River Ride

 Work has been picking up and I’m having trouble finding time for a ride.  After watching Dovi win Silverstone on PVR I jumped on the Tiger and went for a short ride down and up the Grand River.  I’d like to be able to go on longer rides, for days and weeks and months, but can’t seem to find the time and space to do it.  In the meantime winter is coming so I want to get as much saddle time into my head as I can to last the long, cold dark.

The sky was bruised ahead with a passing thunderstorm.  My favourite moment was riding past a murmuration of starlings as they came to ground like a massive jelly fish after another day on their long migration south.

Back in Elora, I made my way through town and back home.  It was only a half an hour ride, but it’s another one to put in the memory bank for those frozen January days when the possibility of riding seems as remote as walking on the moon.

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The Sky is Falling!

Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?

…and the counterpoint: Ignore The Bullshit: iPhones Are Not Destroying Teenagers

Is this another panicky article by The Atlantic about how digital technology is killing us?  (Remember is Google Making Us Stupid?  I do.)

The general complaint is that youngsters tangled up in emerging technology won’t have the same beatific childhood we have all nostalgically invented for ourselves.

Nostalgia is a dangerous thing at the best of times.  It’s a fictional invention by its very nature.  Our own childhoods weren’t magical bliss.  Depending on how old you are, that magical family trip you took when you were a child was done in a gas guzzling, emissions belching nightmare of a 1970s car.  We’re all suffering from the results of your magical childhood road trips.  This isn’t to say that those trips weren’t wonderful, but they are hardly the placed on a pedestal, this is the way we should all be all the time ideas that nostalgia amplifies them into.

The distance between generations is very similar socially to the distance between races and cultures.  Especially with our rapidly evolving technology, one generation to the next might have significantly different lived experiences.  Just as racists like to emphasize differences in culture and patriots like to wave their flags over the perceived superiority of their countries, ageists like to belittle generations other than their own for their differences.  Sometimes that ageism turns into something worse.

This week in Canada the elementary teachers union in Ontario created a debate about the country’s first prime minister, John A. MacDonald.  This discussion squared off people who tend toward staunch nationalism with people who tend toward staunch political correctness.  It reminded me of a story one of my history professors once told us about his dad.

In his late eighties, this professor’s father thought it would be nice to begin attending university classes.  The prof was delighted at the idea and encouraged his dad to give it a go.  In the first semester this elderly gentleman found himself in a class full of twenty somethings learning about the early Twentieth Century – something he had first hand knowledge of.  As they learned about suffrage (both gender and race) the ever-so-proud of their place in history young people in this class began throwing around words like sexist and racist.  The prof’s dad was very upset by this.  He tried to explain that the vast majority of people at the time weren’t consciously racist or sexist, but were becoming aware of how things had to change.

This is a huge realization that I think most people seem incapable of.  Our place in history is perhaps our largest single prejudice.  Those twenty-somethings in university in the 1990s were throwing around these judgments from a temporal place of perceived superiority, but I wonder how history will represent them.  Can you sit there wearing clothes made in sweatshops and burn fossil fuel to get to class and really feel that superior?  Can you live in a country that only exists as a result of aggressive colonialism and cast disparagements at the people who did the dirty work of creating it?  They could.

This feels like a people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones kind of thing, but it’s human nature to grasp for and exploit any perceived superiority it can; political correctness is founded on the idea.  Humility and honesty are hard work.

When I was doing teacher’s college I came across a grade 8 history text book that had a drawing of the day of Confederation on Parliament Hill in 1867.  In this picture that I’d describe as more propaganda than anything else, were black, Asian and native people all walking hand in hand with white Canadians and all dressed in appropriate Victorian dress.  None of the women and most of the men in that picture couldn’t vote and had nothing to do with Confederation.  If they weren’t dying from smallpox they might have been building a railway or were recent refugees from the underground railroad who were now experiencing the quieter racism of British North America.  If you want a final victory for colonialism this was it – a children’s history text that had rewritten history to make Canada look like something it never was (but would eventually evolve towards).  Burning books and rewriting history has a long and dark history.

Canada has a messy history.  Less messy than The States, but messy still.  Revising it isn’t a way of fixing that, it’s a way of hiding it, which isn’t cool.  Any schools named J.A.M. should remain so – talking about history remembering the context of the time is why the study of history is so challenging, but it’s something we should do or we’re doomed to repeat it; I suspect we are anyway if we’re not willing to ask the hard questions and fix the social inadequacies we currently exploit.  It’s a good thing people in the early Twentieth Century were willing to fight for equality of access to democracy, because I’m not sure people today would.

There is little difference between George Washington owning slaves and a 21st Century North American buying sweatshop clothes from Walmart.  In fact, I’d say the only difference is that Washington did his own slave owning rather than farming the work out to multinationals.  The modern ‘First World‘ has never paid for what things actually cost.  What was once nationalist colonialism has simply been hidden in Globalized economics.

Judging newer generations who are struggling with technology change just as we all are is equally prejudicial.  As I said above, other than teens being able to publish their self involved drama, I’m not sure much has changed other than the ability to publish it, so panicking over the end of civilization because of smartphones seems a bit bombastic, but I’m sure it’ll sell magazines.

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Icelandic Wishlist: A ferry from St Johns to Reykjavik please!

Iceland is at the intersection of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, so in essence it’s part of North America and Europe. Unfortunately, only Europe is making an effort to connect to the place.

You can take a ferry from Denmark to Iceland with your own bike and tour this spectacular island for just over 1000 Euro (personal cabin – half that if you share) in the summer and for less than 400 Euro in the off season. If an enterprising ferry operator would start sailing from St John’s Newfoundland to Reykjavik, not only would we North American types be able to explore this beautiful and relatively empty piece of the world, but we’d also have a land line to Europe since we could explore Iceland and then ferry to Denmark if means and time permitted.

I’m just a couple of days past a 9 day odyssey around Iceland in a rental car, and all I could think of was how brilliant it would have been on my Triumph Tiger that is sitting in a garage in Canada.

The ferry wouldn’t have to run all the time, but four sailings a year would allow a number of adventurous North American motorcyclists to discover the magic of Iceland, and maybe wander on to Europe itself on their own two wheels.

It’s in between them!
Costs to get to the European leg of your ride.  With a St John’s to Iceland ferry you’d be able to surface travel without special cargo headaches from Los Angeles to Tokyo across Eurasia.

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Last Grasps: A Well Timed Post Canada Day Ride

I’ve only got about a week left before we’re off on airplanes, so I’m trying to find reasons to exercise the Tiger before five weeks of motorcycling abstinence.  After a couple of days of crowded rooms and even more crowded Canada Day festivals I needed some quality alone time.  Nothing does that like a motorcycle ride does.

It wasn’t an inspired ride, and it took me to my usual haunts, but it was a lucky ride.  With thunderstorms passing through the area, they were where ever I wasn’t, which was good because I was travelling light.

The idea was to get to Higher Ground at the Forks of the Credit before it got long-weekend crazy.  I managed to get a coffee, look at some Italian exotica and then get out of there before it got really full.  

With the ice cream shop owner moving bikes that were parking out of the way anyway and signs all down the rest of the building stating no motorcycle parking, I’m starting to wonder if Belfountain is getting fed up with its place as a summer time ride stop.  It’s a boon to the local economy, but some people seem intent on stopping it rather than embracing it.  Every rider I saw there was considerate and cautious in entering the parking lot without revving loud pipes or blocking others, but I guess the locals have had enough.  I’m not sure how much longer Higher Ground can be the sole reason to stop there if everyone else in the town is telling us to go elsewhere.

I had Lee Park’s Total Control on my mind as I navigated The Forks, and damned if I wasn’t more stable and smooth through the hairpin corner by looking over my shoulder into the corner.  You’d think looking away from your direction of travel would be counter intuitive, and I don’t get much opportunity to practice it on arrow straight SW Ontario roads, but with some practice it’s definitely the way to go.

After a ride up and down The Forks I aimed north past the Caledon Ski Club and toward Hockley Valley.  It was a lovely, relatively empty ride up to the Terra Nova Public House.

The TNPH had a summer salad with fresh rainbow trout on it that was pretty much perfect, and it let me duck inside and watch the tarmac dry off from the downpour that had passed through ten minutes before I got there.

After a quick lunch I did the TNPH loop before heading down River Road to Horning’s Mills.  Mr Lee’s Total Control habits were still playing though my head and I was focused on late apex entries and clean lines while looking through the corners.  It’s funny how you feel like you’re going slower when you’re going faster on a motorbike.

River Road was generally empty and I got a clean run all the way to Horning’s Mills.  It was time to head home, so I cut south west through the wind fields of Shelburne before stopping in Grand Valley for a coffee.  A GS650 rider and his wife were sitting in the cafe and we got into a good bike chat.  As a fellow rider intent on making miles rather than a scene, we had a meeting of minds on what a motorbike should be for, it was a good talk.

