Scootin’

A week before we headed out to Victoria my wife suddenly suggested that we get scooters for our first day.  I was flabbergasted, she isn’t a fan of motorbikes.  I quickly arranged the scooters with CycleBC and waited to see what would happen.

Thursday morning we woke early after the longest day ever (up since 6am, a day of work, four and a half hour flight to Calgary thanks to tornadoes in Saskatchewan, an hour layover and another hour on to Victoria before the cab ride in – we got in at 1am West Coast time, that’d be 4am our time).  After a big breakfast we walked over to the rental place and got ourselves two scooters.

Alanna got herself a little, red Honda Jazz and Max and I got the industrial looking Yamaha BWs. After a quick practice in front of the shop we pulled on to the street.  We’d been told about a park a block away so we headed over there and rode around on empty streets for a few minutes, then discovered the petting zoo there and ended up not leaving for half an hour.  We then puttered over to the sea and started circumnavigating Victoria’s coastline.  We ended up covering over 64 kilometres that day.  The scooters made it easy to pull in and hop off anytime we saw something interesting.

After the park we followed the coast stopping at scenic lookouts and eventually at the Oak Bay Marina where we had a nice cup of coffee, fed some harbour seals and looked at the lifestyles of the rich and famous docked in the harbour.  Oak Bay is a nice place to stop and take a break.

 

We pushed on up the coast and through the very green Mount Doug Park before finally cutting inland for the run out to Boutchart Gardens.  Waiting at a light an older fellow on a Triumph T-bird stopped behind us and struck up a conversation with Alanna after she told him it was her first time ever on one.  He told us about how he and his wife used to rent scooters together before the light changed and we all burbled off down the road.  You just don’t get moments like that in a rented cage.

We arrived at the Gardens and were directed to special 2-wheel parking close to the entrance and enjoyed a long walk and lunch in one of the loveliest spots in a lovely city.

Later in the afternoon we saddled up for the long ride back.  By now Alanna is riding like an old pro, but the rush hour traffic we ran into on our way out was heavy, and with Max and I on the little Yamaha, we had trouble getting to 40km/hr on flats, on hills I just started pulling over into the bike lane to let traffic past.  Apparently that wasn’t enough for a couple of fuck-wits in a pickup who thought that throwing a full beer can at us would be funny.  Seeing red I suggested they slow down so I could haul them out of the passenger window and beat the shit out of them, which my son found hilarious.  If either of them happen to be reading this drop me a line, I’d like to meet you guys.

We pushed on into town and the traffic only got sillier, so we made a change of direction and puttered through the University of Victoria before heading back to the quiet roads on the coast.  We retraced our steps before angling in to the CycleBC store downtown and dropping off the scooters.

We had bugs in our teeth and big smiles on our faces.  Alanna was surprised at how much fun she had and how gentle the scooter was on her arthritis.  She’s now thinking about getting a scooter, which is awesome!

A quick look around found some nice, lightly used scooters for well under $1000.  Even bigger 150cc units aren’t much more expensive.  Even bonkers Italian Vespa style costs less than four grand brand new, and the super dependable Japanese, Italian inspired copies are only a touch over two.

Since Ontario made a full motorcycle license a requirement to ride something as simple as a scooter, she’d have to take the course I took last year, but they do a great job of making it fun.  I’m hoping she’s still willing to give it a go.

March Break

The dream March Break trip? Load the Tiger into the back of the trusty Ford Transit Van and head south to a place where the weather won’t suck all week; it will here. While snow is flying during the most pointless school break in Ontario, I’d be driving one thousand kilometres south to Virginia to chase the waterfalls my cousin suggested in January. 

The drive down has us doing an eleven hour slog to Roanoke, Virginia on some back roads through the Allegheny Forest and down through the Adirondacks into the Appalachian Mountains before finally landing at the Hampton Inn off Interstate 81 just outside of Roanoke.

Once in Roanoke we’d put our feet up for the night and then take one of three routes over the next three days.







The weather is lovely: mid-high teens all week, rather than the zero degree snow we’ve got going on here all week.


Yeah, it’d be cool, but it wouldn’t be painful, and the roads would be salt free and winding through the mountains.  To top it all off those waterfalls would be plump from all the run off.  It’d be a photography and media making dream.  The mountains would be blooming in early spring and I’d have the cameras on hand to catch that moment on two wheels.


