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Steven D. Brewer's blog


November 30, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

Thanksgiving is an interesting holiday in academia falling, as it does, in the middle of the run-up to the end of the semester. Students and faculty are closing in on the peak of activity before finals and suddenly, there is a full-stop. The boys and I left on Tuesday morning and today I'm in North Carolina visiting relatives. I brought my grading, so I can get it finished before I go back on Monday, but its still otherworldly.

I got up at 3:30am to make sure we made our flight -- I allowed a generous amount of time to catch the shuttle bus from the parking lot to the airport, since it can sometimes take a half-hour or more. As it turned out, the van pulled up right behind us as we parked the car. As we boarded the plane, a light snow began to fall, so we had to be de-iced before we took off. We were late getting off and the plane felt like it was idling all the way to Philadelphia because flights into an out of Philly were being delayed by the weather. I had planned on getting the boys some breakfast during our layover, but as it turned out, we arrived with only enough time to make our connection. Poor li'l Daniel was nearly frantic with hunger.

We arrived in good order and have been visiting with various folks since we got here. It's always strange to step into the lives of others for just a few days.

Bubble Trubble

November 21, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

Today Daniel is acting as an extra in filming for the movie Bubble Trubble. He had to wear "adult business attire" and come down to Open Square in Holyoke at 9am this morning. It's cold out and much of the time he's just sitting or standing around. Luckily, he doesn't have to spend all the time outside -- there's a nice cafe inside with coffee (and brownies and hot dogs and chips, and everything else to tempt a little boy). And it also has a wireless connection.

It's funny to see the all the kids. There are 30-40 kids all walking around wearing business suits. It plays tricks with your mind to see little kids wearing adult clothes. Sometimes they act like adults, which plays with your mind one way and sometimes they act like little kids which plays with your mind a completely different way.

I've brought my camera and I'm taking a lot of pictures -- I'll post some later.

I also have wandered around Open Square a bit taking pictures. Its a place I had potentially suggested for Esperanto-USA to move to. Not that I think they will.

Muppyville in SurfControl

November 17, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

I've been checking periodically to see if Muppyville shows up as "categorized" in SurfControl. We had submitted it about a week ago. I was beginning to suspect they wouldn't categorize it, because all you can see when you go to the page is the login screen. But they did! Muppyville is now categorized as "Computing and Internet". Is there any page on the Internet that you look at with a computer that couldn't be categorized as "Computing and Internet"? Oh well.

The Muppyville Saga Continues

November 7, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

So, I originally contacted ARPS about Muppville on a Friday and then poked them on the following Wednesday. And I got a reply later that same day. Jerry Champagne took umbrage with the suggestion that he makes curriculum decisions saying, "There are other staff members tasked with those responsibilities" and promising to forward my email to them. He also didn't like my description of their internet filtering as "draconian censorship", preferring the term "protecting students". Who are they protecting the students from? Their own teachers!

I will acknowledge that balancing the interests of students, parents, and the school establishment is a complex problem. Personally, I think that the Internet is among the greatest triumphs of human achievement and the fact that students are blocked off from most of it is another example of how school serves as a form of social violence practiced against the young. People who are afraid of what young people might see on the internet must not listen to what young people are saying to each other all the time (or read The Crux). And anything that students might see on the internet, might as easily be printed out and brought on paper to pass around, samizdat style. Rather than burying our children's heads in the sand, I think it would be much healthier if children (or, at least their parents, for you age-ists) were offered more control. Maybe children could sign a statement that they agree not to look at inappropriate material or to close windows containing inappropriate material if they accidentally encounter them in return for the ability to see the full extent of resources on the internet.

I think its a common problem that people think that technical solutions are appropriate when, if you thought about them in the real world, you'd see that it was a terrible idea. Imagine if we made students wear goggles that filtered out from their vision anything that hadn't been explicitly approved. Would we think that was a good idea? Remember, with a system that only lets you see white-listed things, it filters out *most* of the world -- even though *most* of the world isn't a problem. You can see the tree on the school campus, but you can't see most other trees. You can see the Jones Library and the Amherst Cinema, but you can't see Antonio's Pizza or the Fiber Arts Center. You especially can't see things that are relatively unknown, like the page for Amherst Esperanto.

I reiterate, however, that this case has nothing to do with censorship and everything to do with who establishes curriculum. we have a pair of teachers who were told that the censorship software was no big deal because they could just request something and it would be unblocked. But it wasn't. Now we get to find out just how deep the rabbit hole is.

