Exceptional Times

Thoughts from the depths of the COVID19 pandemic: Rather than give in to the digital divide in times of crisis, why not leverage this moment and make moves to resolve it?


It has been suggested that due to the inequity of access to technology and internet, our education system should shut down during the COVID19 pandemic.  Rather than surrender to this inequity, why not attempt to address it directly?  We could leverage educational technology manufacturers and create one to one technology access for our student populations on the wrong side of the digital divide.

At the same time we could offer limited access to our public school library learning commons where students would have access to internet.  With appropriate safety precautions (limited numbers allowed, strict hygiene practices, solo seating arrangements), we could take immediate steps to bridge the digital divide and allow some form of education to continue for students across Canada.  Simply turning off the education system for months at a time will cause lasting damage for millions of students.

This is a measured and logical approach to resolving the digital divide (a lack of educational technology access to all students)  that has long plagued education.  Rather than having this pandemic make it worse, why not leverage it to make it better?

Handing out one to one technology for students in need so we can keep moving everyone forward educationally wouldn’t be as expensive as you might think and the alternative is significantly more costly.  Our public schools have developed the network infrastructure necessary to provide internet, so limited access to that infrastructure could still address the needs of social distancing while providing connectivity.

If this pandemic has shown anything, it’s that our ICT infrastructure is more vital than ever if we’re going to move against this crisis in a unified manner; communication is key.  There are existing technologies we could apply to extend school and municipal wireless networking out into the communities that surround them.  With fundamental networking infrastructure in place, some innovative final mile solutions (like Blimpernet – an idea that my students and I came up with last year) could make the internet available to many more Canadians just when we need it.

Wouldn’t it be something if one of the lasting results of this pandemic was that it helped us close the digital divide and improve equity through access to technology in our schools?  That it would also allow our education systems to continue in a limited capacity instead of shutting down is a consequence that would benefit all Canadians.


I sent this to a number of MPs as well as the PM.  I only hope a measured, reasonable response is still in the cards.

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Gamer culture, the alt right and online sexism

That link above takes you to a vetted story by our national broadcaster about a PhD student’s academically researched work on gamer culture.  If you can find an academically vetted refutation of these facts (not some dude’s YouTube video) then I’m all ears.  I doubt such a thing exists.  Merely implying that this isn’t true isn’t an effective response either.


It’s a salty but accurate explanation
of how the early internet evolved
toward what we have today.

This idea that online gaming culture may act a petri dish for alt-right thinking doesn’t surprise me.  Every year I have grade 9 boys begin my program, find out I game, and immediately begin testing the waters with shockingly racist and sexist language to see if I speak the lingo.  I don’t.  I come from an earlier internet where trolling and trash talk were used to instruct and support the kind of radical egalitarianism the early web was promising, not to protect the diminishing historical privilege of white males.  I used to think their offensive language was a function of living in a rural, conservative community but now I’m thinking that a pervasive, new online culture might be the cause.

The podcast above describes astonishingly sexist online situations and suggests that these aren’t rare.  I’ve run into similar problems teaching computer technology. Trying to keep girls in these courses is an ongoing frustration.  Back in 2014 I called this poisonous environment “nerd machismo” and had a great deal of trouble redirecting how many tech focused boys treated these classes like their own private domain.  In retrospect, if they were immersed onlline in the kind of sexism shown in the podcast above, it’s little wonder they were acting this way.  The odd girl who did appear in senior computer classes tended to drop out after a couple of days of listening to this bluster.  I could hardly blame them.

Girls are being chased out of ICT courses by an online culture that can
be best described as incredibly misogynistic.  In the process they are
missing a job sector with great prospects.

In managing my own online presence I’ve removed any online discussion functionality.  I’m happy to talk to people about what I write and thrilled if they share it but I’m not in the business of vetting comments and weeding out the increasing toxicity I was experiencing.  It became tedious and depressing trying to manage these idiots.  Online flaming has decreased in intelligence and increased in misdirected usage to the point where I don’t read (especially anonymous) online comments any more.  By default now my blogs and other online media do not allow for comments.  I don’t want to spend my time reading and erasing offensive material.  If people want to discuss it intelligently they can leverage their own social media presence to do it.  In some small way this mitigates the savage idiocy of the anonymous online flamer by assigning at least a minimal kind of ownership.  If I’m cutting and running from online engagement (a white, male, early adopter), I can’t imagine what kind of negativity has chased out others.


