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Steven D. Brewer's blog


For the first time in more than a decade, I'm not teaching this semester. At the moment, I'm still at 110% getting ready for the semester but, once things get started, I'm anticipating having some real time to work on interesting projects. I've been frustrated over the past few years that I've become so saturated at work that I don't have time to support people doing interesting things in the department. I've already gotten a few things started and more are on the way.

For Bioimaging, I installed the 5-star rating module and a view to show the highest rated images. The instructor wants to encourage students to look at one another's images and think about what contributes to quality -- this is a small way to get started. For Histology, I'm looking at supporting their adoption and use of CC licenses. I've been talking about CC for years, but this year people are starting to see the need.

When I was hired, my position did not actually include any teaching. I've volunteered for teaching in the department for several reasons. Partly, its been to contribute in particular places where I thought I thought I had something useful to offer: when we redesigned the intro labs, I thought it was important to actually teach the new activities and to model the style of teaching we were proposing. And when there were early faculty retirements that left a gap in the writing course, I saw an opportunity to make-over the class and use it as a vehicle for demonstrating to the other faculty ways to engage undergraduates in meaningful activity and to support the activity with technology. I also teach partly to demonstrate teaching on my CV, although that was never my primary motivation.

During the coming year, I'm hoping to propose teaching a new class on Biological Computing. I've been surprised that our students mostly are consumers of technology and rarely learn how to get under the hood and use the things that make technology really powerful for scientists. One faculty member pointed out that, if you can't program or use technology effectively, it limits the kinds of questions you can ask. Students need a better preparation in using technology at a basic level: to build scripts, use regular expressions, reformat data, and link analyses together. We do a disservice when our students have never even been exposed to this.

Mental Images

Bicycling downhill from downtown to the office, zipping past pedestrians, wind in my face, and thinking how awesome it is to be on two wheels.

Watching text scroll and scroll and scroll across the computer screen and then to hear the chime as it reboots: It's working!!!

Feeling angry that our dear Governor, who forced us to take concessions on our last contract, now won't implement the clause that would restore some of our pay when revenues came in higher than expected -- basically trying to snatch back one of the bones he tossed us, thinking there wasn't any meat left on it.

Watching Daniel's guarded face as he tastes miso, teriyaki and tangsuyuk at House of Teriyaki for my birthday dinner. Watching Charlie expertly eat his whole meal with chopsticks.

Kneeling under my desk as the building shakes, knocking papers off my desk, then walking out in the hallway and having everyone else look at me like I'm crazy when I ask about the earthquake.

Getting message after message after message from friends in Facebook from all around the world wishing me well on my birthday.

Watching Muffy expertly catch a cricket and gently tear it to pieces with his chelicerae and, afterwards, carefully clean his chelae.

Feeling guilty that the grass is too long.

Holding hands and reading together into the late hours of the night, knowing that, for just a few more days of summer, we don't have to get up before dawn to get kids out the door and then go to work.

Language Barrier

This morning, I read Fukushima workers face “nightmarish world of high radiation, difficult terrain” which includes a depressing video filed by John Sparks with Channel 4 News.

There is, of course, the depressing story about corporate deceptions regarding the true state of the situation. And how the operation is being managed by 600 subcontractors that mostly don't seem to know what one another are doing. But I was struck by this statement regarding the language barrier:

Communication on-site is difficult. With about 30 foreign experts in charge of key bits of equipment, there's no common language. And the masks make it that much tougher. Sometimes the workers take them off to speak to each other.

"Few of us speak English or French, so the language barrier is higher than expected. We talk to them through translators, but we know we're being exposed to radiation while we do it."

This is exactly what Esperanto was intended to fix. Instead of empowering everyone to be able to seamlessly communicate with everyone else, we have ended up with English as an international language -- which works pretty well for big businesses and corporations to make money, but doesn't really solve the problems that people have on the ground. It's depressing that, 125 years after a workable solution was unveiled to the world, we still have a real language barrier that is killing people.

