Tyranny of Numbers

I’ve always found a strange disconnect between my experience in coding and how it is taught in school.  Back in the ‘80s, matheletes owned computer science, and still do today.  More interested in the theoretical number games they could play on computers than in actually building things, I found myself making sprites and digital media and coding games while everyone else wanted to make math… I quickly failed out of that culture.
 
My self-taught experience was one of hacking and building.  Tweaking pieces of code and refining them until I got the desired result.  I could see the logical construction, but it was never numerical for me, it was mechanical.  Later in life I worked as a millwright and an auto mechanic before coming back to computers as a technician.  I’ve always had a love of machines and computers have always been included in that mechanical empathy.  That mathematics stole coding from me is something I’ve always regretted.
 
That tyranny of numbers still holds sway in coding no matter what attempts are made to pry it free.  I’m previewing a video for my computer studies class and came across this bit:
So there you have it.  Had we developed computers with different intent, our analytic engines or even better, universal engines (!), wouldn’t have been confused with calculators.

One of the perilous moments I experienced while getting my philosophy degree was trying to get the mandatory symbolic logic credit.  My first attempt had me in a classroom full of science majors all taking symbolic logic because it was being delivered as a math course.  I fled the scene and worried that I’d never get this credit, the math-bullying in that class was something else.  I ended up taking symbolic logic the next semester and getting an A in it.  Why?  Because it wasn’t taught by a math major.  I can appreciate logic, I have trouble with it when it gets abstracted in numbers.

The term ‘computer’ is prejudicial.  Computers were originally people who did tedious math problems, mechanical computers supplanted them, but modern computers aren’t number crunchers.  Modern code on a modern computer is a construction of complex logic that produces results well beyond mere calculation, to reduce that process to mathematics is absurdly simplistic.  

The whole thing makes me want to change my department from “Computer Studies” to “Universal Engines” and escape from the confusion of a historically inaccurate name, and that tyranny of numbers.

The Week After New Years: Take 2

If it’s a seven grand proposition to get over to California and rent a bike to ride the Pacific Coast Highway, how cheaply could I do something else?

As if by magic, this popped up across the road from work this week.  If they’re asking between five and six grand, it would be a straight trade for the commuter car I drive to work in the winter. This type of motorcycle transportation system has a cargo carrying capacity of over 3000lbs, so it would comfortably carry a bike or two.  

Tiger to scale
in that van.


The Tiger, a fairly substantial adventure bike, is about 89 inches long, 34 inches wide at the handlebars and 55 inches tall.  The cargo area in this kind of van is 124 inches long, 53 inches wide at the narrowest point of the rear wheel arches and about 53 inches tall.  With the windshield removed, even two tall adventure bikes would fit in the back of this thing with only a bit of handlebar overlap.  Two six hundred pound bikes would barely dent half the load capacity of the van.  It would barely feel a single bike at all.

With the Tiger (and maybe a Super Tenere) loaded in the back, we could make the great escape south on the week after New Years.

It’s an all day trip to Knoxville.


If we left on New Year’s day we could be in Pigeon Forge on the edge of the Smokey mountains that night.

Monday morning we could hit one of a number of local motorcycle friendly routes.  There are so many choices that other than a freak snow storm, we’d be on excellent riding roads, making miles in January.




Best Western Toni has a sale!

Pigeon Forge is nestled right in the middle of it all and their winter temperatures feel downright spring-like compared to what we have up here – hovering around 9°C on average.  It’s cool, but no cooler than riding in the mountains around Phoenix was last New Years.  On warm days we might get right up into the high teens Celsius.  It’s a bit of a chance, but the reward would be getting some beautiful winter rides in while the north is under a blanket of snow.

Compared to the Californian coast, you can get fantastic hotel deals down Knoxville way.  The Best Western in Pigeon Forge has a $74 Canadian a night deal on, and it’s a 4+ star reviewed place with indoor pools and hot tubs and included breakfast; the perfect launching point for a series of rides.

Lots of pretty roads around Pigeon Forge

Being a regular winter work week for most people, the roads would be empty.  The Tail of the Dragon is only 54 twisty miles down the 321 from Pigeon Forge, and at that time of the year it’ll be anything but packed.  The Dragon is just one of many excellent motorcycling roads in the Great Smokey Mountains area.

After exploring the Smokey Mountains from Monday to Thursday, we’d get a good night’s sleep and make the drive back back north into the frozen darkness on Friday (giving us a spare day or two in case of weather).  The costs aren’t anything like trying to get out to California.  With no airfare or motorcycle rental, the most expensive bits aren’t there.  On top of that I’d get to ride a bike I love instead of getting on a rental I’m ambivalent about.

Compared to the seven grand California week, this one comes out to about sixteen hundred bucks depending on how getting my hands on a cargo van goes.  There is more of a chance of weather getting in the way but if it holds out it’s a dramatically cheaper way to ride some fantastic roads in the middle of winter.

Maybe I could get Enterprise Rent-a-van to sponsor the trip…

Cost breakdown:
– swapping out the Mazda2 for a van, I think I can about break even there.  I only use the Mazda for the 10 minute commute to work in the winter – the van could easily do the same thing for not much more in gas because the commute is so short.
– gas down and back (assuming 15mpg) ~1500 miles = 100 gallons of gas ~380 litres @ $1 a litre = ~$400Cdn in gas for the van (gas is cheaper in the States).
– Food & toll costs on the commute, say $100 each way: $200US ($250Cdn)
– Hotel for the week (Sunday night to Friday morning) in Pigeon Forge: $411Cdn
– Daily bike gas & food costs: say $100US ($150Cdn) per day, so for Mon, Tue, Wed, Thu it’d be about $600Cdn

All totalled up, that’s 2 days of travel and four days on two wheels in Tennessee for about $1600 Canadian dollars.  That’s $5400 cheaper than the same amount of time away in California, and with six less airports.

