Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Ideas and Madness

First, a side note: Thanks to electronic books, I’ve just finished reading H.G. Wells’ “The Invisible Man,” one of many classics I’ve read only in electronic form. I’ve read a few studies where researchers show electronic devices are disengaging us from reading – and I’d like to stand out as an outlier. Having classic books on an electronic device has made me more likely to read them, to retain information from them, and to want to read additional similar books.

Now, The Invisible Man.

Pure science fiction, concentrating on the two big sci-fi themes: The Idea, and the Madness Behind the Idea.

The idea of the Invisible Man, of course, isn’t invisibility: It’s that the devil is always in the details of any grand Idea pursued to fruition.

Griffin, the Invisible Man, achieves invisibility – but quickly realizes there’s precious little he can do with it. As he tells his classmate Kemp:

I made a mistake, Kemp, a huge mistake, in carrying this thing through alone. I have waste strength, time, opportunities. Alone – it is wonderful how little a man can do alone! To rob a little, to hurt a little, and there is the end.

Hitherto I have gone on vague lines. We have to consider all that invisibility means, all that it does not mean. It means little advantage for eavesdropping, and so forth – one make sounds. It’s of little help – a little help perhaps – in housebreaking and so forth. Once you’ve caught me you could easily imprison me. But on the other hand I am hard to catch. This invisibility, in fact, is only good in two cases: It’s useful in getting away, it’s useful in approaching. It’s particularly useful, therefore, in killing. I can walk round a man, whatever weapon he has, choose my point, strike as I like. Dodge as I like. Escape as I like.

Griffin discovered, in his twisted, isolated mind, that there were few advantages to the goal he sought – once he had achieved it and yet had no way to turn back the clock.

I’m struck by how often isolation is used in science fiction – even this early science fiction – to demonstrate the madness behind the Idea – the devil in the details. Alone, one is easy to persuade that the end is all that matters, discovering only afterward that the end presents its own dangers.

Kind of reminds me of another isolationist:

So what are the flaws in Ted Kaczynski’s Idea – aside from his forcing his idea onto others by the same killing Griffin decides to pursue?

Kaczynski’s idea that technology is all bad is, of course, flawed. There are bad uses of technology, and much time wasted in its use, but the benefits of, say, computers and the Internet, of advances in travel and medicine, outweigh what disadvantages we can identify. If there are shortcomings in technology, it is that, as with Kaczynski, there are shortcomings in how we deal with people and technology, not in other people and technology on their own. The flaws we see in society are more often than not the flaws we project onto society from our own darkened windows. That is the madness behind the idea.

Teaching Sans E-mail

An interesting article from Inside Higher Ed concerning a college instructor’s “Don’t email me” policy – which she says has increased students’ in-class preparedness and improved their writing.

First, I’m interested in the policy itself – and the parsing one can do with it. Then I’ll look at how such a policy could be applied in an online course where students and teachers aren’t on the same campus – or even in the same town, state, country or continent, as is my experience – and how such a policy could be introduced. Or not.

First, the policy:

Email is allowed in two instances: First, to set up a face-to-face meeting. Second, to send links to material that could be used in class. That’s it. Any questions the students have ought to be asked in class, by phone, or in person. No more emails.

The instructor, Spring-Serenity Duvall, who teaches communications courses, grew tired of questions that could be answered with a mere “it’s in the syllabus.” Thus the policy.

Her original post on the matter is here (scroll down a bit, the blog is laid out a bit oddly).

Now, I’ve never read any of her syllabi. Maybe they’re as thick as country music. Maybe they’re not readily available to students (and I’ve discovered that figuratively pinning them to their shirts by either handing out physical copies or posting them on a public spot on the Internet doesn’t mean they’re “readily available” because the students lose them, forget the link, or just outright don’t read them).

