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Seven Years After

I had not noticed that the US Landa Kongreso de Esperanto was going to be in Boston until I received an invitation from Benson Smith in February to speak or lead a workshop "about haiku or something". Being busy, I only gave it a moment's thought, replied to say "sure," and marked it in my calendar. I've found that trying to teach haiku is actually difficult and that it's much easier for beginners to write tanka. And I had read something around that talked about tanka as being about "love, sadness, and strong emotions", so I called my talk "Antaŭ Hajko: Amo, malfeliĉo, kaj tankao" and wrote up a blurb for the program.

In mid May, I began to work up the slides and I posted an announcement or two to invite people to register.

When I agreed to give the talk, I had not realized how busy I would be this summer. And I didn't realize that the lodging would require you to purchase the food service. And that the dorms also forbade alcohol. So, when the time came to register, I declined to purchase lodging and decided to drive over for only the one day of my talk. I arranged to give the talk on Saturday, so I could attend the opening sessions and the banquet (which was also devige included in the cost of the registration).

I hit the road around 5:30am, parked under the Boston common around 7:30, and followed the directions on the website to register at one building before going to the kongresejo around the corner. But there was only the doorman at the building and he had no idea what I was talking about. I called and left a message with the answering service for the organizers. Google helpfully transcribed it for them as

Hi, this is Steve Fuller. I've come for the London Sombrero, but there doesn't seem to be any at 100 Boylston to manage the registrations at this time, and I was just hoping to get here in time for the soul animal. So if you could let me know what to do, I would very much appreciate it. Thanks.

But my message got through and I was directed to the kongresejo where I received my badge and packet of materials, including the actual program with the timing of events.

My talk was at 5pm.

What I had not expected was my emotional reaction to the event.

Almost seven years ago, I resigned as Secretary of Esperanto USA and have basically not attended an E-USA event since. (With the exception of the Sekreta Kongreso where I happened to be close by and we stayed for only 15 minutes or so.) Since then, I've basically not paid any attention to E-USA: I'm not a member, I don't subscribe to the newsletter, and I've only very occasionally looked at the website. I used to occasionally link to the posts I wrote there, but since they took down the old site, there's no longer even that reason to visit.

I had imagined seven years would give me some distance regarding how I felt. But they had not. Feelings of anger, frustration, and disappointment were, if not overwhelming, at least a painful distraction during most of the day.

I escaped during lunch: since I didn't have the food service like everyone else. Instead, I went to a nice little chi-chi restaurant nearby, the Explorateur where I got a burger and spent more for a pint of beer than I ever have before. (Tho it was really good beer.) And then I went back for the rest of the sessions.

Finally, I gave my talk to a small, but enthusiastic group. They had, as seems to always happen, scheduled my event at the same time as Humphrey Tonkin (OK -- so this has only happened about three other times). So, not only could he not attend my talk, but other people who might have attended mine probably went to see him instead. Which only made sense: I mean, it's THE Humphrey Tonkin, after all! But it was fine.

There was a one-hour libera tempo before the banquet at 7pm. I schlepped my stuff back to the car, figuring then I wouldn't have to drag it around with me at the banquet. But when I got to the parking garage, I realized that I could just get in my car and drive home. Right then. And so I did. And by 8pm or thereabouts, I was home and drinking a can of Treehouse beer, watching the Cardinals with Lucy. (They lost, but whatever.)

Thank goodness, I hadn't registered for the lodging or I'd have been trapped there for the full three days.

I took some notes during the business meeting thinking I might write a report for Libera Folio. But I recognize now that it probably wouldn't be healthy for me. I can't tell how much would actually be sour grapes, but it would undoubtedly be perceived as sour grapes. So I don't think I'll go there. And I don't think I need to attend an Esperanto-USA event again -- even if I'm invited. I might go to the Universala Kongreso in Montreal next year. And tho the Landa Kongreso will be there, I don't have to attend those sessions.

Visiting New Places

I moved to the Pioneer Valley in 1996. When we first arrived, every weekend was devoted to exploring new places. Two years later, we were looking for houses and we were constantly driving around to different towns and neighborhoods. But little by little we settled into a routine and, with time being limited, I began to elect to go back to places I knew I liked rather than risking something new.

This spring, I realized that there were a bunch of conservation areas in the area that I had never really explored. So I've been intentionally going to new places to see what I might have been missing. So far, I've been to Elf Meadow, Ruth McIntire Preserve, Hawley Bog, Plum Brook, Larch Hill, Stanley Park, and others.

So far, it's been an interesting exercise, but I haven't found any place that competes with the favorite places I like. I'm actually cheating a bit by putting Stanley Park on the list because I have been there before, but I'm exploring new parts of the park that I didn't know existed before. Some of the places have turned out to be pretty much just weeds and sticks (e.g. Plum Brook). I get tired of weeds and sticks pretty quickly. So yesterday, I visited an old favorite, the Peace Pagoda.

It was as great as I remembered.

Writing in Biology: Third Class

Before this class, I generally check to make sure students are posting drafts and perfect paragraphs -- and writing good comments. I try to send a quick email to students that aren't posting enough and invite them to meet with me if they're having difficulty.

By Week 3, the class is falling in a rhythm. We touch base on drafts and perfect paragraphs, review where we are on the METHODS projects and when the coming milestones happen (finish figure this week; follow methods next week; present figures & rough draft, following week; then paper due.)

I review the reading I had asked them to do and point out the section on writing an effective figure legend. And then I introduce the figure legend activity. The take-home lesson is that figures don't speak for themselves. The author needs to explain why they included the figure. And that the exact same figure might be used in multiple manuscripts for different purposes.

I digress for a bit at this point, to discuss the fact that you can't just use any old picture you find on the internet as a figure because of copyright. I gauge the audience to see who knows anything about copyright (nobody generally does). So I talk for a few minutes about copyright being enshrined in the constitution, about the original period of copyright, and if anyone knows how long it is now (and why). Then I ask about the Creative Commons and give a brief overview about how Creative Commons works, the incredible value this represents, and the importance of complying with the requirements of the licenses.

So far, I've used Flickr as a place to find Creative Commons licensed imagery for the figure legend activity. I show them how to use the advanced search to look for CC images, how to get the URL to the image file, and how to put that into a Draft post. (As I say, I've used Flickr for this for years, but their recent membership change has probably resulted in the loss of a lot of Creative Commons licensed imagery. And I can't post there anymore. So if I continue to do the activity, I'll sadly need to look for a different source of imagery.) I also show the flickr cc attribution helper as a quick way to generate the correct attribution.

For the Figure Legend activity, then, I have the students divide into pairs and find an image for which they can each write a different legend, and they each write an in-class activity with the image and their legend. I demonstrate and then help them walk through the steps. We wrap up the activity by looking at a few of the pictures they'd identified and the legends they wrote.

Subsequently, I transition to discussing multi-panel scientific figures which they will need to construct for the METHODS project. As a pre-class assignment, I had asked them to find a multi-panel figure in a peer-reviewed article and share it with me. We look at some on the screen and I ask students to explain things they liked or didn't like about them. We try to derive a list of the characteristics that make a figure effective. Some of the points I hope to make include care-and-attention to detail; having objects aligned and spaced appropriately; having consistent, high-contrast labeling, using color effectively, and considering accessibility. We also frequently discuss the ethics of manipulating imagery and that some journals require that images not be retouched or adjusted.

At some point, I ask students why there are so many multi-panel figures in scientific articles. Students generally don't know, but guess that it's to put related information together. I can generally show in one of the figures we've looked at that there is often a hodge-podge of mostly unrelated information. And I so I offer a brief lecture on the process of scientific publication and the idea of figure and color charges.

In the past, I used to demonstrate how to lay out a figure, but more recently, I've provided screencasts that the students can use for this purpose at their own pace. So, instead, I simply invite them to use the rest of the class period to work on their figures with my help, as necessary, to get their figures finished up. I remind them that, as they make their figure, they will need to be able to describe the process in their methods, so they should consider ways to make the process more replicable and to take notes they can refer to while writing their methods.

