Social responsiveness is about expressing Warmth and interest in others...  Social maturity involves controlling negative emotions and appreciating others, as well as tolerating people who are different from us.  Finally, social control refers to the motivation to improve one's skills to influence others..."

Gender Bias Realities

The typical liberal arts classroom today will contain approximately 60% female students.  In my current class of 25 students, the ratio is almost 70:30.  Professors may need to adapt their teaching styles and even cultural references to this reality---when talking to predominantly male audiences, guys routinely find it easy to rely on metaphors and examples from warfare, football, action movies, and the like.

The common wisdom is that these references may not be as easily processed by female audiences, but I personally have not found this to be the case.  If you are a male professor, female students expect and may even demand a certain level of locker room esprit de corps, and could be disappointed if it is not present.  They know that you are a guy---you can't hide it, and pandering to try to appear to be "just one of the girls" may lead to reactions of contempt from both female and male students alike. 

They also know that I am a lot older than they are, so trying to portray myself as "young and wild and free" like they are may generate the same negative reactions.  Take Adderall, for example:  this study/party/lifestyle drug was not part of my undergraduate experience, yet the majority of my students seem to have first-hand knowledge of its effects.  I have no experience with many lifestyle apps, social media platforms, online dating, and related technologies, and even if I did I would not be familiar with them on the level that my students tend to be.  The dating/mating world has also changed significantly over the past two decades.

Professors should not try too hard to fit in or to be hip; in my view, you are better off being cool in your own, differentiated, somewhat iconoclastic/exotic type of way than you are by trying to identify directly with your students' lifestyles.  If they like you and trust you, they will tell you what their larger, life-type concerns are.  They will teach you about things like Adderall, music apps, and the return of the speakeasy.

Be very careful about giving advice, especially if it runs contrary to what they have previously heard from their parents.  Many situations are very complex and you can't give a strong recommendation without knowing much about the peculiar circumstances involved. 

I realize that this is controversial, but I think that the noble attempt to go completely "gender-neutral" can end up creating an awkward, sterile learning environment that just bleeds all of the fun and chemistry out of the room.  It would, ironically, be more important to work for gender neutrality if the classroom was only, say, 10% women.  When women take up the majority of seats, the male professor is actually liberated (once again, my opinion) to be more "guylike" in terms of both content and classroom atmosphere.

It can go too far, of course, and students have different comfort levels.  I probably walk a tightrope in a way that could be seen as cowboy/reckless if I didn't A) take such great pains to show that I am almost completely nonjudgmental, and B) show that I really care about the performance outcomes that students have with course material outside of the classroom.  One of my many weaknesses is that I tend to use "adult language" in class.  It's a bit juvenile and some words are not particularly professional, but it seems to be more of a natural representation of how people talk when they are speaking to each other as friends, and so I think it lowers the barrier between myself and my student audience, and leads to a greater sense of rapport between us.  By speaking relatively freely, I am in a sense showing that I trust them and view us as colleagues. I think it is similarly important to have students call you by your first name, but this is another controversial one and its acceptance will vary from professor to professor. 

Everything I have said here is based on the personal experiences of one (male) professor.  I have *heard* that some female professors actually find a female-dominated classroom to be more difficult to manage than would be a more gender-equal or even male-dominated one.  It would be very interesting to see this studied clinically.  

 Tells, Halos, and the first Six Seconds

In a series of now-famous studies, students were asked to evaluate their professors over different time intervals.  Matthew Hertenstein: 

"How quickly do students begin to form their impressions of instructors?  Consider one study in which students in fourteen different courses taught by five different instructors completed teaching evaluations.  One group filled out the evaluations at the end of the first class of the semester, and another group did so at the end of the first week.  At the end of the semester, all of the students filled out the same evaluations.

"Students' ratings at the beginning of the term---both at the end of the first day and at the end of the first week---accurately predicted their ratings of the instructor at the end of the term.  They accurately predicted how much interest the instructor showed, how well they communicated the importance of the subject and their expectations for the class, the degree to which they provided good feedback, how available they were to students, the degree to which they graded based on expectations, how much they encouraged students, and how challenging students would find the course.  In other words, students form their first impressions of an instructor as early as the first day and hold these perceptions as much as four months later."

Evaluations at the end of the first day and end of the first week being so highly correlated with end-of-term evaluations may not be particularly surprising.  But here is where the story gets more interesting...

"Ambady and Rosenthal then showed (videos of instructors lecturing) to people who had never taken courses with the instructor(s).  These subjects rated the teachers on a number of specific non-verbal behaviors such as confidence, likability, and enthusiasm.  But rather than show the subjects the videotapes in their entirety---that is, asking them to view one hour per instructor---these researchers were more ambitious:  they showed only thirty seconds of video for each instructor (ten seconds each from the beginning, middle, and end of class).  Moreover, they showed the strangers the brief clips without sound.  

"With only thirty seconds of video, the strangers could differentiate the high- from the low-quality instructors.  Instructors whom students rated as performing well and having high-quality sections struck strangers, based on their nonverbal cues, as warmer and more active, enthusiastic, optimistic, supportive, confident, likable, dominant, and competent (Seb:  note the fascinating mix of 'hard' and 'soft' attributes being clustered).  ...Importantly, the correlations between nonverbal behavior and instructor ratings were exceedingly high, speaking to the highly predictive nature of tells for subsequent quality ratings by students."

 (I think that it is safe to say that this man would have very good course reviews.  Please note that the Harris tweed jacket and waistcoat can be incorporated into HFG style matrix with great success)

Ambady and Rosenthall then went a step further:  after using three ten-second videos clips of instructors to see if brief, silent exposure to nonverbal styles could predict how students evaluated their professors, they cut things even further and provided viewers with three two-second clips:

"In a study they dubbed 'Thinning the Slices', Ambady and Rosenthal cut the three ten-second clips down to three two-second clips (six seconds total).  Astonishingly---at least to me---strangers' ratings of the graduate instructors' nonverbal behavior during these six seconds predicted their end-of-semester scores..."

An important detail here is that students who formed these evaluative summaries were generally unable to describe what they were using as their key input information. They were strongly reliant on nonverbal communication in quickly forming opinions which later became rationalized and verbalized as assessments of a range of professor qualities.

