013 – Fire, History, STEM, and Geoff Wiggs

013 – Fire, History, STEM, and Geoff Wiggs


Geoff Wiggs

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[In This Episode][Guest Bio][Additional Notes][Text Transcript]
In This Episode
How does one start as a computer programmer and end up as a lawyer? How is a deeper perspective on history related to Maker Education? What is the difference between seeing the Mona Lisa on a website and seeing it in the Louvre? Our guest this week, Geoff Wiggs, has a few things to say about that. I also have a little bit of a “Don’t try this at home” story in the Great Inventor’s Secrets section. This is an official listener advisory message: Today’s podcast is not for the faint of heart.  The material is top-notch, but prepare your sensibilities.
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Guest Bio
Geoff Wiggs is a 3rd career attorney. His resume includes a service in the Air Force, a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science and a Master’s in Business Administration. United States Air Force – Airborne Vietnamese Cryptologic Linguist Geoff served nearly 10 years in the United States Air Force as a Vietnamese Cryptologic Linguist. He spent 52 weeks at the Presidio of Monterey learning the Vietnamese language. His service included stations in the Far East as well as in Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm.
Computer Consultancy – Orcas Technologies, Inc.
For nearly 20 years, Geoff ran his own computer consultancy, Orcas Technologies, Inc. He has a degree in Computer Science from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a Master’s degree in Business Administration from Pepperdine University with a focus in Strategic Implementation. As an independent computer consultant, he worked with Wholesale Food Distributors to optimize their departmental processes and help them get the most out of their computer software and hardware. He worked with distributors across the nation.
Master in Business Administration
While running his own business, he found time to pursue his Master’s in Business Administration from Pepperdine University. He focused in Strategic Implementation. After receiving his MBA, he worked for two years as a management consultant through his computer consultancy.
Law Practice
After spending a few years working as an independent management consultant, he decided to go to law school. While he was in law school, he concentrated on Consumer, Bankruptcy and Startup Law. While in school, he worked as a volunteer clerk in Chambers in the San Jose bankruptcy court and graduated from Santa Clara in May, 2009. For family reasons he was unable to sit for the bar exam until February of 2011, when he took the exam and passed. After passing the bar, he started his own law practice. Today, he focuses his practice on bankruptcy and consumer law as well as general civil law.
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Additional Notes
 Today Geoff mentioned a few items from history and art. To give you a head start to look up the details, here is a link to the Louvre in Paris, http://www.louvre.fr/en and this is a specific link to the Mona Lisa–although Geoff has another suggestion for you to see this painting (listen to find out): http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/mona-lisa-portrait-lisa-gherardini-wife-francesco-del-giocondo. Geoff also mentioned Van Gogh’s work. Here is an online gallery: http://www.vangoghgallery.com with some suggestions on museums to visit to see Van Gogh’s work: http://www.vangoghgallery.com/museum/. To see the largest Van Gogh collection in the world, you will need to visit Amsterdam: http://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en.
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Text Transcript


Do you dream of a classroom where learning is natural? Can we inspire students to lifelong learning? What exactly is the purpose of an education? Inspiring students to be curious, independent, creative, innovative, deep-thinking, confident, pro-active, collaborative, determined, educated. Rise to the challenge of changing the world. This is teaching, this learning, this is who we are. Welcome to the Table Top Inventing podcast.

In This Episode

How does one start as a computer programmer and end up as a lawyer? How is a deeper perspective on history related to Maker Education? What is the difference between seeing the Mona Lisa on a website and seeing it in the Louvre? Stay tuned for today’s podcast to hear the answers to these and other burning questions.

Intro and Shout Outs

Hey there Innovation Nation! Wow, that sounds a little like a car commercial, but I still like the sound of it. We’d like to thank you all this week for listening.  I made the mistake this week of watching our rankings in iTunes a little too carefully!  In the space of a few days we went from #195 in the “Educational Technology” category to #111 to #108 to #102–I’m sure that it hit all the numbers in between but those are the ones I saw.  I’m recording this on Wednesday, and last night when I looked we were at #4!  That meteoric rise went to my head because briefly we hit the overall “Education” category in iTunes at the #101 spot.

This morning, I’ve had time to reflect more carefully and think–imagine that!  When I checked our actual download numbers, nothing real seemed to have changed yesterday or last week to send us to #4.  I was a little suspicious about the meaning, and while I don’t completely understand ITunes’ metrics, we are now at #2 in “Educational Technology” as of this recording, #78 in the overall “Education” section. Now I’m a physicist, and the data never lies–we misinterpret it all the time but it never lies. And I have a theory:  it was a glitch in the iTunes Matrix!  Anyway, whatever the case, we need more listeners like you to join us as we discuss the state of education in America.

