State of the Union: What I missed

I had better things to do than watch W.’s State o’ the Union tonight. Like clean the lint from between my toes and clip my fingernails. Okay, not really. We actually watched part of disk two of the first season of The Sopranos (we’re a little behind). That’s a more entertaining form of organized crime.

Now, on the one hand, it is pretty clear that I didn’t miss much. As I type this (waiting up for The Daily Show), I’m watching ABC News “after the speech” coverage, and it is just clear they are killing time here. One of the commentators said something along the lines of “there was nothing really new here; it was as if he ‘cut-and-pasted’ passages from recent speeches, even some things from past State of the Union speeches.”

On the other hand, I wish I would have had a chance to play this absolutely hilarious GW Bush drinking game. I’d even be willing to play the suit, if that’s what it would take. (Thanks to Andre for the link).

Class web site with WordPress/Scary Crash Problem Solved/Future Mac-served CMS Projects?

This is kind of a “three-fer” message, as you can tell from my title here:

First off, I must say I’ve been pretty pleased with my use of WordPress to support the class web site for English 444: Writing for the World Wide Web this term. I’m running it on the computer in my office– an eMac– because no one here at EMU seems capable and/or willing to support software that requires MySQL or PHP (more on that later). While it was kind of a pain in the butt to set up in the first place, that up-front work has been paying off lately because it has proven much MUCH easier to update the content on this site than it is to update a normal web site. I guess that’s something I should have known before, but now I really know it now. This is especially true when I compare my 444 web site to the one for my computers and writing class, in which the web site is still out of date and incomplete (note to self: update computers and writing web site).

The only problems I’ve had in running this stuff myself on my office computer are a couple of power outages and what appeared to be a catastrophic crash/screw-up on my part. It’s kind of amusing in hind-sight, but it wasn’t at the time. What happened was I updated my OS to 10.4.4, restarted, and then went to the computer lab to meet my 444 students. I went to the web site to show students something and it wasn’t there. Instead, there was a scary-looking screen that said that WordPress couldn’t find access the database. So my initial thinking was that my system upgrade had trashed it.

Needless to say, the rest of that class didn’t go great.

But fortunately, my colleague Steve Benninghoff found the answer to my problem here on the WordPress support forums (and not a moment too soon, I might add– in my panic/disgust with the whole system upgrade blunder, I was this close to just figuring out how to just throw all of it away and starting over). And a big thanks to the folks who posted to that WordPress discussion forum; I would have never figured this out with my extremely limited (albeit growing) knowledge of working with the command line on my Mac.

Which leads to my last point: like it or not, it would appear that if I want to do anything that requires MySQL/PHP (WordPress, Drupal, MediaWiki, etc., etc., etc.), I’ll have to do it myself because the folks who should do this, ICT, won’t. I actually can’t be too mad at them because, while the original answer to my MySQL/PHP request was basically a rude “no, security issues,” I ultimately received a more full and polite answer, which was basically “no, thank you.”

Fortunately, my department head seems to on board with the benefits of this sort of work, which means that I will hopefully have something up and running soon. Unfortunately, it looks like one of my new hobbies is going to have to be getting myself a bit more schooled in MySQL/PHP stuff. I’ve been able to get by on minimal knowledge so far, but I’d like to be able to say with a little more confidence that I know what I’m doing, especially if I am going to be forced to be the support person for this stuff in the department.

Can't get there from China

I stumbled across this this morning, “Sites Google Agreed to Censor in China.” It’s part of Google Blogoscoped, which looks like an interesting site devoted to issues on Google and search engines, but the main site freezes when I look at it in Firefox. Anyway, the list of censored things in China is interesting, both in what it still allows and what it doesn’t. Certainly worth a look.

What’s so funny?

After we got home from a lovely party at Andre’s and Stephanie’s place last night (and by the way, thanks for a great time, thanks for all the scotch, sorry about that glass– I’m not sure if it was Jim knocking into me or if I just dropped it or what– nice pictures, I guess I missed the blood gushing out of the kid’s leg, and there’s nothing like a night of excess to re-start a proper eating and exercise program), we went home and watched The Aristocrats. We rented it Friday and had intended to watch it the night before last, but we were too pooped, and we had originally intended to watch it Sunday or something. But we got home early enough and Andre was so enthusisastic about at the party (and on his blog), we decided to watch it last night.

