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Twitter is just not that into you

February 6, 2016 by Steven D. Brewer

I've been among those most bitterly disappointed by the failure of Twitter. I have now come to realize that the failure is inevitable, in that it has become clear that if Twitter is going to succeed, they are going to do so by becoming something that alienates all of the current users in the chimeric pursuit of some other, larger user community.

I was not an immediate user of Twitter, but when I started using it, I thought it was almost perfect. It was not without problems, but it was simple and clean. Since then, it has introduced a whole series of "enhancements" that have made the experience less and less satisfactory from my perspective, image previews, quote-tweets, increasingly intrusive advertising, and "moments" all come to mind. I wondered why they kept doing that and then I saw Douglas Rushkoff explain it very simply.

When Twitter accepted the mountain of venture capital, they tied themselves to an obligation to make lots of money. It's not enough to become successful — they have to become much much bigger to meet expectations. The fact that they have a great system that's useful to the existing userbase, no matter how passionate and committed, will never allow them to meet those expectations. We aren't the users they're looking for.

With that understanding, suddenly their actions become comprehensible. But, from my point of view, very sad. Twitter has set themselves on a path where I lose no matter what.

I've heard that, in spite of users' pleas, next week Twitter intends to implement a non-chronological feed. They've also been warning they intend to switch away from the 140 character limit. With these changes, I will probably quit using Twitter. RIP Twitter.

A Place to Call Home

January 15, 2016 by Steven D. Brewer

For several years, Makers at Amherst Media has been looking for a location to serve as a Makerspace. Amherst Media itself has been looking for a potential new home for several years. One possibility that's been discussed is the Middle School building.

The Regional School District is considering consolidating their program into fewer buildings in order to focus resources on the academic mission in an era of declining enrollments. There have been discussions about back-filling the Middle School building with community organizations. Even now, the Middle School building is significantly underutilized and some community partners are already moving ahead: Amherst Leisure Services (LSSE) and Greenfield Community College (GCC) are already occupying space.

Amherst Media did a walk through several weeks ago to look at possible spaces. We wanted to start thinking about how we might be able to collaborate with potential partners and which spaces would be a good fit. After some discussion, we decided to pursue having the Makerspace locate there even in advance of when (or whether) the rest of Amherst Media comes. Since we're offering an afterschool program for the Middle School — and looking to collaborate more deeply with the public schools — being co-located is a good fit.

During our first walk through, we went through an old Wood Shop near the LSSE space. I thought the old Wood Shop looked like a perfect spot for a Makerspace, but it sounded like they already had plans for it and it's rather far from the spaces that Amherst Media is likely to occupy for their studio. More recently, however, it was proposed as a spot we might be able to use sooner than Amherst Media's relocation.

The Wood Shop is currently in use mainly for storage and intermediate processing (receiving old school materials and organizing them for disposal or repurposing). The room is very large and it's likely that it would be divided to preserve the separate institutional use. Standing roughly where the room might be divided, here's a picture looking toward the door.

Wood Shop

And here's a second picture looking from the entrance toward the back of the room. Where the people are standing is roughly where the first picture was taken.

Wood Shop

(There's an album with these and a few more pictures.)

Currently the room still has the old woodworking machinery (drill-presses, lathes, planers, and maybe a joiner). This machinery would not be seen as appropriate for current training or use and there would likely be a process to dispose of it. But the fact that there's power suitable for running equipment like this is a potential benefit of the space.

There are workbenches in the middle with power cords hanging down. I indicated I thought it was more likely we'd want tables for people to work at. But, again the availability of power is a huge win.

It also has a door directly to the outside and although that door could not be used as an entrance, it could enable easy delivery of materials.

There is still a ways to go before we can start moving forward. But it seems likely that we'll be able to occupy this space — perhaps permanently — and we should start thinking carefully about how we might be able to use the space. A bit of planning now will help focus what we need to do and enable us to begin looking for resources to accomplish our vision.

I can think of at least three things we need: a vision of how this space will work, a list of what we need to fulfill that vision, and an operations manual that formalizes how the Makerspace will work that can articulate with the Middle School procedures and practices. Let's get started.

