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Steven D. Brewer's blog


February 18, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

The comic Rhymes with Orange is about frugality today. Unfortunately, their website runs two weeks out of date, so I can't send you to look at it. It has the caption "The Long Term Relationship" and shows a middle-aged couple in a card store holding hands. The woman says "I'll pick out yours. You pick out mine. We'll read them here, then go spend the five bucks we just saved on renting a movie." It's perfect.

The weather has shut down the public schools today. The University is closed until 11am. We got several inches of snow and sleet, which is changing over to rain. There is a skin of ice over everything, but its supposed to get up into the 40s. It's going to be a nightmare trying to get the driveway clear, but it doesn't look like it will freeze up for a day or two, so hopefully that will give us time. Still, its going to nasty getting into work today. Tomorrow, the weather looks fine for my trip to Boston.

A couple of weeks ago, I sent a brief note to Chris Sanders. He's the guy who conceived of Lilo and Stitch -- one of my favorite movies of all time. Over the summer, he set up a website to showcase his art and more recently he's been blogging Kiskaloo, a new comic he's created (which I think of as something like a cross between Non-Sequitor and Calvin and Hobbes).

I sent him email because the boys and I watched a show about prehistoric proto-mammals that looked like the kinds of things he tends to draw. I got a reply from him today thanking me for thinking of him and mentioning that he'd been really interested in a Gorgonops fossil at the natural history museum when he'd been a kid. It was fun to get a reply! Go Chris!


February 13, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

I'm excited that Jos


February 10, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

The past week has been exhausting. I agreed to be on the middle-school principal search committee, but was surprised when it turned out that it would require 20 hours of time during the first two weeks of the semester. It's been difficult and has not earned my any popularity contests with people who expect me to always be there for them. That said, it's been very interesting and I feel like my input has been important. I believe the short-list of candidates would have looked different without my participation and that, in the long run, it may make all the difference. We interviewed three candidates on Thursday and I was so tired when I got home last night, I had a drink with dinner and then pretty much just went to bed.

I got to see what the next version of the Student Information System will look like. If you like the current system, you'll like the new system. Of course, nobody likes the current system. When asked about some of the obscure categories among the course groupings, we were told that there were administrative requirements for dummy classes. I facetiously asked if the administrators also took the dummy classes -- all in good fun, of course.

Unfortunately, next week doesn't look much better than this week. I have AAAS at the end of the week and then (hopefully) a visitor from Chile coming for a day next weekend. I can't ever seem to get ahead.

My class seems off to a good start -- the one hour twice a week schedule feels better than once a week for two hours. Seeing the students more often makes it easier to remember names and the shorter chunks of time seem more productive.

First weekend

February 8, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

Maizpana SupoYesterday morning, I made one my favorite new dishes: Tortilla Soup. I think I first had tortilla soup at La Parilla Suiza in Phoenix. It made a big impression on me. Sometime last summer, I had the idea that I could probably make some, so I made up a recipe. I browned some chicken with some chilis, added a can of broth and a can of diced tomatoes, brought to a boil, and then added a bunch of lime juice with a handful of fresh cilantro crushed into a each bowl. Poured over tortillas and sprinkled with Mexican cheese, it's become a favorite in our house. I'm now making giant batches with a huge can of broth and two large cans of diced tomatoes.

The first week of the semester was something else. I've started teaching twice a week for 50 minutes, rather than once for two hours. So far, I like it better -- its hard to keep the students productively engaged for two hours straight. But it does mean getting ready and teaching twice, rather than once in the week. By Thursday, things were a bit quieter, but there have been almost constant demands on my time.

On Friday, we had icky weather, but took Lucy out for her birthday dinner celebration at the Indian restaurant. I've been careful with my diet since the start of the new year, but I took at day off and splurged. It was wonderful to have rice and papadum and pakora (as well as tandoori chicken and aloo gobi).

I've been reading In Defense of Food which resonates strongly with me in most ways: food is a lot more than just something to keep you healthy. It's nice to get together with people for a meal and food can be a comfort and a pleasure. I think his thesis that "food" is necessarily better than food products is silly, though. Some kinds of plant products (like apples) evolved to be food and are undoubtedly good for you. Lots of plants have created all kinds of secondary plant compounds, however, that are intended to keep animals from consuming them. We use a lot of these in food as seasonings (or as drugs!) but to say that eating plants is good for you, overlooks eating all the plants that aren't, like Deadly Nightshade or Jimpson Weed.

The real case against food products is not a prima_facie one, but one based on capitalism. The real problem with food products is that they are engineered, not to be good or good for the consumer, but to make the maximum profit for the corporation. By organizing our society around what people who can are willing to pay for, results in a wasteland of cheap crap that ruins our lives and the environment.

