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Steven D. Brewer's blog

Tom arrives

August 10, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

KraboWe caught a big hermit crab the other day in one of the mongoose traps. He clung to the hardware cloth and wouldn't come out, so we just brought the trap back. Daniel spent a while trying to get him to come out, but eventually wandered off. I waited until he started to move and then startled him. He pulled back into his shell and let me roll him out of the cage. He was a handsome fellow whose shell was a good bit too small. I took some pictures of him and eventually we let him wander off.

I've been very pleased with my new camera. I'm still getting the hang of using the advanced features, but I'm starting to feel like I have mastery over the exposure and f-stop. The only shortcoming I've found is that I wish it had a split-prism in the center for focusing -- that was really handy with my old SLR.

We've been having technology difficulties with our GPS hardware. Buzz got this fancy GPS device called a "Trimble" that has been nothing but trouble. It's supposed to have resolution down to 1meter, but seems flaky and unreliable. It uses a PocketPC device to run it, but menus seem to randomly disappear at times and its a nightmare to try to operate. We eventually just decided to stick with the cheap, commercial GPS devices.

Tom arrived yesterday afternoon. Daniel and I drove over to pick him up at the airport. We had to wait a few minutes until his bag came off the conveyor, but quickly enough were headed out. He was bewildered for a moment when I started driving on the wrong side of the road, until he realized what was happening.

After picking up provisions and taking a quick plunge in the ocean, we took Tom out to the refuge to release the mongooses we'd trapped in the morning. At the end, we walked out onto the beach to show Tom some sea turtle tracks. We found one of the turtle-project people with a bunch of leather-back sea turtle hatchlings that she was getting ready to release. Daniel really enjoyed seeing them and asked the woman a bunch of questions about them.

Jonathon is very frustrated with Daniel. He doesn't like it that Daniel gets to do things that he can't do. Worse, Daniel isn't old enough to know not to rub it in. He teases Jonathon, meaning to do it in a good-natured way, but it nearly makes Jonathon foam at the mouth. Jonathon, then, looks for avenues to get back at Daniel, which encourages Daniel to reciprocate. It's tiring for all of us. In general they're doing well, but it requires a lot of maintenance and intervention to keep things running smoothly.

A rainy day

August 9, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

Dentoj de herpestoWe've caught about 30 unique animals so far this trip. We caught a couple of cute juveniles over the past few days and a bunch of large, brutish males. We recaught an animal tagged from the previous trip in 2004 today. He was a large male with a swollen mouth and almost no teeth. We've been taking pictures of all of the animals, so going forward, we should have a database of teeth and animal appearance. (Pictured at left is a more typical individual. Don't try this at home, kiddies!)

It was a rainy day today. There were dark clouds at sunrise and it rained off and on all day. A young couple arrived yesterday from Texas who we learned were newlyweds on their honeymoon, so we joked that today was good weather for them. We got soaked going out to the field to check the traps. We were doing OK, until we got to a trap that was placed under a termite colony. Daniel balked about pulling the trap out to rebait it and then the rain started. I crawled in there, rebaited the trap, but was drenched by the time I got into the car. After a few minutes, I heard Daniel tell Buzz that he was going into some wet vegetation as "punishment" for making me get wet. But he was punishing himself.

After we got back this afternoon and had lunch, I was tired, so I decided to take a nap. Most days, it's too hot in the afternoon to consider napping, but with the clouds it was a possibility. I only slept for a couple of hours, but I felt better afterwards. I've been a bit sunburned for the past couple of days, so I've been trying to keep out of the sun anyway.

Daniel's friend Trent left today. We exchanged email addresses, phone numbers, etc. and I said I would set up Muppyville accounts for them. Daniel spent almost all of his time with Trent over the past couple of days and is somewhat at loose ends today. An interesting dynamic set up among the children. There was an older boy (Marcello) from one family, and then two boys from another (Trent, one year older than Daniel) and Hardy (a couple years older than Jonathon). Trent and Hardy had met Marcello before Daniel or Jonathon did. Marcello seemed to enjoy playing with the little kids (I think because he enjoyed being in control) and seemed to take little interest in Daniel. Jonathon loves Marcello and calls him "Marshmallow". Daniel said that when he called Marcello that, he hurt his arm. I could have told him that would happen. But now Trent and Hardy are gone and only Marshmallow is left. We're lucky that Tom's going to be here tomorrow.

