Brew Days

gravity fed brewing station

My Brew-to

This is where I brew beer. It has the ragged, unkempt early spring look to it, but it is a nice place to spend an afternoon or evening. Or morning. It is a lean-to on the side of the shed where I store my outdoor gear, and my brewing set up. As you can see, I have two converted half-kegs with valves, site tubes, and thermometers.

The keggle on the upper level is just for heating water for the mash lauter tun, which is a modified Igloo Ice Cube. From the mash tun we go to the brewing keggle.

Everything is at a height to allow gravity to do all the work though out.

PVC pipe is mounted to the shelf to allow easy filling of the heating keggle and place to connect the wort chiller. This allows to run the hose over, hook it up, and put the water where I need it.

Maybe this summer I will pour concrete or put some other hard surface down.

Today I planted two pairs each of Cascade and Willamette hops rhizomes in the backyard. We’ll see if we get enough sun where I planted them to get a good crop. If it doesn’t work, I will plant some in the front yard next year.

TANSTAAFL – Obligations of Open Source

Earlier today I was part of Twitter discussion Barmak (@BarmakN) and Chuck (@ShorterPearson) about Heartbleed and the obligations of associated with open source applications.

I feel pretty strongly about this topic. We use one open source software application at work, or rather five. It’s called Sueetie and pulls together several open source projects (wiki, blog, media server, forum) to create a single unified environment. It’s pretty slick and the integration and value-added wrap-arounds make it ideal for our purposes. As soon as we committed to using Sueetie, I joined the user community site, both for help with the set-up and to give back by sharing what we learned along the way. And we learned a lot.

None of my staff are .Net or C# developers, so it was hard to contribute much at that level. However, on the SQL side we could contribute a lot, which we did – right up until the founder pulled the plug. For whatever reason, after several years of development, the community user group never took off. There were only about three active users, including us, plus the founder. There were plenty of downloads, but not much in the way of real involvement. We were also one of the very few to actually buy the license and premium source code.

As a product, Sueetie never really took off. Maybe it was too much effort for most users. One had to know a few things to install it and have decent mastery of the least-used skill these days – RFC (Reading for Comprehension). I think though it also had a lot to do with lack of understanding of how open source works – participation, support, funding – and the desire to get something for nothing. The community of active supporters was not large enough to be self-perpetuating and the founder eventually needed to move his Sueetie-time to revenue generation.

It just doesn’t work that way. There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. TANSTAAFL. People need to read more Robert A. Heinlein. One way or another, things have to be paid for, either with cash or sweat or service or barter.

We’ve stuck with Sueetie. We’ve invested too much effort in using it and developing content. We have all the source code and will begin updating it, focusing on the areas we use most. Some pieces we may ultimately disassociate from our application because we don’t use them, others we will continue to enhance or integrate the newest versions.

The Heartbleed bug is an example of what happens when folks forget TANSTAAFL. Big moneymakers that adopted OpenSSL, but did not take seriously their role in being part of the OpenSSL community have a lot to answer for. Just a reminder these enterprises include Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Amazon, and Instagram. I feel confident they could have added value along the way…especially Facebook and Google.

I guess it is time to pay up.

Open source code is great. It is powerful, can be affordable, and you can customize it. If you need a cheap solution, that’s okay, but you can still contribute to its development through development, sharing your modifications, bug reporting, crowd-funding, letting the developers know how you are using it, and helping others get started. The last is the easiest, and perhaps the most powerful as it can help a user community become large enough to continue.

Remember: identity, community, and stability all apply to the open source movement. Especially if you aren’t paying attention.



As a matter of fact, you do need a badge

Today, APLU hosted a forum on Alternatives to Ratings. Listening to it stream online got me thinking dangerous thoughts.

All through this ratings system conversation I have been thinking about the essential uselessness of creating yet another government website for students. I don’t believe most students think of the federal government as being the authority on schools and colleges. If the ratings are supposed to be consumer information, how do you put them in front of the targeted consumers?

I have also been thinking about the ratings as being rectangular tiles, color-coded to David Bergeron’s proposal – lead, bronze, silver, gold, platinum.

