Skip to main content

On island

March 6, 2015 by Steven D. Brewer

Buzz, Jonathan and I arrived "on island" yesterday afternoon. We made a quick stop at the store to get a few supplies (beer and breakfast, mostly) before checking in at Cottages. Then we had dinner at Lost Dog -- our usual first stop when we get here.

Today, Buzz had ambitious plans. He wanted to put some data loggers into the salt pond. We borrowed a kayak and, after getting stuck once, he headed off across the salt pond.

It turns out the pond is only about two feet deep. He gets to slog back tomorrow to collect his data loggers.

We met a new friend at the refuge who helped us collect our traps and other stuff and get a key to the gate so we could set some traps. We put out 15 traps and should have some animals to work with tomorrow.

One new toy is a thermal camera. I saw one at Home Depot and sent a picture to Buzz who ordered one instantly to be delivered directly here: It arrived today and we've been playing with it since. The last time I had checked, thermal cameras still cost in the $1000s. But they're down to ~$250 now.

Buzz has more friends arriving tonight in advance of his birthday party on Tuesday. Everyone who's anyone will be there. With catering by Rose's Dream Cuisine and beer by the Fort Christian Brewpub it will be a night to remember.

Maker Technologies and the Internet of Things

March 3, 2015 by Steven D. Brewer

Once upon a time, I was nearly laughed out of the room for suggesting that, someday in the distant future, everyone would have their own computer. Now, of course, you probably have several computers. But you actually have a lot more computers than you think.

Some of your computers are in obvious places, like your laptop or cell phone or game system. But others are invisible to you: In your car. (Your car probably has multiple computers in it already!) In your microwave. In your television.In your refrigerator. In your thermostat. Did you know there is probably a tiny computer inside your microSD card? (It's a modified ARM processor that maps out bad memory location and remaps the file-system so the FLASH memory gets exercised evenly).

Soon, there will be computers inside everything. Imagine your disposable soda cup at the restaurant with a video advertisement playing on the cup! Or food packaging that turns black (or green or yellow) when it's expired. But the next really big step will be that these computers won't just be standalone computers: they'll be networked and able to talk to one another. Welcome to the Internet of Things.

We're offering a class about Maker Technologies and the Internet of Things because, although the future is not quite here yet, you can already start exploring this new world. And begin developing the basic skills that will allow you to start using these technologies immediately.

Some of the skills are basic: Navigating the Linux operating system using the bash shell and a text editor; Applying fundamentals of computer communication and Internet Protocol networking; Programming with Python. Others are more specialized: Collecting and transforming data from sensors using a GPIO; Controlling electronic devices; Building and using client-server applications.

Finally, there's a dark underside to being surrounded by all of these computers: Who really controls them? Are they collecting data about you? Who can see that data? It's imperative to think through the security implications of these systems to prevent intrusions and mitigate their effects when compromised.

The course is being offered by Steven D. Brewer, Director of the Biology Computer Resource Center, and Christine Olson, a doctoral student in the Department of Communication at UMass. They are co-founders of Makers at Amherst Media, a local group focused on building community and making technology accessible to the public.

Former UMass student and entrepreneur Wayne Chang, talking about technology startups recently, identified the Internet of Things as the "next big thing". We agree — and hope you'll join us this summer for Maker Technologies and the Internet of Things July 12 through 25.

Tour of UMass Center at Springfield

February 25, 2015 by Steven D. Brewer

On Tuesday, Feb 24, I visited the UMass Center at Springfield and was given a tour by William Dávila, the Director of Operations. We discussed the needs of Hack for Western Mass and walked through the facility looking at relevant spaces. The space is modern with reconfigurable furniture. It appears to me that the facility offers a good match for our needs.

Here is the detail from a map (click to open the full version in a separate tab) that shows the relevant section of the facility. (Most of what is clipped off is the part of the facility dedicated to the Nursing program which has specialized facilities not really relevant to our purposes. Really cool to visit, tho!)

There is a large Learning Commons/UMCS-Lounge area that would work well for a Friday Night reception, as a common area to put snacks and food, and for people to congregate informally during the day.

