Reflection and solstice greetings

When I first started blogging, almost 12 years ago now, I used it frequently as a place for reflection. Every semester, I ask my students to write a reflective essay. I don't use these essays for evaluative purposes -- everyone who completes the exercise gets full credit. I do it because I believe making time for reflection is important, and I find that we rarely do it enough. This has been particularly true for me over the past couple of years, as I've taken on more and more responsibilities. As I've gotten busier, my blog has become a place merely to briefly report on things, or to share artefacts generated for another purpose, rather than a place of personal reflection.

In my project description for the reflective essay activity, I ask students to address three "whats": (1) "What happened?" (2) What did it mean (to you and to others)? and (3) What effect did it have on what happened later (or will happen in the future)?

What happened? Too much for words. I tried to do too many things and, although most of them happened, some of the quality was compromised by trying to do too much. I've always been a believer that if something is worth doing, it's worth doing badly. But it's always hard to strike the appropriate balance. I set up and ran the BCRC with new equipment in a new space. I did a shake-down cruise trying to use the new BCRC for teaching. I taught a class. I organized a Makerspace. I co-chaired a Faculty Senate council. I served on the Rules Committee. I became Board President for a non-profit. I maintained websites and software on three servers. I set up the Living Museum of Dead Computers. I worked with many people on smaller projects but, too often, I was just too busy.

What did it all mean? In general, I find the work I do very rewarding. I feel like what I do makes a difference in people's lives. I think the BCRC gives students a place where they can be productive — and that it helps foster community. And I think it helps faculty create activities that engage students. I think my teaching gives students an opportunity to improve their writing, and also to try out what it means to be a biologist — to "do" biology. I'm hopeful about the Makerspace which can give people of all ages, but especially the young, a way to turn technology to their own purposes — and not be just a consumer of what modern corporations churn out. My service has been primarily about helping people (and institutions) make thoughtful decisions about technology.

But I realize that that my life has become my professional life. I almost don't have a private life any more. I go to work; I come home (if I don't have a meeting); I have a drink (usually); & I watch a couple of hours of TV with Lucy (when I'm not trying to finish writing something, or grading something, or engaging in correspondence in support of some project or other). Ten years ago, I was doing this.

I want to work to bring my life more into balance. But that means letting go of things — deciding that some things that might be worth doing badly, won't get done at all. I guess I could quit having that drink or watching TV with Lucy. But somehow I don't think that's going to happen.

But the elephant in the room is social media. It doesn't show up in any of the activities above, but I actually spend most of my time checking and writing email and various kinds of feeds: educating myself, maintaining correspondence, and mediating between communities. A big part of what enables me to be successful is being aware of trends in technology — at least I like to tell myself that. But maybe I should try to unplug more and spend more time with people.

It's good, anyway, to take a few minutes in reflection to think about the year past and the new year to come. Solstice greetings!

Normalization of Relations with Cuba

I'm very pleased that the US is finally going to normalize relations with Cuba. It's a generation overdue, in my opinion. We made peace, however uneasy, with China in the 1970s. And it seems like any worries one might have about opening trade with a country that doesn't allow democratic freedoms should be focused on the world's most populous country -- not a tiny Caribbean island.

I don't personally have any particular interest in Cuba. I was sad that, twice, the World Esperanto Congress came to the Western Hemisphere and I couldn't participate because my country wouldn't allow it. It might be one thing that some dictatorship wouldn't allow US citizens to attend but rather it was MY government that took MY freedom and wouldn't allow me to attend. Maybe the UK will happen in Cuba again, but probably not. Other things that Cuba produces, like rum and cigars, I don't have any use for.

Well, that's not quite true. I do have a use for rum, but I buy all my rum from St. Croix.

A friend gave me a Cuban cigar once. I quit smoking tobacco many years ago, but I held onto the cigar and took it with me when I went to visit my Uncle Keith. He loved cigars. It was the last time I saw him, I think. I handed him the cigar and he was transfixed. He opened the case and smelled it. He indicated several features that told him it was a genuine Cuban cigar. He carried it around with him all day in his pocket. He would get it out every so often to relish the thought that, after dinner, he would light it up and smoke it. And after dinner, he settled into his easy chair, lit the cigar and, over a 2 hour period, enjoyed it to its fullest, singing its praises to anyone who would listen.

BCRC Open House

This is my draft of the remarks I gave for the BCRC open house.

First of all, I would like to thank all of you for coming to our open house.

I would particularly like to thank George Drake. He was really key to helping make sure we thought things through and kept track of the details so that everything turned out as we wanted.

Most of all, I would like to thank Rolf and Sally -- it was their idea to renovate all of 3rd floor Morrill IV South in one piece that first got this project started. They pitched the idea over and over -- for perhaps 5 years -- before it finally got funded.

