Thursday, October 23, 2014


Today's news item describing PETA's request that Texas A&M stop using live elephants for the annual Elephant Walk tradition reminded me of details of a pet project I've been mulling for a number of years: A zoo at Texas A&M University.

In my notes, I have dubbed this dream project "The Texas A&M University Wildlife Habitat and Center for Conservation Science," but I should note that I have neither sought nor received any official buy-in.

This is a very rough sketch, and I'm mostly posting it now for posterity, and on the off-chance that an angel investor might read this and decide to bankroll the project. If that happens, I'd at least like to get a season pass.

The broad strokes:
  • We are a land-rich campus and have the opportunity to pick up farmland in the area to make natural habitats.
  •  Augment Elephant Walk tradition by having a (secondary?) mascot elephant(s)…these wouldn’t be carted in for a performance, but would be friends with whom we would develop a relationship
    • *Bonus: "Ol' Sarge" the elephant helps build the first on-campus bonfire after we are allowed to have them again.
  •  Opportunity for cheap labor by utilizing undergrad and grad students in related majors for labor.
    • Bonus: Enhances the Vet School’s offerings by allowing specialization in zoo exotics.
  •  Attract top notch scientists to work on an interdisciplinary endeavor.
  •  Adds value to the community…provides a source of revenue as a family/tourist attraction.

The potential shareholders (again, these are my thoughts, and this should not be taken to represent buy-in from any entity named below):

  • TAMU Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences – Conservation Biology and Biodiversity (CBB)
  • TAMU Bioenvironmental Science
  • TAMU College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Science
  • Dr. Mark Holtzapple, TAMU Chemical Engineering – Biomass Fuel
  • Whoever is working on solar power
  • Whoever has the land
  • Whoever is working on cleaning up river water
  • Cities of Bryan & College Station
  • American Zoological Association
  • International Zoo Educators Association
  • Stephanie Boyles (Wildlife Biologist at PETA when I first dreamt this up)

I've noticed that there is roughly 700 acres of land along the Brazos River where TX-60 crosses it heading southwest out of town. The Cameron Park Zoo in Waco (the closest zoo to Bryan/College Station at about 100 miles) is similarly situated on a river. It seems to work well for them!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Injustice Anywhere

I am still trying to process and respond to the news that Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, was shot multiple times and killed Saturday in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, MO. 

I was in St. Louis at the time and didn't hear about the issue until I saw militarized police responding to unrest on the news while traveling home on Sunday. Truly, there are two Americas. 

Watching and reading the news of response to this latest atrocity, especially the rioting in Missouri, I was reminded of Frantz Fanon's assertion that violent subjugation leads to violent freedom. I'm not content to leave the issue here though, because to do so seems to remove other options for agency, especially nonviolent response such as was advocated by Dr. Martin Lither King, Jr. 

The essence of waging nonviolence, or satyagraha as Ghandi called it, depends on a moral consciousness that can be shocked into action. I am not convinced that the fourth estate is robust enough or its American audience sensitive and attentive enough to be moved. I hope I'm wrong, but even Dr. King recognized the limits of his tactics:

"And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I'm absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard."

Excerpted from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's speech "The Other America" delivered at Grosse Point High School March 14, 1968. Read the entire speech at

Merely condemning riots or condemning systematic violence against black and brown bodies is not enough. Are we willing to be personally invested (and then stand to be personally divested of comfort and freedom) in the hardship we don't yet face ourselves?

Monday, August 04, 2014

Some of us are still here

Some of us are still here
Sitting, no longer expectantly,
Behind grey windows and brown walls
Whose vacant stare we’ve adopted
As defense against the loss of hope

We sit, whiling the hours till it is time to leave for work
Or not.
Work that pays just enough to pay rent, and food, and transportation
To get to work and back
Or not.

Sometimes, when we forget ourselves,
We hate you, just a little bit, for making it out
We are jealous of your successes large and small
But only when we forget ourselves
When we return to sense
Your success is our pride

We love you because you made it out

We don’t want anything from you
Except that you remember,
In the midst of that money, and power,
And bright life
That some of us are still here.

March 2009

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Orthodox Localism

The following advice is transcripted from Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick's The Transfiguration of Place: An Orthodox Christian Vision of Localism (Part 1  & Part 2).

In this two-part talk, Fr. Andrew describes how consumer-oriented society is at odds with traditional Christian faith. Orthodox localism, then, is a kind of corrective, an ascetic practice which though prayer and stewardship can sanctify a place. (See Fr. Andrew's series "The Transfiguration of Place," as well as his discussion of "thin places").

