Hack for Western Mass in Springfield: Day One

The 2015 Hack for Western Mass was held at the UMass Center at Springfield in Tower Square Mall in Springfield Massachusetts.

UMass Center in Town Square

Springfield has struggled economically due to the collapse in US manufacturing ultimately going bankrupt. More recently the city emerged from crisis and is experiencing a renaissance of economic development.


I think some participants were surprised to see a different side of Springfield than they'd seen before. I certainly was.

The UMass Center at Springfield was a fantastic partner for the hackathon. Dan Montagna, Scott Poulin, and Patryk Glosowitz went out of their way to enable us to get the most out of the facility and its resources. They even let us take over their digital signage to run a slideshow thanking our sponsors.

The organizers and volunteers came in the night before to get organized, discuss how to set up the space, and do an orientation on using slack for messaging during the hackathon.

Bram Rockin' the Slack

Returning participants brought great energy. The hackathon is really starting to build a strong sense of community among the participants.

I had originally thought I would be working behind the registration table but, on the last evening, the other organizers encouraged me to conduct the opening ceremony. I really felt honored to be the one welcoming everyone and introducing our guests.

After my opening remarks, we had a video from Mayor Sarno, a brief welcome to the facilty by Dan Montagna, and a keynote by Delcie Bean. We had some technical difficulties with the video by Mayor Sarno, but otherwise everything came off great.

Nick Ring from Amherst Media filmed the opening ceremony and then wandered round getting clips of the teams at work. Our goal is to offer a summary video presentation and, perhaps even more importantly, a short promo piece that we can use next year to help recruit organizers, sponsors, and participants.

We had a great set of challenges this year. I'm always amazed just to hear about all of the interesting non-profit initiatives that are happening in the region.

Most of the pitches were made by just one or two people, but Girls Inc always fields a whole team.

It's always interesting to see how current trends in technology play out in the kinds of challenges that get brought forward. Last year, the theme was location-enabled mobile apps. This year…

We provided some guidelines to participants about forming effective teams that using Agile development techniques.

Team Formation

We also provided a brief summary of the Code of Conduct using the slides that Molly McLeod had developed for the first hackathon that always generate a lot of enthusiasm.

Once the challenges had been issued and the teams had formed, the code sprints began. Last, year we were rather crowded together, but this year the UMass Center provided ample space for groups to organize into small breakout rooms, in classrooms, and a beautiful lounge.

While the sprints were happening, there was a series of other workshops. For young people, we had a workshop on Scratch on Saturday with Minecraft planned for Sunday.

Scratch Presentations

Christine Olson ran a Makerspace activity for Makers at Amherst Media. She's been having participants make a quilt to show at the National Maker Faire next weekend.

But students also could engage in a bunch of other activities including making Rube Goldberg machines.

In mid-afternoon, Ali Cook from Ohm Style Living led the hackathon in a movement break.

Not everyone is a fan of yoga.

As always, we had spared no expense to get great food for the hackathon, with lunch from Hot Table.

Lunch from Hot Table

And a fantastic dinner from Nadims..

It's always been clear that the contributions by sponsors are most appreciated when people have good food after a long day of coding.

On Sunday, we're wrapping up and building presentations for lunch time. It's been a fantastically productive weekend with great folks and great community.

Updated: Read about Day Two.

Apple Running for Mayor of Crazy Town

Recently, Apple discontinued iPhoto and launched their new Photos.app. I've been unhappy with the direction Apple has taken in recent years, in my last post saying Apple Heads Deeper into Crazy Town, but now I think they're running for Mayor of Crazy Town.

A few months ago, I got a shock when I removed some photos from my hard-drive that I had shared via Flickr and got a rude shock:

Now, with Photos.app, you can no longer get access to the original files. Oh, if you're willing to work at it, you can. You can use a shell to go into the secret Library folder and copy out your originals manually. But you can't just drag from the Photos.app window to make a copy of the file on the desktop — or to drag into a field on a webpage to upload the image. When you right click on the file, there's no way to show the file on the hard-disk. Spotlight does not make the file name of the file searchable in the Finder.

