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Steven D. Brewer's blog

Class

October 3, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

My student's first projects were due today. There's nothing like a due date to bring out all the problems -- there weren't as many as I had feared: a few groups that hadn't worked perfectly and then some individual students trying to jump through all the hoops. With respect to groups, I ask students to reflect that, even if their group hadn't worked perfectly, it probably saved them some effort and that, with a wiki, I can easily see which students contributed fully and which had shirked. The individual problems often revolve around the software: students who haven't figured out how to define styles with their word processor -- or who haven't installed a word processor with styles.

I always ask students to present their work -- usually in a fairly informal way. Great stuff! I was also very pleased with the number of thoughtful questions from other students. The semester is off to a good start.

Automount

October 2, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

When I set up the BCRC and the other computer labs in the department, I found it very convenient to have a networked file volume available as scratch space for everyone to share. Years ago, it was implemented using Appleshare and more recently with SMB. I used a variety of strategies to make the connection, but when we started using OSX, I implemented it with an Applescript -- a bit clunky, but it worked. I was never happy with it as a solution and played around with using automount. The advantage with automount is that you don't need to make a connection until you're ready to use the volume -- then the system sets up the connection automatically and tears it down as soon as it's been idle for a minute or two. I spent a few hours over the past two days trying to figure out how to get automount to work using files, rather than having it as part of the netinfo database. There are a bunch of pages about automount and macosx but I couldn't get any of them to work. So, I set up netinfo the way I wanted it, made a new radmind transcript just for netinfo, and edited netinfo out of all the other transcripts. I hate embedding any kind of settings in netinfo because it's entirely opaque -- a bunch of binary files that can't be read or tweaked easily by a human. I wish Apple would use freaking text files for settings -- it's such a PITA to deal with binary configuration files and for what? To save the computer the time of doing it. Sorry -- that's what I have computers for -- to make life convenient for me and not the other way around.

I like MacOS X as a desktop operating system -- its stable, if a bit slow. But for management in the labs, its very frustrating. It would be a lot easier to use linux We are in a position where we could switch to Ubuntu easily enough in the labs, although there are a few legacy apps that wouldn't be available -- but they probably won't be available once we switch to Intel anyway. When that time comes, I think I may advocate to go with Linux.

UMass Rapprochement

September 29, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

Since the spring, the relations between the UMass Amherst faculty, president, and board of trustees has been strained. When the trustees announced plans to have a retreat with the goal of generating action steps, there was some concern raised. Today we held a general meeting of the faculty with a set of resolutions in place to express our lack of confidence. But the trustees decided to have an open meeting, rather than meeting in a secret retreat and so we backed away from the resolutions. One trustee, James Karram, attended the meeting and spoke briefly. I'm encouraged by the positive steps and I hope we are beginning to move away from the series of confrontations that have driven faculty governance relations since the spring.

I was involved in drafting a resolution for the meeting related to the governor's Readiness Project -- this is a commission that has been drawn up to study education in the state. One subcommittee is supposed to study public higher education. Pat Crosson, a highly respected former-provost, is on the committee, but no current faculty, staff, students. We drafted a separate resolution to encourage the commission to hold open forums at the UMass campuses. I drafted the following resolution (with help from many others) to try to provide some guidance to the new readiness project subcommittee:

The Faculty and Librarians of the University of Massachusetts Amherst appreciate the Governor

Hogspot

September 29, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

Tip O'Neil used to say that "All politics is local", but there's nothing like local politics in Amherst. This spring, before Lombardi left, the University signed an agreement with the town over an array of issues where the town and the University interact including fire and police services, water use, and Mark's Meadow school. Recently, the Selectboard was asked to ratify one aspect of this: a waiver for charges the town previously made to the University for the use of wastewater. A local curmudgeon believes that Alisa and another Selectboard member should recuse themselves because of connections to the University and has been sending complaints to the state ethics commission. The tempest-in-a-teapot has stirred up a series of articles in the press that talk about me as "Brewer's husband, a full-time lecturer...". (Now that's Senior Lecturer!)

Yesterday, in comments to one of the articles, the curmudgeon posted a series of comments, trying to make a math joke (because the other Selectboard member is a math professor). At the end of each comment, he included the URL to his blog. Another commenter, who called himself "Hogwash" responded with a critique and included a URL at the end of his comment that looked just like a link to the original blog, except he changed the hostname from ".blogspot.com" to ".hogspot.com". I was tempted to go out and register "hogspot.com", but its probably not worth the $12 and only netwits would get the joke anyway. The curmudgeon evidently didn't notice the change, because he thanked the previous poster for plugging his blog.