Help desk woes

This morning my frustration with the help desk at my university boiled over and I (perhaps unwisely) sent this note:

Thank you very much for the prompt and complete response to my concerns. This is perhaps the fourth or fifth time in the past year that I have reported a problem to the help desk and have gotten an inappropriate reply back. I could go back in my email and find them all, but that's not the point I'd like to make.

In the past, Dreamhost had you indicate with a menu option how familiar you were with technology with options from "I have no idea" to "I probably know more about this than you do". (I always picked the option before that.) I don't know if that's why I always got prompt, excellent service from them, but I'd like to imagine that they paid attention to that and used it like a filter to interpret what I was saying.

Similarly, in xkcd, randall munroe dreams of having a "code word" you can use that will automatically transfer your call to a person who knows a minimum of two programming languages.

I'm not sure what the best solution is, but perhaps something like printing out a small note and putting it next to each person's phone that says "Steve Brewer is not a moron." I don't need people to tell me to check whether it's plugged in. If I say they should do something, I'd like them actually check with someone who knows what they're talking about before replying. I don't report stuff that isn't borken.

What I've been doing is what I did this time: I take a deep sigh and I write a polite note to [the director] asking him to fix it. But it's a PITA, wastes my time, wastes his time, and makes everything take longer.

Perhaps, instead of a note with only my name, perhaps we could have a flag that shows up for any of the technical staff. Or something.

I want to use the system. I just want the system to work.

Thanks again for the prompt, courteous follow up to my concerns.

It probably won't help, but I've already been told by someone else that I'm "very pissy" this morning and needed to vent.

Alvah Stone

The Bookmill is a fun destination that's just far enough away, that I don't get to it very often. And right behind it, is a little restaurant, the Alvah Stone. Alisa likes it there because they always have interesting cocktails. And I've always liked it because they usually have good beer.

A friend recently had a retirement dinner there and we arrived to discover they'd changed the menu. Rather than serving "meals", they've changed to "small plates". They suggested each person should order two or three. It was a bewildering array of different kinds of things. I started to panic. But then someone pointed out that they have a "feast" option where you don't pick anything: they just bring stuff. It was priced a bit more than two plates, but not much more than three. So we all did that. And that was a great choice.

It was great because we didn't have to waste time deciding. We could just all pass in the menus and not worry about trying to pick stuff, or coordinate with other people to get different things. Or worry if we were ordering too much or too little. We could just socialize and have fun.

The first dish was their famous brown butter cornbread with (honey bacon butter!). Then marinated mushrooms and garlic toast. There was a caesar salad. And sesame noodles. And salt-roasted beets. And beans. And greens! Then tofu. And steak! And scallops! We could all try everything and discuss each thing as it came out. It was paced perfectly. The plates came steadily and everyone had plenty and to spare.

Oh, there was some nasty eggplant too. Boo. But there were so many good things that it didn't matter that one was nasty. And most of the dishes were excellent. The scallops were exquisite and the steak was superb.

Best of all, it meant that we all finished around the same time. I tend to unhinge my jaw and just inhale my food, while Alisa is very very slow, like a loris. When we were on the road together and ate every meal together, we converged a bit, where she speeded up a little and I slowed down some. But since we don't do that anymore we have reverted to our former ways. But having the small plates meant that we were all eating together the whole dinner.

My only disappointment was that they didn't have an IPA to drink. There was one on the draft list, but the keg had just kicked and they didn't have another IPA. They did have an APA by a good local brewery, but it was only OK. Alisa was pleased with both cocktails she got.

I was really skeptical about the whole "small plates" idea at first, but doing the "feast" was perfect and gave us a great experience.

Writing in Biology: Choosing a theme

Before I started posting about what I do each week in Writing in Biology, I should probably have drafted a post about establishing a "theme" for each semester. The theme ends up affecting many of the exercises I have students do and some of the scheduling of events.

By "theme", I mean a topic or subject area that the course is going to focus on for the semester. This often will affect what organism/object I choose for the first "writing from experience" exercise, what papers I choose for students to look at in week 2, and will limit the scope of what kinds of research proposals and projects we'll work on.

