The Long Arc

It's painful watching reactionaries and morons impede progress on important long-term projects (e.g. the Paris Agreement or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.) And, while it is cold comfort, it's worth recalling the victories we've won in the past.

I remember as a kid when unleaded gasoline was introduced. Previously, tetraethyl-lead was used, almost universally, to allow higher compression ratios in gasoline engines. Scientists fought a battle for years against powerful corporate interests to discontinue the use of lead which is a neurotoxin that causes profound damage during human growth and development. Eventually, they won. We won! Lead was phased out over a twenty-year period. During this time, when you went to the gas station both were available as "regular" or "unleaded". Finally, it was discontinued entirely and unleaded had become "regular". Since then, it's been proposed that leaded gasoline was a cause of a huge spike in violent crime. And soil near busy roadways is still heavily contaminated by lead. But we won! Science won! Trump and his corporate cronies won't be bringing back leaded gasoline.

I also remember ozone depletion. Scientists discovered that chemicals used in refrigeration and aerosols were causing ozone to break down in the upper atmosphere. Again, the corporate interests fought tooth-and-nail to obfuscate and undermine the science. But in the face of growing evidence about the seriousness of the threat, an international consensus lead to the banning of the ozone depleting substances. Trump isn't going to reverse that either.

These are both examples of victories won during a time when science wasn't under threat the way it is today. Now, the enemies of progress are trying to make it impossible to collect evidence about the effects of climate change. And to undermine education and defund basic science altogether. While it's painful to watch their moronic antics, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

Flickr: Still the best image-sharing site

Lifto slovaka

I've always been suspicious of "cloud" services. But I started using Flickr in 2004 (The first image I posted is at the left) because it was convenient. You could post an image and easily grab a lower-resolution version to reference in HTML from a webpage. And I could create "badges" on websites that would show thumbnails of recent photos in a feed. And their early support of Creative Commons was nothing short of ground-breaking.

Eventually, I came to use Flickr in my teaching. Each semester, I still do an activity where I introduce the students to copyright, creative commons (CC), and scientific figures. Few of my students (juniors in college) have the first idea of copyright or have heard of the Creative Commons. Left to their own devices, students will go to Google Images, download any old picture, and use it uncited. (This is somewhat less true now than it was in the past: Google now lets you filter for CC-licensed imagery and makes it harder to just grab images. But Flickr makes it easy to find and use CC-licensed imagery.) Next, I have the students work in pairs to find a CC-licensed image that each student can write a different legend for. A figure needs to play a meaningful role in a paper: you don't just include a figure as decoration: you need to use it to make a point. By having the students recognize that you can use a figure to make multiple points, I hope they get the idea that the legend needs to explain why the author included the figure. In addition, we discuss how to construct a correctly-structured legend including a citation for a CC-licensed image.

Early on, I mostly used their "free" service and only posted a very small subset of the photos I took, but eventually start using the paid service so I could post high resolution images without worrying about going over monthly limit. I renewed my "pro" account just weeks before they announced their purchase and adoption of a "free-only" model.

It was crushing when Flickr was sold to Yahoo. Others have written about how they wasted their engineering effort trying to turn it into a Yahoo property, rather than allowing it to continue at the forefront of image sharing. They could have been *the* photosharing service and, instead, were merely defaced with the ugly purple Yahoo navigation bar while Facebook, Instagram, and others went into to dominate in photo sharing.

Another side effect of the Yahoo acquisition was the decision to implement various national censoring policies, which resulted in photos being unavailable, particularly in France and Germany, that could be seen from elsewhere. This caused the Esperanto community to leave Flickr for Ipernity. (Ipernity was nearly a feature-complete copy of Flickr with a bunch of additional social-media add-ons. It looked like they were going to shut down a year or two ago, but they seem to have resuscitated a bit. I never totally liked it, at least in part, because it would only allow you to download full-quality images if you were logged in.)

But while other services surged ahead, Flickr continued along on their own path with their diehard fans. It seems like lots of serious photographers use Flickr. But I have to admit that I really haven't paid much attention to the community aspects of Flickr: I use it mainly as a back-end piece of infrastructure, and don't pay attention to the groups and followers as I used to.

As Yahoo dwindled, I was really concerned for what might happen to Flickr. I was encouraged to hear that they'd been purchased by SmugMug which has committed to continuing to support it. I'm hopeful that it will continue and grow, because it really is the best at what it does: let you easily share and repurpose images.

