You are here

Steven D. Brewer's blog

Facebook integration difficulties

About a day after I had set up the Facebook Integration stuff, they decided to give up trying to support Drupal 6 at all. They just pulled that whole tree of the module. So I switched to using the Facebook Connect module instead.

I've rarely found it to be worthwhile trying to track commercial software. Facebook provides an SDK, but stuff changes quickly and all of the modules that were written against the 2.0 SDK won't work as of Oct 1. In both cases, there were patches that theoretically made stuff work with the new SDK, but that's not particularly reassuring.

I was eventually able to get the Facebook Connect module working. I ended up having to go into the source and touch it at a couple of points. It wanted to have registrations open to create accounts, so I hacked that to not be so fussy. It also ended up pointing at a spot where you got an "access denied", so I set it to just go to the "dashboard" when it was done. It now seems to work reasonably well.

Remove Video in Open Atrium

Ha! I finally figured out how to remove that horrible video from the Welcome block without having to remove the whole block. I had gotten to used to the idea that when you do something in Drupal, the answer is nearly always some pointy-clicky thing. Instead you have to edit a text file: profiles/openatrium/modules/atrium_features/atrium/ and comment out the lines that begin "$video". Once you do that, you still have the helpful blocks with the links to create content, but no stupid video sucking up the whole screen. Sanktan Merdon! That took me hours to finally figure it out!

I've setup Open Atrium with Facebook Integration (I had to comment out the link in settings.php to include the -- none of the purl managed links seemed to work while that was included. I'm only really interested in the Facebook Connect stuff, but that *seems* to work pretty well, even without the url_rewritey thing. It's not thoroughly tested, yet, but what I've seen so far is quite encouraging.

I'm planning to use it for my North Star Teens class on Building a Computer. I asked them what they wanted to use and they were somewhat ambivalent -- they didn't want to do it directly in Facebook, but weren't sure if a blog or a wiki or what would be the right thing. I think Open Atrium will be great -- especially now that I've figured out how to get rid of that video! The video is cute, but you only need to see it once and, after that, it just takes up a lot of prime real-estate.

No longer webmaster for Esperanto-USA

On August 28th, I received an email from the new president of Esperanto-USA informing me that I was being replaced as webmaster. I was somewhat surprised at this turn of events, but have done what I can to help the new webmaster get up-to-speed with the website as it currently stands and to outline what I had identified as next steps.

My vision for the website has been to make it the repository for information about Esperanto-USA and its activity -- the primary goal being that people visiting the site see evidence that the organization is alive and active. For that reason, I have avoided creating "silos" where people go for different pieces of information that are disconnected from the main site (where the evidence of the other things going on would be absent).

I've also tried to prevent proliferation of individual sites so that most/all of the management of the site mostly is done through Drupal. I've avoided creating shell accounts for people and having to deal with managing file uploads, unix permission issues, etc -- not because they're necessarily any harder than doing it through drupal, but to avoid multiplying the amount of work that the sysadmin will have to do (ie manage drupal plus manage unix users and understand the potential interactions between the two -- or even worse, understand other CMSes). But note that there are a few, e.g. And, as I say, because I want people visiting our site(s) to be exposed to our current activity, and not just the silo that brought them there.

One of the most successful things we did was when Robert Read organized and hosted a "LAN party", where we got 6 or 7 people together in one place to work on the website for a whole weekend. That's how the old pages got migrated (however inexpertly) during one frantic weekend. It might be worth repeating that somehow, when you know what you want to do.

In 2011, I had proposed a thread of the Landa Kongreso to be about updating the website: basically, I envisioned (1) a talk/forum about the website and services available/needed, (2) training sessions on how to get involved and contribute, and (3) a room through the whole congress (staffed by me) with a few computers where people who wanted to work on things could sit together and actually get work done. Unfortunately, when the date of the LK was arbitrarily changed, I could no longer participate. Maybe someone will want to organize this at the next LK.

The key things that I thought that needed to be done were these:

(1) reorganize navigation (less flat, more deep). We have too many top level categories that aren't really parallel and each is only one level deep. We should probably have fewer top-level menus and make them two levels deep, so people can burrow down more quickly to what they're looking for.

