Monday, April 30, 2012

Day 20: Video Star

So, I left my laptop in my office.  I was out of time and I didn't want to stop what it was doing. 

On Mondays, Wednesdays ans Fridays it's my job to pick Oliver up from daycare.  In the past it's been my responsibility every day of the week; this semester I have an evening class on Tuesday and Thursday or it'd be that way this semester as well.  I absolutely don't mind it, and I'm very used to this schedule; I love seeing his eyes when he knows it's time to go home, (even if the real reward is seeing mommy :-) ).  But, the daycare doesn't take kindly to parents who are tardy and charge a steep per-minute penalty after 5:30.  One of the things we most like about this daycare is that it is close to my work and our home, so I don't have to travel far.  Nevertheless, if I don't leave within a few minutes of 5 to start the trek up to my parked car in the lot overlooking campus ( often the closest I can find; a frustration for a different day's post) then I run the risk of not making it on time.

I'm never done so in a very real way it's good to have a hard deadline that means that I have to leave regardless of other considerations or I'd likely be compelled to sacrifice important time with the family for the sake of whatever thing I'd been hyper-focused on that day. 

Today's area of hyper-focus was the technical aspects of running my planned YouTube channel for all things computer science and computer and electronics development.  I can't have been said to even touch, much less own, anything that could be remotely called a camcorder since probably the mid 90s.  Like most people my age, my internal clock thinks of the 90s as being ten years ago, but the truth is that was TWENTY years ago.  Ten years is bad enough, but with twenty years of technological development between me and the state of the art in video capture and editing I am like a primordial monkey-man dancing around a giant obelisk whenever I try to use the Sony Handycam I have access to.

The basic user interface hasn't changed much: record, zoom in, zoom out, playback... check.  But what's so different in the design seems to be how the camera is designed to be your one-stop device for storage, display (even to the TV or other devices) AND editing on the device.  It's basically a powerful computer built for a small domain.  That's totally different from the late analog/early digital conversion days of the 90s.  The thing has 250GB of internal memory, more than many modern laptops, but it does need it given how much memory it eats up in storing high-quality video.

I want to do what I had thought would be a simple thing.  Move the videos whole-clothe from the camera to my computer.  For me, that's got to be step one in editing and delivering content.  It's not easy; not yet anyway.  In fairness, one major complicating factor is that I want to function in a Linux environment and the video manager software that Sony intended for people like me to use does not function outside Windows.  Still, you can see behind the scenes and mount the cameras internal hard drive in Linux.  What you see is cryptic to say the least.  The file structure is anything but user-friendly and once you do find the actual video files you can't watch them in the format they're saved in.  Applications exist to make handling their conversion relatively painless, but this is complicated by the fact that longer videos (of which I have taken several in the form of student presentations), are automatically chopped up every 2GB into separate files.  Though it isn't obvious at first, the conversion software has a problem with these arbitrary divisions.  One thing is clear, the average user was NEVER supposed to look under the hood and was meant to stick strictly to the provided software abstraction.  I live and teach software abstraction, but your lower level abstractions should at least make things usable (looking at you Sony).

The truth is, I STILL don't know if I've got a workable solution because the encoding process I finally worked out after hours of searching was still grinding after many minutes when 5 o'clock rolled around.

Long story short, rather than kill the surprisingly (to me) lengthy process in the middle, I walked out and left it running.  I left my laptop at work, and that left me with a  really weird feeling; I always have my laptop with me.  I decided to leave it because I new I'd have my Xoom android tablet at home, but that didn't keep me from leaving and reentering my office three times to assuage the uneasy feeling in my gut. 

I am using my tablet to compose this blog post right now.  I downloaded the Blogger android app (a thing I hadn't thought to look for before tonight) and I am so far pretty happy with it, but I still feel the touchscreen keyboard IS sowing me down.  I can't get used to editing on a tablet; code, blog post or otherwise.  Still, it's a workable solution and that's good to know for when I go on the road and I'd rather cart the tablet instead of the laptop.

Still, I find myself hoping that leaving the laptop at work is revealed tomorrow to have been worth it in that the conversion process was successful.  To say that working with a modern camcorder is more complicated than I thought it would be for me is an understatement.  I think I'm on a learning curve though, dragging myself out of the 90s, and I hope to be on the downward slop of that curve pretty soon.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Day 19: Contrition

Attack on Sunday.  When the Empire of Japan made an attack on the emphamis day of December 7, 1941, it was no accident that it was a Sunday.  The day of rest in our western culture is a known chink in our defensive armour. 

I mention this because it's perhaps no accident that this, the nineteenth day of my thirty day challenge, is the first day when I've been totally unprepared to make a meaningful blog entry.  I'm not really done resting, I suppose.

Oddly, there are many things I could talk about.  I could talk about the looming crisis of the student debt bubble and college funding in general.  I could recount what I've just read about the connection between Turing and the modern day search engine or about the pre-mature ending of von Neumann's life.

Or, I could talk about how beautiful my son is and how inexplicably lucky I am in many things.

But, I can't really formulate how to do that without boring myself; or worse yet, repeating myself.

So, instead of any of that, and as it is Sunday, I will instead make the following statement of contrition.

I am, from time to time:
  1. irrationally impatient
  2. mean and uncaring
  3. crude and crass
  4. temperamental and short-fused
  5. condescending and unforgiving
  6. short-sited
  7. self-centered
  8. brutish and in-artful
  9. and worst of all, boring
For all these things and more I am sorry.  I regret not finding a way to change my many flaws up 'til now and I promise to re-double my efforts to find redress. 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Day 18: From the Mouths of Babes

Things my son has taught me about life:

This morning Oliver wanted to go outside.  Oliver loves going outside probably more than Elmo (and Oliver LOVES Elmo).  Oliver was not afraid to ask to go outside.

Lesson #1: If you have decided what's important to you, then ask for it.  (Often repeatedly.)

Of course, Oliver wasn't wearing any pants and was still in his pajama top.  What's more, daddy was still in his pajamas as well (hey, it was early on a Saturday, OK?). Nevertheless, when daddy tried to explain this to Oliver he was not deterred in any way.

Lesson #2: Don't sweat the small stuff.  Don't focus on the problems, focus on the goal.

Luckily, mommy had already selected some clothes for Oliver to wear today.  Daddy decided at that point to put on Oliver's clothes.  Secretly, daddy was hoping that Oliver would be pacified with putting on shirt and pants.  Then daddy was hoping Oliver would be pacified with putting on socks.  THEN daddy was hoping if he had Oliver find his own shoes then Oliver would forget about outside.  Instead, Oliver brought a total of three pairs of shoes to choose from.

Lesson #3: Don't allow yourself to be satisfied with partial completion or intermediate steps.

Lesson #4: Do what you can to convince the people who's help you need to accomplish your goal that you are serious about getting it done.    

At this point, Oliver was dressed, but daddy was not.  So, first daddy got up to take his medicine.  Then daddy had to use the bathroom.  Then daddy had to brush his teeth and hair.  Finally daddy put on his clothes socks and shoes.  The first thing Oliver said was, "outside".

Lesson  #5: Be patient when you have to be; never let your patience be perceived as apathy.

Finally, we went outside.  Oliver loves to go throw rocks and flowers into the creek that runs near our house.  Daddy was sure Oliver would make a beeline for the water and, in fact, Oliver mentioned the water many times and headed basically in that direction.  But, Oliver wasn't in any hurry.  Instead, Oliver stopped to pick every flower, play in the rocks and dirt, point out all the birds (Oliver takes great joy in the existence of birds), and generally examine the world we found in our path.

Lesson #6: Don't focus so much on your end goal that you miss the more important lessons along the way. 

We never did get to the creek today.

Lesson #7: When you get tired, come home and take a nap.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Day 17: One Year's Passing

It was one year ago today.  I came home after work, I sat down on the couch, and the news reports started coming in via the Internet.  First I saw a strange picture.  It was of an intersection on a road I had travelled thousands of times over the preceding decade.  When I saw it, I knew immediately that it was a picture of tornado damage.  When I saw it, I was first confused about what direction the picture was taken from, because the landmarks were all missing.  I had to look really close and blink many times to make things make sense.  My brain couldn't at first comprehend the destruction.

Even today, there are places where when I drive down familiar roads in Tuscaloosa the landmarks drop away, and a moment of panicked cognitive dissonance takes hold as I try to grasp how I've gone from perfectly familiar to perfectly barren and unfamiliar without knowing it. 

The state of Alabama is second only to the famed "tornado alley" in terms of the annual number of tornado events.  In Alabama, you don't really live in fear of such events, because you can't function if you do (much like earthquakes in California, I'd imagine).  Some of my earliest memories involve hunkering down with my family in the interior hallways of our house as storms likely to produce tornados pass overhead.  Every child in school is well-versed and drilled in what must be done should a tornado come during school hours. 

In fact, the only reason why their aren't shows on Discovery Channel about tornado hunters in Alabama is because it's usually extremely difficult to get good footage of said tornados.  They're often rain-wrapped, obscured by dense vegetation, and/or dipping in and out from behind the landscape.

(Incidentally, the inability to really visually "track" a tornado (like you can on the American plains) is what makes Alabama tornado's so much more deadly to chase.  Most professionals won't do it.)

Most tornado in Alabama ultimately don't do much damage because they either aren't very big, or aren't on the ground for very long,  or only strike extremely sparsely populated areas, or any combination of the three.  It's common for Alabamans to be blase and under-whelmed by tornado sightings. 

The April 27th tornado was different, in all the worst ways.


This tornado stayed on the ground for over 50 miles; leaving a visually traceable track of devastation across one of the densest population areas in the state.  It bisected the city of Tuscaloosa and then made a bee line for the suburbs of Birmingham where it exacted its toll destroying many more houses (including my cousin and her husband's) and killing more people along the way.  It's full documented path both on and off the ground can be seen here.

At it's widest point, in the center of one of the poorest areas in Tuscaloosa, its devastation was a mile wide.   

In the city of Tuscaloosa alone the damage was unimaginable.  The tornado blessedly skirted the campus of the University of Alabama, but still took the lives of 6 of her students and 3 other college students from the community colleges in town.  The total loss of life stands at 64, according to official reports, with over 1500 people being injured and thousands of homes destroyed or rendered unliveable, in the city of Tuscaloosa alone.

The bodies tossed on top of the town mall have been removed, many businesses are in the process of rebuilding, the dead are buried, but the scars remain.  

Here are some comparative photographs of before and after Tuscaloosa:  Satellite Images  

What else remains, however, is a renewal.  What the storm could not tear asunder was the spirit of the place, the heart of the community and its people; both in Tuscaloosa, and across the state as a whole.

The grand magnitude of the loss and suffering bears remembering today, and I'll be using today's anniversary to focus on the things that are important in life, and the blessings we have.

On a personal note, when I left Tuscaloosa five years ago, I was sick and tired of the place.  After living their most of the year for more than eight years I was more than done with it.  But when I saw it being ripped apart, when I saw it's people suffer, when I saw the familiar turned to rubble, I wept and I still weep thinking of it.  Sitting in Wise, Va, totally unable to help except for collecting supplies from our church to send to Alabama, I never felt less at home.  The tornado taught me one thing, Tuscaloosa will always be one of the places I call home; it'll always be dear to my heart.  I miss the Tuscaloosa I knew that is gone, in part, but I can't wait to know the Tuscaloosa that is rising anew.  Roll Tide!    


Thursday, April 26, 2012

Day 16: The Kind That Helps People

The late great Randy Pausch in his "last lecture" famously recounted an incident with his mother where, after he received his doctorate, his mother proudly introduced him to a friend as "a doctor, but not the kind that helps people." 

I hate going to the kind of doctor that helps people.  I simply can't overstate that fact.  Now, as a disclaimer, I don't hate doctors (either the kind that help people or those that... don't., as a general rule).  Medical practitioners have an oft thankless job serving the public.  Often, if they do their job correctly, people might not even notice.  I can empathise.

I believe in modern medicine, I know that health care is a critical service, and I have good insurance and think everyone should have affordable access to health care.  So, that's how I feel in theory, anyway.

Let me give you some background.  I literally did not go to the doctor nor seek any medical care for the eight years that I was in college.  I survived yearly allergies, at least two cold seasons a year, and the worst that dorm and apartment living could throw at me.  It's not that I didn't get sick.  It's not that I couldn't have used medical care from time to time.  It's just that I would literally rather suffer through it; you know, what doesn't kill you... keeps you living, I guess. 

Last year I was feeling sick one week and it wasn't until my wife made me take my temperature and it was discovered to be around 104 degree temperature that I finally decided to go to the doctor.  Even still, I'd rather not have.

It's strange.  I count myself a rational person and I rationally know that my attitude toward going to the doctor is anything but.

As it happens, I had a 6-month check-up today, so I decided to try and analyse why I have such negative feelings about going to the doctor.  Here's some of what I found.

First, it's extremely inconvenient.  I'm a guy who gets irritated when I have to quit working on what I'm doing at any given minute long enough to walk down the hall to use the restroom.  Part of what it means to be a geek is that you naturally hyper-focus on things and the worst punishment is to interrupt them.  It's inconvenient to GO to somewhere else do do something you don't want to do anyway. 

Second,  it's not enough to force yourself to go a place you don't want to be, but when you get there you'll find a gaggle of other people.  Amongst these will be many people who also don't want to be there; each fighting the same nameless faceless bureaucracy.  Some will just be sullen, but some will be annoying.  Oh, it's the annoying people that really get to me.  It's a perfect storm to irritate anti-social me. 

Then paperwork.  THEN waiting.  Why the waiting?  Maybe there was once a time when the agreement surrounding a scheduled appointment worked both ways, but I've never seen those days.  It's irritating that appointment times seem to mean nothing, unless you are late, and the only reward for being on time is earning the right to wait  and wonder when you'll be able to actually leave the increasingly shrinking walls of the waiting room. 

Finally, a bubbly nurse calls your  name, and God bless her she's just trying to set the mood, and she's doing the best she can, but the happier she is the more it highlights how glum you're mood has become. 

In my case, the key question that is going to dictate how the rest of the appointment goes is going to be answered as the lovely nurse wraps my upper arm in the blood pressure cuff and begins applying pressure.  I try to intentionally calm myself; to keep the reading low, but I can't help ruminating on how unfair it is for the nurses and doctors to have a physical metric for how much I DO NOT want to be there, and how if I tried to devise an activity for raising my blood pressure I could not have done a better job than the situation I find myself in.

Then comes the exaination room.  This is my favorite part.  For the most part it's quiet, it's a respite from the hustle and bustle outside and in the waiting room.  But in the back of my mind, I'm waiting to hear the doctor through the door.  I'm waiting to hear the chart being pulled from the door, and I'm trying not to feel like a child waiting in the principal's office.  I can't help dreading hearing the negatives, feeling less than adequate, even worse, feeling all too much like a statistic; all too normal.  Feeling like I've failed in some way.  I can't help taking it personally. 

To my doctor's credit, he's a very affable person from the time he enters the room to the time he leaves.  He gives me information and doesn't dictate terms, but works with me to make informed decisions.  He never condescends.  That's why I choose to go back.

More paperwork, and one more bout with the bureaucracy.  

Then I leave.  Blessed release.  It's like going back out to a new-born world.  The reality check surrounding the notion, "at least I'm not at the doctor's office" is the only good thing about having to go in the first place. 

And now, I don't have to go back for four months.  I'll just try not to think about it until then. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Day 15: The Part That's Aweful

Generally speaking, I love being a college professor.  It's the most rewarding job I've ever had.  I get freedom, I'm (relatively) well-paid, I can leverage against my own time and seek out my own understandings, and I get to work with a class of young people who are motivated to make the future a better place for themselves and for society in general.  I have seen success stories and I have seen the fires of ambition, knowledge, and understanding lit in the faces of many of my students.  It keeps me coming back for more, quite honestly.

But... but.  There are things to hate about being a college professor as well.  When I was first interviewed over the phone for this position my now boss, following a script we use for phone interviews, asked what I thought the worst part of the job was going to be.  I answered that probably grading was going to be the worst part of the job.  Oh naievite.  I still don't relish grading, but experience is ready to answer that question anew

First, I'm undervalued.  This is a thing I can handle.  I've had a baptist upbringing and it may just be that baptist guilt (often well-deserved, mind you) is second only to guilt of a catholic nature.  I can handle (mostly) being undervalued by society at large, and I get how that undervaluing of expertise is fomented in a society that prides itself as egalitarian to a fault (nevermind that that whole thing is a myth so that the scrupulous class can maintain it's power in the face of its own hypocrisy); I know that I may be blamed by politicians and mandated into ineffectiveness; and I know that as long as the academy is seen as a business then administrators will make decisions that don't make sense to me and that equally as long as the academy is supposed to be the driver of the economy (in lieu of a regulatory environment that actually supports innovation, rather than quashing it) I'll always fall short of societies expectations.

I can't impart knowledge, I'm not responsible for people's educations, I've never been able to MAKE anyone learn or do anything they didn't want to do.  I can't even make people respect the reason they came to college in the first place.  As long as I'm going to be solely responsible for ensuring these things I will be a failure.  Mind you, I don't think myself a failure, because I know the proper metrics to use for measuring success.

But it's that last part, not being able to make people respect why they came to college in the first place that is the most galling.


I know several of my students are cheating in one of my classes.  (I'll be no more specific than that, mind you.)  These students started turning in good work, rather suddenly.  At first I thought, great job!  Maybe this is one of those instances I work and live for where I'm making a difference.  But, as the trend continued, I began to notice something troubling.  The answers weren't just right, they were pristine; they were shockingly like the answers given to the professor by the book's publisher.  I know this because I'm not an idiot.  I know this because I check my own answers against the book's resources and will even sometimes show the book's answer in class if I think they've done a particularly clear job (not always the case) of solving the problem.  But, what's hung my students is not just that, but that the book will sometimes give extra information; do extra work, not asked for in the question... just an added bonus.  These parts have been showing up in the student work as well, fully formed, verbatim. 

What a waste!  To be afforded such an opportunity and then to throw it back in the faces of people who work hard for your benefit?  To treat me like I'm an idiot?  To say it makes my blood boil is an understatement. 

And what's more, you're not only hurting yourself (a self-inflicted wound is bad enough) but your dragging down everyone around you who knows the importance of academic honor, who knows how fragile the degree your receiving is, who knows that the earner of the degree is just as responsible for its value as its bestower.  You're hurting everyone, least of all yourself, and your patting yourself on the back, laughing internally about how smart you are because you can go online and look at one of the literally hundreds of resources where lying cheater scumbags just like yourself can go to defile yourself and all of academia.  Aren't you smart; look how you've played the system.

The bitterest pill is this.  I'm meant to encourage my students to do the hard work its going to take, to exercise the discipline it requires to learn some of the hardest material on campus, and so I do that by offering a lot of homework, sacrificing of my time in answering questions and directing inquiry into that homework, and I make the homework worth a significant portion of the final grade.  But, the way to stop cheaters is to not do any of that and to make homework worth very little if anything.

So, congratulations, you've put me in a pickle.  I can either stop you cheating bottom feeders, parasites that you are, and adopt a sink or swim attitude that hurts my ability to encourage students to perform at their highest; or I can continue on, watching all our hard work be defiled and rendered meaningless by the actions of a few.

It's decisions like these that are the worst part of my job.   

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Day 14: Blowing Up the Bridge Across the Digital Divide

According to a report published by the Pew Research Center's Pew Internet and American Life Project earlier this week (a report whose implications have been widely reported on)  fully 1 out of every 5 people that you saw in public today never uses the Internet.  (Find the full 41 page report here.)

What does that mean?  Well, it basically means that 1 in every 5 random people that you walked by today is either un-, under-, or simply misinformed.

It's hard for people like me (a person who is planning on no longer paying for an underutilised cable TV subscription) to think that a person's daily life wouldn't include the Internet or that it wouldn't be a major source for current information. 

Consider the following graphic: link.  Six, SIX companies control almost everything you can see on television (the graphic is a little outdated, GE has been replaced by Comcast recently).  If you think radio or the newspaper industry is any better, think again.  And if you think that the news you see is not a servant to the bottom line of the parent company then you obviously didn't see the network coverage concerning last years SOPA and PIPA debate (especially Comcast owned NBCs "coverage"  "critics say it will lead somehow to censorship." emphasis added). 

What's more, the report shows that the main reason people don't go on the Internet is far and away because they're "just not interested."  In short, they think the Internet has nothing for them.  At 31% that rationale is around three times as common as each of the next three stated reasons including; don't have a computer (12%), too expensive (10%), and too difficult (9%).  By in large people are CHOOSING not to use the most powerful source for information exchange ever devised by the hand of man.

The conscious decision to NOT use the Internet is wholly different from what a lot of people assume about why people aren't using the Internet, I think.   

When you look at the demographics you see what you would expect once you'd learned to expect it.   The old, the uneducated, and the poor don't use the Internet.  I first read about this problem, what's commonly called "the digital divide" several years ago when I read a government report which I had every intention of linking to, but, I've lost my printed copy in the folds of my office and I haven't been able to tread deeply enough into the millions of results from Google about the digital divide to locate it anywhere online.

Needless to say the concept of the "digital divide" is well-covered in the literature.  From a global viewpoint, statistics show that in many developing countries only 1 in 1000 people have access to the Internet where in developed countries the number is closer to 600 in 1000.

In this country, people who live in rural and poor areas don't generally have equal access to the Internet.

But what does access to the Internet matter?  A lot.  First, democracy.  The ability to compete in the political arena and have your views heard is increasingly tied to access to the Internet.  Second, commerce.  What you can buy and how easily you can get it is intrinsically linked to the ability to go online.  Also, consider the advantages the power to know things, instantly and for free, means

As a child of the 80s I'm old enough to remember when you couldn't know anything without asking someone who knew or pulling down the encyclopaedia.  Both of these are naturally limited resources.  I remember what it was like to be stuck with no money on the weekend if you didn't go to the bank before it closed on Friday.  I remember what it was like to have no way to even find out what consumer products were out there to fit your purposes, much less the ability to order them.  I don't want to go back to that.  Ever.

But, apparently, a lot of people in this country are choosing, CHOOSING to live in the 80's.  I think it's important for our country's future to understand why.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Day 13: Money Academe

So, earlier today I posted the following article from Forbes online on Facebook: 
University of Florida Eliminates Computer Science Department, Increases Athletic Budgets.
That's right, no more gator CS majors, and those CS majors that are their are going to be scattered to other degree programs.  What's to gain from killing the program on campus that is most equated with the current high-tech revolution: 1.4 million dollars.  Simultaneously the University of Florida is raising the athletics budget by $700,000 to a total of 97.7 million dollars.  Like the author of the report: I am aghast:

"Let’s get this straight: in the midst of a technology revolution, with a shortage of engineers and computer scientists, UF decides to cut computer science completely?"

I don't want to say that the athletics department is more important than academics... but... well, let's just say that for most large public universities (and many small ones), especially those known for athletics, ... it is.  Still, I don't think it's fair to pick two budget items and draw unsupported conclusions from correlations.  The article doesn't do that, and neither will I.

The  article does, however, put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the state legislature for cutting the budgets of higher education.  I don't think I need to say I'm against cutting education in any of it's forms; I'm a professor, my wife's a secondary education teacher.  We need unions, we need pensions, we need to give teachers more flexibility to actually teach and research, we need less mandates, we need more money for education, not less, and with fewer strings.  Still, I have a problem placing the blame wholly on the legislators.  Why?  Legislators are elected.

Higher education has a P.R. problem.  Americans have too much of a loose notion that education is a vaguely critical component of making the future better, but the future... well... is the future.  Americans want what they can get now, right now!  The political system can't make investments, not in infrastructure, not in education, not in healthcare.  Simply put, and most ironically, the population needs to be better educated (and to have a reason to have more faith in their government).  I always remember this notion brought to us by de Tocqueville very early on in our country's experiment into democracy.   In America, the people always get the government they deserve (never more, usually not less).

What I really want to focus on though, is why Computer Science?  I have several theories that all boil down to Computer Science has a P.R. problem; even within the academy.

Imagine you're an administrator at the University level.  You've been forced to cut costs because uninformed philistine politicians who've been elected by an uninformed philistine electorate have seen fit to slash your funding.  Meanwhile, those same politicians are demanding that you get more performance out of fewer resources; and the measure for how they will tell if you're being efficient or not is as simple and useless as you'd expect any philistine metric to be; the number of degrees you give out.  Nothing else matters, only give out more degrees.

Admittedly, I'm not intimate with the situation in the state of Florida, but what I've described is exactly what is currently transpiring in Virginia.  So, at the worst, I'm projecting, but I'd be willing to bet what I'm doing comes most close to extrapolating the Floridian situation.

Given the requirements, you can see why the Computer Science program would be singled out.  CS (and other STEM fields) are expensive.  It's expensive to buy away professors from a professional career, equipment is expensive, teaching assistants are expensive, facilities are expensive and degrees are harder to obtain.  If the ratio of number of graduations to expenditure is all you care about, ... hello chopping block.

The irony is; it's in vogue across the country for politicians to speak in support of STEM.  With the one hand they say how important STEM education is, with the other they create an academic regulatory environment that forces its death, or worse, it's forced meaninglessness via a deluge of diluted degrees from Universities managed like degree mills.

Don't expect other academic departments to step in either.  I can tell you that the one thing that being on committees, especially those that are responsible for research funding, has taught me is that the other departments have been stripped to the bone and made to fight for scraps already.  I know that I'm blessed to have resources to buy the equipment I need and want to experiment with because experimental resources are DEFINITELY not available outside STEM.  Also remember how professionals in the STEM field are the best paid on campus (again, for good reason).

It's a sad state of affairs for whom their is no "silver bullet" solution that I'm aware.  But, it's definitely time to stop, as technologists in the academy, thinking that we're going to continue to be insulated from anti-intellectualism rampant in our society.  When politicians make a point to focus on STEM, it isn't a good thing.  It simply means they're trying to leverage and eventually eliminate what they don't really understand and who's usefulness they can't fully grasp.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Day 12: The Nazarene Method

I've been blessed, for the last 2 years plus, to be the Sunday School teacher for the college and career class at Wise Baptist Church, where Tabitha and I are members. 

For that class, we use the LifeWay sunday school lessons for young adults.  For this month the lessons have focused on well-known passages from the bible with the idea of reconnecting with and expounding upon their meaning.  I was initially skeptical about this approach, but it's been working out well. 

Today's lesson focused on the need for fellowship and the reasons why being a part of a fellowship of believers is more central to Jesus' plan for us than we often give it credit.  In support of this we read, in part, Matthew 16: 13-20. 

Those verses recount the familiar occasion where Jesus asked his assembled disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" and when they answered he then turned their responses around when he asked, "Who do you say that I am?"