For dinner, we went to The Harbor Yard, a little bar and restaurant downtown. A blackboard near the door indicated the specials: baked chicken, curried chicken, stewed goat, conch in butter, or red snapper; with rice, mac & cheese, and "provision". When we got inside, we found that there were no menus -- that was the extent of the available dishes and there was no conch after all. Daniel had really wanted fries, but when it became apparent there weren't any, he handled it amazingly well. In fact, when he asked what I thought he should get and I indicated that I thought the baked chicken would be safest, he said, "That's so boring. I didn't come all the way to St. Croix to eat baked chicken!" He almost got the stewed goat, but got the red snapper at the last minute. It was excellent and he ate most of it. I had forgotten that "provision" meant mixed vegetables.

A noctural adventure

August 8, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

Daniel havas herpestonYesterday morning, Jonathon woke up early. As soon as he came out, it was clear to Bob and I that he wasn't well. After a few minutes, it became evident that he had an earache. It was a few hours until K-Mart opened and we could get some children's-tylenol. He was in a lot of pain and let everyone know it. Once we got him some tylenol, he promptly threw it all up. But at least some got into him and gave him some relief. Once we got back, he was ready to go swimming. Buzz is going to take him to the clinic today to make sure he doesn't need more aggressive treatment.

We've caught around 20 mongooses so far. The first day, there were more juvenile and females and on the second day, more large males. One of the males was around 850 grams -- one of the largest Buzz had ever seen. We tagged them all and collected observations and photographs. We caught so many the first day, we ran out of empty traps and had to bring some traps in without leaving a replacement in place.

The traps are getting old and worn out. Buzz and I worked to put a few broken traps into working order, or shift parts around to make a working trap from two broken ones. There was some excitement at one point when I saw a mongoose find a weak point at the back of one trap and push his way out into the car. Luckily, the driver's side door was open and he simply ran off into the bush. I wouldn't have enjoyed being in a car with a trapped mongoose. They're not very friendly.

I went shopping by myself. It's a bit scary to drive on the wrong side of the road and to go to the store all by myself. I spent just over $100 and got enough provisions to last us all several days. I'm planning to make a big pot of chili and we can also make burgers, hot dogs, and spagetti-stuff. I had gotten three boxes of macaroni the first time we went shopping, but Daniel hasn't eaten any. He's having too much fun trying new things.

Some big storms have rolled through today. Mostly to the north of us, but one good storm rolled through right here, creating puddles of water on the sidewalks that are still here this morning. Buzz said he didn't remember hearing thunder before, but we've had two storms with thunder during the afternoon. Lots of huge, towering clouds on the horizon spanned by veils of rain.

With the heavy rain, I thought it might be a good night to drive to the rainforest and try to hear coquis. Buzz calls them "genip frogs" because he says it sounds like they're saying "genip, genip". We drove up Criquee Dam Road north of Fredriksted and heard lots of genip frogs. They actually sound a lot like spring peepers. We could hear other animals -- maybe amphibians or maybe insects -- calling as well. One sounded something like a woodpecker striking a hollow tree three times "da-da-da!" We saw small frogs, but also some large Marine Toads hopping across the road. We brought back one to live in our shower for a day or two so I can take pictures. Large bats would flit in and out of the headlights. At one little pool that stretched across the road, we saw a bat flit down and touch the surface, like Noctilio, the Fisherman Bat might do. We couldn't see it well enough to make a definitive identification, but it was very exciting.

mi havas nevideblan herpeston!It was very important to Daniel that I make a picture of him holding an empty trap that says "i has invisible mongoose". I explained to him that most people won't be able to get the joke because they would never expect a trap like that to be used to catch mongooses, but he didn't mind. I hope he's happy with the picture. I did it in gimp, although when I discovered I couldn't make shadowed type, the gimp guys would tell me I should be using Inkscape for this kind of stuff.