Emissions & Where We Hide Them

Ah, the wisdom of the internet…

This article on how motorcycles might be less green than you think was shared by Zero motorcycles online.  A number of people underneath the article posted responses that had little to do with the article and more to do with a general hatred of motorcycles.  The loud pipe crowd seems to raised the ire of the general public quiet effectively.  Thanks for that.

I’d heard about the Mythbuster motorcycle pollution test mentioned in the article previously, and had seen annoyed responses pointing out how unfair it was.  I felt obliged to put something up that wasn’t just angry motorcycle ranting.

“The Mythbusters they refer to compared a 1990s family sedan to a 1990s Honda super bike. A fairer comparison would have been an 90’s Corvette vs. the Honda super bike (vehicles with similar performance and intent), but then it wouldn’t have been close. The other comparisons were equally unfair.  It seemed to be the result of what they had handy, and one of the mythbusters was a sports bike guy, so that’s what they used.

If you think hybrids are the magic bullet you should look into how current battery technology is created and retired, it isn’t pretty.  An accurate accounting of the e-waste from hybrid production and operation overshadows their minimal pollution output – you’re basically showing a green face to what is a very polluting industrial process. That hybrid vehicles are utterly tedious and heavy because they carry redundant power trains is yet another problem; heavy things are never efficient.

The idea that some bike owners remove pollution gear for performance is no less true for four wheelers – except when the idiot on my street straight pipes his massive Dodge pickup you can actually see the hole he’s making in the sky.  Meanwhile I’ll keep getting 50+mpg out of my Triumph Tiger.”

After that I started poking around to try and get a feel for just how magically ecological electric vehicles are.  It turns out lithium based batteries are nasty, both to create and to recycle:

www.technobuffalo.com/2012/03/30/why-hybrids-and-evs-dont-help-solve-the-energy-conundrum/
www.digitaltrends.com/cars/hold-smugness-tesla-might-just-worse-environment-know/

transweb.sjsu.edu/project/1137.html
www.scientificamerican.com/article/lithium-ion-batteries-hybrid-electric-vehicle-recycling/
www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2013/10/what-happens-to-electric-car-batteries-when-the-car-is-retired/index.htm
www.iea.org/newsroomandevents/graphics/2015-04-28-carbon-emissions-from-electricity-generation-for-the-top-ten-producer.html
www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214993714000037
www.mai.org.my/ver1/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1934:recycling-the-hybrid-battery-packs&catid=42:global-auto-news&Itemid=165

 
“A Prius battery begins life in a dirty nickel mine in Sudbury, Ontario. This mine has caused enough damage to the surrounding area to be called a “dead zone.” There is no natural life of any sort for miles around. NASA used that area to test its Moon rovers because the area resembles its craggy surface. Acid rain from the toxins of the mine killed all the plant life in the area and washed away the hillsides. All of this sounds positively wonderful, but don’t worry, it gets better. These battery components are then shipped to the largest nickel refinery in Europe. After that, they make their way to China to be turned into nickel foam of sorts. Finally, the batteries make their way to Japan to be put into the cars, which are then shipped all around the world to happy Prius buyers who are anxious to drive their new hybrid.”

“EVs that depend on coal for their electricity are actually 17 percent to 27 percent worse than diesel or gas engines. That is especially bad for the United States, because we derive close to 45 percent of our electricity from coal. In states like Texas, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, that number is much closer to 100 percent.”

“The initial production of the vehicle and the batteries together make up something like 40 percent of the total carbon footprint of an EV – nearly double that of an equivalent gasoline-powered vehicle.”

We live in a time of compromise, but thinking that you’ve somehow solved the entire vehicular pollution thing by leaping into a hybrid or EV sourced from parts delivered by oil driven transport from all over the world and powered by whichever lowest hydro bidder your miserly government is supporting this week is a bit much.  The harder choice in the short term is to live with less, which no one is willing to do (that’s probably what’s driving hybrid/battery e-vehicle evangelism – a chance to bypass that choice).

I suspect that hydrogen fuel cells driving electrical motors are where we’ll go next in personal transportation (though why that’s only happening as a college project in motorcycling is a bit vexing).  Fortunately, Honda is doing something on the four wheeled front.  A super light weight hydrogen celled electrical vehicle bypasses the battery production nightmare, but then we aren’t moving toward light weight, minimalist vehicles.  Would you want to drive a thousand pound hydrogen vehicle next to a massive SUV?  That would be as dangerous as riding a motorcycle!

While that’s happening, advancements in nuclear engineering will hopefully drive us out into the solar system.  The outer planets are a virtually unlimited store of non carbon based fusion energy, we just have to get there and collect the fuel (which is rare on Earth).  If we took half of what we spend on military budgets world wide each year, we’d have an unlimited source of clean energy on tap within my lifetime.  Instead we just keep doing what we’ve always done, stumbling forward in ignorance driven by greed instead of driving for real global advances in sustainable energy production.

