You are here

life

Social Distancing and the Makerspace

Makerspace

I've had a great time during my Professional Improvement Fellowship working in the All-Campus Makerspace. It's a vibrant community of people working on projects they're passionate about. I enjoyed going in every morning, getting a few hours of work before anyone else arrived, and then breathing in the atmosphere as the place filled up. I've made good progress on my project and learned a huge amount about the topics I'm studying. And it's been fun.

I fear the students didn't quite know what to make of me. I wasn't staff and I wasn't student. I was just kind of there. But they were very welcoming and let me be a peripheral participant. I got to help out, in minor ways, with a dozen or more projects going on in the Makerspace. And they were just starting to discover what a weirdo I am. 

On Wednesday, March 11, 2020, it became clear that the University would be taking steps to enable social distancing and the Makerspace made the decision to close operations to give staff Thursday and Friday before spring break to plan and prepare for the changes.I swung by on Wednesday and took home my box of materials and got set up to begin working on my project from home. I had realized, even as the pandemic was in its earliest phases, that working there was probably risky. It's a campus crossroads with students from all over campus coming through. So I had been expecting to step back at some point. It was just a surprise to have it happen so suddenly.

I haven't made much progress since I started working from home. I assume that once the excitement over the pandemic wears off, it will be easier to focus and get stuff done.  But I'm really going to miss working in the Makerspace and all the new friends I've made there.

Making shimenawa and shide

A staple in Japanese manga and anime are the trappings of shinto practices. Shrines are frequent settings and, although they're rarely discussed directly, you see the architecture, objects, and designs as part of the background. I probably saw a shimenawa first in My Neighbor Totoro, which was perhaps the first anime I really watched. The giant camphor tree is almost a character in the movie and although I saw the shimenawa around it, I didn't know what it was or what it meant.

shimenawa

(image via ecostories)

I also saw a shimenawa in the anime Natsume Yujincho and the Book of Friends. Natsume breaks a shimenawa that releases a dangerous yōkai that ultimately becomes his guardian and tutor. Most recently, I've been reading Nekomusume Michikusa Nikki which includes shrines in the various settings and in which shimenawa feature prominently (if anonymously). There are also end-of-chapter information pages and one of them may have shown shimenawa.

For whatever reason, I realized that I didn't know anything about them, so I googled them. I didn't even know the word when I started, just searching for "japanese shrine tree rope" which helped me find a series of pages about them, including a wikipedia page. And that led me to the wikipedia page for shide. And a number of pages that described how to make them. I resolved to make one for my sakura tree.

In the pictures I had seen, a shimenawa seems to traditionally have a rope, tassels, and shide. So I went out to find the components to make one.

Shimenawa are traditionally made with rice straw, but hemp is also used. I was dubious about finding rice straw in this area. I thought about trying to find raw hemp, as it is increasingly grown in this area. But making rope looked like a lot of complicated work. So, cheating just a bit, I went to the store and found a heavy sisal rope for $1.35/foot and got a dozen feet.

When I got back with the rope, Alisa asked, "Did you measure it first?"

"Guess," I replied. She just smirked. But it turned out that 12 feet was exactly right: just long enough to tie a knot with no extra. OK. Maybe 14 feet would have been better.

For the tassels, I looked online and saw that people often make them with embroidery thread. The bundles of thread are already looped which makes it easy to tie up one end and cut the other to make a pretty tassel. And I considered getting brightly colored thread. But that seemed gaudy and out-of-place given what I had seen online. So I just bought a big ball of thick, jute twine, wrapped it around a large shim (I used an old 18 egg carton) and then tied up one end and cut the other. I also bought a length of thinner hemp string that I used to tie up the tassels -- and the ends of the rope -- and to hang everything.

I also bought a pad of thick drawing paper to make the shide. I had found a page on how to make shide, which explained how to make a series of cuts and then fold the paper up while rotating. It's easy, once you get the hang of it.

I ended up making 8 tassels and 4 shide. Once I had everything in hand, it was simple to tie the rope around the tree and then distribute the tassels and shide at likely spots along the length.

shimenawa on sakura tree

I'm pleased with the results. The total cost in materials was about $30. It took me several hours to purchase everything and then a couple of hours to make the tassels and shide and to hang everything on the tree. But it was a warm winter day with sun and I enjoyed the chance to do something outside and dream of the sakura blossoms to come.

And of course, I had to post a thread on twitter.

made a shimenawa for his beloved sakura tree / faris ŝimenavon por sia amata sakuro https://t.co/GjaW8PSoKr

— Steven D. BREWER (@limako) February 17, 2020

This first time was an experiment. Maybe by next time, I'll be ready to try actually making the rope. Or maybe not. It's fun either way.

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.

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - life