Friday, November 28, 2008

Primary Flavors

Primary Flavors

So that the sweet tooths of the house (my own included) would stop gnashing at me about how little we have on hand to please (and also to rot) them, I boiled together three half-batches of rock candy early this afternoon: peppermint, anise, and cinnamon. Can you tell from the photo that I've never made rock candy before?

For one thing, I didn't know how much powdered sugar to lay out, and, in retrospect I used far too little. I also didn't boil the syrup long enough, so these batches didn't set up until each of them roasted for another 30 minutes in a 350-degree oven. Is. lent a hand on the first pan--yellow peppermint rather than green peppermint because her affinity for yellow things has not wavered. When Is. went down for her nap, Ph. took over; he led the production of the red and blue batches as I explained how I thought it should work (this was before we understood that we were undercooking the stuff).

The red and blue sheets side by side reminded me immediately of last month's election maps. Pans of colored syrup resemble land masses. Ph. and I kidded for a minute that someone (not us) could have become wildly internet famous if, during the election, they'd thought of using a Dremel tool to cut out the shapes of every state and then ate the non-winning colors as the electoral geography was determined on election night. Who wouldn't tune into YouTube to watch a Wolf Blitzer look-alike sucking on a cinnamon New York or an anise Texas as each state was called? Of course, the initial batches we poured, had we tried to cut them into states, would have looked more misshapen than Mark Newman's two-tone cartograms, and probably even less edible. And yet, the political landscape is, when all of the powdered sugar coating has settled, kind of gooey after all, isn't it?

I suppose an idea as flavorful as the cutting out and eating of state-shaped candies can hold over until 2012. Maybe the "Yes We Carve" folks would want to pick it up as "Yes We Confect." And thus, with no urgent message to get out in late November, tomorrow we'll crack up the hardened puddles into bite-sized pieces and eat them no matter whether they look like Maine, the Dakotas, or Michigan's U.P. With any luck we'll have a few shards of candy remaining to carry with us to dentist appointments in mid-December, incriminating evidence of our by-then fastsweetly-dissolving interest in connecting the dots between candy-pan geography and election maps.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Five Minutes?

If you can spare five or ten minutes, Ph. is working on a school project for his Government class. He has been asked to develop an argument concerned with public policy, and he has been thinking about a focus on smoking in public places: specifically about recent changes in smoking bans in public spaces, indoor and out. This afternoon we spent some time together getting his questions set up on Survey Monkey.

Basically, I'm just trying to help him get word out on the survey, which you can complete here. If you can spare five or ten minutes.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Over at ReadWriteWeb today, I caught this entry about EtherPad, a collaborative text-authoring web app. One conspicuous difference between EtherPad and the other word processing web apps (Google Docs, Adobe Buzzword, Zoho Writer, etc.) is that the changes to the text are nearer to synchronous. Contributors see each other's writing almost immediately. Even better: EtherPad does not require an account; no sign-up is necessary. The site provides this demo.

It's easy to imagine using EtherPad for drafting a conference proposal or something, although Google Docs has proven adequate for that sort of thing. Where I see EtherPad's greatest immediate use (in my world, anyway) is in the online consultation appointments we've been offering lately in the Writing Center. Right now I use any number of chat clients (AIM, iChat, and Google Talk), but EtherPad features a chat module. I log on to the chat client, invite the student to a session, and we begin chatting about the work at hand. Usually it takes five minutes to gain access to a draft. Because the built-in file transfer processes get hung up far too often (resulting in further delays), I also have the students email their drafts to, where I can easily access the file. Even with all of this, commenting the text in real time can be a pain. Absent voice options and desktop sharing I still find it fairly difficult to identify the places in the text where I am focusing. Why not copy/paste the document (or a portion of it) into EtherPad and use the built-in chat module to discuss the passage?

EtherPad does not provide voice or video options, but it would serve as a terrific complement to Adobe Connect Now, which does offer voice, video, chat, and desktop sharing. For the WC technology audit I'm working on this semester, I've been thinking a lot about recommending two-app mash-ups as a kind of low-cost writing consultation-ware. EtherPad's usability threshold is so low (i.e., it's free to use, requires no sign up, and presents its options in a simple layout), it seems to me a strong choice for use alongside one of the other audio-video-chat applications. I would think Writing Centers would be all over this sort of web app for synchronous online consulting.

