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Poem Windows

With all my "free time" this summer, I decided to write and shop around a proposal for a Makers at Amherst Media project to refresh the infrastructure of the Poem Windows in Amherst. I've been working with Rene Theberge and the the Amherst Public Art Commission to craft a plan and find the necessary funding.

Poem Windows

Created in 2002 by a Japanese artist, the project was abandoned after the original technology failed. Evidently, it never worked particularly well, especially in cold weather and, after a few years, quit altogether. But it was an idea that resonated with me.

Poem Windows Dedication

A few years later, Amherst Coming Together tried a second attempt that used iPads, but it was not a good technology decision and mostly seemed to display error messages about installing updates.

Poem Window

I propose to replace the equipment using inexpensive Raspberry Pi computers and small displays that simply show a URL in a full-screen browser window. This is all the system actually does: When the computer starts, it consults a file on the network that determines which URL to show: the page displayed at the URL is responsible for showing the necessary content. The browser also uses a plugin that will retry periodically in case there is a transient problem with network connectivity. In addition, the system checks the operating system for integrity and pushes updates out to the computer every morning, which is important for security. This design is based on the system for providing Inexpensive Digital Signage that I developed for the College of Natural Science at UMass. We support around a dozen signs and also use a variant of the same system (combined with a script mostly developed by BMB) to monitor -80 freezers. It should work fine in this context.

I also had an idea that might provide some level of on-going support for the poem windows installation: invite organizations, businesses, and individuals to purchase their own "poem window" the price of which could be set sufficiently high to subsidize the permanent installation. It would basically use the same components, plus a low-cost acrylic frame, to enable it to sit on a counter or table. If there were more poem windows where people could see them, it could also increase the incentive for people to contribute poetry and images for the displays. It could also help keep the Makers busy, if they agreed to take up the support effort.

The proposal does not address how to collect and present the content for the new displays. That will need to be a separate effort that will technically require a website with a page to accept submissions and a presentation page that, when run full-screen, will be the display that is viewed by the poetry windows. But it will also require a committee of people to establish criteria for submissions, run a campaign to solicit submissions, and a process for judging submissions and approving some for display. I hope to also have time to contribute to and help shape that effort. But one step at a time.

Perfect Father's Day

I had a wonderful Father's Day today doing precisely what I wanted to all day. Everyone was thoughtful and supportive. It was great.

I had a typical Sunday morning breakfast with Lucy, chatting on-line with Phil and doing the Jumble together. I outlined three goals for the day: visiting the Pollinator Garden (which Philip wittily referred to as the "Pollinatarium"); playing some StarCraft; and walking somewhere to play Ingress. After the Jumble, I asked Phil if he wanted to play SC, but he demurred, saying he had other plans in the morning. So Lucy and I headed to the Pollinator Garden.

The Pollinator Garden is relatively new: they only installed it last year. I see it whenever I drive to Northampton, but it's not on my usual path to UMass, so I haven't visited it very often. Lucy, however, walks that way frequently and has enjoyed it a great deal. Yesterday, she noticed some stinkhorns and recommended I come look at them. They were a bit past their prime, but I was pleased to see them and wrote a haiku for the occasion.

I checked in with Phil after the walk, but he was still occupied so I fixed myself a quick salad for lunch and headed off for phase two: Ingressing. I have been low on "gear"—resonators, mostly—so I decided to head to Northampton where there are a lot of blue portals relatively close together. I invited Alisa to come with me, but she wanted to visit the Taste one last time.

I parked across from the Roost and visited the antique store for a moment. We've bought some things there before, but it's always fun to look over the weird old stuff. There wasn't anything I needed to buy, so I walked toward town. I stopped along the way to place or replace resonators and to hack and link portals.

I stopped at Don Mueller Galleries which is usually out of my price range and cooled off in the air conditioning for a moment. They have interesting artwork—many glass items—and jewelry. There were some framed miniature dioramas that caught my eye and then I saw a necklace that was interesting. It was just a row of small stones, but rough and greenish, captured in gold wire. I asked to have the young woman get it out and I looked at it more closely. It was expensive, but not ruinously so. I thought for a bit. I explained to her that my wife's tastes tend to be diametrically opposed to mine: if I love something, that usually means she'll hate it. But I thought she might like this. And, I continued, it was Father's Day! I could get it for her and it would be her present to me to wear it! She smiled and said that it sounded like a clever idea. "Perhaps too clever," I sighed. I decided to walk on for a bit and think about it.

