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Moss Terrarium

January 12, 2017 by Steven D. Brewer

Moss Terrarium

For several years, I kept an Emperor Scorpion named Muffy in my office. When he died, I put the terrarium on a shelf. I would notice it every so often and think of ways it might be made useful again. I thought about creating a terrarium with moss and had seen some places up in Pelham where I thought I might be able to collect some mosses to put in it. But it was never convenient.

Today, I noticed that, under the melting snow, there was a big flat piece of moss that had been scraped up off the driveway during snow shoveling which looked relatively intact. And I saw another spot where another big piece could be collected. I darted back into the house, grabbed an old grocery bag (the kind that is now illegal in Amherst), and grabbed the mosses before running for the bus.

I laid down a layer of potting soil, soaked everything pretty well, and then arranged the patches of moss to cover the interior.

Inside Moss Terrarium

At some point, some colleagues and I ordered some things from Small Dog Electronics which included little statuettes of dogs with the product. I had put them in to keep Muffy company years ago, but now they have a new, green lawn to populate. I've put it out in the BCRC and I hope the students will also find it restful to look at during the long winter months to come.

UMass Makerspace Charette

December 21, 2016 by Steven D. Brewer

Early in the fall, I got a call from someone in Facilities Planning to let me know that the campus was developing some kind of Makerspace project. It was kept under wraps until quite recently when a Makerspace Charette was announced. There were nearly 100 people that came: the usual suspects, but also a lot of new faces I hadn't seen before. The first hour was spent mostly with presentations from the administration, explaining the process and the context.

It turns out that, with the new Design Building, there is space in the Fine Arts Center Bridge that will become available to be repurposed and renovated. And there is money already in hand to do the renovations. The administration has heard of Makerspaces and wants to see if they can build one here. And to show how serious they are, they've hired a consultant: Cambridge 7 Associates.

C7A showed fancy new makerspaces at some of our peer institutions and also some really appalling examples of what some people build and call a "Makerspace". I thought they did three good things: One was to show what not to build, like a break room with some "electrical circuits" (extension cords, but he called them "electrical circuits") hanging from the ceiling. The second good thing was to make clear that the "build it and they will come" model is wrong headed. (Although, to be honest, this whole project sounds a whole lot like that). The recommendation of C7A was a "hub": something that can complement existing makerspaces. But they also pointed out (rightly, I thought) that the makerspace shouldn't be necessarily in the center of campus -- or necessarily even on campus. It should be peripheral -- or even off campus -- with the goal of being a place where people from on campus and off campus could meet and mingle. Which is, of course, exactly what we've been trying to do with Makers at Amherst Media for five years. Sigh...

After that there were a bunch more presentations from some of the makerspace leaders on campus: mostly engineering (M5, Innovation Shop, Queer Lights) but also from the library and the new entrepreneurship program.

As the presentations wound down, there were a number of occupants of the building who had only just learned that the charette was happening. They spoke up to mention their space issues and hopes that some of this space could be available for their needs.

It sounded like originally the organizers of the charette had planned for us to be sorted into particular kinds of groups as a breakout. As time was growing short, however, they just had people assort randomly, more or less, and take a few minutes to discuss. My table had a variety of interesting people: some people from art, engineering, library, and other places on and off campus. I agreed to be the "recorder" (mainly so that we weren't making a "girl" do it). These were our conclusions:

First, the process is completely backwards. We ought to be thinking about how to use the Maker movement and principles to transform pedagogy and the student experience on campus, where appropriate. And only then to think about how the financial, physical, and human resources on campus could be best deployed to support that mission. It's perhaps understandable, given that the money and space are available and that the funds can only be used on campus that people might ask the question this way. But it seemed that everyone agreed it was the wrong way to do it.

I learned that the UTAC committee is talking about coordinating with Amherstworks to develop a Makerspace. This was news to me. But, of course, everyone is trying to build a Makerspace everywhere.