Last month at the ECOO Conference Andrew Campbell did a great presentation on how computer science was stolen from the pioneering women who did much of the coding in the early days:



When you consider how misogyny has directed the field of computer science in the past forty years it’s little wonder that the online culture arising from all that coding tends toward the same thinking.  The medium delivering the message is being made by the same special interests.  This is the worst kind of systemic sexism.

Between this podcast, my own experiences and Andrew’s presentation I seem to be at a confluence of ideas all pointing to a kind of misogyny that I thought was going extinct.  It’s 2016 but we seem to be wrestling with ideas that would look more comfortable in pre-suffragette days a century ago.

I’m a firm believer in developing technical prowess in everyone.  Democratizing technical know-how is the best defence we have against being manipulated by increasingly invasive digital systems continually rolled out by billionaires.  Excluding half the population from technical literacy simply because of their gender plays right into their hands.  No wonder political movements like the alt-right find such a comfortable home online where the powers that be don’t want you thinking about how it works.  In that place ignorance is power.  In the meantime I get to go to school and interact with children who think this is how you should talk to women:

Screen grabs of what women experience online.
In addition to experiencing harassment much more regularly, young women also experience a much wider
variety and intensity of harassment online.  If you experience this online how must you
look at the people you meet in real life?  I’d be constantly wondering what they really think.


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on the Verge of the Future

Sunday morning with a 3d
printer – I get a kick out of
making things work.

One of the best parts of my job is that I get to lay my hands on leading edge technology in order to figure it out so I can teach it.  I’ve always been an early adopter, if no no else has it I’m interested – more so if everyone else is afraid of it.  When most people didn’t know that TVs had alternate inputs I had a home computer with a printer.  When everyone was crying about how fuel injection meant no one could customize their vehicles any more I was hacking the on-board computer and using it for diagnostics and more horsepower.

Nowadays it’s all about how digital tools are making micro/bespoke manufacturing more possible.  Where once you needed an engineer, some machinists and a couple of hundred thousand dollars to build complex components, now you need twenty grand and a willingness to pick up some very easy to manage software.  The entry into machining your own, custom components has become much easier.

Not only are digital tools handing back basic production to individuals, they are also allowing companies to explore levels of precision in manufacturing that seem almost science fictional:

We’ve had 3d printers in the classroom now for a couple of years, and we find them invaluable for prototyping and even developing 3d thinking (not something students take to naturally).

I suspect the wedding-cake style melting-plastic-through-an-extruder 3d printer is an evolutionary dead end (there is only so much you can do to speed up a printing process that works around cooling plastic).  Fortunately, the next step has already happened:

… I’d love to get my hands on one of those.

Another building tool I’d like to try is a digital laser cutter.  Like other manufacturing tools, digital laser cutters have been tumbling in price.  Coming out this year is a desktop laser cutter called the Glowforge that’ll introduce laser cutting, etching and fabrication to many more people.  At only about $4000, this undercuts previous industrial units by tens of thousands of dollars.

With this kind of technology available to many more people, I get the sense that the garage of the future will allow us to build things that only get churned out by factories at the moment.  When I’m at the point that I can custom manufacture and laser etch bespoke motorcycle hard parts and print my own fairings, I’ll feel like my garage can keep up with my imagination.

A good guess might be the garage scene from Big Hero 6:

We’re on the verge of escaping from the mass-production Twentieth Century.  One day you’ll be telling your grand kids that we had to buy shoes that weren’t custom printed specifically for your feet, and they won’t believe you.

Recent advances in processing power and
optics mean VR is finally (after decades of
promise) arriving at a consumer level.

Last week I discovered that I’m going to be able to set up an HTC Vive in the lab.  We’re doing it so we can better craft the 3d models we’re building in Unity and Blender, but immersive simulation could offer a lot of opportunities in the classroom beyond 3d modelling.  The emotional impact on a student walking across Vimy Ridge the day after, or walking through Cambodia’s killing fields, or standing on the Moon and looking back at the Earth, get me revved up about making VR work in the classroom.

From a motorcycling perspective, an immersive simulation of the MotoGP circuit on Valentino’s bike would offer fans a new level of appreciation for the sport.  Preparing for an overseas ride by tasting the trip virtually first offer opportunities for safety preparation that simply don’t exist right now, especially if you’re trying to wrap you head around new signs and riding on the wrong side of the road.