On the short list of drawbacks, there is the small matter of its ethereal quality. You can save the text, but you need to keep track of the URL because there is no other way to track down the saved file. As I was checking out the save function, I found that the chat transcript is not logged. When a saved version of the text is loaded, the chat transcript starts from scratch. It would be nice, however, if there were options for saving (and, thus, resuming) the chat transcript or for outputting the text file and the chat transcript (for my purposes, I'd even like to see a one-click option for saving these to a single file). Might also be nice to see a "scrub" option so that the document and chat transcript are cleared from the server following a session. But these are relatively minor concerns for what appears otherwise to be a promising new application.

One Word or Two?

Help me out: web site or website? Or: Web site or Website?

This morning I was reading while the Element was having its oil changed and its rear differential freshly gooped, and I found a few variations of web site, Website, etc. I'm inclined to prefer "web site"--two words and lower case. What about you?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Maths of the Everyday

Number of tow truck drivers I kidded with about the snow on Monday morning: 1
Number of blocked shots I hope to tally at this evening's weekly pick-up game: 8
Number of WC consultations earlier today that had me wishing our table had a dish 'o mints on it: 1
Number of students who probably thought it was me who needed a mint: Same
Hour of the day Is. decided everyone in the house should start their Tuesday, Deepvember 18: <6 a.m.
In epoch format: 1226988000
Students missing from this morning's class: 3
Number of meetings I've attended this week: 2
Number of those meetings where pizza, sodas, and salad were provided: 1
Number of people on campus who today asked me about being on the job market and how that's going: 7
Number of points scored by Team Charmin in the Fantasy Football Week Eleven match-up: 80
Coincidentally, the number of minutes I strode on the elliptical machine in the last two days: 80
Of the eleven emails currently in my inbox, the number with "writing" in the subject line: 4
Number of class sessions remaining this semester: 4
Number of two-hour consulting sessions remaining in the semester: 6
# of times I can type "number" in a single entry before I get lazy and resort to the symbol: 12
# of minutes until I'm supposed to start rustling up some foodstuff for dinner: -5

Grand total: 1,226,988,211

Monday, November 17, 2008

Unix Timestamp

A quick entry: It's getting late, and I teach in the morning, then spend two hours in the WC, and after that, a meeting. Plus, I just looked out the window, and it appears that we live in the snowy part of Syracuse, so chances are I'll have to remember where I last took off my winter boots back when last it snowed in, what, May?

This weekend I stumbled onto a few limitations for Movable Type and Delicious mash-ups I'd been thinking about for some time.

I'd been plotting for a few weeks a plan to export all 1000-some entries from EWM into a standard bookmark format. After the export, I was going to upload the full index (complete with keywords, notes, and timestamps) to Delicious. Easy, yeah? I thought so. But the problem is that I can't--yet--figure out how to get MT to output a date in epoch form (i.e., as a Unix timestamp). I even posted on the forums, and the question has had several views, but no answers. MT has a gob of other MTEntryDate output options, but no Unix timestamp.

Without getting into the MySQL (and risking a terrible MesSQL), the most obvious workaround is to output the list of entries and such into a simple list that, with some "text to column" magic in Excel would allow me to select and copy the dates from a long string of entries, run them through a batch converter, paste the epoch-formatted numbers back into place, and switch the text into an editor. It might still require a few search and replace actions, but this process would get it close to the standard bookmark format--close enough that Delicious could import the list, anyway. And that's the point to all of this.

While I was messing around with this, I also learned that Delicious limits the earliest timestamps to 1989 or something. I guess this isn't all that big of a deal, but it does introduce a problem if, say, we were ever to attempt to use Delicious with some sort of date-stamping method for chronologically ordering bookmarks for a journal archive dating back to the early 1980s.

It's good to know about these limitations, I suppose, well in advance of experimenting with them on a larger, more consequential project.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Art: What a Mess

Fifteen minutes of re-make digression, perhaps best--liveliest--between 9 minutes and his "tidying up" of Jackson Pollock around 12:20.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


We're experimenting in the WC this semester with consultation by discontinuous email. Students can upload up to five pages of whatever they are working on, the draft then zigs and zags (taking two lefts and then a right?) through the internet to a listserv account where five always-on consultants take turns commenting and returning drafts, usually within 24 hours after the draft is sent. The system seemed to be working fine until recently when we realized a flaw in the design of the upload form. Basically, the form allows students to 1.) upload a file or 2.) copy and paste a chunk of text into the form. 'Submit' The form then calls up a PHP script, which, when there is an uploaded file, puts the file in a temporary directory, builds the email message to the listserv, attaches the file, sends the email to the listserv, and finally clears the file from the temporary directory. That much seemed to be working fine for, oh, ten weeks, and we have 45 such consultations to show for it. But:

About a week ago, the form seemed to stop working. We experienced a lull in the previously steady stream of requests. I checked the files, and, sure enough, there was an unnamed .doc file camping out in the temporary directory. Did someone upload a nameless file? Seems so. But there was more. The form was not relaying messages that did not have attachments. Never did any complaints alert us to a problem, but the PHP script relied on an if... function (e.g., if(filea)) without an else.... IF the file was attached, all was smooth-going. ELSE...broken.

Sadly, I am not one of those PHP wizzes who can just glance the code and efficiently drum up the needed lines. Writing PHP is slow and agonizing--a reverse engineered grind. I re-draw the original script so that everything routes to my email address (so as not to bother the listserv with the sequence of test messages), then tweak the code, upload, and test. Well, I thought I had it up and running again on Saturday, but, lo and behold, I was wrong, so again today, straightaway from teaching class and two hours of face-to-face consulting, I was at it again, thunking my head against the immovable brick wall of a PHP script I could not figure out. And then, suddenly the office was all children's chorus and sun beams: I realized what was the matter, added the two or three lines (primarily a no_attachment function) and, for the last time, FTPed the mended script into place. Tested it from all directions, and it worked--a clear case of luck favoring the prepared desparate.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Works Delicioused, Works Slided

An email message this morning asked about Flickr Creative Commons and citation: "How do you handle it?" I'd planned to address this in the class I am teaching on Tuesday morning, so it was more or less on my mind already. I responded that I prefer one of two methods for presenting the citations indexing the images used in a slide show: 1.) bookmark all of the images and any other web-based content using a unique Delicious tag and then present that one URL on a slide at the end of the presentation or 2.) provide a series of slides (as many as necessary) at the end with full citations for all of the sources used in the slideshow and in the talk. I used the first approach at Watson last month. In hindsight, I'd say that talk ranks fairly high (top five? top three?) among the talks I've given over the last few years, both in terms of quality and in terms of presentational style. Those 217 slides were, oh, 200 more than I'd ever worked with before, and the rapid-fire slide-changing got to be a little bit dicey (even after several practice runs, I lost my place once). But my point is that the single URL for my "Works Delicioused" worked fine. Anyone interested in the stuff I referenced could have followed up.

I'll prefer the second option, "Works Slided," when on Tuesday morning I take on some of the Presentation Zen stuff that frames our fourth and final unit in WRT195. This approach isn't all that visually stimulating; these aren't slides a presenter would necessarily show as part of the presentation, I mean. But they do make the citations ready-to-hand in case anyone should ask about a source--visual or otherwise. I've used this approach for presentations that include a lot of textual sources. And I've also blended the two: providing a conventional works cited along with a collection in delicious of all of the online materials. I'm sure there are other variations, but these are two are the ones I've been weighing today.

This teacherly weekend has also included commenting several drafts from 195ers--penciling comments in the margins and typing focused "looking ahead" notes in response to half-drafts of their unit three projects, researched arguments. There were sixteen drafts total. I commented six on Friday, five yesterday, and the last five today, reading and penciling up the margins first and then going back over each of the drafts to come up with a more focused end note. In the end note, I tried to focus as much as possible on 1.) the greatest strength of the draft (this was my opening gambit on all of them: "The greatest strength of the draft is...") and 2.) the most pressing concerns given what they have been asked to undertake over the last 5-6 weeks. Spent roughly 90 minutes (two hours tops) commenting each of the last three days, but it will lighten the workload when they turn in finished drafts in another ten days or so.