(2) combine and update pages. We have too many pages, many of which are similar to one another -- and most are out of date. While updating the site, we should try to merge similar pages together into a single page, to simplify the site and make them easier to maintain/update.

(3) fix, extend taxonomy. The taxonomy system is turned on and allows people to enter terms. Unfortunately, most people don't understand how it works. But we have a big repository of terms that people have used. We should probably migrate those terms into a system where we have a fixed set of terms that people are required to select from when posting stuff. I think a better taxonomy system would make it easier for people to find information and navigate the site.

(4) create landing pages for each of the funds. These would probably be "views" in Drupal parlance, and would each have a summary of a fund, a way to submit requests from a fund, a "feed" of articles (stories and blog posts) that were tagged as being about the activity of a fund, and a link encouraging people to donate to a fund -- maybe even building a purchasing system into drupal so that people didn't have to leave drupal to donate. On the "estraro" side, we would ask fund administrators to post updates about each time the fund did anything -- maybe with an admonition that funds that do nothing for an entire year will be discontinued and rolled into the general fund. It's stupid that we have funds that don't do anything: we should get rid of those.

There are some other resources of which you should be aware. This URL: is a script I wrote that checks members one by one to see if they're a dues paying member and adds the "member" role to them in Drupal if they are. It doesn't remove members who are no longer dues-paying: we have no mechanism to do that.

There are also google adwords and google analytics accounts for Esperanto-USA. You probably need to ask Tim Westover to add you to those, if you're not already in there. We could do a lot more with both of those. Tim used to do a lot, but hasn't been active for a couple of years and no-one else has filled in.

There is also the "retpagxestroj" mailing list. This is a list maintained at dreamhost. You should add yourself to that. You can leave me on or take me off, as you like. The people who are on the list are all endowed with administrative access at the website. There are also a few more people who have administrative access: I was pretty liberal in giving it, thinking that more hands are better. Administrators can do pretty much anything at the site, though, and, although it hasn't been misused you might want to think about it because it's a bit risky -- you may be more risk-averse than me.

The bookstore is its own thing -- it was set up and is maintained by Bill Harris. There are really attractive skins for zen-cart -- the one we're using is pretty ugly and clunky looking. It might be worth spending a few hundred bucks to buy a prettier skin so that the bookstore looked more attractive. Attractive sells. The bookstore needs more reviews -- there's a mechanism for users to write and submit reviews, but there are hardly any reviews in the bookstore.

We're currently using Drupal 6, which is now the legacy release of Drupal. It will continue to be supported until Drupal 8 comes out -- probably sometime next year. When that happens, we ought to be ready with an upgrade plan -- or some kind of plan.

The New York office of UEA is interested in switching to Drupal. I had asked the board to consider whether we should host their website if they were willing to share the cost of hosting (for maybe $5/month). It is simple enough to to set up separate sites that use the same codebase (t.e. "multisite"). That question has not yet been answered.

For a long time, there's been discussed about whether we should translate at least some of our webpages into Esperanto. The majority are only in English. The i18n and l10n modules are installed, but we mostly aren't using them, In my opinion, we don't have enough human resources to keep the English pages up-to-date and it doesn't make sense to double the amount of work. If you want to use the system I've found that it works reasonably well, but it doesn't play nicely with the book module. You will want to move pages that you want to translate from book pages to regular pages.

Finally, the last item I covered when I did my talk at the LK in Washington -- and which I had warned the estraro about -- was that someone needed to be thinking about finding a replacement for me, since I was the only one who understood Drupal well enough to manage and support the site. Evidently, that problem now has been solved. :-)

To be summarily dismissed wasn't really how I was expecting things to turn out, but it was time -- past time -- that someone else took over. I'll enjoy watching from the sidelines.

Meaningful Activity

One thing I realized early on in teaching science was that it is misguided -- stupid even -- to invest a lot of energy trying to "teach" students things that they don't see any point in. Oh, you might be able to get them to remember stuff to pass a test -- if you structured the incentives that way and held a big stick over them. As a trick, you might get them to do it once, if by the end of the lesson they realized how wise you were in leading them down the path. Otherwise it's pointless: they'll forget it all as soon as they can, because there's rarely any point in merely knowing all that crap in the first place. You have to actually understand it, if it's going to be useful. And that requires real intention on the part of the students.

The idea of teaching people particular things has several bases, but none of them are valid any longer -- if they ever were. Modern public education was organized along the model of the assembly line, where students in cohorts move along a conveyer from one station to another having "information" added systematically along the way. It conceives of learning as laying courses of bricks and is grounded upon the assumption that students can't do anything interesting until they've assembled a critical mass of information to work with. Teaching has become a sterile activity where teachers use tricks to keep students "on task" doing drudgery that they generally see as pointless. These are all false, discredited models for how learning should be organized -- or should ever have been organized. And the testing paradigm, which is predicated on the notion that everyone must be taught the same things at the same time, has made this all much worse.

Educational testing is driven by the premise that finding questions that experts will answer differently than novices, and using those as an indicator of student performance, will allow measurement of student ability and teaching efficacy. This model is false for several reasons, but principally because expert performance is mainly due to how their knowledge is organized, rather than its quantity. Test questions rarely can address how knowledge is organized unless you can understand why someone selected the answer they did. This kind of testing, though possible, isn't cheap -- it generally requires trained people and individualized assessment.

The broad application of the testing paradigm has deprofessionalized K-12 teaching and shifted emphasis from what's important to what can be easily assessed. Teachers are becoming merely jailers who implement an instructional regime, created by bureaucrats, that's driven by assessments and bean counting. Students are rewarded for compliance, not for critical thought or challenging the establishment goals. Teachers are rewarded for avoiding schools with non-complying students. And Higher Education is now in the sights of the testing industry.

In higher education, I still have some freedom to try to deprogram the students that come into my classroom. I spend a great deal of effort trying to build in mechanisms for student activity to be driven by what makes sense to them. In different classes, I use different schedules for extracting myself from students' teacher-centered expectations about learning and seek ways to engage them with their own learning. Generally, I'm quite directive in the first few days (which is what college students depressingly expect) and then, little-by-little, I wean students off from seeking my approval to trying to satisfy themselves.

I am sometimes successful: in end-of-term reflective essays students often describe to me how they had experienced an epiphany at some point -- and its effect is evident in the subsequent work the student performed during the semester. What brings about the epiphany varies from student to student: sometimes it's seeing what peers are doing, sometimes it's something I say, and sometimes it just happens out of the blue.

I occasionally meet tremendous resistance from students. One student, after the first day, dropped my course saying that he could see that in the course students would have to think "outside-the-box". "I don't want to do that," he said. In another course, I had used the analogy of taking the students out to the middle of the ocean and asking them to pick a direction and swim. "I guarantee you'll get someplace interesting," I said. "But you have to pick a direction and swim. I'll try to make sure you don't sink and help you navigate the reefs and currents that you run into. But you have to swim." Some students just crossed their arms and refused: they were convinced that if they waited long enough, I would turn the assignment into a meaningless set of steps they can perform without choosing. In a chat-session with the students, one woman kept re-iterating reasons why she couldn't start her project until she received assurances that it was the right way to go until another student finally said, "Swim, Cynthia! Swim!"

It would be much better if students didn't need to wait until college to discover that learning works best when it's driven by self-interest and self-motivation -- and is self-directed. The internet, more than any one other single thing, now makes that possible. Not inevitable -- but possible in a way that has never been possible before.

The internet hasn't changed how students learn, but it has the potential to be an incredible source of student empowerment. Every student with a computing device and a network connection now has access to a greater library and source of information than any human being on earth has ever had. Much, much greater. Students don't really need textbooks. They don't really need teachers. What they need are reasons to delve into that stuff and take advantage of it. School -- most of our current formal educational structure -- is not good at providing those reasons. In fact, schools (and government) are generally afraid to let students have unfiltered access to the full world of information on the internet. Students that buy into the formal schooling program become rule-followers and get comparatively little real benefit from the "learning". What students need are engaging, authentic tasks that require learning -- and the freedom to pursue them.

Once students are liberated from the drudgery of menial schoolwork, they suddenly discover that the world is a fascinating place -- and there are whole communities of people who have been equally fascinated by it and have been trying to figure it out for ages. Instead of trying to drag students along by the nose, the teacher is liberated to help students accomplish their goals: they can become a genuine guide and mentor -- and not just a supervisor trying to trick students into learning stuff they have no interest in.

