Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Comments on the keynote speech to Alpha Chi Honor Society

Speech at Louisville – John Janovy, Jr.

Last fall I was invited to give the keynote address at the national Alpha Chi convention in Louisville, Kentucky. Alpha Chi is a national honors organization; most of the chapters are at smaller colleges and universities; students in the top 10% of their class are eligible for membership. The invitation was issued by Bill Clemente, an English professor at Peru State College, who is vice-president of the national council. The convention was held last week, April 6-9; attendance was maybe five or six hundred, including students and faculty members. The invitation to be their keynote speaker was a major honor. The title of that talk was, of course, “Life Lessons from a Parasite.”

The title was chosen mainly because the Alpha Chi theme is Transcending Boundaries, and of the things that parasites do well, at least as species, it’s to transcend boundaries, particularly ecological ones. Thus the life cycle of a typical trematode is wonderful material to use metaphorically, and of course I chose Posthodiplostomum minimum as my subject. This trematode lives as an adult in fish-eating birds; eggs are shed and first stage larvae develop in snails; cercariae emerge from snails, penetrate small fish, and develop into infective stages. These larvae end up in various tissues, including the eyes. Prevalence varies over the years, depending on how the South Platte River flows, which in turn is based on Rocky Mountain snowpack.

You can see immediately where this narrative is going. A parasite that infects the eyes influences how the host sees the world. A parasite whose prevalence in fish depends on Rocky Mountain snowpack is a parasite whose life is controlled, in part, by events that are distant in time and space. These kinds of relationships are easy to turn into metaphors. For example, we might ask the question: what do the following items have in common?

Zika virus, Ebola virus, influenza, HIV, Cryptosporidium parvum, MRSA, mumps, measles, tuberculosis, Dengue, Giardia intestinalis, West Nile virus, cholera, Cyclospora cyatenensis, SARS, MERS, Lyme borreliosis, poliovirus.

The answer is pretty obvious, namely, that they move through populations by way of various mechanisms; some folks get infected; others are shielded or immune; and everyone, especially people in positions of power and responsibility, needs to understand both the mechanisms by which these agents move through populations and the consequences of such movement. We could easily, of course, ask the same question about the following items:

Snapchat, rumors, fake news, smart phones, money, handguns, rap music, selfies, Pok√©mon Go, torn jeans, Middle Eastern names, “immigrant,” plastic water bottles, “LGBTQ,” “abortion,” recipes, bad ideas, lettuce and broccoli, car parts.

Again, the answer is pretty obvious, namely, that they move through populations by way of various mechanisms; some folks acquire or accept them; others are shielded from them, or reject them; and everyone, especially people in positions of power and responsibility, needs to understand both the mechanisms by which these agents move through populations and the consequences of such movement. Furthermore, some are only words (LGBTQ, immigration, abortion) that elicit strong responses in people, others provide power (money, guns), and still others enter our personal realms by way of the media and because of distant events over which we have little or no control (Middle Eastern names).

At some point toward the end of this talk I used the term “divisiveness” as an example of a meme that had taken on significant power in recent decades. In other words, it is an entity that is moving through our population, producing reactions, depending on the prior exposure of the recipient. During the question and comment session that followed, two students made comments that I thought were truly profound.

One student indicated that I had characterized the meme “divisiveness” as negative, whereas in the past, it had been a driving force for people to participate in the political process, and indeed to effect change. I agreed with her completely. The other student asked whether I thought that divisiveness could function as a vector, carrying along other memes, or enhancing the extent to which those carried-along memes were accepted or rejected. I had to not only agree completely with this student, but it seemed to me that his idea might be a great one for a senior thesis in communications or journalism.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Descriptions from The Gideon Marshall Mystery Series

I know, they're not about parasites, except for parasitic ideas that get into the heads of powerful people and make them not only do stupid stuff, but also drag others along with them. I'm also posting these descriptions here, instead of on the Friday Coffee blog because a publisher to which I've submitted Africa Notes: Reflections of a Semi-Educated Tourist, said that a blog link to a sample of previous writing was okay as part of the proposal. So I put that sample up on fridaycoffee. Here are the four (so far) Gideon Marshall Mysteries:


Dr. Clyde Renner is dead, apparently of a heart attack. Leonard Branch, campus cop at Renner’s small liberal arts college, is convinced there’s more to Renner’s demise and Gideon Marshall, paleontologist, plays host to a parade of characters with a stake in the autopsy. In the end, Marshall discovers not only the perfect murder, but also ideal weapons of mass destruction.