Court Poetry and the Roots of Haiku

January 3, 2016 by Steven D. Brewer

Over the holidays, I found a wonderful book at the BookMill: An Introduction to Court Poetry by Earl Miner. I've read much of the English language literature about haiku and have been aware for a long time that the roots of haiku derive from the earlier court poetry and this book provided some interesting insights.

Most of the court poetry takes the form of waka (tanka or longer poems termed chōka) and the simplistic description I had seen of tanka was not far off: a 5-7-5 part that sets the scene (from which haiku is derived) and a 7-7 part that offers an emotional response. Many of the tanka also use pillow-words (or Makurakotoba) and pivot-words (Kakekotoba) that represent idiomatic devices to express certain ideas, themes, or moods. To really understand the poetry, you need to also understand what these represent. Or, perhaps more importantly, who had used those terms previously.

From reading Bashō's haibun, A Narrow Road to the Interior, I had been aware of how many haiku were a reflection on some earlier poet or poem. Many of the places Basho visited were inspired by poems written centuries before and often echoed the subjects and language of those poets. I remember particularly, Bashō stopping by a willow tree known to Saigyō. The book acknowledges that his aesthetic was particularly important to the writers of haiku and haikai that followed. He also must have had a wicked sense of humor.

I suppose it should not be a surprise to realize that many, if not most, Japanese poems, need to show awareness of the previous literature to be taken seriously. With a well-documented literature that goes back hundreds and hundreds of years, the trick is not only to experience something meaningful, but to say something new about it.

It reminds me a bit of the epiphany described in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. You can spend your whole career pursuing some fundamental question only discover that it was answered more than a thousand years ago — and more elegantly and definitively than you could ever have stated it. It could be enough to drive anyone crazy.

A small book can only do so much to survey a thousand years of literature, especially in the absence of the history, geography, language, and culture necessary to make sense of it all. But it was very helpful to me to articulate with what I already understood and help me fill in some gaps and add just a little bit more.


December 18, 2015 by Steven D. Brewer

Zamenhof Festo

December 16, 2015 by Steven D. Brewer

Kiam mi faris anoncon ĉe ARE pri la Boschen Kolekto, mi menciis ke ni akceptos donacojn de libroj kaj revuoj.

"Revuoj?" diris Julie. "Malnovajn revuojn vi akceptos?" Mi jesis kaj ŝi promesis alporti skatolojn kiujn ŝi volas forĵeti. Ŝi diris ke ŝi venos iam dum la aŭtuno.

La aŭtuno forflugis kaj mi aŭdis nenion. Sed finfine ŝi epoŝtis por diri ke ŝi povas veni dum la semajnfino de la 12-13a de decembro. Ŝi proponis ke ni organizu Zamenhof Feston dum ŝia ĉeesto. "Ho! Bona ideo!" mi diris.

Sed mi havis pli bonan ideon: mi volis ke ni organizu nian renkontiĝon ene de la biblioteko mem por ke ni povas tuj transdoni la skatolojn rekte, sen la bezono akcepti ilin en unu loko kaj porti ilin poste (kaj sole) al la bibliotekon.

Bedaŭrinde, kiam mi kontaktis la bibliotekisto, li estis for dum la semajnfino por prelegi pri sia nova libro (pri pasteĉo). Fuŝ'!

Ni renkontiĝis sabate ĉe Sweetser Parko kaj trovis parklokojn trans la strato unu de la alia. Iom zorge, ni portis la skatolojn de ŝia aŭto al la mia kaj tiam iris al hinda restoraĉio por festi. Post kiam alvenis nia amiko Roger, ni elektis diversajn pladojn por dividi kaj babilis gaje.
Julie kaj Roger
Post la manĝo, ni promenis al la domo de Emily Dickinson kiu estis malfermita senkoste dum la posttagmezo. Ni vizitis la muzeon kaj esploris la enhavon. Lastatempe oni renovigis ŝian dormejon por ke la ĉambro aspektu kiel ĝi estis kiam Emily loĝis tie.

Finfine, ni revenis al Sweetser Park kaj adiaŭis unu la alian. Mi bedaŭris ke ni ne sukcesis pli grandan kaj luksan festo. (Kaj ke mi damne devas mem porti la skatolojn da libroj al la biblioteko.)