And I would like to thank them for their confidence in me. To let me design the facility the way I've always wanted it. This really has been a dream come true for me.

In 1996, I was invited to come to UMass to direct the Biology Computer Resource Center that the Department had created with funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Rod Murphey, who was the PI on the grant, and other department faculty, recognized the transformative force that information technology was having on science education. And they wanted to hire a professional science educator to help the faculty use technology for education to support the Life Sciences -- not just Biology but the Life Sciences. And in a national search, they picked me.

When I arrived, the BCRC was already set up. The grant provided funding for the computers, but not for any renovations. So they had plunked some computers down on old lab benches in a part of the building where the air handling system was broken and unrepairable, and when I arrived, we did the best that we could do.

The BCRC has been heavily utilized by undergrauate students since it was first set up. We've almost always had upwards of 10,000 sign-ins annually. I don't have detailed records from before we started building student accounts, but since 2005, we've built accounts for about 25,000 different UMass Students.

When we learned we were going to be able to renovate the space, I reached out to BCRC users and Biology Faculty to ask them what was working, and should be preserved, and what were the limitations that we should try to address.

Here's what we've made.

We've created an environment with computers, but with an additional station at each spot, with power and USB chargers, for students to use their own devices. And we've made it easy for students to connect to our displays using HDMI or VGA, to make it easy to show what they're working on to collaborators.

We've created an environment both for students to work individually at one end, but also with dividers so that groups can have space to work.

We have room for 48 students in a class, but we have 24 fully adjustable chairs, for students who are tall or short -- or just going to be working for a long time.

Finally, the furniture is all reconfigurable. The tables look round, but they're actually groups of three. And they can be arranged as 8 groups of three or as 6 groups of four, leaving the area near the projector open for students to roll in, sit in a circle, and discuss something.

And we have Blackboards! Real blackboards! With map rails along the top so we can hang posters and use the BCRC for poster sessions.

And even my secret dream came true. When we were planning the new BCRC, I really wanted to find a home for all of the cool old computers I'd rescued over the years. To finally have the Living Museum of Dead Computers have a home is immeasurably gratifying.

It's been a busy year trying to keep the construction on track and then to set everything up and make it functional. But I hope you'll agree that the results were worth the effort.

Thanks once again for coming to our open house and helping make my dreams come true.

Media Server Workshop

Today, we held a Makers@AmherstMedia workshop in the BCRC on how to build a Raspberry Pi Home Theater Media Server. I've been wanting to build something like this for years, but I wasn't sure how many other people would be interested. Five people signed up, but one couldn't attend, so there were four of us in the end.

People had to bring their own parts. I got a Raspberry Pi B+, an 8GB micro-SD card, and a 1TB hard-drive. Unfortunately, it appears that the hard-drive may draw too much power to work reliably, so I still might need to get a powered USB hub to run everything.

The BCRC was the perfect place to do the workshop. We have Mac Minis with SD slots, which you can use to write the Micro-SD card and we have HD displays with free HDMI cables, so its easy to hook up the Pi and you can borrow the keyboard and net connection from the Macs.

Formally, the workshop was about Raspbmc but I downloaded and installed OSMC instead. It's still pre-release and I wasn't sure how stable it would be, but I thought it would be useful to see them both side-by-side. In point of fact, once they were installed and running, it was hard to tell the difference.

I had meant to dis-assemble something before the workshop to recover an IR receiver I could play with during the workshop but hadn't found the time. One of the participants had, however, and so we were able to see how that part works. It was encouraging to see how straightforward the configuration appeared to be. So much so that, during the workshop, I spent a few minutes trying to recover a receiver from an old data projector, but then damaged it while trying to desolder it. I'm not very good at that stuff yet.

Unfortunately, I could only spend a couple of hours and then had meetings, meetings, and more meetings for the rest of the day. Soon, however, the holidays will be here and I should be able devote a bit more time to seeing what this system can do. But today was time well spent -- and fun to get together with other interested geeky friends.

Galileo Wrap-up

Last spring, I received a grant of five Galileo development boards from Intel and intended to use them with my class this semester to study balanced aquaria. It hasn't gone as well as I had hoped.

I set one up last spring and my initial testing was encouraging. I wrote a script that could collect the data, display it on an LCD screen, and output it to the serial port.

My goal was to extend the script so that we could use MQTT to upload the data to a server to aggregate it. But over the summer, I spent several weeks in St. Croix and then, when I returned, I was totally absorbed in getting the new BCRC renovated and set up for the fall. I never had time to finished my preparations for working with the boards.

I thought about having the students work with the boards, but I ran into enough weird problems that I decided that was a bad idea. For example, I had found that the liquid crystal libraries provided with the Arduino application didn't compile cleanly for x86. Someone had posted an updated version of the library, but it was non-trivial to replace them in the MacOS X application bundle -- or, at least, I surmised it would have been non-trivial for the students.

