September 2005

Students lacking the basics

That universities are trying to cope with incoming students lacking basic skills is not new; when I was a teaching assistant in the mid- to late 1990s, I too was surprised by how poorly written some of the papers handed into me to mark were. At the time my reaction was to blame the high schools for not preparing the kids properly for university — we were doing their job for them, I fumed — and the Globe and Mail article echoes that line of thought.

Except that now I hear from high school teachers who complain that students are leaving elementary school with virtually no math or reading skills. If you think it’s bad to have first-year university students with a 90 average but only Grade 9 writing skills, how about a Grade 7 student who reads at a Grade 2 level? (Granted, that student is not likely to be university-bound.) And then I hear from elementary teachers who have to play catchup with kids who are way behind the norm for their age group, and they’re spending a good chunk of their limited time playing catchup. Once a kid falls behind, it seems that it’s almost impossible for the system to bring them back up. But where does it start? Blaming the teachers (or the system) at the earlier level, it seems, is at best incomplete.

Homely office

My office got a lot more liveable this week. Anticipating a major purchase of large front-loading cages for our larger snakes, on Sunday we moved the twin bed, which had been in the snake room, to my office, and moved the bookshelves and desk around a bit. As a result, the office is much cosier and more pleasant to be in — it feels lived in, rather than camped in, if you follow me.

Having the bed here rather than there not only means that house guests won’t have to sleep next to a few dozen reptiles, some of whom are rather nocturnal (then again, that idea held some appeal to some of my friends), it also means that there’s somewhere to sit other than at my desk. Which Jen and I put to good use last night as I redesigned her site: she sat on the bed with her laptop and watched, live, as I made adjustments to the code. Went quite quickly, actually — instant feedback means a great deal.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that we worked on her site last night and there’s some new material up. Go see.

Meanwhile, our next task is to make the reptile room look a little more liveable, now that there’s a big empty spot that will not be filled by a thousand bucks’ worth of stackable cages for some time yet.

.Mac upgraded


Apple’s .Mac suite of Internet services was upgraded this morning, just before the early adopters’ annual subscriptions come up for renewal. In a nutshell, the enhancements are: a bump in disk space, from 250 MB to 1 GB; Backup 3.0, with incremental backups and backup plans; and a new Groups feature.

I’m already making use of Backup 3.0: I bought a 160-gigabyte external FireWire drive for backup and extra storage last week; I figured that data loss was not something I could cope with. Version 3 is definitely an improvement, especially with the automated plans. It’ll be a lot easier to back up my data like a good boy.

As for Groups — well, it’s something I’d like to use, but it’s much more limited than other social-networking services. Private, invitation-only, and needs a trial account. There’s probably a use for this, but its niche is not yet obvious to me. Must ponder.

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Solving the iMac lockup problem

Ever since I got my 17-inch G4 iMac in December 2003, I’ve periodically run into a problem where the computer would lock up when entering sleep mode: the screen would be dark, but the computer would not respond to any user input. It happened relatively infrequently, and relatively irregularly: a couple of times a week, then nothing for months. One suggestion was faulty RAM, but I didn’t think that fit the description. At least it was infrequent enough that it didn’t interfere overmuch with my work; I rarely, if ever, lost any data.

It happened again this morning. For some reason it occurred to me to yank out the Bluetooth adapter from the USB hub. It worked immediately: the computer sprung back to life.

Now why didn’t I think of that before? That Bluetooth adapter — it’s an older D-Link dongle that isn’t compatible with Apple’s wireless mouse and keyboard — had been giving me trouble with my G3 iBook. Just not the same kind of trouble, I suppose, or I’d have recognized it sooner.

How many snakes?

“How many snakes do you have?” That’s easily the most common question we get about our snake keeping. The number fluctuates, especially if you include the offspring we’re raising for sale, but it hovers around 40 or so permanent snakes. Right now — I just counted — we have 38 permanent snakes and seven babies being raised for sale.

The answer to the first question invariably brings us to the second question: “How can you keep that many snakes?”

The straight answer is, they don’t take up much room and their cages are stackable. This is quite true: zoo guidelines suggest that snakes be kept in cages the combined length and width of which equal or exceed the snake’s length — for example, a four-foot snake would be properly housed in a cage three feet long and one foot deep. And since we make a point of working with smaller species — about one-third of the collection is made up of garter snakes, for example — it’s not at all difficult to find the room for that number of snakes.

But people asking that question aren’t really looking for a technical answer; they’re really asking, “How (on Earth) can you (possibly) keep … ” It’s akin to being asked how you can possibly eat a disgusting food item: while saying that “I open my mouth and shovel it in” is technically answering the question, it’s not what they mean.

So I’ll try to answer the question they’re really asking.

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iTunes 5 bug reports


Reports of problems with iTunes 5, which was released last week, are beginning to circulate. Here’s another data point for the blogosphere. When I installed it I received an error message when it tried to import my iTunes 4 library, but my music all showed up. It hosed my podcast subscriptions, though; they disappeared from “Podcasts,” but remained as separate playlists. Reconstructing my podcast subscriptions was trivial — I only have a few — but now they stay in my regular library, and don’t get removed when I’m done with them unless I remove them manually. No other problems with iTunes 5, though.

Alaska road trips

Two travel narratives about road trips to Alaska have come to my attention within the last 12 hours or so: Brian Tiemann’s three-week whirlwind from San José and back, complete with GPS tracklogs and tons of photos; and The Globe and Beyond, a trip journal by a couple who’ve quit their newspaper jobs and spent nearly the entire summer on the road (via Gadling). Of course this is giving me ideas, however impractical they may be. I can still dream.

Stompin’ Tom comes to Shawville

Leaving the Shawville Fair The Shawville Fair is on this weekend. I don’t normally go; I’m not comfortable in crowds. It’s all the more crowded today because Stompin’ Tom Connors played tonight. Jen reported that the place was packed this afternoon, and for at least the last hour, a long, slow line of cars has been working its way, bumper-to-bumper, down Centre Street. The gate at the Fair is usually around 50,000; I suspect that the record will have been broken this time. (Keep in mind that this town has a population of around 1,500; this is its one big weekend.)

Angry about anarchy

I’ve been spending a good part of this week on The Map Room, posting links to maps and satellite photos of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. While my focus has been on the view from the sky, it’s the reports from the ground that disturb me. From all accounts, New Orleans has descended into anarchy; the wide-scale suffering beggars belief and fills me with fury. More so when bureaucrats and politicians seemed utterly unaware of the problem and completely tone-deaf to compassion. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s anger and frustration is all too evident in this radio interview (3.2 MB MP3), and all too understandable; you simply must listen to it (via MetaFilter).

It angers me that the U.S. has done such a piss-poor job of handling a city-wide disaster; how would this have been any different if terrorists had set off a small nuclear bomb? It angers me that “homeland security” has more to do with token security measures at airports, the systematic stripping away of civil liberties, and generating a politically useful climate of fear than it does with disaster readiness. It angers me that the reason, I suspect, that so little was done for people on the ground on New Orleans was because they’re mainly poor and black. And it angers me that arrogant twerps — from the Speaker of the House on down — have been blaming the residents for living where they do. (As though other places aren’t vulnerable to disasters.) Blaming the victims — for being poor, or infirm, or living in the wrong place at the wrong time. (Or it’s because God is punishing them for their wickedness. Oy.)

The inhumanity this week extends far beyond the looters and bandits in the flooded areas.