Italan aŭ Ĉinan?

December 16, 2015 by Steven D. Brewer


December 15, 2015 by Steven D. Brewer

Drawing a Line

December 13, 2015 by Steven D. Brewer

I attended a screening of Drawing a Line, a film about the divisions left in Germany after reunification. I felt like I learned a lot about this period in German history and had an opportunity reflect on human nature.

A young man was recruited by the Stasi to inform on his friends in the punk underground. Being a cocky young man, and needing money, he agreed. He thought he'd be able to just tell them what he wanted them to know. But when he informs on some youth that were involved in spray-painting graffiti, it ends up with his brother (who was also involved, but not named) getting swept up and imprisoned.

He continued to provide information to the Stasi until he refused military service and became a conscientious objector -- for which he was imprisoned. He refused to be an informant in prison. Then, later, he left the GDR and was in West Berlin with several of his friends from the punk community that he had informed on -- it wasn't clear whether he continued providing information after he left prison or after he left East Germany.

In West Berlin, it was his idea to conduct an action to paint a white line along the entire length of the Berlin Wall. A variety of viewpoints are expressed in the movie about what exactly the line represented: crossing something out or drawing a line under the events that happened in this young man's life.

Twenty years after the Wall came down, they released the Stasi files and someone put together who the informant was. He had never told them or confessed to his role in the events. The tension in the relationship between the two brothers was the central feature of the movie.

The movie ends with a scene of the Palestinian Separation Wall where someone had painted a blue line all along the wall and questioning who made it, what their motives were, and what it meant.

Having just watched Douglas Rushkoff's talk about throwing rocks at the Google bus, I was reminded very much of Ishmael. We are captives of a system that constrains our range of options. It was easy for me to imagine, as a young man, believing I could control the situation and then finding that I was in over my head. Another gripping part of the movie was of a man who'd been a guard on the wall. He was unapologetic — proud even — of the role he'd played: he'd accepted the duty, been good at it, and taken pride in his work.

Near the end, the film-maker tried to bring the two brothers to reconciliation. It's emblematic, I think, of the divisions that still exist in Germany after reunification. How do you move past this pain point without letting go of the past, yet recognizing a mistake that can never be balanced or unmade? It was a poignant movie. Well worth watching.

Mi ŝatas Esperanton

December 7, 2015 by Steven D. Brewer

Contingent Faculty at UMass

December 3, 2015 by Steven D. Brewer

Recently, a 2008-2010 work/life study by UMass faculty that included findings about about contingent faculty got some new play at Inside Higher Ed. When this got tweeted around, I posted Balancing Interests: Tenure System Faculty, Contract Faculty, and the Administration at UMass Amherst which are the remarks I made at an AAUP conference in 2009.

Since then, the join faculty union of UMass Amherst and UMass Boston has continued to make significant progress to improve the circumstances of contingent faculty. In the previous two contracts, we negotiated several really key enhancements. In the first one, most of the benefits went to UMass Amherst faculty and in the second, most of those benefits were extended to UMass Boston faculty.

The largest benefit was to transition faculty from fixed-term contracts to a state of "continuing employment". Upon renewal of the second one-year contract, faculty receive a two-year contract and there is an evaluation process after the first year of this contract. Faculty that fail this review have the second years of the contract as a terminal year. Otherwise, faculty move to "continuing employment" where they are no longer subject to fixed length contracts. For this reason, we have moved from calling contingent faculty "contract faculty" and now use the term non-tenure-track (NTT).

Another benefit was to ensure and verify that departments actually evaluate NTT faculty for merit. It had become clear that a number of departments didn't even consider NTT faculty. Now, in addition to improved directions to personnel committees, there is a committee that looks at the data and investigates departments that don't fairly compensate NTT faculty.

Some progress has been made toward workload, working conditions, and other concerns as well, including the formalization that a 3-credit class can count for no less than .25 Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) per semester. My personal aim has been to assure that all NTT faculty have some professional space in their workload available for performing University service. This would imply no faculty with a 4/4 teaching load. If your teaching load equals 1 FTE, you can't serve on any University or department committee in a professional capacity. But this hasn't happened yet.

