Steven D. Brewer's blog
I'm getting ready for my upcoming travels. First, I travel to San Diego (for the ELNA Estrara Kunsido) and Tijuana (Landa Kongreso), then return for one day before leaving again with Daniel for our greatly anticipated trip to St. Croix. I'm sure I'll have fun, but I always hate packing and making travel arrangements. I wrote a haiku about it:
mi faras la aran?ojn...
(About to travel, I make the arrangements...already homesick)
I have also come to really hate flying. Flying has become so unpleasant as to be nearly intolerable. The huge lead time to travel, the long wait, being packed into a tiny space with dozens of other people. I hate it. I regularly ask myself why I put up with it, given how much I hate it. I begin to think I'd rather have "IT". Sigh...
This morning, Lucy and I took Penny for our regular Saturday outing downtown to visit the farmer's market and library. It's a beautiful, breezy day.
Last night, we went out to get Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows at midnight. Alisa had pre-ordered a copy for us from our local bookseller. We arrived around 11:30 and stood in line with the dozens of other people who'd come to get their copies. Once we got home, I read the book from cover to cover, finishing around 6:30am. I enjoyed it -- probably as much as I've enjoyed any of the others.
For lunch, I wanted something fresh and flavorful, so I decided to improvise some Tortilla Soup -- although without the tortillas, as I'm trying to be low-carb these days. I used a can of chicken broth, some roasted chicken, 6 tomatoes, fresh cilantro, garlic powder, a handful of jalape
I used to be a serious amateur photographer. I had an SLR and a bunch of lenses. When I had kids, I found that you only got about 18 seconds to setup and take a picture, so I quit using my SLR and we got a point-and-shoot camera. As the transition to digital happened, I kept watching and checking every year or two to see if someone would come out with a digital back that would let me use my old lenses. Finally, Pentax came through.
Yesterday I got a K100D. Boy, is it amazing! I've only begun to explore its capabilities. I've had good success using a point-and-click camera to take snapshots, but I've found it limiting when I wanted to do more serious photography. I don't think that will happen with this camera
It's going to take me a while to get the hang of using the new camera. When I did photography more seriously, I knew my camera extremely well and had a good sense for how to achieve the effects I wanted. Now, I'm going to have to start over, scrape the rust off those neurons, and figure that stuff out again.
I'm hoping this camera lasts a reasonable time. My old Pentax camera probably lasted for 10 years. I've been happy with the functionality of the Canon point-and-shoot cameras I've gotten, but disappointed that they all seemed to require service. Today I saw this article that seems to suggest that Canon thinks that *most* of their cameras would need to be returned over a three-year period for service. That seems pretty lame, to me. Cameras are complex and are out in the real world with dirt, grit, etc, but to expect *most* to require service within three years seems like an awfully short lifespan.
A couple of days ago, there were a whole bunch of Rosy Maple Moths around our porch light when I went out. I don't know what maple tree they might be visiting these days: the maple tree that used to live in our yard had to be cut down a few years ago and the one in the neighbors yard is dying -- maybe these moths are why.
My brother Phil has started making the transition to a full-time career as a writer. He wrote a posting on making a budget for a blogging site that helps people learn how to live frugally. Its a good fit for Phil to write about that stuff. He derives great pleasure from being frugal and when his current employment ends, he'll get to derive that pleasure full time.
This morning, as I had predicted, John Lombardi was officialized as the new president of LSU. Now we get to see how deep the rabbit hole is.
A few days ago, I got an announcement that the MSP was looking for stories about the need for professional development. It's been very frustrating to not have it for the past three years. The Romney administration, for the first time since I arrived at the University, refused to provide professional development as part of the collective bargaining agreement. They promised (in writing) however, to introduce a separate spending bill to make up the funds, but then reneged. Our bargaining team reportedly presented some 60 stories today about the opportunities the University is missing when professional development isn't available. Here's the story I wrote:
In the 10 years that I've been at the University, I generally presented papers at one to three conferences every year until the past contract didn't provide any professional development. Since then, I've had to be much choosier, presenting only when I received an invitation that would provide at least some of the travel or lodging expenses. I've passed up at least 5 opportunities to present over the past three years where I probably would have offered a paper if professional development funding had been available.
