Gas station without pumps

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).

2015 December 10

Disappointment with chain stores

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 21:26
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I’ve been getting more and more disappointed with large corporate chains and moving what little business they got from me elsewhere.

For example, I used to buy a lot of tea at Peet’s, which started as a small regional chain (initially in Berkeley, I believe). I often went there on weekends to do grading away from my computer. I’d buy a can of leaf tea, a piece of shortbread, and drink the free pot of tea that I got with the purchase of the can of tea leaves.  They were one of the few coffee shops that had a decent selection of teas, and they did not turn up the music to painfully loud levels to drive people out (the way that Lulu’s at the Octagon sometimes does). I bought a lot of tea there (probably over 100 cans), but I’ve gradually gotten less and less enamored of the place.

They started being out of shortbread almost every weekend, because the managers weren’t allowed to order the amount they needed—they were shipped a certain amount and that was it. Then they discontinued the shortbread entirely.  I never found out whether it was because they couldn’t get a reliable supply, or because only the Santa Cruz store was selling out of it, and in the corporate world you can’t have any differences between branches (uniformity trumps sales in corporate-land).

This fall, they merged with another company and cut their tea selection in half, eliminating some of my favorites and raising the prices substantially on what was left.  Given that their tea prices were high to begin with, keeping only the most overpriced teas told me that they did not value their tea-drinking customers.  I had heard from the staff that Santa Cruz had one of the highest ratios of tea to coffee of any of the Peet’s stores—not a surprise given how many good coffee shops there are within 2 blocks, and how few of them had a decent tea selection. Getting rid of their one distinction from their rivals struck me as corporate short-sightedness.

So I’ve given up doing my grading at Peet’s and have given up buying their tea. I now bike an extra couple of miles and get bulk tea at Staff of Life (one of the few locally owned grocery stores left in town, and the one with the best bulk selection). My tea is now a quarter the price of what Peet’s charges for their cans of tea leaves.  I’m still looking for a new place to grade away from my computer—the breakfast room in my house is not far enough away to avoid distraction.

I mentioned that Staff of Life is a locally owned grocery store, with the best bulk section in town. I don’t shop there much, though, because of the distance away.  Most of my grocery shopping is still done at New Leaf, which is a local chain that was sold to an out-of-state chain a couple of years ago (the owner had to step down from his role at Think Local First, and New Leaf Markets had to stop being a member). We shop at New Leaf partly because of the giving  program—we use a gift card that we purchase through Alternative Family Education (my son’s former umbrella school for homeschooling), and 5% of what we spend there is donated to the AFE Parent Club. New Leaf is also conveniently located on the Westside and downtown.

The only more conveniently located store for us is the Food Bin, which is only ¼ mile from our house and is still locally owned. We do shop there a fair amount, but they are a tiny store with more snacks than staples, so the selection is a bit limited.

I also shop occasionally (including today) at the oldest independent grocer in town: Shopper’s Corner.  They have a good wine buyer, a good butcher shop, and a better selection of European imports than other stores in town, but their Eastside location is a bit inconvenient for me (not as far as Staff of Life, though).

The one big chain I still shop at, though I dislike the place, is Trader Joe’s. They are now primarily a beer and wine store, with a grocery store attached, and do provide good prices on beer and wine. I also buy cereal, cheap chocolate, and soy milk there.  I get irritated almost every time I go there, though, by things like the SUV-sized shopping carts, which make the store difficult to move around in even when the store is almost empty (and even though most people are buying only a backpack’s worth of booze and snacks). They also rarely manage to have working shopping carts at the Front Street entrance (the one that has bike parking), but usually have a few scattered around with locked wheels from their anti-theft system.

Today I went in to stock up on soy milk for my son’s coming home for winter break, but the lines at the checkout registers were so long and slow moving that I put the soy milk back on the shelf and left without buying anything. They recently redesigned their checkout counters so that there is no longer any room for putting groceries into bags, and their new credit-card machines are easily twice as slow as their old ones (which were already the slowest in town).  I stopped in on my way back from a science-fair presentation at AFE, but the timing was bad—the 5pm rush was in full swing as people got off work.  Unfortunately, Trader Joe’s is the only store that carries my son’s favorite soy milk brand (a Trader Joe’s house brand), and soy milks are so different from each other that they are not interchangeable. I’ll go in midday Saturday, when they’ll be less busy, to get the soy milk.

Other than a few purchases at Trader Joe’s and the formerly local chain New Leaf, I’ve pretty much cut out shopping at chain stores and franchises.  I sometimes pay a little more to shop at stores that are truly local, sometimes get stuff at a local thrift store (like the last two flannel shirts I bought), or buy stuff online (my electronics hobby mainly involves purchases from distributors like Digi-Key, Mouser, or Jameco, but some stuff directly from China.

2011 July 21

My son put away his clothes

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:15
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The new dresser under the new loft bed.

As with my earlier post, My son made his bed today, this post is not about lax parenting standards (though having him put away his clothes is a somewhat unusual event).  It is, instead about putting together a new dresser to go under his new loft bed.