Of course, none of that matters to personal transportation if we can’t find a better way to store electricity locally.  Chemical batteries are an eighteenth Century solution to a twenty-first century problem.  We really need to start advancing hydrogen fuel cells, kinetic storage and other non-chemical battery technologies.  A near perfect scenario would be using d-He3 fusion to produce hydrogen with no carbon footprint.  The hydrogen then works as an electrical generator in a fuel cell as it fuses with oxygen producing pure water.

A truly zero emissions vehicle with an abundant and
powerful fuel supply?  I’m dreaming of that future.

I have no doubt that the internal combustion engine’s days are numbered and that the future is electrical.  Companies like Zero Motorcycles and even EVs like the Nissan Leaf are doing their part to improve electrical engine efficiency, but depending on globally sourced, polluting chemical battery technologies isn’t the future.  One day I’ll hop on my hydrogen fuel celled Zero Tsunami (because it produces only water, get it?) and zip off down the road knowing that I’m riding a vehicle that is truly sustainable.

Arguing between gasoline power and hybrid/EVs that depend on extremely polluting chemical battery technologies and fossil fuel driven electricity generation is like arguing whether your coal fed steam powered train is less polluting than my wood burning steam powered train – neither solve the problem, and one seems more about hiding it than fixing it.

***
Originally shared by Zero Motorcycles
Are motorcycles greener than cars? They are if you ride a Zero! Interesting discussion. Your thoughts?

Arguing on the internet, I should know better…
www.greencarreports.com/news/1105626_why-motorcycles-may-not-be-greener-than-cars-missing-emission-gear#comment-2845856393

I’m beginning to think that a few years ago a very smart MBA type walked into auto manufacturers and said the whole environmental thing can be resolved by moving the burning of fossil fuels out of sight of the general public.

The issue with climate change is that it’s obvious to consumers that they are responsible! Every time they put gas in the car they’re burning it. Simply move the carbon production out of sight and everything is good again, and you get a brave new legion of e-vehicle evangelists who will fight tooth and nail to ignore any evidence of this shift.

That your intermediate step is itself very environmentally damaging is easy to ignore. State that the batteries used in electric vehicles are very recyclable and everyone (especially your believers) will happily state that this is what is happening. Don’t demand laws that require recycling, don’t have any oversight over what happens to batteries when they’re done.

With carbon emissions and the pollution from the new systems that hide it happily out of sight, the general public can get their pride on riding around in hybrid and electric vehicles and never once see the damage they are doing first hand. Problem solved!

Get S.M.A.R.T.

My birthday and Father’s Day are within a month of each other, so I made a combined ask and got a day at S.M.A.R.T. Adventures in Horseshoe Valley.  My previous off road experience was limited to a couple of hours on a dirt bike at a farm many years ago and a short and frustrating go with a KLX250.  My goal in taking the S.M.A.R.T. (Snowmobile, Motorcycle, ATV, Rider Training) course was to explore those aspects of motorcycle dynamics that are beyond the range of typical road riding – unless you’re in the middle of a crash.

There are a lot of people who try motorcycling then retire early.  They often have a lot of advice.  Many of these short-term motorcyclists liked to warn me earnestly and repeatedly about how dangerous it was to ride to early or late in the season when there was a chance of sand being on the road.  Anything that wasn’t table top smooth, grit free tarmacadam meant zero traction and an imminent crash for these earnest scare mongers.

You owe it to yourself to experience motorcycling in unfamiliar ways…

I’ve always ridden on loose material with caution, but after watching a riding buddy with many years of experience step his heavy Super Ténéré out sideways on gravel roads, I’ve thought that there is more to gravel and sand than just being cautious.  Between that and my Dakar fixation, it was time to learn something new.  That same guy was the one who suggested the SMART program (he’d been on it previously).  Here was an opportunity to treat loose material as something other than an imminent crash.

That anxiety about traction on a motorbike runs deep in the limited experience motorcycle crowd, and that crowd contains a lot of people who have only ever done a single type of riding on a single type of bike.  If you’re going to call yourself a motorcyclist you owe it to your craft to experience as many different types of riding as you can.  The SMART program is an accessible opportunity to do that in the trail riding/off road community in a controlled environment on someone else’s equipment (they even provide all the gear).

Getting my Ross Noble on!  Can the
Scottish Six Day Trial be far off?

We started an already nuclear hot day before Canada Day with the affable Clinton Smout going over basic control and balance with a GasGas trials bike.  In no time he had everyone from old guys like me to nine year olds balancing on two wheels while stationary.  I wouldn’t have thought that was possible prior – but I was able to stand on the pegs on the stationary bike until my legs got tired.

Clinton also gave the dry stick demonstration, showing how an old, brittle stick snaps easily compared to a young, supple one.  He then went on to say that SMART is about to have its hundred-thousandth customer in the next few weeks and in the decades it has been running they’ve only had twenty-two ambulances, all of them for old, dry sticks over thirty-five years old.  This forty-nine year old stick paid close attention to this talk.

Within minutes we’d been set up with Joe, the advanced instructor who has over thirty years of experience off road.  I was worried about being put in the advanced group with so little off road experience but they’re more worried about whether or not you know how to ride a bike; if you know the controls, you’re advanced.  There were larger groups of beginners and intermediate riders learning the basics, but we were just three: Joe, me and a German fellow with motocross experience who has ridden every pass in the Alps.  I was still feeling a bit out of my depth and didn’t want to slow anyone down.

