Busy spring turns to busy summer

Last fall, I proposed to the teaching committee that I would develop an online version of the writing class I teach, as I was aware there were students who would appreciate being able to take the class off-cycle. The department offers four or five sections of the course each semester, but it can still be hard for students to schedule the class, especially if they want to take a semester abroad. I had some reservations—and some in the department were also skeptical—because the University offers a financial incentive for Departments to increase teaching via Continuing and Professional Education (CPE). Students pay for CPE teaching separately—it's not part of their regular tuition—and some departments have been unable to meet students' needs through their "regular" teaching, forcing students to either take classes in the summer or delay graduation. Upon reflection, the teaching committee decided to support my proposal and it moved forward.

It turned out the CPE was also offering small grants to support the transition of classes from face-to-face to on-line instruction. I applied for and was award one of these grants that also required me to participate in an on-line training program for Blackboard. Unfortunately, the awareness of the grant program and my receipt of the award happened so late that I had already made commitments that I knew would interfere with some of the deadlines. And it wasn't clear to me that the "training" would be of any particular help anyway: I've developed on-line classes before and have used Blackboard before. But I figured it might be a useful refresher and the money was not insignificant, so I did it.

I had forgotten how terrible Blackboard is. I mean, I knew, but it's really awful. The interface is horrible. It's clunky and unattractive and inflexible. I remember the first time I used it—we were the first cohort to adopt it—and I reported back to my colleagues how awful it was, they thought I was exaggerating. But when they all had to use it the following semester, they hated it even worse than we had. My strong background in web authoring and technology made it easier for me than for my colleagues. The campus switched to Moodle not long after that and, in spite of an assault on Moodle mounted by a dean, we managed to fight it off for the campus. But CPE remains in the clutches of Blackboard. And it's just as bad as it used to be. Perhaps worse. They have this clunky "portal" bolted on the front now, that you have to interact with if you want to use an avatar and not appear just as a missing-person's placeholder. They want you to to give them information about yourself and populate it with "tiles" that are sort-of like badges. Except no-one does so its rather like a ghost town. And the tiles they have are extremely limited. I pointed out that their "languages" tile didn't list Esperanto which made it unusable for me. The CPE folks submitted a request for me, but Blackboard said they weren't going to add it. But I was impressed they bothered to make the request.

As the semester progressed, I got farther and farther behind. My blog ends near the end of Spring Break when I co-organized NERDSummit. It was great fun and important work, but I did it at the expense of completing the Blackboard training. Then I got talked into going to Libreplanet, which was fantastic, but put me farther behind. Finally, they told me to finish it by a date certain or I would lose the funding. They might have cut me off anyway, but the class had been listed and was filling up, so they really didn't want to do that. I took a weekend and powered through the training. It was awful.

I mean, it was worse than awful. It was filled with textbook-perfect examples of how not to teach. I felt like someone had put a ring in my nose and was dragging my face around on a book and calling it "teaching". They would have videos of powerpoint lectures that you were forced to leave running on your computer to get "credit". The assessment was a quiz you could take as many times as you like where I knew 85% of the answers before beginning the unit. And where many of the questions turned on trivia: Is the menu entry you click on called "Item" or "Object"? About the only unit where you did something that was related to "teaching" was a tool they had licensed called "voicethread". In their course, they had a typo and called it "voicethreat" which was hysterical because the tool requires you to install Flash. I indicated to them that I had quit installing Flash on any of my computers several years ago and believe it a disservice to encourage students to engage in an unsafe behavior to complete a course. Eventually, I received a dispensation that even if I didn't complete the activity, I could still be considered to have "completed" the training. So I skipped it.

I was starting to get caught up toward the end of the semester, when I came down with a spring cold which put me behind again. They threatened again to cancel my class if I didn't get the materials posted. I had gotten them roughed out, but had been reluctant to actually post them because they are all so inter-dependent that I would make a revision in one and then need to go revise three other documents. But I went ahead finally and posted everything.

I've basically created the course in Libreoffice documents, saved as PDF files, and am only using Blackboard in the most minimal way possible. The goal is to be as platform independent as possible so I can switch to something else—anything else—when feasible.