Dr. Clyde Renner, professor of geology, chair of the department, world renowned expert on volcanoes and earthquakes, and intellectual giant, is dead, apparently of a heart attack, alone in his insect-infested house. Leonard Branch, campus cop at Renner’s small liberal arts college in Iowa, is convinced there’s more to Renner’s demise than appears on the death certificate. Gideon Marshall, paleontologist, now acting chair, plays host to a parade of characters, including Renner’s bullied secretary and accountant, a belligerent female prof, an untenured young scientist and his hot-headed coed paramour, her wealthy helicopter parent, Renner’s estranged gay son and his computer geek husband, and the college president; all are involved in various ways with Clyde Renner’s distinguished career and all have a stake in the autopsy results. In the end, Marshall accepts the fact that he’s probably discovered not only the perfect murder, but also ideal weapons of mass destruction.


After the brutal execution-style shooting of a geology prof, paleontologist Gideon Marshall gets dumped into an even more complex mess than the one a year earlier in this sequel to BE CAREFUL, Dr. RENNER. Marshall is put under house arrest because of a note found in the deceased’s hands. RENNER, it turns out, was a victim of a perfect murder scheme. STITCHER is a different matter.

With another death at his small, Forbes-listed, liberal arts college in Iowa, Gideon Marshall, unwilling and temporary chair of the Geology Department, gets dumped into even a bigger and more complex mess than he experienced as a result of the first one a year earlier. Instead of the simple heart attack and stroke that felled his predecessor, which was the perfect murder of a despised faculty bully, Marshall now deals with the brutal execution-style shooting of a geology prof, this one a female whose personality has earned her the nickname “Becky Bitcher.” THE STITCHER FILE is a sequel to BE CAREFUL, Dr. RENNER. In THE STITCHER FILE Marshall is put under house arrest because of a note found in the deceased’s hands. The victim is found on an ice-covered railroad crossing by the Geology Department accountant. Law enforcement descends on the site, and Marshall ends up with an ankle monitor. Many of the same players that plagued Gideon Marshall in BE CAREFUL, DR. RENNER re-appear in new roles, along with new characters from various law enforcement agencies. RENNER, it turns out, was a victim of a perfect murder scheme. STITCHER is a different matter.


The brutal murder of a scientist at geologist Gideon Marshall’s upscale liberal arts college in Iowa remains unsolved. A request from the Department of Criminal Investigation, to determine the origin of dirt in ten plastic bags, sends Marshall on a trek through Oklahoma oil fields and turns him into a crucial prosecution witness whose testimony will have global implications.

A brutal murder at Gideon Marshall’s upscale liberal arts college in Iowa remains unsolved. A Department of Criminal Investigation detective and the Polk County medical examiner show up in Marshall’s office on a bleak Friday afternoon with the victim’s autopsy report, a box of plastic bags, and a request to determine the origin of dirt samples. Paleontologist Marshall is about to become a crucial prosecution witness because of his ability to identify materials in those bags. The DCI request sends Marshall and his wife Mykala on an adventure that begins with concealed carry training and weapons purchase, continues on a trek through Oklahoma oil fields posing as inspectors, and ends with an arrest that is certain to bring Marshall into direct confrontation with Big Oil, Big Money, and the Department of Defense.
THE EARTHQUAKE LADY is the third Gideon Marshall Mystery. The stories center around the potential danger of scientific discoveries and the sometimes eccentric lives of people who make them. Marshall is dragged into efforts by various people to control the discoveries of a genius-level scientist, a former faculty member in his department, this unhappy woman—Rebecca Stitcher—who was the murder victim. Stitcher’s theoretical research in geology could empower a nation to produce ideal weapons of mass destruction, namely large volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis occurring at times and places chosen on purpose. Needless to say, there many people interested in this possibility, and all of them eventually descend on Gideon Marshall’s small liberal arts college in Iowa. As Marshall’s perceptive wife Mykala says to him: “Gideon, it’s just beginning.”


