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2020 March 27

Day off today, planning sabbatical

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:47
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Today was a day off for University of California, celebrating Cesar Chavez Day, though the official day for that is next Tuesday March 31.  I did a little undergraduate director work via e-mail, but mostly took it easy today.

Trader Joe’s

I started the day by bicycling to Trader Joe’s to take advantage of their first hour for seniors (I’m over 65 now, so I qualify, though I don’t think I’m at particularly high risk). The setup was that they had two lines—one for seniors and one for others, allowing people to self-identify to choose which line to join.  The cart handles were being cleaned between uses and customers were getting their hands sprayed before being let in.  They were regulating the number of people at a time in the store, but the line moved fairly quickly, as people were not lingering in the store.

Trader Joe’s has always had super-wide aisles, so social distancing in the store was easy.  I quickly grabbed the stuff I had come for (most of my TJ staples: beer, cider, port, chocolate, paper towels, and soap) and checked out quickly so that others could enter the store.  I don’t think I need to go back to TJs for a couple of weeks, as I have at least a 2-week supply now of just about everything that I ever buy there (we got laundry detergent, cereal, and toilet paper a week or two before shopping got crazy).

Mowing lawn

After I got home from shopping (and scrubbing my hands and the doorknobs I’d touched), I got out the electric lawn mower and mowed both the front yard and the back yard.  The grass (and oxalis and wild onions and all the many other plants that make up my “lawn”) had gotten pretty long, but the plants were still soft, young plants, so the mowing went fairly quickly.  I even managed to fill my 40-gallon green-waste container with blackberry vines, ivy, and chunks of the dead rosemary bush.

Having sabbatical  this spring does mean that I’ll probably be able to keep the grass cut this year, for the first time in about a decade.  No 4′-high meadow with 8′ thistles this year!  Removing all the ivy and blackberries, though, is probably beyond me—filling the 40-gallon green-waste container weekly will probably be just enough to keep the current overgrowth from getting bigger, without making an appreciable dent in the 500 square feet covered with with them.

Preparing for sabbatical

I’m going to take this weekend off (sleeping, re-reading fantasy or science fiction books) and on Monday I’ll start working on creating video tutorials for sections of my book. I’m still debating how to do the visuals for the videos: prepared slides, pen on paper with a document camera, white board in front of the computer, or tablet and stylus.

I am not fond of prepared slides as a presentation style, though I know it has become the most common style for STEM lectures, so having a set of slides to bundle with the book might make it more attractive for instructors to adopt.  My lecture style has been more of an improvisational performance, triggered by questions from the students—that will not translate well to videos with no audience, so I’m going to have to develop a whole new teaching style for myself.

I’m looking at a few document cameras on Amazon ($100–$150), though I briefly considered making a stand for my cellphone (which has a 12MP camera) instead.  I think that having a USB-attached camera with a reasonably designed arm will work better with the various software I might use for making the video than trying to jury-rig something with my cellphone, so I’d be willing to invest in the document camera—if writing on paper works for me as a lecturing style.

The closest I’ve come to using that style in the past was in Spring 2000, after I had the bike accident that necessitated removing my spleen.  I had to lecture sitting down with an overhead projector until my ribs healed—I found it much more limiting than my usual large-whiteboard lecture style, as I could not build up an information-rich surface to point back to previous items on, as I had to keep changing pages.  Whatever I do for the videos is going to have the same problem, though, as the screen is a tiny, little window that can only hold one thing at a time.

I’ll probably also have to invest in colored markers if I lecture on paper—I write somewhat more legibly with a broad chisel-tip calligraphy marker.  I’ve only used black calligraphy markers in the past (the Itoya double-header), but I see that the same company makes colored ones in the same style.

I tried a whiteboard in front of my desktop for the last (optional) lecture of BME 51A.  It was not technically very successful—lighting and contrast were problems, as well as the size of the writing on the screen being too small.  I could try a small whiteboard with a document camera, but I suspect that it will not work as well as paper and calligraphy markers.

One big advantage of the document camera is that I can put small objects (like components or breadboards) on the screen easily—I even do that in some of my live lectures.

