Super-fun pak

Andrew Leonard recently posted about shopping with no human contact. I remember seeing a promotional video for self-service checkout systems that explained that, the systems wouldn't necessarily just eliminate jobs, but it would allow the stores to repurpose their staff from menial jobs to more customer-oriented jobs. Bullshit.

Technology is increasingly being used to replace human interactions. It certainly is the direction we've been going -- at least for the lower and middle class. In fact, I think most people prefer that. People are a PITA to deal with.

It was a shock to me when I visited Spain in the 1980's that few stores in Madrid even allowed you to browse. Most stores had their products inside glass display cases and you were not expected to look to see what they had, but rather to tell the shopkeeper what you needed and then to have him show you what products might meet your needs. The idea of "just looking" was utterly alien to them.

It used to be that sales people could offer useful insights to the customer. Recently Circuit City fired all of their most experienced salespeople. There was the perception that experience salespeople add more value because they presumably know the products and can more effectively answer questions. With the rise of the internet, I'm not so sure that's true anymore. Most people I know, compare features pretty carefully using the internet first and visit the store only to see and touch the products, to get a sense of the fit and polish. I tend to be skeptical of what salespeople have to say -- especially when you know they're being compelled to try to sell you "extended warranties" and other crap you don't need.

If you're really wealthy, of course, you can hire great people to pick out great stuff for you or harass people you don't like or whatever you want. And some stores, that cater to the wealthy, will continue to have highly-paid staff. But most people, seemingly, would really prefer to buy stuff at Voldemart and save a dollar or two.

Shopping experience

I came home early on Thursday, stayed home on Friday, and worked through the weekend to do some much needed spring cleaning. I picked up and reorganized the living room and the dining room. It took three days of relatively focussed and difficult work. I didn't really touch the junk room, but it's a start. We have a snug little house that's quite comfortable when it's not overrun with clutter.

I've also got a project I can sic Alisa on. We really need to replace several light fixtures in the house: two in the kitchen, one in the dining room, and one in the basement. We might also do something about the garage while we're at it.

Today, another Noreaster blew in and closed the schools and the University. I have enough work that I really can't take the day as a holiday, but I'll enjoy spending the day around the boys anyway, even though I'm working.

Spring cleaning

For a change, I'm actually staying up for the New Year. For the past couple of years, I've fallen asleep before midnight, but I'm awake this year. I napped for a while early in the evening with Penny asleep on my chest. I'm lucky it didn't suffocate me -- she's not a little puppy anymore.

The New Year is as good a time as any to be reflective. A high priority of mine has always been to have a balanced life: to balance work, Esperanto, and my personal life. In the previous year, I got way burned out on Esperanto -- when I did Esperanto-Day 2006, I spent 5-10 hours a week for months. In January 2007, I was so burned out on Esperanto that I did relatively little all year. This year, I want to try to strike a better balance: to be productive without getting over involved and burning out again.

One of my goals, which I've already started, is to write a wikipedia entry when I write a blog entry for Esperanto-USA. I've done it twice so far, drafting entries on Boxing Day and Saul Alinksy. That way, I can kill two birds with one stone.

Best wishes for the New Year!

New Year

Today, as I had threatened, I actually did something. I've been remiss in updating the Esperanto-USA website, so today I brought it up-to-date. There had been a couple of drupal updates that I hadn't found time to install, I installed the Diff module, and I hacked in support for Klaku is like an Esperanto version of Digg, based on Pligg. There is a nice module to support Digg in Drupal, but there's nothing for Pligg, unfortunately. I just hacked in a link under each post to klaku -- it's not perfect, but it's something.

Lucy remarked that I only had two more days of vacation left. It's been a good vacation. I haven't thought about work much at all. I've checked my email a few times a day and responded to questions from my students regarding grades, but that's been about it. One person needed the combination to the BCRC and there was a reply from George regarding a link I had forwarded it, but that was about it. No crises, no disasters. Just peace and quiet.

Did something

It's been lovely to spend a few days decompressing. I'm starting to get bored and so probably by tomorrow, I'll actually start doing something useful again. But I think I'll wallow for one more day in slothful depravity. Once I go back to work on Wednesday, I'm going to be incredibly busy.

We have a jigsaw puzzle going on the side table. It's a holiday tradition in our family. Normally, Lucy would be spending a lot of time working on it, but she got the new Ken Follett at the library and has been spending most of her time consuming it voraciously. So I've been working on it. It's a good puzzle with a lot of different regions: some large areas with little pattern, interesting features, lots of small details -- something for everyone.

Today, Charlie is working as crew on a film project by one of his friends. I drove him over there this morning and, no sooner had I returned, but he called and asked if I could please bring him some snow shovels that they needed as props. On the way back, I stopped at the Cushman Market. It's a neat, little country grocery store and cafe. They have beer, wine, and upscale groceries. I picked up a few snacks, treats, and a six-pack of beer. They have a lot of microbrews, including the Paper City seasonal Blonde Hop Monster. With a name like that, how could I not get some!