And I have to wonder: How many emails was she getting a day? A week? I’ve been teaching online classes for more than three years now, and I can’t say I’ve had a week where I got more than a dozen emails from students. And maybe that’s because of the already online nature of the courses I teach – I’m “in class” on a daily basis, responding to student questions there, and students are in class where the syllabus is only a click away, as are assignment rubrics and such. Having a physical classroom, where such stuff isn’t readily available, probably makes things different.

This leads me to the second question: Does a no-email policy make sense for an online course?

Probably not.

As mentioned, I’m not flooded with student email.

Secondly, face-to-face meetings are highly complicated, given that, as in semesters past, I have students in vastly different time zones attending class. Last semester I had students literally half a world away. Telling them they have to meet with me face to face, even virtually, to ask a question introduces some significant logistics problems – juggling flaky Internet service and trying to figure out the difference in time zones. Allowing for email access is clearly the simpler route for both parties here.

Nevertheless, I do enjoy Duvall’s de facto re-emphasis of face to face meetings, where she and students are able, one on one, to get to know each other better. There is something about hearing a voice or seeing a face that makes people want to connect better and to help each other out more.
So for my online efforts, probably keeping the email pipe open is a good practice. A better practice is to make myself more “physically” available through chats and online classrooms, with camera feeds.
Unfortunately, she doesn’t quantify or qualify her statement that the policy led to students writing better papers. (She writes: “It’s difficult to convey just how wonderful it was for students to stop by office hours more often, to ask questions about assignments in the class periods leading up to due dates, and to have students rise to the expectation that they know the syllabus. Their papers were better, they were more prepared for class time than I’ve ever experienced.”)

One can assume that the questions asked in the face-to-face sessions made the papers better – but wouldn’t questions asked electronically have had the same effect? To bolster this part of her argument, Duvall needs to delve more into what made her students’ papers better. Frankly, I’ve had semesters where, overall, student writing was better than the past – I chalk that up more to student age, experience, and comfort with writing than any face-to-face conversations or electronic conversations I might have with them. I’m a realist, not an idealist.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Forget Peer Review. Try Fark.

“As you know, the concept of the suction pump is centuries old.  Really that’s all this is, except that instead of sucking water, I’m sucking life. I’ve just sucked one year of your life away. I might one day go as high as five, but, I really don’t know what that would do to you. So let’s just start with what we have.”

Would Count Rugen, I wonder, turn to the Internet for help in his research? Part of me – the part that remembers that secret knot that even the Count said was always so difficult to find – says no. But that’s not stopping others.


And it gets even beholdier. (You have to click the link to understand that I'm ranting about an inventor seeking advice on an invention at Fark.com -- a site dedicated not to inventing or engineering or marketing, but to snarky news commentary.

Now I’m being presumptuous in thinking that the inventor of this nifty pump isn’t going to like-minded scientists to find real-world applications for his or her invention. But going to a snarky website where juveniles run maturely supreme doesn’t seem like a natural for scientific inquiry or commercial development outside of anything than a new and improved Whoopie Cushion.

But I’m being unfair. Why not go where the public is on the Net? It should be clear enough to filter the snark from the comments to find the germ of a great application. Unless someone posts the next collection of mugshots or a roundup of what politicians did or didn’t do over the weekend. Going where the public is good. Going where a more scientifically-minded public goes might be even better. Surely there are places . . . 

I shouldn’t be one to quibble with such a choice: I’ve got Facebook friends beta reading a book right now. If someone from Fark opted to beta read it, I’d be thrilled.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Details Emerge on ICP Core Contract Timeline

The Department of Energy released today a timeline for the “ICP Core” cleanup contract, set to last from the beginning of the 2015 fiscal year to the end of the 2020 fiscal year.

Details on the timeline can be found here.

As mentioned earlier, the Core contract includes waste remediation at not only INTEC and RWMC but also AMWTP. From the timeline: 

The ICP-Core post FY15 EM mission work encompasses ongoing Advanced Waste Treatment Project (AMWTP) and ICP work scopes that must continue into the future: stabilizing and dispositioning spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste; dispositioning transuranic waste; retrieving target buried waste; closing the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center (INTEC) tank farm; maintaining Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) remedial actions; and operating and maintaining the INTEC and the Radioactive Waste Management Complex (RWMC) facility infrastructure. 