Each day we’d loop back to Roanoke before heading out in a different direction the next day.  Thanks to all the mountain roads there would be virtually no overlap between loops with each offering unique sites.  Having the same base camp also means the bike will be light on gear and ready to explore the mountains.


Leaving on a Monday morning, we’d be in Roanoke Monday night and ready for a Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday of motorcycle riding from waterfall to waterfall before making the ride back north into the snow and darkness on Friday.

It’s not a crazy expensive week.  Under five hundred bucks for hotel then gas and food money.  Two long distance highway days would be all about gas and quick food stops. $200 would feed the van, another $60 would cover the bike.  Five days of food on the road could probably be done for $250.  All in that’s a thousand dollar holiday.   The three days in Virginia would be all about slow lunches and dinners and riding between photogenic waterfalls.


Of course, the ongoing issue is not having the bike delivery system.  Mid-winter isn’t the worst time to be a motorcyclist in Canada.  The worst time is the end of the off season when the snow is fading but the winter weather hangs on week after week, prolonging the caged life.

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A Ride Stolen From Winter

February isn’t a giving month for motorcyclists in Canada.  Last year, with the twenty three year old Kawasaki in pieces, I was unable to get the thing out on the warm weekend we had in December, and couldn’t even get it going when the snow finally cleared in March.

Since the Tiger was only getting regular maintenance done, it was turn-key ready when we suddenly had a warm break in February.  With snow melt running across the road and the temperature a heady 7°C, I enjoyed a foggy ride in to work, and a slightly warmer ride the long way around home in the afternoon:

Music by Shannon Rose & The Thorns: Seasons is a brilliant album, you should get it!
Once home I power washed the sand and salt off the Tiger and parked it up again.  A single day on the bike blew off the cobwebs and renewed the promise of things to come.

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Part 1: Magical Technologists

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Arthur C. Clarke

I’m reading Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near, and in the opening he compares computer programs to Harry Potter’s magical spells.  It seemed spurious when I read it, but now I’m wondering how it looks from other eyes.
I’m the go-to tech guy at school, and I dig the position.  I’ve joked before about how people need to sacrifice a chicken (or just wave a rubber one over the computer) if they want something to work, but now the metaphor is resolving a bit more.
Today our soon to retire head of guidance came in all worked up because he couldn’t take a document and put it in his powerpoint.  He was using and old, hobbled, board laptop with an ancient copy of, well, everything on it; it was state of the art in 2002 when he got it.
I copied his (wordpad!) file onto a USB key, opened it on my competent, not-board computer (it actually uses Windows 7 instead of XP – the ONLY OS of choice for our board) and MS Office instead of Wordperfect.  I opened the DOC in Office (which just works, unlike Wordperfect on the board laptop) and then screen grabbed the guidance material he wanted into two jpegs.  I then copied them onto the USB and moved them back over to his sad, old laptop.  In moments I had one of the jpegs filling a slide on his powerpoint.  After I did the first one, I got him to do the second one.  He was happy, it all worked, and he even had some idea of how to put jpegs into powerpoint too.
Looking at the order of operations above, it looks pedantic and pretty this/then/that to me, but many people reading it would get lost in the acronyms or the logical sequence of it.  It assumes an understanding of what works with what and how to bypass difficulties around software not cooperating, among other things.
From another point of view, it might look like I pulled out my own, newer, better wand (laptop), and made some arcane gestures (trackpad), spoke some gobbledigook (tech-talk) and dropped a regent into the spell (the USB key).  and made what seemed impossible possible.  Without comfort level, experience and equipment, it looks like I made something happen out of nothing.
The councilor with him said I was the secret technical mystic they turned to when things just didn’t work.

I try to be transparent with what I’m doing, and explain it to people as I’m doing it, but I see their eyes glaze over when I use the first acronym and then they just sit there with a happy smile on their face as the issue gets resolved.  I’d like for everyone to be able to cast their own spells, but I fear many would rather just applaud the magician.

Which takes me back to Harry again.  There’s a scene where Dumbledore escapes from the evil Ministry in spectacular fashion.  He could have just disappeared, but he doesn’t, he does it with a flourish.  Kingsly the auror says afterwards, “Dumbledore may be a criminal, but you’ve got to admit, he has style!”