Now many Americans are simply unaware of the state of education in the US. We believe an honest conversation is in order, and so we offer the Table Top Inventing podcast as a conversation starter. We don’t have all the answers, but we do ask hard questions. Our interview guests have stepped up to the plate with those hard questions and really knocked it out of the park. Keep listening, and our promise to you is that we will continue to grow and get great interviewers with insights into the challenges and reliable new approaches in education.

We got a few new reviews this week, and I’d like to give a shout out to Scott Associates, RowdyRhino77, and to Kim Brand from 3D Parts Indy who says, “Steve’s interview style gives his guests plenty of room to make their point and communicate their message.  It felt like he was asking the questions I wanted to ask!” Wow! That is high praise, Kim Brand!  Thank you guys so much for your support and words of encouragement.  

Today’s episode may be a little edgy and irreverent, this is a little bit of a listener advisory again, but I don’t think any of us is surprised that a few students make it through the US Education system with some scars.  Today’s guest, Geoff Wiggs, is now a successful attorney in northern CA but his experience is worth some tough reflection.  

This is an official listener advisory message. Today’s podcast is not for the faint of heart. The material is top-notch, but prepare your sensibilities.

Guest Interview – Geoff Wiggs, Attorney-at-Law

Steve: So my guest today is Geoff Wiggs. Geoff why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.

Geoff: Well Steve, right now in my fourth incarnation I’m a generalist attorney in the Northern California area. I practice in bankruptcy and federal and state civil litigation as well as trusted estates litigation. Prior to that I was a management consultant, again I was a solo managing consultant, I am a solo attorney, I was a solo management consultant for two years after receiving my MBA from Pepperdine. Prior to that I spent fifteen years as a computer programming contractor. Basically I traveled around the country programming for Wholesale Food Distributors operations in a specialized ERP or Enterprise Resource Planning system. A while before that I spent a lot of time as a night computer system operator, working my way through school and part of that was the Air Force. There are things before that such as, driving an ambulance and being a volunteer fireman but those are the jobs that actually paid me money.

Steve: Wow. That’s quite a litany. You have a pretty broad view of the American employment system.

Geoff: Yes I do. And the education system as well. I’ve been around I guess.

Steve: So a little bit about your educational experience, you can start wherever.

Geoff: Well I think what stands out is my time in high school in California, in a public high school in California, trying to squeeze an education out of it. I think I missed, my senior year, I think in one or two classes I missed sixty out of ninety days in one semester. I still managed to graduate with a 3.97 GPA, thirteenth or so in my class of 500. Never learned how to work. Never learned how to apply myself. I walked out of high school with a full academic ride to the University of Tulsa as a petroleum engineering major, which lasted a grand total of about a month and a half before I realized that I had never learned how to actually do any real work, and never learned how to actually apply myself academically. I was doomed from the moment I left high school.

Steve: That’s interesting. Well you managed to do okay for yourself. How did you go from that to where you are now?

Geoff: Well I was hanging around in Porterville, where we know each other from basically, and I think it was my dad who suggested that I look into the military. I had never really thought of the military as an option because I was supposed to be one of those smart kids. I was supposed to be able to do anything I wanted to. A year at college had convinced me that I was kind of an idiot. I was supposed to be an engineering major. The only classes that I actually enjoyed and/or passed were English, political science, and computer science. At the time, this was back in 1983, the whole computer science thing it was very young in terms of the scope that it is today. So it never really occurred to me to go and become a computer science major or computer engineer, which I probably could have easily transitioned to at the time if I had had any level of guidance. After that it was the Air Force where instead of being an X-ray technician and getting to serve out my time in medical clinics around the country or around the world I ended up taking a synthetic language test and they discovered that I knew a lot about languages, or at least I had a natural talent for languages. So it was off to the Defense Language Institute for a year to learn Vietnamese. Not my language of choice, I actually wanted to learn Arabic and sell my soul to Coca-Cola at the time.

