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Our favorite geeks 

Without them, we know nothing

click to enlarge Larry Thomas is a jazz scholar and DJ for WCOM in Carrboro. - PHOTO BY ELI MORGAN
Dr. Jazz: Larry Thomas
After you enter the cozy confines of the Know Bookstore and Restaurant, just down the road from NCCU in Durham, walk right on past the shelves stacked with Langston Hughes books, African history and chess tips. Try to ignore the jerk chicken and cornbread piled on the plate of one of the regulars and peek over the shoulder of a young trumpeter to watch the way Larry Thomas conducts the live jazz jam that happens every Friday night. He's the one sitting behind the lunch counter, announcing the arrival of a vocalist or applauding solos, saying "I hear you" and laughing. He's incognito behind dark shades, but the voice is unmistakable to anyone who was devoted to his evening jazz program (R.I.P., 2003) on WNCU. If you miss the education that Larry Thomas used to dish out over the airwaves, be consoled that "Dr. Jazz" is alive and well at The Know. And those who live within close range of the tower for WCOM (103.5 FM), the new low-power radio station in Carrboro, can now hear Larry Thomas' mainstream jazz program on Sunday evenings. He offers up America's classical music, taking you on a highly intelligent yet accessible journey from the birth of the jazz age through the era when swing was king and dropping you off at bebop, maybe adding a ballad as a lullaby.

The native of Wilmington didn't dig jazz when his father used to play it at home to relax after delivering the mail all day. It wasn't until later when Dexter Gordon got to him that he was hopelessly hooked. He says now, "I couldn't shake it if I wanted to."

Thomas has a M.A. in history from UNC-Chapel Hill, and he writes and teaches in addition to being a jazz announcer. He has interviewed the likes of Carmen McCrae, Art Blakey and Sonny Rollins, and he produced The Carolina Connection, a seven-part radio series that profiled jazz artists who have a connection with North Carolina (Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Max Roach, Percy Heath, etc.), which aired on WNCU.

Thomas is a self-described "servant of the people" with firsthand knowledge of how this sophisticated, spiritual and beloved music can unite people, change a mood, teach us how to live. He sees how plain old 4/4 time can move society forward with its momentum. Says the jazz messenger, "I love jazz and it loves me."
--Maria Brubeck

click to enlarge Seth Ilys is one of the top ten contributors to Wikipedia. - PHOTO BY TASHA PETTY
In the land of the wiki: Seth Ilys
Seth Ilys's geekdom began in Apex, or rather because of Apex. While looking for information about his hometown about a year and a half ago, he stumbled across an article in Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia that operates under "open source" principles--anyone can submit articles, make changes to existing articles, or add other information in much the same way that Linux software code is open to anyone who wants to tweak it, build on it, or just look under the hood. "I made a few minor tweaks to the article," Ilys says, "and before I knew it, I'd spent a whole afternoon discovering the site and became hooked very quickly." He recently made his 40,000th edit to the English edition of Wikipedia (the name is derived from the Hawaiian word for quick). According to Wired News, he is its ninth highest contributing member. "My work on Wikipedia is relaxing, it's educational, and it's useful to a broader community. You really couldn't ask for much more in a hobby."

Ilys' contributions range from political topics such as capital punishment and Libertarian candidate Michael Badnarik to more personal preoccupations, like space exploration and the TV show Babylon 5.

But his greatest love is maps. "My biggest project--being a geography nerd--has been adding maps to articles showing the locations of various cities. It's not glamorous or high-profile or terribly stimulating, but I believe it is valuable," he says. "That's my current legacy to Wikipedia; it's introduced the term 'dot-map' into the project's lexicon and given the many articles we have on small obscure places a tangible connection with the real world."

According to the site, a geek is "a person who is fascinated, perhaps obsessively, by technology and imagination," a definition Ilys agrees with. "I've always been attracted to what nascent phenomena--to groups, communities, projects that are still coming into existence, still taking shape. The Internet offers that in abundance," he says.

What he likes best is the sense of collaboration and community, which will hopefully keep him connected next year as he starts graduate school in chemistry in Colorado.

"I've been here my whole life, and North Carolina is in my bones," he says. Born in Durham, raised in Apex, now living in Chapel Hill, Ilys has also lived in Raleigh, Cary and Carrboro. "Two of the coolest things I've discovered in the past couple years here in the Triangle are the Battle Creek trails in Chapel Hill, and the North Carolina Collection in the libraries at UNC. Anyone who lives in the Triangle should visit those at least once." Ilys says he plans to return to the area later in life, after finishing school and living abroad.

Asked what the most underappreciated thing in the Triangle is, he says it's the amount of diversity, "racial, religious, political, economic, social--the potential for dialogue is stunning, and we don't take advantage of that." --Fiona Morgan

click to enlarge Jim Johnson, an expert in sifting through demographic trends, teaches at UNC-Chapel Hills school of business. - PHOTO BY ELI MORGAN
  • Photo by Eli Morgan
  • Jim Johnson, an expert in sifting through demographic trends, teaches at UNC-Chapel Hills school of business.
Seeing the hidden patterns: Jim Johnson
The world moves so fast, Jim Johnson gets up at 3:30 a.m. every day to get a jump-start.

By 6, he's read all the news his computer's collected for him overnight, pulling stories from every major publication around the world based on keyword searches on terms like "immigration patterns" and "offshoring jobs."

From 6 a.m. until the rest of the world joins him at work about three hours later, he writes, usually at his desk in UNC's Kenan-Flagler business school, where Johnson directs the Urban Investment Strategies Center.

An economic geographer by training, Johnson's specialties range far and wide.

His center conducts research on urban trends and patterns. Right now, for example, a study is under way examining annexation in the southeast U.S., which shows a pattern of minority communities being disenfranchised by governments that make decisions about land use but won't provide public services such as utilities. In the spotlight: Moore County, home of the upcoming PGA golf tour, where the luxury links have water and sewer service but the African-American neighborhood right next door doesn't.

"When that comes out, I won't be a 'geek;' I'll be a geek on wheels because they're going to run me out of town," Johnson says with a laugh.

He's an experienced expert witness for capital murder cases, where he testifies on the impacts of the defendants' socio-economic backgrounds. He helped create the Durham Scholars program, which provides college funds for economically disadvantaged students from NorthEast Central Durham, with 48 young people in college and about 70 in the high school pipeline. He runs an entrepreneurial boot camp focusing on women and minorities, studies the impacts of September 11 on U.S. employment trends, and writes reports about the economic impacts of the South's growing Latino population.

With a 38-page CV, it's impossible to sum up Johnson's academic and professional accomplishments briefly. It's been an evolution for the 50-year-old native of tiny Falkland, N.C., in Pitt County. His varied interests grow out of is voluminous reading material, starting with his daily pre-dawn routine.

"The flow of information goes by at a blinding speed--it's really a matter of competitive intelligence gathering," Johnson says. "I've always been interested in contemporary, leading-edge issues of an applied nature."
--Jennifer Strom

click to enlarge Mike Williams is searching for a solution to the states hog waste dilemma. - PHOTO BY TASHA PETTY
Bubble, bubble: Mike Williams
Your problem: 10 million hogs poop daily in North Carolina, and it's pumped into above-ground cesspools that the industry calls "lagoons." Whatever, they still stink. But what to do instead with all the material? The answer is our--well, we're calling him a geek, but maybe that's because of the crewcut, or possibly because he can say with integrity that solving the hog-waste problem is "not so much a political as an academic determination."

Anyway, the answer is Dr. Mike Williams, director of the Animal and Poultry Waste Management Center at N.C. State University, the scientist we're counting on to tell us what the answer is. Williams is a zoologist and animal nutritionist by training, with the requisite yen for numbers. But he's got some good-ol' person moves, too, if not from necessity then by his raisin' days on a tobacco farm in Franklin County.

