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Steven D. Brewer's blog

Returning to WMU

In October, I will be returning to WMU because I've been nominated for an alumni achievement award. It's a somewhat strange feeling, in part because my path is not what one would consider typical success in academia. Many academics believe that accepting a non-tenure-system appointment is to have "failed": to simply sink to the bottom of what John Perry called the academic trough never to return. But it's also just weird to be have reached the point where I feel like I'm starting to look back more than looking forward.

There are a series of events over the weekend. On Friday, I'll give a talk to the current students. The title of my talk is But what will the students do? Technology & Student-Centered Learning. And then there's a banquet, a reception, and a ceremony for a college level award. And for Saturday, they offered tickets to go to a Broncos game—they're playing the University of Akron—with a tailgating party beforehand.

I declined to attend the game. I've gone on record on campus as an opponent of football due to the growing evidence that it inevitably causes traumatic brain injuries. I did point out, however, that even the Minutemen defeated Akron one year when that was their single victory, which made me think the game might be good if someone liked one-sided contests. But I expressed some curiosity about the tailgate party.

"I'd be happy to learn more about tailgating," I wrote. "It is like a cookout with beer?"

"Unfortunately, no beer," she replied. "It starts at about 12:30 and each of the colleges have a tent, and you can go from one to another. Food, beverages, and activities will ensue! The Arts and Sciences theme for their tent is Casino night, so it should be lots of fun. Not sure what the other college have. I'm not sure yet if a faculty member will attend with you or not, we're still working out some details."

"What?" I replied "Well, then, I've been tragically misinformed about the definition of tailgating. Someone should correct wikipedia!"

But I admitted I was just kidding. Mostly.

Buzz Hoagland (1955-2017)

On Tuesday, July 18, 2017, Phil Hotchkiss and I set out with our great friend Buzz Hoagland for an epic road trip to Vermont to visit craft breweries and bring home some select examples (hopefully including Heady Topper) to share with friends. Buzz had spent the previous week or two researching breweries in Vermont to find the best IPAs to sample. He had compiled a mammoth set of pages and had printed them out with all the data: breweries, maps, lists, pictures, and addresses. He handed this thick bundle of pages to me when I got into the car and I joked he that he must have printed out the whole internet.

We drove to Bennington, Vermont where we stopped at a brewpub for lunch and then headed next to Middlebury, the second stop of eleven Buzz had planned out. We had one beer at the Drop-Inn Brewery, but when we got back in the car, something happened. We realized something was wrong, but by the time we'd gotten around the side of the car, Buzz was already unconscious. Moments later, he stopped breathing. And just like that, he was gone. It was the most heart-breaking moment of my life.

I had to travel to Wisconsin to meet Buzz Hoagland. We were both at a BioQUEST Curriculum Consortium workshop in… 1997? 1998? Something like that. We were all biologists and teachers, but he was also a Mac user. And he had a beard and wore glasses. And he liked drinking good beer. We hit it off. It was only as the workshop was coming to a close that we discovered that we lived less than 50 miles apart. John Jungck used to say that the purpose of BioQUEST was to "begin conversations worth continuing." It certainly achieved its goal with us.

Buzz was due for a sabbatical that fall. He expressed interest in co-teaching my class with me for his project, which I welcomed and arranged. The class met once-a-week in the evening. Afterwards, we would go to drink a beer (or two) and debrief about how things had gone and to plan for the next class. I remember we had a hard time finding someplace that served beer that was also quiet enough to have a conversation. Eventually, we went to the Chilis in Hadley, in spite of the mediocre selections. I remember telling Randy Phillis how amazing it was to teach with someone and then go out for a beer and conversation, marveling at the simple pleasure of it. He quipped, "Well, I used to have these things called 'friends'…"

After the class, was over, we continued to work on new projects and to meet and drink beer. When we first met, he was still making homebrew. His Partisan Politics ale found a fan in me. Lucy, my mom, really liked a cream ale he could make. And his Toadspit Stout was something to marvel at. He could even make root beer! He gave me some advice when I wanted to try making homebrew which I did a few times (with mixed results). As the craft beer revolution took off, however, he eventually found he could purchase better beer than he could make. And so he pretty much quit making beer, except as a tribute to friends for parties, as he did for my 50th birthday party. Or weddings, as he did for Phil Hotchkiss.

Our relationship was multi-faceted. We discussed biology and teaching. But we were also both interested in technology and were Free Software advocates. We did web development and used Drupal together. We both loved cycling. We developed on-line classes together. We were both active in faculty unions and campus governance. We both had families and children. And passions. And problems. Buzz was someone I could always talk to about anything.

