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Steven D. Brewer's blog


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.

Fun, fun, fun!

March 28, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer


March 22, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

It became spring a couple of days ago, but it doesn't feel like spring. It was bitter cold today with a biting wind and the cold air is predicted to stay in place as far as the forecast goes. Ugh. I want the weather to moderate so I can get out and start riding my bike. I don't like to ride when the weather is below 50, though.

We're finally back into room 370. The BCRC has had a small room as a graphics facility since I got here. It's been closed since last semester due to work on a bathroom upstairs that required a lot of plumbing. Last week, things finally blew up when a student and faculty member had a disagreement over who had precedence. So I spent a good part of the day getting the graphics facility put back together.

I had lunch with Buzz and Tom today -- and their kids. We went to OpaOpa as usual. They still didn't have the A-10 (boo hiss), but said they were working on a new double beer. I'll miss the A-10.

This week was the Multicultural Fair at Marks Meadow Elementary. I realized I've been going to Multicultural Fair for 10 years -- longer than I went to Elementary School myself. I realized also that, once Daniel finishes up in a couple of years, I won't be going to elementary schools anymore. Another chapter closes in my life. Seeing other people with infants (like Tom) reminds me what is past -- and not likely to return in my life. Then, seeing Buzz, reminds me that, yes, it can return. Hmm.

I filed a final report regarding the ad I purchased at ARGnet for the Lost Ring game. It turns out that people *are* learning Esperanto to participate. I think that's great! If we really do need to coordinate millions of people internationally, we could do worse than having them all speak Esperanto. I'm enjoying the game and looking forward to seeing what happens next.

It's the last weekend of Spring Break. It's been nice to have some quiet time -- some down time -- during the break. Just a couple of months to go. But lots of stuff that needs to happen. I need to lead the students through crafting some good proposals. Then we need to pull off a good project. And I need to get ready to go to North Carolina State University to talk about course redesign. I'm almost ready. Just give me until Monday.

I'm on vacation

March 21, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

I told Daniel I would come home to spend time with him after school today, because Charlie said he was going downtown with friends. When I got home, I found that Charlie was here with his friends, so Daniel has spurned me to hang out with the older boys. I'll be big about it.

The newest clue in Find the Lost Ring is the discovery of documents in Esperanto. I had been a bit worried that Esperanto would be only a red herring, but instead it looks to be a central piece of the game. In fact, I wonder if one of the goals isn't to build communities working in 6 different languages that want to communicate with each other so much that they'll be willing to learn Esperanto in order to do it. It would be really cool if it turns out that this is one of the design goals of the game.

I've been reading about the creator of the game, Jane McGonigal. Over the past couple of years, I had become aware of "alternate reality games", which provide huge puzzles and encourage people to self-assemble across "teh internets" to solve them. McGonigal is one of the pioneers of this form of media. She says "reality is broken", meaning that life kinda sucks for a lot of people, and talks about most of us being (or needing to be) in the "happiness business". She envisions a future in which people enjoy doing the work they do and life providing people will a lot more options to do satisfying work organized like play -- so that it will be more satisfying and make people happy. I'm seeing this is highly analogous of the projects and problem-solving we are asking students to do in our classes. And I'll bet we could do a better job, using the kinds of principles she's identifying, that could make our classes way more fun. She gave a talk yesterday at SXSW that lists 10. Here are the slides from a previous talk with some of the same info.

I'm not sure what my response is to this stuff is yet. I suspect that most traditional instructors and faculty will say that "games are silly and what I do is serious" and dismiss this stuff. But I think this is the direction things are going and these games and principles are likely to be increasingly important over the next 5 years. It's something to talk about.

Spring Break Beckons

March 14, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

Today, Buzz and I met to work on a proposal to study mongooses. We worked for a couple of hours in the morning and then had lunch at ABC. Good productive work. Then I had meetings all afternoon.

I was so disgusted to see recently that 1 in 4 teen girls have STDs. Last year, the research came out that showed the abstinence-only "education" was completely ineffective. Now we connect the dots and see the outcome: the Republicans are so mean-spirited they believe that teen-aged girls who have sex deserve to get cancer and die. They really make me sick.