And I thought about the US News & World Report America’s Best College badge. You can see an example here.

But that medal you wore on your chest always got in the way 
Like a little girl with a trophy so soft to buy her way 

So, the feds could simply add another piece to Title IV eligibility requiring institutions to display the appropriately earned PIRS Badge on their websites. Plural. It is not enough to display it on the admissions and/or financial aid page. Instead it should be required to be displayed in the footer of every single page. Perhaps even the header.

Of course, this falls apart for the Lead institutions once they lose their Title IV eligibility. Which means any institution without a badge would be suspect. Unfortunately, this would be unfair to certain institutions that have chosen not to participate in federal aid programs. For those institutions, USED could issue a badge of non-participation.

I think this is an elegant solution to make the ratings meaningful to consumers. And make sure they see them.

Obscenity and Student Borrowing

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that. [Emphasis added.]

—Justice Potter Stewart, concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio 378 U.S. 184 (1964), regarding possible obscenity in The Lovers.

As I said in my last entry, I don’t know what the right amount of student borrowing is, but I do know too much when I see it.

The problem with even thinking about what the “right amount” of student debt is that it is going to go up. And keep going up. American colleges and universities do not seem to have found the magic formula constrain the growth of in the total cost of attendance. Institutions have made progress in some areas, but they remain basically expensive, and the rise in part-time adjunct faculty as a cost control measure is probably not serving us well. It was once explained to me very slowly by a member of the Governor’s Cabinet, “But Tod, college costs are always going to go up.” 

I don’t feel compelled to believe that, but I do see the evidence  each year. This also includes evidence that not all cost increases are within institutional control. If not annually, at least on a semi-regular basis, well-intentioned laws are passed that increase the cost of doing the business of higher education. State legislators attempt to solve the problems of constituents through bills to address admission policies, transfer policies, access, affordability, efficiency, effectiveness, economic impact, K-12 involvement and improvement, campus safety, student health, student mental health, and the list goes on. To be fair, institutions bring a lot of this on this on themselves with policies or behaviors that create a news story that upsets people. Sometimes these events are really valid drivers of change, other times they are just the embarrassing reflection of what happens with human-run enterprises. They are called mistakes and they happen. Get over it.

I continue to be amazed at how college presidents continue think that big bills to change the institutional relationship to the state will work out in their favor. More and more they lead to greater intrusion of measurement, control, and direction. Good advice has always been, “Don’t poke the sleeping bear.” Better advice is, “Don’t push a big bill about yourself that hundreds of other people can involve themselves, many of which will do so without your knowledge.” Laws to affect institutional behavior rarely seem to reduce costs. Perhaps never.

Yesterday, Secretary Duncan defended the proposed rating system to congress. He and others continue to maintain this a way to improve and maintain affordability. Here’s a suggestion: quit pushing proposals that require institutional staff and leadership to respond. Quit doing things that require institutions to have federal lobbyists and pay membership dues to lobbying organizations. Just set clear and defensible standards for Title IV participation. The proposed Gainful Employment rules do that, although a lot of lobbying and institutional engagement has been in play there, as documented by David Halperin’s fascinating new book.

Returning to the today’s theme: obscenity is material where the “dominant theme taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest”, and that the “average person, applying contemporary community standards” would disapprove.”  I think we have reached that point with student debt. Or, at least, based on the way student debt is being reported based on horror stories and loose rhetoric. The Vox Cards on student debt by Libby Nelson provide a nice overview on the topic, but I think perhaps they indicate that the discussion on student debt has reached the level of prurient interest – it seems to be as hot a topic as sex.  

Unfortunately, I don’t think we have quite reached the point where we know what the community standards are…let alone what they should be. If the average debt for 70% of bachelor degree graduates is $29,400, is that too much, too little, or just right? Or is the concept of community standards more important than we realize here? Should the average debt in Virginia be higher than the average in Mississippi but lower than that of New York?

What is the right amount of debt?

It is a good question, but it is the wrong one.

The right question is this. “Who are the parties responsible for paying for postsecondary education and making it accessible to all Americans, and what level of responsibility does each party have?” It seems to me that it has been too long since we have had this conversation, if we ever did.