The fourth unit of this course asks the students to translate the research argument into a 6 minute, 40 second Pecha Kucha presentation. So that's where the PZ materials and slide show questions come from. I'm also reading around in Hume's Surviving Your Academic Job Hunt (a book I'll have more to say about in another entry one day soon perhaps), and it occurred to me, where Hume lists all of the various sorts of job talks one must be prepared to give that the Pecha Kucha format is conspicuously absent. In fairness, Pecha Kucha has only been around since 2003, and although Hume's book was published in 2005, I don't have any reason to think that anyone has ever been asked to give an academic job talk as a Pecha Kucha. But this does lead to yet another puzzler: why not? I mean, what is it about the 30-40 minute job talk that works out so well for academic audiences? I really don't mean to balk at the convention. Not at all. But I do think there are questions worth asking about the performance conditions of a 30-40 minute talk relative to any of the alternatives, Pecha Kucha or whatever. Sort of an evocative thought experiment: maybe in thirty years we will see the top 3-5 candidates for a given position come to a campus where they all deliver Pecha Kucha presentations in common session. Then discuss. Wildly out there, I suppose, but interesting to me--especially so given that I have been thinking lately about the job talk genre, how best to prepare for such a thing, and so on.


Back in the back porch, Is. now rides loops on a loaner tricycle--a "loaner" because we have generous friends whose two kids are margins older and younger than Is. such that they bookend the "age of trikes." The three-wheeler's a Radio Flyer Fold-n-Go; we'll return it just before we leave town next summer, just before their youngest is ready, just about the time Is. levels up to a small bicycle with training wheels. In the meantime, she rolls self-powered over the pile. Plus, one less thing to load with the other hybrids when we Fold-n-Go.


In addition to this newfound locomotion (i.e., something like "motion out of a locale" or "located/emplaced motion"), our conversations have continued to take flight, too: "What sort of bird is Big Bird, anyway?" I suggested "chicken," and Is. insisted "a duck." "A duck? Really?"

With great certainty: "Yes. A duck."

Monday, November 3, 2008

Pull the Plug?

A couple of months ago, D., Is., and I were out strolling around the streets of Syracuse, along Colvin Ave., in fact, huffing up the big hill.

"I think it's time to cut the blog loose and set it out to sea, put an end to it," I said.

I went on to explain why I was thinking this way, although today I can't recall what were the reasons so clear to me at the time (realizing recently that "chicken" won as the Big Word of the Month at EWM in September was a sobering reminder of the conversation). This is just to say that merciful blogicide has crossed my mind. It's not like the blogosphere of 2008 has half the pulse it did for me 2005 or 2006.

Wired's Paul Boutin pressed a similar point today, suggesting in an article titled "Twitter, Flickr, Facebook Make Blogs Look So 2004" that blogs are out of fashion, succumbing to some of the latest online developments:

Writing a weblog today isn't the bright idea it was four years ago. The blogosphere, once a freshwater oasis of folksy self-expression and clever thought, has been flooded by a tsunami of paid bilge. Cut-rate journalists and underground marketing campaigns now drown out the authentic voices of amateur wordsmiths. It's almost impossible to get noticed, except by hecklers. And why bother? The time it takes to craft sharp, witty blog prose is better spent expressing yourself on Flickr, Facebook, or Twitter.

There's some obvious polemic framing at play here, some baiting, some stick-poking, as if to imply, "Yo, bloggers, still at it?" To which I say, "Maybe." And, "For now."

Broutin concludes with an emphasis on "brevity." Brevity wins the current web moment: one-liners in Twitter and Facebook have doomed blogging. Thoughtful, focused, carefully developed entries no more. Maybe brevity does reign. I'd have to ask my Facebook chums to find out since readership here has...helloo? helloo?...see?, it doesn't matter what I write in this space.

Even if some kind of brevity-drive is to blame (credit?) for the uneven tanking of the blogosphere, that can't be the solitary cause. Broutin's analysis tries to diagnose the problem in one fell swoop at the scale of the whole thing: the global. And it's limited for that very reason. I'd much prefer to think of it in terms of "scalable circulations," the shifting rhythms that intensify and weaken, fluctuating on- and off-line for anyone for whom writing is a regular thing. Those are where the causes lie, idiosyncratic though they must be, no? At the very least, much of the theorizing about ecologies and networks has taught us by now that the large scale diagnosis is too reckless to square with that peculiar set of conditions bearing on any one of our heres and nows.


Allen Iverson's a Piston for the season. Huh.

How about that? And Detroit plays Larry Brown's Bobcats tonight.

I'm not sure whether this puts Detroit in a position to re-take Boston as the East's elite team. Maybe, just maybe, it'll give the Pistons some new kick, new spark. But it also gives them a encouraging degree of free agency flexibility next summer if the Iverson-for-Billups/McDyess trade doesn't pay off in the short term. At the very least, it's a reason to pay closer attention to the Pistons at a time of year when the Lions are no longer watchable.