This evening, we went for curriculum night at the high school. I am struck by the rigor of the academic program being presented to parents -- when I look at the work they claim students will do, the expectations are not substantively lower than most advanced undergraduate classes. The parents seemed really aggressive about wanting rigor, rigor, and more rigor. The principal make a comment that I thought was very welcome, about balancing quality of life with challenge. Being at a university, I see the preparation that students come in with and the level of work they're expected to achieve -- it seems relatively pointless, to me, to aim much higher than that for kids in high school. Maybe its natural for people to want their kids to "get ahead". My own take is to strive for a balanced life: kids should make themselves ready for college and for life. Academic excellence is only a very small part of what's important in life: leave plenty of room for the other stuff. I think the other parents would have eaten me alive, if I'd said that there.

Weekend Interrupted

March 14, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

On Saturday, Sally and I went to Gardner for an ESNE meeting. ESNE hasn't been very active lately (to understate significantly -- moribund, might be a better description.) Our previous treasurer, bless his heart, hadn't ever provided me an actual report of what the account balance was or who the active paid-up members were. There were various long, sad stories about this state of affairs, but the fact was that the organization couldn't really do anything without getting on top of this information. Finally, he moved out of state and I recruited a new treasurer to take over. Several of the officers met at the bank to change the signatories on the account. Done. I took a picture to commemorate the first official act of the new treasurer

Afterwards, we repaired to the Gardner Ale House to discuss strategy. I love going to microbrews. The sandwich was fine, but the beer was great. I had Oma's Altbier (which even works OK as an Esperanto word). I was a bit disappointed that one that was listed as "coming soon" wasn't available: the Facelift IPA. That name is almost as good as leatherlips. I might have to go back just to try that one. We got through the agenda of our meeting and had a pleasant meal and some time to chat pleasantly besides.

Today, I just lazed around. Last night was disturbed because of the midnight release of Super Smash Bro's Brawl. The boys went over to a friends house to play the game with friends, so Alisa and I napped most of the afternoon. Other than fixing the basement pump when it quit, I haven't really gotten much productive work done.

Gallows humor

March 9, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

It was kind of a disturbing day. It started out weird when I came out of Clark Hall, looked to the side of the steps and saw a bunch of trash scattered around behind a bush. When I looked a little closer, I realized I was seeing a passport, wallet, ID cards, and the contents of someone's backpack that had obviously been riffled by a thief. I gathered up the stuff and took it to the Biology Department office to call the poor woman who'd been robbed. I suppose she was glad to get her passport and ID cards back. But it did not present an auspicious start to the day.

The first thing on my schedule today, was to meet with Bob. He's an emeritus faculty member in the Department and has been a good friend since I got here -- he's getting up there in years and his health hasn't been so good lately. He's trying to finish the revisions on a publication and was having trouble with the online submission process. I dropped my bags and coat by the door and sat down with him for a few minutes and we got the stuff sorted out -- it's a rather confusing process. Another retired faculty member, who's been keeping an eye on Bob, walked by and saw my coat by the door and thought Bob must have collapsed by the door. He came charging in, ready to perform CPR or something, and then saw that Bob was fine. Poor guy. But it didn't offer me any encouragement for how my day was going so far.

A bunch of students were lined up to print posters for the MCB retreat on Saturday. I spent most of the day with two or three people around me needing support through different parts of the process. By late afternoon, that had sorted itself out, but there were plenty of other things to keep me busy.

In Esperantujo, there's been a lot of excitement about a new Alternate Reality Game that challenges people to find the lost ring. The main clue is that people have a tattoo that says "Trovu la ringon perditan", which is in Esperanto. There's some excitement in the Esperanto community that the game may get big enough -- and have a big enough role for Esperanto -- that it will crossover into the mainstream community and offer a significant opportunity to publicize Esperanto. I decided to make an ad for ARGNet, a website that has news about alternate reality games. We also have a google ad and a landing page with information about the game and Esperanto.

Also in Esperantujo, tomorrow we have a meeting in Gardner to get the new treasurer the authority to draw from the bank account of the Esperanto Society of New England and to try to get the organization moving again.

The middle school principal search has gone out with a whimper. It was a really good process and I really enjoyed working with the search committee. We delivered our report to the superintendent, but now the decision is in his hands. I was glad to participate, although they really couldn't have picked a worse time of the year to run the search. It was a nightmare to have to invest so much time in something off campus during the first two-three weeks of the semester.

