I’ve got a quick little book recommendation for you as well as your children. It’s called Geeks on a Mission: In Their Own Words and it’s been edited by Alex Hills, a Carnegie Mellon University Distinguished Service Professor. (And If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Alex Hills was part of the team that was responsible for the creation of Wi-Fi. As a matter of fact, if you haven’t read his other book, Wi-Fi and the Bad Boys of Radio, I highly encourage you to seek out a copy — an abridged version of my previous review is appended to the end of this post.)
Geeks on a Mission contains five essays from graduate students who participated in the Technology Consulting in the Global Community (TCinGC), a program that matches up Carnegie Mellon graduates with organizations in other countries to solve problems. What kinds of problems? Well, that depends on the country… and the client in that country. These are volunteers, and they are sent out (after some additional training) as consultants to work with the clients to understand the problem at hand and then offer up a solution that can be maintained AFTER the consultants have returned home.
Five different students offer up their stories about the experiences they had while abroad. Peru, Rwanda, Ghana, and Palau are the locations (two of the five contributors share their Ghana experiences in two separate chapters), but it’s interesting to note that 71 additional students have completed similar assignments in 14 different developing nations around the globe, working with 35 different organizations over a period of nine years. While the work experiences are definitely interesting to read about (and not just to geeks), I found the personal stories even more enjoyable. You learn about the back-stories of students and how their lives prepared them for the work they volunteered for, and how it inspired them to consider it. There are some amusing fish-out-of-water stories, but there are also a few very serious experiences that are detailed that remind readers about the risks (such as sickness) that are sometimes encountered.
Geeks on a Mission opens with an introduction from Alex Hills and then proceeds with one chapter for each of the five students. Full color photographs are provided, including opening photos of the smiling volunteers. Readers will get a first-hand account of not only the training provided to these students for their volunteer role, but also an account of their consulting tasks and goals to help their organizations fulfill a need.
The program was founded and directed by Carnegie Mellon’s Professor Joseph Mertz, and Mertz provides the closing chapter to the 150-page book that might inspire some up-and-coming college graduates to consider looking for a chance to volunteer out in the world, whether as a Carnegie Mellon graduate or another school. Either way, the book will make for a great source of inspiration for any student wishing to help make the world a better place.
Note: I’d like to thank Alex Hills for providing a copy of the book.
Excerpt of review for Wi-Fi and the Bad Boys of Radio
Mr. Hills has written a 144-page history (of sorts) — his history of early experiences with ham radio and his study of electromagnetic waves and his history developing the technology that would become the Wi-Fi we enjoy today. It’s a fast read, and very personal with lots of details about Hills’ childhood friends, his college years and beyond.
Hills starts out by talking about his early days with amateur (ham) radio and the traditional telegraph key (followed by a faster, more useful Vibroplex device) and how he began his education to obtain his Novice Class amateur radio license and then moved forward with more advanced licenses that required greater skill and a better understanding of radio waves and how one could communicate at certain times (day versus night, for example) with faraway locations. It is this curiosity about radio waves that Hills uses to develop his story and explain how he ended up much later running a team that would develop Wi-Fi. But before he got there, he had to do some more learning at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute along with some serious street-cred obtained by working the school’s radio station, WRPI. More training and education concerning the real-world usage of antennae and radio waves followed, leading up to… Alaska.
Yes, Alaska. The story takes a 90-degree turn as Hills talks about his experiences working at KOTZ, the public radio station serving Eskimo communities. In addition to day-to-day duties, Hills was also tasked with keeping the transmissions of the station going which involved what sounds like a lot of trips for maintenance on the station’s 5,000-watt transmitter. This part of the story was very enjoyable, as Hills has done a great job of helping you understand just how important communication is between the small towns… and how difficult it can be to setup and maintain.
The story spends some time here, talking about weather reports, and Teletype machines and even the 1973 top playlist that includes songs I know… and don’t know. But it’s the personal uses of the station, the Eskimo Stories that were passed along by elders and the old-time radio shows (such as The Shadow and Lone Ranger serials) that really offer up a vivid image of the value of talk, of communication between people scattered across great distances.
One of my favorite sections from the book tells the story of how Hills and a pilot named John Lee would fly to various villages to try to set up and explain the use of long-distance VHF radio telephone service. They would not only have to convince townsfolk of the usefulness, but also call on their knowledge of the surrounding areas to find the best location for placing the receiving antennas. It’s good stuff, and I particularly enjoyed Hills’ recounting of the placement of an antennae close to the Russian border that involved pointing the antennae at the Russian mountains because they could more easily receive a reflected signal (bounced off the mountains). I sure would have liked to know what a Russian observer thought of that unique solution!
I mention that Hills covers the usefulness of a reflected signal, but reflection isn’t always a good thing. And that’s where the title of this book comes – the problems with radio waves that Hills discusses in the book via his stories are the same problems that he refers to as the five bad boys of radio. These include shadowing, reflection, refraction, scattering, and diffraction. Hills does a nice job of not over-complicating the book with a lot of techno-babble, and his explanations of the various bad boys of radio come with examples from his real-life experiences that are easy to follow. He offers up these bad boys of radio because all of them will have some sort of impact later in the book when he and his team begin their testing and prototyping of various Wi-Fi networks.
After leaving Alaska (and getting married), Hills landed a teaching job at Carnegie Mellon. He spends the remainder of the book discussing his various roles at the university and how his on-going interest in radio waves and a simple discussion over lunch about wireless technology would turn into a government-funded project that would involve a partnership with a Dutch technology company and a team that would wander the campus with strange-looking equipment, testing for dead signals, strong signals, and all the in-between strangeness that occurs when data is being sent wirelessly and an attempt is made to retrieve it.
The development of Wi-Fi didn’t happen quickly, and it didn’t happen easily. There were plenty of technical issues, and Hills provides some entertaining stories about his team and how they pushed forward because they wanted CM to have a true, wireless network available to the faculty… and to the students who had managed to hack their way in. (Students were banned from using it, but Hills shares some fun stories about how where there’s a will, there’s a way…)
We all know how the story ends — I’m writing this post right now on my laptop while sitting on the couch, all because Wi-Fi was a huge success. But knowing how the story ends doesn’t take away any of the wonder and enjoyment of reading a first-hand account of how it all came to be. Wi-Fi is everywhere, even at one of my favorite Chinese restaurants… and thanks to Hills and his team at Carnegie Mellon, we have a technology that is (mostly) reliable and that we don’t really have to think much about.