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Late Start for Montreal

I'm in Montreal for the Libre Graphics conference. I got in late last night after a 6 hour drive. It was a beautiful day for a drive. The countryside is pretty between here and there. It's interesting that, right around the time you switch from US to Canada, the land use switches from forest to agriculture. It appears that this is the time to spread manure on fields. It was a pungent 50 kilometers after crossing the border.

I got off to a late start. I had meant to leave earlier, but the chairman of the board of trustees for the UMass system was on campus and I was part of a union group that met with him before lunch and then I attended his talk to the faculty senate in the afternoon. He operates at such a different level from the campus that its somewhat hard to have a meaningful conversation about the University with him. He's focused on long range plans to modify the environment the University operates in order to make its overall parameters more like "aspirant institutions", which is all pretty distant from understanding the current problems of the place and how to fix them. We did get a commitment from him to help us get economic parameters from the governor's office so that the negotiations for our contract can get moving again.

He said two other things that I thought were interesting and/or problematic. First, he said the University needs to play a larger role in solving the problems of the region. The University used to have a large outreach program and extension service -- these were both essentially eliminated during the last two rounds of terrible budget cuts. In the past two years, the outreach program has begun again on a shoestring, giving a few awards to faculty who do outreach in spite of the obstacles. Furthermore, although its possible to find contexts for outreach, faculty at a Research I institution are supposed to focused on developing a national and international reputation for tenure and promotion. Outreach is not the way to achieve those things and so that mission is not a good fit for the University unless we change how faculty -- and the institution -- are evaluated.

The second issue is more problematic: he said that faculty should find sympathetic business leaders to carry our message because when faculty speak, politicians label it as a union issue (and don't pay attention). It struck me a bit like telling a person of color "you should get a white person to say that, since no one will pay attention to you." It may be true -- but to unproblematically accept something like that seems unfortunate. It's certainly true that the University and business have common interests and, to the extent that we can speak with a single voice, we can accomplish more. But on a wide range of issues, the University should represent an independent and unbiased perspective on what's important and right.

I'm looking forward to LibreGraphics -- there are a bunch of interesting talks in the program -- a very international line-up too. I'm particularly hoping to learn more about using scribus and inkscape -- and participating more effectively in the development community.

While I'm here, I will also be meeting with Normando (and maybe Boriso) to talk about next year's joint ELNA Landa Kongreso and the TutAmerika Kongreso de Esperanto that's to be held in Montreal.

Switched hosting service

A few days ago, I switched to dreamhost for my hosting service. I had heard good things about them and we set up Alisa's campaign using Dreamhost and had good experiences with their stuff. I decided a couple of weeks ago to consolidate my personal hosting at Dreamhost and quit using SelectedHosting. I liked SelectedHosting when I first started using them and they were reasonably reliable. Unfortunately, however, their control panel was always a little glitchy and it had become unusable by the time I discontinued my service: the mysql widget didn't show one of my databases, the link to access the mail configuration widget was broken, and it all still looked exactly the same as it had when I had first signed up -- kinda clunky and rube-goldbergian.

There are still a few things I can't get to work properly at Dreamhost, however. Hopefully I can get the last few details sorted out soon.

Observation Exercise

I'm participating in a panel-discussion today at lunch time for the Center for Teaching. They've asked me to bring two of the activities I use with students. I thought I would use the Methods Project and the observation exercise I do with students on the first day of class:

In-class Observation Exercise

On the first day of class, I generally have my students engage in an observation and writing exercise. A focus of my class is encouraging students to write from their own experience. The first time I taught the class, I was surprised to find that the students had little or no experience with careful observation or with descriptive writing. I developed this exercise to help them develop those skills.

To begin the exercise, I provide each student an item and ask them to begin writing observations of the item. In my life sciences classes, I generally use small maggots from the bait shop. Rat-tailed maggots (called "mousies") seem particularly effective, but any small unusual object that is unfamiliar to the students would probably work well. I've used green onions (from the grocery store) before. I could imagine using photographs or other small objects (like pebbles) to do this for other disciplines.

After providing the initial directions, I monitor the class. I move from student to student, see what they're writing, and provide small words of encouragement. As students begin to run out of things to write, usually after 15-20 minutes, I encourage them to "look more". After another 10-15 minutes, or when most of the students seem stuck, I encourage them to turn to a neighbor and begin to exchange observations: what did they see that you did not. After a few minutes, I invite them to share observations with the whole class. Afterwards, I say, "Do you think you could observe any more? How about if you had tools? (I often pass out some magnifiers and rulers.) If we mixed them all up again, could you find yours based on the description you've written? Write more!" I encourage them to go through another round of observation where they extend their notes.

After they've observed everything they think they can find, I switch the focus of the discussion to organization. I solicit categories of observations and we try to come up with paragraphs that groups of observations could fall into. I ask them to indicate the characteristics of a good paragraph and use this as an excuse to talk about the weekly Perfect Paragraph assignments they will be doing.

At the end, I ask each of them to count how many words they've written and we estimate the median. I ask them to use that number as a metric to understand how many words they should be able to write for their 3-hour weekly Journal Writing. "You wrote 500 words in less than an hour," I say. "And that was about a maggot! You should be able to write at least 1500 words in 3 hours."

Consumer politics

Phil linked to this article recently, that said:

What you are trying to do, when you are trying to decide if somebody running for President is “electable,”[?] [...] The things that make a candidate “electable” are the exact same things that make them an appealing candidate to you, personally. [...] But if you stop being a consumer, and start trying to do the hard work of finding a message and an audience for them, they will never learn to get it right.

I don't disagree with the main thrust here, which is really just "know thyself". But I would like to argue against the idea that you just have to wait until a party vomits up a few candidates to choose from before you get involved in politics. And that you're then acting as a consumer and "buying the line" that one of them is selling. If you want to have any real effect in politics, you need to start much earlier and make sure good people run.

You may ask, "But I don't know any of those people!" If so, that's only because you haven't gotten involved in local party politics. You need to work for good candidates at all levels. The candidates for higher level office are the ones who got experience running for lower office first. If you want to be involved in presidential politics, you should get started 10 years earlier by helping good people with their first congressional run. The only way to have good candidates is to grow them.

People talk about how money is the most important factor in presidential races -- this is only true because we have a culture of "consumer" politics like the poster is describing. It doesn't have to be that way. If people undertake to educate themselves about politics and the issues, then the sleazebag candidates could spend as much as they wanted and it wouldn't make a damn bit of difference. You can find good information if you know how to look for it and you take the time to do so. But, if you're waiting for the MSM and advertising to tell you who to vote for, you're f---ed.

Creating Posters with Scribus

Now that I've got the large-format printer set up in the BCRC, I'm exploring ways to use it most effectively. Most of grad students making posters have been making them using Powerpoint. Powerpoint is simple, but it's not a good tool for making a good poster. I'm going to have my students print posters in the writing class using Scribus, an open-source page-layout program. I've spent the past week learning how to use Scribus and have written a wikidocument with hints on creating posters using scribus.

I've tried learning to use page-layout programs before, but never really got the hang of them. The key thing to remember is that you're building a workflow and not just trying to format a bunch of stuff. It pretty much forces you to create styles and then apply them. Once you get the hang of it, it really rocks. I'm glad to be getting the experience with another of the free graphics applications that will be represented at the Libre Graphics conference in Montreal next month.

Breakfast with Deval Patrick

This morning was the annual Chamber of Commerce breakfast with Deval Patrick. I haven't normally attended these things in the past, but with Alisa on Select Board, I should probably assume I'll be going to more and more of them. It brought about 500 of the Amherst government and business leaders together to hear Deval speak.

Deval offered a different perspective to the business community than the one he's given in the other places I've heard him speak (to ADTC, to Higher Ed, and at a press conference). Many of the same themes were there, but spun from a different perspective. He made the case for education and infrastructure emphasizing the need to compete with other communities around the world that are positioning themselves to attract business. He did emphasize that he doesn't see education as a "workforce training" issue, but as a vehicle to an informed and active citizenry that can enable the commonwealth to achieve it's potential. He also emphasized education that builds and encourages creativity. It was a good speech.

I saw a few familiar faces: Jack Wilson, the president of the UMass system was there, Stan and Ellen (our legislators), and many of the people who supported Alisa's campaign. I'm always suprised, however, by the people I don't see. I essentially didn't see anyone from UMass Amherst. No chancellor or provost. No other faculty either. Maybe someone was there, but if they were I didn't recognize them.

Printempa neĝo

Printempa NeĝoNeĝis dum la vespero. Hodiaŭ matene la grundo kaj la branĉoj refoje blankas pro malseka neĝo. Verŝajne estos la lasta neĝo de la vintro. Kaj jam, eĉ je tagiĝo, la neĝo degelas. Kiam mi iros hejme vespere, malmulte da neĝo plu restos. Mi vidis la arbflorojn kovritaj per neĝo kaj memoris ke mi havis la fotilon. Mi ofte forgesas aux ne portas.

Plaĉas min ke mia kurso fartas bone. La studentoj presos grandajn afisxojn post du semajnoj. Mi trovis interesan softvaron kiu nomigxas scribus. Mi lernas kiel uzi ĝin kaj instruas ĝin al miaj studentoj. Mi ĝojas ke mi ne devas proponi ke ili faru afiŝegojn per Powerpoint.


Charlie kaj PennyI saw an article about an interesting trail in the Berkshires. It's a trail that goes to some interesting keystone bridges that were made with cut stone laid dry in the 1830s. A few are still in use and three were destroyed during a flood in 1927, but there are two unused out in the woods -- they changed the course of the railroad to make gentler curves to allow trains to go faster. Charlie and I drove out this afternoon to explore the trail. We found that the trail was still snowcovered (or ice covered) in places, and very muddy, so we didn't hike all the way out to the bridges. But we still had a great hike.

The engineer who designed the bridges, interestingly enough, was Whistler's Father. (And not the Whistler in the Blade movies either). The one we could see was beautiful and still looked like new. We'll have to go back when the trail will have dried out and hike the rest of the way out to the bridges.

Penny had a great time. There was no-one else out there, so we didn't feel guilty about letting Penny off the lead. She ran and ran and got lots of sniffies. Charlie worried that she might fall into the river, but with her four feet, she's not in any danger. She didn't like it when trains would go by, however. The trail runs parallel to the active tracks and we saw (and heard) three trains go by. Penny hadn't ever experienced a train before -- she hated it. Poor Penny!

People unhappy with windows vista

We need to get a new laptop for Alisa. We'll probably just buy her a macbook, but I thought I'd look at inexpensive laptops that could run Ubuntu for comparison. It's not possible to find a cheap laptop with Linux (as far as I can tell) -- but Circuit City and Best Buy both have laptops for $450 (like the Acer Aspire and Compaq Presario), so I was looking to see if they were well-supported by Linux. What I'm finding however, are page after page of people trying to get rid of Vista and install Windows XP (or linux). And I'm reading things like "the worst computer I've ever used" and "dump vista as fast as you can". Hmm. The macbook is sounding better and better. I've used Ubuntu and I'm sure it would be fine for what she needs, but I don't want the headache of trying to go off and look for drivers to run dodgy hardware. Ugh.


Recently, I've come to like Naruto. They show it on the cartoon network. At first I thought it was just another dumb ninja cartoon, but I've really come to appreciate it -- enough so, that I bought box sets of the uncut first two seasons on DVD. I can't stand to watch it as a series (and it's hard even on DVD) because it takes FOREVER to tell a story. Each episode, they devote a quarter to retelling what happened in the last episode -- its really painful sometimes. But the characters are interesting and compelling. I've gotten hooked. Unfortunately, I have the only first 25 episodes and there are something like 200. Sigh...


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