Geek Dad and DoggyMups

Phil send me a link to the Geek Dad blog. I particularly liked the bit that serves as a manifesto. I thought that was perfect. I'll have to watch the blog for ideas.

The thing Charlie and I have been working on is a new card game version of DoggyMups. It was originally the theme of the Muppyville MOO that we set up, but early on Charlie had the idea of making it a video game or card game. We thought about it being a "collecting" game, where people would collect different cards, but eventually settled on the idea of having a single deck of cards that players would share and draw from. Charlie and I tried it out last night. It works great! I want to tweak it just a little more, we need to work on the directions, and we need graphics for the cards, but the game is very playable as it is.

The game is played with a deck of cards -- we have about 30 cards right now. Cards can be either doggymups or items. Each doggymup has an attack score (most as xD6), a defense score, a type (light, dark, water, fire, and legendary), and some have a special ability. The items do a variety of things: turn on special abilities, remove an opponent's doggymups, counter attacks, etc. So far, the game play is pretty good -- games only take 15-20 minutes and there's a good sense of back and forth and not being able to predict who's going to win with any great certainty. Let me know if you'd like a PDF copy of the cards to print out and play.

Libre Graphics

At the beginning of May, I'm planning to attend Libre Graphics in Montreal. I've been an avid user of Inkscape and Gimpshop for a couple of years now. I'm hoping to talk to people about creating an iconology for building free textbooks in biology using SVG. I think that a lack of sharable imagery is the primary thing that's holding back the creation of free textbooks in many fields.

While I'm there, I'll also be meeting with the Montreal organizers of the 2008 Landa Kongreso de Esperanto and the TutAmerika Kongreso de Esperanto. I agreed to be the representative from ELNA and this will be a good chance to talk about timelines and places and stuff.

I'm looking forward to visiting Montreal -- I've wanted to go for years, but haven't had a good excuse to go. It should be a good time.

Laughing at Jim Oldham

I had to laugh when I read Jim Oldham's letter in the Bulletin about Alisa. He said:

As a member of the Comprehensive Planning Committee since December 2005, I can attest to how this contrasts to the leadership style of the third Select Board candidate. Until the committee elected new officers last November, Alisa Brewer, as chairwoman, dominated discussions with long monologues, frequently challenged the input of other members on the basis that we didn't understand the committee's long history, and used agenda-setting as justification for sending members long e-mails discussing upcoming business. Whatever she claims to stand for, this is not a leadership style Amherst needs.

I don't think he realizes what an endorsement this is. My impression is that many people in town are tired of having endless meetings where such vast amounts of time are given over to letting people ramble on far beyond any reasonable time limit. I think people want to have someone who can make people stick within their time limits. I think they also want someone who can set the agenda and make people do their homework before meetings. Anyone who knows Alisa, knows that to call her "dictatorial" is a gross exaggeration, but it's not an exaggeration to say that she's tough and she's not afraid to get stuff done. I think a lot of people agree that this is what Amherst really needs. So, although I think Jim's letter tries to savage Alisa, voters will see through his rhetoric and recognize this letter for the endorsement that it really is.

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.


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