Additionally, the contract timeline ensures “100% full and open competition” – not really a surprise considering if DOE wanted CWI to continue the work they could have extended the contract again as they did two years ago.

More details will be provided at the Core procurement website. 

Competition is likely to be fierce, as there’s a lot of money involved. DOE’s acquisition forecast on the Core project alone anticipates at least $1 billion worth of work to be completed. (The other three DOE-ID contracts are estimated to be worth (for one) between $25-$50 million and for two others at $50 million to $1 billion. Not chump change. 

CWI, of course, would be foolish not to bid. They’ll bank on their current record of completing work at RWMC and INTEC on time and under budget as serious selling points to the Feds. Cooperative work between CWI and AMWTP on sludge repackaging may also play a role. No surprises there, of course.

UPDATE: CWI may technically not be around in its current form to bid on the next contract. Found this today:

While both parent companies, CH2M Hill and URS (currently being acquired by AECOM) may pursue future work in support of Idaho Cleanup activities beyond 2015, CH2M-WG Idaho, LLC (CWI) was originally comprised by its parent companies exclusively for a specific scope of work; teaming decisions have not yet been determined for future contracts. DOE recently announced its acquisition strategy which will merge ICP and AMWTP work scopes together, yet establish four separate contracts. Considering this strategy, along with the acquisition of URS, it is unlikely CWI would maintain its current form.

Meanwhile, In Russia . . .

NaNoWriMo 2014

The annual question comes up: Will I participate in NaNoWriMo 2014?

On the pro side: I’ve completed the challenge for the past three years.

On the con side: I’ve yet to get any of those novels to a state of completion, though last year’s entrant, DOLEFUL CREATURES, is now with beta readers.

On the pro side: I’m not short of ideas. Like this. Or this. Or this.

On the con side: I’m great at starting things. Not so great at finishing them.

I want to finish something.

There’s good stuff in them thar novels. I’m sure of it. I’ve read enough good novels to know there’s good in what I’ve written. But I have a difficult time separating the wheat from the chaff, and I’m not sure harvesting another field while the crop lays ready to the stooked into stacks in a few others is a good thing to do.

The good thing is if I finish a novel, I’ll likely moan less on this blog about not being able to finish things. Of course, that’ll be replaced with crowing about the completed novel, but a change is as good as a rest, you know?

Meanwhile, here's a fat smurf. What this has to do with the question at hand, I do not know.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Indie Publishing Means You Need EXTRA Criticism. And to Listen to It.

There’s an education to be had over at lousybookcovers.com.

Multiple educations, rather. And only a few of them have to do with making the cover of your book look good.

The biggest takeaway: Don’t spare the beta reading. Or the beta reactions to anything connected with your book. And don’t pick beta readers from within your echo chamber. They’ll tell you what you want to hear.

And then listen to them. Unlike the person responding to the criticism on this thread.

The growth of electronic publishing is freeing up a lot of authors who might not otherwise get past the publishing gatekeepers. This is both a good and bad thing. Bad in that since there’s a lack of gatekeepers, quality is sometimes on the low end. Now, that happens with traditional publishing too – I’ve read plenty of traditionally-published books that were real stinkers. But the ease of electronic publishing is doing the same thing to books that automation is doing in the airline industry: 

Producing too many individuals familiar with the technology and motions, but not really the substance.

Good editors can help turn a good book into a great book. Same goes for good beta readers. I’m lucky in that I’ve got a few who are pointing out the many, many flaws in DOLEFUL CREATURES. But like some of today’s pilots who are so used to flying by wire they’re not able to read the physical language their planes send when there’s trouble, these authors are going through the physical and technical motions of writing and publishing novels while skipping or at least treating very lightly the editing process, which in my mind is the aviation equivalent of pulling up on the stick and slowing your plane down as you’re falling into a stall.

Portlandia seems to understand what I'm talking about: