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Steven D. Brewer's blog


August 1, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

A year or two ago, a former student invited me to set up a Facebook page, so I did. I didn't really pay much attention to it, but every so often I would see an old friend show up and find me in Facebook. After the trip to Montreal, I had a bunch of people add me to lists in Facebook and, it being the summer, I took some time to actually look around a bit.

The interface of Facebook is clunky and irritating in some ways. When you search, it frequently shows the same entries over and over again mixed together in different orders -- to show more advertising or something? Clunky. You also can't organize your profile page as thoroughly as I like. At the same time, some of the stuff is really cool: being able to drag blocks around on the profile page is astonishing.

I found some people who I haven't been in touch with in years and added them as friends. Although I'm always reminded of this. You never know what people might say.

Between adventures

July 31, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

This week has been a weird pause between the summer's adventures. I've been absolutely busy at work, trying to work through the backlog of stuff that happened while I was away and to try to get stuff in place for when I come back and need to get ready for the semester.

After much effort, I found a pump that, hopefully, will prevent another flood in the basement. We've had a pump that works OK -- as long as there's someone there to turn it on. And then turn it off before it burns out. I found a Flotec "Intellipump" that is supposed to recognize when its in water and turn itself off when its not in water. It turns itself on periodically and, if it finds itself in water, it pumps the water until its done. If it finds it doesn't have anything (or enough) to pump, it turns itself back off before the motor burns out. The first one I got at the store, however, would only run for about 15 seconds. I called the support line and they tried to tell me that the problem was the output hose. Eventually, I convinced them to give me a reference number to exchange the pump. When I went back to Home Depot, the girl was SO HAPPY that I had a reference number -- evidently most people ignore the piece of paper with a huge stop-sign on it that tells people to call the support number before returning the pumps and get angry with her. The second pump has worked great -- so far.

My home network was broken when I got home. It hadn't come back up properly after the power outage before we left. Eventually, I got it working by resetting to defaults on my wireless router. Since then, I've been trying to get all of the stuff reconfigured: getting the wireless settings right, setting up the port forwarding stuff, setting up DHCP for the internal server, etc. A bunch of stuff, I set up 7 or 8 years ago (after a struggle) and am now trying to remember how the damn thing works. What a PITA.


July 31, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

We took Penny in for a checkup in advance of getting her boarded and they found a growth on her chest. The biopsy suggested it was a mast-cell carcinoma. Yesterday, they operated to remove the tumor. She came through the operation all right -- she has a long incision, 3 or 4 inches up and down her chest, held together with staples. When she came home, she was pretty woozy, staggering a bit from the anesthesia. But she was hungry, which seemed like a good sign. This morning, she is better, but still looks very tired -- dog tired, no doubt. We're trying to coddle her as much as possible.


July 29, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

I am home, finally, for a few days, before we leave on the next adventure. This summer has been excessively busy. The network was not reliable at the campground and, after the power outage, wasn't working properly at home either. Furthermore, we got home to discover that the basement had flooded again. I waded into my office and stood in the water for half an hour debugging the problem with the basestation. At last we had connectivity, though its not very good -- we're dropping packets for a second or so every 15 or 20 seconds. Once things dry out, I'll need to check again, but it may be a problem somewhere else in the system. Or it may be that my aging base-station is finally on its last legs.

In spite of the problems, its good to be home and I'm looking forward to sleeping in a real bed again. We stayed in a camper, which was actually quite luxurious, but it wasn't like sleeping in a real bed.


July 26, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer


July 26, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

I had a great time at the Esperanto Congress in Montreal. It was the best one I've ever attended -- even better than the incredible congress in Brazil two years ago. While I was there, I spoke with a number of journalists and am quoted in this one.

We wrapped up on Friday. I had intended to drive straight to meet the family on Saturday, but decided to go home instead to help the family get packed up and drive (and to let Alisa do my laundry for me. :-) So I hopped in the car and came home.