The water issue has been hanging over the town and the University for several years. It started when the University developed an energy-conservation proposal to be a more "green" campus. A colleague who served on the committee that developed the proposal told me that the town, which had been complaining about the high demand of the campus for water went ballistic when they found out that the University was going to be able cut their water use by 40% or some such: "What? You're going to save $400,000? Wait! You need to give 75% of that to us!" There's really no politics like Amherst politics.

Dumb

September 27, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

I was reading this article about rude people which, it turns out, is really about community. It reminds me a lot of the response that a lot of people had to Cliff Stoll's book Silicon Snake-oil. He argued that people shouldn't spend all their time devoted to "virtual" communities, and should spend time making their "real" communities to work. To which Regina Lynn says, "I prefer to attend to friends and lovers through our cell phones rather than allow geography to determine who I can and can't relate with." She goes on to talk about how people are socially disengaged if all they have is virtual contact. But I think Cliff was onto something: getting to know your neighbors and the people in your local community and maintaining connections with them is *really* important.

A lot of important decisions are made locally that affect your environment: community planning, zoning, tax rates, etc. Moveon.org is great and all that, but real democracy begins at home. Geography really does determine who gets to vote in your local elections. If you don't know the people around you, you are crippled in trying to affect who gets elected and how local issues get decided.

Geography also decides (in large part) who your kids interact with. If there are kids walking in front of your house and you don't know their names, I think you should spend more time in your front yard and get to know their names. It makes a huge difference in how a neighborhood works when the kids know that the adults know who they are. It just does.

If you think you live someplace where this stuff doesn't matter, then you probably aren't very invested in what happens there -- and you're probably being dumb. Places that are nice to live are nice precisely because there were people who were invested in the place and made it a nice place to live. It takes hard work. You should grow up and do your part.

It's a small world

September 24, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

Recently people found a photo album showing SS officers enjoying themselves just a short distance from where people were being systematically starved and murdered. There seems to be a sense of astonishment on the part of many that people could do this: be monsters and yet have regular lives. Yet, as we carry on our normal lives, mugging for the camera, people right next to us are being treated the same or worse -- and in our name. With a global media, we no longer need to be right next to where some people are systematically starving and killing other people for us to be implicated in the activity. Yes, we're not pulling the trigger directly, but, given our government's involvement in destabilizing some world leaders and propping others up, we might as well be. And yet, we carry on our lives, eating our bowls of blueberries while others starve and reclining on our Adirondack chairs while others are stretched on the rack. It's a small world now -- and our responsibilities in it loom larger than ever.

Cheap Shots

September 19, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

In his Sept 14 column, William F. Buckley tries to score some cheap shots on the language Esperanto, saying that the only ones who learned it were "Mrs. Esperanto, and perhaps the children who didn't get out of the way". Actually, they all learned Esperanto. "Mrs. Esperanto" was Klara Zamenhof and her children were Adam, Sofia, and Lydia. Mr. Buckley's remarks are particularly unfortunate as all of the Zamenhof's children, and many other relatives, died in the Holocaust -- Adam was shot while being deported while Sofia and Lydia were killed in the Nazi concentration camp Treblinka. They were targeted for speaking Esperanto, as well as being Jewish or Bahai -- Lydia was actually well-known in the US for travelling around the world teaching Esperanto and Bahaism. Adam's wife and infant son had a narrow escape and Louis-Christophe Zaleski-Zamenhof still speaks Esperanto to this day. Indeed, today there is a lively community of Esperanto speakers all over the world. No-one knows exactly how many there are, although more than 2,200 made the trek to Yokohama, Japan for the World Esperanto Congress this year. Maybe most people "ain't gonna do it", but if you want a universal language, you can learn Esperanto easily enough and it still works today as it always has.

There are two local Esperanto groups in the Pioneer Valley: Amherst Esperanto (www.amherstesperanto.org) has weekly meetings for people who want to study and practice speaking Esperanto. The group is led by Steven Brewer, Assistant Professor of Biology and Director of the Biology Computer Research Center, who is also President of the Esperanto Society of New England. Sally Lawton, of Westhampton, coordinates another local group that meets weekly in Northampton.