And if all else fails, he runs 25-30 miles a week with his fellow "Roads Scholars" at State. "It helps me deal with the stresses of the job."

Almost five years ago now, the state and the hog industry and the environmental community placed their faith in Williams to figure out the science and economics of hog--meaning, clean it up, but don't wipe out the economy of eastern North Carolina doing it.

Progress to date: Excellent on the science, improving on the economics. Leading a team of some 50 researchers from State, Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill, Williams has been assessing such disposal methods as "ambient temperature anaerobic digester and greenhouse," and "Super Soils" solids separation/nitrification-denitrification soluble phosphorus removal." Geek stuff.

But assessing them according to what? The General Assembly's legislation said only to "substantially eliminate" the pollution from hogs. Job one, then was to quantify the various odors and pathogens emitted into the air and heavy metals discharged into the ground from hog manure. Only then would it be possible to say, with numerical certainty, whether a method "worked" or not.

And it wasn't enough that Williams decide on the numbers; a 23-member advisory panel made up of hog industry folks, environmentalists and political types in addition to the other scholars, needed to agree. Not unanimously, and according to Williams they've never been unanimous. "But we really had good consensus," he adds.

Academics, meet politics.

"Quantifying the performance standards was a necessary step to get the investors, the scientific entrepreneurs and the technical experts interested," Williams says. "They all said that, before, we stayed away from the process because they didn't know what the target was."

With investors coming in, results are improving and costs are dropping. Two methods have passed the numbers test so far, with others showing promise: before long, it's possible a combination of better filtration up-front and burning the hog-waste gases for fuel will allow the industry to clean its act up and save a buck too.

That would pass the smell test, eh?
--Bob Geary

click to enlarge Sarah Shields work offers historical perspectives on Iraq and the Middle East. - PHOTO BY ELI MORGAN
  • Photo by Eli Morgan
  • Sarah Shields work offers historical perspectives on Iraq and the Middle East.
Embracing the complicated: Sarah Shields
Sarah Shields says she wears two hats. She is an activist giving voice to the Palestinians' cause and an associate professor of Middle Eastern history at UNC-CH. On campus, she stands out in both realms.

Shields teaches undergraduate courses about Islamic civilization and the Middle East and just finished a book on pre-Iraq Mosul. Last semester, she offered a new course about the Arab-Israeli conflict. While colleagues at other universities have said they do not enjoy teaching this course, it has quickly become her favorite class to teach.

"I try to complicate the picture so students understand it's not about a good-bad or good-evil dichotomy," she said. "People don't understand that there are many sides."

In an effort to push students to read critically, Shields often assigns primary documents that describe an event in two different ways. Sometimes, Shield said, both are accurate, other times only one is. Either way, the lesson is the same. You can't take everything you read at face value.

Outside of the classroom, Shields writes and speaks as an activist for the Palestinian cause.

"I got really involved because I am a Jew, and I grew up with a strong set of values and things I really believe are moral issues," Shield said. "When I see people who identify with me acting in ways I don't see as consistent with my moral values, I feel the need to speak out."

Her broad activism is visible on campus, participating in teach-ins about issues such as the Iraq War, the bombing in Afghanistan, free speech issues and the Arab-Israeli conflict. "I think it's really important that faculty are engaged in the type of conversation students really want to hear about."

Shields is doing just that.
--Blair Goldstein

click to enlarge Rich Superfine is on a mission to demystify physics.
  • Rich Superfine is on a mission to demystify physics.
Pure energy: Richard Superfine
Richard Superfine is reenergizing physics class at UNC-CH, and people are taking note. His innovative teaching style challenges students to engage in the physics that surrounds them--from automobiles to incandescent light bulbs. During his undergraduate survey course, "How Things Work," students have built human pyramids to illustrate how atmospheric pressure rises and conducted home experiments to discover how often the jelly-side of toast lands face down.