I asked the class, "why do you think Jesus was asking the question?"  If you believe Jesus is who he says he is, then the answer cannot be because he didn't know the answer.  Tabitha answered my question by suggesting that Jesus was using the Socratic method; that is, asking questions whose answers will lead to a conclusion not for the questioner but to those to whom the questions were asked.  In other words, it's a method of teaching where the teacher acts as a guide while getting their students to come to realisations on their own.

But, as I thought about it during church today, I realised that it's not fair to call what Jesus was doing the "Socratic" method because Socrates, or any other teacher, must necessarily share a limitation not shared by the Son of God.  Namely, not really knowing what your students are going to say.  So, perhaps we should call this the Nazarene Method.

The Nazarene Method is applied over and over again throughout the New Testament.  In church we discussed Jesus' post-resurrection appearance to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, an event similar to other post-resurrection appearances in that the physical person of Jesus was revealed before his identity.  In each instance, the stranger would ask questions of the disciples to make them realise who Jesus was and how they needed to respond to his resurrection and teaching. 

In our lives, I think, that's how Jesus still chooses to work.  I'm not suggesting that the physical form of Jesus walks the earth with us.  Instead, I'm suggesting that if you see Jesus' will, or ask God to reveal his plan, you can't expect him to give you the whole thing up-front.  Instead, he wants to guide you to a place where  you to come to an understanding on your own.   

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Day 11: Enjoy Your Burrito

One of the things I've recently discovered on the Internet and have loved is the work that Chris Hardwick has been doing with his Nerdist empire (also here).   The flagship of that empire is the Nerdist Podcast where Hardwick and his band of merry-men interview nerd and entertainment culture luminaries about whatever comes to mind.  It's quite entertaining if you ask me.

At the end of each podcast Hardwick signs off with the following: "Enjoy your burrito, everybody!"  Now, I like Mexican cuisine just as much as anybody and more than most, but it seems an odd thing to say out of the blue, and odder as an identifying quotation.

My curiosity about this was immediately piqued so I went to the oracle of the Internet, Google, and typed in the quizzical term.  The following is the definition that can be found at the urban dictionary (a whole site dedicated to letting old, out of touch fogies like me translate from "cool kid" back to 1990's english). 

enjoy your burrito - Advice to a person who ignores happiness by focusing on the misery or boredom that will follow when it's over (e.g. a person eating a delicious burrito from his favorite Mexican restaurant becomes depressed halfway through upon realising that soon there will be none left to savor).

I like that.  I feel like there are a lot of people , myself included, who fall into the trap of worrying so much about what's to come next that they can not enjoy, or really even experience, the things they have right in front of them.

A friend was telling me that she was purchasing some luggage that was built substantially enough to survive a cross pacific flight to Hawaii that she and her husband would need for their pending vacation.  Her husband was not fond of the idea of getting the luggage, and even after they'd picked out the perfect set for a good price when they got to the checkout he said aloud to himself, "I can't believe we're just going to have to do this again in about eight or ten years!"

If you can't see the humor in that then it can only because you too aren't enjoying your burrito.  The same friend's husband also doesn't want to buy a new car for just about the same reason.  I have to shamefully admit I'm right there with him; I hate (HATE) the notion that my car is going to break down, regardless.  It's going to happen.  I feel about cars the way some people feel about computers, I guess.  But the difference is I don't like, and am not good at working on cars.

I'm not suggesting that people shouldn't prepare for the future, or think about it; to say otherwise is terrible advice.  But, if you've got no room to enjoy the present, then you're equally doing it wrong.

Just this morning I was at the UVa-Wise 360 event, the open house for our college, manning a table for the Mathematics and Computer Science Department.  I can more or less guess what the questions I'm going to get are going to be.  One I almost always get is "how many years is it going to take to finish the degree and how can I expedite that process".  The answer I give is correct; it commonly takes four years for really motivated students and more like five years on average; and it is possible to take classes either in the summer or at other colleges... as long as they are approved for transfer credit ahead of time.  But, what I want to say to them above all else (especially to parents) is, enjoy your burrito.

So, I'll close with this: an example of what it means to enjoy your burrito, courtesy of my son for whom, at his age, it just comes naturally.


Friday, April 20, 2012

Day 10: The Symbol and the Thing

Monday of this week, a co-worker of mine came bounding down the hall and into my office (hint: only one co-worker of mine could EVER have been said to "bound") and without saying a word held up a hand-made card.  Scribed on the tombstone shaped piece of cardboard were the letters R.I.P. and also January 9, 2012 - April 14, 2012.  In the middle of the card was what looked to my sleep encrusted eye like a strange oblong amorphous crystalline blob. 

At first, I thought something terrible had happened and this was her way of telling me.  I was struggling to understand what it was... and trying to think how I would keep from looking like a jerk because I didn't get it right away.  Then I realised the amorphous blob was supposed to be a football, and it was made of crystal because it was supposed to be the BCS Coaches Trophy awarded to The University of Alabama (my Alma Mater)  on the night of January 9, 2012.  The fate of that particular trophy was decided on the later date (April 14th) when a player's parent accidentally knocked the trophy off it's perch (apparently tripping over a carpet); where upon hitting the ground the 8 pound crystalline grenade exploded all over the carpet.

Did I fail to mention, my friend and co-worker is an Auburn fan (chief in-state rival of The University of Alabama)?  

No small amount of glee was to be had by all those wearing different colors from the crimson and white of Alabama.  What's more, the University initially withheld information about specifically which player's parent had committed the party foul fearing retribution to either the hapless parent or the completely innocent player.  (We be crazy about our football in the State of Alabama, as I think has become apparent: (link)). 

Clearly this state-wide, and really regional, psychosis surrounding football is harmful.  As an Alabamian (though currently living in Virginia) I have argued as much for a long time.  It bears mentioning, though, that the crazier people get about the largely meaningless pursuit of football victory, the more the media frenzy eats it up.  For instance, the shattering of the BCS trophy made every national news outlet in the country, from the New York Times to Yahoo! news.  Why?  Because what are those crazy people gonna do now... that's why!  Still, one wonders, especially in this case, where there is no news story, if so much ink would be spilled if it weren't suspected that the spilling of said ink might itself induce some action and then give birth to the sudden (and totally unexpected) need to spill more ink at premium prices.

Today the identity of the offending parent was revealed; it's none other than Carleton Tinker, father of UA long-snapper and survivor of a direct hit from the infamous Tuscaloosa tornado Carson Tinker.  Just last year, prior to the football season starting, young Tinker was tossed into the field in front of where his apartment once stood by the tornado that killed his girlfriend and more than 50 other individuals in Tuscaloosa, Al. 

Poor kid.  My heart really goes out to him and all the other victims of that tornado and it tears me up inside to think about the devastation which I witnessed even months and months after the fact. 

You really can't imagine a more sympathetic figure, and I'm sure that had some calming affect surrounding whatever ire for his father there might have been.  Add to that the reports where Alabama coach Nick Saban confirmed it was a total accident and made it clear it wasn't a matter of concern to him and shouldn't be to anyone else.  Further add that Carleton Tinker suggested that he might work off the debt with the athletic department (an offer obviously declined, as Carleton put it, "insurance is a good thing") and it should obviously be no harm no foul.

(Incidentally, my favorite joke to come out of the incident was a graphic of text passed around on the Internet that said, "You can't even trip in Tuscaloosa without knocking over a national championship trophy."  Pure gold, in my opinion; and an excellent effort to diffuse a tense situation.)

But, I want to talk about the idiocy of the whole thing.  There is a difference, often forgotten in our world where black box design abstracts out the actual way things work and allows the confusion of a thing and it's abstraction, between the symbol of a thing (in this case, a trophy) and the thing being celebrated itself (success on the gridiron). 

For another example, let's consider the recent death of Dick Clark. In multiple places and in multiple forms have I now seen people bemoaning the notion that we won't be able to ring in the new year without Dick Clark.  Or, New Year's just won't be the same.  Or, good job Mayans, now that Dick Clark is dead we can't ring in the New Year.  Obviously, these are largely meant in jest, but the confusion of ideas is still present, lurking underneath. 

Look, even if no one ever took notice, time would still pass.  The completion of one year is not dependent upon the celebration of it's passing.  They are not one and the same.    
Incidentally, this confusion of the thing and the symbol of the thing must not be a new phenomenon given the ancient precepts in the Judeo-Christian tradition (and in other traditions, as well) against idolatry and graven images.  Perhaps we haven't advanced as a species as far as we'd like to think.   

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Day 9: Black-box Considered Harmful


The very first theory you learn about in the realm of "best practices" when it comes to software design (and other kinds of engineering; especially when dealing with consumer products) is the notion of black-box design.

If you do a Google search for that term you get most results referring to black box testing.  That's a similar concept, but for testing purposes instead of design.

Black-box design means developing a product (in my case, software) in such a way that the user of the software doesn't have to know HOW the software works, but only how to use it.  The notion is so pervasive, that when you design software for even other software engineers to use (libraries, etc.) you use black-box design.  Software engineers are taught to design the code so that the fewest people possible need to understand the logic; the inner-workings of the code.  Instead, you simply build your code so that a very few keywords (representing methods, functions, etc.) need to be used to make the code work.  The rules that govern these keywords are simple, fixed, and are the only thing the user needs to know to use the code.

You see this kind of thing all over.  I've seen, for instance, after factory car CD decks that have removable faces.  The faces, which are really just an array of buttons, are detachable from the rest of the player.  The consumer needs to understand the button layout, but not the details of how the disc is spun, read, played, how the bits are interpreted, how the laser moves, etcetera.  Likewise, any software you might be familiar with has these two parts as well.  The software has the visual part that the average user interacts with and then there is the actual program logic that gets executed behind the scenes.

This is a popular design approach for several reasons.  First, the best way to make "user-friendly" software is to make software that requires as little user training as possible.  The less the user needs to know about, the better.  Admittedly, software engineers are taught to be wary of how stupid (uninformed is probably a better word) the average user is and, as a result, how illogically and unpredictably they are likely to behave if you give them choices.  Oh, and by the way, even if the software fails as a result of user error, they get to freely blame the software for being "to hard to use".  This is a bargain that technologists have made in order to expedite the penetration of useful technology into mainstream use and monetisation.  It is a bargain I believe it is time to push back against.

Second, if the interface (a fancy term for the buttons and knobs) is separate from the functionality, then it's possible to change one without necessarily having to change the other.  The user's don't like where a button is laid out on the screen? No problem.  It can be moved without having to change the actual inner-workings.  I can even choose wildly different looking interfaces, like choosing from an array of face plates for my CD player, without having to re-engineer the whole unit.   Or, better yet, let's say something is wrong with the actual functionality (or, more optimistically, let's say we've discovered a more efficient way to perform some task).  No problem.  I can do that, make an update behind the scenes by replacing part of the inner-workings with the new and improved version and the user never has to know.

Third, the fewer chefs in the kitchen, the better.  The fewer people who have to be allowed direct access to deciding how the code (or hardware) actually functions, the better off we are.  With black-box design we can support modularisation, control errors more easily, and manage the process of design more efficiently.

The general principal is this; the fewer hands you have manipulating the design and development of each component the better off you are.  This isn't withstanding the "many-eyes" argument of open-source software which states that the more people who see the code, the less error prone, more reliable, and more secure software is.  You need many eyes checking for errors, you need few hands making critical changes.

So, with these things on the side of black-box design (speedier market penetration, better results) you can imagine that what I'm about to say is likely to be received with scepticism.

Namely, I think the usefulness of black-box design is expiring.  I think, that like so many drugs (LSD, cocaine, etcetera) which were once sold as "miracle cures" with black-box design what is largely seen as the palliative for all that ails the design and use of technology, there's a sinister side that lies underneath.

The agreement between consumers and developers that consumers will consume blindly anything that they don't have to be responsible for learning to use is a bargain with the devil of culturally acceptable ignorance that is reaching a tipping point.

As long as technology represents an ancillary pursuit, separate from commerce, liberty, education, freedom, and the realisation of self, then it doesn't really matter if the consumer of that technology is responsible for understanding the inner workings of it or not.  But, as technology becomes more ubiquitous, as the use of devices not only shapes, but drives the daily lives of the average person, then a basic level of understanding about the inner workings of the devices becomes necessary for everyone to possess.

I hope it's not too late to put the genie back in the bottle.  Certainly, it's going to take a concerted effort by both consumers and producers.  Developers are equally as sceptical of the ability of users to learn to use technology as users are self-confident that good technology should "just work".  Developers are happy being puppeteers and users are happy being puppets.

But, if someone is responsible for pulling your strings, and the result of those string pulls is more and more central to the living of your life then how can you exercise liberty?

As I mentioned in a previous post, now is the best time to be a developer; a creator of things; an innovator.  It's such an exciting time to be alive.  I was reminded of this clip just the other day, where Louis C.K. puts just the right spin on it... every thing's amazing and nobody's happy!

The biggest problem with black box design is that it is a self-perpetuating trap.  Our technology design depends on it, because our consumers are addicted to it.

Recently, my family has made the decision to "cut the cord", if you will, and to no longer pay for cable.  Too often, now, my wife and I find ourselves thinking, we're paying for THIS!?  The shows we actually like are few and far between, and so it's getting harder and harder to justify the none to small expense.  Toward that end I've been working to locate other forms of entertainment.  I've unlocked a wealth of media that is being created on and specifically for the Internet.  These efforts are often cutting edge, rough, or experimental but almost everything I see is better than what passes for television programming.

Felicia Day is one of the earliest creators of this form of media and is at the heart of its evolution.  Recently she's been interviewing on podcasts and the like concerning her new YouTube channel, Geek and Sundry.  In one particular interview she was bemoaning the nature of what consumers expect.  Basically, consumers have no problem accepting things which are obviously amateur.  Some of the most popular shows on YouTube, with literally millions of people watching every week, don't merely have low production values, but no production levels at all.    But, as soon as someone with a little money to spend tries to make a better show (for free distribution or not), consumers begin to compare the production levels of those efforts against those of the shows they're used to with comparatively HUGE budgets on network television.  As she put it, "There is no middle ground."

This is a phenomenon that affects every kind of technology, entertainment, or consumer product.  Even though creators are making great things with a soul and coming from a place of passion; and even though these things are often provided at either a low cost or no cost at all, people can't take into the equation what actually goes into the things they buy.  The primary reason for this, as I see it, is that due to black box design principles, consumers are divorced from what it takes to make the things they use.  It's all got to work and look perfect; and why shouldn't it, after all?  

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Day 8: Safe Cracking

I've been reading the latest George Dyson book, entitled "Turing's Cathedral".  George Dyson is the son of physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson.  (Freeman Dyson is most well-known in the science fiction circles for postulating the notion of a "Dyson Sphere"; "One should expect that, within a few thousand years of its entering the stage of industrial development, any intelligent species should be found occupying an artificial biosphere which completely surrounds its parent star. [link]")

George Dyson grew up in Princeton, NJ, with connections, through his father, to the famous Institute of Advance Study (home to dozens and dozens of the world's most renowned scientists since the late 1930s; including Einstein, who held an office there until the day he died [link]).  One such scientist was John Von Neumann; progenitor of the Von Neumann computer architecture... or, to the layman, just a... computer.  (Seriously, if you have a computer, you have Von Nueman to thank).  The book is about the early decades of scientists and engineers working to build and use the first general purpose computing machines.

I've been reading the book for a few months.  Now, I AM a slow reader, but it's not that, I just don't have a lot of time to read, especially given that I don't actually have a paper copy, and any time I get the android tablet out Oliver demands Elmo, or Thomas, or both at once (a feat we have yet to attain).  Additionally, the book is extremely broad, both physically (Amazon tells me it's 432 printed pages long), and topically (you can imagine the early excitement amongst scientists in fields ranging from meteorology, to virology and beyond about a machine that can be made to automatically do complex calculations of any kind).  I'm a little over half way through the book and haven't yet gotten to the titular chapter, so this post can't rightly serve as any kind of comprehensive summary or review.

However, I was reading last night about the work done in the early 50s by a scientist/mathematician by the name of Nils Barricelli.  Barricelli was a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence and was doing experiments with what are called "self-replicating automata" which are basically programs that exist in a virtual universe with simple rules and simple interactions.   The universe as an  abstraction in computer memory.  These automata were created to see if an artificial type of digital evolution could be used to build better solutions to problems in a more automated way.

The following passage is from that book:

"The aim, as he explained it in 1953, was "to keep one or more species alive for a large number of generations under conditions producing hereditary changes and evolution in the species.  But we must avoid producing such conditions by changing the character of the experiment after the experiment has started."... "Make life difficult but not impossible," Barricelli recommended.  "Let the difficulties be various and serious but not too serious; let the conditions be changing frequently but not too radically and not in the whole universe at the same time.""

What strikes me is that, even when you make yourself a god (so to speak), being god is a delicate business.  Like Goldilocks, you can't be too hot, or too cold (incidentally, the Goldilocks zone, is a metaphorical area of a certain distance around a star where water-based life is likely to exist; i.e. the Earth is neither too hot, or too cold). 

This reminds me of the Futurama Season 3 episode entitle Godfellas (sorry, this is the best posted version I could find, you'll need to turn up the sound):

"Bender, being God isn't easy. If you do too much, people get dependant on you.  If you do nothing, they lose hope.  You have to use a light touch, like a safe cracker, or a pick-pocket."

Of course, that's all written in jest by an avowed atheist, but I think there is a kernel of truth to this.  Being God, (or a god, for that matter) might not just be about knowing everything, it's about possessing the perfect, the divine, light touch. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Day 7: Ye Shall Developers Be

Now is the best time in human history to be a producer.  The paradox is that now is also perhaps the time in history when people are most likely to be consumers.  Like never before, we are a blind consumers of ubiquitous technology of all kinds.  Like never before are we, as a culture, so dependant on the technology we use.

