Monday, December 14, 2015

Absolute silence

With the house otherwise empty for a day, and no new visitors for a couple more days, the house has been silent save for the occasional car passing in front, or the neighbor's car door shutting. With winter break less than a week away, life will quiet down as it has not for a very long time.

There are things to put away, to throw out, to clean, to organize. There are things to repair, and perhaps some that are irreparable. Though I don't often know what that means. But life goes on. There are always dishes to wash, and dinners to prepare in a month that could be very productive, or that could be left with nothing to show for all that time.

But there is a whole lot of grading between now and then.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Memories of things

One of those days when the memories of put-downs weighs down.

I'm a low-paid college professor at a struggling college. Why don't I just go out and get a "better" private sector job that could almost double my paycheck? 
Lemme tell you about a story where I was heading to work one sunny Tuesday morning and two hijacked passenger jets flew into my old office. I got to hear all about my former colleagues that jumped to their deaths, were crushed by rubble, or in one case, was doused with burning jet fuel. 14 years later, I don't have nightmares about it much anymore, but it comes up in at least every other counseling appointment. You're never supposed to admit to needing counseling. Bullshit, it helped save my life.
I had just left that job for working at Columbia University where I was  derided for my sympathetic or otherwise pro-American comments after 9/11 by colleagues who insisted we "deserved it" because of American misdeeds around the globe. I've spent a few years trying to figure out how that African-American single mom from the Bronx deserved to be doused by burning jet fuel, only to die a month later covered in 3rd degree burns. I have no idea what happened to her kids. I can't imagine what she did to deserve to "die for the sins" of our nation, except to stand at a bus stop to shuttle to the other facility in Jersey City. Had the bus arrived a few minutes earlier, she would likely have lived through it.

I take two medications for depression, another for anxiety, another for high blood pressure, and one for severe anxiety attacks as needed. I've been needing the anxiety ones about every other day for the past month. But as common wisdom says, medication is for the weak. You're never supposed to admit to needing medication. Bullshit, it helped save my life.

(I forgot to add the general anti-anxiety drugs I take every night just to attempt to sleep. They often work. )
But, hey, the people running for President want to keep accusing entire nationalities for the acts of 19 terrorists. In all likelihood, only 4 of them knew that this would be a terrorist attack and not a hijacking, as per comments from Al-qaida leadership afterwards. They effectively murdered 15 of their own in the course of the attack, not that anyone's going to cry at their funerals.

So leaving Columbia University to move back upstate and finish my PhD. Also to stay closer to my kids, and in many ways confirming my suspicions about what was going on while I was away at work. I tried to stick out a troubled marriage at least long enough for the kids to be more independent. The level of abuse we suffered in the course of the inevitable divorce was what has my kids and myself still in therapy and medication, 5 years later. But, therapy is for the weak, I've been told.

That day when you have to call the police to extract your child from the custodial parent's apartment because she's being denied proper care while planning suicide. There's that. A week in the hospital, a relapse a few months later that left me running through a couple feet of snow in a small forest at dusk. My child ran off into the woods during another visit to the hospital in winter without much in the way of a coat. But if I'd been a better person I wouldn't gotten divorced in the first place, despite being assaulted, terrorized, and threatened for months, and my kids being threatened repeatedly. I suppose that if I had been somehow "perfect" none of this would have been happened as I've been told. Because apparently nobody else on the planet has intrinsic morals or ethics, so I am responsible for allowing conditions by which they have no choice but to be angry, abusive, etc.

So yeah, why not "just go back to the private sector?" I did fairly well working in NYC, partly because I learned from them how to coerce, intimidate, threaten others as they did to me. Yelling at people every single day you go to work taxes the soul, and turns you into the shell of someone you no longer recognize in the mirror. Sure I could have been "stronger" and just learned how to live with the increasingly toxic person I was being taught how to be. I was good at that world- I've never lost a pissing contest. But when you come home to toddlers who think the world of you, you have to ask yourself how to deserve being the person your children think you are.

I teach now. I'm not the best teacher, but as has been said of me countless times, "He knows his shit." I worked this field for a living for a decade, plus about 5 summers back here.  Students and faculty have also remarked that I never yell at my class (or lately, that I'm not a "mean teacher".) I don't comprehend this, really. If I had to yell as part of my job, I'd just resume my old life again, ignoring the reasons why things had to change and just get the bigger paycheck. If you're going to get angry, at least do it when the stakes matter. Otherwise, you're just a miserable asshole. Somewhere inside is still the church-going Sunday-school kid who believed in God but also got in trouble for believing in science, technology, and evolution. So those are two camps I don't entirely fit into.  
But there's the almost four years of recovering from a vicious divorce, rebuilding some kind of new life and family, only to have that start to unravel.   My newest treatments revolve around digging up old buried memories and seeing some old patterns crop up again.  It really is time to rethink a lot of things. Unfortunately part of that means reopening wounds that had never really healed. When you realize that what you think is recovering has been just learning how to walk wounded. For a while, being among the "walking wounded" may be beyond me through this part of the treatments.

When it takes a couple of years to realize the pattern of abusive relationships I've allowed myself to fall into, an abusive childhood, and the realization that all that was wrong in life was not all my fault, the world looks a bit different. I still remember the days when I felt too weak to leave the house. Now things are a lot better. I'm not at my peak productivity from a few years ago, but I can remember that life again and how I did it. Next step is reminding myself what of those times I can repeat, and what I can do better.