There is a large plenary space (rm 14) that, with tables removed and additional chairs, can seat up to 170. Note that all of the rooms have cameras and videoconferencing equipment, so we could have overflow into other rooms if we needed more space.


There is a hallway of classrooms (rooms 2, 3, 4, and 5) that each would work well for 1, 2, or even 3 groups to work in (excepting possible room 2, which is a bit smaller). By staying in this hallway, we could keep all of the groups together and adjacent.

There are a number of additional rooms that could be available for other purposes. There is a computer lab (room 1) that could possibly be used for the Kids Hackathon. There are two fancy conference rooms and a number of smaller breakout rooms, but they're mostly not ideal for our purposes. If we need a place to store materials in advance of, or during the Hackathon, a breakout room or rooms could be made available.

It sounds as though we may have the facility largely to ourselves although we should try to make the arrangements promptly to ensure we lock in the date. There will need to be a commitment to pay for staffing for hours when the facility would not normally be open, which includes both Friday evening (ie, after 5pm) and Sunday. These costs would be simple cost-recovery for a single person to open the facility. For the Friday evening ice-breaker, another possibility might be to use the Federal Building at 1550 Main (see below) which has a large lobby that could be used for a reception and is just across the street. But the Lounge seems preferable to me, so people can see the space where we'll be working.

There is wifi provided by Eduroam and they have a guest account provisioned which can be used by anyone who doesn't already have Eduroam credentials. There is an attached parking garage for Tower Square and we can get parking permits that reduce the daily charge to $5. (We might consider whether we can find a way to sponsor parking so participants don't have to pay).

One piece of good news: We are not required to use a particular catering service, although Hot Table (just below) and Nadim's (down the street) are convenient and have been helpful.

The staff were eager to have us bring the Hackathon to Springfield and were excited about the possibility of helping to cross-brand and publicize the event.

Building effective user communities

February 17, 2015 by Steven D. Brewer

In 2013, I wrote about building digital signage with Raspberry Pis. We're still at it. Several months ago, I pointed out one of our displays to our CIO and mentioned that there didn't seem to be any forum to sharing information about solutions on campus. She mentioned she was aware of 12 independent efforts on campus trying to buy, build, or implement digital signage, none of which are aware of the others. She's taken the issue seriously and is moving the campus toward building user communities around important topics. Toward that end, they've scheduled an event for Thursday at 1pm.

The current model that the campus has fostered, are "Tech Talks". But they are organized around a few-to-many model. I think user communities need to be less structured. Our UMass Drupal Users Group could serve as a good model. The qualities that have made the group so successful include: a dedicated core group of users that draws from both on and off campus, an online forum to post announcements and schedule events, simple threaded discussion, and regular meetings with both structured and unstructured events.

The biggest challenge to making user communities successful is getting administrators at the University to value the time commitment necessary on the part of faculty, staff, and students to participate and make them work. It takes time to build relationships and the social capital necessary for trust and engagement. But over time, I think it could transform how the campus operates.

Montetoj kaj valoj de loka agado

February 7, 2015 by Steven D. Brewer

Je la 19a de julio, 2003, mi registris la domajn-nomon amherstesperanto.org. Mi starigis retpaĝaron por anonci lokan Esperanto-grupon kaj komencis kunveni ĉiusemajne en loka restoracio: la glacikremejo Bart's.

Kiam mi estis doktora studento en Kalamazuo, nelonge post mi esperantiĝis, mi partoprenis lokan grupon tie kiun organizis Ĝan Starling. Tiu grupo multe influis mian pensadon pri Esperanto kaj la komunumo kiun ĝi povas flegi. Mi renkontis multajn samideanojn tiel kaj havis multajn interesajn konversaciojn. Kaj, kompreneble, multe plibonigis mian regon de la lingvo. La grupo estis ankaŭ la kerno de diversaj aliaj agadoj: vojaĝoj al aliaj kongresoj kaj la organizado de lokaj kongresoj.

Post kiam mi doktoriĝis, mi translokiĝis al Masaĉuseco, kaj tuj serĉis tian lokan grupon, sed ne trovis. Mi kontaktis la lokajn s-anojn kiujn mi trovis en la membraro de E-USA kaj aranĝis kunsidon por diskuti. Sed ili malmulte interesiĝis pri semajnaj kunvenoj. Mi estis tro okupita pri mia nova posteno por organizi ion tuj, sed atendis.