Hertenstein:  "...the studies tell us something about how our minds work and the importance of remaining humble.  If you ask students, they will never tell you that hand gestures, voice inflection, and the like largely drive their opinions of teachers.  But the studies described suggest exactly that.  We think that we know what makes a good teacher---expertise in the field, clear goals, fair grading, quality course materials, organization, and accessibility---but we really don't, at least not when we're asked about it in evaluations.  The evidence suggests that how a teacher conducts herself is at least as important, if not more so, than course content when it comes to the experience of learning."

("...poor Fernando was asked to stay after class yet again")

The issue of System 1 vs. System 2 processing and the inability of many subjects to accurately describe how they actually make real-time decisions in the field is one of the reasons why self-reported survey results---at least those that rely on subjects having "conscious accessibility" of their decision inputs---have long been held in suspicion by marketing firms (hence the old term "buyers are liars").  The field of neuromarketing brings with it technologies and skills that can shed light on some of these shadowy effects, and the "rational consumer model (RCM)" is being replaced by an "intuitive consumer model (ICM)."

Hertenstein:  "Despite the power of the expressivity halo (Seb:  the 'expressivity halo' reflects the tendency to assume that people with good nonverbal communication styles are good in other areas) in driving how we perceive others, most people do not recognize its effects.  When I ask my students over dinner which classes are their favorites, none of them ever tell me that they appreciate a particular faculty member's emotional expressivity.  Rather they comment on the course content, the professor's expertise, and how fairly the instructor grades work.  ...The problem is that effects of the expressivity halo are powerful and yet unrecognized." 

Be Interdisciplinary

 (Paola, Peter, Lonnie, Carolina, and Alejandro are ecstatically pleased to have such a dynamic, awesome, good-looking professor)

For someone involved in the social sciences, the days of being able to safely remain in a single-discipline silo may be coming to a close.  The most interesting and pressing social phenomena frequently involve complex adaptive systems which do not lend themselves to closed-form solutions, but which instead must be studied with tools taken from a variety of different disciplines.

I've had the pleasure of meeting some academics of truly staggering erudition and worldly experience, and they all tend to have access to a variety of analytical techniques and frameworks (what Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger would term "mental models" on tap).   Over the course of a career, you are going to have a few research areas that have exceptional appeal to you.  Your sense of underlying reality will change as you begin to view large parts the world through the metaphorical eyes of these intellectual disciplines (it is, of course, potentially dangerous to filter information like this, but it is probably inevitable).

I personally rely on a few "Universal Acids" that were described in a previous post:

1.  Evolutionary Psychology
2.  the Austrian School of Economics
3.  the Public Choice approach to political science
4.  Classics of Military Strategy (readings from Jomini and Sir Julian Corbett have proven particularly useful for some classes)
5.  the Worldly Philosophers

My experience has been that a deep-dive into any one of these subjects tends to gradually lead to acceptance of, if not direct interest in, the others.  Moreover, I believe that individually and together, these shed much light on human behavior patterns in many, many activity spheres.

On the other hand, the tone that is created when these subjects are employed is definitely one that some will find to be rather bleak, perhaps even ruthless.  Students who embrace the message will become skeptical about authority and central planning or social engineering schemes, and cautious about how people tend to behave when they acquire power.   My classes are not utopian; I do not attempt to describe "a better world" or to agitate for social change.  I explicitly assume students will face competitive environments in which desired resources are scarce, and that they need to be equipped accordingly to make the best decisions *for themselves*, not for me.  The object then becomes to start building intellectual weapons systems, and to be prepared to profit from crisis and chaos. 

(Michel de Montaigne)

None of my Acids are perfect; they all have blindspots and areas in which arguments and claims have been less developed than they have in others.  There are unexplained phenomena and uncharted territories which require much more research.  But I find them compelling and feel comfortable that students should at least be familiar with them as they construct their own mental models (the creation of a personalized war chest of well-informed mental models and related techniques is, to me, the main purpose of a liberal arts education in the first place).  

It would be a very sad state of affairs indeed if every professor adopted my quasi-survivalist view of the world, and, perhaps thankfully, few do.  But we all have our little roles to play, and mine apparently is to play Walsingham or Dee to the students' young Elizabeth.

Organizational Models

Organization becomes a particularly pressing factor when attempting to teach a cross-disciplinary course.  There can be a tendency to jump between academic research areas with reckless abandon in the pursuit of attractive intellectual prey, and the professor should realize that this can create confusion in the audience.  I know that I have a very real tendency to do this and it can result in frustrations if it is allowed to run unchecked.

When it comes to this stuff, I was trained by people who more or less followed the Roman model of pedagogy, which reportedly contained five canons:

1.  Invention (selection of resources and appeals)
2.  Arrangement (organization and familiarity with what cognitive scientists of today would call "processing fluency"---the preferred patter-recognition formats for the human brain)
3.  Style (descriptive vocabulary, metaphors, etc.)
4.  Memory (the elimination of reliance on notes)
5.  Delivery (the actual physical presentation)

Together, these were meant to achieve the goal of a "good person speaking well."  Petrus Ramus is credited/discredited with the separation of these canons into the halls of Philosophy (which received Invention and Arrangement---i.e., the truth-seeking pieces) and those of Rhetoric (which received Style, Memory, and Delivery---the arts associated with presenting what has been previously discovered).  Invention and Arrangement came under serious skeptical attack from Descartes and the results of all of this have literally taken centuries to work out.

In my view, the contemporary professor should re-integrate the five canons and avail himself or herself of both ancient and cutting-edge techniques for effective communication. 


When discussing a major social trend or politico-economic phenomena in class, you often need to find a good entry point into the topic.  Some situations are very well-known---the 2008 financial market crash would be a good example.  Others, such as demographic time bombs in Asia, may not have received much exposure.

Rhetoric, particularly the study of principled argumentation, provides a useful instrument:  stasis.  Stasis represents the procedures used to arrive at the stasis point---the equilibrium point---of an issue or controversy.  It is a way of (hopefully quickly) dealing with those aspects of the issue which are considered accepted facts by all concerned parties or disputants; which aspects are still being disputed; which require true conjecture; and which rely on the use of an external, subjective moral frame of reference to interpret.

The stasis point is where the argument or controversy currently rests; your discussion, at least if your intention is to persuade, is to push the stasis point in one direction or another.  Frequently you will not be able to "solve" a huge socioeconomic, political, or cultural controversy---the idea that one person can fix the world's most complicated, trade-off-rich problems with the glib 5-step plan he came up with one night between his third glass of Laphroaig and the commercial breaks between Arrow viewings is a conceit for the sloppy Op-Ed pages, not for the college classroom. 

