Free Agent Nation: Will HitchBOT make it? How about the amazing HelpDesk?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Free Agent Nation

Meet HitchBOT video from Ryerson University

NOTE FROM DR. WAYNE BAKER—This week, we’re spanning generations and perspectives in welcoming guest writers Kathy Macdonald and Miles Grofsorean. In this five-part series, they are reporting on some very creative ideas from entrepreneurs. Here is their fifth and final column …

Young entrepreneurs are launching new ideas every day, as we’ve been reporting in this week’s series “Free Agent Nation.” Of course, the “nation” we’re talking about here is bigger than the U.S. Free agents around the world are coming up with fresh solutions to daily problems that span international boundaries.

HIGH TECH: Will HitchBOT make it?

In fact, as we complete our series, one such experiment is crossing North America from the Atlantic shores of Nova Scotia all the way to the Pacific. At least that’s what researchers David Smith (McMaster University) and Frauke Zeller (Ryerson University) are hoping! Every day, this summer, new headlines are popping up as their computer commuter, HitchBOT, tries to reach its goal thousands of kilometers away.

Many of the entrepreneurial ideas we’ve summarized this week try to build relationships between computers and humans. HitchBOT literally tests the strength of this relationship. Smith and Zeller aim to answer the question: “Can people trust robots?” To find the answer they created HitchBOT, an intelligent robot that is hitchhiking across Canada. Equipped with tweeting capabilities, HitchBOT will engage with its drivers during each trip and tweet information about its travels and location so that others can pick him up.

You can watch HitchBOT’s progress at the experiment’s website. (As this column is published, the little guy has made it past Toronto.) You also can learn about HitchBOT in this brief video made by the creators …

AND … LOW TECH: An amazingly cheap Help Desk from India

Americans joke about a simple fact of life today. Often, when we call for help, we’re reaching someone sitting at a Help Desk in India.

While that huge nation is known for its growing high-tech sector, the nation also is trying to help its millions of rural school children, many of whom grow up in harsh conditions. Students sit and write on the floors of dusty rooms—sometimes stirring up dust themselves from dirt floors. A non-profit organization named Aarambh is launching an extremely low-tech solution to improve these schools.

Even better is the fact that this new Help Desk meshes neatly with other cardboard recycling systems! Aarambh simply takes bundles of flattened cardboard boxes, ready for recycling, and turns them into portable book carriers for students can easily unfold into desks. Want to see how this works? Watch the video …

All this week, we’ve been exploring various new ventures that are in part a response to the transformation we are seeing in the economy–more and more people are shifting from finding jobs at well-established companies—to creating their own.

We’ve given examples of at least three types of “answers”: serviceable, seductive and supportive entrepreneurial ventures.

Where this will go is anyone’s guess, but will you be a part of it?

Like these ideas? Will they succeed? You could help to insure success simply by telling friends.

PLEASE, leave a comment below—and share this series with friends by clicking on the blue “f” Facebook icons or the small envelope shaped email icons.

Free Agent Nation: Scented Jeans? ‘Ficks’ a hangover? High-tech bookmark?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Free Agent Nation

Fragrance Jeans

NOTE FROM DR. WAYNE BAKER—This week, we’re spanning generations and perspectives in welcoming guest writers Kathy Macdonald and Miles Grofsorean. In this five-part series, they are reporting on some very creative ideas from entrepreneurs. Here is their third column …

America isn’t the only Free Agent Nation, and today we’re taking you on a quick trip around the world to show you three more products we’d like you to rate—and tell friends (via the blue-“f” Facebook icons or envelope-shaped email icons) if you think these ideas are worth sharing.

Yesterday, we looked at Serviceable ideas. Today, we focus on the second “S”—Seductive ideas.


Portuguese fashion brand, Salsa, has created scented jeans.

The pants, made from a blend of cotton and elastane, are embedded with microcapsules of fragrance. According to the manufacturers’ sales pitch, many jean enthusiasts believe that jeans are best left unwashed to protect their style and texture. Obviously, this can lead to undesirable side effects, which prompted Salsa to develop the product. They claim their fragrances will last up to 20 washes, and you can choose from 5 different scents: apple, blueberry, strawberry, lemon and orange.


Ficks Cocktail fortifierIf scented jeans are designed to keep young people smelling sweet even if they socialize night after night—a California company has created Ficks to take care of another problem associated with too much partying.

It’s a hangover solution, an “all natural cocktail fortifier” that was created in tandem with Fortitech, the company that formulated Vitamin Water. Their products are based on “years of research on scientific studies related to alcohol metabolization, liver health and medical causes of hangovers.”

Even Amazon now sells Ficks and so far the six reviews posted on the product page are voting 2 to 1 in favor of Ficks. There are four 4- and 5-star reviews vs. only two 1- and 2-star reviews; no one is wishy washy about this one—not a single 3-star review.


Dancing the night away? Worried about hangovers? Well, millions of people aren’t tempted in either direction. In fact, a Brazilian company is launching a small high-tech device that encourages—more reading.