Post kelkaj jaroj, mi havis iom pli da tempo kaj starigis retpaĝon por reklami la grupon. Fakte, en tiu momento, tute ne ekzistis "grupo" -- mi simple anoncis ke "la grupo" kunvenos semajne. Kaj ekde tiu momento, mi iris al tiu loko semajne por "kunveni". Dum kelkaj semajnoj, neniu venis. Sed, iutage, ulo alvenis mian tablon kaj alparolis min Esperante! Li estis universitata studento kiu eklernis Esperanton antaŭ kelkaj monatoj kaj volis babili. Iom post iom li diplomiĝis kaj translokiĝis alstaten. Sed alvenis aliaj kaj la grupo ankoraŭ ekzistas.

Lastatempe, mi ne plu havas tempon por multe organizi, sed ni daŭre kunvenas -- ne ĉiusemajne, bedaŭrinde. Sed ĉisemajne, alvenis nova komencanto kiu jam sufiĉe bone parolas! Li ne multe parolas, sed li ŝajne komprenas sufiĉe.

La grupo havas siajn montetojn kaj valojn: foje oni aktivas kaj kunvenas kaj diskutas ofte. Foje, ĉiuj estas tro okupitaj kaj la grupo dormetas. Sed ĝi daŭriĝas kaj valorigas la laboron.

La loka grupo por mi estas la plej grava kialo mi daŭre interesiĝas pri Esperanto. Mi tre ŝatas la sperton paroli en alia lingvo: la menso streĉiĝas kaj oni sentas sin parto de speciala socio. Kaj la Esperantistoj estas plej ofte tiel interesaj homoj. Kia rara plezuro!

Board Retreat

February 1, 2015 by Steven D. Brewer

Last year, as a new board member at Amherst Media, I found it very useful to have a retreat. At board meetings, we're generally focused on the business of the organization. It was really valuable to spend a few hours reflecting on the role of the board and the strategic needs of the organization. As the new president, I thought it was worth organizing a retreat this year as well.

We met at Willits-Hallowell in South Hadley. It was a lovely drive over the Notch, in spite of the frigid temperatures. I was pleased that we had nearly full attendance. We had a full agenda and we mostly kept to our times.

I began the meeting by welcoming everyone, thanking them for their attendance, and inviting everyone to introduce themselves. We have a wonderfully diverse and talented board.

In thinking about the retreat, I found a checklist that I thought might be useful to structure our thinking as we move forward. We went through the items and had some good, focusing discussion about some strengths of our board and other places that could use some attention. I was pleased that most of the items identified aligned extremely well with the agenda that we'd set for the day.

We spent some time reflecting on our mission and the current activity of the organization. We discussed the challenges of our building plans; we reviewed our strategic shift from trying to launch a capital campaign to annual fundraising; and we assessed the results of our first direct-mail solicitation. It was an extremely informative overview of where the organization is and where it's going.

In the afternoon, we heard from Martin Miller the CEO of WFCR (or New England Public Radio, as they're re-branding themselves). He spoke to us primarily about their successful 50th anniversary capital campaign which has enabled them to move into newly renovated space in Springfield. Although many people think public radio and television are supported by the government, in fact less than 10% of their funding comes that way. The largest amount (around 40%) comes from the on-air fundraising and is mostly small monthly donations. For their capital campaign, they had many years of fundraising data and their connections with NPR provided opportunities to reach well-known people to lead efforts or offer benefits. One of their biggest challenges was due to their uncertain early efforts to get a new building, which resulted in confusing messaging and some "donor fatigue" as their first efforts to secure a new building hadn't succeeded. It was a frank and very insightful look at a successful non-profit which was both encouraging but also somewhat sobering in terms of how far we have to go.

We wrapped up by collecting some "action steps" for things we want to do. There were several simple suggestions for things to do to improve our communication and organization: creating a calendar for committee and subcommittee meetings, having a bit of unstructured time for socialization before meetings, and having scheduled meetings for the executive committee to set the agenda before board meetings. We are already the process of reviewing and amending the bylaws. I'm hoping we can restructure the board subcommittees to align better with a road map for future activity, build better publicity, and help us grow our engaged membership.

I left the meeting feeling that we'd learned a lot and rededicated ourselves to the tasks at hand. It was time well spent.

Teaching with Netlogo

February 1, 2015 by Steven D. Brewer

Originally, I was not scheduled to teach in the spring, but during scheduling it became clear that there was a large unmet need and was... persuaded to open a section of the writing class. For my theme this semester, I'm asking the students to explore agent-based modelling with Netlogo. I've wanted to get back to working with Netlogo and in the fall a faculty member at WPI contacted me about working with her on Netlogo. I've reconnected a bit with the community, updated and posted my models at the Modeling Commons.

My goal for their final projects is for them to identify something in the literature for which no agent-based model exists in Netlogo and to create the model and write a report about it. Some of the students are anxious about the programming, but I think it will be very doable and have laid out a series of steps to get them up-to-speed.

For the first class meeting, I had the students observe a live ant in a petri dish to write about it and then look at the Basic Ant model I constructed. In the model, the ant moves forward until it encounters the "dish", backs up, turns 20 degrees, and moves forward again. I asked the students to suggest how actual ant behavior differed from the model. One student pointed out that the model always turned in one direction while the ant sometimes turned either way. I then pointed them at a publication that shows that ants have a left-ward turning bias and we elaborated the model with a bit more logic.

For the Methods Project, I'm asking them create a multi-panel scientific figure that shows a biological pattern generated using an existing Netlogo model coupled with a photograph that shows the same pattern in real life. We talked about some of the resources available on campus (the greenhouses and collections) and I'm looking forward to seeing what they come up with. It's always one of my favorite projects.

Last semester, I experimented with trying to work with larger student groups. I've generally avoided groups larger than three, but several faculty in the department routinely have students work in groups of 5 or more. Since I only had 5 Galileo computers, I decided to try groups of up-to 5. I would call the experiment a failure and consistent with my previous experiences. As groups grow beyond three it becomes much more likely that someone in the group can't find any meaningful way to contribute to the project.

This semester, I'm debating whether to have students work in groups at all. Or maybe work in pairs. I still have a few weeks before I have to make up my mind.

Semester Launched

February 1, 2015 by Steven D. Brewer

The semester has launched. The past couple of weeks have been the typical flurry of activity. Over the intersession, we made a bunch of upgrades. I missed a lot of the action by visiting Phil during the first week of January, but came back just in time to be totally swamped.

We installed SSDs and RAM in the intro lab computers and updated them to Mavericks. It makes a huge difference in the performance of the computers, especially for logging in and launching applications. I'm hopeful we can do the ISB computers next.

We also decommissioned the first of our old Solaris servers. Over the next year, we will finally put them all to bed. I started using SunOS, and then Solaris, while I was still a graduate student. It was never my favorite flavor of Unix, but when I started using it, it was a standard that most packages supported well. For the past five years, it's been, well, a nightmare trying to support anything.

Finally, I reorganized the arrangement of tables in the BCRC. I had originally proposed two different arrangements, but when they originally installed the tables, they hadn't included appropriate hardware to gang the tables together both ways, so I had laid it out in circles and waited until we could fix it. They finally installed the hardware at the end of the semester and over the break, I made the change. So far, the results are extremely encouraging. The circles were good, but this is even better -- especially for teaching: it enables you to make eye contact more easily with the students while presenting. And even students working alone suggest that it "feels" like you have more space to spread out.

Visits to Champaign-Urbana Makerspaces

January 9, 2015 by Steven D. Brewer

I've been spending a lot of time working on Makers at Amherst Media. We shot a new show discussing the afterschool program and filmed our end-of-the-year show and tell, where participants from the afterschool program and Five College environmental sensing class presented about their projects.

While planning my trip to visit Phil in Champaign, I wanted to arrange to visit Makerspace Urbana. Phil had told me about it before, but I hadn't managed to get there. We posted a note on their Facebook page and a comment in reply suggested we stop by the Fab Lab too. (I was pleased to see that they have a Drupal site.) We actually ended up going there first.