I ultimately found several similar problems: some c++ headers weren't correctly linked and required creating a symlink in a magical place. The MQTT PubSubClient for Arduino wouldn't compile for Galileo. Much of the Arduino code for x86 was buggy: the SD library could write to an existing file, but couldn't create a file. In all of these cases, I could find a discussion online where someone had figured out how to fix the problem, but the fix was often complicated and required being adapted for the local circumstances.

Some problems were simply architectural: Galileo, unlike an Arduino, doesn't save a script you upload to it. So if it loses power, when it restarts, it's simply dead. You can fix this by creating a micro-SD card with a distribution of linux on it, but creating the cards is non-trivial and getting the boards to boot from the cards seemed tricky -- it took me a couple of hours to make it work reliably. Also, the Galileo has a real-time clock chip, but no simple way to include a battery to keep the clock running across reboots (ie, there are headers where you could attach wires connected to a battery, but there's no battery holder).

If I could have simply worked with a linux shell, it would have been a lot easier: but it wasn't trivial to get a terminal connection to the Galileo. Working through the Arduino interface made everything cumbersome, especially as it was buggy and unreliable.

In the end, the students proposed using an incubator in the ISB which created another level of difficulty, because the University never turned on most of the network in that building. Given time, I could have figured out which was the closest network jack, requested it be turned on, and found a switch to connect the boards to the network but, in the interest of time, decided to write to the SD card instead.

Eventually, I got a script that would manually set the time, minimally collect data, and log it to the SD Card. But the boards seem to only run for a day or so before they quit logging. And if the boards have a power failure or reboot, they reset the time to what the script originally set it to. I'm not sure if it's memory leaks or some other hardware problem, but the net result is that the data are very, very messy.

In any event, I'm glad I didn't try to have students work directly with the Galileos -- I think it would have been very frustrating for them and to little purpose. I think, in the long run, it would have been a lot easier to use Raspberry Pis for this project. And I think, if I can find the money, that's what I'll try for next time around, if I decide to do this again. Next semester, I'm thinking I may try agent-based modelling with Netlogo.

All in a Day's Work

A couple of days ago, someone came into the BCRC to ask about rescuing some old data files. He had a bunch of figures he'd created in MacDraw in the late 1980s that he wanted to recover. I agreed to meet with him today to see what we could do.

We have one old MDD G4 that I have carefully preserved that can still run Classic (ie, MacOS 9). It wouldn't fire up initially and I had to reset the PMU to get it to boot. It had forgotten the date-time, so we needed to reboot it after it set the time and became unstable.

He'd already gotten help from someone to read his old floppies, but the old Mac couldn't read his thumbdrive. We copied the files to an SMB volume, but then found that whoever recovered the files only recovered the data-forks, so we couldn't open them anyway. So I got out our old floppy drive and we went back to the original floppies to get good copies of the files.

We tried a number of old applications. I had a copy of Appleworks (from after Apple bought Claris), but that didn't work. Eventually, I found that you can download several different old versions of MacDraw and we began trying those. Eventually, we found that they would open with MacDraw II Version 1.0v1. But although they would open, the screen wouldn't update properly -- perhaps the application isn't "32-bit clean" or something. The window only contained a smear of multicolored static.

But I had read something that suggested printing the drawings to a file to get a Postscript copy of the image. And this worked! So we set up an assembly line: he went back to the floppies and got good copies of the files, we opened them with MacDraw one by one (restarting periodically because it would crash after you'd opened up a few) and printing them to Postscript. Then we copied everything to SMB and I downloaded the files to his thumbdrive from my office computer.

The room where I've kept this computer is going to be renovated and I had been on the fence about what to do with this computer. But you know what? I think I'll just take this whole workstation and put it in into the Living Museum of Dead Computers in working order in case anyone else needs to rescue stuff from the old days.

Featured in WSJ

About a month ago, I was contacted by Charlie Wells, a journalist at the Wall Street Journal, who indicated that was interested in writing an article about Pasporta Servo for Esperanto Day (ie, Zamenhof's birthday on Dec 15). I agreed to be interviewed, spoke with him a couple of times, and provided some pictures and links to additional resources. I think the article, One of the Perks of Speaking Esperanto? Free Lodging Around the World came out quite nicely.

In the article I talk about how I didn't advertise that I was an Esperanto speaker when was a new faculty member. I got a (slightly tongue-in-cheek) comment by the Dean who remarked that he was honored he "knew my secret", so I replied with something I've been thinking about for several years:

I've actually seen it as part of a larger problem in faculty culture. I think it starts in grad school -- at least it did for me -- when advisors pressure students to focus on their dissertations to the exclusion of all else. In many environments, it seems to become almost taboo to talk about anything you're doing that's not related to your academic work. This carries over to faculty when they begin their careers: faculty culture tells new faculty that they must present carefully redacted pictures of themselves: they can talk research and grant proposals and, maybe, teaching -- if only to say how much work it is. The result is that faculty present only one dimension of their lives to their colleagues, and the culture at the University suffers because people don't want to admit to their other passions and interests.