Relocalize and postcarbonate

November 6, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

Last night, Lucy and I went to see Daniel Lerch of the Postcarbon Institute who was speaking about the Post Carbon Cities Guidebook. (Someone bought a couple of copies, so some people need to know not to go and buy copies for themselves. :-) It was a talk primarily aimed at the leadership of cities and towns to discuss the implications of rising energy costs and the need to reduce global warming. It was a good talk. He hit an optimistic tone, talking about various measures that communities can take to reduce their vulnerability and to prepare for the coming uncertainty. I said:

So, you're presenting an optimistic picture talking about what communities can do -- or must do -- and saying that it will be a "wild ride". But you don't talk much about what you think the outcomes will actually look like. Would you be willing to present some scenarios of what you think a post-growth, solar-energy economy future might look like?

He smiled and said, "Well, no." He had already pointed out that the reason we were confronting "uncertainty" was that current models were unable to predict what was likely to happen -- especially in the face of geopolitical realities. The future hinges on contingencies like, whether or not we go to war with Iran or what the oil-producing countries decide to do when it becomes clear that we've hit the peak.

I think a real question hinges on whether or not the US decides to hang onto the Iraqi oil no-matter-what. It's pretty clear that this is what the Bush administration is planning. Much of the US population hasn't figured it out yet and thinks that we can get out of Iraq anytime we want by giving up on the "We Must Create Democracy in the Middle East" plan that they were sold (after the "We Must Destroy Weapons of Mass Destruction" plan had been shown to be a lie). I guess it's more fun to listen to Rush talk about Lindsay while driving your Hummer around than think about stuff like that.

Amherst School technical staff make pedagogical decisions for teachers

November 2, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

Daniel brought home the message last week that the Amherst Schools technical staff refuse to unblock the URL to Muppyville because it's not "educational". I thought it was interesting that, even though both Daniel's teacher and the school's technology teacher both supported something, the central administration technical staff thought it was their responsibility to determine the pedagogical merits of activities that teachers wanted to do. Daniel's teacher, after all, put Muppyville on the list of her goals at Daniel's parent-teacher conference statement. In response, on Friday October 26, 2007, I sent a note to Jerry Champagne, the technical staff member who had made the decision, and copied the superintendent. When I didn't hear from them by Wednesday, October 31, 2007, I sent the followup message, which includes the original message below:

Dear Mr. Champagne,

I'm sending this follow-up message since I sent you email below on
Friday and appear to have received no acknowledgment that the message
was received. I understand that you may require several days to reach a
conclusion regarding the issue I've referenced, but I would appreciate a
reply to acknowledge that you've received my email and are looking into
the issue.

Note that I would copy Jeff Comenitz in on this message, except that he
doesn't appear to have an email address -- at least not one that's
listed on the page with the Information Systems staff:
Nor does an address appear among the Central Office staff:

Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.