Digital Signage Technology Expo

I attended a "digital signage technology expo" by a technology integrator, on May 3, 2018 which was rather disappointing. The flacks running the event were pleasant enough, but the presentation was a grainy live video feed with choppy audio from a vendor someplace far away. There was an opportunity to ask questions of the vendor, but the integrator basically didn't speak at all and never did introductions or facilitated conversation among the audience.

The product that was demonstrated had a number of features that might seem attractive to someone ticking boxes on an RFP, but left me cold. For example, there was the centralized control for administrators to take over everyone's displays and dole out permissions on a by-user basis. On the plus side, the solution presented was "flexible" from a content manager's standpoint: the demo made it look reasonably easy to integrate materials from a wide array of sources to show on displays. The interface to their system is a web-application. In terms of overall ease-of-use, I would rate it somewhere between Spire and Moodle. The output, however, could easily be a chaos of poor quality materials cobbled together on the screen. Yes, it's easy to throw up a lot of garbage, but you still need a designer to build something that looks nice.

The vendor showed some examples, where they had built interactive displays and kiosks, but those seemed to be one-off items -- not part of the regular package. With everyone having cell phones now, I think those kinds of things are mostly going away.

Their pricing is contracted by year and so, if you quit paying, all your displays go dark. The MSRP pricing quoted was $750/display/year, plus hardware cost, plus $2k for a local server that proxies the connections back to their company servers that serve everything. (Although the vendor indicated that the technology integrator would be able to give us a "break on pricing" because they were "such a good partner.")

Currently, the BCRC is supporting about 25 displays (=$18,750/year). If the campus chose this vendor and we wanted to participate, our devices would not integrate with the system without purchasing new players and probably some new displays. (The vendor said their software doesn't work on Raspberry Pis because they "burn out after a week", although we've been using Raspberry Pis for digital signage for years, including the very first one we got in 2012, and they're basically all still going strong.)

One feature we don't currently have is any kind of "emergency notification system." The vendor activated the one on the display behind him which then showed a vibrating exclamation point and announced something like "Please exit through the lobby!" It continued to show this behind him for the rest of his presentation. It's an interesting challenge to me to think how to organize and structure the control of emergency notifications. It seems like it would need to be on a case-by-case and sign-by-sign basis. Or maybe you could have pre-programmed messages for different circumstances (for fire, for tornado, for active shooter). At least if the message is going to be at all appropriate, it would need to be like that, I think.

Speaking only for myself, this is the only vendor I've seen so far, but it doesn't look like a good for for our needs at either the department or college level.

State funding of public higher education is a Massachusetts problem

You can never entirely trust the media to report things correctly, but in a recent Valley Advocate article, Stan Rosenberg is quoted saying something pretty disingenuous. Regarding the decline in funding for Public Higher Education, he says, “Massachusetts may be kind of in an exaggerated position, but this is not a Massachusetts problem, this is a national problem.” I beg your pardon?

I can sort of understand that kind of statement with respect to, say, ecological problems. Climate change is a global problem with huge implications for the state, yet the state, whether it wants to or not, can't solve a global problem. But we're talking about our state university. And we're talking about the decline in state funding. Yes, it's a problem in many other states too—but I don't think it's meaningful to describe the problem as "not a Massachusetts problem". Is Stan suggesting that the Feds are supposed to fix the refusal of states to fund higher education? I don't buy it. This *IS* a Massachusetts problem. And Massachusetts can fix it.

Public Higher Education is a huge economic driver in the state. Most of the graduates stay in-state and provide a highly skilled workforce attractive to employers. Every dollar spent on Public Higher Education creates additional economic activity because the workers all live in Massachusetts. The debt our students are assuming to complete their educations is a huge economic drag on the future. We can and should fix this.

C'mon Stan. The ball's in your court.

Climbing Mount Fuji

In mid-February, I decided to start studying Japanese via Duolingo. I've always been interested in language study, although as I've said before I'd kind of given up studying native languages. They're so arbitrary and, as a second-language learner, your potential for mastery is so low. But part of my disappointment really derives from unrealistic expectations. Just because you will never be a grand master is not a good reason not to play chess. (Well, maybe it is. I don' t know. Your mileage may vary.)

It actually started because in Animal Crossing, I could see the names of Japanese players, but I didn't know how to say them. So I thought maybe I could learn to read enough Japanese to be able to pronounce their names.

And, of course, I've been interested in Japanese poetry for many years.

And, of course, everyone talks about how language study is good for keeping your brain active and young.

And I enjoy watching anime, and I thought this could provide additional insight into what's happening.

And all of these things are true. Sorta.

When I started, I didn't realize that Japanese actually has three writing systems: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. And most Japanese writing has a mix of all three. The Hiragana and Katakana are sorta phonetic, although the fact that they map to syllables, rather than letters is different. They appear quite differently depending on the font (or when stylized or hand-written. My reaction reminds me of the faces my children would make when trying to read letters written in cursive.) I joke that the Hiragana can be classified as "hooks", "knots", and "telephone poles", but you can represent them in a table that sorta makes sense. And then there are the diacriticals. And the digraphs. But still — sorta phonetic. But the kanji are totally impenetrable. You just have to learn them all.

Today, Duolingo says I've learned 349 words of Japanese. That might seem encouraging but I looked yesterday at the list of kanji that elementary school children learn in Japan. Philip comments, "You're like a second grader!" But I've actually only learned about a quarter of the first list because most of the words I've learned are not kanji. But I am gaining insights into things, exactly as I'd hoped I might.

I've been watching an anime series the boys recommended: Yuru Camp, which is very charming. In several episodes, Mt. Fuji is a prominent landmark and I noticed that one of the characters refers to it as Fuji-san. (I noticed because I'm listening to the spoken language more closely and not just reading the subtitles). I wondered about it and looked it up on Wikipedia which explains that Fuji-san is not an honorific (like Mr. Fuji) but rather the On'yomi or Sino-Japanese reading of the kanji 富士山. In other words, it's not enough to know the word and its hiragana (or katakana) equivalents — you have to know the ideogram plus TWO pronunciations. Sheesh. Impossible. Still, it gives me deeper insight into haiku and other Japanese poetry and the mechanisms of the alternate readings that I've heard of. Haiku often involves word-play, where a word or phrase has two meanings: an obvious literal reading and another more tongue-in-cheek reading.

I also realized one other thing from an anime. In an episode of Dragon Maid, Lucoa greets Tohru with the honorific "-kun". I'm generally familiar with honorifics in Japanese (well, as familiar as you can get by only watching anime. I remember the boys and I all gasping when Naruto called Sasuke "Sasuke-chan"), but I saw a page on the senpai-kohai relationship which sounds like what the creators were going for.

I've tended to be skeptical when people talk about studying a language to learn about culture. A lot of the detail of native languages is just contingency or convention. And this is perhaps not the most efficient way to go about it. But it's still fun.

And the title of this post, is a comment on the famous haiku by Kobayashi Issa:

“O snail
Climb Mount Fuji
But slowly, slowly!”

I'll keep doing my daily practice at Duolingo.

Amherst Town Meeting: In theory and practice

I've watched several of the charter debates now and the thing that strikes me most about the charter opponents is their overly romanticized perspective about Town Meeting. In theory, Town Meeting is wonderful and no-one could oppose it. But, in practice, Town Meeting has serious problems.

Even it's most ardent supporters admit that there are serious problems. When Michael Greenebaum defended Town Meeting in the last debate, he cited a number of those problems: the inability to act on large capital projects (like the school project), the fact that the tall buildings were able to be built within the existing structure, the inability of Town Meeting to adequately value the work of the Town committees, etc.

I have never served in Town Meeting, but I witnessed it one time from gavel to gavel. And in that one three-hour period, I learned why Town Meeting doesn't work: Too many elected Town Meeting representatives don't understand basic facts about Town government, don't understand the articles before them, or see Town Meeting as their personal soap-box.

Some elected Town Meeting members don't understand even basic facts about how Town government is supposed to work. One person said, "I don't know what the Joint Capital Planning Committee even does!" Town Meeting seems to welcome, or encourage, this kind of ignorance to the extent that someone was able to make this kind of comment without being gaveled down or shamed for wasting everyone's time. An effective representative in government should educate themselves before being elected, not through "on the job" training.

Some elected Town Meeting members don't understand the articles that are before the body. People routinely made statements only to be informed that their concerns were not part of the budget or article under discussion. The "transportation funding" article is not where you should advocate for repainting lines on the roads. And these are the people who feel empowered to speak up: who knows how much more ignorance there is among the people who just silently vote.