The Vietnamese language program was brutally tough but my friends and I we made it through. Basically it was immersion program, again I didn’t do very well at it. I really wasn’t ready to apply myself at the time. I coasted through so much school. I was identified as gifted in grade four so I put in all the gifted classes. Well being in the gifted classes essentially meant that I could away with not doing any work. I think I wrote my first essay in my freshman year of high school, and was shocked and dismayed to discover that it was graded as an F. I still remember the F on the page, I had never gotten an F before in anything. And he was right, his name was Tracy Armstrong, I still remember the professor. I actually have his book of poetry on my desk at home. I had never had to do any work at learning and that hooked me up a little bit but even in high school those teachers were so few and far between that I didn’t have to wake up that much. I just found that instead of firing on one cylinder I had to fire on two out of six cylinders and that was more than enough to cruise through a system that was basically there to warehouse juvenile delinquents so that they weren’t walking the streets during the day I guess.

I’ve often jokingly called myself a victim of the California public education system. They were so overloaded with kids that just didn’t want to be there that there was no way for them to teach anyone who had any level of intellectual curiosity. I wasn’t diligent enough, or I don’t know if the word is diligent even, I wasn’t motivated enough to go out and learn it on my own. I am fascinated by learning. I love to learn new things. In fact being an attorney is the best job I’ve ever had. Every time I start a new case I get to learn something completely new. Even if it is a case related to something else I’ve done over and over and over again, there is very little that is, other than a bunch of administrative stuff below the surface, there is very little in law that is cookie-cutter. There is a lot of the same forms, a lot same situations, but you’ve got apply a reasonable level of learning and discovery to each individual case.

That wasn’t the case in high school. That level of curiosity wasn’t rewarded. Conformity was rewarded, being quiet was rewarded. I remember one of the girls in our class, very nice gal, she was the co-valedictorian, and I don’t think she had ever taken an academic class above the bare minimum requirements. That is nothing against her, she just went to those classes, she got good grades and she probably had a much more satisfying early post- high school education or post-secondary education career or maybe even a happier life than I did. I literally took me ten years to learn that there was a point to it all I guess. Does that make sense Steve?

Steve: Yeah. Yeah it definitely makes sense. So did you start checking out around fourth grade or was that just when you were kind of shifted into the gifted classes? About when did you realize that you could kind of get away with stuff and start coasting?

Geoff: Junior high. In junior high I realized that I  didn’t, I took a class, I think I remember the class, biology or zoology with one professor at Pioneer Junior High. He gave us a test at the beginning of the year and the end of the year, same test. I aced the test, which is never a good thing to do. So I basically sat back and said, Well he told us this was the test we were going to get at the end of the year too. And I thought to myself I guess I’m kind of done.

Then I started noticing that I would be in these gifted English classes, you know gifted language classes and you know it didn’t really matter if I didn’t do any work. No one seemed to be all that interested in holding my feet to the fire or expecting any level of performance from me. I was bright, I participated in class, I stayed up on the reading, I did the homework, kind of but I wasn’t putting out any effort. I think what would have made a huge difference for me is something I saw my high school friend do. Her senior year instead of going to high school she went to junior college, she went over to Porterville Junior College. She took a full load of classes there instead of hanging around the high school and marking time until the end of the year. I think that might have made a huge difference, but no one was pushing me that way. I don’t know, my parents weren’t pushing me that way. I didn’t even know that was a possibility until mid-year. It seemed like work, so I wasn’t going to do that to myself. I kind of, I did a lot of work avoidance, consequently I spent ten years of post-secondary education getting my undergraduate degree. When I finally graduated with my degree in computer science I had 170 semester hours.

Steve: Wow.

Geoff: That’s what it took to finally get a degree in something. It caused its own damage. I got my masters degree just in time for my ten year reunion. Literally a month and a half prior to my ten year reunion.

Steve: So normally at this point in the conversation I’m asking something about Google and the internet and students today can use that to make themselves look smarter. Maybe that’s the right place to bring that up now. We’ve now got Wikipedia and Bing, and Google and lots of places where we can just go look information up. Somebody with a reasonably savvy ability to search can come up with just about any answer and it’s probably reasonably intelligent as long as there’s a little bit of skill behind it. So students can suddenly look like they are ten to twenty I.Q. points smarter than they really are. In an environment like this what does it mean to be educated now?

Geoff: You know I think that’s a big challenge. Seems to me, and again I don’t have any of the experience that the kid have now, but any relatively competent paraphraser can now take Wikipedia and Google and write an essay on it. I think that it is a sacrifice of information for knowledge learning. One of my favorite things to do when I was at the University of Nebraska in my computer science degree was to wander through the library and look for the oldest looking book on the shelf, on any given shelf. There wasn’t much literature in computer science that made any sense, because anything older than six months was out of date anyway so why bother. Maybe you would read a couple of SSG magazines now and then just for fun but there were random learning excursions.