There is, however, a growing recognition on the part of central administrators that it serves the institution poorly to hold NTT faculty at arms length. And they are making efforts to change how lecturers are viewed and treated by the administration. For many of them, it's a difficult transition to make, and you still hear them (e.g. the Dean and the Provost in Fall 2015) refer to "faculty and lecturers" as if lecturers are not faculty.

There are still gaps. We have not yet successfully organized the Continuing Education faculty. This remains a growing pool of disadvantaged workers in the heart of the enterprise. We have also failed to create a system of effective professional development opportunities for NTT faculty: this is a glaring problem. When NTT were only used for sabbatical replacements, the need for professional development could be overlooked. But many of our NTT faculty have been teaching continuously for 20 or 30 years with little or no opportunity for maintaining their currency with the field. This is a travesty that does not serve the institution and needs to be corrected.

Those factors aside, UMass Amherst still represents a far better model for equitable treatment of NTT faculty than the national average. We should do more to show what we've done and help other institutions — and faculty unions — recognize the benefits of organizing the NTT faculty and not allowing them to be exploited.

Pretty Penelope Go Penny Go

December 1, 2015 by Steven D. Brewer


Six months ago tomorrow, we had to let Penny go. With her loss, our family became dog free and now, indeed, pet free for the first time in my memory. (Muffy, the scorpion I kept in my office, passed away over the summer.) It's been a rather sad six months.

Reportedly, my family had a dog — a beagle basset hound — when I was very young, but I don't remember it. We got another dog when I was in elementary school: a boxer. Her name was Miss Boxer and, as children, we liked to imagine her wearing a tutu and carrying a purse. I grew up thinking that a boxer was what a dog ought to look (and act) like — and other kinds of dogs just didn't compare.

There was a brief time in my life, when I first started living with Alisa, when we had cats. Brrr. Cats. To say "I have cats" would now feel like a disease.

When we bought a house, one of our first plans was to fence in the back yard and install a door to get into the yard. With this accomplished, we got a dog. And not just any dog.

We went through a reputable breeder and bought a purebred fawn male boxer named Plato. (His full name was Platonic Harmony of the Spheres). I created a website about Plato to document our early adventures with him. He was a wonderful dog, although Alisa never really warmed to him. He was my dog: he didn't really care about anyone else. He tolerated most people, but had really very simple interests. He wanted a walk. He wanted some food. And he desperately wanted the companionship of other dogs (to romp -- and to fight).

Alisa had been thinking about getting another puppy for a while before we got Penny. We did not get her from a reputable breeder. (Although she was AKC registered -- we ultimately named her "Pretty Penelope Go Penny Go"). We were at a rest-stop in Pennsylvania and saw someone with a whole flood of boxer puppies. She was a broker carrying puppies, probably from a puppy mill and probably intended for pet stores. She was reluctant to sell us a puppy but we persuaded her and took Penny home with us to meet Plato.

Plato adored her. At first. Eventually, he would retreat to his crate to avoid her ankle-biting. Penny was a terrible menace: she chewed up anything and everything, including the parking brake handle in our car. She ruined several pieces of furniture and some of our chairs still bear her tooth marks.

She was fearless when she was with Plato and they romped and played and were inseparable. Then Plato was diagnosed with canine lymphoma and died within months. She never really recovered from the shock. She grew increasingly timid and eventually was largely governed by her fears: of things that flap, of going over rumble strips in the car…

Penny was Lucy's dog. Whenever anything happened — any noise or conflict — and Penny would be cowering behind Lucy's knees. But Lucy cared for her, treasured her, and doted on her in spite of her idiosyncrasies.

Penny's muzzle had turned grey even when she was quite young. And when one of her hind legs had gone lame years before, we'd investigated cruciate ligament surgery, but they'd said she had a heart murmur and directed us take her to a doggy cardiologist for an echocardiogram before they could evaluate her for surgery. At his point, we'd said to her, "Well, we hope you just get better on your own." Which she did. At the time. But we didn't have high hopes for a long life. But she surprised us.