Apple used to be all about empowering the user. But now it appears to be about empowering the corporate partners that pay Apple to lock customers in to their services. Evil.

The Value of Data

Last fall, I had my students construct and observe balanced aquaria. The project was only moderately successful. I had hoped to have the students work with the dataloggers, but the platform I was using proved to be a little too finicky. As with all student projects, the final data set was pretty messy:

But you can see some interesting trends and patterns. In two aquaria, pH increases over time, in the others it's flat. But across all of them, you can see a little uptick in pH when the light turns off, and then a return to baseline when the light comes back on. I'm not sure what that means -- it was not what I'd predicted (which was to see pH go up as CO2 was consumed the algal growth and, in the dark, for CO2 to accumulate and drive down pH. But, there it is: DATA! The world is more complicated than we think.

The technician who set up the incubator saw something quite different. What she saw was that the light was supposed to be off in the incubators for 8 hours and instead was only off for 2. They had been using these incubators for months with the assumption that the light was off for 8 hours and here was evidence that this was not so. Data!

After spring semester, we tested all of the incubators and found that they behave the same way. You program them kind of like a VCR (if anyone remembers what those are). After consulting with the company, she found that the programming doesn't persist across midnight, so you needed to set up two programs to have it be dark across midnight: one before midnight and one after midnight. Last night, we put the datalogger back and confirmed that the incubator actually turns off at 11pm and actually turns back on at 7am. Data!

I'm hoping when the summer moves on a bit, I'll have some time to actually develop a model for building data loggers that will make it easy for folks to implement them widely on campus. We have all the pieces -- I just need to organize them a bit so people can put them to work. Because more data is generally a good thing.

Great ride to the Bookmill

I've been getting in some great rides training for Pedal2Pints which is less than three weeks away. I'm going on the shortest ride, but still need to improve my fitness so I can drink beer all day and still finish the ride.

The ride to the Bookmill is one of my favorite rides. I ride north through North Amherst and up 116 into Sunderland -- like on my ride to Circumnavigate the Connecticut River, but turn right on 47 in the middle of Sunderland. Just past the intersection is an amazing tree. I stopped for a few minutes to play homage.

And to hack the ingress portal there. While I was there, a couple stopped in their car to visit the tree and there was another carload of people there when I came back. The Pioneer Valley is like that.

The brief ride up 47 is the worst part of the ride: It's generally uphill and there's very little provision for bicycles. And people drive very fast. But its short -- probably less than a mile -- until you can turn left onto Falls Drive, a pretty little back road with views of the Connecticut River on the left and a shelf of exposed bedrock on the right. The rock isn't pure limestone, but it must have a lot of calcium carbonate in it, because you see Columbines growing out of it.

And liverworts. I've been meaning to come here with a bit more time sometime, when the weather is a bit moister, to look for terrestrial gastropods, because they tend to be more diverse where there's abundant calcium to grow their shell. The US, and Massachusetts in particular, tends to not have much gastropod diversity -- or abundance.

At one point, where the river and shelf are quite close, the road takes a little jog to cross a bridge over a rushing brook and, to the right, is a very pretty little waterfall. Often, earlier in the year, I'll ride just to the waterfall and then turn back. But this time, I was headed on to the Bookmill.

The road winds on, slightly up, through farm fields. There is an organic farm operated by Red Fire Farm. There are some very nicely situated houses too and a mix of other houses as well. Finally, there's a turn and a very steep climb up to the Bookmill. I arrived with an auspicious reading on the odometer.

Under other circumstances, I might have stayed a while to grab a drink and a bite to eat, but with the Cardinals playing at 4pm (and having missed the game yesterday), I rested a few minutes and then headed back the way I'd come. I stopped for a few minutes by the waterfall to munch an apple and then stopped in Sunderland briefly to buy a bottle of coke.

My fitness is better this year than it's been in a decade (mostly due to ingress, I think) and I particularly notice it climbing hills. I find I'm rarely needing to drop into the lowest gear and can often muscle my way up hills at good speed. It feels good.

Maddening problem with LDAP and Apache

I've spent the last three days fighting with one of the most frustrating problems I've ever had. We replaced the hardware for the BCRC server -- an old Solaris server with a new Ubuntu box. We had done this before in the ISB and, other than a minor hiccup or two, everything switched over smoothly. I assumed this would be the same and almost everything was. Except for LDAP in Apache.

We use LDAP for centralized authentication. It's not perfect by any means, but it's been a huge efficiency in how we manage accounts and services. We use it for shell accounts (cf ssh), samba (file sharing and printing), and via apache (http basic authentication and in PHP). It was no problem to get it set up everwhere except for apache. LDAP only failed in apache. But the same configuration we were using on the other server wouldn't work on this one.

I spent one day just denying that it was anything to be concerned about. Then I spent a day double-checking everything: config files, permissions & ownerships, typos. Then I spent a day trying stuff: configuration changes, re-installing software -- even rebooting. Then I spent a day hiding from it (maybe two). Finally, on Sunday, I went in to the office in the evening, rolled up my sleeves, and made the commitment to just stay there working on it until it was solved or I was dead. About three hours in, I found it.

The errors I was getting didn't make sense. The first error, a generic "couldn't contact ldap server" wasn't helpful, especially as the ldap_connect function was working -- it was failing at ldap_bind. I figued out how to turn on debugging with this line of PHP code:

ldap_set_option(NULL, LDAP_OPT_DEBUG_LEVEL, 7);

But the error I was getting back didn't make much sense.

TLS: only one of certfile and keyfile specified

This error is so rare that google mostly just returns links to the source code.

The logging on the LDAP server was the equally vague "TLS Negotiation Error".

Eventually, I figured out that the configuration for setting up SSL for HTTPS also governs the connections the server makes to the LDAP server. And then I found it:

#   Allow insecure renegotiation with clients which do not yet support the
#   secure renegotiation protocol. Default: Off
SSLInsecureRenegotiation on

This line was commented out on the server where it worked. I commented out the line, restarted the webserver, and it just started working.

I'm wondering if this is the point where people start to say, "I'm gettin' too old for this kind of shit!"

Bridging the divide

It's weird to live in a town like Amherst. In most of the country, people would call me a socialist, left-wing freakshow but, in Amherst, I sometimes feel like I'm on the right-wing fringe. You see, I believe that it's possible, through thoughtful effort, to improve the town. There is a vocal subset of the town that very strongly does not believe this.

I think part of it is anti-capitalism. I'm pretty anti-capitalist myself -- I can get my socialism on with the best of them. But I recognize that spitefully trying to prevent people with property using their property to make money, in the long run, hurts us as much -- probably more -- than it hurts them.

I think part is just fear and doubt -- fear that any change will be bad and so should be prevented. But simply preventing change is not conservation -- it's stagnation. Do people really look at the town and say that this is best of all possible worlds? Really? We can do better.

The most frustrating thing is the difficulty in having a meaningful conversation when the focus becomes questioning other people's motives, rather than articulating a positive vision for the town. I may be biased, but there seems to be a special reserve of venom directed at the people who are engaged with, and who do the hard work year round making town government work. Too many people seem inclined to snipe from the sidelines and try to be sand in the gears than expressing a willingness to roll up their sleeves and do the hard work necessary to move the town forward productively.

At one time, I was seduced by the idea of opposing development, but then I read The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler, which talks about how bad things have gotten by people simply trying to stop bad things rather than trying to build good things. 'The future will require us to build better places,' Kunstler says, 'or the future will belong to other people in other societies.'

Circumnavigating the Connecticut River

One of my favorite rides is to ride north to the Sunderland Bridge, ride south along River Road through Whately and Hatfield, and cross back over via the Norwottuck Trail. I call it "Circumnavigating the Connecticut River". I kept my sights fixed on this ride through all of the graduation ceremonies: the Grad Ceremony Friday morning, Undergraduate Friday afternoon, the Graduation Dinner Friday night, the Senior Luncheon Saturday morning, and the College Celebration Saturday afternoon. When I finally got home around sundown, I was exhausted and pretty much went straight to bed. But on Sunday morning, I got up, checked the weather, and headed out.

