Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Truly Trivial: What events comprise a close encounter of the fifth kind?

Dr. J. Allen Hynek (left) and Dr. Jacques Vall...Image via Wikipedia
Hot on the heels of last week's Nerd Word -- Majestic 12 -- we return to the surprisingly timely topic of alien abduction. Most of the current upturn in alien interest is due to the new Milla Jovovich movie The Fourth Kind, which ostensibly profiles alien abductees using real (for Blair Witch Project values of real) interview footage. The film's title refers to the fourth type of so-called close encounter, wherein humans are abducted by the occupants of UFOs. Setting aside the plausibility of actual UFO abductions, have you ever wondered who it was that conjured up this enumerated spectrum of close encounters?

Look no further than one J. Allen Hynek, an astronomer and ufologist who had the distinction of both working for Project Bluebook -- the U.S. Air Force investigation into UFO phenomena -- and for publishing a moderately famous book on the subject, The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry. Hynek is the founder of the Center for UFO Studies and, as much as such a thing is possible, is considered a reliable authority on unidentified flying object investigations. In the aformentioned UFO Experience, Hynek laid out three kinds of close encounters to categorize the various UFO reports that he had analyzed (and, most often, debunked) during his tenure as adviser to the Air Force and as a civilian investigator:
  1. Close encounter of the first kind, wherein a UFO is merely observed
  2. Close encounter of the second kind, wherein physical evidence of a UFO is recovered
  3. Close encounter of the third kind, wherein the occupants of a UFO are observed
Despite what Jovovich's PR folks might have you believe, there was no fourth kind of close encounter when Hynek published the scale in 1972. Nor did he explicitly add a fourth kind to the scale before his death in 1986. This was added later by other ufologists, with some significant contributions by Jacques Vallée, Hynek's frequent collaborator and perhaps the only other well known "respectable" UFO researcher. (Vallée was the real-life inspiration for the lead research scientist character, Lacombe, in Steven Spielberg's Close Encounter's of the Third Kind.)

For his part, Vallée did not explicitly endorse the alien abduction defintion of fourth kind of close encounter, but merely described them as "cases when witnesses experienced a transformation of their sense of reality." Vallée was equally circumspect as to the definition of a close encounter of the fifth kind, the most involved and potentially definitive UFO interaction of the revised close encounter scale.

So, what events comprise a close encounter of the fifth kind?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Nerd Word of the Week: Majestic 12

Two extraterrestrial (E.T.) alien Martians dri...Image by loomingy1 via Flickr
Majestic 12 (n.) - One of several purported code names for an ostensible ongoing conspiracy between scientists, military leaders, and government officials to investigate and/or obscure evidence of UFOs. It is the assumed precursor to more well known (and substantiated) government UFO efforts such as Project Sign, Project Grudge and Project Blue Book. Also known as Majic 12Majestic TrustM12MJ 12MJ XII or Majority 12, this group holds a prominent place both in the mythology of ufologists and UFO conspiracy theorists, as well as the science fictional works which play off UFO cover-up themes. The X-Files is perhaps the most famous example of using Majestic 12 as a recurring plot device, though the less successful series Dark Skies was more explicit in its use of this supposed organization.

I bring it up because: On this date 62 years ago -- Sept. 24, 1947 -- President Harry Truman supposedly commissioned "Operation Majestic Twelve." The executive order has been serially debunked, but it nonetheless serves as the lynchpin around which much ufology and conspiracy lore revolves. Moreover, UFOs and their associated fringe theories are coming back into style if the Nov. 6-opening Milla Jovovich alien abduction movie The Fourth Kind is any indication. Debuting the same day is the George Clooney comedy The Men Who Stare at Goats, which is based on another oft-cited conspiracy theory -- the supposedly true story of the U.S. government's attempts to create a squad of psychic soldiers. Following just a week after that is 2012, the Roland Emmerich disaster flick (that's both a genre and a prediction for this movie) based on yet another fringe science/conspiracy theorist trope -- that the world will end when the Mayan Long Count calendar "runs out" in the year 2012. Face it, when there's a network TV series called Fringe that's pulling decent ratings, the fringe itself has got have a little mainstream cred. Just ask the new First Lady of Japan, who has visited Venus on a UFO. Personally, I blame the secret masters of Majic 12. That, or Coast to Coast AM. Same difference, really.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Truly Trivial: What secret F-U to the Beatles is hidden in the Mac OS?