School -- and much of higher education -- as currently instantiated is a poor substitute for self-motivated learning. Most would get a lot farther fostering and pursuing their own interests. The tools for students and teachers to liberate themselves are there just waiting.

The Wrong Lesson

As a beginner, one of my earliest experiences with actually trying to use Esperanto was quite negative. In the letter I sent to the US chief-delegate of UEA, explaining why I wanted to become a delegate, I said that I wanted to drive Esperanto out of California. That's not what I intended to say, of course. I intended to say that I wanted to expand Esperanto out from California, where it was particularly strong, to the rest of the country. I got a scathing letter in return that railed at me for suggesting such a thing. I had had enough other positive experiences with Esperanto that I wasn't completely turned off. I continued studying Esperanto and did eventually become a delegate. But I learned an important lesson.

The lesson that I learned is that there are malicious people everywhere. Like the kid I know who got beat up at a Quaker retreat, I learned that just because someone is learning Esperanto doesn't make them an altruistic believer in peaceful dialog.

I worry, however, that I learned the wrong lesson.

In dealing with people from other countries, I have found that experienced Esperanto-speakers are generally careful about jumping to conclusions about what other people say. When someone says something that seems surprising or outrageous, experienced speakers generally understand that it's a good idea to reserve judgement until you probe a bit more for meaning. They know that many Esperanto-speakers speak the language with only the skill of a komencanto or progresanto.

At the same time, in spite of the obvious collapse of the entire organized Esperanto movement, in every Esperanto-organization to which I've belonged, there has been an underlying element of hostility and animosity toward anyone that tries to introduce change. Humphrey Tonkin, in various places, put it this way:

No sane person, who saw close-up the internal battles in the heart of the Academy of Esperanto during the last four or five years (like every other member, I consider myself the only sane person in this important body), could avoid the conclusion that many of our people did not learn even basic lessons of interpersonal conduct, or, that they learned but ignore them, because their only means of validating themselves is through creating maximum confusion and conflict among others.

We have similar issues in my local town government. It's a saying in English that "Eighty percent of success is just showing up." A corrolary is that crazy people, who have nothing better to do than to stir up trouble, always show up for everything. In Esperantujo, this problem is particularly acute, because our community tends to be desperate for "new recruits" and, hence, our standards for accepting new members tends to be quite low.

Furthermore, Esperanto-speakers are individualistic and iconoclastic. They don't just go with the flow -- if they did they never would have learned Esperanto in the first place. Last year, in comments to the article I wrote Supreniro kaj malfalo de Esperanto , I wrote this:

In my experience, leading an Esperanto organization is very difficult because esperantists are nowhere near agreement -- neither regarding goals nor means. It's more difficult than herding cats. It's like trying to herd together a sloth, a swallow, a porcupine, a hedgehog, and a slug. The sloth wants to sleep. The swallow is gone. The porcupine throws quills everywhere. The hedgehog rolls up into a ball. And the slug just goes his own way paying no attention to the others. Anything you do as leader will raise a chorus of unhappy -- even angry -- voices. Only if you do nothing will the fewest number complain.

This problem is that leaders get worn down and quickly discover that the strategy of doing nothing is the only way to avoid the shouting. This problem is endemic in all our organizations. Or leaders give up and leave the organizations to the crazy people. The crazy people keep showing up -- because they're crazy and don't have anything better to do. Which leads me to what really worries me.

First, I worry that I'm one of the crazy people. Certainly, almost anyone who doesn't speak Esperanto already thinks I'm crazy because I waste any time at all on a dead language -- let alone trying to grapple with the community of crazies to build a better organization for it.

What I worry about most, however, is that the problem is actually with Esperanto itself. Maybe we imagine that Esperanto works better than it actually does. Maybe the reason that our organizations fail is because we actually can't communicate effectively using Esperanto. Anyone watching the Esperanto movement from the outside would have to be REALLY BATSHIT CRAZY to think that our organizations demonstrated the kind of capacity for intercomprehension that you'd want for, say, the United Nations. And I worry that this is the lesson that I maybe should have learned all those years ago.

Convince me I'm wrong.

(This an English translation of an article that appeared as La Malĝusta Leciono at Libera Folio.)


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...


Subscribe to RSS - Steven D. Brewer's blog