I pumped up my tires, filled my water bottles, and grabbed two big "Pink Lady" apples for the road. I rode up to North Amherst, stopped for a minute to Ingress, then headed out. The wind was out of the south, south-east, so behind me for the first leg of the ride.

There's a good climb as you leave Amherst and head into Sunderland. It's not really steep, but it lasts a good while. After that, its all downhill to the river.

I took a slight detour to go by the Firestation: It was a green portal anchoring several big fields that covered a lot of where I would be riding, so it had to go.

Before I crossed the bridge, I stopped at a convenience store to drink a soda. I probably should have just gotten water, but its nice to have a little taste of something now and then.

I crossed the bridge and turned into the wind to head south along River Road. It was really starting to heat up, so the breeze was not actually that unwelcome. A few times, it really picked up and reduced my pace quite a bit, but many spots along the way are relatively sheltered.

I took a longish stop at the site of the original Smith Academy with a marker thanking Sofia Smith, the original benefactress of Smith College. I thought that I probably needed a benefactress. While I was there, I realized that there are a bunch of sakura cherry trees that were still blooming. They have a differently shaped flower than my sakura tree -- and evidently bloom a bit later. I'll have to remember that in coming years. I chomped one of my apples still musing under the cherry blossoms. The Pink Ladies are OK, but not as good as Honeycrisp.

I pushed on, making the steep climb up the overpass over the train tracks and I-91, and then the longer climb up Rt. 5 into Northampton. Feeling hungry, I stopped at the River Valley Market and fixed myself a salad at the salad bar. I felt justified in putting on two scoops of bacon bits. And I refilled my water bottles with fresh, cold water.

The only really nasty part of the ride is the left turn from King Street onto Damon Road and then the brief stretch on Damon Road to the bike trail. I should probably just head down King Street until I pick up the bike trail down there, but its not much better and quite a bit out of the way. It's scary to have the big trucks and traffic going so close, since there's no bike lane.

The newly resurfaced bike trail was like a dream after spending so much time on the roads. It was crowded with bikers and skaters and walkers, but much better than cars. I was starting to get pretty tired and, by the time I reached the climb into Amherst, I was seriously flagging. I stopped to drink most of the rest of my water and to eat the other apple. I finally climbed back on my bike and struggled up the hill and then turned the corner onto the last leg of the journey.

The Art Swift Way runs back to campus, mostly downhill, and I had a nice breeze behind me again. There are transverse cracks that are a bit unpleasant to ride over (90 on campus alone), but its better than being on the road. I finally made the last climb by Computer Science and turned back into my neighborhood. It came to about 30 miles. It was a great ride and good training for Pedal2Pints coming up in about a month.

Sakura Viewing

For several years, I've been sending out an invitation for friends and colleagues to stop by to see our sakura tree flower in the spring. This is a tradition in Japan with a history that goes back centuries. The brief flowering of the cherry trees is a moment in the spring to reflect on the ephemeral and transitory nature of life.

Sometimes the weather is bad where it's really too cold or wet to enjoy the flowers. But this year, it was absolutely perfect: the flowers hit their peak on perhaps the first really nice day of the spring. The temperature was nearly 70 with sun and just a few clouds.

Our tree is perhaps the most glorious sakura tree in Amherst. The nation of Japan gifted Amherst with several sakura trees in the 1930s in honor of William Clark and our tree (reportedly) was grown from a cutting of one of those trees. There are several more in the neighborhood and even more around town -- but ours is the best.

One thing I like most about the tradition of hanami is the unpredictability of it all: the cherry trees can bloom basically any time from the beginning of April to the beginning of May, so you really can't plan for it. You just have to drop everything and make time for it when it happens.

But not everyone can. Or does, anyway. But those who came had a lovely time and it gave me a lot of pleasure to share my sakura tree with others.

One friend who came said she'd planned a trip to see the famous cherry trees in Washington DC but, when the time came, she was too busy at work and couldn't get away. And she'd been really disappointed. My invitation came at just the right moment and she enjoyed my tree even more than she would have enjoyed the trees in Washington.