It was incredibly cold with strong wind when we arrived at the Fab Lab -- so cold that the parking meters were all failing. Phil spotted the parking enforcement guy who assured us we wouldn't get a ticket, so we headed in out of the cold.

The FabLab is on the UIUC campus and is in an old building that was essentially unused. It had a few groups functionally squatting in it, but was so decrepit and dirty as to be unusable for most purposes. Someone with university connections pulled some strings to put the makerspace in there and found a pot of money to get it set up, although a lot was done with sweat equity by volunteers who did much of the cleaning and setting up.


The Fab Lab has several rooms. You enter between a computer lab and a 3D printing lab. Past the computer lab, is a textile room that also serves as a kitchen (coincidentally, they pointed out, and not due to gender issues.) In the textile room are several embroidery machines that can be used to make patches -- a particular interest of Phil. Past their 3D printers (they have a couple of generations), they have a laser cutter -- one of the few really big-ticket items. Beyond, is a room with soldering stations. In a back room, they have some milling machines, one made from a Dremel motor tool and an arduino with a motor control shield of some kind. They're hoping to manage this room in coordination with the architecture program that has common interests in milling, but it looks like the arrangements are still being worked out.

The kitchen was really just a spot on the counter where communal food could be prepared and shared. They indicated that this was important, especially in their space due to the layout. They mentioned that in some spaces, where people sat around tables, there were more opportunities for social interaction. But in their space, where benches were along the walls, many people would work on their project with their back to the rest of the room, so having a place with food, that could draw people away from their projects where they could congregate and socialize, was really important for building community.

The next day, we stopped by Makerspace Urbana, which is in the Independent Media Center. I was particularly interested because I thought we might find some commonalities as we're building our Makerspace with Amherst Media. It turned out, however, that the entities are actually quite distinct -- almost unrelated. The Makerspace pays rent (quite inexpensive) and is managed totally separately.

We arrived just as it opened. It was smaller than I had imagined -- only room for 15 or 20 people tops. They had an arduino-controlled illuminated pride flag near the entrance that had been an earlier project. They used it for a fund-raising thermostat earlier, which seemed like a great idea. They had a common room with small 3D printer and a sewing machine and a back room with storage, where people could keep projects and supplies.

Their financial model is to charge a sustaining membership fee of $15/month and give "key access" for $25/month, where an existing member needed to vouch for you to get key access. This was sufficient to pay the rent, which had been a big goal of the fundraising effort.

I was excited to hear about the Makerfest that they had organized and were organizing again. They had looked into using the Makerfaire name, but found that it was burdened with a lot of restrictions, so they called theirs makerfest so they could do whatever they wanted. They had drawn in more than a thousand visitors and gotten a lot of publicity from the event. This is a goal I think we could set for ourselves.

I asked whether they'd had any problems or issues that required them to create policy and they really couldn't think of anything. They had created a "code of conduct" to head off potential problems early on (as we've done), but hadn't really had any problems they could point fingers at. Their main suggestion was to not get discouraged when things were slow. They had found dips and ebbs in participants as old people moved on and new people got involved, but found that overall just providing a reliable place for building community was the most important thing. Although they agreed with the Fab Lab that food was important to.

I really appreciated the warm welcome of Colten, Virginia, Jeff, and Eric. I got a lot of ideas to bring back to help build Makers at Amherst Media.

Both Troubled and Entertained by Person of Interest

January 1, 2015 by Steven D. Brewer

Over the past few weeks, I've been watching the Person of Interest TV series. We got the disks for seasons 1, 2, and 3 from the library and watched them all. It's been a lot of fun. At the same time, I'm profoundly troubled by the show.

A central idea behind the show is that we have been safe from terrorism over the past several years due to the activity of the Machine -- an AI that can identify threats to national security and provide actionable intelligence before the threats materialize. The Machine, we are told, has foiled dozens of these threats.

The problem is that this greatly over-estimates the role of the Machine in keeping us safe. That is, the Machine does not exist and we have not had a significant terrorist attack during the show's existence. This kind of show contributes to the public's paranoia about terrorism that drives the military industrial complex.