If you’re going to be a tech-magician, and if you’re reading this you probably already are, then don’t cast your spells flat, be like Dumbledore, have some style!

Shop Class as Soulcraft Deep Thoughts

I’m a big fan of Matt Crawford’s fantastic book on the value of skilled labour, Shop Class as Soul Craft.  If you get a chance, it’ll change your mind about the value of working with your hands.

I just finished his latest book, The World Beyond Your Head, where he makes a compelling argument for our’s being a situated intelligence (we aren’t brains in boxes) that is evident because of our manual connection to the world around us, not in spite of it.  It’s a deep, rich read that does a lot of dismantle the idea of the empty expertise of the digital economy/liberal arts student.

I recently came across a video where Crawford is talking about the book, and other things.  This bit struck me as funny after my recent thoughts on biker culture:

“You might say the B.S. quotient it low… unless you’re dealing with Harley owners.  Then it can actually be quite high.”

You’d think most people would buy the dependable ones, right?

That idea of a B.S. quotient led me look up motorcycle reliability indices for the first time.  Consumer Reports gets into it by explaining how customer satisfaction is different from reliability.  You’d think the two things are closely linked, but they aren’t so much.

“If you want to know how satisfied riders are with their motorcycle, ask them about comfort. We found that comfort ratings track most closely with overall satisfaction scores. “

You know those leather clad tough guys in their Motor Company regalia?  They like comfort the most.  Potato, potato, potato

Gold Winging It

My buddy Jeff is heading off to the West Coast and a golden retirement shortly, so he’s cleaning up and vacating Ontario (good time to be doing it).  One of his motorcycle herd is a GL1800 Goldwing.  He offered Max and I a ride last weekend to see if it worked for us since Max is now a full sized adult and your typical motorcycle is overloaded with two big guys on it.  A few years ago I rode Jeff’s daughter’s Honda Firestorm, by far the sportiest bike I’ve ever ridden.  This time around we were way up the other end of the spectrum with the ‘Wing.

That seat looks mighty appealing to a kid who has been forced to ride motorcycle saddles since he was eight.  Not only is it recliner comfortable, it’s also heated!  The rest of the bike is equally enormous and astonishingly appointed.  With fourteen year old, adult sized Max on the back, we had no points of physical contact, which is strange because we’re usually back to chest on the Tiger, which is a big bike in its own right.


We rode out of Jeff’s place on a dirt farm road in South Western Ontario, in April, so it was really wet and soft… on an eight hundred pound gorilla, uh, bike, with 430ish pounds of us on it.  The ‘Wing handles our size without a problem, but the whole thing rolling down the road is massive, so massive in fact that you just ride through puddles and mud and ignore variations in the road that I’d be skirting around on a typical bike.  The Tiger is a sure footed thing, but it felt a bit skittish on the muddy driveway, not so the ‘Wing.


Once out on the road the first thing that hits you is no wind, at all.  I ended up flipping open my helmet even though it was a cool day because of the zero wind blast.  No wind noise, no buffeting, it didn’t really feel like riding a bike.  All the elemental cues that I get from riding were gone.  I’m looking out through a screen instead of over one and the fairings cover you head to toe.


The dash looks back at you with a staggering array of buttons. My car doesn’t have half that many. The tachometer looks like the one out of my old Civic, and red lines lower. It took me ten minutes of riding to work out where the heated grips and seats were. The grips themselves are meaty, way thicker than any I’ve used before; my hands didn’t quite wrap around them.

On pavement you twist the throttle and get whooshed down the road without drama.  The ‘Wing is motorbike quick and smooth, but I wouldn’t call it inspiring.  Jeff set a quick pace on his Yamaha Super Ténéré and I had no trouble keeping the twelve hundred pounds of us in sight of him.  I was tentative in the first couple of corners, but once I realized how nimble the ‘Wing felt, I just dropped it into corners and trusted the tires to handle us.  I often feel weightless when I’m riding, but as well as the Goldwing handles its size, I was always conscious of it.  In fairness, it also had over four hundred pounds of human on it as well.



The brakes haul it down from speed quickly and it picks up with piles of torque and very little need to change gears, which were smooth and direct when I did use them.  By the end of the ride I was up and
down in the gears without a second thought, so that’s a thumbs up from my foot.  The first time I realized I didn’t need to cancel the turn signals after a corner was a nice surprise, but habit had me turning them off anyway.  The GPS in the middle of the dash is nice too, but wasn’t very bright.


