Monday, January 30, 2006

I'm being stalked by a meadow

OK, so some time back, I posted about the other TMWA on the web: the Truckee Meadows Water Authority, which is the first thing which comes up when you search for TMWA, and which is probably why I'm missing out on all that traffic from random people searching for "TMWA" as a lark.

A few weeks ago while job hunting, I discovered a posting from a Truckee Meadows Community College district. I'm not really looking for community college jobs, but I stared at this for a minute or two before I remembered where I'd seen it before. I thought it was kind of amusing, but otherwise ignored it.

More recently, I've been looking for an on-line homework system to replace the one we used to use from the textbook publisher (see "Never Trust a Publisher" and "More on Publishers" below). My favorite system has a listing of colleges which have the system installed and running. Their are nine sites listed, and there at number six is... Truckee Meadows Community College.

Of course, incidents two and three are not necessarily unrelated. If the system was installed this year, there may be some faculty member going "Oh my gosh, I don't want to learn all that!", which is why they suddenly have a vacancy. Maybe I need to encourage schools I'm interested in to adopt complicated systems.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

More on Publishers

Well the new on-line homework system the publisher was pushing is finally available, and I spent this morning looking it over and playing with it. Unfortunately it took me probably less than an hour to find the fatal flaw.

The new version of the system has lots of lovely features, but in one area it's a major downgrade. You see, the old system allowed you download and upload testbank files, which allowed me to make edits to the original files and create new problems, complete with mathematical notation and algorithms to generate the answers. Now granted, they didn't exactly provide a manual for the format of the files or the language used to generate the algorithms, but I could figure most of it out by trial and error.

The new system has apparently "protected" users from ever having to see those awful text files. There is no way to download or upload a question bank. The only way to write a new question is to use the built-in editor, which is very limited. (No algorithmically generated answers, no symbolic answers, and no mathematical notation. Basically just text, for questions and answers.) There is no way to edit a built-in question if you don't like it.

I sent a message to their technical support people asking if I had missed anything, and the answer was no, there is no way to edit the files directly or write more complicated questions. But they thought it was a great idea and they would pass it along to their development people for future work. Of course I'm a bit perplexed as to how they came up with idea to leave out a feature in what is supposed to be an upgrade. (I suspect it was probably intended to "fool-proof" their system so that pesky people like me would quit tweaking their system, actually.)

Now we're going to have to figure out what happens next.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Never trust a publisher

I'm getting a course off this semester for course development, mostly because the textbook publisher is changing book editions. The change in book editions is not a big problem; as usual, the changes are minor adjustments mostly designed (I think) to keep students from buying used textbooks. However, we use an on-line homework system from the publisher in large classes, and they are updating to a completely new version of the system. This is a major change for us.

This fall, after I had passed on the course to another instructor, the publisher wanted us to switch to the new system for spring semester. A system which the publisher said would not be ready until November. The instructor in charge of the course (wisely) didn't want to do this; she wanted to keep the old system for spring and consider switching to the new system next year if we wanted to. After all, we wanted time to look at the system before we committed to using it, and November was a little late to be planning for spring semester.

Well, the textbook publisher wasn't happy about this. They wanted to sell their new book and system right away. They kept pushing and pushing this, and were fairly unwilling to let us order the old system. We were planning on finding ways to do without the system altogether for the spring (and maybe forever, considering), but apparently they caved at the last minute, because our order finally showed up at the bookstore this January.

At the start of the semester, we decided to sign up for an account on the new system so we could start experimenting with it and figure out what (if anything) we needed to change. (Remember, this is the system the publisher had wanted us to be using right now.) When we applied, we got back an automatic e-mail that started with something like:
Thank you for your interest in ******. The course you have requested is currently still in development. We will send you an e-mail as soon as it becomes available....

Never, and I mean never, trust a publisher.

My greatest weakness is my experience

I'm back to teaching a course that I know well. I became the course coordinator and oversaw the transition to large sections, then taught all the sections exclusively for a year. I spent another year splitting the course with someone else and teaching them how everything I built worked. And I've come to realize that sometimes I make more mistakes with things that I know really well.

There are all these little niggling things that I figured out in the first semester: bugs in software, common student errors, problems with the schedule, etc. By the second semester, I knew where all the pitfalls lay. I had fixed the bugs that could be fixed and warned students in advance of the problems they were going to encounter.

And by the third semester I forgot them all again.