I used to be able to do that on the internet, and I used to do it a lot more than I do. It seems now that if you are giving a student an assignment and sending them out to the internet, they are going out to the internet to help them accomplish that assignment. Number one, it’s wonderful on one hand because you’ve got all the information in the world sitting there waiting for you. But you’ve also got no filter, you’ve got no way to evaluate how that information is skewed or whose point of view dictates the course of that information or and it doesn’t even have to be a bias. There is an unconscious bias that any publisher of information is going to run across in what they choose to publish. It isn’t so much that they choose to speak about what they’re publishing, but what do they actually choose to publish. What stories did they ignore? What pieces of information did they ignore? How many other sources are you going to have to go to to find those pieces of information that were left out because the publisher or journalist producing that piece of information didn’t like it, didn’t think it was useful, or just didn’t agree with it and left it out? I think we are, before, remember in the old days we would pick up those, what was that index called that had all the magazine articles?

Steve: Yeah I know what you are talking about.. I mean it was next to the card file or something.

Geoff: Exactly it was those big books and it had like quarterly magazines and you could open them up and they would have magazine titles. OH my god, I cannot convey to you how many times I would pick that thing up, find a random article and launch into an entirely new area of discovery, for myself. Just reading something, I love to read so anything, any excuse to find something new to read was all it took. I would just devour anything but I don’t know if you type a bunch of words into the Google search box and you hit enter and it brings you back the information, where is that exploration coming from? You are learning exactly what you need to know, but I don’t know that what you needed to know was really the point of the exercise when we were kids. Right? The point of the exercise was how do you go and learn something?

I did a report when I was a kid on the Nez Perce Indians because I had a whole bunch of horseman magazines that told the story of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Indians and how they ran away from the cavalry and their whole mathura. The point of that paper I wrote on that subject wasn’t to know the history intimately of that particular set of Indian battles or that particular crisis at that time. It was to put all that information together, evaluate it, make a decision about it, come to a conclusion or judgement on my own, see one or two sides of that, maybe even three or four sides of that and ask myself what should have happened?, what could have happened?, was it all bad, was it all good. Did I learn something out of it? Now I would type that in and someone would direct me to a webpage that said here is this great Indian leader and these are the things he did, here is the horrible cavalry. It’s too easy. Does that unnecessarily confuse the issue?

Steve: No, I don’t think so. In fact I think you’re kind of heading in the direction of the next question I tend to like to ask people. Given this landscape of your experience, What is the purpose of an education looking at all of that?

Geoff: To me, It’s the fill time between life and death. You know, What do you do? You were born and you start learning stuff. So you keep learning and you keep practicing and you keep discovering new things. Well at least I do. I’ve left at least two careers where I was in relatively high demand. When I get bored and I have too much access to a computer system then I get a little bit dangerous because I, boredom leads to inattention and inattention leads to mistakes and mistakes lead to large scale businesses closing and people being out of work, people being out of jobs and me getting sued for malpractice. I have to stay interested. I don’t understand the mentality of people who can just grind stuff out day after day in a job that they’re not interested in. I often think that my life would be easier if it were, it certainly would be easier if I could find a good 9 to 5 job or 9 to 9 job right? If I was able to sit down, work a bunch, log my hours, and leave and that was all that was really expected of me.

I worked at the Mutual of Omaha right after getting my computer science degree, I worked there for a little over a year, and I could have easily just put my head down and just kept working. They were wonderful people but I came into the program right out of a computer science degree and I was basically teaching them the language and the computer systems that they were working on. They knew other systems but they didn’t know the one that they had been placed on, but I did. You know it would have been no problem to just stay with that. Guys had been there for twenty plus years, twenty, twenty-five, thirty years, their greatest joy in life was to meet down in the Mutual Omaha cafeteria at lunch and quiz each other on rules from the golf rulebook.

That was the part of their job that they liked. And it had nothing to do with their job. You know their job itself they just did it, there were tradesman. They showed up when the whistle blew and they went home when the whistle blew. They’d put time in if they had to, but by and large they didn’t think about this stuff at home. I wake up at 4-5 o’clock in the morning and I don’t even realize I’m awake, I’m already thinking about my cases. When I realize I’m awake I’m usually mad at myself for my sleep cycle. I don’t go to bed until midnight and I’m up at 4 or 5, because my job is pulling me out of my bed and throwing me into my chair and chaining me to my desk everyday. I don’t know how to do it any other way.

Steve: So I’m going to back up just a little bit. I think it is interesting that when I asked you about the purpose of an education that you didn’t say anything about school. You jumped straight into learning, which isn’t necessarily connected to school. It can be but it doesn’t have to be. That’s an interesting perspective. Tell me why you immediately jumped to learning as its own activity?

Geoff: I don’t know that I saw a lot of value in school. Other than, once I learned how to read I was kind of self-directed. Even from my earliest memory, I was reading everything I possibly could get my hands on. That was what, if I had one thing to wish for everybody it is that they would love to read. Anything, no matter if they are sitting in a classroom being drilled on names and dates. Let me bring this up, I’m a big history buff, so is my wife. We travel to Europe as often as we can, which isn’t all that often, but we get there and we just love to see where these historical things occurred. Now if I was to rely on the history I learned in grade school, junior high, and high school my history would be limited to some stuff about the Magna Carta maybe, the Pilgrims hopping in a boat and coming to Jamestown, Columbus sailing around the world and all the other Spanish explorers who sailed around the world and/or to America, I’m sorry Columbus sailing to America, and none of the actual tapestry of what occurred during those events ever came through.

We would get to somewhere around the Civil War every year and then we would stop because that was the end of the year. Then next year history would start right back up at the same rough time period and plow right along through until you get around to the Civil War again then we’d stop because that was the end of that year. We did the same damn history year after year after year. Eventually a little bit about California history and you know the Spanish settling of the missions and the take over by the white settlers maybe a little bit about Vallejo’s desperate appeal for settlers or an army, but every year stopped and then it restarted again.

Because we grew up in Porterville once we started junior high we started reading Grapes of Wrath and talking about the Okies coming out from Oklahoma and Arkansas and the misery that they had to go through but that was it. We didn’t talk about much about World War I, I recently found a podcast on WWI that I have been just devouring. I had no idea of all the little political things that were going on that basically caused the entire world to erupt in flames, and then the same thing happened again twenty years later in WWII. I never got that from school, I took AP History, I passed the AP History test but I didn’t get much history out of it.

Steve: So I have a question about that. When exactly was it that you noticed that history was less about facts and dates and more about stories and interpretations?

Geoff: When I was in high school I took the AP History exam. On the AP History exam there was a big picture of who I now know is John Brown and the question asked us to discuss the Northern and Southern sides view of the story of John Brown. Now wonders of wonders I had never heard of John Brown, I had heard of Harper’s Ferry and I knew that something had, I vaguely knew that something had occurred there but I couldn’t have told you who John Brown was. I had never seen the picture before. I commenced, as all good test takers do, to bullshitting. Three pages later lo and behold I passed an AP History exam, which meant I didn’t have to take first semester history in college. It had nothing to do with the dates, it had nothing to do with the numbers, it had nothing to do with anything about the details of it. I was able to deduce that it was something about the Civil War, there were enough leading questions that pointed me towards Harper’s Ferry and I talked about it generically in a manner that evidently either pleased or fooled whatever sleepy-eyed grader who was given my essay, to whom I’m truly grateful as well as internally sincerely apologetic for having to read my garbage.

I remember in school we would start sometime around 1420, the year 1420, plus or minus, when da Gama sailed around the horn of Africa, we finally found a way to the Indian Ocean and how the Portuguese explorers sailed further and further and oddly enough we never knew that they sailing down there to build the slave trade, no one ever bothered to mention that.  So they gave us a bunch of years, which I have forgotten, and I don’t think I ever actually memorized because memorization takes work. As I’ve told you before I’m not big on work, not a big fan, at least not that kind of work, not that mindless sort of memorization. Every year we’d get somewhere near the Civil War in history class then the year would end and we’d come back and start the whole stupid thing again, pretty much the same period of time, maybe a little more detailed because we were older and then every year we would get right up to the Civil War again and then we would stop. That was it, that was history. We had this weird sort of 400 year period of time basically repeating the same thing.

When we got to junior high we learned about the Grapes of Wrath period because we all grew up in Porterville, California where the Grapes of Wrath basically ended, the book ended. So we learned about that but everything was learned in isolation. You know nothing about causes and when I started getting out and visiting some of these places I started realizing that the other side had a point of view as well. In America we tend to be gross narcissus in terms of everything, all history is either seen or told from our point of view. I think that is one of the reasons because we’re sitting in these history classes as kids and everything is told from an American point of view. I’ve learned so much more since then about how other countries viewed us as we were coming up back in the late 1800s early 1900s. We were the up-starters that were taking on Spain and beginning to project power through our navy. I don’t know it seems like history is taught by partially interested physical ed teachers that neither know nor care about why these events occurred.