In fact there are already makerspaces all over campus and all of them need resources to make them work better. A big challenge is that what makes makerspaces work is people with the right skill set -- that bridges technology and pedagogy -- with enough time in their portfolio to support a makerspace. This is especially true if we want to make makerspaces more accessible (to have a hub that can tie together all the satellites). But the largest challenges are perhaps the institutional barriers that make it difficult to collaborate across University boundaries and divisions.

In spite of the number of makerspaces, there are still big campus gaps. There is no campus space doing anything with virtual reality, for example.

And finally, our group offered a couple of practical tips: if building makerspaces in this space, one needs to think through the adjacencies of which kind of space can coexist with others -- and which can't. And to be sensitive to issues of gender and inclusion, as some kinds of makerspaces are almost entirely male while others are mostly female.

After the groups reported out, we were thanked for our contributions and dismissed. After the meeting, I have no ability to predict what affect, if any, our comments will have on the process.

Pacing My Outrage

December 16, 2016 by Steven D. Brewer

It's been a painful month since the election. In fact, it's been a painful year of bitter disappointment -- a roller coaster from Bernie to burnout.

There are a lot of people running around expressing a frenzy of outrage. I don't say the outrage is wrong. There are plenty of things to be outraged about: the voter suppression efforts, the Russian hacking, the partisan interference of Comey, etc. And the cabinet picks, each worse than the last. But it's too early for me. I'm still in mourning. I don't want to waste my outrage on trial balloons and shadows. Or tweets. I'm going to try to pace myself for the long haul.

My biggest concern, actually, is the collapse of the strong institutions of United States governance. On the one hand, we have the FBI, which reportedly supports the alt-right, leading to Comey's letter. And now the CIA is leaking details about the Russian interference in the election in advance of the Electoral College vote. When the intelligence agencies start intervening in domestic affairs, anything might happen. The loss of our institutions would be worse than anything Trump could do directly in four years.

What can we do? More than anything, I believe, we need to take positive, affirmative steps forward. I applaud people who are organizing. As we close out the year, I plan to reflect on my current commitments and think about how to dedicate my time going forward to make a positive difference. And to be ready for what comes next.

These are "interesting" times indeed.

System76 Meerkat

December 15, 2016 by Steven D. Brewer

For the past four years, I've been using a linux box for my primary "at home" computer. That year, I taught a class on building a computer with the kids at North Star. When North Star didn't want to use it, I reclaimed it and set it up at home. It's been a great little computer. But it was always underpowered -- I never really intended to run it with a graphical operating system. And it has been getting long in the tooth.

I decided to buy a System 76 Meerkat. It's based on the Intel NUC. I thought about trying put one together myself, then I looked them up at NewEgg. Ugh. It was nice to just flip among a handful of options with System76 and get a device with Ubuntu already installed and know that someone else had taken care of whether or not things would be supported.

So far, I'm very happy. The unboxing experience was pleasant. The setup was smooth. The switch from Ubuntu LTS 12.04 to 16.04 has been seamless.

The big test was migrating my wife's account.

I still have to migrate my own data. And TT-RSS. And then do the networking jiggery pokery to have the new server take over for the old one. But so far, so good.

Twitter Redux

December 8, 2016 by Steven D. Brewer

I've recently started using twitter again. Sigh... I'm still angry that twitter is so much worse than it used to be, but... Well... Whatever. I'm using twitter again.

I did have to reconstruct the filter I use to block image previews, and other objectionable content, in twitter. The basic recipe is from a page by patrixmyth, but I added one more line at the end that also blocks the hideous new tweets bar.

twitter.com##.stream-item:not(.open) .tweet .media
twitter.com##.stream-item:not(.open) .tweet .multi-photos
twitter.com##.stream-item:not(.open) .tweet .js-macaw-cards-iframe-container
twitter.com##.stream-item:not(.open) .tweet .js-media-container
twitter.com##.stream-item:not(.open) .tweet .js-old-media-container
twitter.com##.stream-item:not(.open) .tweet .js-adaptive-media-container
twitter.com##.stream-item:not(.open) .tweet .js-new-items-bar-container
twitter.com##DIV.new-tweets-bar

I'm using uBlock Origin for filtering.

