Amherst School technical staff make pedagogical decisions for teachers

On Monday and Tuesday, I was in the office until the middle of the evening evaluating Annual Faculty Reviews, so tonight I didn't feel a bit guilty leaving a few minutes before 5pm, so I could be home to answer the door for the Trick-or-Treaters.

I spent half the afternoon helping a student print a particularly large poster. We had to print it two and a half times and it took about an hour each time. We started out talking about the department and ended up talking about music and boxer bogs. She mentioned an odd song called Fibber Island by They Might Be Giants, which she said was something like Jonathan Coulton songs. I went ahead and bought it through Amazon, so I wouldn't have DRM. I wish Apple would stop selling DRMed music (and, even better, let me get unencumbered versions of the songs I have).

Being on the personnel committee is pretty horrible. Its a lot like watching sausage being made. Even if the sausage tastes pretty good, it never tastes as good when you've seen what goes into it. Evaluating AFRs is the same way. You start out with good intentions... I always feel dirty afterwards.

This evening, Lucy and I watched some episodes of Naruto while waiting for the trick-or-treaters to arrive. I think we missed a few, but we decided to start out with the Curry of Life episodes. Those are definitely some of the best ever. Hai! Gai-sensei!


This evening, the boys and I tried to make the "Curry of Life". In a recent Naruto episode, the team goes to a curry house which Lee says makes a life-saving curry. In his flashback, it shows how Lee has collapsed after running a three-day marathon in his sleep and how the people in the curry shop repeatedly try feeding him curry, making it spicier each time, but without success -- until they make it really, super spicy (and add a bunch of weird things, like a turtle, salamander, mouse, and who-can-tell-what-else). They then serve Curry of Life to everyone in the team, which is black and bubbly -- everyone eyes it very suspiciously. After Lee tries it, pronounces it perfect, and is gobbling it franticly, everyone else tries it. Unfortunately for them, it's so spicy they are all knocked out -- Naruto is knocked flat on his back. So that's what I was asked to reproduce.

I googled a few recipes and then went to the store. My first effort, tonight, was edible, but not spicy enough (even if I'm only aiming for normal spiciness) and too sweet. I'm actually aiming for gang ped, which is one of my favorite Thai dishes. The boys were disappointed that it didn't knock them out, but agreed that it was quite tasty with rice and are eager for me to try again next time.

Curry of Life

I attended the Amherst Democratic Town Committee meeting for the first time in about 6 months. I resigned as secretary last year after the committee had, I felt, turned away from trying to represent or engage the community and had become the Impeachment Committee. I served for several months trying to redirect the committee toward a more productive and relevant course of action, but eventually gave up.

The main item on the agenda was a motion by Leo Maley against casino gambling. It was a good motion, narrowly crafted, that focused on gambling as a missed opportunity to have a more productive discussion about improving taxation. But I went to the meeting to oppose the resolution.

I personally don't think gambling is a good idea. People talk about it being like a regressive tax on the poor, but its really more like a tax on the stupid. I think it only affects poor people more because stupid people are frequently also poor. Maybe people think that, because they think poor people are stupider than other people. It also taxes the deluded and the addicted -- and some of those people ruin their lives with gambling. That's sad, but those people are doing these things today anyway.

As some of us have noticed, there is gambling available all around us. There are racetracks and booking facilities in Massachusetts. There are lottery machines in every convenience store. And you don't have to drive very far to go to a casino if that's really what you want. In fact, Massachusetts residents spend more than $800 million in casinos in Connecticut. Furthermore, it seems nearly certain that, irregardless of what the Governor does, the Wampanoag tribe is going to open a casino anyway.

Deval Patrick looked at the issues and decided to propose allowing a limited number of casinos. I think the primary reason he did it is jobs. In spite of the heated rhetoric on both sides, casinos don't seem to have big impacts on most aspects of the communities in which they're located. They do, however, result in more jobs, dispersed among more people.

I think Deval has been trying everything he can think of to fix Springfield. He's been trying get UMass to do anything it can think of to fix Springfield too. He doesn't have a magic bullet, so he's using what he's got. None of its perfect, but having more jobs seems better than not having more jobs. Unless you've already got a job.