wallpaper - beatles & apple
It's part of the accepted wisdom of the technology community that Apple Computer cofounder Steve Jobs is a paranoid, narcissistic jerk who has channeled his character flaws into both a cult of personality and a world-changing consumer-tech empire. I mean, you've got to be something of a high-profile jackass for The Simpsons to devote and entire episode B-plot to punking you out, and since company culture often reflects the personality of its executive leadership, it's little wonder that Apple has a long and glorious history of getting sued by unlikely people. (Carl Sagan? Seriously?)

Still, it takes a special man and a special company to wage a three-decades-long trademark war with The Beatles. The core of this dispute (pun intended) is that the holding company for most of The Beatles' intellectual property is Apple Corps, which felt that Jobs' and Steve Wozniak's fledgling little tech concern was treading on their trademark turf. This dispute was settled in 1981 when Apple Computer paid Apple Corps $80,000 and promised not to enter the music business. So long as there was a clear separation between which company made tech and which company made (or, rather, licensed) music, everything was cool.

Then, in 1986, Apple started integrating MIDI synthesizer chips into their computers, a trend that culminated in the Apple IIGS line of desktops. To Apple Corps thinking, this was a breach of the settlement, so the Beatles IP-holder sued Apple Computer again. And won. And killed the IIGS line, along with any direct hardware integration of synthesizer or music-mixing tech into Apple computers.

Now, as they say, it was on.

Apple resented the Beatles for nixing its foray into sound tech, and Apple Corps was watching Apple Computer like a hawk for any sign that Steve Jobs' company was treading anywhere near music industry territory. It got so bad inside Apple Computer that the company's legal department had to sign off on any system sounds that may or may not be interpreted as "excessively musical."

Thus it came to be that in 1991 former Apple sound designer Jim Reekes created a little file that has been in every Mac OS since System 7 -- one intended in part as a subtle, secret kiss-off to Apple Corps and their legal representatives for all the inconvenience their litigious oversight caused Apple Computer developers.

So, what secret F-U to the Beatles (or, at least, their lawyers) has been hidden in the Mac OS for almost 20 years?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Nerd Word of the Week: Noosphere

Linux Kernel Map
Noosphere (n.) - Intellectual term for the sphere of human thought, and/or a medium of exchange for all human ideas and knowledge. Sometimes used as a metaphorical synonym for cyberspace, the Internet. The related terms Noocene and noocracy refer to the era when humans became self-aware and began improving themselves though idea sharing, and a system of government that directly acknowledges and harnesses this awareness, respectively.
The noosphere is a recurring plot device in science fiction, perhaps most notably in The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway, which saw noospheric weapons ravaging human civilization by permantly erasing ideas, and in the anime/manga series Neon Genesis Evangelion, in which several characters sought to make the noosphere a tangible reality.
I bring it up because: Eighteen years ago today, the first version of Linux kernel was released to the Internet. This led to a revolution in software development and the publication of two seminal essays by Eric S. Raymond: "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" and "Homesteading the Noosphere." The former deals with top-down versus grassroots software engineering and commerce. The latter discusses the possibility and preconcpetions of actually owning and profiting from ideas in an era when said ideas can be massively, instantly, and freely exchanged via the Internet. The noosphere is thus an overlap concept between science and science fiction, wherein this collective intelligence of humanity is simultaneously a philosophical construct, a sociological phenomenon, and economic force, and a buzzword-compliant synonym for the Web. Plus, if you know how to spell and pronounce noosphere, you've got instant nerd-cred.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Goodbye Written Weird, hello Jay Garmon dot Net

prepare to dieImage by 1541 via Flickr
Last night, my colleague Jason Falls gave a presentation on the importance of maintaining your personal brand online. Among his key points of advice was owning your own domain name. Unfortunately, most of the valuable versions of my name as a domain have been on backorder for months or years (stupid GoDaddy auto-renew).