Everything ought to be encrypted

March 8, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

James Fallow has posted an excellent overview of the Great Firewall of China (GFW). Unlike other firewalls, that tell you when you're looking at something that isn't permitted, the GFW makes it seem like a technical problem: like the server is down or your network has a glitch. But it turns out that there's a huge hole: VPNs. China can't afford to block VPNs because every company insists on using a VPN. In fact, I think the biggest problem with the internet today is that any of it is allowed to run as unencrypted text. As a matter of law, I'm beginning to suspect that all parts of networked communications should be encrypted and distributed. For the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, we should insist that all communications be encrypted and that if the government wants to search or monitor, they should have to do it at the end points. It could also keep internet service providers honest, by not allowing them to block based on origin, destination, content, or protocol. Internet service providers should move packets -- that's all. I'd like to see the policy adopted at schools too.

Mark your calendars

March 3, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

On May 16, I'll be visiting NCSU in Raleigh-Durham to speak about course redesign. I've been invited because the Intro Biology course there has gotten fed up with trying to use the commercial course management systems and is looking at other options, including Moodle. I'll be speaking about the work we've done building course resources for faculty that provide a shared environment for collaborative work with and among students. I was excited to see an announcement recently that Moodle is rolling out tools to help build collaborative syllabi with student participation. That sounds really cool.

I assume I'll also be able to talk about our laboratory improvements and the transformation of the lecture, from a passive learning environment to a place where students work collaboratively on model-based reasoning problems. I have some time before me, but over the next few weeks, I'm going to try to pull together a group of images to build my presentation and try to actually generate some text that could get published somewhere.

Over the past week, I've spent a lot of time reflecting on the cool stuff I've been able to be involved in at UMass Amherst. This semester, I'm having a great time with the writing class and the collaboration with Alan Snow, our local tree warden, to have students doing something authentic and relevant by participating in the Amherst Tree Inventory. It's been tremendously rewarding to see the new Bioimaging and Histology websites get filled with cool imagery. It's particularly great to see the looks on the faculty's faces when they experience the student excitement over wrestling with real data. In traditional classes, I always ask "But what are the students going to do?" When you let students do things, amazing things always seem to happen.

I let Kathy talk me into teaching Organisms: Diversity and Interactions again next fall -- So many people have told me how much they love the design of the class. I'm supposed to talk with Tom later today and see if I can get him to be a teaching assistant for the class. That would be really great -- I've gotten to work with Tom in so many contexts -- it would be wonderful to have them interact with the students as well.

Governor Patrick and high-stakes tests

March 1, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

This morning, there were reports about our Governor and his comments at a public forum on public education. He indicated he supported high-stakes educational testing.

Trudy Knowles, a professor of elementary education at Westfield State and a member of the Readiness Project, spoke strongly on the issue of MCAS testing, which proved to be a favorite topic with the audience.

"The kids have checked out and we need to get them to check back in," Knowles said. "Right now they think the only reason they need to learn is to pass these tests.

"If you want to do something great for teachers, you need to give them back their classrooms so they're not focused on this test prep all the time," she added.

Knowles also commented on Patrick's extended school day idea, saying that she supported a voluntary extended day but "making it mandatory would be disastrous."

Patrick's response was that he supports high-stakes testing, but the question is, "Is the test that we have the test that we need?"

I think that's the wrong answer. Tests are always going to be misleading because they provide an incomplete picture and their scores can be biased more by taking simple-minded approaches to preparing for them than by providing genuine preparation for students to become life-long learners.

In Amherst, we're lucky because most students already come prepared to do well on standardized tests. My heart really goes out to kids who live someplace where schools are compelled to employ brain-damaged strategies like direct instruction. You can find lots of webpages about the wonders of direct instruction. It really works -- if your goal is to improve scores on tests. What it doesn't do is give students the ability to think flexibly about solving problems. As long as you ask students well-structured problems that require only the procedures given, it works great. But give the problems a little twist or wrinkle and you get nonsense. Unless you teach them how to solve *that* problem.

Of course, solving complex, real-world problems is what people do all the time anyway. You start early by trying to figure out how to get mom to let you out of the baby-prison she trapped you in so she could talk on the phone instead of paying attention to you. That's a complex real-world problem. So we all come prepared to do that kind of problem-solving. The trick is to get people to apply that kind of reasoning and effort to the abstract and academic problems presented in school. It's hard.