But this weekend, I've finally had a moment to take a deep breath. On Friday, my chair reviewed the course with me. And today CPE is reviewing the course. When they share their review with me, I'll have about three weeks to make revision before the course materials are visible to the students.

It's going to be interesting to see how the course works as an online class. The timeline is extremely short—only 6 weeks—for what is supposed to be 3-credit class. I'm not convinced students can make themselves write that much. But we'll see. The class is full and has a long waiting list. I set the limit at 15, but I'm still concerned about the amount of time that will required to provide feedback to the students. Two of the weeks, I'll be in St. Croix however, which will make for pleasant surroundings while I teach anyway.

Summer is finally here!

RMS at NERDSummit

A couple of weeks ago I noticed that Richard Stallman was listed as a presenter at NERDSummit. He was down for co-presenting with Micky Metts about "The Javascript Trap". But there wasn't any special announcement or fanfare so I wasn't really sure he was coming until I double-checked. But he was!

Richard Stallman has always been a kind of hero to me. I became aware of GNU when I started learning Unix in the 80s. I've written about Stallman and Free Software before -- and about him trying to explain free software to a dunce. But I'd never had the chance to meet him.

While he was getting set up, I got called away to provide technical support for someone in one of the other rooms, so I missed the beginning of the talk. But the majority of the talk was familiar to me anyway. He explained the four freedoms that he believes should be provided to everyone who uses software and the various ways in which corporations and unscrupulous people have sough to enrich themselves by undermining those freedoms. And that rather than referring just to "linux" one should always say "gnu/linux" to acknowledge that most of the operating system is actually all the GNU software that he's devoted his life to seeing created as free software. He did talk about LibreJS and The Javascript Trap.

Several people were desperate to ask questions. But it turned out that what they really wanted to do was to try to provoke him by mischaracterizing what he was saying. He, for the most part patiently, explained how they were putting words his mouth and corrected them when their arguments went off the rails. One guy said, "I can't survive without using non-free software" and Stallman explained, "No. You just can't enjoy the same standard of living — that's not the same as dying." Another guy tried to argue with him about "intellectual property" and Stallman stopped him to point out that there is no such thing: that the law offers four different kinds of protection for copyright, patent, trade secret, and trademark. Each is totally separate with different purposes and governed by different policies. Conflating them makes it seem like they are unitary and governed by a single purpose or common set of principles, which just leads to confusion.

At the very end, he auctioned off a little stuffed gnu, which he said he would sign, with proceeds going to the Free Software Foundation. He said that you needed to have a stuffed gnu to go next to your stuffed penguin. Since I had put my stuffed penguin into the Living Museum of Dead Computers, I decided to bid in the auction and basically determined to win it no matter how high it went. Bidding started at $25 and went to $65. But I won.

After the after party, I stopped by the office to put the gnu into the display case. Note his signature on the little paper tag.

Totally worth it.

Death visits Amherst

Yesterday, I spoke briefly at the funeral for Tom Lindeman. I knew Tom through the Faculty Senate at UMass Amherst. I met him 1997 or 1998, when I attended the Senate for the first time. The Faculty Senate is a highly polarized body where the faculty on sit on one side and the administration on the other. I inadvertently sat on the wrong side, and I think it was Tom who recognized a newcomer and came over to tell me that I might be more comfortable sitting on the other side. At that time, Tom had no official role at the Faculty Senate. He came every month because it was a way to stay in touch with the University community and to learn about the intentions of the administration. Tom took an interest in me and we shared lunch together a time or two to talk about our paths through life. Tom had served in the United Christian Foundation at UMass in the late 60's and early 70's, during the upheaval of the Vietnam War. I like this picture of him from 1974. We all should hope to have looked so cool in our 40's. He told me that parents supported the foundation because they were concerned about their children's moral direction but that the ministry felt compelled to line up with the students in activism against the war, which disillusioned the parents — and jeopardized their funding. He had left the area afterward and returned only after retirement. But he maintained his connection through the Faculty Senate. In 2014, thanks to Dick Bogartz, the Rules Committee (of which I was proud to be a member at the time) nominated Tom to be an honorary member of the Faculty Senate, to recognize his service and give him the right to speak. I believe that Tom was genuinely moved by the recognition and appreciated it very much. Tom did not speak often, but he did occasionally rise to remind the Senate not to get caught up only in the polemics of the moment, but to remember our grounding principles and all of our stakeholders, especially those who might be disenfranchised or unable to participate in our proceedings. He served as our conscience and many of us will feel his loss. As I was leaving, someone came up to me — I think one of the family — to thank me for my remarks and to comment that Tom had told everyone how much being made an honorary senator had meant to him and to thank all of us for our actions.