Our nocturnal adventure seems to have made everyone else sleep in late this morning. I'm sitting out at the table with a cup of coffee enjoying the company of the anoles and grass quits. Soon, I expect I'll see the little blue herons and night herons come in to start looking for breakfast. Today is starting clear, with only a few puffy clouds on the horizon. Time to get started.

Ebb and Flow

August 6, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

GekoAfter much discussion, we set a trap line along the road from the beach back into Sandy Point. We were concerned about the effort needed by the very young and very old to go out in the field every day. By staying close to the road, we reduced the amount of work necessary to service the traps by a huge amount, which will make it easier to take Jonathon and Bob out into the field. Daniel had a great time setting the traps. I think he'd been a bit worried about the need to "do work" and was pleased to discover that the work is mostly fun.

The little gang of boys hooked up again over the course of the day, playing hide and seek and, after dark, a game they called "catch the fairie", which appeared to involve shining a light on someone with a flashlight and then all them racing around trying to grab it, while the other person ran away. Running around corners and up-and-down steps -- I thought the game should be called "who wants some road rash?" They played solidly, on the ground and in the water from after lunch until 9pm, with a brief break while we went to the store and ate dinner.

Over the past two or three months, Daniel has been trying new foods. Yesterday afternoon, he suddenly announced that he wanted to try ramen -- just like Naruto. We went out to the store and bought three packages of ramen: pork-flavor, for Daniel; chicken flavor, for Jonathon (who wants anything that Daniel wants), and an extra, since they were three-for-a-dollar. I prepared them with great pomp and served the boys ramen. When I asked how they were, they didn't answer. I realized it was because they liked it so much, they constantly had their mouths full. Eventually, Daniel gave me a thumbs up, confirming my suspicions.

After dinner, the boys went over to another cottage to watch a TV show. I made Daniel promise that they would come home by 9pm. At 9pm, Buzz and I heard a commotion and raised voices and walked over to find Daniel trying to persuade a reluctant Jonathon to come back home and to bed. Daniel and I had already had several conversations about "being the big brother" and we spoke a bit more, with me praising his efforts to be responsible and get back on time. He admitted that it was a lot of work to be the big brother.

I had made Daniel promise to come up by 9pm for bed in order for me to be willing to get him up in the early, early morning to go look for geckos. He was true to his word and I was true to mine -- I got him up around 2:30am and we walked around looking for geckos. We found four or five. I had thought they might be easier to catch than anoles, but found they were more cagey than I had expected. We didn't catch any, but we did get a few nice pictures. I think Daniel was asleep again before he hit the bed.

This morning, we got an unpleasant surprise. One of the tires on the van had gone flat overnight. We immediately found the jack, but neither of us could find the spare tire. After much searching around the car, we eventually found it. It was suspended under the two front seats and was lowered by turning a crank which lowered the tire to the ground -- it was one of those little fake spare tires. After Buzz changed the tire, we drove to the rental agency and they said they would repair it. While we waited, we went to a little farmer's market nearby and got a bunch of different kinds of tropical fruit: star fruit, bananas, mangos, sour sop, coconuts -- and genips. The ladies joked that we couldn't get just one coconut -- since we were men, we needed two nuts. The fruit is all marvelous: the bananas are much sweeter and tarter than bananas in the US and the genips were as good as we remembered.

As soon as the tire was "fixed", we all headed out to Sandy Point to run the trapline. Daniel's new friend Trent came along too. We all took bets as to the number of mongoose we would catch, but the results exceeded even Jonathon's most optimistic projection: we caught 12 mongooses. In addition, we caught a large blue crab and a norway rat. The mongooses always seems extremely angry and frustrated to be captured, but the rat was merely phlegmatic. He watched us curiously, occasionally testing the holes to see if he could fit through any. When we did let him go, we opened door and he watched us quizically, until he was sure we didn't mean him any harm -- then he jumped out and casually sauntered away.

One of the mongoose cages had been dragged around by a dog. It was lying out in the middle of the road and the poor mongoose inside was half-dead. It had been bashed around in the trap pretty well and then left for dead in the sun. We hoped it might perk up a little bit and be OK, but when we processed them, it was clear she had a broken leg and her hip was mangled, so we anesthetized her and sacrified her as humanely as we could.