Super-fun pak

February 3, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

It's the last weekend of Intersession and the students start up again on Monday. Today is the deep breath before the storm. Everyone has been running around getting stuff ready. I'm generally pleased with where we've gotten.

Yesterday, I had lunch with friends and was able to introduce Tom to Rodger. I've been wanting to make that happen because they clearly are of similar phenotypes. They both are full of ideas and can't wait to make stuff happen and get stuff done. I can't wait to find out what they do next.

I'm overjoyed that I'll be working with Tom this semester on updating the Biology Department website. I've been trying to get to that for more than a year, but simply haven't found the time. It's a big undertaking and you need substantial blocks of time to focus on it. It will be easier to find the time to do with Tom.

Not everyone loves me, though. I was hurt and disappointed recently by the lengths one faculty member went to in order to undermine and sabotage a project with me in order to avoid working with me. I recently heard someone describe this behavior as "they don't have enough time to do it once right, but enough time to do it twice."

On Thursday, Buzz and I met with guy in Computer Science about building data collection devices to track mongoose movements. It was a great meeting with a free flow of ideas and excitement. If we want to do it, we'll need to raise some money, but it would generate a lot of really interesting data.

Now it's Sunday, and I'm putting the finishing touches on my course site. It will still require a lot of work over the course of the semester, but I'm generally pleased. I've got a great new project for the students to work on and I'm optimistic that it will be my best semester yet.

Shopping experience

January 27, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

Andrew Leonard recently posted about shopping with no human contact. I remember seeing a promotional video for self-service checkout systems that explained that, the systems wouldn't necessarily just eliminate jobs, but it would allow the stores to repurpose their staff from menial jobs to more customer-oriented jobs. Bullshit.

Technology is increasingly being used to replace human interactions. It certainly is the direction we've been going -- at least for the lower and middle class. In fact, I think most people prefer that. People are a PITA to deal with.

It was a shock to me when I visited Spain in the 1980's that few stores in Madrid even allowed you to browse. Most stores had their products inside glass display cases and you were not expected to look to see what they had, but rather to tell the shopkeeper what you needed and then to have him show you what products might meet your needs. The idea of "just looking" was utterly alien to them.

It used to be that sales people could offer useful insights to the customer. Recently Circuit City fired all of their most experienced salespeople. There was the perception that experience salespeople add more value because they presumably know the products and can more effectively answer questions. With the rise of the internet, I'm not so sure that's true anymore. Most people I know, compare features pretty carefully using the internet first and visit the store only to see and touch the products, to get a sense of the fit and polish. I tend to be skeptical of what salespeople have to say -- especially when you know they're being compelled to try to sell you "extended warranties" and other crap you don't need.

If you're really wealthy, of course, you can hire great people to pick out great stuff for you or harass people you don't like or whatever you want. And some stores, that cater to the wealthy, will continue to have highly-paid staff. But most people, seemingly, would really prefer to buy stuff at Voldemart and save a dollar or two.

Spring cleaning

January 16, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

I came home early on Thursday, stayed home on Friday, and worked through the weekend to do some much needed spring cleaning. I picked up and reorganized the living room and the dining room. It took three days of relatively focussed and difficult work. I didn't really touch the junk room, but it's a start. We have a snug little house that's quite comfortable when it's not overrun with clutter.

I've also got a project I can sic Alisa on. We really need to replace several light fixtures in the house: two in the kitchen, one in the dining room, and one in the basement. We might also do something about the garage while we're at it.

Today, another Noreaster blew in and closed the schools and the University. I have enough work that I really can't take the day as a holiday, but I'll enjoy spending the day around the boys anyway, even though I'm working.

New Year

January 14, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

For a change, I'm actually staying up for the New Year. For the past couple of years, I've fallen asleep before midnight, but I'm awake this year. I napped for a while early in the evening with Penny asleep on my chest. I'm lucky it didn't suffocate me -- she's not a little puppy anymore.

The New Year is as good a time as any to be reflective. A high priority of mine has always been to have a balanced life: to balance work, Esperanto, and my personal life. In the previous year, I got way burned out on Esperanto -- when I did Esperanto-Day 2006, I spent 5-10 hours a week for months. In January 2007, I was so burned out on Esperanto that I did relatively little all year. This year, I want to try to strike a better balance: to be productive without getting over involved and burning out again.

One of my goals, which I've already started, is to write a wikipedia entry when I write a blog entry for Esperanto-USA. I've done it twice so far, drafting entries on Boxing Day and Saul Alinksy. That way, I can kill two birds with one stone.

Best wishes for the New Year!

Did something

January 1, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

Today, as I had threatened, I actually did something. I've been remiss in updating the Esperanto-USA website, so today I brought it up-to-date. There had been a couple of drupal updates that I hadn't found time to install, I installed the Diff module, and I hacked in support for Klaku is like an Esperanto version of Digg, based on Pligg. There is a nice module to support Digg in Drupal, but there's nothing for Pligg, unfortunately. I just hacked in a link under each post to klaku -- it's not perfect, but it's something.

Lucy remarked that I only had two more days of vacation left. It's been a good vacation. I haven't thought about work much at all. I've checked my email a few times a day and responded to questions from my students regarding grades, but that's been about it. One person needed the combination to the BCRC and there was a reply from George regarding a link I had forwarded it, but that was about it. No crises, no disasters. Just peace and quiet.


December 31, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

It's been lovely to spend a few days decompressing. I'm starting to get bored and so probably by tomorrow, I'll actually start doing something useful again. But I think I'll wallow for one more day in slothful depravity. Once I go back to work on Wednesday, I'm going to be incredibly busy.

We have a jigsaw puzzle going on the side table. It's a holiday tradition in our family. Normally, Lucy would be spending a lot of time working on it, but she got the new Ken Follett at the library and has been spending most of her time consuming it voraciously. So I've been working on it. It's a good puzzle with a lot of different regions: some large areas with little pattern, interesting features, lots of small details -- something for everyone.

Today, Charlie is working as crew on a film project by one of his friends. I drove him over there this morning and, no sooner had I returned, but he called and asked if I could please bring him some snow shovels that they needed as props. On the way back, I stopped at the Cushman Market. It's a neat, little country grocery store and cafe. They have beer, wine, and upscale groceries. I picked up a few snacks, treats, and a six-pack of beer. They have a lot of microbrews, including the Paper City seasonal Blonde Hop Monster. With a name like that, how could I not get some!

Enjoying the Holidays

December 28, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

Zane sent me a lovely solstice card. Unfortunately, it got caught in the mail sorting machine and was folded, spindled, AND mutilated before I received it. I took the picture to show just how shredded it was.

It has 5 little jewels pasted to a paper snowflake with the caption "snow is glistening". I nearly died laughing, however, when the first thing I saw when I opened the envelope was a little card placed over the jewels which said "Please place this card over card front in envelope for protection before mailing". The jewels came through just fine, although they punched holes in the card and envelope.

The card designer didn't seem to know that snowflakes have 6 lines of symmetry, rather than 8. I remember that I made the same mistake when I was 3 or 4. GIYF.

Grades finished

December 23, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

Today, I finished my grading. It's been a long semester and I'm more-or-less pleased with how everything turned out. It's usually a pleasure to read the reflective essays. Now and then a student seems to try to convince me that they didn't learn anything all semester and -- if they did -- it was in spite of me. Some students seem to be trying to tell me what they think I want to hear. No matter what, I always love to hear their voices. It's remarkable how different students sound when you get them to write about something from scratch -- without sources to start from. A lot of students can construct an excellent essay if the can draw from a variety of sources and just paraphrase everything. Many of these students stumble and struggle heroically when put in the position of having to decide for themselves what might make an effective argument or how to organize their thoughts. Paragraphs? Ha. But by the end of the semester, I'm genuinely pleased with the progress most of them have made.

I went to a workshop on assessment earlier in the week. Its always a little shocking to me when I see what other faculty are doing and remember just how different my class really is from most of the others. Not that they're horrible or anything. Many faculty, however, have scripted pretty much every minute of classtime: filled it up with lectures and activities. Similarly, for many faculty, the curriculum of the class is also entirely derived from their opinion about what students need to know. In my class, I have mapped out a set of goals, but I leave achieving them relatively open to the students and we address what we need to as we go along to help them get there. It transforms my relationship with the students, because I become an ally toward helping them achieving goal. Some students never really figure that out. Most do, however, and some say really charming things about the experience. One student told me that the class involved "a lot of constructive banging-of-heads-against-walls". That's what I like to hear.

New iMovie Sucks!!!

December 21, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

I had the BCRC buy the newest version of iLife -- what a waste of money. The new version of iMovie sucks -- it's one of the worst pieces of software I've ever used. The others: GarageBand, iPhoto -- and whatever the other ones are -- seem more or less unchanged. But iMovie has become essentially unusable. Thank goodness that when it upgraded, it left me the old version of iMovie HD which actually works. It's hard to explain just how confusing and unusable the new version is. It seems to have three or four regions in the screen which are somewhat interchangable, but it seems impossible to integrate things across these regions. Its like you might have three or four incompatible and incommensurate projects open at one time and you can't tell that at any moment it might suddenly decide that any action you take is going to act on one of those projects, because it isn't appropriate for the project you want to work on. Its hard to exaggerate just how frustrating it is to try to use the new iMovie -- it's utterly worthless. Maybe the goal is to make it useless so people decide to buy Final Cut Express or something. I'm angry that I spent money on this crap. What a waste.


December 19, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

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

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

Bray on Innovation

December 15, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

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

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