As soon as I got home, a thunderstorm rolled through and took out the power. I hadn't even finished checking my email at work. The power didn't come back on until 4am, so that made it difficult to pack and the lack of air conditioning made it difficult even to sleep. Furthermore, we discovered that the windows on the car were left open in the diluvian downpour, so the seats of the car were soaked. On Saturday, we eventually got the car cleaned out and packed, but the network never came back up, so I still haven't gone through my email.

After our great trials, we arrived at the campground near Lake George on Saturday afternoon. We're staying in a comfortable trailer with the relatives staying in two adjacent trailers. I had been a bit concerned about the trailers and whether they would comfortably accommodate someone of my girth. It appears, however, that modern trailer designers recognize the growing diameter of Americans and so there's no problem.

The relatives arrived late -- around 10pm -- and I stayed up long enough to greet them and help them unload their vehicle. Immediately after, however, I went to bed exhausted. The stress of the week in Montreal coupled with the long drives and poor sleep the night before left me completely drained. A few days of relaxation in the campground will be very welcome.


July 20, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

I've arrived in Montreal for TAKE. I'm staying in a student dormitory at UQAM. I'm doing most of my blogging this week in Esperanto at my Esperanto-USA blog. Montreal is a really interesting place and the pace of the congress is such that we have a fair amount of time to explore. I'm enjoying that my time as vic-president is coming to an end. Someone saw the notes I took at the board meeting and asked, "Don't you want to be secretary?" Yeah, right.

Going to see WALL-E

July 12, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

Yesterday morning, everyone was talking about WALL-E. Alisa and Daniel had gone to see it when the first opened, but Charlie and I didn't go. I'd just taught him how I make tortilla soup and we wanted to stay home and savor it. I tried to call Charlie to ask him if he wanted to go, but I didn't get an answer. I figured he was busy playing WoW on Lucy's computer.

For years, I had a home server set up in the basement, running either linux or openbsd. At one time, they provided real services that I depended on, in terms of routing or firewalling or offering file services. Lately, the only service I've been using was Muppyville, so when Lucy got her new computer, I shut down the server, installed Muppyville on her computer, and set it up to be the server. When I logged into her computer, I could see that the WoW application was running. But how to get a message to Charlie?

I figured maybe I could run an applescript that would pop up a dialog box. I tested it on my workstation, but it didn't work -- I got some error about no interaction being allowed. I did a google search to see if I could figure out what I was doing wrong and discovered some pages that explained how to use the speech synthesis from the command line. So I crafted a few messages to Charlie: "Hey Charlie! Want to go see WALL-E? Call me! [...] Hey Charlie! Call me or I'll keep pestering you!" Eventually, when it became clear he didn't know who it was, I sent a message which included my name and he called me. It had totally freaked him out.

Lucy thought it was one of the funniest things she ever saw. Charlie initially thought it was someone in WoW talking to him, but couldn't figure out how someone would know who he was. Lucy was still chuckling about it this morning.

We went to WALL-E for the 4:30 matinee. It was great! The reviewer at Salon panned it, saying, "The gloss of preachiness that washes over "WALL-E" overwhelms the haunting, delicate spirit of its first 30 minutes." I didn't get that at all. I think that if it had tried to preach to people, it would have ruined the story and it worked because it didn't try to.


July 1, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

I stayed through the end of BioQUEST and then hit the road toward home. I drove to Champaign on Saturday, Lucy and I left early on Sunday, and we arrived home midafternoon on Monday. It was a very long drive, but largely uneventful.

On Monday evening, I was invited to dinner with the speakers of the NSM conference on science education for the following day. They had reserved Chez Albert for the evening and offered a delightful meal. My only quibble was that I couldn't get De Ranke XX Bitter, although the chardonay they had selected was quite nice. I kept drinking the chardonay in spite of ordering meat for the meal. I've never claimed to be more than a gourmand.