By the time we got to the end of the road, it became clear that our tire hadn't actually been fixed. Buzz put the spare on again and dropped us off for lunch while he took it back across the island to the car-rental agency. He reported that they were pretty unhappy that the mechanic hadn't adequately repaired the tire and, this time, simply replaced the tire.

It's late in the day as I post this. Now its time to get in the water, float around, and then fix myself a drink with lots of rum.

New Day in St. Croix

August 4, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

Daniel kaj iguanoNow the rain is only dripping from the leaves. A moment ago, it was roaring on the metal roof, but already the sidewalks are drying. Geckos stick to the walls, head down, near the lights. A rooster is crowing. It's almost 5am. It's another day in St. Croix.

It's hard to believe we've only been here for one full day. We arrived late in the afternoon on Wednesday, picked up some supplies, and immediately hit the ocean. Daniel began snorkeling instantly again, almost as if he'd never left. His new fins give him tremendous mobility in the water. Buzz has been helping Jonathon learn how to use a mask and snorkel, but he mostly just likes to play in the water and to float with his noodle -- but only over the sand. He got out over one of the rocks and began squealing that he needed help. Buzz ran over, but then said, "Hey! You don't need help -- you can stand up here!" But Jonathon didn't like standing on the algae-covered rocks and screeched until Buzz towed him back over the sand. Little boys are funny things.

This has been a big shift for Daniel. He's used to being the little brother, but here he has to act like the big brother. He's doing really well. It's funny, though, because everyone keeps calling him Charlie. I've done it at least twice. We decided it was because we were used to the little one being Daniel and the big one being Charlie, so Jonathon was being Daniel and Daniel was being Charlie. "If I'm being Charlie, who's Charlie then?" he asked. I said that Charlie was Philip (and that Philip was Richard and Richard was Ashton and Ashton was Michael and that Michael was Michael). In the afternoon, the boys fell in with the other little boys running around the place and had a good time playing hide-and-go-seek.

We have addicted Jonathon to Naruto. There is a huge TV in the living room of our suite, but when the boys tried it, they couldn't get it to tune in any channels. I suspect they just didn't know how to operate the cable box, but rather than correcting this misapprehension, I let them go on believing that you just can't watch TV here. They're finding plenty to do without needing to watch TV. At night, though, since it does get dark early, we do watch 2 or 3 episodes of Naruto. Jonathon has gotten completely sucked in.

We have met with great herpetological success. The boys spent much of yesterday trying to catch anoles with nooses that Buzz and I constructed at the end of sticks. Buzz caught one, but the rest of us haven't yet. In the afternoon, one of the maids told us that they'd found an iguana in one of the apartments. We arrived in time to see them catch it and they let us take it away. After photographing it, we released it into our dining room (which is not really a room, being completely open on one side and peforated on the other). We hope it might hang around. And this morning, I awoke early and went out to see if I could spot some geckos. Sure enough, they were everywhere and I saw more than a dozen. The like to hang out near the lights. They are pinkish with translucent skin -- you can see their organs -- and they have big, dark eyes. I saw one catch an insect. It munched in the insect and then licked it's lips, in a very gecko-like way.

I'm getting a lot of practice with my new camera. I'm taking a lot of bad pictures, but getting better. I'm pleased with several of the pictures I took of the iguana. I still haven't gotten a satisfactory picture of the geckos, though. I'm having a hard time learning how to manage metering, exposure, and aperture. The camera isn't just "automatic" or "manual". There are a bunch of priority modes where its partially automatic and some where it doesn't let you take bad pictures. As I said, I'm taking a lot of bad pictures.

We had heard there was another biologist staying at Cottages by the Sea and met him yesterday afternoon. When I saw him, he looked familiar and, after talking for a few minutes, I sure I had met him before. Eventually, we figured out that he had attended BioQUEST one of the same years that Buzz and I were there. It's a small world. It's also interesting to me that Cottages by the Sea is a nexus of interconnections among different communities.