I've tried teaching the class both with and without an organizing theme. My sense has been that it works better to have a theme. A theme usually gives students ideas about the kinds of things they might do. Having no theme leaves students adrift trying to come up with ideas. Students also frequently want to choose inappropriate topics for research (human subjects or vertebrate research that would require complex paperwork to conduct) and choosing a broad theme that excludes those topics, takes them right off the table.

I usually try to pick something that I don't know much about. I do this, in part, because it's an opportunity for me to learn stuff. But also because I'm much less likely to become overly directive if I don't know too much about it. When I've picked a topic I already know pretty well, I find that my opinions end up guiding students too much: they're better off to go into the subject themselves.

Some of the themes worked pretty well. I was particularly pleased with the outcomes of studying vernal pools, tardigrades, garlic mustard, and planarians. Successful themes seem to incorporate a mix of student wonder and importance.

Less successful themes were not disastrous, but didn't pique students' interests for whatever reason. I'm reminded of the semester we studied cockroaches. I picked the theme because I was aware students generally prefer to study animals to plants, but finding an animal to study in November/December is challenging. I thought that we could catch cockroaches in the building and look at demographics/diversity of the populations. But students seemed to regard cockroaches not as "animals" but as mere "vermin" unworthy of study.

One challenge with teaching for participation is that each group of students is different. And even just one or two enthusiastic -- or recalcitrant -- individuals can make a huge difference in the atmosphere of the class. In one semester, I coordinated with the Amherst Tree Warden with the goal of having the data we collected be also a community service learning project with the Town. But I had a student who was seemingly a devotee of Ayn Rand and complained bitterly for weeks about being "forced" to do "free work" for the Town.

In point of fact, when it comes to writing a proposal or project, I don't let the theme interfere with a student, or group, that wants to write about something else. It is always my goal that students who really want to write about any particular thing should be supported in their aspirations. The whole point of my teaching is to liberate students to use the class to pursue their own interests, after all.

Writing in Biology: Second Class

I start off every class by checking in with students to gauge the temperature of how things are going: Any questions? Where are we? What are we doing today? In the first couple of classes, I tend to be more directive with the goal of reassuring students that the class is not some weird, untraditional experience which can rattle some students: In each class, I try to drop the reins of control and give students their head to use the course for their own learning.

In most weeks, I take a few minutes to point out the readings I had asked them to do and encourage them to use the book and other readings as they're doing their writing. I take a few minutes to make a case that this week's reading about paragraphs is particularly important -- for writing the weekly perfect paragraphs and commenting on other people's paragraphs. And to point out that all of their writing should result in carefully focused paragraphs with (referring to the textbook) a topic sentence, consistent order & point of view, cohesive sentences, key terms for continuity, and transitions.

I've also asked them to read "The One Right Way to Talk Science" in Lemke's Talking Science. This chapter, which is actually about avoiding the mystique of science, has an excellent list of characteristics that a writer can deploy to emulate scientific prose. I organize these, with some examples as an introduction to "Uncreative Writing":

1. Be as verbally explicit and universal as possible.
2. Avoid colloquial forms of language.
3. Use technical terms in place of colloquial synonyms.
4. Avoid personification and use of specifically or usually human attributes or qualities.
5. Avoid metaphoric and figurative language.
7. Avoid personalities and reference to individual human beings.
8. Avoid reference to fiction or fantasy.
9. Use causal forms of explanation and avoid narrative and dramatic accounts.

For class, I've provided two bibliographic references that I've asked them to find and skim -- mainly to check that they can find a bibliographic reference with recommendations on how to use the library's proxy service to get access to publications from off-campus. One paper is a review paper and the other is a research paper. My goal is for them to recognize that one has content-based headings and the other has the traditional headings of a research paper. Many of the students have never been aware of the existence of two kinds of scientific articles and it's always interesting to ask them what the authors of the review paper "did". My main point is to draw attention to the structure of a research article: how each section plays a particular role in the manuscript. And how the form is highly synthetic and artificial.

