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Steven D. Brewer's blog

Shiny Floors

May 12, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

Last night, the janitorial staff came in to strip and wax the floors in my office and in the BCRC. This morning, the room smells like floor cleaner and the floors are all shiny. It was a huge amount of work yesterday to get objects up off the floor and today there will be an equivalent amount of work today to get things put aright. I really like having a clean floor, though.

There is only one class meeting left in the semester. The students are pushing their way toward having final projects finished. The first of the data has been posted in the repository, but there are still groups in a whole variety of intermediate states. I feel for them trying to pull it all together at the end. One student was frustrated by how tedious the data analysis was. Good science almost always involves a lot of tedious work.

Last night, Alisa and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary. We went to Chez Albert in Amherst and had dinner together. The food was wonderful and I was pleased to see they had my favorite beer, the De Ranke XX Bitter. After dinner, we walked to the common and watched them setting up the carnival rides.

Tomorrow, I head to Boston for the Annual Meeting of the Mass Teachers Association (MTA). I've gone three or four times before. Each year, we've sent a larger and larger contingent from UMass. I am convinced that we derive real value because MTA has real influence in the legislature. This year, there was a proposal to raise our health-insurance premiums that was removed from the budget after substantial pressure. MTA has been particularly good at these kinds of defensive actions. But Higher Ed is just a tiny sliver of the organization that is dominated by rank-and-file public school teachers. By sending a full contingent and being active in the organization, we increase our visibility and keep our issues on the agenda.


May 8, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

Tri formoj de likenojIt's been fun to get my camera out and take pictures. I have a hard time getting excited about doing photography in the winter. I love the spring, though. The picture to the left was taken just outside the door: our azalea is covered with lichens. In this one picture you can see crustose, foliose, and fruticose lichens. Lichens are cool.

I rode my bike to Mt. Pollux yesterday. I had read that some students were going to meet there to collect data. Unfortunately, I missed them -- maybe their plans changed. They hadn't asked me to come, anyway -- I just was looking for a good bike ride. It was perfect: about 12 miles over rolling terrain. I didn't go very fast, but I made it there and back. It was beautiful weather: warm sun with a cool breeze.

Mt. Pollux was an apple orchard. On the top of the hill are a couple of old maple trees with some benches underneath. There are glorious views of the Holyoke Range and you can see the steeple at Amherst College poking up through the trees. I think you'd be able to see UMass as well, but someone has thoughtfully planted some evergreens in that direction.

It was about a perfect ride. It's uphill all the way to downtown, and then all downhill along the bike trail to West Street. There was a tough (for me) climb up west street and then gently rolling to Mt. Pollux. The ride back was gentle at first, then the long climb up the bike trail, and then downhill through town and campus.

Data Collection Progresses

May 5, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

LikenojI went with another group of students on Saturday to collect data. I took some pictures, in addition to the research images. It sounds like another group is going out this afternoon, so I'm planning to ride my bike to meet them.

One of the things I love about doing research is how I start looking at one thing, I notice more stuff about everything. Without projects, I have a tendency to blunder around without noticing what's happening around me. When I get started on a project like this, I'm reminded of how much I've forgotten in terms of tree and plant identification. I don't know the first thing about identifying lichens.

That's actually not quite true. I do remember the first thing: the three basic forms of lichens: crustose, foliose, and fruticose. In searching around for ways to identify lichens, I found The Macrolichens of New England (Memoirs of The New York Botanical Garden, Volume 96) . It sounded perfect, so I bought it instantly. I don't know if it will arrive in time to help us with our projects, but hopefully, we can turn around and do lichens again another semester.

Semester reaches its climax

May 4, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

Over this week and next, the semester reaches its climax. On Monday, I tried to get my students organized for collecting data, but we didn't really get everything set until Wednesday. Last night, I went with one group to collect data at the East Amherst Common. I'll go with another group tomorrow. The other groups haven't contacted me -- I suspect that means they'd just as soon not have me go with them. The goal is to have the data collected by Monday, which will give us a full week to analyze the data and write the final reports. It would have been good to have another week, but I'm really excited by the data we're collecting.

This semester, the students chose to look at lichens on trees. I love lichens -- I've always thought they were really cool. We're collecting imagery of lichens on trees on town property in Amherst. This is a critical year to collect the imagery, because the coal-fired cogeneration plant on campus is shutting down this year, being replaced by a new oil and gas fired plant. The imagery we collect now can serve as a baseline for studying the changes in air quality associated with the new plant. And we're looking at a bunch of other factors: distance and orientation of roads, traffic, north-south orientation, species, and distance to other trees. There is real potential here for publishable work.

We had a great party in the department to celebrate Zane receiving the Distinguished Teaching Award. The chairman said a few words and then Randy and I each spoke a bit. It was such a treat to see Zane surrounded by her colleagues and students. And friends -- friends all. I sometimes get frustrated by the University and the senseless way they approach things and then I remember who I get to work with. Zane and Randy and Elizabeth... And George and Chris and Robbie... And Tom and Tom and Sally and Brian and Elsbeth... And everyone. Well, not quite everyone. But I really love my job. What wonderful people and what a great place I have to work.