I went on, stopping at an art supply store to look for little booklets that I want to give students while teaching haiku. And I walked through the stationery store. And then I sat down in Thornes to cool off for a while in the air conditioning, as I was drenched in sweat by this time. It was not particularly hot, but very very humid.

On my way back, when I reached Don Mueller Galleries, I realized I still hadn't decided what to do about the necklace. I leaned up against a tree and thought about it a bit more. But then I decided to get it. We don't generally do presents so giving something on Father's Day seemed perfect. The young lady put it into a box for me and wrapped it up with a fancy ribbon. There was a nice bounce in my step all the way back the car.

When I got home, Phil was still out, but headed home. I called my dad to wish him a happy father's day. I had spoken with him for his birthday the day before—and had wished him an early happy father's day then too—but it was nice to catch up on the day. Once Phil returned we logged into StarCraft Broodwar and played a couple of games. I paused only for a moment when Alisa and Daniel came home so I could give her the necklace. It was fun to watch her open it and see her reaction—which was better than I might have expected. She promptly posted a picture in Facebook with a thoughtful message so I could get all the brownie points of her friends appreciating it online. But her post is private, so I can't share it here.

After StarCraft, I decided to make some curry. I sauteed an onion, cut up some potatoes, carrots, and added some diced tomatoes. Once they were cooked, I threw in some cauliflower and then added hot curry paste. A nice vegan curry that's good with fresh cilantro and brown rice. I also opened a jar of Amba Haldar I've had for a while. Salty.

Alisa had taken Daniel to work and then was out for a bit, so I had dinner with Lucy. When I heard the door open, I welcomed Alisa home. She said, "Don't you ever answer your phone?" I looked and saw that Charlie had called! But then Charlie was there! He had a day off! We hadn't heard from him since he headed to camp, so it was nice to catch up with him and to get to see both my boys on Father's Day. It was a perfect day.

Thanks to everyone who made my day so special!

Blocked Again

I got blocked again on twitter. And, like last time, it was about ladies and their makeup. Someone on twitter posted this meme:

I can see how someone might think that was funny. I guess. But I decided to turn it around.

Before I posted it, I showed it to my wife who grimaced and said, "Not funny". And I showed it to my kids who said, "Blocked!" But the next morning, after sleeping on it, I decided to post it anyway.

Blocked.

But I actually only saw it by virtue of someone relatively well-known who had retweeted it. And she didn't block me. At least not yet.

Busy spring turns to busy summer

Last fall, I proposed to the teaching committee that I would develop an online version of the writing class I teach, as I was aware there were students who would appreciate being able to take the class off-cycle. The department offers four or five sections of the course each semester, but it can still be hard for students to schedule the class, especially if they want to take a semester abroad. I had some reservations—and some in the department were also skeptical—because the University offers a financial incentive for Departments to increase teaching via Continuing and Professional Education (CPE). Students pay for CPE teaching separately—it's not part of their regular tuition—and some departments have been unable to meet students' needs through their "regular" teaching, forcing students to either take classes in the summer or delay graduation. Upon reflection, the teaching committee decided to support my proposal and it moved forward.

It turned out the CPE was also offering small grants to support the transition of classes from face-to-face to on-line instruction. I applied for and was award one of these grants that also required me to participate in an on-line training program for Blackboard. Unfortunately, the awareness of the grant program and my receipt of the award happened so late that I had already made commitments that I knew would interfere with some of the deadlines. And it wasn't clear to me that the "training" would be of any particular help anyway: I've developed on-line classes before and have used Blackboard before. But I figured it might be a useful refresher and the money was not insignificant, so I did it.

I had forgotten how terrible Blackboard is. I mean, I knew, but it's really awful. The interface is horrible. It's clunky and unattractive and inflexible. I remember the first time I used it—we were the first cohort to adopt it—and I reported back to my colleagues how awful it was, they thought I was exaggerating. But when they all had to use it the following semester, they hated it even worse than we had. My strong background in web authoring and technology made it easier for me than for my colleagues. The campus switched to Moodle not long after that and, in spite of an assault on Moodle mounted by a dean, we managed to fight it off for the campus. But CPE remains in the clutches of Blackboard. And it's just as bad as it used to be. Perhaps worse. They have this clunky "portal" bolted on the front now, that you have to interact with if you want to use an avatar and not appear just as a missing-person's placeholder. They want you to to give them information about yourself and populate it with "tiles" that are sort-of like badges. Except no-one does so its rather like a ghost town. And the tiles they have are extremely limited. I pointed out that their "languages" tile didn't list Esperanto which made it unusable for me. The CPE folks submitted a request for me, but Blackboard said they weren't going to add it. But I was impressed they bothered to make the request.