The actual focus of each show is usually about saving the life of an individual person who is about to be murdered -- which the machine can also predict, but which the Government (you can hear the capital letter) has deemed "irrelevant". Each episode shows example after example of how global capitalism has created a system of profound inequality, that results in a handful of winners and mostly losers. But there's little examination of underlying causes: it's all about the surface features of each case.

Still, the show raises many salient questions: What are the ethics of surveillance? Of assassination? What are the dangers of creating a panoptican society? Of letting corporations control the information?

Mostly, the show is just fun. It's charming to imagine a genius billionaire super-hero that can create AIs and a well-dressed ex-secret-agent who can effortlessly beat up the bad guys, who make an unlikely team that can work together to save people against all odds.

Isaac Ben Ezra

December 26, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

These are the comments I made at the Celebration for Isaac Ben Ezra's Lifetime of Activism. Image courtesy of Amherst Media.

I want to thank you all for coming out tonight to celebrate our own Isaac Ben Ezra's lifetime of achievement. We really appreciate your time.

I was surprised to learn that Isaac and I arrived in the Pioneer Valley at about the same time, in 1996. Some might come to Amherst to "retire", but not Isaac: he brought the same brand of activism which has defined his whole life. As a labor activist, he worked to organize people and the organizing skills he learned then led him to the civil rights movement. And the anti war movement. And the push for universal health care. And for freedom of speech. And for access to information to help people stay engaged with their local community.

His long-running show "Conversations" is how I first became aware of Isaac. As I tried to understand town politics, Isaac's show gave me a window into the personalities of candidates and helped shed light on the issues and controversies facing our community.

Isaac went on to take a leadership role at what was then Amherst Community Television. His leadership came at a critical moment for the organization. Isaac believed in the mission of an independent media for the town. His leadership, which brought Jim Lescault has led to the transformation of what is Amherst Media today.

I have seen the effects of that transformation personally: my son participated in the group that created Student News and Lights Up and other Riverwolf media projects that were all produced using the resources of Amherst Media. Those have led me to look for ways to give back.

We are here to recognize the leadership and activism of Isaac Ben Ezra. I encourage you to thank Isaac for his leadership by making a tribute gift in his name to support the mission of Amherst Media. Thank you once again for your attendance.

The Hobbit as Tragedy

December 25, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

The final movie of Peter Jackson's trilogy retells the story of the Hobbit as tragedy, completely changing the character of the book. One star.

I first read the Hobbit when I was in fourth grade -- it was the first real book I ever read. I consumed it. I devoured it. Then I moved on to the Lord of the Rings. Later, I read it aloud to my children. As the years went on, I've read it over and over again.

The Hobbit is fundamentally a children's adventure story. In spite of Bilbo being 50 years old, it's a story about him discovering the wider world beyond his safe and comfortable home -- and discovering his own power to take charge and influence events.

As you read the Lord of the Rings, you retrospectively discover that the Hobbit was a preface to the larger events that happened afterward. The Hobbit itself does not treat with them at all. It's only later that you learn who the Necromancer is and what Gandalf was doing when he left the party just as they entered Mirkwood.

I was initially excited to hear that Jackson was planning to merge those events in to the Hobbit -- to try telling the story of the White Council driving Sauron out from Dol Goldur. But much of what he invented fell flat: Rhadagast the Brown, covered with bird poop, being pulled by rabbits. And that Well of Souls or whatever, where Sauron and the Nazgul were supposed to be imprisoned? Lame.

But this last movie really left me cold. The pacing was terrible. They kill off Smaug before the opening credits. Thorin dies so close to the end of the movie, I felt like I hadn't really gotten over that before I had to walk out of the theater. The very last scenes, showing Bilbo walking into an empty and trashed Bag End and then cutting to Bilbo before his 111st Birthday Party. What a downer.

And that nauseating toady of the Master of Lake Town? Where did that guy come from? Why did that character even have any lines? Ugh. Totally repellent.

For me, perhaps the greatest scene in the book is when, as the battle turns against them, Thorin comes out and rallies the dwarves.