We bought the dresser from Ikea, as they had a size that worked for a reasonable price.  The model is their “Vallvik” model, named after a tiny town in Sweden, 242 km north of Stockholm. It arrived in two boxes, each about 45 pounds.  I’m a little annoyed with Ikea for their lousy shipping policy.  They go to a lot of work to pack the dresser into tiny boxes for shipping, then don’t use FedEx or UPS like any other business, but send it conventional freight for about 4 times the price ($100).  I was told that the box would arrive between 1 p.m.and 5 p.m., and of course they did not arrive until 6 p.m.  Slow delivery, missing the promised window, and very high shipping price means that I won’t be ordering from Ikea on the internet any time soon.  Since the nearest Ikea store is about 43 miles away (2.5 hours or more by public transit), I’m unlikely to be buying anything from them again (unless they fix their knee-jerk policy of shipping everything by the most expensive option).

Assembly of the dresser was a lot more complicated and time-consuming than the loft bed.  There were 116 screws, 36 knock-down connectors, 30 wooden pegs, 28 unremovable plastic pegs, and 32 brads.  I bent two of the brads hammering them in, so I had to get my staple gun and use a couple of staples to replace them.

The 21 pages of pictorial instructions were fairly clear, including the advice on the first page to have two people to assemble the dresser, and not try to do it alone.  For most of the assembly, one person would do, but rotating the dresser when it is partially assembled, as the instructions call for, would have been hard to do alone.  My son and I worked together on it as team, and got it assembled in about 2 hours.  It probably would have gone faster with a power screwdriver, but the best I could manage was a ratchet handle for my screwdriver.

I did do one extra step not in the instructions, rubbing on a paste wax finish on the top of the dresser, to make the stained pine a little better protected from spills.

After building the dresser, my son transferred all his clothes from his old dresser and night stand to the new one, and still had enough room in it to add the spare sheets for his bed.  We’re definitely going to have to have a garage sale soon, as we have his old futon frame, the dresser, the night stand, and an old bookcase to get rid of (not to mention piles of no-longer-needed books and toys and outgrown clothes).  We have nowhere to store all this excess furniture and so moving around in the house is getting difficult—especially since we are having some construction work done on the house (insulating another of the concrete walls and replacing single-pane windows).

2011 July 12

My son made his bed today

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 00:08
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The loft bed assembled

Although parents of other teens might think that the title of this post indicates really lax parenting, what it really means is that my son and I assembled a new loft bed for him.  He decided a week or two ago that he wanted his bed off the floor with room for storage underneath.  He and I discussed various furniture choices, took a 10-mile round-trip bike trip out to the local unfinished-furniture store (Sweet’s in the Nude), and came up with a low-cost plan to redo his bedroom.  Since he has had most of the furniture in his room for at least 10 years, I figured it was reasonable to get him some more now that he had some specific requests.

We bought

The extra 33′ of book shelf space added to the approximately 83 shelf feet he currently has should get all his books off the floor. At least it will if he continues the aggressive thinning of his book collection that he started earlier this summer.  (He’s decided to sell or store in the attic about 10 shelf-feet so far.)  Storing or selling at a garage sale toys that he hasn’t played with in 10 years should also clear up space in his room. (Now, if only I could do that for my garage and bedroom!)

Since no one in our household drives, we needed delivery on all the furniture  (the closest Walmart or Ikea is 50 to 100 miles away, I think).  The book cases will be delivered in 2–3 weeks, after the guy who makes them in Oakland gets back from vacation—delivery was cheap, but the bookcases themselves were fairly expensive. The Ikea dresser cost almost as much for delivery as the price of unit ($100 delivery charge).  The bed from Walmart came in just a few days via Fed Ex for a very small shipping cost, in a box that is 7′ long, 1′ wide, and about 8″ deep. That’s a pretty small box for a twin-size bed that stands 4′ tall.

My son and I spent about an hour today clearing enough floor space in his bedroom to assemble the bed, then another hour assembling the bed.  It was fun putting it together with him, and the instructions that came with the bed were quite clear.  They provided all the tools needed except a phillips-head screwdriver. Most of the assembly consisted of bolting together steel tubes that had the nuts already built into the tubes.  It might be a pain for one person to assemble, but it went very smoothly with two people.

The steel-frame loft bed is not as pretty as most of the wooden loft beds on the market, but at a quarter to tenth the price, I’m not complaining.  My son likes that the loft bed is high enough to put some serious storage underneath, but low enough that he can sit up in bed without bumping his head on the ceiling (not true of most of the loft beds on the market, which are too high to sit on if you have 8′ ceilings). His only objection so far is that the small round rungs of the ladder are hard on the feet—a problem we knew about from customer comments on the web site before we bought.  If it turns out to be a major problem, we’ll replace the metal ladder with a wooden one (probably made by cutting down a cheap wooden ladder from the hardware store).  The ladder just bolts on, so should be easy to replace if needed.

Note for college students: this bed has a weight limit of 225 pounds, so is probably not suitable for college students if you ever plan to share your bed with someone else.  If you weigh a lot, it may not be suitable even for sleeping alone. For kids or skinny teens at home, it seems like good value for the money.

We found a desk lamp we weren’t using that can sit on top of the bookcase next to his bed as a reading light, and he’s already planning how to make a shelf beside the bed for his books using a scroll saw, after he’s practiced a bit more with the scroll saw (making switch plates).

If he can get enough floor space cleared in his bedroom this summer, we’ll move the lego/robotics/craft table in from the living room.  It’ll be good to get the drill press and scroll saw out of the living room, not to mention the pile of PVC pipes, motors, and cables of the underwater vehicle.

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