I have had a lot of "D'oh!" moments after the first two semesters. Those times when I start getting students e-mails and suddenly go "Oh right! I needed to tell them to install Java on their computers..." Or: "Whoops! Forgot to teach them about order of operations again."

I guess I figure I've been doing all this for several semesters, so surely they must know it all too. (To be fair, there probably are some students who have been taking the class for as many semesters as I've been teaching it, but I try not to dwell on that.)

But today I remembered something I usually forget, so I'm ahead of the game for the moment.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Pile

My next door neighbor moved about a week ago to be closer to her family. I was expecting that, because I talked to her from time to time and occasionally helped her out with a few things, particularly when she moved in. (Mostly I think she was lonely.)

What I wasn't expecting was the large pile of junk which appeared in my front yard on the same day she moved out. When I came home in the evening, there was a pile (including 4 mattresses, two floor lamps, a partially disassembled dresser, some headboards, boxes, various small appliances, and some bags of trash) left on my side of the yard. (It's a duplex.) My neighbor appeared to be gone. I was at a bit of a loss as to what that meant. I was fairly sure (but not positive yet) that the stuff was probably hers, but I wasn't sure why it was there. Was somebody coming back for this stuff? Was it just trash they decided to abandon? Why was it on my side of the yard?

I called up my rental company the next morning to let them know about it. They said they would ask if it was something she was coming back for, and if not, they would haul it away. They also confirmed she had moved out the previous day. I asked the neighbor across the street, but he hadn't been in when the stuff got dumped either, so he didn't know how it got there. He did however spot junk mail addressed to my previous neighbor in one of the trash bags, so I'm pretty sure it was actually hers. (Although really, how often does random junk just get dumped in someone's front yard?)

Now the pile has been there about a week, and the weird thing is it has been shrinking. I'm sort of doubtful that they are coming back for it a few items at a time. I think people in the neighborhood are just raiding it for things that they like. One floor lamp disappeared, then the other. A few items here and there vanished. It kind of gave me the willies when two of the mattresses disappeared, after sitting out on the ground and being rained on for a couple of days. (I kind of hate to even think about that one.)

As far as I'm concerned, anyone can take anything they want. (But I do wish people would quit throwing the junk around my yard when they root through the pile.) I just want to see the pile shrink away completely. I may need to call the property manager again and find out when this junk is going to be gone. I'm sure all the local cats will be delighted when it becomes infested with mice, but I'm less than thrilled. And not very happy with a neighbor I used to like.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Back Again

I've been away for some extended traveling, and I'm glad to be home again. Living in other people's spaces frays my nerves after a while, and it's good to have your own bed, your own schedule, and sole custody of the remote control. (At the same time it's hard to say goodbye when it's time to go. I envy anyone who can live in the same state as their significant other.)

I spent Christmas in Atlanta with my partner and his family, which was lovely, and flew to Dallas for a week to see my parents. I got an offer to upgrade to first-class and took it, so I arrived feeling less like I have been beaten with a stick than I'm used to. (The flight was also shorter, since they took off late and had to make up time. Since I'd paid to upgrade it left me feeling as if I should ask if they'd circle the airport a few times, just to get my money's worth.) While I'm really glad that I didn't have to spend the flight hunching up my shoulders to fit into the seat, I found some of the things that differentiate first class from economy sort of odd. Like getting a drink right before the plane takes off on the runway, and getting real glasses instead of plastic cups once we were in flight. (Personally, I'm iffy about real glasses. How and when do they clean these things?) Oh, and you'll be glad to know that the TSA is making our skies safer by now insisting that only travelers in first class can use the bathroom in first class.

Once their, I spent New Year's with my family. We spent part of my visit doing math problems. Well, OK, only one math problem: my Mom wanted to figure out the area of the lot their house sits on. It's a harder question than it sounds. Because it's on a cul-de-sac, there is not a right angle or parallel line to be found in the surveyor's plat, and one section is cut off by a circular arc. It took a while to solve the problem, and it involved so much good math I'm passing this on to my friend here who teaches geometry for architects.

Now I'm home and catching up on everything, including getting ready for a semester about to start. My held mail included a letter from my rental agency deciding I really have to tell them by February if I'm staying here or not. (They originally wanted to know in November, but I told them I didn't know.) I have five job applications submitted and may send more if more jobs come up; not one of the colleges has started conducting interviews. (I had a "We have received your application letter" in the same stack.) Oh well, something else exciting to look forward to.