Geology prof Charlie Weatherford is arrested for murder of a colleague who’s maybe solved the problem of making big earthquakes occur on purpose with fracking techniques. Connie Bergen, attorney for the company supporting Weatherford for proprietary access to research, is sent to defend him. The trial brings out the deadly potential of scientifically illiterate men in high places.

An execution-style murder, a dashing young prof, competing expert witnesses, and a Big Oil civil lawyer dragged into his first criminal case combine to uncover the power of belief regardless of truth.

Dr. Charlie Weatherford, dashing young geology prof at Cavanaugh College in Iowa, is arrested for the murder of a colleague, Rebecca Stitcher, reputed to have solved the problem of making major earthquakes occur on purpose, using hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) techniques developed by the petroleum industry. Connecticut “Connie” Bergen, a civil attorney for Stevens Oil, Inc., the company supporting Weatherford for proprietary access to research results, gets on a company jet bound for Des Moines, sent by owner Delmar Stevens himself to defend Weatherford. This is Bergen’s first assignment in a criminal case, and he’s met at the airport by Amber Buchanan, a mysterious woman with various roles in Stevens Oil, Inc., whose job evidently is to guide him through the legal labyrinth surrounding this murder. It’s not obvious that anyone, even Weatherford, cares whether he’s convicted or acquitted.

The Weatherford Trial leads us through the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation witness protection efforts, Bergen’s handling of forensic geology, competing expert witnesses, and Bergen’s education at the hands of Amber, until the jury adjourns to arrive at a verdict. The Weatherford Trial is the fourth Gideon Marshall Mystery. As with the first three books, this one brings out the deadly potential of seemingly arcane ideas, the phenomenon of scientific illiteracy in high places, and the power of belief regardless of truth.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The True Legend of the Concrete Tapeworm

The True Legend of the Concrete Tapeworm
John Janovy, Jr.

There once was a beat-up, white-painted, wooden building that sat in a wooded depression across the road south from the Lake McConaughy spillway in Keith County, Nebraska. That building had been the headquarters for the crew that build Kingsley Dam, the enormous earth-filled structure that impounded the lake called “Big Mac.” During the early 1980s, the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District decided to “finish” Kingsley Dam by putting a hydroelectric plant into the spillway, a rather formidable but interesting task. That building had mainly been used by fishermen as a convenient restroom, but Central moved it out of the woods and down to a site near the Cedar Point Biological Station’s White Gate. See TEACHING IN EDEN, RoutledgeFalmer, 2003, for the complete analysis of the White Gate’s influence on American higher education. Obviously, late at night, over beers outside the White Gate, there was plenty of discussion about that building, the wisdom of Central’s decision to build the hydro plant, what might happen to it after the project was finished, and, of course, parasitology.

Central used the building to store various construction supplies. I was director of the CPBS at the time, and we needed some additional research space, so Ron Randall, who was the CPBS facilities manager at the time, and I did an inspection of the building and decided it might be useful. Ron said something like “it needs a new roof, new siding, new floor, and new wiring, but other than that, it’s in good shape.” The timbers were 1930s-era, and very solid. After the hydro plant was finished, I asked Central if we could have the building and they said “yes,” although we had to move it.

Ron rented a Bobcat, and although he did most of the work, I got to drive the Bobcat and did some of the excavation at the site, at CPBS, that had been formerly occupied by a green mobile home used as a research lab by several workers. After the building site was level, we dug the footing trench and Ron called in the concrete truck. After the footing was poured, there was some concrete left over, so I asked the truck driver if he’d pour a string of concrete in the space that would eventually be beneath the building’s floor. He did, and I shaped that string of concrete into a very large tapeworm sculpture, maybe 10 feet long. A local mason was hired to lay the foundation, and Star Moving Company from Hershey, Nebraska, moved the building from the White Gate to its new site, setting it gracefully on the foundation (but not without knocking a couple of blocks off, which had to be replaced before the building could be lowered).