I guess it’s a rambling answer. I’m not even sure I addressed your point. My uncle, my uncle Bill, who I love dearly was a history major. After he got back from Vietnam he attended college on his G.I. bill, majored in history and then went out to teach school. He’s got a real wry sense of humor, one day he talked about, he said something about history majors, how dull of a person do you have to be to be a history major? And he is actually one of the most interesting people I know in my family. It was several years before I actually learned that he was a history major. He has the more informed and more mature view of the world. I think that is what history is supposed to be giving us, but the people who teach it seem so disinterested, at least at the high school and junior high, elementary school level.

They just seem so disinterested in telling the story. I think that in order to tell the story, in order to understand the stories behind all those dates and numbers you have to be genuinely interested in it. Otherwise you never dig below the surface of that. I don’t think most public school teachers are digging that deep. I don’t blame, I mean they are dealing with a bunch of kids who have no interest at all in being there. Their parents aren’t enforcing their attendance, they’re attending because it’s the law and that’s what they are supposed to do. They aren’t there because they want to be there they are there because they have to be. Does that answer that question? Or is it just too long?

Steve: No, I think that answers that question. I think you’ve hit actually the core of most or all of the disciplines that are out there. You have to have a deep genuine interest in the study in order for it be valuable to you. I think for us, we at Table Top Inventing we spend time thinking about science, technology, engineering, art, mathematics, and occasionally entrepreneurship not that history is unimportant and not that some of the other social sciences are unimportant that just happens to be what we are focusing on. But my experience has been that the students that are putting their hands in the material, that are really experimenting with it, you know rolling it around in their heads, touching the electronics and the programming, the 3D design, are the ones that are doing the most learning.

You know, just talking to them it doesn’t seem to, it doesn’t seem to peak their interest so no real learning seems to happen. You know from the history perspective, what you’re talking about, it seems to be the same analogy where the history to you became real and interesting when you started connecting some things that you were genuinely interested to know to dates and ideas and places that before seemed more or less disconnected. Is that accurate?

Geoff: Yeah. If you think about it it’s really easy for an elementary or grade school or junior high or high school teacher to write a test based on dates, give me the date that da Gama sailed around the horn of Africa. What year did he come back? What year did he leave? When did Columbus sail across the Atlantic? Those are easy tests to grade. Right? You write the question down, the student writes 1492 and you know that the student at least paid attention to the text enough to memorize that year. But when you put that same voyage in context of why did Ferdinand and Isabella sponsor not only an Italian, extensible Portuguese sailor during the middle of their prosecution of the inquisition?

Why did they sponsor his voyage seeking India when all of the navigators in Europe knew that Columbus wasn’t good enough at math to know how to measure the circumference of a globe or of a sphere. You know you look at the desperation for trade the desperation to get around this strangle hold that Portugal had on trade, those stories are interesting. But, those stories also involve interpretation and understanding and intellectual curiosity and if you don’t have those three factors, you aren’t going to find somebody interested enough to figure all that stuff out.

If you only start your history lesson in the 1400s you don’t really understand that , you never talk about how Portugal, this little tiny country on the lip of Spain, had a strangle hold and a massive empire. It’s like art teachers who’ve never been to Europe, who’ve never been to the Louvre, who’ve never been to the Nation Galleries in London, they put pictures of these painting up and you say wow that’s a pretty painting. And then you go and you stand in front of it in the Louvre or in the National Gallery of London and the scale and the brightness of the pigments and the brushstrokes, your ability to see the strokes of the brush on the canvas brings everything out. It changes everything. It goes from being a sterile picture, even in HD, which is what we see on the web all the time, you know HD that would have left our ancestors envious, it’s different. When you see it full size, when you see a room devoted to a painting like the Mona Lisa, you know and the crowds of people that gather in front of that painting, it’s an event.

And the painting itself is so much more interesting than the pictures of that painting. The painting itself has a life that those pictures, regardless of their definition can’t bring forward. But you have to have a level of intellectual curiosity to hike to Paris, get into the Louvre, stand in a line long enough to see this painting and then you also have got to have a little bit of a soul to say wow that was really amazing. I don’t know anything about that painting but it was amazing. And look at the way it looks. I’ve stood in the Sistine Chapel and looked at the restored ceiling thinking this is amazing, there are no words for it. We can’t describe what that ceiling looks like in real words. We don’t have a vocabulary for it. But if you see it, and you pass on to the people you are teaching there is something there that can’t be conveyed by either my words or this video of it, or this picture of it, then you spark a level of curiosity. To me that is the key to education.