The most fertile material for class discussions will typically be the disputed facts and the aspects of conjecture and scenario building.  The core facts of the case can be discussed during the introduction.  The subjective moral interpretations are for each student to decide for him- or herself; these are adults and should be treated as such.

As part of the discovery process, it is important to avoid the common straw man fallacy---do not cherry-pick examples that bolster your own case, but present the strongest argument that the opposition brings forward.  Avoid ad hominem and never make it personal, particularly if you are dealing with a fellow professor or research academic (even one who you do not know in person).

This is not only an ethical, collegial way to proceed, but it ends up making your persuasion far more effective:  influence researchers, including Robert Cialdini, report "moments of power" during a persuasion scenario in which the agent has the opportunity to display knowledge of the full range of features and theories surrounding a given issue, to praise those that may differ from his own and celebrate their strengths, and to show the weaknesses in his own positions.  The effect is to make the agent appear both more competent and more trustworthy.

Most intelligent people are going to realize that if experts disagree on a subject, it is probably because key facts are unclear in some way.  By giving a strong version of an opposing argument rather than providing a simplistic, biased account, the professor appears more reasonable.  If you present a strawman and students see through it, the next assumption is that your whole position is probably wrong because you failed to even understand the other claims or arguments.  If you present a more nuanced and balanced view, the assumption is that your own position must be that much stronger. 

  (Mirella, Rose, CrossFit Jamie, and Nathalia discuss post-class wine bar options)

Next Installment:  Templates for Lesson Plans, Monroe's Motivated Sequence, HFG on Campus and Essential Accessories, and More

Monday, November 18, 2013

Batman Unmasked

Interesting documentary on the psychology of The King:

Friday, November 15, 2013

Teaching Millennials: Some Notes from The Classroom, Part 1

(left to right:  my students Peter, Paola, Carolina, and Alejandro building a persuasion scenario and solutions using the "ATTiC"---Agent, Target, Tactics, and Context---framework,  a state-of-the-art basic model for isolating and understanding influence dynamics in social phenomena)

After two years, six classes of my own syllabus design and execution (two rounds each of Globalization, Global Macro Analysis, and Strategic Social Dynamics, and now some more complicated new stuff), and a few "guest appearances", I felt like I should reflect on my personal experience of teaching college students and try to summarize my major findings.  It seems to me that the major components of teaching success with the Millennial cohort---at least in my opinion as a relatively inexperienced, part-time professor---can be summarized in a set of seven general rules:

1.  Personality:  "Be Cool".  

2.  Appearance:  "Be Hot".

3.  Teaching Style:  "Be Entertaining."

4.  Material:  "Be Interdisciplinary."

5.  Lifestyle:  "Be Glamorous."

6.  Hobbies:   "Be Dangerous." 

7.  Strategic Focus:  "Outliers."

Let me state upfront that in describing these rules I am not claiming that I personally exemplify any of them (!).  This is not for me to judge; you'd have to ask my students directly.  These rules exist primarily as long-term, aspirational goals, as things to strive for.   I am to some extent constructing a hypothetical "dream professor" based on what I have seen and heard in the classroom, and the feedback I have received from course reviews and so on. 

I will start with rules 1-3 today and then try to get to the remainder next week. 

(left to right:  Paola, Carolina, Alejandro, and Peter)

1.  BE COOL.  The current generation of students that I encounter is---as a general rule---remarkably nonjudgmental and tolerant, particularly on issues related to race, gender equality, and sexuality.  Many essentially describe themselves as secular humanists, although they may use another term.  A minority do have deep-seated religious beliefs and these also need to be respected (as much of my course content is influenced by evolutionary psychology, for example, I find that it is appropriate for me to create a parallel explanation system in which a student who is skeptical about evolution can still use the main takeaway lessons from evo psych, even if he or she subscribes to a different "design history" for the human brain).  

As a professor, it is important to avoid immediately and fatally losing credibility by engaging in moralist editorializing on subjective personal-choice topics.  You will have students of different genders, races, national origins, faiths, sexual orientations, and so on.   Broad, general positions stated as universal certainty will be challenged by the students' natural contrarian nature (I will discuss this more in the "Outliers" section), and risk making you appear culturally unsophisticated and, in many cases, anti-intellectual. 

If students expressed their displeasure immediately and challenged you to give a more nuanced version of a bombastic statement that you had uttered, then perhaps it would not be so bad.  With long-term relationships and repeat students this kind of discussion can occur, often after class over a beer.  But what seems to happen in the majority of cases is that the students immediately counter-judge you for the way that you seem so willing to judge others---even if the students themselves disapprove of those "others", they will defend them---and they tune you out without ever saying anything to you about it. 

He that complies against his Will,
Is of his own Opinion still;
Which he may adhere to, yet disown,
For Reasons to himself best known. 

-Samuel Butler

The best general personality disposition for effectively engaging such a group seems to be one of easygoing nonchalance and ironic detachment, a so-called "accommodating orientation" that leaves a very broad range of people/attitudes with the impression that you like them and accept them for who they are.  If you have strong opinions, contain them and let your behaviors and personal example do the arguing for you.  Leave room for dissenting views---students may be deeply offended by a controversial statement and say nothing, but they won't forget it.  

Dale Carnegie perhaps said it best:  "Do not criticize, condemn, or complain."  Virtually no one can entirely meet this standard, but I have found that it is generally better to avoid stating that an entire segment of society is populated by imbeciles ("i.e., those idiots at the Federal Reserve are unaware of how their actions could be creating a new credit market bubble"), and instead talking about underlying incentives, dangers, and opportunities without adding an ad hominem flourish.  

There are other schools of thought on this that basically argue in favor of a more confrontational style, operating from the view that professors should take an "in your face" stance with students and force them to "confront their own belief systems and values".  This may in fact work to some extent in the hard sciences and mathematics.  In the social sciences, one must show great humility.  

Developing this point, psychologist Matthew Hertenstein says that:

"The job of science is to study empirical generalizations---how things usually are---not certainties.  Nearly all sciences make probabilistic predictions.  Some are highly accurate, such as quantum theory, which can accurate predict specific properties of electrons 'to within about one part in 10^10.'  Other sciences, like meteorology, seismology, medicine, and population genetics, are less accurate.  In the behavioral sciences, virtually all relationships between variables are probabilistically associated.  Given this, I implore the reader to be cautious when making a prediction about a specific case or example in his or her life based on tells..."