Long week

September 18, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

This felt like the longest week I've had in a long time. I was so tired by the end of the day on Friday -- then Alisa reminded me that it was the elementary school picnic. Ugh.

A week or two ago, I discovered dattebayo.com (DB), a website that does fan-subbing of Naruto (and other things). I've been a big fan of Naruto for several months. I had been aware that there were crappy versions of Naruto episodes available on youtube, but the ones at DB are super high quality -- better than broadcast TV, I think. And the subtitling is *way* better than the commercial crap they push off on US audiences. Well, I don't know that for sure -- I have no way to independently verify how good the translations really are. But they *feel* better: they include mild expletives like "damn" and "hell" and "pissed off" that seem right -- way more right than what viz media does for cartoon network.

When I found DB, I decided I finally had to get up to speed with bittorrent. I've been living with my head in the sand with respect to bittorrent for a couple of years. A few searches later and I found that Miro (formerly Democracy Player) can do bittorrent! So I've been using Miro to watch Naruto Shippuuden episodes with 4/5 of the family (the oryx turns up her snout at Naruto). The rest of us have been screaming with laughter and having a great time watching Naruto. So today, when I saw that boingboing was calling for people to support Miro, I ponied up $20 instantly. Miro really is great software and has worked flawlessly for me. I can't wait to see what's going to be next.

I've finally put my finger on what I like about Naruto. Part of it is that I like the characters and their flaws: the ero-sannin (or pervy sage) is just screamingly funny. The characters are allowed to have flaws that in US media you just don't see -- at least not without a lot of moralizing. Here, the characters are just accepted for what they are. But the larger issue is that the show is about how the never-give-up attitude that Naruto has infects the people around him. Most of the story arcs are about people who have given up or checked out at some level. When they meet Naruto, he acts as a mirror and they see themselves and their weakness reflected in his decision to never say die, to never give up. When Tsunade, broken after having lost her brother and her lover, sees their passion and dreams embodied in Naruto and makes the decision to support him, she says, "One last time... I want to put my hopes in you...just one last time." And I get choked up just thinking about it. I guess it's not for everyone, but I can't get enough.

Beer Fest

September 15, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

Dam AleToday, Buzz and I went to the Connecticut River Brewer's Festival in Holyoke. It was a bit pricey to get in: $5 to park, $10 to get in, and then $1 for each tiny glass of beer. Still, it was nice to try all the different kinds of beer. There were a lot of kinds to try. We had a great time trying different kinds of beer and chatting about beer and our lives. It's great to have friends.

I took a particular of the Holyoke Dam Ale -- I really like that name, but our favorite was either the "leatherlips" IPA from the Haverhill Brew Pub or the IPA from the Brooklyn Brewery. They were both exquisitely hoppy. Delicious.

It was about the best use imaginable for a rainy fall afternoon.


Deval Patrick in Amherst

September 9, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

Deval PatrickDeval Patrick spoke at Amherst College today. I've seen him speak maybe 6 times now and every time he gives a good talk. This time, at the inauguration of a local community engagement group, he spoke primarily about community. He told several funny stories, but focused, in the end, on people choosing to make the right decision, because they understand in the long run what is going to best for the community. I didn't get to ask my question, but I had thought about it for a few minutes. I would have said:

Governor Patrick, you spoke about the problem that our society tends to make choices for short-term gains, rather than thinking about the long term and about political and community engagement as a habit of mind. You mentioned corporations briefly, indicating that they also aim for short term, but corporations represent a special problem. A hundred and fifty years ago, there was broad public distrust of corporations: corporations were only chartered for a specific period of time and to accomplish particular goals to benefit the common good. Even 50 years ago, corporations still saw themselves as having a positive role in society. In the 1980s, however, the laws related to coporate ownership changed and since then, any corporation that fails to maximize shareholder value gets bought out and a new management team installed that will. We can potentially change our habit of mind as a society, but it won't solve the problem of corporations. How can we change how corporations are chartered to produce more socially responsible behavior?

