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Steven D. Brewer's blog


December 19, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

I'm a bit depressed. Partly its just this time of the year. The short days during the early winter always make me a bit depressed. Partly its coming to the end of the school year. I always look back on a semester and think of everything of I might have done better. I'm also bummed because the public schools rejected Muppyville and they aren't interested in doing the programming club. I'm bummed because I expect my honors writing proposal will be rejected because I don't have an exalted enough position to merit a named professorship. I feel like everything I touch is doomed somehow.

I thought I was going to need to go home this afternoon to finish shoveling the driveway, but then I had an idea. I called home and talked to Charlie. I told him, I needed to cancel programming club to come home to shovel the driveway -- unless he wanted to take care of it before he and his friends came into campus. "Well, I don't think we can -- we're playing a video game," he said. I replied to say that was too bad, because I'd have to come home and make his friends leave. "Wait," he said. "We'll shovel the driveway before we come for programming club." I smiled and said that would be just fine. Maybe not everything is doomed.

Bray on Innovation

December 15, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

Tim Bray wrote a nice post about innovation, based on remarks he made to the XBRL conference. It strongly mirrors a discussion that Randy and I had the other day after the Readiness Commission came to UMass Amherst. One of the guys there asked people whether the governance structures were facilitating innovation and collaboration and how they could help. At the University, some administrators see themselves as "gatekeepers" or "conductors", either preventing activity they think is bad or directing activity they think is good. What we need are people that facilitate getting stuff done. The less stuff I have to do to do something, the more stuff I can do. Unfortunately, too often, the administration is trying to save money by pushing services back to departments and making more work for us. Or, when they centralize something, they take away the people who used to provide that service -- plus all the other stuff they did -- leaving us with more work to do.


December 14, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

A huge snowstorm blew in today and shut everything down. The middle school, which was scheduled to have a "late-start day" anyway, just closed, but the elementary school stayed open for the morning. Daniel was extremely bitter. The University waited until noon to close, by which point it was snowing about 2-inches per hour. It took me more than half-an-hour to ride the bus home from Morrill. I could have walked faster, but I didn't want my computer and camera to get wet. (And its hard to walk in the snow and I'm lazy). Alisa had gone out just as the snow started to lay in a few supplies and got caught in the traffic jam. She waited and eventually managed to get out, but it took a lot longer than one might have expected. The whole region was in gridlock. Thank goodness I didn't have to try to get across the bridge.

Links to Cool Stuff

December 13, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

I rarely just post entries with links to cool stuff, but there's been so much cool stuff lately.

The boys and I have really enjoyed hearing Jonathan Coulton's Still Alive in the VGCats cartoon. Its very catchy and we're all whistling and humming it constantly. It was also exciting to see that Emily danced with JoCo in Chicago. How surpassingly cool is that!

I'm really looking forward to wishing everyone a "happy chrifsmas!" this year. What a perfect response to the seasonal culture wars by the religious right.

Bubble Trubble Preview

December 10, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

Yesterday, a bunch of families were invited to Amherst College to preview Bubble Trubble. A few weeks ago, Daniel was an extra and we went to see if any of his footage made it into the movie. It looks like most of it ended up on the cutting-room floor. Alisa struggled with feelings of disappointment, but for me the issue had always been Daniel's participation in the process. He undoubtedly would have found it more satisfying to appear (as prominently as an extra can) in the final version of the movie, but he still got the full experience of participating.

Phil mentions feeling seasonal affective disorder at this time of the year. I have shades of that as well. One thing I did to improve my mood was to set up our birdfeeder. We have it hanging on a long rope from the cherry tree in front of the dining room. I haven't always managed to get a birdfeeder set up because the time to set it up is busy. I should plan a few other intentional projects that will make me feel better -- I've thought about making a wreath again this year. I think that would cheer me up more than making a wraith would, anyway.

Structure of Science

December 9, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

There is a fascinating article about Craig Venter at Salon right now. His autobiography, A Life Decoded has just been released and the articles talks, not only about the book, but about how new science is being organized and funded. Unfortunately, I think the article has it completely wrong. The author argues that 20th century science, which saw a dramatic increase in the tenured professoriate was a response to the 19th century "gentleman professor" -- that "professionalized specialization was a necessary mechanism for processing the bounty of 19th century discovery". The author goes on to conclude that the new entrepreneurial scientists are an appropriate return to the tradition of independent scientists of the past. I think its actually more subtle and problematic.

I think the 20th century saw a dedication to public investment in the common good. This was partly driven by the pre-eminence of the nation-state, based on the military experiences of the two world wars and creation of superweapons (ie, nukes and ICBMs). Partly, it was also driven by the interaction of organized labor and industrialized production, which produced a unique democratization of distribution of wealth. Wealth was never more evenly distributed than a very brief period between the 50s and the 70s. This is what resulted in investment in public knowledge creation.

What we're seeing now is a return to the patron model where you have to be either super-rich or funded by the super-rich in order to engage in knowledge construction. The ranks of tenured professors are dying off and being increasingly replaced by freeway faculty. Its a disaster for a public agenda of research to benefit the common good. It's all very romantic to hearken back to the days of gentleman scientists, but you might as well idealize feudalism -- its the same thing.


December 5, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

I've rarely had a weekend seem so welcome. This week has been horrendously busy. Today, I had people lined up out the door to print poster presentations. They all did posters on Powerpoint. Two of them worked OK and two didn't. One poor woman had two presentations that got thoroughly screwed up when you tried to print them: one of them had a graphic that became invisible when you printed it. In the other, there was a about a half-inch of the poster that disappeared. I try to tell people not to use Powerpoint, but they won't listen to me and they still expect me to somehow fix things when they don't work. It's truly maddening. I've been collecting pictures of posters that people made with Powerpoint that didn't work to show people and I've got a set of directions for how to get started with Scribus (which is the program I recommend for posters).

End of Semester Approaches

December 1, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

The end of the semester is rapidly approaching. Everyone is incredibly busy trying to pull final things together. I've been working on a proposal for an honor's section of the writing course and a proposal to set up programming clubs. Today, I took a break from that to offer testimony to the Governor's Readiness Project.

I was extremely satisfied with the poster session in my class. There are always things I wish I had done better and places where I can see to improve for next year but, overall, the outcome has been satisfying and the students are undertaking their research projects in fine fettle. Now if I could just find the time to finish my grading -- I'm woefully behind.

The school system finally rejected Muppyville. If I hustle money for them (ie, by getting a grant) they might think about it again. It was exactly what I suspected when I tried to get involved -- it's what's happened *every* time I've tried to do something that required engagement with the schools. Tell me again why should bother trying to get grant money when I'd have to work with these people to spend it?


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!


malgraŭ la nuboj kaj minaca ĉielo… la sun' revenos #hajko #esperanto / in spite of the clouds & threatening sky… the sun will return #haiku17 hours 47 min ago
celebrates Julius Lester, Marcie Sclove, @SenStan & Ellen Story at #JLSammys15 day 7 hours ago
is giving his Manhattan from #jlsammies15 to someone who deserves it more / dubas pri loko kiu pagigas tiom sed donas nur po unu koktelo. — 1 day 7 hours ago
.@_araschD Too many Americans require women to present as younger than they are—and I give credit to @HillaryClinton for bucking the trend. — 1 day 11 hours ago
.@existentialcoms Ha! You must never have read The Last Ringbearer: Enjoy!!! — 1 day 12 hours ago
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