Tweet For a Read is a campaign launched by a Brazil-based Penguin-Companhia publishing house. They recently developed a computerized bookmark with a WiFi-enabled computer, timer and light sensor. When the book is closed, the light sensor sets off the timer. When it’s been too long since you last opened the book, the bookmark (which is linked to your Twitter account) will notify the author’s Twitter account, which in turn will send you a reminder to continue reading the book in question. The tweets are actually pre-written by the author, or are phrases taken from the book you’re reading.

Here’s a short video about this product:

PENGUIN BOOKS | Case Tweet For a Read from Rafael Gonzaga on Vimeo.

Like this idea? Will it succeed? You could help to insure its success simply by telling friends.

PLEASE, leave a comment below—and share this series with friends by clicking on the blue “f” Facebook icons or the small envelope shaped email icons.

Change of Heart: Dramatic Change in the World’s Largest Church

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Change of Heart
Country by Country comparison of LGBT attitudes

Click this chart to read Pew’s entire report on “The Global Divide on Homosexuality”

The Catholic church often is cited in the debate over religious inclusion of LGBT men and women—even by evangelical leaders who not too many decades ago had no interest in working with Catholic allies. Critics of same-sex marriage often point out: The Catholic church will never allow it. And veteran Vatican watchers agree that an official blessing on gay marriage seems unlikely. Among the key reasons that the Vatican is central to this debate:

  • IT’S OLD AND BIG—The Catholic church is widely viewed as the world’s oldest Christian denomination and it certainly is the world’s largest organized religious group. The Vatican claims that more than a billion of the world’s men, women and children are Catholic, a group that represents half of all Christians on the planet. The Roman Catholic church is about the same size as Islam, which is not a single organized religious group.
  • MORE TRADITIONAL THAN PROTESTANTS—Catholic tradition and Vatican doctrine view marriage as a sacrament, setting the theological bar for change very high, while most mainline Protestants do not call the rite of marriage a sacrament. In fact, Catholic doctrine views marriage in a much more restrictive way than American Protestants. For example, divorced Catholics still are unable to remarry in the church without first going through a lengthy annulment process, discounting the authenticity of their earlier marriage. American Protestant churches have jumped past the biblical debate on remarriage after divorce and no longer regard the practice as controversial.
  • WEIGHT OF AFRICA—The Catholic church is growing by leaps and bounds in Africa, home to some of the world’s most anti-gay ethnic cultures.
  • POLITICAL FUNDING—The Catholic hierarchy has significant funds, at the discretion of regional bishops, that can be poured into anti-gay-rights campaigns.

HOWEVER, there is, indeed, dramatic change in the world’s largest church. Across several continents, the world’s Catholic population already is supporting LGBT inclusion in general—and a large portion of the church’s membership supports gay marriages or unions.

The chart with today’s story clearly shows the majorities in many of the world’s most populous Catholic countries supporting acceptance of gay men and women. This chart does not single out Catholic respondents, but a growing body of research does just that after extensive polling of Catholics.

The most complete to date is a Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) report in 2011, drawing on surveys and other research in 2009 and 2010. If anything, this PRRI report understates the widespread Catholic support for LGBT inclusion. All other nationwide research on this issue shows American attitudes shifting to approve same-gender marriage in the last couple of years. Part 2 in this series shows Pew’s 2014 polling with 59 percent of Catholics approving of allowing such marriages.

The PRRI study found that Catholics have widely accepted their church’s call for compassion toward marginalized groups. The PRRI report concludes: “Catholics strongly believe that society should accept gay and lesbian relationships. Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) agree that gay and lesbian relationships should be accepted by society. One in four disagree, but less than 1-in-10 (9 percent) say that they completely disagree. Among the general public, roughly 6 in 10 (62 percent) say that gay and lesbian relationships should be accepted by society, 12 points lower than support among Catholics.”

Are you surprised that Catholics are a leading group in many nations, urging LGBT inclusion?

Do you think the church’s leadership would ever consider changing church doctrine on marriage?

Bias Busters: How Asian students contribute to America

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Bias Busters

FROM WAYNE BAKER: This week, we welcome Joe Grimm, editor of the Michigan State University School of Journalism’s series of guides to cultural competence.

100 Q&A Asians front cover

Click the cover to visit our bookstore.

An international student who came to the United States this week for a summer educational program sent a question to the program’s director. Her suitcase was full, she wrote, and she is used to having a stuffed animal to help her sleep. She asked if she could buy one in the city where she would be staying.

When she arrived, she found a new stuffed animal in her room. The program director noted that the toy, like the student, had both come from China.

It seems like most things we buy in the United States are made in China. It is absolute fact that many people studying in our colleges and universities are from China. Education has become a top U.S. export, but it is the kind of export that one must come here to obtain—and it takes years to acquire.

According to the Institute for International Education, “International students make up slightly under four percent of total student enrollment at the graduate and undergraduate level combined. International students’ spending in all 50 states contributed approximately $24 billion to the U.S. economy.”

In April, the U.S. Student and Exchange Visitor Program reported that, for the first time, international students enrolled in the United States had exceeded 1 million.

Three quarters of the international students in the United States were from Asia and 29 percent were from China, like the student with the stuffed animal.