We were disappointed.

Most of my loyal readers are probably familiar with the basic premise of the movie, but just in case you’re not: the movie is a documentary/comedy about an infamous dirty joke comedians tell each other, in which a family goes to a talent agent, performs some disgusting act (it inevitably involves incest, blood, beastiality, etc., etc.), and then ends with the same basic punchline: “The talent agent asked ‘what do you call the act?’ The man answered ‘The Aristocrats.'” The comedy comes in the middle portion of the joke, and this is where comedians try to out-do each other in terms of coming up with disgusting things that make up the act.

Now, I should point out that I don’t think neither Annette nor I were offended. I mean, we knew what we were getting ourselves into. And I like dirty jokes just fine. But I dunno, to me, this just didn’t live up to the hype.

Don’t get me wrong– it’s definitely worth a rental, and there were moments that were pretty good. And as a documentary, I thought it was pretty effective and interesting, a sort of “behind the scenes” look at the craft of comedy. But I guess I found it more “interesting” than “funny.”

I suppose it’s just a matter of tastes. Andre talks on his blog about how he thought Anchorman didn’t live up to the hype, but I still will sit and watch that when it crops up on HBO (which it does quite frequently). If you ask me, that’s comedy….

Those dangerous teenagers, again….

The other day, there was an article in the Fredericksburg, VA newspaper The Free Lance Star about teenagers and blogs MySpace (we’ll get to that in a second) called “Teen blogs: Too much information?” On the one hand, it is another example of an article in the genre of “the Internet is a scary place for our kids.” Here’s a passage along these lines:

MySpace has been in the news in connection with two recent teen deaths in Virginia. Locally, Courtland High School athlete Baron Braswell II was fatally stabbed Friday at a Spotsylvania County CD release party publicized on MySpace. Afterward, his friends used MySpace to post memorial tributes.

And after 17-year-old Virginia Commonwealth University freshman Taylor Behl was abducted and killed last September, investigators found that she had posted photos and other personal information on MySpace. Her profile mentioned that she was moving to Richmond and hoped to meet “someone who is kind.” Police have charged a 38-year-old Richmond man in her death.

As teenage blogging booms, many parents are left in the dust and in the dark. Some parents of young bloggers don’t even use the Internet, said Staca Urie, outreach manager for NetSmartz, the online safety unit of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

And so forth.

But this article is different in at least three ways. First, the reporter, Laura Moyer, is a really good friend of my wife, and an overall great person. Second, she makes some good points here and tries as hard as she can to be objective about all this, and along the way, I think she makes it clear that she’s not trying to write a typical “teens gone bad” sort of article. Though the headline kinda does that in a way. And third, because she is a friend of my wife and because my wife pointed out to her that I’m a certified “expert” on the whole blogging thing, she called me and ended up quoting me a bit in the article. Here’s what Laura quoted from me in the piece:

But scary possibilities don’t justify yanking minors’ blogging privileges altogether, said Steven D. Krause, an English professor and blog expert at Eastern Michigan University.

Like anyone else, teenagers need to learn what they should and shouldn’t put online, he said. And as they learn, they’ll probably make mistakes.

“I don’t think there’s any question that young people use poor judgment in what they post,” Krause said. “But you know what? They make poor judgments in face-to-face situations, too. Part of the job of teenagers is to do stupid things.”

While teenagers and 20-somethings may use MySpace and similar sites as personals ads, Krause said, blogs are also a powerful, accessible communication tool. He encourages his college students to blog as a way to publish their writings to an audience beyond the classroom.

Like more serious topic-related or news blogs, teen blogs are here to stay, Krause said.

“I think kids must be onto something if it’s getting people this scared,” he said.

Had I been more clever and reflective and such when I talked to Laura, I would have said some other things that she might have tried to include in the article. So I’ll say them now:

  • Blaming MySpace or any other Internet service for the death of this kid is just plain silly.
  • In one sense, I will admit that things like MySpace and Facebook do potentially enable bad behaviors, especially among teenagers, who are not known as an age group to be that reflective. But in another sense, I think it’s just making visible the kinds of stuff that teenagers have been doing in more private (more dangerous?) settings since… well, since there were teenagers, I’m guessing.
  • And really, MySpace isn’t the same thing as a “blog,” in my opinion. Services like MySpace and Xanga seem to me to be geared much more to “meeting” (virtually or in real life) other people. The emphasis on MySpace and its ilk is in the visual and in having “friends,” while my impression of “real” blogs (like on blogger, like, hopefully, this one) is they are more interested in texts and fellow readers (who, yes, maybe are friends, maybe become friends). MySpace is designed to share, I dunno, the surface. Blogs are designed to share reflections and thoughts. Sorta. MySpace has a feel more like a singles bar or a frat party– at least the way I remember such things.