As the semester progressed, I got farther and farther behind. My blog ends near the end of Spring Break when I co-organized NERDSummit. It was great fun and important work, but I did it at the expense of completing the Blackboard training. Then I got talked into going to Libreplanet, which was fantastic, but put me farther behind. Finally, they told me to finish it by a date certain or I would lose the funding. They might have cut me off anyway, but the class had been listed and was filling up, so they really didn't want to do that. I took a weekend and powered through the training. It was awful.

I mean, it was worse than awful. It was filled with textbook-perfect examples of how not to teach. I felt like someone had put a ring in my nose and was dragging my face around on a book and calling it "teaching". They would have videos of powerpoint lectures that you were forced to leave running on your computer to get "credit". The assessment was a quiz you could take as many times as you like where I knew 85% of the answers before beginning the unit. And where many of the questions turned on trivia: Is the menu entry you click on called "Item" or "Object"? About the only unit where you did something that was related to "teaching" was a tool they had licensed called "voicethread". In their course, they had a typo and called it "voicethreat" which was hysterical because the tool requires you to install Flash. I indicated to them that I had quit installing Flash on any of my computers several years ago and believe it a disservice to encourage students to engage in an unsafe behavior to complete a course. Eventually, I received a dispensation that even if I didn't complete the activity, I could still be considered to have "completed" the training. So I skipped it.

I was starting to get caught up toward the end of the semester, when I came down with a spring cold which put me behind again. They threatened again to cancel my class if I didn't get the materials posted. I had gotten them roughed out, but had been reluctant to actually post them because they are all so inter-dependent that I would make a revision in one and then need to go revise three other documents. But I went ahead finally and posted everything.

I've basically created the course in Libreoffice documents, saved as PDF files, and am only using Blackboard in the most minimal way possible. The goal is to be as platform independent as possible so I can switch to something else—anything else—when feasible.

But this weekend, I've finally had a moment to take a deep breath. On Friday, my chair reviewed the course with me. And today CPE is reviewing the course. When they share their review with me, I'll have about three weeks to make revision before the course materials are visible to the students.

It's going to be interesting to see how the course works as an online class. The timeline is extremely short—only 6 weeks—for what is supposed to be 3-credit class. I'm not convinced students can make themselves write that much. But we'll see. The class is full and has a long waiting list. I set the limit at 15, but I'm still concerned about the amount of time that will required to provide feedback to the students. Two of the weeks, I'll be in St. Croix however, which will make for pleasant surroundings while I teach anyway.

Summer is finally here!

RMS at NERDSummit

A couple of weeks ago I noticed that Richard Stallman was listed as a presenter at NERDSummit. He was down for co-presenting with Micky Metts about "The Javascript Trap". But there wasn't any special announcement or fanfare so I wasn't really sure he was coming until I double-checked. But he was!

Richard Stallman has always been a kind of hero to me. I became aware of GNU when I started learning Unix in the 80s. I've written about Stallman and Free Software before -- and about him trying to explain free software to a dunce. But I'd never had the chance to meet him.

While he was getting set up, I got called away to provide technical support for someone in one of the other rooms, so I missed the beginning of the talk. But the majority of the talk was familiar to me anyway. He explained the four freedoms that he believes should be provided to everyone who uses software and the various ways in which corporations and unscrupulous people have sough to enrich themselves by undermining those freedoms. And that rather than referring just to "linux" one should always say "gnu/linux" to acknowledge that most of the operating system is actually all the GNU software that he's devoted his life to seeing created as free software. He did talk about LibreJS and The Javascript Trap.

Several people were desperate to ask questions. But it turned out that what they really wanted to do was to try to provoke him by mischaracterizing what he was saying. He, for the most part patiently, explained how they were putting words his mouth and corrected them when their arguments went off the rails. One guy said, "I can't survive without using non-free software" and Stallman explained, "No. You just can't enjoy the same standard of living — that's not the same as dying." Another guy tried to argue with him about "intellectual property" and Stallman stopped him to point out that there is no such thing: that the law offers four different kinds of protection for copyright, patent, trade secret, and trademark. Each is totally separate with different purposes and governed by different policies. Conflating them makes it seem like they are unitary and governed by a single purpose or common set of principles, which just leads to confusion.