We did a short, half an hour ride around the area, looking for some of the few twists and turns available to us in the agri-desert that is rural Southern Ontario.  Jeff is moving out to Vancouver Island where the riding season is virtually year ’round and the roads are never dull, but the ‘Wing isn’t making the trip.  The Super Ten and his customized BMW Cafe Racer are going in the container though.


After parking it back up I can say I get the Goldwing.  I understand why it’s as popular as it is and what function is serves.  As a device to transport my son and I in comfort it does that, but I find myself back where I was in 2014 pondering the CanAm Spyder.  There comes a point where a motorcycle is trying so hard to be something else that it isn’t really a motorcycle any more.  The Goldwing, with its faceful of buttons and speakers and radios and weatherproofed rider cocoon,  removes me from what I think riding is all about.

I’m a number of years into riding now and I’ve been on all sorts of bikes in all sorts of strange places.  That experience has refined my aesthetic sense of motorcycling.  For me it’s all about getting to that feeling of flying.  It’s a visceral experience with wind, noise and a sense of lightness.  When you bend into a corner that feeling is amplified.  You can probably see where this is going.  The ‘Wing will lean into a corner, but it feels stately and remote when it does it.  Everything feels far away, and ends up begging the question: why suffer the indignities of motorcycling when the bike is trying so hard to be something else?


I can get a lightly used one of these for the same price as a Goldwing.
Given a choice, I’d go for the mini-Mazda Ferrari in a second.

It might sound perverse, but the other side of motorcycling for me is embracing the physical difficulty of the activity.  I don’t consider motorcycling a hobby, I consider it a sport and want to attack it with the same physicality.  This philosophy doesn’t only contrast with the Goldwing.  Any bike that does all it can to not delivery that immediacy of riding experience misses the mark for me.  Whether it be a Harley tourer or a BMW K1600, any big, heavy cruiser with windshields and fairings and every gizmo imaginable makes me wonder why in terms of motorcycling.  If you want to bring that much stuff with you, go in a car.  In many cases the car is cheaper and more efficient, and contrary to biker prejudice they aren’t all cages.

I love to ride, but I’m still smitten with bikes that feel like bikes and focus me on the aesthetics of riding.  When a lightly used Mazda MX-5 RF costs the same as a new Goldwing and looks like a piece of rolling art rather than a compromise, that’s where my eye wanders.  Motorcyclists call car drivers cagers trapped in their boxes, but a massive bike that does all it can to not feel like a motorcycle is more of a fetishy gilded cage than any number of cars designed to be entertaining drives.


So, the Goldwing is not for me.  When I get to the point that I can’t handle the elemental feeling of riding (a moment I hope I never see), I’ll be looking for a Lotus, not a mega-bike.  My son is only a couple of years away from starting the never-ending and sickeningly expensive licensing and insurance process in Ontario.  I’m hoping that he has developed a taste for riding and will one day join me on a ride on his own machine, then we can both revel in the visceral feel of flying down the road together.


Jeff will have no trouble selling his Goldwing on.  He has meticulously maintained it and there is a strong market for ‘Wings since there are so many older bikers who are looking for that kind of ride.  I, for one, will miss him when he’s gone.  As a motorcycling mentor, he has been a great friend and teacher.  I hope I can get out to see him on the West Coast and ride those magical roads in the future.  In the meantime, I’m feeling more and more like Ontario is getting too tight for me, yet here I stay.

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On bike 360 Media and Digital Abstraction

Setting up a 360 camera on your wing mirror using a gorilla pod and setting it to automatically take a photo every few seconds seems like the best way to catch some interesting self portraits while you ride.  It’s a set up and forget system so you can just enjoy the ride.

Afterwards you download what the camera caught and then frame the photos as you wish (the 360 picture lets you move the point of view around until you’ve framed something interesting).


I’ve been trying to replicate the tiny planet view that the Ricoh Theta could do in its software on the Samsung Gear360.  GoPro makes a little planet capable app that they give away for free, so I’ve been using that.  Here is an example of a time lapse video tiny-planeted in the GoPro software:

The photos are screen grabs of time lapse scenes on the Samsung 360gear. They’ve all been worked over in Photoshop to give them a more abstract look.  I’ve included the original photo to show variations:

Here’s the original photo.
Here is a posterized, simplified version.
Here it is with an oil paint filter and a lot of post processing.