  • What is the role of the federal government?
  • What is the role of the state?
  • What is the role of the family?
  • What is the role of the student?

Until we answer these questions, and agree to live the by the answers, I don’t think we can do any more than limp along and let the debt increase. That’s the real obscenity.


Student Debt and the Informed Consumer

It is hard to consume any media from a broad range of sources without encountering stories about student debt. I think. Maybe it is just because of my job I tend to notice the coverage of student debt. This is probably much the same way that I notice all the new generation Ford Escapes that have popped up since I bought mine in 2012. (However, those have been hugely successful for Ford and they have sold a lot of them.)

The Atlantic had an article earlier in the week about The Myth of Working Your Way Through College highlighting the differences in buying power of minimum wage employment in terms of a per credit basis over time. I’ve seen such analyses before, in fact, I’ve done some in the past for discussions considering new state financial aid models. I love articles like this because of the reader comments. Those are often pure gold.

After reading those for awhile tonight, I clicked onto this Daniel Greenstein commentary which I believe is prep for his speech tomorrow at the AERA conference. I’m always interested in articles about how to measure college performance. (I hope we can start doing that some day – once we have firmly established that we know how to measure what it is actually happening. Then we can measure performance.)  He starts  with a well-known metric “Because nearly 40 percent of students who start at a four-year college won’t earn a degree in six years.” It’s absolutely true – because it is all we have absolutely measured nationally. In Virginia, we know that 75% of all students who start at a public four-year institution, whether fall or spring, full-or part-time, first-time in college or new transfer complete a degree somewhere in Virginia within 10 years. It is 76% for just first-time college. Adding in data from the National Student Clearinghouse we get to almost 80%. It’s not perfect, it can be improved, but more importantly, it is a full measure. (Yes, I am bragging about my work).

Greenstein goes on to say those “who do complete a college degree increasingly carry significant debt, even as employer surveys and international comparisons suggest they lack certain skills. The trends are exacerbated by a steep drop in government funding for higher education and increased costs. Parents and students are questioning whether college is ‘worth it.'” Which is all true.The problem with the discussion of student debt, to my tumored mind, is that there seems to underlying assumption that students are entitled to not have a cost investment in their higher education. I’m not against that idea since I do believe postsecondary education is a tremendous public good, as well as a private good, however, as a nation we have not agreed upon the concept of completely free education beyond K12.

Folks that know me and have participated in meetings with me, know that I am not the least bit shy about pointing out that higher education is the only aspect of American society where parents are expected to pay for the pursuits of their adult children. An 18 year-old has complete freedom to join the military, marry, enter into contracts, and essentially pursue any legal activity except consume alcohol. If an 18 year-old attempts to attend college and ask for financial aid, all of a sudden the world changes and that legal adult must ask their parents for all kinds of personal finance information to complete the FAFSA and perhaps the CSS Profile. Parents can refuse, in which case the student can borrow their way to attendance through private lenders or they can try to prove they are actually independent of their parents (fat chance, but possible).

They are completely free to pay for college themselves – if they have the money.

Again, fat chance.

However you believe it happened, however it actually happened, whatever is going to happen in the future, we have an industry selling a product/experience to a market audience completely unable to afford it. This leaves only three options: getting somebody else to pay for it, student debt, or self-financing through work. For about 60% of undergraduates, it is a mix of the first two or all three.

When we put out the student debt reports to the institutions last fall for review prior to publication, one of the institutions questioned the maximum loan we reported for a five-year period.  The email from the financial aid officer went along the lines of, “Can you verify your data? You show us with a graduate with $171,000 in student debt, and I think that is kind of high for an art major.” Really? Kind of high? My reply was along those lines since I have an art degree as well. Unfortunately, the data were accurate and the school was able to figure out who it was and verify the amount through their own records.

What bothered me most about the entire exchange was that they did not know off-hand they had a relatively recent graduate with that much debt.

It is also bothered that that was the only discussion about such an extreme example…there were others across the Commonwealth.

In conversations about this story, at least one college president made a comment along the lines, “That’s insane! No one should pay that much for a college degree!”