The most expensive option is to get a tablet computer (e.g., iPad or Surface) and pressure-sensitive stylus.  I’m not convinced that I’ll be able to write all that well on them, and interfacing them to software that let’s me switch easily back and forth between a head-shot camera, a small-parts camera, preprepared images, and the stuff-drawn-on-the-tablet may be difficult.

Of course, if I’m putting together a video, I don’t have the same time constraints that a live remote lecture would have, as I can film each scene separately and edit them together.  Editing takes up a lot of time though, so I’m not sure I want to go that route, rather than recording in one continuous stretch.  (Yes, I know the quality would be better if I spent a lot of time editing, but I’m not sure I have the time to do even quick-and-dirty tutorials on all the topics.)

Another big change for me is that I’ll probably have to work from a script, rather than doing an improv lecture.  That’s because I’ll need to do closed-captioning on the videos if I post them on YouTube, as the automatic YouTube closed captioning is ludicrously bad (see YouTube closed captions are awful), and it takes forever to put in the captioning unless you have a script already prepared.

Going from big whiteboard real estate and an improv style to tiny screens and tight scripting is going to be a big change for me.  It’s a good thing I have six months to experiment with different approaches and don’t have to go live on Monday  like most of my colleagues.

Unexpected consequences

One good consequence of the sudden forced switch to remote teaching is that there has been more discussion of pedagogical tools (Canvas quizzes, document cameras, tablets, zoom, take-home exams, …) among the faculty in the past week than there has been in the previous 5 years.

Unfortunately, all the discussion has been about lecturing and high-volume remote testing, with none about teaching writing, engineering design, or hands-on lab skills, which are the topics that really need attention (but which are probably going to be sacrificed in this quarter’s remote teaching).

2019 March 17

Sabbaticals until retirement revisited

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:58
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In Sabbaticals until retirement, three years ago, I outlined a sabbatical plan for using up my sabbatical credits slowly:

year Fall Winter Spring credits left
2015–16 +1 +1 +1 20
2016–17 –6 +1 +1 16
2017–18 –6 +1 +1 12
2018–19 –6 +1 +1 8
2019–20 –6 +1 +1 4
2020–21 +1 –5 +1 1

I followed that plan through this year, but I won’t be able to continue with it, due to a misunderstanding on my part of the rules for sabbatical leave.  I can turn in n credits for n/9 salary, but only for n≥6, so the n=5 plan for 2020–21 cannot be made to work.  I found this out when I tried this year to modify the plan to

year Fall Winter Spring credits left
2019–20 –5 +1 +1 5
2020–21 –5 +1 +1 2

Because I can’t take 5/9 salary, I am going to switch to taking a leave without pay this fall, and then full-salary sabbatical in 2020:

year Fall Winter Spring credits left
2019–20 -0 +1 +1 10
2020–21 –9 +1 +1 3

I’ve decided that I need the break from grading more than I need the money—if I taught all three quarters next year with the number of hours per week I’ve been putting in this year, I’d burn out and retire a year earlier, which would cost me more.

The new plan will cost me about $5000 in extra insurance premiums (the University pays a share for medical, dental, and vision care insurance for sabbatical leave, but not leave without pay) in addition to losing a sabbatical-leave credit (worth about $5000 before taxes, or $3500 after taxes). Doing the leave without pay this fall allows me to take full salary for Fall 2020 sabbatical, using one more sabbatical-leave credit than if I took 8/9 pay this Fall.  If I had known about the 6/9 minimum earlier, I would have revised the plan for Fall 2018 to take 7/9 pay, rather than 6/9.

I can’t contribute to my HSA (Health Savings Account) while on leave without pay, so I need to change my contributions for the months that I will not be on leave.  The insurance premiums for the health care do count as allowable expenses for the HSA.

The Sabbaticals until retirement post also discussed the possibility of doing a “service buy-back” to buy service credit on my retirement for the foregone salary.  At the time it looked like a good investment, but the paperwork involved was daunting (I thought I had done it all and sent it in, but all that triggered was them sending me the paperwork to do all over again).  I’ll have to decide again on the service buyback this spring or early summer, since there is a 3-year limit on doing the buyback at a reasonable rate—after that they charge so much that it is clearly not a good investment.   The buyback I could do this year would get me 1/3 year extra service credit, which would increase my retirement salary by 0.83% of my HAPC (highest average plan compensation—essentially my annual salary at full time). I can use annuity calculators to figure out about how much that is worth and compare it to what the University would charge me.