Professors will occasionally be goaded into more extreme positions by adversarial students, and may then make the error of throwing out categorical generalizations that the belligerent person can then shoot down.  While you are lecturing, a student may be Google-searching for counter-examples to a controversial or provocative position, and dealing with this in a satisfying manner can potentially hijack an entire lesson plan for the day (occasionally this is fine---if the point being made is central to the thesis of the entire course, this may be a good opportunity to defend it).  It's easy to be a gentleman or lady when other people are behaving in a similar manner; the test of your commitment to this discipline---the social equivalent of a  martial art---will come when you or your arguments are suddenly attacked by a member of the audience.  You may occasionally have students who are very aggressive (normally this will involve particular public policy issues).  This is your opportunity to comport yourself with dignity under pressure and to show knowledge, patience, and tolerance. 

(left to right:  Jamie ((partially pictured)), Nathalia, and Mirella appear to be scheming about something.  They look amused)

 2.  BE HOT.  We live in an age in which one of the greatest crimes against humanity appears to be the failure to be physically attractive.  This is a topic for another post, but edgy research on persuasion/influence reveals that human beings make judgments about other people on a bi-dimensional performance matrix---the two dimensions being "Strength" and "Warmth", although some scientists prefer "Competence" and "Caring"---within seconds of meeting them.  

Strength and Warmth obviously have both fixed and contextual aspects and, for Millennials, Strength appears to be associated with confident hotness and Warmth with nonjudgmental serenity.   They combine in an attractive form of detached, friendly self-amusement.

From the book THE HUMAN BRAND:

Social psychologists have deduced that primitive humans were forced, in their struggle for existence, to develop a primal, unconscious ability to make two specific kinds of judgments with a high degree of speed and sufficient accuracy:  what are the intentions of other people toward me?  How capable are they of carrying out those intentions?  Today we judge others almost instantly along these same two categories of social perception, which are known as warmth and competence

...Survival for our distant ancestors depended upon their ability to quickly judge others according to these criteria.  Humans have come to dominate the globe using this deeply programmed social circuity, painstakingly developed and tested for ages through the harsh, unforgiving process of natural selection.  This, the original real-life game of Survivor, still shapes all our social interactions today.

Susan Fiske at Princeton estimates that as much as 82% of our judgments of others can be predicted by these two perception categories alone.  It appears that, of the two dimensions, Warmth assessments typically come earliest and may carry a heavier weight in the overall rating.  Some researchers have added that this assessment of negative intentions and hostility happens so quickly that an influence professional should probably train himself or herself to make a small, private smile---a Mona Lisa-esque smirk---the default facial expression.  

A college student's view of a professor's physical attractiveness is reportedly going to involve a student conducting an intuitive time-extrapolation exercise.  Consider who the highest social-value male and female students are on a typical campus; the male archetype would probably be a star athlete, often a football or basketball player although there are regional variations (rowing and rugby were the Oxbridge equivalents, for example), who is simultaneously dominant on the field and equipped with a handsome, square-jawed, leading-man-type face.  The female archetype would probably be a very pretty and sexy sorority girl from a wealthy background who drove a convertible BMW or equivalent, drew her clothing from a stellar wardrobe, and controlled a social network populated by similarly attractive females and eager male orbiters.  

For points of reference, the "hot" actors popular with the female cohort are typically Channing Tatum, the Hemsworth brothers, Taylor Kitsch, and the still-hanging-on 50+-year-olds Clooney, Pitt, and Depp.  Male students have cited superblondes Kate Upton and Brooklyn Decker, Scarlett Johansson, Angelina J, Christina Hendricks, and of course an array of porn stars. 

The "hot professor" of male or female stripe basically takes existing BMOC stereotypes and goes out 10 or more years with them.  Suffice to say that it is typically unusual for high-level campus jocks and hotties to end up with professorships, so a little may go a long way when it comes to presenting well as a college teacher.  I think the bar to be considered "hot" is probably quite generously low for academics.  

There may not be a lot that we can do about this one---just be aware of it and do the best you can with what you have to work with.

There is some theoretical research which suggests that the elusive quality of "Charisma" involves the ability to project both Strength and Warmth simultaneously (most people project neither; others are biased towards one dominant signal or another).  This requires a harmonious blending of attributes that few of us will ever have, but we can certainly attempt to do a better job.  Performance traits and indicators may be combined to hit different channels:  the Schmiss scar combined with an elegantly tailored jacket; the menacing physicality combined with an open and friendly smile; the story of personal vulnerability combined with expansive, hyperconfident alpha body language in the delivery; the busty and pretty female professor who combines some tasteful hints of cleavage with studious tortoiseshell eyeglasses; the outdoorsy professor with the surfer's tan who plays Beethoven tracks before class; the former All-American wrestler who wears a whimsically colorful pocket square or tie; the high nerdling who confidently articulates his love of elk-hunting and martial arts. 

The important detail is that the Strength and Warmth projections are happening on different communication channels simultaneously, rather than competing with one another for the same channel at the same time.  Millennials respect the authority that stems from example:  if you personally embody a basket of desired physical, intellectual, psychological, and cultural traits, they will feel that you can provide them with a blueprint that, one way or another, leads to a desired outcome.  If you do not embody these traits, they tend to think that whatever you are doing clearly has not worked out so well for you. 

(left to right:  Nicolas, Morgen, Maria, and "Paz" caught in the midst of what looks to be a very interesting discussion)

3.  BE ENTERTAINING.  As an undergraduate professor, you are a showman and motivational speaker.  You have a unique opportunity to serve as a goodwill ambassador for your particular field and to demonstrate to young people that they should pursue further study of this topic and related material (in other, future classes and/or on their own).  If your teaching style is boring, your field will be assumed to be boring.  If the work seems difficult and pointless, your field will become associated with those same traits. 

In my experience, students particularly love anecdotes and stories that feature disasters and human failure.  For example, the best way to discuss the theoretical calculation of an effective interest rate on real loanable funds or the shape of the yield curve may be to start with a discussion of what happens when naughty central banks and governments manipulate the price of money, spurring waves of malinvestment and distortions in the price system.  You can then backtrack from a story of crashing asset prices and great psychological pain to a discussion of how interest rates would work under *idealized* conditions. \

Start with the big picture, go into specific details via a structured framework that you can write on the board, and then return to the big picture.  Isolated stylized facts without an overarching explanatory model should not be what a professor tries to emphasize, although no doubt many do.  

The most enjoyable stories seem to be ones that highlight the professor's own failures, the more spectacular the better.  An old and dear friend frequently borrows alpinist Mark Twight's observation that "the burned hand teaches best."  This appears to be true not just in terms of the lessons for the individual who has burned his hand, but also for those who are being trained. 

I personally do not use Powerpoint in class, for several reasons:

1.  The slides compete with the speaker.

2.  There is always the tendency to look at the slides and read them to the audience, which of course is not fun for anyone.

3.  Slides are normally way too busy.

4.  Slides give all of the information in one completed burst.  If I draw a diagram on the board and go through each step in a methodical fashion, the students can follow my train of thought and usually anticipate where I am going, and this aids in understanding and recall.  The brain gets a satisfying dopamine jolt reward from successful anticipation of the teaching point's "punchline" (mediated by the SEEKING system that we have discussed here in the past) and this seems to be a key piece of making the learning experience fun. 

This all said, I could benefit from using Powerpoint a bit---there are many occasions where images would help support a discussion, and the combination of PP and a laser pointer would allow me to walk through some details.  So I will probably start using slide decks in a very limited, specific-purpose way, following the "Zen Presentation Design" dictum that slides should exclusively contain images and key words or phrases, and have lots of negative space.

I have found that the use of music in the classroom is very important.  If people walk into a place and a good track is already playing, it changes the energy and mood of the whole room.

Breaks should generally be taken every 45 minutes, if not sooner, and should last at least 10-15 minutes.  If you have so much material that you can't fit your lesson plan into the class time and still take reasonable breaks, then you probably need to filter the material. 

(My red Jambox bluetooth speaker---seen here in the background near the chalkboard---has turned out to be one of my most useful classroom tools; I try to play good music during breaks and when the students go into small-team discussions.  It really seems to liven the mood)

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Alumnus Football

 "Alumnus Football", by Grantland Rice

Bill Jones had been the shining star upon his college team.
His tackling was ferocious and his bucking was a dream.
When husky William took the ball beneath his brawny arm
They had two extra men to ring the ambulance alarm.

Bill hit the line and ran the ends like some mad bull amuck.
The other team would shiver when they saw him start to buck.
And when some rival tackler tried to block his dashing pace,
On waking up, he'd ask, "Who drove that truck across my face?"

Bill had the speed-Bill had the weight-Bill never bucked in vain;
From goal to goal he whizzed along while fragments, strewed the plain,
And there had been a standing bet, which no one tried to call,
That he could make his distance through a ten-foot granite wall.

When he wound up his college course each student's heart was sore.
They wept to think bull-throated Bill would sock the line no more.
Not so with William - in his dreams he saw the Field of Fame,
Where he would buck to glory in the swirl of Life's big game.

Sweet are the dreams of college life, before our faith is nicked-
The world is but a cherry tree that's waiting to be picked;
The world is but an open road-until we find, one day,
How far away the goal posts are that called us to the play.

So, with the sheepskin tucked beneath his arm in football style,
Bill put on steam and dashed into the thickest of the pile;
With eyes ablaze he sprinted where the laureled highway led-
When Bill woke up his scalp hung loose and knots adorned his head.

He tried to run the ends of life, but with rib-crushing toss
A rent collector tackled him and threw him for a loss.
And when he switched his course again and dashed into the line
The massive Guard named Failure did a toddle on his spine.

Bill tried to punt out of the rut, but ere he turned the trick
Right Tackle Competition scuttled through and blocked the kick.
And when he tackled at Success in one long, vicious prod
The Fullback Disappointment steered his features in sod.

Bill was no quitter, so he tried a buck in higher gear,
But Left Guard Envy broke it up and stood him on his ear.
Whereat he aimed a forward pass, but in two vicious bounds
Big Center Greed slipped through a hole and rammed him out of bounds.

But one day, when across the Field of Fame the goal seemed dim,
The wise old coach, Experience, came up and spoke to him.
"Oh Boy," he said, "the main point now before you win your bout
Is keep on bucking Failure till you've worn the piker out!"

"And, kid, cut out this fancy stuff - go in there, low and hard;
Just keep your eye upon the ball and plug on, yard by yard,
And more than all, when you are thrown or tumbled with a crack,
Don't sit there whining-hustle up and keep on coming back;

"Keep coming back with all you've got, without an alibi,
If Competition trips you up or lands upon your eye,
Until at last above the din you hear this sentence spilled:
'We might as well let this bird through before we all get killed.'

"You'll find the road is long and rough, with soft spots far apart,
Where only those can make the grade who have the Uphill Heart.
And when they stop you with a thud or halt you with a crack,
Let Courage call the signals as you keep on coming back.

"Keep coming back, and though the world may romp across your spine,
Let every game's end find you still upon the battling line;
For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name,

He writes - not that you won or lost - but how you played the Game."

Monday, November 11, 2013

MP5s, Dueling Scars, and Cauliflower Ear

(with Gary and Johnny, both at EIGHT back then, and MP5s/SIGs.  I think the funky web gear we used was all from London Bridge Trading Company.  Taken on 35mm in Virginia in the mid-90s, the photo was originally captioned, from left to right, "King Cocksman, ENS Marcinko, and CarlosDJackal")

Walking down memory lane and perusing some old photos, I came across several that depicted some training time on the H&K MP5 SMG.  While many readers of a tactical bent no doubt know that the use of the 9-mm. subgun for CQB applications has long since been overtaken by modern indoor-dynamic skills with the 5.56 carbine (indeed, this was already starting to happen even back in the Paleolithic when the photo was taken), I think rather fondly of the MP5.  Perhaps this nostalgia is largely due to the influence of various Joel Silver films I enjoyed as a teenager in the 1980s.  I mean, really, who can forget these iconic movie tough guy images featuring the venerable German piece:

(for some reason, I really wanted the bad guys to get away with it in this one.  Was this a common sentiment?  Still, Willis did a fine job)

("You're using mercenaries, for Christ's sake, tell me I'm wrong!":  ex-CIA paramilitary contractors of "Shadow Company" understandably expressing alarm at being shot at---many of them killed--- by lethal weapon Martin Riggs)

 ("Sexual Tyrannosaurus" Jesse Ventura, BUD/S Class 58)

Going beyond the MP5 specifically, Heckler & Koch ultimately became seared in our pop-culture consciousness as the choice of professionals.  Professionals including tough, vicious, possibly insane men like this guy from an old ad:

(Look at this awesome maniac, with his clear unwillingness to compromise and his Echanis-like cosmetics and swamp-wraith costume design.  I find myself so intrigued and wondering what the backstory is here and, more importantly, what he will do next)

The Mensur and the Schmiss

Keeping with the overarching Germanic theme and international hardman imagery, we could consider the facial scar that was at one time considered a badge of manhood in various elitist European dueling societies.  

From the Wiki entry:

Modern academic fencing, the Mensur, is neither a duel nor a sport. It is a traditional way of training and educating character and personality; thus, in a mensur bout, there is neither winner nor loser. In contrast to sport fencing, the participants stand their ground at a fixed distance. At the beginning of the tradition, duelers wore only their normal clothing (as duels sometimes would arise spontaneously) or light-cloth armor on arm, torso, and throat. In recent years, fencers are protected by chain mail or padding for the body, fencing arm, fencing hand (gauntlet) and the throat, completed by steel goggles with a nose guard. They fence at arm's length and stand more or less in one place, while attempting to hit the unprotected areas of their opponent's face and head. Flinching or dodging is not allowed, the goal being less to avoid injury than to endure it stoically (!!!). Two physicians are present (one for each opponent) to attend to injuries and stop the fight if necessary.
The participants, or Paukanten, use specially developed swords. The so-called Mensurschläger (or simply Schläger), exists in two versions. The most common weapon is the Korbschläger with a basket-type guard. In some universities in the eastern part of Germany, the so-called Glockenschläger is in use which is equipped with a bell-shaped guard. These universities are Leipzig, Berlin, Greifswald, Dresden, Tharandt (in the Forestry College which is now part of Technische Universität Dresden), Halle on the Saale, Frankfurt-an-der-Oder, and Freiberg. In Jena, both Korbschlägern and Glockenschlägern are used. Studentenverbindungen from some western cities use Glockenschlägern because their tradition had its origin in one of the eastern universities but moved to West Germany after World War II.
The scar resulting from a hit is called a "smite" (German Schmiss), and was seen as a badge of honour, especially in the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Today, it is not easy for an outsider to identify Mensur scars due to better medical treatment. Also the number of mandatory Mensuren were reduced in the second half of the 20th century. Most Mensur scars are located on the left temple of the forehead. Scars on the cheek and chin are rather uncommon today and sometimes due to accidents.

(Otto Skorzeny, the commando operations mastermind of the Third Reich, had, during his youth, apparently been really enthusiastic about dueling with live steel)

In an age in which quintessentially male rites of passage are very difficult to come by, the Mensur and resulting wounds have a certain romantic appeal.   They evoke a violent, necessarily social event in which men happily participate and come away from the experience and the suffering equipped with special insights about themselves and with an esprit de corps that non-participating men may envy. 

...But Do Chicks Actually Dig Scars?

Men involved in high-risk physical activities have long rationalized away the potential for incurring damage with the glib slogan that "Chicks Dig Scars."  The claim as commonly expressed and explained is that a facial scar on a man---assuming that it is not a disfiguring one---provides evidence that a man has engaged in exciting rough-house pursuits such as war, bullfighting, and Muay Thai.  The fact that he is still alive after having been through such an experience is meant to connote a special, "survivor" mystique on him and make him also seem more worldly and experienced. 

Ian Fleming, probably borrowing from the fencing societies, gave James Bond such a piratical scar in the physical description that he provided for 007 in From Russia, With Love:

 "It was a dark, clean-cut face, with a three-inch scar showing whitely down the sunburned skin of the right cheek.  The eyes were wide and level under straight, rather long black brows.  The hair was black, parted on the left, and carelessly brushed so that a thick black comma fell down over the right eyebrow.  The longish straight nose ran down to a short upper lip below which was a wide and finely drawn but cruel mouth.  The line of jaw was straight and firm.  A section of dark suit, white short and black knitted tie completed the picture." 

Most of the Bond films have not been consistent with the Fleming facial scar description, although variants on it were borrowed for other action heroes.  For example, Channing Tatum proudly sported a Schmiss-type scar in the recent GI JOE film adaptations:

(Tatum in costume to portray American military Special Mission Unit officer Conrad "Duke" Hauser)

...and Oliver Stone used the same Fleming-description for scarring Taylor Kitsch in the movie Savages:

(Kitsch portraying former NSW operator-turned-Cannabis maven "Chon")

However, it would clearly be rather dangerous to extrapolate from the legendary womanizing successes of James Bond, Gambit, and Magic Mike.  What does academic research have to say on the subject?  The results are a bit mixed and may hinge on a man's desirability to women for Short-Term vs. Long-Term Mating purposes:

Reporting on one such study,  Ian Sample at The Guardian reported that:

"They give Action Man a certain ruggedness and bestow instant testosterone on movie heroes, and according to British psychologists, facial scars can also make men more attractive to the opposite sex.

"Men with mild facial scars were typically ranked as more appealing by women who were looking for a brief relationship, though they were not considered better as marriage material, a study found.  In the same experiments, women with facial scars were judged to be as attractive as those without, the researchers said.

"The sexual allure of the facial scar has long puzzled psychologists. Many believe they are seen by women as a sign of masculinity and an exciting, risk-taking personality, though in Shakespeare's All's Well that Ends Well, an old lord, Lafeu, takes a different slant, commenting: "A scar nobly got, or a noble scar, is a good livery of honour."

"Psychologists at the universities of Liverpool and Stirling decided to investigate the effects of facial scars by asking 115 women and 64 men to rate the attractiveness of eight strangers of the opposite sex. Half were asked to look at original face shots, while the other half viewed images that had been digitally manipulated to add scars to their cheeks, jawbones or foreheads.

"While the scars made no difference to the perceived attractiveness of women, scarred men ranked 5.7 percentage points higher in the appeal ratings than those with undamaged skin.  'A large scar is unlikely to make you more attractive, but there are some scars that women do seem to find appealing. There's the whole James Bond thing, where a person is attractive but probably not the best marriage material,' said Robert Burriss, a psychologist at Liverpool who led the study.