Rather serendipitously, JayGarmon.net finally came through this morning. As such, the Written Weird is no more -- or won't be by this weekend, when the DNS propagation is complete. (For the record, JayGarmon.com is owned by a State Farm agent in Russell Springs, KY -- no relation -- and I don't expect I'll ever get that URL.) Going forward, this site will be known as Jay Garmon [dot] Net. Yes, I totally cribbed the title styling from Wil Wheaton. The change is largely cosmetic, intended mostly for SEO and branding purposes. Blogger will auto-redirect all the old link equity, and since Google owns Blogger, I'm told that little to any PageRank damage will be incurred. We'll see.

In any case, the content of this site will remain the same. Moreover, the fact that my URL came through just before I relaunched my personal trivia column is a tasty piece of happy. With any luck, I'll have the new DNS situation squared before I appear on TechTalk radio this weekend. Sometimes, things just go right.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Getting back into the trivia game

Big Bucks TriviaImage via Wikipedia
I've been out of the trivia game since April of this year, when my new job at Techtarget forced me to give up my eight-years-running Geek Trivia column at TechRepublic. (Seeing as how my new employer is a direct competitor with the old one, this was hardly an unreasonable employment request.) It was a sad, difficult thing to give up a column that was in many ways the axis of my online identity, but it was also a bit of a relief. Eight years in the same gig without a significant break left me a bit burnt out on trivia columns.

Still, after four months off, I've got the trivia bug again. My Nerd Words columns haven't sated my trivia needs. So, I'm getting back in the game. A week from today -- September 22, 2009 -- I'm going to started doing weekly trivia posts again. Every Tuesday, 10:00 am Eastern, look for a new trivia column in this space. With any luck, I've not quite lost the touch for fun factoids. And if it proves to be as fun and rewarding as my last trivia gig, I just might be at it for another eight years.

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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Nerd Word of the Week: 5G War

XM1216 Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle (SUGV) at...Image by Army.mil via Flickr

5G war (n.) - Also known as 5GW, fifthgen war or fifth generation modern warfare. Any of several theoretical successors to fourth-generation modern warfare, which describes the primary strategies and tactics of a new type of conflict, particularly one that is indisputably superior to the previous generation. It is becoming the preferred buzzword for imagined futuristic conflicts, supplanting previous trope-words like hyperwar or infowar.

What exactly constitutes 5G War is up for debate, which is part of the reason it's slowly starting to catch on in the sci-fi set, as it can give the appearance of authenticity to a mil-SF work without actually contradicting any canonically established sources. 5G war is generally imagined to involve guerilla tactics enhanced by modern consumer communications technology and/or cyberattacks, but it's a good bet that as other techno-fads come and go, they'll make appearances under the 5G war banner as well.

I bring it up because: Friday is the eighth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, which thrust the concept of fourth generation, assymetric warfare into the public consciousness. As the world continues to grapple with the various implications of that tragedy, science fiction does likewise, helping us prepare for future conflicts by imagining impossible ones.

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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Distributed patronage: How to save sci-fi short fiction

MagazinesImage via Wikipedia

The gang over at Futurismic finally addressed the elephant in the room as applies to the future of short fiction publishing: Is patronage the only way short fiction will survive? This is the main question I've been wrestling with in my own sci-fi magazine 2.0 concept, because it's become pretty apparent that people just won't pay for short stories in the traditional, buy a magazine site unseen and hope what's in it is good sort of way. It's especially true online, where nobody wants to pay for anything not developed by 37signals.

(For those that don't recall the specifics of Magazine 2.0, the idea is this: Rather than query editors for publication, authors query readers directly. They synopsize a story, post the synopsis online, and list a price for which they are willing to publish it. The readership can donate in whatever increments they like until to a set query deadline, and if the price is met, the story is "unlocked" and published. The zealous fans will do most of the bidding, and thus will pay the freight for the majority who refuse to spend money on content. The 90-9-1 rule is thusly observed and monetized.)

Now, the Futurismic folks don't distinguish between celebrity endorsement and outright underwriting, as both rely on a patron to either pay for the content outright so others can enjoy for free, or for the patron to endorse a product so the fanboys will support it as a show of fealty to their fandom crush. In both cases, the content is a supported charity, not a product. This is what Elizabeth Bear calls the "public radio guilt model" and lots of hallowed institutions (public radio, for example) and a few sci-fi magazines are coping on this system. And Bear would know about online publishing, what with her cofounding involvement in Shadow Unit.