After five hard years of counseling and three years of medication, it's nice to see that I can start being the good parts of the person I used to be, while remembering to avoid falling into the worst of old situations, behavior, and patterns. So yeah, divorce increases men's suicide rate by (I'm told) 40%, and I often suspect much of that is from not having the insurance to pay for the level of care I've had for these past years. Reconnecting with life has forced me to realize the cost of the pain and destroyed self esteem has had on those around me. My kids are reason enough to take the next steps towards recovery, now that it is more clear where things have been and were I can still go.

Why do I do this? It's the only job where I felt what I did mattered in the long run. Development projects go obsolete in a couple of years, and are forgotten not much after. I have students from years ago who I run into in the grocery store or around town, who still talk to me, and sometimes tell me about their jobs, about lectures that meant something for their careers.  In this field, taking the lessons from the past mean that in some small way, I'm helping someone else build a future.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

On hold

The kit projects will have to wait a while.

Monday, September 28, 2015


Working in engineering, as a programmer, then academic has a few narrowly defined benefits.

I just might be returning to all three of them with an ongoing project to design some meaningful kits for learning digital basics for CS students. Building boards licensed as "Open Hardware" would make sense, and better yet if combined with Creative Commons textbooks and other learning materials. I'm finding that the concepts are not as complex as the textbooks imply, and finding a way to demonstrate these clearly isn't simple.

But aside from LittleBits or Arduino, there aren't many attempts out there. LittleBits doesn't go down to the component level, and Arduino requires way too much wiring. Why not build a common interface between similar kinds of integrated circuits, and not bother with the learner wiring up power, ground, and trying to match the pin numbering scheme against the logical output coherently.

I don't quite get the difference between a latch and a flip-flop, other than a rough description. So I'm the first customer, I guess. At least not experienced enough to choose between them. That's just practice, preferably with a kit like the one I'm working on...

What it isn't.

I've changed schools and have apparently fallen off the tenure track wagon again.  That's 4 schools as an adjunct, now 3 of which as FT faculty of some sort. Which makes me either a drifter or an academic (which is essentially a drifter with a PhD and a couple of publications nobody will ever read.) So there's the experience of being a PT adjunct and FT student, being a FT adjunct and working on a dissertation, a FT faculty who adjuncts PT while working on a dissertation, being just FT faculty with no dissertation.  I've decided not to contemplate any remaining scenarios. I've reached a point in my career where I've taught college courses for as many years as I worked as a programmer. So, there's that.

There are the observations of both being an adjunct, being tenure-track, and being non-tenure track full time. In a field other than Computer Science or another STEM field, I wouldn't bother. Getting a single tenure track job is hard enough for some STEM, not to mention non-STEM fields. But its a matter of working in what is considered a highly employable field while colleges everywhere are on increasingly shaky ground. I just don't have the stomach for those kinds of risks these days.

That makes 3 different careers since undergraduate college, counting a couple of years doing technician work and printed circuit board design way back in the 90s living in Southern California. Common wisdom holds that it takes almost 10 years to become an "expert" in a field, after which there are some decisions to be made. I've subjectively verified the well-known observation that academia and industry really don't understand each other, nor really care to. Both sides have their own versions of anti-intellectualism that is frustrating to watch.

It's too early on a Monday to even begin the discussions about "computer science" versus "information technology" in either side of that debate. But the story of my experience is in justifying doing things "on the computer" to a reluctant or even hostile audience when it's cheaper/easier to just do the job once or twice "without the computer". For better or worse, I never believe it's "just this one time" and cost things out into the dozens or hundreds. Innately, I believe in buildings things once correctly and walking away, even though not always being able to deliver on that vision.

I don't like the way STEM subjects are often presented- mostly textual material written at a grade level far higher than the topics covered would otherwise require. But, writing PhD level works to be read by undergrads is hardly new, but it does explain a few things. They're full of these misunderstandings, once you get past the Grade 14+ reading levels. It's the obscurity of the discussions in these works that hides the underlying confusion about what is and what isn't CS. But, I just think of it more as engineering than "science", though it then leads to discussions about where the real "engineering" part is explicitly covered.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Adaptive Release

A feature in both Blackboard and Moodle LMS is "adaptive release". It appears to allow some content to open up only after something else is completed (like taking a quiz only after the assignment is turned in and graded). I've done a lot of reading on the topic-- the idea is fairly strightforward, but making it work on a real-world course is a bit more difficult. It would help if there were tools available to make it easier, aside from having to hand-code or generate XML files for it to work. I was an actual programmer for a while, and even that is too much effort when it's in the way of a more urgent task of setting up a course.

Basically, it's like the technology tree in Civilization, but not so clearly defined.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Blackboard revisited, 2015 edition

Despite some of my earlier complaints about Blackboard, most of my earlier gripes have been resolved sometime between 2007 and 2015. After 3 years of using Moodle, there are definite tradeoffs still, but far less important. The Content Creator tool seems to address the content management complaints I used to have, though I haven't quite got it working the way I'd want. It'll probably take more than a couple of days to learn what I need.

So far, not bad. I just wish it had a low bandwidth version so the interface wouldn't be just a little too slow. Congrats Blackboard for fixing what was broke... :)