I'm posting this mainly so I can find it again if I need it.

Pardon Edward Snowden

December 7, 2016 by Steven D. Brewer

I wrote a letter to Barack Obama today:

I encourage you to pardon Edward Snowden. He should be recognized as a national hero. At great risk to himself — and only after exhausting all legitimate means — he alerted the American people to the rogue behavior of the national security apparatus. As the next president comes into power with the turn-key authoritarian state that has been constructed, we will need heroes like Snowden even more. Please let him come home and continue to advocate for our freedom and national security.

I have written similar sentiments before, for example in Exceptionalism or Imperialism and Amash Amendment.

The Archive Thief

December 3, 2016 by Steven D. Brewer

The Archive Thief, by Lisa Moses Leff, is an interesting read, although I found it ultimately unsatisfying. The parts are all interesting, well-documented and well-written, but they don't quite hang together as a coherent story. Since this is not a story, but instead a book about a real person, that's perhaps excusable.

Szajkowski was a speaker of Yiddish and, although he spoke several other languages, did most of his writing in Yiddish. He was prolific, beginning as a journalist and moving into scholarly historical writing. He did not have an advanced education, but became fascinated by finding historical documents and bringing them into relation with one another.

As a young man, he moved from Poland to France. At the outbreak of World War II, he joined the army, was injured, and ended up in the south of France where he managed to stay out of the internment camps. He was helped by the Sharps -- or the group they were working for -- to get out of France. In the US, he joined the armed forces and was a paratrooper on D-Day. In Berlin and France, after the war, he collected documents and archives fanatically including both evidence of Nazi crimes and looted Jewish documents.

He struggled after the war. Yiddish never really came back after the war and his efforts at publishing in English were only marginally successful. At some point, he turned to stealing archival materials. Eventually, when it appeared certain his crimes would come to light, he committed suicide. The book turns on trying to comprehend his motivations which are, in the end, unknowable.

I was attracted to the book for a couple of reasons. First, because I'm working with the Special Collections folks at UMass trying to put together archives about Esperanto. But also having just read A Bridge of Words and Defying the Nazis, I was interested to read another take -- a very different take -- on eastern-European Jewish experience. Unsurprisingly Zamenhof and Esperanto aren't mentioned, but many of the same issues are.

A central question to Szajkowski was whether Jews were better off to assimilate or to remain apart. By assimilating, they gained economic benefits and had less discrimination, but they lost their identity and language. It was a question that Szajkowski struggled with and would have probably answered differently at different points in his life. After all, assimilating hadn't protected the French Jews from the Holocaust.

I see this question echoed in the question about the interna ideo of Esperanto and the more current question of whether Esperanto is a movement or a hobby. Humphrey Tonkin has argued that what has sustained Esperanto was the moral authority that a social movement required. But it is also echoed in the commitment that Zamenhof made to universalism: to no longer pursue the agenda of the Jews -- or any particular nation or people -- and to only aim for what is best for all mankind. It's not a commitment that many of us can make.

Religion or ideology

November 19, 2016 by Steven D. Brewer

Donald Trump continues to announce his extreme right-wing picks for his cabinet. Each one seems worse than the next. I am particularly disturbed by the choices of Michael Flynn and Steve Bannon.