The conference was interesting with many excellent speakers. I was a moderator for one of the breakout sessions. It was a little confusing in that there was both a "moderator" and a "facilitator" and it wasn't perfectly clear what each was to do. In the end, the "facilitator" deferred to me and I simply ran the whole session -- several people told me they appreciated how I ran the session. I offered a few remarks to frame the issue, which was designing effective introductory laboratories. I said

I've always been interested in teaching laboratories, because they're a place where it's obvious that students are supposed to do something. Jerome Bruner once said, "Learning is not the product of teaching -- Learning is the product of the activity of the learner." Building an effective introductory laboratory is a challenge, however, because you have a large population of extremely heterogeneous learners and often a large population of heterogeneous instructors, many of whom are inexperienced. Building effective labs requires optimizing across a complex array of factors and often requires substantial compromises. We have today two speakers who have designed effective laboratories and we invite them to share with us how they navigated this complex landscape of challenges.

I was pleased that, one of the speakers after lunch, referenced and used my quote from Bruner, indicating that I'd had at least some impact.

The biggest shortcoming of the conference was the lack of time. Each speaker had only 10 minutes -- we then had to spend half-an-hour with questions from the audience, which tended to be dominated by a few cranky people. There were many good questions as well, but there were two people in my breakout session who ended up, at the end of the conference, probably having spoken more than most of the speakers -- and they were not the ones you might have wanted to set the tone of the conference. It would have been better to have longer presentations and provide separate, smaller "birds-of-a-feather" sessions for discussion, perhaps with a mechanism for reporting out the substance of those discussions to the whole group.

The biggest statement the conference made to me was the idea that someone in the administration actually cared about science education and modern pedagogy. When Lombardi arrived, the tone of the administration seemed to be that the quality of education didn't matter -- the only thing that mattered was that you did some and that it wasn't unacceptable. Given that the dean is leaving, however, its not clear how much impact the conference will have long term, or if there will ever be another.

I was pleased to have arranged an invitation for Ethel Stanley to speak at the conference. Her flight was late getting in, so unfortunately she didn't get to join us at Chez Albert. We did spend the afternoon after the conference, chatting in my office and then went to Bub's Barbeque with Tom and Buzz and all our kids. I don't believe Ethel had seen Charlie since he was two. She was charmed to see how he's grown. We also took Ethel to breakfast the following morning. I can't remember the last time I laughed so hard. It's great to belong to a community with such wonderful people.

This morning, I got back on my bike and was able to actually ride for the first time since my crash. I just rode to work. My knee is stiff, but I think that soon I'll be able to ride without any serious impairment. I can't wait.

Next week, I head for Montreal for TAKE.

Final Presentations

June 26, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

Today, the groups at BioQUEST report out. We called our project Spice Invaders. I've finished the parts of the presentation that I'm working on and uploaded my pieces. One part is the Lefkovitch model that I made using a spreadsheet and another piece is a Netlogo model on Invasive Plants and Disturbance. As usual, it was a productive week and gave me an opportunity to explore stuff I hadn't done much of before.

I'm still thinking about what I want to do as the theme for the writing class in the fall. Previously, I sent students out to do some kind of field work and actually collect data. I'm considering having the students explore models this semester. We could try out some models early and proof them by collecting some data before the weather gets bad and then build bigger and more powerful models for their final projects. But I worry that students will complain about doing so much "computer work".

Project at BioQUEST

June 20, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

This time, I decided I was interested in working on learning how to build models related to invasive species and Garlic Mustard. I spent a lot of the day yesterday struggling with the linear algebra of population models. When I went to bed last night, I decided I was making things too difficult for myself and, this morning, I realized I could implement it quite simply using a spreadsheet. When I came in this morning, I sat down and sketched it out. It turned out to be quite simple to implement a Lefkovitch model -- I still don't really get the linear algebra, but maybe that's not necessary.