A shocking moment

I've been very busy just lately: I got back from Denmark and have been trying to get caught up with everything I was supposed to be working on all summer. I lost another two days this week to attend a workshop on Specify -- it wasn't the best use of my time, but I guess I'm glad I went. Today, I've been running from one thing to another. I rode my bike to Alisa's office to get a piece of paper (that I need to get reimbursed), rode back to the office to drop it off, and then took a different elevator than I would usually take to go upstairs.

When I pushed the elevator call button there was a horrible "KER-CHUNK! KER-CHUNK! KER-CHUNK! KER-CHUNK!" noise. I kind of paled and took a step back wondering whether it would be safe to step onto an elevator making a noise like that. Then I realized it was someone using the paper-towel dispenser in the bathroom next door. Sigh...

Drupal survey

Tom pointed out that the State of Drupal 2011 Survey is up. It was a pretty tedious survey with long lists of buzzwords that mostly didn't apply or resonate with me. The last bit was just a form asking for general feedback. Here's what I wrote:

I think the biggest challenge in using Drupal is that people often end up having to re-invent the wheel in terms of configuration (setting up content-types, views, etc). Having a large array of pre-configured setups (for education, e-business, one-user blogging, multi-user blogging, etc) would help people standardize on consistent ways of doing things and aid adoption and integration.

I like Drupal a lot, but the "last mile" in Drupal is setting it up for people to use. And I find, over and over again, that different communities set it up differently. It would be great to be able to pick a recipe that sets up most of this stuff for you, both so you wouldn't have to do it yourself -- and so that it would be done in a standard way. It's nice to be able to customize stuff, but it's silly for everyone to have to customize everything because standard tools just aren't available.

Harold and Kumar Open a Mexican Restaurant

The weirdest international food I ever ate was at a Mexican Restaurant in Madrid. Until today when I ate at Nachos Mexican Restaurant in the mall near the CABINN Metro. I think this is what must have happened:

"Hey, dude. Let's open a restaurant in Fields in Copenhagen."

"What kind of restaurant?"

"I don't know. An Indian restaurant?"

"But there's already an Indian restaurant."

"I know! Let's open a Mexican Restaurant!"

"Dude! We don't know how to cook anything Mexican!"

"Let's make it a buffet restaurant and serve chicken tikka masala and beef korma."

"That's not Mexican food."

"Who cares. These people are Danish -- they're from Denmark. They don't know from Mexican! We'll price it cheap and just throw in some those tortilla chips and some of those little crunchy bowls you put a taco salad in."

"Would that fool anybody?"

"Sure. The Danes won't know the difference and the tourists will be so happy to find a place to eat lunch for under $20, they won't tell them."

(Apologies to Harold and Kumar.)

The weirdest *experience* I ever had was in an Armenian Restaurant near Irvine California, but I digress.

After Thirty Years

This weekend, I went to my 30th highschool reunion. It was a very strange experience, especially due to it being bookended between my other summer adventures, especially my trip to San Diego last weekend and my upcoming trip to Copenhagen this week.

I really haven't been to Vicksburg in 30 years. Upon reflection, that's not quite true: I visited Jon Comstock in Vicksburg twice during the first 15 years after I graduated High School. But I practically haven't been back to Kalamazoo in 15 years since I finished my doctorate and I certainly haven't been back to Vicksburg. It seemed more prosperous -- and somewhat less grim -- than I remembered.

My first reaction to seeing my classmates? Damn, we're old. Looking at myself in the mirror, I know we've gotten old, but I've watched my face age day by day. Seeing the old classmates as old men and women was really strange. Most of us have a weight problem too. Lots of bald men too.

I wouldn't have gone to a reunion 10 years ago. I might not have gone 5 years ago. In fact, I was initially happy when they picked the 23rd of July, since I was already scheduled to go to Copenhagen by then. But I made the mistake of saying I couldn't attend and they moved the date up. Since they did that, I felt somewhat obligated to attend. I also found that I wasn't as rabidly opposed as I was 10 years ago.