We spent some time by the main centre going up and down the hills under the watchful eye of Joe.  I suspect this had more to do with assessing our riding skills than it did anything else.  We did some hill climbs, but on a dirt-specific bike with knobbly tires this was an easy thing to do.  We were on Yamaha TT-R230cc bikes, which might seem a bit on the small side, but the characteristics of this bike were very forgiving; it would pull hard out of any gear.  Joe described them as tractors, and they were.  If it stalled, the electric start fired it right up again, and the massive suspension travel and tires made easy work of every obstacle.

Soon enough we were off into the woods.  We’d stop under the trees out of the blinding sun and 40+°C humidity and practice skills such as clutch control on walking speed turns, rear wheel lockups and eventually crossing large logs.  As my confidence improved so did my speed on the trails, which we’d go and ride to make some wind and cool down between slow speed work.  I was able to keep up with Joe on all but a steep, washed out hill covered in big rocks where I ended up pulling off to the side for a moment to collect myself.  That had more to do with sewing machine legs than it did with bad technique.  If you think off road motorcycling isn’t physically demanding, you’ve never done it before.  In forty plus degree temperatures, we were necking a bottle of water every time we went back to base.

On our next run we focused on standing on the pegs and working the bike with body position and weighting the side we wanted to move to.  This involved going over improbably deep ruts while soaking up the vertical movements with the suspension and our legs while also making micro-adjustments to clutch, throttle and brakes to keep things moving smoothly.  If you think riding a motorcycle is dexterous, trying to operate controls with all four appendages while dropping into foot deep ruts ups the ante again.

At one point we were purring through the forest (the little Yamahas are remarkably quiet for one cylinder thumpers) when Joe held a hand up and made the kill the engine sign.  We all rolled to a stop and not fifteen feet away was a fully grown doe (a deer, a female deer).  She stood there munching her grass while watching us from a sunny glade, looking like a scene out of Bambi.  After a minute or so she ambled off into the brush.  My son took the ATV course in the afternoon and they came across wild turkeys – you’re likely to see some wildlife when out in the woods.

As lunch approached our experienced German went and rode with his son and Joe and I went deeper into the woods, now on trails that would barely qualify as a walking path.  The SMART program is based in Beaver Valley, which is part of the Niagara Escarpment.  The Beaver River has cut the valley through the escarpment, which is also scattered with post glacial erratics (big rocks).  You’re working big elevation changes through thick forest including stumps and downed logs along with some very rocky sections; it’s a challenging mix.  Now that I was getting the hang of it, I was spending half my attention watching Joe’s thirty plus years of trail riding experience as he picked out lines through this spaghetti.  We’d stop every once in a while and have a quick chat about what was going on, with Joe giving gems like, “you’ll see me going for the hard pack on the side of the trail, especially when you see all that loose stuff in the middle.  The loose stuff falls into the gulley in the middle and can get pretty deep.”

We had a quick lunch, but it was so hot I forced myself to eat something even though I had no appetite.  More importantly was getting water into me.  By now we were well into the forties Celsius with the humidity, and everyone was drooping.  My son had arrived for the ATV training and soon enough he was off and doing loops in the compound, getting a handle on the thing.


As the dust got kicked up in the in-field we disappeared into the woods onto even tighter trails.  I stalled going up a hill so steep that I had to roll it backwards down it to get the carb to feed again and restart it.  Joe then showed me how to roll it backwards on the clutch while powered off and in gear in a controlled manner to get out of a tight spot on a hill.  By this point I was keeping up with Joe as he was making tracks.  It was then that he asked if I’d be interested in going out on a BMW F800GS for the last part of the day.  We’d wrung the necks of the Yamaha dirt bikes doing over fifty kilometres, so I said, ‘absolutely!’.  It’d be a chance to try a different bike, which I never say no to.

I’d ridden a BMW once before while riding the south end of Vancouver Island a few years ago.  It was an F800ST – the sports touring version of the adventure bike I was going to ride now.  The F800GS is a nice, tall bike which fits me well.  The controls feel quality, as do the suspension and tires, which cornered so well I forgot they were knobblies.

Joe took us out onto the road and we disappeared into the Copeland Forest for a couple of hours, skipping our water break and riding everything from pavement to fire roads, to dual tracks and, finally, single track trails.  The BMW was obviously much bigger than the Yamaha we’d been on earlier (114kgs for the Yamaha, 229kgs for the BMW), but it’s amazing how off-road capable it is considering that weight difference.  It feels balanced and nimble.  The only thing stopping you from trying the really gnarly trails would be if you got stuck (and what it would cost to fix it).  Getting this out of a hedge wouldn’t be anything like as easy or cheap as the simple, little dirt bike.

Riding the BMW reminded me of the limitations I experienced with the KLX250 I purchased a couple of years ago.  It was off road capable (I forded rivers with it), but as a dual purpose bike it couldn’t carry me at what I considered a safe speed on the road (it would barely touch 100km/hr, which is what most traffic is doing on Canadian back roads).  The BMW was quick and capable on the road, and when we went off road (though on nothing as gnarly as we did on the Yamaha), it did the job without any surprises.  Like the F800ST I rode a few years ago, the twin engine felt agricultural and uninspiring, though it was certainly quiet and efficient.  Compared to the exhaust popping and snarling, induction howling Tiger, the engine felt rather characterless which is a shame considering what a lovely thing the rest of the bike is.  The suspension was so good it made me wonder if the wooden shocks on my Tiger are in need of some attention.