International enrollment is significant at Michigan State University, where the Bias Busters guides are produced.

Students in an international advertising class produced “100 Questions and Answers About East Asian Cultures” to help Americans understand their peers from overseas. The group included Americans and students from China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.

Their guide answers questions about culture, communication, food, religion and money. Students said they learned from publishing the guide and from working with each other.

Do you think international enrollment hurts or helps U.S. students? Why?

Should the U.S. make it easier for international students educated here to stay and work?

JOE GRIMM is visiting editor in residence at the Michigan State University School of Journalism and editor of the Bias Busters guides to cultural competence. He spent more than 25 years at the Detroit Free Press, 18 of them as its recruiter. You can read more about the series on its website at:

Space: Next stop, Mars?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Space
Mars image from NASA 2013

Image of Mars from NASA in 2013.

Going to the earth’s moon is so, well … yester-century. Private companies like SpaceX have their launch sights set on the Red Planet. In fact, SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s goal is to establish a permanent colony on Mars.

Should Mars be NASA’s focus, too?

Here’s what NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden, Jr. says in the agency’s 2014 Strategic Plan: “Our long-term goal is to send humans to Mars. Over the next two decades, we will develop and demonstrate the technologies and capabilities needed to send humans to explore the red planet and safely return them to Earth. One of the steps toward this goal is a proposed mission to find, capture, redirect a near-Earth asteroid safely into the Earth-Moon system, and then send astronauts to explore it. This mission will allow us to further develop new technologies and test mechanisms and techniques for human operations in deep space, as well as help us understand potential future threats to human populations posed by asteroids.”

But, how much public support is there for a mission to Mars?

Just over a third of Americans (36%) agree that the goals of the space program should include manned flight to Mars, according to a 2012 poll by Rasmussen Reports. Slightly more disagree (38%). But many Americans (27%) say they aren’t sure. The price tag for a Mars program could be $6 billion to as much as $500 billion, according to some estimates.

Is the Mars mission just flight of fancy?

Should NASA set its sights on the Red Planet?

Should tax payers fund a Mars program?

Divided America: Is ‘liberty’ what you really want?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Divided America
Two images of Lady Liberty from World War I

THE MANY FACES OF LIBERTY: This summer marks the centennial of World War I. Here are two popular images of Lady Liberty used on posters during WWI.

Today is the start of the Memorial Day weekend, with the official federal holiday on Monday. It’s a time when we pause and remember the men and women who died while serving in the country’s armed forces. It is often said that they died to preserve our liberty. But is liberty really something you want?

This week, we’ve explored several areas where Americans are deeply divided. These include divided beliefs about God as the source of moral authority, the traditional family model, America’s moral destiny, and the tradeoff of freedom and security. Today, we consider beliefs about the value of liberty. You might be surprised to learn what Americans think about it!

Liberty means freedom from restraint—being able to do whatever you want. In my surveys, I asked about this meaning of liberty in two different ways. I intentionally didn’t use the word “liberty” because I wanted to avoid having the word (rather than the definition) influence responses.

Here are two statements. To what extent do you agree or disagree with each one?

“Freedom is being left alone to do what I want.”

“Freedom is having a government that doesn’t interfere in my life.”

Almost four of ten Americans (39%) agreed with the first statement, a figure that barely changed over the four surveys. Just under half (48%) disagreed, however, saying that they did not endorse this idea. Only 14% were neutral.

I found a similar pattern for the second statement. About half agreed with it. Over a third (35%) disagreed, and only 15% were neutral.

Liberty is in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, but beliefs about it are sharply divided.

We do find agreement, however, when we talk about freedom of expression and freedom as the right to participate in elections and politics. These are widely shared core values, as I describe in United America.

At the start of the Memorial Day weekend, what does “freedom” mean to you?

How about “liberty”?

Divided America: Still “A City upon a Hill?”

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Divided America
The ship Arbella where John Winthrop spoke of City on a Hill

A sketch of the ship Arbella where John Winthrop talked of this new country as a “City upon a Hill.”

Should American values actively be spread around the world?

If you say yes, then you probably believe that America has a special role—perhaps a sacred place—in the world and world history.

Does America have a moral destiny? Belief in the moral destiny of America is a prominent theme in American history, dating back to the Puritans. John Winthrop used the phrase “city upon a hill” in a 1630 sermon aboard the ship Arbella. It comes from the biblical parable of Salt and Light in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. Winthrop borrowed the phrase to remind the colonists of the ideal community that were striving to found in the new world. This was the origin of what historian Arthur Schlesinger called “the mystical idea of an American national destiny.”

Is America still that city upon a hill?

Many Americans believe it is. Almost four of ten Americans agree that American values should be actively spread around the world, according to my national surveys. About the same number disagree, however. About 20% are neutral.

Would the world be a better place if people from other countries were more like Americans? More than three ten Americans say it would be. Just under half say it would not. Only about 20% are neutral.

In other words, belief in the moral destiny of America is one of the areas of intense disagreement in American society.

Do you believe that American values should be spread around the globe?

Would the world be a better place if more people were like Americans?

Do you believe in the nation’s moral destiny?