2016 May 2

Sabbaticals until retirement

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:28
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I plan to take sabbaticals every year until I retire. Here’s how that works: for each quarter I work I get one “sabbatical leave credit”.  With the permission of my department chair (as part of the Curriculum Leave Plan each year), I can cash in the credits for sabbatical leave.  What is unusual about the UC system is that I can cash in the the credits for partial pay—9 credits gets me a quarter of sabbatical leave at full pay, 6 credits a quarter at 2/3 pay, and for n≤9, n credits a quarter at n/9ths pay.  The portion of my salary not paid to me is returned to the department, who can add it to their TAS (Temporary Academic Staffing) budget, or add it to their reserves, in the unlikely event that they have enough funding to cover all the lecturers for the year.  Taking partial-pay sabbaticals is easier for the department to cope with than taking full-pay ones, as there is no extra money for hiring replacement lecturers during full-pay sabbaticals.

As of the end of this quarter, I will have 20 sabbatical leave credits, so I could take 2 quarters off at full pay, but that’s not what I plan.  Instead I plan the following strategy, taking single-quarter, partial-pay sabbaticals every year for the next 5 years, then retiring (+1 means I’m teaching, a negative number indicates a sabbatical and how many leave credits I’ll use up):

year Fall Winter Spring credits left
2015–16 +1 +1 +1 20
2016–17 –6 +1 +1 16
2017–18 –6 +1 +1 12
2018–19 –6 +1 +1 8
2019–20 –6 +1 +1 4
2020–21 +1 –5 +1 1

I don’t have to take Fall quarters each year, but that is the quarter for which my teaching is easiest to cover by someone else, at least until I get someone trained to teach the applied electronics course.

Due to a quirk in the rules for retirement compensation, there is a significant advantage to separating from the University at the end of June, and starting retirement in July (a cost-of-living adjustment for those separated from the University but not yet retired), and I need to return from each sabbatical for at least as long as the sabbatical itself, so ending up with one credit at the end of spring is optimal use of sabbatical credits, which calls for a Winter quarter sabbatical in my last year.

I have to find someone to take over the Applied Electronics course by Winter 2021,  if I’m going to retire in summer 2021. It will also be interesting to figure out what course I’ll teach in Fall 2020, since I’ll have been out of the courses I’ve been teaching every Fall for 4 years at that point, and it might be better for me to pick up a different course.

One choice I have to make when taking partial sabbaticals is whether to “buy back” service credit for my defined-benefit retirement plan.

The defined benefit is 2.5% * years of service * (HAPC – $133*12) per year after retirement for life.   When I take partial-pay sabbatical, the “years of service” also accumulates more slowly. (HAPC is Highest Average Plan Compensation, which is the average over 36 months of base salary, excluding summer salary and stipends, for the highest-paid contiguous 36 months—taking partial-pay sabbaticals does not reduce HAPC, since it reduces % time, not base salary.)

Actually, the benefit is a bit more complicated than that, as there is a continuing 25% of the benefit to my wife, if I die before her.

As I understand it, I can buy back the service credit for 18.72% of the foregone salary—at least, that’s the Plan Normal Cost in 2016 (

The value of $1k/month for life is about $178k for someone retiring at age 66 (based on the cost of single-life annuities). Adding a 25% second-life benefit doesn’t raise the value much—maybe to $184k (25% is an unusual second life benefit, so I did not find an annuity calculator for it). More common are plans with full benefit to survivor, half benefit to survivor (2 lives treated symmetrically), or half benefit to annuity partner (lives treated asymmetrically, with no loss of benefit if partner dies, but drop in benefit if annuitant dies).

So I could buy-back 1/9 year of service for 2.08% of my annual salary, which would raise my annual income after retirement by about 0.275% of my salary.  That is a break-even time of about 91 months, substantially less than the 178 months of purchasing an annuity at age 66.  I’d have to get a 12% annual return on investment for 6 years to beat that investment, which is an unlikely return to get in the next few years.