When I graduated and left Vicksburg, I thought, "Good riddance." I really never wanted to go back or see most of those people ever again. I always felt miserably out-of-place in High School and nursed a black cup of bitterness over my experience for years. But time gives perspective and I eventually recognized that most of us felt out of place and unhappy. Different people reacted to the circumstances in different ways: I can certainly recognize now that I wasn't always at my best. And given how difficult it was for me, who am I to judge how others got themselves through that hellhole.

I was very pleased to see a few people: Jim Howell, in particular, who I was very close to in those years. He got religion and has become a right-wing nutjob. But he's still a good guy. And I respect his choices, no matter how wrong they are. It was great to see Jeff Moran, who lived close by when I was growing up. And Leanna Marr, who I didn't know well in school, but who went on to get a graduate degree and is posted in Macedonia. And John Ballard, who's brother is a tenured biologist somewhere, but who stayed in town, got a job, and has been married for nearly the entire 30 years. And Lorene Lyons. And Keith Hovious.

People were mostly not surprised to learn I'd ended up a professor someplace. Massachusetts? Amherst? Out east someplace, right? What do you teach? (yawn) Oh, that's interesting.

I was disappointed by a number of people didn't come, in spite of still living close by. Jon Comstock. Mike Kozan. Leroy Heikes.

It was sad to see how many hadn't made it. A long list: 10 or maybe a dozen. Automobile accident. Drunk driver. Suicide. Cancer. Obesity.

It was sad to see how many people smoked. The party basically moved outside, although half was because the music was so loud you couldn't talk inside. And probably risked hearing loss.

They handed out a questionaire and made a series of silly awards based on the results. The "breeders cup" for most children. For the most grandchildren. For coming the farthest. For being married the longest. I won the "Egghead Award" for the most advanced degrees.

Rod Landrum, who'd always been a bit of a smartass was M.C. for the awards ceremony and delivered a very thoughtful, heart-felt little speech that I thought captured the way many of us felt. I wouldn't mind getting the text -- it was good.

The organizers had done a great job. Oh, the names on the name tags could have been a bit bigger. And there volume might have been a bit lower. But it was about as good as it could have been.

I left a bit early: around 9:30, I quietly payed my tab and slipped out into the night. The sky was still light when I left, but it was dark soon. I drove back on the backroads, following the route my bus used to take in school. They had just mown the hay in some of the fields, and I wrote a haiku about the fireflies, while I tried to sort out my feelings.

Coming back, for me, was about confronting my insecurities, fears, and bitterness. I saw the people I wanted to meet. The people who wanted to meet me got their chance. Coming back helped me demonstrate to myself that the past doesn't hold any power over me. Although, it does, of course. The experiences I had during the horrible time shaped me indelibly. When I hear girls laughing, I still have a strong negative reaction, because the pain of the mockery I experienced in those years still burns.

Now, I can put those feelings back in the box and look forward to my next big adventure. I'll have two quiet days at home to get ready and then set off for a week at the Universala Kongreso -- the premier Esperanto experience in the world. Venu kaj venku mi!

Home just for the moment

Lucy, Daniel, and I returned from our two week adventure to Illinois in good order. We had a wonderful stop at Turkey Run, where we hiked vigorously for several hours. After lunch in the lodge, we hit the road (several hours later than I had intended) and arranged to stop at the Comfort Inn in Kent where we've stopped before. Through various machinations, I managed to get us there in time to stop in the hot tub for a few minutes before they closed the pool. Mmmm!

It's been a bit hot for much riding, but I got in a lovely ride yesterday morning before it got too hot. I just rode to the Belchertown end of the Norwottuck trail. As I approached the Lawrence Swamp, I could hear a train on the parallel track. The train converges with the active rail line and runs along it to the end. The train was going quite slowly (not surprising given that there was a derailment there just a few weeks ago) -- so slowly that I was riding faster. I pushed a little and crept my way up along the train and had just pulled level with the front locomotive when we got to the end of the trail and the train sounded its horn for the level crossing. Even though I had been expecting it, I nearly jumped out of my skin.