We’re on the verge of the future, and I get another taste next week, I can’t wait!

3D printing

motorcycle 3d printing: http://3dprintingindustry.com/2015/08/03/motorcycle-3d-printing-picking-speed/





Virtual Reality






Head Space

For the first time in my ten years of teaching I didn’t teach summer school or take an additional qualification this summer.  I did build a deck that you can land a helicopter on, restore a motorbike I found in a field and travelled across most of Ontario, but I’ve been far away from thinking about teaching.

What have I learned from my summer of George?  I’d be a very good retired person.  I’m seldom idle, I love learning new things and resolving engineering challenges.  I get a great deal of satisfaction in taking something broken and making it work.  Mechanical sympathy has always led me into technology, I tend toward an empathetic connection with machines.  I also enjoy working with my head and hands in concert (not just one or the other).  I spent the summer practising the engineering process, perhaps I can take a more active modelling role in the lab in order to keep that experience alive (for myself as well as for my students).

The writing didn’t slow down, it just changed focus.  Putting experience into words allows me to meditate on that experience and clarify my thinking about it.  It’s nice to know that whatever I’m doing, writing is a natural response to it.

I’m now in the process of re-engaging with teaching.  Empathy tends to lead me in this as well, though I find the irrationality and randomness of dealing with people exhausting and frustrating in comparison to the simple honesty of machines.  The education system is all about people, from the social complexities of dealing with fellow teachers and administration to the hugely varied psychology of students, it’s a complex system that is more about fecundity than resolution.

After a summer of making things work I’m most anxious about returning to a process that is often irrational, opaque and unsolvable.

Once more into the breach dear friends…

Motorcycle Insurance Money Grabs and a Lean Motorbike Stable

The greatest single downward pressure on the infamous motorcycle equation is the way you’re worked over by insurance for them, especially in Ontario.  If you own one bike you’re likely to be paying about $700 a year if you’re an experienced rider.  If you’re new you can pretty much double that.  

If you buy a second bike, against all logic you’re basically doubling your insurance.  Even though two bikes mean you’re only spending half as much time on each, you get nothing back for that.

If the motorcycle industry wanted to sell more bikes, pressuring the Ontario government to make fair insurance premiums would be a good way to do it.  If you’re paying $700 a year to ride a bike, it should be less than half that to insure a second bike, not double that.  Since you can’t be on both bikes at once your chances of needing insurance drop dramatically.  What would be fair would be only applying the stationary insurance (theft, fire, etc) to a second bike, and perhaps a small fee for the paperwork.  Owning two bikes does not mean double the liability, which is the lion’s share of an insurance premium.

I’d happily budget $1000 a year instead of the $600 I pay for insurance and triple the number of bikes I’ve got licensed.  That’s three times as many vehicles paying road and license plate tax – which helps out the government, and the insurance company themselves would be making more with no increase in liability.  If only they could get past the short term money-grab philosophy they currently run with.  As it stands the ROI on a $2000 a year insurance bill makes it not worth pursuing.

What would that expanded motorcycle stable look like?  Canada’s short riding season means you need to have machine turn-key ready for the few days you can get out and enjoy the weather without it trying to kill you.  I’m currently riding a fourteen year old Triumph Tiger as my go-to bike.  It has been great, but depending on a bike that old isn’t really fair to it.  At The Forks of the Credit last weekend we had the oldest bike there by a decade.  I get a great deal of pride out of that, but I don’t want to start hating on the Triumph if it suddenly develops a fault.  That happened with the KLX and it was gone shortly thereafter.

A new bike would definitely be in the cards.  I’ve long had a crush on Honda VFRs, and they make a great all rounder.  A sporty bike that can also cover distances, and when I sat on one they felt quality, almost jewel like.  As an it’ll-always-be-ready-to-run, dependable bike, it’s a solid choice.  The website is saying this is a $15,000 proposition, but I’m sure I just saw them on sale for a touch over $10,000.

On a naked choice for a new bike I still tend toward the Kawasaki Z bikes.  The Z1000 with it’s cat like robotic stance has long scratched an anime aesthetic itch for me, but the new Z900 does too.  With the taller comfort seat it would fit me well.  The bike is under $10k and looks fantastic.  A new Kawasaki, like a new Honda, would be bullet proof and a good choice for an always-ready dependable motorbike.  Both the Honda & the Z could also handle track days.

The Tiger does a good job of two up riding (it’s a big bike), but sometimes I miss the road focused athleticism of the Concours.  The new one looks spectacular in Candy Imperial Blue.  As a two up tourer it approaches the Goldwing and other dedicated touring machines, but it retains its sports bike heritage, evaporating weight and feeling more like a Ninja in the corners.  It’s a big bike, but I’m a big guy and I look like I fit on it.  With a dedicated long distance road tool like this, perhaps the Tiger would become more adventury in purpose.

With the Tiger and one of the above on hand, in a more insurance friendly situation I’d also have a third bike that would let me focus on the off-road aspects of riding.  

I learned that a 240lb guy on a KLX250 does not add up, so I’d be looking for a 300+cc off roader so that I could keep up with traffic when on the road.  

The DRZ-400 Suzuki has long looked like the bike of choice.  They come up occasionally online.  If insurance weren’t killing it, I’d already own one.  With some frame guards and good sump protection, this would be the bike I’d trail ride and explore farm tracks on without worrying about a traffic line up behind me when I’m on the road.

The Tiger is dependable and a good two up ride, so I suspect I’d pass on the Concours.  Today the three bike stable would be the Tiger, the VFR and the DR-Z 400; a Triumph, a Honda and a Suzuki, but in other circumstances it could be a Kawasaki heavy garage.  If the Tiger weren’t the brick house that it is, I’d have a Concours, a Z900 and maybe even a KTM in the stable… if only I could pay fair insurance rates on them.

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The Digital Narcissist

How We Build Digital Narcissists

Narcissus fell in love with his own image while staring into the water.  That kind of self-infatuation is difficult to come by in our world with its relentless competition and big problems; you can’t help but feel humble before what faces us.

Fortunately, many first world children don’t have to face that reality.  In the past decade they have found a new cocoon to wrap themselves in that isolates them from the harsh truths that surround them.

In that digital cocoon they are free to see only what they want to see.  The machines that serve them slavishly see to their every whim no matter how asinine, base or self-serving it may be.

At the best of times it’s tricky to develop a sense of humility and perspective in children, they tend toward an egotistic world view.  The technology cocoon amplifies this and insulates them from adults (both parents and teachers) in a way unseen before.  In a whirl of habituated media consumption, children today are always able to find a ‘fact’ on the internet that backs up their myopic world view.  They are immediately and constantly able to communicate with peers who are more than happy to reinforce their prejudices. In spite of its promise, social media is very socially insular.  Rather than moving us into an era of interaction and awareness on a global scale, for far too many people the internet is offering something more akin to mental masturbation.

The other week we went to the backwoods of Ontario.  With limited internet and basic cable, we weren’t in the self-directed, media rich world we usually are.  I stumbled upon a fascinating documentary that compared militant Hindu girls’ camps and the Miss India pageant.  We ended up watching (and learning) something that we wouldn’t have in our self-directed media paradise.

Remember when TV was only a few channels and you ended up watching what was on?  It was in this way that I discovered The Twilight Zone, Woody Allen, early Japanese Anime and a variety of media that I would never have picked up in our insular modern media world where we define ourselves by our niches.  I’m not saying things were better that way, but limited media did tend to push us out of our comfort zones and try things we otherwise wouldn’t.  We also tended to watch something only once or twice. Limited media forces you beyond your areas of interest and you tend to focus better on it because access to it is special.

I used to beg for rides or ride
the bike for miles to get this!

When Bits & Bytes on TVO wasn’t enough to satisfy my new computer fixation in the early ’80s I had to search far and wide for media that would cover this new medium.  When I found COMPUTE! magazine in a small shop in a strip mall five miles from home I used to beg for a ride over there or jump on the bicycle and ride forever to go get the latest copy.  That media was hard to get and greatly valued.  Every page of that magazine was a glass of water in the Sahara. My urge to find it had to be great or I wouldn’t have bothered.  Limited media makes us value the information we find and lends a sense of accomplishment to our learning.  All that is lost today.

In 2013 media practically scratches at the door of your mind to be let in.  You have to make an effort to stop it rather than find it.  Ironically, this inflection in media delivery does a lot to take away our ability to self direct our interests.  It’s hard to enjoy a glass of water in a flood.  What’s worse is that instead of amplifying our ability to learn, modern media delivery has cordoned people off into their own habitual interests.