This is after Thursday, when I attended the calling hours for Larry Kelley, a local blogger and community activist who was killed in a car accident. Larry attended many town meetings and wrote posts about many town events. His coverage was both news and editorial in varying measures but, with the decline in local journalism, often the best coverage available. And always interesting. One of his abiding passions was to have the town make shows of patriotism, through parades and displaying US flags. A controversy that went on for years was Larry wanting the Town to display the flags for the annual remembrance of 9/11. Last year, Alisa persuaded the Select Board to make it happen. After Alisa learned that Larry had passed away, she requested the Town fly the flags in honor of Larry for his wake and funeral. Many, many people appreciated the gesture. And I'm sure Larry would have been tickled, if he could have known.

It's always a bit jarring for me to attend religious services. It's not a habit of thought with which I am familiar. However, I always appreciated the personification of Death in the Terry Pratchett novels.


Now there's a sentiment I think I can agree with.

Delegitimizing science

Recently the President of the United States accused the main stream media of being "enemies of the American People". In response, journalists have engaged in a certain amount of hand-wringing about being delegitimized.

Science has been confronting this issue for a generation. And the media has not always been an ally.

Journalism, in the US, is largely a business. And businesses have to make money. For them, there's been more money to be made in controversy than in just covering the facts. But now the shoe's on the other foot.

Educators and scientists have been demonized as the enemy by the right wing for a long time. Now, perhaps, journalists will recognize that everyone with a commitment to the truth needs to come together and stand up for honest dialog. There is room for differences of opinion in honest dialog. And for differences in goals and values. There is no room for people who lie, who intentionally seek to deceive their interlocutor, or reject the possibility of agreeing on a shared body of facts to support their argument. Dialog is not possible with such people and they must be resisted to the utmost.

This is not to say that science is truth. Or that data can't be misleading or incomplete. But for many years the Republicans have been seeking to undermine the foundation of the enlightenment: that reasoned dialog and inquiry can take us toward the truth. The alternative is fascism, a "cultural revolution", and a plunge into the dark ages. Resist!

Limits of persuasion

Recently, on Facebook, I was forced to acknowledge that a "friend" — a former roommate from college — was trolling me. He would pretend to engage with me, like he was interested in having an actual discussion when, in fact, he was simply posting false, inflammatory articles just to see if he could get me to waste my time responding to them. I say that because it requires little effort to investigate the reputation of the authors or the sites distributing the posts to determine that they are, in fact, specious. And he's a lawyer and clearly capable of performing the necessary due diligence.

Another so-called "friend" rejects science and shares pseudoscientific racist posts from neo-nazi websites, but in his case, he may simply be too limited to understand what he's looking at.

But I'm left with a quandary. Many people I know simply block or unfriend people like this. I haven't wanted to do this because like Steve Randy Waldman, I genuinely believe in persuasion: The greatest mistake we can make, in my view, is to not try to persuade.

Persuasion is not about elegant logic or Oxford-style debates. It is about interacting, with good will and in good faith, with people who look at things differently, and working to understand how they see things so that you can help them understand how you see things. Persuasion involves a meeting of minds, and very frequently alterations of circumstance and behavior by all involved.

Then today, I saw Quinta Jurecic's Bannon in Washington: A Report on the Incompetence of Evil:

Trolling reflects a profound lack of sincerity, even a hostility to sincerity. It allows the speaker to make an offensive declaration and then insist that his or her (usually his) statement was just intended to make you mad—that you’re the real fool for taking this seriously. The speaker gets to say the thing and also gets to deny responsibility for it. The troll believes that people who care about things are chumps and that the only wise way to go through the world is with a level of ironic detachment that borders on nihilism. Trolling isn’t just about being offensive. It’s about being gleefully offensive.