The final ride home was, again, relatively empty and I pulled into the driveway mid-afternoon.  I’m still hoping to get down to the full eclipse over the Tail of the Dragon when I get back from and Iceland/UK foray.  Perhaps a motorcycling opportunity will appear while away, but if not, I’ll get in some miles this week to make sure my riding battery is topped up.

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Bailing Out: A WTF Rally Story

We knew it was going to be a hot one before we started.  We’d done the last Lobo Loco rally (with great success!) on an equally hot and dry day, so we didn’t give it much thought.

Our cunning plan was to head up to Jeff’s cottage and then drive from the shores of Huron up to Southampton and then down through Southwestern Ontario before finishing up in Brampton. We’d been pouring over the rally map for days working out the best route. Stops were thin on the ground this time around, so the 16 stop plan I concocted seemed eminently doable and quite competitive.

Last time we’d won the longest (worst?) route award. This time we were cutting over a hundred clicks off last year’s marathon that had us burning through the atmosphere to get to the finish in the nick of time.

A wrench was thrown into the works a week before this rally when Wolfe Bonham, our improbably named rally master, threw a bonus in that had us radically rethinking our route.  If we could connect together towns that started with a ‘W’ a ‘T’ and then an ‘F’, we could pick up a cumulative bonus for each set of three.  We were out in the country with tiny towns everywhere.  This was a distinct advantage as those in the Greater Toronto Area had paved over all their small towns and called them one thing.  With points so thin on the map, this seemed like the way to go.

Jeff had headed up to his internet-less cottage the night before.  I followed him up the next day, about 12 hours before the rally would start with all sorts of WTF towns lined up and a Google Map saved on my phone so I could access it off-line.  It was cooking hot on the way up, well into the 90s Fahrenheit and with a relentless wind that had me riding with a permanent 10° lean.  Winds were gusting even higher by the lake.

After a good dinner we went for a walk and watched the sun fall into Huron before we got down to the business of mangling our carefully built route.

Each WTF town combo built on itself, and the only stipulation was that you had to do them in order.  You could do other bonuses in between, so in theory you could do multiple WTFs within and around each other.

Our initial route had us riding north out of Point Clark and up to Southampton before looping back through Chesney and Walkerton, down past where we live, over to the escarpment and then down the 401 to Brampton.  We threw out Georgetown, Milton and riding along the 401 to the finish line to begin with because neither of us like riding in population – that prejudice would end up derailing us later.

I was loath to throw out our loop north around Southampton and tried to fit in some early, multiple WTF town combos.  Our original score would have been in the seven to eight thousand range, but with a couple of cuts we’d have 7000 in regular stops and four WTF combos worth 1500, 2000, 2500 and 3000 points.  That would have had us finishing with upwards of sixteen thousand points; it felt like a sure victory!  Even with the extra stops we were still lower mileage than our marathon from last year, though with almost no highway riding at speed.

As the wind continued to howl around the cottage we finally put the map down and went for a short sleep.  The next morning we woke up to tree limbs down and many branches blown off.  Unlike most mornings, it was still wild and windy on the shores of Huron and the temperature was already climbing.

We got out early and filled up right at 8am at a little two pump gas station in Amberley.  Instead of heading north up the coast we cut inland, searching for our first WTF town bonus.

Along the way we stopped in Lucknow for a terrifying statue that suited the rally theme (WTF?).  After piling on those points I realized we didn’t have to go all the way to Wingham for our ‘W’ as Whitechurch was on the way.  We were tripping over ‘W’ towns!

The combos had begun, except it was so windy that my rally flag blew onto the highway in Whitechurch and I had to stuff it into the fairing to stop it going walkabout again.

A quick Google maps detour had us in the scenic town of Teeswater only a few minutes later.  This time the rally flag flew into a farmer’s field.  Since we were emailing the stops in as we went (an annoyingly time consuming task), we got a warning that rally flags needed to be in every shot.  Short of some crazy glue or a photo crew following us along, I wasn’t sure how we were going to do that.

We pressed on to the even prettier town of Formosa which had suddenly gotten hilly as we neared the edge of the Niagara escarpment.  Once again I was comedically chasing the rally flag into ditches and missed it in the photo.  We were off again, this time headed for a village that didn’t actually show up on most maps: the mythical berg of Westford (not to be confused with Westworld).

After the road turned to gravel, then dirt, then went into a full on bayou as we entered the Greenock Swamp Wetland Complex (I couldn’t make this up), we found Westford!  As we took the picture to start our second WTF town combo we got a message saying our rally flags weren’t showing.  Whether this was a warning or a three thousand point penalty (we wouldn’t be losing our first WTF bonus, we’d be losing our last), it took the wind out of our sails.  We’d been having a great time on our big adventure bikes slashing through the wetland complex to find the nearly fictional village of Westford only to wonder if our first 90 minutes of hard going had been for nothing.

We tried to shake it off as we saddled up and headed over to Tiverton for our next target.  The sun was starting to bake everything and the wind was relentless, but for the next little while we had it at our backs, so life was good.

The roads got gravelly, then dirty, then muddy!  Circumnavigating the Greenock Wetland Complex was a good time!

Tiverton arrived, but now we wondered what it was worth.  At that point we re-prioritized getting the rally flag clearly in every picture.  Since we were partnered up this was a relatively straightforward prospect, Jeff would take a photo of me with my phone then I’d take one of him with his.  I still wonder how other competitors working solo managed to take photos of themselves, their bike and a clear rally flag in sixty kilometer per hour gusts.

We were now working our way north up the coast Lake Huron and past the Bruce Nuclear power plant.  By mid-morning the temperatures were soaring.  Fortunately the great lake next to us did something to take the edge off.  At no point were we lolligagging, with quick stops and efficient speed between them.  We pulled into Southampton well before noon and collected two more regular stops.  From there we angled eastward and then south, into that fearsome wind, for the main leg of the rally.  We felt on top of the time and ahead of schedule.

Passing under the main output from the Bruce Nuclear Power Plant.  An operator there was the former owner of my radioactive orange Tiger!

Southampton was busy on a sunny June weekend with lots of traffic and lights.  Up until then we’d been safely ensconced deep in the country, but now we were trying to make time with people all around.

A big dog and a house covered in lawn ornaments (I know, WTF, right?) and we were back out on country lanes making (hot) wind as we headed east toward Owen Sound.

I’d never been to Tara, Ontario before, though my parents once entertained ideas about moving there.  It’s a pretty little town with lots of old, brick buildings.  That became a theme of this ride.  Small Southern Ontario towns have these beautiful old brick buildings in the empty hearts of most of them.  In Southampton an enterprising group had turned one into The Outlaw Brew Company.  Passing it I was struck with the idea of just stopping and going in.  Why am I tear assing around like this?  Jeff and I both put a pin in that one though, we’ll be back.

Visions of reclaiming an old brick building in rural Ontario and turning it into a motorcycle themed digital foundry, coffee shop and nano-brewery (only for local consumption) floated around in my heat soaked brain.  The stop in Chesley included a giant cow (WTF?) and then we were on to Walkerton for a sadder WTF.

Walkerton was where my son Max and I drove to pick up the Tiger on a cold spring day over a year ago.  I’ve got a soft spot for the place.  

The memorial gardens to the people who died in 2000 when local water treatment failed to protect its own citizens was a difficult WTF stop to see.  That it’s not downtown but hidden away by the municipal buildings in the south end bothered me.  We finally found it and got our photo by the memorial waterfall.  We left Walkerton (our third ‘W’ town) in a reflective state of mind.

We were pushing into the afternoon now and I started to fear for time.  Even with ‘aggressive navigation’ between these towns, riding through them meant not being a tool and staying on the speed limits.

We got lost going south out of Walkerton on our way to Wroxeter to start another WTF town loop, but only lost about five minutes.  Trowsbridge was a shot in the dark, barely a dot on the map, but we found it, and then wrapped up this loop within a loop within a loop in Fordwich.  Checking the time we chucked Mount Forest out the window and started to run south.

We needed to close the Walkerton and Westford-Tiverton loops.  Teviotdale got Walkerton hooked up and Fergus would close one of the two.  We were originally going to head a bit west and hit Floradale, but we were running out of time fast.  I then remembered that Forks of the Credit actually has a village sign, so that would close our last WTF town loop.

South out of Teviotdale we ran into a steady stream of Sunday traffic heading for Elora (it’s very pretty, I know, I live there).  The next few stops were in our own backyard, but time was slipping away, and more problematically, we’d both gotten to the point where we obviously weren’t thinking clearly, which is bad when it’s almost a hundred windy degrees out and you’re on a motorcycle trying to make time.

We bombed south toward Elora, passing on the broken line when we could, but short of some back to the future motorcycling we weren’t going to do this thing.  We had to stop for gas and I ran in and grabbed energy bars since neither of us had eaten anything in over seven hours.  Chugging Gatorade and watching the heat waves come off the pavement, Jeff asked a good question: “do we want to go all the way to Brampton?”

