When I was working with pis on the wired network, the technical staff would configure them with a static ip, which made them easy to contact when running in headless mode. But the Makerspace doesn't have wired eithernet and, even when it will, it will probably use the campus services, which generally do dynamic addressing. So I'd like a Pi to report what address it's on to a central location so I can track it.  I've adapted some PHP code on the server side to receive and report these data.

You need to set the hostname on the pi and then I've crafted this one-line liner to add to rc.local that, if the network is configured, will report it's IP address.

/usr/bin/wget -O/dev/null -q https://bcrc.bio.umass.edu/pitrack/?pi=`hostname`\&ip=$_IP

Just add inside the test that prints the IP address and done.

LaTeX for the Win

I had a good conversation with Tom over weekend about my thinking for my new course. We talked about the structure of the course, using the Software Carpentry lesson template for approaching the technical training aspect, and how the experience I've had helping students manage projects in the writing class will probably be apropos in this class.

"How are you going to have students manage their manuscripts?" Tom asked.

Years ago, I had showed Tom how to get started with LaTeX which he used to great effect in graduate school. He had suggested I use it with the students in my writing class, but I had declined, since I felt the learning curve would be too steep. But this class is different: I'm going to be pressing students to learn to use the command line, to write code, and to manage their projects using git. Building their thesis using LaTeX just seems like a natural extension at that point.

Tom pointed out that CS has a LaTeX template for submitting a thesis to the graduate school. I still need to check with some of the departments (like Math and Astronomy) that are almost certainly already using TeX for honors theses. And it's yet another domain I'll need to spend some time getting back up to speed with. But it's a good idea and should be a lot of fun.

Fellowship Begins

Last spring, I was awarded a Professional Improvement Fellowship which gives me a release from my "regular responsibilities for one semester" to work on the project I had proposed. This is kind of a big deal.

When I arrived at the University, Lo, these many years ago, I was one of relatively few Non-Tenure Track (NTT) faculty. Although, I was hired in at a salary that was competitive with other faculty, there were no promotion opportunities and the conditions for NTT faculty varied widely across the campus. Over the years, we've made huge strides at the bargining table through patient negotiation. In the last contract, we secured a one-semester leave for Senior Lecturers to work on a significant academic project. The first time I applied, I did not receive one, but was awarded one the second time around

During the fall, in free moments here and there, I began laying the groundwork for my leave. I applied and received some travel money to attend meetings during my professional leave and I submitted a proposal to the Honors College to have my course project fast-tracked for approval as an honors seminar. This proposal was also approved and I have now submitted the official paperwork for the course approval process. And it has cleared the first level of approval. Here's the course description:

In this two 4-credit course sequence, students will build instruments using open science hardware and collect data that bears on a research question. In the first semester, students will explore case studies about creating/deploying instruments combined with hands-on activities to develop technical skills for instrument development. Each technical lesson and activity, modeled on the Software Carpentry curriculum, will lead students through two instrumentation platforms (Raspberry Pi and Arduino) and how to collect, log, and analyze data from analog and digital sensors. Students will post brief weekly "Research Notes". By the end of the first semester, students will have (1) drafted a proposal for a research project and (2) developed a functional prototype of the instrument. During the second semester, students will use Agile project management techniques to collaboratively build, test, and deploy finished versions of their instruments and conduct iterative rounds of calibration and data collection to assemble a data set that bears on their research question. By the end of the course, students will complete an individual thesis using data collected with their instrument and create an "instructable", supplemented with imagery or video, that describes their instrument, how it works, and how to make one.

Now the real work begins.

Best Western Paradise Inn Bad Green Program Implementation

When my brother Phil moved to Savoy, we started staying at the hotel nearest to his house, the Best Western Paradise Inn. We've stayed here four or five times now. And up until this visit, I was reasonably happy with them. But they've instituted a new policy: the "Go. Get. Green Initiative".

I've seen various "green" policies at hotels for years that involve some aspect of reducing laundry service or forgoing maid service. I'm a bit skeptical of these, in part, because their primary effect is to reduce labor and energy costs to the owners, with no evidence that these cost reductions are passed along to the consumers. At the same time, I recognize that traditional hotels are being forced to compete with unregulated, hobbyist "hotel-like" services, like AirBNB and are being squeezed economically.