My favorite example to use when I talk to people about this topic is this: "Do you think you're driving the car your sitting behind the wheel of?  Do you think the wheels turn as a direct result of your turning the steering wheel?  Do you think the throttle is opened as a direct result of your pressing the gas pedal?  Nope.  The car's computer is between you and the hardware; it intermediates and translates your meaning, and hopefully keeps you from wrecking, or wasting gas, or wearing too much on your tires.  The computer tries to fix you. 

What's more, often the intent of designers is to absolutely build systems in the abstract from the view of the user.  The sounds you hear the ATM make are completely divorced from the actual functioning of the machine.  The sounds are made artificially so you, the consumer, won't be freaked out by how smooth and quiet the actual working of the machine is.

I'm not the first to suggest that now is a great time to be a producer.  The maturing of the Internet's "third age" if you will, the age of portability and ubiquitous computing, are removing the need for the media broadcasters.  There's so much room for the delivery of content and so many consumers actively seeking that content, for free, that all you need do is attract a small but loyal percentage of the total viewer ship (even a niche market is millions of people) and you'll have a gold mine after which advertisers will pursue and help foster. 

Critics have long said that "free" is unsustainable; and rightfully so, but the way to make money is no longer to sell your product, but to have the users of your product agree, in one way or another, to sell their time and their viewer ship for the bargain of maintaining free access.  This is commonly (and boringly) called monetisation.

However, I think that the biggest reason that this is such an excellent time to be a producer (of content, of hardware, of technology) is because the audience is available... if you're good enough.  It is now and hopefully should be the realisation of that noble idea of success for the worthy. 

Here's the trick that managers of successful technology companies know; for people who are highly skilled in development in technology fields, the money is nice (necessary even), but geeks work for credit ("cred", if you will).  And, there's no cred like the kind of cred you can get on the Internet.

So, the great question going forward is, what kind of society are we going to be.  Are we going to continue on our current trajectory where, by far, the average person is completely dependant on the class of the technologically elite to build the technology they need and use in all aspects of life, and thus control in a real way what is and is not possible; or are we going to attempt to realise the ancient ideal of our democracy, where education is important because knowledge, and the skill to build things and manage technology for ones self, is truly powerful.  I hope it's the latter.  I hope for, and I work for a tomorrow where not just the USE of technology is revealed, but the DEVELOPMENT of technology is no longer for the few, but the many.

To that end, I've tried to introduce new technologies and techniques that bring computing out of the abstract, and move the skills we teach our students into the realm of the physical.

In a continuation of this effort I've been planning and scheming a YouTube channel for our department that will feature (and hopefully spread the word) about our efforts and our results.  The channel I envision will be a combination of entertainment and educational (so, you  know, basically the holy grail).  Hopefully more on this later. 

Monday, April 16, 2012

Day 6: Sleep Apnea

Ah, sleep apnea.  Apnea is such a pleasant sounding word, I think.  Apnea comes from the greek word that means "without wind".  When used in the common vernacular it means to "lose your breath".  So, if you're ever with your girlfriend/boyfriend or significant other then you should stop, look them dead in the eyes, and tell them, "You are so apneatic."  You might get slapped or, it'll be added to the list of ways in which you're significant other knows you to be insane (or maybe just... "idiosyncratic"... "odd"... or let's say "lovable").

Sleep apnea defines the natural periods of time during sleep that breathing is paused.  It's a little known fact, but everyone experiences sleep apnea.  So, the condition that I and many other people have that requires medical attention is rightly called "obstructive sleep apnea", and that condition can take on a whole new seriousness.  

The natural pauses in one's breathing can be observed during any given sleep cycle.  These "events", which either mean a cessation of breathing for more than 10 seconds at a time, or the reduction of breath intake by 50 percent over the same time period, can be counted and the resulting number is recorded as the apnea-hypopnea index (AHI).  If the index is between 15-30 (the number of "events" in a single sleep cycle) then you have "moderate" sleep apnea.  Any more, and you have severe sleep apnea.

Why should anyone care?  More importantly, I (and everyone else whose sought medical attention regarding this problem) had to ask... "Why should I care?"  It might seem an odd question, because it would seem an obvious concern if you could not breathe, outside of your control.  But, think of it this way.  How much DO you do while asleep that you have conscious control over... or even remember when you wake up.  That's how it was for me with sleep apnea.  I didn't even know it was happening, it was completely natural (even if not normal).

To satiate your curiosity in answering the question, "why care" I've generated the following list of side-effects from sleep apnea:
  1. high blood pressure
  2. increased risk for stroke
  3. increased risk for diabetes
  4. increased weight-gain
  5. sleep deprivation
  6. having one's wife become concerned about why her husband seemed to be mini-dying every night resulting in increased nagging during the waking hours concerning a need and desire to keep the patient/husband alive for a while
I'll give you one guess as to which was the highest factor in my deciding to seek medical testing.  Anyone whose married will immediately know the answer.  It's the blood pressure.  Just kidding!  However, being diagnosed with hypertension was a contributing factor.  (Incidentally, who knew that how well you sleep could have SUCH an impact on your health outside of how refreshed you feel?)

I hate going to the doctor.  It can't be overstated how much I hate the very idea of it.  I'm fine with needles, I'm not the least germaphobic, but I can imagine about a million ways to better spend one to four (or six) hours on any given day than by going to see the doctor.  I have to know myself to be very sick to go to the doctor and even though I have great insurance (especially relative to most of the people who are in this country, most of which go to the doctor more than me)  I'd much rather suffer through a cold or any other ailment if I thought there were even a better than even chance that the passage of time would result in the curing of my ailment.

Add to this the absolute inability to personally measure or realise any detrimental affect of suffering (I hesitate to say suffering because it doesn't FEEL like suffering) from sleep apnea and you have an ailment that I KNOW would have gone unattended to save for the concern of my wife. 

The process for getting tested is laughingly called a "sleep study" but rightfully could be called an "awake study."  First, the technicians are not testing for how much you sleep, but for how much you wake up.  Secondly, the process of testing seems to be designed to keep you from sleeping.  You have to go to a testing center to "sleep" over night.  When you get there the technician (luckily mine was extremely friendly and personable but also professional) hooks you up to north of two dozen leads; several taped on each leg, most plastered over your face and in your hair, one taped to your upper lip under your nose and worst of all an additional air sensor (resembling an oxygen tube) placed in your nostrils.  All of the wires are tied behind your head in a make-shift ponytail and connected to a panel above your head.

The hardest part of getting comfortable in this situation (aside, I mean from being constantly stabbed by the intra-nostril monstrosity that even the technician admitted was overkill but he was required to apply because some pencil-neck at the parent company thought it would be a good idea and wanted a few more data points) was that though you had a limited amount of room for moving around in the bed, you could never tell when you were about to hit the end of your rope.  Getting comfortable was nearly impossible.  Every twitch of my leg would be rewarded by searing pain as sticky pads pulled away my skin, every turn of the head had to be made timidly lest a pad you didn't even know you had on should try to rip off a part of your face or scalp.  And you weren't even most concerned about the pain, but about the possibility of successfully removing a pad, thus resulting in a delay in testing. 

Worst of all, you NEEDED to go to sleep.  The sleep test is actually two tests.  The first is a baseline test to see if you need to be treated, the second is a test of equipment to treat you.  If you didn't go to sleep within the first little while, you wouldn't have time to do it all in one night, and you'd have to come back the next night as well.  I was haunted the entire night by this prospect. 

Luckily, and even though I didn't know I had gone to sleep for any amount of time, the technician came in declared the end of the baseline test and suggested that I needed to move on to the treatment part of the test. 

At that point he commenced removing several of the obstructive sensor leads from my face (including that blasted nostril sensor) and applied a mask to my face (covering my mouth and nose) for the purpose of maintaining positive air pressure in my airway so as to keep it from collapsing and becoming obstructed (a standard treatment for obstructive sleep apnea).  Again, I COULD NOT go to sleep, and again I HAD TO in order for the test to be a success.  It's just this time I was wearing more hardware and I had less time for a successful test to complete.

Luckily, right after the technician came in to make sure everything was "OK" I was able to fall asleep.  In fact, I obtained deep R.E.M. sleep and had some of the best sleep I'd had in ages; but the sleep was, of course, interrupted early because at around 5:30am, it was time to go home. 

At 8:30 the previous night, when I'd been scheduled to arrive, I did not want to do the test.   That's an understatement.  I despised the very idea of the test.  I remember sitting in my car, beating on the steering wheel DREADING doing the test.  Was it worth it?  Well, the test wasn't as bad as I thought it might be, but I definitely wouldn't want to do it again. 

And what about the fallout from taking the plunge and getting tested.  Well... things are better than before.  When you have been diagnosed with sleep apnea, you must go to ANOTHER location to get a machine to take home, called, in my case, a continuous positive air pressure (CPAP) machine, for treatment purposes.  The machine is set up to meet your needs, and you're fitted with a mask to wear in your sleep. 