We rolled back in at the end of the day just a few minutes before the other classes returned, and drank a lot of water.  I’d covered well over 100 off and on road kilometres over the day on two very different bikes.  Joe was approachable and willing to answer any questions, but better than that he used decades of experience to quickly assess where I was at and then lay down a series of increasingly challenging lessons that kept me on the edge of my learning curve all day.


I’d been sweating for hours and was ready to get out of the armour and go and wash the caked on dirt away.  My wonderfully wise wife who did all the photography you see here had also arranged a room at the Horseshoe Resort next door, so within twenty minutes I was flat out in a pool thinking about the day.  I’d managed not to dry-stick my way into anything I couldn’t handle and was in good, but muscle sore shape.

My son has always been a cautious fellow and reluctant to ride or drive, but he spent a very intensive two hours with Adam on the ATVs and rolled back in looking like he was ten feet tall.  It’s amazing what an accessible, patient instructor can do for your confidence.  By the end of the day he was talking about driving the ATVs up at the cottage, which had never been a consideration before.


I can’t recommend S.M.A.R.T. highly enough.  If you’re an experienced road rider you own it to your craft to spend some time learning these skills, they might save your bacon one day.  If you’ve never tried offroad powersports before and are looking for an accessible and relatively inexpensive (it’s about $200 for a half day and $300 for a full day – all in including all gear and equipment) way to get into it, this’ll do that too.  We’ll be back again.


With amusement park tickets north of a hundred bucks, you’re close to the cost of a day at SMART to park, eat, stand in lines and sit on roller coasters at Wonderland.  Why on earth would you line up to passively experience fake thrills when you could get learn real world skills and experience real world thrills at SMART?  No line ups, no crowds, (though deer and turkey on occasion) and a great day becoming genuinely accomplished in the great Canadian outdoors.  How could you say no to that?

 

The 230cc Yamaha I rode typically lasts 6-8 years.  They do a lot of on-site maintenance.  One of the instructors said that they don’t wear out engine wise as they aren’t ridden that hard, but the transmissions suffer from a hard life with many people new to bikes learning how to clutch and gear on them.



LINKS:
S.M.A.R.T. Adventures:  www.smartadventures.ca/

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The Happy Ship

One of the more ASDish qualities I have is finding awards ceremonies difficult to fathom, especially graduations.  Being packed into a room with a big crowd of people is tricky enough.  Doing it under the constant threat of public acknowledgement is agonizing.  I get the sense that North Americans play this up more than in other places, so perhaps there are some cultural influences going on here too, but my savage disregard for awards seems to run deeper than just cultural dissonance.

I am in the process of weathering two days of back clapping by people who thrive on back clapping.  Their love of self aggrandizement (and don’t kid yourself, graduation ceremonies are all about acknowledging and empowering the system) makes my hatred of it confusing to them.  I never feel more alienated from neurotypical people than I do when graduation rolls around.


The first was my son’s grade eight graduation put on earnestly by his elementary school.  As in every other graduation I’ve had to weather, this one involved repeatedly congratulating the same students over and over again for being advantaged and conforming to norms in a manner so efficient that they produced outstanding results in a system designed for them.


And why shouldn’t all those advantaged, neuro-typical kids be awarded for these things?  They thrived in the artificial learning environment that is the classroom.  They arrived well fed and clothed, and culturally aligned with the process that was about to assess them.  These neuro-typical students all had a clear understanding of how to manipulate that system to their own advantage.  It was amazing to see how many of the awards focused on that socializing aspect, recognizing compliance in maintaining social norms as the highest virtue.  Awards for helping to run the school appeared thick and fast with happy teachers handing them out while not having to hide their favouritism any more.


I showed up to school in Canada as an immigrant from a lower socio-economic bracket.  I don’t think like other people and have trouble remembering who is who let alone how to create tight social bonds with teachers that would result in any kind of award.  My son gets to skip the immigrant thing and I’ve gone to great lengths to ensure that socio-economics aren’t weighing him down like they did me, but I’ve also given him an even healthier dose of ASD than I have.  He got to sit through two hours of hearing about how all these wealthy, socially engaged and advantaged, neurotypical kids deserve to be honoured by a school system designed for them.  How do you think that made him feel?  He has struggled to finish his elementary career this week on a positive note.  And yes, this makes me angry.


I just finished reading Paul Theroux’s The Happy Isles of Oceania: paddling the Pacific, so I’ve got nautical themes floating around in my head as I write this.  Paul is an odd duck himself.  He takes great pleasure in doing things differently and being alone doesn’t freak him out in the way it does most people; I imagine he’d find graduation ceremonies as alienating as I do.


As I fidgeted in the humidity of that packed room, the idea of a cruise ship came to me.  On that happy ship are all those students predisposed to success in school.  They thrive in noisy rooms full of people, they are socially tuned to make best advantage of the entire school system, and that system is eager to reward their compliance.  Their communications skills allow them to create positive, supportive relationships with their peers, but most importantly, their teachers.  These uber-kids are like professional athletes.  They excel in an artificial environment (the classroom), and get rewarded for it handsomely by the people who did so well in education that they went back to run the thing.


As if every day at school stepping into a shoe designed for you wasn’t enough, they then get graduation where everyone gets to hear about this very abstract and specific version of excellence, for the same people, over and over again.  These are the students that I meet in high school who don’t really care what Hamlet’s motivations are and don’t think there is anything to actually learn about human nature in literature, but they do want to know how to get the A+.  Education isn’t self improvement for these people, it’s a flag they wave around for social advantage.

From an outsider’s perspective it feels at best patronizing and at worst like you’re getting your face rubbed in it.  If you see any awards that aren’t based on ‘academic excellence’ (whatever that means), they tend to be tertiary awards given as charity without any other criteria.  The best you can hope for is someone saying how hard you tried, but don’t be patronized by that pat on the head.  For the neuro-atypical thinkers who don’t work best in a classroom, but are learning all the same, there are no awards for all the books you read  (or wrote) that aren’t on the curriculum.  There are no awards for all the art you made that didn’t happen in class.  There are no awards for all the sports you participated in that didn’t happen under the hammer of a phys.ed. teacher’s critical eye.


My son’s grades look remarkably like mine.  When you get grades like that they tempt you to say fuck it to school, which I’m sure makes the neuro-typical people who deliver them feel very powerful.  Assessment for compliance.  Assessment for conformity.  Assessment for learning?  Rarely.  Sitting through graduation ceremonies only exacerbates that feeling (I didn’t attend any of mine).  I had a chat with my boy afterwards and reminded him that what teachers are willing to see in the very limited classroom environment is not in any way an accurate reflection of what he is capable of.  When you have the kind of intelligence that is very difficult to observe let alone quantify, part of your genius has to be nurturing it yourself.

We’re all crossing the learning ocean, but some of us know
what the waves sound like because we’re out in it on our own.

All those neurotypical kids on their big cruise ship crossing the learning ocean have the benefit of a system designed for them, but many of them also forget that they’re actually on the learning ocean; the cruise ship becomes their whole world.  When they have to disembark in that glittering graduation ceremony of privilege rewarded, they are lost.  They didn’t learn anything for its own sake, they learned things for grades and accolades.  They struggle to find their way in a world that doesn’t always reward their privilege with success, though they’ll never forget that feeling of privilege and will seek it again and again for the rest of their lives.


I ended our chat with this:  embrace your difference, don’t surrender to their assessment.  And if you don’t want to go and watch them clap each other on the back for being privileged, then don’t.  It’s the dropouts and outliers who tend to invent new things and it’s the fighting spirit you develop in yourself getting beaten up by the school system that will make you strong when you don’t have to suffocate in it anymore.  Whatever happens, never forget that learning isn’t school.  Always be learning.

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Meet Your Maker

www.arduino.cc

I’m working my way through my second semester with grade nines in computer studies. I’ve tried to bring as much ‘shop’ as I can into computer studies.  My background was in I.T., so getting into the nitty gritty of electronics has been an expansion of my craft which I’ve enjoyed as much as the students seem to.

Using Arduino microcontrollers we bridge the gap between hardware and software and get students comfortable with the idea of building circuits as well as controlling it with code.  This year I’ve also gotten a Raspberry Pi up and running as well as building dozens of desktops. A resurgent maker culture has made electronics much more accessible and customizable; it’s a good time to be teaching computers.

Maker Culture

This semester we’ve been pulling apart broken electronics and reusing digital displays, microphones and other components in our Arduino Frankenstein creations.  Some of it will work, some of it won’t, but the process will make Makers of many of the students.

The real fear in using technology is that many users don’t have the faintest idea how things work.  When it breaks there isn’t a frame of reference of where to begin, fixing anything seems impossible.  After breaking apart their first digital clock, or radio, or electronic game, students begin to recognize the components because they’re already familiar with the bits and pieces having used them to assemble a dozen Arduino projects already.  With the mystery gone, they begin to grasp the power their minds and hands have.

I’m re-reading Matthew Crawford’s Shopclass as Soulcraft.  It’s such a complex read, with so many ideas packed into each page, a second run through will do me good.  If you’re an educator, and you can take some well intended criticism, reading the first couple of chapters will challenge many of the assumptions we wrongly found current educational theory on.   I imagine most educators won’t find the criticism comfortable, no matter how well intentioned.

I’m about to get my first motorcycle and I’ve found myself casting about, trying to figure out who I can get to maintain it for me.  A chapter in and this ex-mechanic is getting his hands on a shop manual and doing it himself.  One of the reasons I want to begin riding is to develop a closer relationship with the machinery I use.  The plastic covered, warrantied cars I drive don’t do that.  The nakedness of a motorcycle begs for it; I’m looking forward to that quiet, focused mind driving busy hands.

There is something inherently valuable in being able to fix what you use.  I’ve never had to argue for the value of what we do in computer studies, the learning has inherent worth, is immediately useful, and applicable in a surprisingly wide range of situations.  From the insides of an operating system to the flow of electrons around a circuit, these students develop a familiarity and comfort level with something that most people are more than happy to use in blissful ignorance (until it breaks).  The tactile nature of the work also draws in even the most reticent.  Working with your hands, making something real work through trial and error, offers an experience missing from much of academia.  Crawford’s philosophical attack on the globalized knowledge economy happens every day in my classroom.

Many of these students will move on to other interests in other fields, but none of them will ever again be at the mercy of their ignorance while working with a computer.  I’ll have to paste rubrics and marks over all this to make it credible to the establishment, but the moment a student who has been whacking his head against his own bad wiring for half an hour realizes what he’s done and fixes it himself, he has developed a tiny bit of independence, and perhaps realized that paying attention is a powerful ally.  Learning shouldn’t be frustration free, if it were, it wouldn’t mean anything.  With minds and hands engaged in a battle with realistic demands, the rewards are hard to quantify in a mid-term mark.

Forcing An Apple To Become An Orange

We emigrated to Canada in 1977.  Unfortunately, my parents weren’t really paying attention and moved us (an English speaking family from England) into Lasalle in Montreal, Quebec.  If you don’t know what was going on in Quebec in 1977, it wasn’t good for an eight year old English kid.  While we were struggling to adapt to a new country we’d also wandered into a nationalist revolution.  Bill 101 made it illegal for immigrants to learn in English.  Since that was my native language and I had no background in French, the provincial government told my parents I’d have to attend a french school and get dropped back two grades to accommodate my lack of language skills.


While that was going on, the kids in our predominantly French neighborhood had overheard me talking with my lovely Norfolk accent while walking home from school and had decided that I would be a great opportunity to express their Quebecois pride. Getting beaten up by half a dozen kids at once wasn’t any fun, but when they started bringing their german shepherd along to help, it was even less fun.  You’ll have to excuse me if I’m not enthusiastic about Quebec’s singular approach to immigrants.

Government letters arrived telling my parents that they had to move me out of English school or they would be charged and jailed.  My dad’s new job did backflips, opened up a branch office in Toronto and we escaped to free Canada in 1980.  I’ve had a soft spot for Ontario’s open arms approach to immigrants ever since.

@dougpete shared an article on Quebec’s math prowess this morning.  I have some strongly held beliefs about how they’ve managed this result that the article itself goes to great lengths to ignore.  While Ontario has what is described by many people as too many public school systems, Quebec has one, and it’s one that caters aggressively and exclusively to a single language supporting a single culture.  They don’t enjoy immigration and their provincial politics have backed that up since I was an eight year old way back in 1977.  If you’re looking  for a province that struggles to embrace multiculturalism, Quebec’s a fine example:


“Among the provinces, the greatest increase in the absolute number of police-reported hate crimes was observed in Quebec, where incidents rose from 270 in 2015 to 327 in 2016. This increase was mostly attributable to more hate crimes targeting Arabs and West Asians, the Jewish population and sexual orientation.”  
Stats Canada Daily: Police reported hate crime, 2016

With the exception of New Zealand (which is significantly less
multi-cultural than Canada
anyway), there are few other countries
in the top 20 that sport a significant immigrant population.

I would argue that if you’re dealing with a less diverse population you’re dealing with an easier education process.  In addition to removing hard barriers like language and the various qualities of education in home countries, you’re also bypassing many of the less tangible complexities like cultural expectations around gender and religion.  These benefits are clearly seen in international education rankings where monocultural societies are much more willing and able to force compliance and efficiently produce results for standardized tests; standardized populations feed strong standardized results.  With no language barriers or cultural confusion, it pays to be monocultural in standardized testing.  Canada is exceptional in those results, especially considering how it’s a country built on immigration.  That we are able to produce these results even while working with diverse often ELL populations is astonishing.  Statistics show just how challenging trying to cover curriculum while also teaching the language of instruction is.  Stretching your education system to provide support for such a diverse population means you aren’t going to score as well on a standardized test because your students aren’t standard.

Quebec students pay a third what Ontario university students do.
They can afford to stay in four year programs for teacher training
while Ontario teachers would end up paying tens of thousands of dollars
more for that privalege.  You can encourage extended teacher
training when you know it isn’t going to bankrupt your citizens.

In addition to the diversity of their students, there are a number of assumptions made in that article that ignore the cultural landscape that has allowed Quebec to produce this outstanding mathematical outcome that is out of step with the rest of the country.  Under more extensive teacher training is this:


Teacher preparation programs in Quebec universities are four years long, providing students with double the amount of time to master mathematics as part of their teaching repertoire, a particular advantage for elementary teachers. In Quebec faculties of education, elementary school math teachers must take as many as 225 hours of university courses in math education; in some provinces, the instructional time can be as little as 39 hours.

That Quebec students receive much more support for post secondary than Ontario students is a matter of fact.  Quebec looks after its teachers in training by not financially crippling them with this long term training.  Expecting Ontario teachers in training to foot an Ontario sized bill for their Quebec length training only goes to highlight the fundamental differences between the provinces.  Quebec students pay more than a third less what Ontario students do for that university training, and so they are able to extend their training.  It’s little wonder that they are producing better results on this standardized test.


The article kicks off rather hyperbolically sounding an alarm for Ontario’s math’s results:  
“That populist election cry resonated with Ontarians because Ontario students continue to lag in mathematics and were the only ones in the country to show no significant improvement on national tests from 2010 to 2016.
Saskatchewan also has a dip in results and most of the other provinces were all within a couple of percentage points of their previous scores.  More importantly, Ontario led the results for English speaking Canada in 2010, 2013 and 2016, and even managed to slightly improve on it.  So this emergency in Ontario is based on the fact that we’ve always been leading in mathematics scores in English speaking Canada?  I hope everyone else catches up with us one day, but with the provincial government about to pull one of the top performing English Canada education systems to bits, I wouldn’t bet on it.


In researching this I came across some evidence that the Quebec of today isn’t as totalitarian as the Quebec I emigrated to in 1977.  This research on current Quebec schools summarized it this way:

“Quebec’s traditionally homogeneous French-language education system has undergone some radical changes over the past 30 years and continues to be shaped by public policies geared toward promoting French and openness to ethno-cultural diversity. The province has
come a long way and now compares favourably with other immigrant-receiving societies. Nevertheless, many challenges lie ahead. Among other things, the marginalization of some ethnic groups, and most especially that of the Black community, must be better understood and actively prevented.”