Instead of focusing on research and access we need to consider how to manage distraction and information overflow.  Only once this is in hand can we start to direct ourselves in this storm.  The digital narcissist is the logical result of our sudden access to any information that we want, and it fits hand in glove with the consumerist drive that dictates digital development. It behooves the companies that are reducing users to consumers to create a false sense of how powerful we are; it sells.

Generation Xbox

In a media vacuum you have time with your thoughts.  In that silence you have a chance to examine yourself critically, figure out a direction you want to go.  We expect meta-cognition in students but I’m finding that they are increasingly out of touch with a balanced view of their self worth because they are buried under a media avalanche that is not simply a result of technology advancement, there is intent in the deluge.

The navel gazing digital narcissist can’t examine themselves because they exist entirely as a figment of their own imaginations.  Meta-cognition and the sense of perspective it demands is impossible for them in this media storm; a quiet mind is an unknown experience.

The digital native is trapped in an ego feedback loop with a steady stream of media that caters to their every urge, and because the longer they are engaged with media the more they are worth, the media itself is more interested in keeping them plugged in that it is in advancing their thinking.  

Wrapped in this digital cocoon, is it any wonder that the poor digital native can’t help but gaze at the screen like Narcissus and his pond?

Mechanical Sympathy

I’ve always had an over abundance of mechanical sympathy.  That sympathy often spills over into full on empathy for machines.  While I derive a great deal of joy from interacting with machines, the satisfaction I get out of fixing them is amplified by this natural inclination.

My first bike was a mechanically bullet proof 2007 Kawasaki Ninja 650r.  It had been dropped and scuffed, but it didn’t need open heart surgery.  I was happy to clean it up and send it on its way, and while I got attached to it, it never felt like a two way relationship.

The Concours I have now is a whole new level of commitment.  Not only did I find it sitting in a field, buried in grass, but it took me a winter of rebuilding to get it on the road again.  In my first season riding it I’ve put on more miles than I ever did on the Ninja (it’s a much more comfortable long distance tool).

Call me nostalgic (or perverse), but getting the four carburetors on the Concours running smoothly was very satisfying.  Even though I teach computer tech, I still find the clockwork nature of mechanical parts to have a grace that digital technology is lacking.  Listening to the Connie fire up at the touch of the starter on a cold morning and clear its throat is much more satisfying than listening to the clinical hum of a fuel injector making everything perfect.

I was out on the Concours again today – if the weather’s dry I’m out on it.  I’m always astonished at how responsive such a heavy machine can feel.  It fits me well, needed me to save it, and then responded to that saving with thousands of miles of riding.  There may come a time when the Connie is more trouble than it’s worth, but at the moment it’s what I was looking for all along.

It’s getting kind of crowded in there…

The Yamaha XS1100 sitting in the back of the garage will be my first go at a restoration, but as an owned bike it isn’t really what I’m looking for.  It’ll be my first go at a bike purchased for restoration rather than riding.  I’m curious to see how that process goes.

In the meantime, and completely off topic, here is some nice motorbike art I saw at Blue Mountain last weekend:

Mostly Ironhead 3d Harley Davidson Models




I was back at Mostly Ironheads this afternoon to drop off some paperwork and took a few 3d models.  I didn’t have a chance to set pieces up in the middle of some open space, so these are a bit spotty, but they give an idea of what kind of detail you could get with a more careful modelling.

1934 Flat Head twin Model by tking on Sketchfab

Mostly Ironheads Website

Mostly Ironheads on Facebook

Honda Getaway

This lovely little Honda CB500x popped up on Kijiij.  As an icestorm approaches I’m dreaming of being elsewhere, as I often do during the off-season.

Two grand looks like it’ll get the bike air freighted from Toronto to Ecuador.  The South American tour would take me south down the Andes and then finally to Ushuaia before working my way up the Atlantic side to Rio de Janeiro.

By the time I worked my way back up to Rio on the little Honda, it would have done tens of thousands of kilometres across some pretty rough terrain on not the greatest gas.  I’m sure I could find a happy rider in Rio to hand it off to.

Just over 16,000 kms – a nice 3 month jaunt.

Averaging 250kms per day, it’s a 60 day trek.  With some wiggle room, this would be a nice three month jaunt, mid-February to mid-May.  The MotoGP circus passes through Argentina in April, so that’d be a nice thing to be able to ride to as well.

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