And that sounds exactly like what I'm seeing.

Persuasion requires good will and good faith on both sides. Don't feed the trolls.


Many years ago, I subscribed to an early internet group called comp.risks. It was a group of smart people who were always thinking about subtle risks of technology. I learned a lot reading posts in the group, especially about how poor humans are at assessing risks. A classic example was people trying to make infants safer on planes by requiring infant seats. The upshot was that you could make infants safer that way — in the extremely unlikely event of a plane crash — but requiring people to purchase a plane ticket for an infant would result in many more people traveling by car, which is much less safe that air travel, which meant that infants were at a substantially greater actual risk.

Recently, the Trump administration, decided to ban Muslim refugees claiming that they posed an increased risk to Americans for terrorist attacks. Congressman Lieu from California pointed out that your chances of being killed by a refugee committing a terrorist act is 1 in 3.6 billion. Politifact finds that statement mostly true and points out other unlikely events (like being struck by lightning twice) as being significant *more* likely than this.

Unfortunately, the media doesn't get it and I've hear journalists asking what could be done to reduce the risk of terrorist attack. This is the wrong question. What they should be asking is "what are the actual risks that people face and how can we reduce those?" The actual risks that Americans face are mostly due to disease and accidents. We could reduce risks of disease by ensuring that everyone had good health care. And we could reduce a lot of accidents by having better gun control. Those are obvious things that could reduce premature deaths by thousands every year.

But what if we *really* want to reduce those 1 in 3.6 billion odds… How about these:

  • When you walk by someone smoking on the sidewalk, walk one extra foot away.
  • Wash your hands for one extra second once a day.
  • Wear a bicycle helmet while driving your car.

These probably still make you safer than Donald Trump's muslim ban, but at least we're getting close in terms of absolute reduction in risk. But unfortunately these all fail the key test that Republicans want, which is to demonize and punish The Other.

Blog Updated

I first started blogging using a wiki and, after two or three years, switched to Drupal. Since then, Drupal has gone through several major version changes, each requiring a more or less painful transition. I had been holding off waiting to see if I should switch from Drupal 6 straight to Drupal 8. Eventually, I decided that D8 isn't ready for me to use. And I migrated to Drupal 7.

It took a few tries to get this far. I was able to get the content (mostly), although I discovered that the migration tool had renumbered all of my nodes, which is what I had been using for "permalinks". It seemed stupid to lose all my permalinks, so I spent another 5 hours or so figuring how out to make that work. In the process, at one point, I accidentally trashed the database of my Drupal 6 system, so it required another hour to reconstruct the site from backups. But eventually, I have a new site, with a responsive theme, with most of my previous data. There are still some things left to sort out, but whatever: it's enough for moving forward with, so I've switched the new site to be my live site. Yay.

Defending Science

A March for Science is being planned for April 22, 2017 -- Earth Day. Initial messaging suggested it would be a "Scientist's March on Washington" which provoked some reactions like this one from scientists who like to see their work as apolitical.

It is a common attitude among scientists that their work is apolitical and has inherent value. They believe that reasoned dialog will lead to common understanding, because reality is on their side. They are wrong. This is a war between Romanticist and Enlightenment paradigms which are incommensurable.

It is fundamentally political to use data, rather than dogma, to make decisions.

It is fundamentally political to use reason to persuade, rather than fear to compel.

Unless we advocate for and demonstrate the importance of science, we can lose the battle for the hearts and minds of the vast majority of the people in the United States who are inclined to see both enlightenment and romance thinking as equivalent ways to make sense of reality.

If we lose the battle, the United States will plunge into a new dark age. You don't need to look farther back than the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia to understand what the shape of such a dark age can look like. The reality of a 9-mm brain hemorrhage is no less a reality than any other.

We should march. We must march. The stakes have never been higher. This is the moment for which every educated person was educated. Education, reason, and dialog must be defended vigorously. We must not fail to recognize the existential threat that faces us and assume that reason will carry the day.

Life goes on

When the BCRC was renovated a couple of years ago, we had to give up the room where we'd had a coffee maker. I tried using the café one floor down, but they were closed at inopportune times (like "summer" and "holidays" and "night"). So I ended up getting a Keurig coffee maker.