I would also like to respond to a comment I heard regarding concern over faculty purchases of video equipment with professional development funding being an inappropriate use of the money. I received a professional development grant from the president's office to purchase digital video equipment and gave several conference presentations about it. Here are the slides from one such presentations. Furthermore, I subsequently used the equipment for my students in the course I was teaching called "Information Technology in Biology Education" where the students would create 30 second "commercials" to illustrate biological concepts.
I also offered to send links to those -- unfortunately, they aren't collected anywhere, but they're a real scream. It was Ethel Stanley who gave me the idea of having students create videos as a form of persuasive presentation, because it was a form they were already familiar with and you could use it to talk about persuasion is important in science and what the differences are between trying to persuade a lay audience versus a scientific one. I hope we can convince them of the value of the professional development money. It really makes a huge difference.
Yesterday, the Executive Advisory Committee met to discuss the UMass governance crisis. Today, LSU will decide whether or not to accept John Lombardi as president -- it seems a forgone conclusion that they will. Once that happens, an interim chancellor will need to be appointed and it seems likely that a search committee will be formed relatively quickly to search for a permanent chancellor.
According to the chairman of the UMass board of trustees, there are currently no plans for a dramatic reorganization of the system as they had previously envisioned -- at least until after the governor's readiness project delivers their report, scheduled for May. But this doesn't mean that they won't continue to try to cherry-pick the resources of the campus.
Evidently, the plan to merge the campuses into a single large university was driven by a secret consultant's study by the Education Alliance. The board won't release the report, but the CEO of the Education Alliance was the guy who wrote Merging Colleges for Mutual Growth in 1994 and then We Were Wrong; Try Partnerships, Not Mergers. It would be interesting to see the report to get some understanding of what has been guiding the actions of the board.
I've been continuing my study of University Governance. Just before I left on vacation, I finished reading Competing Conceptions of University Governance: Negotiating the Perfect Storm. It was a fascinating and insightful read. I've got a bunch more papers to push through -- in particular, I want to look at the case studies of changes at other university systems to try to make predictions about the effect of changes here.
The best model, however, is probably to look carefully at what the plans were here when the last chancellor's search happened and take stock of what the outcomes were. Maybe we can use that to guide the search this time around. Maybe.
We returned this morning from our week-long vacation at the beach. Again, we decided to drive straight through -- it took us about 18 hours. I'm getting too old for these marathon road trips. At the same time, it makes the most sense to go through megalopolis around midnight -- it just seems dumb to spend the night at a hotel only to have to face rush hour traffic around New York. And by the time we've gotten past New York, its just a couple of hours home anyway. We took several one-hour breaks to stop for food and to walk around. Alisa drove for a few hours in the middle, but I did the lion's share of the driving -- if I'm going to have to be in the car anyway, I'd just as soon be driving. When we got home, I walked straight up to my bedroom, turned on the air conditioning, and crashed.
It was a good vacation. Vacations are really different now that the children are more self-sufficient. I spent a lot of time on the balcony overlooking the beach. We had great weather for most of the week -- the last few days were becalmed, hot and steamy, but earlier, it was perfect with strong gusty winds and mild temperatures. It was simply wonderful.
We did all the usual beach stuff: we hung out in the waves and the pool. Some of us got sun burned (not me, though). We went to Fort Macon and the Sanitary Fish Market. We watched Ratatouille during the hottest afternoon. Charlie and I spent too much time working on Muppyville. Charlie has a lot of good ideas for extending it and is on his way to becoming a competent programmer.
Alisa and Charlie got caught in a rip current late one afternoon. Charlie, a very strong swimmer, was able to get back and got two men to swim out and help Alisa get back in. Thank goodness she made it back OK. The ocean is pitiless.