And that is what I mean by saying that these things aren’t blogs. They certainly are some kind of networking/communicating medium, but I don’t see them as one that supports the kind of writing/communicating/networking/reflecting I’d want students to do when I assign blog writing activities.

Or maybe I’m just getting old.

What is important in America (as told by the narrative of magazines at a Wal-Mart)

I found myself in Wal-Mart this afternoon for reasons I won’t even begin to explain. I’m hopeful that no one saw me get out of my car that has bumper-sticker on it which says “Wal-Mart: Source for all of your cheap plastic crap.” Anyway, when Will and I got up to the counter, I looked over the magazine rack and I was struck enough by this to take a picture with my phone:

Jenn and Angolie

Maybe I’m just a little punchy or something, but there’s something rather striking, funny, and disturbing to me that the “news” stand at America’s leading retailer tells this story, as far as I can tell:

  • Angelina’s all-important baby is apparently a boy.
  • Right after she gives birth, I’ll bet she gets right on the tummy flattening routine.
  • Jennifer, despite her forlorn look, is coping, undoubtably because her tell-all book will be on sale soon.
  • Brad, though absent, is apparently a given.
  • Besides A & J and a flat stomach, even more sex tips and a nice garden/patio set-up are worthy desires.

The Beer Watcher: Brewing, part 1

It’s been a pretty darn busy week around here for me with work, but I made some room last night and this morning to write the next entry of my “beer watcher” activities of the previous weekend.

Bill and I were joined for “brewing, part 1” by Steve B., who was MIA last weekend, dealing with family visitors, etc. Actually, I was a little late on Sunday, so by the time I showed up, Steve B. and Bill were heating up the water for what would be the “pre-beer” or “wort.”

Here’s the recipe for what we were making:

Trout River IPA

(A recipe that comes straight from the “Things Beer” folks)
7.5 lbs Muntons light extract syrup
1/2 lb Crystal malt
1/2 lb Aromatic malt
1/2 lb Carapils
2/3 oz Centennial hop pellets
1.25 oz Centennial hop pellets
1.25 oz Centennial hop pellets
1 oz. Centennial whole hops
1 tsp Irish Moss
Wyeast 1056 (American Ale)
2 grain bags
3/4 cup priming sugar and caps

Steep speailty grains in 3 gallons of water at 150 degrees for 45 min. Remove grains, add 7.5 lbs Muntons light extract syrup.

Bring to a boil for 30 minutes, then add the 2/3 oz of hops. Boil 40 min and add 1.25 oz of hops and Irish Moss. Boil 15 min., add 1.25 oz of hops. Boil 5 minutes. Cool to 70 degrees. Transfer to fermenting vessel with yeast. Fement at 68 degrees until complete (7-10 days). Transer to secondary with 1 oz of whole hops. Hold one week, rack into bottels with corn sugar. Age for a few weeks.

So, here’s what happened:

First off, before either Steve B. or I arrived, Bill made a point of sanitizing everything– the pot we were cooking in, the spoon for stirring, the bucket where we’d store the beer, etc., etc. I haven’t spent much (well, any) time reading home brewing books, but Bill claims (and I believe) that a big deal is made out of sanitation.

After we got the water up to 150 degrees (which amounted to standing around and waiting for the thermometer in the water to reach 150), Bill added the grain bag, as seen here:

beer #1

Inexplicably, Steve B. looks pretty pissed.

Here’s a close-up of the grain sack:

beer #2

The comparison between brewing beer and making a big cup of tea is probably pretty clear.

Then, after this stuff steeped for a while (again, like tea), Bill added the malt, as seen here:

beer #3

This was an interesting part of the process for a couple of reasons. First off, the malt is essentially a big ol’ tub of syrup, which, as Bill is fond of pointing out, is why beer is fattening. Second, this is the most potentially problematic stage of the cooking process because if you’re not careful, this sweet gooey stew can boil over, and if it does boil over, you have a big-ass mess on your hands. That didn’t happen.

I was talking about the whole home-brewing thing with my father last weekend– I recall that he went through a stage at one point in my youth where he made some pretty bad home-made wine. He said he never did home-brewing because he heard cooking the stuff stank up the kitchen. Well, based on my very limited experience, I don’t think that’s true. But Bill kept telling Steve B. and I that it smelled like a “malted milk ball shake” at this stage. I don’t think that’s true either. Basically, to me it smelled like cooking beer, like cooking up a batch of raw brats in a broth of a couple of cheap beers and some chopped onions (well, minus the onion and meat smell). This doesn’t smell great, but I’ve cooked stuff a lot more stinky than that in my kitchen.

Anyway, in the course of the cooking process here, we added hops and (of all things!) Irish Moss to the pot.

beer #4

This is when you really start getting a very pleasant (depending on your opinion of the smell of beer in the first place) beer smell happening. I’d go on into more detail of the cooking, but there’s not much to tell. Hops and/or moss were dumped in, it was stirred, a timer was set, and we sat around and watched football until the next step. In other words, as long as the previously mentioned dreaded boil-over was avoided, much of the brewing process seemed to be standing/sitting around. Kind of like many other manly activities, like watching sports or ice fishing or drinking, or, if you’re lucky, doing all three at the same time.

Anyway, after the cooking, the next process was cooling the wort down from a boil to 70 or so degrees, something you want to do as quickly as possible to avoid contamination. Alton Brown had an episode of “Good Eats” where he accomplished this by adding ice to the mix, but Bill thought that was a bad idea for cleanliness reasons. I’m not sure who is right, frankly. What we did is put the pot into an ice bath in the sink:

beer #5

Seven pounds of ice wasn’t quite enough– we had to collect some snow.

Once everything was cooled down, it was time to pour the wort into the fermenter bucket, as Steve B. is doing here.

beer #6

The next step here is to add (or, in brewer lingo, “pitch”) the yeast, which is what changes this mess of steeped grain and malt into “beer.” And this is where we experienced the afternoon’s only “oh shit” moment. Apparently, Bill had not properly activitated the yeast a few hours before. Because the window of opportunity here is not large (though it isn’t that small, either), there was some concern that we’d have to dump not yet activated yeast into the fermenter with the wort and we’d simply have a 5 gallon bucket of crap.

We decided to wait around a bit to give the yeast to activate a bit, and while I had to leave before Bill and Steve B. actually pitched the yeast, I’m happy to report here that Bill says that all signals are positive. The fermenter is parked in Bill’s basement with an airlock in the top– a little do-hickey that allows gases out of the bucket but does not allow air (and potential contaminants) back in– and it’s bubbling away just like it should. In a week or two, Bill will transfer the beer into a different container (he’ll do this by himself– hopefully, I can get him to take some pictures to include here). A week or two after that, we’ll bottle; and a week or two after that, we’ll drink.

So, am I sold on the home brewing experience now? Well, I’m still on the fence, actually. On the one hand, it is clearly not rocket science; in fact, other than the fact that the whole process is spread over several hours and there are specific times in which you have to add specific ingredients, it’s not a whole lot more difficult than heating water and keeping it at a specific temperature.

On the other hand, it still seems a kind of pain in the ass. Sure, there is (and certainly will be when we’re all done here) a certain satisfaction in making your own beer, just as there is satisfaction in baking your own cake or your own bread. But they also sell those products in stores, and in the case of both cake and bread, I can buy much better versions than I can make myself, and it’s a lot less work to give someone money. So we’ll see.

By the way, the name that we’re playing with for the beer now is “Three Asses Pale Ale,” though I thought it might make more sense to suggest “Three Pale Asses Ale.” Bill was thinking of a label based on the five-assed monkey made by Dr. Mephisto on South Park. I can’t imagine something that says fine, drinkable beer better than references to asses.

When textbooks cost too much (which is often)

I came across this post on Maud Newton’s blog, where she’s quoting from GW Bush about fixing interest rates on students loans (apparently, this is a new change in the student loan program), despite the fact that it will potentially (likely, actually) allow corporations and other borrowers to get money with a lower interest rate. Click here for a more complete version of the story. Yet another example why it is clear that the phrase “the education president” was meant to be ironic.

