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Visiting New Places

I moved to the Pioneer Valley in 1996. When we first arrived, every weekend was devoted to exploring new places. Two years later, we were looking for houses and we were constantly driving around to different towns and neighborhoods. But little by little we settled into a routine and, with time being limited, I began to elect to go back to places I knew I liked rather than risking something new.

This spring, I realized that there were a bunch of conservation areas in the area that I had never really explored. So I've been intentionally going to new places to see what I might have been missing. So far, I've been to Elf Meadow, Ruth McIntire Preserve, Hawley Bog, Plum Brook, Larch Hill, Stanley Park, and others.

So far, it's been an interesting exercise, but I haven't found any place that competes with the favorite places I like. I'm actually cheating a bit by putting Stanley Park on the list because I have been there before, but I'm exploring new parts of the park that I didn't know existed before. Some of the places have turned out to be pretty much just weeds and sticks (e.g. Plum Brook). I get tired of weeds and sticks pretty quickly. So yesterday, I visited an old favorite, the Peace Pagoda.

It was as great as I remembered.

Help desk woes

This morning my frustration with the help desk at my university boiled over and I (perhaps unwisely) sent this note:

Thank you very much for the prompt and complete response to my concerns. This is perhaps the fourth or fifth time in the past year that I have reported a problem to the help desk and have gotten an inappropriate reply back. I could go back in my email and find them all, but that's not the point I'd like to make.

In the past, Dreamhost had you indicate with a menu option how familiar you were with technology with options from "I have no idea" to "I probably know more about this than you do". (I always picked the option before that.) I don't know if that's why I always got prompt, excellent service from them, but I'd like to imagine that they paid attention to that and used it like a filter to interpret what I was saying.

Similarly, in xkcd, randall munroe dreams of having a "code word" you can use that will automatically transfer your call to a person who knows a minimum of two programming languages.

I'm not sure what the best solution is, but perhaps something like printing out a small note and putting it next to each person's phone that says "Steve Brewer is not a moron." I don't need people to tell me to check whether it's plugged in. If I say they should do something, I'd like them actually check with someone who knows what they're talking about before replying. I don't report stuff that isn't borken.

What I've been doing is what I did this time: I take a deep sigh and I write a polite note to [the director] asking him to fix it. But it's a PITA, wastes my time, wastes his time, and makes everything take longer.

Perhaps, instead of a note with only my name, perhaps we could have a flag that shows up for any of the technical staff. Or something.

I want to use the system. I just want the system to work.

Thanks again for the prompt, courteous follow up to my concerns.

It probably won't help, but I've already been told by someone else that I'm "very pissy" this morning and needed to vent.

Alvah Stone

The Bookmill is a fun destination that's just far enough away, that I don't get to it very often. And right behind it, is a little restaurant, the Alvah Stone. Alisa likes it there because they always have interesting cocktails. And I've always liked it because they usually have good beer.

A friend recently had a retirement dinner there and we arrived to discover they'd changed the menu. Rather than serving "meals", they've changed to "small plates". They suggested each person should order two or three. It was a bewildering array of different kinds of things. I started to panic. But then someone pointed out that they have a "feast" option where you don't pick anything: they just bring stuff. It was priced a bit more than two plates, but not much more than three. So we all did that. And that was a great choice.

It was great because we didn't have to waste time deciding. We could just all pass in the menus and not worry about trying to pick stuff, or coordinate with other people to get different things. Or worry if we were ordering too much or too little. We could just socialize and have fun.

The first dish was their famous brown butter cornbread with (honey bacon butter!). Then marinated mushrooms and garlic toast. There was a caesar salad. And sesame noodles. And salt-roasted beets. And beans. And greens! Then tofu. And steak! And scallops! We could all try everything and discuss each thing as it came out. It was paced perfectly. The plates came steadily and everyone had plenty and to spare.

Oh, there was some nasty eggplant too. Boo. But there were so many good things that it didn't matter that one was nasty. And most of the dishes were excellent. The scallops were exquisite and the steak was superb.

Best of all, it meant that we all finished around the same time. I tend to unhinge my jaw and just inhale my food, while Alisa is very very slow, like a loris. When we were on the road together and ate every meal together, we converged a bit, where she speeded up a little and I slowed down some. But since we don't do that anymore we have reverted to our former ways. But having the small plates meant that we were all eating together the whole dinner.

My only disappointment was that they didn't have an IPA to drink. There was one on the draft list, but the keg had just kicked and they didn't have another IPA. They did have an APA by a good local brewery, but it was only OK. Alisa was pleased with both cocktails she got.

I was really skeptical about the whole "small plates" idea at first, but doing the "feast" was perfect and gave us a great experience.

Saving My Gratitude

I saw this tweet recently, which made me reflect on the question, "What should we feel grateful for?"

I've been thinking about this for a while at least in part due to watching Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid. There are several scenes where the characters express, what seems to me like unreasonable levels of gratitude for very small things.

I mean, anything Kanna does is sweet and charming. And it fits in well with my preferred genre of television programming: soothing shows where people are praised for doing inconsequential things. Wouldn't it be nice if we could all be so grateful for small things? But something about it niggles. Why should we have to feel grateful for stuff?

Wouldn't it be better if we didn't need to feel grateful for little things? Wouldn't it be better if the little things were taken care of, so we could free up our gratitude muscles to feel grateful for really big things?

Of course, it's a truism that you don't know what you should feel grateful for (like health) until it's gone. But I want to save up all of my gratitude for when the Mueller report finally comes out.

Breath of the Wild

Over the holidays, I decided to devote some time to playing Breath of the Wild. The game was released almost two years ago and, although it made me drool a bit at the time, I hadn't felt like I had time to devote to games. And I still didn't have the time. But I decided I needed some distraction from depressing real life issues and made the time for it.

It's an amazing game. I've played most of the previous Zelda games and this was a worthy example of the craft with significant enhancements. The open world gameplay and hyper-realistic landscape made for a highly relaxing and aesthetic experience. There was little pressure, so you could just wander aimlessly to discover things, or make targeted efforts to complete various kinds of "quests". And then there were the overarching story arcs.

My least favorite part of the game was using the controller. The controller has 12 buttons plus two joysticks and a D-pad. Ugh. Too many buttons for my monkey brain. I remember playing a combat game for the Wii that used a wiimote plus the attached "nunchuk" controller and finding that very enjoyable. Then I tried the version of the game for X-Box that used a standard controller and was never able to really make it work: it was easy to aim by pointing -- aiming with a joystick was just beyond me.

In point of fact, though, I got lazy about playing this game: when I would get to difficult bosses or puzzles (that required too much controller puissance) I would get one of my boys to do it. Over the weekend, however, one of them who had never finished his game file realized that I was ahead of where he had left off his file. So he scrambled around and finished the game on Saturday so I wouldn't finish ahead of him. So Sunday night, I had him fight the final boss to finish my game so I could see the ending. Pretty satisfying.

I might go back and play some more -- there are a bunch more side-quests I would do. But perhaps not: it was a good distraction, but now that the semester's started again, it's hard to justify the time.

Trusting myself

I pursued higher education with the goal of being able to work on the questions I was genuinely interested in. As a doctoral student, I would bring proposals to my advisor with the questions I wanted to study and he would always rebuff them with various objections. He often told me, in asides, about various questions he was interested in, but it took me more than a year to realize that this was his way of telling me what kinds of questions I was supposed to study for my dissertation.

When I was visiting one time, my brother Phil said, "I've got to show you this cool thing". He took me to his office where he had a Sun workstation with a huge CRT and opened up a window with a grey background. He said, "This is a file on a server in Switzerland, but if you click these blue words [click] NOW we're looking at a file that's here in Champaign. And if you click these words [click] NOW we're looking at a file on a server in Minnesota." It was an early version of Mosaic, because he knew Eric Bina and some of the other people that were building the first graphical web-browser at NCSA.

When I got back to Western, I set up perhaps the first webserver on campus and created some webpages for the laboratory activities we were building in our computer lab. I wrote up a proposal and took it to my advisor and said, "Now I know what I want to do. I want do do my dissertation on the educational uses of hypertext." He made a grimace and said, "Well… I don't know much about that and this whole 'world-wide-web' thing? Nothing might ever come of that." Eventually, I got the hint and worked on what he was interested in: An Account of Expert Phylogenetiic Tree Construction from the Problem-Solving Research Tradition in Science Education. It was a good dissertation and I learned a lot. And it got me my position. But I think if I'd graduated in 1996 with a dissertation on the topic I was originally interested in, it might have been more timely and relevant. And taken me farther.

So when I write a proposal and someone with an administrative role tries to tell me how, rather than working on what I'm interested in, perhaps I should work on what they're interested in, it doesn't go over so well. Nope, nope, nope. No.

Perspective

Recently, I re-read the Curse of Chalion which I hadn't read since it was new. I had found one of the Penric books at the library, which led to buy the other Penric novellas. Ultimately, I was inspired to go back, check out, and reread the entire series by Lois McMaster Bujold, of which Curse of Chalion is the first.

Be warned: if you haven't read Curse of Chalion this post contains spoilers.

I remembered finding the Curse of Chalion very stressful to read. One of the major plot points (greatly simplified) is that the protagonist believes he is terminally ill. There is extensive description of his symptoms and worries. In the end, the character is saved (literally by a miracle). My stress from this plot point colored my whole perception of it, which I am certain is why I hadn't re-read it previously. But this time, I did not find this aspect of the book stressful. I don't think it was because I knew the ending. Instead, I think it was that my own perspective about life, sickness, and death has evolved since then.

It reminds me of when I first saw the War of the Roses. As a callow youth, watching a couple grow apart and their love turn to hatred and bitterness, was utterly horrifying. It was supposed to be dark humor, but for me it was pure horror and tragedy. After another 20 years, however, I found it resonated with me a lot more than it had when I was young.