We all went to Lost Dog Pizza last night. It's the same place that Alisa and I went to when we were here three years ago, but then the courtyard was open and it was like going to a restaurant. This time, the courtyard was closed and we just sat in the bar. Daniel has only recently decided that he likes pizza and I was a little concerned he might not like this pizza, but I needn't have worried. He was very happy -- once the pizza came. I think it was the longest I ever waited for a pizza. It took them at least an hour -- maybe two. We began to hypothesize they had to order the pizza from someplace else, like Puerto Rico, and have it flown in. At the bar, there was a foosball game with the payment mechanism smashed out that, once you knew from where to retreive the ball inside the guts someplace, you could play for free. The boys had great fun playing foosball, sitting at the bar, and chasing giant cockroaches along the sidewalks.

It's 5:30 now and the sky is starting to get light. The roosters are still crowing and the breeze has started to pick up. The lizards are having their shift change: The geckos are hiding themselves away and the anoles are coming out. It's another day in paradise.


August 3, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

Ra?pojLucy saw some cool caterpillars on her walk and came back to get the boys and me so we could see them too. There were three or four milkweed plants near one corner of a building that had been denuded and the two in the shade were still covered with caterpillars.

I took my new camera and tripod so I could practice trying to get some close ups. Unfortunately, they were in a somewhat shady spot, so I didn't try to use my extension tubes, but I thought the pictures came out pretty well.

There were at least a hundred on the plant I photographed. Most of them are on the undersides of the leaves. I took a couple of shots a foot away and then moved to within 6 inches. After I took the shot, I must have breathed on them or something, because almost all of them let go at once and rained down into the weeds below. They must have some kind of signaling mechanism.

I looked them up and decided they must be Euchaetes egle, the Milkweed Tussock Caterpillar. I was reluctant to touch them, since they look like they might have urticating hairs, but I couldn't find any evidence of that in the online references. Daniel brought back a couple with a bunch of milkweed leaves in hopes that they'll spin a coccoon and he can see them emerge. Unfortunately, there probably won't be enough time before we have to leave for St. Croix.

In fact, it turns out that Tussock Moths (Lymantridae) are known for having urticating hairs! I thought about linking to the wikipedia page on urticating hairs and found that it only talked about them on tarantulas, so I did some more searching and found that, yes, caterpillars do have urticating hairs and that Euchaetes are known to have them. So I took a half-hour and updated the wikipedia page. Nifty!

Getting ready

July 24, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

I'm getting ready for my upcoming travels. First, I travel to San Diego (for the ELNA Estrara Kunsido) and Tijuana (Landa Kongreso), then return for one day before leaving again with Daniel for our greatly anticipated trip to St. Croix. I'm sure I'll have fun, but I always hate packing and making travel arrangements. I wrote a haiku about it:

mi faras la aran?ojn...
jam hejmsopiras

(About to travel, I make the arrangements...already homesick)

I have also come to really hate flying. Flying has become so unpleasant as to be nearly intolerable. The huge lead time to travel, the long wait, being packed into a tiny space with dozens of other people. I hate it. I regularly ask myself why I put up with it, given how much I hate it. I begin to think I'd rather have "IT". Sigh...

Lazy Saturday

July 24, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

Penny varmasThis morning, Lucy and I took Penny for our regular Saturday outing downtown to visit the farmer's market and library. It's a beautiful, breezy day.

Last night, we went out to get Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows at midnight. Alisa had pre-ordered a copy for us from our local bookseller. We arrived around 11:30 and stood in line with the dozens of other people who'd come to get their copies. Once we got home, I read the book from cover to cover, finishing around 6:30am. I enjoyed it -- probably as much as I've enjoyed any of the others.

For lunch, I wanted something fresh and flavorful, so I decided to improvise some Tortilla Soup -- although without the tortillas, as I'm trying to be low-carb these days. I used a can of chicken broth, some roasted chicken, 6 tomatoes, fresh cilantro, garlic powder, a handful of jalape

New Camera

July 21, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

Sally LawtonI used to be a serious amateur photographer. I had an SLR and a bunch of lenses. When I had kids, I found that you only got about 18 seconds to setup and take a picture, so I quit using my SLR and we got a point-and-shoot camera. As the transition to digital happened, I kept watching and checking every year or two to see if someone would come out with a digital back that would let me use my old lenses. Finally, Pentax came through.