Band Concert

May 3, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

Today, Alisa, the boys and I attended a band concert by the Minuteman Marching Band. I had received the tickets for participating in the University's charity campaign. The marching band is quite large -- 375 -- and plays very well. I thought the boys might appreciate seeing a really good band, since they're both playing band instruments. I was pleased to see that one of my students is in the marching band.

I rode my bike there. It's great to have a bike on campus. You can get places faster than any other way (although sometimes I dream of having a zip-line from a high building on campus straight to my house.

There is a house coming on sale in the neighborhood. It's one of my favorite houses in the neighborhood. It's a small house surrounded by cedars and mountain laurel with a lovely japanese maple by the driveway. Zane and I walked up and looked at it on Friday. A neighbor tried to sell the house to Zane -- they'd be happy with any owner that won't rent the house to students. I would be great to have Zane as a neighbor, although I don't think they're quite ready to buy a house yet.

Steven Brewer Does Not Hate Powerpoint

April 27, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

After a year of supporting a poster printer, I've gotten fed up with people who still try to make posters using Powerpoint. Powerpoint may be a fine application for some things, but it really sucks for making posters. Yet people keep using it. I've tried and tried to get people to not use it and they don't listen. They make their poster with Powerpoint anyway and then come and say, "I'm really sorry, because I know you hate Powerpoint". For-once-and-for-all, let's get this straight: Steven Brewer Does Not Hate Powerpoint.

Long Weekend Bicycling

April 23, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

Daniel ?e WatrobasDaniel and I got out for a good bike ride each day of the long weekend. After the 3 mile ride to Jones and back on Saturday, we rode 5 miles on Sunday, to Big Y and back. On Monday, we rode around 12 miles to the Sugar Shack and back, with a detour to Watroba's. Daniel had wanted to get some of the wonderful chocolate milk at the Mapleline Farm store, but they were closed. He ended up getting a hot dog and a bottle of chocolate-milk-like substance from a giant corporation packaged in a plastic bottle.

Watroba's is good to have. I wish they were slightly larger, had more refrigerated goods, and were actually on the bus line, rather than a half-mile away from the nearest stop. I don't think there's any way to take public transportation to a grocery store without having to walk a long way and/or wait for infrequent busses. Watroba's is close enough to ride to when the weather is decent, but it's hard to imagine riding a bike to the store in the dead of winter. I guess when we're huddling by the stove trying to keep warm because we can't afford to buy heating oil, getting some exercise riding a bike to the store won't sound so bad.

Today, I rode my bike into work and home for lunch. I'm not sure I could ride much farther, though, because a certain part of my anatomy is sore and it's not my shoulders. A few days rest, and I'll be ready to go toughen up some more. My next goal is to ride to Northampton so I can see the rail trail connection between the Norwottuck and Northampton trails.


April 22, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

Yesterday, Daniel and I rode to the Jones Library. We met Lucy, who brought Penny in the car, and we took our usual walk through town. While Lucy and Daniel went into the library, Penny and I sat on a bench outside with the bicycles. Penny usually hops up on the bench with me and leans against me. We enjoyed the beautiful spring weather and watched people walk by -- Penny taking particular interest in the canine passersby. One fellow walked by and glanced at us. Then he looked again. He could see Penny and me and two bicycles. He walked over and asked, "How did you bring the dog? Does she ride a bike?" I admitted that my confederates were in the library and that Penny could not ride a bike.


April 20, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

PHENOM ManifestasOn Wednesday, I made arrangements with my class to not meet and I instead went with the Public Higher-Education Network of Massachusetts to the statehouse to lobby for increased support. PHENOM has a three-point agenda: Fix it (pass the bond bill for capital improvements), fund it (provide enough funding for the programs that students need), and afford it (increase funding for the MassGrant program). I took a few pictures with my camera phone.

My group didn't actually meet with any legislators, although we spoke with a number of legislative aides. The House budget was released that day and, in contrast with previous years, their number for higher ed was higher than in the Governor's budget. The funding for MassGrant was essentially level-funded however. A group of students from Lowell, the home district of the chair of the higher ed committee, went to lobby the representative and on the bus-ride home we were told that he had agreed to sponsor an amendment to try to get more funding for MassGrant.

I took a copy of the poster from my class that was selected for our research project and showed it to legislative aides and Ellen Story. Ellen was excited to hear we were working with the Tree Warden and encouraged us to look for wider publicity.


April 18, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

This morning, I checked google news and saw an interesting article from the Chinese news agency: CRI Netizens and Listeners around the World Comment on Lhasa Riots. It got flagged in google news for me because it mentions Esperanto. The comment in question was by Jind?ich Tom


April 11, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

I picked up a copy of Gonzo at the library on Saturday. He was a fascinating guy. I didn't read that much of Hunter S. Thompson's writings, but I can still remember how much of an impact Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas made on me when I read it in college. There's a scene where Raoul Duke is feeling like a bad person, but then he watches the news, which is filled with reports about secret bombings in Cambodia and the lies of Nixon administration and he feels better -- he's no where near as bad a person as those people obviously are. I think that still holds as true today as it did then. The biography fills in a lot of aspects of his life's story I knew nothing about: a complex and conflicted character, but with a magnetic personality that was compelling to those around him.