 "For each picture, volunteers were asked to guess whether the scar was from a fight, an accident or illness. The men's scars were often blamed on a violent encounter, while those on women were often attributed to accidents.

"When scarring is seen as the result of a violent encounter, it signifies strength or bravery in a guy, or it could be due to an accident, and so evidence of a risk-taking personality. Either way, it's another way of assessing a man's masculinity," Burriss said. Men without scars could be seen as more caring and cautious, and so more suitable for a long term relationship, he added.

"The study appears in the journal Personality and Individual Differences."

Pop-science site LIVESCIENCE, summarizing the same research results, adds that:

"...In the study, women rated scars as attractive for flings because they saw them symbols of masculinity — good qualities to pass on in the genes, if you know what I mean. Men without scars were seen as more caring and better suited for the long haul (suggesting these unscarred men may get saddled swaddling the offspring of the scarred)."

So far, so good.  Based on these reports, should young men immediately start hitting each other in the face with bicycle chains? 

The SCOOP NEWS, a satirical magazine, certainly does not agree:

"The phrase 'chicks dig scars'; has been a popular saying in the United States for over 200 years. It’s believed the phrase was made popular by Viking Neanderthal Samurais who hunted dinosaurs. The phrase continues to be popular amongst assholes and psychopaths."

(Personally, I have always hoped to hear or read conclusive evidence that girls enjoyed facial scars---I am biased because I have a prominent, crescent-shaped one right between my eyes that I wish I had received from a duel with sabers.  Alas, I got it as a child when I jumped headfirst from a sink into a toilet, and it---along with the weirdly bushy left eyebrow that seems to have come with it as a package deal---has been an obvious distinguishing mark for me ever since)

 I think that any generic statements about the attractiveness of male facial scars clearly need to have major caveats:  1)  the scar needs to look like it came from a physically dangerous sport or other activity---scars that result from disease or major surgical operations will not have the same effect;  2) the scar needs to be quite small and conveniently placed so that the normal functioning of the nose, eyes, and lips are not impaired;  3) any boost in attraction is likely to take place in increased qualification of the scarred male as a potential hook-up partner, rather than as a long-term mate (the same may be true of a variety of other "dangerous man" indicators---tattoos, motorcycles, stubble, etc.). 

The Modern Schmiss?

Readers who train in the grappling-oriented fighting arts and/or in MMA have probably become quite familiar with the phenomenon of cauliflower ear, a disfigurement of the outer ear that is the result of repeated trauma (often from headlocks).   What those who are new to the combat sports may not realize is how much the cauliflower ear look may be sought after by guys looking to project a fighter image.

Writing about this scenario for ESPN, in an article entitled "Everybody Wants It", fight journalist Eli Saslow notes that: 

"Whether they wanted to or not, Couture and other elite fighters have turned cauliflower ear into a coveted badge of honor in wrestling, boxing and MMA. What was once an unsightly injury has now become a living trophy that commands respect. (No formal stats exist, but Couture estimates that 20 percent of elite wrestlers have it.) There is a Cauliflower Alley Club for elite wrestlers and online videos that suggest ways amateurs can accelerate their own cauliflower symptoms. (Hint: It involves repeatedly slamming your ear in a door.) Wrestling fans can even buy pairs of plastic cauliflower ears to wear.

"What's crazy is that developing cauliflower ear is essentially a choice, doctors say. If you wear protective headgear during practice and bouts, it's unlikely you'll get it. But if you go without headgear, you might have strange-looking ears for the rest of your life.  'It's ugly and painful, but everybody wants it,' says Cael Sanderson, a wrestler who won a 2004 Olympic gold medal and now coaches at Penn State. 'There's this idea that it puts you in a secret society of tough guys and top fighters. Most of the guys I know would do anything to have it.'

However, revealing a perhaps predictable editorial bias, Michael Brick at THE NYT seems far less impressed:

"A deformity initiated by repetitive trauma, cauliflower ear can crumple an outer ear to a misshapen shell.  Unfazed by the prospect of living life as a walking what’s-grosser-than-gross joke, a nationwide corps of professional fighters, amateur enthusiasts and teenagers have taken to leaving their ears untreated or self-treated, wearing their shriveled, hardened waxen auricles as badges of honor.

“'It’s definitely part of the culture,'” said Dr. John H. Park, a physical therapist in Rockville, Md., who specializes in treating MMA. participants. 'They say, ‘Chicks dig that stuff because they know you’re a fighter.’

"A familiar chasm separates what women dig from what dudes imagine women dig. But for mixed martial arts, a combination of boxing, wrestling and jiu-jitsu that has found favor among young men, cauliflower ear has assumed a place alongside such evocative conditions as torn elbow ligaments in pitchers, knee tendinitis in marathon runners and torn anterior cruciate ligaments in female basketball players."

Brick may well be right on thisIf I was forced to bet, I would probably take the position that cauliflower ear does NOT have the same effect on female hook-up attractiveness triggers that those dashing, artfully placed Schmiss scars apparently have.  Going further, I would imagine that having BOTH the highly visible facial scar and the crunchy cauliflower ears would be way too much "violence potential" for the *typical* female.  Still, it would be fascinating to see this studied, and to see how such assessments might change with the male subject's age (I think that "attractive" dangerous-lifestyle scars would be predominantly found on younger men, and that any value placed on these markers would decline as the man aged). 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Monday, November 4, 2013

Some Fun Books (Edited as More Come to Mind)

I've unfortunately completely lost track of what I have read since my last installment of the enjoyable fiction funlists (it was a couple of years ago), but I still  feel like I should jump back into the game---mainly because I selfishly want to solicit recommendations from my friends here.  Here is a quick, totally random assortment of escapist works that I consumed in the last few months: 

Graphic Novels:   I have been enjoying THE MASSIVE, by Wood, Donaldson, Brown, and Stewart.  The plot concerns a post-apocalyptic worldscape in which a series of sudden, violent ecological and subsequently politico-economic disasters rock modern civilization.  The KAPITAL, a small ship crewed by a aggressive, Direct Action environmentalist organization with paramilitary leanings (think Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and one of their blacked-out counter-whaling vessels), finds itself separated from the MASSIVE, its larger sistership, and seeking to make sense of the world.