Yesterday I got a K100D. Boy, is it amazing! I've only begun to explore its capabilities. I've had good success using a point-and-click camera to take snapshots, but I've found it limiting when I wanted to do more serious photography. I don't think that will happen with this camera

It's going to take me a while to get the hang of using the new camera. When I did photography more seriously, I knew my camera extremely well and had a good sense for how to achieve the effects I wanted. Now, I'm going to have to start over, scrape the rust off those neurons, and figure that stuff out again.

I'm hoping this camera lasts a reasonable time. My old Pentax camera probably lasted for 10 years. I've been happy with the functionality of the Canon point-and-shoot cameras I've gotten, but disappointed that they all seemed to require service. Today I saw this article that seems to suggest that Canon thinks that *most* of their cameras would need to be returned over a three-year period for service. That seems pretty lame, to me. Cameras are complex and are out in the real world with dirt, grit, etc, but to expect *most* to require service within three years seems like an awfully short lifespan.


July 19, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

Nokta PapiloA couple of days ago, there were a whole bunch of Rosy Maple Moths around our porch light when I went out. I don't know what maple tree they might be visiting these days: the maple tree that used to live in our yard had to be cut down a few years ago and the one in the neighbors yard is dying -- maybe these moths are why.

My brother Phil has started making the transition to a full-time career as a writer. He wrote a posting on making a budget for a blogging site that helps people learn how to live frugally. Its a good fit for Phil to write about that stuff. He derives great pleasure from being frugal and when his current employment ends, he'll get to derive that pleasure full time.

This morning, as I had predicted, John Lombardi was officialized as the new president of LSU. Now we get to see how deep the rabbit hole is.

A few days ago, I got an announcement that the MSP was looking for stories about the need for professional development. It's been very frustrating to not have it for the past three years. The Romney administration, for the first time since I arrived at the University, refused to provide professional development as part of the collective bargaining agreement. They promised (in writing) however, to introduce a separate spending bill to make up the funds, but then reneged. Our bargaining team reportedly presented some 60 stories today about the opportunities the University is missing when professional development isn't available. Here's the story I wrote:

In the 10 years that I've been at the University, I generally presented papers at one to three conferences every year until the past contract didn't provide any professional development. Since then, I've had to be much choosier, presenting only when I received an invitation that would provide at least some of the travel or lodging expenses. I've passed up at least 5 opportunities to present over the past three years where I probably would have offered a paper if professional development funding had been available.

I would also like to respond to a comment I heard regarding concern over faculty purchases of video equipment with professional development funding being an inappropriate use of the money. I received a professional development grant from the president's office to purchase digital video equipment and gave several conference presentations about it. Here are the slides from one such presentations. Furthermore, I subsequently used the equipment for my students in the course I was teaching called "Information Technology in Biology Education" where the students would create 30 second "commercials" to illustrate biological concepts.

I also offered to send links to those -- unfortunately, they aren't collected anywhere, but they're a real scream. It was Ethel Stanley who gave me the idea of having students create videos as a form of persuasive presentation, because it was a form they were already familiar with and you could use it to talk about persuasion is important in science and what the differences are between trying to persuade a lay audience versus a scientific one. I hope we can convince them of the value of the professional development money. It really makes a huge difference.

University Reorganization

July 14, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

Yesterday, the Executive Advisory Committee met to discuss the UMass governance crisis. Today, LSU will decide whether or not to accept John Lombardi as president -- it seems a forgone conclusion that they will. Once that happens, an interim chancellor will need to be appointed and it seems likely that a search committee will be formed relatively quickly to search for a permanent chancellor.

According to the chairman of the UMass board of trustees, there are currently no plans for a dramatic reorganization of the system as they had previously envisioned -- at least until after the governor's readiness project delivers their report, scheduled for May. But this doesn't mean that they won't continue to try to cherry-pick the resources of the campus.

Evidently, the plan to merge the campuses into a single large university was driven by a secret consultant's study by the Education Alliance. The board won't release the report, but the CEO of the Education Alliance was the guy who wrote Merging Colleges for Mutual Growth in 1994 and then We Were Wrong; Try Partnerships, Not Mergers. It would be interesting to see the report to get some understanding of what has been guiding the actions of the board.

