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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.

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.

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.

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