The charismatic skipper of the KAPITAL, a former independent contractor with a private military corporation, faces the prospect that his pacifist vows may no longer be realistic in this vicious new world.  He begins with layering defensive technologies into his ghost ship---ECM/jamming, encrypted comms, body armor, security software---but soon must look at building an offensive capability if the KAPITAL is to survive.

Very nice, clean art in this book; tight storytelling and interesting discussion of how various problems put our society's complex, vulnerable infrastructure at risk.  There are also some pop anti-capitalist sensibilities that I personally find tedious, but they are generally kept within the confines of realistic characterization rather than dropped on the reader by a grandstanding narrator.  If you liked the superb BLACK POWDER//RED EARTH about a PMC unit that does some extremely nasty jobs overseas, you will probably quite like this one, too. 

Crime/Suspense:   THE THIEF by Fuminori Nakamura is a moody meditation on the lifestyle, psychology, and skills of a talented Japanese pickpocket.  It opens with a slick operation on the shinkansen; the protagonist/narrator immediately displays his ability to pick out his marks by classifying their wealth and vulnerability with a consumer product-exaltation precision that would make Patrick Bateman proud:

In front of me a man in his early sixties was walking towards the platform, in a black coat with a silver suitcase in his right hand.  Of all the passengers here, I knew he was the richest.  His coat was Brunello Cucinelli, and so was his suit.  His Berluti shoes, probably made to order, did not show even the slightest scuff marks.  His wealth was obvious to everyone around him.  The silver watch peeping out from the cuff on his left wrist was a Rolex Datejust.  Since he wasn't used to taking the bullet train by himself, he was having some trouble buying a ticket. He stooped forward, his thick fingers hovering over the vending machine uncertainly like revolting caterpillars.  At that moment I saw his wallet in the left front pocket of his jacket...

Some elegant tradecraft discussed in the book, and obviously some nice clothes.   Fun read.

Epic Romance/Young Adult:  DAUGHTER OF SMOKE & BONE and DAYS OF BLOOD & STARLIGHT by Laini Taylor.  I thought this one might be another of the paranormal sexy-romance genre a la Laurell K. Hamilton or J.R. Ward, the very popular and imitated "chick lit" bodice-ripper stuff that normally pairs a relatively plain-looking female with multiple, extremely attractive and powerful paranormal men (vampires, werewolves, wereleopards, angels, etc.).   These books can be useful for men to read---in controlled doses---for insights into some aspects of female fantasy.

Taylor's books are darker and more poetic than expected.  The protagonist is a teenaged art student in Prague with, of course, some very unusual gifts.  Rather than being a cute, coffee-swigging vampire in capri-length skinny jeans and hoodie, the supernatural hero is an avenging angel so luminously powerful that normal human beings are scared rather than entertained:

...What people saw was a tall young man, beautiful---truly, breath-stealingly beautiful, in a way one rarely beholds in real life---who moved among them with predatory grace, seeming no more mindful of them than if they were statuary in a garden of gods...but what people fixed on, stopping to watch him pass, were his eyes...they were amber like a tiger's, and like a tiger's they were rimmed in black---the black both of heavy lashes and of kohl, which focused the gold of his irises like beams of light.  They were pure and luminous, mesmerizing and achingly beautiful, but something was wrong, was missing.  Humanity, perhaps, that quality of benevolence that humans have, without irony, named after themselves.

Techno-Thriller/Horror:  THE EXTINCTION MACHINE and ASSASSIN'S CODE by Jonathan Maberry.  I look forward to a new Maberry novel with almost sexual anticipation.  These two are the latest in a series about the Department of Military Sciences (DMS), an elite covert operations organization of near limitless funding and discretionary authority (they take "UNODIR" to the next level), and its most celebrated tactical unit ("Echo Team") and team leader (Joe Ledger).

Maberry, who has a background writing comic books, creates truly terrifying bad guys and monstrous opponents for Ledger and the other DMS operators to face.  Ledger is a total badass. I would also recommend getting ASSASSIN'S CODE on audiobook; it kept me up late at night and I really liked his chilling take on the vampire legend and the demonic entity who recruited them into his own dark purposes. 

Techno-Thriller:  TARGET DECK by Jack Murphy is the latest in a series about a legendary international hardman, "Deckard", who has been a human killing machine since running MACV-SOG recon teams in Vietnam and, following that, with the Selous Scouts and Rhodesian SAS.  Murphy's own experiences in the Ranger Regiment and Special Forces bring technical and tactical insights to his books that readers will find deeply satisfying, but he also has a deft, light hand and doesn't get drawn into long field manual-type expositions that would end up bogging the story down.

Murphy's Deckard takes on a kind of immortal warhorse role over the course of the series, reminding me of the Highlander mythos or perhaps the old Barry Sadler "Casca" novels.

Military Sci-Fi:   VETERAN and WAR IN HEAVEN by Gavin Smith offer amazingly well-realized cyberpunk locations and a protagonist who is easily up there with Ledger and Decker.  Gavin's hero is Jakob Douglas, an MMA/Muay Thai-trained veteran of the SAS who has been heavily---and I mean heavily---augmented with weaponized biotech and cybernetic modifications.  He is forced into a rather vast conspiracy that deals with the true nature of a conflict humanity waged with an alien race typically called "Them." 

The hyperathletic and intelligent SAS/SBS/MMA hybrid special warfare monster with "social engineering" skills seems to be becoming a staple of some British hardcore sci-fi authors these days (Thomas Blackthorne's books explore similar territory), and it truly does make for a compellingly formidable character template. There are some truly insane fight scenes in these books---a particularly memorable one takes place when Douglas has to take on his nemesis, a menacing, silent former Gurkha and SAS Regimental kickboxing champion who has a giant tat of Kali, the many-armed doomsday goddess, inked across his back and holding a mix of ancient and modern weapons in her four arms. 

I'll stop here for now.  Please feel free to give me some reading suggestions!  I will definitely have some other ones when I have time to sit down and think about it.


Final Note:

 Last month was the one-year memorial mark of the death of my beloved dog, Kaigun.  As you can see in the background of the picture above, her puppy photo (from the day she came home with me) prominently adorns a bookshelf in my home office.  A larger version can be seen in the original post that I composed after she passed:

I commissioned a very talented local artist and family friend to do a water color painting of the same photo, and it turned out so beautifully that it has been placed on some greeting cards. 

I still do not feel that I have the emotional capacity to bring another dog directly into my care, but I think I may be ready in 2014.  That dog will have some very, very big pawprints to fill.