I think Deval also thinks that, if we're going to have casinos, we might as well do it in a way that gives the state some ability to influence what happens. If our citizens are going to gamble -- and they are -- we can use revenues from it to help deal with the bankruptcies and ruined lives that inevitably result.

Everyone at the meeting was invited to speak on the motion. I spoke against it, but nearly everyone else was for it. In spite of Leo's motion being primarily about "improving taxation", most people cited a moral opposition to gambling as their primary reason for supporting the resolution. Someone claimed that the goal of the casino proposal was to increase the number of gamblers in the state and, after that, several others spoke passionately about how despicable that goal was.

The committee voted to adopt the resolution, with a few amendments. I proposed an amendment to the motion saying "Whereas casino gambling promotes sin and immoral behavior;" since that was the actual reason most of the people had cited in supporting the resolution, which actually didn't mention those things. My amendment was rejected.

It was an interesting discussion. The fact that Leo and I had actually brought some research on the topic, meant that it was not purely opinion that drove the discussion. Although I personally think that gambling is unpleasant and stupid, I don't have a problem with people choosing to spend their time and money that way. Its just another dumb way to spend money, really. I think professional spectator sports are stupid too, but I don't think they should be outlawed just because they're stupid and pointless.

In the end, I was most uncomfortable by the prospect that well-educated and well-off people were so willing to impose their morality on others in the guise of protecting them -- especially if it means that unemployed people won't get the jobs that they might otherwise get. I don't agree with everything Deval Patrick has done, but I think he's doing the right kinds of things.

Same planet, different worlds

Once again this fall, I ran an open house for the intro biology labs. I went out to my usual spot to try to find some copepods, but the little basin was empty. I grabbed some leaf litter and filled the rest of the container with water to see what we could find. I also grabbed some mosses, lichens and liverworts to use to look for tardigrades. I found lots of nematodes and rotifers and a few tardigrades.

There seemed to be more people this year than in year's past -- at one point the room was packed with people asking questions: How many lecture courses do students have to take? When can students start taking "interesting" classes? How can students work in research labs? How can students do "hands-on" stuff?

The main message I try to transmit is that, although Intro Biology is a large class, we make heroic efforts to give students a "small-class experience", by using small-group techniques in lab and by having a "lecture" that is not really lecture at all, but small-group problem-solving in an auditorium. I believe that our Intro Biology experience is one of the best in the world and that students, even those who scored a "5" on the AP exam and think they "know" biology, come out of the class with a much better understanding of how biology works.

Open House

I completed my Annual Faculty Review document today and submitted it. I actually got the document done yesterday, but needed to submit a letter describing my responsibilities and some copies of letters where people were thanking me for doing nice things. I realized as I filled it out that when I came here, I was responsible for one lab of 22 computers. Now I'm responsible for 6 labs containing nearly 100 computers with 4 different configurations. That, combined with the new poster printer has resulted in me having a lot less time than I used to have to do interesting projects. I met with the chair this afternoon and we talked about workload and stuff. I've been feeling a bit over scheduled or over tasked lately and now I can see why.


This time, I took the whole family to see Jonathan Coulton and Paul & Storm in Northampton. The show was great. They seemed a little tired and a little punchy, but mostly were able to turn it into humor for the show. The music was great and I got to hear some songs I hadn't heard before, as well as most of the old favorites. Paul and Storm opened the show again and got the audience warmed up. I was a little disappointed that they didn't have a larger audience -- I guess I should have put up posters or something. Jonathan played a new song that I don't think is released anywhere yet.

It was fun to have the boys along. Charlie is old enough that I don't worry about him and the language, but Daniel is another matter. He was singing "First of May" in the car on the way home -- that was the one song I hadn't let him hear yet. Oh, well. It was worth it for him to see JoCo play Millionaire Girlfriend and Skullcrusher Mountain. We got to talk to Jonathan for just a second.