Both Flynn and Bannon believe that the United States is, or ought to be, a Christian state. They believe "we" are fighting a war against Islam, which they say is an "idealogy" rather than a religion. They seemingly get that first amendment protects "religion", but evidently take this to mean that by labeling a religion as an "ideology", it should not receive protection. But if they believe in the first amendment, they will also recognize that "we" are not Christian. Steve Bannon says:

when capitalism was I believe at its highest flower and spreading its benefits to most of mankind, almost all of those capitalists were strong believers in the Judeo-Christian West. They were either active participants in the Jewish faith, they were active participants in the Christians’ faith, and they took their beliefs, and the underpinnings of their beliefs was manifested in the work they did. And I think that’s incredibly important and something that would really become unmoored. I can see this on Wall Street today — I can see this with the securitization of everything

Note: It says "securitization", but based on comments elsewhere in his speech, I believe he means "secularization", e.g. "The other tendency is an immense secularization of the West. And I know we’ve talked about secularization for a long time, but if you look at younger people, especially millennials under 30, the overwhelming drive of popular culture is to absolutely secularize this rising iteration" and "I certainly think secularism has sapped the strength of the Judeo-Christian West to defend its ideals".

Bannon is putting his finger on a problem: that capitalism has become unmoored from any other measure of morality. But to make the assumption that the only kind of morality worthy of consideration is a Christian morality leads us down a very dark path indeed.

Compromises: better than nothing

November 16, 2016 by Steven D. Brewer

At a contentious session of Town Meeting on November 14, opponents of the plan to replace the aging school buildings in town, succeeded in shooting the plan down. This is an ongoing problem in how the system of government is organized in Amherst. Too often, self-appointed and unaccountable people succeed in throwing a wrench into carefully made plans that took thousands of hours to construct.

Compromises like the school plan are difficult because, in the end, they don't give anyone what they really wanted. And people that come in at the end or that look only at one piece of the project can always find reasons to shoot it down. But a complex plan like this can only work if everyone is respectful of the process.

That means that people need to ensure that the process is constructed correctly at the beginning: that it identifies the appropriate stakeholders, selects competent representatives, and that those representatives are empowered to act in the interests of the stakeholders. And then, if at the end, the group can't reach a compromise, then the project shouldn't go forward. But if the group does reach a compromise, its the responsibility of those who empowered the representatives to respect their judgment.

What *shouldn't* happen is for people outside the process to come at the end and reject the compromises that were reached. That just ensures that no-one competent will be willing to do the work going forward. And that will make it impossible to make the process work.

Not Surprised

November 12, 2016 by Steven D. Brewer

When I met a friend recently, who had supported Hillary in the primary, I said, "I'm only going to say it once, but… I told you so."

In the end, I was not that surprised when Trump was elected president. Disappointed, but not that surprised. It was exactly the scenario I had expressed concern about during the primary. In a year where huge numbers of people indicated that the most important problem was establishment politics as usual, the Democratic party put up perhaps the preeminent establishment politician of all time.

It was a fatal mistake. And it will probably have dramatic and permanent effects for our country -- and for the world.

Or maybe not. There's simply no way to guess what Trump will actually do. And there's no way to tell what the establishment Republicans will do in response. It's going to be a weird and wild ride.

I believe that Trump will turn out to be way more establishment friendly than his followers believe. Although the Democrats let down working-class people by failing to fight for them, it was the Republicans who were the architects of the changes that ruined their lives. Trump will probably make things much, much worse for them.

I recognize that, as a white person with relatively stable employment, in the bluest state in the Union, I'm in a uniquely privileged position to muse about the outcomes. I really feel for my Jewish, minority, and LGBTQ friends who are honestly (and realistically) fearful for their safety.

But perhaps even more than the loss to Trump, I'm disturbed by the circular firing squad mentality among the Democrats. People are pointing fingers at millennials, blacks, women, Latinos and anyone else who is identified as having not sufficiently turned out for Hillary. Or, God forbid, having voted for Trump.

Instead, we need to pick ourselves up, lick our wounds, and start working to put forward candidates that are electable. That's what a party is for.

Reading a Bridge of Words

November 2, 2016 by Steven D. Brewer

I went to the bookstore a few days ago to pick up a copy of Bridge of Words, the new book by Esther Schor about Esperanto. I met Esther a few times while she was writing the book and attended some talks she gave. It was interesting to see how the project evolved over time from a biography of Zamenhof to a full-throated endorsement of Esperanto. I still haven't finished reading it, but I was particularly struck by the Introduction which is both eloquent and consistent with my personal perspective on Esperanto.