Steven D. Brewer wrote:
> > Dear Mr. Champagne,
> > 
> > I'm writing to you because my younger son Daniel tells me that his class
> > will not be allowed to use an online resource called "Muppyville"
> > because it is not deemed "educational".  I would like to offer a brief
> > history of Muppyville and make a case that it is educational.
> > 
> > Four years ago, when my older son Charles was in 4th grade, I set up a
> > "MOO" that we called "Muppyville" for him and his class to use to
> > explore electronic communication.  My experience had been that children
> > at that age were beginning to explore using commercial services for chat
> > (like AOL Instant Messaging).  Being an instructional technologist at
> > the University of Massachusetts, I was aware of the high likelihood that
> > anyone using these services will receive unwanted messages (like
> > pornography and pharmaceutical ads) or possibly contacts by adults.  By
> > creating a "walled garden", I could be assured that the students didn't
> > meet anyone more dangerous than themselves.
> > 
> > The environment I chose to create was a "MOO" or "Mud Object-Oriented".
> >  A MOO is a relatively old system for text-based electronic chat, in
> > which players can give commands to move through a virtual environment,
> > look at other players and objects, and to interact with them -- all
> > using words. Furthermore, advanced players can become programmers, which
> > allows them to extend the environment: creating new places and objects
> > and programming them so that other players can interact with them.  Kids
> > think this is really awesome and teachers love seeing kids communicating
> > in writing.
> > 
> > These environments have been extensively used for educational purposes
> > -- especially for the teaching of writing -- and have been the subject
> > of a great deal of academic research.  As an example, here is a link to
> > a doctoral dissertation by Amy Bruckman at the MIT Media Lab who created
> > a MOO she called "MOOSE Crossing":
> >
> > Her work was influential to me when I chose an environment to implement
> > for the 4th grade class, but with a small amount of work, you can find
> > many, many examples of this technology being used for teaching, for
> > example the Networked Writing Environment at the University of Florida:
> >
> > 
> > When I first created Muppyville, I set up the technology infrastructure,
> > met with the classroom teacher, met with the technology teacher, and
> > spent a session in the school computer lab to help the students log in
> > and try out the environment for the first time.  Some students only used
> > it that one time.  Other students used it frequently for a short time --
> > during this time, they had several on-line meetings with a student who
> > had just returned to Bolivia with his parents for a year, which we all
> > thought was very exciting.  There were a handful of students who became
> > fascinated with the environment and continued to work on it over the
> > next 2 or 3 years.  They have formed the nucleus of a programming club
> > that continues to explore electronic communication and programming on a
> > weekly basis at the facility I direct, the UMass Biology Computer
> > Resource Center.  It is these students who wanted to offer the same
> > opportunity to Daniel's class as they had when they were students.  This
> > time, I simply set up the platform and let them create the environment.
> > 
> > Since that time, however, the school has implemented a far more
> > draconian internet censorship policy and the address is now blocked.
> > Currently, I am offering the service using an open-bsd server on my home
> > cable-modem service.  If client software were installed on the school's
> > computers, you could open only port 7001, which seems to me like it
> > would offer minimal risk.  Without client software, it will be necessary
> > to open port 80, to use a web-based java client.  I would be willing to
> > consult with you regarding appropriate client software.
> > 
> > Daniel's teacher, Sue Vegiard, and the Mark's Meadow technology teacher,
> > Elizabeth Breen, have expressed their support for having Daniel's class
> > use Muppyville.  I was surprised to hear that the IT staff were charged
> > with making decisions regarding what educational resources the teachers
> > were able to use.  I hope my presentation of the potential value of this
> > technology will help you reach a different decision regarding whether
> > Muppyville should be unblocked.
> > 
> > Sincerely,


November 1, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

On Monday and Tuesday, I was in the office until the middle of the evening evaluating Annual Faculty Reviews, so tonight I didn't feel a bit guilty leaving a few minutes before 5pm, so I could be home to answer the door for the Trick-or-Treaters.

I spent half the afternoon helping a student print a particularly large poster. We had to print it two and a half times and it took about an hour each time. We started out talking about the department and ended up talking about music and boxer bogs. She mentioned an odd song called Fibber Island by They Might Be Giants, which she said was something like Jonathan Coulton songs. I went ahead and bought it through Amazon, so I wouldn't have DRM. I wish Apple would stop selling DRMed music (and, even better, let me get unencumbered versions of the songs I have).

Being on the personnel committee is pretty horrible. Its a lot like watching sausage being made. Even if the sausage tastes pretty good, it never tastes as good when you've seen what goes into it. Evaluating AFRs is the same way. You start out with good intentions... I always feel dirty afterwards.

This evening, Lucy and I watched some episodes of Naruto while waiting for the trick-or-treaters to arrive. I think we missed a few, but we decided to start out with the Curry of Life episodes. Those are definitely some of the best ever. Hai! Gai-sensei!

Curry of Life

October 31, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

This evening, the boys and I tried to make the "Curry of Life". In a recent Naruto episode, the team goes to a curry house which Lee says makes a life-saving curry. In his flashback, it shows how Lee has collapsed after running a three-day marathon in his sleep and how the people in the curry shop repeatedly try feeding him curry, making it spicier each time, but without success -- until they make it really, super spicy (and add a bunch of weird things, like a turtle, salamander, mouse, and who-can-tell-what-else). They then serve Curry of Life to everyone in the team, which is black and bubbly -- everyone eyes it very suspiciously. After Lee tries it, pronounces it perfect, and is gobbling it franticly, everyone else tries it. Unfortunately for them, it's so spicy they are all knocked out -- Naruto is knocked flat on his back. So that's what I was asked to reproduce.

I googled a few recipes and then went to the store. My first effort, tonight, was edible, but not spicy enough (even if I'm only aiming for normal spiciness) and too sweet. I'm actually aiming for gang ped, which is one of my favorite Thai dishes. The boys were disappointed that it didn't knock them out, but agreed that it was quite tasty with rice and are eager for me to try again next time.