I’ve got 170 credit hours because I just kept finding new things I wanted to learn. I had an advisor yell at me once because I took a C++ class. She said, Well I hope you wanted to learn that because it’s not going to count for your degree you’ve already got to many programming languages. Are you kidding me? I’ve already got to many programming languages? I couldn’t have enough programming languages, I love programming languages. I used to collect them like baseball cards, and use them and work with them and understand their strengths and weaknesses of them. Because those were the languages that I was interested in, computers and computer science wasn’t just a career path, it was something that I was genuinely interested in.

It sparked a level of intellectual curiosity and I worry that kids don’t get that anymore, because, okay, I’m intellectually curious about X so I’m going to go to Google and I’m going to search X and it’s going to tell me all i need to know. Because we’ve kind of started treating the internet as this comprehensive, not infallible, but at least comprehensive source, where is that curiosity going to come from? Is an HD picture of, is an HD .jpeg or .gif or .tiff file of a master’s painting the same as seeing it in a gallery? You know any of the Van Gogh paintings, the pictures of those don’t do them justice. When you see them hanging on a wall it’s a different, it’s an experience, it’s not just a picture. I worry that we just are showing people a lot of pictures.

Steve: If you say much more I’m going to have to put you on the payroll because everything you are talking about is exactly the thing that we keep trying to emphasize. You know the importance of curiosity, the importance of actually rolling up your sleeves and jumping head first into what you are trying to learn. It isn’t enough just to read a description in a text book, you have to experience the education. Whether it is history, or art or science or engineering or you know computer programming you have to roll up your sleeves and go do it. There is no substitute. I think that if I let you and you let me we would probably go on with this interview for quite a bit longer, so I’m going to cut things short here and just ask you for any final thought and we’ll wrap it up.

Geoff: Final thoughts… Wow. You know, education is work. It’s hard work to get an education. It’s supposed to be. Humans are not instinctual beings, right? There is so much that we learn on instinct and habit and force of habit that the things that really separate us from the monkeys are things that we are willing to work to go do, we are willing to work to discover. I’m frequently standing up in a soapbox mourning the demise of our space program because it was a lot of money spent but it was money spent looking up.

There are people who argue with me saying that that money should all be spent on social programs and I keep thinking to myself, spending it on social programs is spending it all looking down, trying to lift people up rather than setting a goal out there that is greater than all of us and trying to get people to all work towards that goal. We can subsidize social behavior all day long and it’s not going to advance us but when we subsidize knowledge and education and risk and seeking and striving then we get a true societal advantage from it. Caring for other is nice but as a governmental function I don’t think it really advances a republic or a society to do so.

Steve: Well, it’s interesting you tied that back to the previous podcast. You didn’t know you did that but a few podcasts back Linda Polin talked about hearing the declaration that we were going to put a man on the moon. That’s inspiring. I think in our generation the equivalent would be to put a space station on Mars. I don’t think that is outside the realm of possibility but you are right we have to get behind it, we have to look up. We are going to have to get our hands dirty and we are going to have to go give it a shot. Thank you so much Geoff. I really appreciate your insights here and I just wanted to thank you so much for taking a few minutes to talk to us and give us your perspective of a lawyer, computer programer, art enthusiast/ history buff / probably four or five other things.

Geoff: I think academic vagrant is probably alright.

Steve: Yes. I’ll be looking forward perhaps to talking to you more about this in the future. Thank you.

Geoff: Thank you Steve. It’s been a privilege.

Great Inventor Secret

I have always been fascinated by fire. In fact, I started a fire this morning well before the sunrise to drive off the chill in the living room. We heat our house with wood, and I love to get a good fire going to watch the flames dance around inside the fireplace.  When we go camping, one of my favorite times is in the evening after a hard day of hiking or playing or exploring. We light up the fire, and talk about the fun we had, the tall tales of childhood exploits, or that time we thought we were a goner. The fire is almost a metaphor. The flames dance in and around the wood weaving the most exquisite patterns while the stories mirror the intricacy being played out in the campfire.

So it probably will not surprise you to know that I played with fireworks as a kid.  I grew up in North Carolina, and while not strictly illegal to light fireworks, we had to drive to Tennessee or Georgia to buy them.  Needless to say, my parents did NOT leave fireworks just lying around.  I had to work hard to collect them over time.  Now, what pray tell would a budding young mad scientist need with a fireworks collection?

Honestly when I started collecting them, I probably didn’t have a clue what I would do other than, “Let’s see if we can get them all to go off at once!”  At the time we could still get M80’s which were quite spectacular but because of which my uncle doesn’t have good hearing in one ear and is missing part of a finger.  I saved a couple of those, some bottle rockets, Black Cats, Jumping Jacks, and a few other assorted incendiaries.

One day, I got a great idea:  “I could take all the gunpowder out of the fireworks and make my own!”  Thus started phase 2 of my crazy plan.  I started emptying all the contents of any fireworks collected into an old black plastic 35mm film canister with a gray lid.  I think you have to be “old” as my kids say to remember those film canisters, but they are about an inch and a half tall and about 3/4 of an inch in diameter.  I thought I’d have one filled in no time.  Boy was I disappointed when after emptying a whole pack of Black Cats, I could barely tell I put anything into the canister!  Bummer!  I really needed to step up my collection speed.

Unfortunately, 4th of July and New Years only come around once a year each, and no self-respecting pyro can resist lighting a few before pocketing a couple.  Needless to say, it took a year or two to collect enough to fill 1/4 of the film canister.  I carried that thing around and showed it off quite a bit, but it didn’t ever seem to fill up fast enough.  Knowing what I know now, I do wonder what sort of oxidizers and other unstable chemicals go into fireworks.  It might have been quite dangerous to carry all that around for so long.  I’ll have to ask my friend Chris about that.

Well boys are impatient creatures, and one day I couldn’t stand it any longer.  I had to find out what would happen if I lit up the whole thing at once. I still only had 1/4 to 1/3 of the canister full, and as I looked on I imagined what a huge explosion it would make.  So without any onlookers–even my younger brother who always seemed to be nearby–I took my film canister out to the driveway and set it on a railroad tie by my mom’s flower bed.  Then came a dilemma.

How exactly does one light that much explosive?  I didn’t have any wicks left over because, in my mad search for more, I even emptied the tiny amounts of powder from the wicks. I finally decided on dropping a match into the open film canister and jumping quickly back–fantastic plan in the mind of a 10 year old! The results were spectacular! I still remember the immediate flash and then the giant blue flame leaping 2 or 3 feet straight up into the air.  It wasn’t like a blooming flower as it spread.  It was more like a leaping dagger–thin and long.

Leaping back notwithstanding, I still singed a little hair in my escape. I stood there dumbfounded for a moment and then did the triumphant “YES!!” exclamation of any 10 year old who just conquered the world. After my victory dance, I realized it was over.  The only remnants were a twisted, melted film canister and a great story. At this point, you are no doubt wondering about the morals of this story.

I’m not advocating letting kids in California collecting fireworks and lighting up an inferno to incinerate their parents house or most of southern California after a particularly dry summer.  Every year, we worry about a forest fire burning down our house here in the “oh so dry” desert. We’ve even had a couple of close calls–one of which was started by a couple of boys playing with fireworks. So what does this story have to tell us?

In Geoff’s experience, he shared with us an idea that hasn’t come up in the podcast yet: All of life is an education. We get to learn something new every day, if we choose. Sometimes we learn what NOT to do–collecting incendiary powder in a film canister probably isn’t wise–and sometimes we get penetrating insights from the simplest experiences. There is JUST… SO… MUCH… to Learn! Life is chock full of lessons.

However, we’ll never learn new things if we never expose ourselves to new experiences.  Perhaps be a little more choosy about the new experiences than a 10 year old pyromaniac, but keep looking for those things around that can illuminate the world. From that experience of collecting powders from fireworks, I learned very early the power of chemical reactions, and later on when I took physics in college I gained an even greater respect for the power of nuclear reactions. However, I would have to point back to the early tangible experiences as a major shaping influence on my respect for chemical reactions.

For you, it may be staring deeply into a flower, getting down on your hands and knees in the desert to look at the sand, or closing your eyes in the forest just to listen. A wealth of experience in our surroundings is waiting to teach us if we’ll just take the time to notice it.

So today’s Great Inventor’s Secret: Take time to observe, reflect, and learn from the world around you.


Have you been enjoying the Table Top Inventing podcast? Have comments or questions you’d like us to address? Contact us and we’ll think through the comments and answer your questions here in the podcast. Be sure to let us know if you’d like a shoutout or to remain anonymous. You can share your comments and questions at www.ttinvent.com/inventingpodcast or by emailing us at podcast@ttinvent.com. Let’s discuss your thoughts and questions. Join us again next time when we will again seek to answer the question, What is the purpose of an education? And as educators how do we awaken the inventor in each of our students?



Table Top Inventing, education, maker education, MakerEd, podcast, Geoff Wiggs, history, STEM, fire

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