Steven D. Brewer's blog
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A huge snowstorm blew in today and shut everything down. The middle school, which was scheduled to have a "late-start day" anyway, just closed, but the elementary school stayed open for the morning. Daniel was extremely bitter. The University waited until noon to close, by which point it was snowing about 2-inches per hour. It took me more than half-an-hour to ride the bus home from Morrill. I could have walked faster, but I didn't want my computer and camera to get wet. (And its hard to walk in the snow and I'm lazy). Alisa had gone out just as the snow started to lay in a few supplies and got caught in the traffic jam. She waited and eventually managed to get out, but it took a lot longer than one might have expected. The whole region was in gridlock. Thank goodness I didn't have to try to get across the bridge.
I rarely just post entries with links to cool stuff, but there's been so much cool stuff lately.
The boys and I have really enjoyed hearing Jonathan Coulton's Still Alive in the VGCats cartoon. Its very catchy and we're all whistling and humming it constantly. It was also exciting to see that Emily danced with JoCo in Chicago. How surpassingly cool is that!
I'm really looking forward to wishing everyone a "happy chrifsmas!" this year. What a perfect response to the seasonal culture wars by the religious right.
Yesterday, a bunch of families were invited to Amherst College to preview Bubble Trubble. A few weeks ago, Daniel was an extra and we went to see if any of his footage made it into the movie. It looks like most of it ended up on the cutting-room floor. Alisa struggled with feelings of disappointment, but for me the issue had always been Daniel's participation in the process. He undoubtedly would have found it more satisfying to appear (as prominently as an extra can) in the final version of the movie, but he still got the full experience of participating.
Phil mentions feeling seasonal affective disorder at this time of the year. I have shades of that as well. One thing I did to improve my mood was to set up our birdfeeder. We have it hanging on a long rope from the cherry tree in front of the dining room. I haven't always managed to get a birdfeeder set up because the time to set it up is busy. I should plan a few other intentional projects that will make me feel better -- I've thought about making a wreath again this year. I think that would cheer me up more than making a wraith would, anyway.
There is a fascinating article about Craig Venter at Salon right now. His autobiography, A Life Decoded has just been released and the articles talks, not only about the book, but about how new science is being organized and funded. Unfortunately, I think the article has it completely wrong. The author argues that 20th century science, which saw a dramatic increase in the tenured professoriate was a response to the 19th century "gentleman professor" -- that "professionalized specialization was a necessary mechanism for processing the bounty of 19th century discovery". The author goes on to conclude that the new entrepreneurial scientists are an appropriate return to the tradition of independent scientists of the past. I think its actually more subtle and problematic.
I think the 20th century saw a dedication to public investment in the common good. This was partly driven by the pre-eminence of the nation-state, based on the military experiences of the two world wars and creation of superweapons (ie, nukes and ICBMs). Partly, it was also driven by the interaction of organized labor and industrialized production, which produced a unique democratization of distribution of wealth. Wealth was never more evenly distributed than a very brief period between the 50s and the 70s. This is what resulted in investment in public knowledge creation.
What we're seeing now is a return to the patron model where you have to be either super-rich or funded by the super-rich in order to engage in knowledge construction. The ranks of tenured professors are dying off and being increasingly replaced by freeway faculty. Its a disaster for a public agenda of research to benefit the common good. It's all very romantic to hearken back to the days of gentleman scientists, but you might as well idealize feudalism -- its the same thing.
I've rarely had a weekend seem so welcome. This week has been horrendously busy. Today, I had people lined up out the door to print poster presentations. They all did posters on Powerpoint. Two of them worked OK and two didn't. One poor woman had two presentations that got thoroughly screwed up when you tried to print them: one of them had a graphic that became invisible when you printed it. In the other, there was a about a half-inch of the poster that disappeared. I try to tell people not to use Powerpoint, but they won't listen to me and they still expect me to somehow fix things when they don't work. It's truly maddening. I've been collecting pictures of posters that people made with Powerpoint that didn't work to show people and I've got a set of directions for how to get started with Scribus (which is the program I recommend for posters).
The end of the semester is rapidly approaching. Everyone is incredibly busy trying to pull final things together. I've been working on a proposal for an honor's section of the writing course and a proposal to set up programming clubs. Today, I took a break from that to offer testimony to the Governor's Readiness Project.
I was extremely satisfied with the poster session in my class. There are always things I wish I had done better and places where I can see to improve for next year but, overall, the outcome has been satisfying and the students are undertaking their research projects in fine fettle. Now if I could just find the time to finish my grading -- I'm woefully behind.
The school system finally rejected Muppyville. If I hustle money for them (ie, by getting a grant) they might think about it again. It was exactly what I suspected when I tried to get involved -- it's what's happened *every* time I've tried to do something that required engagement with the schools. Tell me again why should bother trying to get grant money when I'd have to work with these people to spend it?
Thanksgiving is an interesting holiday in academia falling, as it does, in the middle of the run-up to the end of the semester. Students and faculty are closing in on the peak of activity before finals and suddenly, there is a full-stop. The boys and I left on Tuesday morning and today I'm in North Carolina visiting relatives. I brought my grading, so I can get it finished before I go back on Monday, but its still otherworldly.
I got up at 3:30am to make sure we made our flight -- I allowed a generous amount of time to catch the shuttle bus from the parking lot to the airport, since it can sometimes take a half-hour or more. As it turned out, the van pulled up right behind us as we parked the car. As we boarded the plane, a light snow began to fall, so we had to be de-iced before we took off. We were late getting off and the plane felt like it was idling all the way to Philadelphia because flights into an out of Philly were being delayed by the weather. I had planned on getting the boys some breakfast during our layover, but as it turned out, we arrived with only enough time to make our connection. Poor li'l Daniel was nearly frantic with hunger.
We arrived in good order and have been visiting with various folks since we got here. It's always strange to step into the lives of others for just a few days.
Today Daniel is acting as an extra in filming for the movie Bubble Trubble. He had to wear "adult business attire" and come down to Open Square in Holyoke at 9am this morning. It's cold out and much of the time he's just sitting or standing around. Luckily, he doesn't have to spend all the time outside -- there's a nice cafe inside with coffee (and brownies and hot dogs and chips, and everything else to tempt a little boy). And it also has a wireless connection.
It's funny to see the all the kids. There are 30-40 kids all walking around wearing business suits. It plays tricks with your mind to see little kids wearing adult clothes. Sometimes they act like adults, which plays with your mind one way and sometimes they act like little kids which plays with your mind a completely different way.
I've brought my camera and I'm taking a lot of pictures -- I'll post some later.
I also have wandered around Open Square a bit taking pictures. Its a place I had potentially suggested for Esperanto-USA to move to. Not that I think they will.
I've been checking periodically to see if Muppyville shows up as "categorized" in SurfControl. We had submitted it about a week ago. I was beginning to suspect they wouldn't categorize it, because all you can see when you go to the page is the login screen. But they did! Muppyville is now categorized as "Computing and Internet". Is there any page on the Internet that you look at with a computer that couldn't be categorized as "Computing and Internet"? Oh well.