In any event, on an issue that is perhaps a bit closer to my heart (because of my recent failures as a textbook writer) is this Washington Post article (which I found via Maud’s blog), “Swelling Textbook Costs have College Students Saying ‘Pass.'” Here’s a nice quote:

Textbook prices have been rising at double the rate of inflation for the past two decades, according to a Government Accountability Office study. In Virginia, more than 40 percent of students surveyed by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia said they sometimes just do without.

That’s been increasing, said Jennifer Libertowski of the National Association of College Stores; recently, the group found that nearly 60 percent of students nationwide choose not to buy all the course materials.

Sixty percent! Here’s some other fun facts from the article:

  • Textbooks and supplies costs an average of $900 a year, and it doesn’t matter much if you’re attending “Most Expensive and Quaint U” or “Cheap Cheap CC,” the books are about the same and the cost is about the same– but a greater percentage of the bill for students at Cheap CC, who are liable to be paying most of their expenses by working anyway.
  • According to the GAO study on which this article is based, textbook costs tripled between 1986 and 2004.
  • And then there’s this passage: “Students have plenty of conspiracy theories for the rising prices: Greedy publishers who change the cover just to charge more. Self-absorbed professors who assign their own masterpieces or forget to list the books till it’s too late to find a used copy. Overpriced stores.” The article tries to correct some of the “conspiracy theory” here in the next paragraph, suggesting that the profit margin on textbooks is low (at least compared to things like sweatshirts and mugs). Riiight. That’s why no one is making money off of used textbooks or why the price of new textbooks keeps going up for no apparent reason.

Arguably, English studies and composition is “less guilty” in some ways than other fields in terms of the overall cost issues because our textbooks tend to have less expensive “production values” than books for art or the sciences which are routinely filled with hundreds of elaborate color images. But English– particularly first year composition, the one course that just about every college student in this country has to take–is also a cash cow for textbook publishers. I once had a book rep explain to me that the profit margin on the most expensive textbooks (the ones in the sciences and the arts with lots of color printing and such) is actually a break-even proposition for publishers; conversely, because first year composition books are so cheap to make and the volume is so high, the profit margin on those books is quite large.

I’m not saying that textbook companies don’t serve a valuable purpose in the composition community; there’s a lot of textbooks that I have used in the past that I like a great deal, and I also know, that when I started teaching first year composition many moons ago, I learned a lot from the textbook that was assigned to both my students and to me. I do and I will continue to use textbooks in my teaching, though nowadays, I also tend to find out how much students are going to have to pay students before I make the adoption decision.

But I also think that textbook companies don’t do enough to make materials available at a more reasonable cost, mainly because many of these folks still seem to not “get it” when it comes to electronic publishing, and also because they are terrified about doing anything that might cut into profits.

Take my efforts at trying to publish a version of my textbook online. This is a project in which McGraw-Hill has decided to more or less abandon. Based on a review scheme that I think is debatable at best (but that’s another post), they’ve decided that the interest out there is not great enough to justify a publishing run for my book. I’m not happy about that, but okay, these things happen. So, at no cost to McGraw-Hill, I suggested that I make it available electronically. To date, the answer has been a combination of “no” and a non-answer, and as far as I can tell, the main reason why McGraw-Hill doesn’t want me to publish the book I wrote on a web site– a book project that they would continue to own, I might add– is because some people might actually read and/or use the book, and, somehow, this will cut into the profits of the print books, despite the fact that the review process suggested that that many folks aren’t interested in it.

But enough about my problems.

My point simply is this: according to this article, a surprising number of students are already self-opting out of textbook purchases. If the prices keep going up, it seems entirely possible that teachers will seek other options, too.

Link-a-dink

It’s been a pretty crazy-busy week around here, mostly with one thing or another with various school things that have little to do with teaching or scholarship, including an all day meeting yesterday about NCATE, which I suspect is going to be the bane of everyone’s existence at EMU for the next few years.

Anyway, I’ve been meaning to post here about a variety of different things during the week, but I haven’t had time. And just to complicate matters more, I’ve spent the last couple hours (off and on, and while listening to the radio) coming across even more cool links. So, with little commentary and no sorting, here are all of these things now in no particular order:

Alright, enough of that. Now I’ve got to get back to my to-do list to get ready for a crazy week next week….