During my absence, I learned that Lombardi has secured a new position as the president of the Louisiana State University system. Some are claiming that the recent events here were orchestrated, by him or others, to bolster his case. Having seen the efforts made to ease an incompetent principal out (and up), you can't completely discount statements like that, but it doesn't seem likely to me.
In the past four or five years, I've come to appreciate the attraction of moving on to someplace new. When I arrived here, I had a wonderful experience making a difference in a thousand ways that no-one had realized would even be possible. Eventually, though, I've found that I fetch up against insurmountable problems trying to extend beyond a certain point: personalities, limited resources, and other obstacles, preclude going any further. I understand the attraction of going somewhere else and having that heady rush of being able to "make a difference". At the same time, I understand that I'm actually still making a huge difference where I am. I think it's an illusion that progress seems slower now, because it doesn't account for how much backsliding would happen if I left. I think it's a mistake that our society has people in such flux -- relatively few people have the luxury of staying in one place over an entire career. I think it reduces people's ability to participate in local government and to act as an engaged citizen when you don't stay in one place long enough to put down roots. Still, I understand the attraction...
On our trip south, we stopped yesterday at the Fredricksburg Battlefields. The visitor's center is right by the sunken road at the base of Marye's Heights. We went on a short guided tour where the ranger brought the park alive for us, explaining something about why this place became so important. Unfortunately, the open fields where the union soldiers fell is now covered with houses and buildings -- only a narrow space near the sunken road is still open. We only had enough time to visit one small part of the battlefield -- it extends over 6 or 7 miles. It would be fun to go back with bicycles and ride from one place to another -- you could make a nice day out of visiting Chancellorsville and the Wilderness as well. Maybe another year.
This evening, Lucy was invited to a reception with wine and appetizers. She invited me to go along, so we had lots of tasty treats and wine. The reception was for people with investments through the local credit union. Weird.
Earlier today, the Executive Advisory Council met to discuss UMass reorganization issues. It turns out that there is a group of trustees that is absolutely committed to the idea of having UMass participate in Division 1A football. There have been two task forces -- the last less than 5 years ago -- that have made it very clear how unrealistic this is for UMass. But that doesn't appear to matter. The quote of the day: "They are on a mission to have 1A football -- over our dead bodies."
This whole week before our beach vacation is really weird. On Monday, the boys flew down to North Carolina on their own. They're having fun with the grandparents and we're having this odd, detached experience in our quiet empty house. Very unreal.
But I'm staying in touch with the boys because we've set up a new Muppyville MOO. Charlie and one of his cousins have been logging in and working on elaborating the new MOO. Their goal is to create an environment for Daniel's 4th grade class to explore in the fall. We've already got his teacher on board, so I think it will be a great thing.
I've set up moos about 4 times now. The first time was when Charlie himself was in 4th grade. I thought it would be a good way for the kids to learn about electronic chat in a relatively safe environment -- without any on-line predators. As it turned out, one of the kids became an on-line predator -- at least, he tried to use the environment as a way to exert power over others -- and eventually, I had to "newt" him. (If you "toad" someone, it's permanent, but if you "newt" someone, they can "get better".) I told him that if he wanted to visit Muppyville again, he'd have to ask his parents to speak with me. It took him more than a year to work up the courage to have his parents contact me.
Eventually, that muppyville quit working -- it got corrupted or something. So I set up a new one and told the three kids who were interested that they could try being the wizard this time -- I made 3 of them wizards. The system lasted less than one day before they destructively tested it into unresponsiveness. We tried again and it lasted a couple of days. So, we reverted to the original model, with only me being wizard. That one lasted a while, but eventually the kids got bored with it and it went down and I didn't bother to bring it back up.
But now Daniel's going into 4th grade. And Charlie wants him to have the Muppyville experience. So he's going to be the wizard this time. I've providing the technical support, but I'm mostly letting him run the show.
Everytime, I gear up, I go out and look to see what's new. I was pleased to discover Atlantis -- a new MOO client. It's really nice -- I particularly like the alert system and Growl notification stuff. I found a minor problem with how it interacted with the MCP (local editing) stuff in MOO, so I contacted the author, who volunteered to log into the MOO and check to see if she could replicate the problem. She found it and fixed it in nothing flat. Awesome!