I've been continuing my study of University Governance. Just before I left on vacation, I finished reading Competing Conceptions of University Governance: Negotiating the Perfect Storm. It was a fascinating and insightful read. I've got a bunch more papers to push through -- in particular, I want to look at the case studies of changes at other university systems to try to make predictions about the effect of changes here.

The best model, however, is probably to look carefully at what the plans were here when the last chancellor's search happened and take stock of what the outcomes were. Maybe we can use that to guide the search this time around. Maybe.


July 13, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

We returned this morning from our week-long vacation at the beach. Again, we decided to drive straight through -- it took us about 18 hours. I'm getting too old for these marathon road trips. At the same time, it makes the most sense to go through megalopolis around midnight -- it just seems dumb to spend the night at a hotel only to have to face rush hour traffic around New York. And by the time we've gotten past New York, its just a couple of hours home anyway. We took several one-hour breaks to stop for food and to walk around. Alisa drove for a few hours in the middle, but I did the lion's share of the driving -- if I'm going to have to be in the car anyway, I'd just as soon be driving. When we got home, I walked straight up to my bedroom, turned on the air conditioning, and crashed.

It was a good vacation. Vacations are really different now that the children are more self-sufficient. I spent a lot of time on the balcony overlooking the beach. We had great weather for most of the week -- the last few days were becalmed, hot and steamy, but earlier, it was perfect with strong gusty winds and mild temperatures. It was simply wonderful.

We did all the usual beach stuff: we hung out in the waves and the pool. Some of us got sun burned (not me, though). We went to Fort Macon and the Sanitary Fish Market. We watched Ratatouille during the hottest afternoon. Charlie and I spent too much time working on Muppyville. Charlie has a lot of good ideas for extending it and is on his way to becoming a competent programmer.

Alisa and Charlie got caught in a rip current late one afternoon. Charlie, a very strong swimmer, was able to get back and got two men to swim out and help Alisa get back in. Thank goodness she made it back OK. The ocean is pitiless.

During my absence, I learned that Lombardi has secured a new position as the president of the Louisiana State University system. Some are claiming that the recent events here were orchestrated, by him or others, to bolster his case. Having seen the efforts made to ease an incompetent principal out (and up), you can't completely discount statements like that, but it doesn't seem likely to me.

In the past four or five years, I've come to appreciate the attraction of moving on to someplace new. When I arrived here, I had a wonderful experience making a difference in a thousand ways that no-one had realized would even be possible. Eventually, though, I've found that I fetch up against insurmountable problems trying to extend beyond a certain point: personalities, limited resources, and other obstacles, preclude going any further. I understand the attraction of going somewhere else and having that heady rush of being able to "make a difference". At the same time, I understand that I'm actually still making a huge difference where I am. I think it's an illusion that progress seems slower now, because it doesn't account for how much backsliding would happen if I left. I think it's a mistake that our society has people in such flux -- relatively few people have the luxury of staying in one place over an entire career. I think it reduces people's ability to participate in local government and to act as an engaged citizen when you don't stay in one place long enough to put down roots. Still, I understand the attraction...


July 9, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

On our trip south, we stopped yesterday at the Fredricksburg Battlefields. The visitor's center is right by the sunken road at the base of Marye's Heights. We went on a short guided tour where the ranger brought the park alive for us, explaining something about why this place became so important. Unfortunately, the open fields where the union soldiers fell is now covered with houses and buildings -- only a narrow space near the sunken road is still open. We only had enough time to visit one small part of the battlefield -- it extends over 6 or 7 miles. It would be fun to go back with bicycles and ride from one place to another -- you could make a nice day out of visiting Chancellorsville and the Wilderness as well. Maybe another year.

Everything weird

July 2, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

This evening, Lucy was invited to a reception with wine and appetizers. She invited me to go along, so we had lots of tasty treats and wine. The reception was for people with investments through the local credit union. Weird.

Earlier today, the Executive Advisory Council met to discuss UMass reorganization issues. It turns out that there is a group of trustees that is absolutely committed to the idea of having UMass participate in Division 1A football. There have been two task forces -- the last less than 5 years ago -- that have made it very clear how unrealistic this is for UMass. But that doesn't appear to matter. The quote of the day: "They are on a mission to have 1A football -- over our dead bodies."