I've known many people who have been treated for sleep apnea; family members, friends, family of friends, and universally they've all been happy with their results (sometimes ecstatic), so my hopes were perhaps too high.  Getting the mask properly adjusted is no small mater.  It might leak air into your eyes or on your face, it might dry out your mouth, or, you might make it so tight that you cut off circulation.  And finding the right fit is less a matter of making things fit when you first go to sleep than it is getting things set up so that they fit properly throughout the night (as you sweat, as you move, etc.). 

I think I sleep better; I'm told that my wife sleeps better as well.  Still, I don't sleep SO MUCH better that it's been amazing. 

Also, I honestly don't know how much I wear the mask.  I do know it's incredibly uncomfortable to use at times and I'll often find myself having put it on when going to sleep, but notice that I'm NOT wearing it when I wake up and I have absolutely no recollection of removing it during the night.  Still, I feel more rested when I awake than before.

Also, and this is most aggravating really, the CPAP machines come pre-installed with SD cards that are used to record your usage of the machine.  You are required, lest you lose your insurance coverage for the machine, (and they are ridiculously expensive for something the size of a shoe box) to take the SD card back to the home health care provider once a month for the first six months to have the data from the SD card uploaded and reviewed by the insurance company.  Despite my uncertainty about how long I make it through the night wearing the mask I haven't yet had my insurance coverage yanked (and I'm almost three months in).  (I'd like to talk about the de-facto insurance nanny state that we live under, and discuss why it shouldn't really matter to the insurance company IF I use the machine to THEIR requirements rather than my own (or my doctor's) given that I pay for the insurance and am a grown man that can make my own decisions, but I won't , because it makes me too mad).

The SD card that the machine uses is a standard 4gb model, and I've read the data off the card, but the data is formatted in a proprietary binary format.  I didn't look at this any closer and can understand the need to keep prying hands (like mine, I guess) off the data, even if I despise the reason the data needs to be collected from the outset and wouldn't personally try to defraud the insurance company myself.

So, I'll keep using the CPAP machine.  I'd recommend that anyone who has reason to be concerned about obstructive sleep apnea should be tested and treated if need be.  I'm glad to do this for my health.  BUT, I haven't found the results to be miraculous, far from it. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Day 5: The Patient Parent

I recently learned a new trick; it's my favorite kind of thing to learn.  It's the sort of thing that you might have known all along and wouldn't be surprised if everyone else in the world was aware of iand only you were left uninformed.  Specifically, I was drinking out of an aluminum can and stumbled upon a new technique for consuming the liquid within.  Always previously I had the notion that the lips should seal around the can opening and work to draw in the liquid from the up-turned can.  When the mouth was full I would always close the lips trapping the liquid inside and only then could the throat muscles be used to swallow the contents within.  Breathe.  Repeat.  This method always served me perfectly well (I thought), but the new method I've stumbled on is actually less work and more efficient (and incidentally results in the ingestion of less air).  I found (and I'm still not sure how I discovered this), that you can leave the lips open to the air (not sealing around the can's opening), pour the liquid into your upturned mouth, and SIMULTANEOUSLY while the liquid is being poured in you can use the muscles in the back of your throat to make a controlled and measured swallow of the liquid.  (I don't really know for sure, but it feels like many of the same muscles involved in making a glottal stop are involved in the intentional swallowing motion I've just discovered.) 

I call this technique my "continuous on-line swallowing technique" (COST for short).  That's right, I have a name for this technique, but the crazy thing is, I bet most people don't have a name for it; it's just drinking.  This kind of thing is really exciting to me.  To me, it just goes to show how easy it is to think you know how things work, to believe that your experiences are like those of others to such an extent that it's seemingly IMPOSSIBLE for there to be any variation.  Not so.  Even in the simplest of things.

We are extremely tied and blindly dependant upon the experiences we've had and our immediate gut reactions to them.  We are dependant on how to do, especially it seems, simple daily tasks, on how our parents taught us to do things.  Nevertheless, we rarely think of this and we're naturally and unwisely self-assured about what we know, and what we don't know, about our shared experiences.  Newly-weds are often aghast at one another over what must and must not go in the refrigerator, what laundry should and should not be hung up, what items are and are not "logically" stored together in the cabinets or closets, and the list goes on.  

I think this has a huge implication on teaching and education.  We (teachers and students) know the obvious ways we're different and we think that's the end of it but it's likely much more nuanced than that.  The gulf of experience is wider in ways we haven't imagined, don't understand, and can't intentionally bridge. 

And, if the implications are large for teachers, they are equally or more pressing for parents.  Every parent, I think, has a well of shame to pull from whenever they choose to think about the ways they wish they'd done things differently.  My little guy is not even yet two years old, and I still wish I'd done any number of things differently. 

My grandfather would always, whenever catching people using that simple phrase "I wish" ("I wish this" or "I wish that"), warn the dissatisfied person that they should be careful and be sure not to wish their life away.

Most ashamedly for me as a parent, I've often caught myself wishing I didn't have to watch Cars for the umpteenth time, or interrupt whatever I was doing to sit and watch the same Elmo or Thomas the Tank Engine for maybe the billionth time (seemingly, anyway).    I catch myself wishing Oliver were but a bit older.  If it's a sin to wish away your own life, how much more of a sin MUST it be to wish away the life of your child! 

My motives are wholesome.  I want to share the experiences I've had and the lessons I've learned with my son; with the one person on earth (so far) I experience unquestioning agape love for.  I feel (rightly I think) that I have a lot to offer and I want to get on with offering it.  But it's fundamentally wrong to think that my son is just a smaller or younger version of me, and it's impossible for he and I to share the experiences I had over thirty years ago.

The lesson here, as I see it, is that the best way to "raise" my son, to affect positive change in his life is to absolutely meet him where he is, and to lead from that point on; to make new experiences which we actually CAN have in common.  That kind of approach is going to take discernment, perseverance, and most of all, patience.  

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Day 4: Pt 2 - Small Town Appalachia

I'm from Alabama.  I'm ashamed of Alabama quite often.  I ask the reader to remember this because I fear offending.  I know all too well how easy it is to beat up on what you haven't lived, or haven't grown up with, or maybe don't really understand.  I'm an outsider here in Appalachia (see my previous post) and I don't want to seem holier than thou. 

I mention Alabama because I don't come from a better place than this, I'm not smarter than the people who live here, and I have no right to criticise what I have observed; and truly criticism isn't my intent.

My intent is simply to try and understand the situation I find myself in; a situation I share with all who live in this corner of rural Appalachia.  

Not long after we moved here and I started working at UVa-Wise, I met a friend who, though originally from this region, had lived in a great many places across the country.  He was a man possessed of wanderlust if ever I've met one.  He was not an academic.  He was an employee with Chartwell's, the food preparation company who has (inexplicably, in my opinion) been given a contractual monopoly over dining options on campus.  Food preparation and service were certainly not his passion. 

There are a class of people, a minority in our prevailing culture, for whom work is always just a means to an end and never a way to obtain life goals.  For these people the term "career" doesn't apply.   These stay unencumbered by no more contractual obligation than is required to make a living.  My friend belonged to this class of people, and though I could never live in that fashion, his passion for life outside of "success" as commonly defined was very endearing, and I think his kindness and affability spoke for itself.  When I knew him he was approaching retirement age, and even though he was in the middle of his second or third stint living in rural Appalachia, he wasn't any more interested in settling down in the region to stay than ever.   In fact, he's since moved on.

In a conversation between he and I and several other friends where I was wondering aloud why more businesses hadn't moved to the area despite a population seemingly eager to spend money closer to home than an hour or two away, I distinctly remember suggesting that the area was primed for economic growth and he said to us,  "There ain't never been nothin' in Wise county, there won't never be nothin' in Wise county."

I rejected this.  It seems fatalistic and pessimistic on the face of it; but a nagging fact of the matter is that he might be better able to judge than I.  I think I may be beginning to understand what he meant.

Perhaps the best I can do is recount some incidences over the past couple of years to highlight what I mean.

First, the population of Wise county has been on a persistent decline in lock-step with the decline of the coal industry in the region.  Simply put, as with the rest of the country, we're quickly running out of easily attainable, and thus profitable fossil fuel deposits.  Extremely rural areas, once perennially fed by the coal industry, are being emptied out as young people move away and though considerable efforts are being made to explore ways to move in new industry (everything from technology industry in the form of a new data entry and technology development center housing employees hired locally for CGI and Northrop-Grumman to the possible development of wind farms and more) the jobs being created and those likely to be created require a trained and educated populace (not previously as important) and the number of jobs being created does not match the jobs being lost, nor do they offer nearly enough opportunities to keep the populace growing in place.  There is hope, but fundamental changes will need to be made. 