Student participation is at the heart of Superfine's teaching style. When lecturing about magnetic levitation, for example, he had volunteers form a human train at the front of the lecture hall. Each student held an object representing a magnet. As the train moved around the classroom, students flipped their magnets to represent the process they were learning about.

Each semester, he packs a 150-seat lecture hall and has been recognized with a Johnson Teaching Award at UNC and a feature on a recent NPR series about popular collage courses.

As an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Superfine studies condensed-matter physics, biophysics and microscopy.

He also brings his complicated work into the hands of the community through collaborations with UNC's School of Education aimed at students in elementary, middle and high schools.

Superfine's love of physics is contagious. Perhaps there's a scientific law about that.
--Blair Goldstein

Fighting for the rivers: JoAnn Burkholder
It's easy to notice that Dr. JoAnn Burkholder is out of breath today, speaking into her cell phone about Pfisteria, the as-yet two-member genus she described over a decade ago, just three years after accepting a teaching post at N.C. State.

Years later, the organism, a tiny, toxic dinoflagellate that feeds off of bacteria and animal tissues, is still at the center of an academic and political firestorm that began after North Carolina's economically hefty tourism, fishing and agricultural industries cowered at the implications of her fish-killing microorganism.

"I was very fortunate then that I had just received tenure," she says, her voice muffled by the breeze blowing into her cell phone. "Industries can be very powerful, and people accept that as a matter of course. Things could have been a lot different for me."

Burkholder brings a special passion to her work. Ever since her part-Cherokee father took her on hikes at age 5, she's been obsessed with nature. And since reading a Life magazine article at 16 entitled "The Blighted Great Lakes," the Central Michigan native has been devoted to turning back the tides of water pollution.

In that quest, her contributions have been remarkable. Not only has she identified Pfisteria, she characterized it in a recent publication, redefining the ways that nutrient-rich industrial and municipal runoff threatens wildlife and human health. Even now, she's challenging the state's boastfulness of a cleaner Neuse, carefully substantiating her claims that the river's estuary is more polluted now than 12 years ago by showing its ammonia levels have increased by 700 percent.

Not quite a renegade, Burkholder is an inquisitive, challenging academic, a researcher who defies conventional wisdom by overturning it altogether. And North Carolina is fortunate to have her.
--Grayson Currin

click to enlarge Henry Petroski has been called Americas poet laureate of engineering. - PHOTO COURTESY OF DUKE UNIVERSITY
By design: Henry Petroski
As an engineering professor at Duke's department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, Henry Petroski has made a good living off of others' failures--one of his specialties is Fracture Mechanics, literally the study of why things fall apart. As an author he has produced 11 books exploring engineering and design including widely acclaimed studies of the book and the pencil (and other useful thing). His latest--Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering (Knopf, 2004)--is a collection of his engineering columns from American Scientist (published by Sigma Xi, the RTP-based Scientific Research Society). Prior to that he wrote Small Things Considered: Why There is No Perfect Design (Random House, 2003), in which he takes on the concept of design itself with each chapter focusing on aspects of the design process illustrated by the often strange origin of things like the flat bottom paper bag, the Dixie cup, the little tripod table in pizza boxes, the automobile cup holder, the Steelcase office chair and the relatively uniform placement of light switches.

In addition to an uncanny ability to put extraordinary tales of ordinary objects to paper, he's also known for a certain brilliance on the lecture circuit.

The Kirkus Review has dubbed him "America's Poet Laureate of Engineering," and rightly so.

So what does the professor think is the biggest design challenge facing the Triangle?

"I think the biggest design issue facing the Triangle is planning for growth. The thoughtfulness and quality of design for the area rail system will determine whether it succeeds or fails."
--Kirk Ross

  • Without them, we know nothing

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