Some elected Town Meeting members seem to participate solely to revel in being able to compel people to pay attention to them. They grab the microphone and torment everyone with random diatribes about their particular idée fixe. The North Amherst Library needs bathrooms! Town Meeting should happen in a location with bus service! The idea that Town Meeting serves a specific role in the process of Town governance is lost on them. Note: I'm not questioning their excitement or commitment or debating the merits of their ideas. But it's a mistake to maintain a process that misleads people into this kind of pointless waste of time.

It's worth emphasizing that these people were all elected. There were no better candidates for their positions in Town Meeting. This is because in many precincts, the candidates run unopposed.

Although some people may be sad to lose Town Meeting as group therapy, everyone will be better served by more effective Town governance. A clearer process will help channel concerns into action by a smaller group of representatives who, through genuinely competitive elections, are the most serious and well-prepared candidates to lead the Town.

I hope you'll join me in voting for the new charter on March 27th.

Fitbit Ace

I was interested when I saw the press-release about the "FitBit™ Ace" that was so unabashedly paternalistic. Like, in a "Fathers Know Best" kind of way.

[…] it’s designed to get kids active while helping parents keep an eye on how much activity their child is getting. […] an activity tracker is a great way to gamify activity for kids and help parents monitor how much time their child spends moving around versus sitting around.

Here's another great idea: the FitBit™ Chattel Monitoring Collar. Not just for children: use it for all of your chattels! Why stop at monitoring their activity? Monitor also their location! And include a mic to record all of their conversations and other sounds in their environment. Maybe also a camera! And link it to all of their devices, so you can record and monitor everything that's visible on all of the screens in their vicinity.

Maybe also pair with their wristband and an AI that can detect the movements associated with masturbation so you can sound a klaxon.

Don't even get me started with the potential for "gamifying" it.

Bryologists and preconceptions

It's turned out that Fridays have worked out well for meeting up with friends this semester. It used to be Buzz that would bring us together for lunch, at "high noon" for beer and conversation. But since his untimely passing, those who remain try to find ways to keep us in touch. Some have had evening events, but I've invited people to meet at BLDG8, Buzz's favorite brewery. It works out well for me: after class, I head home, get the car, and drive across the bridge. Not everyone is able to come every time, but yesterday I sent a text message in the morning and got four affirmative replies of friends who would join me.

I arrived first. Or perhaps almost first. I was getting out of the when a strange bearded figure approached me. It was only belatedly that I realized it was Bug Rodger. (I have two friends named "Roger" that Daniel has dubbed "Rogue-Air" and "Bug Rodger" to distinguish between them). I was shocked and asked if he was trying to pass as a bryologist. Rodger acted as though he had no idea what I was talking about. I assured him that byrologists always had big beards — not long scraggly beards like herpetologists, but full bushy beards. I indicated he had a good start.

When I explained this to Tom several minutes later, Tom expressed some skepticism about my insight. I admitted that my inference, tho drawn from long experience, was perhaps dated and that, although byrologists 30 years ago were all big, beefy men with full beards, perhaps nowadays they tended toward slim, stylish men with neatly trimmed beards. And, I said, as Rodger doubled over in laughter, with small close-set eyes.

I explained this to Philip this morning and, while were chatting online, opened up a google image search. Within seconds, we had both sent links to each other of the same image:

Jules Cardot, 1860-1934. A French Botanist and Bryologist.

Oh, Internet. Never change.

One Day at Boskone

For several years, I've been trying to persuade Daniel to attend Boskone. It looked like an ideal conference to dip your foot into the culture of speculative fiction authorship: to see what authors say about the craft of writing, the process you need to follow to get your work published, and how to grow the audience for your work. I particularly encouraged him the year he had his first sale (a story in Hidden Youth), but he's been resistant to GO OUT and SEE PEOPLE. This year, I sent him the link as an afterthought, without much expectation he would take me up on the offer. But he did! And so I encouraged him to look through the program, identify the people he wanted to see and the events he wanted to attend, and we laid plans to go. (I also did one other, slightly mean, thing. I pulled the copy of Hidden Youth off the bookshelf and said, "Now, who were the editors again?" He responded with an expletive. But then took the book from me and studied the cover and table of contents to refresh his memory of who the people were. )

In the morning, I got him to regain control of his twitter account so he could watch comments on the #boskone hashtag. The author community uses twitter better than most and I find it to be a fun way to keep track of events and connect with people at the conference -- and with the people who couldn't attend.