We arrived at the hotel after about 26 hours of travel and I was exhausted. The friendly person at the counter gave me a sheet of paper with three highlighted lines to initial: two in yellow and one in green. The yellow lines were standard things like the charge for smoking in a non-smoking room. The green line was for the "Go. Get. Green Initiative." It sounded typical: earn some fake points by forgoing a couple of nights of maid service. I read it, asked a couple of questions, and initialed the line.

But the next day, we got no maid service. Nor the next night. Nor the next night. Finally, I walked down and asked about it. It turns out that by agreeing to the program, I had supposedly agreed to receive no maid service during the entire stay. I expressed astonishment that, for a 13 day stay, why anyone would want that. The poor young woman behind the counter said she would strike our rooms from participating in the program and that she was sorry for the misunderstanding (and that I would lose my "points"). She called her manager on the phone, but the manager offered no useful information or guidance — at least none that was communicated to me.

But I was still pretty angry and left them a poor review at Google and tweeted about it at Twitter. After another day, I'm still pretty angry at how the whole thing was handled.

It reminds me a bit of the Monty Python Crunchy Frog sketch. "I think it's be more appropriate if the box bore a great red label: 'WARNING: LARK'S VOMIT!!!'" The hotel should use a red, rather than green, highlighter and say, "WARNING: YOU WILL GET NO MAID SERVICE DURING YOUR ENTIRE STAY."

In point of fact, the webpage about the "Go. Get. Green Initiative" seems to suggest that it's supposed to work by giving you a sign to hang on your door on the nights when you want to forgo maid service: that would be totally reasonable. But they didn't do that. Perhaps the Best Western company might want to look at what this particular hotel is doing.

In any event, I have to seriously question whether I'll stay at this hotel again. It's convenient because it's so close. But maybe it's time to look at other places. It's not like I don't have a car when I come here, so what's the difference between a two minute drive and a 5 minute drive?

And, indeed, I'm somewhat skeptical about Best Western itself and their oversight of their hotels' implementations of this program.

Postscript: It was Christmas Eve when I had my blow-up at the front desk. On Christmas morning, I found a little note tucked under our doors that said (in part), "we give this one day to our housekeepers to spend time with their families." We laughed a bit that, after all that, we STILL wouldn't get maid service. But when we got back after lunch, we found that our rooms had been serviced. So that's something.

You WILL Say the Wrong Thing

It was really only several years ago, in the run-up to the 2016 election, that I came to realize how serious the problem of institutional racism actually was -- even in my very liberal institution. During the last round of strategic planning the campus held a number of listening sessions related to diversity, inclusion, and equity -- and I remember a statement that one black student said about how frustrated she was about being the victim of instutional racism and yet was expected to somehow educate her white faculty and peers about the problems of racism. That struck home with me.

One thing the campus has done over the past couple of years is to institute a series of book groups for faculty, staff, and students to read a common book and then discuss the readings over a period of weeks. The group I participated in this year read the book What If I Say the Wrong Thing by Vernā A. Myers. Our last meeting was today.

Last night, at a dinner that brought all the groups together, I pointed out that a better title for the book might have been, "You WILL Say the Wrong Thing and That's OK." I told them that I had come into the group intending to say very little because I've gotten the message that old, white, cis-het men should shut up and listen. And growing up, as I did, in an environment of racism and misogyny, I found that I have a lot baggage that I learned uncritically and that can come out in surprising and unexpected ways. But that a key message of the book and the book club was that it was OK to say these things as long as you were ready to learn and try to improve. People politely applauded and the organizers seemed pleased with my expression of learning.

But, as I confessed to my group today, this was really a lie. Almost any statement can quickly snowball today into an internet mob and the instution is perfectly ready, for all their statements about diversity and inclusion, to throw you under the bus at the first whiff of controversy. Yesterday, a senior lecturer was pulled from her class for showing a parody video made by previous students in the class as an extra credit assignment. I find the current climate in academia very chilling and I watch what I say pretty carefully. Of course, I've always done that.