Out leapt the King under the Mountain, and his companions followed him. Hood and cloak were gone; they were in shining armor, and red light leapt their eyes. In the gloom, the great dwarf gleamed like gold in a dying fire. [...] "To me! To me! Elves and Men! To me! O my kinsfolk!" he cried, and his voice shook like a horn in the valley.

The treatment in the movie utterly fails to capture the same feeling.

But so much of the movie is just wrong: Beorn as some kind of bitter former slave, rather than a gruff, but jolly, woodsman. Galadriel as some kind of psycho witch. Rivendell as a creepy land of eternal twilight and autumn, rather than the Last (or First) Homely House.

Perhaps it isn't possible to tell the story of the Hobbit after the Lord of the Rings without seeing it as tragedy. But just a few additional scenes in the end -- as laid out in the book -- might have helped a lot: Yule-tide in the house of Beorn, May in the valley of Rivendell, and the visit of Balin and Gandalf with Bilbo after Bag End is set to rights. Instead you get two cut scenes and don't even get to see Bilbo and Gandalf digging up the treasure from the troll cave.

At least there aren't any more Tolkien books for Peter Jackson to ruin.

Reflection and solstice greetings

December 21, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

When I first started blogging, almost 12 years ago now, I used it frequently as a place for reflection. Every semester, I ask my students to write a reflective essay. I don't use these essays for evaluative purposes -- everyone who completes the exercise gets full credit. I do it because I believe making time for reflection is important, and I find that we rarely do it enough. This has been particularly true for me over the past couple of years, as I've taken on more and more responsibilities. As I've gotten busier, my blog has become a place merely to briefly report on things, or to share artefacts generated for another purpose, rather than a place of personal reflection.

In my project description for the reflective essay activity, I ask students to address three "whats": (1) "What happened?" (2) What did it mean (to you and to others)? and (3) What effect did it have on what happened later (or will happen in the future)?

What happened? Too much for words. I tried to do too many things and, although most of them happened, some of the quality was compromised by trying to do too much. I've always been a believer that if something is worth doing, it's worth doing badly. But it's always hard to strike the appropriate balance. I set up and ran the BCRC with new equipment in a new space. I did a shake-down cruise trying to use the new BCRC for teaching. I taught a class. I organized a Makerspace. I co-chaired a Faculty Senate council. I served on the Rules Committee. I became Board President for a non-profit. I maintained websites and software on three servers. I set up the Living Museum of Dead Computers. I worked with many people on smaller projects but, too often, I was just too busy.

What did it all mean? In general, I find the work I do very rewarding. I feel like what I do makes a difference in people's lives. I think the BCRC gives students a place where they can be productive — and that it helps foster community. And I think it helps faculty create activities that engage students. I think my teaching gives students an opportunity to improve their writing, and also to try out what it means to be a biologist — to "do" biology. I'm hopeful about the Makerspace which can give people of all ages, but especially the young, a way to turn technology to their own purposes — and not be just a consumer of what modern corporations churn out. My service has been primarily about helping people (and institutions) make thoughtful decisions about technology.

But I realize that that my life has become my professional life. I almost don't have a private life any more. I go to work; I come home (if I don't have a meeting); I have a drink (usually); & I watch a couple of hours of TV with Lucy (when I'm not trying to finish writing something, or grading something, or engaging in correspondence in support of some project or other). Ten years ago, I was doing this.

I want to work to bring my life more into balance. But that means letting go of things — deciding that some things that might be worth doing badly, won't get done at all. I guess I could quit having that drink or watching TV with Lucy. But somehow I don't think that's going to happen.

But the elephant in the room is social media. It doesn't show up in any of the activities above, but I actually spend most of my time checking and writing email and various kinds of feeds: educating myself, maintaining correspondence, and mediating between communities. A big part of what enables me to be successful is being aware of trends in technology — at least I like to tell myself that. But maybe I should try to unplug more and spend more time with people.

It's good, anyway, to take a few minutes in reflection to think about the year past and the new year to come. Solstice greetings!