There were barn swallow nests on the building, just under the eaves, when it was outside the White Gate, and those birds followed the building as it made its journey in to CPBS. That’s why the building is now named The Swallow Barn. Ron did virtually all of the updating and repair, and The Swallow Barn was used as a research facility, mainly by parasitologists, for years before it was remodeled into living quarters.

During the summer of 2013, there was some reason for people to get beneath that building, maybe because of a needed air conditioning repair. A couple of students, I believe, crawled into the crawl space (which is fairly generous, but you can’t stand up in it), and confirmed that yes indeed, like in a true intestine, that concrete tapeworm still lies there in the dark, absorbing all the parasitological wisdom that’s been brought into The Swallow Barn by the various people working above it’s concrete scolex.


Wednesday, January 2, 2013


On the other hand, sometimes a problem can turn into a positive experience. Not long ago, standing in front of a large auditorium full of freshman students, three ladies in the back of the room simply would not shut up, and the laughing seemed to be disturbing those around them. So I kicked them out of class. As you can imagine, the other 257 people in that room were very attentive for the rest of the period. But I got an e-mail later that day from one of those who’d been sent out:

I was asked to leave your class this morning and 
I just wanted to say that I am sincerely sorry for my
actions. I am ashamed and I honestly meant no 
disrespect to you or my classmates. Make no mistake, 
I was very humiliated by being asked to leave class. 
I really was paying attention to your lecture 
and final exam preparation discussion, but I did allow 
myself to become momentarily distracted and I take 
full responsibility for that lapse of judgment. Please 
understand that I am not writing this in order to argue 
my actions as acceptable, because I was in the wrong, 
but I just wanted to tell you that I am sorry. 
Respond if you wish, but I just thought you should know.
I responded. And the fact that this student sent the above message means that at the end of the semester, if she is a tenth of a point away from the next highest letter grade, I’ll move her up. But the real lesson is that no matter how anonymous or hidden you may think you are in a large auditorium, a teacher can probably see you and recognize immediately whether you are contributing to the overall academic atmosphere or being a distraction to your classmates. Fifty minutes is not very long. Just sit there, pay attention, and at least look like you’re taking notes, glancing up at the screen or blackboard periodically, even if you’re busy writing a poem or a letter to your significant other.

Monday, December 31, 2012


“I think there’s a typo in the Bible,” said Satan. “Remember, right in the beginning, when I’m a snake and there’s this apple tree? I think that when you wrote ‘not eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil’ that what you really meant was ‘now eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.’ I mean, if You’re going to let them evolve those big brains, maybe You should let them know what’s good and bad?” Satan sipped on her coffee and looked over at the next table where a college kid was eating a brownie. “I think I need a big cookie full of macadamia nuts,” she said; “I heard macadamia nuts are really high in calories and have lots of fat.”

The whole book is available as a paperback at www.createspace.com/3431482 or on Kindle and Nook.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Bohemian coffee cake recipe and demo

Bohemian coffee cake recipe and demo
See http://www.johnjanovy.com/bohem_cc.pdf for the recipe and a demonstration of how it's assembled once the dough has been allowed to rise (twice) in a warm place.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012


But LPD’s mind lay in the clouds. Storms come from the west. Thunderheads hide in the mountains. They live in the canyons, deep in caves, until cold winds make them angry. Then they grow, and take their revenge on the prairies. In their towering, boiling, anguish, their reds and orange reflections, they are emotions come into corporeal life. Their visage is anger; their lightning is excitement; their rain—tears; their stillness, yellow light, soft singing of tiny frogs, are all a kind of renewal. This rain is a persistent one. The wet raccoon becomes surly, with bared fangs, quick to bite and shake its fur, nervous as the tale goes on, almost as if he remembers only too well the dirt, heavy bones, the ancient dried skin, stringy black and brittle hair, the broken pots, baskets, all out of the grave. The grave. He scratches and yowls. From the woods north of campus comes the scream of a rabbit whose back is cut in two by a weasel’s stiletto teeth. Finally, at five in the morning, comes the calling of toads. With this last, Dinkle stops.
“The storm always brings them back together,” he says.

(DINKLE: A SPIRITUAL BIOGRAPHY is a ghost story for our times; it's available on smashwords, kindle, and nook.)