I did not write [this book] to elegize a bygone hope, to portray a quirky cult, or to roam a neglected byway of modernity. I wrote this book to discover why Esperanto has, unbelievably, beaten all the odds: competition from rival language projects, two world wars, totalitarian regimes, genocidal death factories, the nuclear arms race, and the emergence of fundamentalist sectarianism—not to mention the juggernaut of global English. The language-movement of Esperanto survives because it address a particularly modern predicament: to negotiate the competing claims of free individuals on the one hand, and on the other, communities bound by values and traditions. Esperantists reconcile liberalism and communitarianism by freely choosing a tradition of ideals.

I flipped to the index and saw that I was mentioned somewhere in the text! (On page 277, as it turns out).

For Libera Folio, there are no sacred cows. Shortly before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Chinese government came in for a scolding from Libera Folio when it defamed the Dalai Lama on its Esperanto website, El Popola Ĉinio: "The Dalai [Lama]'s clique ceaselessly interferes with and undermines the soul-migration of the Buddha." Libera Folio published an angry response by American Steve Brewer: "In China perhaps one can forbid the liberal expression of the people, but … not everywhere in the world." Kniivilä, in a wry follow-up, ventured that "the editors of the official Chinese website will choose other responses for publication."

I had forgotten that quote in Ĉinio serĉas subtenon de esperantistoj. But I recall it now and stand by my statement. Of all the things I might be remembered for, that one's not too bad.

I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the book.

A Visit with Comcast

October 22, 2016 by Steven D. Brewer

After my unsatisfactory chat with "Tina", I decided to take the outdated cablebox to the local Comcast office to get it replaced. Alisa and I went together and, after a short wait, we were able to speak with a real, live human being.

After a great deal of discussion and back and forth, we eventually decided to use this opportunity to change over the billing from my mom to us and to switch to one of the discounted digital packages. We called people and signed things and got a bunch of new hardware (new router, new cable boxen, new remotes). It must have taken at least 45 minutes. The line behind us grew longer and longer and longer.

I was only snarky a couple of times. When she kept talking about prices as if the cost of the first 12 months was the price, I complained that I thought that practice was deceptive. Her hackles rose a bit at that. It turns out that you basically need to follow up with them every year to see what the "new deal" is or you get screwed in terms of pricing. I remember phone service used to be like that and it always pissed me off then too.

I was also perhaps a little snarky when she asked if we wanted HD and I calmly indicated that maybe when we could get PEG access in HD, I'd switch.

The funniest part was when she explained how Comcast prices things. It was actually a great explanation, but when she starting talking about the role that the "Mayor of Amherst" plays, Alisa nearly burst. The rep had no way of knowing she was talking to the President of the Board of Amherst Media and the Chair of the Amherst Select Board. We just nodded and smiled and listened.

The rep was actually fantastic and probably took much longer than the corporation would rather she would and helped us figure out a better arrangement than we otherwise would have. I said I hoped they paid her well. Her look made it clear that they don't.

Eventually, we got home, swapped the router, and then I began trying to get everything put back together. I had to set passwords for wifi and administration, set up a static IP for the server, set up port forwarding, and update the DNS for my domain name. Then I tried to set up the cable boxen.

We wanted to put the little box in Lucy's room, where space is at a premium and to put the big one in the living room, where there's plenty of space. But neither wanted to work there. I tried over and over again getting cryptic RDK-03004 errors and XRE-10007 errors. I spent several hours reading forums, checking connections, and plugging and unplugging things. Eventually, I switched them around. Like magic, everything started to work. Lucy will just have to live with having the big box in her room.

With that, I think everything is set up. I can watch Amherst Media again. And it only took me a whole day.

:-/

Chatting with Comcast

October 22, 2016 by Steven D. Brewer

Several days ago, reports began to come in that some people were finding Amherst Media channels unwatchable. And not just because it was another interminable Select Board meeting, but because the transmission was garbled. You can see the picture, but there are tiling and other digital artifacts and the sound has stops and skips. The signal leaving Amherst Media is fine: it is happening somewhere between Amherst Media and the TV -- that is, inside Comcast.