I sometimes lament that I am so short on "animal magnetism". Some people seem destined to have these intense connections with other people and others, well, don't. At the same time, my personality seems well suited to what I actually have: I'm married to my best friend, I have two wonderful children, and my mom lives with my family; I have an office that is a kind of center for technology and pedagogy in the department where a steady stream of students and faculty drop in to chat about teaching, learning and technology; and I have a great boxer dog. I don't think I'd be happy being famous anyway -- if more people were trying to get to me, I'd have to spend even more time hiding.

I did something around the house today -- a major victory. Lucy has been wanting a clothesline for years, so I went ahead and put one up for her today. Mainly, I just dug a hole and filled it with cement to hold the post in place. It may not sound like much, but it was a victory for me. Now if I could just make myself grade those papers...


April 6, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

I've become self-conscious about the loser titles I come with for blog entries. So much of my life is driven by reaction to events, that I rarely feel like I bring much reflection to my blog posts lately.

Today, found that The Story of Stuff was available at dotSub so I could start working on making a translated version to present at TAKE. It seems like a good fit with the goals of the conference and would be a good point for the beginning of discussion.

I met with groups of students working on research proposals today. Great stuff! All of the groups came in with a lot of questions about what they were going to do and I felt like they all went away with a much clearer perspective of what they were going to do. In each case, I felt like we narrowed the topic they were planning to pursue to something doable. In every case, the topic was still interesting, challenging, and required a lot of further definition and provided a lot of room for further refinement. But I felt like the groups left with a good sense that what they were doing was interesting and worth working on.

I've spent a fair amount of time chasing down quotes for computers to replace the BCRC computers. There's a good chance we'll replace them this fiscal year. It turns out that Apple doesn't make exactly what we need. You can either get the mini (for <$1000) or the Mac Pro (nearly $2800). There's nothing in between but the iMac -- which includes a display we don't need and doesn't have a "normal" form factor (ie, that is expandable and uses standard parts). We usually aimed at the $2000 spot and got a reasonable educational discount. Unless they can come up with a really persuasive educational discount, I'm going to think seriously again about going with Linux. I don't need the headache.


April 5, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

Last night, the boys and Lucy and I went to look for salamanders at the salamander tunnels on Henry Street. I invited my students, but didn't see any of them there. There were a lot of people there: maybe a dozen cars. We saw lots of wood frogs -- many of the wood frogs just climb over the barriers and cross the road directly. I found one salamander. Everyone was very excited to see it. It was a spotted salamander with his nose and head poking through the leaves. I love how ambystomid salamanders always look like they're grinning. We didn't see any other salamanders, but it wasn't really raining in the early evening. We got a heavy downpour later and probably would have seen a lot more salamanders around 10 or 10:30. By that time, the boys needed to be asleep.

Yesterday was the town election. I watched the winning candidates speak on ACTV. I was pleased with the outcome. I knew all of the selectboard candidates to at least some extent. I was glad to see the incumbent defeated -- she had written about how important public services were for her family when her kids were young, but now that they were older, she was constantly looking for services that could be cut, since she didn't need them anymore. She seemed very disingenuine, as Tom would say.


April 2, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

March is not coming in like a lamb in Massachusetts. We had a sloppy mix of snow, sleet, and rain today. Tomorrow, however, its supposed to get quite warm. If it stays warm into the evening, I think the salamanders will march Tuesday night. It's supposed to cool off again, so it probably depends, at least somewhat, on when the temperature change happens.

I lead my class into the field last week -- just to a park in downtown Amherst where we tried to collect some data. I meant it to be an exercise in what happens when you aren't quite sure what you're doing hoping to persuade them to make sure they're prepared before they go into the field for real. I find that the only thing a lot of students discover when they carry out their first research project is how not to carry out a research project. That's better than nothing, but I hope we can do better. It was fun -- we got a chance to see what the project is going to be like and got a sense for what needs to be done to get ready.

I've been invited to give a talk in North Carolina on May 16 and so the other thing I've started doing is getting my talk put together. They want me to give a talk on course redesign. I've given talks on that a couple of times -- I'm looking forward to putting together a new talk, though, and hoping to make myself use it as an excuse to actually write something. I haven't had any terrible catastrophes this semester, which is helping me get started early and having the chance to really focus on something for a change.


March 31, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

I've been participating in The Lost Ring game. I had jumped on some of the early chapters of the codex, translating them quickly into English. Someone pointed out to me, however, that my translations were being used to translate into other languages, rather than waiting for original translations into those languages out of Esperanto. This morning, there were three chapters available to translate, but I didn't translate them. This afternoon, someone translated them into Spanish and, then, someone used the Spanish version to translate into English. Immediately, there was a comment about the insufficiency of translating from a translation. I thought that was really interesting and paid me back for my patience in waiting to translate into English.

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