If I’ve done my calculations right, then the service buyback is a very good investment for someone as old as me, being almost twice the return of a purchased annuity. Either I’ve done my calculations wrong (quite possible), or the leave buyback is mispriced. Since it seems that mainly senior management uses leave buyback, I can well believe that it is deliberately underpriced for old folks, as management loves giving itself perks.

For younger faculty, leave buyback might not make as much sense, since other investments are likely to grow faster than faculty salary does, and the value of the defined-benefit plan is tied to the HAPC.  Young faculty who leave UC long before retirement age get very little benefit from the defined-benefit plan, so there is higher risk associated with investing in a leave buyback.  Pre-tenure faculty should have a defined contribution plan, with the option of turning it into a defined-benefit plan when they get tenure.

2015 December 14

Sabbatical leave application 2016

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 14:33
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I’ve got to write an application for sabbatical leave and submit it before 2016 March 11.   My plans are to take sabbatical leave for fall quarters at ⅔ or 5/9 pay for the next five years, to gradually drain the accumulated sabbatical leave credits, rather than spending them all at once getting two quarters off at full pay.  If I do that, I can retire after Winter 2021 with one unused sabbatical credit (which is a little left as you can get, as you have to return to the university for at least as long as the duration of your last sabbatical).

It is better for the department for me to take sabbatical at partial pay, as the savings in salary is returned to the department as Temporary Academic Staffing (TAS) funds, which can be used for hiring lecturers.  If I took salary at full pay, the department would get nothing, and if I took leave without pay, they’d get my full salary—at ⅔ salary they get  the remaining ⅓, which should be enough to hire 1.5 lecturers to replace me for that quarter (and cover the 1.4 courses that I’d not be teaching).

The sabbatical leave form is only for the Fall 2016 leave and asks a lot of questions, some of which are difficult to answer briefly.

The application form shall be accompanied by a statement providing in detail the following information:

a. A brief history of the project, from inception through progress to date and projection as to completion date. This history shall include a description of the applicant’s preparation and any significant contributions already made in the field of activity with which the project is concerned.

I’m planning to do two things in Summer and Fall 2016: work on my textbook and try to find a bioelectronics project to design, preferably in collaboration with a doctor at UCSF.  Unfortunately, I don’t know any one at UCSF who has a problem that would be interesting for me to work on, and I’m not very good at the networking needed to find such collaborators. I’m also more interested in open hardware than in proprietary development, and that could be a bad mismatch for the UC emphasis on making money off of research developments in the biomedical field.

Even if I’m vague in the request about starting a bioelectronics project, giving a brief history of the textbook development will take some thought—I can’t very well give them the 373 blog posts I’ve written about the course, as they probably want only one or two paragraphs.  I suppose I should mention the times I’ve taught the course, the evolution of the lab handouts into the current draft of the book, and the need for revision based on changing the level and pace of the course next year. The course will be moved from upper division (junior/senior) to lower division (freshman/sophomore), and split into two quarters (2 4-unit courses, replacing the current 5+2-unit course).  The move to lower division means reducing the prerequisites (I’ll still have differential calculus as a prereq, but not calculus-based physics), which in turns means beefing up the background in the text and in the class, to cover the physics that the students won’t have had.

The book may be publishable after the Fall 2016 leave, but I’ll probably want to try using it at the slower pace during Winter and Spring 2017, and revise it Summer and Fall 2017, based on that experience.  I’m still not sure when the project will be “completed”.  There are many milestones along the way: used in the course (done Spring 2015), released to the public (done in draft form starting August 2015), all the “to-do” notes in the text done (maybe never—I keep finding more that needs to be improved), adopted for teaching by someone other than me, available on paper (maybe never—the cost of printing is high relative to PDF distribution, but see Textbook should be on paper), available in EPUB and MOBI formats (maybe never—those formats are awful for math and for scientific graphics), freezing an edition and getting an ISBN, distributing through a professional publisher (maybe never—the textbook publishers take way too big a share of too high a price, providing little in return except their name).

b. Significance of the project as a contribution to knowledge, to art, to a particular profession; or as an expected contribution to the applicant’s increased effectiveness as a teacher and scholar.