I tried calling Comcast on the phone. A robot walked me through a series of steps: rebooting the cable box and then sending a message to "enhance the signal" which "might take an hour". This had no effect.

Today, I did an online chat with, what was reported to be a human being named Tina who said things like this:

Tina > Sorry to know you're facing issue with the channels.
Tina > Let me quickly try and get you to the path of resolution.

I was asked a series of robotic questions and then to provide the serial number. Eventually "she" said:

Tina > I'll try to enhance signals to the box which may disrupt the connection of other devices.
[...]
Tina > Since we've restored the device now it would take upto 30minutes to 1hour for the box to get updated.
Tina > And to get this fixed.

Eventually I just asked the question. Note that our Comcast bill is still in Lucy's name, so I was pretending to be Lucy.

LUCY_ > There is a rumor that this is the result of Comcast changing from MPEG 2 to MPEG 4 and that older boxes need to be replaced. Should I take my old box to the Comcast office to be replaced?

She did not comment on the cause, but admitted we could try swapping the box. As if it was probably unrelated to the problem. Then, however, the conversation takes a different turn.

Tina > However while I was going through your account I came across an awesome saving package.
Tina > Where you can get the box upgraded and also extra channels with HD service and Internet Blast speed
Tina > Currently you're paying approximately $XXX for the internet and Tv service.
Tina > However I can give you the new package for $XXX for 12 months

Wow. Just wow. Your service doesn't work, so this is a *great* time to upsell someone. Not to be outdone, I asked another question.

LUCY_ > Does it include HD for my local cable access channels?
Tina > Yes there would be HD for local channels.
LUCY_ > Given that we just re-negotiated the cable franchise agreement and the Comcast representatives stonewalled the town on allowing HD broadcast of the cable access channels, I think your statement unlikely.

She continued to badger me again and again with various offers until I eventually put an end to the chat session.

LUCY_ > Trying to upsell me when the service isn't working, is not an effective strategy.
LUCY_ > Thanks for your time or computational cycles.

So, there you go. It's just about exactly what I have come to expect from Comcast. Supremely bad service from poor, ignorant customer service flacks. I feel sorry for "Tina", assuming she's a human being. It must be awful to work for a company like that.

Trading in your fly-swatter for a hammer

October 16, 2016 by Steven D. Brewer

I don't have any inside information about what's been going on in the schools in Amherst, but I had an insight many years ago that provides a lens to help me understand what's happening now.

When my children were in elementary school, Alisa got involved in the Parent Guardian Group (PGG) at Mark's Meadow. Later, she ran for School Committee and, after a relatively tough campaign, won a seat. What struck me more than anything else was our first parent-teacher conference after she was a school committee member rather than a parent: it completely transformed her relationship with the school. And she discovered she needed to be very careful of what she said and what issues she tried to address: because everything she said was interpreted differently.

I came up with an analogy that helped me understand what had happened: As a member of the PGG, it was like she had a fly-swatter, which was great for addressing small problems in-and-around the school. But it wasn't effective for crafting policy or making real change. When she joined the school committee, it was like trading in her fly-swatter for a hammer. A hammer is great for accomplishing real work -- but it's terrible for swatting flies. And if you try to use it for swatting flies, you just break everything. This is exactly what I think we've had over the past few months.

When you serve on a committee, you choose to invest your effort in helping the committee craft effective policy. But it means you lose the ability to try to address problems directly, outside of that venue. You get to influence the actual policy but, if you don't agree with the outcomes, you have to either accept and support them — or leave the committee. What you *can't* do, is try to have it both ways: you can't have an inside track in trying to affect policy and, at the same time, try to rabble-rouse outside the committee to put pressure on the process. You have to choose one or the other. When you don't, you end up with outcomes like what we've seen: where the committee has lost the ability to provide effective governance.

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