Spring Break

This semester has been a lot busier than usual. Over Intersession, I (1) set up a new computer lab for the HHMI funded "Genes and Genomes" class, (2) set up a large-format printer, and (3) built my file to be promoted to Senior Lecturer -- all this on top of everything I usually do. The result has been that I've been busy until 6 or 6:30 nearly every evening this semester and haven't had time for much else.

The new classroom is nice. We got one of those "Apple Carts for Education" with 10 macbooks and 6 imacs. I built a new radmind image for intel-based macs and rode herd on the printer and wireless configuration. They're using Kodak Molecular Imaging software with a nifty ultraviolet scanner to scan gels and working with R and other cool stuff. We had a few hiccups, but since then things have been working relatively well.

The printer is awesome. I named it farbonta and, after a long struggle, we've gotten it configured the way we want. The printer will let you send jobs to it that are to be held until you preview them and then release them to be printed. Unfortunately, as far as I could tell, you can't set that to be the default behavior and I didn't want to trust users to reliably remember to set their clients to hold jobs for previewing -- and that the client wouldn't let you set previewing at all, if you were submitting the job through a spooler. Furthermore, although we require authentication to use the spooler, the printer doesn't pay attention to the user that submits the job and instead parses the postscript file to decide who the "user" is. This means that if I created an account on my local machine called "george", I could submit jobs as myself and the printer would still say "Bill George for these". George was concerned about this, obviously, so we worked together to build a perl script that rewrites the postscript job. It has the scan the file twice: first, to see if the settings are in the file and, if it finds them it munges them. On the second pass, if it didn't find them, it adds munged blocks of code to set the username and to tell the printer to hold the job. One other challenge was that it turns out that postscript files don't have reliable line endings. The file seems to be assembled out of snippets of postscript from different parts of the printing system and different parts have different line endings. George wrote a bit of code that does binary reads into a buffer and then scans for any kind of line ending in the stream. When it finds one, it splits on it. Pretty nifty.

My promotion file is about done -- I think it was supposed to go to the Dean's Office yesterday. Although I had waived my right to see letters, several people sent them to me anyway. It's been gratifying to see the nice things people said about me. It's also been nice to look back over ten years of service and reflect on the stuff I've done and the choices I've made.

I already have a bunch of stuff stacked up to do over spring break, but it will be nice to have the pace slow down, if just for a few days. Whew!


Last night, I took two snakes to the science night at the neighborhood elementary school. One was a boa and the other a milk snake -- one of those coral snake mimics. They were a big hit with the kids. I was surrounded practically the whole evening with kids wanting to feel and hold them. Which, of course, I let them do. Charlie came after a bit and interpreted for the little snake so I could let kids hold the big snake.

It was my fascination with snakes that first got me interested in science. It's hard to explain, but there's something simple captivating about the other-ness of snakes: the unblinking stare, the sinuous motion, and the flickering tongue.

When I was a kid, girls weren't supposed to like snakes and relatively few did -- people were starting to talk about "women's lib" and there was less pressure on girls then than there probably was 20 years earlier. But last night, it was the girls who were most engaged with the snake -- I was surrounded by girls the whole night. I think one girl would have been happy to sit for the whole evening wrapped in the coils of the boa.

Semester begins

On Monday, the spring semester began and today was my first class. I'm teaching writing again and, as in the past, I did an exercise where I give students a small organism and ask them to observe it. In the past, I've used "mousies" -- handsome little maggots that have a long tail. They didn't have mousies this year, so I used "spikes" -- less handsome maggots with no tails. The students made good observations and I was able to make the points that I wanted to, so the exercise was a reasonable success. (As an aside, I've realized that what I really need for the exercise is to get velvet worms. Unfortunately, they look expensive and hard-to-acquire in the US. Velvet worms are cool.)

After class, I brought home the maggots and gave them to the boys. "What are these for?" asked Daniel. I explained that he could look at them or give them names or play with them -- or feed them to Rascal (Daniel's leopard gecko). He took out a maggot and said, "I'll name *this* one 'George Bush' and feed him to Rascal right now!" No question where my boys stand on politics.

Alisa running for Select Board

Alisa has decided to run for the Amherst Select Board. The past two years have been a bit rough in Amherst: the town has a structural deficit and has been burning through the "rainy day" funds over the past several years. It's now apparent that the conditions that allowed the town to build up a surplus are probably not going to return anytime soon. The current Select Board doesn't seem prepared to lead -- their idea of "leadership" is to have a non-binding ballot question to "see what the voters think".

Alisa will be a great Selectperson. She is one of the few people I know who takes the time to really understand the details. When a document says one thing on page 15 and something on page 150, she makes sure it gets fixed. And she's tough -- she knows what she thinks, she's not afraid to say it, and she doesn't back down.

The connection with me is that I volunteered to set up the Alisa For Amherst website. It's still somewhat fragmentary, but is coming together quickly. I'm glad I can do something (and stay safely in the background). A couple of times, people have tried to get me to run for Select Board. I don't think so.


What a strange holiday Thanksgiving is. Just as the semester prepares to hit its fiercest peak, there is this full stop. Everyone goes home and the campus is practically empty for the whole week. It's like the whole University takes a deep breath before the plunge.

I spent the day helping people with little things: a faculty member who had a hard-drive die, a graduate student who needed a little help to burn an install CD for Ubuntu, etc.

Around 1:30, Daniel called to ask when I could come home and play some SC (ie StarCraft). I said I couldn't come home just yet because I was supposed to something with someone a bit later in the afternoon -- possibly around 3pm. He then asked if he could come into my office to visit. I agreed that it was a good day for that and he came after just a few minutes. I finished crafting an email and then gave my full attention to Daniel and we went all over the place. We went to a lab where a comparative vertebrate dissection was taking place -- the students were only too happy to show Daniel what they were doing. He got to see cats, sharks, and salamanders being dissected. We then went to see Al Richmond, our resident herpetologist, who gave us a guided tour of the live room. We then went to get bottles of soda from the vending machine. At this point, I figured it was pointless trying to get anything else done, so Daniel and I went to get my stuff and headed home. When we got home, Daniel got his chance to play a game of SC with me.

Now it's time to take a deep breath and get ready for the big plunge in the next weeks: finishing my course, doing my committee work, meeting with the governor, and (of course) Esperanto-Tago on Dec 15th.

The "Red Hat" allegory

I was chatting with a former student today and was reminded of a funny story that is probably relevant to the OLPC story. When Wayan says "back in this amazing place I like to call 'reality'" I'm reminded of the time I wore my red hat to Austin.

Several years ago, my brother Phil bought me an official RedHat red hat for Christmas. At the time, I was using RedHat quite a bit and I've worn it proudly for years. I've probably received more compliments for that hat than for anything else I've ever owned or done in my whole life. On this one trip to Austin, while in airports, etc, I received many positive comments and three serious offer to buy the hat off my head.

Any time anyone would comment on the hat, I would mention that it was an official "RedHat" red hat. In Amherst, a fair number of people would know what RedHat was and, if they didn't, they would at least have heard of linux. Not so on the airports between here and Austin. Not one of the people I spoke to while travelling had ever heard of either RedHat or Linux. It was a valuable lesson to me to remind me what an insular world we netwits actually live in.


Over the past two or three days, there has been an interesting discussion at the One Laptop per Child News website. This is a site that is run by two observers of the OLPC project. For those who don't know, OLPC is a project by Nicholas Negroponte to put computers into the hands of children in the developing world. Originally tagged at $100/laptop, the project is moving forward (although currently slated at something like $208/laptop) and is supposed to actually reach children sometime next year.

The OLPC project itself has been an interesting project to me for several reasons: one is that I've had the idea of using technology to do international projects with students and Esperanto. In the developers' project wiki about the OLPC project, a number of people had proposed Esperanto as something the developers might want to consider. (Including me).

I think the folks at OLPC News saw the Esperanto community as an easy target on a slow news day: Esperanto on the Children's Machine. The author included a reasonable description of Esperanto, but used pejorative terms like "crazies" to describe the Esperanto community. This elicited a strong, though relatively restrained, response from the Esperanto Community.

The authors of the site claimed that the responses simply validated their original contention:

I love how all these comments prove my earlier statement: Esperanto "is the cause célèbre of the obscure intellectual set, brought out every few years as a solution to tribalism, warfare, world strife, plagues, droughts, and planetary misalignment."

For all the love I have for geeking out - and Esperanto is language nerds getting their geek on - back in this amazing place I like to call "reality" Esperanto is but a footnote in language.

I did a bit of research about the primary author that had stirred up the controversy and sent him a piece of email:

Dear Wayan,

I was curious, when you didn't answer my question about how many languages you'd learned to fluency, so I surfed around a bit and I see you've learned several languages to some extent, and Russian to fluency. So you have some sense for how difficult it is to always be at a disadvantage when you have to operate in a second language -- for me, it was that experience that was ultimately most persuasive to me regarding the need for Esperanto. Robert Phillipson has written about this a good bit (here's just one book):

He argues that a system that lets some of us (the richest ones) operate in our native language and makes everyone else (the poorer ones) use a second language, will systematically disadvantage them and contribute to their subjugation.

Francois Grin has recently received a lot of attention for an economics study he did in Europe which calculated how much less expensive it would be if Europe adopted Esperanto (as one of several options): http://cisad.adc.education.fr/hcee/documents/rapport_Grin.pdf He concluded that more than 17 billion euros could be saved annually (in terms of wasted effort in language learning, translation, etc) if Esperanto were adopted. (Sorry -- there's no english translation, to my knowledge).

These people are not "crazies". Nor are they part of some "obscure intellectual set". I deplore your use of these pejorative terms.

I also wanted to invite you to participate in Esperanto Day. I'm trying to organize a one-day blogfest for people to post bilingually in their native language and in Esperanto about language problems from their home, region, or country: http://esperanto-usa.org/esperanto-tago/

We have people that could help you translate your posting and would welcome your participation, regardless of what you might choose to say.

I was rather surprised when it turned up in the discussion with one change: he had changed the salutation (where I had used his last name plus honorific) to his first name.

What neither of them was willing to address is the fact that painting a whole community with a broad brush based on personal stereotypes is just a mistake. This is the same kind of mistaken thinking that underlies racism. One of the authors posted that its OK to practice this kind of thinking because esperantists don't represent a race, without recognizing that it is a general problem whether one talks about race or gender or religion -- or language.

In my first comment in the thread, I pointed out that there's probably more support worldwide for Esperanto than there is for OLPC anyway. Atanu Dey an economist who studies India, wrote a series of a good posts, OLPC RIP: part one, OLPC RIP: part two, and OLPC RIP: part three describing the economic realities in India and arguing that the opportunity cost for purchasing laptops is too high: the money that could be spent the OLPC would serve children much better by hiring teachers and making sure that villages have a functioning school (with things like blackboards and toilets). But what's funniest (or maybe saddest) are the comments by enthusiastic OLPC supporters, like this one and this one. And they say that the Esperantists are the crazies. :-)

General Faculty Meeting

Today there was a General Faculty meeting on campus. I think this is the second time it's happened since I arrived at the University. Our University launched a plan two years ago, with the goal of hiring 250 additional new faculty in 5 years. Unfortunately, after the first year, only 12 additional new faculty have been hired and this year the number of searches being conducted appears only barely enough to cover replacements for faculty who will likely leave this year.

I spoke at the meeting. Last week, our state senator took the faculty senate to task, saying it was the inability of the University system to speak with a common voice that has landed us in this predicament. I spoke today about how we need effective leadership if we're to stay on message.

Last year, I was one of many faculty who traveled to the state house to lobby the legislature about the needs of our University. We spoke about our pressing need for more faculty and how, if money was forthcoming, it would be used to hire more faculty, because that had been identified as the number one priority. (I also made a brief pitch that every one of the offices we visited, said that sending faculty to the state house was probably the most persuasive action we could take to underline the importance of our message and that only member's dues to our union can be used toward lobbying -- agency fee payer's dues can't be used that way. So make sure you're an MSP member, if you want to support lobbying!)

This year, however, a large amount of the additional monies received by the campus have been targeted toward "debt service". I don't deny that the buildings are important, but it puts us in an awkward position and it feels like we're working at cross purposes when what we believed was the number one priority of the University was being neglected.

There needs to be a higher-ed advocacy group that can mobilize faculty, students, parents, and the university administration around a common vision -- and that requires effective leadership. Without that leadership, we can't maintain a consistent message, and we'll continue to fail in achieving our goals.

Stopping all motion in webpages

I upgraded to Firefox 2 yesterday first on one machine, to test, and then, once I found it seemingly transparent, on my laptop as well. My perception is that it's faster and a little cleaner -- it has a few new features. Most importantly, my motion-blocking strategies all still work. (I also saw this piece which has a few ideas for making the interface work better on macs -- I used about half of these.

To stop motion in web pages, I have a variety of strategies: I disable animated gifs: image.animation_mode: none. I turn off the "blink" tag: browser.blink_allowed: false. I also use Flashblock, so I can see flash if I want, but it doesn't load unless I ask it too. It makes browsing webpages tranquil, without bouncing, jiggling, wiggling ads trying to get my attention. I've gotten addicted to it and can barely stand to browse the web without these modifications.

I still haven't figure out how to block a few things adequately: the stupid graphics that some sites (like Forbes) send sailing across the screen. I also don't know how to turn off javascript widgets that rotate images without also breaking google maps. If it gets bad enough, I guess I can just use Google Earth instead. :-/


Subscribe to Bierfaristo Blog RSS