Normalization of Relations with Cuba

December 19, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

I'm very pleased that the US is finally going to normalize relations with Cuba. It's a generation overdue, in my opinion. We made peace, however uneasy, with China in the 1970s. And it seems like any worries one might have about opening trade with a country that doesn't allow democratic freedoms should be focused on the world's most populous country -- not a tiny Caribbean island.

I don't personally have any particular interest in Cuba. I was sad that, twice, the World Esperanto Congress came to the Western Hemisphere and I couldn't participate because my country wouldn't allow it. It might be one thing that some dictatorship wouldn't allow US citizens to attend but rather it was MY government that took MY freedom and wouldn't allow me to attend. Maybe the UK will happen in Cuba again, but probably not. Other things that Cuba produces, like rum and cigars, I don't have any use for.

Well, that's not quite true. I do have a use for rum, but I buy all my rum from St. Croix.

A friend gave me a Cuban cigar once. I quit smoking tobacco many years ago, but I held onto the cigar and took it with me when I went to visit my Uncle Keith. He loved cigars. It was the last time I saw him, I think. I handed him the cigar and he was transfixed. He opened the case and smelled it. He indicated several features that told him it was a genuine Cuban cigar. He carried it around with him all day in his pocket. He would get it out every so often to relish the thought that, after dinner, he would light it up and smoke it. And after dinner, he settled into his easy chair, lit the cigar and, over a 2 hour period, enjoyed it to its fullest, singing its praises to anyone who would listen.

BCRC Open House

December 17, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer

This is my draft of the remarks I gave for the BCRC open house.

First of all, I would like to thank all of you for coming to our open house.

I would particularly like to thank George Drake. He was really key to helping make sure we thought things through and kept track of the details so that everything turned out as we wanted.

Most of all, I would like to thank Rolf and Sally -- it was their idea to renovate all of 3rd floor Morrill IV South in one piece that first got this project started. They pitched the idea over and over -- for perhaps 5 years -- before it finally got funded.

And I would like to thank them for their confidence in me. To let me design the facility the way I've always wanted it. This really has been a dream come true for me.

In 1996, I was invited to come to UMass to direct the Biology Computer Resource Center that the Department had created with funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Rod Murphey, who was the PI on the grant, and other department faculty, recognized the transformative force that information technology was having on science education. And they wanted to hire a professional science educator to help the faculty use technology for education to support the Life Sciences -- not just Biology but the Life Sciences. And in a national search, they picked me.

When I arrived, the BCRC was already set up. The grant provided funding for the computers, but not for any renovations. So they had plunked some computers down on old lab benches in a part of the building where the air handling system was broken and unrepairable, and when I arrived, we did the best that we could do.

The BCRC has been heavily utilized by undergrauate students since it was first set up. We've almost always had upwards of 10,000 sign-ins annually. I don't have detailed records from before we started building student accounts, but since 2005, we've built accounts for about 25,000 different UMass Students.

When we learned we were going to be able to renovate the space, I reached out to BCRC users and Biology Faculty to ask them what was working, and should be preserved, and what were the limitations that we should try to address.

Here's what we've made.

We've created an environment with computers, but with an additional station at each spot, with power and USB chargers, for students to use their own devices. And we've made it easy for students to connect to our displays using HDMI or VGA, to make it easy to show what they're working on to collaborators.

We've created an environment both for students to work individually at one end, but also with dividers so that groups can have space to work.

We have room for 48 students in a class, but we have 24 fully adjustable chairs, for students who are tall or short -- or just going to be working for a long time.

Finally, the furniture is all reconfigurable. The tables look round, but they're actually groups of three. And they can be arranged as 8 groups of three or as 6 groups of four, leaving the area near the projector open for students to roll in, sit in a circle, and discuss something.

And we have Blackboards! Real blackboards! With map rails along the top so we can hang posters and use the BCRC for poster sessions.

And even my secret dream came true. When we were planning the new BCRC, I really wanted to find a home for all of the cool old computers I'd rescued over the years. To finally have the Living Museum of Dead Computers have a home is immeasurably gratifying.

It's been a busy year trying to keep the construction on track and then to set everything up and make it functional. But I hope you'll agree that the results were worth the effort.

Thanks once again for coming to our open house and helping make my dreams come true.

Premium Drupal Themes by Adaptivethemes