As parents move to areas of greater job opportunity they inevitably take their school age children with them and the result is a necessitated restructuring of the county and township school systems.   In other words, it's simply not acceptable from a managerial standpoint to have 6 largely empty (and aging) school buildings in the county school system when 3 (newly built) schools will do.  Seems logical, but I can assure you that logic did not rule the day when plans were put forth to join the student populations from the several smaller towns with those from the several larger towns.  "You're killing our town" was a common refrain at packed school board and county supervisor meetings that would regularly have extended required "public comment" sessions that would stretch into the night as proponents of the many plans put forth to either save the old schools or build new ones (commonly called "consolidation") would fully lambaste each other, not refraining (even between board members) from even personal attacks.  The public comment section was sometimes so contentious and long that the room needed to be cleared and the scheduled meetings occurred behind closed doors late into the early morning.  All of this occurred, seemingly in spite of the knowledge that there was only one way forward which I would call reasonable.  One fact was not in contention, as far as I was aware, and that was that the only way to keep the school system solvent in the long term was to consolidate the schools.  Opponents crowed about reports that students from the larger towns had threatened students from smaller towns telling them that they wouldn't be allowed to participate in sports, etcetera, and a great upheaval was gravely predicted by many.  Law suites were filed, monetary threats were made, and there was even a newspaper story written about the kerfuffle which aired the dirty laundry of the county in a public and national forum. 

Eventually the inevitable happened, the smoke settled, and, though the opponents of consolidation were able to temporarily block the building of new buildings, fiscal inevitabilities forced the students to be consolidated into the three larger schools. 

What happened with the beginning of the new school year was most telling of all.  Nothing.  Nothing happened; and the suspicions of the rational observer were validated.  Namely, all the fuss was never about the students, it was about the parents; it was always an artefact of destructive pride and sectionalism. 

Residents from the larger towns, I think, felt vindicated.  But lest they begin to feel too self-righteous the very next year the county began negotiations with the one independent township within the county limits to consolidate its schools as well.  The resulting vitriol between the two similarly sized larger towns, merely three miles distant from one another, out stretches whatever transpired the year before.  The residents of the two towns, too used to competing against one another on the gridiron and baseball diamond, look far down their noses at each other; each is guilty of condescension and each accuses the other of the crime. 

This "those people" mindset is particularly anathema to me because I warrant that if a resident of one town were stood next to one from the other and everything conceivable was revealed about each save the physical address of their residences and the name of the high school on their aging diplomas there would still be no way to tell which was which.  But still, the fact that the address of your house is vastly insignificant and that the fate of the residences in the region are tied inexorably together goes completely without consideration on either side just as it was the year before. 

What's more, seemingly irrational behaviour is not limited to dealings with the school system.  The town of Wise (where I currently live) recently purchased several old buildings with frontage to the main street through town which they demolished and built in their place a nicely apportioned open-air amphitheatre and space for a much anticipated farmer's market where local produce growers could finally sell their produce to a willing populous right in town.  As it turns out, there will be no farmers market and the area will remain largely unused.  Why?  Before the center was built, the farmers had voiced their concern that there would be no way for them to back up their trucks and sell out of the back of them.  Instead, the produce would have to be moved into the prepared area.  The town planners ignored this and built their preferred plan anyway.  The farmers then asked if they could use the parking lot behind the prepared center to set up their market.  They were told no.  So, the current plan is to set up about a half mile down the road in the parking lot of the town hall and thus, the centrally located, newly and specifically built "farmer's market" will lie fallow.  It sure looks nice.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Day 3: Pt 1 - Small Town Appalachia

In the title, I almost said "Small Town America";  no doubt, much of what I'm about to cover applies to undersized hamlets across America, but I didn't because I don't want to under-emphasis that Appalachia is a place unto itself.  It is unique in many things; not the least of which is it's history of cloistered resistance to outside change and influence fostered by a rugged landscape that resists penetration of news and ideology, to say the least of physical persons, from the outside world (the rural location used in the movie The Hunger Games is a real place not too far from Wise, Va, where I live).  But it is equally and paradoxically an area in America that has some of the fastest fiber optic Internet connections (put in using government grants to stimulate growth in the area) and it's being willingly and unwillingly dragged into the 21st century.

To say that I'm an outsider here is both an understatement and an overstatement.  Originally I'm from Decatur, Alabama.  Alabama is not a place well known for possessing large cities within its borders and so when I say that Decatur was, at the time, around the 10th largest city in Alabama, you'll know that doesn't mean anything in terms of metropolitan America.  Still, the population there hovers around the 55,000 mark.  It's still culturally considered Appalachia.  The  Appalachian mountain chain stretches all the way down to Birmingham, in the middle of Alabama, before petering out.  Just like in Southwest Virginia, a major industry revolves around gouging out the coal from the earth.  These are facts that are largely discounted.  It's sometimes easy to see why.

Lower Appalachia is much different from the heart of Appalachia.  Even the very pronunciation of the word is different.  Growing up in Alabama is was always pronounced "App-uh-LAY-shuh".  It was a shock to see the faces of disgust on people when I used that pronunciation, instead of the "correct" pronunciation, "App-uh-LATCH-uh".  I had assumed my use of the word would come naturally and place me immediately as part of the tribe, it had the drastically opposite effect.  People who actually live in the heart of Appalachia are keenly aware of the differences between them and the rest of America, and any fool who goes about saying "app-uh-LAY-shuh" is not suffered lightly and is immediately branded an outsider.  Thus was I branded, and though now I've intentionally re-mapped my lexicon to fit the prevailing local standard and am always SURE to say "App-uh-LATCH-uh" (not least of all because I believe that the people who actually LIVE in a region should best know how to pronounce the name of the place), I'm sure I'm still obviously an outsider to the highly-tuned senses of those natives around me in a great many more subtle ways; (most of which I'm not even aware of).  The passing of five years residence has not changed this, and I expect that no amount of time passage will have any more than a marginal affect. 

For example, when I say I want a "hot dog" what I really want (a bun, with the meat "dog", left bare in anticipation of the application of a la carte toppings) is locally called a "weenie bun".  The term "hot dog" means a bun, a dog and chilli on top (thus, the result of asking for a "hot dog with ketchup and mustard" is to receive an all together less than appetising concoction).  Locally, when you get a hamburger, it comes with a SLICE from an onion (same as if you were receiving a slice of tomato).  It is not "pouring" outside; instead it is "pouring the rain".  Incidentally, it is just as often, "pouring the snow".  The town name "Dante" is pronounce "daint".

Appalachia is really a state of mind.  I've found that, in particular, the distance one has to travel before the trip becomes an arduous undertaking has shrunk for me.  I think this happens because though the several small towns that you might need to travel to in the same local 10 mile radius (locally part of the "mountain empire", a small "empire" indeed) are very close together (relatively speaking). The fact that they are so small leaves plenty of room for noticeably "rural" driving where civilisation seems to recede back into the forest rather than making the land it's master, as it does "in town".  As a result, a trip which really doesn't cover that much distance can seem much farther.   

In many ways, living here is like living anywhere else, but with fewer options; and as a person whose used to having options, who likes having options and choices, this is a hard fact to swallow.  As for consumer goods, if the Super Wal-mart in town doesn't have it, then you won't get it locally.  There are 2 decently-sized grocery stores in addition to what Wal-mart offers and there are several small-sized versions of national retailers for clothes and shoes.  As far as dining is concerned there are approximately 15 to 20 eateries within 10 to 15 minutes of where I live in the middle of the town of Wise (both national chains and local establishments).  This seems like a lot at first, but the lack of choice begins to grind on you, especially considering that many of these establishments (McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King, etc) are often fast on food and low on taste and are essentially clones of one another.

To break the doldrums you have but a few options.  You can drive to Northeast Tennessee, where the population spikes in the "tri-cities" area of Kingsport, Johnson City, and Bristol each of which is between an hour to an hour and a half's drive away.  Or, you can eat at home (a choice made by most, including my family, just to save money if nothing else).

The nigh tlife?  Absolutely non-existent (I've never been much for that kind of thing, but socialization IS nice).  The towns around here roll up the side walks around dusk.  Entertainment?  One movie theatre with 9 screens and one drive-in with, well, 1 screen (usually 2-3 movies a night on summer weekends).  That's fairly nice, except I'm a geek and most of what is offered by the mass-media I will not be consuming, and mass-media is all there's room for.

So, what does that leave?  Well, the Internet.  The saving grace for most of this.  Amazon prime?  Godsend.  On demand media?  priceless.  Shipping goods? painfully slow, but better than nothing.

I paint a bleak picture here, I guess, but I don't want you to get me wrong.  The natural beauty at our back door is unparalleled and its a really nice, inexpensive place to live, and my job is a high-tech haven of academia, but it has been hard and continues to be hard to adjust (I think even more so for my wife, in certain ways).  And as for academic concerns, it is the goal of The University of Virginia's College at Wise to bring a world-class education to extreme rural Virginia, a lofty and laudable goal, but the area I've described is hard scrabble for the growth of technological innovation.  We've worked hard to build up a program in computer science and software engineering, but the issue is in doubt, and the going is tough. 

What's most aggravating is the persistence that people have here in frustrating any efforts to figure out ways to slough off the Mayberry (the Dukes of Hazard namesake Hazard, KY is literally just over the border into Kentucky from here) and put on the Asheville.  To keep the good parts, and to still build for the future; cutting away the old albatrosses.  If there is any fault in the character of the people here, it is that they do love the old albatrosses around their necks, even if they are dragged down by them.  They love them even more if an outsider (perceived or actual) would try to help them remove them.

--See Part 2 Tomorrow--