It's amazing. There simply aren't words to describe the feeling of standing under the tree, surrounded by flowers, looking up through beams of sun through the petals, to see the blue sky above. Sugoi. Or, as Daniel would say, Sugoku kawaii.

People came and went and, as the sun was finally going down, the last of my friends drove home. It was a lovely hanami and I look forward to several more days under the cherry tree until the petals start to fall. And then I'll have to wait another year, inshallah, to see them again.

Finding my bliss

I saw an article this morning about finding your bliss derived mostly from an interview with Joseph Campbell. I realize how fortunate I am to have as much freedom as I do to choose projects to work on that I think are worth doing. But I can tell when I'm working too much when, looking back, I see that it was a whole week since I wrote a haiku.

It's been a month of keeping plates spinning, one after another after another. My class is working on their final projects: amazing netlogo models! I almost have Junior Writing through the quinquennial review: just one more question to answer. We've got the beginnings of a draft for IT strategic planning: four goals defined and assignments to draft the narrative. I'm feeling like the Amherst Media board is finally starting to pull together: committees have projects and are moving forward. Makers at Amherst Media is hanging in there: the drop-in sessions are picking up steam. Hack for Western Mass is moving forward: full speed ahead! So I took Saturday to just decompress.

It's been a perfect day. I got up early. I had Love Crunch granola with fresh raspberries and coffee for breakfast. Lucy, Charlie, and I solved the Jumble. I went back to bed for an hour. Lucy and I drove downtown to walk around and play Ingress. We went to the Library (where I got Karen Memory!) We went to the grocery store. I came home and fixed chili. While it was simmering I took a bike ride with Daniel. We got back just in time for me to watch the Red Sox while I ate chili and had a beer. I napped for a bit while the game was on. Then I went out to play a bit more Ingress then stopped at Raos for a latte to compute and write haiku. I got home just in time to have taco bowls which Daniel had made for dinner. Afterward, we watched some Tony Tony Chopper. And now it's time for bed.

I particularly want to write more haiku over the next few weeks as I work to pull together my next book of haiku. I've decided on a theme and have hatched a plan to develop the imagery. I have enough haiku now, but it would be good to have a few more to let me drop some of the weakest ones. Hopefully, I'll have the new book ready to take with me to the UK.

I still have some questions: Do I want to keep to the same format? Or mix it up? Should I stick with the bilingual pattern? Or go monolingual? It's fun to think about the possibilities.

Online Threats and Phishing

Recently, I was invited to co-present on security. We each brainstormed up a list of what we thought were the biggest online threats today and some practical steps people can take to protect themselves. Here is the list I created:

Brewer's top five threats

  1. Dangerous scripts (flash, javascript, others) in browser
  2. Insecure/questionable links (in email, in social media, etc)
  3. Insecure attachments
  4. Insecure plugins, extensions, apps, etc
  5. Social Engineering

Brewer's recommendations

These are intended to be some basic steps anyone can take to improve their security, although they are not necessarily convenient.

Use Firefox with both no-script and flashblock enabled.

Only do banking, human-resources stuff, etc with fresh web-browser session:

  • Use a different browser only for that purpose
  • Start up browser, do session, quit browser
  • Do the same for insecure/questionable links.

View (and send) email as plain text only

  • Look at links carefully
  • Don't leak information via images and web-bugs

Look at full headers of questionable email

  • Only trust headers written by known hosts.
  • Learn to recognize suspicious hostnames.

Don't just click on links!

  • know the structure of links:
  • Navigate there directly
  • Critically evaluate links
  • Look at hostnames & paths
  • Avoid apps that obfuscate links
  • Use copy & paste
  • Use "whois" for questionable hostnames
  • Remove parts of path that might have tracking information

Don't be a monoculture -- don't just use the most widespread software:

  • Open Microsoft documents with Libre Office.
  • Don't use Acrobat: Use Preview (or something else).

Only use software that has a strong, open community

Periodically review addons/extensions/apps for browser, phone, social-media apps

Question/verify the provenance of people & information

  • Confirm human references "out of band"
  • online resources — even DNS — can be spoofed
  • fake hostnames can look like real ones


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