I could find no intro electronics textbook that was suitable for bioengineering students at the level I wanted to teach.  Everything that had sufficient design content assumed that the students had already had at least a circuits course and often several low-level analog electronics courses. The books that assumed no prior electronics experience all ended up being “cookbooks”, which had students building things that others designed, or “physics” books, doing demos to illustrate concepts, with no design work in either case. There seems to be a real need for books that get students to design simple electronics without years of preliminary drudgery.

c. Name(s) of the location(s) or institution(s) where the project will be carried on, and the names of authorities, if any, with whom it will be conducted.

Textbook writing will happen at home.  Finding a project to collaborate on with someone else is less definite—I’ll probably try to find collaborators at UCSF, though that will not be easy to arrange, as I don’t want to move to San Francisco, but only visit for a few days at a time every couple of weeks. Stanford would be closer, but the doctors at the Stanford medical school have easy access to Stanford engineering faculty, so finding a fruitful collaboration is likely to be harder.

d. Assurances of cooperation, or authorization to conduct the project, received from individuals, institutions, or agencies.

No authorization is needed for the textbook project, and nothing has been set up yet for doing a collaboration.  It may be that I’ll spend much of the first sabbatical just finding people and setting up mechanisms for later collaborations.

e. Description of all financial support expected during the sabbatical leave, including any fellowship, grant, government-sponsored exchange lectureship, or payment for contract research. (See also APM-740-18 and 740-19.)

No external support expected. I may do small amounts of consulting (well less than the 1-day-a-week limit), if the opportunity arises.

f. Description of University service which will be provided if the applicant proposes to substitute significant University service for some or all of the teaching/instructional requirements of a sabbatical leave in residence (See APM 740-8-b & CAPM 900.700-G)

Not doing a leave in residence, but I may still do some service work at UCSC while on leave, like giving the “Speaking Loudly” workshop for Women in Science and Engineering or helping the advising office with new-student orientation.

2015 December 8

Sabbatical plans for 2016–17

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 17:04
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In Considering splitting Applied Electronics course, I suggested that I would split the Applied Electronics for Bioengineers course into two courses next year, to make a more sane teaching/learning schedule, and said “I plan to take 1 quarter of sabbatical in each of 2016–17, 2017–18, and 2019–20 (or, at slightly reduced sabbatical salary, every year for the next 5 years).”

I’ve investigated this possibility some more, consulting with my department chair and department manager, along with other faculty in my department.  My plan is now to take sabbatical at 2/3 pay for Fall quarter next year and teach the Applied Electronics courses the other two quarters (plus the freshman design seminar one of the two quarters). The department would have to cover the grad courses I currently teach, but those are relatively easy to transition to other faculty, as about half the department has the requisite expertise.  There is even a lecturer who has taught the main course before (the last time I was on sabbatical), and the other half course is fairly easy to teach, as it can be adapted to interests of whoever is teaching it.

Initially I was worried that my taking sabbatical would hurt the department financially, because the department does not get any funding for replacing people on sabbatical leave.  But it turns out that if I take only partial pay while on sabbatical, the department gets the remaining salary, so if I take sabbatical at 2/3 pay for a quarter, the department gets 1/9 of my 9-month salary that it can spend on lecturers or TAs.  Because I’m paid more than a lecturer, that covers 1.5–2 courses of lecturer pay, which is about what I’m not teaching. So I won’t be putting the department in a financial bind by doing this.

I don’t think that I’ll miss the 1/9th of my salary, since I no longer am saving for my son’s college education, and my retirement funds have enough money in them for my planned retirement date.  If I do decide I need more money, I can teach in summer school, where each course would earn me 1/9th of my salary (or so I’ve been told).

My plans for next fall are mainly focused on finishing the textbook, which will probably include splitting it into two volumes, to correspond to the two halves of the course.  Because the course is also moving from upper division to lower division, and the prerequisites are being reduced, I’ll need to increase somewhat the background material, and rewrite it from “you should already know these things” to “background to learn very quickly”. I still don’t know whether I’ll try to get a traditional publisher to pick up the book or just continue to self-publish through Leanpub.  I’ll probably do some more investigation of that question over the summer and fall.

Over the next 5 years, I want to find some lecturers  (or faculty in other departments) who want to teach the Applied Electronics course, so that I can retire without the course disappearing.  It would make sense for the course to be renumbered to be in a different department (like Electrical Engineering or Computer Engineering), if instructors were provided by those departments.

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