Many years ago, my brother Phil and I learned that anything you post online, no matter how seemingly ephemeral, may well persist forever. Some people approached this by trying to avoid leaving any tracks online. I recognized that much of what I did was going to be visble on the internet and so, therefore, I resolved to be relatively open about it: to make sure that anyone who cared to look, could easily find a balanced picture of me, so that no one negative thing would seriously distort the publically-available record. But to do so knowing that any thing you said online might be read by anyone. Forever. That said, it has increasingly become clear that, as mores and societal values change, even uncontroversial statements made in the past can come to appear problematic. I don't see any way to avoid that, though. You just have to acknowledge the past and move on.

I'm glad I participated in the book group anyway: it was an interesting mix of people from very different environments on campus. But it's still a scary time in academia.

The world is full of old, angry, bitter people

The other morning, I found myself thinking, "the world is full of old, angry, bitter people." And I realized that when I said, "the world," I was actually talking about my filter bubble. Much of what passes for political discourse, these days, are bitter statements by angry old people. And, my time is increasingly spent among old people who are angry and bitter. Of course, if I were in a different filter bubble, the world might well be full of young, angry, bitter people. They certainly have reason for it. But upon my realization, I decided I would make some changes.

My first change is to quit checking twitter during the day. I'm not going to stop altogether, but I'm going to limit my access and only check during non working hours (although I did log in briefly today to amplify a job posting that folks I know might appreciate.)

I also want to be more intentional about making time to seek joy. I've always found winter difficult and this year, with so much uncertainty, I find myself at times paralyzed with anxiety. I don't like being intentional: I take great pleasure in letting my life organize itself organically but, when stuff isn't working, I should probably wring my hands and agonize until the crisis has passed. Or spring comes.

At least, it gave me a good story to tell at my learning community book group on inclusive and respectful communication.

Bit Rot and Search Engines

It's sad when you go to look for something you read once and discover that it's not there anymore. And not just not *there*, but unfindable. We've gotten spoiled by the idea that you can just go to Google and find anything, but it's not true anymore.

It was never really true. But there were grand ideas when the web was being created that URLs would persist and that soon all information would be digital and immediately at your fingertips. I remember an ad with the slogan "Everything new is digital and everything old is being digitized." Or this ad that said "all rooms have every movie ever made in any language anytime, day or night." Or Google's project to scan every book ever printed and make available a vast library of human knowledge.

Instead, much of the early internet has quietly withered away. Some of it can be tracked down at the Wayback Machine. If you have the time and patience. But the effort of carrying forward old internet content is non-zero and there's always pressure to focus on new content.

I remember a presentation at ContactCon where a guy was describing a pattern language for internet content. I found his talk somewhat incoherent at the time, but more easily recognize now what he was talking about. Rather than having a bunch of systems for styling and presenting information, we would do better focusing on tagging and relating content. It shouldn't matter as much whether you're posting an article or a comment, or posting it here or there. Let writers write and curators curate.

The most discouraging aspect is how Google now doesn't even bother to return results about vast swaths of the internet. Take this page for instance. OK. You can certainly argue that it's not a very important page. But this page used to appear in Google search results. And it doesn't anymore. Google does index some pages at "revo.bierfaristo.com' which includes links to that page. But Google has evidently decided it's not worth maintaining links to less interesting or important content. And that bodes ill.

It's not a "search engine" anymore if it's making decisions about what to include and what not to include. But that's where we're at. The Internet Genie has been stuffed back in the bottle and we're left with just a few giant corporations being the gatekeepers to all human knowledge.

Artisan's Asylum

On Saturday, I drove to Somerville to meet up with Don Blair, a former student/staff member who was offering a presentation as part of Somerville 2069: Imagine Somerville, billed as an "interactive tour of the future" at a local elementary school. Don had been persuaded to demonstrate a "robot" and talk about emerging manufacturing techniques. He brought a Morphorn CNC (or similar) and set it up to show students an example of applied robotics.

It's an inexpensive, nifty little device that Don has used to make prototype circuit boards: you can quickly and easily route out traces on copper-clad boards.