On the other hand, we were very different people too. Buzz was outgoing and charismatic. At a meeting, he would always be in the center, like a star, surrounded by other people. I would tend to sit in the corner by myself. I always felt a bit invisible—a bit self-conscious—when I was in a group with Buzz, because he was so present and so popular. And yet, time after time, he would come to me. And spend time with me. And invite me to spend time with him. I couldn't quite believe it at first and never did wholly understand it. But as the years wore on, I came to depend on the bond of trust between us that was as real as anything in my life.

A few years later, our relationship deepened when he invited me to join him in St. Croix to participate in his mongoose research. Buzz had been visiting the island off-and-on at that point for 30 years to study mongooses. But after that first year, I started going regularly. I couldn't go every year, partly due to finances, but also due to my other interests (cf. Esperanto.) But it was always the highlight of my year to visit St. Croix and be met by Buzz at sunrise every morning with "It's another beautiful day in paradise…"

I have so many memories of Buzz. Many were from our adventures in St. Croix: Driving back from the field, coming up over the rise, and seeing the brilliant blues of the Caribbean sea laid out before us… Watching bats under the Tamarind tree… Going shopping at Plaza Extra… Taking an "easy walk" with him to tide pools… Racing in jeeps along the "scenic road" (or, more accurately, scenic "road") to Creque Dam… Getting chased and stung by africanized bees and jack spaniards… Snorkeling on the Buck Island tour… Seeing baby sea turtles for the first time… Watching the sunset and looking for the Green Flash…

But many are just part of my everyday life: Working on manuscripts together… Cooking steaks on the grill in his back yard… Building a server together… Meeting at "high noon" for lunch with friends at Opa Opa. Or Hangars. Or the Northampton Brewery. Or the Student Prince. Visiting breweries and craft beer festivals… Riding from brewery to brewery in Pedal2Pints… Every day was like an adventure with Buzz.

It was a terrible shock to lose Buzz this way, so suddenly. He always seemed larger than life: like he was a man of brass. I never doubted but that he would live into his 90s like his father. I just assumed he would live forever—that he would live longer than me, anyway. But I can't be sad. The time I got to have with him was such a gift.

My friendship with Buzz Hoagland was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. I will treasure each of the moments of his life that he chose to share with me. I will never forget his generosity of spirit and the model he made of his life for his family and students and friends. I am certain that for the rest of my life, whenever I watch a sunrise or drink a glass of IPA, I will remember my dear friend Buzz Hoagland and be glad for the time we had together.

Buzz Hoagland 1955-2017

Goldenrod leaf

I mentally restricted myself to blogging about tree leaves, but I've been watching for leaf miners since I started and haven't seen any until today and it was in a goldenrod leaf. So I'm writing about a goldenrod leaf (Fig. 1). The plant was near my bus stop and I only had a moment to grab the leaf before the bus came, so I didn't observe any other characteristics about the plant. I'm not sure it would have been possible to identify it more specifically until it flowers anyway. There are a lot of species of Solidago and only a few are really distinctive unless you know them pretty well.

Goldenrod Leaf MinerGoldenrod Leaf Miner

Figure 1. Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) leaf. Upper side is on left. Leaf miner damage visible.

Golderod leaves are lanceolate with a serrate margin. The leaf is light-green above and somewhat silvery underneath. The central vein protrudes under the leaf almost like a midrib.

The leaf miner track starts out around .2mm wide and leads toward the base of the leaf. When it reaches the intersection of a a smaller leaf vein with the middle vein, it turns abruptly, crosses the smaller vein, and heads toward the leaf margin. It runs along the leaf margin until it reaches the base of the leaf, where it reverses direction. The path returns along the leaf margin, but turns inward toward the middle and then meaders back and forth between the margin and the first major vein. There is a black trail inside much of the path, possibly frass or fecal material, The path leads to within a millimeter or two of the beginning and then stops.


I was an early Dropbox user, but was never happy about using a "cloud" service. The "cloud" is just someone else's computer and I've always wanted to use my own computer. I used SparkleShare for several years, but there was never a client for mobile, which limited its utility. But recently, I found out about Syncthing.

Syncthing provides a web-based graphical user interface to set up end-to-end relationships among devices. It tries to be something a non-technical person could use, but I'm not sure there it's quite there yet. It's a somewhat uneasy compromise between the two: I sorta wish it just had plain-text configuration files that I could edit with vim. (Its configuration files are plain text, but XML). In the end, I found that the easiest way to configure things was to use an ssh tunnel so I could configure both ends at the same time in different browser tabs.

ssh [hostname] -L 8333:localhost:8384

I set it up among 4 devices: my Ubuntu server, a Mac desktop, a Mac laptop, and an android phone. I could install via packages on Ubuntu. Simple. On the Mac, I had to move files by hand and missed that I needed to edit one file before starting it. And then that I needed to replace more than one instance of USERNAME in the file. But eventually I got it working. You could fix the directions, but you couldn't fix my pattern of only reading the directions once everything else has failed. It was easy to get it installed on Android except for figuring out how to create folders in the file-system. I could see the DCIM, Music, etc, folders, but didn't see how to create a folder at that level. Eventually, I saw you could select the /storage/emulated/0 folder and THEN create the folder. Very tricksy.

