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Steven D. Brewer's blog

Andrew Card

The University of Massachusetts is currently scheduled to confer an honorary degree to Andrew Card, Jr at the graduate student commencement ceremony in a couple of weeks. This is the Andrew Card who served as white house chief of staff for 6 years, who led the White House Iraq Group, who directed the reclassification of government documents, and who stacked government advisory scientific committees with incompetent, but pro-Bush, appointees. The students of the University are leading efforts to have the offer of the degree withdrawn. Unfortunately, it appears that the University's trustees are unlikely to reconsider the offer.

The process by which degree candidates are selected is shrouded in mystery. Reportedly, it was a faculty member who originally suggested Andrew Card as a candidate. The list can be amended by the Amherst Chancellor, the UMass President, and the Board of Trustees, but there is no review offered to the students or faculty at large. Some people might well decline to be considered if there would be a public review or vote up or down on their candidacy. At the same time, its clear that the process as it exists is hideously flawed to have produced such a controversial candidate.

Today, I presented a motion at the Faculty Senate condemning the honorary degree for Andrew Card. The motion was originally drafted by Tobias Baskin, who couldn't attend today to present his own motion. Unfortunately, there was not a sufficient number of faculty senators available today to consider the motion. Hopefully, it will be considered again at the next faculty senate meeting.

Andrew Card looks like a nice guy -- As John Stewart said, "You're the nicest man I ever didn't want to like". But I can't overlook the damage this white house has done to the role of science -- or any genuine inquiry -- in government policy. We're going to pay for the stubborn refusal of the white house to confront a whole range of scientific issues, from global warming to stem cells, for at least a generation. Andy Card helped make that happen. He does not represent the high ethical standards that I believe my University should represent.

Bosnian Mess

I skipped lunch when I left Montreal -- I thought I'd feel more alert for trying to navigate to downtown Montreal and then find my way back to the expressway home on an empty stomach. I watched for places along the way, but eventually decided to stop in Burlington, Vermont for dinner. I had planned to eat a churrascaria restaurant I had seen on my way through before, but which was too busy on Thursday night. I thought they wouldn't be too busy at 4pm on Sunday and I could grab a meal. Unfortunately they were closed. The Mexican place was closed too. In fact, every restaurant downtown seemed closed until at least 5pm. I spotted a "Euro Gourmet Market & Cafè" that was open and then noticed they had a menu with food. There was an item on the menu called "Bosnian Mess" -- no real description except to say it had some kind of beef and that you could get it spicy -- that I simply had to try.

It was kind of a scary place inside: it looked like a messy house, with old sofas and boxes stacked on the floor. The counters were covered with half-full and empty bottles. There was a data projector dangling from the ceiling from what appeared to be shoe-laces. It was projecting a soccer game (Madrid Real vs Sevilla) on a bedsheet or piece of paper tacked up on the wall. The proprietor was nonchalant: "You want something?"

I ordered the Bosnian Mess -- spicy -- and was directed to sit down. The woman cleaned the table for me, but didn't offer to bring me anything to drink. Another nearby table was left unbussed. Eventually some little girls came running out of a back room with a grandmother trailing behind. One of the girls began eating from the unbussed table (which I assumed meant it had been her plate -- not that she routinely started eating whatever was left behind).

When the plate of food came, the fellow set it on the table and tossed down a couple of paper napkins. But no silverware -- and still nothing to drink. I asked for a glass of water, which he eventually brought.

The Bosnian Mess actually turned out to be a sort-of panini with big green leaves, red oily sauce, and slices of some kind of dark red sausage. It was not at all what I had imagined from the meager description. It was actually a lot like two pieces of greek pizza stuck together and fried on both sides. It wasn't exceptionally good, but was perfectly tasty. And, as I'm still OK today, I appear to have escaped without getting food poisoning or anything. I got back on the road well before 5pm, but without my churrascaria.

Home again

I got home last night in good after after Libre Graphics. I'm pleased I went to the conference -- I learned a lot about the software and got some good leads on where to start improving my knowledge on how to help people create good posters. I think I really need to take a course on design, but I'll probably start with this book.

I was particularly excited by how far Free Software has come: Free Software is ready for prime time. I became converted to the rightness of the free-software cause when I was in graduate school and I had used Supercard to do my doctoral project. When the company that owned Supercard went belly up, it looked for a while like all of that work would be unusable and unsupportable. After that experience, I have tried very carefully to avoid building anything that depends on any proprietary software.

I do still use some proprietary software (principally, the MacOS) but last year I set up a laptop with Ubuntu and I was impressed. The previous time I ran linux on a laptop (on my tibook) it wasn't really ready: I had to hack textfiles everytime I wanted to switch between the wireless or ethernet interfaces. And don't even get me started on trying to get multiple video interfaces configured correctly. Ubuntu looked better when I tried it last year. I was impressed this weekend that even the video issues seem now to be relatively straightforward now in the distributions that people were using.