I've often said that I feel like the same person I was when I was younger. But sometimes it's clear that I'm not. It's helpful to me to reflect on how my own perspective has evolved: from child to parent, from student to teacher -- and that it continues to evolve.

Not Creepy At All

This is a story that Phil and I have been trying to tell, but have been reluctant because it sounds kind of creepy. But my goal is to persuade you that it isn't creepy at all. Well, not very creepy anyway.

When Phil and I attended the Esperanto "Landa Kongreso" in St. Louis, Darcy Ross also attended. She brought with her a whole contingent of other students she had organized from the student Esperanto club at the University of Illinois. A bunch of us other (older) folks were hanging out in the hotel lobby when Darcy breezed in chattered with us for a few minutes in Esperanto and then breezed out. All the men sighed as she left and a grandmotherly Maria Murphy said, "Ŝi estas tre ĉarma, ĉu ne?" ("She's very charming, isn't she?") And all the men agreed, "Jes, jes. Tre ĉarma!"

Dr. Robert Read, one of the other esperantists, upon hearing that there was suddenly an Esperanto club in Champaign with 14 or 15 such active learners, wanted very much to meet with them -- to see whether there was some factor or technique that could be replicated to initiate an Esperanto revolution all across the country. So we all had lunch together.

d-ro Robert Read

After lunch, I asked Dr. Read what he had learned. He thought for a moment and said (in the penetrating way he does), "Well, I understand it now. To produce this kind of fantastic change in any community, all you need is Darcy." And we mused for a few minutes about how it was just too bad you couldn't clone people.

And for a day or two, Phil and I were wistful about how every club couldn't have their own Darcy. And at some point one of us had the insight that, not only Esperanto clubs could use a Darcy: that EVERYONE needed a Darcy. A Darcy of their very own.

So for 10 years, Phil and I have quietly mused about the idea of everyone having a Darcy of their very own. See? It's not creepy. Not creepy at all.

And what would you do with your very own Darcy? Whatever she tells you to.

Non-Responsibility

This summer, for the first time ever, I decided I would take seriously the idea that, as an employee on a 9-month contract, I have a period of non-responsibility. In the past, I've simply gone into my office and worked all summer (with exception of holidays and occasional research trips or family vacations).

It didn't help that within two days of starting, I got another flu-like virus that progressed to viral pneumonia and had everyone threatening to take me to the emergency room. Nor that the following week, my dear colleague had organized a science education workshop that had me going in for 8 hours a day. But after that, I began to actually shift into another gear.

I stayed home. I worked in the yard, doing battle with the weeds. I did some repairs around the house that, previously, I would have simply given up on.

I let my son convince me to start playing Pokémon Go. I started walking more.

And finally, after two or three weeks, I realized I had reached a different baseline for stress. I wasn't constantly feeling punchy. I was able to sit back and consider things from a different perspective. It's been good.

I also was able to start getting caught up with my Global Voices editorial responsibilities. I had fallen behind in March and hadn't been able to pick them up again. Now I'm almost caught up.

This week, the on-line class I'm teaching becomes available to students, tho doesn't formally start until next week. I've been spending some time during the past couple of weeks getting ready.

Of course, the email never ends. I've still been spending a couple of hours every day keeping on top of email. I also have made time to meet with the technical staff, have an exit interview with our outgoing CIO, write letters of recommendation for students, etc.

I've also been enjoying the chance to take a nap now and again. And on a hot day like today, I'll think that's what I'll do now.

Obstinate people and their fairy stories

Phil shared an article with me today about two towns in Colorado where there's a cultural conflict: the hardscrabble mining town of Nucla with the wealthy, cosmopolitan Telluride right next door. There's a lot of fascinating history (the town of Nucla was built by socialists), but the central point of the article is the cultural differences that form the flashpoint for conflict.

Residents in Nucla want to re-open a uranium mill which the people in Telluride oppose. A Nucla resident says, “They’re the most wasteful people, yet they tell us that, you know, we can’t have our uranium […]." Which made me think of other ways to complete that sentence “They’re the most wasteful people, yet they tell us that, you know, we can’t have our ebola factory" or “They’re the most wasteful people, yet they tell us that, you know, we can’t have our africanized bee colonies." (Or "sarin gas storage tanks." Or "rabid raccoon breeding facility.")

One woman says, of her grandfather who died of cancer (from smoking and working in a uranium mine) “If you had told my grandpa that he was going to die when he was 70 a horrible, painful death, he would have continued to mine. That’s how he supported his family."

It reminded me of miners in West Virginia during the presidential election. I remember that Hillary told people, pretty frankly, "Look. The coal jobs ain't coming back, so we need to do retraining and get people into other jobs and careers." And they said "Fuck you, bitch!" and voted for Donald Trump. Yet when you ask them today they say, "Yeah, he said he's bringing the coal jobs back, but we know it's not going to happen." Hillary actually understood the problem and had the right answer, but people didn't want to hear an actual solution to their problem: they would rather have someone lie to them and tell them the fairy story they want to hear.

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