I was worried it wouldn't work properly across my broken NAT gateway, but it was fine. It uses local discovery as well as a distributed network of "discovery" servers to exchange information about where nodes are. It's just a little creepy, but seems to work OK.

One thing Syncthing has taught me is patience. A couple of times, I would set up something at one end, go to the other end and try to set it up there too, only to (eventually) have Syncthing simply ask me if I didn't want to set it up, with the setup already done. Sometimes it takes longer than I think it's going to, but just a little patience—getting a cup of coffee—does the trick.

I still haven't figured out all the configuration options. My brain wants to think in client-server terms, but Syncthing is more peer-to-peer in orientation. But it is highly configurable. It has four or five different options for versioning, including an "external" option, so you can write a script to manage versioning just how you like it.

I still haven't used it long enough to be sure I'm ready to migrate away from Dropbox and Sparkleshare, but initial results are very encouraging—encouraging enough I've given them some money. Now I just need to persuade Phil to set up a peer so we can provide off-site backups for each other. I mean, he's got that Raspberry Pi JUST SITTING THERE…

Obstinate people and their fairy stories

Phil shared an article with me today about two towns in Colorado where there's a cultural conflict: the hardscrabble mining town of Nucla with the wealthy, cosmopolitan Telluride right next door. There's a lot of fascinating history (the town of Nucla was built by socialists), but the central point of the article is the cultural differences that form the flashpoint for conflict.

Residents in Nucla want to re-open a uranium mill which the people in Telluride oppose. A Nucla resident says, “They’re the most wasteful people, yet they tell us that, you know, we can’t have our uranium […]." Which made me think of other ways to complete that sentence “They’re the most wasteful people, yet they tell us that, you know, we can’t have our ebola factory" or “They’re the most wasteful people, yet they tell us that, you know, we can’t have our africanized bee colonies." (Or "sarin gas storage tanks." Or "rabid raccoon breeding facility.")

One woman says, of her grandfather who died of cancer (from smoking and working in a uranium mine) “If you had told my grandpa that he was going to die when he was 70 a horrible, painful death, he would have continued to mine. That’s how he supported his family."

It reminded me of miners in West Virginia during the presidential election. I remember that Hillary told people, pretty frankly, "Look. The coal jobs ain't coming back, so we need to do retraining and get people into other jobs and careers." And they said "Fuck you, bitch!" and voted for Donald Trump. Yet when you ask them today they say, "Yeah, he said he's bringing the coal jobs back, but we know it's not going to happen." Hillary actually understood the problem and had the right answer, but people didn't want to hear an actual solution to their problem: they would rather have someone lie to them and tell them the fairy story they want to hear.

Aiding and abetting

The summer after third grade, my family moved from a suburban neighborhood to a house in the woods. My father, fascinated by the writings of Thoreau and Aldo Leopold, wanted to live closer to nature. The woods were beautiful and fascinating for my father. But they were surrounded by rural farm fields. And rural families. For me, it was a huge cultural shock when I was bused out of the woods and into to a rural elementary school.

There were some kids who were accepting of me: who came up to me and made friends. But they were the exception. Many people (both kids and teachers) were immediately alienated by my educated diction and non-religious perspective. I lived under a constant threat of violence from that point forward until I went to college.

I was assaulted dozens of times. One kid knocked me off my bike because he had heard I was saying stuff about him. (I wasn't). One kid threw a rock and hit me in the head. I was pushed down, punched, and brutalized. Recess required constant vigilance to avoid bullies. And when I went to middle school—and there were locker rooms—it only got worse.

So when I read an account like Digging in the Trash it evokes an almost PTSD-like response from me. I've been there. I've known those people. He says:

I’m tired of standing by silently while privileged people in privileged places strip those less fortunate of their humanity. I’m tired of living in a place where men like my grandfather and Paco are shipped off to front lines to die for profit margins. I’m tired of an America where all the folks I’ve ever loved are dismissed as trash, where people are reduced to something subhuman simply because of where they live. I’m tired of having to explain it. I’m just goddamn tired.

One of my favorite writers, Larry Brown, was once called the "King of White Trash," and he had enough of a sense of humor to joke about it, to laugh and tell his daughter that if he was the king that effectively crowned her princess. Ultimately, I think the reason Larry was able to shake it off and laugh is because he’d grown used to it, just as we all have. We know we’re something that outsiders will never understand, that it’s noteworthy to see a landscape dotted with trailers and churches. We know we’re something perplexing to those who have never been here. We know that they’ll never be able to see that there is a tremendous beauty in day-to-day survival, that there is sufficient grace in refusing to buckle beneath the weight of this world.

A friend of mine sent me an article recently from The New Yorker titled, "Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich." It was basically an essay about how some of the richest people in America have been preparing for some sort of societal breakdown. I guffawed at the thought when I read it, not at the idea of America collapsing, but at the idea they think they’ll be the ones to survive. I laughed at the boldness, at the arrogance.

I’ve never been a betting man and the truth is I don’t have much money to lay down, but what I’ll leave you with is this. While all the privileged have been coasting through life so often on the backs of my people, we’ve been surviving.

You may not be a betting man, but this attitude only helps the predators. To say that outsiders will never understand is to doom yourself to tribalism. And sell yourself down the river. There are outsiders who do understand: the predators. They understand that you've cut yourselves off and you're ripe for exploitation.

You say the privileged have been coasting through life. Some are, but most are not: they're working hard. It is capitalism that oppresses the poor. It oppresses almost everyone.

The only way we get out of this is to organize. We break through the tribalism and work together. But as long as poor people use markers like speech and religion (and race) as placeholders for ideas and actions, they'll be willing to line up behind predators like Donald Trump. How's that workin' out for ya?

Linden leaf

Near the Franklin Dining Commons Permaculture Garden are a line of European Linden trees (Tilia x europea). I noticed a branch where the leaves had been skeletonized by a small army of caterpillars (Fig 1.) The caterpillars were still active on one leaf and were lined up side-by-side eating along a single front on the underside of the leaf. I assume the underside because the cuticle is thinner there.

Tilia leafTilia leaf

Figure 1. Tilia x europea skeletonized by caterpillars. Upper side on left.

The Tilia leaf is heart-shaped with an asymmetrical base. The leaf margin is toothed, except at the base. The venation is palmate with 5 major veins that lead back to the leaf base.

Approximately three-quarters of the leaf area has been consumed by caterpillars leaving behind only the network of vascular tissue. In addition, I observed an aphid on the leaf which I have been unable to locate in the photographs. Perhaps it was on the underside of the stem while photographing was taking place.

Syringa reticulata leaf

A tree I love to hate is the Japanese Tree Lilac (Syringa reticulata). A leaf is illustrated in Figure 1. It is unobtrusive during most of the year, but in early June, it has large white flowers that smell like a scent they use for toilet paper.

Syringa reticulata leafSyringa reticulata leaf

Figure 1. Syringa reticulata leaf. Upper side is on left.

I started this post on Friday, but was too busy to complete it.

Prunus serrulata "Kwanzan" leaf

Near the "Fine Arts Center" bus stop where I get off near my office, there are two sakura trees that bloom later than the tree in my yard. I looked over the leaves and selected one (Fig. 1) to photograph and describe today.

Prunus serrulata "Kwanzan"Prunus serrulata "Kwanzan"

Figure 1. Prunus serrulata leaf. Upper side of leaf is on left.

I identified two differences between the Prunus serrulata "Kwanzan" leaf and the P. sargentii leaf I collected on July 5, 2017. The P. serrulata is flatter (less twisted) and the marginal teeth are all the same size and have a fine, drawn-out point with a black tip that the P. sargentii teeth lacked.

In other respects, the leaves are indistinguishable. The color, proportions, venation, and glands on the stem are roughly the same.

The surface of the leaf has some roughly linear marks. At first, I thought these might be leaf miners which look somewhat similar, but holding the leaf up to the light, I did not see any damage or change to the internal structures of the leaf. Other leaves had similar marks.

Prunus sargentii leaf

Today, I chose a leaf from a tree in my front yard. Figure 1 shows a leaf of Prunus sargentii, a Japanese Sakura tree. When this tree blooms (usually in April) the lush flowers last for only a few days, but are prized in Japanese culture as a symbol of the fleeting and transient nature of life.

Prunus sargentii leafPrunus sargentii leaf

Figure 1. Prunus sargentii leaf. Upper side of leaf is on left.

The leaves are ovate with a doubly-serrate margin and a left handed twist. The base is slightly asymmetrical. The venation is mostly alternate, but not entirely regular. Each vein curves at the end and connects with the next vein.

The stem is short and has a reddish pigment. There are two reddish glands on the stem the first about a millimeter behind the leaf and the second another millimeter behind the first.

There's no evidence of herbivory or damage to the leaf. I did observe some leaves that had parts missing, usually along the margins. Given the placement of the branches (above a driveway and a path used by people) its possible the leaves were damaged mechanically be people moving past the branches. I did observe a leaf hopper (Homoptera) on one leaf and some silk (spider? caterpillar?) on another.


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