I was skeptical about the Keurig model -- indeed the inventor of the Keurig system regretted creating it. At home, I won't use one -- I much prefer to having a pot of coffee and being able to just pour myself a cup. But, without a sink to easily clean and fill a coffee pot, the Keurig is a necessary evil.

My colleague and I often try different kinds of coffee. (Usually whatever is on sale from week to week). I often get the inexpensive grocery store brand of coffee — which has many varieties. I noticed, however, when I recently went to switch from one variety to another, that although the boxes are different, the "pods" instead look identical. And I wondered if they were really different.


This morning, I can attest that they are, in fact, different. Quite different. And that this one (the "house blend") is extremely nasty as compared with the Sumatran. I won't be getting this one again.

Science and Politics

As a child, as the son of a scientist, I grew up in a scientifically literate family. At first, I wanted to be a scientist myself but, even in college, I could see that the funding priorities for science were shifting.

Science used to be about basic research. Scientists trained for many years and then, having proved their judgement through education, dissertation, and the tenure process, were given free rein to pursue their own agenda, regardless of what anyone else thought of it. Most basic research is incoherent to anyone outside of a field. A naive person will scoff at what seems like the pursuit of silly or trivial questions, but many of our key innovations and advances derive from research that began this way.

It's sometimes difficult to disentangle innovation in science from engineering. The advances during World War II in both gave us unimagined new destructive powers, as well as many other capabilities in sensing (RADAR) and information processing. The synergies of these innovations have given us the modern age. And there was a time that people understood that.

Growing up in the 1960s, we were bombarded with popular messages about the primacy of scientific understanding. Tennessee Tuxedo had Phineas J Whoopee. Gumby had Professor Kapp. Einstein was beatified, if not deified. Science was respected by popular culture.

Part of this push toward science, it turns out, was driven by a lie. In the late 1950s, the US and Soviet Union saw themselves in a race to develop ICBMs. The Soviet Union succeeded in orbiting a satellite first, leading to great angst that the US was behind in the "space race". This led to a huge surge in investment in science teaching and research -- and undoubtedly influenced the public perception of the importance of science. But in point of fact, the US could have put a satellite up first. Eisenhower intentionally held back military efforts, because he wanted either civilian efforts, or Soviet efforts, to succeed first.

During the 1970s, there was a growing scientific understanding of the limits of the earth to accommodate human activity. Environmental regulation based on science were put into place to reduce pollution. But corporations weren't happy with restrictions on their ability to extract profits while shifting the costs, through environmental degradation, onto the public.

In the 1980s, Reagan was elected, who took a dim view of science and just hated government. This was when the trend began of shifting all of the growth in the economy away from government and working people to put in the hands of the very wealthy. The government was invoked as a bogeyman to explain why there weren't jobs or people couldn't be paid more.

I've always been horrified by presidents singling out particular scientific projects to mock -- not just Republicans, but Democrats too. Bill Clinton mocked a grant to study the blood of horseshoe crabs -- like it was something crazy -- and evidently not understanding that the horseshoe crab immune system has unique properties that make it essential to medical testing. George W. Bush mocked a homeland defense bill that included a line item to create a new building to house the nation's collection of "bugs and worms" -- not understanding the important of bugs and worms to agriculture and that they're stored in alcohol which, if attacked could cause the whole building to go up in flames.

Today, science is under siege. Basic research is all but dead. Wisconsin has undermined tenure. And the current president rejects science on climate change as a "Chinese hoax". His "ban on Muslims" is already blocking scientists coming to study here.

In World War II, the Germans killed off and chased away their Jewish scientists -- including the man who first envisioned the possibility of creating a nuclear bomb, Leo Szilard. Einstein was also a Jewish refugee. And many, many others.

Science is not perfect: It is a human endeavor. Science sometimes fares badly when paired with journalism, which is more interested in headlines and controversy than the long arc of theory. Or when used as a substitute for ethics. But science is the best we've got if we want to take reality into account when making decisions. And we ignore it at our peril.


Subscribe to Bierfaristo Blog RSS