Here is a tiny-world ‘wrapped’ image taken with the 360 degree camera.  Below are some variations on it…




 Below are some other 360 grabs – they’ll give you an idea of how you can select certain angles and moments and then crop a photo out of them pretty easily.
















One of the few things the Samsung does well is make time lapse video fairly straightforward (I miss my Ricoh Theta).  The software Samsung bundles with the gear360 only works with Samsung phones (which I don’t have).  The desktop software won’t render 4k video at all (it ends up so blocked and pixelated from artifacts as to be almost useless).  And when you’re first importing video it takes ages for the software to open a video for the first time.  By comparison the Ricoh renders video almost instantly, has never had artifact problems when it renders and has never crashed on me (the Samsung software has crashed multiple times). If you’re patient and are ok with crappy results, go for the Samsung.  Meanwhile, here’s what I could get out of the damned thing:

This is a 360 fly video sped up, the weekend after the April ice storm:



Software used:  Adobe Photoshop CCAdobe Lightroom CCPaper ArtistWindows movie makerGo-Pro VR Viewing software

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Expectations

In a very hands-on computer technology grade 12 class, we’ve built our own network from scratch and students have been working through the A+ CompTIA technician‘s course. The final goal of the course is to get students into the position of actually getting certified as PC technicians. If they go on to college for courses, they’ll already have the first certification they need. If they go to work, they’ll be able to work in Futureshop, Staples or whatever (all those computer support people must have A+ certification).
The goal was a relevant, purpose driven class with real world value and as much technology as I could possibly provide.
I’ve spent a lot of time and energy getting my hands on equipment and making space for the students to be able to develop technology from the ground up. I hadn’t spent as much time walking students through some very information heavy review, my hope was that the hands on technology would offer us in-class opportunities to review the material.
Some students, once they got the network to a functional level, got very distracted by the fact that it can play networked games. This conversation happened recently when I suggested they needed to be ready to review the entire course because we were running out of time. One student felt that he hadn’t been handed the learning on a silver enough platter:

Grade 12 student: “but you’re the teacher, shouldn’t you be making us learn this?” (instead of letting us play games)

Me: “I’ve done back flips to get you guys access to multiple A+ courses, material and testing practice. I’ve also drilled you on the material on a daily basis. When we get done with that, you are given time to read ahead on future material, review what you missed, or apply your theory hands on. At that point I want to help people on a one on one basis. If you choose to play games with that time, it’s my job to force you to learn?”
student: “…”
me: “I’m not here to force you to learn, no one can do that. You’re senior students on the verge of graduating. If this were a junior class, we’d have more regimented lessons, but it isn’t. I expect you to be able to address yourself to what’s going on. I’m not about to force your head into the learning water here, if you don’t want to drink, that is your choice. It puts you in a bad place in post secondary though, they don’t spoon feed at all.”
student: “but we’re not college students, you shouldn’t run the class like that.”
me: “you’re about to be, at what point would you like to transition into post secondary if not in grade 12? Do you think they are going to spoon feed you next year?”
Not ten minutes later we wrapped up the chapter review and students were let loose on the network. Guess what he did…
me: “After our recent conversation, what you’re doing there is quite provocative. Are you trying to aggravate me?”
He didn’t stop, he just minimized the window. I feel sorry for the guy.
.
This class has a truly awesome amount of technology at their disposal, I’m jealous. When I took my certifications, I had to take apart and reassemble the only PC we had in the house, and look at pictures of other ones because I had nothing on hand. I didn’t have a certified technician there enthusiastic about experimenting and throwing everything from imacs to netbooks, to laptops to multiple desktop formats into the mix. I also had to pay four times what I’m getting the certs for this group of students for. This guy is spoiled for choice but all he wants to do is play lame, online games and whine about not being treated like a ten year old. I’m not saying they shouldn’t take a break and blow off some steam, but they seldom put in the effort to deserve the break.
I’ve got some good students in that class, but they’re all bitten to a greater or lesser degree by their wealth; it makes them complacent and lazy. When I think about what the students in my computer club at my old school in the suburbs would have done with all of this equipment, it makes me sad. Even when you make the learning, meaningful, individualized and pack it with technology, you can’t force a spoiled, lazy horse to drink it up.

Gear Upgrades & Bike Tribes

After a couple of weeks on a bike, I’m starting to get a feel for what I like in kit.  I think having a real set of boots and pants really paid off at the course (near freezing and windy).  Windproof clothes are worth their weight in gold.  The other day I did my longest ride wearing the jeans I wore to work and it wasn’t very comfortable.  I’m a big fan of wearing kit that suits the activity, jeans are a poor second choice.

The other piece that I’m not feeling are my gloves.  They’re sufficient (they are Joe Rocket biking specific gloves) and they are comfortable, but plain black and not particularly warm.  I was aiming for a white/grey vibe when I started, the Alpinestars SP-1 gloves shown are a nice, gauntletted glove that look like they offer a much wider range of comfortable temperature options (they close up or vent as needed).  They also cost four times what the beginner gloves I got cost.  I imagine they are whole levels of awesomeness beyond the basic gloves I started with.

I did the same thing with boots, I picked up the cheapest pair of bike-specific boots that were available.  They are warm, dry and quite tall.  I’ve always wanted an ankle boot, for cooling and the Alpinestars S-MX1 boots on the right give me the monochromatic look I’ve been looking for in a boot that isn’t huge.  I purchased pretty low-rent gear to begin, mainly because what was available in the shop in the budget I was looking for.  It was all purchased without any time in the saddle, so I didn’t really know what I needed, other than it should be motorbike specific.

The pants I got (I hadn’t planned on buying pants), happened to be on sale.  They’ve been great, and as early/late season pant they’re wind resistant, have a liner that would let you ride in a snow storm and have a zipper, so you could get some air going through them.  They are too long and way (WAY) too hot for summer driving.  Looking for well ventilated pants I could wear over shorts, these Rev’It Airwave pants fit the bill, and continue the monochromatic theme I’m looking for.  A light coloured pant would also help keep the heat out.

The one piece of kit I wouldn’t want to change is the jacket I got.  The Joe Rocket Atomic 11.0 textile jacket is fantastic.  Great wind resistance, a removable liner, vent openings, it fits me perfectly and feels fantastic… this is a jacket for all seasons, I have no regrets with it at all.  I imagine the more expensive jackets might offer lighter weight, but this particular jacket is my favorite purchase.  It’s padded in all the right places and I even like the break with my monochromatic vibe.  I’ve yet to find a situation where the jacket hasn’t been just what I wanted it to be.

The other purchase I’ve been really happy with is my Zox Helmet.  The funny part was I was treating it like a

full face helmet until one day I wondered what the red button on the chin did, and suddenly it was a modular helmet that flipped up!  It’s comfortable, but the wind noise isn’t ideal.  I’m guessing more expensive helmets offer a tighter fit and finish meaning less wind noise.  It has nice venting, and when I treat the visor with a bit of soap, it’s fog free.   As a cheap first helmet, I’ve no regrets. It does more than I hoped it would and didn’t break the bank to do it.  It also lets me live my inner Stig, which is never a bad thing.  The built in sun visor is a nice touch too.  It really is a full featured helmet.  The double adjustable top and bottom vents work very well and the storm trooper vibe is cool.

If I had any advice for buying kit your first time it would be: don’t rush it, try on lots of stuff, and then walk away and think about it.  Waiting a couple of weeks saved me a couple of hundred bucks as things went on sale for spring time.  Trying on a number of different styles also lets you decide what fits you better, and what feels right.  I need to adjust the pants (too long in the leg) but I can probably pin them up.  After a bit of looking, I’ve found pants that offer the same size with a shorter inseam.  My next purchase will be more pinpoint accurate in terms of sizing.

In riding I’ve noticed that there are tribes.  I definitely fall into the sport bike/standard bike crowd with my textile gear and full face helmet.  The ‘I’m too cool’ leather cruiser crowd are so busy putting out a vibe they don’t have time to wave.  I’ve found everyone who isn’t a Harley knob makes a point of giving me a wave. As a new rider, that’s a nice feeling.  To all the ZZ Top chopper types, I say, “whatever dude.”

ECOO16: Virtual Reality & The DIY School Computer Lab

A chance to see some of my favourite
people and study one of my favourite things!

ECOO 2016 is coming this week.  As a chance to catch up with tech-interested teachers from across the province it’s unparalleled.  It’s also a wonderful opportunity to see what those people are doing in their classrooms and get tangible information on how to work with technology in a classroom.  I end up with a full brain and a great deal of enthusiasm after a few days at the annual ECOO conference.

I’m beginning the conference on Wednesday by  demonstrating virtual reality to teachers from across the province at Brenda Sherry and Peter Skillen‘s Minds on Media.  MoM (or in this case MEGA MoM) is a showcase of #edtech in action, and a must see event.  As an emerging technology VR is going to have a profound influence on education in the future.  Having a chance to give people a taste of that future is exciting.  The only reason I’ve been able to explore VR as it emerges is because of the DIY lab I’m presenting on Friday.

I get to spend the Thursday soaking up the latest in technology and how it can amplify pedagogy.  On Friday I’m presenting on why you should develop your own do it yourself school computer lab and how to do it.

I first presented the concept at ECOO four years ago.  It’s taken me that long to develop the contacts and build a program that can do the idea justice.  I’ve always felt that offering students turn-key no-responsibility educational technology was a disservice, now I’m able to demonstrate the benefits of a student-built computer technology lab and explain the process of putting one together.  I realize I’m swimming upstream from the put-a-Chromebook-in-every-hand current school of thought, but that’s my way.



There are a couple of things that have changed over the years that have made this once impossible idea possible.  Our board’s IT department underwent a major change in management and philosophy a few years ago.  The old school was all about locking everything down and keeping it the same for ease of management.  The new guard sees digital technology as a means of improving teaching rather than as an end in itself.  They encourage and enable rather than complain and prevent.

The other major change was that my department got reintegrated into technology (it was formerly a computer science based mini-department of its own).  Back in tech I was suddenly able to access specialist high skills major funding and support and found I was able to build the DIY concept – something I could never have done without our board’s tech-support funding model.

Thanks to that new, adaptive, open concept IT approach I’m able to access a BYOD wireless network with anything I want.  I don’t have to teach students on locked down, board

imaged, out of date PCs.  My computer engineering seniors helped me build what we now have and the results have been impressive.  In addition to students in our little rural school suddenly winning Skills Ontario for information technology and networking, we’re also top ten in electronics and, best of all, the number of students we have successfully getting into high demand, high-tech post secondary programs is steadily rising.

When I thought it might be interesting for students to get their hands on emerging virtual reality hardware in the spring it was only a matter of finding the funding.  We built the PC we needed to make it happen and then it did.  We’ve had VR running in the lab for almost half a year now at a time when most people haven’t even tried it.  Because we were doing it ourselves, what costs $5000 for people who need a turn key system cost us three thousand.  We’re now producing those systems for other schools in our board.

A do it yourself lab is more work but it allows your students and you, the teacher, to author your own technology use.  Until you’ve done it you can’t imagine how enabling this is.  My students don’t complain about computers not working, they diagnose and repair them.  My students don’t wonder what it’s like to run the latest software, they do it.  Does everything work perfectly all the time?  Of course not, but we are the ones who decide what to build and what software to use to get a job done, which allows us to understand not only what’s on stage but everything behind the curtains too.

If that grabs you as an interesting way to run a classroom, I‘m presenting at 2pm on Friday.  If not, fear not, ECOO has hundreds of other presentations happening on everything from how to use Minecraft in your classroom to deep pedagogical talks on how to create a culture that effectively integrates technology into education.  

Thursday’s keynote is Shelly Sanchez Terrell, a tech orientated teacher/author who offers a challenging look at how to tackle technology use in education.  Friday’s keynote is the Jesse Brown (who I’m really looking forward to hearing), a software engineer and futurist who asks tough questions about just how disruptive technology may be to Canadian society.

If you’re at all interested in technology use in learning, you should get down to Niagara Falls this week and have a taste of ECOO. You’ll leave full of ideas and feel empowered and optimistic enough to try them.  You’ll also find that you suddenly have a PLN of tech savvy people who can help, enable and encourage your exploration.  I hope I can be one of them.


If you can’t make it, you can always watch it trend on Twitter:




#bit16 Tweets
note:  to make a feed embed on twitter, go to settings-widget-create new and play with it, very easy!