ADTC redux

October 24, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

I attended the Amherst Democratic Town Committee meeting for the first time in about 6 months. I resigned as secretary last year after the committee had, I felt, turned away from trying to represent or engage the community and had become the Impeachment Committee. I served for several months trying to redirect the committee toward a more productive and relevant course of action, but eventually gave up.

The main item on the agenda was a motion by Leo Maley against casino gambling. It was a good motion, narrowly crafted, that focused on gambling as a missed opportunity to have a more productive discussion about improving taxation. But I went to the meeting to oppose the resolution.

I personally don't think gambling is a good idea. People talk about it being like a regressive tax on the poor, but its really more like a tax on the stupid. I think it only affects poor people more because stupid people are frequently also poor. Maybe people think that, because they think poor people are stupider than other people. It also taxes the deluded and the addicted -- and some of those people ruin their lives with gambling. That's sad, but those people are doing these things today anyway.

As some of us have noticed, there is gambling available all around us. There are racetracks and booking facilities in Massachusetts. There are lottery machines in every convenience store. And you don't have to drive very far to go to a casino if that's really what you want. In fact, Massachusetts residents spend more than $800 million in casinos in Connecticut. Furthermore, it seems nearly certain that, irregardless of what the Governor does, the Wampanoag tribe is going to open a casino anyway.

Deval Patrick looked at the issues and decided to propose allowing a limited number of casinos. I think the primary reason he did it is jobs. In spite of the heated rhetoric on both sides, casinos don't seem to have big impacts on most aspects of the communities in which they're located. They do, however, result in more jobs, dispersed among more people.

I think Deval has been trying everything he can think of to fix Springfield. He's been trying get UMass to do anything it can think of to fix Springfield too. He doesn't have a magic bullet, so he's using what he's got. None of its perfect, but having more jobs seems better than not having more jobs. Unless you've already got a job.

I think Deval also thinks that, if we're going to have casinos, we might as well do it in a way that gives the state some ability to influence what happens. If our citizens are going to gamble -- and they are -- we can use revenues from it to help deal with the bankruptcies and ruined lives that inevitably result.

Everyone at the meeting was invited to speak on the motion. I spoke against it, but nearly everyone else was for it. In spite of Leo's motion being primarily about "improving taxation", most people cited a moral opposition to gambling as their primary reason for supporting the resolution. Someone claimed that the goal of the casino proposal was to increase the number of gamblers in the state and, after that, several others spoke passionately about how despicable that goal was.

The committee voted to adopt the resolution, with a few amendments. I proposed an amendment to the motion saying "Whereas casino gambling promotes sin and immoral behavior;" since that was the actual reason most of the people had cited in supporting the resolution, which actually didn't mention those things. My amendment was rejected.

It was an interesting discussion. The fact that Leo and I had actually brought some research on the topic, meant that it was not purely opinion that drove the discussion. Although I personally think that gambling is unpleasant and stupid, I don't have a problem with people choosing to spend their time and money that way. Its just another dumb way to spend money, really. I think professional spectator sports are stupid too, but I don't think they should be outlawed just because they're stupid and pointless.

In the end, I was most uncomfortable by the prospect that well-educated and well-off people were so willing to impose their morality on others in the guise of protecting them -- especially if it means that unemployed people won't get the jobs that they might otherwise get. I don't agree with everything Deval Patrick has done, but I think he's doing the right kinds of things.

Same planet, different worlds

October 19, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

There is a new article in the Globe about Boston University outlining a plan to "raise their national profile and crack the top 30 in years to come in the annual US News & World Report rankings". How do they plan to do it?

Boston University officials are to outline an ambitious 10-year, $1.8 billion strategic plan today to add 150 professors, dramatically lower the school's student-faculty ratio, and pour money into salaries to allow BU to vie for the nation's top professors.
"It's moving Boston University to be in that list of the elite, large, private research universities of America, an NYU, a Penn, a Northwestern," Brown said in a telephone interview. "We'll do it by investing in faculty, students, and programs."

When our president board of trustees talked about raising the profile of the University of Massachusetts, it was all smoke and mirrors: it was about pretending that by adding together all of the campuses to change how numbers are reported we would look better; or centralizing, streamlining, and cutting local services; or optimizing our brand for a new reality.

If you want a great university, you need a great faculty. Period. And if you want a great faculty, you need to attract, hire, and keep them. Period. It sounds like BU's got the right idea. I wonder if this will help move the UMass leadership in the right direction.

Open House

October 18, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

Once again this fall, I ran an open house for the intro biology labs. I went out to my usual spot to try to find some copepods, but the little basin was empty. I grabbed some leaf litter and filled the rest of the container with water to see what we could find. I also grabbed some mosses, lichens and liverworts to use to look for tardigrades. I found lots of nematodes and rotifers and a few tardigrades.

There seemed to be more people this year than in year's past -- at one point the room was packed with people asking questions: How many lecture courses do students have to take? When can students start taking "interesting" classes? How can students work in research labs? How can students do "hands-on" stuff?

The main message I try to transmit is that, although Intro Biology is a large class, we make heroic efforts to give students a "small-class experience", by using small-group techniques in lab and by having a "lecture" that is not really lecture at all, but small-group problem-solving in an auditorium. I believe that our Intro Biology experience is one of the best in the world and that students, even those who scored a "5" on the AP exam and think they "know" biology, come out of the class with a much better understanding of how biology works.


October 14, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

I completed my Annual Faculty Review document today and submitted it. I actually got the document done yesterday, but needed to submit a letter describing my responsibilities and some copies of letters where people were thanking me for doing nice things. I realized as I filled it out that when I came here, I was responsible for one lab of 22 computers. Now I'm responsible for 6 labs containing nearly 100 computers with 4 different configurations. That, combined with the new poster printer has resulted in me having a lot less time than I used to have to do interesting projects. I met with the chair this afternoon and we talked about workload and stuff. I've been feeling a bit over scheduled or over tasked lately and now I can see why.

JoCo in Noho

October 12, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

This time, I took the whole family to see Jonathan Coulton and Paul & Storm in Northampton. The show was great. They seemed a little tired and a little punchy, but mostly were able to turn it into humor for the show. The music was great and I got to hear some songs I hadn't heard before, as well as most of the old favorites. Paul and Storm opened the show again and got the audience warmed up. I was a little disappointed that they didn't have a larger audience -- I guess I should have put up posters or something. Jonathan played a new song that I don't think is released anywhere yet.

It was fun to have the boys along. Charlie is old enough that I don't worry about him and the language, but Daniel is another matter. He was singing "First of May" in the car on the way home -- that was the one song I hadn't let him hear yet. Oh, well. It was worth it for him to see JoCo play Millionaire Girlfriend and Skullcrusher Mountain. We got to talk to Jonathan for just a second.


October 5, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

This evening was "Curriculum Night" at the Elementary School. I made a point of meeting with the technology specialist and explaining carefully what Muppyville was to her -- she was enthusiastic. Although Charlie had spoken with the school folks during the first week of classes, they still hadn't unblocked the URL to Muppyville. The school system uses one of the fascist censorware systems that prevent students from accessing any page on the internet that aren't among those deemed "worthy" by the companies that rate these pages. Muppyville is "unrated" -- and therefore needs to be blocked. We live in a very strange world. Although they had told Charlie, they would get Muppyville unblocked, they didn't. We'll see if anything happens now. In any event, I've created logins for Daniel's teacher and the technology specialist. Hopefully, they'll get it unblocked and Charlie can set up Muppyville logins for the rest of the kids. My kids haven't asked me about trying to route around the school's moronic blocking software -- probably because at home (and elsewhere) they don't have to deal with the idiotfilters.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've decided that I really need to write a book about how the Internet represents a kind of freedom that is only too scarce in our society -- and to envision: what the rest of our life looks like by comparison and (2) what our life could look like if it were modeled on the same principles. I think this is something that I know something about, feel strongly about, and recognize that the rest of the world mostly doesn't get. I don't know if I can sell a book about this, but if we can get the rest of the world to realize that: if email is free then textmessages should be free too; if you can install programs on your computer, you should be able to on your phone too; if you can walk on the sidewalk for free, then you should be able to use the wireless for free too -- I think the examples could go on and on -- enough to make a whole book. We'll see.

Natural Reflections

October 4, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

Today, I received an invitation to attend the opening of "Natural Reflections", an exhibit of photography currently on display in Town Hall in Amherst. The photographer, Michael Phillis, is the son of a colleague and also works as a student consultant in the BCRC. I had seen pictures of his, on the web, in the Collegian, and in Randy's office, but its really striking to see them beautifully framed and presented in Town Hall. The opening is Thursday, October 4 from 5-7pm and is open to the public. We can only stop in for a few minutes before we drive over to Noho to see JoCo. That's going to be great too!

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