She lived a long life for a boxer. She got slower and slower. Eventually, Lucy would take her out for a walk and, although you could see that she wanted to go, she'd get to the edge of the yard, look longingly out at the world, and then sadly turn around to go back inside.

In the end, she couldn't get comfortable. Especially as the summer approached, she was hot and couldn't settle. She would try to lie down and then scramble back to a sitting position. Her joints were obviously painful. She could barely get down the one or two steps into the front yard.

She also was obviously confused. She would get stuck in a corner and have a hard time working herself back out. She didn't seem to know where she was or what was going on. She didn't always seem to recognize people anymore.

We came together as a family and decided it was time. Alisa found a webpage that said, "A day will come when it is clear to you that your pet needs to be put down. And that day will be one day too late." This was helpful to us as we watched Penny's quality of life decline and dreaded what was coming.

During her last couple of days, someone was with her almost constantly. We coddled and cossetted her and tried to make her last hours as comfortable as possible. We all had time to say goodbye and then Alisa and I took her to the vet and we let her go.

In the six months that have followed, we've missed the doggy companionship. The house seemed very empty and quiet, especially at first. I miss her velvety muppies and soft ears. And her short, waggly tail.

We're not likely to get another dog. I find that people (including myself) tend toward overly romanticized conceptions about what a dog is. You see this most clearly in Disney movies where all the characters have animal familiars: non-human-actors that are subservient allies who try to advance the agenda of their human partners. That's not what dogs are. They're not like children or people or friends — they're animals that have been selected to push our socialization buttons.

But I still miss Penny. She was a good dog.

Alliance for Community Media Northeast Conference: Other Panels

November 22, 2015 by Steven D. Brewer

In addition to facilitating a panel on Makerspaces, I attended several other presentations. I'm new to Community Media, so it was useful to attend.

The first presentation I attended was about getting cable companies to allow PEG stations to use the electronic program guide. This is something I've asked about repeated with respect to Amherst Media, because Comcast has been unwilling to do it here and the program guide only shows "Local 1" or "Educational Programming" -- and TVGuide shows nothing at all. The presenters (one of whom is the current president of the Alliance for Community Media, the national parent organization of ACM-NE) provided a solid background about the resistance of cable companies to allow this and offered many helpful suggestions. As much as 40% of television viewing happens via DVR and, if your content isn't scheduled correctly, people can't easily view your content this way. Cable companies ought to see PEG content as a huge draw for cable television: the viewership is often low, but extremely "sticky" with a very loyal following. But many cable companies resist letting PEG stations schedule their content because it helps them organize and build an audience, which will turn out during the franchising negotiations. Their suggestions were mainly to push hard for access to the program guide, make a persuasive case that it serves their interests to serve their customers well, keep pushing, and document everything.

Martha Fuentes-Bautista

The keynote speech was by Martha Fuentes-Bautista, a faculty member from UMass Amherst who's worked extensively with Amherst Media. Several years ago, she did an indepth study of Amherst Media's relationship to the community, Access360: Building engaged communities in a digital age. In her keynote, she spoke about the community media ecosystem and how to engage with all of the different components and stakeholders.

After lunch, I attended a presentation that I thought was going to be about fundraising and how to seek funding. Instead, it was about a particular campaign that the community foundation of Hartford ran in collaboration with a local PBS station as marketing for their 90th anniversary. It was an interesting story, but was more about marketing and branding than it was about how to look for funding. When people asked how much the campaign had costed, they refused to say, although they agreed the number was possibly more than the entire annual budget of many local public-access stations.

In the last time slot, Jim Lescault and I attended an "ask the lawyers" presentation. People raised a number of interesting questions about franchising, crafting releases for content, the new PEG enterprise fund statute, and other interesting topics. Seeing the kinds of questions people ask was as helpful to me as the answers.

The day wrapped up around 5pm -- just as traffic on the expressways peaks -- so Jim and I went over to a local barbeque place to get a sandwich and then, next door, to the tavern where they were holding the afterparty. We hooked up with a couple of people Jim knew and had a very interesting and wide-ranging conversation. I also got to try a new (to me) IPA: Stony Creek Cranky. Good beer, good friends, and good conversation. A fitting end to a great day.