Everytime, I wonder a bit if the lambdamoo software is just too old -- the MUSH and MUX stuff is still being actively hacked on. But I like the fact that the MOO system is relatively simple and doesn't include the money and killing commands. I think it would be a lot harder to get the school to take it seriously if students were "killing" one another.
It's hot here and thunderstorms rolled through this afternoon. I don't think it ever did more than sprinkle right here, but the storms were all around us. Around 7:30, there were nearly constant flashes of lighting to the east. I sat out with Penny in the tent, had a cold drink, and watched the fireworks. Fireworks, of course, are really something different.
Massachusetts is one of a handful of states where fireworks -- all kinds -- are illegal. On the news, they showed a demonstration somewhere of how dangerous fireworks are. They blew up mannequins and set some on fire to illustrate what happens if the fireworks misfire. They also had a father who lost a son to a rocket that fell over and hit the little boy in the head. As a kid I always loved fireworks and I think its ludicrous to make them all illegal. My favorite, as a kid, were the ones my grandparents gave me in Illinois called "crickets". They would jump around popping and giving off smoke, littering the sidewalk with bits of newspapers covered with Chinese writing.
Daniel didn't like fireworks as a small kid. When we go to North Carolina, people shoot off all kinds of fireworks from the beach of the barrier island. Daniel was unhappy one time that someone shot one off without enough warning. Alisa told him it was mean of someone to do that, but afterwards Daniel would just "Fireworks mean!" And fireworks are mean.
I began by making the analogy to lightning seeming like fireworks, but in our society fireworks represent military bombardment. When I see fireworks now, I tend to think of the children in Israel and Gaza -- and Iraq -- who are killed when rockets scream in and explode in their living rooms. It has rather taken the fun out of fireworks for me.
Still, I'm reminded of the child who's mother wouldn't let him play a game where he was pretending a stick was a gun. "Don't you know that guns kill people?" she asked. "But, Mom," he said. "This is make believe. Don't you know the difference between real and make believe?" I think that as you get older, it gets harder and harder to tell.
Daniel's birthday isn't until the week after next, but tomorrow he and Charlie are going to travel to spend a week with grandparents before joining us at the beach in North Carolina for our annual family reunion. He had asked for a digital camera this year, so yesterday Lucy and I went to the store to pick one out for him, so he could have it to take with him for his big adventure. He was very happy and so we took a walk down to the field so he could try it out.
I picked out a Fuji camera that was at the low end. I've been happy with my Canon camera -- when they work. But of the three I've gotten in the past three years, all of them have required service. That's simply unacceptable. It was a close choice between this camera and a similar Nikon -- the Nikon camera probably was slightly better, but I wanted a camera that used SD media and used a standard USB cable. It really infuriates me to have the camera manufacturers all using different cables and I'm happy to punish them for not standardizing on one.
I made a point of enjoying my last day of vacation before going back to work tomorrow. We went out to see the new Nancy Drew movie. It was OK, but was a kind of younger and lamer "Legally Blonde" -- not really worth a trip to the theater, in my opinion. But I spent a fair amount of the day reading.
I found an excellent book the describes the challenges of university governance. There are four or five constituencies that university government needs to satisfy: the public, the government, business, and the faculty both from an academic and from a union standpoint. Each has a different take on what higher education is supposed to be and has competing interests on how it should be organized. The book has chapters written by different authors that each have a slightly different take on current trends and how higher education should best be organized: there are a lot of differences, but some common themes. I haven't quite finished the book yet, but so far I'm left with one question. Several of the authors cite the need for the organization to be more agile in order to react more quickly to opportunities or changing circumstances and use this as an argument for a less democratic approach to executive decision-making. But I haven't seen any evidence that less democratic systems actually are more agile or that increased "agility" produces any tangible results in the long term.
Taking a vacation is always good for bringing up one's enthusiasm. We said our goodbyes to the relatives yesterday and today has been a return to our usual Saturday schedule. Lucy and I took Penny to the farmer's market and then to the library. Afterwards, we went to the store to shop for a birthday present for Daniel and to post some birthday presents to Phil and Richard that were too large to carry back -- or uncomfortable to explain for air travel. One such gift was a flask and a hollowed-out book to conceal it in. It might have made for some difficult questions at the airport.
This afternoon, we've been invited to a garden party. I believe the attendees will primarily be Alisa's local political community. I suggested to Alisa that maybe sometime we could have a "weeds and sticks" party at our house.
It's a good thing my enthusiasm is up. It's going to be a busy week back at work before I leave for our annual trip to the beach. We got a new super high-res scanner that it will be fun to set up. But I need to focus most of my time on getting course resources ready for people.
Today is my last day of vacation. There is still the weekend, of course, but that doesn't really count. We will spend the day with the relatives and say our goodbyes -- they head off tomorrow morning. We plan to hang out this morning and then visit the Armory followed by an early dinner at the Student Prince.
The Student Prince is one my favorite restaurants. Not only is the food excellent, but the atmosphere and service are both superlative. It makes a real difference to have a professional waitstaff, rather than college students. I always get the saurbraten with red cabbage and spatzle. My mouth is watering already.
On the way down to Springfield, I plan for us to drive by some relics of the cold war: the SAC bunker in the Holyoke Range and Stony Brook, where the nukes for Westover were stored in the 50s and 60s. I had heard about this stuff before, but Google Earth has made it easy to find these places. I don't know how much will be visible from the ground. But its a beautiful day for a drive: cool, clear, and delicious.
Today, I attended the UMass Board of Trustees meeting and the following General Faculty meeting. There have been substantial positive developments, but it was also made clear how far we have to go. The most exciting moment was when Trustee Boyle broke the otherwise seamless edifice of the trustees to confirm the concerns that have been raised about the lack of open debate within the board. The most embarrassing moment was to see one of the trustees lack of grasp regarding the nature of higher education. I had heard rumors before, but it was interesting to see it on display.
The General Faculty meeting that followed was uneventful. The biggest issue was that a few people have been unhappy that the executive advisory committee that has been setting the agenda hasn't been willing to add motions that some people would like to see -- in particular with respect to particular personalities. I spoke briefly to remind people of the challenges in maintaining such a large coalition of faculty organizations and commended Max and Ernie for finding a common agenda that all the groups could support.
Yesterday, we visited the Peace Pagoda. I probably haven't been there for a couple of years. The trees are taller (it used to be possible to look out and see UMass), there are more benches by the pond, and the old foundations of the building that burned down have been converted to a rock garden, but the place is otherwise untouched by the span of years. The boys enjoyed looking for frogs and tadpoles -- there were several different kinds of tadpoles. Charlie spotted some newts in the pond as well. Jackie and I wore our malas and I brought my staff. The weather was beautiful.
In the morning, I attended a meeting to set the agenda for the continued general faculty meeting on Thursday. Last night, there was encouraging news that UMass will be considered by the Governor's task force on education. Tomorrow morning is the Board of Trustees meeting followed by our press conference and then the general faculty meeting. They had just announced their own commission, but we'll see whether they try to follow through with it tomorrow. We need to keep the pressure on. My contribution was a call for an ad hoc committee on university system governance that can begin doing the research we'll need to have in place to understand what a reorganization might result in and to monitor whatever commission -- or commissions -- are driving a reorganization.
Phil and Richard (and Jackie and Katy) arrived yesterday afternoon. We spent the afternoon chatting and then visited the Taste of Amherst. It was raining, which seemed to push attendance at the Taste way down, but was convenient for us, not having to wait in line. We plan to go back to the Taste for lunch today.
We have a series of adventures loosely planned over the next several days. Phil and Jackie want to visit the Peace Pagoda. Phil is going to try to meet up with a writer he met at Clarion who lives in Northampton. We'll probably have to stop at the Fiber Arts center at some point. It should be a fun visit.