Saturday, April 12, 2014

Life after.

I'm finding that as Graduation approaches, I'm having a little trouble seeing what comes next. It's mostly a formality at this point- the work has been done. I think there's a little touching up with the last dissertation edits in the next couple of days. After all this.

The anticlimax of my own graduation with the funny hat feels more a chore than a celebration. I'm a little irritated that it coincided with the graduation of my own students. I've actually sat with a schedule and Google Maps to see how to exploit the hour offset between my graduation and theirs, and whether I can get back to "my school" before the ceremonies end.  "My school" has been where I teach, not where I'm getting my degree.  It's a blur the in the past, a decade offset from my prior degree a decade earlier. A hectic three years of intense work, a couple of years of juggling with a FT teaching job, a year and a half of divorce hell, and now a couple years since, rebuilding a life and a home.

I think this is the point where regrets would be shared. Had I just bailed out during one of the many times I considered doing so, I wouldn't have had my head fitted for a poofy hat yesterday. It's a useless game of what-ifs for turning left instead of right.  I had something to say about the last time I played the game of what-ifs, but it was just about the train I didn't take to work on the morning of 9/11 so I erased it.  I'll be damned if I ever catch myself playing the game of what-ifs again.

May 19th is the start of "Summer Break" and another chapter in life. That chapter is going to involve a lot of neglected repairs around my house, and most likely, in life overall.

Friday, December 13, 2013

..and back again.

Back again with a lot to say, and perhaps just enough good judgment not to do so.

I've been told to start to revive this thing and talk about real life again, to continue the thread of this series on being a returning PhD student entering into academic life. To avoid the dominant facts of the last three years would be somewhat dishonest.

I'm now divorced, a single dad. Two of the last three years have been extremely painful to say the least, and now the third year finds me in a new relationship quite unexpectedly, not to mention against my best efforts. But her persistence in making the relationship work overpowered my persistence in ruining it, so here we are.

I try to be thankful when it occurs to me, now as one-half of a small academic department, trying to revive an entire major. Some would run, but somehow a chance to start something over is appealing for more than the obvious reasons. At home, breathing new life into old things, old machines, and even messing around and turning shipping pallets into seats or workbenches is yet another way to turn the discarded into something useful.

Apparently, Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Not necessarily in a straight line

Life goes on, as they say, though with little regard for direction or speed. They say life is a marathon, but as heard on a radio program and confirmed by more than a couple of runners, the body can fail you within sight of the finishing line, will notwithstanding. Fail in embarrassingly biological ways, in fact. Sure, there's that so-called second wind, and even that last burst of energy while being chased by a bear, which is vastly greater than the energy one draws on when chasing bears. (I can count more than one of my ancestors as Highlanders after all.) But here we are, finishing line in sight and all. Right. There. There lies the dangers of the analogy with the false conclusion of argument, I believe, which can undue whatever benefit was derived by the intellectual scaffolding formed in the initial comparisons.

Life isn't so single tasked and linear as we'd like. It simply goes on, not charged with the task in making successive linear progress in a predetermined direction. When my SO introduced me to Walking with Cavemen a while ago, I was struck with the narrative style. Sure the content was not exactly new to me, but it somehow stuck with me this time. The idea of thousands of generations of people not much different from us surviving or even thriving in varying climates, without even the thought of mastering the natural world around them. They lived in a cultural stasis that could have endured almost indefinitely in some form or another. They persisted with increasing intelligence and learning, but yet failing to overcome the information entropy of their brief, tenuous existences and accumulate the knowledge for something beyond bare subsistence.

There is the span from 100K to 20K years ago, where knowledge did seem to slowly accumulate beyond mere instinct and direct experience, with the survival of ideas that could span the lives of individuals, and even span populations. It's as if sparks over an ocean found a piece of driftwood to smolder and persist, somehow meeting another piece of driftwood to improbably continue the reaction that lead to a sustaining flame.

Turns out that science does a poor job of explaining what life is and isn't, just as it does a poor job explaining why time exists. Hell, making electrons do what you want is cake in comparison, though the ultimate ends of that, in managing information in useful ways more complex than making things light up and turn off are pretty elusive, in no small part due to the problems of defining, much less attaining "useful".

I've long been inclined to define life as that which produces and consumes information produced internally and externally. I'd lump in "responds to" with "consumes" in much the same way as a deep fried jalapeno achieves the same ends.

And yet, one's own life and the lives of others are too often considered in sometimes arbitrary comparisons, where we rate survival and growth against externally linear measures. It seems a bit grandiose to compare one's own life in such a context, but it is worth asking who gets to decide where we should be relative to others in our own brief existences. If there's anything we owe the world while we are in it, is to live on and try to help a few others around us to continue onward as well.

Still, no excuse for not having finished that book report, it would seem.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Disssertation defended, onward to revisions!

It's been almost 9 years in a PhD program. Work has slowed progress considerably, as has some rather difficult life events. But today, I finally defended my dissertation and passedhwo mc, subject to revisions. So a little anticlimactic though not unusual- I am told most defenses require document revision after the fact.

It's a manageable list, but one I'll start in earnest a bit later tonight. For now, there's some planning to assess how much time I'll need in the next couple of days. If there was one lesson learned from the comprehensive exam (or the actual simulation behind the dissertation) it's the importance of planning out even seemingly small projects before just jumping in. Regardless of the scale, any project of importance merits better planning up front.  This stopped being a creative endeavor a long time ago; now it's down to the mechanics of completion.

It's done when it's done, but it's a matter of hours and days, not months and years at this point.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Moodle Doesn't Suck

With my most popular posts on this site about how Blackboard Sucks, it's about time to comment on my first year using an open source alternative, Moodle. Don't get me wrong, Moodle has it's share of issues- there are times when the Moodle interface feels just as much like a late-90s web app as Blackboard does. But there's a distinct difference- it's free. Free as in Freedom, Free as in Kittens. It appears to be some work to set up, and it's likely a project to keep it running.

Basically, if you want your organization to depend on a database-driven web application, you have to know how to develop, deploy, and maintain database-driven web applications. The question is whether to license expensive software and contract all the work on a mission-critical application, or whether and how much to do internally with software who's cost is entirely internal labor. Writing one of these things yourself is an expensive proposition- for internal use it makes little sense, and for external use, you'd better have a really good reason, as in doing things that Moodle or one of the Open Source alternatives cannot be made to do readily.

But before delving down the rabbit hole of Moodle configuration and plug-ins, there's a fair amount of the semester to resolve. Last grades to recheck and post, other paperwork to complete. If my dissertation had a status bar, it's hovering maddeningly at the 99% mark, and that has to be finished once and for all so I can go on to some more interesting projects. I have some suspicions about why people keep saying that Moodle is a resource hog, but that'll probably have to wait until Winter Break next year to start tearing apart.

Despite its shortcomings, Moodle can be downloaded, experimented with, taken apart, and modified as needed. Commercial stuff is fine for new tech, but for very old, commoditized software product categories, you may as well just go open source.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Kitchen Nightmare

Over the past year, I've discovered the many joys of Kitchen Nightmares, one of a growing genre of food-related reality shows. These shows are extremely formulaic, though morbid curiosity seems to have taken hold as the host, Gordon Ramsay grabs cobwebs out of restaurant ceilings, spits out sample entrees, and spouts enough profanities to require a censor with a Morse code proficiency rating of 20 WPM or better.

My thoughts so far:
  • Any unknown object in the walk-in fridge will have been alleged to have been made "last Friday"
  • The deep fryer is invariably a horror.
  • The walk-in fridge is a horror.
  • 3/4 of each episode could be described as "Getting it through the owner's thick head".
  • All the food should be thrown out.
  • Your own kitchen looks so much better after watching an episode.
  • Failing restaurants share the same issues of an overwhelmed/burned out owner and loads of dysfunction.
  • Nobody likes restaurants that serves reheated frozen food.
Having said that, one's home kitchen is often less healthy than many restaurant kitchens, and we're far more likely to be defrosting our meals than we want our restaurants. Most food poisoning seems to happen at home. On the other hand, we don't typically get fresh groceries daily (maybe weekly at best), nor is there a staff at home to take care of the management of the pantry, plan menus, prepare meals, and clean up. At home, there are limits on money, time, and energy to prepare meals, and nutrition often takes a back seat to convenience.


Black Market

I drove the kids to school today, when my son complained suddenly about having lost part of his pen. He had been fiddling with it, taking it apart and looking at the pieces before dropping one. Among the many stoplights on the way, I took a quick look at the back seat, offering suggestions where to look. For the sake of argument and as a result of my profession, I'll simply refer to them as Alice and Bob. (I teach computer science after all, and those were viable candidate names long before my career change would have made me regret it. I've chosen not to simply refer to them as The Girl and The Boy as another dadblogger might (such as Dean Dad: http://suburbdad.blogspot.com/).

There was a quick discussion for a block whether the part dropped was the upper or lower part of the pen, finally agreeing that the clicker was top, and the ball point emerged from the bottom, the part that was actually lost. In the course of his distress about not having functioning the pen he won, a G2 Pen no less, Alice mentions something about the Black Market. The /what/? I think, sensing another impending view into the hidden world of the Middle School of digital natives. Sure, Alice says, there's an underground market for stationery at her school. "Do they have pen parts?" "Pen parts, though ink is harder to find. You have to trade up big for that." "Like what?" "That might cost you some loose leaf paper, which is kind of how other things are measured."

Loose leaf paper is a currency? Sort of it turns out, but this is a barter market. I've heard of barter markets in prisons that monetize other goods in terms of ramen noodle packets and cigarettes, but like all barter markets, utility losses are heavy in direct trades. Money is better at preserving value across successive transactions. In these cases, the goods being traded are themselves consumed, and the supply is hardly fixed. Someone somewhere is gaming this market, but I suspect the SEC already has their hands full.

So a few thoughts crossed my mind. The ongoing cleanup of my home has yielded a couple of bins of school supplies. I joked about flooding the market with loose leaf paper and pens, but it made me wonder about the inevitable inflation. Also, I considered the effects of the impending end of the school year on the relative value of goods. With the ongoing house cleaning, we've unearthed an enormous stockpile of stationary. Enough perhaps to cause rampant inflation in the stationery market and greatly devalue the loose leaf paper currency. After dropping off Bob at his elementary school I spent the eternity of Turning Left considering a way to quantify the differences between the subjective currency of loose leaf paper and actual market value.

Besides, what do they need paper for? The school website announced there will be 17 more testing days before the end of the school year, 6 weeks from now. It just makes me wonder what they will have time to learn besides more effective ways to fill in tiny circles. There may be a run on #2 pencils after all, and we may be able to corner that market. I just hope there will be enough learning around these state tests for this generation to be able to cover my social security when I finally retire.

As usual, the missing pen piece was between the seat and the door. An undiscovered force in the universe seems to draw all lost objects there, perhaps fueled by lost left socks. This research will have to wait until well into summer after I post final grades for the semester.