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Steven D. Brewer's blog

Caught up

September 17, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

The past two weeks have kept me nearly constantly busy at work. At 4:30 this afternoon, though, I realized I was essentially caught up. The BCRC is good. I have the intro labs up and running. The plant physiology lab is good. My classes are up-to-date. The only things I know I need to do, I have to wait on other people: Kate for preferences and Tom for winxp. Yeah. WinXP in the new Super Deluxe lab. Sigh...

I met with folks in CMPSCI yesterday to talk about doing cross-platform computer labs. They've been running their ed-lab in triple boot mode for a year or so. They approach running labs differently than we do, so I'm not sure how much I learned. They set up their labs before the semester and then, essentially, they don't touch them -- or if they do, they do it by touching each workstation. They also do cross-platform by letting people reboot into different OSes. We do it by supporting the workstations with radmind and I'm planning to do virtualization to support the other platforms we need.

The virtualization stuff is cool. I downloaded virtualbox and played with it using Ubuntu yesterday and today. It's pretty seamless. You can let it take over the display and you're using Ubuntu. Of course, its like a little parasite, sucking up all your RAM and computational cycles. Once I get the winxp licenses, I'm going to try vmware fusion. I'm sure it'll be loads of fun.

The intro labs were more work than I had expected. I replaced the teaching stations and found four machines that one sort of problem or another that needed to be fixed. In two cases, it was a hard-drive that was corrupted or failing. We swapped in the spare workstations until we get the others fixed up.

By the end of the day, I was exhausted. Thank goodness its Friday.

Life, tardigrades, and everything

September 13, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

The semester has gotten off to a busy, but relatively smooth start. My writing class is finding tardigrades and starting to write about them. Students in ODI are feeling their way forward. Most of the labs in the building are working now. I still have to get the intro labs sorted out (by Monday), but I'm starting to have time to sit back and stretch for a minute or two now and then. Life is pretty good.

I'm using the plant physiology lab, which has scopes and computers to teach writing this semester. We've also got the BCRC reserved when we meed more computers. In the first class meeting, students tried to find tardigrades -- I had set up little bowls where we floated some lichens, causing tardigrades to drop to the bottom and walk around. Only a few found any the first time. On Monday, I got them started at the course website. On Wednesday, we met in the lab and again and the goal was to get a tardigrade in a well-slide and look at it. A couple of groups managed to do this -- I did three or four so more people could see them. I'm seeing a lot of cool stuff: different species of tardigrades, moulted exoskeletons with tardigrade eggs, etc. I'm excited about where the class will be when we get to the end.

The new lab for Super-Deluxe is coming together. The instructor decided to get equipment and software that requires Windows, so we're exploring the best options for doing virtualization. Sigh... I'm going to try VirtualBox and vmware and try to see whether potential benefits from vmware offset the fact that its licensing will probably make it two or three times more difficult to support. I'm meeting with folks at Computer Science who've been running a multi-OS lab for a year or so.

I keep having stuff to do at night. On Tuesday night, it was Chamber event and last night, I met with the founder of Ridebuzz to talk about the technology. We had a good conversation at the Dirty Truth. There's good ideas there -- I think those kinds of approaches going to become more important over the next few years. But I think there's a lot that would need to be done before it could be a mainstream phenomenon.

My last weekend

September 11, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

I've been enjoying my last weekend before the semester -- even better, it's a long weekend. I was exhausted on Friday night -- I've been working 10 and 11 hour days getting ready for the beginning of the semester. I think I'm close enough to ready, but there's still a lot to do.

Thank goodness I've had Tom's help getting ready for Organisms: Diversity and Interactions. We've had several productive sessions discussing how to create a more student-centered and co-created learning environment using Drupal. I've often retained control of the front-page of the course and created separate spaces for student writing. I've actually done this primarily for practical reasons: many students come into the class wanting to know exactly what is the voice and agenda of the course and by keeping the front-page reserved for that purpose, its very, very clear. I see the value in blurring the distinction: to promote the students' agendas and to give their voices added importance and value.

I'm still stuck thinking about a topic for Writing in Biology. I'm leaning toward tardigrades, but it will mean finding scopes and cameras. It could work.

Denno Coil

August 31, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

I noticed a new fansub at Dattebayo of a Japanese show called Denno Coil. The boys and I watched the first two episodes. It's pretty good -- the themes and animation style are very reminiscent of Studio Ghibli. The characters are great -- I particularly love the grandmother: Megabaa. She appears to be not only a kind of spiritual leader for the kids, but also a technical wizard. She runs a candy store where the kids buy all of the technical stuff and software for exploring a virtual cyber world that's superimposed over the real world. I'm looking forward to the next episode.

Tomato Festival

August 30, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

TomatiljoWe had a great time at the tomato festival yesterday. The weather was perfect and we even found a reasonable place to park -- always a challenge. I love trying all of the different varietys of tomatoes. The one I liked best -- the wapsipinicon -- seemed to be the favorite one of everybody. Tom and Ella came for a while. We had a good time hanging out in the shade and watching some cooking demonstrations. One guy made something he called "Wild Man Stew", which was pretty good. He was using some wine to cook, but encouraged people to come get a glass of wine. No-one had to ask me twice. A woman who came a bit later did some Indian cooking and made absolutely incredible pakoras and fresh onion chutney. It was a great way to celebrate my birthday.

Last week of summer

August 24, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

It's the weekend before the last week of the summer. I was stressed coming back with only two weeks to get stuff ready, but the first week went pretty well. I still have a lot of work to do, but I'm starting to feel like I have things under control.

Today is my birthday. I'm planning to go to the tomato festival at Red Fire Farm. I mentioned to a lot of people that I was going there -- I think Tom and Ella are going to join us, but it seems that most people are busy doing other stuff. Too bad for them.

Yesterday, I saw something that mentioned that there was a survey by McDonalds at The Lost Ring. It's all about their branding. The marketing types believe that everything is about "adding value to the brand" and they're trying to see whether sponsoring a game like this adds value to the brand. I tried to answer the questions honestly, but I think the idea that business is about leveraging the value of a brand to convince people to buy crappier stuff than they would have on their merits is just stupid. I'm sure they would say that its just good business. The weirdest question was something like "What does it say about McDonalds that they would sponsor an experience like The Lost Ring?" My reply was along these lines: "That's like asking, 'what does it say about amphibians that when you lick their skin you have a hallucinogenic experience.' I would answer (1) it's an enigma and (2) it says more about the problems inherent in global capitalism than anything about McDonalds."


August 23, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

DipsakoI love teasel. As an ecologist, I should hate teasel because it's a pernicious invasive species. But I don't. I love the spiky branches and the lavender flowers. Lucy mentioned she had seen some teasel near the elementary school, so when it looked like there might be seeds, I went over and got some to plant at the corner. They're easy to get: I just held a ziploc bag under the cones and tapped on them, collecting showers of seeds with each tap.

One corner of our property has high hedges (burning bush -- another invasive species) near the road. At the edge, we planted some hostas (another non-native species). I thought having teasel between the hostas and the burning bush might make a nice three-level effect. Today, at lunch time, I turned over the soil, chopped up the weeds that were growing there, and planted my teasel seeds. I watered them immediately and again after dinner. Now, tonight, I can dream of the teasels I'll have in a couple of years. Its a guilty, sinful love, but I just love teasels.

Posted pictures

August 18, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

I posted pictures from my St. Croix trip to flickr and ipernity. I'm particularly pleased with these two pictures of a baby mongoose. I didn't take as many pictures this time around -- too busy. Lots of good memories, though.

Back in Amherst

August 16, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

We are home from St. Croix. On our last morning on-island, we went swimming, packed up, and felt sorry for ourselves. Buzz and his crew left around 11am. Our flight was later in the afternoon, so we drove out to Butler Bay and then stopped at the Sunset Grill for lunch before driving to the airport. Due to bad weather in Miami, our departure was delayed a half hour from St. Croix and a half hour from Miami to Hartford. We ended getting home around 3am. I'm really glad, I didn't promise anyone I would come into work on Friday. I found plenty to do besides. We picked up Penny from Valley Inn for Pets. She was all wiggly and very happy to see us. It's cute how she can wag her tail with her whole body. Afterwards, I drove down to Holyoke to pick up our vermin from Tom. I got to show him pictures from the trip and play with Ella too. We went for lunch at the Artisan's Cafe and had a good chat about on-going projects.

The trip to St. Croix was successful by almost any measure, but it was busier than in the past. Having so many family members there meant that I was spread kinda thin. Both Phil and Richard remarked on how little time they got to spend with me -- we were always in big groups with kids and neighbors around too. Still, they both enjoyed visiting the island and sound like they'd like to return.

Buzz and I made good connections with people regarding our proposal. Several people are excited about it. I'm hopeful that we'll made it happen.

Busy in paradise

August 15, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

Having family here has made paradise busier than usual. Still paradise -- just busier. Today, I took Phil up to the Virgin Islands Sustainable Farm Institute. It was a fascinating place. We had lunch and chatted with them for an hour or two. That was between doing mongoose things. The mongoose population seems low -- in spite of having twice as many traps as last year, we're catching relatively few mongooses. We've seen more feral dogs than usual. Tonight, we're planning to catch bats. Tomorrow, we're planning to do the Cruzan Rum Distillery. We're having a great time!

In St. Croix

August 7, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

Ra?pegoWe arrived in St. Croix in good order on Saturday. Our flights were uneventful. We found our rental car where we expected it. We arrived at the cottages before they were quite ready to check us in, so we went to the grocery store and put in some supplies. Philip and Richard arrived on Sunday, and we've been enjoying the sun, sand, and waves.

Someone pointed out the frangipani caterpillars. They eat plants that have toxic sap and sequester the poisons, hence the warning coloration. They're immense and very striking. If you pick them up, they thrash violently, which is pretty scary.

We've put out traps for mongooses. This afternoon, we'll go back out to the field to see how many we've caught.

So far, all is going perfectly.


August 4, 2008 by Steven D. Brewer

A few weeks ago, I was asked if the Biology Department could support a faculty member who wanted to have an instance of Mediawiki set up with an extension that could render TeX. Over the years, I've had several people want capabilities like that, but it hasn't been a high enough priority to actually set it up. I met with the faculty member and, after a few minutes discussion, it sounded to me like what they really needed was Drupal that could render TeX. And it turns out that there's a Drupal module for that: Drutex. I set up a test instance to play with it, installed the module, and began testing.

The first big challenge was to install a working TeX implementation for Solaris. I couldn't get texlive2008 to work -- dvipng would segfault reliably. I found tetex3 at sunfreeware that worked. OK.

The next big challenge was that drutex didn't know how to work with the private file uploads mechanism in drupal. I switched to public and that worked. OK.

The instructor wanted to be able to get tex and pdf versions of the documents, but it appeared that the module was using the wrong path to build the URLs for those. I fixed that. OK.

I finally had a more-or-less working install and let the instructor begin exploring it. We haven't figured out how to include graphics. It looks like it can only render one page of TeX -- it only shows you the last page and the others are AWOL. It also doesn't seem to render some things, like colored text. Finally, it doesn't like it when you choose a different template to render with -- not sure what's going on there. It looks like the module really needs a maintainer. As if I needed another full-time job.


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.

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