Having been talking for a few minutes, I ask them to do an activity in pairs where I provide each pair a link and ask them to evaluate the linked webpage/site to comments on its reliability and trustworthiness. I provide links to a range of sites including Google, Google Scholar, Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica, Science, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, a predatory journal, news sites, a click-bait propaganda site, think tanks, non-profits, and some parody sites (like the Tree Octopus page). We explore their thinking and then use the CRAAP test as a tool for evaluating reliability.

I then provide an overview of the METHODS project pointing out the goals and various steps and checkpoints along the way. As they're about to start writing a methods section, I have them do a "narrative to exposition" activity I've developed. I ask them create a fine-grained list of all of the (public) activities they did on a recent day, e.g "I woke up. I got up. I put on my glasses. I walked downstairs. I made coffee. I checked my email." After they have the list, I ask them to organize all of the activities into categories. Then I ask them to write a paragraph that explains what each category is and summarizes all of the instances of those activities. The goal is to transform their methods from a story, organized by time, to exposition, organized by the accomplishment of goals, irrespective of order or time. I point out that if they are tempted to use the word "then" in writing their methods, they're probably slipping into narrative rather than exposition.

As the last activity of the day, I show them a picture I've found that is deceptive in terms of scale. It shows an Alfi wood-fired hot-tub, but without any other objects for scale. Most people seem to think it's something for the kitchen, and are astonished when a picture showing a woman bathing reveals its true scale. I use this to point out that pictures they take for their methods projects should include some object for scale, so you can know how big something is: I recommend printing out a page of paper rulers and using one of them, although pointing out that other objects can work as well, e.g. coins.

We end by looking at the prep page for the following week where I've asked them to look through some scientific articles to find a multi-panel scientific figure that is good or has particular qualities they like. And to bring the imagery required for their multi-panel figure, with the goal of working on their figure in class.

Repeating History at the MTA Annual Meeting

It's always interesting to attend the MTA Annual Meeting. It's a perfect example of watching people who don't know the history undertaking to repeat it. Every year. I wonder if anyone has written a history of Annual Meeting. I'm skeptical that you could get people to read it, but we are talking about teachers: they might.

There are two truisms about annual meeting: (1) everyone has an opinion and (2) people quickly get tired of hearing other people's opinions. Trying to strike a balance between letting people talk and trying to move ahead with the business of the organization is an endless challenge. Every year, people try to tinker with the standing rules trying to adjust this balance. This year was the same.

For this to make any sense to anyone who hasn't attended Annual Meeting, a quick precis is probably necessary. Annual Meeting is conducted in a giant hall with 1000-2000 people seating in blocks by "region". In the front of the hall is a platform with a long table and a podium and three giant screens. There are 8 microphones and cameras set up among the participants. At each microphone is a box with large colored signs you can hold up. You hold up a different color to be recognized for different purposes: a yellow card, to ask a question; a green card, to speak in favor of a motion; and a red card, to speak against a motion. The standing rules define exactly when you can make a motion and what kinds of motions you can make with each color and which takes precedence. There is a parliamentarian and several staff members who scan the audience and pass cards to the president with which microphone is next in the speaking order.

Normally (I use this term advisedly), the maker of a motion can speak to a motion (on a green) and then the floor is opened to questions (yellow cards), and then people can debate the motion using green and red cards, but questions can still take precedence. Once all the questions have been answered and everyone has spoken, there is a vote on the question and the motion is adopted or rejected. As I say, "normally." But normally has nothing to do with it.

In point of fact, teachers are gifted at rhetoric and love to fill time with the sounds of their own voices. They love the challenge of using a "question" to actually speak for or against the motion. Or trying to block "the other side" by asking question after question to thwart debate. At the same time, the body, as a whole, tends to lose patience with people trying to gum up the works. These tactics lead people to make motions to "close debate". But you can only make a motion to close debate on a red or green card. And when there's a sea of yellow cards, red and green never get called. So they changed the standing rules a few years ago to allow you make a motion to "suspend the rules" (which requires a 2/3 vote) on a yellow card to change the order of precedence to allow green and red cards to be called. But often this happens after people are already so frustrated that someone will call the question and end debate before any actual debate has occurred.