Google poisoning

September 8, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

I saw an odd referrer in my weblogs that mentioned muppyville, so I went to look at it. Muppyville is a unique word that Charlie and I invented -- you don't just see references to it everywhere. What I found was a truly bizarre page that was obviously built by some non-english-speaking person using a script to generate google-poisoning webpages -- probably to raise the googleranks of some other pages. The webpage has some cyrilic script on it, which suggests someone in the Eastern Bloc is building these. The whole site looked like a bunch of web forums talking about particular things. This particular page looked like a forum called "muppyville" with postings by a variety of vaguely typical usernames who said things like:

In whom it is possible to order the muppyville? Who can help?
The Friends, who heard what your opinion on the muppyville about the muppyville?
Urgently! Friends asked! I have a muppyville! I can sell.
The muppyville too is necessary to me. How it to order?
It is possible to order the muppyville on mail?
Help to find in the Internet the muppyville! Write on e-mail.
In whom it is possible to order the muppyville? Who can help?
On this site it is possible to find the muppyville
I have found it!
And I cannot find... Send the information!
To whom is the link to the muppyville necessary?
I know a web-site where there is a muppyville. I can give the link.
The muppyville too is necessary to you?
People! Same very simply to find!

I won't link to the website, of course. But how bizzare?

Ah, Friday.

September 8, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

It was a busy first week of the semester. Each semester, I worry that I will find myself over my head and no-longer able to keep up with what I need to do. But although I could feel the water rising up past my mouth, it never quite covered my nose and I got through everything just fine. I'm still a tiny bit behind, but Friday afternoon was relatively quiet and I felt comfortable leaving at 4:30 to have a beer with folks in Biology at the University Club. The Club was selling everything for $2 a bottle, so I got a bottle of Warsteiner Premium Dunkel. Its a smooth dark beer with a sweetness that reminds me of grape soda. Around the label it says, "Ein k

Last weekend of summer

September 8, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

White-marked Tussock MothLucy and I did our usual Saturday routine -- a trip to the farmer's market and library with Penny. On the way back, we picked up pizza fixings so that Daniel and I could make pizza together for lunch.While Daniel and I were making the pizzas, we went out to the tent for a moment and saw this cool caterpillar. It's another kind of tussock moth caterpillar, like the ones we saw a month ago, but in a different genus. This one, evidently, has really nasty urticating hairs. I got some pretty cool pictures.

Daniel and I made two pizzas. He helped at every stage, mixing the spreading the dough, putting spices in the sauce and testing it, and then building the pizzas. We made a pepperoni, sausage, and bacon pizza for him and another with added lebanon bologna, fresh tomatoes, and mushrooms for me. They both turned out quite well and he was very pleased with the outcome.

It's the last weekend of the summer and the students are rolling back in. Some people are sad when Amherst loses its small-town feel when the students come back, but I don't mind -- I like the excitement and enthusiasm the students bring. But I do treasure the times they're away too.

Busy

September 2, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

Since getting back, I've been busy getting ready for the beginning of the semester. I knew it would be intense and I haven't been disappointed. I was feeling like I was keeping my head above water until I came down with a cold yesterday. Now I'm just trying to get through the day.

I've gotten the basics of my class set up and ready-to-go. The main new thing I'm planning to try this semester is to add a period to most classes where we look at the particular problems I see in student's scientific writing and try to fix them.

The boys went back to school today -- I have until Tuesday. Each day I get closer to the beginning of the semester. I didn't get as far as I hoped this summer -- I never do. I do feel pretty good about where I did get to.

Our contract

August 31, 2007 by Steven D. Brewer

Our bargaining team has been negotiating a new contract for months. They have reached agreements on many points, but the governor hasn't yet made us a fair basic economic offer on salaries. Other unions are getting 5-6%, when you consider their "steps", but we're being told to accept 3.5% -- and to consider part of that "merit pay". Given that inflation has been running at around 3.5% it means that we're actually accepting a pay cut -- unless you've been "meritorious" and then you get to keep your buying power flat.

I wrote a brief note to the governor:

As a UMass Amherst faculty member, I appreciated when you spoke about being a champion of higher education -- and I have been pleased with your willingness to support an open and honest dialog about the future of the University, rather than to let the current Board of Trustees run roughshod over our governance structures. Thank you.

Unfortunately, the bargaining team for my union (which supported you in the primary) has been struggling to negotiate a fair contract with your administration and tells us that the economic offer to us is not comparable with the offers given to NAGE and SEIU. Faculty fared particularly poorly under Republican administrations and we had hoped to get a fair deal from a Democrat. Please help us settle our contract before the beginning of the academic year by giving us a fair offer. Thanks!

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