This whole week before our beach vacation is really weird. On Monday, the boys flew down to North Carolina on their own. They're having fun with the grandparents and we're having this odd, detached experience in our quiet empty house. Very unreal.

But I'm staying in touch with the boys because we've set up a new Muppyville MOO. Charlie and one of his cousins have been logging in and working on elaborating the new MOO. Their goal is to create an environment for Daniel's 4th grade class to explore in the fall. We've already got his teacher on board, so I think it will be a great thing.

I've set up moos about 4 times now. The first time was when Charlie himself was in 4th grade. I thought it would be a good way for the kids to learn about electronic chat in a relatively safe environment -- without any on-line predators. As it turned out, one of the kids became an on-line predator -- at least, he tried to use the environment as a way to exert power over others -- and eventually, I had to "newt" him. (If you "toad" someone, it's permanent, but if you "newt" someone, they can "get better".) I told him that if he wanted to visit Muppyville again, he'd have to ask his parents to speak with me. It took him more than a year to work up the courage to have his parents contact me.

Eventually, that muppyville quit working -- it got corrupted or something. So I set up a new one and told the three kids who were interested that they could try being the wizard this time -- I made 3 of them wizards. The system lasted less than one day before they destructively tested it into unresponsiveness. We tried again and it lasted a couple of days. So, we reverted to the original model, with only me being wizard. That one lasted a while, but eventually the kids got bored with it and it went down and I didn't bother to bring it back up.

But now Daniel's going into 4th grade. And Charlie wants him to have the Muppyville experience. So he's going to be the wizard this time. I've providing the technical support, but I'm mostly letting him run the show.

Everytime, I gear up, I go out and look to see what's new. I was pleased to discover Atlantis -- a new MOO client. It's really nice -- I particularly like the alert system and Growl notification stuff. I found a minor problem with how it interacted with the MCP (local editing) stuff in MOO, so I contacted the author, who volunteered to log into the MOO and check to see if she could replicate the problem. She found it and fixed it in nothing flat. Awesome!

Everytime, I wonder a bit if the lambdamoo software is just too old -- the MUSH and MUX stuff is still being actively hacked on. But I like the fact that the MOO system is relatively simple and doesn't include the money and killing commands. I think it would be a lot harder to get the school to take it seriously if students were "killing" one another.

Thunderstorms and Fireworks

June 29, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

It's hot here and thunderstorms rolled through this afternoon. I don't think it ever did more than sprinkle right here, but the storms were all around us. Around 7:30, there were nearly constant flashes of lighting to the east. I sat out with Penny in the tent, had a cold drink, and watched the fireworks. Fireworks, of course, are really something different.

Massachusetts is one of a handful of states where fireworks -- all kinds -- are illegal. On the news, they showed a demonstration somewhere of how dangerous fireworks are. They blew up mannequins and set some on fire to illustrate what happens if the fireworks misfire. They also had a father who lost a son to a rocket that fell over and hit the little boy in the head. As a kid I always loved fireworks and I think its ludicrous to make them all illegal. My favorite, as a kid, were the ones my grandparents gave me in Illinois called "crickets". They would jump around popping and giving off smoke, littering the sidewalk with bits of newspapers covered with Chinese writing.

Daniel didn't like fireworks as a small kid. When we go to North Carolina, people shoot off all kinds of fireworks from the beach of the barrier island. Daniel was unhappy one time that someone shot one off without enough warning. Alisa told him it was mean of someone to do that, but afterwards Daniel would just "Fireworks mean!" And fireworks are mean.

I began by making the analogy to lightning seeming like fireworks, but in our society fireworks represent military bombardment. When I see fireworks now, I tend to think of the children in Israel and Gaza -- and Iraq -- who are killed when rockets scream in and explode in their living rooms. It has rather taken the fun out of fireworks for me.

Still, I'm reminded of the child who's mother wouldn't let him play a game where he was pretending a stick was a gun. "Don't you know that guns kill people?" she asked. "But, Mom," he said. "This is make believe. Don't you know the difference between real and make believe?" I think that as you get older, it gets harder and harder to tell.

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