Thus we arrive at the glaring hole in my Magazine 2.0 idea -- audience size. As io9 pointed out a while back, the main reason Baen's Universe online magazine is shutting down is that it couldn't grow its audience fast enough to ween itself off of the fiscal teat of its associated fan club membership dues. It was dependent on a specific type of patronage and when that patronage faltered, the magazine was doomed. You must cast your income net to a diversified group of sources so as not to die when when one of supporters stops supporting.

My magazine 2.0 concept can't work before an audience is built, because there is no money in the bank to publish stories on spec as a means of building an audience. Old-fashioned loss leader publishing startup principles won't work here. Magazine 2.0 presupposes an audience who will look at synopses and bid on stories, but it needs stories in order to build that audience.

The answer, I believe, is distributed patronage. I don't want just one John Scalzi using his powers to save Strange Horizons, I want fifty or a hundred John Scalzis bolstering a couple dozen magazines every month. (In this case, Scalzi may be a bad example, as he is a sufficiently bankable author that he only works on commission these days, rather than on spec; most authors are not so lucky.)

Specifically, when Author X submits a story synopsis to Magazine 2.0, it generates a code snippet for a Donate Now button that Author X can publish on his Web site. Thus, Author X's audience becomes Magazine 2.0's audience, even if only for a brief while. Meanwhile, Blogger Y wants a story from Author X on his blog, so he signs up as a Magazine 2.0 Reprinter, and thus gets the right to reprint Author X's story on his blog as well. At the same time, Blogger Y gets his own code snippet to promote donations to unlock Author X's story. (Or, Blogger Y could just pay the unlock cost himself to get the story immediately.) Thus, Blogger Y's audience becomes Magazine 2.0's audience, even if only temporarily. Any Web site that publishes a donation widget that contributes to publication earns simultaneous reprint rights. If you want exclusive online publishing rights (or, more precisely, exclusive except for Magazine 2.0's own copy), you'll have to pay the whole freight yourself.

As to why A-list authors like Scalzi would play this game: Publicity. As Cory Doctorow repeatedly points out, anonymity is the greatest enemy to author success (which is why Doctorow gives away so many loss-leader free ebooks of his stuff). Magazine 2.0 casts the audience net as wide as possible, meaning Scalzi could make his commission rate just as easily under Magazine 2.0, but theoretically be seen by more people as the donate widget spreads to multiple venues. Moreover, for a select list of authors, Magazine 2.0 could be adapted to solicit for commissioned work, rather than spec work. (Scalzi would write the story only after and unless the donation cost was met, not before.)

Magazine 2.0 is thus a meta-magazine, one that houses all the stories it has unlocked for perpetual online consumption and reprint. It is also a platform for enabling other online venues to acquire short fiction (or, conceivably, any) content, and one that co-opts the audience of each venue and contributor as an ever-shifting, distributed donor base.

The launch obstacle thus becomes publicizing and enlisting the use of the platform by authors and venues, but that's a much less steep hill to climb than bootstrapping a magazine audience. Essentially, magazine 2.0 is a crowdsourced marketplace for authors to sell their spec content, and a method for audiences and publishers to acquire said content. Crazy, but I think it can work.

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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Nerd Word of the Week: Augmented reality

Augmented reality (n.) - A hybrid of conventional and virtual reality, where computer-generated artifacts and information are overlaid upon a direct view of the real world. Sometimes referred to by the abbreviation AR. Applications can range from the simple, such as the Heads-Up Display in the F-16 fighter which overlays a computer-generated targeting crosshairs directly into the pilot's field of view, to extraordinarily complex, wherein complete virtual persons, buildings, and events are superimposed over, and interact within, a viewer's perception of the real world. In Charles Stross's novel Halting State, the Scottish police are outfitted with AR lenses that superimpose distress call data, criminal records, and jurisdictional boundaries into their field of view so as to assess and repsond to emergencies more efficiently. In the same novel, everyday citizens engage in complex alternate reality games (sometimes also called AR games or ARGs, just to confuse the issue) wherein augmented reality technology is used to "fictionalize" the environment, allowing players to pretend to be spies, zombie hunters, or fantasy heroes during the course of their everyday lives. Rainbow's End by Vernor Vinge and Spook Country by William Gibson also depict worlds heavily influenced by AR tech, and the tabletop roleplaying game Shadowrun was years ahead of its time in depicting the implications of a world where augmented reality tech is ubiquitous and unregulated (and also ruled by mythical dragons).

I bring it up because: University of Washington researcher Babak Parviz made recent headlines with his conceptual paper on how to build self-contained, fully functional AR contact lenses. Rather than the bulky AR/exocortex goggles found in Charles Stross's Accelerando or the direct Brainpal neural implants suggested in John Scalzi's Old Man's War, these AR lenses would hit the practical application sweet spot for possible AR use in the real world. And the idea that we already have the technical know-how to build them is rightfully stirring up the nerd-o-sphere. I for one welcome our new AR-imposed virtual overlords.

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The top 10 (+1) least original college sports mascots

{{en|Caption: 031230-N-9693M-004 Houston, Texa...Image via Wikipedia
College football is just around the corner, so its time to start ginning up the smack talk between traditional rivals -- and there's no easier way to cheapshot an enemy than by berating their beloved school mascot.

Luckily, that's pretty easy, because one out of every four mascots is braindead, lame-ass copy of somebody else's cherished logo-spawn. It's time to call out the top ten unoriginal D-I mascots.

For you stat geeks, there are 347 schools in NCAA Division I. There are not 347 D-I mascots. In fact, 93 schools -- 27 percent, as in more than one in four -- use variations on one of just ten mascots. That, my friends, is plain and simple me-too laziness and deserves to be mocked outright for its inanity. So, here we go.

Below, I rank each mascot by its lack of originality. The number of schools that employ the basic form of a mascot is listed first, then additional tiebreaker points are listed in parentheses for schools that use lame variations -- like appending a color (Red, Blue, Black, Golden, Scarlet) or habitat (Wild, Sky, Sea) -- to spice up a tired avatar.

Variations with a little more effort (Bengals instead of Tigers, for example) get cut some slack, mostly to break ties. Tired mascots used by a greater number of BCS schools are also ranked higher, because clearly the big dogs could afford to rebrand themselves with something unique. Also, Auburn, which has three mascots -- Tigers, War Eagles, and Plainsmen -- is cited more than once, and thus earns a place in the tenth circle of Unoriginal Mascot Hell.