Last night, we visited a local vocational school. It brought back a lot of strange memories for me -- I realized in the morning that it reminded me a lot of going to school in Vicksburg. Its partly a class thing -- the men who ran all of the machine shops were just like the tradesmen I worked with when I did that kind of work. Most of the kids I went to school with in Vicksburg came from that kind of background. But it also was the focus on working long hours and making a lot of money to buy cars and motorcycles that the people would talk about as the goals that their students lives were organized around. Still, the entire focus of the shop is building community with kids that have common interests in doing real stuff: making things, fixing things, etc.

There's a real disconnect in our society around measurement. The public has been sold a bill-of-good with respect to educational measurement. We really can't measure most of the things that are important about a good education. By driving educational policy by measuring only the stuff that's easy to measure, we twist education into something almost unrecognizable as an authentic human endeavor.

Religion and experience

February 28, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

I'm reading this interview with John Marks about his new book Reason to Believe. He talks about the experiences he had the led him to abandon his Faith -- he said "I'd been through this whole experience of trying to hold on to the faith, and at that moment, whatever was left just collapsed."

It reminded me of a time when I was on a biology field trip to Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio. We were walking through a beautiful canyon with rocky walls covered with ferns and bryophytes. Small waterfalls cascaded in from the sides and flowed into a stream along the bottom of the canyon that wound along and over small cataracts of falls that cut through the sedimentary rock. It was a beautiful and breathtaking experience to walk through the forest, see the dappled sunlight reflecting on the canyon walls, and listen to the sounds of water and birds. One student asked "How could you look at this and not believe in God?" My immediate reply was, "How could you look at this and believe in God?" He saw the beauty of God's creation whereas I saw the evidence of natural processes acting over millions of years to form the sedimentary rocks, erode them away, and evolve the plants that covered them and surrounded us.

Looking back, I reflect that we were both wrong. I've come to believe that we must be suspect of any experience that confirms or denies our belief in God. Faith is an a priori belief that is a lens through which all experience is viewed. If you believe in God, you'll see evidence to support that belief everywhere. If you don't, you won't. There isn't any experience you can have that can bear on the fundamental questions.

The real issue is how we come to those a priori beliefs in the first place. Most people are indoctrinated by their parents and by the community around them. It seems only a very recent phenomenon for most people to see the vast range of ways in which religious indoctrination happens in different communities around the world. Unless you are prepared to be extremely ecumenical, we are all atheist with respect to most religions. Is there any experience we could have that would make us believe in Poseidon? And if we had such an experience, could we trust it?

Snowy day

February 26, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

It's another snowy day in Western Mass. I had been dreading today because I had three meetings scheduled nearly back to back starting at 10 and not ending until probably close to 4pm. The snow shut the university down at noon and canceled two of my meetings. Score! I even left early, at 11am, in conformance with the university policy to have an orderly evacuation of the campus alphabetically by last name. As I write this in the early evening, the snow is still coming down.

There was a story in the news this afternoon about a boxer dog stealing a truck. Or, at least, shifting the vehicle into neutral and letting it roll across 5 lanes of traffic. They have good hearts, boxer dogs, but they're not the sharpest knives in the drawer.

With the various excitements of the past couple of weeks, it was nice to come home a little early and have some quiet time. I'm looking forward to the rest of the weekend at home too. Just what the doctor ordered.

Jury Non-Duty

February 22, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

I was scheduled for jury duty today. I was summonsed to the court in Belchertown to appear at 8am. I got up at a normal time, but left early to make sure I was there on time. A grumpy officer made me empty my pockets and eventually frisked me, when I still couldn't go through the metal detector without setting it off. The process basically involved sitting there for a couple of hours (I took a book to read) until they dismissed us when it became clear that the cases on the docket were going to be resolved without going to trial. They showed us a funny video with a female judge who spoke like Elmer Fudd and kept talking about "wight to twial by juwy" and "wule of law". When they dismissed us, the officer explained that the card we would receive for our employers would state what date we'd served, but didn't indicate what time we'd been released. I went ahead and went back to work anyway -- but after lunch.

Today, Mary Carey had an article in the Bulletin about our Esperanto lunch with Jos

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