At the very end, he auctioned off a little stuffed gnu, which he said he would sign, with proceeds going to the Free Software Foundation. He said that you needed to have a stuffed gnu to go next to your stuffed penguin. Since I had put my stuffed penguin into the Living Museum of Dead Computers, I decided to bid in the auction and basically determined to win it no matter how high it went. Bidding started at $25 and went to $65. But I won.

After the after party, I stopped by the office to put the gnu into the display case. Note his signature on the little paper tag.

Totally worth it.

Death visits Amherst

Yesterday, I spoke briefly at the funeral for Tom Lindeman. I knew Tom through the Faculty Senate at UMass Amherst. I met him 1997 or 1998, when I attended the Senate for the first time. The Faculty Senate is a highly polarized body where the faculty on sit on one side and the administration on the other. I inadvertently sat on the wrong side, and I think it was Tom who recognized a newcomer and came over to tell me that I might be more comfortable sitting on the other side. At that time, Tom had no official role at the Faculty Senate. He came every month because it was a way to stay in touch with the University community and to learn about the intentions of the administration. Tom took an interest in me and we shared lunch together a time or two to talk about our paths through life. Tom had served in the United Christian Foundation at UMass in the late 60's and early 70's, during the upheaval of the Vietnam War. I like this picture of him from 1974. We all should hope to have looked so cool in our 40's. He told me that parents supported the foundation because they were concerned about their children's moral direction but that the ministry felt compelled to line up with the students in activism against the war, which disillusioned the parents — and jeopardized their funding. He had left the area afterward and returned only after retirement. But he maintained his connection through the Faculty Senate. In 2014, thanks to Dick Bogartz, the Rules Committee (of which I was proud to be a member at the time) nominated Tom to be an honorary member of the Faculty Senate, to recognize his service and give him the right to speak. I believe that Tom was genuinely moved by the recognition and appreciated it very much. Tom did not speak often, but he did occasionally rise to remind the Senate not to get caught up only in the polemics of the moment, but to remember our grounding principles and all of our stakeholders, especially those who might be disenfranchised or unable to participate in our proceedings. He served as our conscience and many of us will feel his loss. As I was leaving, someone came up to me — I think one of the family — to thank me for my remarks and to comment that Tom had told everyone how much being made an honorary senator had meant to him and to thank all of us for our actions.

This is after Thursday, when I attended the calling hours for Larry Kelley, a local blogger and community activist who was killed in a car accident. Larry attended many town meetings and wrote posts about many town events. His coverage was both news and editorial in varying measures but, with the decline in local journalism, often the best coverage available. And always interesting. One of his abiding passions was to have the town make shows of patriotism, through parades and displaying US flags. A controversy that went on for years was Larry wanting the Town to display the flags for the annual remembrance of 9/11. Last year, Alisa persuaded the Select Board to make it happen. After Alisa learned that Larry had passed away, she requested the Town fly the flags in honor of Larry for his wake and funeral. Many, many people appreciated the gesture. And I'm sure Larry would have been tickled, if he could have known.

It's always a bit jarring for me to attend religious services. It's not a habit of thought with which I am familiar. However, I always appreciated the personification of Death in the Terry Pratchett novels.

DON'T THINK OF IT AS DYING, said Death. JUST THINK OF IT AS LEAVING EARLY TO AVOID THE RUSH.

Now there's a sentiment I think I can agree with.

Delegitimizing science

Recently the President of the United States accused the main stream media of being "enemies of the American People". In response, journalists have engaged in a certain amount of hand-wringing about being delegitimized.

Science has been confronting this issue for a generation. And the media has not always been an ally.

Journalism, in the US, is largely a business. And businesses have to make money. For them, there's been more money to be made in controversy than in just covering the facts. But now the shoe's on the other foot.

Educators and scientists have been demonized as the enemy by the right wing for a long time. Now, perhaps, journalists will recognize that everyone with a commitment to the truth needs to come together and stand up for honest dialog. There is room for differences of opinion in honest dialog. And for differences in goals and values. There is no room for people who lie, who intentionally seek to deceive their interlocutor, or reject the possibility of agreeing on a shared body of facts to support their argument. Dialog is not possible with such people and they must be resisted to the utmost.

This is not to say that science is truth. Or that data can't be misleading or incomplete. But for many years the Republicans have been seeking to undermine the foundation of the enlightenment: that reasoned dialog and inquiry can take us toward the truth. The alternative is fascism, a "cultural revolution", and a plunge into the dark ages. Resist!

Limits of persuasion

Recently, on Facebook, I was forced to acknowledge that a "friend" — a former roommate from college — was trolling me. He would pretend to engage with me, like he was interested in having an actual discussion when, in fact, he was simply posting false, inflammatory articles just to see if he could get me to waste my time responding to them. I say that because it requires little effort to investigate the reputation of the authors or the sites distributing the posts to determine that they are, in fact, specious. And he's a lawyer and clearly capable of performing the necessary due diligence.

Another so-called "friend" rejects science and shares pseudoscientific racist posts from neo-nazi websites, but in his case, he may simply be too limited to understand what he's looking at.

But I'm left with a quandary. Many people I know simply block or unfriend people like this. I haven't wanted to do this because like Steve Randy Waldman, I genuinely believe in persuasion: The greatest mistake we can make, in my view, is to not try to persuade.

Persuasion is not about elegant logic or Oxford-style debates. It is about interacting, with good will and in good faith, with people who look at things differently, and working to understand how they see things so that you can help them understand how you see things. Persuasion involves a meeting of minds, and very frequently alterations of circumstance and behavior by all involved.

Then today, I saw Quinta Jurecic's Bannon in Washington: A Report on the Incompetence of Evil:

Trolling reflects a profound lack of sincerity, even a hostility to sincerity. It allows the speaker to make an offensive declaration and then insist that his or her (usually his) statement was just intended to make you mad—that you’re the real fool for taking this seriously. The speaker gets to say the thing and also gets to deny responsibility for it. The troll believes that people who care about things are chumps and that the only wise way to go through the world is with a level of ironic detachment that borders on nihilism. Trolling isn’t just about being offensive. It’s about being gleefully offensive.

And that sounds exactly like what I'm seeing.

Persuasion requires good will and good faith on both sides. Don't feed the trolls.

Risks

Many years ago, I subscribed to an early internet group called comp.risks. It was a group of smart people who were always thinking about subtle risks of technology. I learned a lot reading posts in the group, especially about how poor humans are at assessing risks. A classic example was people trying to make infants safer on planes by requiring infant seats. The upshot was that you could make infants safer that way — in the extremely unlikely event of a plane crash — but requiring people to purchase a plane ticket for an infant would result in many more people traveling by car, which is much less safe that air travel, which meant that infants were at a substantially greater actual risk.

Recently, the Trump administration, decided to ban Muslim refugees claiming that they posed an increased risk to Americans for terrorist attacks. Congressman Lieu from California pointed out that your chances of being killed by a refugee committing a terrorist act is 1 in 3.6 billion. Politifact finds that statement mostly true and points out other unlikely events (like being struck by lightning twice) as being significant *more* likely than this.

Unfortunately, the media doesn't get it and I've hear journalists asking what could be done to reduce the risk of terrorist attack. This is the wrong question. What they should be asking is "what are the actual risks that people face and how can we reduce those?" The actual risks that Americans face are mostly due to disease and accidents. We could reduce risks of disease by ensuring that everyone had good health care. And we could reduce a lot of accidents by having better gun control. Those are obvious things that could reduce premature deaths by thousands every year.

But what if we *really* want to reduce those 1 in 3.6 billion odds… How about these:

  • When you walk by someone smoking on the sidewalk, walk one extra foot away.
  • Wash your hands for one extra second once a day.
  • Wear a bicycle helmet while driving your car.

These probably still make you safer than Donald Trump's muslim ban, but at least we're getting close in terms of absolute reduction in risk. But unfortunately these all fail the key test that Republicans want, which is to demonize and punish The Other.

Blog Updated

I first started blogging using a wiki and, after two or three years, switched to Drupal. Since then, Drupal has gone through several major version changes, each requiring a more or less painful transition. I had been holding off waiting to see if I should switch from Drupal 6 straight to Drupal 8. Eventually, I decided that D8 isn't ready for me to use. And I migrated to Drupal 7.

It took a few tries to get this far. I was able to get the content (mostly), although I discovered that the migration tool had renumbered all of my nodes, which is what I had been using for "permalinks". It seemed stupid to lose all my permalinks, so I spent another 5 hours or so figuring how out to make that work. In the process, at one point, I accidentally trashed the database of my Drupal 6 system, so it required another hour to reconstruct the site from backups. But eventually, I have a new site, with a responsive theme, with most of my previous data. There are still some things left to sort out, but whatever: it's enough for moving forward with, so I've switched the new site to be my live site. Yay.

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