And now, the Least Original NCAA D-I Mascots:
  1. Bulldogs - 13 (+1) schools - Alabama A&M, Bryant, Butler, The Citadel, Drake, Fresno State, Georgia, Gonzaga, Louisiana Tech, Mississippi State, NC Asheville, Samford, South Carolina State, Yale. (Runnin' Bulldogs) Gardner-Webb.
    For pure, unadulterated unoriginality, nothing tops a Bulldog as a mascot. We get it, you're tough and scrappy and look like Winston Churchill. Also, you make a mess on the rug, are easily domesticated, and everyone prefers you neutered. Pick a new dog, dawgs.
  2. Tigers - 13 (+1) schools - Clemson, Grambling State, Jackson State, Louisiana State, Memphis, Missouri, Pacific, Princeton, Savannah State, Tennessee State, Texas Southern, Towson, Auburn. (Bengals) Idaho State.
    The only reason that Tigers don't top this list is because Idaho State had the mild burst of creativity to call themselves the "Bengals." This, however, does indict LSU, who attempt to cover up their bland tigerness by referring to themselves as the "Bayou Bengals." Nice try, but you're still part of a baker's dozen (plus one) of mindless copycats. If you need a nickname to distract and distinguish from your actual mascot, maybe you need a new avatar for your athletic teams, pal.
  3. Eagles - 11 (+5) schools - American, Boston College, Coppin State, Eastern Michigan, Eastern Washington, Florida Gulf Coast, Georgia Southern, Morehead State, NC Central, Southern Mississippi, Winthrop. (Golden Eagles) Marquette, Oral Roberts, Tennessee Tech. (Purple Eagles) Niagara. (War Eagles) Auburn.
    American U is about the only school on this list who could make a reasonable case for claiming the Eagles, as the bald eagle is the official mascot of America, and if you're going to take your brand image from the USA, you might as well go whole hog...er, bird. The rest of you are just trying to cash in on the cachet of Uncle Sam's favorite fowl, losers.
  4. Wildcats - 9 schools - Davidson, Arizona, Bethune-Cookman, Kansas State, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Northwestern, Villanova, Weber State.
    A mascot so unoriginal none of these guys could even be bothered to switch it up. No Fightin' Wildcats or Golden Wildcats? Nope, just nine tame pussies squatting over the same kitty-litter name. Five of the six BCS conferences are represented here. Davidson, expect your ACC invite any day now to complete the set.
  5. Bears - 7 (+5) schools - Baylor, Brown, California, Central Arkansas, Mercer, Missouri State, Morgan State, Northern Colorado. (Grizzlies) Montana. (Golden Grizzlies) Oakland. (Black Bears) Maine. (Bruins) Belmont, UCLA.
    There is only one bear, and his name is Smokey. Until one of these institutions single-handedly teaches multiple generations of Americans to prevent forest fires, they can all go take a crap in the woods. Also, when Goldilocks is your archnemesis, you aren't very intimidating.
  6. Panthers - 6 (+1) schools - Eastern Illinois, Georgia State, High Point, Milwaukee, Northern Iowa, Pittsburgh, Prairie View A&M. (Golden Panthers) Florida International.
    Okay, for those that don't know, Panther is generic for "big scary cat." In Africa it means a leopard, in South America it means a jaguar, and in North America it means a cougar. Get back to us when you figure out exactly what kind of feline you want to be, and then we'll divvy up an actual mascot amongst the lot of you.
  7. Cougars - 6 Schools - Brigham Young, Chicago State, College of Charleston, Houston, Southern Illinois Edwardsville, Washington State.
    Just to be clear, you're not trying to associate yourself with an over-40 woman on the prowl for younger men, right? The fact that I have to ask you this question should tell you something.
  8. Huskies - 5 schools - Connecticut, Houston Baptist, Northeastern, Northern Illinois, Washington
    Yes, there are three different mascots that are shared by five schools, so which is worst? The Huskies are the prime offenders amongst the fiver-timers as two different BCS schools are proud to call themselves sled dogs, proving that at least four of these guys should have known the moniker was taken. Also, unless you lay eyes on the (entirely unintimidating dog-food-label-inspired) logos for each school, you could be forgiven for assuming that each team is populated entirely by moderate fat-asses. Time to to put this puppy down, fellas.
  9. Spartans - 5 schools - Michigan State, NC Greensboro, Norfolk State, San Jose State, South Carolina Upstate
    At least Michigan State is the lone BCS outfit to lay claim to the people of Sparta, but even they have to nickname themselves Sparty to prevent confusion with the mid-majors. Leonidas would spear you in the gut for such effrontery. And when a guy who goes into battle wearing nothing more than a red cape, leather thong, and body oil thinks you're soiling his legacy, you need to consider a new namesake.
  10. Rams - 5 schools - Colorado State, Fordham, Rhode Island, Virginia Commonwealth, Winston-Salem State
    Five squads fall under the this ungulate, none of them BCS schools. Nobody on this list has ever made a Final Four or a BCS Bowl. Clearly, the male sheep is a sign of great success, eh boys? The first school to switch out the horn-head logo with a screenshot of some Random Access Memory gets excused from the karmic beatdowns for...oh...let's say five minutes.
  11. Hawks - 4 (+11) schools - Hartford, Maryland Eastern Shore, Monmouth, St. Joseph's. (Hawkeyes) Iowa. (Jayhawks) Kansas. (Mountain Hawks) Lehigh. (Redhawks) Miami of Ohio, Seattle, Southeast Missouri State. (Seahawks) NC Wilmington, Wagner. (Skyhawks) Tennessee Martin. (Warhawks) Louisiana Monroe.
    Honorable mention goes to a mascot that enjoys such a wide range of minor variations, but the sad truth is, if someone shouts "Go Hawks" from the stands, they could mean any one of 15 schools. That isn't distinction, that's just dumb.