Again, really? Those loans simply represented the total cost of five years of attendance at a private, residential institution. It is simply what it costs to attend…well, that and take some of the tuition money and give it to other students. But, that’s another story.

I am still troubled by this comment as it seems to call into question the perception of the product of the university that president represents. It is also an indictment of the student for not finding someone else to pay for their education. That strikes me as wrong.

I wonder if student debt is like pornography – I don’t know what the right amount is, but I know too much when I see it.

What I do know is that until the cost structure of postsecondary education changes, this discussion won’t change. There does not seem to be public and political appetite to make the current model free, especially with the current cost structure, and so a mix of student debt and having other people pay will continue. How much is the right amount of debt should be an informed decision made by the student. It is difficult to make an informed decision without adequate information about cost of attendance, graduation rates for discrete cohorts of students, likely debt amount, and historic ranges of earnings by program. These things are becoming available, thanks to the work we are doing Virginia and what is taking in other states.

More than knowing what their likelihood of graduation is, students need to know how to graduate. They need clear guidance on what it takes to graduate on time, what it costs for each additional year, and the cost of failure. These are where we should be going. If we are not going to solve the college cost problem, perhaps we can improve the college financial literacy problem.

To some degree, student debt is a choice. Certainly extreme debt is a choice, one that can be mitigated by knowing more about the wide range of options of postsecondary education available.

Wasn’t Men’s Wearhouse whose motto was, “An informed consumer is our best customer”? Might that not be an appropriate goal here?




Riders of the Asphalt Circle

I’m not really sure how I learned to ride a bike. I vaguely remember it. I do know that the red-head demon of sister a year younger than I learned before I did and that spurred me on to learning.  I know the maxim that once you learn to ride a bike you never forget. That seems to be true even with a brain tumor and the complete loss of my left side vestibular nerve and function.

For Christmas I bought bikes for the grandelves that came to live with us a year ago this month. Unfortunately, doing so meant that I would be the one to teach them to ride. As I had taught their father and their uncle.

I’m not sure how I survived the first two times as these boys are wearing me out. I also don’t know how one teaches someone to ride a bike, or to do anything that for that matter, that requires finding an inner balance. I use a lot of instruction, coercion, and fussing, followed by a lot of push, let go, and pray the boy remembers how best to fall.

It works. L1, the oldest at 12 learned first. I was kind of surprised by that since L2 (7) is the more physical of the two. But learn he did and has done pretty well.

L2 is almost there. Today he made several short trips, including some very fast downhills with non-injury dumps. He is very good at jumping off the bike. He was very verbal though, explaining that I “was putting him under too much pressure.”

Shut up and pedal, kid.

Pressure is getting email from a president with a cc to your boss, praising your work and pointing to it as validation of his efforts, and then saying to yourself, “I hope to God I got it right.”

One the very first day of bike lessons, I taught the boys how to fall. Sending them quickly downhill into the soft grass of the front yard. Learning to fall well and enjoy the experience, using similar techniques to Army jump school and hand-to-hand combat techniques, is fun all by itself.

When I teach people to code, I do much the same thing. I guide them to certain types of errors, such as infinite loops and try to teach the ways to fail gracefully.

I hope, that by the end of the weekend, the bike lessons are at an end and we can focus on just riding. The length of the High Bridge Trail awaits L1 and me this summer or fall. Followed by biking in to camp at False Cape State Park. His uncle was about 12 when he and I did it.




“Spoken like a nitpicky analyst”

So, my friend Barmak tweeted these words in response to a tweet of mine. I don’t know that I am really all that nit-picky, or even just picky, but things should have clarity of meaning. It is hard enough to communicate simple concepts accurately. When things become more complex, we must strive for greater clarity.

Likewise, when we use data to tell a story or a recommend a policy, we absolutely must be clear in what the data means and what it does not.

When we released the our wage reports in 2012, I took some ribbing and minor criticism for the length the statement regarding the limitations of the data. When an editorial in the Virginian-Pilot described us as being “admirably blunt” in stating the limitations of the data, I felt a great deal of pride. I never want my work to be be confused as representing something it does not.

So, if I am considered by some to be a “nitpicky analyst,” I’m good with that.