OK. So this year, someone had the clever idea of requiring two green and two red cards before someone could make a motion to close debate. After much debate (and tempers already wearing thin), this change to the standing rules was adopted. And lasted for about two motions. Pretty quickly, people from the opposing side started holding up green cards and then not actually speaking in support of the motion, purely to thwart the rule. I called a point of order to ask whether these sham statements of support "counted" and was told that they did because to do otherwise would require the parliamentarian to ascribe intent. Shortly afterward, someone moved to suspend the rules to undo the new change in the standing rules.

This turned out to be convenient because the next day, as the temper of the body grew even shorter, we were anticipating that a group would try to offer amendments to tinker with the budget. So while the questions were still being asked, I stood with a green card and my colleague Dave took a red card and we waited (and waited and waited) until we could make a motion: and so I was first in the calling order and called to close debate. They tried to make a quorum call, which failed. And then my motion, and the budget, passed easily. Yay me.

What I'm not talking about, of course, are the underlying dynamics and tensions. I'll leave those for another post.

Testimony for Cherish Act hearing

I drafted comments to be presented at the Cherish Act hearing tomorrow at the State House.

Biology is a discipline where modern facilities and equipment are critical to providing an effective education to our students: to prepare them to move seamlessly into the growing life-science industry. Unfortunately, after years of declining funding, our introductory biology facilities had suffered.

We have been successful at attracting large grants from Howard Hughes Medical Institute and others to make improvements over the years, but those organizations are rarely interested in funding the basic infrastructure.

Recently, the University re-introduced "lab fees" to raise money from our students and their families to fund these needed renovations. This purchased new lab benches and facilities for more modern labs. But it's yet another example of the state shirking its responsibility to provide for the basic needs of the curriculum and requiring students to shoulder a larger burden, through debt, that many will still be paying for years to come. It's disgraceful and makes me ashamed to be a part of the institution.

Exactly the same is true regarding the new "technology fee." The University should be funded sufficiently to provide the basic infrastructure needed for a 21st century education. Students should not be going into debt for our necessary facilities and infrastructure.

Please fund our future and pass the Cherish Act.

I am hopeful that, after years of declining state funding for public higher education (we're still below 2001 funding levels) there is enough momentum to pass this act which would bring funding up to 2001 levels over 5 years during which time we could freeze tuition and fees. We can always hope.

Melamine Effect

In the book Punished by Rewards, Alfie Kohn describes the perverse effects of incentive systems. Incentive systems fail because it's always easier (and cheaper) to game the system than to actually win. If you incentivize "call length" in a call center, for example, employees will hang up on people. If you incentive "resolutions" the staff will find short cuts to mark calls as "resolved" rather than to actually solve people's problems. He found that the best way to get people to do good work is to compensate them adequately and support their efforts to do good work.

Several years ago I wrote a post about educational measurement in which I described a phenomenon I have come to call the Melamine Effect. In 2007 and 2008, pet food and then milk were found that were contaminated with melamine. The consequences were horrific. In 2007 hundreds of pets were killed. In 2008, tens of thousands of infants were poisoned, many suffering liver damage. Several died. It turned out that unscrupulous people were diluting milk with water and then adding this cheap, industrial chemical — that coincidentally increases the score on a widely-used test for protein content — as a way to increase their profits.

Seeing the effects that standardized testing and so-called education reform were having on schools, I realized that the circumstances are perfectly analogous. If you measure something and use that measure to understand natural systems, you're fine. But if you start looking for treatments that will shift the measure, you're inviting all kinds of perverse effects, because educational measures can't actually measure what people are interested in (i.e. learning or understanding): they only measure factors that tend to covary with them in natural populations. Once you start applying treatments -- especially the cheapest ones -- you're almost assured of toxic effects.

And it should go without saying that just changing a measure doesn't mean you will actually produce better outcomes either. For years, people were told to take niacin to improve their cholesterol test scores. But a long-term study revealed that, although it did improve the scores, those gains were not actually associated with reduced risk of disease.

For a while the term was "data driven", but more recently the term is "evidence based". When people start using words like this, your hackles should rise. Look critically at the underlying model and how it relates evidence to the dimension of interest. This isn't always easy with the "dashboards" of the modern analytics systems. But it's the only way to avoid the "melamine effect".

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