The other tables in the display were not particularly interesting, although I did appreciate the Gentrification Obelisk:

Gentrification Obelisk: a testament to those who had to move away from Somerville. pic.twitter.com/tL52Z1qg8C

— Steven D. BREWER (@limako) October 26, 2019

Afterwards, we visited Aeronaut Brewing where I tried a flight of their IPAs. It was busy, but the bartender I got was cheerful and very knowledgeable. She helped me figure out what to try and promptly got me filled up. No surprises: I liked "Louie", the American Imperial IPA, the best. The others were fine, but that one was really very good.

Just down the street from Aeronaut is Artisan's Asylum, a giant makerspace. People rent space for a "stall" and then gain access to various "shops" with tools for woodworking, laser and plasma cutting, welding, electronics, fiber arts, etc. A big part of the attraction is the focus on community and they have a nice spot in the middle with lots of comfortably-worn furniture where you can hang out and chat with interesting folks.

One thing I hadn't really thought about a makerspace was to envision it like a home-away-from-home workshop. For both young people without settled means and for older people downsizing, having a place for a workshop is really useful. And, of course, everyone could benefit from being engaged with a supportive community.

It was a long day of driving, but time well spent.


Writing energy

I used to devote a significant amount of writing energy to maintain a blog, but over the past half-year almost all of my writing energy has been focused in other directions. I've been writing a lot — just for other stuff which I mostly haven't posted publically. I wrote an application for my Senior Lecturer Professional Improvement Fellowship. I wrote a long letter when I resigned from the Board of Amherst Media. I taught two classes over the summer and wrote a lot as part of that. I wrote a pre-proposal for a grant. I'm writing up the leafminer work we did. I'm writing a proposal for my course-based honors thesis class. And, of course, these days I do a lot of microblogging (using twitter) that, in the past, I would have probably devoted to blog writing.

I've also started sharing some Research Notes via Public Lab. Over the next few weeks, I'll need to make the transition to writing full-time for my new course development project. But, hopefully, much of it I can share publicly.

I also want to write some new fiction. I still have several stories I've written, but never made enough effort to get published anywhere. But writing is its own reward, even if you never get stuff published. The opportunity to be reflective, explore your own thinking, and try out ideas is always valuable.

At the same time, part of me is afraid that my lack of writing here is due to reduced ability to be productive. I don't know if I'm slowing down or if my standards are just higher. But I don't seem to be able to organize myself to work on as many things as I used to.  I tell myself that work has simply become more demanding: I used to have more slack than I used to. But maybe that's just an illusion.

Still, I'm looking forward to my professional improvement leave with a mix of excitement and terror. It will be amazing to switch gears and take on a new, significant project. But terrifying too: I have a huge number of hurdles to overcome to successfully pull this off.

UMass Reconstruction of Lincoln and North Apartments

I asked a question during question time at the Sept 12, 2019 Faculty Senate meeting about the proposed reconstruction of Lincoln and North Apartments

The University recently announced proposed replacement of the Lincoln and North Apartments with new housing stock to be constructed via a public/private partnership. Some are expressing concerns about how these new housing units will be managed. In particular, (1) Who will make decisions about the management of this housing? UMass or a private partner? (2) Will these units continue to be available principally only to UMass students? Or will they be available to other members of the community, potentially displacing students into the local rental market? (3) Will there continue to be the same balance of one- and two-bedroom apartments? Or, as some reports suggested, a shift toward two-bedroom only? Finally, (4) what concrete steps are the University taking to assure that students, especially those with the greatest financial need, will continue to be able to secure suitable housing, both during the construction process and beyond?

The questions were answered by John Kennedy and Swamy, with the clarification that Andy Mangels (absent) would probably be the best to answer these questions. Below is my effort to capture the sense of their reponses, although eventually the minutes will be posted and a transcript will be available.

Many of the details will be worked out during the bid process: the campus will be considering bids that may have more or less management included as part of the overall bid.

The units will be for a mix of graduate and undergraduate units at Lincoln and the North apartments will be for graduate student families. It's not anticipated that the housing would be made available more widely.

The graduate student senate is involved in the planning for the redesign of these units in order to strike an appropriate balance between 1 and 2 bedroom apartments to meet current needs.

The university is in conversation with landlords in North Amherst to find appropriate placements for families displaced from the North Apartments, at the same rent, such that children will not have to change schools.



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