Alliance for Community Media Northeast Conference: Makerspace Panel

November 21, 2015 by Steven D. Brewer

Last year, it was Jim Lescault who spoke about Makerspaces at the ACM-NE Annual Meeting. This year, it was my turn: yesterday, I facilitated a panel with speakers from three Makerspaces: Bryan Patton and Devra Sisitsky from MakerspaceCT, Christ Anderson from AS220, and Christine Olson from our own Makers at Amherst Media. It turned out pretty well.

ACM-NE Makerpace Panel

I provided a brief introduction to the philosophical alignment of public-access television and the Maker movement. I drew heavily from the presentation I did for Science for the People, but turned down the Marxist rhetoric and focused more on community-building. At the same time, I wanted to puncture the hypothesis that a lot of people seem to have that "The Maker Movement Is Going To Save Us" and "The Maker Movement Is The New Economy". I felt a little bad when I realized that the team from MakerspaceCT was going to do this exact presentation right after mine. But I left my comments in because I think it's important.

The three presentations about Makerspaces were all very different from one another. Christine provided a very nuts-and-bolts look at our Makerspace, focusing on our sense that building the community was what was important, as opposed to installing some equipment in a room and calling it a "makerspace". It was a great introduction to what we're doing, what's working, who we're trying to partner with, and what our challenges are. I thought it was a fantastic model if another access station wanted to get started trying to build a Maker community. Neither of the others really had anything to do with access centers, but both were interesting for other reasons.

After the presentation, a woman congratulated me on the panel. I admitted that I thought it was a little incoherent because the different presentations were so uncoordinated and from totally different perspectives. She disagreed saying, "No! That's what made it useful: to see it from all these different points of view." I was very pleased and was glad to be a part.

Update: I posted again about the rest of the conference.

Getting Blocked

November 17, 2015 by Steven D. Brewer

When Max Gladstone and Theodora Goss both tweeted links about Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker not allowing Syrian refugees, I thought I would retweet both. But I was surprised to discover, when I tried to retweet the second tweet, that Theodora had blocked me.

I can't say that I know Theodora well — I first heard of her through Philip, who I believe was a Clarion classmate. I met her at Reader Con a year ago and introduced myself briefly. And I had followed her on Twitter for a couple of years. Being a teacher of writing, interested in poetry, and sharing a connection through Phil, I thought I could have the temerity to occasionally comment on things she wrote. When she posted a picture of a beautiful sunset in Budapest, I commented that there were beautiful sunsets in many places that people rarely took time to appreciate. When she posted a picture of a teacup with a sakura painting, I offered a haiku about the longing for spring that the picture inspired in me.

Since you don't receive any notification when someone blocks you, I don't know exactly when it happened -- or, indeed, how many times it's happened. But I know of one other instance where I was blocked (in Twitter) and twice when I was unfriended (in Facebook). The two instances in Facebook were due to political differences: people found my left-leaning political positions unsupportable -- in one case telling me I should leave the country if I didn't support their red-state agenda.

The other case in twitter, was due directly to something I said. A trans person retweeted a link by (what was seemingly) a young woman who was mocking her boyfriend for saying she wore too much makeup. I replied to to the tweet, perhaps offensively

This is a pet peeve of mine: I have frequently heard women claim that men require them to wear makeup (or pantyhose or whatever), when it appears to me that women actually police each other regarding clothing and appearance much more than men ever do. And I've always thought that wearing make-up makes you look like a clown. But usually, I have enough sense to keep my opinion to myself.

I should have recognized that there are a lot of reasons why people wear make-up. An elderly male colleague who has psoriasis wears foundation because people otherwise would stare at the livid rash across his face. They still stare because of the makeup but, evidently, he finds that better than the alternative.

Phil suggested that Theodora probably blocks a lot of people who post creepy things to her on Twitter. I can certainly believe that: I've seen some of those. He offered to contact her and ask, but I demurred. I certainly don't want to force myself on anyone. Still, I was surprised and a bit hurt to find myself lumped in with creepy people. The internet is a weird place.

Kongresa Memo

November 16, 2015 by Steven D. Brewer

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