We celebrated Daniel's birthday. After some consideration, we decided to get him an iPhone. When I first started having an "always on" network connection at home, I realized the disruptive nature of the innovation: it utterly transformed how you used network technology to know that it was always there. Having an iPhone with a 3G connection (as opposed to an iPod Touch or laptop) is similar: you ask questions that you wouldn't otherwise ask. It was similar to when I started wearing a leatherperson: I received it as a gift and wore it for weeks without ever using it. I remember wondering one morning when I put it on, why I bothered since I never used it. That morning, I was driving to work and the sun visor kept flopping down. I looked and determined that it needed a philips-head screw driver. "I'll never remember to bring a screwdriver out here," I thought. And only then remembered that I had one! I pulled over, got out my leatherperson, fixed the visor, and then realized I had thought the same thing about a dozen things in the past week: little repairs or adjustments that I hadn't made because I didn't want to take the time to track down a tool to fix the problem. I hope Daniel has the same experience with his new iPhone.

The next few weeks are going to hectic. On Sunday, I fly to San Diego for a meeting about the future of NASK. It should be an interesting discussion and I'm looking forward to hearing what ideas people have for taking it into the future.

The following weekend, I fly to Michigan for my 30th high school reunion. I didn't think I would ever be willing to attend such a thing, but I find that I have let go of much of the bitterness I felt about my experience in high school.

As soon as I get back from Michigan, I pack for the Universala Kongreso in Copenhagen. In a way it's a good thing I'm going to be so busy, since otherwise I would be paralyzed with fear. I'm not really a very adventurous person. Which is strange, since I keep having adventures. I generally have a great time, but I always ask myself beforehand, "Why am I doing this again? I would be perfectly happy at home with a nice bottle of beer." I'm sure it will be awesome, but I'm still always petrified before I actually set out.

Riding in Champaign-Urbana

Yesterday, Phil and I were supposed to meet @marick for lunch. We rode our bikes to Urbana and waited in the Casablanca Kabab House, but Marick evidently couldn't make it, so we ended up just having lunch by ourselves. Afterwards, we rode all around Urbana.

We rode first to the U of I quadrangle and then headed south. We stopped to look at sculptures in a few places: some weird blobby things that looked like proteins by some biology building and then some sculptures that were stuck off in a little annex by themselves (seemingly because the University was a bit embarrassed about owning them). We rode around in the research park where Phil's office used to be, by the Natural History Survey buildings and around the Water Survey. We got sodas and enjoyed some riparian entertainment by the new water amenities where the Boneyard has been de-tiled. We stopped by Bikeworks to thank Bruce for the help he gave me once. He just seemed kind of baffled. We stopped by West-Side Park to see the Prayer for Rain sculpture, and then headed back. It was about 15 miles altogether -- enough that I didn't feel guilty about having a bit of spumoni ice-cream after dinner.

Viziting Phil

Lucy, Daniel, and I are in Champaign again visiting Phil and Jackie. We're having a great time. Daniel and I brought bicycles, so we've been riding a good bit. We rode to the garden, the library, and to the "Blues, Brews, and Barbeque". Today, Phil and I took a longer ride.

We started out with a short ride with Daniel. I discovered that there is a new planned industrial park or something near the hotel, where they have built out the infrastructure which has a bunch of nice trails in it, but where no buildings have yet been built. It looks like it got built just before the crash and has been sitting empty since then. Wonderfully smooth paths around the detention ponds.

Tri junulinojAfterwards, Phil and I rode to Mahomet and the Lake of the Woods preserve which has a lovely botanical garden. We rested in the garden and I wrote a haiku about the little girls on the bridge.

After resting, we headed back. We had ridden into the wind, so the wind was mostly behind us on the way back. We had also ridden over the highest point in Champaign County, so we took a slightly different route back that avoided that particular point. This made it easier, but I was still pretty seriously bonked by the time we got back to the hotel. I put my bike in the room and, once we got to Phil's house, restored myself with a salad and lots of water.

Last year, it was very hot and we spent a lot of time in the library writing. This year, we've been doing more stuff and have only come to the library to write a couple of times. But we're enjoying the wonderful weather and having a great time.


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