The trip was simple (get on the mass-pike and drive for 1 hour 40 minutes) and we found the cheaper parking without much difficulty ($18 for the day). We arrived with a half-hour to spare before registration opened, so we hung out and inspected the program to pick what we wanted to do. Well, Daniel did that, while I dorked on twitter.

Rather than go through a recitation of the specific events we attended, some highlights:

The panels showed a thoughtful balance of gender and race. The only unbalanced panel was the panel on Clothing that Creates Character: all seemingly white women. Maybe they couldn't find a man to participate. Or, perhaps, the men who tried to volunteer to participate got stuck with pins until they put their hands down. It was one of the best panels I attended: I learned a lot. Although I felt just a little sorry for Janet Catherine Johnston and J. Kathleen Cheney: Mary Robinette Kowal and Elizabeth Bear could put anyone in the shade. Suford Lewis did an amazing job of moderating: each question brought out interesting stuff and each following question really drew from what hadn't been said yet. It was masterful.

Scott Lynch's moderation of Class Structure in SF and Fantasy brought out good contrasting views from the participants. Each brought a different dimension to their responses which made the panel particularly interesting and useful. I was a little surprised that nobody mentioned HG Wells' Morlocks and Eloi. Or Heinlein. It was during this panel that I realized that I was expecting scholarship which is totally unreasonable for a writer's convention staffed by volunteers.

I very much enjoyed readings by Scott Lynch, Elizabeth Bear, C.S.E Cooney (who had been recommended to me by a friend on twitter) and Carlos Hernandez (who just happened to be following C.S.E Cooney). Daniel particularly liked the funny voice Scott Lynch used for his tea-kobold. I asked C.S.E Cooney about how her writing flowed so smoothly off the tongue. Her response was about the performance: how she prepares to give a reading by singing the manuscript or reading it various ways. "So it's just about the performance? Not an essential quality of the manuscript?" That set her back for a moment, but then considered how her understanding of performance led her to draft her manuscripts in particular ways. Very insightful.

We probably could have stayed for one more session, but we left around 5pm. Daniel was nodding off and didn't want to embarrass himself by actually falling asleep during a session. We headed out into the twilight for the long walk back to the car. And the drive out of the city and into the dark of rural Western Mass. The salt trucks were out covering the roads with rock salt as we arrived back in Amherst and the first flakes began fall as we drove up over Orchard Hill.

Friends, Beer, and Wonderful Things

Growler at Abandoned Building

On Friday, I sent Tom a message via chat to see if he was around and a couple of minutes later he sent me an SMS message. It turned out these events were independent of one another, but we both had the same idea. Tom had gotten a new growler as a present for Christmas and I had gotten a new growler cleaning brush from Phil and so we both had growlers on the mind. We consulted our schedules and agreed to visit a brewery on Saturday to get our growlers filled. And to take a road trip, sample beer, and have good conversation along the way.

I suggested we try Brick and Feather Brewery in Turner's Falls. I had gone there with Buzz about a year ago and, although we hadn't really liked the place, I wanted to give them a second chance. It just didn't seem like a welcoming place to me: they have the counter roped off, so you can only approach it to purchase things, and everything is transactional: no samples, no conversation, just buy something. When we arrived, it seemed the same. I approached the counter and expressed interest in getting a flight and then filling a growler, but the woman explained that they only fill amber glass growlers. "That's just our policy," she said. I replied, that being the case, I guessed we wouldn't be buying any then. We did sample their beer. They seem to have some quality control issues: their IPA, In Absentia wasn't as good as it sometimes is. I guess I don't need to go back there again. Oh, well. I tried.

I felt a bit defeated, but Tom suggested we go to Abandoned Building Brewery in Easthampton. It was a bit of a drive, but they seemed happy to see us and complimented me on the beautiful growler I had. She said the only requirement was that it had to show the volume (which both of ours did. In France, the beer glasses all have fill lines with the volume indicated too.) She took our growlers back and put them in the fridge to cool down while we sampled beer. Well, Tom sampled beer. I already knew I wanted The Other End which is a really outstanding Imperial IPA. Tom tried the Hydra and Dirty Girl, but ended up getting a growler of The Other End too.

Along the way, we had a lovely time: lovely winter scenery for the drive, pleasant conversation in the car, and fun games at the brewery with the kids. (They watched a movie in the car). Oh! And a growler full of delicious beer.

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