In the second part I this talk, Fr. Andrew provides some concrete suggestions for Orthodox Localism:

1. Buy local, especially food
2. Attend the (canonical Orthodox) church closest to you
3. Don't worry about having to "maintain" friendships 
4. Walk around your neighborhood and town
5. Take pictures of your town
6. Try to do all of your shopping and banking within two miles of your house
7. Move out of the suburbs or make your suburban area more of an urban center
8. Try to make new buildings reminiscent of the historical architecture in the area
9. Put a front porch on your house
10. Learn how to garden
11. Think up a name for your house
12. Give up the idea that privacy is an inherent good
13. Learn the history of your town
14. Get involved in local politics
15. Figure out ways to involve your parish in the immediate neighborhood and town
16. Give to local charities and help local people in need
17. Have your parish start a non-profit small business

If you are interested in discussing ideas like localism (not necessarily Orthodox) and the related economic concept of Distributism, check out the "Party of the Shires" group on Facebook. 

Curators of the Particular

This was originally posted to the "The Best Thing This Year" (TBTTY) list, but I wanted to share it more broadly, too. There's a nice write-up on the TBTTY project at Mother Jones ( and you can sign up for the list at

Since being introduced to TBTTY by Dan Shapiro (through the Robot Turtles Kickstarter), I've wondered what I might use this virtual soapbox to talk about. 

I thought about using it to promote the work done by my friend Brad Blauser, who provides pediatric wheelchairs for children in poor an war-torn regions. Brad was a finalist for the 2009 CNN Heroes program, and has provided wheelchairs for children in Iraq, Haiti*, and South America (

I've also thought about using TBTTY to promote Mercy Project (, a program started by my friend Chris Field to help rescue children from slavery in Ghana and help address the underlying economic problems that contribute to a culture of child slavery. Chris is a runner and started a marathon in my hometown to benefit Mercy Project. This proved pivotal I. My life because--while I am not naturally a runner--running for a cause has helped me learn discipline and improve my health. Chris is currently in the running (pun intended) to be featured on the cover of Runner's World and share the work of Mercy Project with the 3 million readers of the magazine (if you'd like to help, vote at

Instead of focusing on either friend (see what I did there?), I decided to talk about something they've both helped me to realize: true success and making a difference in the world depends on figuring out my unique set of interests and abilities, and focusing my time, energy, and resources in that space. 

This advice comports with what I've heard from successful entrepreneurs so all stripes. Find what you love and pursue it. 

The way I think about it is that we're each curators of the particular. We all have an overlapping set of interests and abilities that lend themselves
To a niche product. The trick is to become an expert in that niche and learn how to talk about it intelligibly to the rest of the world. And, it helps to remember that you don't have to catch everyone's interest. Roughly paraphrasing Derek Sivers, even if you only capture 1% of the population, that's still a huge number of people (

My own intersecting set of interests and abilities seems to deal with art, food, and education at human-scale. That is, supporting local artists, farmers and restauranteurs, and figuring out how best to engage learners' curiosity to ignite a life-long love of learning. 

I'm not in the same league as the friends I mentioned, but I'm still working on curating my cause. If be interested I hearing about your cause. Hit me up on Twitter @jkotinek. 

* My original post to TBTTY incorrectly listed Cuba instead of Haiti. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Is Gifted Education Worth It? Who Should We Ask?

Questions about the value of gifted education have seen a lot of recent attention in the news recently. This recent contribution to the conversation stands out for me because of the gaps in logic:

Four gifted writers share doubts about gifted education -

A few thoughts in response:

1. Gifted doesn't just mean good at what they do or creative. The proliferation of definitions makes this difficult to discern, I understand.

2. Not only is your sample one of convenience, you've asked people who were never formally identified as gifted what they think of the formal program that they didn't participate in (save one).

3. Gifted education advocates that I know would not disagree with the assertion that gifted children would benefit from the opportunity to explore their interests rather than a highly-structured curriculum.

A better piece might first take a critical look at the definition of giftedness. There are certainly lots of opportunities to poke holes in gifted education just because of the proliferation of definitions and the curricula developed (and sold) to support them.

Next, a better piece might ask gifted persons who were part of a GT curriculum what worked and what didn't. It might ask those that weren't identified for their perspective from the outside looking in.

Lastly, a better piece might take a closer look at what is actually advocated by scholars in gifted education, rather than punching a straw man argument.

Maybe someday I'll have the time and opportunity to write that better piece. For now, this critical response will have to do.