JoCo in Noho

This evening was "Curriculum Night" at the Elementary School. I made a point of meeting with the technology specialist and explaining carefully what Muppyville was to her -- she was enthusiastic. Although Charlie had spoken with the school folks during the first week of classes, they still hadn't unblocked the URL to Muppyville. The school system uses one of the fascist censorware systems that prevent students from accessing any page on the internet that aren't among those deemed "worthy" by the companies that rate these pages. Muppyville is "unrated" -- and therefore needs to be blocked. We live in a very strange world. Although they had told Charlie, they would get Muppyville unblocked, they didn't. We'll see if anything happens now. In any event, I've created logins for Daniel's teacher and the technology specialist. Hopefully, they'll get it unblocked and Charlie can set up Muppyville logins for the rest of the kids. My kids haven't asked me about trying to route around the school's moronic blocking software -- probably because at home (and elsewhere) they don't have to deal with the idiotfilters.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've decided that I really need to write a book about how the Internet represents a kind of freedom that is only too scarce in our society -- and to envision: what the rest of our life looks like by comparison and (2) what our life could look like if it were modeled on the same principles. I think this is something that I know something about, feel strongly about, and recognize that the rest of the world mostly doesn't get. I don't know if I can sell a book about this, but if we can get the rest of the world to realize that: if email is free then textmessages should be free too; if you can install programs on your computer, you should be able to on your phone too; if you can walk on the sidewalk for free, then you should be able to use the wireless for free too -- I think the examples could go on and on -- enough to make a whole book. We'll see.

Natural Reflections

Today, I received an invitation to attend the opening of "Natural Reflections", an exhibit of photography currently on display in Town Hall in Amherst. The photographer, Michael Phillis, is the son of a colleague and also works as a student consultant in the BCRC. I had seen pictures of his, on the web, in the Collegian, and in Randy's office, but its really striking to see them beautifully framed and presented in Town Hall. The opening is Thursday, October 4 from 5-7pm and is open to the public. We can only stop in for a few minutes before we drive over to Noho to see JoCo. That's going to be great too!


My student's first projects were due today. There's nothing like a due date to bring out all the problems -- there weren't as many as I had feared: a few groups that hadn't worked perfectly and then some individual students trying to jump through all the hoops. With respect to groups, I ask students to reflect that, even if their group hadn't worked perfectly, it probably saved them some effort and that, with a wiki, I can easily see which students contributed fully and which had shirked. The individual problems often revolve around the software: students who haven't figured out how to define styles with their word processor -- or who haven't installed a word processor with styles.

I always ask students to present their work -- usually in a fairly informal way. Great stuff! I was also very pleased with the number of thoughtful questions from other students. The semester is off to a good start.


When I set up the BCRC and the other computer labs in the department, I found it very convenient to have a networked file volume available as scratch space for everyone to share. Years ago, it was implemented using Appleshare and more recently with SMB. I used a variety of strategies to make the connection, but when we started using OSX, I implemented it with an Applescript -- a bit clunky, but it worked. I was never happy with it as a solution and played around with using automount. The advantage with automount is that you don't need to make a connection until you're ready to use the volume -- then the system sets up the connection automatically and tears it down as soon as it's been idle for a minute or two. I spent a few hours over the past two days trying to figure out how to get automount to work using files, rather than having it as part of the netinfo database. There are a bunch of pages about automount and macosx but I couldn't get any of them to work. So, I set up netinfo the way I wanted it, made a new radmind transcript just for netinfo, and edited netinfo out of all the other transcripts. I hate embedding any kind of settings in netinfo because it's entirely opaque -- a bunch of binary files that can't be read or tweaked easily by a human. I wish Apple would use freaking text files for settings -- it's such a PITA to deal with binary configuration files and for what? To save the computer the time of doing it. Sorry -- that's what I have computers for -- to make life convenient for me and not the other way around.

I like MacOS X as a desktop operating system -- its stable, if a bit slow. But for management in the labs, its very frustrating. It would be a lot easier to use linux We are in a position where we could switch to Ubuntu easily enough in the labs, although there are a few legacy apps that wouldn't be available -- but they probably won't be available once we switch to Intel anyway. When that time comes, I think I may advocate to go with Linux.


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