There are 3 or 4 other people working on the invasive species project with me. We're trying to develop some investigative cases that will lead students to conclude that they need a model to make predictions about what's happening. We also are working on building a set of directions that students can use that aren't too directive for making a Lefkovitch model. Finally, I'm interested in building a netlogo model to look at the relationship between disturbance and invasive species.

Tomorrow, we'll finish our curriculum development project and present it. On Saturday, I'll start driving home.

My injuries are much better. Today, I can walk, rather than hobble. I still haven't really been successful at riding my bike, but I'll probably give it a try again this afternoon. The first time I tried, I couldn't get my foot in the pedal. The second time, I managed to get my foot in the pedal, but I couldn't make it go around without standing up in the pedals. Maybe today will be the charm.

STL -> Cape Girardeau

June 19, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

SciencoIn spite of my knee, I went to the Botanical Garden and hobbled around for an hour after lunch. It was wonderful. I've always loved the garden and wish I could visit it every week or two and really learn to recognize all those plants.

We finished up in St. Louis around 2pm and headed on to Cape Girardeau. It was a couple hours drive south, through increasingly old terrain. We arrived and were installed in dorm rooms. The last time, I stayed in a dorm, it was pretty comfortable. This place is pretty bare bones. The shower is so small, I can barely turn around. At the hotel in St. Louis, they gave me 4 pillows per bed -- here, you get one pillow and you have to make the bed yourself. At first, I couldn't get the air conditioning to work, but eventually got it to cool off and slept pretty well.

In typical BioQUEST fashion, we're to form groups today and pursue a short project to be presented tomorrow morning. I have a number of ideas for things I might want to do, but there's not time to do very much. And I'm not inclined to spend all my time working on the project either.

Link Clouds with Wordle

June 16, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

I saw a reference to wordle which can build link clouds based on a text. I constructed this one based on the text I've been writing from my talk at NCSU. I thought it looked pretty.

BioQUEST begins

June 15, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

I made it to BioQUEST yesterday. At the hotel in the morning, I checked that I could actually attend to my personal needs (like putting on shoes and socks) and, after a quick breakfast with Phil and Jackie, I got in the car and drove to St. Louis. I'm still not very mobile, but I can hobble around enough to survive.

After introductory remarks, I participated in a session on developing a problem-space in desiccation tolerance for teaching advanced techniques in plant biology. The approach one scientist is using involves constructing phylogenomic trees to see whether genes involved in desiccation were recruited from stress pathways or seed/pollen pathways. There was a parallel session on GIS. After dinner, there was a talk about cassava and ongoing attempts to improve the cassava plant to make it a more attractive crop. Cassava has been neglected because, although its very widely cultivated, its mainly used by poor people who don't participate in the money economy and, therefore, it doesn't have big economic impacts the way rice or corn does.

Today, we finish up at the Botanical Gardens and drive south to Cape Girardeau where we'll be for the rest of the workshop.


June 15, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

Whoops!Phil and I took a longish ride today to Meadowbrook Park. On the way back, I took a spill onto the pavement. My wheel dropped into a rough spot in the pavement and I lost my grip on the handlebars. The pavement came up quick and I ended up on my back in the road. Phil asked, "Are you OK?" I responded "No!" I got Phil to pull the bike off me, which had gotten tangled up with my leg and, by then, I'd decided that I wasn't going to die immediately. I managed to get up enough to move to the edge of the road and then rested in the grass. Phil called Jackie and she and Lucy came to get me with the cool car.

I've got a lot of bruises, but don't seem to have broken anything. I've smashed up my knee pretty bad, but it can take my weight, so I don't think there's anything seriously wrong with it. I don't think I'll be riding my bike for a few days though. Amazingly enough, my bike seems fine -- just a scrape in the coating on the lock.

Everyone helped me get home, brought me ice packs, ibuprofen, and a good, strong drink. After resting for a bit, I'm up and about, in a manner of speaking. I'm hoping I'll still make it to BioQUEST tomorrow, but I don't think I'll really know until I go to get up tomorrow morning.

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