Perhaps Quebec is a bit less mono-cultural than I remember, but it still enjoys all the benefits of encouraging only primary language speakers into their system.  With that language of instruction time and energy freed up and with government subsidized education that allows their teachers to enjoy extended training without financially crippling them, Quebec is enjoying the results it deserves.  I’d rather Ontario didn’t try to copy them though.  As an immigrant myself, Ontario made me feel welcome in a way that Quebec didn’t, and I hope we’ll continue to do that for the people across the world, regardless of the language they speak, who come here to find a home.


The article ends up questioning its own bias on Quebecois superiority in math as it wraps up:


Quebec is markedly different when it comes to mathematics. Immersed in a French educational milieu, the Quebec mathematics curriculum has been, and continues to be, more driven by mastery of subject knowledge, didactic pedagogy and a more focused, less fragmented approach to student intellectual development. Socio-historical and cultural factors weigh heavily in explaining why Quebec continues to set the pace in mathematics achievement. A challenging curriculum produces higher math scores, but it also means living with lower graduation rates.


Perhaps the Ontario panic over mathematics could do with a bit of context, but I fear that won’t happen in the populist, reactionist times we live in.  It’s better to invent an emergency, compare ourselves to a system that couldn’t be more different and then try to imitate their results, than it is to continue to lead English speaking Canada in mathematics?  I sincerely hope not.




Other Research For This Piece:

Visble minority population by urban centre: h   Montreal barely makes the top 5 and is similar to Winnipeg in terms of immigration.  I couldn’t find language details, but Quebec’s focus on french is absolute.

www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/dp-pd/hlt-fst/imm/Table.cfm?Lang=E&T=11&Geo=00
canadaimmigrants.com/canada-international-students-by-province-2016/

www.chereum.umontreal.ca/publications_pdf/Publications%20de%20la%20titulaire/Quebec%20Question%20Stephane%20Gervaisch19.pdf

www.canadastudynews.com/2018/03/19/canada-is-home-to-nearly-half-a-million-international-students/

www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/171129/dq171129a-eng.htm

www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/171129/dq171129a-eng.htm
www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/dp-pd/hlt-fst/imm/Table.cfm?Lang=E&T=11&Geo=00

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A word about educational how-to videos

In the tragically depopulated videos suggesting how personalized assessment is to be done, cheerful teachers in half empty, quiet, ordered classrooms dealing with compliant, earnest, hard working children one on one, take a great deal of time reviewing their work in meaningful, specific ways. This is something I often see in ‘this-is-how-you-should-do-it’ videos.

I first noticed this in teacher’s college when the assessment professor gave us an article by a teacher who went into great detail about how teachers should create student specific learning opportunities and assessment. Everyone oo’ed and ah’ed this wonderful insight, but I had a nagging feeling while watching it. Two minutes on the interwebs at home that night had me coming into class the next day and showing everyone that this teacher works at a private school with mandatory laptops for each student, and class caps of 16 students. The students were all, “students of professors, lawyers and diplomats in the suburbs of Washington DC).

I sometimes work with students whose parents can’t feed them, let alone pay $2o,000 a year to put them in a private school. We just got a technology ‘refresh’ which involved us losing labs and dozens of computers from the school (to be replaced by wifi and the hope that students can bring their own tech) – technology support for all? Not where I live, and I work at what I’d describe as a good school in a pretty wealthy area, but we are a public school that serves everyone from trailer parks to mansions.

And I certainly have never seen an English class with (at the most) 16 students in it – double that and throw in 5-10 students are are clearly in the wrong stream; that’s what I see. In that environment crowd control is as much a part of my day as learning is.

I know they are trying to focus these videos on the specifics of what they’re talking about, but if a video production team can’t do that in a class of 30 students, 12 with IEPs, 8 who performed brain chemistry experiments at lunch and 6 who aren’t sure that they remember your name after being in your class for six weeks, what makes them think a single teacher can?

Instead of making the video to sell a book (and a dream world of magic), how about some real world candid video of what happens in real classes, warts and all? Or will marketing not ok that?

Invisible Man

I was riding down to the city south of us today for a dentist’s appointment.  Out on the 2 lane high way that cuts south through Guelph I had my first experience of being invisible.  In bumper to bumper traffic moving at about 80 kms/hr, the blue minivan driven by an elderly man (wearing a hat), suddenly lit up his indicators and with no shoulder check immediately moved into the lane I was occupying.

I had the radar on and saw everything he was going to do before he did it.  I eased on the brakes, weaved onto the curb and avoided being hit by him.  I honked (first time I’ve ever done that) and raised a hand in wonder at his  cluelessness.  The guy in the cage jumped when I honked, then made a point of ignoring me when I gestured.  I frightened him by honking, he was happy to knock me off the highway and then ignore the consequences.

I’m surprised at how not-angry I was.  Even though this clueless old git had no idea what was happening around him I couldn’t get angry with him.   Like so many other caged drivers he is in his own world, remote from the consequences of his ignorance; happy to thump down the road at 90 kms/hr without knowing what is going on around him.

After shaking my head I was back in radar mode, wondering what the next cage driver would do.  Riding is only really dangerous when you’re doing it with a lot of other human beings.

I got to the dentists and had a nice chat with my hygienist who rides.  The ride home was without any such drama, but I’m left wondering how often cage drivers think about what’s around them.