Zane sent me a lovely solstice card. Unfortunately, it got caught in the mail sorting machine and was folded, spindled, AND mutilated before I received it. I took the picture to show just how shredded it was.

It has 5 little jewels pasted to a paper snowflake with the caption "snow is glistening". I nearly died laughing, however, when the first thing I saw when I opened the envelope was a little card placed over the jewels which said "Please place this card over card front in envelope for protection before mailing". The jewels came through just fine, although they punched holes in the card and envelope.

The card designer didn't seem to know that snowflakes have 6 lines of symmetry, rather than 8. I remember that I made the same mistake when I was 3 or 4. GIYF.

Enjoying the Holidays

Today, I finished my grading. It's been a long semester and I'm more-or-less pleased with how everything turned out. It's usually a pleasure to read the reflective essays. Now and then a student seems to try to convince me that they didn't learn anything all semester and -- if they did -- it was in spite of me. Some students seem to be trying to tell me what they think I want to hear. No matter what, I always love to hear their voices. It's remarkable how different students sound when you get them to write about something from scratch -- without sources to start from. A lot of students can construct an excellent essay if the can draw from a variety of sources and just paraphrase everything. Many of these students stumble and struggle heroically when put in the position of having to decide for themselves what might make an effective argument or how to organize their thoughts. Paragraphs? Ha. But by the end of the semester, I'm genuinely pleased with the progress most of them have made.

I went to a workshop on assessment earlier in the week. Its always a little shocking to me when I see what other faculty are doing and remember just how different my class really is from most of the others. Not that they're horrible or anything. Many faculty, however, have scripted pretty much every minute of classtime: filled it up with lectures and activities. Similarly, for many faculty, the curriculum of the class is also entirely derived from their opinion about what students need to know. In my class, I have mapped out a set of goals, but I leave achieving them relatively open to the students and we address what we need to as we go along to help them get there. It transforms my relationship with the students, because I become an ally toward helping them achieving goal. Some students never really figure that out. Most do, however, and some say really charming things about the experience. One student told me that the class involved "a lot of constructive banging-of-heads-against-walls". That's what I like to hear.

Grades finished

I had the BCRC buy the newest version of iLife -- what a waste of money. The new version of iMovie sucks -- it's one of the worst pieces of software I've ever used. The others: GarageBand, iPhoto -- and whatever the other ones are -- seem more or less unchanged. But iMovie has become essentially unusable. Thank goodness that when it upgraded, it left me the old version of iMovie HD which actually works. It's hard to explain just how confusing and unusable the new version is. It seems to have three or four regions in the screen which are somewhat interchangable, but it seems impossible to integrate things across these regions. Its like you might have three or four incompatible and incommensurate projects open at one time and you can't tell that at any moment it might suddenly decide that any action you take is going to act on one of those projects, because it isn't appropriate for the project you want to work on. Its hard to exaggerate just how frustrating it is to try to use the new iMovie -- it's utterly worthless. Maybe the goal is to make it useless so people decide to buy Final Cut Express or something. I'm angry that I spent money on this crap. What a waste.

New iMovie Sucks!!!

I'm a bit depressed. Partly its just this time of the year. The short days during the early winter always make me a bit depressed. Partly its coming to the end of the school year. I always look back on a semester and think of everything of I might have done better. I'm also bummed because the public schools rejected Muppyville and they aren't interested in doing the programming club. I'm bummed because I expect my honors writing proposal will be rejected because I don't have an exalted enough position to merit a named professorship. I feel like everything I touch is doomed somehow.

I thought I was going to need to go home this afternoon to finish shoveling the driveway, but then I had an idea. I called home and talked to Charlie. I told him, I needed to cancel programming club to come home to shovel the driveway -- unless he wanted to take care of it before he and his friends came into campus. "Well, I don't think we can -- we're playing a video game," he said. I replied to say that was too bad, because I'd have to come home and make his friends leave. "Wait," he said. "We'll shovel the driveway before we come for programming club." I smiled and said that would be just fine. Maybe not everything is doomed.


Tim Bray wrote a nice post about innovation, based on remarks he made to the XBRL conference. It strongly mirrors a discussion that Randy and I had the other day after the Readiness Commission came to UMass Amherst. One of the guys there asked people whether the governance structures were facilitating innovation and collaboration and how they could help. At the University, some administrators see themselves as "gatekeepers" or "conductors", either preventing activity they think is bad or directing activity they think is good. What we need are people that facilitate getting stuff done. The less stuff I have to do to do something, the more stuff I can do. Unfortunately, too often, the administration is trying to save money by pushing services back to departments and making more work for us. Or, when they centralize something, they take away the people who used to provide that service -- plus all the other stuff they did -- leaving us with more work to do.


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