I'm planning to begin working seriously to persuade people (the department and students) to start moving away from proprietary software. I've been doing this in small ways for years, but I want to get creative with how else I can convince people. I've been thinking that the slogan "Free Software Liberates You" might be a start.

Vizito kun Normando

Mi vespermanĝis kun Normando kaj Zdravka en Montrealo hodiaŭ vespere. Mi veturis aŭte kaj, per la direktoj de Google Maps, mi trovis la ĝustan vojon facile.

Ili havas du gastojn en la domo nun kiuj ne tamen parolas Esperanton. Ni, do, plejparte parolis la anglan. Tre stranga estis paroli al Normando angle! Mia cerbo ne volis fari tion.

Zdravka preparis belan manĝon: salmon kun supo, salato, rizo, kaj banana kuko por deserto. Ĉio estis perfekta.

Poste, venis Boriso kaj ni parolis dum unudu horoj pri la kunfandotaj 2008 LK kaj TAKE. Morgaŭ mi vizitos la lokon kie ili proponas ke ili okazu kaj mi faros fotojn.

Men

Deserto ĉe Libre GraphicsThere are people from all over here: Norway, Australia, Germany, France, UK, etc (no-one from South America, though). Mostly men are here -- and the conference was primarily organized by men. You could tell that at lunch time when there (initially) weren't any forks or napkins. Women wouldn't have permitted something like that to happen. It was a delicious lunch, however, with awesome desserts.

The first talk this morning was in English, but the second two were in French. The first one was a group doing Open Source Publishing. They're doing a bunch of cool stuff -- I got their card and talked to them about getting help with OniDirasNun. I watched some of the next two in French, but couldn't get much out of them -- I just can't understand enough French to catch more than a word or two. The first talk was on building a workflow for digital imagery using FOSS and the second was on Blender. Both interesting topics I would like to know more about. I don't begrudge the francophones their French language talks, however -- its really adds to the interest of the conference to have the diversity of languages. I'll have to offer an Esperanto-language talk if I attend again.

First Day of Libre Graphics

The first day of LibreGraphics was good. I met a lot of people, had a lot of good conversations, and enjoyed the presentations. It was a long day (better than 12 hours) before my feet finally gave out and I walked back to the hotel. Now I want to capture some of my impressions.

There is an interesting mix of people here: developers, users, artists, documentation authors, technologists, and organizers. There is a strong francophone contingent and between a third and a half of the presentations are in French. But most people understand English. It's kind of like "foreign-lite".

I've gotten a lot of advice from people on poster printing. One guy has volunteered to come by UMass Amherst sometime and give us a workshop on using Scribus. A few people said to use Inkscape -- that was my first instinct too, but it can't place Poscript, PDF, or EPS files (which Scribus can). Still, Inkscape can do a bunch of cool stuff that people are going to geek out over when I get back.

The presentations have provided an interesting window into the development communities of the different projects. I've attended mainly Inkscape and Scribus presentations -- they've been the most numerous. There was one GIMP presentation that I wanted to see, but I couldn't find it. There are a lot of beautiful and interesting materials given to participants, but there weren't signs or a schedule posted anywhere, so you have to wander around to try to figure out where stuff it.

The first presentation was about digital archives by Alain Boucher. It was in French, but the slides were in English. I couldn't understand anything he said, but the slides weren't very interesting -- lots of words. But he was talking about the idea of creating digital artifacts that needed to be recreated as the technology changed. That remided me of when I was in Phoenix. The gist of the story is that there was a native American ruin that had been excavated that was getting damaged by the elements, so they built a metal roof over it in the 1930s. Sometime later, a law was passed that structures older than 50 years needed to be preserved as historical artifacts -- but in the 80s, when they wanted to tear down and replace the metal roof, they found that it was now a historical artifact and had to be preserved. It would be interesting to me if everytime you digitized a document you doubled the number of "artifacts" you now had to manage.

The next presentation was by Louis Suarez-Potts who spoke about the Open Document Format. He gave a rather philosophical talk about proprietary formats leading to a form of "neofeudalism" where the people give up their control over their information by using proprietary standards. I wish I could get people at UMass to care about these issues -- I've been trying to convince them of that for years. I learned it in spades when I was coding in Supercard and, at one point, it looked like all my work would suddenly just not be usable anymore.

I attended several presentations on Inkscape and Scribus by developers and organizers. The roadmaps for both look very promising -- and there are a bunch of things available now (or very, very soon) that look really useful. More tomorrow.

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.

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