For the first time I got off the must-finish train and thought about it.  If we made it it’d be mighty close assuming a clean run into the GTA, which never happens (it turns out it wouldn’t have, there were miles and miles of construction on the main highway leading into Brampton that we learned about afterwards).

We were both spent.  It was oven hot, we’d been fighting the wind all day and it looked like that same wind had thrown thousands of points in stops into question.  The thought of fighting our way into the shity um, city, especially when we were standing in our own backyard was too much to take.  We both had to go to work the next day and another three hours in the saddle (conservatively 1.5 hours each way plus surprise construction) put the final nail in the coffin.

That last picture of me passed out on the side of the road happened to be right outside of the Breadalbane.  Ten minutes later we were sitting in the shade re-hydrating and ordering some locally sourced chicken wings; our day was done.  The ride home from there was 7 minutes long with no traffic.

We texted our tap out but there were no regrets.  We had a great day seeing all sorts of things we hadn’t seen before and finding several places that don’t officially exist.  The missed flags at the beginning knocked us off our game, the heat and wind beat us down and ultimately the thought of fighting our way into any part of the GTA at the end was too much to bear.

A few days later we discovered the winner had over twenty-one thousand points and had made thirty-five stops while covering over 450kms.  I’m still trying to work out how that was possible.  We would have hit 25 stops on our way through a 435km ride had we done the whole thing.  

Google Maps says that should take 6 hours and 2 minutes, but that assumes no stops.  If you’ve got to find each place, a place to safely stop the bike where you can take a picture that meets the requirements, take the photo, send it via email, saddle up and go again, that sucks up time.  This assumes that you immediately find each stop with no problems and don’t need to stop for gas, or eating, or drinking, or anything else.

35 stops at 3 minutes apiece (an astonishingly quick stop time) would mean you’d have six and a quarter hours to cover 457kms.  That works out to an over 73km/hr average speed.  That is quick if you take into account having to slow down and get back up to pace after each of 30+ stops, stop signs, traffic lights and traffic, not to mention speed limits on anything other than a highway.

We spent most of our time on empty country roads and we weren’t lollygagging.  At one point Jeff told me to ease up because I was likely to attract the popo.  If we came upon traffic we generally passed it.  We covered 358kms and pulled the plug in Fergus at 2:48pm – 6hrs and 48 minutes in.  Google tells me it was another hour and twenty-four minutes of riding to the finish line on our route, not counting the time needed to stop four more times.  Our not lollygagging average speed before we pulled the plug with nineteen stops done was 52.65 km/hr.  To make up for traffic lights, riding in towns, stop signs and traffic, we were doing a bit more than that most of the time.  We didn’t waste time with silly things like eating.  Until I’ve figured out how to bend the laws of physics it looks like a rally win is beyond my capabilities, or my willingness to take risks.

A doable map – that we didn’t do.

I’m away during the next two rallies, but I’ll be out there again in the fall.  I’ve never done Port Dover on Friday the 13th, so that’ll give me an excuse to overcome my cruiser phobia and go.

I think the idea of pushing for a big points day is no more.  I’ll enjoy the ride, see things I don’t normally see and make sure I’m not pushing so hard that I can’t enjoy the camaraderie at the end.  That was the most disappointing aspect of the day, not hearing about all the other adventures that happened to everyone else.

In case you feel cheated by the lack of photography in this post, there is even more here:

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Chasing Storms

The other day riding home from a periodontal appointment in a foul mood I rode into a wave of ozone and turbulent clouds.  Spots of rain began to hit the visor while waves of rain approached over the horizon.  I pulled over to take some shower pictures and ponder the state of the world; it’s been a tough month in motorcycle culture.
Robert Pirsig died in April after a long and difficult life.  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a deep and nuanced read written by a man of tremendous intelligence who battled with mental illness.  If you can hang on to it and the philosophy it pitches at you, you’ll find a an ending worth waiting for.  Pirsig’s little book is one of the best examples of deep thinking intertwined with motorcycling I’ve found.  He leaves behind an important legacy.

Nicky Hayden, by contrast, was living the dream.  A man who found his passion early and then excelled at it, Nicky raced motorcycles in pretty much every level of road racing there is, and he did it with an infectious grin plastered across his face.

He was in the paddock of MotoGP a few years ago when I started watching, but by then he was on a satellite bike and struggling near the back of the field.  It wasn’t until I saw The Doctor, The Tornado and the Kentucky Kid that I realized the trajectory of Nicky Hayden’s career and came to respect both his talent and his tenacity.

Nicky was training on a bicycle on a road in Italy after his last round of World Superbike racing on my birthday when he was hit by a car.  After some days in a coma he passed away.  It’s the kind of news you don’t expect to hear.  Nicky wanted to work on reintroducing a new generation of American road racers to the sport when he retired (there are currently no Americans contesting MotoGP when it used to be dominated by them), but instead he’s gone.  Because of a driver in Italy not seeing a cyclist none of that will happen now.

I stood there feeling the temperature dip, the wind kick up and the darkness fall while ruminating on these two very different deaths – an old man and a young man, an academic and anathlete, both linked over decades only by their love of two wheels.

I jumped on the bike and got home just as everything went pear shaped outside.  Rain lashed the windows and the day went dark.  

Of course, as is the way of things, when the storm passed the sun came back and reminded me how beautiful the world can be.



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The Changing Face of Digital Fluency

File types?  File management?  Yeah, the latest batch of digital natives don’t do that any more.

Last week during a staff meeting one of our administrators said, ‘the kids are so far ahead of us” (technically).  The subtext was because they are on their phones all day they are more digitally literate than we old people (anyone over twenty).  As someone who teaches digital skills and who knows first hand how ignorant our digital natives are, I verbally disagreed quite vociferously.  A week later the digital ignorance we choose to ignore was highlighted once again.

I got a call from a business computer lab saying Photoshop wasn’t opening student .jpg files.  Jpegs are a common picture file format and photoshop is more than capable of opening them.  This wasn’t a technical failure, it was the much more common human kind.  I asked a student to show me how they saved their file as a jpeg.  They selected save and then typed in .jpg at the end of the file and saved.  Photoshop defaults to save in the .psd file format that is lossless and keeps layering data.  It makes for a bigger file, but you keep all your image data.  Jpeg is popular because it compresses files quite drastically with an equivalent loss to quality, the result is a much smaller and simpler file that work well online.

PSDs and JPGs are nothing like the same file.  Windows only looks to the file extension (the .jpg part of picture.jpg) to see how to open it.  If you call a file a jpeg that isn’t a jpeg, you’ve caused the error.  This is exactly what these digital natives had done.  All they had to do was ‘save as’ and select jpeg for this to work, but they don’t know what they don’t know.

Living in the cloud means more is being taken care of for you, meaning you know even less about what’s happening

This situation points to a larger shift that has become more apparent in recent years.  Many of our students now have little or no experience with local file management.  The first Chromebooks came out in 2011, when our current high school students were in grade 4.  Many of them haven’t lived in anything other than the cloud.  When they save files they don’t know where they go because they aren’t familiar with the basic organizational structure of a computer.  File naming so you don’t get confused, saving as a file type so your PC knows how to open it, directory structures so you know where to look for files?  These kids who ‘are so far ahead of us’ are moving further away from that every day.

Thank goodness for preview icons, otherwise I’d have no idea what was going on.

Local files aren’t something 2017 students generally deal with.  If you ask most high school students how many mp3s that they have they’ll look at you like you’re crazy, they don’t do local music any more.  Ask them how they organize their photographs and you’ll get the same look of confusion and condescension.  Our Board network is currently broken under the weight of all these cloud based students constantly streaming media content from the internet all the time every day.  When they can’t find access to the cloud they are more than willing to have their data phished and break board policy by using VPNs (see below) to bypass board restrictions, further clogging up an already overused network.  Those ‘free’ VPNs are closely watching a directed stream of personal data; there’s money in that.

It’s frustrating enough when a student says they can’t find you a document they swear they made and then shows you a google docs directory full of something called ‘untitled document’, but the new normal is to expect students to have no idea how or where a computer saves a file.  Network dependency and having someone else manage your data is the new normal.

Do you have digital experience or do you just have the same habits repeated over and over?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we have to build a digital fluency stream into Ontario’s curriculum.  We expect students to magically know how to operate technology because they immerse themselves in simplistic, habitual usage for hours a day.  That limited experience does not improve digital fluency.  If we’re going to expect students to know how to save files, manage their own data and protect themselves from an internet increasingly designed to take advantage of their ignorance, we need to make digital fluency something other than an afterthought, or worse, off load it on ageist stereotypes of technical prowess.


Virtual Private Network:  they were made so that people away from a corporate network could create a tunnel across the internet to the local network and work as though they were in the building.  Any data in that tunnel is very difficult to see.  That’s what makes it handy for avoiding blocks – the board network can’t easily read what’s happening in that encrypted tunnel.  Needless to say, this also produces a lot of lag and network traffic as everything you access over the network is waiting on VPN relays and contains the data needed to access that VPN as well.

VPNs have turned into fake network addresses with companies offering a remote connection for a price (so you can pretend you’re American and get better Netflix).  If it’s free, I imagine they are mining your data in the best case or phishing for passwords and financial information in the worst case – I’m willing to bet none of our students pay for their VPN usage so they’re all playing a dangerous game with hackers.  Using a VPN means you’re passing all of your data through an unknown server (unless you set one up yourself – which I’m willing to bet none of our students know how to do).
Since all your traffic is coming from the VPN server address (and these change all the time), blocks to sites like YouTube don’t work because it doesn’t look like you’re going to YouTube.  I wonder what the incidents of corrupted credit cards are with our free-VPN using student phones.

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This One’s On Me

Last year at this time I was stunned by our first Skills Ontario gold medal and suddenly found myself on Team Ontario going to Nationals.  We’d been battling in Ontario provincial competition for several years before that break through.  In the year since I’m surprised by how engaged I’ve been in preparing to compete again.  Being hungry after years of failure is in my nature, I’m competitive, but I thought perhaps the win would tick a box and cause me to change direction; it has poured gasoline on the fire.  I’m proud to wear that Team Ontario jacket.

This year Skills Ontario has moved to a bigger venue, which was needed.  Unfortunately, instead of it being twenty minutes away through the country, it’s hours away through the worst commute in North America.  The new venue is great and it fits this huge event, unfortunately it’s located on the Moon – actually the Moon would be easier to get to.

I tried to be creative and cost effective and look for ways to make this impact our competitors as minimally as possible, but the school bus route was a disaster.  We were all up at 4am on the day of competition.  We were on the road just past 5am and it took us almost three hours of fighting interminable traffic piloted by people with dead eyes to get there.  We arrived late, tired and worried that we’d missed check in; not the ideal way to start an all-day nine hours of competition.

I got my people signed in and then I could unclench.  In IT this year I had the brother of a previous competitor who I think is one of my strongest yet, expectations were high.  He ended up getting stuck on something so simple that he was kicking himself pretty much the moment the competition was over, but I think that error was more the result of four hours of sleep, a miserable commute and the stress of getting there late.  Under the circumstances I think he did a fantastic job, but I failed to provide the logistics necessary for him to produce his best work.

After the early morning, three hour commute-from-hell in and nine straight hours of competition (my student didn’t feel he could take a lunch and finish in time), we had to wait for everyone to finish and didn’t leave the venue until well past 5pm… straight into evening rush hour.  It took even longer for us to fight our way out of the GTA and then we thumped into the twilight along miles of potholed Ontario roads on the leaf sprung school bus.  When we finally rolled in well after 8pm I was exhausted, my sciatica was screaming at me and I hadn’t spent nine hours in intense competition; I can’t imagine how the kids felt.

The hardest fought bronze medal you’ll see.

I went home, took Robaxacet and passed out having not eaten anything since lunch.  The next morning I was up at 6am to get back on a god-forsaken school bus at 7am to go back to the same place we’d just left for the awards ceremony.  It took us nearly three hours to get there through the angry parking lot that is the GTA.  Getting to the ceremony late, we sat through the awards in an excellent venue.  My IT competitor managed to get a bronze medal, which I think is brilliant (he thought the whole thing was a write off).  He must have aced the rest of it considering the single mistake he made meant he couldn’t answer many questions.

Back on the bus again at noon, I took the competitors who hadn’t eaten yet (7am departure) to lunch and we got back to the school at a perfectly reasonable time (no rush hour).  I’m already thinking about how to try and manage this next year.  My only goal is to deliver my competitors in the best possible shape early and on time to the competition.  We looked into hotels, but anything by the airport is twice what it costs anywhere else in Ontario.

There is no doubt that we needed a new venue.  They said in the ceremony that Skills Ontario has grown from two hundred to over two thousand competitors, and we’d outgrown RIM Park in Waterloo.  It’s unfortunate that the only venue big enough is in the GTA, which gets further and further away from the rest of us in Ontario every year.  Having lived in Japan, it amazes me that I could access Tokyo, a city of twenty-five million, with ease, but the GTA with its paltry seven million is infrastructure inaccessible.

At lunch, one of our exhausted students asked why they have to start the competition at rush hour.  It’s a good question.  Running Skills Ontario next year from 11am to 8pm would save a lot of people their sanity.  In non-rush hour times we’re able to get to The Toronto Congress Centre in under ninety minutes.  Many of the student visitors don’t get there until past 11am anyway, so it wouldn’t impact that aspect of the show.

I’m disappointed at the results we got this year, but that’s entirely on me.  As their coach, my job is to take care of the logistics and deliver them primed and ready to compete.  This year had new and difficult circumstances, but I didn’t resolve them sufficiently and it hurt my students’ ability to produce their best work.  That guts me.  I’ll do better next time.

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Positively Encouraging: Teachers Doing No Harm

In another confluence of events I’m reflecting on just how much of an effect teachers have on a student’s trajectory.  A misread tweet on how damaging assessment can be was followed by a post on Google+ and punctuated by a graduated student showing up unexpectedly this week.  It all got me thinking about how damaging to students teachers can be.

I got into computers when I was ten years old.  By the time I was twelve I’d published code and was writing my own programs.  It took a single dismissive remark by my computer science teacher to knock me off that trajectory for years.

I did grade ten computer science on a freaking computer punch card reader and did well.  I’m not a mathlete and struggled with the theory, but as a hands on coder I’m more than capable – I sympathize with the machine and understand what it needs.  In grade eleven we finally got to move to 286×86 IBM PCs and I was very excited.  I’d signed up for grades eleven and twelve in consecutive semesters, but after the math teacher running the program basically turned it into a math course, I didn’t do very well.  When I walked into the grade twelve class in semester two he looked down his nose at me and said, “Tim?  Really?”  I dropped the class shortly thereafter.  If you asked him now he’d probably say he was doing me a favour.  He did me no favours.

Last week I had a young man drop by who graduated a couple of years ago.  He asked me if I remembered what our computer science teacher at the time had said to him in grade eleven.  He’d basically done to this kid what my computer science teacher did to me.  Jake said he bounced back because I essentially designed our new software engineering course around his suggestions, which encouraged him not to give up on his love of coding; he’s about to finish the programming course at Conestoga and he’s debt free because his game studio is making him enough money to pay for his college.  Teachers who have never published anything telling people what they can and cannot do really get on my nerves.

This student and I both tend toward a right-brained approach to things, thinking laterally and often intuitively about problem solving.  We’re foreign beasts to predominantly left brained math and science types.  That linear, concrete thinking allows left brained teachers to place a lot of faith in grades – they believe that they are something more than a vague, abstraction of a student’s abilities.  When these mathlete computer science types look down their nose at you in condescension, they believe that the D they gave you means something.  I would posit that their certainty makes them a liability in any classroom.

Becoming a high school teacher was never a goal of mine.  With a few exceptions I didn’t enjoy school when I was in it and I certainly wasn’t aiming to make a career of it.  Now that I find myself teaching I’m constantly aware of just how damaging those gatekeepers in my own background were.  

In grade ten I wanted to be an astronomer more than anything else, but a series of science teachers made a point of crushing that dream.  I’m hardly stupid, and I was willing, but it was their way or the highway and I don’t bow to authoritarianism very well, especially when my scrappy, experimental approach to problem solving bares fruit.  They didn’t like that I struggled to a solution myself rather than following the well trodden path of ‘the right answer’.  In retrospect, and with some pedagogy to back me up now, I’d wager that my hard won answer is still with me today while the A+ students who memorized the process have long since forgotten it.  Learning is supposed to be messy.

When you think in absolutes you have the potential to do some real harm to children.  Every day I make a conscious effort to consider how what I’m saying will encourage genuine learning in my students.  I’m not an easy teacher, and often have the biggest friction with the A+ crowd who just want to know what to write so they can do what they’re told and get that A plus they’ve become accustomed to.  In those cases I celebrate their efficiency while expanding their resiliency.  You don’t need to belittle someone because they do things differently to you.

As teachers we could do a lot worse than following the Hippocratic oath doctors use.  If at any point you think you’re helping a student by disciplining them with assessment, you’re not – that was the subtext of my tweet to the Ministry.  

If at any point you dismiss a student’s approach to a subject because it’s not the same as yours, you’re helping yourself more than you are your student.

Try and be what you’re supposed to be: the adult in that student’s life who can dispassionately see their potential and then do everything possible to realize it.  This can be much harder work than simply attacking kids with numbers because they don’t conform to your process, but it’s much more rewarding.

So many secondary teachers fall into a comfort zone around their familiarity with their subject and are unwilling to see any other way to do it.  It might take a bit of lateral thinking, but seeing the value in how a student approaches a subject instead of assessing them based on how closely they follow your methods would be a significant pedagogical step forward.  We’d suddenly be assessing how they are grappling with their learning rather than forcing our methodology on them, and that would mean far fewer teachers slamming the door in student’s faces with or without realizing it.

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