Some people have claimed that I never made a secret of being an Esperanto speaker and I suppose there's an element of truth to that: I didn't go to any great lengths to hide it. I just didn't bring it up. I didn't try to do anything professionally with Esperanto until around 2004, when I decided to apply for a Fulbright Fellowship using Esperanto. I wrote a proposal that I thought was pretty good that was focused on using Esperanto for a class on global problems, but it never went anywhere. Nobody (but me) liked it: It wasn't focused enough on Esperanto to satisfy esperantists and had too much Esperanto for everyone else. But writing the proposal was what got me involved with the Esperanto community again.

Makers at the Trivia Bee

For years, Alisa has been participating in the Amherst Educational Foundation Trivia Bee. This year, it occurred to me early enough that I could put together a team for Makers at Amherst Media. I realized that, given everything else going on in my life, I probably shouldn't. But I did. First, I sent an email, got a couple of replies. Then I sent another. I followed up with people and hatched a plan to get everyone a lilypad and have the team members wear light-up hats with Makers at Amherst Media t-shirts. I think it took about 12 emails altogether to get everyone on the same page. But we fielded a 4-person team for the trivia bee, with everyone wearing a Makers t-shirt and a light-up hat. With a little nudge to get everyone to recognize that the hats had been programmed by the kids, the team won the Best Costume prize.

They didn't win their round of trivia, but the questions were hard. I mean *really* hard. But it was nice just to participate -- to actually do something -- and to get our name out there. And I was very satisfied just to have my idea come together and happen.

Esperanto-only Haiku

For several years, I've been writing my haiku primarily in Esperanto, but posting them with English translation. I write haiku principally for myself -- the reaction that other people might have to them has always been secondary for me. I started writing them in Esperanto because it gave me a chance to stretch my linguistic abilities in Esperanto. I continue writing them because I've come to appreciate the opportunity to reflect thoughtfully on nature and my experience. I shared them in both Esperanto and English because... Well... I guess I imagined that authors of English-language haiku might express interest in my haiku. But I haven't seen that.

I have had positive comments about having both English and Esperanto in my books -- mainly from people interested who were learning Esperanto. But the recent review of senokulvitre got me to question the value of posting bilingually. The quality is almost always uneven: haiku often turn on the particular way you can render something in language and really don't translate well. You can translate the words, but you can rarely translate the haiku. So, as an experiment, I've quit trying to translate my haiku into English.

No complaints so far...

Living Museum of Dead Computers

Many years ago, I began to accumulate old computer hardware that was lying around or being discarded from Morrill Science Center at UMass Amherst. I think my first real acquisition was when someone threw out a PDP-11. It was just sitting on the Geosciences loading dock. This was probably in 1998 or 1999. It was a whole rack with a nice plastic sign with the old DEC lettering. The PDP-11 itself was just something like a 2U box with some huge 4U floppy drives below it. Someone had pasted on a little paper sign on it that said, "Please GOD, Keep it Running!" I rescued the PDP-11 and the little plastic sign and tucked them into the back of the BCRC. Then, little by little, other things began to arrive.

I contributed my Powerbook 100, which was one of the first real laptops. I found some old Model 100 TRS-80s someone was throwing out and rescued them. Al Woodhull contributed a Model 15 teletype and a DECScope. Tom Hoogendyk added an early Macintosh. Brett Longworth had rescued a NeXT Cube. Joe Kunkel had an old Apple II. Willie Bemis added an original IBM PC. Someone found an old adding machine. Chris Woodcock contributed a wafer of 386 microprocessors. Little by little, the collection grew.

George Drake contributed a lot of stuff. He had a block of old core memory and some big old hard-drives. Someone mentioned that George had actually *made* computers -- in particular, word processors -- that many people in the department had used prior to IBM PCs. I was able to get a keyboard (in a wood case), but all of the CPUs had already been lost -- a great loss to history.

I think it was Sean Werle It was Rodger Gwiazdowski who added an old cracked slate tablet, like kids in the 1800s used for lessons, that he had inscribed with the words "Your new information technology may become obsolete." I also found some old Leroy Lettering Guides, which John Roberts had left behind.

All this stuff had been just hanging around in the old BCRC, but without a real place for it. When we began making plans for the new BCRC, I pleaded for a display case where the stuff could actually be seen and appreciated. The display case finally came in and I'm now trying to move stuff in.

It's wonderful that it finally has a home where people can see it. There's still a lot of work to get it curated and make some signage so people can understand what they're looking it. But it gives me a real thrill every time I walk by it. Thanks to everyone who's helped make it possible!


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